Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Unsettling of America

"There is an uncanny resemblance between our behavior toward each other and our behavior toward the earth." – Wendell Berry

Everything is connected. Individual humans are like waves upon the ocean of humanity, objects that are distinct in and of themselves and yet existing only temporarily, unable to be considered objective of the ocean itself. The action of one wave returning to its home in the body of the ocean works to power the rise of an altogether new wave to take its place, each wave lifting itself up toward the heavens only to return completely to the torrential waters from which it never truly separated. Out across the waters this process is repeated millions of times every minute. Just as the endless power of the ocean works ceaselessly, each wave powerful in its own right breaking free without ever truly escaping, so too can we see our existence arising from the whole of humanity for a time, only to crash back down into the whole once again.

We cannot exist in the abstract, independent of the whole of the human race; those of us that think that we can are living in a fantasy land that is far removed from reality. No wave truly ceases to exist, to wink out of reality, rather each comes crashing down, returning to the waters from which it arose. We also are here one moment and gone the next without ever disappearing.

As one wave is absorbed another arises to take its place, simultaneously composed of an entirely different set of water molecules, yet arising from the same waters as a direct result of the return of the wave before it. This represents the interconnectedness of all existence.

There was a time when we knew we were connected. It was a time before Ronald Regan told us to look out for number one; it was before World War II, before it was chosen for us to become consumers instead of producers; it was before the rise of capitalistic exploitation and the belief that competition was everything; it was before we believed work to be beneath human dignity. It was a time in which people were valued because of their morals and character instead of the materialistic things they owned, humans weren’t defined by what they had or by the money they made.

During this time humanity knew that in order to survive it must care for one another and put individual human life and the health of the environment above everything else. We knew where our food came from; we knew who made our cloths. We cared about air quality and top soil depletion, we understood that the earth along with all its life giving resources belonged to our children and our grandchildren; we recognized that it was our jobs to care for it. We understood the symbiotic relationship between ourselves and the earth. We cared about our communities, we helped our neighbors and we took pride in our work. We were disciplined, we refused to be wasteful, we needed less, we gave more.

Today we have separated ourselves from the whole, choosing to believe that we truly are an island, independent of the earth from which we came. In our post industrialized capitalistic society we are radically disconnected, body and soul, mother and child, husband and wife, community and Earth. Rather than emulating the master carpenter who shapes each area of her work with loving care, making each creation her own through hard work and creativity, we have degraded ourselves to Henry Ford’s assembly line workers, extensively trained to do one menial thing and one thing only with mind numbing repetition. Our lives would fall into chaos if we were forced to provide our own energy, our own clothing or own food and water; perhaps it is the unconscious recognition of this learned helplessness that causes so much pain and suffering in our lives. We have lost the art of living, we can no longer even provide for our own basic needs.

We buy into the lie of individualism. We believe that we are a human space station, separated from the rest of humanity and from the Earth itself. Americans believe they can consume an unlimited amount of resources without any serious impact on the Earth or the people that populate it. We want the Earth to support us and be able to exploit every square inch of it too. Humanity has this idea of itself as divorced from nature, a separate being that is ‘apart’ from nature rather than ‘a part’ of it. To the modern American nature has become so far outside themselves that it is somewhere they ‘visit’ to ‘get away’ from ‘real life’. Like the proverbial cake we want to be able to tear the natural world asunder and still have pretty scenery too.

By identifying ourselves with technological toys rather than with the natural order we have forgotten where we came from, we have lost the balance and the harmony that we once had when we recognized our connection to the dirt from which we rose. We have become so lost in our technological advancements that even our dreams of the future are of a utopian space age of ultimate convenience and luxury, freedom from care and responsibility and most of all work. All this is to be further accomplished the more we divorce ourselves from the Earth and from one another, relying instead upon futuristic technologies. Rather than social or personal progress, to us moving forward is represented by our desire for the next ‘new thing’, the shiny object that everyone will envy. Technology is our new savior.

