Community versus selfish isolation
For the last century our technological innovations have helped increasingly isolate us from one another. Automobiles have afforded each person a private protective cocoon, shielding them from having to learn to interact civilly with others, as one must do on public transit. Video and music players have permitted people to enjoy movies and music at home instead of having to be respectful of and courteous to others at the theater. Telephones and e-mail have made it possible for people to avoid face-to-face communication, or confrontation, as the case may be. I have to confess that I’m guilty of excessive reliance on some these modern technologies myself. I use e-mail extensively, and for years I have preferred to watch movies at home. In my defense, however, e-mail is more efficient for transmitting and receiving detailed information, such as work specifications, and my preference for watching movies at home is due to the exorbitant cost of movie tickets compared to the low price of DVDs, not to mention the barrage of advertisements I’m forced to suffer in the movie theater. I would, however, happily give up these technologies in exchange for being a member of a real community.
These technologies have insidiously undermined our sense of community, without which there can be no tolerance, empathy, sharing, or charity. Indeed, for the last century what we have seen in our society is a gradual erosion of these traits of civil society. Instead of making “community” our personal responsibility, we’ve “outsourced” it to the government, relying on government to establish and enforce our moral boundaries, negotiate and mediate our relationships, and provide support to those members of society who need help. But can government really do as good a job at these things as a genuine community comprised of compassionate and engaged people?
Communities come in may forms. Some are geographical – that’s what most people think of when they think of the word “community” – and some are abstract, such as the “gay community” (I’m still trying to figure out what this is, by the way, as well as what is this “gay agenda” I keep hearing about). But the essential characteristic of a community is that it’s a group of people who voluntarily choose to associate with one another and work together, whether as a town, a neighborhood, a multi-generational family, or a hippie commune. Human beings are social creatures. We should want to associate with each other, and we are more productive and strong when we work together. That so many of us, myself included, elect to isolate ourselves is a symptom of the toxic and unhealthy social environment that we live in today. I blame this toxicity on our lazily substituting government, corporations, and consumerism for actual community, which takes hard work and a willingness to compromise to maintain.
Should we choose to return to a genuine community-oriented way of life, I think we’d all be a lot happier. In order for this to work, however, we also need to be willing to be more tolerant of each other, especially those of us who are the most different; it’s easy to tolerate those who are like you. Not only does diversity make life, particularly our social life, more interesting, but an outgrowth of tolerance is peace and harmony, something we desperately need today.
People versus government and corporations
Governments and corporations seek only to dominate, control, and exploit people. Governments do it for power, while corporations do it for profit. Either because of forethought or spontaneous discovery, governments and corporations have for a century-and-a-half been wed in a symbiotic relationship that serves the principal goals of each, at the expense of people and the environment. It could be said that governments and corporations are the antithesis of life.
Today the governments of several of the world’s most industrialized countries are running amok, terrorizing their citizens, trampling their rights, seemingly desperate in their pursuit of power. As our own tolerance for each other has diminished, government has happily assumed the role of brutal enforcer in our “zero tolerance” society.
Similarly, corporations are engaged in a free-for-all exploitation of the planet and its people, aided and abetted by governments, for the profit of a few corporate executives and wealthy shareholders, and most seriously, without any regard to the future of our world. The problem with corporations today is that they no longer seem to have any restraint. The attitude seems to be not just that “greed is good,” but that if they aren’t as rapacious as they can possibly be, then one of their competitors will be. It’s almost as if corporations are in a war with one another to see which can be the more exploitative.
What can we do about this state of affairs? I really don’t know. Governments and corporations hold all the cards today. For now, though, we still own our own minds. The first step in restoring the preeminence of life over government and corporations is to recognize how much they control us. As I alluded in the preface above, when we buy into the “American Dream,” we actually become subservient to the government and corporations . We don’t need a fancy house, a fancy car, or a mobile phone with a built-in camera and Internet access to be happy. Sometimes, less is actually more.
Once we recognize that we’re being programmed to behave in ways that benefit governments and corporations, to the detriment of our very selves, and honestly address the question of what would truly make us happy, maybe then we can start taking steps in the right direction. Timothy Leary once said, “turn on, tune in, drop out.” This maxim is amazingly relevant today, and is the first step toward a healthier tomorrow.
Even if you are not willing to “drop out,” or live “off the grid,” simply examining how much governments and corporations control your daily existence will be instructive. For example, how much time do you spend in any given day complying with government rules or dealing with corporations? Just yesterday I spent about three hours preparing my income taxes, on top of the ten hours I had previously invested in that task. I also had to obtain a loan from a corporation to pay my income taxes to the government (Alas, I poorly managed my finances last year). And, in the past week I’ve had to pay bills to six different corporations. In light of all that utterly unproductive effort, I ought to be asking myself if what I’m getting in return is worth the effort.
It would be nice if we could “opt-out” of supporting the government through paying taxes. Unfortunately, the government is probably not going to go along with that idea. But we can look for legal ways to reduce our taxes. For example, by living a simpler lifestyle and augmenting our income by growing our own food, we can take a job that pays less and thereby pay less tax, while increasing our independence and sense of self-efficacy. Bartering with your neighbors is a good way to avoid taxes too, as there are no practical means for the government to tax bartering. Sharing things with your neighbors, besides fostering a sense of community, reduces spending and hence, sales taxes.
