Friday, September 8, 2017

Daoism and the Dominant Paradigm

At work the other day I was asked to cover up some furniture with so that when some contractors came in to do some construction work they would be protected with dust. It wasn't a terribly difficult job, but it put me in a totally foul mood. This carried on with me for the rest of the shift, over the night, and on into breakfast the next morning.

I mentioned my emotions to my partner, Misha, and we talked about them over bacon and eggs. We came to the conclusion that the reason why I was so annoyed was because I had been asked to do a half-assed job that served almost no useful purpose, and, which resulted in totally unnecessary waste to the planet---and there was effectively nothing at all I could do about it.

The thing is that I was asked to use plastic film to cover up the stuff. And plastic film is useless at this job---even though most people use it. It doesn't drape properly, it is repelled by static electricity, and, it is so light that it gets moved even by the slightest air current. You can't tie it up with string, it is slippery so it slides off items easily, masking tape doesn't stick well to it, and, it actually attracts dust which doesn't stick to it (that's a neat trick)---which means that when you take it off a piece of furniture the dust will slide off it onto what you are trying to protect. For these reasons, I never ever use it for this purpose at home. Instead, I have a heavy-canvas drop cloth that I've used for years. It has none of the problems I've mentioned above, and on hot sunny days I can clean it off with soap, a deck brush, and, a garden hose.

So part of my funk was just about the half-assed, ridiculous job I had been asked to do.

Another part of this exercise in futility was the fact that once the work was done the plastic film would be removed and tossed into the garbage, and from there into a landfill. I'm a bit of an expert on our local municipal government as well as a manual labour drone, so I know about how much time, money, and, political anguish goes into solid waste issues in my town. So the idea that we would create another bit of stupid garbage in order to just go through the motions of protecting some not-terribly valuable (and easily cleaned) furniture just seemed irritating as Hell. 

My partner Misha took this annoyance and ramped it up a notch by pointing out that there is no sense at all blaming any of the people involved in this process. Each one of them exists in a system of thought and organization that creates a logical justification for the decision to do something inherently wasteful with only marginal utility. That is, the idea that the cost of disposal and the impact on the environment are rarely part of the design criteria of any decision. And, that in many cases it is more important to be seen to care about an issue than it is to actually accomplish anything. Until society decides to put an actual cost on environmental destruction, it is called an "externality" and ignored. And, in order to ensure the smooth functioning of a large, horizontally-organized institution, it is very important to let each individual know that their concerns are being considered by management. This means that people are rarely told "No, that's a dumb idea" and instead are told "OK, I'll get someone to do that right away."

The really annoying thing about all of this is the fact that as a species we are skating very close to the edge of an existential environmental disaster. I personally believe that we have already overshot the carrying capacity of the earth  and we are causing a lot of very expensive and deadly extreme weather due to anthropogenic climate change. And yet, none of this seems to filter down to the level of ordinary human behaviour around things like construction. There is nothing at all like a consensus around having to get "all hands on deck" to save humanity, instead it's just "the same old, same old." Until the government makes a collective decision to take climate change seriously and mobilize society to the same extent it did to fight World War Two, it is ridiculous to expect most ordinary people to just spontaneously "get with the program"---because there really isn't any "program".

We can mobilize the public to fight a war,
why can't we mobilize them to save our civilization?
When I'm able to get my rational mind to keep my emotions under control, I realize that as Daoists my lovely Misha and I have isolated ourselves from the rest of the human population. We see things so differently from people who "buy into" the "Dominant Paradigm" (DP) that sometimes we must seem like Martians to ordinary folks. And it goes the other way too. I often find it hard to understand how these people think. Mostly, however, I find it profoundly frustrating to be around what I call "DP'rs". I know that they cannot do any better, so there is no sense blaming them for their individual choices. But that doesn't mean that I am not annoyed with the casual and unconsciously brutal way they affect the natural world and future generations. To a large extent that's why I have spent most of my work life trying to avoid being around them. But sometimes I cannot avoid interacting with DP'rs, and this generates negative emotions.

I suspect that this has always been the way with Daoists. It's true that global environmental destruction is not something that loomed large in ancient China, but there was always the casual brutality of the ruling class towards the peasants (that's why Daoists were involved in the Yellow Turban Rebellion), or, the tendency of military leaders to smash and destroy anything or anyone in their way (that's why Changchunzi met with Genghis Khan to try and soften his aggression towards the Chinese people.) When you make the effort to "embrace the void", "hold onto the One", and, "follow the watercourse Way", you find yourself more and more estranged from DP'rs.

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