A family recipe, a childhood memory, a Depression-era handout
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“One Nation, Indivisible” features excerpts from The Sun’s archives that speak to the current political moment.
For two hundred thousand years people had a way of life that worked beautifully for them. They didn’t have Tinker Toys or carnival rides or transistor radios, but they had a life that was satisfying and ecologically successful. Yet we teach our children that there was nothing until the rise of our agriculture-based civilization — that we started ten thousand years ago with nothing.
The fact is, we threw away everything in the treasury and started over from scratch. So now our task is to go back and look again into that treasury. But we don’t have to go back in time, because that way of life is still with us wherever tribal people are living today. The problem is, their way of life works so effortlessly that people looking at it from the outside see absolutely nothing.
“Down the Garden Path,” Daniel Quinn, interviewed by W. Bradford Swift, December 1997
The Achilles’ heel of consumer society is that it hasn’t made us as happy as it promised it would. Although Americans have tripled their prosperity since the mid-1950s, the percentage who say they’re “very satisfied” with their lives has declined. In fact, only about a quarter of Americans now say that they’re “very satisfied.” When you think about it, this is pretty sad, considering the unbelievable amount of resources and energy that we have consumed — and waste we have produced — in the last fifty years. We’ve pursued the American Dream to no real apparent end.
There are signs that we are beginning to wake up to this, however. The number of farmers markets in this country has doubled and then doubled again in the last decade. It’s now the fastest-growing part of our food system. Some people shop at them because they understand that you can use ten times less energy by buying local food, but many people shop there because they want food that actually tastes like something, or because they want a connection with the world around them. Sociologists last year studied both supermarkets and farmers markets and found that people had ten times as many conversations at farmers markets. These are not subtle differences: ten times less energy and ten times more community — and better food to boot.
“Dream a Little Dream,” Bill McKibben, interviewed by Alexis Adams, October 2006
Consumption of the very life of the land is not an American invention; it is the habit of civilization. Yet the European encounter with the Americas, begun a mere five centuries ago, was like a spark to tinder: patterns of land use that, over a couple of millennia, had domesticated, sometimes desertified, and definitely aged the Old World were recapitulated here in decades. Civilization befell the wilderness of North America and beset a continent peopled by a few million Indians, whose diverse cultures — constituting hundreds of place-specific variations on the theme of subsistence — held them in equilibrium with the land. . . .
Today, the globalization of North American–style consumerism threatens to swamp any remaining indigenous cultures that enjoy an ethical relationship with their habitat. Left to their own devices, indigenous peoples might eventually have invented their own ways to mass-produce doodads from the raw materials of the wilderness. We’ll never know. . . .
Even though North American consumerism may be the culminating stage of a lengthy historical process, that’s not to say that consumerism is somehow natural. Throughout human history, the power elite have played a role in steering us away from participation in nature and toward objective materialism.
“The One Who Steals the Fat,” Stephanie Mills, January 2001
We are political beings. We live in the world; we live in the world of politics. The inner life isn’t separate from that. What is the goal of the creativity one feels — and wishes to develop and help others to develop? Is it just to make more and more pots or take more and more pictures? Is that what it’s all about? I don’t think so. I think that, as we become more creative, we move toward a concern with social justice and compassion. That’s the natural movement. We come, maybe through times of loneliness, toward experiencing the reality of another person. As we create, you might say, we are created. We move toward a deepened awareness of reality. Outwardly we move toward social justice; inwardly we move toward compassion.
“Uniting the Opposites,” M.C. Richards, interviewed by Sy Safransky, March 1989
Most businesses make money because they are narrowly focused. Generalist businesses do not last. Businesses “thrive” by having narrow definitions of responsibility as well. But that narrowness is what is killing us.
For example, we are burning down tropical forests and displacing and destroying traditional indigenous cultures in order to provide feedstock for cattle to make foodstuffs that cause heart disease. The rise in heart disease has led a growing biotech industry to prospect in the still-standing rain forests to find new compounds, which they will produce using recombinant organisms, to treat blocked arteries. The pharmaceutical industry uses golf-course-lined resorts in Arizona to wine and dine physicians as part of its marketing process. These junkets add to global warming because of increased use of carbon-based fuels for air travel, limousines, and golf carts. The air conditioners that cool the buildings are fed by coal-fired power plants such as Black Mesa, which foul and pollute the air, causing increases in asthma.
This is what happens when business is narrowly focused: it causes damage every step of the way.
“Down to Business,” Paul Hawken, interviewed by Renee Lertzman, April 2002
In every corner of the world today, the process called education is based on the same assumptions and the same Eurocentric model. The focus is on faraway facts and figures, on “universal” knowledge. The books propagate information that is believed to be appropriate for the entire planet. But since the only knowledge that can be universally applicable is far removed from specific environments and cultures, what children learn is essentially synthetic, divorced from its living context. If they go on to higher education, they may learn about building houses, but these houses will be universal boxes of concrete and steel. So, too, if they study agriculture, they will learn about industrial farming: chemical fertilizers and pesticides; large machinery and hybrid seeds. The Western educational system is making us all poorer by teaching people around the world to use the same global resources, ignoring those that their immediate environments naturally provide. . . .
There were many real problems in the traditional society, and development does bring some improvements. However, when one examines the fundamentally important relationships — to the land, to other people, and to oneself — one sees development in a different light. Viewed from this perspective, the differences between the old and the new become stark and disturbing. It becomes clear that the traditional nature-based society, with all its flaws and limitations, was more sustainable, both socially and environmentally. It was the result of a dialogue between human beings and their surroundings, a continuing coevolution that involved a thousand years of trial and error. During that time, the culture kept changing . . . but that change occurred within a framework of compassion and a profound understanding of the interconnectedness of all things.
The old culture reflected fundamental human needs while respecting natural limits. And it worked. It worked for nature, and it worked for people.
“To Raze a Village,” Helena Norberg-Hodge, February 1997
At the heart of many of the atrocities we see around us is a failure of compassion, a failure of empathy. It is the loss of our capacity to see the Other and ourselves as sacred. When our capacity for compassion isn’t nurtured, or when it breaks down, or when we distance ourselves until we begin to treat another being as if he or she has no heart or soul, then hatred and violence begin to seem inevitable.
Violence has been with us throughout our existence; in fact, it may be essential to our survival as a species. I don’t think it would be inaccurate to say that the potential for cruelty is present in all human interaction. There are circumstances, though — certain historical times and cultural conditions — in which violence is amplified. Unfortunately, in this culture, at this moment in time, we seem to be magnifying our capacity to disturb, disrespect, and disconnect. This disconnection is at the heart of our problem.
Even though we seem to be creating conditions that magnify violence, in each of us there remains the capacity for empathy and compassion and the ability — even the tendency — to appreciate the sacred in one another and in the landscape.
“Thinking outside the Classroom,” Zenobia Barlow, interviewed by Derrick Jensen, March 2002