Wednesday, August 8, 2007

The world will not end---

I went to a family get together last week and while there I noticed something extremely surprising. One of my nieces handed my brother-in-law a copy of the Al Gorevideo "An Inconvenient Truth". Later on, I noticed that all of my family was engaged in a variety of animated discussions about global warming and the need to make big changes in our lives. It seems that after 30 years the penny has finally dropped with my family. Moreover, if I can believe the polls, it looks like the same thing can be said about the rest of Canadian society.

Oddly enough, I didn't really know how to take this. Probably as a result, I went through a period of depression (or as the Jesuits would say "desolation".) Yesterday I finally finished the A.C. Graham translation of Liezi and it finally dawned on me that I can walk away from environmentalism with a clear conscience. This is not merely an empty realization, as I went to a meeting that night and bowed out of a commitment that I had made to take on a position of responsibility in an upcoming very important political campaign.

As a Daoist, I have always believed that it is insane to wear yourself out in the pursuit of personal gain. I have also developed a very jandiced view of most forms of altruism---most of which strike me as being a the result of a form of blindness not terribly different from that which motivates most venal acts. For example, I once took it upon myself to try and help a homeless young woman only to find out that she was the author of almost all of her own misfortunes and any help that she received from family, friends or the government only served to "enable" her self-destructive behaviour. In retrospect, I realised that my attempts to help were motivated by my own equally dumb conditioned responses. (Namely, the folly of putting yourself into another's shoes. In actual fact, most people are very different from each other and empathy is almost always delusional.)

But I have always thought that the environment is different. It strikes me that it is a crime against nature and future generations to damage the ecosystem. In retrospect, I now realize that I was also afraid that we would end up killing off the human race. A lot of people I meet in the environmental movement say that this wouldn't be such a big deal, but I have always believed that they were simply lying to themselves to appear "cool" or to simply win a debate. Perhaps this fear of human extinction was a form of displaced fear of my own mortality, but either way it was my primary motivation for the huge effort I have put into ecological politics for the last two decades.

But now I realize that the extinction of the human race is probably not a real consequence of global warming. A population crash is possible, and people are already dying from the effects of climate change. But extinction is simply not in the cards. Instead, the fight is for both the plants and animals; and the individuals who will suffer greatly from things like hotter heat waves, longer droughts, and the flooding that will happen when the polar caps melt. (Good bye Bangladesh--.)

This is sad, but it is not really all that different from other human disasters. Plagues, famines, wars, and so forth have been the lot of humanity ever since it first became civilized. (These were all grim realities when the Daoist masters Laozi, Zhuangzi and Liezi were writing.) I have done my bit at trying to raise people's consciousness and it is now up to them. I will now turn my back on the environmental community. My duty is done and I can now pursue my true love, which is following the Dao.


Anonymous said...

I don't know if I can agree with this:

"the folly of putting yourself into another's shoes. In actual fact, most people are very different from each other and empathy is almost always delusional."

Certainly, there are differences between people---and we should be cognizant of those differences. But I'm inclined to believe that our similarities as human beings transcend those differences. My understanding of Daoism suggests that part of "leveling all things" includes acknowledging the oneness of all things in Dao while simaltaneously remaining aware of their diversity. For that matter, I think in many societies the idea that "certain people are different" provides an excuse for institutionalized injustice; I think emphathy is something of a radical step, and I don't think that a true, compassion based empathy is ever delusional. But perhaps I'm reading too much into your comment.

As for this part:

"This is sad, but it is not really all that different from other human disasters. Plagues, famines, wars, and so forth have been the lot of humanity ever since it first became civilized."

I must admit I am torn. On the one hand, I hold to a cyclical view of time, and hence I can see your point here. On the other hand, I can't help but wonder if our technological advances have become so great that the sheer scale of these human-engineered calamties threatens to engulf us...? But perhaps that is simply anthropomorphic arrogance on my part. I suppose only time will tell with regard to the environment, and I can certainly emphathize (ha!) with your decision to leave the environmental community.

Bill Hulet said...

Perhaps I overstated myself about empathy. Certainly this statement requires a post all for itself and perhaps I will make one in the future. But I have found from grim experience that it is extremely difficult to try and help people. This is because I have found that most of the people I know who are in difficulty are there not because of bad luck, but because of poor choices that they have made as a result of delusional thinking. Trying to help them without a corresponding change in their value system merely gives them another opportunity to fall down. :-(

With regard to the other point, I don't know if I subscribe to a cyclical view of time, but I think in times past there had to have been people of insight who understood the consequences of society's behaviour but who were unable to get anyone to listen to them.

