What Does It Matter?


We are living in the most destructive and, hence, the most stupid period of the history of our species. The list of its undeniable abominations is long and hardly bearable. And these abominations are not balanced or compensated or atoned for by the list, endlessly reiterated, of our scientific achievements. Some people are moved, now and again, to deplore one abomination or another. Others – and Hayden Carruth is one – deplore the whole list and its causes. Much protest is naive; it expects quick, visible improvement and despairs and gives up when such improvement does not come. Protesters who hold out longer have perhaps understood that success is not the proper goal. If protest depended on success, there would be little protest of any durability or significance. History simply affords too little evidence that anyone’s individual protest is of any use. Protest that endures, I think, is moved by a hope far more modest than that of public success: namely, the hope of preserving qualities in one’s own heart and spirit that would be destroyed by acquiescence. – Wendell Berry “A Poem of Difficult Hope”

In the circles I run and write in, it is a common device to claim that other thinkers and writers have failed to understand the real, deepest cause of our problems, and have instead embarked upon too superficial a narrative. What’s fascinating about this is that the thinkers doing so are almost always correct – that is, they nearly always right that someone has missed a deep underlying cause. The reason for this is that causes are nearly as ample as effects. Thus, the person who laments America’s dependence on foreign oil sources can be usefully corrected by someone who observes that the problem is everyone’s dependence on a finite resource, rather than a geopolitical error of resource development. The same person, speaking of finite resources can be accurately corrected by someone who observes that a growing population is the “real problem” – that with few enough people, resource constraints would not be an issue, with many people, they inevitably become one. The person arguing in favor of population as the central underlying issue could then be corrected on several grounds – one might, for example, argue that the fundamental problem is the lack of equity between men and women, in which women lack the means and freedom to control their fertility or personal economies. Or you might argue that the fundamental problem is not population, but social inequity – that the poor have access only to children as a source of improving their well being. Both of these critiques (and plenty of others) would, in fact, be correct, and both of them would also be subject to further correction. It is, as they say in reference to something else, turtles all the way down.

I am cautious, then, of trying to identify first causes, because they are so easily overturned. At the same time, however, I find the articulation of origins, if transient and uncertain, to be valuable in that each exercise in imagining a root cause allows us to see our errors in new and useful ways. So recognizing that someone will inevitably argue that something else is truly the root cause and my own articulations are mere symptoms, I would like to suggest that we do not have a resource problem, or a climate problem, or an economic problem – we have a way of life problem.

Several years ago I was invited with many other people to attend a protest march on the coal plant that supplied the Capital with energy. Many other people, including Mr. Berry attended this, marching publicly to demand we stop warming the planet with coal. I wished to attend, but was unable to, but when talking to some friends who were in fact planning to attend, I felt that there was a gap in some participants’ understanding. Many of the younger people I met who were excited to bus down to Washington understood very well the dangers of coal – of mining and mountaintop removal, of contamination of water or destabilization of the climate and were courageously willing to stand up to stop coal consumption. What was missing from this protest in some cases was a sense of the connection between that and how they would live. Coal is the single largest element in American electric production – how many of them were prepared to live with about half as much electricity?

Some undoubtably were. Wendell Berry, who has tried for decades to convince Americans that the pre-electric past was not hell, for example, has an extraordinarily clear idea of this. Most of the young people I met on their way to the protest, and even some of the older ones were not. They felt that we should replace our coal with renewables, and if they understood the technical and resource challenges to doing so, assumed (or preferred to believe) that we could do this rapidly without substantive sacrifice or personal constraint. They saw the merits of the protest, and of closing the coal plant – and these were manifest. Without, however, the corresponding emergence of a daily life, a new American dream that consumes far, far less, however, such protests are doomed to failure, because we do not really want them to succeed, do not really want the life we would get if anyone took us seriously.

I believe strongly in political action – I took part in my first protest as a teenager, I have been arrested for political reasons, and I feel public protest is good for the soul, not just for drawing attention or making change. I didn’t go, however, because I had to stay home – my son was nursing, my husband was working, the farm needed me, and I have come to think that this staying home had its merits as well. I do not say this to devalue public protest, which I think has an important role – but I do think that protest must be tied to the creation of other kinds of daily change.

