May 26, 2011 by sgoobie
You have a headache. You figure it is nothing or that you are simply tired. You take an aspirin and wait it out.
It is tempting to isolate problems in life and society and to look for the easiest explanation and the corresponding quick fix. When the media or those in influential positions do take the time to ask why — already an all-too-rare-phenomenon — most often (with some admirable exceptions) we hear a description of causes which tends to be superficial, reductive and lazy at best. At worst, it points to the active denial by dominant realms of society in facing the need for fundamental change.
Consider three common examples: addiction, terrorism and global poverty.
Why do people become “addicts“, whether it be to alcohol or narcotics or food or gambling? Why do we find gaunt slaves to heroin shooting up in the trash-strewn alleys of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside? Typically, we hear simplistic explanations. Fault is placed on one of two origins: 1) the drug and 2) the individual. The drug, we are told — heroin, crack, alcohol — is an addictive agent, a dangerously potent chemical. The individual, we hear — worthless, lazy and unintelligent — has made poor life choices. But is solely blaming a drug for causing addiction not similar to blaming bullets and gunpowder for causing wars? Is solely blaming an individual not overlooking the degree to which the individual may have had little choice in many areas of his life, as a circumstance of being born into a particular segment or family of a particular society with particular values (or lack thereof)? For an excellent examination of addiction and the misconceptions that go with it, see Dr. Gabor Maté’s book In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts.
Equally, with terrorism, we hear as we often did after 9/11 that the reason why there is the imminent threat of terrorism against the West is that “they” (the “terrorists/insurgents/extremists”) hate the West, the values that “we” stand for — freedom, individualism, democracy, etc. There is little serious discussion in the mainstream media about the longstanding history of the West’s intrusion into Arab States for economic gain and how this may be perceived by those experiencing the weight of an outside power hungry for natural resources. Watch Sam Richard’s TED talk on how we may begin to deepen our understanding of why people — right or wrong — may commit acts of terrorism/freedom-fighting against an occupier.
Finally, global poverty seems one of the least often explained realities of the modern world. Why are some countries poor and others not? Why is there such a massive gulf between the economic rich and the economic poor? Few venture to answer in depth, beyond chalking this up to sheer luck of the draw in terms of access to resources or even a particular society’s lack of ambitiousness and ingenuity to “pull itself out of poverty”. “That’s just the way things are — some rich, some poor” — seems to be a common reply.
Given these causal explanations for social malaise, what responses can we expect? For addiction, we hear calls to simply eliminate the sources of drugs, to destroy cultures in which the natural sources of these substances are valued, to wage war against the drug de jour, to forcibly wean people off of their psychochemical crutches, or to throw the so-called “human trash” in prison to rot and leave the rest of us to our clean and happy streets.
Addiction? They’re just taking too many drugs. Just STOP taking drugs. Just say NO.
With terrorism, we see on the nightly news high-tech military powers coordinating vengeful attacks on villages in far-away places. We see suspicious treatment of those here at home who bear any resemblence in name or form to our force-fed characature of an insurgent. We see a war on terror.
Terrorism? They simply hate us and want to kill us. It’s not rocket science. Find and kill the terrorists.
Finally, efforts to “combat” global poverty traditionally consist of giving financial aid to the “poor people” in “poor countries”, perhaps lending assistance in building infrastructure or providing education, giving loans (strings attached) to “democratize” the economies of these “backward nations”. These strategies are well summarized in the 2008 documentary The End of Poverty?.
Poverty? They just don’t have enough money. Give them money.
The single question we can ask to all three of these real-world examples is: So, how’s it going? How are these explanations and responses working out so far? Are we considerably closer to eliminating addiction in society, to ending the wrath of terrorism, or to arriving at the end of poverty? In all three contexts, although we can say we do see isolated cases of positive change, these are largely outnumbered by cases of social stagnation and in some cases increasing levels of suffering. Our unwillingness to dig deeper results in accelerated downward spirals of modern woes — addiction, terrorism and poverty — across the globe.
At last, we come to the State of the Planet. What causes threats like global climate change? Why are so many species disappearing so quickly? What can we do about it?
It is tempting to jump to the simple answer, the apparent cause which first jumps to our consciousness as seeded through the scientific community. Everywhere we hear: carbon, energy, resources, etc. But we MUST resist this temptation. The mental energy we spend in implementing quick fixes must not come at the expense of deeper exploration of causes and the difficult business of developing true approaches to its resolution. Yes, our time is limited in dealing with looming realities like climate change. But would it make sense to rush to an “easy” but empty solution over taking the time and effort and rigour to find a lasting resolution?
To put it bluntly: To rush to judge environmental destruction is to accomplish little, perhaps nothing at all — it only prolongs our collective denial of what truly needs to change. If we — if YOU — genuinely care about having a thriving planet for many future generations to come, then the best thing we can possibly do is to slow down. Take a deep breath. Ask questions.
We return to the allegory of the headache. Ask yourself, if I suspend my judgement and look deeply at myself and the world around me, what really might be causing that headache? Is it just “nothing”? Is it only that I’m tired? Go deeper. Deeper still. Toss the aspirin away, as it only masks the symptoms. The old ways of treating symptoms rather than root causes have expired; they’ve become obsolete in the face of mounting stakes.
We’ve entered a new age. Some call it the ecocene, a time when human activity has altered Nature on a global scale; others call it the Age of Consequence, wherein our actions are coming back to impact our own welfare.
There’s another name for this period in time.
It is, we might say, the Age of Honesty. It is time for us all to face our denials.
It’s time to face ourselves.