There is a proverb attributed to various indigenous cultures around the world: “You cannot wake a person who is pretending to be asleep.” That proverb applies, exactly, to us. The United States consists of 5 percent of the world’s population using 25 percent of the global production of energy and, by some accounts, 40 percent of the world’s resources. Within forty years, at the current rate of destruction and resource depletion, there will be no tropical forests left on the earth. The amount of oil extracted from each enormous expanse of rain forest despoiled by our corporations is only enough to satisfy the US demand for five to ten days. We are a vast machine of entropy, breaking down the planet’s life-support systems and destroying indigenous cultures to continue our addictive and unsustainable habits of consumption. Yet we still manage to feel good about ourselves-as long as we stay submerged under the narcotic trance provided by our cultural and entertainment industries, or medicated by antidepressants, the postmodern Soma. Given the facts, almost anything seems preferable to confronting the truth of our situation. But it is only through a profound effort of self-reflection that we can hope to comprehend the multidimensional nature of our planetary crisis and envision, if not a solution, at least a way forward.
Some critics think the current crisis is political, rooted in the structure of the modern nation-state. For the French strategic analyst Alain Joxe, democracy is in danger of losing its legitimacy: “It appears triumphant, while in fact the disparity between rich and poor is growing across the globe,” he notes in his Empire of Disorder (Semiotext(e), $9.95). “Something resembling global structural slavery has reappeared, leaving us with the prospect of Spartan cities with hilotes, or totalitarian empires with camps and slavery.” In fact, concentration of economic power has reached the point where four hundred billionaires control more wealth than two-thirds of the world’s population. Joxe sees the potential for a totalitarian world system ruled by mechanized massacres and surveillance: “Throughout the world, circulating the hallways, one can find the reports, the fictions, the fragments of partial speech that resemble the virus or genes or mitochondria of a Nazi code being formed in the primal soup of global neo-liberalism.” To Joxe, America is an empire that refuses to meet its imperial obligations, regulating global chaos instead of attacking the root causes of global despair. He argues that the European Union is the only counterforce, a position sadly unsupported by recent history in the former Yugoslavia and elsewhere.
For the philosopher Paul Virilio, our crisis is not institutional, but eschatological and final. In Crepuscular Dawn (Semiotext(e), $12.95), a book of recent conversations with Sylvere Lotringer, Virilio claims that the acceleration of technology has led to a claustrophobia from which we cannot escape. “What Marx did not foresee is that when one no longer needs people, they are not masters for all that. They are nothing. The end of mankind as producer, the end of mankind as progenitor (we’re headed towards engineering, test-tube babies, sperm donors), the end of mankind as destroyers (you don’t need soldiers anymore: drones, cruise missiles, you send them off the way you send dogs)-it’s the end of humanity.” In the mirror-maze of Virilio’s thought, apocalypse, the cataclysmic accident, has become an intoxicating prospect. “The world is limitless? No. It is increasingly closed and contracted. . . . Incarceration will become a mass phenomenon, an apocalyptic phenomenon.” Virilio thinks globalization is not only suffocating the world but making the planet uninhabitable. This may be true-a scan of recent World Watch reports would seem to support the claim-but his histrionic tone is unproductive. Virilio’s doomsday rhetoric, like that of some other French thinkers, suggests an unhealthy yearning for annihilation and final closure. Daring to hope, fighting for change, is a more satisfying, if fragile, enterprise.
For me, the best analysis of American society remains Herbert Marcuse’s 1964 classic, One-Dimensional Man. Marcuse critiqued the fundamental “irrational rationality” of our system. Industrialization and mechanization could-and logically should-have led to a reduction in labor time and the creation of a post-work and post-scarcity global society. The response to this deep threat to the controlling apparatus was the creation of “false needs” in the modern consumer; the perpetuation of fear of nuclear war and terrorism; and the use of the mass media to enforce consensus consciousness. He wrote: “Perhaps an accident may alter the situation, but unless the recognition of what is being done and what is being prevented subverts the consciousness and the behavior of man, not even a catastrophe will bring about the change.” I meditated on this sentence in the wake of 9/11. For a few weeks, there was the potential for a genuine opening of awareness. But this new possibility for understanding was quickly suppressed under the “consensus trance” of patriotism and revenge fervor.
