Tag Archives: books

“The Overstory” and The Gift of Hope

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“What does life want from us,” asks one of the characters in Richard Powers’ The Overstory, a fictionalized ode to trees, which celebrates their value to the planet and all its life forms.

A writer friend once told me novels are either “character-driven” or “plot-driven.”  The Overstory is neither.  It is “message-driven.”  It suggests that humankind, which has been so destructive to the planet, can become a healing force through individual and group respect for all its life forms, most specifically its trees and forests.  This is Powers’ twelfth novel, which won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.   Powers claims The Overstory represents the culmination of his career.

The book’s nine main human characters come together, either physically, or through reputation, following unique experiences with trees, or a tree, and subsequent dedication to saving them.  Nicholas Hoel grows up in on a farm in Iowa, where one of the last surviving American chestnuts has been on the family farm over a hundred years.  Douglas, a Vietnam vet, was saved by a banyan tree when his parachute landed in it.  Patricia Westerford, a PhD botanist, began learning the secrets of nature from her father, who was a county extension agent.  Westerford translates the language of the forest into imagery mere human beings can understand.  Olivia is the awakened tree spirit after a near-death experience from accidental electrocution.

A key feature, for me, is the loose organizations of individuals formed for a shared purpose and one larger than themselves and larger than humanity.  The sense of cooperation with nature transcends today’s prevalent, commercialized attitude of dominating and subduing it.

The human characters of the book are mostly damaged, either physically or emotionally, and in search of a sense of belonging to something greater than themselves.  Each has a piece of the puzzle, that put together, reveals the Tree of Life and some of its many budding branches. That the main characters have or develop serious disabilities suggests human limitations do not prevent individuals from accomplishing great and enduring things.

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Hickory                                           kco2016

The book also reveals an expanded sense of time, based on the long view of trees over millennia and generations.  It’s appropriate that the characters age, with some dying, during the course of the novel.  It’s appropriate that long-term—from human but not tree perspective—consequences ensue from the actions of youth.  The book emphasizes that life is long, if you’re a tree or a forest, and if humanity doesn’t raze you or incinerate you to create junk mail and GMO row crops for export.

While the book’s style is not dogmatic, the characters exhibit an aura of spirituality, animism, or tribal devotion for the delicately interwoven life forms that contribute to the forests’ integrity.

The enormity of the research Powers must have put into the book humbles me, yet he does it all so gracefully that it never comes across as sanctimonious or condescending.  It’s as though he has adopted the quiet wisdom of his ancient sylvan subjects.

On the surface, the ending is anticlimactic, but on a deeper level it plants seeds of consciousness, which I suspect will grow in the “long time” span of trees.  The individual characters grow old, and they disperse.  Only Neelay, the paraplegic, continues to create idyllic forest-loving computer games that seek to build communication between man and nature.  The implication is that artificial intelligence will save mankind from itself, through amassed data and algorithms that sort through it to consolidate understanding.  But Neelay’s solution is only one bud on the ever-branching tree of life.

The Overstory has changed my attitude in a profound way.  I found the book inspiring because the author demonstrates a cooperative way to generate enthusiasm beyond the gloom and doom that characterizes today.  He does it by showing the government for the self-serving corporate enabler it is, and by showing how individual and small group initiative has the power to shift consciousness individually but also collectively over time.

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Looking up:  Pecan with Spanish moss                                   kco2006

One of the book’s most powerful draws is its brutal recognition of its characters’ flaws, even as they perform acts that bring on their own downfall.  Ultimately, the book is growth-directed but in unpredictable ways.  Just as trees branch and bud, The Overstory grows in imagination even after its end.  Maybe that’s the message:  it plants a seed in human consciousness, that un-imagined answers are within reach, but we need to open our senses to them.  You don’t learn about life by destroying it and putting it under a microscope.

Somewhere between religion and science, there may be a path toward self-and-planetary sustainment.  Maybe that’s my take-home message:  it doesn’t come from above, an external authority, or any experts.  It comes from the heart and from an appreciation of life for its own sake.

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Adventures in Living: Purchasing Under the Tamarined Tree

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I went to Barnes & Noble to order Rosaliene Bacchus’ novel, Under the Tamarind Tree, (rosalienebacchus.blog) but it was a humiliating and infuriating experience.  I made a special trip to B&N to order that book.  On walking in, I congratulated myself on my “pull through economics” philosophy.  As opposed to “trickle down economics,” “pull through” means using brick-and-mortar stores to assist awareness and distribution of desirable products.

I had $23 in cash plus change and wanted coffee so figured I could just barely afford the book at $16.95.  I was shocked to see a $4.99 shipping charge on the bill.  The clerk who processed the order said Barnes & Noble has recently instituted a shipping charge even on books that come to the store.  I began to wonder what is the advantage of a brick-and-mortar store if I have to pay shipping anyway?  So I went to the café to pay for the book and to get coffee.  But sales tax—which hadn’t been listed on the receipt—put me over the top.  There was a long line before and behind me.  I was ready to defer the book purchase until I had more money, but up speaks a curly-headed young guy from two people back in the line to ask how much I was short.  “Three dollars,” says the cashier.  He hands her the money, thereby rescuing B&N’s sale.  I knew he thought he was doing me a favor, and I appreciated it, but I felt trapped in a situation I would have handled quite differently on my own.  I gave the guy my $1.25 in quarters, and he got the $0.54 change, so his total investment came to about $1.25.  I thanked him and learned he is beginning to write a novel himself, a futuristic fantasy novel dealing with monotheism vs. polytheism.

Later, I realized I could have written a check, but I was too flummoxed to think of that.  There was no urgency to buy the book.  I could have held on to the receipt and paid next week.  I was actually thinking of by-passing B&N entirely and looking on Amazon for it, so annoyed I was with the shipping charge.  But there’s more to it than this, because I resent buying anything these days.  Books are falling off my bookshelves.  I’ve also virtually stopped reading novels and want to read this only because Rosaliene wrote it and Sha’Tara (ixiocali.com) raved over it

I stewed about this, and about this home delivery trend, off and on, all day.  I noted how stressful the hidden costs were.  A $16.95 book should not cost $23.48 at the cash register.  As I sat the next morning finishing the B&N coffee (in my reusable cup), I contemplated the emotional valence of this superficially insignificant experience.

Philosophically, I support brick-and-mortar.   The trend in commerce is to promote home delivery, ultimately isolating people even more.  At Kroger the other day, I spoke with an employee who was gathering groceries for home-delivery shoppers.  I asked if he tried to find the best vegetables and he said yes.  He is not allowed to choose items on sale, though.

I appreciate being able to see and touch what I’m buying, to squeeze my own tomatoes, and to have the social experience of meeting people on casual terms in public or commercial places.  Barnes & Noble is one of the very few places with easy parking that I can go to sit with coffee, air-conditioning, good light, and a plethora of interesting and stimulating reading material, and frankly, people like the guy who helped pay for my book and coffee.

