Saturday, February 21, 2009

Heaven and Hell

One of the lame things about admitting to yourself that most of what we consider "supernatural" is a lie is that you can no longer count on the afterlife to effect justice on those who deserve it. In other words, Hitler didn't go to hell, he just shot himself in a bunker and that was it. No matter how much horrible shit he did, his life simply ended and he ceased to be. Of course those last few minutes before he shot himself must have been grueling, but they were no where near what the man deserved.

I bring this up because I was eating dinner today and the woman whose house I'm staying in said that she hoped the C.E.O. of Massey (basically the Exxon Mobil of coal companies) would burn in Hell, if there was a hell. She's somewhere between an Atheist and an Agnostic, as I found out after we all watched Religulous together a few months ago. That comment got me thinking about justice, especially since I myself had made a similar comment about Bernie Madoff just the other day. Upon hearing about the way Madoff's massive pyramid scheme had bankrupted several major charities, I exclaimed: "That man is gonna burn..."

At the time, I justified it to myself by thinking that I had meant in a secular sense. That is, he's gonna get burned in court, or he's gonna burn in jail, or something like that. Truth is, that is not what I meant at all! During and immediately previous to uttering that sentence, I temporarily believed in postmortem punishment. So here's the problem: belief in punishment after death makes us go soft on people that need to be punished here and now, in the real world. If we, as a people, really believe that bad people will go to hell when they die, it becomes more acceptable to allow them to continue behaving badly.

The issue is similar to an argument that Bush II continually made throughout his presidency: that future historians would judge in ways that we cannot in the present. The argument allowed him to do "unpopular" (read: immoral) things while claiming that he could not be punished or even admonished in the present. By passing his own punishment into the future, he avoided it in the present.

Despite the obvious absurdity of this argument, we make similar pronouncements all the time. When we talk about how bad people will "get whats coming to them" without helping the process along, we engage in the type of magical thinking that allows bad people to continue to do bad things. The truth is, mass murderers, moutaintop removing CEOs, and really terrible presidents are not going to hell. Which makes it all the more important that we make sure they "get whats coming to them" while they are still kickin'.

To end on a lighter note, here's what I found when I googled bush's historian arguments:


Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Obama Mentions Non-Believers!!!!!

Ok, so I was at the inauguration yesterday, in an enormous crowd of wonderful people, listening to Obama's inaugural address. Inbetwixt all of the cheering and emotion, Obama said something that I would have, sadly, never expected.

For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and non-believers.
I jumped up and the air and yelled "Woohoo!" at this mention, this recognition, the first I have ever run across and definitely the highest official acknowledgment of non religious people I have ever heard from an American politician. In the crowd, I was alone in my cheer, and promptly looked around but found no one to share it with. I know, though, that thousands of others cheered with me across the globe. If you missed it, check it out at 14:25 in the video below, and feel free to jump up and yell with me:


Thursday, January 15, 2009

My Belief System: Radicalism

One thing that really annoys many of my friends is that I am what you might call "radically anti-radical." I understand the value of radicalism, of course, in pushing the envelope and being the cutting edge of what it means to be an environmentalist. Its just not for me.

In College, I watched as what had been a "radical" environmental club, the Student Environmental Action Coalition or SEAC, transform itself into a pragmatic, solution-focused group. Not only did the group grow from 5 to 10 people to more than 100, but we have instated a Green Fee, planted a campus organic garden, and given every incoming freshman a Compact Flourescent Light (CFL) bulb. The individual campaign meetings in this group are now larger than the original group was!

The difference between pragmatism and radicalism, as I see it, is a focus on what can be done now rather than what should be done. A good and relevant (to me) example comes from sustainable forest use. While a radical environmental group might call for an end to all forest use, pragmatic groups are trying to reshape forest industries so that less damage is done to the regenerative capacity of the forest.

A couple of summers ago, I was zip-lining in the Costa Rican rainforest. In order to create the zip-line course, the adventure group we were with had cut swaths wide enough that one could swing around on the line and not hit any trees. While we were there, a friend remarked on how much disturbance and fragmentation this caused to the forest. There was no question that the forest was severely damaged by the zip-line course. However, one look at the pineapple plantations one plot of land over revealed that the choice was not between a pristine forest and a disturbed forest, it was between a disturbed forest and a pineapple plantation. When radicals criticize eco-tourism as "Greenwash," they need to understand that tourism is often the only thing keeping local people from simply converting pristine systems to agriculture.

Another example that will get some folks talking is the difference between becoming vegan and searching for sustainably (and ethically) raised animal products. Which will change the conditions in which animals are raised? Is it better to eat a veggie burger or grass-finished beef? I tend to believe that in terms of actually changing the meat industry, searching for "good" meat creates a demand for better practices. As long as the only two alternatives people see are vegetarianism or factory-farmed meat, meat producers will simply write off vegetarians as lost customers but never actually change their practices. If the subset of people who would normally become vegetarians instead began demanding ethically produced meat (and this is starting to happen), these products would become more available and demand would spread to people who would never consider vegetarianism but who otherwise care for the Earth and its animals. This is pragmatism in action, increasing the base of support for a cause by making it more accessible to "normal" people.

Before the past election, I was involved in a massive voter registration drive by As I went around trying to register people to vote, I repeatedly and inevitably ran into people who were "too radical" to vote. Disgusted and appalled, I tried to understand these people who decided that voting, the end product of not just one, but several, radical movements, would make them "complicit with the system." How could one be an activist and not vote?

It seems that the issue of purity is central to the distinction between pragmatism and radicalism. The idea of personally not participating in the system that one disagrees with permeates radical thought. The problem is one of scale. I believe that except in extreme circumstances (dictatorships, fascism, etc.), participation in the system is essential to changing it. So is the idea that some change is always better than no change. Many radicals see what I think is a false choice between a perfect change and an imperfect change. More often, the real choice is between imperfect change and no change at all.