Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Rugged Individualism

"A Desert Garden"

Among all the many "Breaking News" news bulletins of the past week, one seems to be missing. We have heard story after story about Hilary's emails, elections in Israel, the President's ongoing battle with Congress - but very few people have likely heard the shocking news that, by some estimates,  there is probably less than one year of water remaining for the State of California. 

If you don't live in California, you may think this headline doesn't apply to you at all,  but if the Central Valley of California turns into a desert in the next few years there won't be any fresh vegetables on most supermarket shelves in this country- maybe then people will start to take notice. 

Even for those of us who do live in California, the news of an impending water crisis is generally taken rather lightly. There still seems to be plenty of water to fill up our glasses at the tap, water the lawn and fill up the pools. When all this begins to change,  and some day the tap runs dry, maybe then the severe drought will become "Breaking News." By then it will probably be too late to do much about it. 

Most of us who live out here in the desert are pretty careful about how we use water. The yards of almost every house in my neighborhood are not green grass lawns but drought resistant desert gardens -desert gardens take almost no water to maintain, lush grass lawns have to be watered constantly.

I guess that's why I was so stunned yesterday to walk down a nearby street and discover that, in the midst of this life-threatening severe drought, someone was actually tearing up his desert landscape and planting several acres of lush green grass. When the guy was asked if he understood that we were in the midst of a water crisis, he said that he was getting sick of al the cacti in his yard and besides, green grass might improve his property value.

In his very insightful essay, Rugged Individualism, author and environmentalist, Wendell Berry laments the way in which contemporary American culture has come to understand what it means  to live in a "free" society:

The tragic version of rugged individualism is in the presumptive 'right' of individuals to do as they please, as if there were no community, no neighbors and no posterity.

Many people lead their lives today under the ethic of "it's not a problem if it doesn't affect me."  They lead their lives to advance their own personal agenda, to meet their own needs and promote the needs of their closest circle of friends. This is a slippery slope on the pathway to ultimate destruction.

In his essay, Berry goes on to say:

'Every man for himself' is a doctrine for a feeding frenzy or for a panic in a burning nightclub, appropriate for sharks or hogs or perhaps a cascade of lemmings. A society wishing to endure must speak the language of care-taking, faith-keeping, kindness, neighborliness and peace.

The Buddha got it right when he taught that the idea of an isolated individual ego separated from others is nothing more than a "delusion."  We are all dynamically interconnected to one another in a dynamic web of relationship - to think or act otherwise inevitably leads to suffering. 

The very definition of a "civilized" society is one in which individuals sacrifice their own personal  needs in order to build up and support the common good- a society of "rugged individuals" is not a civilized at all- just bunch of barbarians who happen to live in the same place.

Listen to my podcast: "Desert Wisdom"

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