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Agency Does Not Cancel Out

Porkchop's picture

Vivian O’Bannon

Jody Cohen

Emily Balch Seminar – Changing Our Story

December 6, 2016

Agency Does Not Cancel Out

The earth’s reactions to human agency depend on every single action.  When one person affects the earth negatively, the earth will be damaged, even if everyone else is making an effort to help the planet.  How can the earth illicit a positive response when it is still hurting?  In an effort to mitigate pollution and ecological damage, people recycle, plant trees, and clean up after the culprits.  However, they don’t look to the sources of the problem.  Regarding pollution: if containers were made of compostable and biodegradable containers, people would not have to spend so much time cleaning up plastic in the environment.  They continue to bandage the wounds, but until they can stop the cause of the wound, the earth will keep hurting.  In Vaster Than Empires and More Slow, Ursula LeGuin depicts the balance of agency through the relationships of her unique characters.  She uses characters like Osden and Tomiko to portray the balance of agency, and their relationship to personalize the interaction between humans and the earth.  Another supporting work is Derrick Jensen’s comic book As The World Burns: 50 Simple Things You Can Do To Stay In Denial, which uses the relationships between characters to exposes the flaws in human’s efforts to help the planet.

We must think of the earth as a being, so to empathize with it.  We must think of the earth like an equal, someone who we must interact with instead of rely on, or supply for.  To think of the earth as a home for us, or something we belong to, something that belongs to us, takes away its power as a being, our respect for it, our understanding of its existence and its pain.  When we empathize with something, we understand and relate to its pain.  It is only possible to empathize with something that we consider to be on the same level of existence as us.  In Vaster Than Empires and More Slow, LeGuin personifies the Earth through the character of Osden.  Osden is a very interesting character, for he is an empath with the ability to feel and reflect his crew’s emotions.  This skill is overwhelming for him and those around him, because no matter the way someone approaches him, he responds negatively.  This frustrates his crew, and many of them give up; they feel that being nice to him is pointless, because he will always respond with hate.  Towards the end of the story, he explains to his crewmate Haito Tomiko the reason behind his aggression.  He shows anger because he always feels the negative emotions of others, even when someone is being nice to him.  He can’t separate his relationship with others while having an interaction with one person, because his existence and his reactions are dependent on the actions of everything around him.

This parallels the tendencies of the Earth; despite any effort to positively impact the planet, the earth will react negatively as a whole if there are also any destructive forces at work.  Therefore, the effort to help the planet without addressing the source of destruction - like trying to bandage destruction instead of stop it – is somewhat selfish and a waste of time.  The effort put in to try to help the earth, like planting trees and having sanctuaries is helpful, yes – but it is selfish to take pride in this and to decide that your part is done.  In a subconscious way, people put forth this effort to help the planet as a way to make themselves feel better about ignoring the culprits of constant destruction.  Though they want to help the planet, the culprits of destruction are intimidating and powerful.  People feel bad just stirring in their feelings of incompetence and insignificance when faced with the sources of pollution,

The culprits of constant destruction are companies who produce chemicals, plastic, things that destroy the planet.  They are the businesses that cut down rainforests, the factories that produce smog and toxic waste, the big industries “[…] building dams for aluminum smelting, choking the life out of rivers and killing the fish, plus tearing up great swaths of Africa for mining bauxite” (Jensen __).  As The World Burns addresses the issue of passivity, the lack of awareness and learned ignorance surrounding pollution.  In this conversation between Bananabelle and Bunnista, Bananabelle’s efforts to recycle are exposed for being somewhat pointless and ignorant.  Bunnista points out the problem, that many people think they are helping when they are really only bandaging the destruction.  Just like LeGuin’s shows in her short story, efforts to generate positive reactions will always be overshadowed by the counteracting negative forces.  Osden constantly feels negativity, and since he is like an empathic mirror, he cannot only respond positively.  Positivity and negativity do not cancel out, and both Bunnista and Osden point out the issue with making positive advancements without addressing the source of harm.  Too many people think that their efforts will cancel out the destruction to the planet.

As a whole, humans have been detaching themselves more and more from the planet because we feel powerless and insignificant.  We don’t think that we have the power to reverse the effects of our destruction; we’ve reached the carbon tipping point, we’re killing rainforests, we’re endangering species.  As a species, we claim this power and entitlement; we created the concept of speciesism to convince ourselves that we matter existentially, but when it comes to our mistakes, we tell ourselves that we don’t have the power to reverse our mistakes.  Humans are just as powerful as nature, and we have yet to accept it because we don’t want to take responsibility for the power that we claimed over all other species and over the planet.  Until humans can realize their true power, we will not be able to take responsibility for the damage we have done to the Earth.