Throughout my graduate program, in seminar after seminar, we discussed, with gusto, pedagogy, teaching, learning, schooling, and all aspects of education both within schools and individual classrooms as well as macroscopically through lenses of power and oppression, in addition to sociologically and economically and, of course, politically. One of my favorite courses, titled Teaching, Learning, and Schooling, threw us headlong into our own beliefs, understandings, and ideologies regarding three distinct aspects of education that interconnect in nuanced ways but were broken apart and examined scrupulously. In fact, our final product was to produce a large, poster-sized visual, artistic representation of our views of the three subjects. Exemplars ranged from anthropomorphized tree-heads fusing together to pictorial representations of video games and the internet. Together we all wrestled with the strange interweaved connections and synthesized the information in our own way, through our own lens.
One day a few weeks into the semester, we were discussing learning. The course was designed so that we would spend a week or so delving into each of the three topics, and then after that practice synthesizing them, comparing them, drawing connections between them, and also staking the differences to better understand how we can approach our own philosophy of education. In this particular class, we were discussing a subject brand new to most students, at least in theoretical terms, where we were simply asked the question: “What are you teaching your students when you’re not actually teaching them?” With my outdoor education background, not to mention an immense passion for having read Paulo Freire a second time that summer, I struggled to hold in my responses. Relentlessly, I did manage to self-regulate, at least until the conversation was beginning. Somewhere along the line, I elaborate on how, even unconsciously, humans are always adapting to their environment, taking in new information, and attempting to piece together those dilapidated data with our current processors. The idea that we could be subconsciously consuming data and then utilizing it seemed novel to some. As the teacher facilitated the conversation, he eventually explained to the class that what we had described was academically known as the hidden curriculum.
The Hidden, sometimes called Invisible, Curriculum, is a name for the idea that, even though we do not plan every aspect of our learning experience for students, we are always teaching them something. When you begin to ponder this thought, it can be daunting. If students are learning even when I am not intentionally teaching them, can I as a teacher guarantee that every bit of information they devour is correct, is information that should be consumed, or is data or information that will add value to their lives in some way? The simple answer is of course not, but that is only half of the problem and the challenge.
In our graduate seminar, we focused closely on how the invisible curriculum hides closely behind the intended curriculum. We examined this through racial bias, gender discrimination, and the absence of social class. For those less familiar with this topic in education, we consider these curricula that fall “short” or that don’t explain the whole story, often because they are told through only one story, with one answer, which is the back of the book. To elaborate, this idea centers around the concept that there are hidden stories, hidden messages, and hidden learning that happens in the classroom. This isn’t an Illuminati vision, though, because this is not some cryptic message or even possibly some massively huge “big brother” information sink. Rather, it is both an unintended consequence of a limitation of time and resources or is simply from ignorance.
For example, in the history classroom, it can be easily identified. For most of the early education in US history, many figures didn’t make the books, literally. These ranged from prominent African American figures to Latino labor organizers to working-class folks of all skin colors, creeds, and geographic locations. Even after Howard Zinn’s groundbreaking book, A People’s History of the United States, some places have been slow to implement these important stories within their curriculum. This ignorance or rejection of these stories then teaches one of two lessons. First, it says to students that there is only one story, one version of history and it looks a certain way. In this case, that image is usually white, male, and heroic. Secondly, it dictates what is and is not important to learn within the classroom. For example, if a history teacher only focuses on wars, battles, and generals, it negates social movements, politics, and poverty, among numerous other topics, from the study of history. Once again, this negation or exemption may be intentional or not, but it is a critical aspect of education that needs to be considered when making decisions and teaching youth.
For me, I move beyond even the curriculum when I consider the invisible curriculum, though, and I believe it is imperative that all teachers do the same, though in different ways. The impact of the invisible curriculum on our society is too great to otherwise ignore it.
In the classroom, this develops differently for each course that I teach. Working with male students, for example, I often wonder not only whether many of them have positive male role models in their lives, but I consider who is their chief influences for positive masculinity. If we are to solve issues of gender equity in the country, we have a duty to educate young men to not only treat young women with respect and dignity and allow spaces for them to prosper, but we must also teach young men to respect each other, to engage in healthy conflict nonviolently, to express emotions, and more. In this way, as a teacher I have a tremendous opportunity to present this version of masculinity for them, to teach them, even if it is only through passive interactions with me, rather than structured material. Likewise, if we are to solve issues of the climate crisis, we must show students, modeling for them through our own beliefs and actions, the appropriate steps one could take to make changes. Language, of course, is another avenue for immense learning. Teachers model academically language in their classes consistently and many students learn just simply by being exposed to it, as many have a home life where that type of academic argumentative language simply doesn’t exist. I know that I didn’t.
Moving beyond classrooms and schools and into the broader world, we must consider the invisible curriculum not only in our own fields and within informal education but also online and in other spaces where learning happens. By raising the invisible curriculum to the surface, in an intentional, critical, but humble way, we can begin to identify aspects of our curriculum and learning that are lacking, some of which do our children and society a disservice.
For this reason, I believe that it is imperative that teachers ask this question of their own classrooms, of their own demeanor, and of their own ideologies of the world: What am I teaching my students when I’m not teaching them? There are many answers to our challenges, but we can start by asking good questions.
Teachers As Working Class
Debates abound in sociology amongst scholars attempting to distill the essence of class. Claims range from an inappreciable denial state to bombastic claiming that every individual other than a CEO of a Fortune 500 company can be considered working class simply based on the fact that they do not own the largest means of production. While I do not believe that a universal definition exists, I do contend that defining the terms of class in the US is an extremely useful way to promote justice, to analyze social problems, and to simply view the world.
In this way, I think it is imperative for teachers to consider their position in the class system of the United States. When we begin to think of teachers’ roles in the lives of their students, it becomes critical to ponder the role they play in class politics and in power in society if we are to create a more equitable and just world--a goal I assert we strive toward.
Though I will not ascribe to a particular sociologist, economist, or philosopher, my perspectives are deeply rooted in Marxist critiques of economics and politics and closely aligned with many modern progressive thinkers. To this end, a useful definition of class for teachers to initially approach the subject relates to positions of power. Beyond identity, these positions relate to the ownership of the means of production, which in the 21st century drastically differ from Marx’s Prussia and London. When we examine the world through power, we will notice that teachers are, indeed, much closer to many of their students than to a bourgeoisie owning class, even if they are highly educated and owners of a slightly large piece of the economic pie themselves.
When we think traditionally about the ownership of the means of production we conjure images of foreman, of bosses, of elite CEOs wearing business suits and cruing along in a third yacht. While this image certainly holds true, we can nuance this image tremendously. Property, at least in the form of real estate, land, or equity made from those, is a tremendous asset and has been historical, though significantly less today for use in agriculture compared to other historical periods. Nevertheless, ownership of landed estates and the associated wealth demands a type of owning class. Surely there are numerous teachers, especially in smaller towns across America, that step into this category that we would traditionally associate with a middle class. This pervasive myth of middle-class politics, though, clouds our vision.
In reality, when compared on a larger scale, we can begin to see the dissolution of the middle class, especially when dwarfed dynamically by the immense wealth of the upper echelons. Truly, power is held in wealth, generational wealth, but also in political purchasing power, monopolistic business power, and the continued upward concentration of true power in the form of capital. The gulf continues to widen and we begin to glance teachers solidly huddled on one side.
Where our story complicates, though, is in this Bardo, this inner state between the working-class--those who work for wages and sell their labor--and an owning class that consistently distances itself, form workers, either physically or ontologically. For if a working-class is any individual or group of individuals that sell their labor for wages to be spent on goods and services, teachers unquestionably fall into the former. The creation of a middle class that separates itself from others that also sell their labor, either by becoming marginally wealthier, owning their own small businesses, or simply obtaining a small fortune is an interesting phenomenon, as it is clear that, even though they may obtain some level of privilege and distance from the lower classes, they tend to, holistically at least, rely directly upon the owners of the means of production for their existence. The difference being, of course, that their entire existence is not wholly dependent on it, as they have a measure of power and authority not granted to the average wage earner. In this way, they can begin to distance themselves culturally from the lower classes, establishing what, to them, is declared a separate state, even though, ironically, they are still closer in measure to the working class. This divide, though, has a tremendous impact, not only because many teachers consider themselves in this special unit but because the very practice of imagining this unit is horizontal hostility.
For example, if there exists a class apart from the working-class that is not a true owning class, their begins to perpetuate a myth that they must somehow be severed from either class, a unique specimen separate and distant from either class, generally innocent, well-to-do, honorable. This tends to further be exacerbated in recent politics because many who fall into this category--a new educated upper-middle-class elite that includes everything from professors and doctors to nonprofit managers with masters degrees in social justice-related work--find themselves at direct odds with the working-class, preferring instead to be distinct, rather than acknowledge solidarity, choosing instead apathy or silent applause for class comrades. On the flip side, many of these folks are also the most well-meaning, critical comrades for workers because they acknowledge themselves as workers, even if they know they have important privileges.
Regarding privilege, there can be no denying that this cohort, whether truly apart from the working-class or not, does have access, both economically and politically, to a world that many working-class folks do not, especially the growing class of working poor. In a world where the division continues sliding further, grasping for these advantages has become a dog fight. Teaching as a profession occupies a void somewhere in the middle of this challenge. Not only do teachers possess educational privilege and at least in some places a more marginally secure position and benefits, but they also rest on a shaky foundation.
Teachers find themselves in this middle in a different way, too. Given such immense powers in the impact of the lives of young people, teachers posses both class and cultural capital that many students need to succeed. They are the ultimate gatekeepers, though they are not the sole gatekeeper, of course. This is critical for class consciousness and for building class solidarity. In acknowledging this power, teachers can begin to connect with their students across class lines. Indeed, teachers may be the best-equipped profession to hold this middle ground of class solidarity. And it is certainly a tedious balance.
