Bigger Versus Better

Posted by Sustainable OKC | Posted in Endangered Species, John Cheek, Philosophy, Sustainability, the Madfarmer | Posted on 06-10-2009

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by John Cheek

 

49630_cowboys_titans_football Professor George Lakoff, a linguist at the University of California, Berkley, has argued that language is structured around an indeterminate set of conceptual metaphors. Some of these metaphors are common aphorisms such as, “Life is a journey,” while others, such as, “Form is motion,” are explicitly spoken less often but are still important in the way we think of things.

 

Imagine driving on a two-lane highway through a verdant stretch of Oklahoma wheat fields in early spring. You might describe the scene this way, “The dusty road ran fortuitously between newly green fields.” But wait, the road ran? Roads don't run; they don't move at all, (forgetting for the moment the chunks that have fallen out of the I-40 cross-town in recent years…) but it's not uncommon for us to describe the form of a static object in this way. In fact sometimes we would struggle to describe form at all if we were restricted from using the conceptual metaphor.

 

Another conceptual metaphor that affects not just our language but our psychology is, “Size equals significance.” Think about “big discoveries,” “huge developments,” or just the screens at Jerry's World in Arlington. Unfortunately, I think this conceptual metaphor is a danger to sustainable thinking/living. Here are a couple of places where I think we should be careful about letting the size of things decide there importance.

 

Last Tuesday the banner headline on the BBC homepage read “Giant fish 'verges on  extinction.'” The story reports that a three-year search for the Chinese paddlefish has failed _46444231_paddlefish1 to yield a single sighting, the last paddlefish having been spotted in 2003. Now, I think it is important and grave when any species is on the brink of perishing, but why does the paddlefish warrant a front page story? Because it's the largest fresh water fish in the world? Think of how the threat to polar bears has caught the public attention where the plight of smaller creatures is ignored or even mocked (I found a spotted owl last week. It was delicious.). Now, I'm not suggesting this isn't an important story, but given how crucial creatures as small as bacteria are to all of the biological processes that keep us alive, you'd think we'd have equal appreciation for the little guys.

 

Another area where bigger is often presumed better is in business. We are impressed by profits in the billions and international distribution. This isn't meant to be a screed against corporations or business in general, just an invocation to look to the little guys. Large companies serve an important purpose in our society to be sure. It's hard to imagine how any of us could participate in the blog without a few big corporations. That being said, small companies present some unique advantages.

 

Think about a trip to the grocery store. If you’re interested in sustainable living, then you likely look for products labeled “Organic” or “Fair-Trade.” Those labels inspire some confidence that the food you buy is produced in a healthy, sustainable, and just way, but that confidence is pretty weak compared to my confidence in the quality of the food I take home from the Mad Farmer's fields. When I buy locally, from a producer I know, I'm not just helping local economy and decreasing my carbon footprint, I know that what I'm getting is the very thing I set out to get, much more than any label could ever show me.

 

So, as we go about trying to decide what's important to a sustainable life or a sustainable community, remember that size isn't equal to significance. Some things may be “too big to fail,” but they might also be too big to succeed if quality and sustainability are the goals.

To think or not to think sustainably

Posted by Sustainable OKC | Posted in Education, Environment, John Cheek, Nature, Philosophy, Sustainability | Posted on 08-09-2009

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by John Cheek

Starting a graduate degree in philosophy invites a number of blunt questions, some from close family and friends uncertain of the plan’s wisdom, others from relative strangers snatching a bit more familiarity than seems entirely appropriate to my reclusive disposition. While my reasons for taking this path are incomprehensible to some, philosophy does offer some unique approaches to thinking about sustainability (and a host of other topics, of course). Philosophers have spent the last two millennia and change trying to convince the rest of you that we’re useful for something. There’s the tale Aristotle relates of the early philosopher Thales who, goaded for his “head-in-the-clouds” philosophical outlook, managed to corner the market on olive presses in his region and make a killing come harvest.

It’s a witty tale philosophers enjoy telling amongst themselves, (possibly to nurture the faint hope that any of them will ever make any money) but dark humor aside, there is one skill philosophers in general possess to a greater degree than any other profession. We can ask some tough questions. Socrates, perhaps the most famous of philosophers, was known for Socratic method (see, philosophy must be important if they named a method after one) in which he stripped away unsatisfactory explanations for common ideas by relentless asking pointed questions. Now depending on your disposition towards our subject, you may or may not have a very high opinion of the answers philosophers give to their own questions, but I’ll pose a couple of questions here and even risk an answer or two that I’d be quite delighted for you to criticize in the comments.

1. Is nature’s value intrinsic or extrinsic? In sustainably minded communities, we take for granted that our environment has value, but where is that value rooted? Is it intrinsic to the natural world, or is the natural world simply valuable in its usefulness to us? I’m fairly sure I know what trees would say if we could hear them talking, but it’s a good question to ask both of yourself and of others. If you are trying to enlist someone into a sustainable cause who believes the latter, then you’ll have a good idea of what arguments to pose and which statements to avoid.

2. How can we balance the needs of people with care for the natural world? It’s not uncommon to hear pie-in-the-sky statements from environmentalists, (I know, pots and kettles and all that) and that’s a good thing. Our goals should be ambitious as the stakes are quite high, but at the same time, it’s important that we consider the consequences different actions will have on the welfare of people in the short term. I don’t really have a great answer to how we balance these two aims, but perhaps some of you could help me suss one out in the comments.

Those are just two of the important questions that we face as a movement, and admittedly the answers can’t be handled completely in 500 words. So what do you think the answers might be, or am I even asking the right questions? Let us know what you’re thinking, and let me know if you’d like to help pay my tuition by renting an olive press …