Saturday, January 14, 2012

Nature Regards Itself

Nature Regards Itself
©Douglas S. Harvey, 2012

Growing up in a household that worshipped capitalism, (Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged was the de facto family Bible), in a Catholic community that had defended the faith from Bavaria to the Volga to the heart of North America, I was confronted early on by two significant conundrums.  One involved the usual questions thinking people experience with religious dogma: if God is omnipotent, can He make a rock so big that He Himself can’t lift it?  The second was, if capitalism is the epitome of unrestrained virtue, why is there so much war, poverty, and environmental degradation?   
             Historical geographer David Harvey has shown how Capital flies from crisis to crisis to avoid facing the music of its own contradictions.  Phenomena ranging from the simultaneous growth of homelessness and empty houses to the boom of the storage unit in the face of dire want and a “working poor” are symbolic of capitalism’s absurdity.  As a young man growing up in Small Town, America, I appreciated the general rhetoric about individual freedom although the connection was never made to anything that might be called “self-realization.”  But where the capitalist mythos lost me was when I saw first hand what capitalism did to the environment without apology or explanation, much less a voluntary effort to clean up after itself.  The social reform movements of the early 1900s and again in the 1960s and ‘70s forced the issue; otherwise, Big Capital has made no willing effort to acknowledge that dead rivers, clear-cut forests, eroded hillsides, and poisonous fumes were a bad thing for both humans and other-than-humans.  Indeed, the assumption was that this was the price we had to pay for the wonders of modern life – automobiles, refrigerators, vacuum cleaners, electric toothbrushes – in short, capitalism.  Stuff – the myth tells us – that’s what we need and that’s what will make the people happy and the capitalists rich, which is all good.  In this mythology, the resource base, (i.e. Earth – to all appearances the complicated speck of dust that produced us all), plays second fiddle to that great concertmaster, Mankind; or, more to the point, “Man as Capitalist.” 
            There are several events that epitomize the real world consequences of this fantasy.   One is the degradation of the world’s forests – over half have been cut since 1850 and it does not look good for most of the rest without concerted effort.  The fact of climate change is beyond question among reasonable people who read the evidence.  When Rachel Carson exposed the abuses of the chemical industry and its collusion with government in Silent Spring; when Cleveland’s Cuyohaga River caught fire in 1969; when the horrors of Agent Orange came home to roost, many people in the U.S. began waking up to the dire consequences of this mythos.  This awakening has been tamped down since the 1980s, but very recently the #Occupy movement has begun to rekindle awareness of these and other contradictions in our dominant mythos.
            The prevalent attitude of the modern era in the so-called western world has been the result of the combination of capitalist and Christian mythology.   Culturally, we have separated ourselves from the resource base.  We have cut ourselves off from Earth.  But we are not separate – we ARE the Earth.  And it is time to wake up, smell the coffee, and look at what is before us in stark relief.  Most people in the western world incorporate some form of the 3,000-year-old myth that our forebears were expelled from Paradise and deposited on this wretched plane of existence with the inclination to kill, rape, plunder, and otherwise use pointy objects to the detriment of our fellows.  Elsewhere, it says that we are to subdue the Earth and the things therein.  It seems clear that Yahweh was predisposed to capitalist exploitation.  What a coincidence!  Yet, a clear-eyed appraisal of where we stand shows that we see the Earth beneath our feet and “above us only sky.”  Heaven, Hell, the angels, demons, saints and all the rest are right here, right now, in our psyches – fears and dreams manifested in psychic imagery. 
            What capitalism has done and continues to do to workers – degrade them, force them to work for lower wages, fewer benefits, longer hours, etc., it does also to Earth.  Philosopher Howard Parsons once observed that Capital similarly extorts labor from the worker, fertility and productivity from the soil – all for short-term goals.  It robs both of “vitality, freedom, and independence.”
            We humans are organic critters, much like chimps, dogs, frogs, bugs, and trees. To violate human nature through the exploitation and extortion of value from workers has a direct equivalency in violating other-than-human nature for short-term gain.  The heart of this equivalency centers on a very simple fact: human beings ARE nature.  To violate nature is to violate ourselves and vice versa.  We are Nature regarding itself.  Mythic assumptions that once upon a time perhaps lessened the degree of bloodlust among humans or dispersed economic power among a broader population and freed creative energy are reaching a threshold.  Letting go of our old mythical assumptions is key to moving forward into a more realistic view of our situation and, ultimately, our survival as a self-aware planetary organism.  We have a right to sustain ourselves in a way that contributes BOTH to the health of the individual and the health of the planet.  But we do not have a right to do so at the expense of the future.
            Both our dominant political and economic systems here in the U.S. (and elsewhere) are notorious for their focus on shortsighted goals.  Instant profits and votes – some people will literally do or say anything to acquire these, including wreck the economy of our society and the ecology of Earth, which are ultimately identical.  To this, one simply asks, what about the rights of our now-voiceless offspring?  What about the rights of those whose energy is yet to emerge into this realm of dualities – to engage in what the late comedian Bill Hicks said was “just a ride.”  Don’t they have a right to be born into a functional environment with the hope and opportunity to live a fulfilled life and enjoy the “ride” in a fruitful and healthy way?  If THAT right isn’t worth guarding, what IS? 
            Yes, we humans are Nature, but that doesn’t mean that we should cater to our basest instincts, petty shortsightedness, and the political expediency of the day.  Bad habits gained at the expense of others – human and other-than-human – have been inculcated into our pantheon of assumptions.   We are Nature regarding itself, but that does not give us license to trash the resource base.  Many of us deem it unwise to jab a screwdriver into our eye sockets; yet, cutting all the tropical forests, for example, is no different.  We are Nature regarding itself, and we owe it to ourselves and to our descendants to embrace rational, long-term resource policies and institutionalize them.  In spite of what the narcissistic, grasping capitalist mythos tells us from the cradle to the grave, the Earth is “an inalienable condition for the existence and reproduction of a chain of successive generations of the human race,” as well as other-than-human generations upon which all are dependent.  We are Nature regarding itself, and to embrace the real world consequences of our actions and take remedial steps is the ultimate act of humanism. 
These condundrums with which I struggled mightily in my youth have largely been resolved.  My allegiances are no longer divided.  To quote Howard Parsons’s cogent essay again, “[T]he true humanist turns out to be the true naturalist and the true radical to be the true conservative.”[1]  Damn it!  I ALWAYS thought that, but I was protected from such insight in the prison of an ideological mythos.  We ARE Nature regarding itself – and at some level, I knew it all along.

[1] Howard L. Parsons, “Introduction,” Marx and Engels on Ecology (Westport, CT and London: Greenwood Press, 1977), 19.  It is interesting to revisit the critics of capitalism in the post-Cold War era.   They made some very important points and we ignore their critique to our own detriment.

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