Monday, October 25, 2010

Useless Places II

Last summer I was looking at an old children’s picture book from the 1960’s called “Nature” that kept talking about “useful” insects and “useful” animals—presumably all of the “useless” ones were the “harmful pests” that kept popping up in the text. This is an attitude that would bend the whole earth to our human uses, and classify all beings by their relationship to our technologies. And it runs so deep that we teach our children to parrot it before they can even fully read.

As we give in to our habitual ideological separation of ourselves from the world, we are prone to justify our destructions as being themselves akin to natural processes—the children’s book I mentioned above flogged the old imaginary equivalence of a Hoover Dam to a beaver, explicitly suggesting the rectitude of the ways and means by which we alter our environment by analogy with purposeful animal behavior. Leaving aside for a moment even the question of the scale of such alterations in considering the relative merits of that justification, it seems to me that there is a major difference in the set of assumptions that drive such behavior.

I’m no beaver psychologist, but we can make a solid guess that the animals around us do not suffer from the same chronic sense of separation from their environments that we do, and this artificial mind-trick we engage in allows harm to flow from us. We may talk of mother earth, but we somehow fail to give her credit for what we fancy we have been able to achieve with all our usefulness—we’re like a toddler when we point to our tottering constructions with pride, as if we had done it all ourselves, when of course our loving parent stood behind us so we wouldn’t fall, bought us the blocks, fed us the food that would give us the energy to make our tower, kept the tigers away while we did it, and repeatedly and surreptitiously righted our mistakes so that we could have a feeling of accomplishment.

Perhaps we should reflect on our own true position: are we “useful” beings, or are we “harmful pests?” Can we aspire instead to achieving the unstated designation in the center, and redeem ourselves by becoming “useless?”

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