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One of the live oaks that bless my home

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The bearable weight of not-being

My friend, Rob Dietz, has reminded me about these words by Aldo Leopold: "One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds." But when I mention the assorted causes of my internal bleeding to my wife and friends, they all look at me with disbelief and impatience. They do not feel the way I often do. What if their thinking is wiser and reflects what really can be done in a world overrun by seven billion people, who always want more than they have at any given moment and place? For most people on the Earth, "more" means safe water to drink, fresh food to eat, and a shelter with a cook stove and outhouse. For the very few "more" means an $2.5 million watch and unlimited access to all conceivable resources to be used at will.

So let me step back. The Earth, our beautiful blue and green living planet, will continue to be when we are gone, just as she was before we came. In fact, she probably is shutting down or simplifying her life-giving forests, savannahs, estuaries and oceans to get us to launch and shrug us off a little faster; a pesky, self-important and self-righteous species that literally eats her alive. Boy, is she getting tired of us and our prayers for a rain here while we are obliterating trees and clouds over there. In my lonely chronic hurt, am I yet another well-meaning but self-deluded, affluent American, who thinks that he may stem the inevitable with a teaspoon?

Save the planet?! What a stupid and arrogant thing to say! How about this: "Please, please, God, let the planet save us, and we promise to get out of her way." Of course, as a species, we are organically incapable of saying this simple prayer and following up on it.
The New Yorker Cartoon Collection
We can't say this prayer, because more for us is all we want.  To make sure that we get what we want, we have created and refined the most successful - if only for us - social contract in the history of mankind: The Global Capitalism.

Where I write these words, everyone - even the poorest - has benefited from the global capitalism and everyone uses the multitudinous fruits of its technology.  So why should we change?  Only because we may be committing suicide in slow-motion?  Or because millions of others are suffering and dying for our comfort?

Sorry, no time to answer these questions.  I'm off in my Prius to a farmer's market 12 miles away.  I positively need to pick up some locally grown produce and a fair-trade cappuccino. It's my time to relax. So why do I need to see that guy in a beat-up truck who's smoking a cigarette and drinking coke? What an environmentally insensitive slob! And he also looks so tired and unhealthy. Maybe he lost his job? Oh, who cares anyway? What a nice cappuccino...time to relax...

A 6-mile wide lake of absolutely deadly toxic waste left near Baotou, China, after refining and smelting the rare earth metals we use in our Priuses and in wind turbines. But I love my Prius and the renewable electricity I get.  Did I mention that plenty of soil there is also poisoned, as well as groundwater and one of the major waterways in China? In short, people die far away so that I can boast my environmental credentials and drive a Prius.

 P.S. I hope that Milan Kundera would agree with my assessment. Please read his masterpiece, "The Unbearable Lightness of Being."

P.S.P.S.  For the record, I actually do not own a Prius but drive a small, diesel engine-powered Volkswagen Jetta Sportwagen TDI.  And I do not drive 24 miles to get a stupid cappuccino.  Every day, I do see, however, the poor and the dispossessed, even in the affluent booming Austin, TX.


  1. "The cynics are right nine times out of ten"-H.L. Mencken

  2. I think it might be overly simplistic to consider the history of humanity through a lens of global capitalistic impulses, and the so-called "invisible hand" of greed. There is quite a long legacy of communal resource management which we tend to forget about or not learn about, probably the latter. The impulse of survival on a community-scale versus an individual-scale has probably only become as prevalent and powerful as it is in more recent times. The extreme individualism is perhaps not even individualism at all. I am beginning to think of it more as a misguided attempt at community. What is flaunting of expensive watches and clothes, but just that: showing off. Flaunting requires another observer; one cannot flaunt in isolation. One cannot Facebook in true isolation, because other individuals are required as participants, unless our online bots get good enough to satisfy the basic human drive for interaction and mutual experience. I think we all have this innate and burning desire to be part of a vibrant community, but I think we need to relearn the concept of the commons, the truly democratic system of resource management. There is a huge body of work documenting indigenous models of communal resource management: http://www.cbnrm.net/members/docs/index.html.

    As a side note, I like this wisdom of a Bosnian artist relayed to a documentary filmmaker during the siege of Sarajevo: "when you leave this place and enter the non-real world you become a surrealist. You will have no choice. And then no one can touch you because everything they say is unreal and you will be so real you will glide through all the layers of bullshit. And that is the definition of a surrealist." To the artist "non-real people are people who watch other people die on television and then turn it off to go eat dinner." This metaphor can be extended beyond people dying to the death of ecosystems.