Re-entry Blues

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I’ve been back from my travels to Turkey for four whole days and am slowly becoming re-immersed in the culture I passionately believe has to change if we are to find sustainability. I think my generation’s (grandparents’) chances to see a world where this possibility looms large are somewhere between very small and nil. I see signs, small and large, everywhere that shout wake up, but without much effect. It took just this short time back to tune into the current news and find this conclusion inescapable.

It shows up in little things, like trying to compensate for the serious side effects of a popular piece of technology with another. The New York Times ran a front page article last Sunday featuring a novel device that would cut off the mobile phone when a car is moving so that the driver cannot get distracted. The article is one of about a dozen in a series called, Driven to Distraction, each one highlighting the dangers of using an electronic device while driving, and various attempts to counter these with some additional technology. For some, mobile phones and texting are as addictive as any other dangerous habit.

Another place is the continuing touting of the wonders of the Sustainability Index being promoted by Walmart. They just don’t get it. Sustainability is a systems property. Phasing out products in favor of slightly less harmful alternates (even if we could be sure that they are, in fact, preferable) cannot possibly prevent the the system from collapsing under the weight of ever-increasing quantities of consumption. There is much evidence that changing buying habits will not change the world enough to make the difference it will take to attain sustainability.

The more successful Walmart is in the United States, the more money will flow to China where the bulk of their good are made. Not only Walmart but all establishments that offer goods and services to the domestic market. And what will then happen? The Chinese will consume more and more until they need a poorer country to supply the Chinese version of Walmart. All the while we are hell-bent to get the economy jumpstarted so we can get the consumption engine revved up. As Pete Seeger sings in his song, Where Have All the Flowers Gone, “Oh, when will they ever learn? Oh, when will they ever learn?”

It also shows up in big things. I returned just in time to hear cheers coming from the Senate that they were going to debate the health bills. Strange because I understood the purpose of the Senate was precisely to debate matters of national importance. This august body has fallen into the trap of finding technocratic solutions—procedures, rather than wisdom—to the challenges it faces. Sort of using a device in a car to counter the adverse effects of another device. Rather than examine the whole system called health that lies in an even larger system called society, they have come to play a game called heads I win, tails you lose. Society, as the glue that binds us together, needs to be nurtured, not played with. The real challenge of sustainability is to find ways to bring disparate values together, not on a battlefield but through honest dialogue and accommodation. Our political institutions need to heed F. Scott Fitzgerald’s comment that, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” It is difficult to find any such intelligence among our lawmakers.

Thank goodness Thanksgiving comes in just two days. It is truly a holiday that offers a respite from the incessant chatter of daily life. For many it is just a stop along the way to the biggest shopping day of the year—the very next day. I imagine some getting up from the Thanksgiving dinner and heading for the nearest mall to be the first in line for the special “bargains” that await them when the stores open especially early for the occasion. For me, it is a opportunity to bask in the warmth of family, reflect on the meaningful aspects of life, enjoy a meal redolent with love and care, and imagine that the two generations that share the day with me will be able to do the same long after my time on Earth has ended. This is what sustainability means to me.

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