Saving the entire world

“whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.”

-Quote from the Talmud

How is humanity redeemed?

This year has brought war, genocide, disease, and conflict- religious, ethnic, between genders and sexual orientations. So grave are these social problems, it would seem that they would drag all of humankind down. Present actions and past injustice merge together and tar the seven billion people living today.

Despite the power of moral failing, there is a countering force. Our time here is justified by those that step beyond self-interest and reach out. They blow apart social barriers, help those that society would rather erase from memory.

It is typical to help a friend who is struggling with homelessness. It is transformative to do the same for a complete stranger.

It is expected that we counsel a relative in their times of crisis. It is transformative to listen to those who no relatives to hear them.

The moral universe is large, but it is sustained by tiny actions done in a concerted way. No individual can feed all the hunger, heal all the sick, bring back fathers and children from the dead. We are born into a broken world, and lacking perfection we must choose progress instead.

One life. We can all try to save one life, at some point. In doing so, all the suffering and strife is put into a new, more bearable perspective.

How should society talk about groups and people?

Another piece that’s mostly opinion. 

An acquaintance of mine posted a statement on social media about how people tend to be insensitive towards people living with disabilities, and that society should go towards using certain phrases that are “less offensive” than the ones commonly used now.

Language and terminology is an ongoing skirmish in discourse- especially American discourse. It pits community against individual rights. The community, generally speaking, moves forward with language regarding certain groups- to the point where the politically correct terms of the past are now being replaced with new ones, since what was one tasteful is now tasteless. The march of time. While present attention is given towards the term “retard” or “retarded”, terms introduced to replace “idiot” some time ago, it happens with all labels. Using “Negro” in almost any setting is anachronistic in 2014, it being replaced by black and African-American, which in some circles is being replaced by person of color. Some assert their right to use any term- and that no words should be banned just because they are offensive.

This is well-known and much has been written about the progression and its implications. Having now spent several months in the community of people with disabilities, their families, and those that seek to help them, I have a stronger grasp of what the conflict is all about.

My friend stated that people should start using the term “handy-capable” or “differently-abled”. As neither he nor I have a physical disability, our logic is no substitute for those who the terms are referring to. There is a certain feeling about appropriate versus inappropriate language just by thinking about it, but you can’t be sure in isolation. You can’t be sure that you’re not racist until you’ve spent some time interacting with people of a different race. Theory and practice are not the same.

Ultimately I think both suggested terms are viable, though I haven’t heard anyone ever use them in nine months of attending meetings and events about disability issues. What seems to be the most important thing is where the person is in your language. The person should come first, before whatever characteristics they have.

The comparison between:

Over there is a disabled person.
Over there is a person with a disability.

seems vital to me. Besides the fact that the person comes before the descriptor in the sentence, the term “disabled” versus “disability” sound and feel different. Disabled sounds severe, fatalistic. Disability seems normal, just a part of someone’s life. Thus perhaps it’s not the words used but where they are placed.

With time almost everything is overturned. The science, religion, politics, and of course language of all societies has changed in the past century, often dramatically. With language and talking about people, the question must be asked- what is the goal of language in this case? Brevity? Accuracy? Positivity? Inclusiveness? If there isn’t a goal, then all the changing terms and “political correctness” is just circling the drain.

Informed of their collapse

The tome of the past;
Is sometimes written as a symphony, though in a key;
Long forgotten and buried under the gathered silt;
Of progress, of war, of the sheer brutality of time;

Year Zero often comes subtly;
When the sun emerges from below dew-drenched hills;
And things are not quite what they were before;
A new age is not always proclaimed by a revolutionary;
To thunderous applause;
Nations are not always told of their golden age;
Or informed of their collapse;

When the academics unearth my time;
What great men will be moulded?;
What villains will be cast?
And what role will I play in this;
Production of three acts?