The next day, I went to B&N and apologized to one of the café employees for the commotion I caused, but I also presented my case for resuming free shipping to the store.  I said that nice guy behind me in line saved B&N a sale.  I had a large audience, yet again, not intentionally.  I said she should tell her bosses the shipping charge is bad for business, that enhanced traffic into the store offsets the cost of shipping to the store.  When people come in to pick up their orders, they might buy other things, like coffee, at least, whereas home delivery prevents the browser from finding other things to buy.  In fact, I said, I might just write corporate B&N myself.

Jenique told me she believed they were sending the book to my house.  I went into a long (sort of, being aware of customers waiting) tirade about how I hate home delivery because FedEx and UPS drive all over my lawn, and why do we have stores if they don’t store things?

As an advocate of print media, I want books to flourish.  This trend to electronics may be here to stay, but I doubt it will fully supplant hard copy publishing, just as digital currency cannot replace tangible means of exchange, except in the ethereal realms of macroeconomic imagination.

Anyway, I decided I do feel some loyalty to B&N, because the staff is friendly, and coffee prices haven’t yet gone up.  I’d checked Amazon for Under the Tamarind Tree and found no advantage in buying it on-line, so the book is becoming famous locally for its contribution to my latest “pull through economics” soapbox.

Apparently Walmart is initiating drone delivery in Virginia, fueling my fears regarding the implications of commercial drones.  Must my birds now compete with drones for airspace?  How much noise will drones make in delivering pizza to neighbors?  They reputedly can go up to 70 mph.  Worse, will the USPS start using drones to deliver junk mail to my front lawn?

I hope I die before that future arrives.  I may need to get a a gun.  I can go on a shooting spree, with drones and excessive traffic turn signals for targets.

It became part of my rant to Barbara and Ed as we walked back through the mall after the coffee klatch.  Ed said Walmart is not only delivering groceries, but it will send robots into your house and put the food in your refrigerator.  Barbara expressed doubt that I will be able to avoid the drone trend but did agree there are fewer and fewer places where people can meet and interact informally.  Brick-and-mortar stores like B&N do serve a valuable but unappreciated social function.

So said I to Ned, a B&N customer service employee. I spoke with on the way out.  I wanted to make sure the book was coming to the store, even though Jenique said she would take care of it.  Yes, he said.  He explained that the book is being published on demand by a self-publishing operation that requires pre-payment of book and delivery charges, and that B&N makes no money on the deal.  I explained my “pull through economics” philosophy, how important it is to sustain brick-and-mortar stores, how loyal I am to B&N–even though it is a corporate monster– largely because of the friendly and helpful employees.  I left him all smiles.

Footnote:  The book was well worth the trouble.  It was so gripping that I read it in two sittings:  a heart-warming story about life and culture in British Guiana in the 1950s and 1960s, as it was undergoing the transition to become Guyana, independent of British rule.

Mark Twain’s “The Mysterious Stranger”: Commentary

bkstwainmyst1916 I recently read Mark Twain’s The Mysterious Stranger.  This 90-page novella was Twain’s last fictional work (with the presumed final chapter found in his papers after his death in 1910).  The book was first published in 1916.  For its insight into human foibles, it could have been written today.

The introduction and afterword say Twain (Samuel Clemens) achieved early and enduring fame, married well, and was accepted by the social elite in the Northeast.  However, toward the end of his life, he suffered repeated hardship, with the successive deaths a number of people close to him, including a favorite daughter and his wife.  He was a victim of embezzlement and had to go back on the lecture circuit to pay debts.  His writing became increasingly bitter and cynical.

I did not see The Mysterious Stranger as bitter and cynical, unless I am.  It seemed realistic, and while I don’t believe in pre-destination, I can relate to much of Twain’s philosophy about the Moral Sense, war, and the value of humor, as well as the illusory nature of time and the dream-like quality of life.  The final message, to “dream better!” offered hope.

The story is set in an idyllic hamlet in Eseldorf [Jackassville], Austria in 1590.  Three boys, best friends from the cradle, meet a stranger on a woody hilltop, where they have gone to have a smoke.  They’ve discovered they don’t have the flint and steel needed to light their tobacco, but the stranger blows on their pipes and lights them.

He tells the boys–Theodur, the narrator, Nikolaus, and Seppi–that his name is Satan, not “the” Satan, but a favored nephew.  He has superhuman powers but is incapable of sin, because he has not been cursed with a Moral Sense.  He is vivacious and charming, can perform wonderful tricks, and demonstrates by creating a tiny village with living miniature people, then crushes them all without a sign of remorse.  He says they are nothing to him, that he can make anything out of thin air.  Human beings are paltry, pitiful creatures.  Animals, which have no Moral Sense, are far superior.

As the story unfolds, the boys witness the marvelous but disturbing breadth and depth of Satan’s talents, including reading minds, predicting the future, changing destinies by changing simple acts, like having Nikolaus get up to close a window during a storm, thus changing his entire future.  Instead of the long, miserable life he would have lived, that act would lead to his drowning in twelve days.  Satan claimed this was merciful.

He bestows seeming gifts that bring ultimate despair to those so favored, like placing over 1,100 gold ducats in Father Peter’s lost wallet.  Father Peter was then jailed as a thief when the town astrologer claimed the priest stole the money from him.  Satan said Father Peter would be acquitted, but he would never know his name was cleared.  Still, he would be happy the rest of his life

Throughout, Satan is contemptuous of the human race.  He claims wars are never started for any clean purpose.  “’You perceive,’ he said, ‘that you have made continual progress.  Cain did his murder with a club; the Hebrews did their murders with javelins and swords; the Greeks and Romans added protective armor and the fine arts of military organization and generalship; the Christian has added guns and gunpowder; a few centuries from now he will have so greatly improved the deadly effectiveness of his weapons of slaughter that all men will confess that without Christian civilization war must have remained a poor and trifling thing to the end of time’

“Then he began to laugh in the most unfeeling way, and made fun of the human race, although he knew that what he had been saying shamed us and wounded us.  No one but an angel could have acted so; but suffering is nothing to them; they do not know what it is, except by hearsay.”

And “It was wonderful, the mastery Satan had over time and distance.  For him they did not exist.  He called them human inventions, and said they were artificialities.”

Father Peter went mad in his jail cell before learning he had been exonerated.  He imagined he was an emperor.  Satan told Theodur that only mad people can be happy.  “I have taken from this man that trumpery thing which the race regards as Mind . . .”

Theodur comments Satan “didn’t seem to know any way to do a persona a favor except by killing him or making a lunatic out of him.  I apologized, as well as I could; but privately I did not think much of his processes—at that time.”

Satan continues to denounce man’s failings, claiming man prides himself on fine qualities he does not possess.  His only saving grace is a sense of humor, which he doesn’t really have but only a mongrel notion of it.  The human race has only one effective weapon—laughter.  “Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand.”

