This is week three of a continuing series of letters with Jason Becker. Week one is here and week two is here.
Your description of Tulum was very interesting. It’s the first I’ve heard of it. And, yes, I can see what you mean by it being a contradiction. I like the idea of lifting people out of poverty; at the same time, it sounds like the usual corporate greenwashing.
I can imagine this sort of thing being the future of what you might call “conscious travel.” Where Walt Disney built a theme park in a swamp and then later brought in people from around the world to set up a pale imitation of their cultures at Epcot, developers will appeal to modern sensibilities by trying to pay lip service to local cultures and environmental sustainability in order to draw in the “conscious travelers.” Yet, as you say, it’s the same unsustainable model.
I completely agree with you that the lifestyle we have come to expect will destroy the relationship we have with a place. And I also suspect that climate change is something like the planet’s immune response to our lifestyle. At the same time, I would say that the problem is the modern lifestyle, not humans themselves. After all, humans evolved alongside the rest of life on earth; this is our home every bit as much as it is for any other creature. The problem is the cluster of ideas and practices that have been developing in Europe and America for the last few hundred years. That is where you’ll find the true contradiction that is echoed in Tulum: economic prosperity that destroys the material basis of life.
And here I sit typing these words on an iPad. I also embody the contradiction! To quote the Apostle Paul, “O wretched man that I am; who shall deliver me from the body of this death?”
But I do not think we should resign ourselves to continuing in the same way while attempting to mitigate the destruction our lifestyles have caused. I do not think human flourishing requires the destruction. Depending, of course, on what you mean by flourishing. Most pre-modern human societies lived in far less destructive ways than we do. Of course, their lives were much harder—which is why I don’t advocate for living in exactly the same way as our predecessors did. There has to be some way of third way of renouncing the poisonous cluster of ideas and practices that have landed us here while also not rolling back the clock according to some simplistic primitivism. Something new. Some way of living in relationship with the non-human world.
One of the core ideas we must renounce is control over the world. That idea has led to our present situation of world-altering power lying in the hands of a relatively few people. There is simply too much power up for grabs (and when I say “up for grabs” I mean among the elite—we will never gain that power) and those incredibly high stakes has led to the total obsession over politics. Every election season we are told by politicians that it is the most important of our lifetimes—and there is a sense in which that is true! That much power should not be available because it appears that we are not suited to it. It’s not a matter of finally getting the right person in control. Like Gandalf when offered the ring, we must recognize that, however much we hope we would use such power for good, that level of power must be renounced.
This is why I have increasingly moved toward a more anarchist politics. I have lost faith in the ability of humans (particularly a handful of wealthy humans!) to solve global problems on a global scale. And I will certainly grant you that in the present circumstances I do not really trust local people to make good decisions either. There are too many warped incentives. These warped incentives, however, are the result of our poisonous system. Free people from that, give them local knowledge, and maybe love and care can flourish, thus breaking the tyranny of small decisions.
I will admit that my politics are utopian. I also believe that utopian politics can be actually useful when the system we were told represented the end of history is crumbling around us and all “realistic” options seem to be more of the same.
As for strengthening relationships with the nonhuman world, I think hiking is an excellent way to start! It’s where I started. My one piece of hiking advice is to refuse to see it as exercise. Shut off trackers and timers. And whether you are hiking or simply taking a daily walk, find places that appeal to you, where you can stop and rest and listen and observe. Learn to identify trees and flowers. Getting the identification right is actually secondary; the real goal is careful attention to the plants.
Attention is key. In order to integrate nonhuman beings into our world, we must stop seeing them as set decorations in the human drama. Simone Weil called attention “the rarest and purest form of generosity.” The beginning of any reciprocal relationship with the nonhuman world begins with generous attention.
Well, I’m back at ~40,000 feet so it seemed like a great time to write this letter. Busy week again, this time hopping over to LA for a conference for a day and a half before heading back home to Baltimore.
There has to be some way of third way of renouncing the poisonous cluster of ideas and practices that have landed us here while also not rolling back the clock according to some simplistic primitivism. Something new. Some way of living in relationship with the non-human world.
I think where I am at in my own evolution is believing precisely in this third way. But in my mind, this third way is already here. It’s not primitive, but it is a return, certainly compared to how American cities were developed. I’d like to see us abandon the false pastoral sheen of the suburbs and sprawling human habitation and move into human-scaled urban cities. I think to return to nature we have to separate from it. Less land use that’s far more efficient. We need to create places for human flourishing and interaction. I think we’ve spent so much time separating from each other physically so that we can collide with nature all over. Instead, I think we need to collide with each other a lot more and nature a lot less.
Maybe this where my politics are utopian as well, but from a different direction.
I think what’s interesting about your descriptions of how to interact with nature and how it informs your “treehugger” identity is that each time I read it, I think about how it can and should apply to our human relationships as well. Take generous attention, a phase I love and will now forever cherish. How often do we practice generous attention with each other? These letters are, in some ways, about generous attention.
Let’s turn to a different topic. It’s still kind of the start of the year. And while I haven’t thought of a theme or anything yet, I have been thinking about what I’m looking forward to and what I’m hoping for.
At work, my team has been growing and we’re pursuing some work that I’ve been looking forward to for years that I think has the potential to make a step change in our business. It’s difficult and sometimes slow going, but it almost feels like a senior thesis in that it combines everything we’ve learned and worked towards for a decade.
At home, I’m looking forward to continuing to regularly play volleyball, which I started to do again about a year ago now after a 17 year hiatus. I’m also hoping to finish off some last home projects, including a deep clean out of my office and our pantry. And of course, I’m looking forward to this project, Letters, which has now filled up for the year.
Until next week (which is already almost upon us),