August 10, 2004

What Kant Said, or, My Martyr Complex

Kant said, let everything you do be a maxim for the rest of us. This advice has repeatedly left me in mental ruins. The conflict within his directive lies between desire and duty -- what I want and what I need. There's no problem when I want and feel what I ought to do. There's no problem when I don't know what I want (often), because I just do what I should. But it's very hard to live in an exemplary way when I want something that should be second to my duty. If I turn my back on my duty, what does that tell the imaginary people Kant thinks are following my example? If I turn my back on my heart, what does it tell them? 
When I was a teenager I fought with my twin drives to be a good person and be a good artist, because the processes of becoming either were at such fucking obvious odds. My moral quandary this time is: do I quit my government job working on climate change, where my sweat and blood might be contributing a sliver of good, or do I go to arts school, and paint pictures about it? 

To back up for a second, at first my inner dilemma was: should I work on climate change, or do art? Then, cleverly, after spending a week at the Arrowmont school in Tennessee doing art (doing art non-stop, halleluhah), it hit me that climate change and the problems of the environment generally could provide the subject for my work which has always eluded me. 

But then there's that obvious next question. Which pursuit does the most good? and whose good are we talking about - mine or the world's? (You may be amused, by the way, that I'm sweating blood over these fundamentally ethical questions when I don't believe in God. But I'll save that subject for some other blog(s).)
I've never had illusions about the size and impact of my contribution to society. It could be deliberately huge if I slaved away my life for something... or not. It could be accidentally huge by accident, some chance discovery... or not. That factor isn't what matters to me intellectually. In my heart, of course, I feel I want to do something that matters in the long symphony of human achievement, something that matters and something that is recognised as mattering. But I'm ruled more by my soul: the reason I care what I contribute to my society is that I believe that the sum of individuals' actions adds up to something. I think to myself, if every person in our country gave a dollar to global warming, we'd have thirty million dollars. If every person turned off their monitor when they left the office, look how much energy we would save. If every person, drove one less mile, walked one more, well. We matter so much, when we act alone, like Kant said, but when we act together.  

It's faith in our collective efforts that drives me to be dutiful.

And, so, I wonder, What if EVERYONE walked away from global warming?

It's the most important problem in the world. I believe that. Yes, genocide, the illegal trade in small arms, child sexual slavery, animal cruelty, the loss of indigenous cultures, and many many many things, including human creative production, all matter. But, global warming has the potential to devastate everything, and has already begun to do so. 

Witness: we expect almost half the world's species to disappear in this century; we think ocean currents could slow and even halt because the polar caps are melting and adding too much freshwater to the mix, which needs salt to power it. Without biodiversity, what will we and the other world's creatures and living things eat? With sea level rise and no gulfstream, what other natural miracles will be destroyed?

My art teacher at Arrowmont said she knew she'd chosen the right career because without doing art she'd be a total bitch, and she knew the world didn't need any more bitches.
I just bought this book called Earth From Above. It's a collection of photographs and essays. The photos, by Yann Arthus-Bertrand, are all aerial or bird's eye shots, and generally show landscapes and human activities or settlements with a view to nature's majesty, human ingenuity, or the interface between them that is so often decayed. The essays all deal with threats to the environment. The book reminds me that something powerful can be said in art to people, which might motivate them far more than my work with the government, which seems increasingly vacuous and futile.

I haven't told anyone I know, yet, that I've started this blog. Thank you for reading this, you stranger in your distant world.

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