Picturing Excess

I was amazed while watching this video (hat tip to Sea Notes), hinging on his every word. I thought Chris Jordan was an interesting and passionate speaker. Together with his imagery and explanation, he wove a fascinating visual analysis of American culture. There are many analogies to what we have been talking about lately on Deep Sea News and on the environmental/science blogosphere as a whole. There are many symptoms to the problem and it is all too easy to get hung up on the details of each symptom. Craig's post on the hard hitting table of species declines really drove home a message. We hear about tuna declines, whale declines, cod fishery collapses often in isolation. See that table puts it into perspective. It keeps us focused on the larger issue. Its not climate change, overfishing, eutrophication, habitat degradation or any other human action. It is the synergistic effect of all the combined assaults on our surroundings for short-term and often short-sided, gains.

There is another human component though. There is an excess of exploitation of cultures. This is one that Chris Jordan would be hard pressed to put in visual metaphor. A culture so disconnected to others that we don't necessarily fail to see the effects of our daily choices, we merely don't acknowledge how our actions could even affect those cultures. How could one even begin to fathom the chain of events our consumer choices or daily actions. Edward Lorenz termed it the "butterfly effect". The flap of the wing in Tokyo sets off a chain of events that escalates into a Tornado that ravages Kansas. Perhaps intuitively far-fetched, the analogy can be stretched to the personal choices that we make each day.

But the larger question is how do we change? Its hard. I'll be the first to admit that. I am certainly not perfect as are no one reading this. I'm glad I quit smoking after 8 years of being addicted. I'm glad I no longer do drugs, alcohol excepted of course. I'm glad I stay in fairly good shape. I'm proud to never drive my car. Those are some of the little steps I've personally taken. But I have a far ways to go. We all do. But each step is an improvement in our own lives. Each step multiplied by thousands or millions becomes a rolling thunder. "No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent." - John Donne, Meditation XVII

Do we want to change our behaviors, not just as consumers but as citizens of this world? Can we recognize the implications of our consumer actions? It is one thing to donate money to charity for a worthy project, but when we make daily choices that affect the lives and livelihood of others that we will never meet, nor never see or know of their existence, what good is a little spare change? What are your thoughts on our culture of excess? Can we change our collective behavior, do we even want to? There is no right answer. There is no one solution. Consider this an open thread to discuss excess.

More like this

One of the things I think is, as you touched on, to actively become citizens of the world. A subtle but important change.

I suppose we could cast our lot with those who would have us live a more limited life, but that would merely put us adrift on a falling tide -- that tide which not only lifts no boats but lowers all.

By vanderleun (not verified) on 16 Aug 2008 #permalink

We are going to change, that's not the question. The question is how conscious will the change process be, particularly at the mass culture level.

In terms of how we are affecting our environment, we seem to be destroying it as a rapid pace, and then slowly getting the message about what we are doing, and very slowly adjusting our habits. Needless to say, we are going to be outstripped by the destruction before our changing behavior catches up.

Chris J says its because we don't feel. I don't think that's true. I think as individuals, we do feel it. One on one conversations with Americans will reveal that people do understand the issues, that they are willing to change, and that they do have strong feelings about the problems of our times.

I think the challenge is how to translate this intelligence and passion to the mass level. In other words, we don't do mass-consciousness very well. A social sciences prof on another thread commented on how as individuals we tend to act more intelligently, but as a group we tend to act at the level of the lowest common denominator.

This is a big problem. Everyone knows we need to develop non-fossil fuel energy sources, but at the national level, the debate is focused on where to drill oil offshore and how to dig up more coal.

Chris J's artwork featuring the plastic cups thrown away by airlines every day was enlightening. I thought about how you can sit on an airplane, making this huge carbon footprint, throwing more plastics into the ocean, and for entertainment, on that same airplane, you can watch videos about the environment. Talk about a disconnect!

How can we bring the national debate back to reality? How can we get the media's attention off celebrity boob-jobs and which politician is dating who, and get the attention back onto the issues we need to make progress on?

Americans are actually smart people individually, but look, we have a Presidential candidate who brags about being in the lowest 1/2 of 1percent of his graduating class, and we just had eight years of a President who brags about being a C student and who doesn't do details, much less speak his native language, English, properly.

My question is: how are we going to up the level of intelligence at the mass culture level?