As has been proven across educational research, teachers and schools perpetuate a middle class (usually white) culture that can be harmful to students' own identities, values, and traditions. Though this should not be viewed as simplistically as either good or bad, it is essential to dissect this a little more. What I mean is that teachers are gatekeepers in the sense that they stand at the threshold: a middle way, a space between the solidarity of the working-class--of which they are truly a part--and that of higher educational and economic privilege, at least as society currently exists. If teachers can acknowledge this, they can build solidarity across classes.
Because teachers are integral to the middle ground of class, they are working-class. Teacher's proximity, both physically and ontologically, to their students, holding, in some form, the ability to shape their lives, places them intimately close with the working class. Teachers' salaries, job security, and prestige also rest upon (literally) the shoulders, arms, and legs of working people, whose labor upholds school funding and functioning around the country, private and charter schools not withheld. In addition, nearly all the students that teachers teach in a classroom will have some connection to the working-class, whether in their communities, as workers themselves, or from their parents. Finally, many teachers also come from working-class backgrounds--like me--and have found a way to step into the fictional middle-class but have not forgotten at least aspects of their roots. This is not only something they can share with their students but is a privilege they can use to reshape society.
Within all of these interconnections of teachers intimately connecting to the working class, whether by standing in the threshold, partnering with students, or coming from working-class backgrounds themselves, we can see most clearly the urgent need for teachers to understand class consciousness and begin the work of discovering solidarity with students, with communities, and, indeed, the larger working-class. So even if we do not consider teachers truly “working-class,” it is evident that they are so clearly connected with the working-class that solidarity is imperative. In fact, I hold that teachers, when they examine closely the economic and political story they are enmeshed in, will discover their place as leaders that shape the minds of future union organizers, future solidarity activists, future young people striving for social and environmental justice and equity in our world--and as members of the working-class.
Reader's note: This is the text version of a podcast episode that I am featured in, which can be found here: https://afutureonwaxenwings.podbean.com/e/e1-without-nature-a-meditation-by-ethan-smith/ . My friend and intellectual, Keith Runyan, is the host of the podcast, called A Future On Waxen Wings, which explores various aspects of the future, from environmental challenges and existential risk to post-future narratives and much more. I had the privilege to write a short essay for the podcast, so please give it a listen or read the transcript of it below.
Last week a friend of mine posted a spectacular image of Yosemite Valley on social media with a tagline proclaiming its awesome glory. Without argument, Yosemite Valley is one of the most majestic places on the planet, which is why I spent just under two years living and working in the valley surrounded by massive granite slabs, majestic waterfalls, and Giant Sequoias. However, seeing the image shared this way on social media made me think, and I struggled erasing the humans and the human constructed paths, roads, stores, and shops that I knew were present in the image that hid just beneath the magical veneer of the precisely timed photograph. And this got me thinking about a concept prevalent in our culture.
By repressing these “uglier” parts of the picture or by literally hiding them within the frame, we construct a version of reality that exists as a double truth. And this image is but one microscopic example of this common phenomenon. One of these truths proclaims pristine nature, devoid of humans, crafted by the hands of God and Mother Nature. The other peels back the wallpaper to reveal a more complex, interesting, realistic, perhaps uncanny story of the world. It is this story that I want to interrogate more closely.
To approach this story, I want to provoke a question: does Yosemite Valley remain pristine nature if we know there are people below the tree line? What about when we learn that a 5-star hotel exists in the background where the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Barack Obama have spent the night beneath Yosemite Falls? If not, why might it suddenly go from “nature” to “not nature?” Furthermore, why would the image be beautiful only if the human is absent and the thing called nature is present? Is there a reason why the addition of human constructed aspects of the environment would change our understanding of that environment, especially the aesthetics? Numerous answers might exist to these questions, but a consistent one relies upon the idea of a separation of humans and nature.
Putting the medium aside, it is clear that the orientation of this image of Yosemite clearly presents us with a beautiful spectacle, but it is also one laden with value, even if we do not at first notice it. But it is, in a small way, indicative of a larger idea. By demarcating the line between human and everything else in terms of an object that we call nature, we then, perhaps inadvertently, assign a value to each. Of course this story often goes along the lines of humans being are at best ambivalent but more likely prone to sin or a downfall, often tainted, but occasionally redeemable, and sometimes noble. Nature, then, is often, at worst, a little scary, but mostly pure, virgin, innocent and of course full of beauty. This removal of humans from the image and the subsequent uplifting of the sublimity of the natural world has been studied extensively in aesthetics and art history and literature. Despite it being a common, it is indicative of a larger cultural idea of the separation of humans from the natural world. When examined closely, though, the idea begins to dissolve slowly and a new world is discovered beyond it.
In fact, as we continue, we will begin to call this idea of a separation of humans and nature the myth of nature. Because, as we will discover, the concept of “nature”--at least as it is presented in modern Western Culture since at least the Romantics--never really quite existed as we though it did. Only now in our age of vast information has this become strikingly apparent--and important. Let’s dive a little deeper into the myth of nature.
Perhaps the most significant upheaval of the Anthropocene is the elimination of the concept of nature. Among others, Bill McKibben declared the end of nature in 1989 which he stated was the moment in Earth’s history when nothing could escape the grasp of humanity because we had shaped the world so vastly that we had even put a layer of nuclear material in the fossil record. Ironically, this position simply restates and repaints the nature and human divide on a different canvas; however, within it lies a truth about the idea of nature and the anthropocene, though different from McKibben’s original intention, and it is one we want to dissect.
If humans evolved from a common primate ancestor, it is hard to claim that we were ever separate from the world. The problem for keeping the word nature is deciding at which point humans became distinct enough of an entity that one can draw a line between them and the environments and biomes in which they arose. It wasn’t as if humans simply appeared one day from the material world, completely cut off from the rest of matter. Of course, we can certainly argue that there are certain ways in which humans are separate, especially from other mammals, but this separation is related to degree, composition and style, not a complete severing, unless you follow religious doctrines and interpretations. The ways in which humans are separate from the rest of the world has been discussed throughout time in philosophy and theology and literature and they form the very basis of the humanities.
We can further complicate the myth by examining discoveries in the last half century in microbiology and chemistry, which have continually shown how humans not only exist within complex systems but are themselves complex systems. In this way, one can imagine a tiny bit of “nature” existing simultaneously inside each of us, at least when nature is viewed as something other. In fact, though, it is not really a tiny bit of “nature” at all but rather something that is simultaneously us and not us. One example is stomach bacteria, our microbiome. Can a human really exist without their complete stomach biome, all of those small bacterium living and reproducing, contributing to the larger stomach and organs? Probably not, at least not well. But is stomach bacteria at all “human?” Kind of, but not exactly; however, it is certainly a piece of a large and complex system that we call human. We could continue this logical thought for many parts of the system that we can human, eventually it might lead us to a profound and challenging question: at what point, then, does our human self “end” and nature “begin?” Putting aside reductionism as a solution for now, let’s examine the separation.
When asked to conjure images of nature, people often state the obvious: trees, animals, mountains. Surely these things do exist in a way that is different from humans, at least in their emergent forms and to our senses. For example, the collection of matter that is me is obviously not the same thing to our eyes, as say, a palm tree, even if at our most basic level we are collections of atoms. So it certainly makes sense for humans to create words and images that separate us from palm trees and things like toasters and mountain ranges. However, romantic thought has taught us that these entities collectively exist as something called “nature”--and that thing is always over “there” and away from us, while we, the humans, exist “here” in subjectivity. But ontologically speaking, is there something always over “there” that is nature and something “here” that is me? The answer to that question is much more complex than it seems at first.
Philosopher Timothy Morton, who has written extensively on the topic of ecology without nature, coherently demonstrates part of this point with a thought experiment that I will paraphrase here because it brings to light many of the flaws of our idea of nature. He asks us to think of a meadow. In the meadow exist all of the normal pieces of a meadow: small critters, leaves, dirt, fungi, maybe a few bones lying around, meadow-y things. If we remove one grass blade from the meadow, is the object that we are now staring at still a meadow? It seems logical that we would conclude that it is still very meadow-y. So, if we continue this thought experiment, what happens if we remove two blades? Seventy? A thousand? Certainly there must exist a point if we continued the experiment where we would be left with one blade of grass or one mouse, which most certainly do not exist as a meadow but rather a blade of grass or a mouse. These are very different from the thing we started with and called a meadow. The puzzle of determining the end of the meadow is replicated closely in the idea of nature. Because we can’t seem to grasp the “end” of the meadow firmly, we are stuck in a double bind within the meaning of the word and concept of meadow. If dissected, we discover that the singular meadow is actually comprised of numerous things that we collectively lump together and call a meadow but only together do they exist as a meadow, not as parts but only as a whole. Our current conception of nature works similarly. Is nature not just a stand-in, catch-all phrase for the myriad deer, mountains, skunks, banana slugs, and forested paths of our lives, a kind of false holism? At what point are those entities--which are usually composed of multiple other entities, or lumps, themselves--no longer nature? What about those things “closer” to us, such as roads, vehicles, dogs, or nuclear waste? Would we call even the aesthetically displeasing--even scary and most certainly ugly, evil stuff--nature? After all, they’re certainly not human...Furthermore, because we assign value to nature, it inherently complicates the idea. It is here when we begin to realize the holes in our concept of nature and that it is, indeed, a slippery slope, one with immense cultural force that we are still struggling to grasp
This inescapable human/nature twist is similar to McKibben’s idea of the end of nature; however, the further we travel, the more we realize that many ideas of nature never really quite existed as we thought they did, nor perhaps, did the separation of humans from it either. Indeed, at a certain point we even can begin to question what is human, as we have already lost grip on nature, but that is for another time. In a truly ecological world, we must confront these strange double-binds by going further with our knowledge, which eventually forces us to toss out old ways of knowing and challenges us to reconsider the very myths that build our foundational relationship with nearly every aspect of the world. I call them myths because, in a sense, they are true, but only partially so. They are also myths because they are collectively believed by people as in this transmission they have an impact on our world. In this way, they are almost self-fulfilling prophecies--that is, until we deconstruct them.
