Observing Alex

Casually organized thoughts

Personhood & Democracy

June 11, 2019

In addition to the obvious career work I’m doing this summer in San Francisco, maybe even more importantly, I’m using this unique time to grow as an individual. For starters this includes exercise, which despite the oddity of yesterday’s 95 degrees Fahrenheit, San Francisco is perfect for. There are many awesome parks all around, and even carrying groceries from the Trader Joe’s on Bay Street to the top of Russian Hill is more active than driving from friend’s house to friend’s house back home.

I’m also making an effort to read, research, and write about topics that interest me—regardless of how relevant or irrelevant they many seem to me right now. I’ve been pretty interested in the Beat movement lately, and there is really no better place to study Beat literature and culture than where I am. So the other day, I stopped by City Lights Bookstore and after flipping through a few titles, I walked out with Gary Snyder’s Turtle Island (1975).

Turtle Island is a collection of poems and essays that “share a common vision: a rediscovery of this land and the ways by which we might become natives of the place, ceasing to think and act (after all these centuries) as newcomers and invaders.”

The essay that grabbed my attention today is titled, “The Wilderness”.

In “The Wilderness”, Snyder discusses his frustration with Western culture’s distant relationship with nature. He elaborates in the following passage:

At the root of the problem where our civilization goes wrong is the mistaken belief that nature is something less than authentic, that nature is not as alive as man is, or as intelligent, that in a sense it is dead, and that animals are of so low an order of intelligence and feeling, we need not take their feelings into account.

I think it’s important when discussing democracy to keep in mind why we have governments in the first place. In simplest terms, governments are organized communities, and these communities keep us safe and allow us to live more prosperous lives.

Obviously governments don’t need to be democracies, however, they must make a majority of people feel safe (note the word “feel”). Democracies make people work together through its need for compromise, allowing everyone to win a little bit more often than not, which in turn makes the major feel safe.

The biggest problem with democracy though is that it’s incredibly fragile—why?—our skills are not equal. Some people have an easier time fighting for their way than others, which can make those “others” feel unsafe. Under prolonged stress, this tension can turn into revolution.

To understand this better, let’s take a quick trip back in American history. Originally, voting was restricted to land-owning, white males. Then after working-class, white males felt neglected, voting was expanded to them. If it wasn’t expanded, they had enough power and frustration to overthrow the government. (I realize I’m way oversimplifying this but this isn’t my main point. Read Hagel and his dialectic. That’s where I’m getting my logic from).

Now consider the groups in society who don’t have the power to defend themselves: children, elderly, and the sick. Despite their lack of power, we make an effort to protect them because we empathize with their condition. And if we help them, there is a hope that when we are in their same condition, we will receive help too.

It’s more difficult to empathize with nature, and as a result, we often exploit it. We forget about how powerful nature is, and our shortsightedness is dangerous. Beyond the fact that I love hiking and watching sunsets over the water and mountains, having a healthy relationship does not have to come from a place of Lorax-esque concern for the trees. Our treatment of the environment is a market failure. A democratic failure. And this tension will increase until we listen to the needs of the environment, or kill ourselves through bullish negligence.

Viewing environmental problems from the lens of a problem in representation, offers a new way to think about solutions that don’t rely on people caring enough to make a difference.

Nature cannot function in our democratic system because under no circumstances can nature defend itself like educated humans can. The question then becomes how can we build representation for voiceless entities into our government?

Snyder suggests having celebrations and holidays to help embed environmental appreciation into society.

Perhaps some kind of religious Humanism is beneficial as it can provide prayers and traditions that help us remember those that cannot speak so directly.

I need to think more about this, but it’s a really interesting thought.

From San Francisco.