Ecological boredom and alternative visions of happiness

Reading “Our Ecological Boredom,” a column in today’s New York Times by English writer George Monbiot, took me back to 1982, when I caught a ride with a Mexican immigrant somewhere near Santa Barbara.

Mobiot is my favorite contemporary columnist, and today’s essay shows why: social and ecological insight couched in masterful prose to convince us to take seriously the most pressing issue of the day: Our endangerment of the environment, and our distance from it, which accelerates the pace of destruction.

Among today’s observations:

Young people, who have no place in this dead-eyed, sanitized landscape, scarcely venture from their bedrooms. Political freedom now means choosing between alternative versions of market fundamentalism.

Even the freedoms we do possess we tend not to exercise. We spend hours every day watching other people doing what we might otherwise be doing: dancing, singing, playing sports, even cooking.

And this:

Perhaps we have forgotten the bitter complaint made by Benjamin Franklin in 1753: “When an Indian Child has been brought up among us, taught our language and habituated to our Customs, yet if he goes to see his relations and make one Indian Ramble with them, there is no perswading him ever to return.” But when European Americans “have been taken prisoners young by the Indians, and lived a while among them, tho’ ransomed by their Friends, and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet in a Short time they become disgusted with our manner of life … and take the first good Opportunity of escaping again into the Woods, from whence there is no reclaiming them.” In 1785 Hector de Crèvecoeur asked two European refuseniks why they wouldn’t come home. “The reasons they gave me would greatly surprise you: the most perfect freedom, the ease of living, the absence of those cares and corroding solicitudes which so often prevail with us.”

Which brought me back to 1982, and a truck driver considering de-migration. He told me he had been persuaded by pictures in magazines to leave Mexico and come to the U.S.A. — a land of smiles, the Statue of Liberty, and sexy women.

So he came and found reality unlike the photographs.

He told me he was going back to Mexico, where if you were hungry you could pick fruit from the trees, or go to the ocean and catch a fish.

Which reminds me of a story my dad told about a visit to a shanty town in the shadow of a dump on the outskirts of Manila. Every day, as the garbage was hauled in, the mountain of trash would grow, and every evening it would shrink as the slum-dwellers would pick through it for something to use, or sell, or eat.

My dad came upon an old man and engaged him in conversation in Tagalog. Gesturing around at the shanties and garbage, Dad asked, “Why don’t you leave?”

In hindsight it seems a dumb question. Where was he to go, after all, and how was he to get there? Maybe Dad, in his 30s at the time, was still a naïve American, or maybe my memory of the story isn’t perfect.

No matter, because it wasn’t the question that stuck with him, or with me, but the old man’s answer: “There is much happiness here,” he said.

Which in turn reminds me of the book I’ve been reading: Dying in the Sun by Peter Palangyo, a novel about a poor village in Tanzania during the transition from a tribal society to a bureaucratic modern nation. Under the sad shadow of poverty and despair are descriptions of human encounters as foreign as groundnut stew or millet beer drunk from a calabash.

A sister rubs her brother’s back. An old woman derives pleasure from squashing lice pulled from her calico. A young man feeds his withered grandmother from a wooden bowl and sleeps beside his dying father.

The intense bonds of family are almost terrifying to someone like me, yet I know that it is more fully human — and pregnant with greater joy and deeper sorrow — than the arm’s length relationships I’ve known.

Neither Monbiot nor I would trade the many soft luxuries of modernity for the terrifying and fragile existence of hunters and gatherers. Yet the relative quality and degree of the joys we feel in our sterile modern world versus those we glimpse in our encounters with nature should give us pause and force us to ask the obvious question: Is there much happiness here?


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