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Leigh Alexander's picture

Allie Cavallaro

Paper #11

21 November 2014


A couple mornings ago I awoke to read: “There is no greatness where there is no simplicity, goodness and truth,” on the inside of my yogurt wrapper.

As any sane person who had already woken up late would, I felt defeated. I asked myself, hastily discarding the wrapper, eating and walking, “What is simple anymore, and how can I possibly be great Mr. Leo Tolstoy?” Even getting out of bed that morning was a struggle. How could I be great if I couldn’t be simple, and couldn’t things be complicated and great, or does complexity just lead to absolute worthlessness? What did Tolstoy know anyway?

 How can simplicity lead to greatness?

According to Tolstoy, it’s simply formulaic: greatness = simplicity + goodness + truth, yet what’s daunting to me is the arbitrary nature of those terms. What is simple to me likely is not what is simple to you, and who is to say my definition of good matches yours? And what is truth?

I tossed the yogurt into the recycling wondering if I should have rinsed it first. It was as though my act of goodness, my simple act of recycling, would be negated by my hasty neglect to follow the careful recycling instructions on the wall. Did I forfeit earthly greatness by neglecting the truths of recycling? Too much thought for such a cold and early morning. And I rushed, late again, to French.

This was me putting Allie before recycling. More broadly, this was my personal needs (to get to class) over the environment’s needs (not to be totally pulverized by its silly earthly inhabitants).  I’m just another human adding to the landfills, and selfishly neglecting the existence of other organisms besides myself, not for my own sense of self-superiority, but for my own convenience.

That’s the shame in it.  Most of us aren’t out to violently murder everything else that breathes on our swiftly tilting planet, and yet, that’s what we’re doing, because no one seems to want to change their way of life enough to respect the lives of our non-human neighbors. It would be simple enough to say “We should fix it” but that’s where the problem lies. Contrary to Tolstoy’s views, the environmental situation of today is a problem of much greatness, and in it there lies no simple solution, despite what some of my fellow humans might think.

 Assuming, that as humans we have the willingness, knowledge, and ability to magically fix large scale environmental problems in a single stroke is foolish. Even if we could unite the planet in a common goal to make a large-scale change, such as a law, or wide-spread invention that cuts down on fossil fuels or greenhouse gases or something, who is to say that we have the knowledge or technology to do so? Without the both knowledge and willingness, there is no ability, but even if there was ability, knowledge, and willingness, who are we to claim that we are superior enough to unite and make a grandiose change that actually matters?

            The idea of tackling these big environmental issues in one fell swoop is a glorified daydream.  Making a change usually requires a majority consensus for a successful attempt.  Yet when has our planet ever agreed on anything together? June Jordan writes, “…partnership in misery does not necessarily provide partnership for change,” (Jordan 47).  Therefore, just because many of us are discontent with current environmental situations, doesn’t necessarily mean that we have the power to unite and fix those issues. A desire is much different than an action.

Our ability to aid this planet will not stem from our collective knowledge of ecosystems and the environment, rather, it will stem from our acknowledgement of our own ignorance.   Hopefully, from that we will begin to deflate our sense of self importance and see the world for what it truly is: a beautiful mass of shifting tectonic plates and a cycle of species and extinctions.  We don’t live in a stagnant world.  As Elizabeth Kolbert mentions in her novel, The Sixth Extinction, species die out, as we someday will too, and there is no point in denying that.  There is also no point in denying that we, as humans, are largely responsible for most of the damage done to this planet. We use and use, the planet is The Giving Tree and we are the ungrateful boy, and what do we give back? Our goodly company? That’s hardly compensation for the rape of virgin forests and the pollution of earth’s oceans.

Our lack of ability to unite, however, does not mean that we lack the ability to create change.

So what is it we can do? Kolbert, although she does prompt for action in her pages, doesn’t actually offer a solution. I believe that that is because the solution of how to give our planet a hand varies with each fingerprint. Each of us on our own has the ability to find the little ways we each can love our planet so that, fifty or a hundred years from now, we’ve left something behind worth looking at. Plant a tree, rinse out your yogurt containers before recycling them, buy decomposable paper products and a reusable water bottle.    Maybe it works for you to ride your bike to work, that’s your piece.  Tell your friend to use a reusable water bottle, and I’ll get around to rinsing out my recyclables.

As humans we may not be able to unite in a specific act that solves all the world’s environmental problems, but we do have the power to act as a group and target different ways to mindfully approach the act of maybe not saving, maybe not restoring, but at least actively not abusing our earth.  By each of us simply doing a little of what we can, I believe that we can do something great, and if that’s the case, we’ve got Tolstoy beat.

Thinking more about that quote now, I realize that Tolstoy’s point wasn’t that things couldn’t be good if they weren’t simple, rather, I believe he was suggesting the beauty and power of simplicity. Dividing and conquering, or rather, dividing and caring, may not be a simple solution, but it is a culmination of simple acts that leads to creating a difference in the way we treat our planet, and there is great value in that.  The way I see it is that, while each doing our part of small kindnesses to our planet, we should go out and enjoy the world for what it currently is and accept the fact that it our great-grandchildren will see a much different place. There’s no reason that, with a little love from our populous, that world can’t be beautiful too.

Works Cited

Jordan, June. “Report from the Bahamas, 1982." Meridians 3, 2 (2003): 6-16.

Kolbert, Elizabeth. The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. New York: Henry Holt, 2014. Print.

Tolstoy, Leo. "There Is No Greatness Where There Is No Simplicity, Goodness and Truth. - Leo Tolstoy at Lifehack Quotes." Quote by Leo Tolstoy. Web. 21 Nov. 2014. <>.


Leigh Alexander's picture

I hope you got my email.  Sorry about this coming in this morning. 



Anne Dalke's picture

Leigh Alexander--
there’s a lightness to this piece that I like—moving from your yogurt wrapper to “a little love from our populous,” with a coupla of lovely lines (I like especially “the planet is The Giving Tree and we are the ungrateful boy,” and “the solution of how to give our planet a hand varies with each fingerprint”) along the way.

The spot where I’d most like us to stop and talk, though, happens about midway, with “our acknowledgement of our own ignorance.” I just stumbled last week across a new field (who knew?) that focuses on the “epistemology of ignorance.” What interested me most in this philosophical interview that introduced me to the term was the analysis of the cost of racial exclusion--in particular, in the way it creates an epistemological gap—and how it speaks to the need for multiple voices, points of view and experience as a way of gaining access to wider knowledge. This involves a kind of “social epistemology” that resembles what Bowers describes in his work on “recovering ecological intelligence”: it breaks with traditional Cartesian epistemological individualism, but focuses more on social oppression than Bowers does. Anyhow, having read your essay, I’ve now put in for the forthcoming volume, Routledge International Handbook of Ignorance Studies. Will keep you posted…