Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Subtractive vs Additive Changes

I've thought about making big changes. I've specifically thought about changes in my own life. There are two changes that I've pondered lately: veganism and sustainable living.

In doing so, I've thought about the idea of a subtractive change versus an additive change. First, let me describe what I mean by these terms. It's really in the way you look at it. By subtractive change, I mean a change that generally doesn't constitute a shift in ideology. For example, let's say you want to start reading more non-fiction. Thinking subractively, you would dwell on all the fiction books that you'll have to eliminate from your literary diet. You would hesitantly put aside that Vonnegut or Murakami that you had grown so used to providing you a specific type of comfort. Here's the interesting part - and the problem that I see with subractive changes. You haven't done anything to change your taste for fiction (assume with me that for some moral, economic, physical, or emotional reason, fiction books are not healthy for you, hence the impetus for change). You begin to think of all the things you'll have to take away - subtract - and replace, hoping for the same sensation that fiction provides. Of course, the fault here is that non-fiction provides an equally profound, yet altogether different sensation than does Mark Twain or Toni Morrison. Basically, to strive for the exact pleasure derived from fiction in non-fiction would be silly.

This brings me to what I call additive changes. With an additive change, one makes a shift in one's ideology. That shift is often catalyzed by the problem inherent in the enjoyment of the problematic agent, which in our case is fictional literature. This problem could be manifested in many ways, and in our example could be that one is unable to keep up with current affairs becuase fiction has been the focus. The ideology shift comes when one says, in our example, "I need and I want to keep abreast of current events. Therefore, I'll read non-fiction." With an additive mindset, one decides that the sensation achieved during the enjoyment of non-fiction, although very different than that of fiction, is in its own way meaningful, wonderful, interesting, exciting, and most importantly, stands up to the criterion and the goals of the ideology shift.

In this way, we are focusing on what we've gained, rather than all we will miss. Indeed, when we embrace that the change we're making is more profound than simply a day-to-day habit alteration, we are able to live out the purpose of the desire to change in the first place. I realize that my example above was a bit confusing, so let's look to the following two for clarification.

First, veganism. I've been a vegetarian for over 8 years now. It has never been a problem changing my diet, for at the time of the change, the ideology was something that I was emotionally, intellectually, and physically invested in. My change from a meat-eater to a veggie was easy, because it manifested itself as an additive change. Rather than attempting to replace the meats that I was used to eating, I dove in to the world of vegetables, fruits, nuts, grains, etc...Of course, in my eight years, I have eaten my fair share of veggie burgers and other meat substitutes. However, my initial vegetarianism didn't demand that these replacements be present. Adhering to what I deem as the true to the ideals of vegetarianism, I simply ate vegetables. The "meat substitutes" served not as substitutes of something I was missing, but rather as a new and interesting part of a diet that threatens the lives and wellbeings of no one. It was like a bonus, rather than a backup.

I recently have thought a great deal about becoming vegan. In fact, I've been eating mostly vegan now for a couple of months. The interesting thing is that I've found myself going throught the metamorphosis in an entirely new way; a way that is the embodiment of what I've characterized as the "subtractive change." Instead of really actualizing and internalizing the ideology shift from vegetarian to vegan, I've rather approached the situation cutting back on things that I was used to eating, and searching madly for subsitutes for my...quesadillas, nachos, breakfast tacos, etc...

What's the takeaway? Well, in the case of the shift from vegetarian to vegan, I think it's clear - as long as it's done. The residual effects of a vegan diet is on so many levels more sound than a vegetarian diet, especially when it comes to net suffering. I would support most anybody who decided that they were going to even eat a little less meat, poultry, eggs, or dairy products. Ideally, even if a subtractive change is enacted, the ideology shift is sure to follow, and I can stop worrying about how to replace my old stuff with new stuff. Rather, start off with new stuff an ADD from there.

There is another example here. The second example might provide a more pressing issue (although the two are related), and one whose approach might be integral to its implementation. This is the change to a more sustainable life, speaking in terms of the evironment as a whole.

I've recently been involved in discussions and presentations which revolve around the issue of discovering, maintaining, and dissemination means of reducing our footprint on the planet and elsewhere.

In listening to said conversations, I've discovered that there seems to be, for good reason, a push for people to make a subtractive change. That is, we're asked what kinds of light bulbs we can start using, and how we can save gas in our vehicles. We're told to recycle, and to use tote bags at the grocery stores and markets. I love all of these suggestions. But I see them as the proverbial bandaid on the bullet wound, so to speak. Let me explain.

I believe that what is needed if we have any hope of surviving even until 2100, we need to implement an additive change. Basically, we need to destroy our current paradigm and structure a new one based on the truths that we now know about the ecosystem and the earth. In other words, we need the ideological shift imperative in an additive change. We not only need to see that said ideological shift is positive, but we need to be invested in it, and we need to internalize it for ourselves.

The problem here is that this process is very uncomfortable. It asks us to step outside of ourselves and be terribly autocritical. This is especially difficult when you know that during the time you're sitting thinking, there are thousands of tons of trash being dumped, thousands of animals (who, by the way are eating millions of tons of grains, and whose production and maintenance is polluting to the far corners of the earth) are being slaughtered, and thousands of hummers drive one block to the local supermarket. However, we must all expect a little discomfort. Hell, we might as well get used to it, right?

What does this all mean pragmatically? For example, in addition to using our bicycles when possible, we need to ask why it is, structurally, that we would have ever bought a gas-powered automobile in the first place, and whether it's enough to buy a car that gets 35 mpg rather than 27. In addition to recycling our plastic bottles and aluminum cans, we must ask why it is that we're not making our own juices, growing our own food, and jarring our own condiments...a process that, if done right, uses absolutely no packaging in the first place. What are the financial implications of said packaging in the first palce? In addition to using tote bags, we must ask if most of the things we're buying at the store could be grown, built, or developed right in our homes. In addition to saving plastic forks from fast food, stop going to fast food places that give out plastic forks.

I must say that I am guilty of many of the aforementioned oversights. I cannot truly say that I have internalized the ideology of additive change, nor have I challenged my comfort in a necessary way. However, I do feel as though there is a substantial difference in the way we approach problems in our lives. I guess even in light of all this horseradish that's going on, there's a little optimism left in me somewhere.

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