“Participation” in the political process through voting is a facade. Not only are some elections in the United States blatantly rigged today, but it really doesn’t matter who you elect to office anyway. Once in office, a politician is beholden to those who pay his or her campaign bills, which are primarily corporations and their lobbyists, and they are always working behind the scenes, pushing their agendas, not just on election day. Thus, regardless of what platform a candidate runs on, once in office, their platform quietly shifts to that which best serves their corporate sponsors. It’s a waste of time to vote. People who vote are consoling themselves with a false sense of participation, when in fact, their votes are irrelevant. If you want to participate in the political process, then give money to organizations that will lobby continuously on your behalf. Recognizing this reality of American politics, I stopped voting a decade-and-a-half ago and have since given money to organizations, such as Greenpeace, the NRDC, the NRA and the ACLU, to lobby on my behalf. Not playing the government’s election game is wonderfully liberating. Perhaps if enough people stopped “participating” in the political system, the mere lack of participants would send the loudest message of all.
I used to ridicule home schooling as quackery or paranoid anti-government posturing. Today I’m an ardent fan of home schooling. Besides the now obvious failure of public schools to actually educate students – the United States is nearly last among industrialized countries – it’s clear to me now that public schools are increasingly used as a vehicle for inculcating in young minds conformity, as well as devotion and obedience to the state. If I were to have children, I would absolutely school them at home. In fact, collective home schooling of several neighborhood children would be a great example of a community working together. As an interesting aside, governments seem to be waking up to the threat posed by free-thinking graduates of home schools, and are now starting to impose oppressive regulations on home schoolers, apparently with the hope of driving them out of “business.”
As for rejecting corporate influence from your life, it’s easy: simply don’t give them your money. Before spending money, ask yourself if you really need the thing or service you’re contemplating buying. When you do spend your money, spend it at local businesses as much as possible. In cases where you are forced to give your money to corporations – such as by laws requiring you to buy automobile insurance – then find a way to minimize the amount of money you give them. Buy a cheap car for which you can skip the comprehensive and collision coverage.
Sustainable versus unsustainable
Throughout time and place, indigenous people have usually developed the wisdom to live in harmony with their world. Most likely this wisdom ensued from their observation over a long period of time that communities that failed to live within their means perished. Our world today is much bigger than the confining worlds that indigenous people lived in long ago. Thanks to globalization, today it’s possible to create the illusion of limitless bounty. If we live beyond our means in America, we can simply import more resources from elsewhere on the globe, and never mind the impact outside our borders. Out of sight, out of mind. We live here in blissful ignorance.
Few people are aware when they buy a neat technological gadget, that toxins from the factory in China that manufactured that gadget pollute the river that the local people get their drinking water from. Rural people in China are suffering more and more to fuel our consumptive way of life. Yet because we don’t see these costs, we don’t realize that our way of life is not sustainable. One of the benefits of a localized economy, versus a globalized economy, is that it’s far easier for people to do a cost-benefit analysis of their systems of production.
Of course, in so many ways our exploitation of our environment is unsustainable. We are obviously overly dependent on fossil fuels, which are rapidly being depleted and which produce a lot of pollution. We can reduce our consumption of fossil fuels by traveling and transporting less, which implies more localized living, working, and production. Consuming fewer manufactured goods also reduces consumption of fossil fuels. Our oceans are dying from pollution, but mainly from overfishing. Fishing methods, such as rapaciously destructive bottom trawling and the use of indiscriminately lethal drift nets are killing the oceans. While such efficient fishing methods may make a corporate accountant’s heart jump with joy, how long will it be before the oceans are devoid of life? People have to eat, but they need to do so in a way that can be sustained. We burn down Amazon rain forests to make way for cattle ranches so that fast food restaurants can manufacture cheap, toxic burgers. What if we obtained beef from a local farmer instead and ground it ourselves to make burgers? Would that not be cheaper overall, more healthful, and more sustainable? Would that not benefit our local community? Would that not have a less adverse impact on our planet?
If we grew produce in backyard gardens instead of importing it from abroad, it would obviously be far more efficient energy-wise because we would not have to ship that produce all over the world, nor even make trips in the car to buy it. What’s more, grown without pesticides, such produce would be more healthful. It would be tastier and probably more nutritious, as well. By recycling organic waste in a compost pile and combining it with waste from small animals, such as chickens, we can create a perpetually sustainable ecosystem in our own backyards. Replicating this model over the entire planet would substantially improve our harmony with our world, and go a long way toward making our existence sustainable.
I hope the foregoing essay has slightly stimulated the imagination of some readers. Obviously, my point of view is biased by my negative view of government and corporations. I didn’t always harbor such negative biases, but over time I have seen the light.
Do I practice what I preach? Well, I’m working on it. Being a product of the very world I inveigh against, it’s hard for me to simply change overnight, but I am working on it. I am self employed as a craftsman of sorts: I make a comfortable living at home as a computer programmer writing software for a local company that manufactures air pollution monitoring equipment. I do own a house in rural Kentucky and I plan to set up a backyard garden and try to become as self sufficient as possible. I’m always looking for ways to minimize my impact on the environment. I do minimize my association with government and corporations to the extent possible. I do try to shop at local businesses instead of stores belonging to globalized corporations. I do have a mobile phone, but it has no camera or Internet access, it’s a prepaid phone which I bought for emergencies, I hardly ever use it, and I would not miss it if I got rid of it. And I do shun consumerism, except for my fondness for DVDs, but as I said, I could live without even those.
What about people in far off places, such as Africa ? What can be done to help them survive? I don’t know. I don’t have all the answers. Perhaps if we just quit meddling in the affairs of such people and magnanimously assisted them when they asked for assistance, they could figure out their own solutions.
April 9, 2006
Read Part I of the article here
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