The Failure of “Optimism”

 

Light & Shadow on Hollyhock leaves copy
‘Light and Shadow on Hollyhocks’ © J.Hart ’14 ink on paper.

It has been an interesting experience for me to try to explain my ideas about climate change face to face in real life. Everyone to whom I have dared to speak, and by now I am discouraged enough to rarely bring it up in person, agrees that something is up with the climate, and that we are looking at major changes in the world; but then the response divides along two slightly different paths.

The first is a complete refusal to even think in depth about what is happening; it is a kind of mental throwing up of one’s hands-a belief that nothing substantive can be done to change the situation, though not a denial that the situation is as bad as it appears. Most of my friends feel that they are doing all they can: composting, recycling, voting for the best politicians, buying less, reusing, demonstrating, posting on Facebook, and praying that someone or something will rescue us, and there the discussion ends.

The second reaction is a concentrated effort to show me that I am clearly a pessimist who is catastrophizing a situation that may or may not happen in the near future, hence the encouragement to be happier and more positive-to see the glass as half full rather than half empty!

This Panglossian attitude is usually bolstered by all sorts of data supporting the world view that we are living in a golden age: less crime, better health, less abject poverty (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/jan/29/bill-gates-davos-global-poverty-infographic-neoliberal). This view privileges data without understanding that data is neutral; it is only useful if the methodology creating it and the questions asked of it are unbiased. Depending how it is framed, data can be read in many different ways. There can be less one-on-one crime, and yet more violence worldwide as the heat and drought exacerbates war and famine and state supported crime.

It is also based on two fundamentally flawed ideas: (1) that humanity can control Nature; and (2) that “progress”-the unending improvement and growth of the human condition, whether in wealth, longevity, safety, health-is a realistic goal for human existence.

Both ideas are ahistorical and unnatural. The first comes from our Judeo-Christian heritage and has been enshrined the past three hundred years by the scientists, engineers, and merchants who brought us the Industrial Revolution, including the agricultural revolution of the past one hundred years. It suggests that we are not part of Nature; not under the rule of natural laws, but above them; able to understand, manipulate, and coerce the natural world to satisfy our needs in a way none of the “lower” animals can.

The historical record suggests that this has never been the case. There have been many great human civilizations over the past couple of millennia (Mayan, Roman, Greek, etc.) all of which crashed and burned when their size and appetites overwhelmed the natural resources on which they depended. (Please see Jared Diamond’s Collapse for a very clear description of this history.)

Of course, we believe today that we have progressed so far technologically and scientifically that, at this point in history, we can avoid a collapse. Most of my friends and acquaintances, who use this argument, are convinced that, with the level of our science and with the interconnectivity that computers and the internet bring, our scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, and inventors will, in very short order and in the manner of a deus ex machina, solve our ecological problems and save us from the mess we have created and continue to exacerbate!

This belief is not to be found among the scientists who spend their time and efforts actually studying Nature. They have been figuratively screaming at the top of their lungs the warnings about the approaching disasters, but to no avail. (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/dec/02/world-verge-climate-catastophe) The alienation from the natural world is very extreme in the Western urban “first world” where I spend most of my time; and the distance between the average person who has very little connection to Nature and the scientists who study all aspects of the natural world in great detail is alarmingly great!

The image I have of the “optimists” who tout the status quo is that of people looking around, attempting to see reality, but, while doing so, holding mirrors up in front of their faces, so all they can see is their own reflections! Given the choice, I prefer to believe the scientists who have studied Nature deeply and have a healthy respect for her power, complex systems, and physics, rather than the pundits and “optimists”  whose reading on the subject is shallow and whose understanding is constrained to a one species world view!

The second fallacy is a new idea, historically, but one that has proven to be particularly addictive and unnatural. It is embedded in the present dominant capitalist economic system; and it is the underlying assumption for much of what we do, as individuals, corporations, and nation states. In order to show progress, we must become wealthier, our lives must become better, our houses bigger, our lifestyles easier and more convenient, our pleasures more spectacular, our cars faster, our lives longer, and the list goes on and on! Any reduction in comfort, diminution of convenience, reduction in scale, or husbandry of resources is seen as a loss and a moving backwards!

