Archive for August, 2010

Ecocentric Writing

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In this article at opendemocracy.net, Paul Kingsnorth pines for his idealistic eco-activist youth, and bewails the, as he sees it, overly politicized and sustainability-focused environmentalism.

After much reminiscing about his encounters with the vast, terrible, and glorious natural world (enabled, it must be noted, by the capacity for relatively cheap and accessible international travel), he says that he became and environmentalist because the beauties of nature

are precious for their own sake, that they are food for the human soul and that they need people to speak for them to, and defend them from, other people, because they cannot speak our language and we have forgotten how to speak theirs. And because we are killing them to feed ourselves and we know it and we care about it, sometimes, but we do it anyway because we are hungry, or we have persuaded ourselves that we are.

Absolutely. The environment is full of majesty and cannot defend itself against human industrialism, and therefore needs people to speak in its defense.

Kingsnorth then goes on to complain that “today’s environmentalism is as much a victim of the contemporary cult of utility as every other aspect of our lives,“ and that people “are environmentalists now in order to promote something called “sustainability”. “ which “means sustaining human civilisation at the comfort level which the world’s rich people – us – feel is their right, without destroying the “natural capital” or the “resource base” which is needed to do so.”

This is, so far, a fair point. While I doubt that all environmentalists are looking for a less-polluting way to maintain the status quo, there is certainly an overarching presupposition of wealth, comfort, education, and a fairly liberal government and society.

[picapp align=”left” wrap=”true” link=”term=wind+turbine&iid=5071419″ src=”http://view1.picapp.com/pictures.photo/image/5071419/wind-farm-sunset/wind-farm-sunset.jpg?size=500&imageId=5071419″ width=”234″ height=”352″ /] He goes on to accuse the environmental movement of becoming politicized to the detriment of its core purpose, giving the example of what he sees as over-simplifying the issue of climate change to carbon emissions – which, incidentally, he doesn’t offer any particularly compelling proof for, beyond political attempts to encourage harvesting energy from renewable resources – and discusses how this focus undermines the actually preservation of the natural environment because it replaces one kind of generator with another – putting turbines in the North Sea and solar panels in the desert and so on. And this is where his argument becomes essentially disingenuous.

Firstly, environmental issues are political issues because any action an individual takes that negatively affects others in their community (local or global) is inherently political – it is a question of the need to legislate the rights of the individual versus the rights of the group. To pretend that any sense of environmental responsibility should be down to some poetic staring at stars on a hilltop is juvenile.

Secondly, the logical conclusion of Kingsnorth’s complaint about replacement technologies is to cut them out all together, declaring every element of modern civilization a danger to the natural world, and of less worth than it. The only way to live fully in accordance with this perspective is to return to living like other primates – in troops, foraging (can’t be killing, can we) within a radius determined by how far we can travel on foot. Even the Amish have to cut down trees and farm and rear horses and livestock.

[picapp align=”right” wrap=”true” link=”term=borneo&iid=8405936″ src=”http://view3.picapp.com/pictures.photo/image/8405936/borneo-orang-utan-pongo/borneo-orang-utan-pongo.jpg?size=500&imageId=8405936″ width=”234″ height=”352″ /]We can lessen our footprint quite considerably if we return to our lifestyle as it was before the industrial revolution, but at what cost? Is Kingsnorth willing to sacrifice plumbing? Modern medicine? The planes, trains, and automobiles that allowed him to goggle at the glories of Borneo? And what of the other benefits of the civilized world? Communicating with people instantaneously, access to world art and literature? These would not be possible without the world as it is.

I do not think it is wrong to complain about the Western elitism and selfishness inherent in the trepidation towards the kind of lifestyle changes that would make a dramatic impact on the health of the atmosphere and world ecosystems. We should absolutely be encouraged to examine our conscience on a societal level and decide if there are some things we should really do without. But we cannot all be subsistence farmers. We cannot erase the effect of 7 billion people without eliminating them altogether.

Thirdly, the beauty that Kingsnorth prizes so highly only genuinely exists in the human mind. Yes the natural world has value in and of itself, but it is only humans who can technically make that judgment. There is no beauty without an observer, there is no meaning without consciousness. And, not to get religious, this does make us special. We are the only species (as far as we can tell) that can even think about taking care of other species (this is vastly different from, say, the loyalty of a dog, or the occasional rescue of a child by a gorilla at the zoo) on any kind of scale.