In Jared Diamond's book "Collapse", he asks the question of what must have gone through the mind of the Easter Islander who cut down the last Royal Palm tree on the island. (These trees were the one species on the island big enough to build the sea-going canoes that the islanders needed to go out and hunt the sea mammals that were their major source of food.)

I suspect that in the background of many societies that are doomed there were always "wise ones" who were doomed to see but unable to influence events---. (I wonder what Colin Powell thinks about the invasion of Iraq.)

I don't think that global warming will render the human race extinct. Perhaps a nuclear war, a "slate wiper" genetically-engineered biological weapon, or, self-replicating nanotechnology will, but those are other issues. What I am trying to wrestle with in my blog post are the well-springs of my obsessive commitment to environmental activism over the last 20 years. It seems clear to me that there have always been reasons to be obssessed about society and they have never been enough to sacrifice your life for. I have more than done my bit, and not it is time for someone else to pick up the burden. ;-)

SoundHunter said...

OK, you don't know me, but I'm about to divulge very personal things here, because I am moved to do so. I wandered here btw, because I'm newly interested in Daoism, new enough that I still usually call it Taoism :)

Anyways, I think your view of people getting their lives in bad places because they made bad choices is too simplistic, to write people off as unhelpable because helping them only enables them to fall down again is not always true.

I had a really, REALLY, really bad childhood. Now I'm a mother, and it's my mission on a daily basis to ensure that my children's lives are calm, simple and kind. I fall short of these goals frequently, but it's what I strive for. Nonetheless, it took a long, bumpy, painful, beautiful, horrible, backwards, forwards, diagonal journey to get here. Through that journey where people that really messed my head up as a child, peole who really hurt my body, people who really crushed my soul. Occasionally there was someone who gave me a little dose of kindness, a little dose of respect, and those little doses kept me from wilting to death. I was suicidal at age 10, I ran away from my family to become a street kid at age 13, and I made MANY bad choices. Bad choices that would've led many other young girls to become crack whores on the streets. Bad choices that killed many of my peers. Choices to smoke 4 packs of cigarettes a day instead of eating, choices to go with people who would hurt me further.

I got out of that life, by three things, pure luck, the fact that I was an opportunist, and by help and motivation from a few people who had tried to help me, even if they failed at the time. I've come out of that life on top, happily married, living in a beautiful rural island paradise, two amazing daughters, a vegetable garden and trails through the trees. I still struggle to make peace with my childhood, but all in all, I'm alright. However, I took one very important lesson from that all. Peope who have never lived on the streets, been addicted to heavy drugs, become prostitutes, been involved in crime etc often do look at people in these predicaments with the simplistic judgement that they are there because of their poor choices. I know from personal experience living among these people that many of them had a shitty selection of choices in the first place. Everyone makes some bad choices in their lives, especially as young teenagers, but some bad choices are worse than others, not because of intelligence or lack of intelligence on behalf of the chooser, but just because of the *way* some choices go. Some paths down the maze are so tangled that they are impossible to get out of without luck, helping hands, disaster of some kind, whatever. Some people are damaged and don't recognize good choices from bad. Some people only have bad choices to choose from! Some people like me are really lucky, really lucky, that certain experiences didn't kill them, or that others where looking out for me in the exact 45 minutes I needed them to, or that the pimp that was going to ship 14 year old virgin me across the country got arrested the night I was supposed to go. I didn't get out of that hell life because I made good choices, I got out because of luck and because of other people caring and because once I was out I seized every opportunity to enrich my life in order to never go back there again. But when I was a walking wound, I couldn't make good choices, and there are many in this complicated world who can't, or sincerely don't know how, for a time in their lives.

Everyone is worth some effort, even simply in the forms of caring, kind eyes, perhaps a bowl of soup, maybe a good book, an ear for an hour. Even people who've made bad choices, and bad choiced themselves in so deep they don't see the good choices that could get them out of there.

Not that you have to do it, I just don't agree that it's as simple as them making bad choices and leaving them to it.

Anyways, hope it's alright that I rambled here, I can't sleep anyways. Sorry for any typos too. And I like yer blog.

~ Rachel

Bill Hulet said...


Your post deserves more than a quick response, so I think that I'll devote a post to this subject---.