Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Endless Frontier

At the Archdruid’s suggestion, I’ve been reading Overshoot by the recently deceased William Catton. I can see why JMG was so inspired by the book. It’s beautifully written and extremely enlightening, even though I’ve already encountered many of the same principles in The Archdruid Report.

Catton talks about how Europeans found a seemingly limitless bonanza when they subjugated the peoples of the Americas, Africa and Asia and exploited their labor and natural resources. This was the foundation of JMG’s “civil religion of progress.” It appeared to them that, with the right technologies, they could grow their economies forever and, ultimately, conquer time and space.

In a sense, the USA was founded on the idea of our infinite bounty. It subsidized “the land of the free” by endowing us with the material basis of independence. This Horn of Plenty promised freedom from tyrannical governments. We didn’t need to grovel to a king or the local baron for our daily bread. The land was too big to be fenced in by enclosures. It was an Elysian field of dreams that could liberate us from the constraints of the Old World. 

We no longer had to be herded into cities or villages with the rest of the unwashed masses. Instead of staying in the crowded settlements along the Eastern Seaboard, Americans could move west to the Frontier and escape the social and physical demands of living in community with people of different religions, ethnicities and philosophies. 

The New World offered us the space to be free of our neighbors’ rights and beliefs. It negated the need for compromise. Our suburbs, towns and homesteads are spread far and wide across the landscape to provide us privacy and “breathing room.” We’re basically trying to escape each other. In this atomized society, consensus is an elusive goal. 

In the past century, the physical space has largely been replaced by cyberspace and “safe spaces” offered by the intellectual ghettos of fundamentalist religion, dogmatic academia and special-interest websites. We protect our theories from challenge and refuse to contribute to the mainstream, denying our gifts to the larger community. Our contributions have been rejected before, and the pain of that rejection has discouraged us from speaking up in the public square.

The endless frontier also freed us from concern over scarcity. We could formulate any grand scheme we wanted without worrying about exhausting our resources. If it failed, we would always have the resources to dismantle it and replace it with something grander. It isn’t hard to see how this indulgent attitude has led to intellectual laziness. If there are no consequences for failure, there’s no need to be rigorous. The Archdruid has noted our tendency not to think in terms of whole systems. I would also call it a failure to think holistically.

The myth of limitlessness has had profound aesthetic consequences. Our country is littered with them. They are the physical relics of the belief in our omnipotence. We thought we could throw up any huge, plastic monstrosity of a building we wanted. If it didn’t work out, we could just tear it down and replace it with something better, bigger or, at least, less offensive. Or, if our displeasure with the edifice is not shared by the rest of the community and it remains standing, we can withdraw into our Fortresses of Solitude, losing ourselves in the virtual realities of TV and the internet, perhaps lobbing verbal grenades at the monstrosity’s creators from the safe distance of online forums.

But the endlessly rapacious consumerist ethic reaches its fullest expression in our personal appearance. Ironically, we try to conserve our physical strength and emotional stress-load by maintaining a casual attitude and appearance, even in public. We lazily throw on any old thing before we leave the house, sparing ourselves the effort of dressing to the nines. We’re notorious for “letting ourselves go,” indulging in food and sedentary lifestyles until we’re obese, often morbidly so. 

Like the fabled grasshopper, we indulge our impulses and mortgage our future in favor of instant gratification. If we think about the future at all, we assume there will always be an infrastructure to support us if we’re unable to care for ourselves. We also assume that we’ll have the financial resources to afford this personal care, whether it’s provided by human attendants or machines.

It reminds me of an excerpt from Matt Taibbi’s article in Rolling Stone about the Tea Party’s hypocrisy. He attends a speech by a Tea Party politician in Kentucky who is addressing senior citizens, many of whom are in personal scooters that Medicare paid for. They’re unaware that Medicare is a government program. They have no inkling of their dependence on the government and fellow taxpayers. 

They thought they could treat their bodies like a garbage dump by stuffing their faces with junk food, filling their lungs with cigarette smoke or lying on the couch all evening watching TV after staring at a computer screen all day. It never occurs to them that they may need their fellow Americans’ assistance, financially or physically, when the consequences of those choices take their predictable toll.

We also expect society to adjust to us emotionally, failing to show empathy for our fellow citizens, who are under the same stresses we are. We assume there’s a bottomless pit into which we can throw our anger, resentment, bitterness, sadness. We don’t know or care that all these slings and arrows eventually find their mark in someone. Usually, it’s the person who expressed the negative feeling who’s wounded, but we all suffer, even when the victim suffers alone. 

We seem to have come to the end of the spatial frontier. Much to our chagrin, we’ve found our (relative) freedom from physical limits and other people to be as empty as the Americas our ancestors found. But really it’s the closing of the psychological frontier that scares us. We hate the idea of being stuck in the same headspace with our co-workers and neighbors. We hate the idea of having to compromise with them. We assume there will always be a way to escape our present community and the limits it imposes on us. Unfortunately, the digital frontier is proving just as hollow as its physical precursors. 

Last year, I took a cruise with my parents on the Rhine and Mosel rivers. Despite the assertions of our Amero-centric media, the discipline of limits has produced great beauty and vibrant, healthy cultures in the Old World. The ignorance of limits in the New World has produced a lazy, wasteful, ugly culture that continues to dehumanize and alienate its inhabitants. Surely, we’ve been given enough signals in the past few decades to know that we’re on the wrong path.

There are endless frontiers, but not the physical ones we’ve been taught to believe in. There will always be unknown territories of the mind, body and soul, not just our own but those belonging to others. We need to find meaning in the exploration of those undiscovered countries and stop relying on material signposts to tell us when we’re pushing the boundaries of experience and perception, in other words, “living.” We must reclaim the Personal Realm or, as Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons describes it, “Human contact: the final frontier.”


OilisFinite said...

Wow, that was poetic and well written thesis on apathy and bounded space. I want to elaborate on apathy a bit more. Apathy I found is the most dangerous aspect of our modern zeitgeist. It along with ignorance keeps us from acknowledging Peak Oil, Limits to Growth, Global Warming and all other conundrum we face. In fact it is more dangerous then all these items I mentioned because it places us in spot where we feel safe and need not deal with these problems.

When I do presentations on Peak Oil, invariable the response of people in the crowd is how they never knew about it. It was never mentioned on Fox News. Muslim terrorists were what they feared and sending troops to the Middle East was the answer.

So like rot building up on wood beams of a roof. These problems will build up until they can no longer be ignored. But most will not be prepared. The people will cry like toddlers left in the room by themselves. But there is no easy answer. Building coal and nuke plants takes years to decades. And this is no real answer for oil deprivation. It will be the 1973 oil crisis writ larger. By doing nothing we made it worse.

Mickey Foley said...

Thanx for the compliment, Oil! I agree that apathy is probably the most dangerous aspect of the zeitgeist. It's a wall protecting us from our despair, while also preventing us from tapping into other emotions that would provide the energy and motivation for an escape. The problem is, once you break down that wall, there's no going back. I should know; I tried. The evil of my luxury was laid bare, and I could no longer take comfort in it.

Apathy is the price of a culture that claims the economy can meet our needs and all we have to do is sit back, punch buttons, watch TV and do what the images tell us.