The Love of Possession is a Disease With Them

Lakota giveaway ceremony, photo origin unknown

In my recent readings in the history of the Lakota and other native peoples of America’s Great Plains, I’ve been struck by descriptions of their giveaway ceremonies. They remind me of another practice I had learned of before, and I believe are more generally familiar: the potlatch, a related custom practiced by Native Americans of the Northwest. Potlatches generally came with strict expectations of giving the gifts away again promptly, and then some. These exchanges cemented power relations and were often aggressively competitive; they’re better understood as tactical, sociopolitical transactions rather than simple acts of generosity.

Lakota giveaway ceremonies, however, are much more altruistic in the sense that we commonly understand the term. The gifts are given freely with no expectation of payback; in fact, the resulting impoverishment is a badge of honor. That’s why I chose a quote by Sitting Bull, the great Hunkpapa Lakota chief, to introduce this essay. He once illustrated the contrast between Lakota and white attitudes towards property by telling how his poverty aroused the admiration of his people, rather than the disdain most white people feel toward such a state. To those who share Sitting Bull’s impression of the invaders of his homeland, the driving need to amass and own material goods can be a sign of spiritual poverty.

Today’s United States, like those nations most similar to her in culture and economy, is very much not characterized by that less-is-more spirit. This is nothing new. The United States and Canadian governments’ historical prohibitions on giveaway ceremonies in vanquished tribes indicate that Sitting Bull’s characterization of white culture describes something that’s been around for quite a while. These governments viewed giveaway ceremonies as a challenge to the enthusiasm for a market-driven type of productive cooperation they wished to instill in the nations they conquered. These and other Western societies (derived from Europe) had been centered around the production, acquisition, accumulation, and display of goods particularly since the industrial age. This is reflected in the values, mores, politics, language, cultural attitudes, holiday and major life event celebrations, even, increasingly, religious and spiritual practices dominant in the United States, Canada, Europe, and other parts of the world which adopted Western ways today.

The free market system, characterized by Adam Smith as the best kind of trade for improving lives most efficiently, has instilled many good practices and attitudes. For example, we’re less likely to see other nations and cultures as enemies when we cultivate relationships as trading partners; we see the effects of this change in international relations in the relative peacefulness of the modern world to those which practiced the old feudal and mercantilist systems. We also see that more people throughout the world now live longer, more comfortable lives than ever before, as the market incentivizes and drives innovation to respond more efficiently to demand. But there have always been serious, endemic defects in free markets systems contrary to the general welfare as well: real and de facto slavery; trade wars; colonialism; invasion and confiscation of indigenous lands; the immiseration of working people in squalid industrial towns and dismal factories; price- and wage-fixing by trusts and monopolies; and vast inequalities in wealth and chances of success are but a few examples. Such practices and inefficiencies are not merely excesses or abuses perpetrated by a few bad actors: they are regular and expected outcomes of a system whose purpose is to maximize profit and come out ahead of everyone else.

And now, we see that market values have pervaded all levels of our consciousness, our self-conception of who we are and how we should best inhabit our the world. As philosopher Michael Sandel describes it, we have gone from having a market economy to being a market society. The way we live, think, and feel is pervaded by consumerism. We’ve become buyers and sellers to the extent that we have become products ourselves, marketed and commodified, valued in work and in life insofar as we present ourselves the right way, are seen in the right places, wear the right brands and styles, drive the right cars, and use the right products.

And this has led us to a new problem, one unimaginable to John Locke, Adam Smith, and others who developed the theories about property rights and the benefits of open markets that we take for granted today. Human societies were relatively small then, and the uninhabited regions and untapped resources of the world seemed vast, even endless by comparison. It’s very different today. The population of the world has grown so large, our technological ability to produce goods from raw materials so varied, efficient, and prolific, and our ingrained habits of making, amassing, and consuming voraciously is leading us to a crisis of mass waste, pollution, and climate change.

The pollution problem can be viewed as the modern corollary of Thomas Malthus’ 1798 theory that human reproduction would inevitably outstrip food production and lead to mass impoverishment. Though Malthus’ ideas had long gone out of fashion with advancements in agricultural technology and the widespread use of birth control, he’s enjoying a bit of a comeback. However long technology can stave off many of the ill effects of exponential population growth, the earth’s habitable surface and ability to produce what we need to survive (let alone live well) is finite nonetheless. This is also true of our atmosphere’s ability to absorb the off-gassing of our industries without changing our biosphere’s ability to sustain the life it gave rise to. Over the centuries and decades, concerns about human impact on the natural world and its life-sustaining resources swing from optimism that we can and will create new technology and social practices that will solve everything, to worry that we won’t be sufficiently motivated or innovative in time to stave off the destruction of our own habitat.

