The essential cultural divide

Posted January 17th, 2011 in Blog, Featured 5 Comments »

Fostering Ecological Hope
Today from Margaret Swedish:

This morning I received an email from a friend and colleague taking issue with one sentence from my previous post. In writing about how we are not prepared to address our multiple ecological crises, I note that one reason is this: “We aren’t making good decisions about any of this because most of us don’t have a clue what is going on.”

Countries by ecological footprint - Wikimedia Commons

He then describes the response of a neighbor to the reality of climate change, which goes something like this: “Yes, yes, yes.  The world is warming.  Life’s a bitch.  Yea.  And I know that humans are probably contributing.  But this global warming crap is just you folks extending the reach of big government.”

And there you have it – humans are contributing to global warming, but, hey, I don’t want to change my life, and I don’t trust those who are trying to use this to create more ‘big government,’ a term that is so slippery for me that I need from each person who uses it a definition of what they mean by it.

For example, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? The nearly 800 U.S. military bases around the world (the carbon emissions contributed by the defense industry and the military far outweighs all the cars and trucks on our highways)? The FDA and EPA, agencies created to protect the safety of our food, water, and air from toxic pollution (and they need to be strengthened, not weakened, in order to do these jobs well)? The federal highway system? The national parks?

Or perhaps the abundant tax subsidies for earth-damaging industrial agriculture, or for extraction of fossil fuels? Or do they just not like the fact that as members of society they are expected (and morally required) to contribute taxes to support the critical services needed so that the society can function (like paying representatives and Capitol Police or the Secret Service, or the staffs of the agencies, courts, etc., that citizens use every single day)?

Friends, we have a great divide in this country that has been there a long time, that waxes and wanes with the times, and right now it is waxing something fierce. It is between two grand visions of social and political life. The divide has been there since our founding days. It is between a vision of the human as an individual with rights unto themselves, the single creator of one’s own life and reality, standing alone, working hard to make that life for oneself, in competition with other individuals and even society itself.

Projected 100 degree days in US this century - Source: US Global Change Research Program

This is the vision represented in that story I mentioned in my last post where property rights became the argument for gutting the wind farm industry in my state, one ingredient among the alternatives to the fossil fuel industry. It is the vision that rears its ugly head (at least I believe it ugly) in terms like “states’ rights” or denunciations of the reach of federal government when it wants to ensure things like access to health care for all citizens, or to strengthen gun laws to keep lethal weapons out of the hands of people such as Jared Loughner, or to ensure that the rights incorporated into our civil rights legislation of the 1960s is actually enforced.

The other vision rests on the notion of the “social contract,” or even better, the moral foundations of civil society built upon the notion that as members of societies, communities, cultures, neighborhoods, we are responsible for one another as well as ourselves – responsible for respecting one another, for respecting the common good and the good of the commons that we all share, that social life cannot function in a healthy way if each of us is only out for ourselves. This vision sees persons as existing within a culture where we try to create the conditions in which social and personal life can flourish – meaning things like access to good healthy food, clean water, healthy air, decent housing, well-paid jobs, access to education, etc., etc., and that we contribute in part with our taxes to create the agencies and processes that protect these things for the good of all.

The divide affects things like how we approach the Bill of Rights. Does the Second Amendment, for example, enshrine the individual right to bear arms – Glocks and extended ammunition clips, for example – or the right of the citizenry to form various kinds of security forces (police, armies, National Guard) to protect itself from threats to the community? Depends a lot on your vision of the world.

Must I be forced to buy health insurance so that all people have access to health care?

Ecologically speaking – should corporations have the right to gut the planet, rip apart its ecosystems, for my right to own more than one house, to replace my iPhone every year or two, to buy the biggest baddest HD screen on the block, or to watch my stock portfolio grow?

