Wednesday, December 12, 2012

"Do something local and do something real."

The fundamental question that this blog has primarily dealt with is this: Given the structural forces that are causing ecological degradation, social injustice, and unsustainability, what can we do, as individuals, to combat these issues?

It is abundantly clear that the problems that I just listed are large, systemic, structural, cultural. We rely in large infrastructures such as roadways for our food. Our banks take our money and invest it unsavory ways without telling us. Advertisements and "beauty" magazines try to make us feel worthless unless we take part in the latest fads. The federal government doesn't deal with climate change even if it is in its best interests. So, of course we need change at the highest levels. Of course we need policy changes. Of course we need cultural change. But what does this change look like? Is the fear of change, of a new culture, in large measure what is holding back change? Or perhaps is change not coming quickly enough because the problems are so large and daunting that we sit back in submission?

I write about this because I got some flak from my last post, which said that we must be personally responsible with our choices, without mentioning that problems are structural. But the fact that the problems are structural is the founding premise of this entire blog, and I have written about the issues of capitalism, large government, corporatism, education, and so on.

Our actions do not exist in isolation. As I have pointed out time and again, if we live in societies and collectives, and what we do as individuals challenges social norms, then actions that challenge the norms are both starkly exposed and starkly expose the norms. This, for some, may seem like some kop-out way of legitimizing and overstating the impact of individual change. Some might go so far as to say personal change is far easier than achieving structural and cultural change. In some ways, it is. It is because you don't necessarily have to deal with anyone else, a libertarian's dream. But in some ways, it is not. It is not because personal change challenges oneself to truly imagine and live in the world one wants to live in. On another hand, Melissa, in one of the very first guest blogs, wrote that if you want to achieve structural change, pressure must be put on "choice architects" who have the power to change systems.

But, as Mike Wolf writes in his essay In Anticipation of the Next Leap of Faith in Deep Routes,
There is a video clip on YouTube of Bill Moyers interviewing Grace Lee Boggs. In response to the question, "What is to be done?" her answer is simple. "Do something local and do something real." When I examine my life and the people who I admire, whose work is inspiring, also when I examine the most rewarding work I have been a part of, it all follows this simple directive. It is self-conscious of its place and its relationships, and it puts something on the line, takes risks. It is not fixed in the conceptual, the virtual, as a mere amusement...There is no traction and no consequence if the work doesn't make itself vulnerable.

Vulnerability is something I'll address soon. Until then, here is that video clip to inspire us to be the architects of our choices.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

"Why would you want to do jury duty?!"

My sister was selected for jury duty a few weeks ago.  The case, it turns out, was going to be a massive one--one about companies withholding information on the risks of asbestos exposure.  Due to some improper questioning by a prosecuting attorney, my sister and a few other people, who were close to being the final jury members, were dismissed.  But the jury selection process itself lasted a couple weeks, and could have lasted potentially longer, followed by six weeks of testimony.  But that is besides the point.  My sister was going to be given a massive responsibility.  She could have been part of deciding whether there was corporate misinformation and whether workers deserved massive amounts of compensation for their mesothelioma.  And all anybody asked her was, "Why would you want to do jury duty?!"

We tend to think that we have a right to almost everything, and that if something goes wrong, it is someone, somewhere who is not doing their job.  All that we, as individuals, are responsible for are our lives, our paychecks, our homes.  We want the right to vote, but not the responsibility that comes with voting.  We want clean water to flow from our faucets, but not the responsibility to make sure that our water is not polluted.  We want free access to information, but not the responsibility of action that comes from knowing.

Our family watched Twelve Angry Men the other night, a tremendous movie from 1957, and what is depicted in that movie rings true to my sister's experience with the reactions she faced.  Jury duty is an inconvenience because "I'm going to miss the baseball game!" When it comes to a fair trial, being selected for jury duty is something that is an inconvenience.  How could anyone even suggest that jury duty is inconvenient?  As flawed as the legal and justice system is, isn't it our responsibility to make sure that we are ready to serve to make sure that people aren't wrongly convicted?  Now, people can have very important reasons why they would not want to do jury duty, especially if a day's labor is essential to feed your family.  But these are not the people that expressed their surprise that my sister was not lying to get out of jury duty.  No.  It was the well-off...and not just one person...several people.  Indeed, a quick search online will elucidate you on the thousand ways to get yourself out of jury duty.

We live in a world in which responsibility is so distributed that it is difficult to point fingers or make certain claims.  Is a particular chemical in his water that caused his cancer?  Is China causing climate change?  Not sure.  I mean, they are contributing heavily now, but what about all the decades and centuries of ecological degradation and greenhouse gas emissions caused by the America and the West?  Hmmm.  Let's avoid responsibility for that.

Responsibility ties in intimately to our daily choices, whether we agree to it or not.  Thinking that small things don't matter is, in essence, a shirking of personal responsibility.  What if we were responsible for our daily choices?  Not in the sense that one shouldn't do anything "illegal" so as to not get thrown into prison.  But I mean really responsible for every choice.  Is it responsible towards the Earth to want to be highly materialistic?  Is it responsible to my neighborhood to not get to know my neighbors?  Is it responsible of someone who is well off to lie just to get off of jury duty?  When we are all responsible, we have much to gain.  When we want our rights and act irresponsibly, we have much to lose.