In my years past working at a recycling and salvage operation, I observed a part of the massive flow of waste we generate, much of it perfectly good stuff we just throw away. The sheer volume of it all haunts me still. Photo of Amy Cools by Stephen Loewinsohn for the East Bay Express

Beginning with Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Springenvironmental consciousness is becoming more pervasive across the political spectrum. But it seems that ecological responsibility is still an ideal that has not yet changed our behavior except in a few token ways. Even progressive, self-consciously ‘green’ micro-cultures, such as that of the San Francisco Bay Area where I live, generally consume and discard on a very large scale. There’s a strong market here for innovations in green products such as compostable and reusable utensils and packaging, recycled fiber and bamboo clothing, energy-efficient technology, and more. Some of this technology replaces other arrays of products such as CDs, books, ledgers, pens and pencils, camera film, landline telephones, and so on, and could reduce the amount of stuff made. Yet new generations and styles of products replace the old ones almost as often and quickly as they are introduced, and the things which the new products replace in turn become trash. In the case of technology, particularly toxic trash. There are recycling programs, to be sure, but they don’t keep up with the volume of discards, and the recycling process itself can be toxic. And the compostable packaging which cocoons every fashionable new product and every new gadget adds to the deluge. Take-out meal services and ready-to-make meals in a box are ever-increasing in popularity, every breakfast, lunch, and dinner wrapped in a soon-to-be-wad-of-trash. Newly ubiquitous reusable shopping bags and thinly-walled plastic bottles do little in the face of this accelerating volume of throwaway goods and conveniently, disposably-packaged everything.

What does all this mean on a planet now so dominated by humans, materialistic, energetic, intelligent, creative, productive, and exponentially-reproductive?

It does seem that our love of possession is a disease with us, not just in the moral and spiritual sense that Sitting Bull refers to. It’s become something palpable, something we see before our eyes, that we walk on, that we breathe in, that we swim among. It shares many characteristics of that most varied and ubiquitous type of human disease: cancer, growing, proliferating, invading at an accelerating rate, which we still likewise seem powerless to stop. And the gases from the production and decay of all this stuff is changing the climate from the one that gave rise to the evolution of, and now sustains and nurtures, the plants and animals that give us life.

So what do we do? How do we divert or change this deeply ingrained cultural habit, this seemingly unstoppable force that we’ve unleashed?

I think about that other thing Sitting Bull said, about his people respecting him not because he owned many things in the way valued by white people, but because he kept little for himself. How, then, if we shift our values? How if we began to regard the need to compulsively and conspicuously consume stuff as crass, as burdensome, as uncool, as unenlightened, even as pitiable?

This isn’t necessarily unlikely or even unimaginable as it might seem. We often take for granted that our love and pursuit of stuff is an immutable trait of the human psyche. Yet, that’s not the case, as evidenced by cultural and spiritual mores that differ widely in their attitudes; we can look to the surprise and disgust of Sitting Bull and his people when encountering the white invaders’ greed for gold, land, and buffalo hides. There is an idea from Japanese culture, mottainai, which has deep roots and is growing again in popularity. This complex idea includes a reverence for objects and the value of frugality, both of which preclude the wasteful, polluting consumerist practices of modern market societies. And there are many more cultural and spiritual traditions of long standing in which the possession of more goods than needed is considered a negative.

Asceticism is an extreme variety of this less-is more value, an ancient tradition in which one seeks to reach the highest levels of spiritual perfection by divesting themselves of all or most material goods and comforts. There is the culture of the traveler and world citizen, those who own little since having too many things to haul around gets in the way of opportunities for adventure. There is also a modern fad, admittedly a rather niche conceit of those with higher incomes, of living in tiny, design-heavy, super-efficient homes, reducing one’s personal possessions to the most utilitarian minimum.

However, the latter three less-is-more practices as described above, admired and admirable as they can be, are not appropriate for most people. They are impractical and unaffordable for most people, and none of them work for those who have families to care for, or are elderly or disabled, and so on. What of the least wealthy among us, those who must opt for the cheaper products, whether or not they’ll wear out and become trash sooner? And what about just the joy of shopping for stuff, new and novel things that relieve the monotony and stress of an ordinary working life? Even in this realm of life, however, we do have an awareness that the short-term fun of buying stuff can lead to long-term unhappiness. For example, the extremes of material consumption, hoarding and compulsive shopping, are widely considered destructive and unhealthy, if not forms of mental illness. Expanding this sense of the unhealthiness of having too much stuff can be gradually extended to include things that we might sorta like at first but realize we won’t use much or care about for long. Over time, we can acculturate ourselves to less but higher quality things, and better yet, to value publicly owned goods more highly: parks, museums, public beaches, public buildings, and hopefully in the future, more community- and government- owned public amusement centers such as skating rinks, gyms, arcades, and so on.