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.

In many ways, the story of the twentieth and early twenty-first century has been the overturning of one way of life (very broadly construed) and the emergence of another throughout the world. The consequences of this way of life and its variants is evident – we consume more of everything, so much so that we are using more than the planet can sustain, and rapidly, making the future resources of the planet less available.

This way of life had some true merits, and I don’t want to deny them. Its greatest virtue (and great flaw – and how often our great strengths and flaws are one) has been the recognition of the value of at least some of the people who are here now, a prioritization of the present. I am inclined to be somewhat kinder to this prioritization than Berry is above (and Berry is of course, more nuanced than any single paragraph quote could indicate) and argue that in many ways the present, the people who were here, we calling out to be recognized. Our prioritization of the present is responsible for good for many individuals – the children who did not die before age five, the mothers and fathers who go to keep them, the recognition that it was not enough to wait for heaven’s justice, if such a thing exists, to provide freedom and justice for people of color or women, that those who were here now deserved such things. The sense that the people who were here now deserve more now and better now is not inherently a bad thing.

The difficulty is that our virtue became the single most destructive flaw of all time. The recognition that those who were here now deserved more became, as such things often do, pathological. Not only did we deserve children not to die before age five and clean water, but also electricity, private transportation, college education for everyone, a personal computer in every home, etc…etc… We moved rapidly beyond what could actually be achieved by every person, while preserving enough to go around and for the future. And the prioritization of the present meant an increase in struggles between multiple presents – the conflict between America and China for supremacy (now largely over and largely lost by the US) can be seen as a conflict between to presents, whose needs cannot simultaneously and equitably be met. Most of the world was never even in the running to have their needs met.

Most of all, the story that prioritizes those who are here now erases those who will be here – they have no claim. One could trace the history of the 20th century as a narrative in which a way of life that for all its limitations, presumed that the future had some rights, to the emergence of a way of life in which there is no future, and one’s posterity cannot be connected to us, so we cannot be responsible for it. First, the material space in which we lived was altered so that generations of people who expected to live and work in approximately, roughly the same places as their parents and who would expect to be followed by future generations no longer had any connection to place. Mobility was prioritized, and so was separation, so much so that the “generation gap” of the 1960s and the snide jokes about grown children living in their parents’ basements came to convince us that the highest role of adulthood was to get away from your past in a literal, material sense. Given that, why preserve what you have? Why hold on to the old house, the old farm, the land, the family history – if you have raised your children with the value of erasing it, of growing beyond it, of abandoning and dismissing it, why preserve? Why limit consumption just because it takes from the future – what certainty do you have that you will have a future, or that your grandchildren will visit? Why think of seven generations ahead, when afterall, after 70 years of understanding at some visceral level that others could destroy the habitability of the world – is it not enough to hold what you can as long as you live?

It is, of course, also extremely profitable to consume a great deal and sell the future, so that has taken on its own life. Profitability being what it is, it is most profitable if you can also convince those who have lived quite modestly with fewer resources that they would be better off and happier living like those who have abandoned the future for the present, and this, appealing as it does to our most selfish and petty interests, is not difficult.

All of which is simply a complex way of saying that the problem is how we live – the “non-negotiable” American way of life, which is now, with minor variants, the way of life of the whole portion of the planet that can get their hands on it. No one, of course, is willing to take full responsibility for this – thus, we see as we have battles over global warming that debate responsibility. China cannot constrain its emissions, we are told, because it is bringing its people out of poverty and into the way of life that we in America pioneered. America cannot constrain its emissions in part because China will not and also because we must strive mightily to retain what’s left of our economic standards. Thus we live in a global game of chicken with little hope of any actual restraint.

Except, perhaps this – we could change our way of life. Those of us who perhaps inadvertantly became global trendsetters, telling an idealized story of how much better and happier we are through consumption of what the future might otherwise have used, might consider telling another story, and if it were told compellingly enough, might engage others, as our original story of freedom and happiness gained through the abandonment of future claims, future people and future rights.

