March 9th Lesson from my Polish Grandparents

You don’t need to be an environmentalist to arrive at a formula that leads to a humane, healthful, happy and sustainable existence.

It’s been rainy in Portland today (go figure) and I was feeling under the weather, so I had some time on my hands to blog again. Searching for inspiration, I came across the original sketches I did for the opening sequence of reUtica. The “Global Climate Change -> Death” drawing was done in my brother’s truck, in the parking lot of Our Lady of Lourdes School (just before filming the opening and closing sequences). The above sketch is the original; I inked out the one for the film with a Sharpie.

While Matt and I made a nod to larger issues surrounding global climate change, we didn’t want the film to be about that. In fact, when I think about the ethics of recycling, reusing and reducing, I see a recipe for a more humane society – at least more humane than one dominated by rampant consumerism and fueled by a media-industrial complex that makes us feel less than who we are. After all, I knew that everyone watching reUtica would not feel as strongly as I do about environmental issues. And I don’t care if I’m right or wrong about all that anymore. (In fact, I’m hoping I’m really wrong.) What I do care about is this: The same forces that (in my view) are causing global climate change are the same forces that perpetuate social injustices. Even if you are not an environmentalist, you are probably observant enough to notice that our society is broken.

The culprit is our economy and our treatment of the economy as an immutable, inevitable, thing-unto-itself. Our economic activity has simultaneously replicated social inequalities and harmed the environment because at its heart is an essential flaw.

Let me explain: The way I see things, there are three essential REAL forms of capital that should be driving our economy: Human Capital, Social Capital, and Natural Capital. Below is a very brief definition of each.

Human Capital – refers to the health, well-being and capacity of a person. This includes things like education, personal experience and talents.

Social Capital – refers to connections in a community. What can we do together? “It takes a village to raise a child.”

Natural Capital – refers to the air we breathe, the land we live on, the water we drink, the other living creatures we share this world with.

But do these Capitals drive the economy? Or are they in the back seat? Are they the ends of economic activity? When they are, is everyone invited to share in the gains?

The words “economy” and “capitalism” in our culture have become synonymous with another word: Money. Money is an abstraction. It is not real. Humans, their social relationships and the environment are much more real than money is. Yet we behave as if an abstraction of our time, our resources, our commitments IS actually real and accurately prioritizes those real things for us. To make matters worse, money has become an end in itself. Since when have you seen a Profit and Loss statement that measured things like human health and well-being or community impacts of business activity? To be fair, this practice is starting to gain some momentum, but there’s a long, hard road ahead. For the most part, there is a single bottom line: that bottom line is an abstract figure (one that makes that most sense – by design, mind you – to those who have the most money).

But what if the value of money was solely predicated upon Human, Social and Natural Capital, inclusive of all people and the environment? What if Money was really just a tool to maximize these capitals – a means to make transactions efficient instead of being an end in itself? While I might sound a little pinko-commie here, I’m really not against capitalism. I’m just stressing that we’ve missed the boat on what capitals we should really be valuing. I’m also not saying that Money itself is evil. Rather, I’m just reiterating the old adage: THE LOVE OF MONEY is the root of all evil. (Emphasis added.)

So how does that relate to my last post on Lessons from my Polish grandparents? Certainly, grandma and grandpa weren’t hippies living off the land. They worked difficult factory jobs and were very careful with what little money they did make. However, they managed to live within their means. They did not take on much, if any, debt. In a practical sense, money was a tool to maximize on the human and social capitals around them. (For them, environmental capital was maximized as a by-product of lifestyle choices resulting from their focus on the latter capitals.) They saved for their modest retirements and made sure there was enough to keep the household healthy in the meanwhile. They practiced the strategies of recycling, reusing and reducing to help ensure that living within their means was possible. From grandma and grandpa I learned that living within ones means could be a path to a humane existence. From the sustainability movement, I learned that the environment has limits and living within its means is a matter of utmost importance. Grandma and grandpa would hardly consider themselves ‘green’ or ‘eco-friendly’ but they had the essentials right anyway – long before their punk-ass grandkids made a film about it.

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