Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Cloud People and the Valley People: a tale of political privilege and structural location

image is from here
Once upon a time there were two groups of people who lived by a very tall and massive mountain. One group lived on it—atop it, and they lived so high up that clouds formed down from their view, filling the sky completely and blocking their sight to the world below the cloud-cover. So regular was this barrier of white moisture in the air that the mountaintop people had no idea anyone else lived in the region and thought the sky was what surrounded them.

But far below them, and below the clouds, and below the mountain's mass, at the base, in a valley, lived another people who only looked up and saw only clouds. Unlike their neighbors to the sky's north, they knew there were people living above the whiteness, but were usually struggling to endure conditions that the “Cloud People” couldn't imagine. They couldn't know because it required knowing what happened to things that disappeared below the cloud-line. Things like their trash, garbage, and human waste. You see, when the cloud people urinated or defecated, it all flowed down the mountainside into the area where the Valley People lived.

The land of the valley was historically naturally rich in life and nutrition, but as the Cloud People's population grew, so too did the amount of waste that went to the base of the mountain. This meant that while the mountaintop's life was not naturally as rich, it became healthier environment simply due to the fact that the waste generated there, that wasn't collected and composted by its producers, spoiled the quality of life for the Valley People, leaving life above healthier by comparison.

The Valley People knew how to compost; they had done this with their own waste products for decades. But the natural resources to do this sustainably were overwhelmed by the waste pouring in from the mountaintop. Quality of life was determined by delicate balance of things naturally generated and those produced by humans. The Cloud People weren't as practiced at maintaining this balance because they never saw what their own waste did to the land, and people, below them. This ignorance was a crucial determinant of their social ethics and environmental practices.

Over the years, ignorance was fueled as the stench and toxicity from above was kept out of the nostrils of the Cloud People by the moisture barrier in the sky. To them, the world was perfect. To the people below, it got increasingly unhealthy.

Out of desperation, it was decided that a representative from the valley would be sent up to negotiate peace with the people above. A middle-aged woman who was known for her physical endurance and wise negotiating skills, was sent with provisions to last her for the days it would take her to rise above the clouds. No one from below had ever done this before, and they couldn't be certain how long the journey would take, so before she left she spend a whole year studying the plant and animal life closer to the clouds, to know what she might eat if she ran out of food. One thing she knew to be wary of: the polluted water running down the mountainside into the rivers and lakes supplying the water to her people. She was hopeful that by the time of her return to the valley, the pollution stream would be a thing of the past.

What she found when she reached the top was something she didn't expect: the Cloud people regarded her as an alien invader. So ignorant were they about life below the cloud line that it never occurred to them people—human beings—lived anywhere else other than where they were. Their language was different from hers but it didn't take long for her to learn it and be conversational. Eventually she got them to accept that she was as much as part of the world as they were. And she welcomed them to send representatives back with her so they could verify what she was telling them about the negative impact of their waste on her people's lives.

They found someone they trusted to report back exactly what was found. A young man was chosen. Before they left together, she got the Cloud people's council to agree that if their own representative reported that their lives were doing the damage that the Valley woman described, they would be more responsible about where their own waste went.

She led the young man down below the cloud line. He was amazed as the valley came into view, growing larger and more detailed as they descended the mountain. But once he'd arrived he was repulsed by the stench in the areas where the Cloud people's waste flowed and pooled. She told him, “If you would recommend to your people that you compost your own waste before sending it down the hill, we'd appreciate it.” He said, “It never occurred to me that anyone was being impacted by our waste!” She said, “I know. And now you do. So please do the responsible, loving thing.”

As he walked among the Valley People, observing their ways, he noted how they were much more aware of all the Life around them, including above the cloud line, and how it effected everything else. He reflected on how the worldview of his people, the Cloud People, only included their own experience—their surroundings, but only as far as their eyes could see. Most of reality, in fact, was hidden from them beyond the clouds. But that didn't mean there was nothing there. He feared he would have a hard time convincing some of his people of this. He worried more that his people wouldn't understand or appreciate that the Valley People's well-being should matter exactly as much as their own.

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