Sitting Bull and his family, 1881

And while it might seem too difficult to inculcate that value of less-is-more, we can remember that many deeply-ingrained cultural values and habits have been purposely and quickly shifted. The right of gay people to marry and enjoy other equal benefits of society are now generally taken for granted when only two decades ago legal gay marriage was unimaginable to most. Smoking is widely considered unhealthy and a public nuisance, through just a few decades of education, public awareness campaigns, and taxation. Bullying, racist and sexist slurs, discriminatory practices, and many, many other bad habits are no longer respectable.

While shopping and owning a lot of stuff might not seem as a bad habit like any of the above, I believe that we’ll soon recognize that it might be. Now that there are so many of us in the world, we can no longer consider ourselves as morally responsible beings only as individuals when it comes to the health of our environment. With well over seven billion people on the earth increasing exponentially, we are now responsible to each other in the way our actions contribute to the aggregate effects. Let’s make the effects of our presence on the earth not resemble those of disease. Let’s instead make it more akin to mottainai by treating the earth as the most precious thing there is; more akin to the role of earth-steward as the God of Genesis called on his human creation to be; more akin to Sitting Bull and his generous less-is-more spirit. Our physical and spiritual health and our very lives depend upon it.

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Sources and Inspiration

Auxier, Randall. ‘Indian Givers‘, Nov 15th, 2013. Radically Empirical blog

Blaisdell. Robert (ed.) Great Speeches by Native Americans. NY: Dover, 2000.

Bruchac, Joseph. ‘Sacred Giving, Sacred Receiving‘, June 20, 2016, Parabola

Her Many Horses, Emil. ‘A Song for the Horse Nation: Remembering Lakota Ways‘. From A Song for the Horse Nation, edited by George P. Horse Capture (A’aninin) and Emil Her Many Horses

Jackson, Joe. Black Elk: The Life of an American Visionary. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2016.

Mottainai: a Philosophy of Waste‘. August, 2015. Interview and discussion with Kevin Taylor by Joe Gelonesi for The Philosopher’s Zone, a podcast of Radio National, Australia.

Pettipas, Katherine. Severing the Ties that Bind: Government Repression of Indigenous Religious Ceremonies on the Prairies. Winnepeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1994.

Rachel Carson, American Experience by PBS, April 18th, 2010

Roth, Christopher E. ‘Goods, Names, and Selves: Rethinking the Tsimshian Potlatch‘, American Ethnologist, Vol. 29, No. 1 (Feb., 2002), pp. 123-150

Sandel, Michael. What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012.

Sitting Bull‘. Encyclopædia Britannica, April 21, 2017

Thomas Malthus‘. Encyclopædia Britannica.

Happy Birthday, John Muir!

John Muir National Historic Site, his home in Martinez, CA, where he lived the last two and a half decades of his life

In honor of John Muir’s birthday, April 21, 1838, I’ll share the story of my visit to an important place in his life last summer. It was June 26th, 2016, a hot, bright day in Martinez, CA.

The John Muir National Historic Site is just south of the Carquinez Strait, which links San Pablo and Suisun Bays. Benicia, California’s third but short-lived capital city, is just across the strait and was reached by ferry in Muir’s time. A lovely town with a well-preserved historic district, Benicia is well-situated on a waterway that permits easy passage for ships and ferries. In its early years, the strait allowed for easy passage of people, animals, and the products of this agricultural region and later industrial center, so it became a busy, thriving center of commerce. It enjoyed its first big boom with the Gold Rush, as it lay on an easy route between San Francisco and the gold fields.

Martinez was also a hub of Gold Rush activity. The ferry between Benicia and Martinez enjoyed a monopoly on getting all those gold-crazed fortune seekers south to the gold fields and north again to cash in. But Martinez was also an important agricultural town, and this site preserves just a little bit of that aspect of its history. It’s about a thirty-five-minute drive northeast of where I live in Oakland.

Physician, horticulturist, and father-in-law of John Muir, Dr. John Strentzel, among his orchards and vineyards in Martinez, CA. Photo credit: Sierra Club

A ripe peach from the orchards of John Muir National Historic Site, Martinez, CA

The grand house which stands here was first the home of Dr. John Strentzel, a Polish physician who emigrated to the United States in 1840. Like Benicia and Martinez, Strentzel made his early fortune in the Gold Rush, in his case through the practice of medicine. He later took up farming and achieved fame as a horticulturist. Strentzel settled in Alhambra Valley, just south of Martinez, with his wife Louisiana, daughter Louisa, and son John, in 1853. The Strentzels built their final home and grand farm here in Martinez from 1880-1882, with a veritable mansion made comfortable with the most modern amenities as they became available: indoor plumbing, gas lighting, two water closets, and eventually, a telephone and electricity. Louisa, nicknamed Louie, ferried to Benicia daily where she went to school and learned to play the piano expertly. Her brother John died at only nine years old in 1857.

The Martinez house was surrounded by acres and acres of rolling farmland, and several groves remain today. I see grapes, peaches, plums, pomegranates, and much more. Visitors can pluck and eat the fruit freely; the peaches and plums are ripe now, the latter richly red, dripping, and delicious.

