I read an article today on “The Religion of Sustainability”, in which the author calls for less theory and more practical work.
Oh for the day when we all cared about the environment and the human race and that was our single mission. When we didn’t spend most of our time in meetings and forums discussing the issues, rather we were out in the field working on the problem. How many trees have died to produce position papers and minutes from meetings only to be filed away?
I don’t think I was around during this purported Golden Age, but I’m sure it was very nice. (Although, parenthetically, this sounds a lot like the complaints I’ve heard from certain groups of feminists decrying the fragmentation of the feminist movement and wanting a return to the good old days when feminists were much more united in purpose, ignoring the fact that that comparative unity [if it existed] was largely due to the systematic exclusion of Black women, trans women, lower-income women, etc. As you gain a diversity of viewpoints, of course you’re going to have different ideas of what should take precedence, and people are going to argue about them. That’s what people do. Likewise the environmental movement, which has grown enormously and brought in people who weren’t talking each other about this stuff until recently [insert “Twitter will save us all” rant as appropriate].)
So I’m not sure I agree with this article, but it got me thinking about the divide between theory and practice.
Here’s the thing. We’re basically theorists here at the Moral Economy Project. Our core group is largely academics; our mission is largely the promulgation of ideas. I’ll admit, this took some getting used to for me. The main thing I’ve had trouble with is that it’s a lot harder to quantify progress, with theory. When you’re doing concrete physical work, there are benchmarks. Planting ten thousand trees. Reducing energy usage by thirty percent. Preventing fifty tons of electronics going into the landfill. That sort of thing.
How do you do that with ideas? Sure, there are things you can count, if you feel so inclined. Number of books sold, number of people who sign up for your mailing list, that sort of thing. But it’s really, really hard to know exactly what effect you’re having on the minds of the people who hear you. Except when they contact you directly, of course, and only a fraction of readers, listeners, etc. will ever do that.
Which I think is part of what leads to perspectives like in the article above: the idea that because physical work is more quantifiable, it’s accomplishing more, and that theorizing is therefore a waste of time, resources, etc. And I think we’ve all known people who seemed to be “all talk” and had the urge to tell them that if they were really serious they’d push off and go plant trees someplace far, far away.
But one of the main things we’re striving for, in our re-envisioning of the world, is balance – a balance between rights and responsibilities, between pessimism and hope – between our obligations to others, to the world, to God, and to ourselves (insofar as those four things can ever be separated in any meaningful way). That sense of balance has to apply to the blend of theory and practice that makes up our movement as well.
I’m not strong on theory – that’s why all of this has undoubtedly been said before, and better. But I can’t help but appreciate its value. In their own way, the seeds of ideological reform grow into beautiful trees too.