Because, as Historian Yuval Noah Harrari contends, myths and collective stories shape both our internal and external worlds in a variety of means. Internally, they shape our values, morals, and judgements about people, places, and ideas. Externally, they shape the very physical structures that make up our lives. Taken a step further, we can even see how massively large and distributed ideas, such as religion and capitalism, physically affect the world in the very material substances that make them up, such as churches, semi-trucks, canals, and skyscrapers, amongst other things. This effect of the myth on the physical and mental worlds also exists in the idea of nature and effects everything, from how we nurture wildlife, to where we designate wilderness zones, to the places we recreate, to the places we deposit nuclear waste because, as it turns out, “away” doesn’t really exist either. In an ecological age, this is why questioning myths about our thinking is critical. By interrogating these myths--even if they are “true” in a certain sense--we discover a world much more complex--and beautiful--than previously thought. As Timothy Morton warns us, this might be both dark and depressing at first as we fall down the rabbit holes, but it will also be strangely uplifting and liberating.
Besides, what would a worldview without this concept of nature look like?
Religions of the world share many commonalities, but one stands stark amongst the others to me: the belief in eternity, especially the gift of eternal life after (usually) suffering in the human flesh. Without a doubt, world religions got something right, especially Buddhism, when they claim that all life is suffering. At least, in some regards this is mostly true, though of course, some of us suffer more than others. Eternity, though, nonetheless, is potent idea that permeates the world today, just as it has throughout time; today it is an especially formidable political and personal force, one that is shaping our world in many of the same ways as nostalgia. Often, it even pairs itself with nostalgia.
In my early years of growing up, my family didn’t have much to say about religion, and I was often somewhat shameful of our apparent “un-religiousness” of sorts. That is, until my mom became a born again Christian around my fifth grade year. Perhaps it was after seeing the deaths of my best friend’s brother and grandma only days apart, or it is possible that her friends had a much greater influence on her. Either way, she clearly yearned for something deeper in life and found that in religion. Much to my chagrin, she drug both my brother and me along, in addition to attempting, and ultimately failing, at coaxing my dad.
The first year or so were quite fine, and I really might have even had a small bit of interest in religion, though not nearly as evangelically as the other members. This factor only grew worse and more complicated, ultimately becoming the crux of disappointment in my mom and I’s relationship, which took some years apart to mend. Overall, though, it not only turned me off to organized religion, it jaded me for viewing Christianity positively, even to this day.
What it did for my mom, though, was interesting, and I could see its personal effect not only in those members in our congregation but in others around my area as well, though many of them were practicing Catholics and so had a different way of going about the specifics. Regardless, though, the evangelical zeal present in school, public, and other spaces was present. Anyone who was not Christian was looked down upon, usually quietly, though occasionally vocally. This peer pressure rubbed me the wrong way more than once and essentially forced my free thinking brain out of the religious conversation for a number of years while I read and discovered other ideas of the world, from animism to Buddhism to ultimately atheism.
A recurring theme present in the lives of the most religious people I have interacted with, though, is the unshakeable belief in the afterlife, an eternity, one resplendent, vivid, and beyond glorious. Filled with jewels, mansions, and worldly desires in an otherworldly place, the eternity sought by my fellow townsfolk seemed one of bliss, peace, and harmonious community, reuniting with lost loved ones and indulging in the greatness of life. For them, I was happy, but in the years since, I have also noticed a slightly different viewpoint of this ideological worldview, particularly regarding work, regarding empathy, and involving advocating for oneself.
Regarding the political and personal implications of eternity as a social force, I am much less interested in changing people’s minds than in understanding them, especially in pointing out those parts of their behaviour or ideology that prove the most problematic. Within eternity as an ideological force, I find a couple.
First, when eternity numbs people, it is potent--and dangerous. What I mean by numbing is what happens often back home and it involves people accepting their fate and succumbing to the obedient authority of eternity, as if it were a monarch. To clarify further, sometimes folks put aside their suffering, placing it deep inside, and avoid any interaction with difficult feelings, challenging conversations, or downright abuse, and the particular people I am talking about do this under the cover of eternal grace. They internalize negativity and brush it off with the belief that, well, at least some day they will no longer suffer. While this can be a tremendous tool to use on occasion, especially if we are facing abnormally difficult challenges--the death of a loved one, a lost job--it proves to be much less effective for the here and now, and even the long term, than one would believe. In my small community where I grew up, this phenomenon is rampant. So rampant, in fact, that it permeates society, so deeply that no matter where you turn you can find it, like a viscous residue.
I saw it in both the young and old, in both men and women though in different ways. Often it took the form of asceticism, though it was far less noble than most people wanted to admit, especially because most hated every second of it. However, low self-esteem and lack of self-advocacy only made it worse. Perhaps this trio creates and positive feedback loop. Also, it is possible that such actions, in a society that values obedience, loyalty, and honor higher than most other attributes, are portrayed as the highest regard, even though it is proven that, after a certain point, they are ultimately counterproductive.
Secondly, when this ideology permeates the culture of an area, it has obvious political implications. One among many is apathy, which creates a culture of hostility toward those in power, not to mention a complete lack of knowledge regarding issues. In addition to apathy, long-term planning is often cast aside for more short-term solutions or at least solutions that don’t necessarily address the entire issue, such as a band-aid type of solution. Generally these are related to the lack of ability to see beyond the single human-life timescale that we erect. Unfortunately, for ecology and politics in the 21st century, we desperately need longer timescale praxis.
Third, while I do find a belief in a higher power and with that eternity, I am more skeptical regarding putting certain ideas, goals, or values aside for use in some eternal land instead of using them in the world we are given together as well. I don’t feel as though it always has to be viewed as an either/or, especially in the case of Christianity when interpretation is constantly shifting. This is true especially for valuing self-advocacy, empathy, and work. For example, instead of viewing the dreadful long hours of work as something one must suffer through and that that is acceptable because some day there will be eternal rest, we could instead advocate for healthier work environments, shorter work days, and more reasonable pay for our work so that we can also enjoy the life we are given on earth, even if we expect something better later.
In my simplistic view it is moreso the culture that an excessive belief in eternity creates--especially a culture that puts off anything positive of the now for a small hope for the later--rather than the belief itself. Either way, thinking about a belief in eternity as a social and political force is something that is misjudged in the current political atmosphere.
Note to reader: This is a long, rambling post from a previous NaNoWriMo attempt. I split it into two parts for clarity sake.
For the past three years, I have been challenging myself with reading goals. It sounds kind of silly admitting it aloud because I have always been an avid learner, though more of a reluctant reader, at least when it comes to dedicating myself to an entire book. In this way, the challenge has forced me to slow down, to absorb information more intentionally and to think more critically about ideas that I encounter, in addition to a pursuit of following through, of finishing a project once started.
Recently in this journey, I have been reading Strangers in Their Own Land, a fantastic book that attempts to climb what the author eloquently calls the “empathy wall” between her liberal enclave in Berkley, California and that of the center of the Tea Party: Louisiana. As an avid reader of social class and a member of the working class myself, I put off reading this book for at least two years, as I was extremely skeptical of the basic premise. Working class people in flyover country did not need some liberal professor coming in to “enlighten” them or “save” them, I thought. Certainly, I have discovered that my assumptions of the book were quite wrong.
Though I will elaborate on the book in another post (or two, or five….), there are many themes present in it that I have thought about obsessively since way before indulging in this particular book. What I truly enjoy about this book is that is succinctly captures many of the thoughts that I have been stewing over for at least three years. Two of those thoughts form an interrelated theme, one that I have only recently begun cracking open, though only to discover more layers below.
Nostalgia is a word with myriad meanings, but they all focus on the concept of an idealized past, one that is longed for in a loving way, full of memories of a greater-than-now time, innocent and often full of wonder, or at least love and warmth. The study of nostalgia as a political force has gained a little ground in recent years as sociologists, historians, political scientists, and even psychologists discover its power for influencing the world. Growing up in the Heartland in the midst of conservative politics, I can clearly attest to the power of nostalgia as an immense political force, and it is something that Hochshild hints at in her book, but it is something I feel deserves even more attention, as it forms not only a foundational piece of the current administration, but is in itself a pillar of an entire generation, if not ideological worldview. And it is one that spans the entire political spectrum, too.
Our current president has used nostalgia as the premier message for his campaign, with a promise to make American great again, as if there were a glory day to which we must return. Much in the same way that I have read about and discussed in the past few years regarding the idea of a pristine nature, we can clearly see that this idea doesn’t really quite exist, at least not in the way many supporters think it does. However, within it are truths that are important to acknowledge because not only do they help us understand this longing, but they are also powerful tools for moving forward in our society.
For me personally, the chief problem with nostalgia as such a critical junction in one’s ideology is its ephemerality. The truest constant of the universe is change. Research shows that liberals and conservatives incorporate different values of change into their own moral roots, and though this is not the entire moral story, it certainly has a measurable impact. If it did not, there would be little resonance for our current president’s message. However, despite its powerful pull and drive, we need to also acknowledge the ecological and scientific fact of the universe in which we live: change is a constant. We can either embrace it, or resist it to little avail. Besides, upon closer inspection, the idealized past that we long for probably never really quite existed as we thought it did. However, there may be aspects of it that did, which is why we study history. Union membership, for example, is one aspect of someone’s social class and upbringing that could influence their childhood idea of work and life that has simply withered itself away, for many reasons. However, if we look at what those numbers of union workers achieved, we might reconsider some of our current strategies within our movements.
