An adolescent with whom I work discussed the complexity of privilege. “My parents paid just over $12,000.00 for our family to go on a 5-day wilderness backpacking trip, with a service that provides the gear, the food, a plane to transport you there and a guide. I loved it and it changed me, like any amazing experience your parents buy for you. But the fact that it didn’t come from within me made it seem like another thing that someone gave me. Maybe it would have felt less strange if having that relationship to the wilderness wasn’t something only wealthy people could buy, but just a more natural and expected part of how kids are raised.”
His comment reminded me of a question: how will people who have been raised in a time of excess choose to live sustainable lives ? Evan Thomas said in this week’s Newsweek, “The problem is not the system. It’s us – our ‘got mine’ culture of entitlement.” I know the people of whom he writes. They are not of any particular subculture but rather inhabit every landscape from poverty to opulence with a unfamiliarity with limits and boundaries of any kind, as well as personal needs that seem small in comparison to what the planet has to offer.
And, Al Gore is asking these people to be the opposite of who they are in order to save the planet. How does the culture of excess shift gears to become a sustainable one?
In this generation, most kids and adults expect that hurt, suffering, lack or want should be remediated with an experiential or material intervention. Even in my work in very under-resourced communities the rationale for a turn to crime is that it offers quick access to luxury. One young man once explained, “One day I’m nothing, and the next day I got more than even the white boys because I’m bad and I got stuff.”
While life depends on adequate nurturance, there are serious drawbacks to living without boundaries, without the recognition that some people have more than others, and without to conviction that all must work with what we are given to do the most we can for ourselves and each other. Without such simple truths, people become unhealthily dependent upon external contingencies and stimulation to manage their personalities.
One young woman explained, ” I have believed since as long as I can remember that I could do whatever I wanted. And so when I can’t, or when I really have to work for something, it is really a huge disaster for me.”
People who don’t understand how to live constructively within limits of any kind won’t take well to the concept of respecting the eco-system let alone altering how they live. Most of the U.S. lives with a permanent Catch-22. Having become safer, healthier, richer and more comfortable many Americans no longer understand how to do the physical and psychic work that can sustain the proverbial hand that feeds them. If Thomas and Gore want people to urge their government to do social good, then people have to engage in a little self work in order to rediscover those values within themselves.
Most people possess a genuine goodness and a desire to be their best selves. Most children have a sparkle that sizzles with their life’s possibilities. And all highly value the earth and its creatures. Yet, for reasons that have everything to do with class, race, gender, ethnicity, and issues of power and economy, as well as chance, most people of all social categories do not learn how to actualize their best selves. Most people get stuck in the specific sociocultural ruts of their kind. People in ruts don’t have a wide range of motion.
If, as Thomas writes, “Our leaders are paralyzed by the very thought of asking their constituents to make short-term sacrifices for long-term rewards,” then it is equally true that most people can’t work with the concept of long-term gratification.
I believe this has everything to do with the human subjection of the earth to the demands of greed, rather than human valuation of the earth as the frame, structure and container of life.
Thomas states, “In the last 30 or so years, Americans have lived as if there is no tomorrow.” In the last thirty years Americans have also become significantly more disconnected from nature and the environmental laws that regulate human will to the dominion of the possible.
Gore explains that “a philosophical dominance for market economics” and “the illusion of a unipolar world” led, “in the United States, to a hubristic ‘bubble’ of market fundamentalism.” When the free-market cheek met global warming science, most people “scoffed at the possibility that global constraints would be needed to halt the dangerous dumping of global-warming pollution into the atmosphere.”
Today the arrogant free market demagogues decry as socialist the concept of regulation, the fundamental rule of living organisms. Scientists define cancer as cells that don’t respect the environmental commandments of reproduction. A society with no regulating bodies is a society that has cut its bonds to nature. People who develop without having to work around limits, structures and boundaries develop a self-involved perspective that enables them only to see themselves in the eyes of the other. This narcissism gives rise to the manic fantasy that humans and free markets can actually live without constraint.
The cure for mania, of course, is to treat the depression that underlies it. The reality is that human beings are a part of the ecosystem. When we destroy it we hurt ourselves. When we treat animals terribly, human suffer. When we toxify oxygen, or contaminate water, we get sick. No, I can’t prove that human depression is at least in part linked to our disconnection from the natural world. I can however share Gene Myers research that states humans raised with animals become more humanistic, and Peter Kahn’s work here and here and here that investigates the permutations of the human need for a relationship to their ecosystem.
Gore states, “The pathway to success is still open, though it tracks the outer boundary of what we are capable of doing.”
Tracking that outer boundary means resolving the current Catch-22, chicken versus the egg problem. We the people can remember that politics begin at home on the land that we inhabit, then go to the voting booth, so that we can return to personally invest in what we believe, as it becomes manifest in relationship to the actual ecosystem in which we live.