Eventually, Satan comes to bid Theodur goodbye.  He has been called to another corner of the universe.   “Life itself is only a vision, a dream,” he says.  ”And you are not you—you have no body, no blood, you are but a thought . . . you will remain a thought, the only existent thought, and by your nature indistinguishable, indestructible.  But I, your poor servant, have revealed you to yourself and set you free.  Dream other dreams, and better!”

“He vanished, and left me appalled, for I knew, and realized, that all he had said was true.”

I wondered why this book made such a strong impression on me.  Maybe, with all the dystopic visions clouding today’s events, The Mysterious Stranger offered some hope of a reprieve, by dreaming “other dreams, and better!”

 

 

Predicting Uncertainty

 

 

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It’s impossible to know what might have been.  It’s just as impossible to know what lies ahead.  I just finished reading a biography of Albert Einstein (Einstein: His Life and Universe, Walter Isaacson, 2007).  It struck me that Einstein wanted to believe in a universe that could be predicted, if only we knew the hidden laws.  He thus believed in predestination, insisting that “God doesn’t play dice with the universe.”  He wanted to believe in strict cause and effect.

In this regard, Einstein ran up against, and spent the latter part of his life, trying to refute the implications of his own 1905 paper on the “photoelectric effect” which won the Nobel Prize in 1922.  He relied on the work of Max Planck, who in 1900 had come up with an equation that described the curve of radiation wavelengths at each temperature.  This required the use of a constant (now called Planck’s constant) that accounted for the sudden shift in wavelengths of light emitted by metal at different temperatures.  Planck believed these “quanta” were not properties of the light itself, but of the interaction between matter and light.  It was Einstein who suggested these “quanta” were properties of the light itself.  Thus he and Planck laid the foundations for quantum mechanics, but neither was comfortable with the fact that their ideas undermined the Newtonian concepts of strict causality and certainty they cherished.

Based on these beginnings, the rising physicists of “quantum mechanics,” like Neils Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, recognizing that light demonstrated the dualistic qualities of particles or waves, refuted age old ideas of an objective reality, existing apart from the observer.  They began to think in terms of probabilities.  Heisenberg developed his “uncertainty principle” in 1927.  This asserted that it is impossible to know the exact position and momentum of a particle, such as an electron, at the same time.  Knowing the precise location precludes certain knowledge of the momentum, and vice versa.

Quantum mechanics expanded the world of physics far beyond Isaac Newton’s absolute, objective universe, based on observable laws. But throughout his life, Albert Einstein resisted the vagueness of non-absolutes, even though he made his own contributions to quantum physics.  Einstein’s stubborn desire for predictability, which is the ostensible goal of science, for some people, could not adapt to the uncertainty of probabilities.  As another early quantum physicist, Erwin Schrodinger, might explain, the wave function of probabilities exists until an actual event is observed, at which point the probability wave collapses and the probability of the event’s occurrence becomes 100%.  Linked with this is the idea that the observer cannot be objective but must be considered a participant in the event.

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That the observer necessarily affects the experiment is an integral component of quantum physics, but the principle has more general implications, too.  Books like The Tao of Physics (Fritjof Capra, 1975), or The Dancing Wu Li Masters (Gary Zukav, 1979), describe how modern physics parallels the beliefs of Oriental mystics.  As noted in The Dancing Wu Li Masters, the Chinese term for “physics” is “wu li,” which means “patterns of organic energy.”  This relates to the pervasive quality of “qi,” sometimes described as “life force,” or “vital energy,” which is said to pervade the cosmos, including all matter and non-matter.  The idea of ‘qi” is ignored in Western thinking, as if life exists apart from science or medicine.

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Western science presumes to disconnect life from the mechanical universe we imagine, but this is a relatively modern development.  Astronomy grew out of astrology and chemistry grew from alchemy, ancient belief systems that gave life to the heavens and to earthly minerals.  The search for cosmic laws or the language of the gods is as old as man’s awareness of the sun, moon, the planets and constellations, and their mysterious cycles.  All these have been used to make predictions.  The seer, the fortune teller, the prognosticator–these are as powerful as ever.  Modern superstition confers blessings on the predictors of weather, stock market, politics, or football games, as well as on the climate changers and the Apocalyptic soothsayers of the twenty-first century.

From a quantum mechanics point of view, however, it might be said that nothing can be predicted with certainty.  We only can assess probabilities and can’t know all the contingencies that affect events.  There is no objective reality, no ultimate outcome, no absolute end-point.  Time is endless.  There is only process, and no one knows where it will lead.  The possibilities are infinite.

 

To Fight or to Win?

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Squire (left) and Speckles sparring through the gate, 2015

I wonder if some people just like to fight.  I don’t like it but grew up thinking it was necessary.  I don’t like competition of any kind, including competitive sports or games, but I live in a country where it’s anathema to admit it.

I’m an avoider who is more inclined to get caught up in other people’s battles.  Like the Greek god Chiron, the wounded healer, I’m the innocent bystander who gets injured by a mis-aimed arrow.  I don’t understand the purpose of martyrdom.  Did Jesus help anyone by dying on the cross?

My roosters like to fight, so I have to keep them apart.  They spar through the gate and attack the hardware cloth that keeps them from doing real damage to each other.  But I’m the one who suffers most if either of them gets hurt.  Son Speckles blinded father Squire in one eye before he knocked off his own spurs several years ago.  Now Squire has torn off his own back toenail and his toe may be broken.

Over the years, both have mellowed, and I wonder if either of them really wants to win.  If something happened to either of them, I believe the other would sorely miss the adrenalin rush they generate in each other.

I’ve worked with Vietnam veterans who complained of flashbacks and nightmares from combat duty.  After Vietnam, life in the United States seemed bland in comparison.  Some admitted to being “adrenalin junkies.”  Another man claimed to like being angry.  Is this the attraction of contact sports like football, or the intensity of war?  The emotional intensity of presumably “masculine” activities?

Our current US culture seems bent on fighting, arguing, opposing and otherwise disagreeing about everything from the climate to sexuality, but I wonder if there’s any purpose to it, except to fight.  Does anyone really expect to win, and if so, what would be resolved?

I recently read the book Fear:  Trump in the White House, by Bob Woodward, about the Trump campaign and presidency so far.  The book’s title is based on a Trump quote, “Real power is—I don’t even want to use the word—fear,” from an interview with the author.  Essentially, the book says nothing new but it helps straighten out all the names and roles played by those close to the current administration.

