This Astonishing World

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This American consumptive society says that you can never have too much, that you should always want more.   More food, more clothes, more electronic gizmos,  more cars, more space, more friends, more sex, more fun, more beauty.  And all of this more can be purchased if you just work more hours or more jobs, and anyone who isn’t striving for more more more is lazy and un-American.

But don’t we already have enough?  Don’t we really have too much?  What do we actually need to be healthy and happy in this world?

For me and most of my friends and acquaintances, the basic needs of life are met.  We have food on our tables, and a permanent dwelling to put that table in.  Heck, we have tables, and chairs, and couches, and televisions, and computers so small they fit in our backpacks or even the back pockets of the jeans and jackets we wear.  Yep, we have clothes, too, and shoes on our feet and warm sweaters and hats.

And if that’s not enough, we have heat in our homes, and hot and cold running water and sanitation services that keep waste from being part of our lives.  Many of us have cars to get from place to place exceedingly quickly  on miles of paved roads, and those of us who don’t, have buses or bicycles or feet that do the trick just fine.

How much more do we need?  And how many of the things that we have could we live without?

As for non-material goods, for fun and love and beauty and sex and friends and family, these things cannot be bought, no matter what the advertising tries to tell us.  They cannot be consumed or acquired by consumption.  They can only be grown, nourished, and created by us as humans interacting with other humans and the stuff of the world.

I’m currently reading Shannon Hayes’s book Radical Homemakers, and it’s kind of life-altering.  Her work is a synthesis of so many of the things I’ve been thinking about surrounding work and family and sustainability and the pressure to want more when what you have is enough.  I encourage everyone to read it.

The biggest point I think she makes is that we need to change our economic model from one based on increasing profit margins in the home and in business, to one based on supporting and sustaining all members of our community and our planet.

How much better would the  world be if we stopped wanting more, and decided we have enough?

What kids need (an ongoing project)

I’m starting this post, and hope to come back to it over time, to capture my thoughts on What Kids Need in their lives at different stages to be happy, healthy, and successful.  Obviously, they all need good, healthy food, a safe home, and love from the adults in their lives.  They also all need to be allowed to make choices and make mistakes.

Infants need love, touch, time around adults and older children.

Littles (under, say, 7) need to play.  To exercise their imaginations, and to explore what it means to be with peers, to hear and tell stories.  To jump and climb and run.  To take things apart.  To touch and taste and poke at real things.  To get answers to their questions.  To help.

Middles need achievable challenges.  To be have their interests respected.

Adolescents need to be respected as members of society.  To have meaningful work (paid or volunteer) that makes a difference in their community. To have their achievements acknowledged.  To be held to high standards.  To be spoken to “like adults.”  To be listened to.

Teenagers, kick our butts!

Another paper written for my Dev Psych class, slightly edited to use the fun of the internet.

The universe occasionally likes to beat me over the head with an idea until I get the point. Lately, the idea has been centered around adolescents. Here are some examples of what I’ve come across in the past few weeks. They are offered in no particular order, and relate to many aspects of teen and tween experiences. Put together, they have created something of a call to action.

  • ran an article called “Solving America’s teen sex problem” which interviewed Any T. Schalet of the University of Massachusetts, author of a recent study on American and Dutch attitudes toward teenage sexuality and the related book, Not Under My Roof.  The upshot of the study is that Dutch families are generally more accepting of teen sexuality and see it as a part of genuine teen relationships, while American families may recognize that their teens are having sex, but don’t want to know about or enable it (hence the book title). Schalet says,

When I did interviews in the U.S., I was really struck when parents would say,“Well, teenagers think they’re in love” and they would hold up their hands with quotation marks. The U.S. is very strongly tied to the model of marriage. We don’t want 15- or 16- or 17-year-olds to marry but we don’t think a relationship is love unless it’s the one and only, the person you’re going to marry forever. It’s also tied to individualism, because if you believe that intimate relationships are threatening to young people’s developments, and that you have to do things on your own first and then settle down, then everything you do before settling down is not going to be about love. And yet, young people do form relationships that are very important to them. They look different from adult relationships but they’re real relationships a lot of the time.

