The real world? The truth is, we don’t relate.

How many times have you heard someone say, “I can’t relate to him (or her)!…or… I can’t relate to that (situation)!” Often this voices frustration with the most important aspect of our lives.

Relate? Call to mind someone in your life who means the world to you – the two of you relate well. For all of us, there is such a person – or, more likely, more than one! How do you relate to that person, or those select few, in your closest circle? Chances are you see each other not in one dimension; rather, in a more complex, nuanced way. Your relationship has many facets! Let’s look at three. First, he or she (or they) contribute to your sense of peace and well-being – and more than a little bit! They accept you for who you are. You feel comfortable with them. When you’re with them, you are most in touch with your real self-worth. Second, you return this. You affirm them. Also, because you’re close, you’ve seen them when they’ve been vulnerable. So, when you’re with them, you’re protective. Third, when you’re together, even though you’re comfortable with them (ambiguity alert!), you’re also on your toes, attentive. You feel a frisson of excitement. They sometimes surprise you, do the unexpected. There’s something playful, adventurous, maybe even a little daring, about your relationship.  Comfortable, yes…but one slip, a little inattentiveness, a bit of insensitivity, and…suddenly you’re in trouble. Amazing. But it’s all worth it!

Close relationships have an ebb and flow, don’t they? So sometimes, when we’re relating to someone who matters to us, we’re feeling the love. Hopefully, more or less equally often, we give encouragement. We think: what can I do to brighten his/her day, lighten the load? On still other occasions we realize, “Oh, boy, I’m on thin ice here. I’d better be very careful about what I say next and how I say it.”

But, generally speaking, our relationships go best to the extent we’re able to integrate these three threads, when our words and actions harmoniously blend receiving and giving of love and affirmation; protection; and respect, rather than hopping from one aspect to another.

Don’t believe me? Well, then, consider the opposite. Suppose I decide that my relationship with my wife will be all about me on Mondays and Thursdays. That I’ll be attentive and sensitive on Tuesdays and Fridays. That I’ll be alert to any souring of the marriage on Wednesday and Saturdays. And on Sunday I’ll pray. How well will that work?

Not meaning to over-state, but we tend to approach our close relationships under a holistic policy (there’s that word!). Remember the policy does not dictate particular words or actions for any specific moment, but provides a framework that governs these. We make sure that our words and actions simultaneously receive and give love, and show reverence. And the way we do this – our policy with respect to such relationships – has a lot to say with who likes us and why; who seeks our company and who shuns us.

In the same way we relate to our home planet – the Earth. We see it, multi-dimensionally – variously, as a cornucopia, a victim, and as a threat.

Cornucopia. What a great word, and what a seductive notion! According to classical mythology, Amalthaea, the foster mother of Zeus, fed him goat’s milk when he was an infant. When one of the goat’s horns broke off, she filled it with flowers and fruits and made a present of it to him. Since that time, mythology has it, this horn has held a never-ending supply of food and drink.

Would that it were so in the real world! In fact, early on, when human numbers were small, travel was slow, communication was confined to a family or clan, and expanses of untapped lands were vast and only sparsely populated, natural resources must have indeed seemed inexhaustible. Fresh water; fish and game; fruit, grains, seeds and nuts – all were there for the taking. Minerals were available at the Earth’s surface; their ready availability hinting at still more lying immediately beneath. Wood for fire? Plenty of it. Seams of coal, and even oil were evident on the surface. Later on, as we developed technology, we learned how to use these.

But over the millennia, gradually at first, but especially in the last century or so, we have seen the limits to natural resources. And while we still have in our DNA a notion that the real world is pretty much limitless and indestructible, we now have head knowledge that tells us something different.

In response we have developed a considerable body of natural resource policy and supporting analysis. In part because we’re growing mindful of the finiteness of these resources, much of this policy has focused on the idea of ownership. In early human experience, it appears that individuals would sometimes kill one another, or tribes and clans might go to war, over such issues. So policies might seem a preferable alternative. But different policies, as we’ve indicated, can lead to divergent outcomes. And different cultures have sorted out notions of property differently. As Europeans explored the rest of the world, many of their clashes with indigenous peoples had their origins in different understanding of ownership of resources. We’ll discuss this and more in later posts. We’re constantly tinkering in response to challenges as they emerge.

