Being Good.

Every so often, as a named “sustainability” person, I start to feel that people are avoiding me.  Only my friends will say what most people won’t:  “I’m fed up with thinking about sustainability!  I want luxury, excess, beauty – I don’t want to have to think about being good all the time!”

And I say, “Me too.”

The thing is, nobody likes to feel nagged.  And most people (most people I know anyway) feel that they don’t want to do what they’re told, specifically because they’re told to.  People who are very willing to act in the way their conscience or logic might tell them, balk when it’s something they feel made to do.  And looking at Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon this morning, thinking how we all feel looked at and judged all the time, by unseen and secret forces, only adds to the feeling that we are being nagged.  Is there some kind of link to childhood where we immediately feel the same reluctance to obey authority?  I don’t know.  Maybe it’s got something to do with feeling that there are so many ill-thought-out centralised authoritarian pronouncements and decisions made, that obeying any of them adds acquiescence to the stupid rules or requests as well as the ones which makes sense.

And then I look at other cultures, or even to my childhood, and see that there seemed to be examples that worked well of things like recycling, that were much more carrot than stick:  getting money for recycling, even at point of sale for new items; having a culture of sharing stuff; just basically being rewarded for recycling as opposed to threatened with punishment for not.  As most of us know, or sense, the threat of punishment seems to force a sort of closing-down, whereas the hope of reward can provide a sense of openness or willingness.  So maybe we are getting a kind of tension here:  we want to do the right thing and when we feel like that we feel open; but feeling the threat of punishment closes that feeling down.  And then we get confused and recalcitrant when the best we can do is do the best we can until we feel threatened again.  It’s an uncomfortable feeling, like being one of those balls attached to a bat by a piece of elastic.

Last night I saw a man on TV, clearly very knowledgeable, very smart.  He was a mathematician and worked in chaos theory.  He could explain, in admirably clear and elegant language, how weather patterns formed, how flocks of birds danced their shapes in the sky, how – even though our predictions are sometimes not very precise - there is an order which underlies all.  And the best application he had found for all of this knowledge was to build better microwave ovens. 

I think this closing down of willingness that I was talking about is more creeping, widespread, and serious than feeling reluctant to recycle.  Some would argue that ideas have become smaller and more closed since we feel we have run out of places to colonise.  We have no space for our big ideas, for our good intentions, any more (though we still seem to be allowed to blow up the moon to see what’s there…).  Somehow we need to stop thinking of sustainability in the camp of smallness and reluctance.  We need to put it more in the camp of big ideas and luxurious plenty.  If people with lots of knowledge and ideas only think in terms of making things, like microwaves, we have too material a sense of what luxury and plenty are. 

There’s a groundswell of thinking within the craft movement, moving from a concern with the artefact, the product, to the relationships involved in its making – the process.  We need big, luxurious ideas about relationships and processes.  That is the next frontier.  And it probably doesn’t involve blowing things up.

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