The other night I finished reading a biography of Andrew Carnegie, an 800-page tome by David Nasaw, published in 2006.  Carnegie, who lived from 1835 to 1919, was a self-made multi-millionaire who was brutally competitive in his businesses but vowed to dispose of all his money to worthy causes before he died.  In his later years he became almost obsessed with the idea of world peace though arbitration.  However, a sizable portion of his wealth had been derived from government contracts to manufacture steel plates for battleships.  Later, his idea for a League of Peace may have inspired the League of Nations and later the United Nations.  He thought war barbaric, was outspoken in his views and used his wealth and fame to give unsolicited advice to presidents Cleveland, McKinley, Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson, as well as German Kaiser Wilhelm II, and notables in the British government.  He feared the arms race between the UK and Germany as early as 1905, beginning with the British Dreadnaught and other monster battleships, but could not establish traction for his ideas regarding universal disarmament or arbitration.  It appears the outbreak of World War I broke him, and he—a vociferous showman—went silent for almost four years.

Nasaw says that Carnegie was given to hero worship, and Theodore Roosevelt was his assigned disciple of peace, despite evidence.  History shows that Roosevelt was an imperialist and war hawk, who rode to glory in the Spanish-American War; as president he seized the land that became Panama through instigating insurgents against Columbia; and he volunteered for World War I when the US entered, although he was deemed too old at the time.  Roosevelt referred to “righteous wars,” and Carnegie replied that all warring individuals and nations believe their particular cause is “righteous.”

The current US President, Donald Trump, campaigned on the several issues regarding war, suggesting the US withdraw from Afghanistan, among other things, according to the book Fear.  However, he is surrounded by hawkish military advisers who apparently have convinced him to stay the course, at least for now.  He has received praise and criticism for his contentious approach to friends and foes alike.  His provocative demeanor invites retaliation from all those “righteous” warriors throughout the world.

There are those who believe refusing to fight indicates weakness or cowardliness, but history shows that fighting fire with fire only makes bigger fires.  Does anyone win in a war?  In Lincoln’s war, Carnegie was among those, like JP Morgan and John D. Rockefeller, who hired substitutes to fight for them, and they got rich off the war.  Who else benefited?  The slaves were freed, but slavery was already dying out, if Thomas J. DiLorenzo’s The Real Lincoln is to be believed.  DiLorenzo claims Lincoln wanted a war. Lincoln may have won the war, but he lost his life.  Some people would rather fight than win.

 

 

 

What Rules the Rulers?

Aldous Huxley published Brave New World in 1932.  The novel describes a futuristic society that boasts a world government with the motto “Community, Identity, Stability.”  The year is After Ford 632, and babies are decanted rather than born.  Eugenics has been refined to the point where viviparous births no longer occur.  Human ova are extracted from purchased ovaries, manually fertilized, and grown in bottles to produce specific castes of individuals, from Alpha to Epsilon.  In the controlled process, growth and development are intentionally stunted in the lower castes, to pre-condition them to lives of menial labor and servitude.

There are no families, and the words “mother” and “father” are obscenities.  There is no social unrest, no disease, and no war.  Books like Shakespeare and the Bible have been banned, because they are old.  The Brave New World emphasizes everything new, with consumerism raised to the level of a religion, in fond memory of “Our Ford.”  Solitude and individuality are considered subversive.  Sexual promiscuity is promoted, and the popular “feelies” are pornographic movies with sensual enhancement.  The feel-good drug, soma, is dispensed freely as a work benefit, allowing everyone to maintain a state of happiness at all times.

Author Aldous Huxley was a teacher at Eton College to Eric Blair, pseudonym George Orwell, who in 1949, published his own dystopic novel, 1984.  When offered a chance to review 1984, Huxley was impressed but claimed his own dystopia was more realistic.  Huxley believed that punishment only deters undesirable behavior a short time, but a system of rewards prompting people to love their servitude was more effective.  He believed his vision in Brave New World, in which soma and easy gratification of desire kept discontent at bay, more probable than the 1984 notion of a fear-and-punishment-based society.

It strikes me that the themes of the books are similar, in that both are dystopias dealing with world government, including control by a powerful, if shrouded, elite.  The parallels between what Huxley and Orwell predicted and today’s political climate are strongly evocative, showing how beliefs seeded years and centuries ago grow over time.  There is nothing new about empire building, or the desire for control of larger and larger areas or groups of people.  Fundamentally, it comes down to the desire to control the minds of others, on a grand scale, to make them love (Huxley) or fear (Orwell) their masters.  Individuality, the anarchist, the malcontent, the extremist, become the enemies of the state and threatening to the masses, who are comfortable in the status quo.  These outliers must be discouraged, dis-empowered, disdained, discredited, disliked, or eliminated, if they veer too far from accepted norms.

While people claim to want leaders, they also resist the authority they delegate.  In Brave New World, perpetual child-like dependency allows for the social stability that seems to ensure the lasting power of the ruling class.  It also creates a state of perpetual stagnation, in which people have no free will and face no challenges or consequences that force them to grow and, theoretically, mature.

It seems unlikely to me that the world government that some hope for and others fear will ever be attained, if only because few people fully submit to control by others.  They subvert outside authority through passive resistance or passive aggression if not outright defiance.  The more control government claims, the more unrest it creates, until the forces of resistance overwhelm the efforts to contain it.

Brave New World Revisited, published in 1958, contains twelve essays in which Huxley explored the differences between democracies and totalitarian governments.  He worried that over-population would lead to over-organization, with increasing efforts by the State to fit individuals into machine-like roles, as in corporations.  He emphasizes that organizations are not living beings.  Freedom is necessary in order to become fully human.

Both Brave New World and 1984 depict totalitarian governments teetering on their foundations, forced to use extreme tactics to maintain control of the people they have subjugated.  But for what?  Are the World Controllers in Brave New World, or Big Brother’s henchmen in 1984 any happier for their lofty positions?  What gratification comes from ruling over a passive and demoralized people, those who are kept in a state of perpetual child-like submissiveness?

It’s hard for me to imagine a totalitarian government lasting for long, simply because its foundations would be composed of homogenized individuals who have never learned to stand on their own, support themselves or each other, and are not motivated or able to carry their presumptive masters.

 

Wealth of Nations Synopsis

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Adam Smith’s landmark book, Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, is a 500-plus page treatise on economics, oft cited bur rarely read, except by economists and masochists like me.  If you can overlook Smith’s sing-song style, his tediousness, repetition, generalizations, vague and archaic terminology, and inconsistent reasoning, the book is worth reading, especially as a social history.  It is important to recognize that Smith writes as a spokesman for the monarchy and the wealthy stock holders, landowners, and mercantilists who made the book an immediate hit and won him a position as Commissioner of Customs in Edinburgh, Scotland.  His “commercial society” has enshrined him as the “first modern economist,” or “father of modern capitalism.”