Too many liberals and other progressives, though, focus on fighting the aspects of nostalgia that are obviously detrimental: the longing for a “whiter” world, the “return” of women to their “place,” and the diminishing of rights of many minorities, especially including LGBT folks. These are certainly real issues, and they must be taken extremely seriously, especially within the current administration. Though while we simultaneously fight to uphold these newly won rights, we should also ask the harder question: why is nostalgia such a powerful personal and political force?
Of all the morals, values, and ideologies shaping politics today, nostalgia plays not only a silent role, but a powerful one. It’s place within politics is relatively unexamined, at least when considering the reasons why it is such a powerful force, rather than just simply how. But a cogent analysis requires a little of both.
There are innumerable impacts of nostalgia on personal and political discourse, and here I will discuss a few that I have seen most resonantly in my experience and research.
Changing demographics has not only been an underlying force within politics in many obvious ways--increasing ethnic diversity, raising tension amongst social groups, and newer types of immigrants arriving to the country--but it has always changed the world in another, often less obvious way: regarding age. Baby boomers will soon be replaced as the dominant group, and with them, the dominant ideology of the current world. Without a doubt, this large demographic shift has shaped politics in modes both seen and unpredictable. I believe nostalgia is one of those shifts in the cosmos.
When examined on a personal level, age begets nostalgia, at least longing of a certain type. It is common when people reach certain ages to reflect upon their lives, reaching for the importance of their hard work, their community, their familial connections, and the general time that they have left. Upon reflection, one easily slips into nostalgia, in the form of hyperbolic stories or a longing for something no longer present, whether a fit mind and body or a loved one long since passed. As the largest generation in American history reaches this point in their lives, then, it is not pushing the envelope too far to claim that nostalgia would play a critical role in their everyday lives and that this may or may not bleed into their political worlds.
If we stop to consider the immense changes even in the last two decades in the lives of many boomers and older generations, we can simply gawk at how radical the world has become interconnected, faster, and more globalized in the matter of just one person’s 12 years of schooling. These changes have wrought other shifts in society as well, many of which are positive. However, many of these very changes also create an immovable shift as they collide headlong with the ideologies present in many previous generations. Some of these are moldable, others are not.
While the baby boomer generation will slowly leave us, their resistance to change may shift, but it is also likely that their longing for a past will also increase. In this way, and in others, we must ask ourselves what aspects of the past are best to remember. Surely any of us would love for any other person to want to remember life well, but the definition of a life lived well may differ between folks.
Within this difference, though, we find the more complex and nuanced factors influenced by the force of nostalgia in both personal and professional life.
Some of the shifts toward nostalgia are certainly guided by principles that many would renounce. In the US for example, there exists a small minority who long for some of these aspects of society, whether they be a return to a time when women and blacks and LGBT folks were reserved as second class citizens or at least to a time when those issues weren’t discussed in the ways they currently are being debated. At its deepest root, some of these folks may have genuine concerns, though I personally believe they are misguided in their solutions and overall conclusions. However, within some of these more radical viewpoints exist parcels of other, more common, beliefs.
One such belief relies upon the idea of tradition. As society increasingly becomes secular, scientific, and technologically based on a globalized system, traditions of all sorts are diminished, as new ones are consistently developed and refined. When one is in shock of these new changes--especially when they challenge the very foundations of one’s identity or morality--it is easy to side into a nostalgic state of mind, sometimes for good reason. It is important to note, though, that this slide away from tradition can affect both sides of politics, or at least issues that are associated with both sides. For example, while science undermines Judeo-Christian religion, technologies that exploit indigenous land breakdown tribal networks and governments. Though seen as divergent on the political spectrum, these issues are actually intimately tied and both sides participate in a form of nostalgia to lift these issues up, whether that be through a return to “traditional” Christian “family” values or the empowering of indigenous people to take back their homelands. In this way, nostalgia is practiced across the political divide.
Butting heads with tradition isn’t something that humans haven’t overcome in the past, as the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution clearly point out. However, the complete overhaul of traditional systems across the board is certainly something coming from nearly every academic field, from Quantum Theory to Philosophy to Ecology. Similar to Newton’s second law, it may not be too farfetched to consider an equal and opposite reaction from those still clinging to tradition in the face of a massive wave of global integration. In fact, many World Systems Theorists posit many events of the last half century in this regard, from terrorism against US and Western “values” to ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia and Burma. As new ideologies replace tradition there may be increased violence, hatred, and bigotry. Avoiding these will require compromise and empathy from all sides, I think.
Similarly, the left and the right use this nostalgia to refer to similar time periods, though often for very different reasons. For example, one idea of many libertarians is a return to simpler times, a time when people worked with their hands and could do many of the jobs needed in everyday life. This idea of simpler times can be seen across the spectrum but is especially prevalent in rural society that is increasingly becoming poorer, left out of the conversation, and is traditionally Christian and conservative. A very similar issue can be seen advocated on the left, though: the return to a pristine nature. Within the environmental movement, a return to the Pleistocene world of bountiful beauty and wildness is implicit and explicit within the discourse of the movement, though, once again, it spans the political spectrum. Both of these concepts are clearly half-truths: true in certain regards but not in their entirety.
There is another important point often acknowledged that both of these examples point directly toward: an idealized past. Many commentators contend that a certain past existed, and it is our duty to return to that past, especially because our current state has us “drifting away.” Historians are always quick to point out, however, that often our ideas of the past are often overzealous and unrealistic in their simplicity, even naive. However, even with this in mind, we must consider that not only do these logical details matter little, as nostalgia is a feeling and not necessarily a logical thought, it is also true that some aspects of the past not only were positive but may, indeed, be worth longing for, as they have slipped away from our societal grasp and other, less pleasant phenomena, have filled the void.
To begin, we can examine union membership. In the post-war period of US history, union membership soared and with it, a standard of living that become not only the basis for the mythical American Dream but also some sense of upward mobility and stability. Along with union membership, policies across the board favored the worker, but not necessarily at the expense of the owner. However, they did force corporations and bosses to become incredibly thoughtful about the ways they did business. This form of quasi-Keynesian economics succeeded for nearly 30 years before coming to a halt during the oil embargo crisis in the mid and late 1970s. During this time period, a new consensus emerged and union membership declined. Simultaneously following a half decade of membership collapse, business regulations also crumbled after the very successful early 1970s. Along with this, corporate taxes declined, automation increased, and offshoring thrived. The time of globalization emerged, to the detriment of many blue collar, unionized manufacturing and other jobs, which forced the entire economy to change, despite few supports from above. In this way, union membership declined throughout the years and with it, many of its benefits, including negotiating higher wages, worker benefits, and a general kinship amongst workers. As one can see, this positive benefit of looking nostalgically at the world could be to our benefit, and it is certainly something important to note.
Along with union membership, upward mobility has seen a recent decline in the US, along with a lack of belief in the myth of the promised American Dream. It is easy to turn toward nostalgia when the past certainly looked and actually existed, at least in certain ways, in a way that was more stable, with careers that helped someone get by.
Beyond just economic reasons, though, other factors are influencing an increased turn toward nostalgia, too. Some of these are cultural, such as beliefs in a time of more freedom, less PC conflict, or just simply a return to innocence and childhood, the golden years. With these in mind, it is important to realize that there are innumerable reasons why nostalgia influences politics and the personal today. In the end, it is critical to accept that while some aspects of nostalgia may be rooted in false notions, they are always in a sense “true” insofar as they evoke true, valid emotions, even when those emotions may be based on a false belief, or at best a half-correct belief, what I will call a half-truth or a double-truth. Despite this, understanding nostalgia as a political entity begins with thinking the why, not just the how.
Lessons From Buddhism Part 1
On a random Thursday (or maybe it was a Tuesday) in my 11th grade American Literature class, the teacher invited a speaker to join us for the day. As he entered the classroom, I could see a glistening shaved head and he wore a brown robe. Throughout our units of literature, we interspersed a variety of perspectives in the humanities, from philosophy to world religions. Today’s class focused on the latter. Earlier in the semester, our teacher had brought a much younger man studying to be a Rabbi to speak about Judaism. Today’s speaker was a Buddhist Monk. I had never met a Buddhist (nor had I previously knowingly met a Jewish Person either), and I was fascinated by the religion. It felt, in our tiny, secluded, sterilized community, like a brief journey to another place.
In class, the monk directed each of us in a short meditation exercise. As the awkward 16 year old that I was, I can’t recall particularly engaging well or witnessing anything profound. But the simple exposure to the new idea was enough for me, and I found it fascinating, even if my colleagues all believed it to be weird. Though I would not engage in such a practice for over a decade, the tiny seedling planted in my brain grew into a mighty oak. Not only did I late take up the practice, but I based my life around the curiosity of learning about new places and new people. Other events that year also fed into the transformation, as have events since, but when I took up meditation practice this fall, I had a found, nostalgic remembrance of that class.
Diligently searching for a teacher job, this summer became more stressful than I originally intended. Whenever my search turned unfruitful after some time, I knew I would need some personal changes in my life to motivate myself. The first was rejoining a climbing gym nearby, which was much-needed motivation and practice. The second was a search for a new practice, one part religion, one part meditation. Living in Seattle, numerous places exist that offer meditation. Likewise, numerous temples, monasteries, and abbeys also exist in large quantities, from all creeds and religions. Because of this, options were nearly overwhelming. Early in the search, though, I stumbled upon a monastery closer to my house, the Buddha Jewel Monastery.
Hesitant at first, I missed the deadline for signing up. Luckily, though, I emailed the crew after the first week and joined soon after in the third week. The class ends tomorrow, and it has been quite the journey.
Buddha Jewel Monastery has a unique setup. It’s housed in a former church that consists of a large meditation hall, a small entry area, and numerous small and medium-sized classrooms, in addition to a large dining hall in the basement. The building is recognizable from the nearby vicinity by its large stained-glass triangular outside, which sparkles in the morning and illuminates the nearby street at night. While in the high ceiling of the meditation hall near sunset, one can see tremendous glistening orbs dancing along the wall. The setting for the meditation is tremendous.