Marcuse’s argument in One-Dimensional Man is advanced in one respect by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s recent Empire, which maintains that the most important form of production in postindustrial societies such as our own is the “production of subjectivities.” Our mass society requires the construction of the individual as a willing subject of propaganda and a standardized consumer of goods and cultural product-what Marcuse called the “happy consciousness.” The indoctrination begins at school but must be continually re-imprinted through the media. Hence, those with jobs in the media, in information technology, and in the culture industries unwittingly constitute a new working class-a potentially revolutionary one. According to Hardt and Negri, those of us who assist in “producing subjectivities” with our articles, books, artworks, and films do not recognize our power, as a mobile force of cultural producers, to instigate change. But to do so we must, through a difficult act of reflection and self-realization, overcome our own social conditioning.
In the last decades, as the planet’s life-support systems have eroded, we have been subjected to two accelerating trends: the monetization of every aspect of life, and the mechanization of our biological processes. One form of this mechanization is documented in Fatal Harvest: The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture (Island Press, $75), edited by Andrew Kimbrell. In a series of essays by Wendell Berry, Vandana Shiva, and others, the book demonstrates how the “Green Revolution,” the industrialization of agriculture worldwide (now being extended through biotechnology), have led to the rapid deterioration of land, food, and communities across the world, while endangering the global food supply through monoculturization and destruction of seed stocks. It shows Marcuse’s “irrational rationality” in action-with devastating consequences. It is an eye-opening study of what happens when “corporations rule the world” and a cynical media helps a deluded populace sink into passivity. To take one example, Fatal Harvest examines the origins of our government’s current enthusiasm for food irradiation: Food irradiation was the brainchild of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), now the Department of Energy (DOE), when, in the early 1950s, it became apparent that nuclear waste from military weapons production was (as it still is) a major problem. . . . The DOE has never been shy about articulating its desire to create a commercial need for its cesium-137 waste through the promotion of food irradiation. . . . On average, when food is irradiated commercially, the food receives a radiation dose equivalent to tens of millions of chest X rays, more than enough to break up the molecular structure of the food, destroy essential vitamins and minerals, and create a host of new chemical substances known as radiolytic products. Some of these, such as benzene and formaldehyde, are harmful to human health.
Such information calls to mind the Hopi prophecies of the approaching end-time, which foresee the United States destroyed, “land and people,” by radiation. They also remind us of the current global struggle being waged, sometimes heroically, by farmers and consumers across the world to resist and subvert corporate control of agriculture.
The grassroots battle against corporate rule is an essential saga of our time. If we hope to fully comprehend our situation, though, we must be willing to embrace paradox. In this regard, it is helpful to look at books like John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge’s The Company: A Short History of a Revolutionary Idea (Modern Library, $19.95), which follows the modern corporation from its beginnings in seventeenth-century England to the present day. “Companies have proved enormously powerful not just because they improve productivity, but also because they possess most of the legal rights of a human being, without the attendant disadvantages of biology,” note the authors, who are Oxford graduates and contributors to The Economist. They present corporate evolution as a series of innovations and inspirations, despite “a lengthy series of somewhat bad-tempered laws”seeking to hamper their free development.
There is no doubt that the structure of the corporation-its protean powers of transformation, its relative immortality, its ability to utilize resources and legal codes to maximize profits-is one of our most powerful “enabling technologies.” But that does not mean that this structure, while a necessary evolutionary step, benefits humanity and the planet over the long term. For some critics, the extremity of our current situation calls into question our entire relationship to technology, real and metaphorical: “Machines and humans are basically incompatible,” writes Nicols Fox in Against the Machine: The Hidden Ludditte Tradition in Literature, Art, and Individual Lives (Island Press, $25), a study of cultural resistance to technology from the nineteenth century to the present. “Humans are not machines. We don’t naturally think or act like machines. Our bodies are not shaped and suited to the machine. Thus our attempts to reshape ourselves are doomed to frustration. It is an awkward, clumsy match.”