A confluence of factors contributed to the conditions of Smith’s time.  The “industrial revolution” began in Britain with the invention of the steam engine in 1712, first used for pumping water out of coal mines.  Other inventions quickly followed, eventually leading to the growth and dominance of the British Empire, through manufacture, trade, and colonization. Another feature of 1700’s Britain involved war and military conquest.  As an island nation, with England, Scotland, and Wales united as the United Kingdom, or “Great Britain,” in 1707, it developed its sea power and had established dominance in the seas and in trading routes by the time Smith wrote Wealth of Nations.  Competition with other powers brought war and its heavy costs.

Wealth of Nations refers repeatedly to the “late war,” which presumably was the Seven Years’ War, fought between 1756 and 1763.  One of the book’s primary aims appears to be exploring the various modes of taxation the king could use to pay debts from that war.

Meanwhile, the industrial revolution was bringing a rapid shift in social and cultural dynamics, as Great Britain went from predominantly agrarian, rural society to one of urban and industrial predominance.  The textile industry was probably the first to be affected in a major way, with the invention of the spinning jenny–“jenny” is a nickname for “engine”–by Englishman James Hargreaves in 1764.

The iron industry also underwent fast transformation, and with it, the transportation industry.  Communication and banking adapted accordingly.

Because industrialization necessitated large capital investments, business ownership shifted from individuals to groups, including partnerships and corporations.  The banking industry grew by leaps and bounds after the Bank of England was first chartered in 1694.  The London Stock Exchange boomed after the Seven Years’ War.  The government became increasingly dependent on it to finance wars.

Like many of his contemporaries, including Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and George Washington, he was fascinated by machinery and its commercial potential.

In the first pages of Wealth, Smith presents the plan for the book, summarizing that the real wealth of a nation comes down to the “annual produce of the land and labor of the society.”

He then distinguishes between towns and agriculture and glorifies machines for facilitating division of labor, thus efficiency and productivity.  He uses pin-making as an example, with speed of production due to division of labor the only criterion.

Smith claims farmers are lazy, because as one-man operations, they waste time changing tasks, whereas a group of men in a “workhouse,” each doing one small task repeatedly, are able to produce much more in the same time period.

He says “Cochin-china” is one of several Asian countries that have sea access as well as extensive canals inland, but most of their trade is internal.  He wonders why they have not sought to trade outside their own countries.

Wealth emphasizes the enduring value of labor, despite the fluctuations in metal money.  The discovery of gold and silver in the Americas caused a glut in Europe that reduced the value to a third of what it was before.  A man can only do so much labor, but that labor holds its value through all the ups and downs of markets.

Wealth gives a multiplicity of examples of how labor costs rise and fall in relation to cities versus rural, or demand—such as North America, where labor was in great demand and food relatively inexpensive—and how much a laborer must be paid to sustain himself and children to replace him.  Since 50% of children die before reaching adulthood, says Smith, we need to calculate the cost of feeding four children in every family.  Smith acknowledges that all the laws favor the employers, should the laborers strike for higher wages.

While he presses the point that nothing happens without labor, Smith is happy to squeeze the laborer into a bare subsistence wage, better to keep him working hard to make ends meet.

He cites numerous examples of relationships between labor and stocks. New land, like the colonies, attracted lots of stock capital because it was cheap, full of natural resources, and soil was rich.

Early on “corporations” restricted competition, with the king’s (or queen’s) support.  Smith says 5th of Elizabeth formalized the “Statute of Apprenticeship” that restricted practice of craft or trade to those who had apprenticed seven years.  Church wardens, mandated by the king to provide for the poor in their parishes, did everything possible to keep the poor from moving in.

Corn was the major food crop in Europe.  Smith says tobacco grows well enough in parts of Europe, but it is illegal because it’s too hard to tax individual farmers, so tobacco is imported from (primarily) Virginia and Maryland, warehoused, and resold at profit.  Sugar is in great demand, and is very expensive, imported from Caribbean colonies.  In “Cochin-china” sugar is no more expensive than ordinary food crops and is cultivated alongside them and apparently not exported much.

Labor and landlords benefit from policies that also serve the public.  Stockholders, however, are loud, moneyed, and invested in reducing competition, so they generally work against the public good.

Smith explains how money is not the same as circulating capital.  It is the “wheel” of the economic engine but has no intrinsic value.  A coin is not used up when it is exchanged for goods or services, so the same coin, each time it changes hands, buys its face value for the purchaser, who gets his coin’s “worth” in product.

He also writes about the banks, primarily of Scotland, that used paper money promissory notes in excess of gold deposits for lending.  80% paper to 20% backup.  Merchants could also get lines of credit, so were encouraged to accept that bank’s paper in trade, to promote it to friends and associates, and to spend it.  However, paper was no good in foreign countries, so gold was exported to import foreign products.

“No equal capital puts into motion a greater quantity of productive labor than that of the farmer,” says Smith.  Also, farms stay put, like retail shops, and can’t be outsourced.

He discusses how the American trade is financed by merchants in Great Britain.  He uses the example of hogsheads of tobacco from Virginia and Maryland as commodity money that is bought in excess by England and resold in other places.

But the “great commerce of every civilized society” is between country and town.  In fact, the home trade, by far the most important, was considered subsidiary to foreign trade, based on Man’s book, England’s Treasure in Foreign Trade.  Smith says the mercantile system works in many ways against the enrichment of the country.  It selectively encourages exportation and discourages importation.

He says it is a mistake to politically favor exports over imports.  Restraints on imports consist of high duties and absolute prohibitions.  Exports were encouraged by “drawbacks” (tax relief), “bounties (subsidies), advantageous treaties, and the establishment of colonies.  Smith is down on bounties.  He specifically mentions corn, because it, to him, is the commodity by which the price of everything else is measured.

He claims restraints on importation and prohibitions may be good for the home manufacturers but not for the population or the economy as a whole.  The famous “invisible hand” comes up on page 300, in which Smith mentions the folly of “statesmen” who try to control private enterprise.  He says the market will determine what is needed without government help.

Merchants and manufacturers derive the most benefit from monopolies, says he, whereas farmers and populace derive little and undoubtedly lose by them.  Corn merchants benefit more from subsidies than corn farmers.

The notion of “balance of trade” is “absurd,” and he enumerates reasons.  Smith also states that it is silly for nations to try to improve their wealth at the expense of other nations.  This leads to hostilities rather than friendly exchanges.

Smith asserts again that all wealth comes from the land, with farmers the most productive workers and everyone else subsidiary.  Those who bring raw materials to more useable form, like wool manufacturers, do not add as much value as the farmer does by cultivating the land.

Smith cites the duties of the sovereign.  He claims the sovereign does not have the duty or right to regulate commerce.  At the same time, he says the king’s first duty is to protect the country from other governments.

He makes the case for a standing army and says this is the only way the sovereign can maintain peace and order.  Now “civilized” societies can conquer “barbarous” societies, which don’t have the advantage of gun power.  He believes, therefore, that gun power equals civilization.

Smith mentions highways, bridges, navigable canals, coinage, and the post office as public institutions that facilitate commerce.  Post offices everywhere, he says, are valuable revenue sources for the government, with steady and immediate cash flow and low maintenance costs.

