De-Colonizing Ourselves So We Can Help Others

A white woman flies over the American West, white settlers following her, Native Americans fleeing in front.
American Progress, painted by John Gast 1872

Today I read an article that made me steaming mad. It was predictable that it would upset me. My co-worker shared it with me telling me how much it angered her. Of course, I had to look. The article was all about how we need to stop encouraging people in less developed countries to be entrepreneurs and teach them instead to be factory workers. Because profit. The argument was that entrepreneurs in developing countries aren’t going to make that much money if they just serve the other poor people in their village, and that real economic progress can only come with economies of scale and industrial jobs. Oh, it sounds really nice, this idea that countries will have more money if they just have more factories, but it is completely blind to lived reality.

There are many problems I could talk about, but this is a Pagan blog about place-based religion and spiritual experience, so I’m going to stick to the ones that are most relevant to our topic:

  1. The version of prosperity that Daniel Altman, the author of that article, is talking about is not good for the planet and is killing us all.
  2. We need to stop creating greenhouse gasses. We need to drive fewer cars, eat less meat, create less waste, own fewer things. The economy that Altman is talking about is exactly the thing that got us into this mess to begin with. Why would we want to bring people who are living much more lightly on the Earth up to the level of Earth-abuse that Western societies need to learn to live without?
  3. Factory jobs are not flexible and create more problems for families — especially mothers with small children — than the paltry wages they bring can solve.
    Anyone who has lived on a poverty wage in a developed country knows the problems that having a job can create. You lose control of your time. If you are a parent, as if it weren’t enough that you lose time with your children, on top of that you usually have to pay someone else to watch your children while you work. If you are very lucky, you might have a parent or a friend who helps for free, but who is providing for their living expenses? Even if you don’t have children, factory jobs create suffering that comes from being treated like an interchangeable part in the machine of industry.
  4. Expecting people to give up the socially rich, connected community life in their villages to move to the city and get a factory job is just an extension of the colonization process.
    Colonization involves more than just taking over land. It involves telling the people who were in a place already that they have to change the way that they think, live, and act. Colonization starts with the idea in the minds of the colonizers that they have the one true, right and best way to live and that everyone else has to adapt to “progress”.

All of these things touch on the One Gazillion Dollar Question:

How can we live in a way that doesn’t destroy our planet?

I decided some time ago that the first step is to realize that the idea of progress, the key notion that got us into this mess, has got to go. I may sound like a neo-Luddite. I guess I am.

I believe that humans are not just tool-using apes, we are technology-developing apes. Technological development is part of the creativity that makes us tick. But not all technology is progress, nor is it all needed, nor is uniform “progress” necessary across the globe. In fact, one of the things that has saved us up till now, and may save some of our species in the future, is that there is still a diversity of ways that humans live on this planet that ranges from grass huts and hammocks to glass skyscrapers and memory-foam beds.

It’s time for us to stop thinking that improving the lives of others means making them live more like us. It’s time to start asking what technologies people in “less developed countries” can teach us about. It’s time to start asking what people who don’t have 9-5 jobs think of as the most important goals in their lives. It’s time to start asking what kind of improvements they want to see in their homes, in their villages and the wider world. And then its time to figure out how we can learn from the best parts of their lives.

The US uses more energy per capita than any other nation on Earth. US households use more electricity, more gas and more water than households in other countries. Even more than the most wealthy European countries! Why?! Look around and start asking how you can live a better life right where you are. How can you spend less of the earth’s resources? How can you spend more time with your children? How can you get to know your neighbors better?

Once you’ve figured out how to be a little bit less harsh on the planet and nicer to your kids, the next big step is to look around and see if you can stop supporting the industrial economy that’s destroying the world — entirely.

Oof! There, I said it.

I don’t even know if it’s possible. Can we, people who live in North America, Europe, or the more developed nations of the East actually find a way to disconnect ourselves from the machines of industry that have destroyed our planet and our lives? We’re going to have to find a way if we are to survive, because, frankly, it’s the factories that are using far more resources than the homes and cars are. It’s the stuff we buy. It’s the places we work. It’s the way we build for war and then go to war and feed other people’s war. It’s the way we strip minerals from the ground. It’s the way we frack the ground to get the last drops of natural gas.

We are destroying the world and telling other people that they are “poor” unless they are destroying the planet with us. That’s completely nuts. It’s time for us to forget the idea that the life we live represents “progress” and find new ways of thinking.

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