Submerged Concern

I recently discussed a Reuters poll that showed that more than 60% of Americans of all political stripes would like to see the E.P.A. maintain its present strength or increase it to help protect the environment. Indeed, polls have shown for years that Americans are concerned about the environment, a concern that usually appears among the top ten with astonishing consistency. And yet, as I have noted, when it comes to electing our representatives to Congress we tend to ignore their stand on the environment and show a much greater concern for such things as terrorism, defense, and the economy.  This has been a pattern for many years and it requires some explaining.

I’m not sure I can provide that explanation, but I can speculate — a thing I tend to be fairly good at, since it requires little research. I am guessing that the concern over the environment is indeed genuine. I don’t question it at all. But it is what I would call a “submerged concern.” That is, it’s there, but it doesn’t surface in any meaningful way. It will surface, of course, when we can no longer drink the water, breathe the air, or are forced to pay two week’s salary for groceries.  But until then, since it is not as pressing for most folks as, say, being able to make the payment on the new SUV, it will remain submerged.

Much of our tendency to keep the concern submerged is fear, of course. None of us wants to think about the dire consequences of continued attacks on the earth which supports us and the air that we require. And none of us wants to make sacrifices. God forbid that we should drive more economical cars and grab a sweater when we are chilly rather than turning up the thermostat! But some of it, at least, is due to our unreasonable conviction that no matter how great the problem someone will solve it. We have blind faith in science — while at the same time we question the veracity of the scientists who tell us that we are destroying the planet. (No one said folks worry about such things as consistency — the minds of so many of us resembling in many ways a rat’s nest of confused bits and pieces of truth, half-truth, and blatant falsehoods — all of which are bound together by wishful thinking. It’s the only kind of thinking a great many people are capable of, sad to say.)

In any event, we are faced with the undeniable fact that a great many people in this society repeatedly elect to Congress men and women who are paid to vote for Big Oil and whose reelection depends on continuing to support programs and people who are hell-bent on taking as much plunder out of the earth as humanly possible and leaving it to future generations to clean up the mess — while they gasp for air and drink Kool-Aid made up of reconditioned toilet water, presumably. We fault those folks in Congress, as we should. They really should put the well-being of their constituents before their own political party and their own re-election. But, judging form the past, this will not happen as long as the cushy jobs in Washington pay well (and the representatives see to that) and the voters are stupid enough to keep them in office. And the fault that this is allowed to happen is our own.

The founders made it clear that the idea was to rotate the representatives every couple of years so there would be new blood and new ideas. George Washington was smart enough to know that the President, at least, should have term limits. At that time the jobs didn’t pay very well and involved a lot of work for men who had more important things to get back to at home. But slowly and surely representation in Congress turned into a full-time, high-paying  job and those in office found that they were making huge piles of money and really preferred to keep things that way. Voting for clean energy and against Big Oil simply doesn’t fit into that scheme. This is why there should be term-limits, of course, but more importantly, it is why we should vote out of office those whose only concern is for themselves and their own well-being. What will it take to wake enough people up to the very real dangers we all face in the not-so-distant future? That is the question!

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Learning From Great Books

I admit I am one of these odd people who thinks we can learn a great deal not only from history but also from great literature. There are many, of course, who would deny that there is any such thing as “great” literature — just literature that some like and others do not. But I would argue that great literature is recognizable because it provides us with insights into the human condition in a way that makes us marvel at the power of words.  I agree with Robert Persig, who wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, in which he said that “quality” is one of those things no one can define, but everyone recognizes it when they see it.

For example, all sports fans recognize the great athlete. They are rare and stand out above the others. We may not know what it is that sets them apart, but they jump out at us. We might quibble about who was the greatest tennis player, football player, or basketball player. And the current series on ESPN that seeks to single out the “greatest athlete ever,” comparing such athletes as Roger Federer and Bo Jackson,  is bogus. But those who know the sport know who the great ones were. Great literature is like that. It stands out and commands our attention. But if we don’t know anything about the sport involved, we cannot separate out the great players. Similarly, if we are not well read we cannot recognize the great books, those that exhibit exceptional writing and insight into the human condition.

