Friends of mine tell me that their daughter will only eat meat if she knows the name of the animal that died to produce it. She’ll eat the pork roast from pigs grown on our farm — but not the anonymous bacon offered up in the college dining hall. Adherence to this one guideline brings her information that isn’t always easy to come by. She knows that the pigs lived outdoors, on a small farm. She knows that they ate kitchen scraps and dairy waste, but not hormones or antibiotics. She knows their manure will fertilize a vegetable farm, rather than pollute a river near some far off factory farm.
My friend Drew once spent a week carrying a garbage bag over his shoulder, collecting every paper napkin and apple core he discarded. That was years ago, but he still talks about that week and the weight of the sack. Buying lunch without packaging became a kind of quest. Reading the newspaper at the library meant that he didn’t have to carry it with him for the rest of the week. Although the actual sack is abandoned now, Drew still carries a heightened awareness of the physical stuff that flows in and out of his life.
My mother and father built a house for themselves, cutting down trees that they sawed into boards for flooring, walls, and cabinets. They cut each tree only after great deliberation. Every board they nailed in place came from a tree that was sick, or crowding a healthy tree, or blown down in a storm. Seeing their home is seeing another view of the lovingly tended forest that lies just beyond it.
As these stories show, ordinary people can live with great integrity. There are all sorts of ways – from buying local food to living within site of the forest from which you built your house – to make sure you understand the impact of your actions.
If ordinary people are going to make the effort to live with better feedback we ought to insist that governments and corporations do the same. Working to make feedback more plentiful and more powerful and aimed at the right places is not only something to try in our own lives — it could also be a strategy for social change.
If we are nervous about the dangers of nuclear power, we could lobby for a law that required CEOs of nuclear power plants to live on the plant site or at the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository. At the very least the nuclear industry would have to explain why this was not a good idea.
If we think the government is too hasty in it’s use of violence to address problems, we could advocate for some better feedback. Maybe we’d push for a new rule – making a prerequisite for ordering airstrikes ten years of service caring for civilians injured in “collateral damage.”
If we want to see action on climate change we could demand that the corporations pressuring the Bush administration to “wait and see” on climate change must store all of their assets on islands in the South Pacific that are threatened with inundation from rising sea levels.
If we worry about water purity we could demand that the water in the cooler in the boardrooms of every company that dumps waste into a waterway be filled only at the pipe where water leaves their factory to enter a river.
We cannot afford to allow the people making big decisions to live in isolation from the affects of those decisions. Because of this, now is a good time for asking questions. Simple questions. School kid questions. Why shouldn’t the people profiting from a nuclear plant live with its waste? Why shouldn’t warriors be asked to heal their accidental damage? Why shouldn’t a factory’s managers be willing to drink the factory’s waste water?
A healthy system has just the right feedback in just the right place. Now is the time to use our courage and our ingenuity to find ways to interject some new, better feedback into our society.