Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Jared Diamond

Tonight I went to hear Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Gun, Germs & Steel discuss his new book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Succeed. First, GGS is a fantastic book that I highly recommend reading. I don't know if his thesis is accurate, but it definitely gets the hamsters running. Second, Collapse also sounds like a great book. It cronicles some civilation collapses due to human havok on the environment, primarily from deforestation, other culture's successful mitigation and then ponders the future. His brief rundown of the history of Easter Island and other Polypanesian islands was fascinating. He seems incredibly informed and brilliant. However the most interesting aspect of his speech was how in many ways he seemed completely enthralled with capitalism and typical American life while at the same time mocking some of its inevitable results, without examining capitalism's core problems.

For instance, several times he defended corporations that had made positive changes because of consumer pressure. He spoke fondly about hybrid cars and Home Depot (it changed its policy and now only buys wood harvested in sustainable ways) to demonstrate the potential of consumer power and options. He answered almost all questions of 'what can we do?' in terms of individual choices. This is fine at the individual level, and is the way I try to act. But I want to hear ideas for radical, systemic changes. If environmental and energy issues are as dire as some people think, then I don't want to hear about feel-good bandaid solutions.

Let's break it down: Home Depot may have switched to more sustainable wood, but overall the lifestyle that it promotes and depends upon is the single-family home as sanctuary and status--the bigger the better. It feeds off of the idea of people cocooning and wrapping themselves safely and blindly in their own little white-picket fence enclosed castle. Home Depot, the suburban American Dream and car culture are all bundled together with fear, advertising, ignorance and selfishness to create an impressive stick to beat people into running ever faster in the race to consume more and more resources.

Why live in a multi-unit building when you can live in a single-family home? Why live in a reasonably sized home, when you can live in a McMansion with a large lawn? Why drive a modest car when there are bigger, plusher, newer vehicles? After all, 'you spend a lot of time in your car--shouldn't you enjoy it?' Since so much time and energy are spent in cars there is little time to actually try to make a positive influence on the rest of the community, so TV becomes a pacifier and sedative, dulling minds and increasing appetites for more, More, MORE.

Housetorquelegroomroadsspacelawngadgetshorsepower is twistedly equated into freedom, autonomy, happiness and success. Still people feel emptier and less satisified and still they try to buy their way out of it--and to hell with the damage their actions may have on others. This is considered normal, this is what the status quo is--a blind selfishness refusing to acknowledge that the traditional American Dream is unhealthy, unsustainable, anti-social, selfish and degrading the environment at an alarming rate.

Everyone who wants to talk about personal choice and invisible hands had damn well better be able to throw down on the issue of externalization of damages. I choose to ride my bike instead of driving, I choose to live low on the food chain, I choose to consume as little as possible--but I will still have to deal with decreased, depleted or degraded resources because so many others choose to overconsume and play ostrich to the consequences. Will there be clean air and water for me because I chose not to contribute to the problem? What about energy--will I be rewarded for my current rationing in the future? What about the generations who aren't here to make important choices now, but will have to live with the consequences of our actions? Asthma rates are rising dramatically in children, but the soccer-moms who wrap their families in the false protection of SUVs can't even see the connection, much less consider making actual sacrifices for the well-being of their precious, precious children.

Why aren't these connections/issues/choices even on the table of public discussion? Why can't this amazing author who is more brilliant than I can ever strive to be point a critizing finger at how everyday, normal people are the cause of the problem? Instead of preaching for the choir to be better, why not rally to open up public discourse to examine how bad we really are and how deeply ingrained this problem is? If our boat is heading for the waterfall, why the hell not rock it? Instead of suggesting hybrid cars as the solution why can't someone with a stronger voice than mine yell that cars themselves are the problem? Why don't we have an honest conversation about how much cars take from us: money, lives, space, peace, civility, air quality, quiet, fossil fuels, excercise, community? Why don't we advocate the first tenants of reduce--reuse--recycle instead of simply encouraging the latter. Why does asking these questions and reaching the conclusions I have make me a radical?


At 12:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow! The questions you raise could keep us talking all day at least. To me it seems that our society just is not yet ready to seriously discuss these issues (the issues about our civilization being on the one-way street to self-induced extinction). I'm not sure why. I suppose some don't believe the hypothesis that the earth's resources are limited, some are too dumb to see what's coming, some believe that cheap fusion will come in at the last minute like superman and save the day, but most are like so many of us......just trying to survive and make it through the day, while being unwilling to give up too many comforts.

So, I think it leaves a lot of us with the option of "think globally and act locally." Myself as an example ie: live as conservatively as possible and as green as possible, support environmental and social activism as much as possible, and keep our heads down and realize we are not the caliber of people to lead a nation or a world to better things. So, I ride my bike to work as much as possible, have a small reasonable economical car that I will keep for 12 to 15 years, eat unprocessed foods as much as possible, make my own bread, give money to the Sierra Club and NRDC, blah blah blah. Not exactly the Martin Luther King Jr. of the environmentalists, but not totally corrupt either. It's a place to start. I don't see how things are going to go any further as long as government leaders do not embrace the concepts you describe, and I think it's safe to say most do not.

I enjoyed reading GG&S, and will get the one on societies, even though I suspect it's going to be a depressing read.

Which all brings me to a question for mentioned in your profile something about going to law school being a mistake. Au seems to me that the path to effectiveness and action in our future is going to be through the law, ie: access to the political process and access to the power to stop stupid government actions, as illustrated by the aforementioned NRDC. Add that to your smarts, common sense, and your obvious committment to earth-conserving actions, and I would think you are a perfect example of the type of person that might, in fact, stand a chance of helping us as a society get back on the right address some of the questions you bring up.

Uh oh.....rambling. Sorry.

Mark the fender guy.

At 9:15 PM, Blogger jojo said...

Thanks. For the record, Mr. Jared Diamond mentioned several times that contrary to the impression of his lecture, the book is actually upbeat and hopeful.

The a main problem with my law school was that it's ideology is completely economic. The school's demi-god professor/judges proudly announce that 'justice' and 'fairness' has no place in the classroom, the courtroom or the law, and many of my classmates readily bowed down to this doctrine. Ouch. This experience caused serious damage on the soulular level and to my view of other people and their motives.

It also painfully uncovered the lie of American meritocracy. My mediocre classmates with connections faired much better than more competent people without. This was an elite school, but even having acquired that pedigree did not come close to evening the playing field. As a result, I graduated more pessimistic and poor than I arrived.

So, I still hope to do good things, but for the near-future I am destined to be a legal-whore. And so. the soul-damaging continues.

At 12:36 AM, Blogger equipoise said...

Not much to add, as you've summed up many of my own thoughts so eloquently. Oh, but I also must say that I'm soooo jealous that you were able to hear him speak ... I'm trying to find info on whether he'll swing through Minneapolis but I'm not having any luck :-( "Collapse" is definitely on the "must read" list.


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