Lab | Log

On Confronting Comfort: No Selfless Acts

When we think about the tension between private and public comfort, there’s a funny thing that happens. We associate it with sacrifice.

To make the world an easier place for the majority to live in, we often assume, we first need to make our own lives less comfortable.

It’s not an unreasonable deduction. The things we associate with our own private comfort often (I’d go so far as to say usually) detract from the comfort of someone else. Few of our day-to-day indulgences are without a price on the back of public good.

As an exercise, think of the last few decisions you’ve made in order to maintain your daily comfort.

These could be small or large.

It could be the decision to buy that juicy mango in Whole Foods, knowing that to bring it from the Philippines, tons of carbon were spewed into the atmosphere that are now further contributing to the crisis of climate change, the impacts of which are already devastating the lives of millions.

Or perhaps it was the decision to buy three cheap imported pairs of pants instead of one good locally made one, knowing that the price of the product probably reflects the salary of the people who constructed it.

Or it could be something larger, like voting for a politician who puts your interests before those less fortunate than you, whose policies will keep you more comfortable and secure but will ignore those who need the government’s support the most.

Any way you slice it, the majority of us, when weighing the impacts of our decisions, tend to choose our own comfort over that of the larger good.

But there is a side to this that I would argue we don’t think about nearly often enough, a subtle but hopeful side that we often don’t see right away.

I would argue that most of the time, the personal sacrifices we need to make in the interest of the public good actually aren’t sacrifices at all—that most of the time, they’re as much for our own good as for that of the masses.

When you make a commitment to buy locally grown food over imported, for example, it feels like you’re making a sacrifice by giving up that mango, or those winter strawberries or New Zealand kiwis. You think you’ll lose variety and be stuck with cold-stored apples and kale all year round.

In reality, though, the deeper you get into your local food community, the more you realize the wild abundance of food you never knew existed, let alone in your own backyard. Your food will be fresher, your groceries will be cheaper, and your trust and connection with the people producing food in your community will be deeper. The altruistic environmental benefit is a mere sidenote.

The same goes for most other decisions in the name of public over private comfort.

When you decide to bike instead of drive, you become fitter, healthier, and have more connection with your neighborhood. When you carpool instead of driving alone, you build better social connections with your co-workers. Paying slightly more for a local product over an imported one means that money will stay in your own economy, keep your country richer, and thus keep your standard of living higher.

You see what I’m getting at.

So, as you continue to follow our journey at the Lab, and continue to explore the tension between private and public comfort within our city systems, I challenge you to look at that tension in a slightly different light.

I challenge you to look at it not as a competition, but rather as a self-supporting relationship, and look for ways in which we can make decisions about our own private comfort that don’t detract from the comfort of the public, but rather strengthen it—and vice versa.

  • Janefrankish

    In the spirit of being environmentally friendly we borrowed all the gear (including the back pack) my daughter recently needed to attend a camp. She came back with jewels such as ‘you know we should give up eating bananas as they are not  friends with the environment!

  • Maecenata

    I make a point to collect all my food scraps, freeze them and then bring them to a local community garden for composting once a week.
    I carry with me two shopping bags, folded in my pocket book and never accept shopping bags in stores any more.
    I do not have a car and if I have a choice I prefer train to bus or airplane.
    I buy from  the local farmers and I do not have any old-fashioned light bulbs any more in my house.
    I realized that my laundry most times does not need hot water and I can use cold instead.
    My batteries are re-chargable batteries and I unplug appliances when I don’t use them.
    I drop off used clothes, shoes, fabric, sheets at the local recycling place or hand them to a homeless at the corner who is happy to re-sell gently used items.
    On a good day, the fabulous Ecology Center that collects about 14 huge barrels full of food scraps at Union Square farmers market. And counting!

  • Michael Ganther

    be willing to sacrifice anything which currently requires plastic or any other re-cycling challenged product which pollutes both before it’s inception (during manufacturing & or resource mining) and use ~and~ likewise after it’s conveyance and use; i.e.; plastic contained waters & foods to go.

  • Matthew Woods

    i would give up personal space…that simple

  • Bauerlynda

    As my mother before me, I satisfied myself with fewer things that were preferably purchased locally from smaller independent local business in the communities where I live. She said if you don’t support them they will be gone, and so we have seen.  Its a different kind of economizing to be able to go to a neighborhood store run by a local family that has seen your family grow up and looks out after the neighbors versus a churning workforce with no investment in the community or safety net for themselves.