Helping students establish the skills, meditation practice at Buddha Jewel is intentionally designed with three levels, and I am currently finishing level one. Within level one, students are guided through most steps of the practice, from each routine into the next. Routines and rituals are practiced daily and carried out with great intention. This is perhaps the most unexpected introduction part of me, as I was not expecting it. However, I have grown to enjoy many of them, sometimes chanting sutras in my brain on the way to school or bowing before a nonexistent Buddha statue before practicing some meditation on my own. As a person who normally thrives without rituals, it has been tremendous to finally incorporate some aspects of rituals that I somewhat enjoy in my life. I used to do this with sports often, and it has been an aspect missing from my life in the last decade.
Growing up in a Christian household, I could never have imagined my mother allowing me to practice Buddhism instead of Christianity on a Sunday morning. Because of this, my announcing of joining the class took her partly by surprise, though she is much more open-minded than she once was. In fact, she has been quite open to the basic idea, though she is still a devout Christian, and I am sure longs for my soul to be saved by Christ. With this in mind, it has been interesting learning a new practice and almost wanting to “become” a Buddhist after having been raised in a truly conservative area where nearly everyone was devoted Catholics. The religion never really stuck for me, and I feel no less happy for abandoning it in my twenties. Although I have been enjoying it tremendously, I would almost not even consider the Buddhism that I practice to truly be a religion in the sense that it does not guarantee me enlightenment, heaven, or some other goal. Though despite that, I also take the practice seriously.
When being compared to Christianity, though, I have discovered profound differences. Some of these explain everything from my personal distaste of Christian doctrine to my uncovering of a closeted Buddha mindset. For example, many of the principles within the practices of Buddhism are not only scientifically sound but fit closely within ontologies in which I study and believe, as well as ideologies. Ecological ideas are closely related to Buddhism, for example, and many are more closely related to that religion that, say, Christianity. Stewardship of the Earth is about as close as many Christians get. Unfortunately because of dogma, many of the conservative Christians in the US barely even get that far. Its as though politics blinds the true lense of religion. But I suppose a religion that only preaches obedience might do that to someone who already has a hard time changing anything--especially beliefs.
Numerous other facets of Buddhism are not only inspiring and enlightening (pun intended) but also fascinating. One such example is Zen practice. The branch of Buddhism that I have been practicing is related to Chan Buddhism, known as Zen Buddhism in the US. though the world Zen has been appropriated to have various meanings, the particular mode of Zen Buddhism that I practice features simplicity and mindfulness at the center.
Within the practice of meditation, I have discovered, mindfulness in Zen practice is vastly different from my original ideas about it. To begin with, the goal of mindfulness in Zen practice is quite different from my original conception. Without many contexts, one may often get confused about the difference between mindfulness and mind-fullness. Though often confused, these two ideas are not necessarily related or similar. Mindfulness, I have discovered, is the intentional practice of using one’s own mind to tactfully identify thoughts, letting them rise and then fall, while simultaneously allowing yourself to drift back to a stage without thoughts or distractions. The theory goes that if you can accomplish this task enough times and with enough awareness, you can become enlightened. In this way, mindfulness is like awareness; it is extremely difficult, requires tremendous effort on behalf of the practitioner, and can even be frustrating. The more I have practiced in the Zen way, though, the better I have gotten at it, at least when I am meditating.
Whenever I started some meditation practices years ago during Silent Meeting at Farm & Wilderness camps, I had a certain idea of what a particular goal of meditation could be. There I would meditate using a particular story in my mind: the water cycle. Imagining my thoughts as a droplet of water, I would visualize a place that I knew well--in this case the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont--and I would imagine a single drop of water falling from the sky, rolling into a river, then traversing the rapids, stirring into Lake Champlain, and then eventually finding its way to the ocean. Once at the ocean, I would imagine it evaporating, condensing, and then finding its way back. This meditation practice was extremely relaxing and fulfilling, and it was useful practice for the amount of time we spent at silent meeting. Sadly, it never became a full-time practice.
When I started meditating again this year, I quickly found myself drifting from this practice, and I have not used it at all in the past 5 or 6 weeks. Though it is an extremely relaxing practice, I have found focusing on thoughts coming and going to be a better practice, attempting to focus as closely as possible on the Buddha Mind, the state without thoughts. Though I fail often, I can generally succeed for at least a few minutes at a time. In our practice, we meditate for about 35-40 minutes, followed by a walking meditation that takes about 10 minutes. This format is ritualistic but helpful.
Overall, my journey with Buddhism is only just beginning. I am hoping to take the Level 2 class next semester. There is much to look forward to in the practice, and I know that if I can keep with the momentum that I will discover even more next semester.
Reader's Note: This is another rambling post from a previous (2018) NaNoWriMo attempt. It is very "stream of consciousness" of my thoughts around that time where I was processing an influx of new philosophy and ideas, specifically from Timothy Morton and Slavoj Zizek. If that is what you are into, enjoy.
In the midst of the spectacles unfolding in our world, I often find myself reverting to the old trope “at a loss for words.” This is a bit ironic, as I have a multitude of words at my disposal. Perhaps, then, it is apt to address the situation not merely as the absence of words, but the difficulty with which to assemble them in any justifiable way--nay, beyond difficulty, the lack of skill, finesse, and utter disbelief. I simply have no model which fits the current paradigm.
I have been studying prodigiously the conundrums of the modern world; one may even say that I have been studying them from birth, having never quite understood the dominant ideologies. From the idea that my illiterate father working 70+ hours a week was not worthy of great treatment to the idea that a coal to diesel plant is the promising feat which will bring the deindustrialized rust belt farming community of my Southern Indiana hometown to the margin and back in line with competition in the global economic marketplace. Slavoj Zizek has called this “living in the end times” and “the trouble in paradise.” This week, literally, there was trouble in Paradise, Paradise, California that is, which exploded in flames as a wildfire engulfed the city, leaving only scraps in its wake.
Keeping with this train of thought, part of our present conundrum is not only present, but glaringly obvious in the wildfire conundrum, is it not? In efforts to bend the natural forces of the forest and climate to our will, we have inadvertently created the very same dangerous windfall that we sought to avert. The irony is painful.
So, too, are other ironies embedded in the system. The American Dream, an idea so ineradicable to the very psyche of 320 million people, states that only through our merits--the very pulling up of my own bootstraps--dictates my own success, not the cruel irony of sociology which, with near 100% accuracy, can predict not only my future income but also my voting record, geographical location, and gender while knowing rudimentary facts about me. Facts that, ironically, the giant corporate world of technology ruthlessly exploits for advertising profit, selling us more and more of what we know we want but are afraid to ask. It is as if the cloud-formed minds of Google Analytics knows us better than we know ourselves. Indeed, this is probably true, a kind of quasi-unconscious machine working on our behalf, befriending our brain and bringing to material fruition the very pleasures deeply ingrained in our psyche. Now they have broken free.
It is not just irony deeply enmeshed within this complex and complicated web of sociological, economical, and ecological webs, it is also a vast conspiracy. I do not mean to provoke the idea that JFK was overthrown by the government or that the illuminati is seeking information to infiltrate our minds--quite to the contrary, really. I am talking about the “unquestioned assumptions which are the true authority of any culture” that Derrick Jensen describes eloquently.
Unquestioned assumptions, to Zizek, might be quantified easily--though not wholly--as ideologies. The dominant ideologies include capitalism, patriarchy, white supremacy, and others. Part of the reason these assumptions go unquestioned lies in their very nature: as so wholly embedded into our network of connections, our misinterpreted worldviews, and our very subliminal actions that they dictate our very lives, often without us even knowing, a kind of unconscious consciousness. Indeed, the very silent and secretive methods are essentially integral to the success of this species.
Without a doubt, this is why any exposition of the dominant ideologies is often met with repression and violence. For to dominant ideologies, a questioning of the underlying assumptions is an act of violence within itself. Mostly, this is due to the fact that, to perpetuate the ideologies, the dominant structures must use violence to replicate, thus enclosing us within a complex web of daily violence to which we become accustomed, or related. This is so much so that when individuals step outside of the ideology and question its existence enough, they are met not only with existential crisis, but violence, hatred, and expulsion.
By invoking violence and shunning, the dominant ideology reinforces itself through unquestioned logic. Logic that, in order to answer many of the illogical questions of our day, need to be extracted, examined, and explained so that we can question the logical basis of the very idea itself.
Zizek and Jensen do this, though in different and at times contradictory manifestations. Jensen critiques dominant civilization, emphasising that it is inherently unsustainable and should thus be dismantled, a return to primitive anarchist societies replete of market economies and filled with natural abundance and wonder. In other words, a farce. But to leave Jensen as a farce would be reductionist, for his insight--especially at a personal, individual level--is utterly valuable. On the contrary, Zizek, though somewhat flawed as he is, offers us at least a tool, an idea with which to critique the current dilemma, one that is instructive, utilitarian.
Within the Communist idea, we must rethink and reframe the world. But to first do this, we must be able to “name the thing” as hooks has referred to, an earlier reference to a pedagogy of the oppressed. Using hooks and Freire, we can construct a useful narrative--or perhaps counter narrative?--with which we can place our thoughts and ideas for reconstructing our society. To do this, we must engage in dialogue, perhaps even dialectics. For us now, dialogue is not an answer but a methodology, one which will enable us to deconstruct dominant ideologies which are decimating our positive lifeworlds. In the process of dissection, we may even find within the dominant ideology concepts and structures which we find useful. We must keep those. For it is not within the revolutionary mindset to wholly dismantle the world; indeed, this is where most previous revolutions have failed. In destroying the entirety of the previous lifeworlds, they decimate the very base with which they require to produce new revolutionary ideas in the first place. This must be the first step away for us engaging in dialogue today.