  • In Cynthia Thomashow’s chapter “Adolescents and Ecological Identity” in Children in Nature, she quotes a student speaking to her City Council, which looked to overrule the well-studied judgments of students entrusted with deciding the fate of a piece of land. The student, Hannah Jacobs, says “This is not about the boardwalk. This is about including us as citizens in this decision and keeping your promise… You simply have to believe in us and honor your commitment. This is about whether you think we are a part of this city, whether we deserve to make a decision that affects the place where we live” (273-274).
  • A friend posted the following picture on Facebook

The first two comments to her posting were supportive. The third said “ The other side of this is don’t get upset when you are not accepted because you couldn’t accept others by fitting in with them showing that you are friendly and not narcissistic… Just as someone can choose how to look, I can choose not to accept. Just like they didn’t like how I looked so they wanted to look different” (Ed F.).

Ira Glass: Linda Perlstein agrees that all the stereotypes about middle schoolers, everything, in fact, that Annie complained about, all of that is true. But she says that there’s a flip side that people don’t usually talk about. Middle school is when kids open up to the world. It’s when they think about bigger things. And they haven’t formed their opinions on things yet. Everything is up for grabs, which is amazing to be around.

Linda Perlstein: I just think kids that age are fun. I like being around them. Middle schoolers are in that real nice spot of being interesting, but also being able to explain to you what’s going on in their minds and why they do things they do. They’re self-reflective. They’re capable of self-reflection in a way that younger kids might not be.

Our society has a terrible habit of discounting the young. You can see it in how hard Hannah and her colleagues had to plead to have their City Council make good on their promises, and you can see it in the way American parents disregard the real emotional lives of their teenagers. For everyone like Perlstein who see the need to be different and find ones own way as a necessary developmental step and a source of positivity, there is an Ed who sees those who do not dress like him as unfriendly and narcissistic, even in the face of obvious friendliness and attention to others. Is it any wonder the image if a teen yelling at his or her parents “You just don’t understand me!” before running off and slamming a bedroom door is so popular? As a society, we really are unwilling to understand adolescents, unwilling to take them seriously as equal human beings with valid ideas, emotions, and modes of expression.

Thomashow concludes that “Adolescents need to partake in controversy and to revel in newly formed perspectives… In turn, we, as adults, need to ask adolescents the right questions and be open to their innovative and often unsettling answers” (277). She speaks as an educator, and sees this as the way for adolescents to develop “an adult identity that will, hopefully, be coherent, pragmatic, and ethical” (261). I acknowledge that adolescents will one day be adults shaped by their adolescent experiences. The more important message I have been hearing, however, is that we need to embrace, accept, listen to, and work with adolescents for the power and energy and brilliance that have as adolescents, not just as future adults. Their willingness to take on new ideas, ability to change and change again when confronted with expanding knowledge, and above all their passion to risk being themselves even in the face of strong opposition are things the adult world would do well to embrace.

Weekly Writing: Animal Rights

As part of one of my classes, I am writing weekly essays on my readings.  The course is Developmental Psychology and the Human Relationship with Nature.  This is in response to an article by Tom Regan, The Case for Human Rights.  You can find the text here.

My response is as follows:

I recently interviewed to volunteer at the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium.  One of the questions was “What do you think about animals in captivity?”  I answered that, while captivity is less ideal than life in a natural environment, the benefit to the species and those connected to it through the education and inspiration drawn from seeing these creatures in the flesh is worth the cost in terms of quality of life for the individual animal.  Regan concludes that animals have the same inherent worth as most modern societies afford to humans, calling on us, therefore, to cease all use of animals in agriculture and scientific research.  The major quandary I see arising from the differences in these views is this: is the individual in the present the most important consideration, or the whole in the long term?  This is, of course, is a dilemma that faces all of human society.Regan very clearly values the importance of the individual, and individual rights, human and animal alike.  He argues, in particular, the rights of the greater good do not outweigh the value of an individual’s life, and that animals, like humans, “are each of us the experiencing subject of a life, each of us a conscious creature having an individual welfare that has importance to us whatever our usefulness to others.” (Regan, p. 37)  Treating animals differently from people is therefore morally wrong, so farming them or using them for scientific research is just as morally wrong as doing the same to humans.

This assumes, however, that animals want to be viewed and treated as individuals, and that their individual rights are more important to them than their continued success as a species.  It also assumes that the life created for these animals by humans is worse than one without human interference, or no life at all.  I will grant that there are many instances of abuse and mistreatment of animals, especially in agriculture, but I also know there are ways for animals to live comfortable, productive (and for an animal, productive really means reproductive) lives and still end up as a human’s meal.  And Regan’s view of animal rights seemingly would ban all use of animals in science, not just for testing of treatments for later human use, but testing of new animal medications and the study of species in conservation efforts as well.

