Grains of Sand

A friend of mine is boycotting Amazon. His reasons for doing so seem unimpeachable. I’ve read that Amazon abuses its workers, and I’m sure that’s true. Local businesses suffer when people buy online. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is obscenely rich, and is certainly not paying his fair share of taxes. Okay. But so what? What will a personal boycott accomplish?

Nothing. It will accomplish nothing. Or rather, refusing to buy on Amazon will help my friend feel virtuous; that’s something. But his action will have no effect at all on Amazon. The world will go rolling along the same as before. Nothing will have changed.

Maybe if he buys from local businesses, his action will have some minuscule impact. Or maybe not. Local businesses are already impacted by the global economy in countless ways. Even if my friend convinces a hundred people in his local community to shop locally rather than online, what will change? You can’t buy from a local hardware store; you have to buy from Home Depot (a chain). You can’t buy from a local pharmacy; you have to buy from CVS or Rite-Aid (chains). Unless you live in a college town, you’ll have real trouble buying what you want from a local bookstore; if you can find a bookstore at all, it will be tiny, not a great place for browsing, so you’ll probably end up driving down the freeway to Barnes & Noble (a chain).

Would you like to buy gas from a locally owned refinery? Good luck with that. And can we talk about supporting local musicians? People love music, but I don’t need hard statistics to prove to you that 99% of everyone’s music buying dollars goes to big-name national acts, not to struggling local musicians. You know that as well as I do.

So … you think you’re accomplishing something by refusing to buy from Amazon? Really?

A year or so ago, the interim minister at my local Unitarian Church trotted off to our southern border to protest the incarceration of children. She risked being arrested. Wow, that was certainly a noble and important thing to do!

Or was it? What did she accomplish? Nothing. She accomplished exactly nothing. Nothing changed. She did something that made her feel noble and virtuous; that was the extent of it.

Greta Thunberg. Wow! A modern hero! Boldly confronting world leaders and demanding that they take action on the climate crisis. Inspiring! Or is it? What has Greta actually accomplished? Not a damn thing. The oil companies, the multinationals, the governments of the U.S., China, and India — none of them are listening to Greta.

Taking an action that makes you feel personally virtuous is pleasant, I’m sure. But if you think your individual action will change the world, you’re kidding yourself. The world is too big, and you and I are far too small. Can a single grain of sand stop the tide?

If you want to drive a gas guzzler, throw your used batteries in the garbage, spray herbicides all over your yard, and eat beef, go right ahead. Cows are a terrible environmental problem — but you and I can’t fix that.

On a local level, we can sometimes make a difference. If you see injustice in your own community, then yes, you should speak out. If a locally owned business is being forced out by the heedless or greedy actions of your local city council, by all means, go to a city council meeting and let them know what you think! If your local school board is trying to promote Christianity to the students, stand up to them!

And while you’re at it, tell your neighbors across the street to keep their cats indoors. Cats kill songbirds. Cats are predators.

Act locally to try to get rid of cats — there’s something you can do. And you know what? It won’t work. Your action will have no effect whatever on your local bird population. Cat owners won’t listen to you. They’re in the grip of an emotion that is simply more powerful than your presentation of facts. Also, there are too many cats in your local area, and most of them are making babies. The birds will keep right on dying. If you accomplish anything, it will be to succeed in making yourself unpopular.

The oil companies won’t listen to you. The border patrol won’t listen to you. The drug companies won’t listen to you. Your senators and representatives won’t listen to you. Amazon won’t listen to you. And your neighbors probably won’t listen to you either. Don’t kid yourself. Whatever is happening in the world (and a nasty lot of stuff it is — overwhelming, if you’re paying attention) is just happening. There’s nothing you can do to change it.

So go right ahead — drive your gas guzzler down to Burger King and have a nice slab of beef. Enjoy life. As Meher Baba said, “Don’t worry. Be happy.” And no, I’m not kidding. Hedonism isn’t just an acceptable approach to life: It’s the only possible approach. We all do, at every moment, whatever pleases us most deeply. We’re incapable of doing anything else. Even the Buddhist monks who set fire to themselves to protest the U.S. invasion of Vietnam were engaged in acts of utter hedonism. They did what it pleased them to do. And of course their actions had no detectable effect on the subsequent conduct of Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon. If it pleases you to immolate yourself, go for it. But please, don’t kid yourself that you’re going to change the world.

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