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Besieging Ourselves

The current Harper's Magazine (June, 2007) has two articles in it about the environment, but really about much more.  The first of these in its pages, Garret Keizer's "Climate, Class, and Claptrap," focuses on the first of the three words in his title, and then erupts in piquant rage regarding the second two words.  As he riles in vitriol at a certain class of people – "that all-too-familiar universe [of] the affluent, the educated, the suburban, and the wired" – his stings at them prick mercilessly at the blindness that keeps so many of the privileged so insulated from the damages they do to others.

Or should I say "we," as in the damages we and our privileges do to others?  I might admit myself to this class incurring Keizer's scorn.  I'm sort-of affluent.  I'm educated.  I'm wired – Essaying Differences exists on the Web.  It's only the suburban part of Keizer's tags that I don't quite fit, living as I do in one of the motley, old, "painted-lady" hilly neighborhoods of San Francisco.  I have, otherwise, nearly the same splenetic reaction as Keizer to my fellows who live with their SUVs, big box mall stores, McMansions, and cul-de-sac subdivisions out beyond the perimeter of interstate ramps, bridges, and freeways.  They're not really, however, "beyond," driving into old San Francisco by the tens of thousands as many do every weekday.  Too many of these do so as emotionally animated as is Keizer, but in another way – arriving too often in their single-occupancy-vehicles with the road rage stress from their hour-long and more commutes in congestion with each other.  Then they take it out on us, on us pedestrians and takers-of-public transit as the beetle-browed, bug-eyed, and white-knuckled inflict on us their waves of speeding and red-light running.

Keizer's article runs with the same fever pitch as our sprawl-mad fellow Americans, writing against them in defense of the environment that gets ever-more polluted, paved-over, and destroyed.  His real animus is blindness – against all of us who may be cushioned in our privileges and cannot see how we are, yet, "members of a single species . . . family in every sense of the word."  In the same proportion that too many of us cannot see the damages we are doing, he says we cannot make crucially due changes "without staggering sacrifices" – and that no one will begin this "unless the burden is shared with something like parity."

The same June issue of Harper's Magazine carries another, longer piece on the environment, by Ted Hoagland:  "Endgame:  Meditations on a diminishing world."  As his title implies, too, Hoagland's contents deliver, with more ruminative range.  He writes it from a home he's had for over thirty years in the far, rural north of Vermont, near the Canadian border.  As in the long career he's already had writing essays of erudition, precision, and lyricism on landscapes, Hoagland sees, as does Keizer, the many details in nature that we are losing.  As Keizer does, too, Hoagland sees "the pace and enormity of destruction" as "paralyzing, as is our general indifference."  He sees those from sprawlville buying their SUVs and off-road vehicles and taking them up to his remote, rural area, where they then impose their entitlement conceits and recklessness on old New England culture, where, now "people tend to carom from Boise to Bangor."  It's insane, he rues:  "There seems to be no baseline, as if we're in free fall."  As we may be "kneecapping ourselves," he asks of this suburban sprawl mentality that has so many so confined to it, "Would Wordsworth, Frost, Turgenev, feel not just glassed-in and deracinated but amputated?"  He sees the destruction not just around him, but the same system – ours – doing it to all the world.  The problem compounds, worldwide, for "more flabbergasting alterations [that] are in store – the mowing of parts of Amazonia to grow ethanol; the melting of the poles; the desertification of more of Africa (and if you've already seen famine there, as I have, the idea of growing corn in Iowa to drive cars is obscene)."  Some things may help put some checks on this, as "Hurricane-insurance premiums do register a bit more on us than our actual demolition of habitat, but our world religions don't help, even if, to be fair to them, no religious persons ever saw it coming – and "no organized religion has ever countenanced such wholesale obliteration of nature."

 Hoagland is aware of the environmental movement across the U.S., and around the world, but sees it dwarfed by the larger culture of consumerism and entitlement, so "Today's mantras are crabbed, apprehensive, self-involved, as we shop around for tidy climates in gated selfishness."  We're not slowing down but, "Blindly accelerating, we burn through entire galaxies of other life, unimaginably interlinked and unmapped –  amputating ourselves from the rest of Creation."  The costs keep coming:  "New Orleans was too low, the World Trade Center was too high, and our democracy has gone spavined."  And so Hoagland, like Keizer, sees the ultimate costs of blindness:  "if we are stripping, dicing, and deforming the landscapes, souring the oceans, and sooting the skies, we are not just wiping out cheetahs and codfish, blue whales and sandalwood trees, but undermining our very lives and our afterlives."

