“What a young race wants is not a tradition nor a bunch of culture monuments. It wants an inspiration. And you can’t acquire an inspiration as you can a culture or a tradition, by going to school and by growing old.”
DH Lawrence, Democracy
The Dakota Access Pipeline has been rejected. Great news for those fighting climate change. It would only have helped China and do nothing for America. China, which is consuming so much of the world. It was hard fought this battle and it may not be over yet. But it demonstrates that we have some measure of sanity and decency left. Where there is a conscience, a will, there is a way. With 100-degree temperatures manifesting in the Russian Arctic, a climate system scientists did not expect until decades from now, this action by a federal judge shows that we haven’t completely lost our way. Not yet.
As a whole we are less environmentally healthy now than generations ago. Not just in earning power except for grotesque amounts earned by a very select few recently on the stock market, but across the entire social spectrum. In 1990, America ranked 6th in the world for education and health care. Now 27th and falling. And it is not just the recent eruption of the coronavirus which has made it so, it is the false promise of the American Dream which has nosedived.
America, we have sacrificed ideals to purely materialistic principles. We had the aspirations of the '60s and we find ourselves at ground zero, almost having to start all over again. Except that this time, the country and the world doesn’t have 10 years to experiment with. Today, existence is at stake, not just socially but environmentally. Humanity, its essence, is now an endangered species.
In 1982, as the media has made abundantly clear, slaughterhouse workers made $24 an hour. Today $14. Cheap goods have replaced higher paying jobs. Economists have studied the math, the social disparities, the unemployment rate, but America’s malaise runs much deeper. We have taken democracy for granted and if things don’t improve by the end of the year, this experiment might run into the ground. Because today’s parameters are not just social and economic but run into the depths of our cells, our very biology.
Years ago, on Baffin Island, at an Inuit cooperative for artists, who make some of the most remarkable lithographs on Earth, I spoke to a 20-year old Inuit who showed me the town. He described how his people’s lives had changed and how his people’s culture had been turned upside down by outsiders, their way of life and the changing climate. He emphasized how almost everything his people needed came from the sea and how strange it was that in America everyone was in the pursuit of bigger homes. He then said and then what? We wanted bigger cars. And then what? And larger towns. And then what? His questions went to the heart of our character as a people in the south who waste far too many resources and for whom the environment has always been out there, beyond where the eye can reach. Now, finally, in the last year or so, most people in the U.S. finally admit the reality of climate change and its enormous impact. But we have dawdled too much. It may be too late to make any larger scale difference. We can only mitigate what nature will unleash in the coming decades. Most of the North Pole was covered in ice, as the early 20th century explorers experienced. That will never come back in the timescale of human civilization.
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For decades now, the fantastic waste of giantism, bigger houses, bigger cars, bigger earnings, bigger profits, bigger weapons, the demeaning monster of the superfluous has held sway over the American psyche. And in the process, we have become seduced, flummoxed, mesmerized, possessed and even laid waste by our possessions. But we are in danger of losing a larger reason for being — our ideals and they are intangible. The struggle for democracy hasn’t been resolved. Nor can it be. We are too large. As Lawrence so astutely observed, “Men have reached the point where, in further fulfilling their ideals, they break down the living integrity of their being and fall into sheer mechanical materialism. They become automatic units, determined entirely by mechanical law.”
America is the unhappiest it has been in a generation or more. The size of one’s house doesn’t bring happiness. Debt is overwhelming. Many people cannot pay their water bills, and evictions are soaring. Unemployment and homeless numbers are not where they should be. Lawrence offered in strict contrast to the Puritan, Native killing sensibility, an alternative, which is that America should embrace the best of herself. His vision was one of inclusion. “Let America embrace the great dusky continent of the Red man.” And while the terminology may be awkward in America’s striving to fathom the enormous cosmology of her first inhabitants, he at least recognized the Native mind as a force of nature, as great as the elemental grandeur that makes America unique. In his essay “America, Listen to Your Own,” he recommended that Americans not stand bewildered by Europe’s cathedrals but relish her aboriginal spirit that makes America truly great, her land. Nowhere in Europe is there a Grand Canyon. Nowhere else is there a Yosemite. Or Denali or any of her other treasures that are simply incomparable.
America now needs to fight for these. Her lands are not mere nature parks, or theme parks. Or Nature’s versions of Disneyland. They are the blood, bones and sinews of what is left of this country. Disasters will befall the country under the torment of floods and fires, but the mantle of America’s spirit like that of her people will manifest in the greater collective to safeguard what is left of life and her land ethic because it is eroding. As a contemporary version of the Great Depression looms combined with climate change and a health crisis, we are being transformed into a bonafide Third World country.
Prophetically, Lawrence wrote, “Now is the day when Americans must become fully self reliantly conscious of their own inner responsibility.” Vote for those with vision, not those who make you fear the future. Vote for the inclusive, not those who separate and divide one person from another. And vote for the children and their ability to inherit posterity. It is not the size of the RVs and the length of her highways, nor the number of billionaires that make America great — it is the land, that supports us all, its blood, its rivers and lakes and oceans and its soul, the collective tangible dream that there is something greater than any one of us. It is the absolute horizon that makes this land possible and it is not just an ideal anymore, it is real.
We have had a rugged but competitive individualism for too long. What used to be an abstraction of ideals of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness needs concrete answers — compassion towards others, active, engaged responsibility as citizens and the pursuit of a viable planet, otherwise we all lose. The soil is withering. Hurricanes are getting stronger and more frequent. Liberty is being crowded out by the increasing Berlin Wall between those who have and those who have not. And happiness is hard to calibrate when the world is literally melting. We should discover a new impulse in the very needed realities directed towards saving life and revamping health care and education, saving those who cannot feed themselves, saving wetlands and streams and rivers from would be polluters, getting off fossil fuel emissions so the 21st century makes it to the 22nd century. Those who antagonize the ability to help others, or think them disposable will have to surrender to something larger than the self.
What the coronavirus has done in a few months bringing down fossil fuel emissions will be needed every year this decade. With the Arctic melt in Russia, it will be that many times more difficult to meet COP 21’s goals and may never be attained if we don’t act now.
What used to be abstractions and ideals are now very tactile ends and they affect everyone who breathes, not just the dispossessed or the super wealthy. What all our strivings should strive for, is not the super individualism but a greater rescuing collectivity. It starts by honoring the farmers who grow the food and immigrants who help collect the food and in many incomparable ways. It is by renouncing bigotry and recognizing that the Earth has been under assault by our species for far too long. The ground is literally trembling and shaking and melting beneath our feet and we can no longer let the assault on mother nature continue.
The Doomsday clock is set for a few seconds before midnight, when a generation ago it was 20 minutes before midnight. We have run out of time.
Ideals have existed in the mind. There is no equality as we had envisaged it. No oneness. No brotherhood of man. But microscopic enemies are multiplying at every turn and the soil is buckling everywhere. Biology and the environment are not abstractions. Now the heart has to take over. It is the only organ that will rescue us from our divorce from the planet. An American Encyclical following the Pope’s declaration for the Earth, should be to acknowledge this fragile moment and have America reverse course with discipline and fortitude and integrity in the next few months. Integrity which we are surely lacking. We need to cohere into something larger and fast, because the flag is starting to tear.
Otherwise we risk becoming a permanent backwater.
“But laws and government henceforth, we see it clearly and we must never forget it, relate only to the material world: to property, the possessions of property and the means of life, and to the material-mechanical nature of man.”
DH Lawrence. Democracy
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