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The Lighten Up project, at its core, is an attempt to enhance through self-awareness the way we think about our consumption and waste. As we enter an ecological age, more awareness of our effects and dependence on nature is crucial. We have begun to realize that the Earth’s resources are not limitless, that our actions can and do impact the whole planet in ways that can imperil the health of the entire ecological system, as well as our own well-being and even survival.

But it remains a hard lesson to learn, and something that a forward-looking educational institution like Elon needs to highlight in every way possible. Our culture and habitual ways of life all too often presuppose the opposite: that the Earth is limitless and we need not concern ourselves with the effects of our actions (or inactions) upon it. We have also become very good at hiding these effects. Notice, for example, that trash collection at Elon is so skillfully and invisibly done that we usually are not aware of the huge volume of waste this campus generates on a daily basis. By recognizing the value of knowledge—which grants us a broader and more complete understanding of the full effects of our actions—we can begin to change our patterns of thoughts and actions by recognizing that, when we are wasteful, there are real, deleterious consequences. Likewise, when we conserve, we are performing an important and virtuous deed, as we are operating from a broader and more-worldly perspective that rejects the notion that our natural world is simply a resource to be exploited.

From the Declaration of Independence, to the “go West young man” ideal of “unlimited opportunity,” to the current “generation me,” Americans have exalted individualism and independence above all else. This notion of individual empowerment, though one of the cornerstones of our nation, has unknowingly led us to accept an impoverished view of ourselves—we make ourselves less than we might be, less than we truly are—because we have failed to view individualism in its proper context, as only one of many values which we hold dear. The Lighten Up project embraces a more comprehensive and nuanced view of our role as individuals—individuals who value and respect the larger communities of which we are members.

Whether our community is local or worldly, we have, along with the benefits of being members of that group, corresponding responsibilities to it. From an environmental perspective, we have a responsibility to act in a way that will sustain the world’s resources for many generations into the future, a concept that could be thought of as “trans-generational justice.” By augmenting individualism with the personal virtues of knowledge, awareness, fairness, and moderation, we create a world of communal responsibility, a world that rejects the “every man for himself” mentality and instead embraces the notion that we are all in this together.

The Lighten Up project also invites a deep reverence and respect for nature. Regardless of whether one believes in divine creation, when we reflect on the sequence of events that led to our existence at this place and time on earth, we find ourselves with a sense of wonder and awe at the miracle of simply being, a miracle inextricably linked to and sustained by the whole encompassing environment. This conception of nature—in this light nothing less than the “life-blood” of our existence—radiates a profound sense of interconnectedness and responsibility. And it is this insight—the recognition of the sanctity of the environment in which we live—that allows us to rightfully advocate the need to temper individualism with the competing but compatible personal virtues of moderation, fairness, and respect that lie at the heart of the Lighten Up project.

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