From chapter "Catastrophe"
A few years ago, I had an interesting conversation with George Draffan. We were talking about civilization, power, history, discourse, propaganda, and how and why we all buy into the current unsustainable system. George said he really likes the social and political model called “the three faces of power.” He said, “The first face is the myth of American democracy, that everyone has equal power, and society or politics is just the give and take of different interest groups that come together and participate, with the best ideas and most active participants winning. This face says that the losers are basically lazy. The second face says it’s more complex than that, that some groups have more power than others, and actually control the agenda, so that some things, like the distribution of property, never get discussed. The third face of power is operating when we stop noticing that some things aren’t on the agenda, and start believing that unequal power and starvation and certain economic and social decisions aren’t actually decisions, they’re ‘just the way things are.’ At this point even the powerless perceive unjust social relations as the natural order.” He paused before he said something that has haunted me ever since: “Conspiracy’s unnecessary when everyone thinks the same.”
George also said, “The three faces of power were developed as conflicting descriptions of reality but I’m starting to see them as a progression over time, as the story of history.
“At some point we were all equal. The social structures of many indigenous cultures were set up to guarantee that power remained fluid. But then within some cultures as power began to be centralized, the powerful created a dis-course—in religion, philosophy, science, economics—that rationalized injustice and institutionalized it into a group projection. At first the powerless might not have believed in this discourse, but by now, many thousands of years later, we’re all deluded to some extent and believe that these differentials in power are natural. Some of us may want to change the agenda a little bit, but there’s no seeing through the whole matrix. Power, like property, like land and water, has become privatized and concentrated. And it’s been that way for so long and we believe it to such an extent that we think that’s the natural order of things.”
Just today I came across an article in Nature magazine with the title “Catastrophic Shifts in Ecosystems.” Conventional scientific thought, it seems, has generally held that ecosystems—natural communities like lakes, oceans, coral reefs, forests, deserts, and so on—respond slowly and steadily to climate change, nutrient pollution, habitat degradation, and the many other environmental impacts of industrial civilization. A new study suggests that instead, stressors like these can cause natural communities to shift almost overnight from apparently stable conditions to very different, diminished conditions. The lead author of the study, Marten Scheffer, an ecologist at the University of Wageningen in the Netherlands, said, “Models have predicted this, but only in recent years has enough evidence accumulated to tell us that resilience of many important ecosystems has become undermined to the point that even the slightest disturbance can make them collapse.”
It’s pretty scary. A co-author of the study, Jonathan Foley, a climatologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, added, “In approaching questions about deforestation or endangered species or global climate change, we work on the premise that an ounce of pollution equals an ounce of damage. It turns out that assumption is entirely incorrect. Ecosystems may go on for years exposed to pollution or climate changes without showing any change at all and then suddenly they may flip into an entirely different condition, with little warning or none at all.”
For example, six thousand years ago, great parts of what is now the Sahara Desert were wet, featuring lakes and swamps that teemed with crocodiles, hippos, and fish. Foley said: “The lines of geologic evidence and evidence from computer models shows that it suddenly went from a pretty wet place to a pretty dry place. Nature isn’t linear. Sometimes you can push on a system and push on a system and, finally, you have the straw that breaks the camel’s back.”
Once the camel’s back is broken, it often cannot or will not heal the way it was before.
Another co-author, limnologist Stephen Carpenter, past president of the Ecological Society of America, said that this understanding—of the discontinuous nature of ecological change—is beginning to suffuse the scientific community, and then he continued, “We realize that there is a common pattern we’re seeing in ecosystems around the world. Gradual changes in vulnerability accumulate and eventually you get a shock to the system, a flood or a drought, and boom, you’re over into another regime. It becomes a self-sustaining collapse.”
After I read the article, I received a call from a friend, Roianne Ahn, a woman smart and persistent enough that even a Ph.D. in psychology hasn’t clouded her insight into how people think and act. “It never ceases to amaze me,” she said, “that it takes experts to convince us of what we already know.”
