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Excerpt from A Language Older Than Words

The Sticky Webbed Machine (p. 398)

From chapter "Connection and Cooperation"

A few years ago I had the opportunity to ask Grey Reynolds, second-in-command of the Forest Service, “If we discover that industrial forestry is incompatible with biodiversity, what then?” The question was of course absurd: I mentioned it that day to a high school jumper I was coaching, who said: “What a stupid question! Everyone knows they’re incompatible.” Reynolds’ non-answer that evening unintentionally validated the teen’s response: “What do you want us to do, live in mud huts?”

Pointing out that the needs of mass production are counter to the requirements of a good culture and incompatible with long-term survival doesn’t mean I don’t like hot showers, baseball, good books, or Beethoven. I wish that the items we produce—the good ones, at least—were separable from the larger processes: I wish we could have hot showers without building dams and nuclear power plants.

On some level of course that is possible. It wouldn’t take long to rig up a system to heat water on my woodstove, then pour it into a reservoir that releases water over my head when I pull a cord. But where do I get the metal and glass for the woodstove? Where do I get the cord, or the reservoir? Where do I get the wood? We seem to have painted ourselves into a corner.

As Lewis Mumford observed, our choices have been grossly limited: “On the terms imposed by technocratic society, there is no hope for mankind except by ‘going with’ its plans for accelerated technological progress, even though man’s vital organs will all be cannibalized in order to prolong the mega-machine’s meaningless existence.” All is not lost, though, as he also remarked: “But for those of us who have thrown off the myth of the machine, the next move is ours: for the gates of the technocratic prison will open automatically, despite their rusty hinges, as soon as we choose to walk out.”

I think he’s a bit optimistic. Although it’s as possible as it is imperative to throw off the mythof the machine, it’s not quite so simple to throw off the machine itself. The modern economy is a complicated web, sticky in every thread, and to disentangle oneself personally is difficult, requiring knowledge (much of it long lost), forethought, effort, vigilance, and access to land. For an entire community to disentangle itself from that web may be well-nigh impossible, given the modern economy’s interconnected nature as well as the overpopulation, resource depletion, and environmental degradation that comes with civilization.

Food exemplifies the difficulty of withdrawing from the modern economy, because you can’t live without it and because not many people produce all of their own. And if it’s uncommon for a modern person to be food self-reliant, it is almost unheard of for a community to supply all of its own food. That is only recently the case; merely one hundred and fifty years ago here in Spokane, the natives lived self-reliantly and sustainably. One of their staples, for example, was salmon. During the massive runs, people placed boxes tinder falls over which salmon leapt on their way to spawn and die. Some of the salmon fell into the boxes; these the people who lived here ate, or dried, to eat later. Salmon and human communities coexisted, and could presumably have done so indefinitely. Now, even had the salmon not been killed by the dams that destroyed the Columbia as a free river, there are too many people here in Spokane—300,000 in the county—for the salmon to have supported all of us over the longterm. Nor can the community take other food from the river; signs near the Spokane River warn that its fish—native and introduced trout—are contaminated with PCBs.

I recently had dinner with George. We did not eat fish. Instead we ate at a wonderful Vietnamese restaurant. I had lemongrass chicken with chile, and George had stir-fried vegetables. Both meals were excellent, and both consisted of foods originating far from Spokane. Although we didn’t ask the cook where the chicken and other foodstuffs came from, it isn’t difficult to construct an entirely plausible scenario. Here it is: the chicken was raised on a factory farm in Arkansas. The factory is owned by Tyson Foods, which supplies one-quarter of this nation’s chickens and sends them as far away as Japan. The chicken was fed corn from Nebraska and grain from Kansas. One of seventeen million chickens processed by Tyson that week, this bird was frozen and put onto a truck made by PACCAR. The truck was made from plastics manufactured in Texas, steel milled in Japan from ore mined in Australia and chromium from South Africa, and aluminum processed in the United States from bauxite mined in Jamaica. The parts were assembled in Mexico. As this truck, with its cargo of frozen chickens, made its way toward Spokane, it burned fuel refined in Texas, Oklahoma, California, and Washington from oil originating beneath Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Mexico, Texas, and Alaska. All this, and I have chickens outside my door.

The making of the vegetarian dish was no less complex. The broccoli in George’s stir-fried vegetables was grown in Mexico. The field was fertilized with, among other things, ammonium nitrate from the United States, phosphorous mined and processed by Freeport McMoRan from deposits in Florida, and potassium from potash deposits in Sasketchewan. This potash was processed by any one of the multinational mining, oil, and chemical companies: Texasgulf, Swift, PPG Industries, RTZ, or Noranda. The pesticides we ingested are equally cosmopolitan.