In accepting some forms of the dominant ideology, though, we must be quick to acknowledge that, because ideology is often invisible and silent, we must stray from reductionist and the reversion back to inadvertently accepting the dangerous aspects of dominant ideas. This is where dialogue plays a positive role, as it is gives us a base with which we can discuss and dissect ideas which are useful.
Though dialogue within a small percentage of our society is not likely to topple the dangerous elite which controls most amounts of power, it does create resistance within microcosms of the larger context. These tribes can then disperse and permeate the cultural fabric of the major framework.
In this way, we must be careful of the echo chamber, always assuring that we can reexamine our ideas and thoughts. Perhaps a useful way to do this is always to examine our thoughts and ideas through a specific lens. For Zizek, this lens is communism, in addition to psychoanalysis, where he relies heavily on Lacan and Hegel. Though I have no grasp of these specific thinkers, their ideas are profound. Engaging in dialogue with Zizek is not just thus an intellectual exercise, but a revolutionary one, complete with jokes and pop culture references galore. He even goes so far as to make a useful metaphor from architecture, as a living reference to our current agenda. Such profound insight is useful when moving forward to critique dominant ideologies.
To engage in dialogue is to revoke complicity and, in a contorted indirect manner, to confront injustice and immorality. Thus dialogue is a revolutionary act. Even small revolutions have great power, and it is power which we lack--and that which we wholeheartedly deserve.
Though I clearly do not intend to fully undermine individual autonomy, the present crises and challenges require a global scale, at a globalized pace. That is, to confront vast issues such as climate change (read: the multiple challenges embedded within the idea of climate change), we need to, at least in part, grasp their components. Because climate change is really much more than just a changing climate--it is vast species extinction, warming oceans, deforestation, habitat destruction, a warming climate, and decreased net productivity and biodiversity--it requires a multitude of approaches, each of which relates to a dominant ideological critique. At times, with the appropriate effort, we will find many of these dominant ideologies enmeshed within each other, namely within the capitalist industrial globalized economic and political system.
To confront the challenge of this multitude of complexities, we need a new ideological framework. Here, Timothy Morton is helpful. Arguing for an “ecological” worldview which is itself nearly entirely removed from the ideologies of the modern era, Morton provides us a road-map, a new ideology, with which to examine the current unfolding phenomenon.
Morton’s text, Being Ecological, is strangely a magnum opus, yet a delightfully simple counter-narrative. “You do not have to become ecological, because you already are.” is the simplistic message apparent at the book’s conclusion. Forwardly, he admits that the text is for those who are “not ecological” or do not call themselves so. He repeatedly uses the word retweet while referencing art and literature, hence while delving headlong into philosophy from Kant to Heidegger, in a digestible way. In a simplistic manner, you almost agree with in conclusion. But it is not just the agreements which make Morton worthwhile, it is the tools he evokes.
First, let us start with the idea that problems are large, complex, and multifaceted issues that we can only ever grasp a portion of at any given moment. Morton provides us language for this: a hyperobject. Originally used in computer science to explain phenomenon, Morton re-purposes the idea--one that is embedded within the philosophy of object oriented ontology--and breathes into it not only a new life, but a useful way to understand our surroundings.
Though less “materialist” than Zizek, it argues for a seeking beyond the simply graspable material which comprises an object. To put this simply, a hyperobject is something that in and of itself is entirely “un-graspable” in that it extends across such a dimension--namely spatially and temporally as well as geographically and, I would argue, almost intellectually--that it cannot at any one point become grasped. If you boil it down, as many of my friends have when interacting with the idea with me, anything is a hyperobject. In abstract reality, they are correct. But this does not detract from the value embedded within such an idea.
For instance, the very “anti-hyperobjectivity” of our own political debates presents us with demonstrably credible evidence for hyperobjects. In my undergraduate studies, I took an independent study course with a professor where we discussed leadership within education. One of the topics he remembers to this day was a day we spent discussing the differences between complex and complicated, noting how in the modern world we make issues that are complex complicated because we cannot fully grasp them. The same is true for hyperobjects, and herein lies their importance.
When we think of using hyperojects as a useful framework to understand (and I would argue even to study, to engage in dialogue, and to critique so as to learn) issues and ideas within the modern world, we provide ourselves with a useful idea. Take a high school class, Government. The very study of isolated subjects such as Government within high school (or I suppose college) is the study of hyperobjects. Your job as the teacher is to literally explain a hyperobject in the hopes that you can break down this object into useful schema with which your students can digest and apply to interact with the world. Does any student at the conclusion of your course know what “the government” is in its entirety? Does anyone. Herein lies the importance of the idea of hyperobjects within the confines of dialogue and revolution.
To make the most of Morton, though, we must engage with his other ideas, too. Namely, the Mesh, which I will further analyze below.
For years, philosophers, writers, adventurers, theocrats, and outdoorsman of all kinds have attempted to typify the enmeshed nature (no pun intended) with which humans are embedded within the world. Many have succeeded, though often in a new-agey spiritual enlightenment that views humans as somehow directly equivalent with other life forms, and so on. In seeking this mesh, the deep ecologists took the reigns, though, and transformed the idea, implicating a disastrous and dangerous idea, which ironically played on the very notions which they pretended to avert: the dichotomy of humans and nature.
Beyond New Age spiritualism, though, we can approach the topic from the philosophical foundations of Morton and Zizek. With the useful critiques of Jensen as the foundational base, we can inject the ideas through the lenses of the philosophers. The, through the political and historical lenses of Wapner, Purdy, and others, we can begin to reimagine our current place. Before that, though, let us consider the nature and culture dichotomy through the lens of the mesh.
Morton’s idea of hyperobjects is critical to understanding the mesh and how nature is an antiquated concept, not to mention the value-added statements it promotes, which I will discuss later. When we examine an object as so massively temporal, spatial, and geographic (even in terms of micro-geography, i.e. the idea that I cannot comprehend the multitude of atoms with which you are made), it begins to almost lose its subjectivity or even objectivity. Morton describes this as the whole being less than the sum of its parts. To him, the whole is reducible to one, or perhaps a couple, which in reality is less than the sum of everything which makes up that object. In reality, we can extrapolate this even further. Let’s take the example of the government class from previously. If, at the end of the course, our students can write an entire book based around the government, say one which describes the functioning of the government in great detail. Does this fully grasp the concept? No, because even this vast amount of knowledge is still less than the knowledge and the ideology of the government that is embedded within the totality of the world. To put it simply, even my vast understanding of something is less in its entirety than that something. This is exactly why science works, is it not? When I write an article, complete with all of my vast stores of knowledge and research of an object, I construct an understanding of that thing. When I submit it to peer review, though, someone whose stores of knowledge are nearly identical from mine but who possess a certain extra bit of information can add that to the study, right? Even so, along comes a third person who adds or extrapolates even more. In this way, each successive scientist adds to the totality of the thing, though never fully reaching the thing. In this way, the whole of the paper is still less than its subsequent parts. This does not even take into the consideration the other aspects of the “totality” of something, namely the political and philosophical consequences, rather we as simply discussing merely the “ontology” of the thing. What science does for us though is provide links, and this is the second important aspect.
As our vast knowledge grows indefinitely, we recognize that problems are connected. For instance, ocean acidification is related to the amount of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere. Herein begins the mesh. Though we cannot understand the totality of the ocean or even of CO2, we can begin to see their relationship. When we dig deeper, we reveal more relationships and more layers. This process can extend indefinitely. The deeper we dig, the more enmeshed we become. Herein lies the utility of this idea.
It is in these interconnected complexities that we must ask the question, “so where is the human and nature divide? Does it exist? Or did we create it?” Even if we did create it, it does not prove its creation useless, though it does, I think, encourage us to engage in dialogue and critique our current ideas, namely the strictness of the dichotomy. It is not difficult to understand how such an understanding the world was ingrained it the nearly global psyche. Religion, and even early science, played a role, not to mention the humanities, which argue for a truly human experience. In interrogating the mesh, we are left with questions, such as what is even human? Did we draw these borders arbitrarily, and what might be the consequences of such actions?
It is these very same questions I have pondered for years, fed by the deep ecologists and theologians, such as Thomas Berry, who initially interrogated the ideas through theology, arguing in alignment with eastern perspectives for a more connected world. Surely that is what we have built.
Taking the ideas of complicity within dominant ideologies and the existence of a mesh permeated by hyperobjects, there should be an implicit and explicit call to action. Within the implicit realm, we must realize that, no matter what, we are affecting the mesh through which we are immersed. This means, that no matter what actions we take, we have an effect. As Morton posits, in this way you can view a plastic bag not as such, but as a trap for a turtle. In the same way, this realization posits us with explicit action: what must we do about this revolutionary idea? My answer: engage in dialogue with it. When we approach the subject and interrogate it thoroughly, we can achieve much of merit. Namely, I believe there are a few specific realms which should be interrogated such, and I will list them below.
First, the idea within the book The Human Planet: How We Created the Anthropocene is exactly that: how did we get here? What are the historical, philosophical, scientific, and sociological meshes and constructions which enable the Anthropocene?
Secondly, what does this mean? These are philosophical questions. Beyond ontology, and the how, we must approach the meaning of this thing within our world. What does this newfound knowledge and framework provide for us?
And lastly, what must we do about this? What call to action does this muster, if any? After deciding the how and the what, we must approach the why. This is a political, philosophical, and ultimately, ecological question of great value.
Let us dissect it with dialogue.
Reader's note: This was a fun little experiment that I tried on The Prose. They offer daily, weekly, and monthly writing challenges, some even for money. I thought I would give my hand a go at one of them. Here was the prompt from the website:
"The End. It's over. SARS-CoV-2 is no more. We emerge from our shelters. What do we see? What have we learned? How will we change?"
The goals sheet taped to the wall next to the refrigerator has been glaring at me for hours, begging a look. Catching a side glimpse, my gaze mostly avoids it. Tapping rhythmically, my pen fails to scratch more words on the check on the table.