This supreme focus on the individual strikes me as a very modern, and very American, frame of reference, and not necessarily for the better.  While I acknowledge that humans have worth, regardless of their usefulness to society, I also recognize that the needs of the society in which I am a part sometimes outweigh my personal needs, that sacrifice is sometimes required.  While I don’t particularly enjoy it, I pay taxes knowing that that is the cost of being part of society, which improves my life immensely.  I also recognize that there are members of this society who can’t contribute in the same way I can.  Regan seems to equate animals with those members of human society who cannot be asked to contribute, because of age or disability or other reason.  But animals can and do contribute, and our “domestic” species (those used for food, or companionship, or work), have through natural or human selection developed to do just that.  In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan makes a strong case that it is in the best interest of, say, Black Angus cows as a breed for humans to continue eating them, as their population developed to be eaten.  The sacrifice of individual cows to the butcher is the cost of the breed becoming so prevalent.

There are other issues with equating humans and non-human animals.  I spayed my cat as a juvenile because I didn’t want her to have kittens.  Was that the moral equivalent of sterilizing a developmentally disabled human?  If I had not had her spayed, she would have produced many, many litters of kitten by now, far more than I would be able to support (non-contributing members of society that cats are).  Overpopulation of domestic cats is a large problem, and many cats and kittens are euthanized because there are not enough homes for them.  Feral cats spread diseases and can do major damage to bird and small animal populations, so letting them be free is not an option.  Not having the cat in the first place would take away my moral burden, but that means my cat, who came from a shelter at barely seven weeks and is a beloved member of the family, would have either been placed in another home which may not have been kind, or been euthanized.  We could decide as humans not to have cats as pets, but then we are faced with the same poor options on a grand scale: mass sterilization or  euthanasia (both of which would lead to the extinction of the species), or a booming population of invasive housecats.  No, spaying her was the better choice for cats as a whole, and for me and my life.  Had I suggested doing the same to a human who was unable to consent, I would rightly be branded a monster.

And where should be draw the line?  With animals we like, like cows and horses and dogs and pigs?  With certain orders of animals?  Regan’s ethic would have to extend to all animals, from dolphins and chimpanzees down to fruit flies, ticks, and roundworms.  Obviously chemical
pesticides would be right out, but what about organic pest control techniques of encouraging or introducing animals that eat the other animals that are eating crops?  If I value an aphid as I would a human, I cannot in good conscience send a ladybug after it to eat it.  Or would we be able to consider those creatures attaching our food security “enemy combatants” so as to treat them with less due respect?

Being human, having the ability to reason and create systems of ethics, having the capacity to care for those people and animals and living and non-living things we do not directly know, is living perpetually in gray areas and with the knowledge that perfection is unattainable.  Absolute equality is a beautiful goal.  It is also totally impractical.  Every decision we make involves setting one thing above another, or no decision could ever be made.  And when it comes time to make a decision, those closest to us will take precedence of those farther from us, emotionally, physically, and evolutionarily.  This is how animal – human and non-human alike – continue the species, which is the ultimate biological goal of all life forms.  Humans have the capacity for altruism, and if I can help everyone, I will, but when that is impossible, I will choose  my wife over a stranger on the street, choose my community over one far away, and choose to eat the cow long before I choose to eat a fellow human or allow myself to starve.  Such black and white moral absolutism as Regan proposes is impossible in the real world of grays.

It is Good

It is good

to taste the sweet tart ripeness of berries
to smell the sweet bright incense of cedar
to feel the cool fresh wet of the first rains of fall
to hear chattering squirrel and rushing wind and the silence of feet on dirt
to see friends again – sword and bracken, Doug fir and hemlock, Dame Thuja, queen of trees
to meet and pass kindred spirits, human, canine, avian
to turn you face to the sky above, the water below, the forest around and give thanks.

It is good.

Hike: Pt. Defiance spine trail

This morning’s hike was a brief visit to my local bit of woods – Pt. Defiance.  It’s a 700 acre park in the Tacoma city limits.  I did the Spine Trail, about 2.6 miles round trip, in just about an hour, which is a decent pace for me.  Weather was, well, fall-like.  It was sunny then cloudy then rainy then sunny again with a good amount of wind thrown on top.  I was just what I needed this morning.

Highlights: Big trees, being back in this forest type, eating red and evergreen huckleberries and Himalayan blackberries, getting my hand licked by a friendly passing dog, getting heavily dampened by the first fall rain, sheltering from said rain under a small but surprisingly shelter-y Western Hemlock.

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