Thursday, May 3, 2012

A changed relationship with materials

I have spent the better part of this past semester thinking about technology and materiality. We live in a material, dualistic world, one in which we think of ourselves as separate from the world we inhabit, and one in which materials are a source of happiness. We have structured entire cultures and economies on this philosophy, and while it would be wonderful to live in a culture that was non-dual and less materialistic, it is difficult to see inroads into how that culture would be spawned. Such a drastically different culture is necessary, although it may not be possible.

Humans are no longer only homo sapiens sapiens. We are now homo faber--man that makes. We make little toy trinkets for children and we erect mega dams that can block silt and water from following gravity. We build infrastructures, some in space like the GPS system, and some under ground and under water like the oil distribution network in the Gulf of Mexico. We technologise and we valuate materials.

But these technologies and materials are not valuable in and of themselves. Rather, it is how we perceive them, the politics imbued in them, how we are sold on them that lends them their power. These materials and technologies shape our world, our views of the world, and our views of ourselves as human beings. They lend many people a great deal of power, and allow people to affect politics in their interests. For example, no one can disagree that fossil fuels have lent the Western world a great deal of power, many times to the detriment of those people living in the Middle East. It is clear then that our cultural identities are tied to materials. We will go to any length to gain access to these materials. We will wage all sorts of wars, physical and those guised under "diplomacy". A competitive material world is the race to nowhere of megalomaniacs.

A similar picture can be painted for our individual lives. A broad survey of television advertisements and street corners during move out days in a college town seems to say that the value of our lives is proportional to the materiality of them. We are judged by our materials--the more the better it seems. We thus fill our homes and fill our lives with stuff we buy from our weekly trips to the mall. We line up to get the newest cell phone just because our service provider says that we are "eligible" for a new one. We brag about the time we will spend suspended off of the slide of a shear cliff with a new set of modular crampons from Petzl. Materials lend us status and power in small and intricate ways, whether it is bragging rights or whether it is climbing a rock.

It is difficult to separate ourselves from our materials. It seems that everywhere you look, you find someone interacting with some manufactured material. While we did interact physically with the world millenia ago, power and control now form the foundation of material use in our daily lives, and for our governments. And so, I understand that our views of ourselves are shaped by what we have--infrastructures such as roads just cannot be done without now, it seems, for everything from our daily commutes to our food makes use of such an infrastructure. Our cell phones become tied to our capacity to communicate with loved ones.

But I still feel that there is something we are forgetting about ourselves in all of this--that our fate cannot be tied to our ability to constantly change our world materially in the way that it currently does. My contention is that no amount of solar energy or wind energy or new efficient technologies will address ecological problems. They will indeed create their own problems of an even larger magnitude, of that I am certain. Our demands will change from wanting wind energy in the first place to wanting wind energy to provide enough energy so we can drive our Hummers.

Can we imagine a different relationship with the materials of daily life? How might this unfold in our communities and in our governments? Part of it surely comes from changing the framework from thinking about how newer things are more efficient to how newer things out to be more sufficient. But can this be taken a step further to make what we already have sufficient?

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