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  • Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

Individual epiphany
February 9, 2012 - 7:10pm

Sometimes I'm so stupid I could kick myself. 

Of course, before that kicking urge comes on, I have to realize my own stupidity -- have to, at least somewhat, realize my previous error.  What triggered this personal epiphany (if that's the right word -- it wasn't a real "AHA!" moment, more like "ahhhh . . . . ummm . . . hunh?") was an advertising sign on the top of a taxi cab.  The sign advertised a pizza place called "Paisano's", and my son asked me what the term "paisano" meant.

I explained (perhaps inaccurately) that a paisan is a person who comes from the same village you do or, in modern America, a person whose ancestors came from the same village or general region of Italy that your ancestors came from.  Not a neighbor, per se.  Probably, in some distant sense, a relative.  But more like a member of the same tribe or clan or traditional community.  It's an identification association that's looser than "me and my brothers against my cousins" or "my family against the village", but far tighter than "Italians against the world".

At the time, explaining the validity of the concept felt like a bit of a strain.  In the USA where my son has grown up, there really isn't anything parallel.

Of course, there used to be.  A paisan is a member of the same community you're a member of.  America used to have such discernible communities.  Indeed, it used to consist in large part of just such communities.  New England congregations.  Ethnic clubs in eastern cities.  Granges.  Fraternities, lodges and other civic organizations.  Labor unions.  Group identities that existed primarily for the support and benefit of their membership, but also for the good of society at large.  Some remnants exist, but the heyday of such groups has passed.  Can't remember the last time I ran into a functioning grange, and I've lived on farms most of my life.

The second half of the slow-motion epiphany was my realization that group identities can be very long-lived.  Generation after generation after generation.  Not at all like individual identities.  You and I, we get our three-score-and-ten (give or take) and then we're gone.  But communities can go on virtually forever.  Communities can rationally concern themselves with the seventh generation as much as the current one, while those of us in the current generation can -- as individuals -- only treat that as a romanticism. 

Communities can be sustainable, and so can naturally be concerned with sustainability.  Individuals can't.  American society is -- increasingly and by design -- constituted of individuals.  Analyzed and managed as individuals.  Encouraged to think of itself in individual granularity.

American philosophy of pretty-much-anything-you-can-name treats the individual as supreme.  Our concept of "human rights", of democracy, of socio-economic virtue accrues to individuals.  And people in more traditional cultures recognize the problems inherent in our approach -- an indigenous leader once described the global human rights movement to another son of mine as "the cutting edge of imperialism".  His culture was shaped around the requirements of sustainability in his particular locality.  Individualistic culture isn't, and can't be, shaped around the requirements of sustainability regardless of locality.

When we try to explain the logic of sustainability to folks imbued with a culture of individualism, we're barking up the wrong tree.


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