This is for Blog Action Day.
We are like them, perhaps; we know we wish to ‘save the Shire’, to conserve or preserve that which we hold valuable in our homeland. We know without thought, given the choice between the industrial and the bucolic, between keeping or losing that which around us is of Nature, that we prefer to keep, to protect, to preserve for others into the future.
This is a real transformation in the nature of our thought, and has steadily seeped into our consciousness for the past few decades, until now it can be said that, for many people in the developed world, the quality of civilised life is intimately tied with a sense of connection to that which is yet untouched by civilisation.
This does not mean that we are thus obdurately pastoral or romantic about this other part of the world which remains outside our city walls, but suggests that a respect for the otherwise-than-possessed (that which is not acquired, worked or transformed by us, for us) is now a reality.
But against this hopeful picture we must place that other picture of our relationship exemplified by the servants of the ‘Dark Lord’. The desire for power, the lust for possession and control, the eagerness to rule, or to share in power, which places us as privileged in competition with other humans. We may feel as if we care for Nature, that Nature matters to us and for us, and yet we are still ‘citizens’, members of a human community which is defined by the construction of its cities, its walls and fences, farms and ‘land improvements’.
And so we live uneasy, many of us in the social, sub-urban, sanitised greenness of a compromised rural idyll somewhere between the Big City and the Wilderness, enjoying the benefits of our civilisation yet dreaming of being liberated from civilisation’s constraints, whilst outside our privileged places in the developed and technologically sophisticated parts of the world, we know there are millions for whom this is a meaningless triviality, for whom the lack of development is a challenge to survival and comfort which remains to be resolved.
And so we face a challenge ourselves. We have a standard of what ‘good living’ is which allows us, through wealth and complex social support mechanisms, to want to save the environment, and yet we also have a standard which persists in telling us that the preservation and protection of our human lives is also a ‘good’, demanding that we prevent, if we can, the unnecessary human suffering which we know of without ourselves being victims.
Somehow, we must find a way to help others in the world attain that standard of ‘good living’ which we now take for granted, without doing what we did (as societies) in order to reach that standard ourselves; without appropriating the wilderness, without cutting down the forests and planting crops, without building power plants or burying the land beneath a layer of concrete and pesticides.
And so we look at what is already in the world, what exists as resources ready-to-hand, what the sum of human property and wealth is, and measure it against the sum of need. And we find…we find that, whilst constrained by logistics and location, there is already enough to go around, enough for all to share the standard which is our ‘good life’. So why do those others go hungry, why do they still need to ‘develop’ where once was nature? In part, it is a product of those logistics; the goods needed for good living must be within reach. In part it is a product of imbalances in some places, where the capacity of the land to sustain the population and survive itself has been compromised and we find ourselves compelled to push further along the path of destruction because it is too late to go back.
So what makes us like hobbits? Without getting into arguments about the cultural or ethical assumptions embedded in Tolkein’s work, there is a model in there of what Tolkein and his friends saw as the ‘way of goodness’ in us ordinary mortals. We are placed in a world of forces much greater than ourselves, where individuals and institutions have huge and seemingly unassailable potency, compared to us.
And yet there is a task for each of us, a job to do, which we can choose to accept or not (to a void issues of determinism, we can also choose to define, first). We know it entails a burden, a self-sacrifice, an effort at the limit of our capacity to attain, a determination in the face of adversity, a trust in each other and a faith that there is in the world something which is worth preserving, worth giving up everything to save.
And here, as people who have chosen to care for our environment and the lives of the people within it, ‘our people’, ‘our homeland’, we have become, strangely, like a hobbit. Not for us the magic swords of power, or the imagined glory of the battlefield. Not for us the face-to-face encounter with an embodied representative of darkness, an epic heroic stand. We must walk, one step at a time, with those around us with whom we share a trust in mutual goodness and goodwill, an undistinguished path, to an uncertain future, without expectation of reward, beyond the knowledge that we are doing what little we can, giving what little effort we have, to save what is for us both greater and more important than ourselves; our world and all the goodness in it.