Monday, July 30, 2007
Where Man Is Not. . .
One of my favorite lines from William Blake, of which there are many, is the following axiom:
"Where man is not, nature is barren."
I was explaining this to somebody the other day following her question of whether or not I was "concerned about environmental issues". To be sure, nature has always interested me on the very basic levels of aesthetic appreciation--the delicious solitude of the desert, the sanctuary of the Redwoods, the environmental lessons one can learn from a trip to the Monterey or Seattle aquariums. This is nothing, however, compared to the reverence I feel for the historical achievements of mankind. Blasphemy though it may be, I still find the Industrial Revolution infinitely more fascinating than the budding Green Earth Revolution. In much the same way I feel about the island of Manhattan compared to a Rainbow Gathering. New York is natural. A Rainbow Gathering or a Burning Man, on the other hand, is unnatural. One is a city that operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week--a natural outgrowth of the natural progress of human civilization. The other is a patch of desert that you have to pay a lot of money to get into so you can be natural for a prescribed amount of time until it's all over and you go back home to your "unnatural" cities and your "unnatural" jobs to make your "unnatural" money.
"Where man is not, nature is barren." Or where the principles of mankind are subjugated to the rules of "prescribed" nature, nature itself becomes a barren concept.
So this quote was met with a roll of the eyes and this rebuke: "Well, that sounds like ego."
It is ego. But it was ego with no shame. Blake believed in the preservation, not dissolution of the human ego, for he held that humans were indeed divine creatures; historically producing quantitatively and qualitatively more good than bad. In the culture of "ego death", ego becomes something almost sinful. Something that one is reluctantly holding on to--something that needs to be let go. And since ego is definitively a human concept, to be pro-ego is to be pro-human and to be pro-human is to be anti-earth. And to be anti-earth reflects a new immorality. The new morality is health, for who can argue against health? And the ultimate act of morality is to "save the earth" for the health of the planet and the health of the future.
But why should ego be relinquished? Your ego is what makes you an individual. Ego-death contributes to sameness, to a devolution of art and culture, to a prolonged retardation of our educational system. Education, art, culture: the signposts of human progress. Ego-death, like moral relativism, is the great leveler of standards and the promulgator of blandness. For example, let's say you have two authors: One is William Blake. The other is Judith Krantz.
Ego-death only helps one of these authors. Judith Krantz.
Judith Krantz is qualitatively not as good an author as William Blake, but under the rubric of ego-death, there is no qualitative difference between Blake and Krantz. So the lesser author rises up to meet the great author. The great author is the one that is brought down through ego-death to sit side by side with an inferior product, thus perpetuating the relativistic lie that one man's Judith Krantz is another man's William Blake. Not true. The writings of the dead white male William Blake are qualitatively more important than the writings of the living female Judith Krantz. This is a painful truth that is exposed when ego is allowed to live. Which is why ego is no longer allowed to live anymore. It hurts too many people's feelings, you see.
And it hurts the earth as well.
So what can replace individualistic ego? Communal ego. Like any cult, you check your own personality at the door and subscribe to the ego (or groupthink) of the larger community. Could be religion, could be politics. . .or it could be a little bit of both: the Green Earth Revolution being a prime example.
From the moment Michael Stipe first started doing PSAs for MTV back in the 80s, I thought the environmentalist movement was a bit messianic, not to mention classist. For example, flash forward twenty years. Nowadays, if you can afford a Hybrid automobile, you are communally doing something "healthy" for the environment and are therefore a "good" person who's "making a difference". But if you live somewhere out in the sticks where the need for a car is far greater (even more so than the resident of a green-friendly city like San Francisco whose public transit system conveniently shuts down at midnight) and you can only afford your neighbor's beat-up 1979 LTD, you are doing something "unhealthy" for the environment and are therefore, at best, an "ignorant" person and, at worst, a "bad" person.
That is to say, you are not individualistically trying to make ends meet the best you can. You are part of the evil mankind, the rapers of the earth, the ogres who aren't as "concerned about environmental issues" as you are about getting to and from work, putting food on a table, and raising a family.
I find more beauty than ugliness in what mankind has managed to accomplish (and still can) in his short time on earth. The imaginative creations of mankind, for Blake, were the highest expressions of natural progress. That is, since mankind itself is a byproduct of nature, the creative output of mankind is not only itself a byproduct of nature, but also has the dual privilege of being an objective work of art. Objective works of art do not reach downwards toward the earth from whence they were hatched, but aspire upwards to the cosmic unkwown, the enlightening universals, the Divine.
If one believes in God, "nature"--in the colloquial sense of trees and mountains and lakes and streams--is itself a work of art. This is how the ontological argument of teleology is defined: an argument for the existence of God based on the empirical presentation of nature. If one does not believe in God, however, nature is simply a de facto state of things. An atheist , for example, can acknowledge that nature is beautiful, is something that mankind should seek to preserve, and that there are many benefits behind getting in touch with nature.
