When I go on vacation, I like to find a remote and quiet spot. In fact, much of the reason I go on vacation is to escape the sounds of sirens and jackhammers and car alarms and blaring music I confront on a daily basis in New York City.
Inevitably, though, when I get to my carefully chosen vacation destination, I’m at least a little bit disappointed. There are other people there, for one thing, and they’re usually doing things I don’t like.
Yesterday, as I sat on the deck of the rustic cabin we’d rented for a week along the coast of Maine, for example, I was suddenly shocked out of my reverie by the roar of speeding engines: a family on jet skis, screaming and whooping as they circled round and round the quiet cove we’d spent a chunk of our savings to spend a week on.
I could feel my stomach tie into knots, and all that compassion I’ve trained to muster fly right out the window. I wanted to kill these people. Literally. It wasn’t just my peace and quiet they were destroying, I was thinking. I imagined the local harbor seals rushing off in terror, the sea birds abandoning their nests, and the jet skis leaving behind a slick of oil that would sink behind them into the ocean water. They were not only destroying my peace of mind, but they were destroying the planet. I was outraged.
There’s a curious possessiveness that comes over me when I come to a place like this. On the one hand, I feel immediately relaxed just visiting here, being so close to nature. Yet almost immediately, I start to feel like I want to own it. I check Trulia for house prices and start fantasizing about how I’d fix up this run-down rental cottage if it were mine. Something about liking the place makes me want to possess it, to control it, to keep it for myself. And as with any sort of grasping, that desire makes me suffer. Even if I could afford a waterfront cabin in Maine, which I can’t, it wouldn’t be enough: I couldn’t possibly own, and control, the entire wilderness.
The jet skiers brought that point home. It’s a similar sort of grasping, a desire to own and control, that leads to the sort of destruction and disruption of precious nature that I saw the jet-skiiers engaged in. Their aim, too, was to “own” the bay, but they weren’t just imagining what it would be like; they were seizing the whole harbor and turning it into their play area. That excluded anyone else who might be there seeking more quiet enjoyment.
This all reminds me of a memorable passage in philosopher Michel Serres’ book The Natural Contract:
I’ve often remarked that, just as certain animals piss on their territory so that it stays theirs, many men mark and dirty the things they own by shitting on them, in order to keep them, or shit on other things to make them their own. This stercoraceous or excremental origin of property rights seems to me a cultural source of what we call pollution, which, far from being an accidental result of involuntary acts, reveals deep intentions and a primary motivation.
Let’s have lunch together: when the salad bowl is passed, all one of us has to do is spit in it and it’s all his, since no one else will want any more of it. He will have polluted that domain and we will consider dirty that which, being clean only to him, he now owns. No one else ventures again into the places devastated by whoever occupies them in this way. Thus the sullied world reveals the mark of humanity, the mark of its dominators, the foul stamp of their hold and their appropriation.
A living species, ours, is succeeding in excluding all the others from its niche, which is now global: how could other species eat or live in that which we cover with filth? If the soiled world is in danger, it’s the result of our exclusive appropriation of things.
Ironically, one of the only ways to protect natural land these days, it seems, is to buy it – hence The Nature Conservancy was created to buy large tracts to protect the wilderness from “development” – that is, from people defecating on it.
Most of us can’t afford to buy hundreds of acres to preserve. And so we travel ever farther – in earth-destroying automobiles and airplanes – to find that peace and quiet and natural beauty we all viscerally long for, yet which human “development” – stemming in part from our desire to possess and control — has increasingly destroyed.
Inevitably, this grasping will lead not only to the destruction of our own peace of mind, as we arrive at our destination only to find ourselves surrounded by car traffic and jet skis, but to the destruction of the planet itself.
How can this possibly change? Given the short-term thinking that controls our culture, Serres points out, our political system has failed to address this. He believes we need politicians who are not just lawyers but also scientists and philosophers, which sounds like a good idea. We certainly need politicians who are sufficiently enlightened and independent to be able to promote and motivate others to support our collective long-term interests.
I reached a similar conclusion myself the other day, in a different context. I was speaking to a class of foreign law students about human rights advocacy, particularly in the face of the endless war our country seems to have embraced. I ended with the usual lament that with our current state of politics, with politicians serving their own short-term interests, which often turn out to be the interests of defense contractors, it’s hard to imagine significant change anytime soon. Certainly international human rights law wasn’t going to accomplish it. One of the students refused to accept that downer of an answer, and asked: So what would change things? I thought about it, and realized that the only thing I could imagine is a new kind of politician – a long-term thinker interested in more than his or her own re-election and willing to stand up to the powerful short-term interests that control much of our society.
Of course, there are small changes that happen in small ways, and I don’t mean to diminish those. But anyone who believes in anything faces the constant challenge of appreciating what you’re doing without getting too hung up on its limitations – and angry at the people creating them. That can be hard.
I’ve managed to enjoy my time in Maine despite the obnoxious jet-skiiers (thank god they go in at low tide) and the sound of cars in the distance whizzing by on the local highway. I’ve had to remind myself that I, too, share that tendency to grasp, possess and control things, so focusing on how other people have done the same (albeit in what I consider a more destructive manner) is a bit absurd. I’ve also made a point of taking time out each day to meditate, to encourage a sense of inner peace and stillness, wherever I am and whatever’s going on around me. (I’ve found the meditation app Headspace really helpful for that, by the way, and recommend it for anyone who has trouble meditating on her own.)
I still think jet skis ought to be outlawed and all our use of motor vehicles more strictly regulated. And I’ll do everything in my power to support those sorts of policies, whether advocating for more bike lanes back in the city or voting for whatever political candidate seems to truly share my concerns.
But I know – and will continually have to remind myself – that I can’t hinge my happiness on the outcome.