John Muir’s ‘Scribble Den’, John Muir National Historic Site, Martinez, CA

John Muir met the Strentzels in 1874; he was already well known as a naturalist and just beginning his career as a writer. The year before, he moved to Oakland from Yosemite and published articles about California’s natural wonders. He often lamented how slowly his thoughts flowed through his pen though they bloomed as naturally and abundantly in his mind as the wild California flowers he loved.

Parts of Yosemite had already been set aside as public land by the federal government, protected by the state of California for public use and barred from development by private interests. Senator John Conness introduced the park bill in Congress in 1864 which passed quickly, and President Abraham Lincoln signed it that summer. Conness is an interesting and admirable person as well, an Irish immigrant who also got his start in the Gold Rush and remained on the right side of history in his political career. His advocacy for Chinese immigrants and for equal rights eventually destroyed his political career, but in the meantime he was respected as a champion of the ordinary American, native and immigrant, over the interests of the few and the wealthy, and was one of Lincoln’s pallbearers.

Yosemite Falls, Yosemite National Park

Yet the bill setting Yosemite aside as public land did not provide funds or the authority to protect it. It took Muir, another immigrant, to reveal the true sacredness of the natural world to the consciousness of his (now) fellow Americans, which in turn gave rise to the political will to care for it. An accident in the factory he worked at in 1867 damaged his eyes temporarily and he began to wander. He walked from Indianapolis to Florida, a thousand miles, and fell in love with the natural world and the transformative power of walking in nature. Muir heard that there were spectacular natural wonders in California, vast, and in many places still unexplored and unspoiled, and sailed to San Francisco in 1868. He walked to Yosemite and throughout the Sierras, writing a journal as he went. He emerged as a prophet, fearless, tireless, and rendered poetic by his baptism of the wind, trees, stones, wildlife, and water.

Two books, one written by and one owned by John Muir

But he realized that this great inspiration which transformed and ennobled his life would be unavailable to others if the entrepreneurs trespassing into the Yosemite valley and despoiling it were allowed to continue. So, again like the biblical prophets, Muir emerged from the wilderness to share the good news and cry out against those who defiled the great temples of creation for their own gain. He returned to civilization to spread the word, first through newspapers and then through books. 1874, the year he met the Strentzels at a mutual friend’s home in Oakland, saw his first success as a writer with his ‘Studies in the Sierra’ series. Muir had also discovered the evidence that the formations of Yosemite were created by glaciers, not wind and rain as previously thought, and over time, the scientific community were convinced of the truth of his theory.

The sequoia that John Muir planted near his home is not doing too well, it’s too warm and dry here. Its natural habitat is in the higher, cooler Sierras

Muir married Louie Strentzel in 1879. Though her father and Muir had become good friends, the couple did not fall in love with each other on their own. Another mutual friend set them up and convinced each, separately, that the other would make a perfect companion for them. Muir began to help Dr. Strentzel run the Martinez farm when his health declined, and when he died in 1890, the Muirs established a life together here as ranchers with their two daughters. Muir turned out to be an excellent rancher and, like his father-in-law, was a hard and skilled worker, gifted at innovation and invention. Though Louie didn’t share Muir’s central passion for the wilderness, the couple were affectionate and generous with one another, and she insisted that Muir get away and spend time alone in his beloved wilderness when he needed it, which was often, and often for extended periods.

Like Muir, I love to walk, especially in nature, and when the weather and daylight hours permit, I go on hikes, long or short, two or three times a week. I would one day love to have the wherewithal, or lacking that, the courage to give up financial security and my belongings to wander the earth awhile in freedom, taking in what the journey has to offer. I am in the process right now of cutting my moorings and setting off on a new course in life, resuming my studies in Muir’s native Scotland and getting in as much walking and traveling as I can beforehand. I’m happy that I’ve walked in many of the places Muir has, or at least nearby: I’ve ascended Mount Diablo, by foot and by bicycle; I’ve done several hikes in Yosemite; I’ve lived in Oakland for ever a decade and spent a lot of time in San Francisco; and on that beautiful summer day in June, I explored his old home and strolled through some of his orchards.

Amy in Yosemite National Park, above the falls on the El Capitan hike

The idea that Americans should own the most beautiful portions of their nation’s land in common is an idea that melds Muir’s belief in the sacredness of nature and Senator Conness’s belief in universal human rights. Each human soul needs and deserves a place of unspoiled beauty to immerse itself in, and everyone, not only the rich, the powerful, and the well-connected, should have the opportunity to fulfill and ennoble themselves this way. The National Parks, then, are among the greatest expressions of this democratic spirit.

