Sunday, April 17, 2005

Anicca and its discontents

I was out walking in my local greenbelt yesterday, and found an old brick remnant of a well by the rock ruins of a one-room farmhouse. The well is pictured below. The farmhouse was at some point abandoned, probably more than half a century ago, and the people moved on. The house became archeology, and the well is pleasing to look at.

Presumably the people had someplace to go, like my mother's family during the Depression. My grandmother, who was born in 1897 and lived during three centuries, dying in 2001, was alert up until the few months before her death. I taped some of her reminiscences before she died. She and her husband started in Oklahoma, and by the beginning of the Great Depression were farming in the Texas Panhandle, which became an ecological disaster zone at roughly the same time as America became an economic disaster zone. Farming there was, as we now say, non-sustainable.
She talks about dust storms rolling in, at first a line of black on the horizon.
Well, I'll tell you, one time, it was a beautiful day, we started down to see about our plums, to see if there was any bugs or worms on 'em, and we saw this rim of black, and we came on to the house, and by the time we got there, Norval [her son, my uncle] had decided to go on out and bring the cows in, he saw there was gonna be a storm coming, and by the time he got there, he drove the cattle into the lot out there--the lot was about as far as from here across the road--he couldn't see to get back. The only way he could get to the house was because he knew about which direction to go, and he came till he hit the fence, and he walked along the fence till he found the gate. It was black! I lit a gas lantern and put it in the window and he couldn't even see that gas lantern.
This was black. It was dirt. And Lyle [her brother] was working in the oil field, and a woman come and said "Oh, Mr. George, the world's comin' to an end, the world's comin' to an end, and there's the smoke." And he said "well, I don't think so, because the Bible says that when the world comes to and end, why, the Lord will come in all His glory, and I don't see anybody comin' in any glory, do you?" And the woman felt a little better at that, because she thought that was sure the end of time. But Lyle said before it was over, he felt like it was the end of time.
'Cause it choked you. The dust was so bad...
The first year, the storm came, and we lost everything. We tried to farm one year after that, but it had blown the topsoil off, and we'd lost our chickens, our cows died, they'd eat the shrubbery that had sand on it and they'd get some sand, and it'd kill the cows. And we lost more horses than we did cows. I think we had 13 cows left. Before we left there, [we] were fattening the calves and butchering them and taking the meat to Pampa. And taking eggs to Pampa. But we could no longer make it on account of the dust storms.

They did the Grapes of Wrath thing, in an old car hauling a flatbed trailer piled up with all their stuff, but instead of going to California, which might have been more rational from all but my limited and parochial viewpoint (a POV owing to what would have been my subsequent failure to exist) they went to South Texas and bought 10 acres of irrigated land in a place that seemed like paradise because there was water and people grew vegetables in the winter. They eventually went broke farming there too, but that's another story.

I was reminded of my grandparents because of the old well and the house rubble, and because I had also just finished reading Jared Diamond's _Collapse_ which I thought all in all was a depressing book, tho Diamond claims he is an optimist. He may be engaging in one of the failures to deal that he mentions, denial. More of that in a moment.

But my grandparents, when starved out of the high plains, did find a place to go. This dispersal is characteristic of some of the failed societies Diamond talks about. In the case of my grandparents, they prospered, at least according to their own expectations. They were used to a hard life, and a less-hard life equalled success. The Greenland Norse had nowhere to go, and they died. The Easter Islanders had nowhere to go, and most of them died, and the remainder lived a diminished and miserable existence from then until they were rescued from that by Spanish freebooters who sold most of them into serfdom in South American mines, where they died. Only a few Easter Islanders survived on their island until the 20th century.

I once took a microbiology course, as an undergraduate. It was an elective, and I took it with the idea that I might one day wish to apply for medical school, an idea I subsequently revised. But what sticks with me is the memory of the lab. We would innoculate various agar substrates on petri dishes with bacteria. Many of them would form visible colonies, which would get larger and larger as the bacteria prospered living off the fat of the land. Then would come the inevitable population crash, assuming of course that we didn't destroy the petri dish universe before that happened. The bacteria in a dish would not _all_ die, but those who were left, had they been thinking bacteria, would have no doubt considered that it was a miserable world they were now living in. It occurred to me then that there was no way that their universe could ever recover--even if the nutrients had not all been exhausted, the toxic wastes were permanent.

This doubtlessly way-too-crude environmentalist analogy has stuck with me all these years. I remembered it reading Diamond.

Diamond has 12 problems that face self-contained societies (and he makes a good case that the earth is now such a society). None of them are startling, although it is a little daunting to have them all listed at once. I won't do that here. He makes a case that all 12 must be solved if our world-society is to survive--solving only eleven won't do. He also lists some behavioral reasons why some societies fail to deal with such problems.

That was what I found depressing. He lists various failures to come to grips with disaster, like failure to see it ( if it happened slowly, like global warming is happening); "rational bad behavior", i.e., self interested screwing of others to your own advantage; and several other mechanisms that lead to non-coping; but most importantly, it seems to me, "disastrous values."

That was the depressing part. It is, as he points out, "painfully difficult" to abandon "core values" even when they are not working. So we see denial, we see fantasy (messianic delusions like the Rapture), and complete ideologically-founded craziness, like a proposal in Texas which is actually getting funded to the tune of a lot of money, to build an enormous mega-scale "Trans-Texas" highway system, far more massive than the present interstate highways, at a time when we are approaching peak oil and concomitant big problems with an automobile lifestyle. Not to mention, what the hell do we do with giant new highways that run up to the borders of Louisiana and Oklahoma and _stop_?

It does seem kind of like the big stone heads on Easter Island.
Bluebonnets and a tired little dog by an old well
old well near Onion Creek

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