Pragmatic Idealism

While I was Christmas shopping last month, I came across a new book on Amazon, The Day After the Dollar Crashes by David Vickers, and its very presence as one of their suggestions of things I might like prompts me to write. I have long been tired of hearing from global and national trend-watchers and pundits that everything we are doing is unsustainable – our economy is unsustainable, our energy use is unsustainable, our position as a global power is unsustainable – while no one ever seems to tell us ordinary people what to change, what to do differently, how to improve the situation.

And so I ask to anyone who can answer me: what specifically do I need to be doing differently? Just someone like me. What can I and millions of other people like me do to change our unsustainable ways? I beg of those people to stop telling us that we can’t keep doing what we’re doing now, without telling us what we need to be doing instead! Tell us what will be sustainable. Give us hope and allow us to do the work of making it sustainable.

I believe strongly in a pragmatic idealism. Sitting here in my chair in my office in Montgomery, Alabama, I can’t make changes on the macro level. I can’t bring peace to the world or dismantle the insidious aspects of the US’s military-industrial complex. I can’t implement an energy policy that requires corporations and people to stop polluting. I can’t end extractive and dangerous farming practices. I can’t make people in Brazil stop cutting down the rain forest. I can’t end our “dependency on foreign oil.”

But tell me, what I can do? Let’s be pragmatic, realistic, and real, and let’s believe that we can do better and that we can implement a better system: pragmatic idealism. Do I and millions of others like me need to start drying our clothes on a clothesline instead of using a dryer? Then tell us so. Do we need to stop buying packaged foods that require chemicals in them to achieve a long shelf life? Then tell us so. Do we need to stop shopping at national chains that have gas-guzzling distribution systems? What can we ordinary people do to make changes that will make a difference? Tell us, so we can get to work.

Two people who impress me greatly are President Barack Obama, who I supported vehemently and still do, and the late poet John Beecher, who I have written about. What drew me to Obama during his presidential campaign was his pragmatic idealism, his insistence that “Yes, We Can” if we admit to the problems and work together to solve them. And one of Beecher’s lines helps me to explain to people why I like him so much: “NO ONE CAN BUY THE PEOPLE.” When the mass of people decide that enough is enough, there is no stopping us. The task now is helping people to believe that together we can fix the problems that we have, instead of helping people to believe that we are doomed.

At no time in history has there been a shortage of doomsayers. Although Vickers does point out the one agreed-upon fact — we’ve got to change how we’re living — I believe that we can fix our problems, if we know what to change and if we do the work of changing. The key is a cooperative type of participation led by the belief that we can fix the problems.

As an exercise in comparative shopping, I went back to Amazon and searched the term “pragmatic idealism.” What came up first was the new book, Big Citizenship by Alan Khazei, which is a memoir about his experiences working to fix real problems. (You can read the book’s description yourself, if you’re interested.) Probably one of the most telling parts of my experience of learning of these two new titles involved Amazon’s quasi-helpful function of “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought . . .” People interested in Vicker’s book also bought other works that revolve around anger, pessimism and paranoia, while people interested in Khazei’s book also bought more hopeful works like Waiting for “Superman”: How We Can Save America’s Failing Public SchoolsThe American Way to Change: How National Service and Volunteers are Transforming America, and The Power of Social Innovation: How Civic Entrepreneurs Ignite Community Networks for Good. I disagree that we’re heading off the cliff, and these latter works reinforce my belief that are we are far from hopeless.


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