*Listen to the podcast version here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

You can find more photos of the John Muir National Historic Site here

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

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Sources and inspiration

Burns, Ken. The National Parks: America’s Best Idea documentary series, and ‘John Muir (1838–1914)‘ from the documentary website

City of Benicia: Historic Context Statement, Sep 27, 2010. By City of Benicia Department of Public Works & Community Planning

John Muir National Historic Site: People‘, at NPS.gov

History of Martinez‘. From the Martinez Historical Society website

John Conness‘. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

The John Muir House‘. John Muir National Historic Site: People, at NPS.gov

Sierra Club: John Muir Exhibit, various articles: ‘Chronology (Timeline) of the Life and Legacy of John Muir‘; ‘Dr. John Theophile Strentzel’; ‘John Muir: A Brief Biography‘; ‘Louie Strentzel Muir: A Biography by Steve and Patty Pauly‘; ‘Who Was John Muir?

Thomas, Donna and Peter. Muir Ramble Route: Walking from San Francisco to Yosemite in the Footsteps of John Muir

Walsh, Victor A. ‘John Muir and the Family Ranch in Martinez‘. July 5, 2011. LiteraryTraveler.com 

Junkyard Idealism

Greater Adjutant (Leptoptilos dubius) on a garbage dump in Guwahati, Assam in March 2007, by Yathin sk, Public Domain via Wikimedia CommonsIn a letter to a friend recently, I was reminiscing about my years working in a salvage and recycling yard. It was founded by an idealistic and action-oriented sociologist right near the edge of the local dump’s garbage pit, now grown to a fairly large operation that employs about forty people. I loved and miss the work: it was dirty, physically demanding, creative, and full of the thrill of treasure hunting, as founder Dan Knapp, my fellow salvagers, and I made all manner of discarded things available for use again. We diverted truckloads upon truckloads of things from the landfill every day, and dug among boxes and bags of trash and pulled out everything recyclable or reusable we could find. We rescued all manner of interesting artifacts; one box of ephemera we sold made it into an episode of PBS’s History Detectives. Being a lover of history, I was thrilled at the discovery and wondered how many other interesting and significant relics we snatched from the dump’s gaping mouth.

I wore steel toed boots and thick battered work gloves and grimy jeans, and scrubbed the filth off old household goods, lifted stoves and tables and dressers and machinery and rugs and other heavy things (I grew very strong there, and learned how to maximize the available leverage in my body), and delicately repaired jewelry, pottery, art, and so on. One of my favorite photos anyone’s ever taken of me illustrates an East Bay Express article from several years ago, where you will find me sitting on one of a row of recycled toilets. We helped young artists and first-time homeowners and collectors and independent businesspeople and seekers of antiquities find interesting and useful things; we also bargained, negotiated, and wrangled with hustlers, hoarders, slumlords, and thieves. While the work was hard and pretty nasty sometimes, it could also be great fun and deeply satisfying, and the comradery we shared was delightful, sometimes intense. Many lasting friendships emerged from this place, including my marriage.

Amy Cools works at Urban Ore, where you can find all manner of household goods, by Stephen Loewinsohn for the East Bay Express

Amy Cools works at Urban Ore, where you can find all manner of household goods, by Stephen Loewinsohn for the East Bay Express

My reminiscing was triggered by a podcast discussion I’d just heard about Thomas Jefferson’s disappointed idealism when so many of his fellow Americans flouted the Embargo Acts of his administration. Jefferson wanted to avoid getting drawn in to the war between Britain and France happening at the time, and to protest the unfair treatment of the newly formed United States as a free and equal trading partner. He also wanted to demonstrate to the world ‘that there are peaceful alternatives to war’, such as withdrawing from trade in protest. Unfortunately, the public would not put up with the resulting deprivation of luxuries and money-making opportunities resulting from the general embargo, and it failed.

The embargo episode discussion reminded me of the idealism of the salvage yard, of its founder and those of us that believed that the work (and some still do!) was mostly about doing our bit to counteract the wasteful and polluting consumer habits of our American culture. We hoped and believed, like Jefferson, that the capacity of ordinary citizens to do the right thing would come through, and we could curb and redirect our acquisitory habits if necessary. Yet, like Jefferson, many of us found ourselves disappointed at the way our fellow citizens would fail to live up to our idealism. Even in the Bay Area, known for its ‘green’ culture, our community still manages to consume so voraciously and produce so much trash, that our operation could hardly seem to make a dent in it, though we recycled, literally, tons of stuff every day. When our team in place at the dump would salvage from the trash pile about to be bulldozed into the pit, we’d find enormous quantities of recyclable and salvageable things thrown carelessly into the garbage, even though there’s a comprehensive local infrastructure for salvage and recycling. Everywhere in this country, even here in this liberal bubble, we still seem to be contributing far too much towards rendering the earth and its atmosphere more inhospitable to life as we know it, because we just can’t seem to find a way to help ourselves.

