What Would You Sacrifice for a Secure Future?

Sacrifice has become a dirty word in environmental politics. But we sacrifice all the time. Two-thirds of Americans have sacrificed their waistlines and lifespans for cheap food and high profits for food companies, often without actively making this choice. Is there a way to reclaim the word to get people to start “sacrificing” to sustain a healthy relationship with Earth—or to at least stop sacrificing to the modern god of growth?

In popular culture, sacrifice conjures up ugly images of human dismemberment and the like (personally, I’ve got a scene from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom in my head—Kalima!). But at its etymological root, to “sacrifice” means to make sacred. And the act of “giving up something” in that ritual context is not simplify to practice extreme altruism; rather, it begets something more—whether closeness to one’s deity or respect, honor, or gratitude.

During times of drought, the Olmeca-Xicalanca people made ritual sacrifices of children—something we believe we’re beyond today; however, we are actively (albeit often unintentionally) making children in other parts of the world into unwilling sacrifices of our worship of high consumption lifestyles (and all the externalities that these bring).

So why has sacrifice become a dirty word? Perhaps consumer cultures, which prioritize comfort above all else, have made us hesitant to sacrifice—and maybe even disgusted by the idea. The sacred act of sacrifice, ironically, has been made taboo by modern cultural norms.

Or perhaps the environmental community has failed to effectively describe just how much we currently sacrifice to maintain the consumer economy. I’m not just talking about long-term security, where climate change will inundate cities and coastlines at some point in the future. I’m referring to the sacrifices we make every day: to our physical health, as we grow fatter and sicker; to our mental health, as social isolation and chemicals in our environment trigger depression and neurological diseases; to our safety, as our mobile culture puts the rights of vehicles over pedestrians and as more drivers decide that it’s ok to text while driving even though studies suggest this is far more dangerous than driving drunk.

Is the solution as simple as encouraging people to “Stop Sacrificing”? In other words, encouraging people to no longer “sacrifice” their time by working long hours and commuting long distances so that they can afford more stuff, or sacrifice their money and health to boost the bottom lines of corporate purveyors of toxic products, from junk food and cigarettes to fancy cars and big homes. That approach seemed to work pretty well for thetruth.com, which aims to convince teens that cigarette companies are manipulative and therefore teens shouldn’t be companies’ sacrifice to profit, but not as well for the “voluntary simplicity” movement, which tries to get people to agree that less is more and to simplify their lives accordingly. (Maybe this variable success rate is simply due to their differences in tone.)

Or, is there an even deeper reason why the notion of sacrifice has become taboo? Maybe it’s because of the ongoing schism in the environmental community—between traditional environmentalists, who call on people to sacrifice their comfort and consumer freedom (a shift that is often interpreted as deprivation), and environmental optimists, who say that we just need to redesign how products are made and how energy is generated, and then we’ll be able to maintain our way of life as-is. When environmentalists say that all we need to do is tweak our energy systems and we’ll be able to maintain our consumer lifestyle, then why sacrifice?

Or, have we gotten so used to this way of living as consumers that although we make many sacrifices each day, they’ve become so naturalized that they don’t feel like sacrifices, whereas giving up our air conditioners and iPhones definitely would. Otherwise, why would Stan Cox, when writing about giving up AC in the Washington Post, receive death threats from unhappy District residents? But I’m living in D.C. without an air conditioner (or an iPhone for that matter) and I can say that it is not really even much of a sacrifice. Not in the big scheme of things—when considering all those living in abject poverty—nor even in the small scheme; our bodies naturally adjust to being warm all the time if we just let them.

Or perhaps we’re too far removed from the root of the word “sacrifice”—i.e., sacred—because of the rampant individualism that is embedded in consumer cultures. Maybe we are so completely disconnected from spirituality and a purpose higher than our own happiness that it’s hard to justify giving up any of the latest consumer comforts, because the only joy we now have is experiencing the newest product, TV show, or movie.

Honestly, I don’t have an answer. It’s probably a combination of all these factors, and many others (please add your thoughts in a comment below). But I do know that this question is thoughtfully and thoroughly discussed in The Environmental Politics of Sacrifice, from which I drew heavily to even ask the above questions. The book opens an important dialogue that the environmental community should actively continue—assuming that it truly wants to move people beyond unsustainable cultural systems centered on consumerism. But if we don’t deal with this word—by either reclaiming it or reframing it—then we won’t be able to usher in new, sustainable cultures: cultures that quite probably would resanctify certain types of sacrifice, while forbidding others. And if we fail to achieve this cultural shift? Well, then most likely we will have made Earth and future generations into our unwilling sacrifices. Kalima!

Originally written by Erik Assadourian in September 2010 for Worldwatch’s Transforming Cultures blog.

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