  • LexLumiere

    In 2005, I had made a decision that I would move from TX to NYC in a year. In doing so, I became aware of how dependent Texas is on individual vehicles to get around, unlike NYC that uses public transportation. I realized then that our countries obsession with the new ‘war based economy’ and thirst for ‘oil’ was out of control. And I decided to give up my Mercedes convertible, to not only reduce my carbon footprint but protest all the materialism that appears to be more valuable than human life itself. ” No blood for oil,” became my motto. I have been without a vehicle for 6 years now, and have not only reduced my carbon footprint but I became healthier as a result and lost about 4 sizes in the process. Cars are still seen as a ‘status symbol’ in the United States, but at the cost of our environment and the lives of our soldiers who are trying to maintain our dependence for oil overseas. I gave up my keys in a state where everyone drives, and made a statement that LIFE is more valuable than convenience or cars. I’ll walk, ride a bike or even a horse if it means one less person is depositing money into the war machine.

  • Anonymous

    I’m thrilled and impressed that this post has elicited such great, thoughtful, and inspiring comments so far. Many more came in though the BMW Guggenheim Lab Facebook page. Here are a few of my personal favorites. Okay several of my favorites, because they’re just so good!!!

    Jo Stiles: Public good or world good? I would give up seafood. The harm we are doing to our oceans is devastating and billions of tons of non commercial fish is thrown back DEAD each year. I would place a world wide ban on deep
    sea trawler fishing – dragging up rare 700 year old corals and rare species is unnecessary and unforgiveable. We’ve nearly killed our oceans in 200 years, how will they survive beyond this lifetime if we don’t act now. For the world to stop consuming its resources at such a fast pace, we need to rethink consumerism… live simpler, in smaller communities (agree with Dc Cruz) that care for each other and are responsible for all those in it. Also stop buying useless stuff that does nothing more than satisfy the ego…

    Joanne Murino: There are a few things I would do without. At the moment I don’t have a flat screen TV because my TV is perfectly good, so why do I need to add it to the junk pile? I would love to have a share house where you can bring things that others might need or want that you are done with,
    like old dishes or pots that are perfectly good, or clothing that is still in good condition or even trade your handbags with someone else. In the name of savings a once proud and beautiful earth, I think I can give up a few things.

    Jonathan Kay: Would be willing to be packed tight on the subways/trains and actually talk to strangers (even the smelly ones) if it means we could get hundreds of thousands of cars off the road. [Personal note: Jonathan – think how much social capital you’d gain from those connections with strangers while you were at it!!]

    Marloes Schenk: In the interest of public good I will find my way through NYC traffic on my bike instead of taking a taxi, even in winter time. I will just wear
    an extra jacket and bike extra fast to keep myself warm. This will also lead to a healthier state of body (and mind!), which will lead to less heating consumption in winter time. I feel happy and healthy already!

    Lyndsay Bratton: Helping to deep clean the subway stations or paying higher taxes that would fund such an endeavor. They are so repulsive, and most, if not all other cities in the US have much cleaner subway facilities. New York
    needs to keep up and clean up.

    Allison Patrick: I would choose to only eat seasonal fruits and vegetables that I could buy from local farmers instead of importing fruit from California and
    Mexico year round.

    Josias Hernandez: I would reduce my wardrobe to 12 stylish outfits for the next six month, then buy a clothes line and intall it on my rooftop, so I could air dry them. I feel that for New Yorkers our greatest contribution to Global
    consumerism are the products that we consume and the indirect maintenance fee that others pay on our behalf. Clothing is an example of many monthly fees we let others incur. With both, energy, water, child labor, environmental impacts, et..

    Chris Hayes: DVR cable boxes take up massive amount of electricity in a home because we aren’t willing to use a model that would require our TVs/cable to take a minute to start up before watching. I would sacrifice a minute of my time everytime I watch TV/cable to lower my home’s carbon footprint.

    Dc Cruz: I’d have neighborhood grown produce centers added in every neighborhood where people could purchase as well as be a part of the growing, and nurture of our own local food. The sacrifice comes in putting in the time and hard work, but i believe it would be something of great
    benefit in the long run.

  • Joe Ped

    So true! And great comments. Here are some strategies from my own life
    that have not only left me feeling more “comfortable” and happier
    (because what’s comfortable about contributing to global problems like
    food scarcity and climate change?), but weren’t that much of a
    sacrifice. Well, maybe they were a tiny bit at first, but a person’s habits quickly change:

    1. Don’t own a car, drive one about once every two weeks.
    2. Eat vegan, raw as much as possible.
    3. Farmers markets! And urban farm farmstands. Love ’em!
    4. Buy as few things with packaging I can; reuse packaging if possible.
    5. Use/reuse plastic bags I inherit until useless; grocery shop with cloth bags.
    6. Got rid of my TV, microwave and toaster.
    7. Walk almost everywhere. Use alt. transportation for further trips (60% of car trips are under 1 mile, after all!)
    8. Buy clothes, furniture, cookware etc. gently used whenever practical; buying used also cuts down on packaging (#4)
    9. Glean fresh fruit/herbs and edible plants from the public right of way, like blackberries, raspberries, apples, pears, kale, chard, mint, rosemary, etc. (see
    10. Be conscious of electricity usage, and cut down on vampire power!