A note on society’s huge messes
By Shaun Poust
Cleanup is on the agenda. We need to clean up the air; it’s full of pollution. We need to clean up Wall Street; it’s full of irresponsible investors. We need to clean up our streets; they’re full of criminals. We need to clean up Washington; it’s full of “out of touch” bureaucrats. But can everything be solved with scrubbing? Is hysterical germaphobia the appropriate disposition given the problems confronting us today?
When we use cleanup as a metaphor for problem-solving, we simplify matters by implying that the problem can be clearly identified at its source and that the problem will disappear once its source is done away with. The dream is of a system—to continue with the examples above, an ecosystem, a financial system, a social system or a parliamentary system—that could function perfectly, that could be disinfected and thus be without the pollution, over-speculation, violence and corruption that get in the way. But what if the system’s perfect functioning necessarily produces its own excess, its own waste products, so to speak? What if what allows for the possibility of the system’s perfect functioning is related to what so often prevents it?
Things are more complicated than eager-beaver cleaner-uppers would like to believe. Take the oil spill in the Gulf. BP has been demonized, billed the cost of the cleanup as well as the losses local businesses have suffered—and we all remember that President Obama said that the purpose of the federal investigation into the spill was to let him know “whose ass to kick.” There is some justice, some truth, in all of this. But as the Slovenian philosopher and avowed Marxist Slavoj Zizek has pointed out, the top oil companies all function in basically the same way, with only marginal differences in technology, policies, etc. It was only a matter of chance that the spill happened to be BP’s. A system that requires oil to be transported in huge quantities across the globe is bound to be a system in which accidents sometimes happen, and the size of those accidents will be proportional to the quantity of oil transported. The oil spill may have been a tragedy, but it was certainly not a surprise.
Don’t get me wrong: When there is shit on the ground, we should clean up the shit. And right now, everyone, from Glenn Beck to Noam Chomsky, seems to agree that there is tons of shit on the ground. We spend a lot of time thinking about that shit: We see it on the news, we talk about it in our classes, and the best of us devote our lives to shoveling it into buckets.
But as conservatives say when they denounce public spending, shit doesn’t fall from the sky. We should be looking for a very large horse, or cow—or maybe a giant. We have a generation of hysterical germaphobes, of cleaner uppers; but we need some zoologists and animal trackers, too, because where there is this much shit, there is something that eats—a lot. Cleanup certainly has its place, but we can’t let the need for cleanup —and it may be there—eclipse the need for critical thinking.
Shaun Poust is a junior journalism major and advocate for worldwide pooper-scooping. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.