I have taken up Arthur Koestler’s “The Act of Creation” in spurts these days, dipping into it, as I have done time and again for years. In a section on “frustrated participatory emotions” Koestler surveys primitive societies, and rituals used to connect individuals to larger things, like the cosmos … and each other. This quote, about Western society, struck me as true:
“The child is taught petitionary prayer instead of meditation, religious dogma instead of contemplation of the infinite; the mysteries of nature are drummed into his head as if they were paragraphs in the penal code.”
And of course, it is true. Everything is externalized. Nature is treated as something “out there”, something to be saved, preserved, studied, measured, regulated, and guarded like a commodity. It’s not seen as part of us, and no amount of trying to “save” it will change that relationship. In fact, if we continue to regard it primarily as a thing to be saved, we externalize “it”, and objectify it. It’s not out there, though. It’s in here. Save it, by all means; but stop thinking of it as a thing apart.
Michael Agger writes a great article in Mother Jones entitled Thoreau’s Worst Nightmare, about the trend toward self-denial environmental books – those ones where people try to live “intentionally” for a year, going without modern amenities, just to reduce their “carbon footprint” and show that it can be done. And they do it all right – and they get lots of notice, and write books, and promote their ascetic lifestyle for all to emulate and admire. And most everybody does admire them for their stance. Like the Germans, we Americans tend to get behind something with a level of commitment which borders on zealotry. It’s probably a Calvinst thing, and the irony is that even the hippies become extremists. The most extreme case of these self-promotional stuntmen is probably “No Impact Man,” Colin Beavan.
“Colin Beavan, [is] a 45-year-old New Yorker better known as No Impact Man, and even better known as The Man Who Doesn’t Let His Wife Use Toilet Paper. That last detail was the highlight of a 2007 New York Times profile of Beavan, which portrayed how he, his wife, and their two-year-old daughter were attempting to live in downtown Manhattan with zero “net impact” on the environment. This goal involves eating only organic food grown within a 250-mile radius, composting inside their small apartment, forgoing paper, carbon-based transportation, dishwashers, TV, and adhering to whatever new austerities Beavan dreams up.”
Well, good on ya, mate. But I’m not that impressed. Try doing it quietly, or at least not so thoroughly. It’s the thoroughness which bothers me, the “all or nothing” approach, which not only smacks of desperation and thoughtlessness, but also of piety and smugness. I get enough of that from my off-the-grid friends, who never cease to tire of explaining how they are without the corrupting influence of a TV. But wait a minute. Doesn’t living off the grid mean, ipso facto, that you won’t have a tv? I mean, can you even run a tv when you’re off the grid? One lifestyle choice would seem to dictate the next. Necessity, then, is not so much the mother of invention, as the trigger for more posturing. It’s nice that you are living “intentionally” (as opposed to thoughtlessly, like me), with your low carbon footprint and all. But please, just keep it to yourself, will ya? I already know about it. I’ll try and catch up to you some day. Meanwhile, nature calls. I’m off to consume some paper.