Obviously, a glaring inconsistency in Smith’s premise is between his views on free trade and his belief in the importance of a standing army.  Here we have our pseudo proponent of free trade justifying forts and garrisons in foreign countries to protect merchants’ stores.  Where these countries do not allow forts, it has been necessary to send ambassadors.  Smith believes most ambassadorships were created to protect trade.

He goes into “regulated companies,” which are open to anyone with the money, willing to submit to the rules, and trading his own stock at his own risk.  These are opposed to “joint stock” companies, which sound like publically traded companies today.  Pooled resources and pooled profits.  He says only four types of joint stock companies seem valid.  He cites:  1. The banking industry; 2. Fire and sea-risk insurance companies; 3. Canal or navigable channel companies; and 4. Those bringing water by pipe or otherwise to a great city.  He notes the Bank of England doesn’t have exclusive privilege, except that no other bank in England can employ more than six people, and the Bank of England lends to the sovereign.

The last hundred pages of the book are devoted to taxes and other potential sources of revenue for the commonwealth or sovereign.

He floats the concept of a central bank, calling it a “public bank to support public credit, and upon particular emergencies to advance to government the whole produce of a tax, to the amount, perhaps, of several millions, a year or two before it comes in.”

Smith asserts the king should be wealthier than anyone, with grand style and pomp to support his “dignity.”

He distinguishes between direct and indirect taxes, saying the former, as on land, are easily assessed.  Tax on interest or money is difficult to calculate without extraordinary “inquisition” into every man’s private circumstances and “would be a source of such continual and endless vexation as no people could support.”

“There is no art which one government sooner learns of another, than that of draining money from the pockets of the people.”

Wages on the “inferior classes of workmen” are regulated by demand for labor and the price of provisions.  As taxes on labor go up, wages must go up more, to cover the additional tax.  Manufacturers can pass these costs on to the consumer, but farmers’ landlords must absorb them.  This leads to a decrease in the demand for labor.  “Absurd and destructive as such taxes are, however, they take place in many countries.”

Smith goes into government jobs, which are much sought after, because they are highly paid and carry perquisites (perks).  Taxes on luxuries do not raise the price of other commodities, but those on necessities do, so should not be taxed. He mentions alcohol taxes as by far the most productive.

Excise taxes are generally on home goods destined for home markets and imposed on only certain items of the most general use. Excise laws discourage smuggling more effectively than customs laws.

He acknowledges that poor people, because there are more of them, consume the most, not only in quantity, but in value.

He mentions that war has required even the most frugal republics to contract great debts to maintain independence.  He says it is incorrect to assume money lent to government increases capital, because it is generally wasted, and that money would otherwise be spent on productive labor.  Also, foreigners often buy in.

“When national debts have once been accumulated to a certain degree, there is scarce, I believe, a single instance of their having been fairly and completely paid.”

Wealth ends rather abruptly on the subject of public debt, saying that when it exceeds taxpayers’ ability to pay with reasonable measures, government uses unreasonable measures, such as issuing interest-free bonds for immediate expenses, or interest-only bonds that are never intended to be repaid.  He says this has “enfeebled” multiple governments.

When governments reach the point where they can’t pay the debt, they either inflate the currency or declare bankruptcy.  He says the latter is more honest, but says the entire system of debt-backed government is “pernicious.”

My take is the tradition of monarchs and overlords has led to societies in which unearned wealth is glorified and held in high esteem.  The most highly respected and emulated are those who have done the least to acquire what they have, in general terms. The very idea, The Wealth of Nations, presumes the nations own the individuals who live within their borders.

 

 

 

Like a Sphere in Flatland

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A man in my e-mail group asked to be excluded from my responses.  He said I was “negative” and “liberal.”  I had merely mentioned I don’t believe in war, that it is barbaric, institutionalized murder.  I said I don’t believe in standing armies, either.

It really hurt my feelings that he called me “liberal.”  Liberals don’t like me, either.  In fact, on the political continuum from the various “ism’s” at the extremes and including “liberal” and “conservative,” I don’t fit anywhere.  I feel like a sphere in Flatland.

For those who haven’t read this charming classic satire, Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, by Edwin A. Abbott (1884), it is well worth reading, and only 160 pages.   In it, narrator A. Square describes a planar world in which the social hierarchy is determined by how many angles you have.  When Lord Sphere makes himself known to A. Square, he is incredulous until taken on a visit to “Spaceland.”  His attempts to convince his fellow Flatlanders of the existence of a third dimension only gets him in trouble, and he ends up in jail for his lunacy.

Another image, maybe more appropriate to the linear liberal-conservative standard and its limitations, is of trying to assess the validity of a book by the scientific method.  The scientific method is the holy grail of modern scientific dogma, but it is limited by its linear approach. Scientists believe this makes it superior to other methods of assessing truth.

The scientific method presumes cause and effect, yes-and-no, good and bad, right and wrong.  It sneers at extraneous information, abstractions, symbols, and patterns. Logic is linear:  words must come out in sequential fashion.  Those who relate this to the left brain–the seat of verbal thinking and expression in most people–claim superiority of this hemisphere because of its lock-step method of reasoning.  The right brain is associated with symbols, patterns, dreams, and appreciation for art and music.

However, the brain is wired such that incoming sensory information travels through the thalamus, the pain center, then through the limbic system, the emotional center, before it reaches left or right brain.  In other words, every thought is colored by physical and emotional input before it becomes conscious.  Even the most logical and rational analysis is founded on emotional bias.

The scientific, linear mode presumes to be objective, insofar as is humanly possible, yet the choice of study subject is based on emotional factors.  The idea that artificial intelligence, with its binary code, can eventually surpass the human brain’s abilities discounts the spontaneous creativity of the right brain and its symbolic language of patterns and associations.

The recent preoccupation with what’s called “fake news” shows how easy it is to confuse the “rational” mind.  Misinformation, propaganda, distortions, opinion, gossip, libel, and slander have always been around.  Assumptions presumed to be factual have fallen apart over and over in light of new evidence.  The earth used to be flat, remember, and the sun revolved around it.  Now there’s a widespread concern that people don’t know whom or what to trust, with “trust” seemingly synonymous with blind faith in the source.

What is truth, after all, and does it matter?  If this trend leads to a greater tendency to question authority or formerly trusted sources, or to more critical thinking, it might result in the revolution in consciousness that some people imagine.  We will not achieve it through the scientific method, which requires an artificial situation that attempts to reduce variables to one.  In life there is always infinitely more than one variable to consider.  Thus, trying to place anyone on a linear political scale reduces her dimensionality to a pitiful caricature, but we see it all the time:  the blacks, the women, the illegals, the racists, the poor, the 0.1 percent, and on and on.  The so-called advocates, whether members of the identified group or not, posture themselves as knowing the condition, needs, and wants of the group.