That wasn’t the response I’d been expecting.
She continued, “That’s one of my roles as a therapist. I just listen and reflect back to clients things they know, but don’t have the confidence to believe until they hear an outside expert say them.”
“Do you think people will listen to these scientists?”
“It depends on how much denial they’re in. But the bottom line is that what they’re describing is no big surprise. It’s what happens when a person is under stress: she can only take so much before she falls apart. This is what happens in relationships. It happens in families. It happens in communities. Naturally it will be true on this larger scale, too.”
“What do you mean?”
“We work as hard as we can, even overextend ourselves, to maintain our stability, and when the pressure gets too much, something’s got to give. We collapse. Sometimes that’s bad, sometimes it’s good.”
There was silence while I thought about the fact that some collapses are unnecessary—the breaking down of prisoners under torture, the systematic dismantling of self-esteem under the grinding regime of an abusive parent or partner, ongoing ecological apocalypse—while others can be healing.
She continued, “It’s obvious why people try to maintain healthy structures that make them happy. It’s not always quite so obvious why we, and I include myself, seem to work just as hard to maintain structures and systems that make them miserable. We’re all familiar with the notion that many addicts have to hit rock bottom before they change, even when their addiction is killing them.”
I asked, “When do you think the culture will change?”
“This culture is clearly addicted to civilization,” she said. “So I think the answer to that question is another one: how far down does it have to go before it hits bottom?”
I talked to another friend about all of this. It was late at night. The wind blew outside. The computer was off. We heard the wind. This friend, an excellent thinker and writer, used to live in New York City, and carries with her a certain loyalty not only to that great city, but to cities in general. She was simultaneously sympathetic to and exasperated by me and what I said. After we’d been talking for hours, she asked, reasonably enough, “What right do you have to tell people they can’t live in cities?”
“None at all. I couldn’t care less where people live. But people who live in cities have no right to demand—much less steal—resources from everybody else.”
“Do you have a problem if people in cities just buy them?
“Buy resources, or people?” I was thinking of a line by Henry Adams: “We have a single system,” he wrote, and in “that system the only question is the price at which the proletariat is to be bought and sold, the bread and circuses.”
She didn’t laugh at my joke. She didn’t think it was funny. Neither did I, but probably for a different reason.
I asked, “Buy them with what?”
“They give us food, we give them culture. Isn’t that the way it works?”
Ah, I thought, she’s following the Mumford line of thought. I asked, “What if the people in the country don’t like opera, or Oprah, for that matter?”
“It’s not just opera. Good food, books, ideas, the whole cultural ferment.”
“And if people in the country like their own food, their own ideas, their own culture?”
“They’re going to need protection.”
“Roving bands of marauders. Bandits who will steal their food.”
“What if the only marauders are the people from the city?”
She hesitated before saying, “Manufactured goods, then. Because of economies of scale, people in the city can import raw materials from the countryside, work them into things people can use, and sell them back.” Her first degree was in economics.
“What if people in the countryside also don’t want manufactured goods?”
“Modern medicine then.”
“And if they don’t want that? I know plenty of Indians who to this day refuse all Western medicine.”
She laughed and said, “So we go the opposite direction. Everybody wants Big Macs.”
I shook my head, and more or less ignored her joke, as she’d ignored mine, for maybe the same reason. “People only want all this stuff after their own culture has been destroyed.”
“I don’t think it’s necessary to destroy them. Much better to convince them. Modernity is good. Development is good. Technology is good. Consumer choice is good. What do you think advertising is for?”
Maybe both Henry Adams and the Roman satirist Juvenal should have mentioned advertising as well as bread and circuses. And maybe they should have mentioned the importance of dictionary definitions for keeping people in line. I stood my ground. “Intact cultures generally only open their doors wide to consumer goods at gunpoint. Sure, they might pick and choose, but not enough to counterbalance the loss of their resources. Think of what NAFTA and GATT have done to the poor in the Third World, or in the United States. Think of Perry opening Japan, or the Opium Wars, or—”
She cut me off: “I get your point.” She thought a moment. “Instead of manufactured items, give them money. A fair price. No ripping them off. They can buy whatever they want with all their money, or rather our money.”
