A sculpture, and other things

Recently I saw this sculpture by the shore of Lake Michigan.  From afar, I was delighted to spot a piece of artwork that referenced Moby-Dick.  It seemed to function as a display of local pride, implying that Lake Michigan was its own ocean, worthy of a creature such as the white whale.Whale sculpture

Up close, the sculpture took on additional resonance.  It turned out that the white plastic giving the whale its color was made of disposable water bottles strung together.  The wire skin of the whale held camouflaged words: PVC, carcinogen, dioxin, toxic.  Although we’re no longer killing whales in such dramatic ways as harpooning them and waiting for them to bleed to death, this sculpture was an unsettling reminder that we are authoring their demise in other ways.  It is all the more insidious in that, removed from direct violence, we consider ourselves blameless.

Other thoughts:

Online reading — Although I have thus far refused to get a Kindle/Nook/e-reader of any sort, I have taken to reading periodicals online.  It has gotten to the point where I enjoy reading the comments as much as reading the article itself–and when reading the same periodicals in print, I find myself missing the comments section.

Emotional manipulation — Recently, I was at Shaw’s and they had an event where you could get a free peeler if you watched a promotional presentation.  The salesman demonstrated a tool I had never seen before, a mandoline.  Although I had no intention of purchasing one, I was taken in by the presentation, and found myself thinking that it would be quite a useful tool.  Toward the end, the salesman started talking about what a low price it was and how it could not be found elsewhere.  Even though I knew it probably wasn’t true, I felt my heart beating faster.  I was excited.  I resisted the temptation to buy, but despite the rational knowledge that I could probably buy cheaper on Amazon (which turned out to be true), I had still responded emotionally and physiologically to the excitement of the salesman’s pitch.

This is worryingly evident when I consume news and media.  Even though I know each day’s harbinger of our demise is probably overhyped, it’s hard not to get upset.  This Onion headline was characteristically funny, but troubling in its closeness to truth.

Nuclear terrorism — Interestingly, though, this is one thing you don’t see in the news, mostly because it hasn’t happened yet: the possibility of a nuclear terrorist attack.  The possibility–and terrorists’ motivation for doing so–is frighteningly real.  Graham Allison argues that we choose not to think about it because it is too terrifying; we are motivated to interpret it as impossible for a terrorist to pull off.  But that is the sort of head-in-the-sand reasoning that made us vulnerable to 9/11.

Climate change — Recently The New Yorker had an article titled “Do Voters Care About the Environment?”  The article was about how Tom Steyer, a hedge fund manager, has spent fifty-eight million dollars supporting candidates whom he deems environmentally friendly.  The money was donated through Steyer’s PAC, NextGen Climate Action Committee, which “focusse[s] its appeals on climate change.”  The article’s arch tone implies that voters do not care because they are lazy/stupid/uneducated.

This is not true.  Voters do not care because climate change is not affecting them.  And if it is not affecting them, why should they make the considerable changes in lifestyle that climate change activists demand?

It bothers me that people conflate caring about climate change with caring about the environment.  From what I have seen, the general public does not feel all that threatened by the temperature rising 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit since 1880.  Although the list of supposed effects is severe, most are not things people care about (such as coral reef destruction– –yes, it is unfortunate, but people just don’t care).  The rest (more “severe weather,” erosion, etc.) can be attributed to natural causes, and their link to human activity seems nebulous at best.  Show as many graphs as you want, but climate change is simply not scaring people into selling their SUVs.  I’ve actually heard jokes to the effect that climate change will be great for New England, as we could use a few extra degrees around here.

I wish the environmental movement would focus on specific problems that might actually convince people to change their behavior.  Things like pollution, that can be shown easily through photographs.  (Another problem with climate change–it’s all in the graphs.  You can’t show someone a picture of what is happening).  Things like the very real possibility of running out of water and food.

Getting people to care about the environment, like any other cause, requires a publicity effort.  People need an emotional connection with the cause, one that is strong enough to persuade them to change their habits.  Vegetarians have realized this and used it to their advantage, creating brochures that show graphic images of animal slaughter.  Environmentalism needs to focus on problems that can actually create a clear story, give individuals incentives to change, and provide clear options.*

Saint John’s College — On a lighter subject, this college seems really cool.  In today’s data- and money- obsessed world, it is nice to see that some people still value reading, writing, and thinking–in short, the study of humanities.
*So should environmentalists play the game described above, just like the salesman and the media?  Probably.  All of us, environmentalists included, are competing for bandwidth in this media-saturated age.

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