Yet this is all too obvious. Like the question of "who can argue for disease?", the same can be said of the question, "who can argue for the destruction of the earth?" Enlightened individuals would not argue for either regardless of how devoted they are to the Green Earth campaign. The atheist differs from the theist on environmental issues in that ontologically, despite his reverence for the earth, the atheist is not entitled to argue that nature is a work of art. In an atheistic schemata, nature is a work of art that has no author. And if nature has no author, nature itself becomes God. Something that was not written, but rather wrote itself into being.
If nature, as science tells us, is the result of a series of random cosmic and biological accidents happening throughout the history of the universe, then nature cannot be considered a work of art any more than a patch of discoloration on a tortilla can be considered the manifestation of Christ. In this sense, nature is barren. Unfeeling, uncaring, and entirely neutral to any hypothetical desire to "save" it. If nature is God and God is to be defined as omnipotent and omnipresent, who are we to try and "save" it?
Moreover, if God (as nature) can be this seriously wounded by its progeny (mankind), well it isn't much of a God, is it? Conversely, a mankind that considers itself capable of saving God from destruction would have to be a bit messianic, no?
If there was an external Divinity, however, responsible for creating the known universe (nature), that known universe therefore becomes a work of art, for it now has an author. It was written, created, brought into existence as artistic progeny from the mind of God.
These ideas are troublesome to many in the postmodern environmental movement because nature becomes something less than a terminal theological outpost. If nature is not the de facto state of things (in other words, not "God"), then the Green Earth campaign is fighting for a false ending, a fictitious future utopia thousands of years away. Meanwhile, our present becomes saturated with tax initiatives, the supression of alternative scientific debate on the topic of global warming, Hollywood celebrities and well-intentioned politicians glomming on to "save the earth" refrains (culminating in bizarre and hypocritical scenarios where figurehead Al Gore is beamed into a Tokyo superdome as a hologram to lecture about the earth-saving powers of incandescent lightbulbs). If God is the final author of nature, the larger community is working merely to save one of God's creations and not creation itself. Consequently, the perceived nobility and magnanimity of this task is dwarfed in significance. The communal ego begins to die out and the individual ego is encouraged to emerge once again.
And with the re-emergence of the indivudal ego, practical questions also emerge. Away from the slogans and PSAs and sound bytes and Oscar presentations and all that comes from communal ego--the individual is free to think for himself once more. He can examine practical questions for himself, such as "How did all other major ice ages manage to end before mankind was even around to put his footprint in the snow?" "Is it fair to tell third-world African countries what they can and can't do with their own natural resources like coal and oil?" "Is it fair to instruct them to use solar paneling (for many the most expensive and least efficient form of energy) to run their already shabby medical clinics?" "Why did a founding member of Greenpeace, Patrick Moore, split from his own organization over the issue of global warming?" "What are we to make of the fact that in the 1970s, environmentalists were predicting a period of global cooling and the onset of a new ice age?"
Here's a doozy: The total concentration of carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere is 0.054%. The human contribution to this number is much less than 1%. Volcanoes produce significantly more carbon dioxide per year than humans.
Is it accurate for Al Gore to point at a slide of "cracked earth" in the Darfur region of Sudan and imply that global warming is adding considerably to the "other numerous problems those people already have" without ever specifying what those "other numerous problems" might be? (Islamic-sponsored genocide of their own people, in case you didn't already know).
Let's say communally that we really did wish to "Save Darfur", for example. Does it help or hurt to imply at a mass-media level of publicity that global warming might be of equal concern to the people of Darfur as fears of having their heads chopped off while they sleep by Janjaweed terrorists? My hunch is that the people of Darfur don't really give a shit if Greenland melts in the year 5178 or that their children's children's children's. . .
children's children's children's. . .
children's children's children's children MIGHT have to deal with rising sea levels.
No. Because they're probably not going to have any children, because they'll be fucking dead. And not from global warming.
"Where man is not, nature is barren."
Mankind is not in Darfur right now. Animals are running the show in Darfur.
Nature in Darfur right now is barren. Bloody. Strewn with body parts.
So where is mankind? Mankind is here in the West, telling itself and the third-world that the cracked earth of Darfur is adding considerably to the numerous other problems those people already have.
I could be wrong, however. Maybe the communal ego is right. Maybe I should subjugate my own annoying "rain on the communal parade" individual ego to that of the larger community. What if we could talk to the Janjaweed terrorists about biodegradable green-friendly alternatives to sawing off heads and mowing down children with AK-47s? We might not have to fire a single shot.
"Where mankind has its head up its ass, nature is a hypothetical utopia and a practical nightmare."
Can we appreciate being human once more? Now that would be a revolution I just might join.
Posted by Will Franken at 1:21 PM