But Nature does not operate on “progress” much as we would like it to. The reality is that the natural world is regenerative. There is no waste in Nature; everything is related to every other thing, and every animal fits into its ecological niche, fulfilling a role that allows the whole system to operate efficiently and to maintain itself over very long geologic time periods. For us to use the resources available to us on Earth in a sustainable manner that would guarantee our future existence as a species, we would need to jettison much of what we are so proud of in our modern world: all the technological and worldly goods that have been created with the use of unsustainable resources and that have had to be trashed when they break and are unrepairable.

So it is true: in one way I am a pessimist. I believe that only a few of us (the Amish, for instance) can revert to a natural and really normal lifestyle dependent on the work of our own hands and the fruits of our own agricultural labor. The rest of us, and I include myself, don’t have the courage or self-discipline to reduce our lifestyles to the level that is necessary to help the Earth. But Mother Nature will eventually force us to live closer to her, more in rhythm with her seasons and laws; unhappily, if we continue on our present path, the transition will be painful and traumatic.

So, though I don’t subscribe to the “optimism” that clings to the present unsustainable economic system, at the same time, I am optimistic about our future: a simpler, slower, and more rustic  future that we will be forced to make, but which will not be a loss but a improvement in our human community and condition. The present dark age with its extreme luxury built on the misery of exploited people, animals, and ecosystems will end, and I believe it will be replaced by a time of reduced material comforts but increased justice and peace.

 

 

 

 

 

 

*Definition of Panglossian. : marked by the view that all is for the best in this best of possible worlds; from Pangloss, a character in Voltaire’s book Candide.

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Eat meat?

eggs & pitcher copy
‘Eggs & Pitcher’ Oil on canvas © J.Hart ’16

Our relationship to the foods that we eat is probably the most intimate and immediate choice that we can make to help heal the planet. And the question  of whether to eat meat or not can be, in our society, a major moral and ecological decision.

As in everything driven by the late stage hypercapitalism in which we live, corporations work hard to convince us that convenience and price override every other consideration. Nowhere is this clearer than in the foods we buy and eat, especially animal products.

I think of eating meat or not as on a continuum. On the far end is the daily (and sometimes three times a day!) habit in the United States of eating industrially raised meat. This is meat available in fast foods, processed foods, and in large supermarkets for just a couple of dollars a pound. How meat could be sold so cheaply is explained by government subsidies (our tax dollars at work!) and a monstrously large scaled farming system that can mechanically spew out tremendous quantities of inexpensive, imperfectly inspected meat to feed millions of people.

The horror of sentient beings (cows, pigs, and chickens) treated as nothing more than factory material to be imprisoned, tortured, and killed to provide us with their flesh should be a good enough reason to abjure eating corporate food products. But there is another important reason to give up meat and that is the destruction that this method of farming causes to the environment (and by environment I include each person’s individual body).

The methane that the animals, especially cows, expel is a major contributor to global warming. (https://timeforchange.org/are-cows-cause-of-global-warming-meat-methane-CO2)

The feces that the animals(especially pigs) excrete are stored in vast lakes that pollute the local environment and sicken nearby (usually poor) inhabitants. (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/may/24/pig-farm-agriculture-its-wrong-to-stink-up-other-peoples-lives-fighting-the-manure-lagoons-of-north-carolina)

And finally, the hormones and antibiotics that are given to these poor creatures to ensure the fastest production of eatable meat and eggs and to keep these animals alive while living under truly inhumane conditions are ending up in both our bodies and the water supply. This profligate use of antibiotics will be responsible for creating the antibiotic-resistant superbugs that await us in the near future. (http://time.com/4590391/animals-meat-antibiotics-antibiotic-resistance/)

Are there any other choices besides the complete refusal to eat meat? We can substitute fish and seafood for meat; but as the latest predictions are that fish will be unavailable by 2048 as we are overshooting the ability for fish to reproduce and replenish their species, and the industrially raised fish have the same issues with hormones and antibiotic use as meat!

For me the immediate solution is to eat less meat (once or twice a week only) but buy local raised, humanely farmed, and higher quality meat. Joel Salatin and other organic small scale regenerative farmers, use chickens and cattle to free range across their fields thereby naturally fertilizing their pastures. In Dallas, free range beef, chicken, and eggs are easily available, though more expensive than industrially raised meat and eggs. However, if you cut down the amount of meat and eggs you eat and up the quality, the price becomes manageable. Also, the recent studies suggest that your all-over health will improve with less meat, and therein lies a savings in doctor bills and prescription medicine costs!