I recently came upon a passage in E.M. Forster’s The Longest Journey that helps me  make my case. Forster is a poet in the true sense of that term: he creates with words. His creations happen to take the form of novels. This novel is one of those books that tells a story, but which also makes us stop and think. In that novel we find the following passage:

“the city [Salisbury] has strayed out of her own plain, climbed up her slopes, and tumbled over them in ugly cataracts of brick. The cataracts are still short, and doubtless they meet or create some commercial need. But instead of looking towards the cathedral, as all the city should, they look outwards at a pagan entrenchment, as the city should not. They neglect the poise of the earth, and the sentiments she has decreed. They are the modern spirit.”

The stunner, of course, is in the final sentence. I’ve been to Salisbury and have seen precisely what Forster points out. He is pointing to the human tendency — which has grown stronger since he wrote his novels — to put itself in opposition to the earth, to ignore its “sentiments,” and demand that it satisfy human cravings.

Farmers sit in their twelve-wheel tractors polluting the air and ripping into the soil in the Fall of the year to expose the dark topsoil to the eroding Winter winds; miners tear apart the earth and leave it exposed as they look beneath its surface for spoils that will make them rich; deforestation in tropical regions leaves the earth bare and parched and unable to provide future growth; we take precious oil from deep beneath the earth and burn it up in our gas-guzzling automobiles and trucks; we topple trees and cover the exposed earth with concrete parking lots and malls so we can shop for goods we don’t really need; and so it goes. In so many ways we do, indeed, “neglect the poise of the earth.” If we ever knew what stewardship meant, we have forgotten it in our haste to beat the world into submission to our will, to meet our endless demands for creature comforts, and continue to meet the demands of growing human populations.

Forster’s passing remark strikes chords and makes us pause and reflect. That is a mark of great writing.

Nattering Nabobs

It has become a cliché for older folks to look back to a previous age as “golden” and insist that things are going to the dogs. I referred in a recent blog to Woody Allen’s movie “Midnight In Paris” which focuses on this tendency to look back to an earlier age as in every way superior to the one in which we live — no matter what age it happens to be. I get all that. But we dismiss at our peril those who see the problems of the present, the nay-sayers and “nattering nabobs of negativity.”  As someone once said “just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.” It behooves us to pay attention to the Chicken Littles around us and hear what they have to say: it might just be important. The sky may indeed be falling, and Woody Allen to the contrary notwithstanding, things may have been better in times past.

In a word, while it may be true that the older generations look at the past through rose-colored glasses, it is nonetheless the case that our present problems have taken a quantum jump toward calamity in ways that can seriously threaten life on this planet I don’t want to list all of the problems we have brought upon ourselves, but we have, indeed, let the technical genie out of the bottle and it is not at all clear that the genie is well-intentioned.

In past generations leaving the world unlivable was merely a theoretical possibility, now it is a very real possibility. Indeed, the likelihood increases every day we continue to ignore these threats to life on earth. This is, indeed, a new situation — the quantum leap I mentioned a moment ago. The times they are a changing’ and the changes may not be for the better. And the more we go along as if nothing has changed, assuming that everything is as it should be, and snickering when critics have the gall to point out the problems, the greater the likelihood that the worst case scenario will be realized. Until or unless we take that possibility seriously we gamble with the future generations whose lives we hold in our hands.

In light of these considerations, a poll following the President’s recent State of the Union speech has interesting ramifications. The following excerpt from HuffPost tells the good news along with the bad news. First the good news:

Sixty-five percent of Americans support “the President taking significant steps to address climate change now,” including 89 percent of Democrats, 62 percent of independents and 38 percent of Republicans.

The survey finds that most Americans see climate change as a tangible threat, as 61 percent said climate change is already affecting them or will affect them sometime in their life. An overwhelming 93 percent say there is a moral obligation to leave an Earth not polluted or damaged to future generations, with 67 percent strongly agreeing.

