Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Selfishness and groupthink working together to save the world

In my previous post, I ranted somewhat incoherently about balances between quality of life, economics, and the environment, closing with the line, “I’ll try to help myself for now. Saving the world, that will have to wait for later.”

In his article “Let’s dump ‘Earth Day,’” Joseph Romm takes a view that directly relates to my own sentiments.

Romm feels that we need to focus more on human life and less on the rest of the world around us. Saving the world is difficult and daunting; we need to focus more on ourselves.

Although his article begins somewhat satirically, his point becomes clear early: “If humans are special, invested with a soul by our Creator, along with the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, then why should we sacrifice even a minute of that pursuit worrying about the inferior species?”

The problem with a lot of the rhetoric surrounding environmentalism—and the reason why so much of it is not effective—is, as Romm says, because such language creates “the misleading perception that the cause so many of us are fighting for—sharp cuts in greenhouse gases—is based on the desire to preserve something inhuman or abstract or far away.”

Romm feels that the name “Earth Day” is too broad and focuses on too esoteric of a concept. While saving the Earth and all of its flora and fauna is a noble cause, it isn’t a concept that pushes enough people to act. Romm writes:
What the day—indeed, the whole year—should be about is not creating misery upon misery for our children and their children and their children, and on and on for generations. Ultimately, stopping climate change is not about preserving the earth or creation but about preserving ourselves. Yes, we can't preserve ourselves if we don't preserve a livable climate, and we can't preserve a livable climate if we don't preserve the earth. But the focus needs to stay on the health and well-being of billions of humans because, ultimately, humans are the ones who will experience the most prolonged suffering. And if enough people come to see it that way, we have a chance of avoiding the worst.
He advocates a change in the name of Earth Day to place the focus on action that is more tangible and attainable.

While many of us like to believe that we adhere to high ideals, there is a large gap between belief and action. And what actually motivates us to action is often not what we would like to believe about ourselves.

In this past Sunday’s News-Miner, Judith Kleinfeld looks at a study where doorknob hangers were placed on people’s front doors. There were four different messages hung on the doors:
1. “You save money by conserving energy”
2. “You can save the Earth’s resources by conserving energy”
3. “Socially responsible citizens conserve energy”
4. “Most of your neighbors try regularly to conserve energy”
Later, the residents were surveyed to see which ones took action to conserve energy. The winner, the one with the greatest number of residents taking action, was number 4. While this shows a disturbing presence of Orwellian groupthink, it is another example of how ideology doesn’t inspire action.

According to Kleinfeld, “If we are serious about getting people to protect the environment, we need to go beyond public information campaigns and moralistic messages.”

The answer to our problems, it seems, is a healthy level of selfishness pared with an equal dose of cultural adherence. While such a suggestion may not shine an overwhelmingly positive light on our culture, I don’t think it is surprising.

If we each take steps to save ourselves, others might see and follow. This way, my friends, we can create a movement, starting with—to steal the Army’s phrase, and the military is definitely a group that preaches its own form of cultural adherence—an army of one.

As philosopher Eric Hoffer believed, movements are started by individuals who are unhappy with themselves molding themselves after a leader, or “true believer,” and creating imaginary selves through which they achieve some level of self respect. As different individuals mold themselves in the same way, they create a group of similarly-minded imaginary selves, which can eventually become a movement based on the ideals of the imaginary selves, which through the sheer weight of belief becomes something real. Ideology is not reality, but action is.

I perhaps can’t change the world, but I can change myself. You should change yourself, as well. Everyone’s doing it, you know.

Friday, April 18, 2008

State of the bean-conomy

Yesterday I threw away an entire $4 bag of cut and washed green beans. I thought I’d try them as a healthy snack to keep at work. But I took it for granted that produce, especially such expensive produce, would last a week. But the best-by date was three days after I bought them. I ate one bag in the beginning of the week, and when I tore open the second bag I was greeted by a pile of green slime.

Such a minor occurrence, but it made me question my entire food philosophy: Why would I pay $4 for beans in the first place? Aren’t vegetables supposed to be cheap?

Food costs are rising rapidly, and I seem to have just realized that I am spending way too much on food.

I try to eat healthy, and that’s a problem, especially up here. My bag of beans, or my other favorite, sugar-snap peas, both run $1 a serving. I can buy an entire box of Twinkies for $1.50.

For a lot of us, life has been too comfortable for way too long. Several years ago, I ran myself down to zero, even into the negatives, since I had to borrow a couple hundred bucks from family. I was between jobs, but I wasn’t worried. Gainful, or at least needs-meeting, employment was just around the corner. Money was out there waiting to be made.

Other people used this same philosophy, buying standards such as houses and extras such as boats or second cars, all on credit because they expected the money to be there.

