Thursday, September 23, 2010

The People Take Death Seriously and Do Not Travel Far

I saw a commercial recently that made me so angry that I had to step back for a second to ask why it was affecting me so strongly. It features a polar bear who leaves the melting Arctic for somewhere in America, passing trains and huge trucks and then wandering the streets of a huge city. It seemed, at first, like an indictment of our entire way of life. But then the polar bear finds a man outside of his pleasant suburban home about to get into a Nissan Leaf, an electric car. And the bear gives the man a hug out of sheer gratitude.

It took me a while to figure out why I was so disgusted. I'm glad there's finally an electric car; if you have to drive, it's certainly better than the alternative. And you'd think I would be pleased that an environmental crisis was at least being acknowledged.

But this ad somehow made me angrier than the "clean coal" nonsense you occasionally see in magazines. What bothered me was the commercial's implication that small private steps, from buying lightbulbs to a new car, which entail no real sacrifice on anyone's part, will solve the problems that we're facing.

This is continually what we're told: try to shut off lights, compost, ride a bike once in a while, recycle, make green consumer choices. All tiny, simple decisions that don't affect your life in any fundamental way. And I manage to stay satisfied with myself most of the time doing just these things.

Even a little thought, though, should tell us that this model of transformation simply isn't adequate to our situation anymore. These measures -- which, yes, are better than nothing -- are basically self-pacification devices. It's insane to think that lightbulbs and cars are anything more than a vague gesture in the right direction. The flaw runs much deeper in our way of life.

A simple example: flying is probably one of the most environmentally destructive private acts that any of us can commit. Yet I don't know a single person, including myself, who has ever given up a flight for this reason, even as we turn up our noses at thoughtless people with their huge SUVs.

Giving up flying, for me at least, would mean rarely or never seeing most of my family and friends. How many people are willing to do this? Not many, I suspect. Every modern society is built around cheap energy, and we're now living in a world that would require complete restructuring before normal, unheroic people could be even moderately responsible. And any system is in trouble if it requires heroism to sustain itself.

There's an apocalyptic feeling in the air, isn't there? I don't think it's just me, or a passing mood. It comes with the recognition that almost none of us are actually serious about addressing these problems. We're simply going to throw a party until the water comes through the door. The road we've been traveling for the past several hundred years doesn't seem like it can be gently redirected to a sensible place, so we're just waiting. Large-scale institutional solutions are not forthcoming, at least not until a cataclysm occurs, and everyone knows that the private acts we are willing to perform are drops in the bucket.

There's a poem from the Tao Te Ching that I've always found a little terrifying. It's one of the last verses, from the version by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English.

A small country has fewer people.
Though there are machines that can work ten to a hundred times
      faster than man, they are not needed.
The people take death seriously and do not travel far.
Though they have boats and carriages, no one uses them.
Though they have armor and weapons, no one displays them.
Men return to the knotting of rope in place of writing.
They food is plain and good, their clothes fine but simple,
      their homes secure;
They are happy in their ways.
Though they live within sight of their neighbors,
And crowing cocks and barking dogs are heard across the way,
Yet they leave each other in peace while they grow old and die.

What always scared me about this poem was how low the bar was set, how close the ideal was to vegetable life, how much of what I value would be eliminated. The sense of peace that it carried was too huge, too much like death. It's hard not to rebel against it. Shouldn't life be more than this? Isn't it better that most people aren't satisfied to stay on this level?

The poem seems wiser now than it did before, though, and more of a genuine ideal than all of our clean energy fantasies, which again promise solutions for everyone with absolutely no sacrifices required. A long look at the abyss, I think, might be a better idea. At least it's a real starting point.

1 comment:

Thursday said...

You should read John Derbyshire's essay on the political implications of the Tao Te Ching here.

I'd also recommend two translations of the Tao, one by Stephen Addiss and Stanley Lombardo and the other by David Hinton, the great translator of the Chinese poets.