The Blind Side of the Future
by Peter Coyote
THE invitation to blue-print the dismantling of industrial civilization is too extravagant to refuse. It is a lozenge the mind sucks, comforting the heart before a road-killed doe. The taste is pungent as humus; musky as torrents of antelope coursing along weedy asphalt.
The calling is actually to dismantle the industrial mind and loose the imagination of its dependence on objects that pretend to enhance, but actually diminish personal power.
Industrial culture confuses mechanical with personal power. Current political forms reflect an industrial preoccupation with multiples and scale. This preoccupation is aggravated by the dwindling stature of human accomplishments before the tireless reproductive capacities of machines. We have obliterated the limits of human physiognomy and, in so doing, deprived ourselves of the universal standard by which we measure human effort, endurance and achievement.
It might have begun here, nourished by curiosity and choice, in the following way:
A native carver squats in the chips of his boat building work. He studies an iron adze held out to him by a European. He takes it in his hand and likes the heft. Its tooth shines and its bite is greedy and sure, condensing phases of the moon. The tool and its power are sexy.
CHOICE: The carver call accept the adze and pay for it with the requisite flesh of otter and beaver.
CHOICE: He can say, "No thanks, we've always made do."
CHOICE: He can drive the steel tooth through the pulp of his donor's brain.
WE know the scenario. Much American mythology has focused on the portentousness of this meeting from a European's point of view. Such myths eclipse the more objective field against which the meeting should he reviewed. Here is a kind of ruler:
An aboriginal warrior from New Guinea encounters a Zippo lighter in the hand of an Allied soldier who has just parachuted from a plane. The warrior throws himself on the ground, shredding his hair and weeping, mystifying witnesses. My informant speculated that nothing in aboriginal mythology or cosmology could account for the Zippo, plane, or parachutist. An alien force had punctured the world. The warrior mourned because he knew the wound was fatal.
Only three decades separate the slash of that cultural collision from the suturing of the satellite photos of Earth. These two points in time, are like an eye at full open and closed - a blink. This is the apt metaphor for the duration of our machine age measured against the immensities of geological time, or an accurate spectrum of primitive human time.
Gary Snyder gives us a nice feeling for that primitive time in his essay "Poetry and the Primitive." Using the word "primitive" to relate to human existence during the last 40,000 years; an ancient, stable, continuity, Snyder describes:
societies which have remained non-iterate and non-political while necessarily exploring and developing in directions that civilized societies tend to ignore. Having fewer tools, no concern with history, a living oral tradition rather than an accumulated library, no overriding social goals, and considerable freedom of sexual and inner life, such people live vastly in the present. Their daily reality is a fabric of friends and family, the field of feeling and energy that one's own body is, the earth they stand on and the wind that wraps around it; and various areas of consciousness.
This description is a general one, but, for primitive people, "the earth they stand on" is never a general, but always a specific understanding. Peter Berg has named this understanding living-in-place and defines it thus:
following the necessities and pleasures of life as they are uniquely presented by a given place, and evolving ways to ensure long-term inhabitation of that place.
This field of study is gaining adherents and credibility. CoEvolution Quarterly recently published a Watershed Issue, and watershed is being adapted as a more sensitive orientation than State or County borders. Borrowing from the natural sciences, the term "bio-region" has been introduced as a political concept. Quoting Berg again:
Bioregion is a way to define a specific place with reference to the conditions that influence all living things within it . . . it describes both a place and ideas about living in it combined.
Planet Drum magazine has guided, identified and supported a forum for such exploration and the Frisco Bay Mussel Group has established itself as an ad hoc regional study group and issue-oriented political body to insure that necessities and continuities of "place" are represented in political dialogs and planning for the future.
THE specificity of "place" is pivotally important. The way the earth extrudes itself into particular plants and animals, and sweats particular varieties of weather, is being smothered by the homogenizing pressures of industry. Our cultural adaptation to this pressure has been the development of mass social structures and institutions. These adaptations throttle not only individuals, but groups of individuals as well as diverse areas of the Planet which do not accommodate the demand for uniformity necessary to mecho-operations and production. Emotions and beliefs are human weather, affected by and interpenetrating climate and bio-geography. "Mass" society has no seismographs sensitive to such wavelengths, even when they are expressed as culture, and so, ignores or buries them.
The term "spaceship earth" illuminates our ambiguous relationship to the high-tech present. On the one hand, it alludes to mystery, power, and the promise of untapped frontiers.. On the other hand, it connotes the module adrift in sub-zero vacuum - the puny astronaut connected to life-support systems by only a slender umbilicus. For most people, unplugging the air conditioner has become synonymous with snipping that cord. We are snared in cords.