This idealistic separation from responsibility carries with it the separation from hard work; we look down upon the farmer and idealize the entertainer. In an effort to meet the growing demands created by our over consumption and to compete against agri-business giants farmers have been forced to put away their plows and take up the machine, retire their horses and purchase a tractor. Where the equine laborer worked to cultivate nature, giving back as much as he takes the machine takes and takes while giving nothing back but pollution and waste. The same can be said for humanity, our very nature has been suppressed in order to gain a competitive edge by becoming machinery ourselves. We have reduced ourselves to the least capable cogs in the technological machine of modern life. The natural order has been laid to rest in favor of convenience and efficiency.

Yet even this trade off is an illusion, we lose in every conceivable way. Examples of this run the gamut of every aspect of our lives: We have taken up poisoning our food in order to kill the germs we fear, failing to recognize the cancer these poisons create. We gave up the horse, whose natural grazing and excreting processes worked wonders for our top soil, in favor of the farm equipment so heavy that it causes severe soil compaction. To make up for this problem we abuse chemical fertilizers with catastrophic consequences to the Earth and ourselves. More often than not technology is used to put out fires that technology started. While nature creates life and gives back what it takes technology creates pollution and gives back nothing of value.

As in so many other ways we fail every moment to recognize that everything in our lives come at a cost, efficiency and affluence on the one hand with our relationships, marriages and even our lives on the other. Our “labor saving” devices have put millions of people out of work, and then we cut the social welfare programs, because why would we want to support such lazy people? In order for us to live the way we do, we’ve had to make sacrifices. Americans live, very literally, on the backs of others. We sacrifice human life in order to have diamonds, i-pods, cars and fashionable clothing. We ignore the fact that 10 year old children are making a dollar a day sewing our Gap cloths. We admire the diamonds on our hands while ignoring the fact that human slaves mined them, scarifying their lives for our pride. We grumble about “illegal aliens” crossing our borders and taking our jobs, never asking ourselves why this might be happening.

Maybe it’s because we destroyed their economy in order to make a profit. Maybe it’s because we subsidized corn and bankrupted an entire country. Maybe it’s because after we destroyed their ability to farm we bought up their land and built factories where they’re now paid less than two dollars a day and can no longer support their families. Their children can no longer play outside because the air is un-breathable and there’s no longer clean drinking water because we pay the bankrupt country of Mexico to ignore environmental damages. We want our environment to be clean but Mexico is far away; it’s okay to pollute their air and water. We drive cars that are killing us, eat food that is bad for us and send our children to die for freedom that we have long since given away and democracy that we’re too lazy to participate in.

This disconnect has become so great that we are forced to live a dualistic lifestyle. What we say and what we do must necessarily diverge because to do otherwise would require us to acknowledge reality and recognize the fact that what we believe to be everyday innocuous actions actively create human suffering, poison the Earth and ultimately work against our very survival. Who among us could support the electronics industry while recognizing that the costs of their toys are measured not in dollars but in the lives of children living in the Congo? How many of us would still buy genetically engineered foods if we knew how many thousands of farming families have lost everything because consumers want fresh vegetables in the winter? Who would continue to drive cars if they knew the damage they were doing to their children’s future? Every day we choose to close our eyes and walk through life half asleep in order to assuage our conscience in order for us to maintain our comfortable, convenient lifestyles.

In the words of Wendell Berry, “The care of the earth is our most ancient and most worthy and, after all, our most pleasing responsibility. To cherish what remains of it, and to foster its renewal, is our only legitimate hope.” We cannot choose to shut our eyes and disconnect from reality in one or two areas of our life alone, as long as we remain ignorant to the reality that surround us we will continue to poison the planet on which the survival of our species depends and to see ourselves as separated from humanity as a whole, destroying our marriages, our families, our relationships, our health, and ultimately humanity itself.