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Extinction Via Rugged Individualism

Black-tailed Prairie Dog, Greycliff, Montana. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

I was recently amused by a train of thought on Twitter excoriating Henry David Thoreau for his experiment in self-sufficient living. True, he was on the land of his wealthy neighbor, his mother did his laundry (and brought him old-timey donuts to eat), but it was rugged, dammit. Okay, it was something akin to a 10 year old living in a tree-house in the backyard with mom sending up sandwiches in one of those nifty rope and bucket contraptions, but this was a white man doing something and writing about it so of course it’s monumental and imbued with all sorts of significance. This to me, is a perfect analogy for America and its early beginnings. Never mind the back-breaking labor provided by the women, the horrendous slave trade and lethal work that made the infrastructure possible–the convenient clearing (genocide) of the already here peoples through illness and murder……. the narrative is that it was magically produced by powdered wig donning men who weren’t just all about a self-serving course correction. This fallacy has permeated the psyche of most Americans, and doesn’t allow for adequate self-reflection or improvement, and I would say is a path to eventual extinction if a new narrative and belief system isn’t adopted.

Nature gives us ample metaphor to realize the interconnectedness of our lives. I can never look at an Aspen grove and not consider the exquisite synergy of the system.  All tethered together in an interlocking root system—what affects one tree, manifests in the whole. The 80,000 year old Pando grove in Utah has managed this interplay.  For perspective, the last Neanderthals in Europe seem to have been around about 40,000 years ago. Working together has its benefits. We’ve managed to do incredible harm in only about 300 years. We could be gone rapidly and take Pando with us at this rate.

The individual setting out and removing the self from collective responsibilities is a common theme that is celebrated, even worldwide, not just the US. Though I think there is quite a lot of value in Buddhism and its tenets, the fact that its founder left his child and wife so he could find “enlightenment”…..well, maybe enlightenment is realizing the things that he did while still taking care of your child and not abandoning the wife…… wouldn’t that be more of a feat? To discover the sublime while washing the dishes kind of thing? Can you imagine this tale if it had been the mother who walked out “to find herself”? There’s a common-sense middle ground the world needs to begin to savor. Loving and caring for those near to us, and having a broader based stewardship of our human family and ecosystem—that’s how I would put it.

You can look at any of the enormous societal problems currently plaguing the US and the world, really, as an extension of short-sided self-interest. A rising tide will sink all of us, thanks to the pesky melt-a-thon we are experiencing.

One clear example of individualism being at odds with the greater good is the gun nightmare going on in America–this plays into the individualistic view of the world—that problems are solved in a one-dimensional way. And that dimension is the trajectory of a bullet. Even in the wake of so many mass shootings, the answer is always that a good guy with a gun (or thoughts and prayers) will be the answer. There’s not much of a look at why these guys are losing it (why is this culture such a pressure cooker) and why do they need to have access to an extension of their id that can kill so many, so quickly?

There is some uniquely American notion that having a gun will protect the owner in most situations, despite a ’93 study that showed having guns in the home makes it more dangerous to live there than not having one. Overall, the gun is a terrible roommate. Even if it pretends to be gay to fool Mr. Roper. The woman who recently shot her daughter for coming home from college early to surprise her is recent evidence of that. Think how often this type of scenario happens every day in the US. Probably in response to this ’93 study, the Dickey amendment was added to a ’96 bill that largely stopped research on gun violence. I thought the bill was an attempt to not fund any studies that tried to prove correlation between dick size and gun ownership, well—maybe it was—the name, right? But my point is that rather than learn more and reflect, the US took the path of rabid individualism and willful ignorance instead of looking at facts. Sorry, about the cheap dick size/gun thing mention. I know that’s been done to death, but at least I try not to be a stereotype. I am a 50 year old woman and I try really hard to keep the “can I talk to the manager” shit to a minimum. Except that one time with the rental car. I also try to never interfere with people of color having picnics. I’m just saying that your gun fetish is not a good look if you’re trying for manliness.

Anyway– we won’t last 80,000 years with this type of cooperation; that’s a certainty. The gun issue is just one facet of this. Strength will have to be reevaluated as having the ability to bring people together and protect them through making sure they have healthcare, that they don’t have so much pressure from our culture that they lose their minds, etc…….we can’t continue being stand-alone caricatures, modeling a pathetic pseudo-strength. Thoreau in his tree-house, the dude (or dudette) packing heat, the industry CEOs with no notion of broad-based decent society, only plunder—it will be the death of us all. And incrementalism is not the answer. A guy like Biden, pandering and looking like Cotton Hill if he still had his shins saying things that would work as ointment in 1991–that won’t cut it either. More radical change in action and belief systems will be required. Most people deep down want to help the person next to them. Conservatives seem to have difficulty extending concern and care beyond their immediate family and their needs, and sometimes leftists like myself don’t do a good enough job caring about the pressing needs of those nearby, our heads can be in the stratosphere grasping at the big fixes when we don’t notice someone close-by—something we can actually help with. I put an Aspen tree tattoo on my leg to remind me when I forget these things. We are all connected. Try not to harm. Take care of others—we just need to work to align these needs and realize that it will be a form of collective well being that we need to strive for. There is no individual solution to any of this; we are social creatures that need each other. It’s unlikely it will work, of course, but at least we will go down trying– and perhaps we can take better care of each other on the way down—the trip will be worthwhile if it is filled with more love and less lonely individualism.

 

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Kathleen Wallace writes out of the US Midwest and can be reached at klwallace@riseup.net

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