Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Natural Joe

A few people have urged me at times to check out Joe Bageant's writing. I've tried on a few different occasions to dip into it, but I always leave feeling positively underwhelmed, like I've just spent time listening to a more affable, less curmudgeonly James Howard Kunstler. It's not that I even disagree with much of what he has to say, it's just that I find myself spacing out in the middle of a paragraph, lulled into a daze by the sense that I've heard all this countless times before. To wit:

The uniformity on Planet Norte is striking. Each person is a unit, installed in life support boxes in the suburbs and cities; all are fed, clothed by the same closed-loop corporate industrial system. Everywhere you look, inhabitants are plugged in at the brainstem to screens downloading their state approved daily consciousness updates. iPods, Blackberries, notebook computers, monitors in cubicles, and the ubiquitous TV screens in lobbies, bars, waiting rooms, even in taxicabs, mentally knead the public brain and condition its reactions to non-Americaness. Which may be defined as anything that does not come from of Washington, DC, Microsoft or Wal-Mart.

Yes, yes, we know, modern Western life is sterile, plastic, inauthentic, soulless, dark Satanic Mills, etc. Fill in the blank with your favorite ad-libs. It just strikes me as a composite of the same facile romantic critiques we've heard since, well, the Romantics. And aside from hardcore examples like Ted Kaczynski, hearing this sort of complaint from Westerners, even those who have expatriated themselves to a Mexican village, puts me in mind of something Edward Abbey wrote about Henry David Thoreau:

Henry was no hermit. Hardly even a recluse. His celebrated cabin at Walden Pond - some of his neighbors called it a "shanty" - was two miles from Concord Common. A half-hour walk from pond to post office. Henry lived in it for only two years and two months. He had frequent human visitors, sometimes too many, he complained, and admitted that his daily rambles took him almost every day into Concord. When he tired of his own cooking and his own companionship he was always welcome at the Emersons' for a free dinner.

I'm not interested in hairsplitting debates over personal integrity vs. hypocrisy here; I'm just noting that there aren't many people lining up to defiantly hand back their membership in Western Civilization in order to go native; most of them, despite all their bluster, seem to feel that the problem is just that there's "too much" of our resource-devouring high-tech world, that there has to be some compromise, some way we can still have these things without guilt, perhaps if we just each reduce our personal consumption by some arbitrary percentage. And yet, and yet...everywhere I look, I see more houses being built, more cars being sold, and almost all my fellow thirty-somethings have babies on the way or a few toddlers underfoot. But who dares suggest that maybe the problem is that there's just too many people, full stop? And what would we do about it even if we admitted that?

Look. Our Western consumer lifestyle is unsustainable in the long term. Most of us agree on this. It most certainly cannot be extended to the other several billion people on Earth. But there never was any Garden of Eden. We didn't accidentally trap ourselves in a labyrinthine dystopia, we created it, step by step, as a way of escaping the drudgery of life in pre-modern villages. A whole bunch of those people unfortunate enough to be born somewhere impoverished couldn't give a blistered fuck about Western notions of false consciousness or ecological disaster; they'd be happy to take a chance on suffering ennui with the rest of us if it meant they could have air conditioning, refrigerators, televisions and their own cars, even if only for a little while. Contentedness is not our natural condition, and it's not exclusive to any particular way of life. Very few people manage to carry a sense of it around with them, wherever they happen to be. The rest of us project it somewhere else and continue the endless chase.


  1. Brian M10:57 AM

    Scribbler...I've said it before and I'll say it again: I think you really nail it sometimes. I've briefly flirted with the Joe Bageant ethos (intellectually, of course), but you know, I'm sorry...living in a fishing village in Belize sounds boring as hell. Even stultifying.

    Besides...even the indigenous villages still involve living with other people. He can escape that in his little fantasy life because he is an outsider with the resources to, like Thoreau, escape easily. What he neglects to mention is the pettyness and often sheer nastyness of village life.

    Sure, modern Western life can be deadening in its own way. But...I'm not sure "indigenous" cultures are that always that perfect, either. The harsh strictures of Leviticus come at a gretab remove from an indigenous culture. The proud independent Pakistani village that required a young girl to be raped by the village elders because her brother had been seen with a young woman of improper caste-that's pretty traditional, too.

    Besides, how does one "go back"? We are not going to return to the idyllic village. Instead, I see mad max, with the fragments of technology cobbled together and kept running in the service of all kinds of all too human nastyness.

    Anyway, keep up the great posts!

  2. Why thankee, Brian.

    Yeah, I had a brief fling with that anarchist primitivist mentality when I was in my early twenties too. I could handle living somewhere remote, if, like Joe, I had Internet access and the opportunity to travel at will and go on book and speaking tours, etc. Otherwise, no thanks. Most Westerners would die of shock from the sudden lack of our cosmopolitan notions of individuality and privacy.

    It's this barely-disguised religious morality play that gets me. As if we committed a great sin of hubris by daring to go beyond subsistence agriculture (or hunting and gathering, depending on how far back you want to go), and now we're going to suffer our deserved reckoning. Well, we may very well kill ourselves off with the side effects of our post-industrial lifestyle (or maybe some of us will eventually live in outer space after wrecking this planet). But we could live in "harmony with nature" like other animal species and still end up like 99% of them: extinct by disease or some sort of catastrophic disaster. The difficulty clears up, I think, when you realize one simple thing: we, as a species, are not "meant" to do anything. That is, we were not tasked by anyone to live a certain way in order to achieve a certain result. We're just shuffling along like all the other mammals, eating, screwing, and fighting. There's no "purpose" to it, other than what we create between ourselves, and all of our dehumanizing technology was just as valid an option as anything else we could have done.

    Plus, you can find beauty and profundity anywhere -- online, on television, among the mp3s on your iPod, or in the heart of a big city. Moments of bloom in the midst of decay. And the flip side of that is that sitting under a tree or by an ocean after spending all day preparing or finding food is not necessarily going to be some blissful mystical experience either. That kind of contentedness is something you carry in your mind; it's not waiting "out there" for you to walk into it.

    And yeah -- Mad Max or some real-life Cormac McCarthy novel are just as likely, if not more so, to be awaiting us on the other side of societal collapse. I imagine it will arrive in some form eventually, but I'm not going to cheer for it in the meantime.

  3. Brian M11:23 AM

    And even if the collapse occurs...there will still be the moments of joy among the survivors! Humanity abides. Or at least, the planet abides. Gerioge Carling had it right...we are not going to "save" the planet. The planet is....It just is....