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Sunday, January 02, 2011

When It Feels Like I Am Too Small

True or false: it's ok for one to beat a dead horse if the horse is asking for it.

Once again, a thought-provoking and inspiring post from Causabon's Book: What Does It Matter?.

When talking with friends and acquaintances, whether of like mind or not, there is question that often comes up, one which is disheartening both in its frequency and its content. The question is - surprise - what does it matter? What does it matter if I eat one less egg, plant one more tree, forego one more luxury, volunteer for one more hour, or even inspire one more person? Isn't it true that whatever good I do today will be just about cancelled out by whatever my neighbor does tomorrow or whatever Coca-Cola will do in the next two minutes*? Isn't it true that even if all 7 billion of us went organo-vegan, changed our light bulbs, abandoned fossil fuels, composted all our poo, and stopped supporting corporations, it would still be too late to save the planet as we know it? Even if we as a species just up and vanished.

Some people ask the question because they're exceedingly clever and feel it justifies them in buying and using and consuming whatever they want, or at least can afford. Maybe it does. Some people say it because they're exceedingly scared and honestly feel like no matter what they do, it won't be enough. It probably won't. Some people say it when they're just too tired of feeling like they're opposed to everything about the system they live in, when they need to give themselves a break, just for a minute, or for a bite, when they need to feel like they're not asking too much of themselves, which of course they are, and which of course they have to be. I say it most days and have said it in each way, and probably in other ways as well.

It was this sort of frustration, this thing that deep-down I hate to acknowledge but can't get away from, that pushed me from recycling to hounding others about recycling; from taking shorter (and colder) showers to eating less meat (which saves water); from eating less meat to not eating to meat to eating (almost) no animal stuff to growing and buying as much local, organic stuff as I can; from riding a bike to agreeing to volunteer with Daegu's Eco-bike group; from whatever I do now to whatever I can think up to do next.

As stated above, the problem is that the problem is** (or problems are, depending on how you want to look at it) so bad that none of these are enough. This is why I want to involve others. This is why I am trying to start Daegu Green Living. This is also one of the reasons I feel like I ought to be more involved in protests. While direct confrontation is tough for me - I'd rather quietly go about doing my best, and I'd rather go about thinking I'm an example, and I'd rather go about writing blogs, and I'd rather go about showing movies - I am coming around to the idea (thank you, Derrick Jensen***) that it really is necessary. What good is meek and modest silence in response to the wholesale slaughter of the planet and so many of its species, to the mass victimization and immiseration of entire peoples and cultures and, to the ceaseless destruction of any chance of fairness, equality, peace, or perpetuity? Shouldn't people be upset? And noisy? And nuisances? I have a friend who hates PETA for their tactics, but will going vegan ever put an end to factory farming or vivisection?

This idea - that protesting is more valuable than "merely" attempting to live a life consistent with my ideals - fills me with a certain amount of guilt (as if I needed more). Am I trying hard enough? Am I directing my energies and using my privileges in the most effective ways? Could I be doing this or that instead? Or, better, in addition? Am I a wuss? It was with these kind of thoughts as (ever-present) background noise that I found Astyk's words powerful:

"This prioritization of protest over the emergence of an ordinary, sustainable life is understandable in a society that prefers the large and shiny to the small and domestic, and that demeans daily personal actions and ways of life as unimportant. I have in much of my other work attempted to articulate the ways in which our personal actions are in fact, political and the conventional distinctions between personal and political intellectually bankrupt, and while I may have made a modest fame in doing so, I've mostly failed so far. This is problematic because it is precisely the emergence of a life worth living - and that can be lived by all the 7-9 billion people who will share our planet in the coming years that is most urgently necessary. If creating and modelling some sort of preliminary life of this sort is my project, I come to it well after Berry, and less gracefully. Still, such a vast project with so few participants can always use one more.