The bad news is that this Congress is not in the least bit inclined to lift a finger to stop the damage we are doing to this planet. They are out of step with the majority of people they presumably “represent” because their jobs are dependent on the very corporations that would continue to exploit the earth for profit. It does appear that we have found ourselves in a game of poker with marked cards and that the people we are playing with — who have smirks on their faces — are playing with house money.

But it’s not a game, it’s a democracy in which the people are supposed to be the ultimate source of legitimate power. One does wonder if the people will ever find their voice again and if they do whether it will be loud enough to be effective.

Not-So-Sacred Earth

I wrote recently about our tendency to reduce such things as art and athletics to something that can be measured and counted in dollars and cents. I drew on some of the things Robert Heilbroner wrote in his book The Nature and Logic of Capitalism. There is much to be learned from that remarkable book, and one of them has to do with our attitude toward the earth we are rapidly destroying in the name of “progress” and “profits.”

Heilbroner is convinced that the Judeo-Christian religion combined with modern science to engender an attitude toward the earth that encourages exploitation. He calls it the “desacralization” of the earth. If we loved the earth and regarded it as something sacred, or truly believed the earth is our Mother, as many cultures do, we could not possibly treat her the way we do. It’s an interesting thesis, though some might find it unsettling. In any event, what we have here is a serious type of reductionism indeed: reducing the earth to an inanimate thing to be exploited for our creature comforts.

To be sure, the Judeo-Christain religion teaches us that the earth is there to serve our purpose, whatever that purpose happens to be. Early on there were restraints, of course, as the New Testament taught that wealth in itself is not necessarily a good thing, that the love of money is the root of all evil. But these restraints gradually loosened and there was nothing in our religious tradition to suggest that the earth is sacred: it is there for us to do with as we might. By the time the exploitation of the earth became possible on a grand scale, thanks to a science that reduces reality to “an uncomplaining grid of space and time,” and great wealth became available by exploiting the earth, there was no moral compass in Western culture that allowed us to see that the direction we were taking would be both harmful and wrong. Heilbroner thinks that moral compass disappeared completely when John Locke insisted late in the seventeenth century that “unlimited private acquisition, for centuries the target of the most scathing religious and philosophic criticism, was in fact compatible with both the dictates of Scripture and the promptings of right reason.” Locke was of course simply aligning himself with John Calvin who had argued a century earlier that great wealth was a sign of God’s favor. As science led to the industrial age the way was being paved for capitalist exploitation of both human beings and the earth that supports them. It has now become a fait accompli.

The role of science in Heilbroner’s view is especially interesting. As he put it, the ideological aspect of science “lies in the function played by its deepest conception — an indifferent and inert matter as the ultimate stuff of reality. It thus provides a world view compatible with, and needed by, that required for the limitless invasion of the world for the purpose of surplus [capital] accumulation.” This translated in a remarkably short time into a technical explosion that made it possible to exploit the earth and take from it anything that might increase our wants and needs. Lacking any restraint from our religious tradition the cry went up to take and keep from the earth as much as possible. The result of this thinking was unfettered capitalism, greed with a capital “G,” and an earth that suffers from relentless exploitation, air and water that may not sustain us much longer, and multinational corporations that blindly rush after profits with no thought for the morrow.

Paradigm Shift

I have touched on the confusion that abounds over such political terms as “socialism,”  “liberal” and “conservative” in recent blogs. Recently I received a copy of a Master’s Thesis in Environmental Ethics from David Hoelscher who now lives in Sri Lanka and since it includes, among other things, a most interesting discussion of the last two of these confusing terms, I thought I would devote today’s blog to some of what Hoelscher had to say. His thesis summarizes the views of David Orr, Gregory Smith, and C.A. Bowers who have written extensively on the plight of our planet. I have referred to Orr’s book in a previous blog.

Of special interest is Bowers’ take on the loose way we use the terms “conservative” and “liberal” in our political discourse. I will quote Hoelscher’s thesis at some length.