Another company associated with nearly every facet of our meal was AKZO, which has 350 facilities in 50 countries. The meal utilized many of their 10,000 chemical products: chicken vaccines that enable Tyson to keep their operations relatively disease free; automobile coatings; chemicals used in many steps of the agricultural and manufacturing processes, and so on.

This was truly an international meal, and not merely because we ate at a Vietnamese restaurant. The simple pleasure of eating a fine meal is tied to processes involving literally thousands of people working for many companies in numerous countries, manifesting the intricate and interconnected nature of the global economy, which runs like a well-oiled machine.

The processes behind the meal manifest not only the complexity of the modern economy’s web but also its destructiveness. Our meal was tied inescapably to pernicious activities across the globe: Tyson Food’s monopoly and “virulently antiunion” attitudes, the unspeakable cruelty and debasement of factory farming, and water pollution in Arkansas; loss of topsoil and the depletion of the Oglala aquifer in Nebraska and Kansas; the indescribable immiseration and debasement of labor exploitation in Mexico; air pollution in Japan; toxic mining wastes in Australia, South Africa, and Jamaica; chemical pollution from refineries in four states, and degradation from oil exploration and extraction in four countries; soil toxification, the poisoning of groundwater, more labor exploitation, and the poisoning of agricultural workers in Mexico; air, water, and ground pollution in the United States and Canada, and so on. The food, the cruelty, the pollution, the exploitation, the debasement—all are tied together in this convoluted web that is the modern economy.

The point is not to confess George’s and my own particular hypocrisy, nor to explicitly condemn Tyson, PACCAR, or Freeport McMoRan, although Freeport McMoRan is the single most polluting company in the United States, but instead to point out the interconnectedness of the modern economy and the ubiquity of the destruction it causes. The same exercise could be performed for the clothes we wear (sweat shops in Burma’s military dictatorship, cotton pesticides, polypropylene petrochemicals), the houses we live in (formaldehyde in plywood, deforestation, extinction of fish and wildlife), other consumer products (40,000 American workers killed on the job each year), or any other activity that vibrates the strings of the web.

If our emphasis on production requires that resources be funneled toward producers, which seems self-evident; if the funneling of resources toward the already wealthy is a characteristic of a culture in which, as Ruth Benedict observed, “the advantage of one individual becomes a victory over another, and the majority who are not victorious must shift as they can”; if this funneling is also a cause of widespread inequality and insecurity, then it makes sense that our hyperemphasis on production leads to hypermilitarism. The rich have to protect what they’ve got, and take what they don’t. This is precisely what I observed in myself when I wanted to destroy the chicken-killing coyotes. An emphasis on production requires an emphasis on private ownership requires a means to protect this ownership requires, in the end, murder.

You may say it’s crazy to suggest that hot showers are predicated on dams, nuclear power plants, hydrogen bombs, and napalm. I’d say it’s even crazier to think we’ve built these things if they aren’t necessary for hot showers.

Although it seems clear to me that the two are linked—that is, hot showers, computers, vaccinations, major league baseball games, and compact disks of Mozart on one hand are tied inextricably to global warming, evolutionary meltdown, ubiquitous genocide, institutionalized cruelty to nonhumans, immiseration of the majority (“who must shift as they can”), high rates of incarceration, and NASA space probes on the other (not to mention the designated hitter rule) —it doesn’t really matter whether they are or not. Pretend for a moment that they are. Are you going to argue that compact disks are worth genocide? Or to take a “more difficult” dilemma, are you going to suggest that the wonders of modern medicine (available to the few) are worth the immiseration of the majority? To state these trade-offs are fair, as Grey Reynolds seemed to be suggesting, would immediately show that one is not fit to be a member of a functioning community. It would suggest that one has become deafened to the sufferings of others, and to one’s own conscience.

Now pretend that they are not linked. We can have hot showers and email and a computer that plays chess without having any of the negative characteristics of our culture. This leads immediately to an even more difficult question: in that case, why the hell the ubiquitous genocide, the mass rapes, the biological meltdown?

The primary link is not causal, in that my hot shower does not lead causally to the showers at Treblinka, but familial, in that my own shower and the other are distant cousins. Both ultimately spring from the same ancestor, which is the need for control, and a willingness to deafen oneself to all other considerations. I’m not talking about the simple act of heating water to pour over oneself: I’m talking about the systematic bending of others—human and nonhuman, animate and “inanimate”—to our will. There is obviously a difference between me taking a shower, and Jews being killed in gas chambers. And there is obviously a difference between hot showers and napalm. I’ve not said they’re identical: they’re kissing cousins. One seemingly benign—at least so long as we ignore the death of the salmon from dams, the irradiation of the region from nuclear power plants, the draw-down of the Spokane aquifer from wells, the toxification of the landscape caused by the production of metal and plastic used in plumbing, and so on—and the other obviously malevolent, but not without its uses, as those in power are only too aware.