Monday, October 31, 2011

Breaking the Matrix, Part One: False Options that Keep Us Divided, Conquered, and Controlled

     Liberal and conservative, Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street, human needs and environmental needs—these are stark choices, seemingly based on diametrically opposed and mutually exclusive viewpoints.
     What if the Tea Partiers and the Occupiers, like the blind men examining the elephant, not realizing that they were all confronting the same thing, are needlessly arguing with each another about what the problem is? What if human needs and environmental needs are one and the same? What if the Matrix—the world that is presented to us—really is “the wool that has been pulled over your eyes to keep you from seeing the truth”?
     This article—a case study of natural allies needlessly squabbling with each other—is part one of a three-part series.
     A month or two ago, I watched a video called The Story of Stuff, hosted by Annie Leonard. When I recently looked for that video, I found a rebuttal called The Story of Stuff, the Critique, by Lee Doran. Doran’s video is a classic example of how liberals and conservatives are talking past each other, when we should be listening to one another’s concerns.
     The original video, The Story of Stuff, is twenty minutes long. The rebuttal, which contains all original, plus the rebuttal, is almost twice as long. It’s worth watching in full, albeit with a critical mind. If you don’t have the time or the patience to watch the whole thing, here’s my summary and a rebuttal to both versions of The Story of Stuff.
     Annie Leonard and Lee Doran seem to have been produced by Stereotypes R Us, which is precisely why my comments on their respective efforts are useful for the rest of us.
      My take on Annie Leonard is that she’s an aging flower child wannabe who was born a few years too late to have participated in the Summer of Love or Woodstock. She bubbles with more enthusiasm than facts, and emphasizes her points with wide, circular sweeps of her arms. 
      Lee Doran is a dweebish character who seems to fit the stereotype of the frat boy with a head full of college knowledge but with too little real-world experience. He’s the perfect straw man conservative that every liberal wishes he had to oppose.
     Annie is filled with natural wisdom concerning the environment and does a masterful job of explaining why simple recycling is not enough for us to preserve our natural resources and avoiding, as she puts it, “trashing the planet.” She lays most of the blame at the doorstep of big business, which she correctly accuses of having too much influence over how government regulations are written and enforced. Her solution is to write more laws—which she fails to realize are written by business-financed lobbyists more often than congressmen—to give government (which she suggests is controlled by business) more control over business. Hmmm.
     At the suggestion that business is capable of wrongdoing, Lee Doran forgets all about Annie’s main point—environmental protection—and treats her video as if it were all about business. In his defense of business, he cites an abundance of facts without a shred of wisdom—and some of his “facts” are wrong—showing that he hasn’t the first clue as to how the world outside the college classroom really works.
     According to Lee, entrepreneurs are in the business of giving the public what they want. Wrong. Entrepreneurs don’t follow the market so much as they create it. If Henry Ford had given the public what they wanted, he’d have given them a faster horse. According to Lee, advertisers are in the business of informing the public of a wider range of goods and services. Wrong. Advertisers are in the business of limiting consumers’ options to marketable products or services. Have you ever seen an advertisement telling people of the benefits of silence or quality time with family instead of buying a radio? Of course you haven’t. Silence and quality time with family are not marketable.
     In Lee’s world, government is to be praised for the results of regulations they’ve already made, such as the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act; but he’s horrified at the thought that other someone may actually favor government regulations. In Lee’s neatly packaged world, nobody dumps nuclear waste or a shipload of old television sets in the waters off the coast of Somalia. Either that, or Africans don’t count.
     Nuclear waste doesn’t just disappear. If it’s dumped into the ocean, it’s because government officials somewhere have turned a blind eye. The fact that it does happen suggests that Annie’s faith in government is flawed, and that Lee’s faith in business is equally flawed.
     I’d like to say one more thing about Annie’s careless use of words and Lee’s careless use of facts. As Lee points out, Annie undermines her argument by confusing toxicity with risk. Aluminum, for example, is toxic, but in most cases the risk is minimal. Lee, on the other hand, is careless with the idea of risk.
     Let’s suppose that, at a fraternity party, one of Lee’s frat brothers urinated in the punch bowl, and Lee found out about it. There’s a greater risk of harm in partaking in the fried chicken, cookies, the beer bong, and other amusements offered at the frat party than there is in drinking the punch. Which do you think Lee would decline, the punch or the riskier fare offered at the frat party? He’d refuse the punch, of course; and he may even join in on the beer bonging (as in the photo above). Unlike fried chicken and kegs of beer, urine isn’t a marketable product offered by big business.
     Isn’t it about time we started learning from each other instead of acting like the blind men who’d encountered an elephant? Don’t we have more in common with each other than we have with the banksters and other people who profit from creating disasters?
     In part two of this three-part series, I’ll show that the supposed trade-off between jobs and the environment is a false paradigm. Business, environment, and society all need each other. The most successful strategies for these three areas are a strategic fit among these needs. I’ll show examples of how businesses, societies, and social action groups have worked together to achieve that fit.

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