“To my mind, the most interesting part of Bowers’ work is his useful discussion of the term conservatism. As he rightly points out, the way the political labels ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ are used is in large part nonsensical. ‘Every time a television commentator or journalist refers to the “conservatives” in Congress,’ he writes, ‘the environmental movement suffers another minor setback.’ The misidentification of politicians as conservatives, when in fact they are extremists, reactionaries or corporate liberals generates misunderstanding about just what it is that people and groups advocate. Bowers continues: ‘Politicians who support the WTO, who grant large subsidies to corporations, and who resist legislation that addresses health care and the systemic basis of poverty should not be labelled “conservatives”. . . These politicians are clearly in the liberal tradition where unrestrained economic activity overrides other concerns.’ The misuse of political labels has resulted in the current bizarre state of affairs in which people interested in promoting social justice, ‘with rebuilding the networks of mutual support within communities, and with environmental restoration projects [all of which seem to be concerned with conserving what is best in our world] are reluctant to identify themselves as conservatives.’. . . ‘The double bind is that in identifying themselves as liberal, which most of them do, they align themselves with the assumptions that are taken for granted by corporations working to eliminate local, state, and federal restrictions on their right to place profits over public health and the environment.”

I think these comments are right on the mark. One would think that those who strive to protect the planet would be called “conservatives.” On the contrary, those who exploit it are so-called. There is no doubt that the loose way we use our language generates considerable confusion in a discussion where clarity of thought is essential if solutions to our global problems are to be found.

And that is where Hoelscher’s thesis is particularly strong, in my view. He and his three friends advocate a radical paradigm shift in our cultural perspective, a culture that is in the process of “disintegration,” in the words of one of his sources. We are clearly in denial about an issue that should be uppermost in the minds of all of us, and we are also in need of clarity of thought and purpose. The sources Hoelscher quotes regard science as a large part of the problem as it fosters the optimism that drives capitalist expansion. I don’t fault science, but I do think we need to think about the role of science in our society, the differences between science and technology, and the moral implications of scientific endeavors. Schools need to focus on these issues, surely.

However, in the end I do not think that simply substituting one ideology (which I would agree is admirable) for an outmoded one is the answer.  Displacing the current emphasis in our schools on vocation and furtherance of the status quo, is not even a remote possibility, given the world as we find it. I do not think fundamental change in our perspective will come from within the schools where radical change simply does not occur. But a solution to our problem most assuredly will require a paradigm shift and we must start somewhere — and soon. As things now stand, the majority of the humans on this planet simply ignores the problem.  Clearly, education must play a key role. My own suggestion, as readers of these blogs know by now, is not to attempt to exchange one ideology for another, but to stress the process whereby students learn to think about what is going on around them. This, too, may not be even a remote possibility.

Good News!

Whenever the N.R.D.C. magazine, onearth, arrives I shudder and tend to put it out of sight or recycle it immediately. When I do read it, there seems to be nothing but articles about the latest atrocity that humans have committed against the planet — news about the effects of global warming or climate change. It’s depressing to read that by 2050 “climate change could result in the loss of about two-thirds of arable land in Africa.” And this in the face of the disturbing fact that in 40 years the African urban population will have tripled. Who needs that?

But, then, if one is willing to grit one’s teeth and read on, there is also some good news, such as the news that a British economist has stepped forward and suggested that we abandon the outdated notion of continued economic growth for a new paradigm: sustainable growth. The idea has been around for some time, but there is a prejudice against the notion based on the false assumption that sustainability is a plot to undermine capitalism. It is assuredly the case that you won’t hear any of our politicians running for office in the next couple of years preaching the doctrine of sustainability. We continue to believe that a growth economy is a viable idea. But sustainability is a notion whose time has come, and the article in onearth gives one hope that others will step up and bite the bullet.

