Less How, More Why

As humans, we are drawn to stories. And when we hear stories, we naturally take the side of the protagonist, even if that protagonist is an anti-hero: We’re pulling for him, regardless of whether he’s an outlaw, a greedy bastard or worse.

This also means that we’re drawn into the hero’s journey. The thing the hero is doing becomes worthwhile, even important, simply because the hero is doing it. The more beguiled we are by the hero, the more drawn into the narrative, the less likely we are to question what it is he or she is about.

And the more likely, meanwhile, we are to want to know how – how the heist will be pulled off (if the hero is a crook), the crook caught (if the hero is a cop) or the battle won.

For instance, I just finished reading a book about Custer’s Last Stand, and while I’m glad the Sioux pulled that one out, when the author was describing the travails faced by Custer’s men from their point of view, I found myself hoping they’d succeed. And I suspect cavalry fans would feel the same when reading from the Sioux perspective.

Wanting to know how, too, is a basic human impulse. But it so consumes us as to be dangerous. It makes us lose sight of why we do things. Tell us how robber barons amassed their fortunes, or how investment bankers plundered the economy, and we’re bound to at least end up admiring their craftiness, forgetting for a moment or longer the damage they did.

These impulses do something else too. They enable environmental plunder. Show us coal miners toughing it out two miles underground, we want to know how, and we simply stop asking why we are still powering civilization with one of the dirtiest fuel sources possible. Frame the debate about shale-gas drilling as one about “jobs,” and we’ll be less inclined to ask about how the process poisons the land, air and water.

On the grandest scale, of course, this is about the whole megillah we’re pleased to call “the economy.” We want to hear about how the independent coffee-house made a go in Starbucksland. How the airline fixed its cashflow problems. How the contractor reinvented his business to meet the demands of a changing marketplace (as a business magazine might put it).

The economy’s end is to produce “wealth,” but our definition of wealth is blind to the ways our economy harms the natural world on which we ultimately depend.

Why do we sell clothes that people are going to throw out in six months? Why in fact is our whole economy based on how fast we can siphon wealth from the earth and then either turn it into pollution or trash as fast as possible? (From an “economic” perspective, the faster the better, of course.)

The economy needs to be about meeting people’s needs – the right “why” – while preventing further harm to the planet, and correcting the damage we’ve already done. The credo of “how” leads us to throwaway products, toxic rivers and melting icecaps. It’s Thoreau’s “improved means to an unimproved end,” only on a scale he never imagined.

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