Pay to the Order of…
Any cluster of words with “Funeral Home” hadn’t been the phrase I’d anticipated writing on my next check, but then again, it has been some time since I wrote one, probably back when I bought the old Cavalier rusting outside in the lot. I avoid naming the check’s benefactor, and I direct my attention to the amount. Flipping through the bills and envelopes on the kitchen table, I pull it out from the bottom of the pile.
Smith & Sons Funeral Home. “Dear Mr. Williams…” Avoiding the subsequent paragraph, I continue down the page to the amount listed at the bottom. I quickly toss the thought of the old Cavalier out of my mind, coming instead to understand a larger number. Quickly copying the amount onto the check, I follow with a signature and date. I tap the desk a few more times. Placing my forehead into my open palm, I let out a sigh before finally addressing the check.
Jumping to the checkbook, I scribble the amount and do some quick math, calculating what I’ll have for groceries next week. I’ve been scant in the preceding weeks, so I am hopeful. As I proceed back across the room to the rustic blue chair in the corner, I spot the goals sheet again, before avoiding its gaze again.
Go to graduate school. Nearly nine months prior I had written a Personal Statement, hell-bent on returning to school after finally paying off the previous half of my student loan account. Finish 20 books before August. A copy of The Overstory still sat silently on the corner of the end table nearest the chair. Train for marathon. Registration for the race had luckily been refunded since all races were canceled, and, unfortunately, my weekly mileage was a pittance.
The letter from the funeral home arrived last week, and I’ve also been avoiding it. Mom had passed six months ago already, and I was just receiving the notice. Diabetes. She’d been having some issues all spring and, due to overflowing hospitals, when she went into shock, there wasn’t much to be done. Long waiting room lines and overworked doctors and staff couldn’t get around to her. Pre-screening took centuries. The next time a doctor encountered her it was to pronounce her dead.
Amidst the cacophony of voices around the news cycle, one could vaguely distinguish the number: just over 100,000 folks had passed due to the virus. Every time I encountered the number--from posts on the internet that included right-wing attack dogs decrying shutting an entire economy for a mere pittance to liberals denouncing the selfish president--I shuddered, and wondered. Official counts listed 100,000, but everyone I knew felt as if it had been higher.
Six months prior, after mom passed, we’d had to hold off any plans for a funeral, and it was impossible to think otherwise. Luckily, we decided to have mom cremated and we still hadn’t been able to go to the Crematorium to pick up the ashes, though that was likely to clear in the next two weeks as more “non-essential” businesses were opening up again rapidly. For the past month, other businesses had been operating at limited capacity, though not quite in full quarantine mode, as had been the case the previous six months. Strict distancing policies, as well as mask-wearing protocols, had been implemented since the highest rate of decline, though some states still outright rejected this.
Despite the numbers crawling slowly downward, strict measures were enacted and we were just beginning to emerge on the other side, though less so in the Northeast where I was living at the time. Unfortunately, mom was still in the Midwest, one of the regions struck the hardest, especially as the virus moved into rural areas with many old folks, like her.
After taking another long glance at the goals, I shift in my seat, stand up, grab the check. I place it in an envelope, seal with a lick, and proceed to leave.
Outside, I pull my mask over my face as I close the door behind me. With a few strides, I’m on the street. I start to divert into the middle of the road before catching myself, remembering that the street has re-opened to vehicular traffic. Luckily there is no one on the street, so I don’t have to awkwardly dart six feet to the side. I stick to the corner of the sidewalk anyway.
Moving down three blocks, I look up and recognize the dark blue container with the white label. With a swift gesture of the hand, I deposit my envelope and turn toward the door of the Post Office. Curling my coat sleeve in my fist, I open the handle with a quick yank. Steering six feet clear from the desk, I march toward the small box, turn the key, and pull out the small envelope.
Multiple rounds of stimulus checks went to the public before the crisis had reached six months. The first took nearly half that time to arrive, and I knew people who were never granted the monetary pension. After some congressional brawl, the government released two more waves of money to the public. I’d missed out on my second check because they’d only been given to those who’d successfully applied for unemployment, which I hadn’t, but I had lost my job at the time.
Prior to the second stimulus check, I’d been teaching at a small, local high school in the history department. Initially, our school banded together and taught virtually for a few months before the summer vacation came along. Our valiant deeds hadn’t really paid off, though, as society still struggled to stand on its own legs. Then came the budget cuts.
Half of the teaching staff were laid off, mostly in “non-essential” subject matter, starting first with the arts, followed closely by physical education, and lastly, the humanities, with history suffering the worst since English teachers still taught according to the test.
The following Fall was a tough job market, as individuals across the country--a total nearing 60 million at one point--had applied, in some form, for job assistance and unemployment. Make that 60 million and one. I applied for nearly 100 teaching jobs but never landed a single interview. With money running short, I caught wind of a few places hiring down the road and took up the shovel to dig some ditches along roads for a new program through a conservation corps program. I had no envy of brute labor, but I had at least known it in earlier years, building trails along the Appalachian Mountains for a few summers to pay my way through college. But after half a decade of teaching, I hadn’t expected my master’s degree to prepare me for this.
Luckily, more government stimulus had been pushed toward a few federal job programs, one of which focused on building railroads, a new staple in the project. It was evident this was a compromise between the two parties, as the conservatives would only approve money for people to work, but it at least made them look as though they supported so-called “green labor.” I was probably only able to secure the job because I’d at least had a track record of more than three years of work, even if teaching hadn’t paid well. A commitment was all they wanted, it seemed. And maybe grit.
Sticking to the curb, I make my way down two more blocks before reaching the ATM. I peel open the paper and scan the code on the underside of the fold. Government checks usually went to direct deposit, but after having to switch banks because of closures, I still hadn’t enrolled in the program. Punching a few buttons, the ATM brings up my account. Doing some quick figures in my head, I reconsider purchases from the last week. With the 200 dollars I’d gotten from selling my laptop on Craigslist and the new check, I’d cleared the red, though not as much as I’d hoped. I sigh a little and turn away after clearing the transaction, darting back home but not before dodging a few passersby, six feet away.
A few minutes later, I’m back at home. I drop the torn envelope atop the pile of others before turning for the chair. I let out a long sigh as I settle in. Without my laptop around, I reach instead for my phone. I flip over the cover, and a blank screen appears, dead. I cross the room to plug it in, and I catch another glimpse of the goals sheet, hanging off the wall near the refrigerator.
This time I walk over to it and stare at it for a little while, reading. Ten or so items populate the list, zero of them checked off. My gaze turns downward for a moment.
Turning, I pull the sheet from the refrigerator and, with a swift twist of my wrist, rip it in half, then half again, again. Curling the shreds into a ball, I toss them into the trashcan.
With a sigh, I slowly stride back to my chair. Seated, I glance toward the trash, then back ahead at nothing. Folding my arms, I sit quietly for a while and contemplate the bills, the check, the opening of businesses, mom. I stay somber and voiceless for a few minutes.
Then, as if summoned, I rise up, hunch next to the table, tear a piece of paper from the last notebook, and title the top of the page Goals. I tap, tap, click the pen a few times, thinking. Glancing back down sternly, I add a box and simply put: write.
Knowledge and Experience Part One
Yesterday in class, I experienced a hilarious incident that also had profound meaning. I had set up a small group discussion activity with mixed groups in the classroom. I teach in a diverse and urban high school in Seattle with many students of color in the classroom alongside their white peers. It is also a college prep school, with the expectation that all students will attend college after enrollment. Because of this, it offers an interesting mix of students from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds, as well as ethnicities and races.
During our small group activity, which was highly structured, students were given the opportunity to “discuss” a particular element of which they had prepared. Mostly they were asked to answer objective questions, however, this time they were discussing an opinion based question. They were asked to collaborate as a group, either choosing to pick the best answer from everyone’s to support the group or to guide the group in synthesizing the overall ideas into one. While most groups chose the first option, a few attempted the latter. The volume level in the class grew accordingly, which was fine because students were mostly on task. Then it happened.
In a moment of exhilaration, a student, a white boy from an upper-middle-class family who feels as though he is “woker” than thou, blurts out, “Did you even learn about slavery?” Mind you half the students in class turn and look at the palest student in the room. Another student, another white boy nonetheless, but one who has no filter responds, “Boy, shut up! You were a damn slave owner,” to which the class erupts in laughter.
A similar phenomenon abounds in public school classrooms. Despite how hilarious this statement was and how unshaken (but maybe a tiny bit embarrassed) the well-meaning student was about his comment, it struck a chord. This chord rings well to the tune of online culture, as well as harmonizes with movements at the forefront of social justice, and it brings up an important point. While the student clearly had the best intentions (and I do not discourage him from speaking up in general), something about a white upper-middle-class student, who has probably never experienced racial oppression, teaching other students--many of whom are from lower-income families--about a reality of racism in the form of slavery, feels disjointed, off-kilter, at least in the way it came across. However, it brings up the critical difference between two important words that are shaping our world and discourse in the 21st century: knowledge and experience.
Trained in experiential education, I often dream about the connections between experience and knowledge and how they reinforce each other in a positive sense. While they are often connected, it is imperative to understand them distinctly, too, especially regarding social experience.
In the prior scenario, the student clearly had knowledge about the subject of slavery. He clearly pointed out the atrocities and, attempting to use the knowledge for praxis, he was speaking truth to power. However, to a group of students whose lived experience has probably more closely aligned with those oppressed folks, there is a bit of hilarity in the gesture due to the reality of having a relatable lived experience.
Though this does get to the heart of some of the fights currently within social movements, I do not mean to claim that white people can never talk about racism or that men should never speak about sexism. Indeed, they should probably never claim to be experts, at least in terms of the experiences of those things. However, if we moved beyond lived experience into the realm of more objective forms of knowledge, men and white folks can be just as well versed as anyone else to relay information. For example, a white professor at a community college teaching slavery in West African history who has a Ph.D. and studied abroad and wrote books about Ghana is going to have much more content knowledge and an understanding of the lives of slaves than just your average black person. However, that same professor, being upper-middle-class mostly likely, would not necessarily have similar experiences to people of color in the US that may feel connected to Ghana through their African heritage with that country if their ancestors were brought here as slaves.
