Common Decency

Kindness and generosity of others that need th...

Image by Wonderlane via Flickr

November 27, 2010

This week, we Americans celebrated Thanksgiving.   As hard as businesses, big and small, worked to make it about “shop ‘til you drop”, all across the country millions of Americans worked to retain its deeper meaning by giving time, food and money to make sure the poor and homeless were not left out of the celebration.  For, especially in hard times, common decency tells us that we do not leave our fellow human beings hungry and alone during times of celebration.

Even on non-holidays and in not-so-hard times, ordinary Americans provide food, shelter and clothing to those who have fallen between society’s cracks or stumbled into disaster.  Even the government – in its slow, bureaucratic way – does its part, providing unemployment benefits, food stamps and other help; the US Postal Service, in its annual food drive, collected 77.1 million pounds of non-perishable food this year through its letter carriers that was distributed to local food banks, pantries and shelters around the country.  In the preamble to the Constitution, common decency tasked the government with, among other things, promoting “the general welfare” of its citizens.

Common decency is not always about food and shelter, of course.  It was an article this week about the common decency of people in two small towns in Missouri, their quiet action the face of bigotry and hatred, that started me thinking about the subject for this weeks’ blog. Nor is it only an American phenomenon.  Throughout our species’ checkered history of massive bigotry, greed and inhumanity, through wars, holocausts and genocides around the world, there have been some – often unheralded, sometimes at great personal risk – who looked around and said, “Enough.  This is not right.  This is indecent,” and took action in ways both small and large.

The Peak Oil community fairly buzzed this past week over the annual World Energy Output report by the International Energy Agency in which the agency admitted, for the first time, that “Crude oil output reaches an undulating plateau of around 68-69 mb/d by 2020, but never regains its all-time peak of 70 mb/d reached in 2006 …”  In simpler terms, world production of conventional (cheap, easy to reach) oil peaked in 2006 and the world is now increasingly dependent on natural gas liquids and unconventional (expensive and hard to reach) oil and gas such as tar sands, ultra-deep-water oil, coal-to-liquids and oil shale to make up a growing gap.  This does not bode well for ordinary people in either the developed or developing world.  “Peak oil” has come and gone.  We are not prepared for the rising economic costs of the unconventional resources that must take its place or the social changes that may follow when they cannot.

As has happened in the past as times get harder and economies falter under the weight of such costs, we will be tempted to look for scapegoats to blame and leaders to follow who will tell us what we want to hear.  We already see some of this along the fringes of our own society, today.

Last week, I wrote about the minimalist ecosystem growing in the sunless north side of my house and the effects on that ecosystem of removing the old elm that had kept it in shade for so long, but I gave scant attention to the ground cover that had grown in that shade over the years.  Low growing and scarcely noticed, it had taken root barely inches at a time until it covered the area, providing nutrients and protection to the shade-drenched soil that waited for a time of renewed sunlight.

Common decency is the ground cover that nourishes and protects that fragile soil of our struggling collective conscience during times of deepening shade.  We tend to dismiss its effects in the catastrophic events that periodically plunge our world into chaos, certain it has died out in the upheavals that ensued.  Yet amid the wild and wanton perversities that grow with abandon as we struggle back toward sunlight, it is always there – in isolated rootlets or a few small patches of growth that escaped the tumult and persevered.

I had thought this the case on the north side of my house – that in the unrestrained ecosystem that had sprung up after the elm was taken down, the ground cover had died out completely.  Yet, when I went out to look, the other day, there it was.  As the lower southern trajectory of the winter sun had plunged the area into shadow once again, the ground cover had inched back to protect and nourish the soil under the coming winter’s ice and snow while the new ecosystem waits for the return of spring rains and summer sunlight.

So it is, with common decency.


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