Thursday, July 2, 2009

Who Can Really Save the World?

I've decided not to post a Skywatch Friday photo this week, not just because I don't have one (the summer sky has been relentlessly blue this week), but because like many aspects of the new web technologies, it's become oppressive. Of course, this isn't the fault of the Skywatch crew, for whom I'm eternally grateful; they created a wonderful meme that's brought me new, like-minded readers, introduced me to some terrific blogs, and made me smile more times than I can count.

But as Thursday approaches each week, I find myself becoming increasingly anxious. What will I post? Is there anything in my photo library I can use? Since I tend to post thematically, what kinds of connections can I make? And then, except for the handful of genuinely interested folks, most of the comments aren't even as long as a text message, and I remember that the main reason for activities like these in the blog-o-sphere are to attract visitors (as well, of course, as to share lovely pictures of beautiful skies). If one is not that "into" jacking up one's web presence or dealing with gazillions of comments, the added attention isn't always welcome. I'll still post a shot or two occasionally, but I can't let skywatching become The Farm's raison d'etre.

That's not to say that I don't appreciate the thoughtful responses I've received--the ones that get the reasons, and hold similar views about life and the universe. I do. They've broadened my perspective and introduced me to some lovely people. And their dogs and mogs.

This morning, as I sat in my garden and opened my new issue of Orion magazine (which I received a week ago and haven't made time to read; there are always excuses, even when one is technically on holiday), I realized that I've strayed from my original path (topophilia, utopia, and dystopia), and have been plagued by twinges of guilt for several weeks.

I am not, however, free of guilt as a result of not being preoccupied by pretty pictures of the heavens. Instead, I'm more aware than ever of human frailty and the inefficacy of small measures in addressing the real problems that plague this planet. Derrick Jensen drives this home forcefully in his essay for the "Upping the Stakes" segment of the July/August issue of Orion: "Forget Shorter Showers: Why Personal Change Does Not Equal Political Change." If we are counting on doing this all by ourselves, he contends, we might as well give up now.

He's done it before. His masterful critique of the "simple living" movement in the May/June issue, "The World at Gunpoint" demolishes the individualist response to making change happen:

A few months ago at a gathering of activist friends someone asked, “If our world is really looking down the barrel of environmental catastrophe, how do I live my life right now?” The question stuck with me for a few reasons. The first is that it’s the world, not our world. The notion that the world belongs to us—instead of us belonging to the world—is a good part of the problem.

Individuals, according to the new article, can't do jack squat to "save the world." But we're Americans, steeped in our radically individualistic ethos, and thus have, collectively, come to the decision (those of us who see the problem, that is; there are many who don't acknowledge any difficulties at all; America, they imply, is utopia as long as we've got our property and our guns) that recycling plastic bags and water bottles, taking shorter showers, and driving less will do the trick.

I think it's telling that so many of my students and colleagues, and so many in the various news media use "individual" as a synonym for "person." "Individuals" don't disconnect from one another, they exhibit "a disconnect" in the ways they respond to the world. Jensen himself uses this new noun in "Forget Shorter Showers":

We so often hear that the world is running out of water. People are dying from lack of water. Rivers are dewatered from lack of water. Because of this we need to take shorter showers. See the disconnect?

He goes on to point out that "actual living breathing individual humans" use less than a tenth of the water used by human beings in general--the rest is divided between industry and agriculture (Orion July/August 2009, 18). So much for my various water-saving strategies of shallow dishes in the garden to gauge the sprinkler, washing dishes without running water, and taking showers only when I go out in public.

Because I'm something of a hermit when not "on stage" in front of a class, I'm probably even more guilty of this blindness than the people who shop at the Container Store for storage but at least participate in municipal policy-making. I spend much of my time thinking about how I can lower my own impact on the environment, but my participation in anything political is limited to buying my electricity from Green Mountain or using Credo wireless service for my husband's cell phone. (I'm still a slave to ATT because of my iPhone choice, even though I held out against owning a mobile phone for years longer than most people I know.)

Now that I'm into my seventh decade on this planet, and beholden to economically and environmentally expensive technologies for my very existence (not to mention my never-ending dependence on the pharmaceutical industry to keep my arteries unclogged and my blood flowing properly), I am deeply troubled by the fact that I like my life inside the old wire fence of our little compound; I like my job, even though I've sold out to America's odd notion of corporate-based, for-profit education. But the idea of spending my limited free time in further activism (beyond my considerable involvement when I was younger) is nearly unthinkable. I'm just tired. Jensen himself wrote a rather eloquent essay on activism in Orion a few years ago (May/June 2006) called "Beyond Hope," which I highly recommend if you're young enough to get out there and do something about your own future.

