Thursday, September 29, 2011

What if you don't live in Ann Arbor?

While many of us do appreciate living on Earth, enjoying and wondering about its beauty and mysticism, what concerns us mostly is what surrounds us--it is our immediacy that is most important to us. As Wendell Berry has said in The Long-Legged House (an absolutely exquisite book of essays), he cares more for Port Royal than he does for the State of Kentucky, more for Kentucky than for the US, more for the US than for some other country, but he cares as much about the Earth as he does for Port Royal. The trick is reconciling your behaviour in your place with what your hopes are for the world.

I have written and said several times, including in my last post, that living trash-free is purely an expression of my appreciation for where I live, for it is the least I can do to fully appreciate where I live. But such an appreciation can be difficult given how communities are set up in other parts of this state and this country. While talking to Will yesterday morning, he asked me what I would do if I wasn't in Ann Arbor? Now while this question is purely speculative, it is an extremely important one, for Ann Arbor isn't the only place on Earth contributing to ecological degradation.

Honestly, I don't know what I would do if I lived elsewhere, because I don't know what those other places are like. But there are some key features of society and culture that I have been able to assimilate in the past year and a half, and if one was to do anything about social and environmental injustice, ecological degradation, living in a way that treads more softly on the Earth, it would be to think about and act on these cultural phenomena.

First, our individual and collective behaviours stem from a deep-rooted unappreciation materially for where we live, in time and space. For those of us who are privileged, why do we want more material? While physical things are limited, as any conservation law would say so, and while physical things have the potential to scar the Earth, the spiritual journeys that we can all take can lead to emotional growth unbounded. This growth, this learning, does have significant physical impact, but hopefully in a good way.

Second, this culture erects barriers between those that are privileged, and those that are not. These are physical barriers, political barriers, and emotional barriers. We build highways and box stores using eminent domain only in places that cannot afford monetarily to put up a fight. We cite landfills and incinerators in places already downtrodden. When a homeless person approaches us, we don't seek to understand why this person is homeless.

Third, this culture has continually centralised decision-making, and we have given away much responsibility such that we are reliant on others for many of our basic needs. While this can be fruitful to a certain extent, claiming back that responsibility, and being able to live without being impacted or influenced by major corporations and corrupt governments becomes more and more difficult. Goodwill and compassion seems to be rare with these elites. We lose our power as individuals and small collectives of people.

All of these thoughts will most certainly play out in different ways depending on where we live and who we are surrounded by. And so while it may be difficult to live trash-free in some other places, there is so much more that can be done, given an understanding and appreciation of place.

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