Bill Hulet Editor

Here's the thing. A lot of important Guelph issues are really complex. And to understand them we need more than "sound bites" and knee-jerk ideology. The Guelph Back-Grounder is a place where people can read the background information that explains why things are the way they are, and, the complex issues that people have to negotiate if they want to make Guelph a better city. No anger, just the facts.

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Weekend Literary Supplement: "Digging Your Own Well", Part Twenty-Two

The Useless Tree

We live in a society that “knows the price of everything and the value of nothing”---to quote Oscar Wilde. We only value something insofar as it has utility for someone else. Indeed, sometimes we only recognize a thing's existence if it can be reduced to a number and used by an accountant to manipulate the “bottom line”. Indeed, that phrase has become synonymous in everyday conversation and political discourse as meaning “the ultimate criteria” for making any decision. This is why we build “brutalist” buildings and suburban sprawl---they are cheap to build so we create a fake aesthetic to justify their form.

In fact, the modern “utilitarian” design of our cities is tremendously inefficient for the people who live in them. The “utility” only refers to the people who make money off building them. Giant, ugly skyscrapers and endless sprawl are very profitable to developers, but they force the people who live and work in them to spend far too much of their lives commuting huge distances to go from soul-less homogenity to ugly conformity. This is hardly efficient for the people who live these lives or for the environment that has to soak up the enormous ecological footprint.
Sir Motley of Southunc made an excursion to the Hillock of Shang. There he saw an unusual tree so big that a thousand four-horse chariots could be shaded by its leaves.

“Goodness! What tree is this?” asked Sir Motley. “It must have unusual timber.” Looking upward at the smaller branches, however, he saw that they were all twisted and unfit to be beams. Looking downward at the massive trunk, he saw that it was so gnarled as to be unfit for making coffins. If you lick on of its leaves, your mouth will develop ulcerous sores. If you smell its foliage, you fall into a drunken delirium that lasts for three days.

“This tree is truly worthless,” said Sir Motley, “and that is why it has grown so large. Ah! The spiritual man is also worthless like this.”


Zhuangzi, “The Human World”, part 5, Mair trans.

Many years ago I worked as a janitor in a major department store. Once a year, the major share holders would come through in an inspection tour. When this happened, our foreman asked us to “give it our all” to make the store as clean as possible. We really worked hard and after the tour the store manager came to us, shook our hands, and told us that the shareholders had informed him that his store was the cleanest one in the country. The next week we had our hours were cut. The store was obviously too clean, and our extra work resulted in a significant decrease in pay. I learned a very important lesson that day. When you work you do not work for your employer or your customer---you work for yourself.

Institutions, abstractions, ideologies, none of them have any value in and of themselves. These are merely means to an end. People, nature, beautiful works of art, these are what have intrinsic value. The truly valuable are never useful, because the concept of utility is always directed outwards and never inward. In your life always remember that you are more important than the profit that any employer or customer wishes to extract from you. And you are also more important than any institutional goal that the government, political party, or, religious body asks you to sacrifice towards. Being useless means that you will never be used. If you remember this, you stand a greater chance of not being personally abused.

Moreover, if you remember this fact you also stand a much greater chance of not finding yourself abusing others in pursuit of some external goal. Remembering that you have your own intrinsic value as a human being is the first step to remembering that everyone else has a similar value.


Furthermore I say unto you, the Climate Emergency must be dealt with!