Friday, February 25, 2005

What's My Problem, Anyway?

The noble and virtuous NYMary asked me earlier today whether Bouphonia had turned into an environmentalist blog.

It hasn't. At least, I don't think it has. Although now that I think about it, I might not admit it if it had. I tend to steer clear of the term "environmentalism." Like "diversity," it seems to imply that a simple acknowledgement of reality amounts to some sort of special pleading. I don't see any rational means of assessing human beings apart from their shared environment, let alone any reason to try it.

But Mary's question got me to pondering just what the hell I'm up to here. I do jump around an awful lot, and I've sometimes wondered whether it tries people's patience. Accordingly, I thought I'd try to give some sense of the crayon scribblings that comprise the blueprint of Buffoonia's hallowed precincts. The fact that I'll be making it all up on the spot will not, I hope, make it any less authoritative and impressive.

As I mentioned in my first post, which as many as two people may recall, the Bouphonia was an ancient ritual in which everyone involved in slaughtering an ox avoided taking personal responsibility by passing blame onto someone else. At the climax of the ceremony, the knife and ax were found guilty, and were cast off a cliff as punishment.

There are many, many things I admire about this ritual. For instance, I like the contrast between the solemnity and pomp of the ceremony itself, and the venal, violent, and stupid concept behind it. And I really like the notion that a society can escape moral guilt by blaming inanimate objects for its own actions, and by implication, for the flawed thinking or dull habit that made those actions seem necessary.

Most of the things that are happening to us today, politically and environmentally and economically, are the result of nothing more glorious than bad ideas, bad decisions, and bad habits, which bad or foolish people have championed without being required to take any real responsibility for their results. Our "tools" - neoclassical economics, for instance - allegedly require us to make these decisions, through what Lawrence Summers would call their "impeccable logic." And so what begins for us as an economic imperative becomes a political imperative, and then a moral imperative.

I'm interested in how these false imperatives affect us, across the board. Environmental issues come up pretty often, because environmental destruction provides a very explicit picture of how our economy works (or doesn't). It's really not a separate issue from economics, though; nor is media consolidation or healthcare or political corruption or land use or almost anything else I discuss. All of these evils proceed from a few basic theories, and those theories are founded on a couple of basic desires. (And those desires, unfortunately, tend to be utterly base and vile.)

It's really astonishing, the state we're in. A handful of "visionary" thinkers got us where we are today, and despite the fact that it's a remarkably unhappy and frightening place, the prestige of these thinkers seems only to have increased. And this has happened even though virtually every idea that forms the official basis of our society is either a lie, or a desperate oversimplification, or some forlorn truth to which professional cynics pay lip service but would never dream of honoring in private life.

I find it all very aggravating. I'm unhappy that these people have devalued or done violence to virtually everything I hold dear, and I'm angry that they justify themselves by means of half-bright sophistries that would make a cat laugh.

My "hope blogging" in particular tends to be about industrial redesign, cradle-to-cradle, alternative energy advances, and the like. Not because I'm an "environmentalist" - though I like clean water and clean air and birds and trees as much as anyone else - but because the people working in these fields are the only people whom I feel are making real, practical progress against the false economic assumptions that constitute the roots of our problems. (Or the accessible roots, at any rate. There's not much we can do about the fact that our brains don't work right, or that some people are evil.) These assumptions cause most of the problems that beset us, and they're not based on the purely impersonal workings of some marvelous natural law discovered by Adam Smith or David Ricardo or anyone else, but on the prejudice, resentment, fear, vanity, stupidity, and greed of society's self-styled best and brightest.

Marilynne Robinson's Mother Country - which discusses the cultural and philosophical roots of a specific environmental catastrophe along pretty much the same lines as I've just done - had such an effect on my thinking that I find it very difficult to remember that I held strong opinions on these issues before reading it. These lines from her introduction often float around in the back of my mind, and I think they provide the best possible explanation of where I stand:

I have had time and occasion to note the disproportion between my objective and my resources. If I accomplish no more than to jar a pillar or crack a fresco, or totter a god or two, I hope no one will therefore take my assault as symbolic rather than failed. If I had my way I would not leave one stone upon another.


Wayne Hughes said...

I intend to say more, because yours is an amazing post and very near to my own thoughts. But with regard to Marilyn Robinson, of whom I have never heard but will seek out now, and for whom I could only find four mentions on google when I put in the search terms +"marilyn robinson" +"mother country", how on earth do you know about her?

This isn't an idle question - one of the things that have intimidated me about Bouphonia has been the depth of your writing on the one hand (and THAT doesn't intimidate me) but more particularly (and THIS does) the familiarity with that which is unfamiliar to me.

Whatever it is, I hope it doesn't stop.

Wayne Hughes said...

hmm, it might've helped if I'd used the correct name spelling, Marilynne Robinson. Still.

Phila said...


As far as I can tell, my deal is that I was raised in a house full of books, and spent most of my life in bookstores and libraries. Other than that, I'm extremely curious about everything, and have had a perverse antiquarian bent since I was a little kid. Also, people tell me I have a good memory for info (though it's hard to reconcile that with my pathetic forgetful bumbling in an average day).

Anyway, it's nothing intimidating,'s pure geekdom. I'm far more intimidated by your staggering expertise in botany and so forth! I envy the discipline it requires, in particular...that doesn't come naturally to me at all, I'm sorry to say. My knowledge is wide, but for the most part it's pretty shallow. For that reason, I often feel a bit jealous of specialists!