But then the subprime market collapsed and the rest of the economy started to fail too, as our battles overseas failed to keep gas prices down and food prices also started to rise, and Mexico started enforcing price limits on tortillas because they were getting too expensive because we were using too much corn to make gas, but even that didn’t keep gas prices down and we didn’t think through the other potential consequences enough. Even those houses that seemed so basic to our existence are now drifting beyond our means.

Heather Havrilesky, in the article “How I learned to stop worrying and love the recession,” looks at where we were seven years ago:

Sept. 11 was supposed to make us all more down-to-earth and more honorable— you know, the way World War II traumatized the so-called Greatest Generation enough to put down the bottle and stop beating up the little Mrs.? We were supposed to choose valiant, heartfelt, courageous paths, to give of ourselves like never before, to come together as a nation. Instead, most of us have spent the last seven years monitoring Nicole Richie's eating disorder. We haven't been volunteering or running for political office, we've been reorganizing our walk-in closets and talking on the phone about the ideal age to start Botox. As the economy soared, there were far too many options available to us, but we were all whiny and depressed over it nonetheless.
Gregg Easterbrook looks in-depth at the burdens of choice in his book The Progress Paradox. He examines how all the benefits available to us fail to make us happy. Now tough times loom and lives are falling apart. I don’t mean to be overly dramatic, but it is somewhat true.

Some of us try to be good to the world but we don’t want to move out of our comfortable suburban dwellings and into the city to be closer to the jobs in order to reduce our emissions. We drive our giant SUVs on our long commutes. We get to the office and try to pretend that the organic apple we eat as a snack every day is somehow changing the world.

I fall into the same category: I try, but what am I really accomplishing? I say I will start riding the bike to work, but I haven’t because it won’t stop snowing.

My latest and largest good environmental choice was buying re-usable grocery bags a couple weeks back. Wow.

But soon our choices on how we want to live our lives will be limited.

I would like to drive a hybrid vehicle, but I’ve decided I can’t even afford the vegetables I like. In the Havrilesky article mentioned above, she sets the frame of her discussion around buying dried beans at the grocery store, the only thing that seems affordable to her these days.

Some people are making choices not to eat only organic vegetables and fruits, but to only go organic on the most potentially harmful.

We are downplaying our beliefs to focus on self-preservation.

The stimulus checks are coming soon (I maintain that it is a bad idea, but that is a discussion for another time), and companies are trying to get their hands on that money, but fortunately in ways that help the consumer. But how many of us are going to put the money towards groceries? It seems to me that part of the idea of the stimulus is to push people back to the realm of overconsumption, so that people once again feel they can buy their $5-a-day Starbucks drink. But it may only push some people toward more of the poor choices that have put our country in a situation where we need stimulus checks.

Myself, I will spend that money abroad, as it will reach me around the time of the "big move." I’ve found myself tracking the dollar against the euro. It’s changed nine cents over the last several months, which has directly cost me well over $100 on my course fees overseas.

I mentioned to Rowan how strange it will be too watch our economy continue to crumble, but from a distance. To hear about friends and family barely getting by.

I will also know that my own savings, in American dollars, are shrinking in comparable worth as I try to get by in a strange country. But get by I will, because that’s what people do.

But for now, I will stare at my grocery list at try to make the best choices possible. I’ll buy a lot of bananas, because bananas are cheap. And already mushy, unlike the beans or apples that catch me by surprise.

I’ll try to help myself for now. Saving the world, that will have to wait for later.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Cops and Denny's

Somehow, I ended up at Denny's at about 11:30 on a Friday night for the second straight week. Both times, the folks that I was keeping company with were hungry and sit-down food sounded better than fast food. I suggested the Airport Way Family Diner, but Rowan proclaimed the place scary and dangerous. I have never been scared there, but I did once see a girl wearing an epileptic seizure helmet.

So we ended up at Denny's. Our waitress was older but spunky, initially commenting, with much sarcasm, how much she loved her job.

About halfway through our meal, I noticed a guy with a backpack go into the bathroom (I had a straight line of sight to the facilities from my seat). I thought the backpack was a little strange, but thought little more about it.

Until the cops showed up. I heard one of them ask the waitress if she had seen a guy in all black and a backpack. I interjected and pointed them to the restroom. They got the guy to open the door and then arrested him.

When we were paying our bill, one of the cashiers said something about the cops.

"Yeah, that was kinda crazy, huh?" I said.

"Not really," she replied. "Happens all the time. That's why we changed our weekend hours."

And Denny's had been our choice as a safe haven. I don't even want to think about what kind of shit went down at the family diner.

Anyway, once again I was able to uphold truth and justice, but this time I offered up my services for free. The hero's life, it's tough sometimes.