Saturday, December 3, 2011

Community objects

Homo sapiens sapiens has now come to mean homo faber--man that makes. We have for millennia made objects that have given us advantage over other people, that have asserted our power, that have asserted our "humanity." But as time has progressed, as we have decided that natural rights of freedom and liberty apply to (most) all of us (except those who we exploit so that the privileged can be "free"), we have grown more and more individualistic; libertarianism, while not explicitly stated, is rampant. But freedom has been conflated with doing whatever we want, and "owning" whatever we want. Indeed, we feel it a god-given right for each one of us to have access to all of the material possibilities that have been opened up because of technology. We feel that we must assert our individuality by owning as much as possible, by showing these objects off as symbols of status, by thinking that these objects mean we are "sticking it to the man."--that we do not need to rely on anyone for anything, that all of us can go to Home Depot, and do things ourselves. This individualism has resulted in the loss of human interaction--much of what we do now is mediated through object, rather than through physical contact with other humans. In our quest to own things for ourselves, in our assumption that each one of us is entitled to each one of the possessions we have, we have created an economy based on the collective rape of the Earth to satisfy our individual wants and purported needs.

But this is not the whole story. We have asserted our individuality in some ways, and given it away in another--in ecologically and socially degrading ways. While we assert our independence through materialism, we are watched by Big Brother, we are under constant surveillance, and we live in the fear of speaking our critically against our government and corporations that have constantly exploited this land and this earth to keep themselves alive. Liberty and justice for all are words spoken, but not internalised and acted upon. I wonder then, are there ways in which we can be human, without destroying the planet? How can we build communities and relationships with the Earth that are spatially close-knit, rather than destroy them? May one way be through community objects?

When I say community, I mean community among people, close-knit, within contexts of our local environments. Just like community spaces, like churches, markets, and parks, are there ways in which we can redefine objects such that they are owned by us as a collective, rather than us as individuals? What would that mean for the preservation of objects, and our compulsion to buy more and more? I do not know, but what I do know is that those things and spaces that are common to us all, we generally wish never to be degraded. Scale is important, and objects are for the most part on the human scale. Although we continually trash national parks and landmarks, no one would want a trashed church or a trashed local park. Rather, when the scale of our spaces, and our objects becomes more tractable, we seek to cherish them more and more. The Earth may be too big for each one of us to wrap our minds around. Another plastic bag in the ocean, another computer bought, another flight taken, we think is a drop in the ocean. But a plastic bag seen flailing in our neighbourhood park, an oil spill in our local river, a blighted home we are repulsed by.

I remember while growing up in India, the textbooks that I used, the uniforms I wore, were those that were handed down to me from my elder cousins and friends. Objects were saved and treated kindly, because they could then be bequeathed to the next generation. The textbooks were already marked up and written in, but that was okay, because I still learned from them. The clothes were worn, but that's okay, because it didn't matter how crisply new my shirt was, I still went to school. I feel as if community objects built community. So much of what we do now as individuals is because of a constantly temporary urge for the new. If you were to look back on your life, did it really matter whether you bought that new deck of cards or that new toaster? Or do you think your euchre night would have still been fun with an old deck of cards, your stomach still full and satisfied with a used toaster? And how much better off would the health of our Earth be because of such behaviour? Wendell Berry, in his essay A Statement Against the War in Vietnam writes,
In spite of our constant lip service to the cause of conservation, we continue to live by an economy of destruction and waste, based on extravagance and ostentation rather than need; we can see no reason to be saving, because we cannot imagine the future of the earth or the lives and the needs of those who will inherit the earth after us.

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