What constitutes progress: consumerism and sustainability

On Monday, I published something about the economic collapse of a industrialized nation, as expertly chronicled in the book Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demrick. A huge, widespread shift backwards in economic development has happened in many places over human civilization, but the North Korean example is both recent and unusual. War is the most common destroyer of people and their economic capital, but the 1990s showed that international politics could be just as brutal.

I was mulling the term “de-evolution” to refer to what happened in North Korea, but I then thought of my own biases. To some degree, coming from an advanced post-industrial nation, I’m a chauvinist for a certain, consumer-oriented type of economic development. The number of TVs per 1,000 people, the electricity usage of a city, how much they export and how much personal debt they take on. Though I don’t subscribe to the “whoever has the most stuff wins”model of progress, it made me broaden my thinking. Clearly the North Korean example was an unwanted and ultimately deadly series of events. The society had grown to rely on thing like artificial fertilizer, large amounts of electrical power, and a complex and demanding transit infrastructure. When the lights went out, so went industry and agriculture. Disaster.

But, what if a society moved in such a manner, but didn’t require complex industrial products? A society that plans for a regression into a less consumerist, industrialized mindset. I wouldn’t call that a de-evolution- it’s an evolution on a different path.

A few years ago I took a series of long-distance train trips across the United States. During my trip on the Coast Starlight, running from Seattle to Los Angeles, I read the famous novel Ecotopia by Ernest Callenbach. Published in 1975, it stands alongside The Dispossessed as an important utopian novel of the late Vietnam period. Both work along similar lines- an absence of consumerism, collective ownership, changes to the social and family structure. However, Ecotopia takes place in my backyard, not another solar system.

I read it during a journey through the lands that formed the nation of Ecotopia. For  a couple days the train rolled through the thick forests, mountain passes, and undulating farmland that carpeted a whole valley. Callenbach was speaking of a society that moved beyond petroleum and artificial products, but didn’t miss them.

When I was 18 I created an independent study that allowed me to examine urban decay and how different parts of the 20th century attempted to revitalize cities. After reading about the iron-fisted destruction of the Bronx by Robert Moses, one tends to gain sympathy for new ideas of sustainability and community. New schools of urban planning emphasize mixed development, environmentally-friendly building, and walkability. The Bay Area sometimes follows these lines, though one look at the traffic-choked highways shows there is much work to be done.

However, much of this thinking is a side-step. Cars aren’t eliminated- they’re made more efficient and perhaps made less necessary through public transit. Cities are still big concrete jungles- just with newer housing and perhaps a couple new parks. It’s not eliminating consumerism, but rather changing to more responsible brands.

Whether this type of society will stave off the huge problems posed by climate change is an open question. Large cities in industrial or post-industrial nations still use huge quantities of water and non-renewable resources. It’s not just the cars, but the pesticides, plastics, and consumer electronics.

Ecotopia has the advantage of being a utopia in the confines of a work of fiction, but it is a portrait of a society that made serious decisions over many years. Large cities like San Francisco are partially abandoned in favor of smaller, more self-sustaining suburbs. Major thoroughfares are turned into gardens and walkways. Policy changes don’t implement authoritarian population control, but do address whether a high birth rate is a major priority. Overall, many of the developments since white migration became substantial in the mid-19th century are slowed or stopped altogether. At the end of the day, there is a smaller electrical grid, a less robust transit system, and very little production of objects which cannot be replenished. In some ways, it’s like 1995 in North Korea, except as a desired outcome rather than a crisis. I, the consumer growth chauvinist, can see a society that moves forward despite moving back in my usual perspective.

Much like Unitarian Universalists have moved to the interdependent web over a linear chain of being, what progress and what regression are should be reconsidered. Society has overall goals that are not always quantitative- happiness, community, tranquility. There is no number of cars per city or megawatts of power consumed that is required to achieve these goals. What is needed is a system that works on the whole, and can work well into the future.

How you achieve that is the great debate.