Friday, June 12, 2009

Borrow. Spend. Buy. Waste. Want... File. Part II

by the Sandwichman
There is the dubious kind of "profit" that exports two-dollar wheat and gets in exchange a Dust Bowl.
We may assume that most predictions put forward in 1937, like those of other years, would now be worth recalling only as examples of fallibility. But at least one prediction published in that year has since come to seem exceedingly perspicacious. It appeared in a book by Kenneth Burke, a literary critic:
Among the sciences, there is one little fellow named Ecology, and in time we shall pay him more attention. He teaches us that the total economy of this planet cannot be guided by an efficient rationale of exploitation alone, but that the exploiting part must itself eventually suffer if it too greatly disturbs the balance of the whole (as big beasts would starve, if they succeeded in catching all the little beasts that are their prey their very lack of efficiency in the exploitation of their ability as hunters thus acting as efficiency on a higher level, where considerations of balance count for more than consideration of one tracked purposiveness).
In her article, "'One little fellow named Ecology': Ecological Rhetoric in Kenneth Burke's Attitudes toward History." [2004]), Marika Seigel points out that Burke's awareness of ecology in 1937 was by no means unique or idiosyncratic. There was, as Burke himself capitalized in his footnote, a Dust Bowl going on and being reported dramatically in the popular press. Consider, for instance, the following montage of images from The New Republic, The Nation, News-week and Paul B. Sears's Deserts on the March. This 'mere sequence' of images, cited in Seigel's article, composes a compelling narrative: scene, characters, back-story, moral.
A black or yellow copper-brown cloud pokes its ugly head over the horizon. It rises slowly at first, then swiftly. It marches angrily, blotting out the world as it comes. Children scurry like chickens to their mother's wing. With a howl the storm burst upon us. The impact is like a shovelful of fine sand flung against the face. People caught in their own yards grope for the doorstep. Cars come to a standstill, for no light in the world can penetrate that swirling murk.

Three men and a woman are seated around a dust-caked lamp, on their faces grotesque masks of wet cloth. The children have been put to bed with towels tucked under their heads. My host greets us: "It takes grit to live in this country."

Two-dollar wheat during the war lured growers farther and farther into the West. The deeper they went, the dryer they found the country. Gang-plows ripped and chopped sage brush and the hardy native grasses. The roots of these plants had been the straw in the brick of the Great Plains' soil. When they were destroyed the soil crumbled. Each year's ploughing left a raw surface exposed to the winds.

No work of ignorance or malice is this but the inevitable result of a system which has ever encouraged immediate efficiency without regard to ultimate consequences.
It takes grit to live in this country.

Bowen, William
. “Our New Awareness of the Great Web.” Fortune Feb. 1970: 198-99.


CZHA said...

Did you intend to have the final hyperlink ("Bowen, William.") circle back to this post?

I hope that there are more installments in the series.

Sandwichman said...

Yes, the "final hyperlink" was only intended as a return to place for anyone who clicked on the hyperlink (footnote) on "We".

There is at least one, probably two but perhaps more installments.

joel hanes said...

I believe that posterity will regard the systematic opposition to ecological thinking by the US Republican Party in the years 1980 to 2008 as one of the greatest moral crimes of history. The explicit aim of such luminaries as James Watt, Anne Gorsuch Burford, Gale Norton, and Dirk Kempthorne was to produce that two dollar wheat, to extract and mine as much as possible as fast as possible, and to suppress public consideration of the consequences.

"One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise."
Aldo Leopold, _Round_River_

The Land Ethic :
"A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise."
Aldo Leopold

"... the highest function of ecology is the understanding of consequences"
Kynes (Liet), _Dune_, Frank Herbert

BruceMcF said...

We in the US definitely had a window open in 1980 to pursue the establishment of the capacity for sustainable energy independence ... given our current structural trade deficit, and macroeconomic implications of oil price shocks that will follow on any recovery that builds up any head of steam, I wonder whether we have any other wind open.

Expansion without restructuring of our structural energy dependence leads to crash, while no expansion under our current system of economic institutions leads to stagnation, in which case the basis for ongoing capital inflows is hard to pin down.

Which is the Scylla and Charybdis that lead me to suspect that only expansion on the back of said restructuring is available over the medium term. And even then, its open to doubt whether the window is still open.