Or how about the Kohler Co. here in Wisconsin which is fuming over new regulations on showerhead flow as a measure to cut back on our water use. The country faces critical water shortages in the near future and the government would like to pass enforceable regulations to start addressing that looming crisis. Kohler responded thusly:

“On a basic fundamental, philosophical level, we firmly believe that the Department of Energy’s new ruling is a totally unnecessary, ineffectual and an unwarranted intrusion by the federal government into the private lives of families and individuals. The American people should have the right to choose a shower system that best suits their personal hygiene requirements.” (quote found here)

Right? Could not have said it better myself! The right of we U.S. Americans to choose whatever water flow we want for our ‘personal hygiene requirements’ (does that mean my hygiene requirements require a stronger water flow than yours does?) trumps the nation’s need to cut down on water usage to avoid critical shortages for tens of millions in the near future. Do my, or the company’s, individual rights to comfort and/or profits trump the future rights of persons to have access to water at all? Depends on your vision of the world.

Note how the reporter gets the real issue involved here:

Should pleasure-loving Americans have the right to freely luxuriate under multihead showers that drench them in a deluge of warm, relaxing water? Or should the federal government, in the name of acting for the common good, step in and turn down the flow?

The conflicting world views are right there. Keep in mind that Kohler is one of the companies in my state that has just gutted previous labor agreements, forcing a 2-tier wage system on workers as a way to drive down production costs. Presumably this means Kohler does not believe that workers have rights to decent wages that can support the bare needs for a dignified life for workers and their families. Common good competes here with the bottom line of a company. Again, the divide could not be more apparent.

Friends, I believe these contrasting visions are at the heart of the real cultural divide in this nation. And I also believe we must put that contrast at the forefront of our efforts to create a new culture of ecological healing and wholeness.

The Children Are Asking - Art by Mary Southard, CSJ

In a new project I am working on with a lovely group of folks here in the Midwest, we have used this phrase from Wendell Berry to define what we are working towards: “to create a preserving harmony between the made and the given worlds” (in The Way of Ignorance and Other Essays).  Right now, we are a culture of raging dissonance, not only in our political discourse, but in our relationship with and within the natural world and with one another. Individualism is a curse, not a blessing, in the context of this striving for a preserving harmony.

What harmony are we trying to preserve? One that creates what Thomas Berry would describe as a ‘mutually enhancing relationship’ between the human and the rest of nature, a harmony between what humans require to have good, fulfilling lives imbued with meaning and purpose and the web of life that holds and supports us within it.

And that requires not only a new way of life here in this society, but a new way of viewing the world.


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5 Responses

  1. hombredelatierra

    “Individualism is a curse, not a blessing, in the context of this striving for a preserving harmony.”

    Perhaps it is we, in our false vision of reality, who have created a false dialectic between “individual” and “society”? The two terms could / should be seen as complementary / competing / antagonistic depending on the context. I see the relation between individual and society as “symbiotic”: the human individual cannot exist without society (societies create relations and culture which make us fully human); human society, in turn, is composed of – EMERGES from – the interactions of the individual members of society. In a “recursive”, “reflexive”, “re-iterative” process, “individual” AND “society” create each other, and are each other’s causes / effects.. They can’t be separated.

    The point is NOT an academic one! We should not let ourselves be conned by false / destructive / self-serving definitions of terms like “individual” and “individualism”. As the Global Warming “sceptics” like to say, “follow the money!”. So if we follow the money trail leading from false individualism, where do we arrive?

    WHO, in reality (materially), BENEFITS from the current false, pernicious definitions of individual / individualism? WHO BENEFITS from a society characterized by “atomistic” – anomic – individualism?

    Is it not the globe girdling megacorporations who profit from selling “stuff” for people to fill their inner void, that is, to get their “fix”..? Isn’t this what it is really all about: maximizing the profits of the plutocrats and the co-opted “upper middle class” by turning people into consumption junkies?

    Aside from demographic, environmental and resource depletion issues, the “infinite growth” economy has now reached its suicidal paroxysm on the labor front: in N. America, the middle class (especially the lower parts) has been selectively gutted by “offshoring” jobs to 3rd world countries with lower labor costs, less protective labor legislation and poor environmental regimes. Moloch (Mamon) MUST BE FED!

  2. hombredelatierra

    Two critiques of the culture of greed, the first “eco-socialist”, the second from an existential perspective.

  3. Steven Earl Salmony

    Dear Friends,

    If you happen to believe, as I do, that the science related to human population dynamics is vital and also that this ignored research is the most unreported evidence to be presented for rigorous examination since the beginning of the new millennium, please speak out loudly and clearly.

