Tag: progress

A Thought Experiment, in response to Marie Kondo’s method.

abstract collage web
© j.hart Paper collage: what my books & files feel like to me sometimes!

Imagine, for a moment, that everything you own at this very point in your life is all that you can or will ever be able to own. Every piece of clothing; all your jewelry, every shoe or pocketbook; every stick of furniture; every bit of makeup; every kitchen utensil, tool, plate, glass, or knife, all the tiny objects that fill the drawers in your house (pens, pencils, notepads, keys, candles, flashlights, etc.); all the cleaning supplies, iron, and ironing board; every sheet, towel, pillow, carpet, curtain, tablecloth; and, of course all the electronic gadgets: computers, phones, printers, televisions, etc. all are irreplaceable!

Imagine that the vast worldwide connections which bring a flood of goods, from factories all over the world, to your local store (or to the local Amazon warehouse) have been disrupted. Perhaps the factories in China, Central America, India, Japan, etc. have all closed and the workers have returned to simpler economies of farming and making products to be sold locally. Maybe the fossil fuel is finished and the global economy is one of luxury items only, transported with great effort and expense.

The question this thought experiment suggests is: now, what would your relationship be to the objects that you own?

It seems to me that Marie Kondo hints at the care and gratitude we should have for the objects that surround us (and that we would have if they were irreplaceable) when she suggests giving thanks to each object that we have decided is not bringing us joy and is on its way out to either the landfill or the thrift store.  But as I mentioned in a previous post, she fails to draw our attention to the more important focus of our gratitude, and that is to the Earth’s resources that were used (and never replenished) to allow the object to be created in the first place, and to the work that people across the globe exerted to make the objects that fill our lives!

Since Netflix started airing Maria Kondo’s series, thrift stores all over the world have been inundated with truckloads of items that people realized that they didn’t actually need (and which weren’t bringing them joy!). However, there is no guarantee that the items given away to second hand shops will not also end up in landfills with the tons of “trash” generated during a Kondo session of tidying up.  https://www.mamamia.com.au/tidying-up-marie-kondo-waste/

Marie Kondo never actually says that her clients should stop shopping, so what her program shows is a type of addiction rehab or detox reality show: the client downsizing with Marie has one brief moment of clarity and relief; but we, the audience, know that tomorrow, when sweet little Marie, her translator, and the film crew leave, the shopping will resume as will the hoarding and the self loathing. https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2019/jan/10/marie-kondo-you-know-what-would-spark-joy-buying-less-crap

Which brings me back to my original question: what is (for the Earth and ourselves) a healthier relationship we should have to stuff? And what is a more responsible way to reduce our stuff?

Some suggestions:

  1. Stop all shopping (except for food) for a period of time. I am two months into an attempt to not shop for a year!
  2. Reduce your possessions responsibly; it is important to feel the consequences of your shopping choices:
    1. clothes can be cut up and recycled as cleaning cloths, or remodeled for longer use, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xJYjRbwzzDA
    2. take clothes to the thrift store in smaller numbers over a greater length of time, say three or four pieces at a time every week.
    3. if you have room in your place, clean and pack up the extra clothes carefully in see-thru bins according to type or style (e.g. all dress shirts together, all work skirts in one bin, all sport tees, etc.) and use the extra clothes to refresh your wardrobe as older clothes get tired looking or worn out.
    4. it is important to feel that the joy that objects gave you can be transferred to other people by donating bras, reading glasses, good winter coats, shoes, and clean bedding to your local homeless or women’s shelter. And please donate it in as good condition as you would want if you were to use it!
    5. old pillows and blankets can be donated to your local ASPCA.
  3. For tools and small machines (mixers, toasters, microwaves, coffee makers, etc.), consider setting up a tool library in your neighborhood! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tool_library
  4. And finally books can be donated to your local library, or sold to your local bookstore for cash or, often, for exchange for other books!

It may be clear by now that what I am suggesting to change our way of reducing stuff is a very labor intensive and time consuming process. But that is the point! The hypercapitalist economy we live in disguises the true price of goods by allowing them to be bought quickly, easily, and cheaply: a few minutes online, a call to Amazon, a recording of a credit card number, and the item is yours!

The getting rid of something can never be as hard work or time and energy consuming as the original making of the thing, but at least by taking some time and thought to place the object within the context of our local community; and making the extra effort to meet and see face to face whom will next use this thing that was bought so quickly and thoughtlessly, we can use the difficulty of downsizing to put a brake on careless consumption and make us think more responsibly about our purchases.

