Monday, December 17, 2018

Evolution is a popularity contest

When you walk into a store or other public place that has music playing over a sound system, you have to listen to it. You may be distracted enough not to notice it consciously, or you may find it inescapably intrusive. Or you might even enjoy it. And it changes you. Like it or not, because the popular hits soundtrack is so ubiquitous, you will have songs that autoplay in your head when you hear the first three notes. Regardless, you have to go through the experience with everyone else in that environment, because someone, somewhere, determined that music in public places was the more popular choice.

Think of the mass of humanity's environmental and social choices the same way. If everyone else set themselves on fire, would you set yourself on fire? You might prefer not to, but you will still have to breathe in the stench of charring flesh. And one or more of the happy incendiaries might careen into you and set you ablaze against your wishes.

In the USA, some percentage of people are unquestionably law abiding, and another percentage are automatically resistant to, and defiant of, any authority. In between lies the greatest number, fluctuating between the poles of obedience and defiance as they analyze each situation they happen to notice. A lot of us are oblivious to larger implications most of the time. Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when we should have been paying attention to the first bits of debris leading up to the avalanche of deferred consequences our species now faces, the Baby Boomers were focused instead on the basics of life: finding paying work, establishing homes, reproducing. Even the politically savvy tended mostly to view it from a personal perspective, multiplied through an uncounted legion of their theoretical allies who would all benefit if a particular policy made things better for one of them. It's hard to imagine a life very different from one's own. You really have to go try it out. Even the most detailed book or movie can't drag you right in and trap you in it. Interactive video games may come close. I don't know, because I have never tried one. As detailed as they may be, every single thing that happens in one was created by the mind of someone else and is known to them.

Believers in an almighty deity say that the simulation we think of as real life is also the product of a creator to whom everything is known. That really takes the fun out of it. I see how the notion can be comforting, but it's also limiting in more ways than moral strictures and mandatory rituals.

Now that the Teachable Moment has come, environmentally, we find that a substantial portion of the class wants to act up. Look at the scorn and ridicule that greeted California's plastic straw ban. Read the back -- and sometimes all sides -- of a truck or van belonging to a really jacked-up paranoid who sees threats to sacred liberty in every admonition to throttle back and lighten up. You won't have to wait long to see some sentiment that will make you want to retire to a cave and live with the few surviving animals.

In the 1980s I had the same vision that I have today: we could use the grid for good as much as ill. Convenience is not a sin. But conveniences required adjustment to keep them from becoming the engines of global destruction that they eventually did. And eventually was pretty rapidly, because moderation was scorned and ridiculed.

The slogan in the 1980s was "Whoever dies with the most toys wins." It was the golden age of the loaded roof rack, when Yakima and Thule products on the roof of your increasingly large vehicle needed to be locked securely. More than once we heard from friends who had made a day or evening jaunt into a city, only to find their roof rack stripped of every unlocked accessory. We were Recreation Nation, and anything related to the popular activities had really good street value. My attempt to steer that behemoth hinged on trying, through my published writings and in my day jobs, at least to get more people thinking about doing it without internal combustion. Try to get an appreciation of nature to sneak up on them, because Americans -- and probably most humans -- are very resistant to confrontational change. We love confrontation, but only to demonstrate how we can stick to our original position until it kills us. Think of the Confederacy.

I'm approaching a deadline for my quarterly environmental cartoon. The cartoon has been increasingly hard to draw because so many great causes make poor subjects for a single panel image. And I have realized the uselessness of mockery. Humor will only work on someone already inclined to agree with it. The inclination may be deeply buried, unknown to its owner, but it has to be there. Are the few who seem to be awakened worth the stiffened resolve of the outraged opposition?

I don't mind preaching to the choir. It keeps morale up. But nothing seems funny. The extent of the problems that begin with simple individual choices and multiply instantly to a global epidemic, like air pollution or the proliferation of plastic is better served by animation and real video, compressing the sequence of events into a much more visceral revelation of the ugly truth.

One of the hardest things to get used to when you're out there riding a bike and trying to live a low impact life is finding out how many people hate you for it and think you should die. It doesn't have to be the majority. You only have to encounter one homicidal jerk. That's true whether you get tagged by a hit and run driver or you happen to be at the mall the day one of them shows up and opens fire.

Less dramatic and more deadly is the steady accumulation of pollution and degradation by one individual at a time, repeated across a global population in the billions. The system that has evolved funnels gains to a small number of dominant apes, requiring that the lesser apes -- regardless of good intentions -- play some form of the game just to survive. The lifestyle is as inescapable as the music in a department store. It touches every place on this small planet. "Pristine" places are not pure because they are out of reach. We could strip mine the Himalaya, and eventually we probably will.


Coline said...

Tourism in the Himalaya has strip mined it of any sense of the pristine which it represented... A two week trek to view rivers of human effluent and the world's highest garbage dump?

Small planet, limited resources over large population of stupid greedy humans, not a good equation.

I have lived a surprisingly comfortable low impact life by recycling other's castoffs, I cannot find uses fast enough as change for change sake becomes the mantra and I have not worn out the old cast offs yet!

I am not sure that there are any modern bikes that I could be bothered to rehome but am happily part way through a rebuild of a bike which I bought in the mid 70s...

cafiend said...

Coline -- I chose the Himalaya because they are the mightiest peaks on Earth more than for the true state of things on the ground. As long as they're worth more as a tourist attraction, rivers of shit and strewn corpses notwithstanding, the economy will let them remain as postcard icons and a magnet for expensive adventure travel.

I share your view of a low impact lifestyle. Whether our way prevails or not, it is the right one.