Now, of course, there’s no way around the fact that waste is one of the byproducts of living, especially for long-lived, intelligent, creative creatures like human beings. And some of the waste seems acceptable: clothes worn out and outgrown; machines which no longer work but contain usable parts; recyclable packaging like glass bottles and tin cans; worn-out books, textiles, and parts; obsolete technology; and so on. But lots of the waste appears just gratuitous: gimmicky toys and games; faddy decor; cheap, poorly constructed clothing and other stuff manufactured for short-term use; trinkets and impulse buy gifts that few like to keep but many buy out of a sense of social obligation or an addiction to shopping; and so on. To this day, when I walk into a department or gift shop I perceive mostly thinly disguised, soon-to-be trash.

We really did believe, as again so many of us still do, that this salvage work has significance, that it’s a part of a general movement, slow-moving as it may be, towards a greener, less wasteful, more environmentally caring way of living in the world. The mission and the work both fit in with and raise local consciousness, and lots of people bring their discards to salvage from, glad to see that much of it would not become trash after all. And the business continues to be a well-known and beloved local institution, warts and all.

I still hope, with my old friends and former colleagues, that the people of the United States and of the world will make more than symbolic changes to better protect our world from the ravages of our mining, agriculture, production, and consumption, and live up to our idealism a little better than the American people of Jefferson’s day. Those disposable grocery bags do little to help if we’re still buying and throwing away at such high rates, cheap clothing, discarded water bottles when clean water is flowing from our taps, boxes from nightly takeout, overly-packaged goods, most kinds of plastics, and generally more stuff than we need. Many are more optimistic than I am about how far we’ve come and where we’re going when it comes to waste, pollution, and the capabilities and effectiveness of modern recycling programs. My husband points out that the efficiency of the Oakland transfer station, which uses well-calibrated equipment to effectively separate out recyclables from trash, and the advanced capabilities of carpet recyclers, who have taken out the guesswork of sorting by compatible fiber content with sensors which can detect it, demonstrate real social progress at least when it comes to waste. And one of my great friends is a techie who closely follows technology news, those just coming out, in development, and still in the working-theory stage. If he’s right, new technologies will resolve most or all of our pollution problems, of both production and disposal, in the relatively near future, so long as we manage to fund, make, and use them before we’ve pushed our human-nurturing environment over the brink of collapse.

I really hope my husband and my tech friend are right. Perhaps we won’t ultimately solve the problem through economic self-control, just as in the days of the embargo. Perhaps technology is the only workable solution. But until we’ve invented our way out of the mess we’re making of the world, we need to keep putting our junkyard idealism to work.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and is ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

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Sources and inspiration:

Jenkinson, Clay. ‘Crockett Middle School‘, episode 1169  of the Thomas Jefferson Hour, Feb 21, 2016.

‘Urban Ore: About Us’ business website page

Related Ordinary Philosophy pieces:

Activism is Not Enough: As Long As We Keep Shopping and Don’t Vote, It’s Our Fault Too! Dec 13, 2014 by Amy Cools

Logos‘, Jul 27, 2015 by Amy Cools

Activism is Not Enough: As Long As We Keep Shopping and Don’t Vote, It’s Our Fault Too!

I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, a wonderful place to live. It has a rich culture and a thriving music and arts scene and nightlife. It’s surrounded by great natural beauty in all directions: from oak forests to redwood groves, from chaparral to sandy beaches and sea cliffs. It has a fascinating history, plentiful and delicious food, beautiful architecture, and balmy weather. It’s also a liberal ‘bubble’, with an appetite for activism and, for better and for worse, a penchant for righteous outrage.

I admire and identify with the history and the culture of activism. Like the reformers of history and of today, the brave people who fight to create a more just world are among the finest the human race has ever produced. But I’ve been feeling something a bit lacking in activist movements lately. They still march in the streets, and we join them there and online by signing petitions for reform, posting blog pieces, and sharing videos bursting with righteous indignation. It’s exciting, it’s attention-getting, it makes the news. Historically, take-it-to-the-streets activism has been key in achieving the most important reforms (and breaking away to form our own nation in the first place!). The Occupy Movement, for one, was inspiring, and exciting, and it appeared that we were finally witnessing a harbinger of real change.

Sadly, it seemed to fizzle out before any substantial reform was achieved. Why? Because it wasn’t followed by practical action, which, of course, is much less exciting. Demonstrations of protest don’t do much lasting good unless they’re backed up by real, widespread change in attitudes, behavior, and civic engagment. Right now, the activist community is mainly pouring its energy into marches, inspiring songs, signs, slogans, and speech, and a few into blocking highways, smashing windows, and taunting riot police. But for actual reform to happen, we need to turn our collective accusatory gaze back on ourselves and realize we are the problem too…

How can we be the problem while we’re working and calling for reform? Because we keep supporting bad business through what we choose to buy, and we’re not reforming government by showing up at the polls.

It’s like protesting an assassination after we pitched in to pay the hit man and did nothing to stop him as he stole the getaway car.

