The institutions of our society co-arise with us. They are not independent structures separate from our inner lives, like some backdrop to our personal dramas. Nor are they merely projections of our own minds. As collective forms of our ignorance, fears and greed, they acquire their own momentum, enlist our massive obedience, and depend on our collective consent. - Joanna Macy: World As Lover, World As Self
Re-envisioning Societal Norms Isn't Always Easy
In a class I once took on environmental ethics, I brought up an idea I'd heard that proposed people reduce their work hours (which also happens to be one of the suggestions in the video above). It's thought that doing so could increase quality of life and society by spreading work opportunities to more people, increasing social capital, and helping us be gentler on the environment (e.g., as the video notes, long work hours increase carbon emissions, and tamp down people's motivation to do more DIY projects, like grow a garden, or start community exchange programs). A classmate exploded in anger at the suggestion, asking me what I had against people trying to make a living. He misunderstood, or wasn't able to see, what lay behind the idea.
That classroom incident makes me think of the point both the video, and Joanna Macy, in her quote above, are making. It can be very hard for us to see that society's structure, its institutions, the values and goals it prescribes, can be re-imagined. We forget that how society operates, what it says we must value and do to be happy and successful, is not 'just how things are." We forget that we can choose and value things differently. We forget, no doubt, in part because, "as collective forms of our ignorance, fears and greed," the institutions, and accompanying prescriptions, do acquire their own momentum. Enormous momentum. And also because doing things differently is hard, and change is often hard-won.
Realizing a New Paradigm Begins at Home
But on an individual level at least, we can make different choices. We can choose a life where wealth is increasingly thought of in terms of how much quality time one has to spend with family & friends, on hobbies, in nature, and participating in community activities, rather than in terms of how busy one is (it's my contention that busy-ness is a status symbol in the developed world), the size of one's house, one's clothing, car(s), vacation spots, etc. And maybe, individual-by-individual, we'll reach a tipping point, and a new paradigm will begin to emerge.
Calling All Pioneering Spirits
We may not know yet if ideas like having shorter work weeks, and spreading work around to more people, would actually help us move toward realizing a more socially just, environmentally sustainable world. But, like in the video above, there are a lot of ideas that seem promising, and are worth putting out there, and then worth actually trying. Because we won't know what will work until we actually try it. And here we can be thankful that the human species has never lacked individuals with pioneering spirits.
What ideas do you have about what we might do differently so that we may better move down a path of social and environmental justice, and spiritual fulfillment?