Editor's Note: Congratulations to Gemma Baumer, the winner of the Thoreau Center for Sustainability's Student Essay Contest, sponsored by the Whole Earth Library. The contest is a commemoration of Banned Books Week and is held in conjunction with The Bay School of San Francisco.
Banned Books Week is an annual event celebrating the importance of intellectual freedom by raising awareness of the all-too-frequent efforts to limit access to books and other materials in schools, libraries, and bookstores. In 2010 alone, the Office of Intellectual Freedom of the ALA received reports of 348 challenges nationwide. These challenges are attempts to close off discussion and to prevent individuals from being able to judge ideas for themselves.
This year's essay contest encouraged students to consider how intellectual freedom relates to the concerns of sustainability such as ecological protection, economic security, democracy, and social justice.
Here is Gemma's thoughtful response to the topic:
In thinking about the possible connections between sustainability and intellectual freedom, I remembered an essay I read by Ralph Waldo Emerson with which I wholeheartedly agree. Emerson, a head figure in the transcendentalist movement, feared that America had become a society that looked down upon individualism and diversity among its citizens. During the brink of the industrial revolution, factory and industry created the notion that society moved mechanically—both its workers and its products as one body. Nearly a century before Charlie Chaplin’s film Modern Times, a controversial look into industrialization’s impact on society’s uniformity, Emerson warned of many of the same negative outcomes. To engage in non-conformity, Emerson believed, is the only way to avoid living a life controlled by other people, and instead relishing in one’s own uniqueness. As society continues to move forward, it can become a challenge to maintain a sense of self. Unless we can protect our right to a voice and a clean world—where America is not overcome by industry, our livelihood as a nation of individuals is threatened.
The best way to be connected with oneself is within nature, for it represents the rawness of life before institution, industry and the indoctrination of society. With the belief that everything is connected and part of one network, being alone in nature is the ultimate individualism and interconnectedness; it allows for time to appreciate the world and for the mind to wander. Emerson states that in nature there is “an occult relation between man and the vegetable,” which alludes to not only an interconnectedness between all living things, but their equality. The sooner we realize our industry has serious consequences to our world and eco-systems, the stronger our values regarding sustainability become. Since nature is so crucial to the preservation of individualism, it becomes all the more crucial that the individual work to preserve nature. In nature, there is complete freedom. Social norms, preconceived notions, and conformity diminish—leaving complete liberty of the mind in its place. And yet, there exist forces that try to attenuate nature and undermine its importance. Many claim that the economy takes priority over issues regarding global warming meanwhile pollution sullies the air we breathe and destroys the ozone layer, and human-induced disasters destroy landscapes and the natural world. With this mechanized society, how do we relish individualism?
When we are told what to do and what to think, we reject our own thoughts. Emerson stated that, “A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across the mind from within, more than the luster of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his.” One could wonder, What it is about our society that looks down on uniqueness, and at achievement as subscription to one body politic? Americans have created a warped and narrow view of success that circulates around the belief in materialism. Modern American society is concentrated around the notion that material goods can make us happy—but for how long is this happiness sustained? It seems we live every day for the next—so focused on success and completing tasks as quickly as possible that our sense of self is lost. With this loss of individuality, our self-worth diminishes—and instead of forming our own beliefs, we live the life we think we are supposed to live, neglecting to question authority and that which is ethical. Emerson stated, “Why should we live with such a hurry and waste of life? We are determined to be starved before we are hungry.” In our hurried state, we lose appreciation for the world around us.
Being an outspoken individual in society requires a strong presence of mind—and the conviction to be able to make sure our government is supporting us. When a society restricts its people’s right to read, to write, and to question, it loses the presence of mind that is necessary for a healthy society. A nation of people whose ideas are dismissed is detrimental to civilization, resulting in a brainwashed society that marches lemming-like towards self destruction. Relishing in individuality is precisely where nature comes in, because without the reminder of life before the inception of industry, society will keep moving in a never-ending cycle of conformity. As we continue to live in a society of unfettered technology and industry, it’s up to us to make sure to sustain not only presence of mind and conviction, but the natural world. We must ensure our society does not spin out of control in the throes of a twisted moral compass. As citizens of the world, we cannot let ourselves be swallowed up by an institution of uniformity. As many have in history, we need to inspire social change when needed, protect our natural world that is constantly being threatened by institution, and sustain a potent sense of self as the world continues to change.
Image via the DML East Branch on Flickr; used with Creative Commons license.