Speak Ancestors II: Corruption Everywhere, Research Time, 02/12/2015

Continued from last post . . . Edenic thinking shows up everywhere in human culture, I think. At least, I have a very good guess that it does. The thought comes up everywhere, whenever we’re frustrated with our situations, irritated, facing any problem that just won’t go away. “Things never used to be this bad. It used to be better.”

"A long time ago, things were better," you often think.
But Eden was never real.
I don’t refer to thoughts like this as they occur in places like Aleppo, Benghazi, Yemen, a Congolese coltan mine, or other places where there is genuine and horrible suffering. 

If the only relatively recent historical contrast you have to practical slave labour in a dangerous mine, is actual legalized slave labour in a mine while the Belgian army threatens to massacre your whole family if productivity falls, then you have genuine, horrifying, and serious problems. I feel pretty safe saying this.

The Westerners who don’t have to deal with this question also have serious problems. They’re the type of problems that cause slowly creeping anxiety and the crackling terror of total financial collapse and poverty being a constant possibility haunting your soul at every waking and sleeping moment.

Not that I or anyone else I know in this economy have had any experience with anything like that. 

Unemployment, underemployment, precarious employment, household debt, personal debt, uncertain income, the stress of having to hustle multiple jobs just to cover basic expenses. These are common problems in countries that, compared to the abject poverty that still exists in a lot of the world, are egregiously wealthy.

These social problems that cause stalking anxiety are what motivates people to reminisce about a golden age that never was. The good old days. “It was better back then.”

When the traditional values of your culture are associated with its distant past, and the distant past is associated with the good old days when things weren’t as bad as they are now, you tend to associate traditional values with the good. 

Revolutionary politics are fundamentally about how the
future can be better than the past.
Leo Strauss calls it the veneration of the ancestral. The modern world is a corruption of a relative paradise, just as is every modern world. The human lot in existence is to keep falling farther into social corruption and decay. Being new or novel isn’t exciting, it’s a new way to fall apart.

I’ve encountered this idea so many times over my life. Not only from reactionary and conservative politicians and pundits in the news, but in my non-fiction work. 

The Edenic attitude is all over a lot of environmentalist philosophy. It’s inevitable when you think about it, even though it’s a mistake. The entire modern era is defined by technology, and unrestrained technological development is the cause of our global ecological crisis / collapse. 

Writing Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity, I often found myself looking to China for examples, simply because their ecological disasters were the most over-the-top, ridiculous, surreal, deadly, and horrifying of anywhere in the world. When I was looking for the most theatrical pollution events in the world, I found them in Beijing and on the Yangtze.

I also continue to find them in Canada, particularly in the biggest pollution runoffs from tar sands development in Alberta. The human health crises alone are becoming staggering, and the imagery of the land being torn to pieces to dredge oil mud from it is utterly shocking.

So the frequent appeal in environmentalist thinking is to reject technology and return to a rural, non-industrial status quo. The teenagers working in that coltan mine would be okay with that. 

Wang Renzheng is a Chinese artist who vacuums the air
of Beijing and solidifies it into bricks. His art is the
creative of smog bricks. It reminds me of another reason
I called the insanity of modern technology theatrical:
the artistic reaction to ecological destruction is some of
the most surreal and insane creativity in human history.
But the primal question for environmental activism is whether the price of erasing industry is too high. I wouldn’t be alive today if it weren’t for modern medical technology, for example, and neither would a lot of people. 

While industry and capitalism has helped a lot of people live more dignified lives, we always have to ask whether it’s worth it. The more productive question is whether we can make the deal better, so we don’t have to give up as much as before in ecological destruction to enjoy the fruits of industry.

That means fighting traditional values on all fronts. Fighting the conservatives of the right wing who refuse to consider moving our industry on from oil. Fighting the conservatives of the left wing whose environmentalism slides into ludditism and misanthropy. 

Fighting any values that say the solution to a modern problem is going backward. Because the impulse to improve humanity is about going forward into the new, not backward into an imagined ancient time.

1 comment:

  1. I read an article a while ago (shit citation, sorry) in which the author contacted a bunch of right wing pundits and asked them when was this past time when the world was better and simpler. The pundits gave a range of answers, but they all turned out to be roughly when the pundit was ten years old.