"This is the best that will ever be said of even our most successful efforts to preserve a world in which people can go forward - that we will fail to do enough. Despair, the logical companion of failure is part and parcel of the project - Carruth's poem, Berry's essay are both fundamentally about despair, about failure and the responsibility of those who fail. The odds are good that changing our way of life will not result in anything that we can call success on a world scale, that it is too little, too late. I don't think there's any point in denying this. Nor do I feel it is worth denying that most of the time, even if we succeed in some measure, it will feel as though we aren't doing enough, are paying too high a price, are losing the wars and all the battles. Most of all, we won't get the credit we would for marching and waving our signs, because such things emerge in part as a shorthand for the work of daily action. Without the shorthand to signal our protest, many of the unimaginative won't see it - some of us may forget to see it.

"It isn't an easy project in a world that assumes a great deal of energy and emissions, that says freedom is consumer choice and that participation is mandatory and that wealth is our goal. So when you are in the garden, when you ride your bicycle or walk, when you explain to your neighbor yet again why you don't want their lawn chemicals on your yard, when hang your laundry, when you deliver a meal to a neighbor who is ill, when you say "no, we don't do that," when you teach your children who you are and why you do the difficult thing, when you try and convince yourself that you aren't too tired, when you get up in the morning and it looks like all you've done is pointless remember this - you are doing something hard and vast and new. Without your work and courage there is no hope at all for all of those with the courage to chain themselves at the gates. Without those who chain themselves at the gates, enough people will not know what you have done. With both together, change begins."****


* If that.

** No typo.

*** Can I beg you again to read Endgame?

**** If I deleted the quotation marks, could I trick you into believing that I had written that?


Andy said...

I think it's interesting that she says, "you are doing something hard and vast and new." Yet there is nothing new about the actions she is describing. They are actually quite old, which is why they are hard and often viewed negatively.

It also brings to mind a quote I really like and try to remember when I do just about anything:

"The hard thing to do and the right thing to do are usually the same thing."

Mike said...

Fair point - the actions themselves are not necessarily new. Until around the second world war, all farmers were organic, and until a few hundred years ago, the vast majority of all economic activity was local. (That's not to say that all of it was sustainable, though.)

What's new is the context: local, sustainable, organic practices, rather than being taken for granted, or rather than being the default, constitute instead some sort of rebellion against the system that now provides us with what we eat and consume.

I like the quote, but I feel like it is more circumstantial than it looks, that it says more about our current system than about the human condition in general. It's much easier to live in a small, self-sustaining community than it is to live in an giant capitalist city. It's much easier to continue the traditions of smallness than it is to develop new technologies and ways to extract resources. By the same token, it's easier to [turn on your TV and] go numb to the system as it is than it is to recultivate old skills and mindsets. And it's even harder yet to really put them into practice. What I mean is that if that status quo were different, it probably wouldn't feel so necessary to push all the time.

As it is, though, like to think I push myself pretty hard. Actually, I think I'd rather err on the side of pushing myself too hard rather than not enough. That said, there's a fine line between difficult things that are effective and difficult things that are mostly symbolic. We are somewhat infected with the (Medieval Christian, maybe also Buddhist?) mindset that difficulty, painfulness, and asceticism are virtues, but the real measure of any act is whether it achieves its purpose in a fair manner, in perpetuity, without creating any new problems.

Thanks for your comments, A-Pek. They're always right-on and thought-provoking and in the end supportive.

Dave said...

Andy - was your quote from a Bruce Springsteen song? It has the Boss written all over it.

(This comment is thus far right-off and thought-deadening)

Good post Mike. Your passage at the end is an excellent mindset to have when taking the harder road for a larger good.

I feel like the following is semi-connected to all of this, so I'll throw it out there:

Last Saturday evening Jess and I baked together (peanut butter cookies--which turned out excellent!) for the first time in over 1.5 years of dating, and it was a fantastic, affordable, TV/movie theater/bar-free way to spend an evening. Perhaps the oven used more energy than my TV would have, but I feel like it was a step in the right direction, and a good way to kick off 2011.

Mike said...

Sounds awesome, David. I've done a lot of cooking [and eating] with friends and neighbors this year. Whether or not the oven uses more power than the TV, I'm sure the benefits of preparing your own food and giving one hundred percent of your attention to the person next to you (well, I guess that depends on how labor-intensive the cookies are) rather than half to a device that doesn't give any attention back was a pleasant and, even if only to a small degree, liberating experience.