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.

Monbiot and how humans still don’t know who we are

George Monbiot, the acclaimed British writer, recently wrote a review of the book Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change in which he points out the many disturbing social, political, and economic trends that seem to be making us less able to deal with climate change than more so. But there is a way out, he says: “Over the past few years, there has been a convergence of findings in different sciences: psychology, anthropology, neuroscience and evolutionary biology. Research in all these fields points to the same conclusion: that human beings are, in the words of an article in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, “spectacularly unusual when compared to other animals”. This refers to our astonishing degree of altruism. We possess an unparalleled sensitivity to the needs of others, a unique level of concern about their welfare, and a peerless ability to create moral norms that generalise and enforce these tendencies.” https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/sep/09/george-monbiot-how-de-we-get-out-of-this-mess

Now George Monbiot is a good, trying kind of person, very urbane and a fine writer, but it amazes me how he (and we in general) constantly have to pat ourselves on the back about how amazing we are. We have being doing this obsessively since the Renaissance. Can we not give it a rest already? Are are so insecure that we constantly have to pump ourselves up?

I don’t know what kind of experiments led to these findings of our extreme specialness but I can just about guarantee that they were all designed with human capacities in mind. We don’t know enough about the emotional life of other animals to begin to measure their altruism. In my experience most cows are kinder to each other than most humans. But we can barely see them as emotional beings. And this is a problem, because if we can only see ourselves we can’t see the inherent value of non-human beings.

Monbiot goes on to talk about how the way out of our downward spiral is to rebuild community and connection, and I am not arguing with that at all. Rebuilding local communities and social connections among humans is critical, but in order for it to really work we need to see beyond the purely human realm into the life of the places where we live, and all of the non-human lives that are an inherent and necessary part of those places.

Welcome to Anima/Soul

It’s a work in progress.
I’m still figuring out how WordPress and this particular web theme works.
But what I’d like is for this to be a place to talk and think together about how we can see ourselves and the world differently. More accurately, better. How we can break down some really out-dated barriers between the human and the not-human, nature and not-nature, the spiritual and the worldly, between you and me. How we can find and nurture commonality (same-ness amid difference) not just among humans, but among human and non-human. How we might assemble the bits and pieces of a way of life with staying power – the shards of pottery, the foot-prints in the dust…
What would you like to see here? What would you like to talk about?

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