Natural

While driving to the woods for a run, on the radio I heard Amanda Marcotte make the very sensible point that regardless of how girls dress for a high school dance, boys and fathers are responsible for controlling how they behave in response, i.e., to respect girls’ right to consent or not, rather than blame the victims of sexual harassment or assault.

Soon I was running by a stand of virgin white pine trees. I gazed in admiration up their tall, straight boles, rare sights in a land where such beauties had been pillaged for shipbuilding. I heard in my head what a royal servant choosing such a tree for felling might have told himself by way of justification: If God didn’t want us to cut down these trees, he wouldn’t have made them so straight and strong, so perfect for shipbuilding. It occurred to me how analogous this justification is to men’s implicit attitude toward women: If I am not supposed to sexually conquer her, why is she made to be so arousing?

While sexually assaulting a person is more egregious than cutting down a tree, it is worth considering the similarity: in both cases, the victim is made into a natural object which a person wielding greater power believes himself entitled to take for his superior purpose. One can easily imagine similar reasoning justifying other power dynamics, e.g.: If I am not supposed to own all these slaves, why are they made to be so strong and uncultured, so perfect for laboring, and I more intelligent and civilized, more adept at commanding?

The law of nature-exploitation

Pollution always increases. The world becomes only noisier, brighter, more paved, more built up, more crowded, more distracted. There is ever less soil, air, space, quiet, star-gazing, contemplation. The rare exceptions to this uni-directionality are often disaster zones where humans dare no longer go, most famously Chernobyl — a future that may await the rest of Earth, too, especially once we begin to colonize other planets and extract enough value out of ours to leave it behind along with billions of people not wealthy enough to escape.

Places like New Hampshire and Maine have admirably reforested vast tracts of land previously clear-cut for agriculture and industry and have protected the resurgent wilderness for preservation and recreation. But just as Chernobyl represents our possible future, northern forests represent our perverse past: when unsustainable exploitative practices approached their limit locally, they moved south and west. Today the forests of Brazil, Congo, and Indonesia disappear so we can have our cake and eat it, too. This process is just one facet of the broader dynamic according to which vast wealth has been created on the backs of the many but most of its benefits have concentrated in the few.

To resist this drive toward ever increasing pollution, depletion, inequality, this flinging of ourselves into a future that only intensifies the problems of the past, what would it take?

Still not enough

Most of us recognize, despite historical pretensions otherwise, that “white” people are not superior to “other” people. And many of us understand further that correcting for this inequality only prospectively, i.e., being color-blind, is a woefully inadequate response to the history of racism. Rather, we must actively identify and remedy its ongoing legacy in the form of institutional racism, e.g., mass incarceration, housing discrimination, educational inequality, etc.

Similarly, it is not enough merely to recognize now that humans are an equal part of, not superior to, nature.  Merely being low-impact is the equivalent of merely being color-blind. Rather, we must investigate and root out precisely how our history of assumed dominance over life on Earth continues to structure our economy and ideas, e.g., externalities, growth, property rights.

Incidentally, these are not merely analogous processes but fundamentally one in the same, since to make a group of people “other” is to lower them on the hierarchy placing “us” on top and (the rest of) nature somewhere below.

Yet another need for savviness

It is not the use but the abuse of “politically correct” statements that should grate. It is only right to advocate for justice and progress and to speak in terms that are accurate and respectful. But we should not, as many liberals seem to do, let choosing the right words substitute for performing the hard work of substantive engagement in addressing social conflict. The latter is not done out of care for others but as a branding technique to make oneself look good.