The latter statement is one that gets incredibly lost in discussions of privilege, oppression, and social justice, I think. And, as of now, the world is worse off for it.
In no way am I advocating that white folks or men are the experts at having a lived experience of sexism. Though if we were to really delve into the details, there can be some objections clarified in ways that the current movement also does not like. But those are comments for another time. For my purpose right now, I just want to clarify the differences between the two because they are impactful when understood discretely.
When a person claims to hold the knowledge that only another group has, this is clearly a missed spot, something they should not claim to have, even if their ego inspires it. On the other hand, when folks have a certain expertise in relevant areas, they should feel empowered to use that, especially when around other people of a similar background. For example, as a white educator, not only do I feel it is my duty to teach slavery and oppression, but I think it is almost even more important for some white students to hear it. This is not because they benefit from it more, but rather because they learn just as much as well as more about the experience of those different from them.
In the end, we should be careful to criticize, open to discussion, and promote as much dialogue as possible, in the true Freirean sense. To do this, though, we need to clearly define our terms, which means staking the differences between a lived experience of oppression and the knowledge of an oppression. The same is true for numerous other topics.
Reader's note: This is a letter I wrote to the editor of an online newspaper near where I grew up in Indiana where I argue against a proposed Coal to Diesel manufacturing facility being built. It is still being debated today. The Indiana Department of Environmental Management has approved the permit for the facility.
In the field of economics, there is a term rarely understood by those outside of academia or policy debates. Its lack of comprehension is probably not by accident, for, if it were understood, the public would cause an uproar. Regarding the proposed Coal to Diesel plant in Dale, though, the concept is critical for the public to grasp, to comprehend, and to consider the implications of it relating to the factory, regardless of the stance of the individual.
To begin, one must understand a related but often misinterpreted concept within economics: cost. When we hustle down to Holiday Foods, we very closely consider cost, but when it comes to the air we breathe, we consider it free. In economics, a cost is anything paid by a consumer or a producer for a product or the means to produce that product to be sold on a market. In the US, this is relatively straightforward: if I own a piece of property and want a lawnmower, I simply drive to the store and purchase it, given that I have the money for the purchase. Without much fuss, I obtain my item and continue home to finish my work. The complications of cost in a market occur when something additional happens, something outside of the consumer-producer relationship. One of these is the externality.
An externality involves a cost that is neither paid by the consumer nor the producer directly but which is paid by some third party at their own expense, though not often with their consent. To complicate the story further, the party is often unaware of the cause of the cost, mostly because it comes from an entity with which they do not engage. Sometimes the producer or consumer of this additional cost is unaware as well. Let’s break this down with an example.
If I build a new business near Walmart in Jasper that creates the need for an additional stop light, my business inadvertently creates slower traffic and wait time. Though I did not intend this originally, my business has created a cost that neither myself nor my clients (although in this case, it may actually be some of them, though not nearly all of them considering it is workers leaving Jasper) have paid for in our operations. Of course, the cost in this scenario is simple: it’s time, a minute at most. Most people are okay with waiting a few seconds at a stop light or a stop sign if it guarantees them safety when crossing the road. For many, this externality is simple and doesn’t require solving, although it is a tiny nuisance that creates a benefit: safety when crossing the road. This demonstrates how externalities can unintentionally create both positive and negative events. So how does all of this relate to Coal to Diesel?
It’s simple, really. Mr. Merle’s factory will produce a new fossil fuel to be sold on markets, which satisfies a demand, in the process creating jobs and paying for coal miners, contractors, and so on. Unlike a traditional market, though, the prices don’t stop there. Why? Because of the pollutants that the factory produces--think of the 1 million tons of CO2 emissions per year, the wastewater drained to Evansville, and the toxic emissions--there will be some who do not directly benefit, such as nearly everyone indirectly related to the business, who will be forced to pay those costs, regardless of their desire for the factory. Thus begins the work of dismantling externalities because it forces us to ask the question: Is it right for someone who does not benefit from this plant to have to pay the costs directly related to its operation, even though they never see the benefit of it?
This is a moral question, not an economic one, although it can have economic solutions, most of which are absent in Mr. Merle’s plant. First, his plant is incorporated in Delaware. Why Delaware when he lives in Connecticut and the company operates in Indiana? Delaware has no income tax, so this one is obvious. Also, in Connecticut, he doesn’t have to breathe the air. Why Indiana? Because it is “good for business” as Merle says, neatly quoting the new Senator. Why is Indiana seen as “good for business” but only for certain types of business? Due to a lack of regulation and monitoring. Why this lack of regulation? Well, we could continue forever, but it essentially boils down to the health of the community and externalities, which brings us back around.
In a market-based system, there are a number of ways one could approach solving externalities. These already exist in some form within the state of Indiana and within the US, although in many places they do not consider the whole problem. If they did, coal in many states would prove less competitive, especially when stacked up against the full price of operation of its opponents, such as wind and solar and even nuclear. The point here is that Indiana does regulate air, water, and other systems, but differently than other states and countries, which is why it is so “business friendly.” This has public consequences, though. To address this with market solutions, the government and the public could require pollution permits, charging businesses fees for polluting the the water and air, charged at a per-ton rate. A carbon tax could be implemented to do something similar, which would incentivize companies to not pollute, as they would be charged by each ton of carbon. Another way to pay for the externality could be through higher corporate taxes, though Merle’s plant will likely not pay any state income taxes so this could be challenging. If any of these are successfully implemented, the benefits could then be given back to the community to pay for the damaged lungs, poisoned water, and babies with developmental disabilities that are all a result of toxic pollutants and environmental degradation. In doing this, it would redirect the cost from a third party to the party either buying or selling the product, in this case, diesel fuel.
However, this assertion that a business (or indirectly, the consumer) should pay for the full cost of operation when there are negative consequences is seen as a farcical joke, laughed off as easily as the reality of a changing climate. So in reality, not only will the business not pay for the externality, but it will also exacerbate the extractivist business model. Extractivism defines a system that allows a company outside of a region to extract the full value of the resource of a geographical area while usually causing damage to the region in the process without returning to it the value which it harvested from its resources. This is evident not only in Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and India historically, but it was also a defining feature of Appalachia for half a century, too, in the form of the company town. This coal to diesel plant seeks to do something similar, farming Indiana's coal reserves for a few hundred jobs and one business chartered in Delaware, all while not paying for the externalities present in the operation of the facility.
Not only does this exploration and understanding of externalities force us into moral and ethical questions, but it also allows us to confront, with vigor, the idea of additional pollutants to an area of the country that already suffers from some of the worst pollution in the US. If Duke Energy’s Gibson Power Plant, the third largest coal-fired plant in the world, is not charged per-ton of pollution, why would we expect Riverview to pay for its pollution? Merle has already stated that he “will operate fully within IDEM limits” though this falls short. Sadly, Gibson also operates within these guidelines, and it is not only one of the largest contributors in the US to a changing climate but also releases tons of toxic chemicals and pollution. If this plant falls under these regulations and the result of those regulations is still a decrease in the quality of life, we might bid well to reconsider the IDEM’s standards. Indeed, they do not fully consider external costs, amounting in my opinion to something environmentalist Rob Nixon calls slow violence: “violence that occurs gradually and out of sight; a delayed destruction often dispersed across time and space.” It is violence because it kills and disables; it is destructive because the damage is done to the community, slowly, even invisibly in the air you breathe.
It is this destructive devaluing of life that has wrought some serious damage to the area, myself not immune. My father mined coal for over 25 years and is disabled because of it. His mother died of lung cancer having never smoked a day in her life. Hundreds of others have similar or worse stories. Calculating the operational cost in terms of human life and wellbeing challenges us to consider the price tag we place on human relationships and happiness, a battle I will let the reader resolve.
Notwithstanding, none of this considers the larger externality: the social cost of carbon. The social cost of carbon is a cost calculated yearly by an offshoot of the EPA that determines the impact of carbon emissions on the entirety of the US economy. It factors into the equation the cost of adding carbon to the atmosphere and the negative externality of inadvertently warming the Earth in the process, thus creating additional costs for farmers, workers, and citizens whose jobs depend on aspects of the climate remaining stable, such as precipitation and temperature. Conservatively estimated, the Environmental Defense Fund places its value at 40 dollars per ton of carbon. If you flew across the Atlantic and back, that would be an additional 80 dollars for your flight.
Factoring in the cost of carbon and pollution not only to the Earth but to those downwind and downstream, it is critical that we examine this proposed plant with scrutiny and weigh the costs and benefits. For a region that already suffers from a lack of environmental justice, this added cost would be expensive and unnecessary, not to mention unjust. If Mr. Merle can provide evidence of paying for not only the social cost of carbon but also the externalities of the production, perhaps we can come to the table. But for a business that utilizes a state without income taxes and another with lax regulation for its business, we shouldn’t expect a positive reply. A few well-paying jobs at the expense of the community’s health and wellbeing--a cost that we cannot even begin to define in dollars--is something that Southern Indiana should not be willing to pay. Hoosiers deserve the justice that is owed to them, and another polluting plant that produces negative externalities for the majority should not be built, especially if there is no reasoned attempt to address the external costs to society. Instead, let us come together as a community and build a resilient energy system not wholly dependent on the degradation of human life and extractivism for its existence. To do otherwise would be a further injustice.
-Ethan C Smith, Formerly of Ferdinand
About the Author
Ethan C Smith is an educator, adventurer, and thinker who is passionate about education, ecology, and social class. He happens to also spend a great deal of time reading and thinking about history, literature, philosophy, music, the future, and coffee.