A vegetarian diet which still uses eggs, and diary products like butter and cheese, is at the further end of the continuum. As with everything we eat, the closer the fruits and vegetables are grown to where we live (and raised in our backyard is best of all!), and the more organically grown, the better.

At the far end of the no meat argument are the vegans who eschew all meat usually on moral grounds that it is immoral to enslave and eat another sentient. For me, it is a very refined and noble sentiment, but I am not sure that it realistically reflects how Nature operates. Personally I expect one day to provide a very high quality feast to the beetles, maggots, and worms when my body goes in the ground!

Meanwhile, I am making the choice to slowly but consistently move toward eating less meat and treating that pasture-raised sirloin as a once a month luxury!

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Fantasy of Tidying

blue hubbard web detail
How do you tidy the natural world? Eat it!!

Netflix has begun streaming a series of Marie Kondo visits with her clients to help them declutter their homes, all of which are in California. I just binged the full eight episodes, and it is definitely helping me with my wish to make this a “no buy” year!

I have been a fan of Kondo since I read her 2011 book: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, but the suggestion of this series that working through one’s clutter, preferably in tandem with one’s spouse, will improve one’s life: solve problems in family relationships; bring more joy into the home; and eliminate the problem of clutter by creating habits and storage systems that will be continued to be used; and all in the short time one has with the in-person help of Marie Kondo, makes this clearly a TV show Netflix should file under the “sci-fi &fantasy” rubric!

The most egregious part of this series is the unspoken assumption that the hyper-consumerism that all these families support is somehow normal for the rest of us! These are wealthy people, not average working people. Most of these folks have houses big enough to support huge collections of clothes, kitchen supplies, shoes, books, bric-a-brac, toys, etc. (Interesting statistic from A Cluttered Life: Middle-Class Abundance: the US has 3.1% of the children in the world, but buys 40% of the toys worldwide!) But nowhere is the money that is needed to hoard the amount of stuff that fills these houses anywhere commented upon!

Kondo elides the darker, but truer emotions, that her method elicits: guilt over the amount of money and energy that allowed the stuff to be bought and to accumulate; anxiety over the inability to keep one’s head above the engulfing chaos; despair at the emptiness of lives lived for consumption; and grief over unfulfilling personal relationships. Instead we are given, in the figure of Marie Kondo, a Japanese Tinkerbell: perfect, petite, and with a constant smiling mask, who assures all her clients that they are okay, and that they will be successful.

The “system” Kondo uses is based on positivity (probably why it has been so attractive to Americans): the object is to make choices about what to keep rather than what to give up, though the pieces that don’t “spark joy” (a limited and poorly defined emotion) are dumped after being “thanked” for their service.  But never does Marie Kondo suggest that thanking one’s possessions for their service may not be as important as thanking the Earth for the resources it provided for all the objects, or thanking the thousands of people whose hands, sweat, ideas, and energy created the items that glut these homes! The source of our wealth here in the West is again made invisible!

And finally, as the focus remains tenaciously on the clients’ emotional state and how happy the Kondoma method will make them, the work of decluttering, which is a really hard struggle, takes place offstage. Nor is there any suggestion of a larger community who could use the stuff. Again, an interesting hint that the families only know other people in the same economic bracket as they are in; people who would not need any more stuff either or to whom they are too embarrassed to ask for help!

The assumption is that most of the bags go to thrift stores where it can be reused (though recent statistics suggest that much of what goes to thrift stores ends up in the trash as does recycling. But how much was recycled? And how much was trashed without any attempt to reuse? Recycling and reusing is not a part of the Marie Kondo brand.

There were a lot of intriguing hints of deeper issues in these first eight episodes: the gender roles, the politics of which played out with shopping, accumulation, and jobs in the home; the comparison of Japanese Americans, only a couple of generations here compared to Marie Kondo, a native of Japan; and the sadder struggles of the true hoarders whose spouses were enabling them and keeping them from dealing with their underlying and debilitating anxiety.