In the quote I began with, Wendell Berry attempts to articulate what the value of protest is, meditating on Hayden Carruther’s poem “On Being Asked to Write a Poem Against the War in Vietnam” – particularly protest that is in many ways doomed to failure. Since “protest doomed to failure” quite aptly describes the work I advocate, I found his arguments quite compelling. I should say that I think it is quite sincerely the case that we could, with protest and action and most of all the emergence of a new way of life, do a great deal to mitigate our circumstances. That said, however, I do think that even were I and the many others who have read the numbers and come to the conclusion that we cannot go on as we are to be successful beyond even my wildest aspirations, we would fail, and indeed, have already failed to save many lives, to protect species and places and the viability of future lives as well as present ones. This is the human condition, to be doomed to failure, and we are at the moment more doomed than average, or as Berry says later in the same essay,:

And what might have been the spiritual economy of Eden, when there was no knowledge of despair and sorrow? We don’t need to worry about that.

Nearly everyone who thinks about these things knows that we are, to put it bluntly, plenty doomed enough, and it wears on us. I get daily several emails saying essentially, “I agree with you and try to do my part, I consume little and less each year, I grow a garden, I tend my place and my community, and I live each day surrounded by people who destroy what I do in a moment, or who care nothing about this. I feel that I bear all the disadvantages of this – I have less than they do in a culture that doesn’t value less, I struggle more with my time in a culture that believes that all labor should be saved by burning fossil fuels, I live as rightly and honestly as I can, but it wears on me to always do the hard thing and have less. How do you live with this?”

Berry offers us one possible answer – that the point of our protest is not to change our neighbors, it is not to change the world, it is to create a world in which we have at least preserved the value of things by our valuing of them, we have at least held inside ourselves the fact that these matter. This is small consolation when your dreams are grand and the necessities so vast and urgent.

I’d offer another, however, because I believe there is another value to protest – and by this I mean protest in our lives as well as political protest actions. It is this – when protest is successful, on those rare and remarkable and wondrous occasions when resistance is possible, it is successful not because of the pure, clear political persistence of actors who carry signs or passively protest or fight legal battles. Instead, it is successful because political protest is chained not to doors or trees but to the emergence of a new way of life. This way of life is not perfect or sufficient, but the overwhelming emergence of something new and different in ordinary and daily ways is a hallmark of almost every successful political protest.

The success, thus of the Civil Rights Movement, which hardly eliminated racism or inequity, but did make many things possible that were not before, and did at least transform some of the ways that people lived together. was tied not just to protests, but to the emergence of a new daily way of life in which black and white people who had previously lived together in one set of structure relationships began to tentatively develop a new one.

That is the success of protests ranging from Stonewall Riots to peaceful marches to legal challenges to the blood throwing of ACT-UP activists for gay rights has been enchained to the emergence of a culture in which gay people are openly and honestly members of our own families, neighbors, loved ones, friends, and in which we expect to have Dave and Jim and their daughter over for dinner along with Rose and Steve and their daughter.

I know about the daily acts and transformational changes of the Civil Rights movement from those who have managed to recapture the history of ordinary life before, after and during this period of rapid change. I know about the daily acts and transformational changes of the Gay Rights movement because I lived within it – saw the ways that my mothers, together at church, at my school, among our neighbors changed the way people thought. It is much easier to draw attention to a parade, a protest, a legal event, and these matter, but what mattered as much or more was the everyday action of ordinary people who went about the hard work of developing a life in which black and white people, or gay and straight people lived together differently than they had. It is often assumed that the public protests created the way of life, but I would argue otherwise – the public protests are an expression, a call to action, a way of drawing attention. They matter, but they matter only so much as they enable and support an already existing underlying transformation.

It is this that is the value of protest, and why I am so very convinced that it matters that we both protest the totalizing, encompassing nature of our consumptive, destructive society, and also that we nurture and create and explore and develop the emergence of a new way of life. I know from watching the lives of my parents that this kind of work is tiring, and it seems to have few public rewards. A protest is dramatic, it is exciting, you can attribute a great deal to it, but it is the life that underlies it that in the end matters most. I understand why it is frustrating to have less and use less, to be mocked or disdained or simply regarded as something strange. I understand why in a society where public protest is regarded as “action” and living is regarded as “inaction” it would seem that nothing was being accomplished or changed.