There is also news about various devices that have been invented to help provide energy from renewable sources, or modifications that can be made on our automobiles that will convert them from gas  to electric — with suggestions about how solar panels can be used to provide the electricity for the cars. For example, Ben Nelson from Wisconsin, one of the new breed of “eco-modders,” has modified his Geo Metro so it now requires no gasoline. It is encouraging to know that there are people like Ben around who are serious about getting us away from our dependence on oil, though they be few and far between.

Despite its glacial pace, there is in fact an environmental movement.  Politicians and large corporations refuse to back the movement — insisting (wrongly) that support of the movement will cost America jobs. This is what logicians call a “false dichotomy”: either we continue on our present path or we lose jobs. In fact, promoting renewable sources of energy would create thousands of jobs. But it sounds like heresy to a great many voters, so the politicians (and the corporations that back them) for the most part, keep clear of the “tree-huggers and insist that we open up the Alaskan wilderness to further oil exploration, or expand off-shore drilling — while we make a concerted effort to trash the E.P.A., that watchdog agency that has the unmitigated gall to put constraints on Big Business.

We have the unfortunate urge in this country to make heroes of our athletes and movie stars. In fact, people like Ben Nelson are the real heroes, people who are making an attempt to change our way of doing business and helping up find ways to treat our earth with more respect. The cynic in me worries that it is too little too late, but one has to start somewhere, and it is good news to read that there are those who have already taken steps. Further, it does appear that the younger generation has shown signs of a greater sense of responsibility toward their planet, and that is also good news. The trick is to hang in there until the movement gains momentum. And that means holding off the large corporations until the new generation of idealistic young people gains a foothold — or the situation becomes so grim that even the doubters are forced to pull their collective heads out of the sand (or wherever else they have them buried) and admit that the earth deserves the respect of everyone who lives on it.

Learning From Great Poets

I admit I am one of these odd people who thinks we can learn a great deal not only from history but also from great literature. There are many, of course, who would deny that there is any such thing as “great” literature — just literature that some like and others do not. But I agree with Robert Persig, who wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, in which he said that “quality” is one of those things no one can define, but everyone recognizes it when they see it. Greatness is like that.

For example, all sports fans recognize the great athlete. They are rare and stand out above the others. We may not know what it is that sets them apart, but they jump out at us. We might quibble about who was the greatest tennis player, football player, or basketball player. But we know who the great ones were. Great literature is like that. It stands out and commands our attention — if we are well read enough to know what to look for: exceptional writing and insight into the human condition.

I recently came upon a passage in E.M. Forster’s The Longest Journey that helps me  make my case. Forster is a poet in the true sense of that term: he creates with words. His creations happen to take the form of novels. This novel is one of those books that tells a story, but which also makes us stop and think. In that novel we find the following passage:

“the city [Salisbury] has strayed out of her own plain, climbed up her slopes, and tumbled over them in ugly cataracts of brick. The cataracts are still short, and doubtless they meet or create some commercial need. But instead of looking towards the cathedral, as all the city should, they look outwards at a pagan entrenchment, as the city should not. They neglect the poise of the earth, and the sentiments she has decreed. They are the modern spirit.”

The stunner, of course, is in the final sentence. Forster is pointing to the human tendency — which has grown stronger since he wrote his novels — to put itself in opposition to the earth, to ignore its “sentiments,” and demand that it satisfy human cravings.

Farmers sit in their eight-wheel tractors polluting the air and ripping into the soil in the Fall of the year to expose the dark topsoil to the eroding Winter winds; miners tear apart the earth and leave it exposed as they look for spoils beneath its surface; deforestation leaves the earth bare and parched and unable to provide future growth; we take precious oil from deep beneath the earth and burn it up in our gas-guzzling automobiles and trucks; we topple trees and cover the exposed earth with concrete parking lots and malls so we can shop for goods we don’t really need; and so it goes. In so many ways we do, indeed, “neglect the poise of the earth.” If we ever knew what stewardship meant, we have forgotten it in our haste to beat the world into submission to our will, to meet our endless demands, and continue to provide nourishment for growing human populations.

Forster’s passing remark strikes chords and makes us pause and reflect. That is a mark of great poetry.