    If you disagree, what would you say is the most vital, unreported scientific evidence to be peer-reviewed and published in the past decade?

    Thank you,


  4. Steven Earl Salmony


    A note from a friend on the widely shared and consensually validated pseudoscience regarding human population dynamics and human overpopulation (in quotation marks), followed by my comment on the scientific finding regarding food supply and human population numbers from the research of two outstanding scientists, Russell Hopfenberg and David Pimentel.

    “I agree that the Theory of Demographic Transition is just that, a convenient theory that holds out the promise of lower fertility in nations in due time if they just hop on the capitalistic development bandwagon.

    It’s a non-threatening and positive theory and it’s potentially good for business for the developed world.

    All one need do is take a look at population growth statistics,
    (2009 CIA table)

    and per capita income statistics of countries,

    and one can observe that a relatively wealthy country does not necessarily have a low population growth rate. Examples are US, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Luxembourg, Ireland, New Zealand, Australia, Kuwait, Bahrain and more. It can also be observed that many of the more developed and thus more wealthy and educated countries, mostly in Europe, have below

    replacement fertility (Italy, Germany, Japan). Many countries with a predominant religion furthering large family size have larger population growth rates like the Arab countries.

    The following paper concludes that

    “..that indicators of education, health, and family planning program effort have a significant independent effect on fertility” and that “No significant impact can be attributed to indicators of economic development once family planning efforts and social development indicators are held constant.”

    Yet the National Geographic January 2011 issue on “Population – 7 Billion” features the Demographic Transition Theory, though it does briefly admit that fertility in some countries has fallen dramatically without significant economic development. Bangladesh is a major example.

    As I see it, in the absence of religious or social pressures, most people would prefer smaller families as they can better provide for them. Given the education and means to control their fertility they will readily try to do so.

    In many developing countries, the ubiquitous radio is the major source of news and entertainment. The presence of only a few radio stations makes this an ideal medium for education and behavioral change. Organizations such as

    Population Media Center and

    Population Communications International

    have been very effective on a per dollar basis in getting listeners to

    their culturally-sensitive soap operas educated on family planning

    advantages and seeking means to help them control their fertility.”

    The food availability-population growth finding from the research of Hopfenberg and Pimentel
    shows us that there is NO demographic transition, NO population stabilization, NO benign end to population growth a mere four decades from now. That is the problem with the theory, which is preternatural not scientific and descriptive not predictive. Scientific evidence directly contradicts the demographic transition theory and indicates that human population dynamics could be essentially similar to the population dynamics of other species. More food equals more human organisms; less food equals less human organisms; and no food equals no humans. Skyrocketing absolute global human population numbers in the past 65 years provide bold and unmistakeable evidence of this fact. I fear that when the explosive growth of the food supply for human consumption we have witnessed during my lifetime can no longer be sustained by a planet with the size, composition and ecology of Earth, and comes to an end much sooner than any one of us would want, I believe this relationship between food and population numbers will become much easier for the people to see. And at that future moment in space-time people are not, definitely not going to like what they are seeing, I suppose. I also believe that at that time those with responsibilities to assume and duties to perform will look back in anger and utter disbelief at what those in my not-so-great generation have overlooked and denied, for a variety of self-serving excuses.

  5. hombredelatierra

    Hello Steve,

    I can’t help but keep finding a (seeming) contradiction in your argument. Maybe the fault is mine – I’m missing something (??)

    You seem to argue two opposing viewpoints:

    1- food availability determines human population levels in a cause – effect manner. This is held to correspond to the behavior of other animal species

    2- Then you argue “..that indicators of education, health, and family planning program effort have a significant independent effect on fertility”. These, however, are cultural, informational factors not (totally) dependent upon or derived from the physical availability of food.

    So which is it then? Biological determinism: simple availability of food? Or cultural, informational factors: “education, health, and family planning”? You seem to want to have it both ways..

    Why can’t both groups of factors (biological – carrying capacity AND cultural) regulate population? This seems more realistic to me: most dependent biological factors have numerous inputs..

    I agree with your general perspective but I’ve found this (apparent) contradiction off-putting and confusing.. It weakens the thrust of your arguments (which are solid).