Identifying Social Pollution and the Erosion of Community

Following on our earlier discussion of community as a necessary myth or story for our time and the discussion in the comments about the ambivalence of tradition as both grounding and nourishing but also sometimes stifling and rigid…

Something that both “liberals” and “conservatives” can agree on is that our current American way of life is marked by extreme loss of community.  What we disagree on is who or what is to blame.  (Actually both sides like to pin the blame exactly on each other: conservatives blame the disruptive moral relativity of liberals and liberals blame the pro-business ideology of conservatives.)

I have been thinking about how traditional communities with their shared culture have been decimated around the world by the onslaught of the West with its monetized economies and emphasis on individual achievement/success over the health of the family or the community.   Western market economies (and their imitators around the world) are incredibly successful at producing consumer goods and creating material prosperity.    But it seems to me that this success has been bought at the cost of family and community coherence, not to mention environmental degradation.

We have gotten better at identifying and addressing physical pollution, (partly, it’s true, by off-shoring manufacturing), but are slower at seeing the social pollution that has eroded our communities.  We still see this social pollution as necessary and inescapable.   This is the way it is, we have been told since as long as we can remember. It is hard to see what is necessary and what is harmful. We don’t have the tools to understand and mitigate this kind of pollution yet.   And without understanding social pollution we seem to be trapped in a system that drives us to contribute to physical pollution.

For instance, many people commute long distances to work and  spent their days and energy at jobs that do not build a local community.  Instead their job will support the interests of a national chain or a multi-national corporation. Such corporations are primarily interested in communities as groups of consumers, and only distantly interested, if at all, in the health of a community.

What constitutes a healthy community?  What constitutes the unhealthy social pollution of a community?

I would argue that social structures – economic, cultural or institutional – that destroy the place-based bonds of a human and natural community are a form of pollution.   Probably there are other ways to identify what is polluting, but that is my starting point.

What has become blindingly obvious in the last few years (2016!!)  is that we live in a very socially polluted world.  Not that there ever was a social world – some perfect Golden Age – that wasn’t polluted.  Just because we don’t know what a perfectly healthy community would look like doesn’t mean that we can’t recognize the things that pollute and weaken a community and that we can’t identify beliefs and practices that are better versus worse in building community in a particular place.

What is healthy in one community might not be so for another.

Things that destroy human and natural community might include: adapting the environment to the needs of machines rather than the other way around, or the ideology of perpetual economic growth or the globalized food production and distribution system.  Community-destroying pollution also might be in the stories we tell ourselves and our children about how the world works and what success looks like.   Also in what we tell ourselves is beautiful and desirable.

What is pollution for one person might not be for another, just as a weed is just a plant that I happen not to like at this time.   Again there is no state of perfect purity that we can go back to or that it is even useful to imagine.   But maybe the idea of social pollution connects the natural and social environment in a way that might be helpful when we think about our lives and communities.

3 Replies to “Identifying Social Pollution and the Erosion of Community”

  1. Michelle,
    I’ve read and reread this post several times and although I agree with it, I’m still struggling to understand what you mean by “social structures – economic, cultural or institutional – that destroy the place-based bonds of a human and natural community are a form of pollution. ”

    So I went to the dictionary to find a few definitions to make sure I’m starting on the same page.
    “A community is a small or large social unit (a group of people) who have something in common, such as norms, religion, values, or identity. Communities often share a sense of place that is situated in a given geographical area (e.g. a country, village, town, or neighborhood) or in virtual space through communication platforms. Durable relations that extend beyond immediate genealogical ties also define a sense of community. People tend to define those social ties as important to their identity, practice, and roles in social institutions like family, home, work, government, society, or humanity, at large.” So community is a large thing.

    “Pollution is the introduction of unwanted constituents into the environment that causes adverse effects.”

    Using these definitions I can easily see examples of how consumerism has caused pollution. For example, the pollution caused by our consumption of Chinese-made products. China’s rapid industrialization and lax environmental protection has degraded their air, water, and land. Americans buy much of these products yet I doubt many people feel any culpability. We pass strict rules about industrial pollution in our country but remain disconnected from the life in countries that manufacture the things we want to buy. We allowed our government to off shore manufacturing. We don’t want to limit our consumption so we need low price goods and services. I would agree that this economic system has negatively affected Americans and our communities. Therefore, it could fall under the heading of social pollution.

    And I can see that shopping on Amazon has many benefits such as giving me more choices and ways to evaluate my purchases and to make informed decisions, but it is also hurting local retail stores. So I can understand how online shopping might be a social structure that is negatively affecting local communities in the form of lost businesses.

    I certainly agree that social media is a social structure and it is causing negative effects. It has caused people to spend more “social” time alone on their electronic device as opposed to face to face communication. But in other ways, this digital technology has expanded our ability to form communities across the world, for example this blog. I can look at our relationship and point out the positive benefits, i.e. I enjoy communicating with you and you make me think about and articulate my ideas more clearly. Yet we have only communicated electronically and never face to face.

    So, it seems to me that many if not most social structures can be both positive or negative in their influence on community, and that community isn’t just local. So I’m playing the devils advocate here. I agree with you but I’m still struggling to wrap my head around the ideas you expressed in this post.

