I was just reading about the film Green, described as a “visual essay” on the plight of orangutans, a very human-like species that is going extinct rapidly. I’d like to watch it, but I’m a mess already just reading about it. So many emotions… but we have to be careful of emotions.
I’m sure the film will have me blubbering at human cruelty. And while human cruelty is a terribly well-documented phenomenon, I think the vast majority of it is not intended as cruelty per se but the sad result of our fractured relationships with each other and the world. Of course the world is a source of raw materials for whatever it is we need or think we need, or just want, but increasingly we see it as nothing more than that.
To the credit of the maker of Green, Patrick Rouxel, he speaks in an article run by Aljazeera of what we are doing to the environment, not what they are doing. Because we are connected, whether we acknowledge it or not. People are not destroying the orangutans’ habitat because they want to. What they want is a higher standard of living, which they think they will get by making more money working on palm oil plantations, which need to operate as cheaply as possible to turn a profit in the “free” market.
As media bring the world ever closer, people who do not have a lot of material wealth are seeing more and more things that they too want to have and be able to do. You can’t blame them for that. The crusading West likes to believe it got wealthy because it worked harder, not because of colonization and exploitation, but the capitalist pyramid scheme is on its last legs. Just about everyone from top to bottom is fighting now over the scraps, with potentially the direst consequences.
This post, however, isn’t about the environment. It’s about how we take sides and blame others. I’m sure Green will stir massive sympathy on one hand and denunciations of emotional manipulation on the other. Even the filmmaker speaks strongly about the alleged failings of big environmental NGOs. Are these groups political and deceitful as charged? I don’t doubt it. But I also think they make some choices based on what concerned staff think is the most practical way to protect the environment.
A good example of what I am talking about is the storm over the group Invisible Children and their mobilization campaign against Joseph Kony. Some accuse the group of being stooges in a US move to militarize Africa. Does the US want to expand its influence in Africa (like China and India)? I’d bet on it. Is Invisible Children interested in drawing attention to the plight of children and others killed, maimed, or kidnapped and forced to kill and maim by Kony and his followers? I’d bet on that too. Is the group perhaps naïve in its analysis of the situation and the best way to solve the problem? That is almost certain for a group that, I think, is not led by Ugandans or other people from the affected area. So who is right, the group and its defenders or its detractors? Both. And both also ignore that the other side has a good point.
Examples are endless, but I’ll cite one more that many people would be familiar with. Was Mother Teresa a saint who cared for the poorest of the poor or an ignorant pawn supporting the unjust status quo by not confronting it, and hence ensuring that there will be no end of unfortunate people for her sisters to help? You could say she was neither, or a bit of both, or you could say she was someone who did what she saw she could do but could not do it all.
Retreating from judgmental self-satisfaction might be the most critical need of all right now. Of course we need to see how we all are a part of the problem, and this awareness seems to be growing ever stronger. But we also need to see that we are all part of the solution. We each can contribute something, but we need to rely on others to contribute what they can too, often something that is not our strength. It’s time to leave saints and heroes to Hollywood, and realize that we have smaller parts we need to play in order to move things forward together.
Part of this involves accepting that we all have mixed motives. And make imperfect decisions. We acknowledge that “things” aren’t always black and white but seem to have trouble applying this insight to people, especially ourselves. Meanwhile, we aren’t getting anywhere blaming others who see things differently than we do. So we need to go the extra mile and try to see from their perspective too. We need to stop playing emotional zero-sum games and get a lot better at working to create win-win scenarios.
Are there people who are so far from caring about anyone else that the prospects of working with them are not good? Yes. But history shows that the seemingly most dangerous enemy can become a powerful ally with a change of heart. So what is the best way to leave space for that change of heart? We need to constantly ask that question and just as constantly find answers.