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
Note to reader: This was originally posted as a Medium article some months ago... Enjoy.
The rain pattered atop my somber blue raincoat, as my ears thrummed amidst the rhythm and the passing vehicles reverberated inside my hood. Squishing tires splashed small puddles along the curb, which missed my sodden feet by only inches. I lifted my pale eyes to the street lantern, which flashed at a pause with two yellow bulbs before transitioning to green. I squelched across the road with a jaunt, street signs creaked as I passed underway.
Edinburgh’s streets are dark, not just because they are Gothic, the architectural style is known for sweeping upward with sharp steeples and pointed arches, but because it is a somber city, in the most beautiful of ways. On this day, I roamed a neighborhood south of Edinburgh Castle, an area known for a small cluster of local bookstores. I’d visited two already, and I was slowly making my way to a third.
The noted book store hails itself as the chief store for antique books in the region, which says something considering the ancient history of the area. In the United States, if people discover anything from before the turn of the 20th century, it is instantly declared ancient, put on a shelf, and often sold at an antique emporium on the outskirts of a city. On the contrary, to be old in Europe, you must last at least a millennia, if not longer.
When you conjure images of antique books in your mind, you might picture an old professor bound in a musty attic assiduously perusing dusted covers of Shakespeare or John Locke. Perhaps, they might be sitting in an old chair with creaky arms. With that image in mind, I strolled into the properly named Armchair Books.
As my trail runners squeaked along the sidewalk, I rounded the corner, passing a coffee shop as the store came into view. From the outside, the book store appeared like a maze—no, a jungle—of books, stacked haphazardly onto shelves, the floor, and across a teetering plank lining the palely lit roof. A creaky green door opened to an awkward tight corner, which, when traversed, immersed one in a tunnel of books. I stepped into a breeze of warmth, pale lamplight, and a pathway of books.
People often describe the smell of old books simply as “that old book smell.” This description does no justice for books, nor for the smell. As I stepped through the first level of books, rounded a right-hand turn, and tiptoe past the employee desk, I glimpsed the first signs of an antiquarian room. The smell radiated before entering, and it was soothing, not in that it relaxed your muscles or mind but because it was calm. Yes, it was tranquil.
Relaxed, my eyes wandered between the nooks and crannies of shelves, followed soon by fingers that were tracing bindings. They passed over words and manuscripts, both frozen in time. After a minute, I reached high on one shelf and pulled down a copy of The New Testament. Blazoned with gold letters and a greenish-blue cover, the book was stiff and vinyl under my gently moving fingers. With forefinger and thumb, I carefully pulled back the hardcover of the tiny trinket. It was rigid, and I managed to move a few pages along the way, opening coincidentally to the publish date of 1895. Like moving the arthritic fingers of a grandparent, I slowly worked the pages back and forth before they regained their vigor once again, flowing freely to be read again. My eyes squinted to read the print figures along the gold-lined pages, wrapping each like a wedding ring so worn and old, like a widow refusing to take it off, even after all these years.
I stroked the cover once again with my hands and, stretching my left arm high above my head, replaced it again on the bookshelf. My eyes followed the lettering as I searched for more classics. I discovered a copy of children’s stories, some old poetry, and a book on Scottish history. Each filled with wonders, each telling a story, many of whom have been dormant for years, except for the small moment they were opened and priced by the bookstore employee.
I spent a few minutes reading before I hear a squeak from the roughly patched floorboard nearby. I glanced up and met the eyes of an elderly gentleman with a flat cap. His cap was green and it matched his eyes. A cane in one hand, he moved slowly to navigate a step up into the antiquarian room. A few taps and he reached his bookshelf but not before getting distracted by the nearby Architecture section, which is comprised of mostly newer books. After a quick peek, his attention moved again, slowly, to the antiquarians.
I spent a few seconds observing his hands as they traced the covers of a few older pieces of literature. He finds a rather hefty book, tugs at it with a concerted effort, and manages to retrieve it with a little more effort. His stiff arm moves obliquely from the shelf and takes two attempts to straigthen. A shaking hand finds its way to the top of the hardcover, and he flicks open the top with a half-clasped fist. With a pointer finger and thumb clamped together, he thumbs through pages, five or ten at a time, before he backtracks with another five or ten. A few attempts later, he lands upon the publication date page and ponders over it for a minute.
With a sigh, he pauses, and says, “I remember this.”
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.