Revisiting Heroes

I wrote a blog on March 4th contrasting heroes with villains in the drama to save the planet. To my surprise, I received a comment from someone who identifies himself simply as “G.” Following the link to the WordPress page, I discovered a strong allegiance between “G” and the tea party. One does suspect writers who hide behind the mantle of anonymity, but to my surprise, the comment on my blog was quite civil, though clearly wrong-headed.

In part, “G” disagrees with my notion of what makes a hero. He says “The heroes are the people who fight for freedom and those who take advantage of that freedom to create wealth for themselves and those around them.” Interesting, but, as I say, wrong-headed. To begin with, we need to define some key terms.

A hero must be both courageous and selfless. That notion goes back to Hector in the Illiad and would include all those we have considered heroes up to and including the brave men and women who lost their lives trying to save others on 9/11. The people I pointed to as heroes, environmentalists like Danny DeVito and Naomi Davis, show both of these qualities in making sacrifices to help save the planet. They exhibit self-denial in their willingness to alter their “lifestyle” and courage in swimming against the tide of opinion that ridicules their behavior.

Gaining wealth, whether we share it or not, shows little of either of these qualities, especially in a society where the wealthy pay virtually no taxes and so many of them are born with a head-start. And the freedom that “G” mentions is conceived simplistically. It is not enough that I throw off my chains for me to possess real freedom. I must also determine my own actions. The freedom the wealthy tout is based on the non-interference of government in their activities and also implies a devotion to wealth itself that suggests fixation. Wealth is a means to an end not an end in itself. I am not free to the extent that I pursue wealth unrestricted. I can only be free if I also determine both the ends and the means that give my life meaning. Devotion to the mere gaining of wealth is a confusion of means and ends and is hardly the expression of human freedom.

Further, the sharing of the wealth “those around them” is suspect, since that desire (such as it is) is usually coupled with a hatred of taxes that are designed largely to force us to share our wealth with others more needy than ourselves. The conflict here suggests that “those around them” are a select few the wealthy choose to share (some of) their wealth with. We are not talking about largess here, except in rare cases. And those cases need to be duly noted. But those few exceptions hardly make “G’s” case.

In a word, I stick by my argument on March 4th. I think that those who make sacrifices and show courage in a society that for the most part belittles their efforts are the true heroes among us. Those who spend their lives accumulating wealth are not heroic in any sense of that term. They are the embodiment of self-interest and fixated on a goal that is demeaning to themselves as human beings.

It is true, as “G” allows in his comment — following the quote above — that we need to be stewards of the planet, but that takes more than lip-service and a furtive glance. And, I must confess, I don’t see signs of any real concern about stewardship in the behavior of the villains I described in my earlier blog. It takes real effort and willingness to alter our lifestyles and even, perhaps, to adopt an entirely different economic model. As things now stand our insistence upon an expanding economy in the name of “progress” is in direct conflict with any meaningful effort to save the planet. I doubt seriously that any of the “heroes” that “G” has in mind would be willing to even consider abandoning a growth economy.

Villains and Heroes

In the dramatic struggle of the human species to survive on this planet, there are both villains (who have been mentioned from time to time) and heroes (who need to be given more credit).

At the top of the villain pyramid, of course, sit the fat-cat corporate CEOs with their six or seven-figure salaries, their tax breaks, and their stock options. They fly in private jets; live in numerous houses, all too large; and drive expensive, gas-guzzling automobiles and SUVs. They lay off employees during periods of economic strain, while they play in the sun and watch their profits grow. Just below these people on the pyramid are the wannabes. This group includes the vast majority of the professional athletes plus the fat-cat imitators who live in high price, low quality mini-mansions, drive the gas guzzlers and the SUVs or large pickups, the ATVs and the Jet Skis in the lakes at their summer homes, all of which they keep in their three-car garages — except for the RV that sits outside on the concrete slab. These people deny the fact of global warming — calling it “political science” — turn the heat up when they are cold instead of putting on a sweater, ignore the problems of others and have no idea what on earth the “liberals” are so upset about. All they know is they hate them. They don’t recycle, because it’s too much trouble. They prefer to simply add their garbage to the thousands of tons that fill the land or is dumped into the oceans to turn up again in the bellies of whales and fishes caught later to feed their insatiable appetites. They think only about themselves and maintaining their “lifestyle.”

