Monday, January 15, 2007

The Perils of Alternative Piety, or It's Not Easy Being Green

Last week I attended a talk that came down to the same lament such talks by teachers seem always to produce: Students don't reason. They read a book, watch a television show, listen to music, but fail to analyze, synthesize, evaluate. It's an understandable lament for teachers, since our job is to teach students to reason. Still, it's an odd, self-serving, even kind of stupid lament. Students do not live by reason alone. Duh! Who does? Who wants to?

I've been thinking about the limits of reason in connection to issues discussed at Fuller and Fuller and some of the links on that site. These issues involve the struggle against consumer culture, global warming, corporate monoculture in agribusiness, sweatshop exploitation--in short, the good fight to live green and save the planet. The difficulty in being green is not only, as Queen Whackamole says, that "Awareness and education have a tough battle to fight against convenience," not only the tough practical struggle to live green in a world organized by very ungreen principles. But it's also difficult being green because being green means living by rational principles, and it is emotionally difficult to be so rational all the time.

For example, Queen Whackamole (and some good folks at Compact) struggles against shopping, because, even though stuff in stores is useless, excessive, ecologically ruinous, and functionally exploitative, shopping is not a rational experience, but an emotional one. It somehow brings comfort, relieves stress, or otherwise engages a non-rational part of ourselves. The same can be said for many of our most compelling or useless or destructive lifestyle choices--food, alcohol, sex, movies, sports, poker, cigarettes, drugs, screaming at the top of our lungs. What we do is often not rational, but rather connected to desire and the unconscious.

So what is the emotional tenor of acting rationally according to green principles? Unfortunately, too often we experience being green as what we should do, the rules of the super ego. We feel we are being good, a short step from pious, perilously close to self-righteous. And what is the greatest pleasure for many of us--especially, perhaps, for those of us who used to be altar boys--in this complex of rules for desire? Transgression, of course. And when the principles we are supposed to follow but instead transgress are green principles, well, reason and desire do not exactly come together to save the planet.

I can offer no solution to the perils of alternative piety. I want to save the world, too, but I don't believe saintliness is a viable model for psychic health or social change. What I like about Queen Whackamole's effort to look for an alternative to retail therapy is that she opens, and leaves open, the question about the emotional difficulty of being green.


George said...

I'm trying to figure out if poker at your house the other night was useless or destructive.

Given how well I did, I guess a bit of both.

James said...

Trying to green has been an experience that is for me not entirely about rationality. Ultimately many of the choices one makes in being greener are also simpler, which appeals not to the rational part of my being, but the lazy part.

Queen Whackamole said...

Great post, Patrick. And good point, James! Both inspiring fuller responses...

Patrick said...

James, I need an example of your enviable, admirable, ecological laziness.

Anonymous said...

Non-rational, destructive and in the end, useless.

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