Culture shock (n): A state of bewilderment and distress experienced by an individual who is suddenly exposed to a new, strange, or foreign social and cultural environment.
Two weeks was all it took. Once it set in, the culture shock numbed me to the media. It turned bathrooms, cars, and roads into outrageous luxuries. It even robbed me of my short-term memory for a while.
I’d experienced severe culture shock once before, after months in Africa. This time, I hadn’t even left the US Southwest. And I’d only been gone for 16 days.
It almost wasn’t fair. Except that I came out of my Grand Canyon river trip a wiser person. Moving at the speed of the Colorado River, living a life devoid of crowds, traffic, electricity, and noise, I learned a few lessons about sustainability.
I’d like to share three of them with you. They have altered how I think about sustainability. I hope that you find them useful, too.
Lesson #1: Excess is Normal
Taught by: The Groover
Good Lord. That’s a lot of water.
This was my first through upon entering the bathroom stall at the Hualapai Lodge lobby in Peach Springs, Arizona. Inside, there was a toilet. In that toilet, two gallons of clear, placid water anticipated my waste.
After 16 days of rafting down the Grand Canyon, I hardly remembered what a toilet looked like.
The trip toilet had consisted of army surplus ammo cans. Known as “groovers,” these metal boxes served as our 16-person group’s only waste repositories. Approximately every four days, one of the cans would fill up. At this point, we clamped it shut, loaded it on a boat, and dragged out a new empty one. We literally sat on the can every time we had to do our business.
All that water…for a single bowel movement?
Back in the Canyon, we hand-fetched and filtered our drinking water from the Colorado River. Two gallons of water was precious.
Using water to rinse our waste away simply wasn’t done. It was too much work to fetch and filter it. We also wanted to keep the river clean. It was our home.
Here in civilization, each bowel movement is honored with its own two gallons of water. Pull the flush lever, and the waste swirls into a hole and disappears. It’s wasteful, but it is standard. We consider it normal.
Lesson #2: Adapting Nature is Work. Adapting to Nature is Easy.
Taught by: Canyon Campgrounds
I continued to marvel at the toilet. The white porcelain bowl sat on impeccably scrubbed tile, laid for the sole purpose of making visitors’ bathroom experience more pleasant. An wall-mounted electric machine dried hands at the push of a button. Faucets with sensors decided the amount and temperature of the sink’s water. Wide walkways, high ceilings, inoffensive artwork, and air conditioning optimized the sense of comfort.
Just a day earlier, our group had been paddling down the Grand Canyon’s scorching innards. The Canyon didn’t care how comfortable we felt. In its world, we were inconceivably small, flesh floating on the coattails of a millisecond.
Despite the heat, bugs, and work of setting up a new camp every day, our ancient playground offered abundant amenities. At every camp, we found flat surfaces on which to set up our tents. A chilly Colorado River offered bathing, drinking, and cooling off. Trees secured our rafts. A wild panorama of stars replaced evening TV shows.
We hadn’t altered the environment to suit ourselves. Yet the Grand Canyon was complete. Our primitive setting felt in place, with everything perfectly arranged. Our duty was to adjust to it. And that took surprisingly little effort. Don a coat in the rain. Put up a wind shield to protect cooking food from gales. Clean sand out of stuff.
After indulging in the wilderness, coming back to climate-controlled, polished-floor, double-wide-sidewalk America felt like a taser shock. Despite all the mining, building, and paving required to make an environment comfortable for humans, being back felt incomplete.
Since coming back, I feel more comfortable, but only marginally. Cool air from vents feels nice in summer. My mattress beats my Therm-a-Rest. Yet modern amenities haven’t improved my quality of life that much at all.
Lesson #3: Think About Origin
Taught by: The Colorado River
When we traveled the river, our necessities came from rafts. Each raft was rigged to the hilt with supplies. The river provided transportation, baths, and water, but everything else—food, shelter, kitchen, toilet, trash—stayed on the raft during the day.
At night, we would lug everything up to camp, where we set up our kitchen, tents, and other necessities. The next morning, we packed it all up again and reloaded the rafts. The 16 of us easily lived from those four rafts.
Instead of being insulated from my surroundings by cars, thick walls, and a computer screen, we lived in and on the Earth. Whenever I altered the environment, I saw the effects of my actions. I watched my feet trample plants, my tent pad level wind-sculpted sand, my garbage feed fire ants.
I also noticed how little propane we needed to cook our daily meals. I reveled in stars, and didn’t miss electricity at all.
Fast forward to home. It’s a hot summer morning. My air conditioner, powered at its origin by coal, keeps my bedroom cool. A reservoir, running through a system of pipes, hydrates my shower. The wastewater goes to a treatment facility. My trash goes into a container, which then goes onto a truck, which in turn dumps it into a landfill. It’s much more complicated than living off a raft.
Now, as I rumble around in my car, recharge my laptop batteries, and crank the air conditioner, I think about where things comes from. I still feel connected to the Earth, despite the layers of concrete noise that separate us. I wonder how I am impacting it.
I think about how I, like all my resources, came from the Earth, and will one day return to it. Maybe humans and toilet water aren’t that different, after all.