A couple of the heroes have been mentioned in these blogs, the Danny DeVitos who drive their electric cars the Naomi Davises who spend their lives spreading the word about green economies within the black community. To their numbers we should add  the architects who design green communities and engineers who seek ways to reduce our carbon footprint. And we should not forget people like my son’s best friend who spent much of his limited funds to put solar collectors on the roof of his garage and plans to get an electric car which he will charge up with the electricity generated by the panels. The Ted Turners and Robert Redfords who buy up land to keep it out of the hands of the developers or lend their names to environmental causes should also be mentioned. These people grab a sweater when they are cold in the winter and endure the heat in the summer as long as they can before they even turn on the air conditioner, if they have one. They recycle religiously and perhaps even grow a garden in the backyard. They give regularly to environmental causes hoping to stem the tide of destruction of the planet on which they live. They endure the snickers and sneers of the villains who refer to them as “tree-huggers” who, the villains insist, stand in the way of progress.

Neither of these two groups can be identified, strictly, with either political party, though the villains tend to gravitate toward the Republican party which they think will protect their financial interests and keep the government out of their pockets while at the same time the villains work to reduce its size. The heroes tend to identify with the Democratic party which as a rule shows a concern for people over profits, though the politicians in both camps are subject to the bribes  and promises of the fat cats who pour tons of money into their political coffers, lighting the candle at both ends, hoping that whatever party they belong to the winners will promote the goals of what the fat cats call “freedom” — by which they mean “increased profits.” What we need, of course, is a third party that refuses to accept monies from any fat-cat corporations and devotes itself exclusively to the common good. But that may never happen in this world.

The villains have their heads buried in the sand (or some other dark place) while the heroes tend to be somewhat idealistic and even a bit other-worldly in their dreams and hopes for the future of their children and their grandchildren. You may have gathered that I prefer the heroes to the villains, though I confess I cannot in all honesty stand squarely in their camp. I have villainous tendencies and am inclined toward self-indulgence. I have to work on that.

When Will We Ever Learn?

One of the great protest songs to come out of the Viet Nam war was “Where Have All The Flowers Gone?” by Pete Seeger. It has the haunting, repetitive line “When Will They Ever Learn?” that I want to modify slightly and borrow for a quite different purpose. I want to protest our unwillingness to pay attention to an environmental crisis that threatens to dwarf the Viet Nam War altogether. And it is made all the more disturbing by virtue of the fact that those who are in a position to do something are paying no attention whatever.

There are folks in this society, of course,  who care deeply about the fact that in our blind pursuit of filthy lucre we seem hell-bent on our own destruction as an animal species. I have touched on this in previous blogs and mentioned heroes like Danny DeVito who are doing something about it. There are hundreds like him, people who really care and are doing their best to stem the tide. But the tide will not be turned back until the majority of those with large pocketbooks start to pay attention. And right now, they are looking the other way — as are most of us.

Consider the fact that as we enter a presidential election year, there is little or no talk about the environment — from either political party. In polls the environment ranks fairly high in the concerns voters have expressed. But the politicians stay away from the topic as though it were poison. It’s upsetting and not likely to get them elected no matter where they stand on the issue. The reason, of course, is that the issue has been juxtaposed to jobs by the media, and especially by the special interests. The claim is that we cannot take serious steps to save the environment without “costing” the nation hundreds if not thousands of jobs. This is pure bollocks, as the English would say.

The economy will continue to take center stage, as well it should. But the notion that we cannot try to save the environment and create jobs at the same time is nonsense. That fiction may eventually be written on our gravestones. Jobs can be created within the renewable energy industry which at present suffers from lack of adequate funding. Without adequate funding, those who seek to take steps to become energy independent must pay through the nose and few can afford it. Without major tax credits and government subsidies, the small industries that produce wind and solar alternatives, for example, cannot possibly bring the prices of their products down to the levels where they are affordable by more than the very few.

