Monday, April 4, 2011

On meaning

A four day break from writing has been refreshing, and I am happy to say that there are so many thoughts running through my head that there is plenty to write about for the next few weeks.

I went to the Michigan Social Justice Conference yesterday - there were several fascinating panels and discussions, with issues ranging from divestment and sex trafficking to the power of allies and workers' rights. There was also a workshop on the social justice issues of trash and waste, which Sherri and I were grateful to help with. The keynote speaker was writer and activist Derrick Jensen, whose essays I have been reading in Orion. He has written more than a dozen books and has thought deeply about issues of social injustice and the environment. He talked at length about the root causes of all social justice issues - as I have tried to articulate previously, most all of the problems we face in the world stem from the same moral and ethical deficiencies. One of the key roots he said, was the issue of meaning.

Jensen is influenced highly by Native American cultures and traditions. These cultures had survived for several thousand years in harmony with their environment (let's avoid discussion about the ecologically noble savage here). He talked about how having lived in a place, these people assigned meaning to everything around them, from the trees to the salmon. The meaning that is assigned to these different sides of nature shape our perceptions of what it is that promotes harmony and unity. For example, while walking through a forest, someone who thinks that trees fill a pivotal niche in the environment, by providing habitat for birds and animals, will treat it differently than someone who sees trees as a way to make paper and money. In one case, the broader environment is at the centre of consideration, and in the other case, the economy may be at the centre of consideration.

Jensen mentioned that what organised religion has done (one of them in particular he dislikes) has been to take meaning away from the visceral and tangible to the arcane and unphysical, i.e. god. This, he feels, has led to a meaningless worldly presence, and the domination of nature because of it. In the same way, he feels as if science has had that same domineering quality, which allows us the ability of violence against nature. This is interesting, because it wasn't even a few days ago that I heard on an episode of Being that before the very notion of god existed, only the notion of the other existed. What dominating notions of god and science have done have taken away the nuances of understanding of place and time, and the consequent designation of meaning to them. The constructs of science and many organised religions have embedded in them the notion just two things - right and wrong.

This past year has made me think a lot about place and time and the meaning of everything that surrounds me. Each one of us will assign different meanings to different sides of nature. That is okay. I just hope that there is a convergence of the outcomes resulting from these meanings.

Speaking of meaning, how much this past weekend has meant is immeasurable and beautiful.

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