On Community

I am posting this response to McKibben’s lecture on both my 541 and 506 blogs, so if some of the references don’t ring a bell it’s not your fault.

 I think that McKibben’s central point was that environmental and social ethics are inextricably intertwined.  It comes as no surprise that we are failing at both.  What I found most compelling is his suggestion for change. If I could ask McKibben one question (in hindsight) it would be this: Given the recommendation to build sustainable communities in order to confront social, economic, and environmental issues, do you think that the “flattening” of the world, with the technologies that facilitate that flattening, is creating the kind of community you envision? I’m sure you can all guess where I come out on this thing.  I question whether or not digital communities are sustainable.  I see them in terms of what Hakim Bey calls “temporary autonomous zones,” spaces where identities are negotiated in order to create a kind of guerrilla culture that emerges, thrives, and vanishes.  I think here of what McKibben said about community and commercial activity: a credit card, laptop, and internet connection can get you pretty much anything you need without leaving your door.  He didn’t mean it complementary.  I think, and any of you who were there can correct me if I’m wrong, McKibben would suggest that community isn’t encountered on a screen, but through interactions between human beings (the living, breathing variety). Localizing action (against the globalizing trend- a la Friedman) to form more sustainable communities shouldn’t sound as radical as it does.  But we live in a world where rampant commercial culture is emerging a controlling discourse of attention, not focusing on the kinds of social and global ills we ought to be thinking about.  I imagine it is this kind of consumerism that McKibben is critiquing when he notes that general happiness recedes in reverse relation to our increasing wealth.  I’m afraid that I don’t find in McKibben’s vision of social and environmental activism anything that makes me more inclined to accept the globalizing economy on its own terms.  Globalization, which I understood to be an opposing force to community or local action, may be the inevitable trend Friedman and others suggests it to be, but I do not see a socially competent, ethical response in accepting it.  Our project, if it is to be of any worth outside of the purely economic (that is, the training of future workers in the globalized economy), must be founded on social consciousness. Whether or not we take heed of McKibben’s thinking about community, I would agree that simply maintaining our trajectory is not an acceptable response. J. Degan

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4 responses to “On Community

  1. sofiapenna

    I’d like to focus on one of your statements, in particular, because I really hope it’s true! You wrote, “McKibben would suggest that community isn’t encountered on a screen, but through interactions between human beings (the living, breathing variety).” Unfortunately, I was not present for his lecture, and I am really sorry to have missed out on this. So, I will believe you in making this claim about his thesis, because I really agree with it!

    Thank you for such a detailed post on his presentation, because I feel much more familiar with his ideas. In response to your question on the sustainability of digital communities:
    I think digital communities are sustainable, but sometimes crippling. I would have to applaud McKibben’s thoughts on the uses of a credit card, laptop, and internet connection inside your home. It really does make social interaction vanish, doesn’t it? I think we are forgetting how to talk to people, face to face, as we type out our orders and wishes instead. I am guilty of this, too, but I think we are forgeting the “art” of in-person interaction somewhere along the way.

    Don’t get me wrong! I am also an advocate for technology, but I struggle with finding the right balance. I fear that we might be headed to tip the scale in the wrong direction. -Sofia

  2. sunyprof

    Does the reality of globalization have to be opposed to community or local organizing? I wonder then what we think of the fact that it’s the website McKibben and friends put up that allowed him to marshall the support needed to stage these “local” community-based protests? Is technology the problem here?

    While there is no question that globalization presents a whole new set of 21st century challenges, what is the alternative? How do we put the microchip back in the box so to speak?

    I also wonder about this imagined “golden age” of communication where we all knew how to talk to our neighbor? I agree w/McKibben that new communication technologies have the potential to short-circuit more face to face communication.

    No question. But when I hear folks saying that teens no longer know how to converse with one another face to face due to social networking and other telecommunicating options available to them I’m always asking the question–when did adolescents EVER know how to engage in sustained civil discourse with one another?

    I caution us against romanticizing the past, a past that never was perhaps–and demonizing the present/future. Instead, let’s think about how we can use new tools to increase social consciousness and social action and work toward building a just world. That’s what McKibben is doing…

    It will be interesting to see what Professor Zhao has to say about this on TH at Syracuse. KES

  3. jmdegan

    Is it romanticizing the past to say that we’re on the wrong path? When we see data that suggests that happiness peaked in the late 1950’s and has been steadily declining since, is it an endorsement of the belief that we need to return to the 1950’s? I don’t think this is what anyone is suggesting. But we can learn something from this data; McKibben suggests that we can learn that there is a level of personal wealth that promotes happiness, and that excess of wealth results in increased unhappiness. What can we learn from this observation?

    No one can (or should) un-ring the bell that announced a world in which digital technology would be important. Yes, McKibben utilizes the internet in a way to organize, promote, and distribute knowledge and local action. This isn’t possible without amazing technological advances. But it can also complicate the community building project McKibben is talking about.

    This isn’t an issue of how teens communicate. It’s about how to create an ethical space for human interaction. I think that we should question whether digital communities are really bringing people together or distracting them from making meaningful connections with their primary communities.

    What is the alternative to globalization? I don’t know, but that doesn’t mean I should (or will) simply accept it as the only viable economic system for the new century. I don’t see how we can continue on our current trajectory in the face of a global environmental crisis. I think McKibben suggests that living modestly, engaging in community building, and local action are alternatives. But, taken to the extreme, this amounts to isolationism (which I don’t think is McKibben’s purpose). Plus, as McKibben admitted, globalization has resulted in increased access to wealth. As we face a global poverty crisis, how do we curb industrialization?

    There are no easy answers, except to just accept one’s role in this process. I won’t. I think we can find a socially responsible solution to our problems. And, unlike McKibben, I can’t change things on a large scale. I can be active locally; and, as teachers, we can direct our students to a deep social consciousness through local action.

    J. Degan

  4. rayhedrick

    I totally agree with your last comment, Jerry. There really is no easy answer. I think that you hit the bullseye when you write:

    “I can be active locally; and, as teachers, we can direct our students to a deep social consciousness through local action.”

    At the same time, we must prepare our students for life in the 21st century, which I think you acknowledge. It just seems that there is a thin line here; we need to find a “happy medium.” Lets not travel too far back, but lets also not fall too far behind (which, it seems that, we are).

    But, I think you’re right, Jerry.

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