For example, we’ve long known that many of our smartphones, tablets, and other gadgets are made in factories where people work terribly long hours for little pay, in conditions we’d never put up with ourselves. And we know that many or even most of our discarded electronics end up in some country, state, or town unprotected by regulations, or whose ‘recycling’ systems are really not effective in keeping up with the deluge, at keeping toxic heavy metals and chemicals out of the water supply, the ground, and the air. So we’ve signed online petitions and shared testimonies of abused workers on YouTube and Facebook. Yet we buy every new gadget as fast as they come along, throwing away our ‘old’ ones (cracked screen? doesn’t have the new games on it? too thick now since the new ones are 1/4″ thinner?) and buying a new one whether we ‘need’ it or not. When we purchase these things, we fund all operations of the companies that make them, and we send them the signal that we’ll buy them no matter how much their products pollute and how they treat their workers.

We also know, from the wealth of scientific information gathered and presented by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and our own National Climate Assessment, that we’re polluting our air to levels that present great threats to the health and future food security of ourselves and our progeny. We’ve also seen how air and other pollution causes respiratory ailments and even death in humans and animals, from pre-1970’s, pre-Clean Air Act Los Angeles, California, to Beijing, China of today. So again, we sign online petitions and share videos and speeches, and call on regulators to crack down on corporate polluters, on factories (industrial and farming), auto manufacturers, and the trucking industry. Yet it’s the commuter cars we drive and the emanations from animals we eat every day that pollute the most. We drive everywhere we want to go whether or not we need our car to get there, and gobble up more meat than is healthy for us and for the planet, all the while insisting that gas and meat stay cheap.

And so on, and so on, and so on. We want one thing, but do another. We say we want the world to be one way, but our actions help guarantee it won’t come to pass. It’s a hard pill to swallow, but here it is: we can’t justifiably blame corporations and the government for institutionalized racism, radical income inequality, pollution, climate change, poor wages and working conditions, poverty, and other social ills while at the same time we’re funding their operations, and are too politically apathetic to send more than a symbolic message by voting in the change we want.

There are two main ways we are undermining our own calls for reform:

We are a market-driven society, for better or for worse, and the market will always deliver what we want to buy, eventually. If we keep buying it, it will keep being made, whatever the good it does, or the harm. If we want things that cause harm, they will be made, ever more so as we keep buying them. And if we shop around for the lowest price, down prices will go, whether by benign means (improved technology) or not (driving down wages). Capitalism brings us wonderful things: safer and better machines for all kinds of purposes, warm comfortable clothing and plentiful food, information-sharing devices to educate and entertain, and best of all, technology that can better our lives while reducing waste. But it brings awful things as well: the supply and demand for plastic bottles and convenient packaging is trashing rivers and seas and killing fish; electronics, designed to quickly become obsolete and full of heavy metals, turns into masses of polluting trash our limited recycling systems can’t keep up with; plentiful, cheap meat pollutes the air and water and encourages animal cruelty; cheap fuel drives climates change and wars; cheap goods of all kinds drive down wages, degrades working conditions, and lead to overconsumption and massive waste. We know this, yet keep the demand going by gobbling it all up as quickly as they supply it.

Here’s an aside to my fellow progressives, liberals, and everyone who loves our world and don’t want to trash it: don’t pretend that recycling bins and boutique ‘green’ products will do the trick. Currently, recycling programs are akin to a cheap plastic Band-Aid applied to a gaping wound. Most recycling processes create nearly as much, sometimes even more, pollution than new products and packaging created in the first place. (Read this fantastic article by Andrew Handley: informative, succinct, and eloquent.)

Secondly, we are allowing the few, most moneyed interests to take over our government with scarcely a murmur. The ballot box, historically the most powerful tool for voicing our collective will, is being abandoned. We are voting in fewer and fewer numbers every year, with depressing results. I understand the Russell Brand type of argument, to ‘drop out’ of politics as an act of protest against systemic government corruption. But I don’t agree with his conclusion. It may be the case, as he points out and as we discover anew every voting season, that many or all of the candidates aren’t terribly inspiring. We may find that many of the initiatives won’t seem to do all the good we’d wish. But consider these facts: historically, the reforms sought by the great activist movements mostly became law because they continued their march right to the polls, and either voted in those laws themselves through referendums, and the rest were achieved indirectly, by voting better leaders into office. And think of what happens when we don’t vote. As someone who considers myself politically progressive, I’ve been dismayed as here in California, such laws as Prop 8 passed, banning gay marriage, because more people opposed to this unjust law (later overturned by the courts as unconstitutional) didn’t bother to get to the polls; ideologues, lavishly funded by a few interest groups, voted in droves while believers in liberal and progressive values (including many who held protest signs, I’ll bet) stayed home. For the same reason, capital punishment is still legal in California and marijuana use (other than medical) is not. I was also dismayed by the most recent general election, in which candidates that are aggressively status-quo and anti-reform were elected to office in droves. Why? Again: those who poll in favor of reform did not show up at the polls.

