Where Does it Come From? Where Does it Go?
This article originally appeared in Issue# 51
The media aid and abet us in our daily efforts to pretend the world isn't interconnected.
When I was growing up in a small Midwestern town, my mother almost always knew which farms the meat, the potatoes and the corn on our table were raised on. From our upstairs window we could see the water tower where our water came from. We played by the wells that fed the tower. We kids had learned about the workings of the local sewage plant, and we knew what the water looked like that flowed from it into the river and on down to the next town. We had visited the dump and knew how the garbage got there, and what was done to it then. It is true that we didn't know where the cloth in our clothes came from, or which trees had been felled to make the paper in our school pads. But we did understand how most of our world was connected.
Over the four decades since my childhood, the supply lines for most of us have become much longer. Few Americans have any idea where their food and fuel comes from, or which river or bay is flavored by their flushwater. It is a rare person who knows where the garbage she produces comes to rest.
All of our supplies still connect us to the world. An environmental price was paid for the rubber in the soles of my shoes, for the paper towel I use and throw away, for the packaging around my new computer, for a hamburger, for each gallon of gas I buy and burn. Sometimes the price is small, sometimes it is great. But I don't know, anymore, what the environmental cost is for the objects that fuel my life.
As this development occurred, television entered our lives. Like an electronic telescope it allows us to see at a distance. By showing pictures from around the world, the "telescope" has the ability to track the longer lines of supply for us. Once again we have the power to learn what ecological price is paid at both the supply and effluent ends of our life support systems. If we want to know the costs, they can be shown.
But an odd thing happened once people got used to not knowing what was at the end of their umbilical cords. We began pretending the world was not designed in an interconnected way. We've come to pretend that each of our "goods" somehow originates from money rather than from a particular farm field, forest hillside or cranny in a local ecosystem. Children now think that milk comes from cartons. Manufacturers think that wheat, tin and gypsum come from the commodities market. And we all pretend we can get away with thinking the world exists in this fragmented way, because it helps us avoid responsibility. Our unawareness gives us permission to be lavish. Instead of showing us reality, the media aid and abet us in our daily efforts to pretend the world isn't interconnected.
Any real awareness of the web of life has to begin with an unfragmented perception of our immediate surroundings. By keeping our eyes on the television set (like having a telescope strapped to the face), we can ignore our immediate surroundings for hours, weeks, years.
Events on the evening news are far away. The actors and commentators who appear on it are not in my environment. They require no commitment and they offer me no way to connect to them. Yet they visit my living room every night.
As I sit watching, the scene shifts quickly from five dead Kurdish mothers and children poisoned by nerve gas at the hands of their own government, to a Washington politician denying sexual and/or financial improprieties, to a convincing actor telling me that I will be more successful coping with stress in the office if I take two pain-killing pills of the brand he assures me is better than all others. The only connective links between these disparate events are the anchorpersons offering me a mixture of distant ruined lives and happy talk in order to keep me watching commercial lies.
Our long-term attention to such images fragments our thinking and blunts our feelings. Because my daily life does not intersect with the people I see and hear in any natural way, I seem to have no stake in their lives. Thus, news becomes gossip, and I as viewer become a mere curious onlooker, a kind of busybody. Our real mutual connections as human beings and co-inhabitors of the same planet become lost.
Electronic media insulate us from the environment in another way. Their instant scene switching help us stay speedy. We could not endure a lifestyle in the fast lane with its tight deadlines, constant interruptions, decisions made too quickly on insufficient data and frequent unpredictable emergencies, if we were used to living as natural people attuned to the rhythms of the earth.
After a hectic day, an evening in front of the television set allows me to physically stop, to let my body down into a chair, but still maintain my mental, stomach and muscle tension in sync with the pace and violence of the nightly news or the suspense of a murder mystery followed by a couple of 90 mph car chases. Viewing allows me to "relax" without losing the special adrenalin high that accompanies a successful, competitive life.
Once at that high cruising speed, it is too painful to come down. Its intensity makes us feel alive, but the feeling is an illusion. Our attempts to stay at speed flatten the real world down to the two dimensions of the TV screen. Our judgments are limited to our reading of the constricted patterns within those few inches of the screen.
The comfort of the speeding images is seductive. But only when we slow down enough for the peripheral world to come into focus do we begin to hear and see and feel the detail of our lives and the truth and sadness of our own hearts. Only when we begin to replace the tube's images of reality with our own experience will we regain awareness of our place in nature and relearn the immense debt we owe to the natural world for the clothes in our closet, the gas in our gas tanks and the food on the table.