THE BLOG
01/28/2014 06:03 pm ET | Updated Mar 30, 2014

Consumed by Desire: Why It's Not Easy Being Green

Martin Barraud via Getty Images

We're a society of addicts. From porn and drugs to food and drink, Americans are suffering from dysfunction in record numbers. After all, it takes one to know one. I'm a recovering addict to comfort.

Hello, my name is Anna and I am a consumer. Or I was one until 2005, the year I had my first child. Through some unusual experiences, I suddenly became aware that everything is connected. I realized that people and creatures on the other side of the world had to live with, and in some case die from, the consequences of my lifestyle. This seems obvious to the enlightened, but to a Dallas housewife living in a gated community, it was mind-blowing.

This burst of awareness transformed my relationship with the world. Actions that I thought affected only a few took on extraordinary meaning. I came to believe one person could change the world -- and that person was me.

Since recovering from affluzena, I saw it as my mission to spread the green gospel to any audience that would listen. But my newfound conviction also turned me into a zealot. I developed a repulsion to symbols of consumerism. Shopping malls, reality TV, hamburgers -- such indulgences seemed to embody everything that was wrong with the world.

Zombie shoppers. Slaves to stuff. Losers who sit around and rate Superbowl commercials. These are just a few of the wayward souls that don't realize they are being programmed to waste our precious natural capital. And like a good reformer, I made it my business to show them the error of their ways.

But eight years after my epiphany, something went awry. In pursuing the green life, I tried to convince myself that I no longer needed the good life. (Who was I to wallow in first-world privilege when people are starving in Africa?) It turns out I was wrong. Like a politician that uses public service as a smoke screen to mask ambition, I was an environmentalist refusing to confront a base instinct.

Call it desire. To want.

Turning 40 last year, I spontaneously felt desire crashing down on me like a ton of bricks. The desire to live large, be free, to indulge in things I couldn't or shouldn't have -- the lust for life. And as suddenly as my conviction to conserve had appeared, it began to recede. To my dismay, my quest for self-actualization through sustainability (or as my husband calls it, "trying to save the world from itself") started to run dry.

I spent those nine months in the throes of a midlife crisis very differently from the eight years prior. I tossed aside the salads and white wine and indulged in blood-red cheeseburgers, whiskey served neat, classic rock and trash TV. I went to concerts. I got speeding tickets. I even threw away plastic bags without reusing and recycling them. In rebellion, I wallowed in the desire to be a little bit bad, or maybe just to be myself again.

But I was also conflicted. I was a conservationist turning into a hedonist, and it made me feel out of control. I questioned my choices, but I also knew this: I did not want to sink back into my addiction. I did not want to revert to being a consumer.

Consider the definition from Merriam-Webster:

Consume

to eat or drink (something)
: to use (fuel, time, resources, etc.)
: to destroy (something) with fire
: to do away with completely : destroy
: to spend wastefully : squander
: use up
: to eat or drink especially in great quantity

By this description, the label "consumer" feels like an insult. Granted, it's hard-wired into our psyche by the media and practically synonymous with being an American, but I was supposed to be better than that.

But it turns out, I wasn't.

Fortunately, my identity crisis was benign and was mostly internal, but it did teach me a lesson. It allowed me to step into the gap between what I knew was right and what I wanted to do anyway. I was finally able to experience firsthand the affliction I preached against: apathy.

Realizing that you are as weak-willed as the masses you are trying to save is a bitter pill to swallow. What happened was humbling, but within the humiliation was also a ray of hope. Looking back, I reflect with gratitude for the opportunity to face this thing I had been avoiding for so long.

Desire is a fact. It's in our music, our mass media, and our history. Saint Augustine tried to pummel it out. Plato tried to reason it out. Hemingway and Pollock tried to drown in out. Politicians have been consumed by it. Certainly desire is something to push away, to fear.

Except when it isn't.

We can pretend that we humans aren't governed by our appetites, but the evidence suggests that we are, at least some of the time. And it's not always a bad thing. Let's face it. Desire can be fun.

So I had to ask myself, at what point in my journey had I lost my joie de vivre? It's worth exploring, because without zeal for life, sustainability champions are culturally irrelevant and personally ineffective. Rather than deny desire, the real question is can we harness our passions, yearnings and human spirit to fuel a better kind of growth?

Sustainability is not just about protecting the environment. It's also a way to celebrate our humanity. Again, consider the meaning of the root word from Merriam-Webster:

Sustain

to provide what is needed for (something or someone) to exist
: to hold up the weight of (something)
: to deal with or experience (something bad or unpleasant)
: to give support or relief to
: to supply with sustenance : nourish

These definitions convey the experience of parenting, the art of nurturing a life into adulthood. Seen this way, sustainability isn't about denial, giving up or going without. Rather, sustainability suggests endurance, cultivation, growth, resilience and strength. To sustain calls us to summon our life force to heal a broken world.

Since having this second epiphany, I started looking for something different. Rather than collect evidence of how humans are destroying our planet, how are we displaying heroism, courage, creativity and ingenuity to preserve it? Thousands of examples exist. In fact, I've just launched EarthPeople Media to showcase the ways that social entrepreneurs are contributing to a sustainable economy and flourishing.

Of course, not every sort of desire contributes to positive growth. The obesity epidemic is one indicator of what happens to a society when it becomes culturally acceptable for large numbers of people to give in to their appetites. (Not just those of the consumers, but also the appetites for unsustainable growth of fast food companies and predatory marketers).

Centuries of philosophy and social sciences have woven complex and fractured views of what motivates human behavior, but after a cursory look at the theories and some personal reflection, I've concluded that Plato had it right: Human behavior is driven by appetites, spirit and reason. When appetites are aligned with logic and emotion, that's good. When they're out of sync, balancing is required. This is soul work, and it is just as necessary for the well-being of individual citizens as for the sustainability of our society.

Learning to accept desire and give it a healthy outlet for expression calls for self-mastery. The good news is that self-mastery is essential for success and also for happiness. When we become better at it, we do better for the world and ourselves, too.

Human nature dictates that nobody is perfect. We are going to make mistakes. Accepting this and going on anyway to display hope and optimism in the face of an uncertain future is the real work to done in sustainability.

It's true, the world may not want to be saved from itself. But humans since the beginning of time have longed to be better, to soar to greater heights. When we learn to tie that kind of desire to the goal of sustainable growth, we may actually be able to achieve it.