It’s true that too many candidates are overly motivated to please the interest groups that fund them, and don’t pay enough attention to the rights and the will of the average citizen. But that’s not just because of the money (initially provided by us, by the way, via the market): these candidates have been made well aware that we’ve grown a little too comfortable to make the effort to vote them out. So they make speeches to please us, and then we pass them around online and think we’ve done our duty. On election day, we stay home, and the next day, it’s business as usual.

In sum: so long as we put our own ease, comfort, and desire for luxuries ahead of our principles, we are stuck with the world that results. If our political system continues to grow ever more corrupt and our laws fail to protect the vulnerable, the poor, the immigrant, the disenfranchised, and the environment, yet we don’t vote the bad politicians out and the good laws in, we are to blame too. If corporations and other businesses make harmful products, endanger and underpay their workers, funnel all profits to a few at the top, and pollute, deforest, drive species to extinction, and hasten global warming, yet we keep buying their products, it’s our fault too. If police precincts become ever more militarized and continue to employ overly violent and coercive tactics on the streets and in the interrogation rooms, and we don’t vote them or those that appoint them, out of office, then we’re giving our tacit consent. If our political leaders, prosecutors, and judges continue to make, enforce, and uphold laws that are contrary to our constitutional rights, our best interests, and scientific evidence, and we keep putting them in office (or do nothing while special interest groups put them in office), then we aid and abet them with our neglect.

So what do we do about it? Do we all become ascetics, deny ourselves all pleasures that might conceivably cause harm, subsist in ‘hobbit homes’? Do we obsess over politics, wring our hands in despair daily or cast them in air as we give up in hopelessness? This doesn’t seem tenable: we want an easy, pleasant life filled with hope, comfort and plenty for ourselves, our loved ones, our children, for everyone.

Yet if we want our progeny and the rich, vibrant, diverse world of living things to survive and flourish, we need to change our habits. Our main stumbling block is this fact about human psychology: it’s extremely difficult for us to act idealistically when the long-term ramifications of our actions are not emotionally, immediately apparent at the time. But be it easy or be it hard, we need adopt new and better practices, or the world we love will suffer from our neglect. I’m as stuck in bad habits as much as anyone else, so I’m not playing a blame game here. When it comes to consumer waste: I’m lucky in that I worked in a salvage and recycling operation for some years, and that experience turned me off from enjoying shopping for cheap gadgets, and made me more frugal and more likely to preserve the tools I have for as long as I can repair them and make them work. (There’s nothing like working in a resale warehouse, or salvaging quality reusable goods from a mound of broken cheap crap and trash at the dump, to change one’s perspective on material goods. Now, in the rare occasions I go to Target or a department store, I perceive mostly a mound of thinly disguised future garbage.) But I continue to buy too many things with unnecessary packaging, I still drive my car more often than I really need to, and I buy and eat too much factory-farmed meat. When it comes to politics and law enforcement: I usually don’t do nearly enough homework on the issues or on candidates before I vote, and I miss valuable opportunities to make a difference by engaging in local politics, where individuals can have the most influence.

Let’s make a pact to honor our activists, and to join their ranks as true ones, by living out our desired reforms. Let’s stop buying water and drinks in plastic bottles and packaged goods so long as there’s an alternative; if enough people do this, companies will pay heed and provide their goods through better delivery methods. Let’s stop buying so much stuff, period, and divert our money to businesses and institutions that deliver quality goods that last and public goods that all can enjoy. (Less malls and big box and discount retailers, more small businesses, quality goods made to last, public works, humanitarian projects, and museums.) Let’s stop glorifying wealth and the trappings of wealth more than its due. Let’s vote in every election, for candidates and referendums that best represent our values: if we demonstrate that we will only vote for those that deliver on their promises for reform and will vote them out if they fail, the political arena of competition will shift as it favors less corruption.

Let’s put the act back in activism.

*Listen to the podcast version here or here on iTunes

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Sources and inspiration:

Ariely, Dan. ‘The Long-Term Effect of Short-Term Emotions‘. Mar 23, 2010. DanAriely.com

Brand, Russell. ‘On Revolution: “We No Longer Have the Luxury of Tradition”‘ Oct 24, 2013. TheNewStatesman.com

FlorCruz, Jaime. ‘Listen Up Beijing. This is What You Can Learn From Los Angeles About Fighting Smog‘. Dec 9th, 2014. CNN.com

Handley, Andrew. ‘10 Ways Recycling Hurts the Environment‘. Jan 27th, 2013. Listverse.com.

Parsons, Sarah.’Electronics Recycling 101: The Problem With E-Waste‘. Inhabitat.com

Silverman, Jacob. ‘Do Cows Pollute As Much as Cars?HowStuffWorks.com