04 February 2009

Travel and work. And hubris

  • Feb 4, 2009

Travel and work. And hubris

I tend to spend time around certain type of people. I feel fortunate to live in a place where there are so many like-minded people to be drawn to, and to have attracted to me.
They work in education, or in jobs with a direct environmental benefit.
They are socially aware, concerned with the world outside of just their own personal lives.
As such they tend to buy local food, used clothes and furniture, they are vegetarian, vote regularly. They bicycle and take transit, or if they drive its a sub-compact shared with other people, a hybrid, or powered by veggie oil.
They value things like education, cultural understanding, and tolerance.
They see that the way we do things here is not always necessarily the "best" way to do them. And a part of valuing what other cultures has to offer entails traveling to other places and experiencing them first hand.

Driving that most-visible-of-all-symbols-of-American-consumption, the H2 (the Hummer luxury model) across the country with a couple of passengers, along the 3000 miles of Highway 80 from SF to NY, uses less fuel and causes less pollution (per person) than doing the same journey in a full loaded commercial passenger plane.

In other words - if you travel by plane, you don't get to look down on Hummer drivers.

A single round-trip intercontinental flight more than negates an entire year's worth of commuting by bicycle.

We are able to get away with travel because it is so grossly subsidized; from our military (with a budget as large as the entire rest of the world's militaries combined) being assigned to guard oil pipelines to the fact that airports are paid for by taxes instead of the airlines; combined with the fact that we simply have way too much money (the world average income is $7000, the less developed world averages $700 per year - in the US its $47,000) and so we don't think twice about spending it frivolously, from household doo-dahs to vacations.

When a person travels for education, or humanitarian reasons, with the peace corp perhaps, the plane ticket alone is likely to cost several times more than what the local residents make - and do more environmental destruction than the residents would have done - in an entire year.

And this segues me nicely into my next topic.

The idea that in order to be a well rounded individual, to understand different perspectives, and be truly educated, worldly and insightful you have to travel is a form of elitism.
It is essentially saying "if you have not had the opportunities I've had, you can not possibly be quite at my level. There is a form of insight I have which you never will".
It is a form of hubris.
Most people in the world won't have the chance to, say, bicycle from home to a foreign country, but I am uncomfortable with claiming it makes me better than someone who hasn't, or even that I posses some great insight or understanding because of it.

When we send aid to small villages we are saying in a way: "You need help. You can't take care of yourself. We know the right way for you to do things". We Americans, wealthy and young and educated (and mostly white) come to offer you poor things some charity and advice. At the same time as we feel superior, we also feel good about ourselves for having been so generous. We live in the local conditions (for a few weeks), so that years later we can say we experienced it, but when the project/class/vacation is over we get to go back to our lives with washing machines, cars, and air conditioning.

We generally tend to come away with a new perspective on our own culture - namely, that not everything we do in our own society is the only, nor necessarily "best" way to do things. Other places are more community oriented, less money driven, less stressed. Love and marriage are seen differently, the role of family is different, the role of government is different.

And as often as not, having experienced a few months, maybe a year, of this alternative culture, we romanticize it, deciding it is ideal and failing to acknowledge any of the problems that it had. Focus on some culture other than ones own is still just as much a form of ethnocentrism.
The most common examples I see are everything which is lumped under the broad category "Eastern" and "Native".
Eastern really means "traditional eastern"; today countries in Asia have things like surgery and drugs to treat people, just like we have here.
We have plenty of traditional cures in the West as well, but its rare to see anyone claim that leeches to draw out bad blood, exorcisms, or cocaine should be included as legitimate alternative medicine.
Pointing to some aspect of another culture, out of context, and saying "this way is better" is a type of elitism.
If there really were one "right" answer, it would have spread everywhere by now.

[All that said, people are going to do it anyway, just like we drive cars even though we know we shouldn't.  So, at the very least, here are a few suggestions to help keep your hubris, and potential negative impact, at a minimum: http://www.ethicaltraveler.org/explore/reports/thirteen-tips-for-the-accidental-ambassador/ ]

While I am attacking those people who I personally identify most with, there is another wide-spread idea which reflects our hubris, an example of the sort of luxury can be bought with our rather decadent lifestyles.
In this, as in the last example, I admit that I too am guilty of it.

Along with the obvious physical necessities (food clean water, air), listed among basic life necessities are relative intangibles should as security, companionship, health care, and meaningful employment.