The authors of The Company stress the enormous productive forces unleashed by capitalism over its destructive aspects. “The company has been one of the West’s great competitive advantages,” they note. “Any young Napoleon who yearns for the scent of global conquest would be better off joining a company than running for political office or joining the army.” What remains unexamined in such a statement is its deeper ideological underpinnings. What is the use of such “global conquest”? What, in fact, is the purpose of the entire system in which we find ourselves? Is technology serving us, or are we serving technology? Is the goal simply to maximize profits and the level of comfort for the privileged few as the global environment melts down and brings a quick end to the human experiment on this planet? And for those privileged few, are they inspired by the vision of bio-engineered life extension in gated communities, looking out on a global wasteland overwhelmed by desperate refugees?
The fact is that there is no world left to conquer. Global capitalism has checkmated itself (a good illustration of this is Arundhati Roy’s Power Politics, on GE and Enron’s efforts to build an enormous and unnecessary power plant in India). To overcome our current “suicide system” requires a deep transformation of values and priorities. We need to root out the willful perversity and narcissism that keeps us fascinated by the trivial and treacly and reinvent ourselves as planetary citizens who put the interests of the biosphere ahead of our own. In the process, we may rediscover our own spiritual mission. It seems unlikely, but we might recall a useful piece of ancient wisdom: “Reversal is the movement of the Tao.”
One good place to begin our reversal is the cutting-edge ecological and social experiments of the Bioneers (www.bioneers.org), an annual conference and year-round nexus for exchange of ideas and information. Icons of the Bioneers include visionaries like John Todd, designer of “living machines” that use plants, fish, and microorganisms to break down toxic wastes from despoiled rivers and wetlands. Another Bioneers regular is Paul Hawken, cofounder of Smith & Hawken and author, with Amory and L. Hunter Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute, of Natural Capitalism, a sourcebook of practical solutions for making businesses energy-efficient and ecologically sustainable. Natural Capitalism offers a rigorous critique of a system that gives industries freedom to destroy the “natural capital” of the planet. Other Bioneers develop alternative currencies, urban agriculture, renewable energy technologies, and so on.
More radical, though seemingly impractical, is the thesis of Jose Arguelles’s Time and the Technosphere: The Law of Time in Human Affairs ( Bear & Co., $20). For Arguelles, a Mayan scholar and instigator of the 1987 Harmonic Convergence, a one-day meditation at sacred sites around the planet, the root of the crisis of our civilization is our relationship to time. Recorded history is the history of a timing error, the adoption of an irregular twelve-month measure over the archaic calendar following the regular cycles of the moon-thirteen lunar months of twenty-eight days each, plus one festival day. The imposition of an arbitrary calendar by Babylonian priests around 3000 BC repressed our innate connection to natural cycles and set us on the path to destruction. “Only harmony can unify. . . . Condition the mind to an irregular standard and the mind will adjust to disorder and chaos as normal conditions of existence,” Arguelles writes. Like Fox, he envisions a future that will be post-technological-but also telepathic, based on the conscious activation of the “noosphere,” the mental envelope around the planet. Arguelles’s worldwide movement, the Foundation for the Law of Time (www.tortuga.com), substitutes a regular lunar calendar for the Gregorian tool-of-the-dominators that has colonized our minds.
However whimsical Arguelles’s project might seem at first, one applauds his willingness to rethink the basic order of our society. We need such visions, because a massive shift will soon be upon us. If we stick to the eschatological script, the apocalypse for the “irrational rationality” of modern society could be, in the most positive light, a “New Jerusalem” for humanity. As Alain Joxe writes, “The only benefit of the globalization of finance and military force for humanity is that it obliges us to think of a global means of equitable distribution, which is the only way to avoid the worldwide civil war that threatens to take the form of cold, barbaric violence.” The question remains: How do we get there from here?
Are the privileged few inspired by a vision of bio-engineered life extension in gated communities, looking out on a global wasteland overwhelmed by desperate refugees?