I often come back to the colors of dairy products as a tidy example of human nature. It was observed that when cows ate richer grass higher in carotene in the summer, their milk took on a yellow-orange hue, and when concentrated down, the richest cheeses appeared light orange. This is also why butter from grass-fed cows is usually yellow. Realizing cheese could be colored with annatto, the extract of seeds from the achiote tree, industrious dairy farmers began dyeing cheese year-round to imitate the more nutritious, better-tasting summer cheeses. Naturally they went overboard, past any color found in nature, to the ultra-orange color of Cheddars and American cheese that we see today. In a similar history of margarine, now known to be loaded with trans fats from hydrogenation of vegetable oils, we made a food product that looked like butter, but was stark white until yellow food coloring was added, in increasingly neon saturation, passing it off as the real thing for so long that people believe butter is normally bright yellow.
Now when cheese or butter are white or a natural creamy color, Americans are more likely to ask why they aren’t the characteristic yellows and oranges we’ve come to expect in dairy products. That is to say, we’ve become so used to the way things have gotten through distortion in the aim of greater profits, that we’ve forgotten how they are supposed to be.
To me, this is the problem with human nature. We take our creativity, intelligence, energy, and industriousness, and instead of using it to help one another, we trick each other for profit, stretching materials further to cut down on costs, manufacturing sensationalistic news rather than report honestly on global events, and trapping healthy, beautiful bodies in soul-sucking jobs because we’ve outsourced all the meaningful work they can do to others overseas who enslave and exploit their workers on our behalf.
What if we used all that ingenuity and cleverness for good? What if egalitarianism were not idealistic, but an expectation? What if we prioritized getting everyone safe, sheltered, fed, healthy, and with a secure future before we dug into nationalism or making profits for billionaires? What if instead of industrial farming, we could go back to a semi-agrarian economy, and all the out-of-work hard-working and good-hearted people living in cities and suburbs could work a plot of land if they’d like and be paid what their time is actually worth? What if housing were actually affordable? What if we didn’t subsidize food corporations, and instead used that money to make real, organic produce affordable? What if we eliminated our dependency on fossil fuels so we could stop destabilizing entire regions of the world to maintain access to oil? What if we spent even a fraction of our military budget on investing in education, paying good teachers what they’re worth and helping students find meaning and joy in learning instead of just a path to a job?
I am aware that magical thinking is one of my greatest indulgences, but there isn’t actually any reason why we should be trapped in this economic and sociopolitical system, except that it’s what we’ve become used to, and we’ve forgotten how things are supposed to be.
A shocking amount of the people I’ve spoken to since the extrajudicial executions of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile last week have sought to justify or excuse the murders of black men, saying a variety of absurd things ranging from, “Well we don’t know all the facts yet” to “I realize more black men are killed than white, but maybe it’s because more black men are committing crimes that cause the police to intervene in the first place.” That’s actually not the worst of it, but I can’t even wrap my head around the others, like labeling Black Lives Matter as a terrorist organization. Most heartbreaking is the tone of normalcy I keep encountering, the complicit acceptance of racism and inequality as just a thing that happens, in America, in 2016.
We’ve become so used to institutionalized racism and lethal injustice for black Americans that I fear we are forgetting how things are supposed to be.
Maybe, I think, in the moments where I am ready to sink under the waves of cynicism and give up, the police were only ever around to protect property and the financial interests of our oligarchy. Maybe the military and the whole government isn’t for us at all, and this whole charade is a glorified way to keep rich people secure, with all the rest of us benefitting by happenstance, if we’re in the right place at the right time. Maybe I am deluding myself in the belief that my congressman (or his staff) cares at all what I think or have to say, however frequently or passionately I write to him, because I am not an NRA lobbyist group contributing to a reelection campaign in his party. Maybe corporations are people. Maybe my fellow Americans truly are so absorbed in their own material concerns that they really do care more about saving a few dollars a year in taxes than helping others and the environment. With our attitude of selfishness and tuning out with mass entertainment, maybe this is the America we deserve: fluorescent orange cheese and fake butter.
But I also think that my heart breaking is evidence I still care, and the pain and sorrow we feel in weeks like the past few is proof we are human and capable of love and compassion. It is so tempting to be jaded and cynical and tune out what’s happening to other people in the world as long as our favorite show comes on television that night and isn’t preempted by a special report on the news, but we can do better. We can use our vast resources, talents, and abilities to make real, lasting change that improves the lives of many and not just ourselves in the short term. We can act from our nobler nature, instead of from fear, isolationism, or all the other names we use to justify cowardice and self-interest.
I’ve been having a crisis of conscience over the past few years because I felt I was feeding the machine of materialism and greed, and I’m trying to change my entire life to do better by people, animals, and the earth. I can’t get used to the way things are, and in some primordial instinctive way, I remember how things are supposed to be. I think we all do. This week has shown me once again how urgent and necessary this change has been.