Think Slow

I just read a Malcolm Gladwell article in the Oct. 4 New Yorker that argues that while social media like Facebook and Twitter are great at some socially useful things — like finding a tissue match for someone who needs bone marrow — they’re almost useless at creating real change.

Simply, real social change, like that achieved by the Civil Rights movement, requires much more commitment — a willingness to undertake real risk — than one can muster from a cavalcade of virtual “friends.”

While the Intertubes is a popular tool for getting people to sign petitions and send letters of protest, I’d argue that in the case of environmentalism, the spread of digital life is not just irrelevant to real change — systemic change, the kind that challenges entrenched interests. It’s actually harmful.

The reason is that it cultivates habits of mind that prevent people from understanding what’s at stake or how it works.

Then why write this on a blog? Good point. But I’m not arguing that no one who’s online understands how ecosystems function and why we need to keep them whole. I’m arguing that as the latest outgrowth and expression of consumer culture, digital noodling fosters impatience, reinforces consumptive mindsets, and tends to make people believe change is easier than it really is.

Impatience is almost too obvious to explain: If everything’s available instantly, as it is online (and by “everything,” I mean images and sounds of everything), people are taken another big step away from the real world, the one whose pace is more like the speed with which a raindrop makes its way back to  a river.  They might know this, but moving at a pace so much faster than nature makes it hard to feel such things in a way that makes us most likely to go to bat for the biosphere.

Likewise, consumption. The levers of industrial civilization are long, such that we can drain aquifers and impoverish soil half a world away by spending a dollar on a banana. The Web takes extends these levers.

And no, change is not usually as easy as buying something, or clicking here.

The digital age isn’t solely to blame for our environmental troubles. We’ve been well on that path for centuries. But it doesn’t seem to me a coincidence that for all that the advocates of digital culture crow about the awareness it fosters, even the greenness, said culture’s arrival has coincided only with a continuation (if not an acceleration) of our ravages upon the planet.

Aldo Leopold said environmentalists must learn to “think like a mountain.” That’s real slow. At this point, I’d settle for people thinking like trees. How about tomatoes?

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