Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Math lesson

Deborah Fisher presents an exhaustive discussion of why environmentalists need to get a grip on basic math:
The harder the individual Greenmonger (myself included) worked at trying to minimize her own personal impact, the more egotistically out of touch she seemed to the people around her. The result was a vicious cycle of very little progress: scores of people who really did want to care were put off by the one co-worker who kept digging in the trash and nagging people about Vampire Power. Environmentalists became the ultimate Debbie Downers--the ones who couldn't stop reminding you that this or that product that you use every day is toxic, talking about the horrors of factory farming when you're trying to eat, or the worst--expounding ad nauseum on the benefits of not buying anything unless the canvas bag was at the ready and otherwise living difficultly. Dick Cheney's evil prophecy was more than fulfilled. Environmentalism didn't just become a matter of personal virtue. Environmentalists became Victorian scolds with a wrongly-scaled sense of their own impact on the world and an impaired sense of humor.
'Wrongly-scaled'? Deborah, you are too kind.

Recently I came across a video on Facebook, of a 12-year-old girl scolding the UN for messing up the planet. It was powerful and touching; the conversation in the comments, however, rapidly devolved into a self-righteous group bashing of those evil people who use plastic bags. Plastic bags?

Well, yes, plastic bags are a problem. They strangle sea birds, and off-gas noxious chemicals that mimic estrogen. But defining the total virtue of self and others as a function of how many plastic bags you use is both narcissistic and petty. It also shows a criminal ignorance of proportionality: the ratio of plastic bags used or not-used by a single person, to the total number of plastic bags used by the billions of people on the planet, is so infinitesimal as to approach zero. In other words, even if you never use another plastic bag for as long as you live, your Puritan self-restraint will have virtually no effect on the state of the planet.

The standard response to this is, of course, "So what? It's better than nothing." But if "infinitesimally better than nothing" is the best any of us can possibly do to save the planet, we're doomed. As Deborah so eloquently points out, spreading the news that humans are nothing but pollution machines, with virtually no power to alter their surroundings short of mass suicide, is not the best way to recruit others to your point of view.

As a new mother, I am more sensitive than usual to the plethora of disparaging comments on websites like about People Who Breed Irresponsibly, or People Who Breed, period. I see perfectly nice women seriously worrying that they shouldn't have children because Overpopulation Is Destroying the Planet. Some people actually go so far as to verbally assault women with the temerity to write about the difficulties of supporting three children after a divorce; "serves you right," they say, "you shouldn't have had the kids in the first place."

I BEG your pardon? Rude, abusive and hateful, much?

What affects the global population rate is not the decision of one guilty, white, middle-class liberal to have a child or not; it is the rate of education of women in third world countries, or lack thereof. As the education level goes up, the birth rate goes down; it only starts going up again when the culture as a whole starts treating women as full-fledged human beings. So whatever your views on population control, the decline of Western civilization and the advent of feminism, you could do worse than to treat women as people with functioning minds, who are capable of making their own reproductive decisions.

One of the most destructive habits of human thinking, I believe, is the notion that we are just our bodies; that physical action and physical existence demarcate the limits of our sphere of influence. The truth is, our bodies are the least of us. The potential influence of our physical selves is negligible; the potential influence of our spirit is infinite.

This month in the New Yorker, Philip Gourevitch writes about Rwanda's astonishing recovery from genocide, fifteen years after the bloodbath. Incredible as it may seem, hundreds of proven, confessed murderers are living side by side with the friends and families of their victims, in relative peace and prosperity. Part of what has allowed this miracle to occur is the practice of gacaca; village courts which establish a collective accounting of past atrocities by publically hearing confessions, and pleas for forgiveness.

Of course, this has not produced anything like total healing or enlightenment for the vast majority of Rwandans. It has, however, largely prevented a continuation of the violence, and laid the groundwork for a stable, prosperous society. What makes the difference? Largely, Rwandan President Paul Kagame:
...It was Kagame, of course, who had issued the order granting the killers their reprieve, so after the ceremony he called the young man over. "And I asked him, How do you manage? When you meet them, what do they tell you or what do you tell them? What is your feeling? I want you to genuinely tell me how you feel. This young man looked me in the face and he said, 'Well, President, I manage because you ask us to manage.'"
There is a fine line between totalitarianism and inspiration, sometimes a line which is externally invisible. But in any cause for righteousness, our goal should be to inspire others, not to control them.


Spatula said...

It's amazing how often people turn the world into an Orwellian nightmare by trying to improve it.

This Rwanda thing is something I am going to have to think about for the next 15 years...

Pretty Lady said...

I'm sorry the New Yorker website just had the article as an mp3, not text; maybe you can listen to it while cleaning your skeleton! It floored me. 'Justice' was not served; it seems that the pursuit of 'justice' in this kind of situation only leads to more decades of chaos, turmoil and human devastation. And 'forgiveness', if not inspired by a genuine miracle, is much harder on the victims than on the perpetrators. Still, it's infinitely better than the alternatives.

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