Labeling of groups dehumanizes them, clumps them into an agglutinated mass of undifferentiated genetic material that serves only to concentrate emotion into an identifiable target for support or attack.  Advocates tend to use that emotionally laden grouping to promote their agendas, which may be personal or may be backed by yet other groups.

I can only know my own truth, and even that changes moment to moment or as soon as I turn my head.  Truth is a slippery little rascal.  Like a sphere in Flatland, or a book whose value defies the scientific method, I can see from above or below the plane, or even with the plane, but at least I know the difference between a line and a circle.  The scientific method might judge based on emotionally based standards of comparison, but patterns make no judgments and have no beginnings or ends, no cause-and-effect, and reveal no ultimate truth.

My dislike for war, and for fighting, compels me to avoid arguing, recognizing as I do that my choice is emotional, as is my detractor’s.  Energy goes out of me when I’m drawn into conflictual situations.  I believe this happens with others, too, but I could be wrong.  The relentless focus on competition and struggle, on differences cemented by stifling labels, only feeds the problems, generating parallel, linear, universes with no spherical perspective.

Who Owns the Land?

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I’m so glad authors like Fred Pearce are paying attention.  I’d never heard of Pearce until his book, The Land Grabbers:  The New Fight Over Who Owns the Earth, jumped from the library shelf into my hands.  Published in 2014, the book reads like a world-wide travelogue, except the sights are disheartening.  Until the end, it made me wonder if every plot of arable soil on the planet has been razed, plowed under, polluted, and subjected to rampant, monolithic, mechanized agriculture for export.

The Land Grabbers premise is that “soaring grain prices and fears about future food supplies are triggering a global land grab.”  The super-rich, would-be rich, and governments are scouring the world looking for productive investments; and land—especially arable land—reigns supreme.

In chapter after chapter, the reader learns of how formerly communal land has been privatized, with drastic changes in ecosystems and eviction or undermining of subsistence-level, indigenous people.  In the first chapter, we learn about government “villagization” in Ethiopia, the collecting of dispersed populations like the farmer/fisher Anuaks and the livestock herding Nuer into state-designated villages, ostensibly to provide better services, like schools, hospitals, and water wells. But locals claim the government is stealing their traditional lands to turn over to foreign agribusiness.

The second chapter takes the reader to the Chicago Board of Trade, the home of commodity trading.  We learn commodity speculation in 2008 may have contributed to the sharp spike in worldwide food prices that year.  The food price bubble was first noticed in early 2007 in Mexico, where the cost of tortillas quadrupled in two months.  Subsequent months brought food riots across North and West Africa.  In Egypt, the world’s largest food importer, bread prices tripled.

Pearce says grain shortages could not be blamed, since grain production was up five percent that year.  However, at least one-third of the world’s grain goes to feeding livestock.  Also, 2007 saw a boom in the biofuels industry, and was the year the ethanol mandate was passed in the United States.  The US earmarked half of its corn for ethanol, diverting surpluses from export markets.

In Saudi Arabia, fear of dependency on food imports prompted billionaires to pump water from a mile beneath the desert to irrigate wheat and grazing grasses for dairy cattle.  Within a few years it had depleted four-fifths of its underground water reservoir–formerly the size of Lake Erie–and realized this tactic was unsustainable.  It turned to acquiring large tracts of land in foreign countries, especially impoverished Muslim countries in Asia and Africa.  Qatar and other Persian Gulf countries are also acquiring foreign farmland or concessions to produce food for their people.

The book repeats the story of dispossession in South Sudan and Kenya. In South Sudan the new government has promised vast tracts to Arab interests, with land rights signed over by questionable spokesmen for the people, without surveys or other demarcations showing where the properties begin and end.  Tradition has it that whole communities must participate in communal land decisions, but purchasers find ways around this.  In several cases, the land has been leased out with great promises of agricultural development, but nothing has been done on the ground.

There’s the story of the American Christian evangelist who made his money running private prisons in the US.  He has leased 17,050 acres in the Yala swamp in Kenya.  It drains into Lake Victoria.  Calvin Burgess claims he has permission to drain the swamp, clear the papyrus and cultivate, primarily, rice for export.  He sees his huge agribusiness as a means to bring Christianity to the poor, as well as drag them out of poverty.  His farm is named “Dominion.”

Locals tell a different story.  Before Burgess, everyone had cattle and used the swamp, taking papyrus as needed to make mats, baskets, roof thatch, and other useful items.  Now, because Burgess has raised a weir several feet, the swamp overflows and floods regularly, destroying locals’ crops and bringing crocodiles and hippos to their front doors.

Pearce describes the general political scenes in several African counties, including Liberia.  Liberia had recently emerged from a 14-year civil war.  I read about the Firestone rubber “fiefdom” in Liberia since 1926.   “International law” favors the investors; and investor claims supersede individuals, communities, and countries.  I have to wonder who is the arbitrator of “international law.”  UN “peace keepers” dominate in Liberia.

Pearce writes a lot about the palm oil industry, which has grown exponentially over the years.  It started back in the early 1900s, with the tyrannical King of Belgium in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but later came under the control of the Lever Brothers, and then Unilever.

Also in Africa, the grabbers have claimed large concessions to create hunting reserves, “eco-tourism,” including safaris, and conservation areas that have squeezed indigenous Massai tribes and run them off traditional lands.  This in Tanzania, primarily, but also in Kenya.  I guess they have had domestic cattle for centuries, in concert with wildlife, yet moderns believe the two are incompatible and want to remove the people and their cattle from their traditional lands.

We learn about the Inner Niger Delta, in Mali, which is being dried out by irrigation rights upstream.  Here four foreign concessions have been given enormous prior claims on Niger water, complete with canals.  Two are for sugar cane—British and Chinese—which is a huge water hog; one is a US concession for rice; and the fourth, possibly the largest, is for food for Libya.

In the Ukraine, the story is similar to the others.  Individuals form companies, get investors, buy or lease large tracts of land with grand plans to grow this or that.  In the Ukraine or Russia, a number of formerly collective farms have been abandoned.  There are many household farms, but the people don’t have the money to grow for more than their own needs.

The cerrado in Brazil, and the chaco in Paraguay both hosted indigenous tribes.  Now the tribes have been squeezed, killed, compromised, or absorbed, and the foreign investor mono-agriculturalists are encroaching ever closer, destroying biodiversity, rendering many species extinct, obliterating and polluting habitat.

The conservationists are either weak, compromised, or circumvented.  In South America, the main industries are cattle ranching, sugar for ethanol, and soy, but also other grains like corn and wheat.  Rubber.

In Sumatra and Papua, New Guinea thousands of acres of rain forest and peat bogs have been destroyed, for two Chinese-owned paper mills.  Once again, locals who depended on the forest for rattan and rubber, as well as fishing and shrimping have been displaced, in some cases violently, and their water polluted.  Their government has favored foreign investors over them, despite presumed legal protections. The IMF was happy to advise the Sumatra government to give away even more forestry concessions to bail out the Chinese paper mills when there was a recession in Asia.

