A word (or rant) about ‘pragmatists’.
How often do we hear people cloak their position in this language, smother their position and use the veil of ‘realism’ as a cover for rationale? The phrase “well, sure, that’s too bad, but we need to be pragmatic .. “ is so often merely an attempt to preserve the status quo. Rather than reach a little further, push a little harder, get a little creative, or honestly examine ourselves and the lives we lead, we fall back on language like “realistic” and “pragmatic” – neither of which solve a problem, and, ironically, express a position often seated on neither pragmatism or realism.
Conversations around environmental issues seem to invoke this veil all too often; “we’d love to leave the caribou alone, and let them roam on the coastal plain, but we need to be practical – realistically, we need oil.” An entire platform was built around this excuse for an unwillingness to change that supporters labelled “Wise Use” – it’s nonsense. This is merely a euphemism for “take what we can and pretend we care what others think; pretend we’re making a concerted effort to be environmentally friendly”. It’s marketing jargon, banal thinktank rhetoric from days gone by, the ultimate aim of which is merely to shape the discourse in such a way that it allows us to keep doing what we’re doing, “same ole, same ole”, to continue business as usual. It’s an attempt to “grandfather-in” harmful behavior.
What’s real is climate change. What’s real is the fact that 97% of the ancient forests of this country are gone. What’s real is urban sprawl and rapid species extirpation. What’s real is the fact that there are more tigers living in zoos and circuses in the US than there are in the wild. What’s real is habitat loss and extinction debt, so perhaps we might consider the matters of practicality and realism from another angle; how pragmatic is it to destroy the only home we know, to continue living lives revolving around unmitigated consumption of finite energy sources? How feasible is it to live in a world with no polar bears, no salmon, no tigers or songbirds, no wildness, and no thereby no wilderness?
The realistic questions that face us include how do we deal with these issues and how do we change some things, not how do we avoid them and maintain our facade of real concern, a pretense of action? Those are pragmatic questions too many people don’t want to ask. I wonder, for example, if John Muir called himself a pragmatist when he fought for the preservation of places like Yosemite NP and the giant Sequoias. I wonder if Stephen Mather called himself a realist when he laid the foundation for our National Parks. Was Rachel Carson a pragmatist? Aldo Leopold, Thoreau? Was Martin Luther King a realist? Ghandi? How about Jesus? Pragmatic? We could also consider artists? Was Mozart pragmatic? Jimi Hendrix? Picasso? I wonder what the Sistine Chapel ceiling might look like if Michaelangelo had chosen the pragmatic decor over the sublime?
It seems to me that humanity has been at our best when we avoid such traps of orthodoxy and climb mountains. In the realm again of environmental concern, pragmatism destroyed Hetch Hetchy and the Glen Canyon; realists clearcut forests and ranch tall grass prairies. “Pragmatic” gives us more oil rigs and mountaintop blasting coal mines, and those who oppose such things are always, apparently, not realistic. Realists push for things like Cold Wars and pre-emptive invasions, while dreamers oppose such things.
So let’s redefine how we choose to live – pragmatic or not. Want realism? Let’s look at the reality of habitat loss, global warming, deforestation, clearcutting, monocultures. Let’s consider the practical questions of what we do when the oil runs out, biodiversity recedes and global climate change impacts the environment in ways we can’t even yet begin to fathom. It’s interesting to consider how often the same folks who want to monopolize the parameters of this discourse with such constraints so often similarly foster and support transnational corporatization (i.e., monopolization) of economic markets and natural resources. Pragmatic my a**.