At the same time, when I was 8, and my parents came out to me, they were afraid. They were so afraid that they concealed their relationship, and only even revealed it to their children after a long time. They feared losing custody of my sisters and I, they feared loss of jobs, they feared physical attacks, and they had reason for fear. We could not let people know.

Seven years later, my mother and step-mother were foster parents, caring for other people’s children, implicitly recognized in many quarters as better parents than a significant number of straight people. Nine years later, my step-mother came and spoke to my high school class about being a lesbian and gay and lesbian issues, with the full support of my school principle. 10 years after that, my mother and step-mother were married in their church, in a celebration that included their grown children, their forthcoming first grandchild in utero and most of their congregation. A few years after that they went were married at city hall in the town they have resided in for nearly 30 years.

There were a few moments in my childhood where I looked and said “things are changing” but for the most part, I was barely aware that they and I and my sisters and millions of gay families were engaged in the creation of a way of life that fully included them. I knew many people who despaired at various points, who said “we will never be able to…” and some of them were right, they still aren’t able. Yet, many of them were wrong, and now they can. Saying that we have not solved it all, that gay people still suffer discrimination, that gay kids still kill themselves, that the beatings have continued although moral has improved is entirely true – but it doesn’t change the fact that the world is different, that gay lives are different, and there is more to be done, but what has been accomplished was worth accomplishing and mattered enormously.

We know that it is possible for people to use vastly fewer resources, produce vastly fewer emissions, live with much less than we do and still have good and worthwhile lives. We know that there are things in our present that we need to preserve for our future, and things that we must and can abandon. What those are and how we do this is our project in the world – whether you call it adapting in place or creating a new life or a quiet domestic political protest or whatever you call it this is the only thing left that can save the world – or at least a little piece of it. The political process will follow the emergence of a way of life and there will be plenty of things for us to chain ourselves to, to march against, to speak out for, to go to jail for, to challenge in a court of law. All of those however must be subsequent to this – that we make a life worth living, that allows us all to live, and makes a place for posterity.

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.

One Comment

Gosh! 4,162 words to say that the dominant culture has hung out a sign that says, “Sorry, the future has been cancelled for lack of interest.”

From my pediatrician persecutive, that is normal human primate behavior for early adolescence and below. This corresponds to my observation that the dominant culture has very little use for fully adult members of society and does its best to suppress full adult development. As a practical matter one does not get and keep a job by being more mature in ones behavior than ones boss – a version of the Peter Principle. Therefore the larger the organization the lower the percentage of functioning adults permitted, a function that seems to approach zero for very large organizations. I don’t blame people for aping immature ways. Most of us, sociopaths excluded, can not sustain a pretense that long. So when I hear people reacting to the wisdom of an actual adult thinker like Berry I seldom see the understanding that Berry;s political situation was as a Jeffersonian yeoman farmer. The sort of individual the Constitution was meant to protect but no longer does.

The major difficulty with this analysis is that it leads to demands for people to grow up when they experience being “grown up” already, in terms of the dominant society. Children necessarily have limited autonomy and limited agency (well maybe except here in Mendoland) which naturally expand with progressive developmental stages. In a culture such as the dominant one, too many people with full autonomy and agency and things get unmanageable, hence the forced developmental neoteny that we observe.

In order to restore a healthy distribution of developmental stages it will be necessary for an alternative culture that is very decentralized to replace the current dominant one so as to enhance opportunities for fully autonomous adults. The physical culture corresponding to the highly centralized structures of “modern life” is similarly centralized and leads to over-exploitation of the periphery. Cities kill the earth, even green ones, because they impose waste of physical and human resources that far outpace whatever good they produce.

All this abiological development is the source. We will come to honor our primate natures, or, by ignoring that promote perpetual childhood as a way of life with predictably horrendous consequences. Modernity is a children’s crusade and will end as did the original in 1212 http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/2503/is-the-childrens-crusade-fact-or-fable). Modernity as portrayed by the dominant culture is a never-never-land of freedom from restraint of any kind. That core part of the disaster correlates with the preschool years of magical thinking. Meanwhile superior individuals of early adolescent development plot conquests and glories in a day dream world of fantasy defeating reality. Those few, like Berry, that, by accident of fate, succeed in completing the developmental cycle become an annoyance at best and a mortal enemy at worst.

It is our Lord of the Flies world.