Overall, the book gives an impression of the sheer size of the earth, and its many and varied lands.  But the land grabber strategy seems similar the world over.  The international concerns are deeply intermingled, with lots of names, re-names, countries, and corporations, hedge funds, pension funds, and university endowments involved.  Tax havens.  Companies awash in subsidiaries, controlled by individuals and families, with holdings in multiple countries, and assisted by weak or corrupt governments, rape the land, displace subsistence locals–who generally have depended on communal sharing of resources, like forests and rivers–turn them against each other and the police/government against them.  They bring in bulldozers and chain saws to replace rotation farming and biodiversity with mono-agriculture for export.

It’s enough to make me a Communist, if it would mean a return to communal land holdings.  Reading The Land Grabbers reveals the de facto pervasiveness of communism, in the shared, or communal land sense.   It is the undercurrent that modern property-owning society is built on.   That land grabs are happening all over the world to so many indigenous and until now isolated people shows how the perpetrators have depended on the isolation to pull the same stunt over and over.

I liked the way The Land Grabbers ended.  Pearce claims most of the world’s food is still produced by smallholderrs.  Most land is still held and used in common.  In Africa a half-billion smallholders produce 90 percent of the food.  Pearce writes that in India large dairy cooperatives have propelled the country from 78th to first in the world in milk production.  The coop provides for daily milk pickups from the members.

Bottom line is all is not lost.  Pearce says that despite myth, smallholders take better care of their ecosystems than large mechanized industry.  They farm every corner of their small spaces, use crop rotation, animal manure for fertilizer, expand and contract grazing and growing spaces depending on need.  They grow diverse crops and have animals, like cows, goats, and chickens.  The idea of “tragedy of the commons” doesn’t hold.  Without written rules, communal holders manage to work out among themselves fair balances so that land does not become over-grazed or reduced to desert.

After reading The Land Grabbers:  The New Fight Over Who Owns the Earth, I believe more strongly than ever that no one owns the earth.  The earth owns us.

 

 

Who are the Savages?

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This isn’t a book review about Savages, by Joe Kane, published in 1995.  This is an attempt at a synopsis, although such a meaty and universally relevant book is hard to encapsulate.

On the surface, it is a travelogue, depicting the author’s extended visit to the Amazon rain forest, where ancient meets modern in dramatic but understated violence.  In 1991, Kane, a journalist originally working for an environmental group in San Francisco, came across a plea for help from members of the “savage” Huaorani, indigenous clans of Ecuador, primitive jungle dwellers who live off the land and are known as fierce warriors who have never been conquered.

The mysterious letter claimed DuPont-owned Conoco was trying to destroy their land and way of life.  At issue was the massive development of oil fields in the Amazonian jungles by many oil companies, but especially by Conoco.  Maxus Energy Corporation, which was slated to develop “Maxus Block 16” on traditional Huaorani land, also becomes a major player in this book’s drama.

Author Kane wanted to discover for himself what the Huaorani were like and how they lived.  He writes about befriending tribal leaders/members, and hiring one of them, Enqueri, as a guide to Maxus Block 16, deep in tribal lands but slated for oil drilling and exploration, if the Huarani could be appeased. The story delves into the author’s encounters with other locals, the military, the oil company representatives, government officials, missionaries, environmentalists, and the land itself.

Savages becomes a personal story about the Huaorani, especially members Moi, Enqueri, Nanto, and others who are fighting for their land and traditional ways, but they are forced by inevitable change to adapt, each in his own way. Kane describes his first, danger-fraught trip by truck, canoe, and foot through the jungle, with nothing but a machete for defense, and virtually no clothes.

He provides entertaining but respectful cameos of the individuals and Huaorani settlements.  He emphasizes Huaoranis’ resourcefulness, their ability to go without food for days, to build leak-free shelters out of palms within minutes, and their bountiful good humor in the face of adversity.  Deemed savages by some, because of their reputation of vengeful killings of invaders, the Huaorani that Kane depict come across as lovable and kind, well adapted to the jungle but sadly naïve about the world beyond their territory.

Kane describes multiple instances in which his jungle-bred friends collapse in laughter.  They spend afternoons in communal bathing, playing and flirting.  Sharing food is a sublime act of generosity, because for them, it is feast or famine.  They adore their children.  The Huaorani can also stand motionless, without expression, for hours, observing everything.

The story offers adventure deep into the Amazon rain forest and shows its contrast with the new age of oil exploration and development by the generic “Company,” which includes Shell, Texaco, Conoco, and most egregious, Maxus Energy Corporation. The author reveals the horrific degradation of the land caused by the “Company.”  The Huaorani refer to all non-clan members as “cowode” or “cannibals” who have brought roads, pipelines, colonists, oil spills, overflowing toxic waste pits, oil in the streets, towering flames of natural gas, and the pervasive smells of petroleum.  The Company has clear-cut vast acreages of jungle.

The Company has led to poverty and disease like never before, but it has also brought gifts, jobs, and schools.  The missionaries have in some ways run interference between the Company and the local populations, but they have imposed their own agendas, and have convinced younger generations that tribal ways are evil.

Since 1970, the national debt of Ecuador has gone from $300 million to $35 billion, the opposite of what the oil extractors promised, yet the Ecuadorean government—like so many other governments—has played along and accepted enormous debt in the peoples’ name.  They have looked the other way as filth replaced natural wonders and pristine natural habitat.  As Ecuador sank ever deeper into debt, oil prices declined, and oil companies claimed costs were higher than expected. They assured the government that clean-ups were being handled and going well.

The trajectory of the book shows how the natives are killed or absorbed, killed by disease from infection, toxic waste, contaminated drinking water, malnutrition, and all manner of accidents.  The author specifically mentions malaria, polio, and tuberculosis, as well as fungal infections.  He also describes the toxic effects of crude oil and cleaning up oil spills for slave wages by hand.

But the gifts were seductive, and the jobs attracted those who wanted a more modern life.  Food like rice, salt, a kind of Kool-Aid, and lollipops, as well as tools, outboard motors and gas, began to creep into the jungle to take their places alongside the traditional manioc and monkey meat.  The Huaorani wanted schools and health care, which the missionaries and oil companies promised to provide.  Kane mentions the double-edged sword of literacy.  Children were taught by missionaries to read (the Bible), but not to write.

The story hasn’t ended, but the fate of this hitherto isolated culture seems destined to change, and to change dramatically.  At this point it doesn’t matter whether it’s right or wrong, because it’s too late.  Huaorani children are already forgetting the history of their clans, or they are being taught it was a “savage” one well left behind.

But, still, the book raises the disturbing question: “Who, after all, are the real savages?”