As it turns out, what I "do" about all this stuff is to write. And I guess I even, perhaps naively, write about hope. Besides More News From Nowhere, I write other stories and am working on a science fiction novel about people who live differently than we do, in a universe where capitalism doesn't really exist, and people (not individuals) refuse to act precipitously. They think things through. They possess sophisticated technologies, but they don't use them to despoil planets. They don't sit around watching TV or playing video games all day; they interact with one another, they do useful work, they create, and they enjoy and explore the worlds they inhabit without screwing them up.

I'm now thinking of publishing this latest book (at least when I've decided on a name) in numbers, much like Charles Dickens did in the nineteenth century on the More News website. If I don't have the time and energy to join those in the trenches, perhaps the best I can do is to suggest alternatives, or at least discuss what others are suggesting, both on this blog and in my imaginary future universe.

Of course, my low-level sense of urgency may lie in the fact that I'm not exactly passing my bad genes (or the good ones, for that matter) on to a future generation. I have no grandchildren, and may never have them. That's okay with me, since a vast majority of the people who do have them don't seem to be all that concerned with anything but the financial condition of generations to come. They're worried about the deficit, but they're not all that worried, it seems, about what the planet will look like, or what kind of air these generations will breathe.

Okay; I'm through. For now. If you've managed to slog through this post and need some cheering up, check out Skywatch Friday. These folks are always good for a smile.

Photo credit: View of contour buffer strips on farm land in the United States, a conservation practice to reduce erosion and water pollution. From the USDA, Natural Resources Conservation Service page on the practice, via Wikimedia Commons. The future of water resources will depend on integrated water management practices in agriculture, and among other industries responsible for 90% of the water used in the world.


jabblog said...

I shall be sorry not to see Skywatch photos from you along with the informative commentaries you supply. I understand your feeling of oppression and have felt it too both in this and in other areas of 'the blog' - but I haven't got your intellectual drive and stamina and requirement to research and analyse, except in a very ephemeral knee-jerk fashion.
I shall continue to follow your blog/s and glean further knowledge and insight. Meanwhile, enjoy your leisure time following what really interests you.

Owlfarmer said...

I doubt that it'll be long before something "from above" strikes my fancy and I whip out the camera; it's just that I've neglected the substance of this and the other two blogs in favor of skywatching, and I think being able to post when I feel like it, rather than doing it because I've obligated myself--however silly that seems to me now.

I'll keep reading your blog as well; you've always got something interesting on--and, of course, there are dogs . . .

Martha Z said...

Not having read Jensen's article, I must infer its contents from what your have written.
I think he may miss part of the point of "personal change".
If the individual makes sacrifices for the greater good and is gentley vocal about it, does not that affect the greater community? If community attitudes change, will that not affect political change?
There is certainly a place and a need for political activision but I think that the quiet witnessing of our values is also useful.
Like you I am in my seventh decade and I expect that my severly retarded grandson will be the last of my line, but all the chidren of the world are equally precious and I will do what I can even though I don't have "a dog in the fight".

Owlfarmer said...

Martha, I hope I didn't do Jensen a disservice by suggesting that he's implying that we should stop paying attention to how we live, individually. After all, if we didn't care about what happens to children and other inhabitants of the world, there'd hardly be any reason for political action to change things. Orion has since posted the article online, and I've linked it on my post. Do please read it (his book, Endgame is also worth paying attention to), and perhaps join in the conversation, which is sure to be lively. One of Derrick Jensen's best qualities is his ability to ask hard questions and to make us think more deeply about the significance of our actions--while at the same time pointing out that there are larger forces at work which need more of us working together to combat.

Dave Coulter said...

Derrick Jensen is an amazing writer who dispenses tough medicine. I read his article too, and while I agree with him I do think that individual action matters. (I wish we still had those ads that taught people how not to litter!)

We need writers like him to inform us how bad it really is. We also need leaders help move society forward re: the environment. In our country individuals elect we all do have a role here.

Owlfarmer said...

Apparently Jensen hit a nerve; the article's forum has produced some interesting positions (and one smarmy attack on yours truly that got deleted), and although everyone seems to agree fundamentally that it's not enough just to perform small acts, they do tend to agree that at least its something. You're absolutely right about the tough medicine he dispenses, though. I just wish our collective will were stronger, and that we (the people who elect the leaders) didn't wimp out so much when things get uncomfortable.

It'll be interesting to see what happens if/when the economy picks up and people are less worried about just getting by and have time to think about what Jensen's saying. In the meantime, I'm still not taking long showers.