“And what if they don’t want money? What if they’d rather have their resources? What if they don’t want to sell because they want or need the resources themselves? What if their whole way of life is dependent on these resources, and they’d rather have their way of life—for example, hunting and gathering—than money? Or what if they don’t want to sell because they don’t believe in buying and selling? What if they don’t believe in economic transactions at all? Or even moreso, what if they don’t believe in the whole idea of resources?”
She got a little annoyed. “They don’t believe in trees? They don’t believe fish exist? What do you think they catch when they go fishing? What are you telling me?”
“They believe in trees, and they believe in fish. It’s just that trees and fish aren’t resources.”
“What are they, then?”
“Other beings. You can kill them to eat. That’s part of the relationship. But you can’t sell them.”
She understood. “Like the Indians thought.”
“Still think,” I said. “Many traditional ones. And cities have gotten so large by now—the city mentality has grown to include the whole consumer culture— that people in the country certainly can’t kill enough to feed the city without damaging their own landbase. By definition they never could. Which leads us back to the question: What if they don’t want to sell? Do the people in the city have the right to take the resources anyway?”
“How else will they eat?”
We heard the wind again outside, and rain began to spatter against the windows. The rain often comes horizontally here in Crescent City, or Tu’nes.
She said, “If I were in charge of a city, and my people—my people, what an interesting phrase, as if I own them—are starving, I would take the food by force.”
More wind, more rain. I said, “And what if you need slaves to run your industries? Would you take them, too? And if you need not just food and slaves, but if oil is the lifeblood of your economy, metal its bones? What if you need everything under the sun? Are you going to take it all?”
“If I need them—”
I cut her off: “Or perceive that you need them . . .”
She didn’t seem to mind. “Yes,” she said, thoughtfully. I could tell she was changing her mind. We were silent a moment, before she said, “And there’s the land. Cities damage the land they’re on.”
I thought of pavement and asphalt. Steel. Skyscrapers. I thought of a five-hundred-year-old oak I saw in New York City, on a slope overlooking the Hudson River. I thought of all that tree had experienced. As an acorn it fell in an ancient forest—except that back then there was no reason to call those forests ancient, or anything but home. It germinated in this diverse community, witnessed runs of fish up the Hudson so great they threatened to carry away the nets of those who would catch them, witnessed human communities living in these forests, the humans not depleting the forests, but rather enhancing them by their very presence, by what they gave back to their home. It witnessed the arrival of civilization, the building of a village, a town, a city, a metropolis, and from there, as Mumford put it, the “Parasitopolis turns into Patholopolis, the city of mental, moral, and bodily disorders, and finally terminates in Necropolis, the City of the Dead.”Along the way, the tree said good-bye to the wood bison, the passenger pigeon, the Eskimo curlew, the great American chestnuts, the wolverines who paced the shores of the Hudson. It said good-bye (at least for now) to humans living traditional ways. It said good-bye to the neighboring trees, to the forest where its life began. It witnessed the laying down of billions of tons of concrete, the erection of rigid steel structures and brick buildings topped with razor wire.
Unfortunately, it did not live long enough to witness all of this come back down. The tree, I learned last year, is no more. It was cut down by a landowner worried that its branches would fall on his roof. Environmentalists—doing what we seem to do best—gathered to say prayers over its stump.
I told her this story.
“Fuck,” she said. “I get it.” She shook her head. Pale brown hair fell to cover one eye. She pouted, as she often does when she thinks. Finally she said, “Damn it.” Then she smiled just slightly, although I could tell from her eyes she was tired. Suddenly she said, “You know, if we’re going to do this much damage, the least we can do is tell the truth.”