Fast Food Rubbish, Geronimo and a Little Self Respect…
When I was in my early twenties, I spent some time volunteering for a non-profit centre that tutored and supported Native American children In a town without a significant Native American population (Native Californians in our part of the state were almost entirely erased from existence by the early 20thCentury) these were kids whose families mostly came from other parts of the country. Their relationships to their families in the Sioux, Navajo, Apache, Cherokee and other nations were long-distance and sporadic, but at the same time they often found themselves on the peripheries of the community where they were growing up. Like so many indigenous people, they were in danger of falling down the cracks between two very different worlds.
The project worked to reconnect them to the knowledge and wisdom of their forebears, to give them some pride in their heritage and in themselves. At summer camp, they learned the discipline of group drumming. They learned songs and stories. They learned the words for plants and animals, and they learned crafts that were once essential for survival. They learned how everything on Earth is connected, and that a good life means respect for the Earth and its creations. They learned, or began to learn, that before you can respect the Earth, you have to respect yourself.
I was thinking about this today, walking up what used to be quiet country road near my house. The population of Midlothian is growing faster than anywhere else in Scotland, and even early on a Sunday morning, a steady stream of traffic blew past me. The hedgerows and verges were strewn with several weeks’ accumulation of rubbish (an explosion of people and city-edge retail parks coinciding with crumbling public services creates a hell of a mess). Most of the rubbish came from McDonalds and other purveyors of salt, sugar and chemical concoctions masquerading as food.
As ever, my first response was anger. Who DOES that? What the F*** is wrong with these people? Didn’t their parents teach them better? Crap in, crap out. My moral indignation bounces around between the consumers, the retailers, the council and the capitalist machine, against which it is completely impotent. Anyway, who am I to judge? Yesterday I ate a burger and fries from one of the aforementioned purveyors. It tasted great and I felt completely happy for maybe ten minutes, before indigestion and middle-class guilt set in. Of course I put the wrappers in the appropriate bins, but does that really matter?
I left the road and walked along the quieter railway path, trying to grapple with what is really going on. It comes back, I think, to respect. If we respect ourselves, we understand that our actions in this world make an impact. But that isn’t a given, and in fact, it sometimes feels notable only in its absence. Living in this age of rampant consumerism, where identity comes branded by multinational corporations, where our smartphone cameras airbrush the lines of humanity out of our faces whether we want them to our not, where our elected leaders seem to occupy a universe parallel to but completely disconnected from our own—it’s easy to see why. With the right clothes, the right makeup and the right social media profile, we can create the persona that we want other people to see.
But scratch the surface and it can all seem pretty hollow and powerless. So to fill that hole, we consume: we get out the credit cards, we eat junk, we swallow all kinds of poison. We buy ourselves a few minutes of pleasure. And when it all wears off, we are so often left with a feeling that we have lost something important.
It’s hard to even name the thing that’s missing, but maybe it’s this: it is the knowledge that I mean something, and my actions make a difference. Simple words, but so difficult to believe. At least a quarter of us will, at some time in our lives, suffer poor mental health. A doctor may prescribe Prozac or other drugs that change the chemistry of our brains but fail to get to the root of the problem. We medicalise what is, in my opinion, mostly a socio-economic disorder.
None of this is helped by the prospect of climate breakdown, and the message now coming from many climate scientists: whatever we do now is too little too late. Is the person who throws their McDonalds trash out the window any more accountable for our present predicament than I am? Probably not, if I’m honest. Self-righteousness is a trait I dislike intensely, especially in myself.
How do we stay hopeful and positive when our species seems hell-bent on self-destruction? It feels hard to hold these two things at once, but that is our job. One boy at the summer camp where I worked was a real tearaway of a teenager, but he was so proud of his Chiricahua Apache heritage. He wanted us all to know how hard he was. The Chiricahuas, led by Cochise and later Geronimo, were the most famous freedom fighters of the Apache, until they were finally overpowered in 1886. Geronimo’s defeat heralded the end of what are now in the United States called the Indian Wars. What happened to his people, and to all of the Native Americans, was genocide. And yet, in this troubled 13 year-old Californian kid, a spark of resistance still lived. I remember one of the camp leaders talking about this boy. ‘He will learn to take that fighting spirit and do something good with it.’ Maybe the help of a kind, wise man who saw the potential in him was enough to change his life. I hope it did.
The small things we do for each other may not make all the difference, but they do matter. What is good for us, in our own minds and our own lives, is also good for the Earth. It starts with a little respect.