But for me in this blog, the show seems to be a warning against using a band-aid to make a gaping wound seem somehow more attractive! The basic problem is our love-affair with hyper-consumerism. The solution is as basic (and unpalatable) as stopping the shopping! Even the slogan: reduce, recycle, reuse may not be applicable if we are reducing from a completely unnatural level. It may be better for us to only buy necessities and to reuse as much in our homes as we can until we have worked through everything extra, which if the families in this show are any indication will be a long time!

Love & Consumerism

Love & Consumerism

Recently I have been having long and heartfelt conversations with various single friends and family members (as well as privately with myself) about our solitary states. We all seem to be searching, relatively unsuccessfully, for a mate. Depending on the age, the desire to find the right significant other can be as traditional as wanting a spouse with whom to raise children, or as simple as meeting someone with whom to become a companion to share the later years.

When we ask ourselves precisely what we are looking for in this other person, the list can turn out to be startlingly long: intelligent, educated, good looking, healthy, thin, active, good sense of humor, similar interests to our own, wealthy, of a positive happy disposition, creative, capable, ambitious, good dresser, sophisticated, cosmopolitan, relaxed, sexy, affectionate, considerate, helpful, self-assured, original (but not too weird), politically aware and on the same wave length as we are.

And, of course, what we don’t want generates an equally long list: no heavy smokers nor alcoholics, no addicts of any kind, no slackers or drifters, no grifters or liars, no depressives or complainers, no neurotics or psychotics, no fascists or conspiracy theorists, no overeaters or junk-food junkies, no sexual hangups or STD’s, no financial problems, and no criminal history or bad habits.

So we are all looking for perfection, but the question for me is: why do we think that we deserve a mate that has all these stellar qualities while each of us is wonderfully flawed? What if this expectation, strangely out of proportion to reality, is, in fact, merely another aspect of the brainwashing of the consumer society to which we are habituated?

Many of us have used online dating services and apps like Tinder that are structurally not much different from Zappo shoes or Amazon. They work with a series of filters that focuses the available data to conform to our desires, but if we are not clear about what really makes us happy, then the filters and the ensuing data are useless. These services are quick and convenient, but I’m not sure love, affection, or even sex are really made more satisfying by being either fast or easy!

The whole process is being complicated by the rapid change in our mores, which outruns the changes in our values. In fact, the more stable values, that are embedded in our religions, philosophies, or communities, have been denigrated and marginalized for a long time. New is touted as far better than old;* and the virtues that have guided humanity for millennia are considered outdated and an obstacle to progress!

We are being encouraged to create our own values, a job that is far beyond the capabilities of most people. So most of us follow the crowds, doing what is popular and accepted in our peer group. For many of my male friends, they find themselves at sea as they try to figure out the new customs around the #MeToo movement. The irony is that these guys are exactly the ones that are least in need of being worried about their actions, as they are, in their nature, respectful and supportive of women.

The less aware men treat the women’s movement as noise; and they continue to learn how to relate to women by watching pornography, which creates a culture of disrespect, especially for younger people, of sexting, booty calls, and unprotected one night stands. (A quick note about pornography: pornography is the ultimate “spectacle” as Guy Debord describes it. To create the spectacle, the substitution of the image for the actual, the camera needs the “money shot”-where the man can be seen ejaculating-but this is not where pleasure or connection is to be found in real life any more than the enjoyment of food can be found in the endless photographs of meals and dishes on Instagram! In both cases, eating and sex, true enjoyment is not found in the seen, but in smell, taste, and touch, all of which is unavailable to the camera!)

It would be nice to finish this post with some great advice about how to find a lover or mate, but I am also feeling overwhelmed by all the advice available in the media and online, and I don’t want to add to it. We seem to be in an endless pursuit of improvement and happiness, and, again, I have a nagging feeling that this is just another facet of our lives as isolated consumers.

So I, for one, intend to concentrate more on how I can help other people, and to substitute gratitude for worry. And, of course, I will keep dancing!

*Though Nassim Taleb has an interesting question on this: what would you expect to be around one hundred years from now? We might answer: the internet, AI, self-driving cars, fully automated homes, but we would be wrong. The correct answer is whatever has lasted the longest to date: wine, cheese, leather shoes, glass goblets, portraits, dance, music, and all the other things that the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans were familiar with!)