 

 

 

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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.

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!)

 

 

Alienated from Nature

cacti on Avondale ave. web
Cacti on my block in Dallas

In a recent blog post, I wrote briefly about a family that became disconnected from their past: their connection to the land, their cooking traditions, and their own bodies. This happened over three generations as the family members made radical changes to fit into the rapid revolution of the society around them. Like most Americans, they  believed that what everyone else was doing must be right, and progress can never be wrong.

Except in our present dilemma, the mainstays  of our progress “cheap, fast, & easy” are wrong; and they are sickening us and will eventually lead to our destruction. But why can’t most of us understand this, and why are we not focussed on saving ourselves and our planet (which are clearly the same thing)?!

https://thetyee.ca/Opinion/2017/11/16/humans-blind-imminent-environmental-collapse/

Many people I know who are concerned about the destruction of our ecosphere are asking the same question, but many more are avoiding the whole subject. This is very troubling and makes me wonder if our species is suicidal or just hopelessly narcissistic. Happily, much smarter people than I have written books answering this question, the best of which are George Marshall’s Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, and Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. (Margaret Heffernan’s Willful Blindness is also a good read on this topic.)

The bad news is that the ecodestruction we are experiencing is part of what is termed a “wicked problem” in opposition to a “tame problem.” A wicked problem is multivalent, incomplete, contradictory, constantly changing, and complex. It is also, in case you haven’t noticed, very anxiety-producing! And we humans have many strategies to cope with extreme anxiety, from denial to avoidance to willful blindness. The silence we see in main stream media is a reflection of the lack of discussion of environmental destruction and extreme climate change within families.

The good news is that many societies far less wealthy or technologically advanced than ours managed to create a healthy lifestyle over a very long period of time while maintaining and even improving their environment, and we can use them as templates for our own problems. The connections that can be found between a Highland New Guinean community that has been living well on the same ground for close on 46,000 years (!) and early 21st century Americans seems  to reside in a localization of information about the environment and how to best use it. The first necessity seems to me to pay a patient and profound attention to both the great and small expressions of the natural world.

And this brings me back to my typical American family: urbanized, insulated from Nature by technology (did I fail to mention that this family has a television in every room and runs the TV from the moment they awake to the minute they go to sleep?), and unaware of the changes in the natural world around them. But they are not alone in this. Most people in my neighborhood have their properties sprayed with pesticides and have the leaves that are falling at this time of year collected and carted off the grounds. My own daughter views a spider or a roach that has found its way into our apartment to be a terrifying apparition!

http://www.forthoodsentinel.com/leisure/cockroaches-are-fact-of-life-cardio-workout-in-texas/article_6db895d9-d761-5170-b1f7-04319390b14e.html

So what I am suggesting is not a radical “naturalization” (for want of a better word) of our lives, but, to begin with, a small more localized awareness of our environment. Pay attention to the trees, the birds, the insects, the small mammals that are your neighbors. One of the interesting things about going to live for a couple of months in a very different environment is how amazing the flora and fauna are here compared to where I come from!    https://www.facebook.com/dfwurbanwildlife.page/?hc_ref=ARTxkOeVeA9-Xmx2bf4jx0RRVuRJbD-q2E-2XeQTY7QaaBnlviR5Qv7NtvzAqnen_UM

One of the reasons that I moved to Montreal, Canada eight years ago (beside it being the best place to dance tango in North America!) was the amount of wild nature that can be seen even in the heart of the city. I have raccoons, skunks, foxes, raptors, ground hogs (what the French call marmots)  near my apartment in Verdun (though I would prefer a bit more distance from the skunks and raccoons!). There is an ethical value to letting a bit of wildness into your neighbourhood (and that includes not manicuring your garden into a green desert): it will give you a more realistic idea of our place in the natural order, and will work against the human folly of arrogance.

So take a break once in a while from the man-made world (I don’t call this the “unnatural” world: we, each and every one of us, are creatures of nature): turn off the machines, close down the screens, shut out the mechanical noise. Even at her most domestic and everyday level, Nature is far more engrossing, complex, and subtle than anything invented by humans. And for a wake up call on what is the real bedrock of our world and our health, check out The Hidden Half of Nature: The Microbial Roots of Life and Health by David Montgomery & Anne Bilké!

Because if we are not even aware of the natural world around us today, if we don’t even pay attention to it in our everyday lives, how can we be expected to care about its future planetwide demise?!