The environment has gotten bad press, and “environmentalism” has become a pejorative term. Together they are seen as the villains in a political game of shuttlecock where there is some talk and even some real concern, but no one really wants to do anything about the problem.  That is, no one who can do something about it. The shuttlecock just keeps getting batted back and forth. Or it is ignored altogether as we turn our attention elsewhere.

There are dozens of things each of us can do, of course, from trying to get those few politicians elected who are willing to take on the tough issues, to turning down our thermostats in the Winter, to recycling, to driving economical cars (or better yet, walking, cycling, car-pooling, or taking public transportation). And we can support “green” companies. Such steps may not take us far enough fast enough, however. Unless there is profit in it for the fat-cat corporations, or until the government (which is largely supported by the fat cats) wakes up and gets seriously involved, or until enough people get pissed off and lean hard on the politicians, little more will be done. And at this point, the fat cats are too preoccupied with short-term profits to see any real potential in earth-saving industries. And the government is too worried about what the fat cats want to do. And the majority of Americans simply don’t care. My guess is that we will sputter along ignoring the problem, and accusing people like me of being nay-sayers and Chicken-Littles, until the problem becomes so big it can no longer be ignored. To quote another environmental hero, Naomi Davis, president and founder of Blacks in Green, “We can either all rise up or all go down together.”

True Heroes

Every age needs its heroes. The Greeks had Achilles the manly warrior who was flawed but able to overcome his deficiencies when the chips were down. We have our football players and professional athletes who also clearly have flaws but are able to prevail on the field — if they aren’t in jail. Oh, and we have our movie stars who live very public lives. The firemen and policemen and women who risk their lives are a better bet, as are those in the armed forces who risk their lives to protect our way of life. But, then, what is being protected for the most part are corporate interests and most of those people were either drafted or are paid to do a job. They are certainly admirable, but I prefer those who quietly and voluntarily make sacrifices to buck the tide and further the general welfare of all of us who share this planet.

One such person who is a hero in my view is Danny DeVito who is interviewed in this month’s Sierra magazine. DeVito plays the voice of The Lorax in the new Dr. Seuss movie. He is also a staunch environmentalist who realizes that (as he says) “we have maybe fifty years to get this right.” He drives an electric car and plans to install solar panels on his house so he is using less electricity generated by nuclear power or coal-burning plants. He owned an electric car before it was “hip,” in the late 1990s “then the powers that be decided it wasn’t good for the oil companies, and they took it away from us.” He knows who the true villains are in this drama we are living through. And he knows what needs to be done.

One would like to think the new Dr. Seuss movie will open the eyes of our children to the fact that as they grow up they will need to do whatever they can to repair some of the damage their parents and grandparents have done to the planet. They will have even less time to do so. This is not to say that there are not more heroes like DeVito who are doing their best right now. There certainly are — just not enough of them.  I have a friend who became the third customer of a company in the Twin Cities to install solar panels on his garage to supplement the electricity he draws from N.S.P. He watches it like a hawk and delights to see the sun taking money out of the pockets of the corporations. We need more people like this, and we need to modify our notion of what makes a person a hero. It certainly doesn’t need to be the football player or the sports star. It doesn’t even need to be a man. In fact, there are a great many women in our culture who are truly heroic in their day-to-day struggle to survive in a man’s world where the cultural role models are totally unlike themselves. Our notion of what makes a person admirable needs to be brought up to date.

In the Dr. Seuss movie, taken from the book, the antagonist Once-ler (a financial titan who sells cans of fresh air) is, according to DeVito, “simply misguided, taken in by his commercial ability to make Thneeds [‘a Fine-Something-That-Everyone-Needs,’ which require cutting down the forests].” There lies the ugly truth about our urge to increase wealth no matter the cost. In the end, the message calls for individual responsibility (there’s a new idea!) by saying “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” This is a message we can take to heart, and the man who wrote it — not to mention the man whose voice is that of the main character — is truly heroic.