 Others have had similar comments this recent month.  Louis Menand, in May 21's The New Yorker, sees the flatulence of too much of our good-minded rhetoric.  His "Talk of the Town" piece, "The Graduates," notes that "In commencement speeches and the like, people say that education is all about opportunity and expanding your horizons.  But some part of it is about shrinking people, about teaching them that they are not the measure of everything."  Menand, like Keizer and Hoagland, is, sadly, also writing as all-too-aware, as many of us are, of our own dear America's currently colossal ignominy and incompetence in Iraq.   How is it, he seems to be asking, that our tens of millions voted to reelect the very same national team that had already shown its supreme ignorance and arrogance in foreign affairs, its blithe disregard for others?  As if to answer this, he looks out at another season of corporate academe ritually congratulating itself on another crop of its graduates, and notes one most-telling statistic of our current U.S.A.:  "There are more bachelor's degrees awarded every year in Parks, Recreation, Leisure, and Fitness Studies than in all foreign languages and literatures combined."

In this same month, others have carried on examining this same theme of our incredible blindness and limitations.  Rebecca Solnit is another.  A young woman who lives in the same San Francisco neighborhood as I – I've seen her on occasions, though we've never met – has a new book out, the University of California Press, across the Bay in Berkeley, just having published a collection of her essays, Storming the Gates of Paradise:  Landscapes for Politics.

 Solnit is good.  Like Keizer, Hoagland, and Menand, she worries not just about our environmental degradation, but also our culture which so hugely elevates our conceits so that, more, not less blind, we all the more indulge our ruinous consumerism.  The current debate on American immigration policy is an example.  Speaking in past tense of one recent immigrant-hating piece of legislation, she says:

It implied that immigrants were to blame for the deterioration of the environment, as though those huddled masses were rushing out to buy jet skis and ten-acre Colorado ranchettes, as though sheer numbers alone, rather than habits of consumption and corporate practices, were responsible for the degradation of the U.S. environment.  It reeked of American isolationism – the idea that our garden could be preserved no matter what went on outside its walls, though many ecological issues are transnational:  migratory birds, drifting pollutants, changing weather – and it implied that we live in a garden and they do not.

Solnit stresses her ire at the recklessness built into our corporate culture, not for the rhetorical joy in ire as Keizer shows, nor the bucolic alternatives that Hoagland's sentences frame, but for the exquisite linkages she lifts as a standard in her own prose.  This serves her larger, pervading theme, that we see the great interdependence of all things.

Once we count on the good in seeing the possibilities within larger-connected complexity – the ethics and literacy of interdependence – we can measure differently and do different.  Take, for instance, she says, our much-vaunted computer technology..

In a 1995 essay on Silicon Valley, "The Garden of Merging Paths," she writes "The world of information and communication online, much hailed as a technological advance, is also a social retreat accompanying a loss of the public and social space of the cities."  People may not be connecting more and more, as we're told, but withdrawing:

This vision of disembodied anchorites connected to the world only by information and entertainment, mediated by the entities that control the flow, seems more nightmarish than idyllic.  Postulated as a solution to gridlock, crime on the streets, the chronic sense of time's scarcity, it seems instead a means to avoid addressing such problems, a form of acquiescence.

 Solnit argues for a recovery of the incalculable – a wider skein of reference to include the sensual and sensuous, the odd and idiosyncratic.  She argues against everything our corporate marketing and advertising thrive on, exploiting as they do all the entitlement expectations by which we divide into our mutually-isolated demographics.  She argues against everything our corporate academe similarly exploits – confining as it does, too, all imaginations into the mutual-isolation systems all defer to as departmental specializations.

 Amidst all the rue of the recent month, however, in The Nation issue of June 4 Eric Alterman had a column referring to a new program, one in fact in the Mideast:  a project which "aims to develop parallel histories of the Israelis and Palestinians, translate them into Hebrew and Arabic and train teams of teachers and historians to teach in the classroom."  Called "Learning Each Other's Historical Narratives," it's still in the planning stages, online at www.vispo.com/PRIME/leohn.htm – so something good, something practical, something hopeful is happening.

 But then we come back to America.  On the penultimate day of the recent month – May 30 – National Public Radio broadcast a piece, humorously put, but sadly true, on how American businesses are now having to hire consultants to teach their middle-aged managers how to flatter their new employees aged twenty-something.  It seems that the new generation is in a constant state of low morale unless they get frequently rewarded, adulated, praised, and celebrated – for nothing more than doing normal work.  Our schools have done this to them, schools that for many recent years have gone out of their ways to insist that all kids are "special" – see my earlier Proprietor's Column, "The Waters Of Kalamazoo County," where I first learned of these pedagogical conceits nearly ten years ago.

 God Bless America:  bloated, fat, rich, blind, arrogant, and "special"!

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