Saturday, June 9, 2012

Conscious abstraction

While I was sitting on the grass by some swings across from my home with Katie the other day, I noticed one of the cars on the road slow down. The driver was letting a squirrel pass. It was difficult for the driver of the car in the next lane to know why the car to its right was slowing down, and so, the driver maintained the car's speed. But just as the squirrel made it past the first car that had slowed, it got pummeled by the next one. It probably died on impact. But the impact unleashed a sound. It was the sound of a low pitched rumble you hear when a wheel passes quickly over a bump. It was the sound of a bass drum. And then the squirrel, already dead, got run over again...and again. Katie ran across the street, stopped before it, and cried, "I'm so sorry," as she picked it up by the tail and moved it off of the road.

I wonder what was going on through the squirrel's mind as it was crossing the road. Maybe it was on the way to eat something or hide it, or maybe it was about to climb up a tree it spotted. Maybe there was some other squirrel waiting on the other side for it. It is summer, after all. Maybe it was the one that casually walked up to me a few days ago while I was having dinner on the porch. I don't know. It is hard to tell with squirrels. Most of them look the same to my eyes. But I know that they are all individuals.

I had never seen any animal that large get killed in front of my eyes before. I thought to myself, "And this squirrel is another cost we accept as we drive cars that take us to where we need to be." That squirrel probably now forms part of some statistic somewhere. I can just see the title of the statistic. It is probably something like "Roadkill in the US." It probably has a breakdown of what kinds of animals are killed on the roads, and how many of them, every year...deer, chipmunks, and birds included. That statistic easily equates one squirrel is with another squirrel. A squirrel is a squirrel, and a squirrel killed on the road by a car is one of thousands, tens of thousands. In the end, their lives are boiled down to numbers, which we accept as a "cost" of our need to drive cars. It is a "cost" of our advances.

It made me think about the Herman Daly passage I quoted at length in a recent blog post. We are constantly fighting this battle of abstraction. We just don't seem to be able to grasp the abstract. Climate change happening slowly, unboundedly, over the next one hundred years? What does that mean? What does it mean if someone in Detroit is breathing toxic air? These things are far. They are abstract. And that abstractness seems to debilitate us from showing an inkling of remorse or care.

But, abstraction is an excuse, for we actively pursue abstraction when we need it to fit our goals. If I were to pick a squirrel out and tell you I was going to run it over, or if you saw a specific squirrel get run over--and had any inkling of emotion--you'd be horrified. I definitely was. But when we read a number or hear about squirrel roadkill in the US, we are less affected. The abstraction of a squirrel killed to a number takes away the essence of what the squirrel was, its entire life, and what it was on its way to doing when it was killed. The abstraction allows us to distance ourselves from our actions.

I can hear people thinking to themselves, "So is he really suggesting that we should we not drive cars just because squirrels and deer and chipmunks and flies and bees are killed by them?" The point is that most all of the choices we make we make with an understanding of the potential outcomes. Some outcomes are acceptable. The others--the violent, the distasteful--we abstract. Given that we are now being confronted with important choices that will affect our land, our water, our air, take fracking, for example, will we continue to make choices in the abstract? Or is there a way to bring our choices closer to home, to be aware of the squirrels that populate our land and the fish the water?


  1. But I mean... A squirrel is indeed a squirrel.

  2. I am trying to see whether or not the lines we tend to draw in arguing for or against something can be changed, and how. A squirrel may be a squirrel, but is also a beacon, of sorts, and its death is a tangible outcome in an otherwise constantly abstracted culture. It is sort of like being the one whose water is polluted and giving me rashes. I can try all that I can to convince the polluter that my water is polluted, but unless *their* water is polluted, they will say my water is not polluted. I saw the squirrel die, and it made me feel differently than just hearing that a squirrel had died.