There’s much more to say here. For now, however, let’s turn to the second body of policy governing our relationship to the Earth.

Victim. Our historic view of Earth as cornucopia led to a careless initial approach to the environment. Burn forest to create cropland? Mine and drill? The Earth could handle it! Only after the event are we beginning to realize the damage we’ve done. In response, we’ve developed a second body of policy, particularly in the past century or so, with respect to environmental protection. This covers a wide range of topics, including air and water quality for example, but extending as well into protection of endangered species and biodiversity; habitat, and so on. Such policy is expanding rapidly in scope and in particulars as we belatedly discover more about how our actions lead to unintended consequences. There’s much more to say here as well, but we have to leave that for another day. Instead let’s turn to

Threat. Floods and drought? Hurricanes? Blizzards? Earthquakes? Tsunamis? Volcanic eruptions? Truth be told, the real world can be a scary place. Again, we’ve created a body of analysis and policy – prescribing land use, building construction. We’ve done our best to provide early warnings. [We discussed this policy at greater length in posts dated between August 28 and September 9 inclusive.] In this respect as well, there’s still much more to say.

Add all this up, and at first blush, it might seem that we’re on top of things. There is a welcome amount of policy on each of these three separate aspects of humankind’s relationship with planet Earth. However, two broad challenges remain. First, the policies extant with respect to Earth as resource, victim, and threat, can individually stand improvement. Hardly surprising. But the second broad statement is maybe a little more subtle, but certainly more vexing. Unlike our relationships with each other, which tend to be more integrated, our policy approach with respect to the Earth remains very much compartmentalized.

This is not for want of trying. Frequently you’ll find that each of the three threads of policy formulation has acknowledged the importance of the other two, but only partially. So, for example, we find that allocation of freshwater resources along the Colorado River both domestically and between the U.S. and Mexico is based on a few years of higher-than-normal flows just prior to the treaty year of 1922. Thus, through an accident of timing, this resource ownership policy is premised on a few flood-years. Take a look at hazards. We find population increases behind levees whose construction was designed only to protect against the smaller pre-existing risk. Another case: the Glen Canyon dam was constructed to minimize flood risk on the Colorado River downstream. Later analyses showed that ecosystems on the sandbars downstream depended sensitively on high spring runoffs (these same floods) for their continued existence. So the spring runoff had to be reintroduced – artificially. In this and myriad other circumstances, the hazards policy frequently fails to take account of powerful forces driving economic development. Environmental protection? The Endangered Species Act is notoriously insensitive to price tag – e.g., the cost per snail darter, or spotted owl. Having dammed most of the rivers in the Pacific northwest, in the name of hydropower (cornucopia) or flood control (threat), we’ve had to add (rather unsuccessful) fish ladders to protect salmon. And so on. Do a study! Find your own examples. They’re everywhere.

Compartmentalized, indeed. On Earth Day we pay homage to the environment. On Arbor Day we plant a tree. Every year, in late August and early September, we remember Katrina. On December 26, we recall the Indonesian tsunami. All other days of the year we track the financial markets. Is this working for us?

What we need instead – just as in our interpersonal relationships – is a synthesis, and a balance, among these three major policy threads. We would be better off if we could relate to the real world in a holistic way.  Instead, seven billion of us share a common relational failure – an inability to relate to the real world on which we all depend, the world that provides the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, the natural beauty that underlies our sense of the aesthetic, and that ever-present bit of danger/spice in our lives.

We have made a start towards such a synthesis. It goes by the label sustainable development. But easier said than done. More in the next post.

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2 Responses to The real world? The truth is, we don’t relate.

  1. Pingback: Sustainability? An oxymoron. We can only buy time. | Living on the Real World

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