  2. Hi Jody,
    thanks for taking the time to try to understand something that I am struggling to articulate even to myself. I completely appreciate it and it will, likewise, help me to think more clearly.
    I feel as if I’m playing with fire to a certain degree because during some of the worst moments in history the concept of purity vs pollution was used to justify doing some really bad things. So I am a bit leery of the idea of pollution myself, which probably makes it even harder to understand what I am trying to get at. It may not be a valid concept after all, but I’m still interested in it for the moment.
    I think you really got the most important thing about what I am trying to talk about, which is that it is a way to separate out the good effects from the bad effects in a social phenomenon, and that it is transferring the idea of physical, environmental pollution to the social sphere. I suppose something like “social costs” works just about as well, but there is something about the idea of social pollution that maybe fits the seriousness of what is going on better than cost. Because what has happened and is happening might be more profound than a cost, it might be more about toxicity and pollution of life than just a bearable cost.
    There are some things that for me are almost purely socially toxic – one of those would be unrealistic female body images. I personally don’t see the up-side at all, though I can’t speak for the juvenile males of our species. Not only does it make women deeply unhappy with their own bodies but it creates an insecurity that can be exploited to create an incessant need to buy more and more products and all of the physical pollution that comes along with making all of those handbags, make-up, shoes, etc.
    So to connect the social pollution of unrealistic female body images with the physical pollution that shopping addiction creates is – maybe – helpful?
    There are a lot of other cases where it is a lot more tricky. As you point out, smartphones and social media and the internet in general is a good case of “it’s complicated.” On the one hand, social media has replaced being together in the flesh, and that might not be a good thing in the long run. On the other hand there are so many things that one can do so quickly with these tools, as long as all the equipment – from smart phone to satellite to server farm – is working well, anyway. And then again, does being able to book a flight so easily online mean that we fly more than we used to, with all of the attendant fossil fuel consumption?
    What I’m really trying to get after is the social beliefs that “make us” or enable us or motivate us to do all the things that we do every day that are so detrimental to our environment, our communities, and even our own lives. Why do real estate developers feel like they “have to” develop a piece of land? Why do so many people feel like they “have to” buy more stuff? Why do I feel like I “have to” make more money (Why is college tuition so absurd these days?)? Why do we “have to” choose between “more jobs” and “the environment?”
    Mixed into what we believe is true and real there are these ideas or memes or beliefs that I am calling social pollutants because they are what drive us to continue to have such complicated lives that burn up so many resources and create so much physical pollution, and often to betray the integrity of our communities, our traditions, and even sometimes our families.
    It really isn’t easy to keep track of these beliefs, or at least it isn’t for me. So this is just an attempt to throw some red paint on them, so that I can see them more clearly, hopefully.
    Again, thanks for being devil’s advocate, though you do it so nicely there is no devil involved. It’s super helpful to get some perspective and to just have someone willing to go along with me on this somewhat treacherous and possibly ill-considered trail through the woods!

  3. Michelle,
    The issue of consumerism is very complex, but I think most people would agree with you that there is something toxic or polluting about it. The sermon I gave “Waste Not. Want Not.” was my attempt to get at the heart of this problem. We buy stuff we don’t need because we don’t distinguish the difference between needs and wants. Maybe I’ll revisit that file and create a new post.

    I think if we want to improve our health and well being we need to think about how our consumerism affects us, our community, and the world. Part of the social toxicity or pollution of our current economic system is that it doesn’t distinguish between what is good for us and what is bad for us. There is this cognitive dissonance that spending money will make us happy. As long as we are spending money the economy is doing well and we are doing well.

    Here’s an example. Economists measure economic activity by summing up all the money spent on goods and services. They call it the gross domestic product or GDP. Think about what this says. An over-weight smoker who suffers a heart attack while driving to see his divorce attorney, improves the GDP more than a stay-at-home mother raising her children, growing food in her own garden, and cooking fresh wholesome food. The man spends a lot of money. The woman and her family spend much less money. Therefore, one is good for the economy and one is not.

    Anyone could look at this comparison and conclude there must be something toxic or polluting about this view of economic benefit if the one valued the most is the least healthy.

    I could also point at large-scale agriculture. Most crop land in the US is planted with corn or soybeans. Most of the corn and soybeans are used to make food additives (corn sugar, soybean oil, etc.) for the manufacture of processed food products, and animal feed for confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Much of this processed food and meat is sold by the fast food industry. Processed food tends to be low in nutrition and high in salt, sugar, and fat. CAFO’s are one of the sources of antibiotic resistant bacteria, a serious danger to our society.
    One could easily argue that our agricultural system is dangerous and making us unhealthy. But since the money we spend on health care makes up nearly one fourth of our GDP economists value its benefit to our national economy. I doubt that our government wants to change agricultural subsidies because they ‘improve’ our economy.

    If we stopped buying so much stuff we don’t need we probably wouldn’t need to earn as much money. If we took the time to learn more about where and how products are manufactured we could make better informed consumer decisions. If we want to reduce the social pollution caused by consumerism we need to change our buying habits. We need to buy products that improve the health and well being of us, our community, and the world.
    And we need to buy less of the things we want but don’t need!

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