Tuesday, October 19, 2010

environMENTAL 1

This morning, because the rain clouds seemed to be clearing, Nils took a squeegee to his car’s windows, carefully scraping away the drops of water.  He felt self-conscious as he did this, and he wondered if others would think him silly.  If someone were to remark that his behavior was pointless, that more rain was in the forecast, he decided that he would say proudly, “This is an optimistic act!”

Truth be told, Nils doesn’t feel much optimism these days.  He looks around and notices how woefully unaware most people are of the human impact on the earth.  There appears to be tremendous impetus to keep the current unsustainable lifestyle going.  Indeed, judging from our purchasing and transportation choices, the vast majority of people are voting for more, not less, of the rich lifestyle.

How can we do this?  Nils thinks it’s because of an unhealthy optimism that pervades our psyches.  We tell ourselves that everything will work out fine.  Everything will be OK.  We do the wrong thing and hold onto an irrational hope that nothing bad will happen.  And, when we look around and see everybody behaving the same way, that becomes—reasonable behavior.

Nils sees this as a form of storytelling.  Stories are a vital part of our mental landscape.  We consume them voraciously, in books, television, cinema, newspapers, blogs and magazines.  We have a need for stories that is so powerful that great industries have grown up that provide them for us, around the clock and at a moment’s notice.  People like stories for their drama, for the emotional rush, and especially for their happy endings.

There’s nothing really bad about picturing your life as a story.  Nils realizes that it’s more than a useful metaphor.  It’s an organizing scheme the brain uses to make sense of events and attach meaning to them.  It’s a built-in human need, and pursuing that need creates within us a sense of satisfaction.

If we use that need inappropriately, then our stories become fairy tales: sweet imaginings that charm and reassure children.  An addiction to stories that portray a false picture of the world is an expression of denial, a refusal to grow up, and a failure to take responsibility for our collective behavior.

If we continue to believe in the happy ending, then we will not avert the consequences of our actions.

Friday, October 8, 2010


Perhaps, through knowing Grace, Prudence has changed.  Perhaps she is able to be compassionate towards tobacco smokers.  Even if it might be their fault that they took up the smoking habit, she reasons, can one hold them responsible for not quitting?  Prudence decides the answer is, “No”.

In the form of cigarettes, nicotine and other constituents are an addictive complex the likes of which were never seen.  Firstly, there is the permanence of the addiction: once an addict, always an addict.  Many tobacco users can expect to never be free of the cravings.

Second, there is the biological and chemical engineering of the base product, tobacco.  Today’s tobacco probably bears little resemblance to the product sold fifty years ago.  Through plant hybridization, along with the use of chemical additives, the contemporary tobacco’s addictive potential far outranks that of its predecessors.

Finally, there is the sales and marketing system whose single function is to maintain a chain of production, sales and consumption of tobacco (and related nicotine-delivery products such as gum and patches).  That chain is, in fact, a chain of enslavement.  Human beings are the means of producing wealth by funneling a drug—nicotine—into their bodies.

Once that faucet is opened, it can never be closed.  The wealth-gatherers are as addicted to their chain of income as the smokers are to their tobacco.

Maybe it makes no difference what Prudence thinks, whether she is compassionate or not.  A non-smoker cannot understand the smoker’s experience.  Perhaps the only true compassion can flow from one smoker to another.