Thursday, January 6, 2011

On practicality, reality and idealism

(This post is inspired by The loss of the future, an essay in The Long-Legged House by Wendell Berry.)

As I have written about previously (1, 2, 3), trash is borne out of convenience. Trash can in fact be viewed as an outcome of "solutions" to "problems" like decomposing food and cracked computer screens. Without trash, we would be unable to enjoy getting to places like the top of Mt. Everest (1, 2), we would be unable to transport food to famine-stricken areas of the world, and we would be unable to perform medical procedures on people. Depending on how we weigh the outcomes, positive and negative, of what we do, trash is a natural outcome of solutions to problems, which may be ill-defined. I use the word natural because the way we currently think makes it close to impossible to do anything without degradation, waste and trash. As a society, we claim to think "practically." We do not address problems if the solutions are "impractical." Or, put another way, the only solutions we come up with are those that are "practical." What does "practical" mean in today's world? It means doing something that will, at the most, only slightly nudge the status quo. If a few people will lose their jobs, or funding for a program will get cut, or the vast machine of the US military will be affected, a solution will be deemed "impractical" - impractical because the people you will have to convince to change their ways of being are members of the National Rifle Association, or because they sleep with the board of directors of large oil corporations, or because they claim to advance US interests abroad. Concisely, such solutions are "impractical" because those that need to be convinced wield power - the power of money and the power of violent force. Also, people are not ready to "spend the money" that it would take to make biodegradable materials, or less harmful products, unless it is "economically viable," and unless China will do it, too. What is lost in this "practical" way of thinking is the idealism that needs to be incorporated into our thoughts. An idealism that will address the reality of the situation - of ecological degradation, of social and environmental injustice - is badly needed now. It is easy to lose faith in "practicality," and I have. Indeed, it was "practicality" - of time - that led to the BP-Macondo well blowout (1, 2, 3, 4). "Practicality" has held back climate change talks for more than a decade now. "Practicality" has inflicted serious harm on the nature that feeds us.

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