While I agree that we as a species and as a civilized people should respect the world we live in and do everything we can to keep it clean and healthy, we also have a right to consider our own mental and physical well-being, and we have the capacity for judgment and reason that can help us make the decision of when to prioritize which.

The thing that people tend to forget is that life is damn persistent. The earth doesn’t need us, we need it. But we do have the mental capacity to figure that out. We don’t need to live like apes to live in harmony with the world around us, and it’s beyond unrealistic to think that we should actively seek to live an entirely ‘ecocentric’ life, forgoing all the cultural richness of civilization along with the industrial waste and air pollution.

Kingsnorth admits, “This is head-in-the-clouds stuff, as relevant to our busy, modern lives as the new moon or the date of Lughnasadh. Easy to ignore, easy to dismiss,” and then decides to throw on his boots and “follow the songlines.” Which sounds to me like a cop out. You aren’t going to do much good mucking about the Pennines.

It’s not fake or shallow environmentalism to work with the world as it is. It’s the only way to get from what is to what should be.

Working Hard or Hardly Working?

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Mihály Csikszentmihályi has a theory about something called Flow, a state of, essentially, absorption in a particular task, where the mind is focused and intent. In this state, we don’t really feel time. As when doing something we enjoy, our mind is so focused on the present that everything else falls away. With jobs and tasks we don’t enjoy, or can’t ‘flow’ with, we are constantly counting the moments until we can stop doing whatever we’re doing. We aren’t performing the task for its intrinsic value, but to get it over with.

Theoretically, we can flow with almost anything. Basically, it’s practicing mindfulness, as in Buddhism, being in the present moment without feeling attached to what has passed or what will come – essentially freeing oneself from worry, anxiety, or guilt.

[picapp align=”left” wrap=”true” link=”term=buddha&iid=215992″ src=”http://view4.picapp.com/pictures.photo/image/215992/buddha-statue-garden/buddha-statue-garden.jpg?size=500&imageId=215992″ width=”234″ height=”351″ /] Ideally, we should be able to ‘flow’ in whatever job we have, however high-stress or mind-numbingly dull (Csikszentmihályi’s work suggests that an element of challenge is important, as part of flow is the effort to master the task at hand – there needs to be an ongoing, ever-increasing difficulty to the work for it to sufficiently entertain the mind and attention. Zen Buddhism, on the other hand, is more about the ‘flow’ of mere existence, whatever the moment involves).

This takes practice, and a suspension of judgment – in high-stress jobs, we anticipate deadlines or negative repercussions of mistakes. With dull jobs, we judge ourselves for the lack of effort or mental energy required, or simply for the menial nature of the work – deeming it less worthy of our time that other things and therefore feel ourselves to be guilty of wasting our time and talents, judging our work to be inferior, however well executed.

The jobs that make us happy, then, are those in which we perform activities where we naturally flow. At present, I absolutely love my job. I do primarily research, at the moment, hunting down answers and organizing information. Essentially, solving puzzles. This is ideal for me, and, helpfully, is research on something I find intrinsically valuable; both stress and negative self-judgment are then largely eliminated (though not entirely – there is a deadline, but the mild pressure I find helpful motivation).

I know that this particular phase of my job is unlikely to continue for more that a couple of months, but I am really relishing it. What it’s given me is the knowledge that I can love this kind of work (or any kind work – I was starting to despair). There are other things I find absorbing (writing, for example), but as yet I’ve not found a way to make a living from them.

I suppose jobs are, in some ways, like relationships – even if they suck, you learn more about yourself, your taste, your needs, as time goes by.

The point I wanted to make, really, in what a relief it is to love your work, to feel satisfied and fulfilled by it – it is, after all, what we spend most of our time doing (with the possible exception of sleep, depending on your hours). Every job has the odd unpleasantness, but to be so content day-to-day is – well – I can only think of Maslowe’s hierarchy of needs – once food, shelter, health and a basic standard of living are established, one wants suitable mental stimulation and activity to feel self-actualized – that one is living in harmony with one’s aptitudes, feelings, and judgments.

This may not last. Nothing does. Having experienced a real love of my occupation, I can make a concerted effort, from an informed opinion, to keep what I love in my job description. I have also, happily, learned that, as I quite enjoy research, I would probably love grad school.


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