Employment is such a cord. Its primary function: the accomplishment of socially useful tasks; and the means of participating in the flow of goods and services condoned by those who control them. There are other modes for participating, but they are negatively reinforced to disguise their true functions., Welfare for example. Under the guise of compassion, welfare secures several social necessities: it keeps the poor out of the garbage cans and hence the armories; allows them to function as conduits for the cash to support small merchants, landlords, and thus the banks; and offers a bottom line in terms of status by which others may measure their relative well-being. The true social and economic functions of welfare have not been generally revealed because the marginally employed, who trade their breath for porridge, would erupt in political fury at the inequity of social roles available simply to spend money. No leadership has admitted that our economy is a botched and haphazard affair and that government over-employs, just like it pays the poor, to keep the damn ship afloat. The recent success of the Jarvis-Gann initiative testifies to the generality of ignorance about such matters. The employed are taught to spurn welfare grifters and government bureaucrats humiliate "clients" through regulation and attitude, to maintain the illusion that they are not symbiotically related. The fact that such roles are essential to keep the economy oiled does not make up for lives in thrall. In just this way does the victimization of one group of people exact payment from the total society.
ATTEMPTS at imposing monocultural solutions to diverse problems can only be deflected by attention to detail. It is through details that we see actual differences. Economies are collective agreements for survival. Add the words "in place" to that definition, and place and economies could be married by defining useful tasks as those which support the beauty, health, diversity, and productivity of a place. The next step is the design of positive, participatory roles to accomplish these ends. A few possibilities to stimulate dialogue:
1) San Francisco Bay could be a salad bowl where men and women walk to work to harvest mussels, shrimp, sturgeon, oysters, clam, fish, (luck, cord grass, and goose down. It does not have to be a sump for industrial offal. The enhanced carrying capacity of a renewed Bay would be a fixed line item in a budget to relate salaries and expenses more objectively than labor arbitration teams. The Bay can produce only so much. Biologists or shamans might be the accountants for such a system. Government would host forums IS to study interfacing the rest of the economy with the biological givens. San Francisco Bay could be the basis of an opulent, labor-intensive, ecologically-harmonious, industry with sport, tourist, and scientific spin-offs from wild-food restaurants to underwater photo caravans.
2) Linn House, author of Totem Salmon (a seminal essay concerned with spiritual and economic possibilities of relating to Salmon) tells me that almost 50% of the California Salmon catch is due to overruns from the Fraser River in Canada. That river is systematically prepared for annual migrations of wild salmon. Rather than increase numbers of hatchery marshmallows in a United States waters, we might emulate the Canadians and create a work force of loggers, fishermen, rural unemployed, to clear creeks of debris and enlarge and prepare breeding pools with gravel - the ceremonious re-invitation of Salmon to the Northwest. Not only would this create a labor force with a stake in monitoring irresponsible logging operations and nuclear discharges, but it would foster an environmentally-sound industry with all the appropriate social and economic leverage. Think of smoked Salmon and eggs on moist, piney mornings; Brazilian delegates lined up to trade aromatic a coffee for our pink, wild meat.
3) Neighborhoods determine underused streets in alternate blocks and residents tear up the asphalt. We park near our homes and stroll through thickets of tomato and fennel; past flashbulbs of pansy and iris; past neighbors busy with herbs, flowers, vegetables, chickens, rabbits, and pigeons preparing for the clamorous barter and sale of market day and and neighborhood produce and livestock competitions. Children released from studies to harvest school luncheons, lascivious tomato plucking. Automobiles less necessary and less used. Escape unnecessary.
Regional planning groups like Association of Bay Area Governments begin to sketch in the relationships of urban centers to surrounding bio-regions. As it is now, people emigrate to cities to earn money destroying where they just left. When cities become enticing again, people abandon the isolation and boredom of suburbs (surrender that land for agriculture) and return to the turbulent urban cores with money, ideas and energy.
As the generosity and lushness of nature becomes a major support and succor, concerns for other forms of life will cease being romantic preoccupations with aesthetics. (Sierra Club photos with all evidence of humanity scrubbed from the frame - pathological concern with sanitation - humanity as disease.)
The kinetic energy potential for such changes are the visions and desires of human beings. Each gradient of emotion above or below contentment is a reservoir of energy with as much harnessable potential as thermal gradients in the ocean.
THE CANE OF THE BLIND MAN
SWINGS LEFT AND RIGHT
THERE is an unseen side to all this. These speculations are just the shell of the peanut. Everything necessary to transform human society into paradise is here now and has always been here. Our present species evolution is not one bit less greedy or rapt than any other. This meaty hand and edged tooth are unrestrained, this glinty eye undimmed. Cased in rosy-hued, sienna chocolate or sandy skin, it is a foraging, grasping force that walks.
This is no apology for the present. There is no inherent biological demand that we build the civilizations and value systems we have today. Nothing prevents it either. It is not as if we have all been stalemated, waiting for the critical byte of information to free us from conceptual bondage. The appropriate question is not how to dismantle industrial civilization, but why will we? The possibility has always existed as choice at any moment. We can turn around at the door of the appliance store; leave the trail bike home and walk; use the engine as an anchor and hoist sail. Why haven't we until now and why will we tomorrow? We won't, as long as we refuse to accept limits of form and continue to ignore limited mental constructs and the gluppy, swampy, explorations of our own inner realities.
