Monday, October 09, 2006

Theories of Exceptionalism

One of the things that drives me crazy is the constant statement that we all know that people (or Americans, or first worlders, orwhatever subset of "people" we're talking about today) will never voluntarily change their lifestyles. Usually this is said by someone who has changed their own lifestyle towards greater sustainability and conservation, and is said of the rest of the people out there, who, it is either explicitly claimed or presumed as a functionof the conversation, are simply too stupid and greedy to ever voluntarily change.

But believing that most people won't change their lifestyle implies a theory of exceptionalism - that we who know better are better people, more moral, smarter, wiser, more compassionate, nicer, probably prettier too. We good people who know about peak oil and conservation, we are wise and noble, and the rest of the hoi polloi are disgusting morons, wallowing in their own excess. Well, frankly, I think that's a load of garbage, and a kind of self-aggrandizement, rather than anything useful. Because let's be honest - much as we'd like to believe it, we're no different than anyone else.

Or at least I am - I'm capable of a full range of stupidity, foolishness, selfishness, greed and pettiness. I have lied, cheated and stolen in my lifetime. I have been mean and ugly and cruel and done harm by both action and omission. Now I'm sure some of you have fewer sins than I, but I'm guessing you have your share too. So unless you choose to go with the "I'm noble and everyone else is crap" theory of humanity, then you must believe that regular people are capable of change. Because if *we* did it, so can others. If we changed our lifestyle voluntarily, because we wanted to and thought it was the right thing to do, or the thing that would give us the most happiness and security, other people must be subject to the same kinds of suasion. If we care about ethics more than personal comfort and privelege, so must other people. So why don't they?

Well, to a large degree, the issue is probably lack of comprehension. Virtually everyone on this list had a time when they too lived a normal life, standard to their nation (there are some exceptions, but they are mostly exceptions), class and culture. And they change their minds.

I know hundreds of people personally who have made a dramatic change in the conventional lifestyle and there are many thousands more who are acting, because of peak oil or global warming, or theories of justice or some other reason, from conviction and necessity. Those thousands, are of course, a drop in the bucket - but they are also potentially a beginning, the first step in a long, collective journey of cultural self-transformation. What matters is how we view ourselves, and what we believe we can accomplish. There is no fundamental difference between myself and anyone else, except that I have a little more information.

The issue is one of understanding, persuasion, and cultural pressures. And those are things we can work on. But any account of peak oil that begins with something like the statement "We all know that no one will do X until they have to" has lost me right there - because we don't all know that. Some of us may choose to believe it, because it is easier tobelieve that than to do what they would have to do to help others understand, or because they enjoy feeling exceptional. But it is not the truth, and not a starting point. We cannot begin to transform the world until we acknowledge that we as a people are ripe for transformation, and need only a catalyst to move on.



Whirlwinded said...

>>But believing that most people won't change their lifestyle implies a theory of exceptionalism - that we who know better are better people, more moral, smarter, wiser, more compassionate, nicer, probably prettier too.<<

Doesn't this in itself apply a theory of exceptionalism? That "we" DO "know better"? What if the answer we think we have is wrong? What if it can't work for all people in all situations? The problem is that generally those who think they know better prescribe a "one size fits all" solution, which, like clothing of the same sort, rarely works.

RAS said...

Casaubon, I definitely agree with most of the points you make. Many people will make changes when they are given the information. However, it should be noted that there are just as many that won't and that this doesn't necessarily have anything to do with greed or stupidity. There are an awful lot of well-informed people out there who haven't done anything to change their ways. For some of them it is just despair. For others it just feels overwhelming. Many of these people are thirty something's with two kids, two careers, and a mortgage. They have so much on their plate that they just can't consider anything else right now. And, there are some out there who do feel entitled to what they've got, who think that we deserve our profligate, wasteful lifestyles. They are the ones people accuse (and rightfully so) of being stupid and greedy, but they are a tiny minoity.

I guess what I'm trying to say is, that while your post is correct about large numbers of people, the psychology and condtions of humanity run the whole gamut.

Dougii said...

I understand your passion. It is clear to me that there are many people who are starting to awaken and see that the path that we are taking leads to ruin and untimely death for millions due to famine, war and environmental destruction.

I think the question becomes what are the alternatives? Can we change how we live enough to dramtically change the course we are on. Small measures may avail us nothing.

From my own experience, I have changed the amount of carbon I produce, but I have not altered my lifestyle dramatically. Its a drag to browbeat you family into compliance. Sometimes you can give the information, and they can make up thier minds. They may or may not see things your way.

I know about Peak Oil, Global Warming and over population. I also know about economics, at least enough to understand that it is at the foundation of our problems. This is the rub. Our entire civilazation is based on the religion of economists (you need faith to believe that the oil will never run out) and the finely tuned manipulation of greed to get people to only look out for themselves.

Economists have been so sucessful in getting people to work in the interests of the elite that it is hard to see another path. The propaganda of modern industrialism is all encompassing and captures most of the imagination of most of the people. Some of us have woken up, taken the red pill and started to make changes to our lives. But many cannot. There has been no awakening, and a life of hedonistic materialism can seem pretty good. Especially when the alternative is really unknown.

If we are to base the chances of success on the last cultural revoluttion, we maybe disheartend. The 60s and 70s back-to-the-landers have all gone commercial and become ad executives and corporate VPs. The elite of the last revolution were bought off for a house in the suburbs and mistress in the city.

You say what matters is what we believe. I disagree. What matters is what kind of world I will leave to my children. So far the boomers have done a crappy job. So lead, follow, or get out of the way. The revolution will not be televised.

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