Recently I had an electronic exchange with a friend of mine about some of the concerns I've brought up in my Third World Green Daddy blogs. I also recently read a New York Times piece about balancing fundamental individual and societal convictions with acceptance of diversity. All this got me to thinking about a pertinent question for those of us who would pursue a greener, more responsible lifestyle. How do we balance our own convictions about how to do things, with the convictions, preferences, and practices of others?
My friend had written to congratulate me for starting my Green Daddy blogs, as well as to share his disillusion with certain aspects of modern society that supposedly represent advances or development. My response to him was:
"It's true, much of what my wife and I are pursuing as special things for Samuel's upbringing were in fact common practice in our own childhoods. We both grew up with glass baby bottles, cloth diapers, etc. (On the other hand, we also grew up in an age when synthetic infant formula often replaced mother's milk, something which today seems to be returning more to the natural order of things, fortunately).
"So I share your frustration with certain changes that supposedly represent improvements or development, but that really seem more like decadence or a step backward. At the same time, I believe we all welcome other changes that have come with modernity--better roads, long-distance communication, the Internet. And it is always important for us, the middle class of Latin America, to remember that while things like using disposable diapers instead of cloth may seem ridiculous, perhaps for the poor families that comprise the majority of our countrymen those same disposable diapers indeed represent a big improvement over what they used in the past (old rags, garbage bags, or just leaving their kids naked). Or maybe not. In any case, I'm reluctant to condemn all that we call development, lest in doing so I deny to other people certain things of value. I think it's the same challenge as always, to use our insights and our position of privilege to improve things for and with our neighbors, but without imposing on anyone the definition of what counts as an improvement, and what doesn't."
I feel that this sums up my outlook on living a sustainable lifestyle. Obviously I want to live in a way that does as little damage as possible to myself, my neighbors, and my environment. And because I believe this is a good way to live, I am going to work to promote what I see as responsible practices among other people, companies, and government. Such promotion can entail making suggestions or arguments, or even working to impose my vision on society through the means available to me (my voice, my vote, my dollar, etc.). But it's always a balancing act to know when to go with my convictions (even when they impose on others) or when to accept other ways of doing things, and be content to live my way within my own little sphere of being.
But beyond this, my exchange with my friend brings up the larger question of when we have the right to speak in the name of others, or to strive for a change in our society.
I often feel odd talking about Latin American issues in the first person--"We in Latin America should do X". I wasn't born here, and surely many would resent someone from the US dictating what should or shouldn't be done in Latin America, or even merely identifying himself as a Latin American. But I usually decide that my life and my work in Colombia, and on behalf of Colombia, give me the right to comment as a Colombian, as a Latin American.
But this brings up an interesting point. Do all Latin Americans have a right to comment in the name of Latin America? The societies of our continent are so diverse in terms of class, race, culture, and geography that it may seem presumptuous for anyone to speak on behalf of the collective. Does a wealthy descendent of Spaniards living in posh Lima have a right to speak in the name of an Indian in the Guyanese jungle? Even within the same country, does a slumdweller in Bogota really understand the problems and priorities of the sparsely-settled Eastern Plains?
Finally I realize that this isn't only a problem in Latin America, but in any place. Despite the common purpose and ideals to which those in the US lay claim, does a Wisconsin dairy farmer really understand the life of the sun of Haitian immigrants living in Coral Gables, Florida? On the other hand, surely places like France and the Sudan differ in many aspects, but doesn't our common humanity entitle any person to opine on what's happening to any other? Our world is a diverse one, broken into hundreds of countries, each of them in turn comprised of many cultures and viewpoints. The stark social divisions in Latin America may be a more visible manifestation of the problem, but the question remains the world over. What is the collective? Who is justified to speak in the name of others? Who has the right to change society?