The problem (as much as anything else) is the greedy attachment to "evolving," "bettering," "refining" the realms of matter, as if everything this side of pulse and breath were not already gravy. This is the itch that always demands a scratch, capitalist or communist finger - name the race. This is the unseen contaminant we inject into every sterile new vision of the future from Space Colonies to Bio-regional Collective government, as if the creation of mechanical or political structures could be as reliable as internal combustion engines. Reliability is a disguise for security and there are two schools of thought relating to this pursuit. Americans armor their structures (puns intentional) to protect themselves against the shocks of earthquakes. The Japanese build light, easily repairable structures to do minimal damage during their inevitable collapse.
Humans have effectively blocked or damped external restraints to growth and power. We have created machines to stretch the perimeters of the possible in the physical world and free us of the labors to feed and clothe ourselves as if the spirit was humiliated in submitting to laws established for sentient life. The flesh has triumphed and the spirit is chilled in the mouths of our parents, dead and abandoned in the antiseptic corridors where we warehouse tottering bodies. Deprived of meaningful labors and unsure whether or not we could survive outside of our mechanical bassinet, the quest for spiritual freedom and refinement has been consigned to a host of "new-age" specialists and hedonistic future mongers.
DISCUSSIONS of social rearrangements and forms that don't include individual responsibilities like self-restraint and qualities like character, are hopelessly off the mark. This is one problem with alternative energy manifestos and gizmos that constantly skirt or obfuscate the real issue, which is, dirty or clean, how much of the Planet is man's to use up for his creature comforts?
Dismantling will manifest itself through personal choice. To choose to care for an old car another 10 years obviates two new ones being built for you. Fewer clothes, more repairable, less disposable stuff is less time in thrall, less Planet transformed. Government won't do this for you.
The God of Life is the God of Death and if we really want to stab the beast right in the grease cups, we should not pretend that it is not the death of freedom as we know it. The "rights" we flaunt are based on mercantile allusion, energy subsidy and addiction to comfort. Our psychology, aspirations and social structures have organized themselves behind the banner of Independence for 200 years. Freedom came to mean "without limits." This banner has been shredded the rough the intricate mesh of the inter-relatedness of all life. It has passed from and abandoned the field to the poetic and metaphysical truths of older, wiser folk. What's before us is the construction of new value systems and societies informed by these truths and the particularities of bio-geography. Concepts floating like clouds over the horizon which we mistake as sunrise are actually mid-day for most of the Earth's ancient people. What is to come (the shadows they cast on our ground) will be the permutation of our laws, mores, psychology, social structures, and notions of the physical universe.
We usually consider primitive societies freer than our own in romantic and sentimental ways. While they are less constrained to some degree, there are other ways in which they are governed by laws with no appeals, loopholes, or permissive theories as buffers for personal indulgence. No one may tell you how to dress, but then again, you may never look at your mother-in-law, or reveal what happens in the kiva. This intimacy between freedom and discipline has been lost to us as a culture. Even many artists have forgotten that creative impetus comes from the struggle with form, not from violating it.
My presentiment is that until we diminish our attachment to progress, ease and newness, voluntarily assume more of the trials and labors of existence, we are whistling in the dark and fated to nurse puny spirits. Only by using the apparent advantages of machines sparingly and with ritual restraint will we regain a world that is once again scaled to human dimensions. We will replace machines with tight community and social forms that support, contain, protect, and necessarily pinch off indulgences that now pass for liberty. Using less, buying less, trusting imagination over glut; exploring boredom anger, greed; learning to follow or lead as situations demand; understanding the distinctions between power and restraint - these are the avenues, I believe, to social and personal integrity. This is where we will gain knowledge of verifiable a worth. The one objective arbiter for this venture is nature, and all we know of Her are the life and laws of our bodies and this planet.
The germ of my faith and the form of its expression collide here and sound a passing tone. Fifty years from now I would hope that printed articles for intellectual networks will have been replaced by oral stories for actual communities. The times offer this rock in a rushing stream and I've paused on it, in my crossing. If answers are to be found in place, among lovers, relatives and friends however, that is where dialog should be generated and targeted. Here's hoping that we can all get back to work and stop writing about it.
Published in the Journal for the Protection of All Beings, Issue #19, September 21, 1978. This version of Journal for the Protection of All Beings was originally published by City Lights Books in the Sixties as "A Voluntary & Revolutionary Review"). Stewart Brand suggested a rebirth of it disguised as a CoEvolution Quarterly centering on how to liberate mind and body and protect endangered species (including ourselves) from pathogenic industrial civilization.
Under contributors, it reads "Peter Coyote is chairman of the California Arts Council. He was formerly active in the Mime Troupe and was one of the founders of the Diggers."
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