I had a customer I worked with months ago who was a real estate agent. She lived fairly modestly, but had a fancy car, a nice apartment, an expensive TV. She booked me a 2nd time recently, this time for moving, as she found a place to house sit long term for very little rent. While still working as a real estate agent, she had taken a second job at a bagel shop.

I occasionally work with day-laborers when I get a job that's too big for one person and the customer is unable to help.
There are always plenty to be found in certain areas of Oakland and Berkeley (in designated "day-laborer hiring zones" and near any home depot). They work for whatever you offer to pay.
(Well, I assume so; I pay them the same rate as I get paid, as a matter of principal)

Me: "it'll be 150"
Mario: "50? OK, good" He smiles and nods.
Me: "ONE 50"
Mario: "Oh... What?"
Me: "one hundred and fifty"
Mario: "150? how much for me?"
Me: "no, I mean, 150 each, 150 for you, and 150 for him." [I had 2 employees that day]
I don't think he fully believed it until the end of the day when I actually handed out the pay.

They are plenty strong; although they look small, they have the functional strength that only comes from doing real work - they are far more capable than some of my customers who obviously spend plenty of time in the gym, (while a customer who looks strong will stop to rest on the 3rd flight of stairs when he and I are carrying a big solid Oak desk, a day laborer will put the same desk on his back, and, despite my objections, carry it all the way up himself, nonstop).
They have at least passable English, and have a wide variety of experience, doing carpentry one day, painting the next.

Except recently chances are they aren't doing anything today, and didn't yesterday either.
There are many times more people still waiting for work at noon than I am used to, as the economic situation means less new construction or large remodeling jobs.
Someone I picked up a few weeks ago said it was the first job he had gotten in almost 2 months.

Over the past 60 years unemployment has hovered around 3-6% (the most notable exception being under Regan when it hit nearly 11%).
For the past 5 years its has stayed below 6%, for the last 2 under 5%.
It is currently up to 7.2% with 2 million jobs lost in the last 4 months alone.

For the 11 million unemployed, (not to mention the undocumented workers who don't get counted), the necessity is work. Any work. Work to make money to pay rent, buy food, take care of dependents.

It is the luxury of someone who has never had to worry about those things, who has plenty of prospects, and who, if all else failed, could always move back into mom and dad's house, to decide work is not good enough. We have the luxury of thinking about whether we would prefer a boring job that makes more of a difference, or one with a smaller impact but has more room for creativity. We can decide if we would rather work on social justice or the environment. And we can claim that doing something "meaningful" is not just a nice option to have, but actually a basic human need, without which a person can not truly be happy.

By that standard, not only are the countless unemployed not ok, but the hundreds of millions of people around the world who are just doing ordinary mundane productive work are all living meaningless, pointless lives, and may as well not bother with making it through another day unless they begin the search today for something more fulfilling. All the farmers and welders and janitors and bus drivers and mechanics and construction crews and clerks and mid-level managers and plumbers and actors and waiters and small business owners, who have spouses and friends and homes and activities they like to do with their time off, and who thought they were happy; no, they are not. They are missing one of the fundamental necessities of life. They aren't actively making the world a better place.

Who the hell are we to claim that someone else's happiness isn't real?

What about the countless generations who existed before there was wide-spread environmental degradation, before it occurred to anyone that the world might need saving? What about people who live in a (relatively) just society already? What about the entire world back when most people worked in agriculture and lived fairly self-sufficiently? Were they all unfulfilled in life too, with no possible way to achieve real meaning? Or did they perhaps content themselves with the positive impact they could have on their own life and their own family, friends and neighbors; just by being a decent, generous person?

I hope not to offend, and alienate myself from my friends and readers.

Of course I personally have spent a month in a land far from home and consider that trip to have been a milestone in my life. I cycled out, but I flew home, and have taken quite a few plane trips since.
I run a certified green business and work for a non-profit, and these are things I am proud of.

But I believe its not the Emperor, but ourselves who are walking around naked, each hoping that as long as no one says anything, no one will notice.

As people who are aware of and concerned about the worlds problems and how each individual is a part of the whole, it is us who can least afford hypocrisy.

1 comment:

If you ask a question, I will answer it.

NEW: Blogger finally put in a system to be notified of responses to your comments! Just check the box to the right, below, before you hit "publish"