Tuesday, November 9, 2010

We can't go on living this way.

Our most serious problem, perhaps, is that we have become a nation of fantasists. We believe, apparently, in the infinite availability of finite resources. We persist in land-use methods that reduce the potentially infinite power of soil fertility to a finite quantity, which we then proceed to waste is if it were an infinite quantity. We have an economy that depends not on the quality and quantity of necessary goods and services but on the moods of a few stockholders. We believe that democratic freedom can be preserved by people ignorant of the history of democracy and indifferent to the responsibilities of freedom.

Our leaders have been for many years as oblivious to the realities and dangers of their time as were George III and Lord North. They believe that the difference between war and peace is still the overriding political difference - when, in fact, the difference has diminished to the point of insignificance. How would you describe the difference between modern war and modern industry - between, say, bombing and strip mining, or between chemical warfare and chemical manufacturing? The difference seems to be only that in war the victimization of humans is directly intentional and in industry it is "accepted" as a "tradeoff".

Were the catastrophes of Love Canal, Bhopal, Chernobyl, and the Exxon Valdez episodes of war or of peace? They were, in fact, peacetime acts of aggression, intentional to the extent that the risks were known and ignored.

We are involved unremittingly in a war not against "foreign enemies," but against the world, against our freedom, and indeed against our existence. Our so-called industrial accidents should be looked upon as revenges of Nature. We forget that Nature is necessarily party to all our enterprises and that she imposes conditions of her own.

Now she is plainly saying to us: "If you put the fates of whole communities or cities or regions or ecosystems at risk in single ships or factories or power plants, then I will furnish the drunk or the fool or the imbecile who will make the necessary small mistake."
(Wendell Berry, "Word and Flesh" [1989], What are People For?)

It seems clear to me that our American lifestyle is unsustainable. There is a limited, nonrenewable quantity of oil in the world. We cannot, morally speaking, continue to exploit third world labor to produce our goods. There is a limit to the amount of land we can turn into trash dumps (unless we become truly obscene and start trashing up outer space). The litany is long and familiar.

There is a lot of concern right now about burdening future generations with national debt. Tragically, however, we don't hear much concern from our political leaders about passing on a damaged planet and a corrupt, unsustainable lifestyle. This is because politicians know that Americans don't want to hear that they cannot continue living as if the world is their playground. Left and right promise solutions that cause no pain and cost no money.

But, as Wendell Berry says in another place:
The problems are our lives. In the "developed" countries, at least, the large problems occur because all of us are living either partly wrong or almost entirely wrong. It was not just the greed of corporate shareholders and the hubris of corporate executives that put the fate of Prince William Sound into one ship; it was also our demand that energy be cheap and plentiful.

The economies of our communities and households are wrong. The answers to the human problems of ecology are found in economy. And the answers to the problems of economy are to be found in culture and in character. To fail to see this is to go on dividing the world falsely between guilty producers and innocent consumers.
There is, to be sure, a need for government action on these problems. But what we really need is a change in cultural values on the scale of what was brought about by the civil rights movement. There are, of course, racists remaining in our nation - but they are the objects of society's disapproval. We have come to understand that racism is evil.

If our future is going to be sustainable we will need to learn an ethic of care. Exploiters will continue to exist, of course, but they, like racists, must become the objects of society's disapproval. We must learn to see ourselves as members of a community that includes nature as well as other humans. What we really need is to learn to love others as ourselves, but I'd settle for an awareness of mutual responsibility.

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About Me

I'm Rachel's husband and Darcy's daddy. I'm a Hoosier, an accountant, and an Episcopalian. Politically, I'm a progressive who believes in the preferential option for the poor. I use the blog as a sort of journal - to interact with my reading and sketch out ideas.