By Stillman Brown
Sometimes it happens that two works of art, perfectly innocuous on their own, come to my attention at the same time and spark like the copper teeth on jumper cables, red and black making a small electrical arc that cracks and leaves behind a metallic, burnt smell. When this happens, I feel a palpable change in how I see the world, like when I was reading Junot Diaz’s Drown and listening to Keith Jarret’s “Radiance” – Diaz’s constant motion between elegant prose and gritty street vernacular spoke to Jarrett’s improvisation and revealed a new, deeper way of writing dialogue. When someone says with genuine feeling, “man, that blew me away,” I suspect this is what they’re talking about.
It’s happened again. Friends have been telling me to watch The Corporation, a documentary critique of corporations and globalization, so I picked it up over Thanksgiving weekend and watched it with my mom. I’ve also been reading Fritjof Capra’s Uncommon Wisdom, a book about Capra’s coming of age as an activist, ecologist, and synthesizer of contemporary physics and Eastern religions, particularly Taoism and Buddhism. The two have met, mingled, and jilted me, and I find myself changed.
If you’ve found this blog, it probably means you’ve read Naomi Klein or Noam Chompsky or John Kabat-Zinn, so I don’t need to contextualize The Corporation or Capra’s book – you’re familiar with counter-culture thinkers, the Green movement, and mysticism-meets-Western-science. In fact, you’re probably more familiar with such concepts than I am – it’s not new to you, or to the folks at the ID Project, where I go to get my enlightenment on. The perspective put forth in The Corporation is old news to a studied feminist, activist, or meditation practitioner. Hell, it’s not even new to me – I was an avid participant in my elementary school’s Earth Day celebrations from 1st to 6th grade (I still have a Thoughtful Gorilla t-shirt in my drawer). What’s different this time is a convergence of information and openness; Finally, it’s reaching me with a proper sense of urgency, like a college friend I took for granted until she came back from summer break looking slim and toned (“Damn, Julia got fine over break”). In other words, I’m paying attention.
Step back to childhood and adolescence: My rearing as an omnivore Midwesterner (Indiana & Illinois) gave me a healthy dose of skepticism when it came to environmentalism (the term Green hadn’t yet permeated the Hoosier consciousness). The presence of Indiana University, in my hometown of Bloomington, meant things were relatively enlightened – a hippie haven or sorts – but the dominant social understanding was: environmentalists are crazy and feminists are lesbians or worse. I didn’t realize it until college, but this quiet and pervasive mentality set me back years. Now, I’m not saying such prejudice is unique to the Midwest or that it represents Indiana without exception – I love Indiana. It’s a beautiful, much under-appreciated state. I simply didn’t have the benefit of a social atmosphere that handled issues like sustainability. The extent of our environmentalism was sorting the recycling on Wednesday nights.
Fast forward to Thanksgiving, 2007: Sitting on my mom’s white and pink floral print couch, watching The Corporation. The film itself had basic production value and, oftentimes, that particular preachy liberal tone that infuriates this blogger and conservatives alike. The information, however, was gold. I’m a tall guy (nearly 12 feet) (actually, 6’7”), and the section on Monsanto’s cover-up of the harmful effects of Bovine Growth Hormone (BGH) caught me like a brick to the jaw. I looked at my mom and asked, “Did I, uh, drink a lot of milk as a kid?” She nodded, looking both alarmed and guilty. “You loved milk.” Casual Google research hasn’t turned up a definitive link between BGH and height, but I remain suspicious. My genes can’t be that good.
The bit that really hit me were the words of Ray Anderson, the CEO of Interface, the largest carpet manufacturer in the world. Anderson is physically unremarkable – a bit fleshy around the neck, a typical middle-aged scion of Corporate America. His voice had a South Carolina drawl which he made no effort to soften. In a dark gray suit, shirt and tie, he was the image of bland success. Then he gave a small soliloquy with images of early attempts at flight cutting in and out:
Drawing the metaphor of the early attempts to fly: The man going off a very high cliff in his airplane, with the wings flapping…and the wind is in his face, and this poor fool thinks he’s flying, but in fact he’s in free fall, and he just doesn’t know it yet, because the ground is so far away, but of course the craft is doomed to crash.
That’s the way our civilization is. The very high cliff represents the virtually unlimited resources we seemed to have when we began this journey… And of course the ground is still a long way away, but…The visionaries have seen it and have told us it’s coming.
There’s not a single scientific, peer-reviewed paper published in the last 25 years that would contradict this scenario: Every living system of earth is in decline… (and) some people have called that intergenerational tyranny, a form of taxation without representation, levied by us on generations yet to be.
Without asking my mom, I rewound to the beginning of Anderson’s parable and watched it again. The phrase that reverberated in my mind was, “every living system of earth is in decline.” A small voice responded, he’s right, and suddenly it felt like 15 years of accumulated harping, outcry, journalism, Earth Day celebrations, sea temperature satellite maps, films, Al Gore, Bill Nye, earth sciences class, and sheer common sense came to a boil and spilled over. This is real, I thought, with a meta-awareness that my mind was stretching to fit itself around the enormity of the thing. Every living system of earth is in decline – the death, or at least the crippling of the biosphere is well advanced.
For the next week I mulled and thought and mumbled about Anderson’s words. With such an experience in hand, what was I going to do? Quit writing and get a law degree and work for the Sierra Club? Charter a pirate ship and ram whaling vessels in the Arctic Ocean? Sequester myself in the New York Public Library and read every treatise on sustainable development until I had the answers? During this rather confused time (I’m still confused, but perhaps less so) (And I don’t think the confusion will ever really abate, by the way), a friend lent my Fritjof Capra’s book Uncommon Wisdom: Conversations with Remarkable People. I had never heard of Capra, and I set the book aside in order to concentrate on my confusion.
Last week, I toted Uncommon Wisdom along on my morning commute (L to Union Square, NRW to 49th St.) and was taken with this early passage (Capra is talking attempts to develop an intellectual framework for quantum mechanics in the early 20th century):
In the 1920s physicists, led by Heisenberg and Bohr, came to realize that the world is not a collection of separate objects but rather appears as a web of relations between the various parts of a unified whole. Our classical notions, derived from our ordinary experience, are not fully adequate to describe this world.
This struck me as true. Language, at least the language I use, cannot adequately describe the experience I had listening to Ray Anderson. It’s as if terms of the ultra-big, words like “awesome” and “global” have lost their meaning, to say nothing of the laughable “freedom,” or watered down “liberty.” I read on, increasingly excited by Capra’s own process of discovery throughout the 60s, 70s, and 80s.
[In the 60s] Our critique was based on intuitive feeling; we lived and embodied our protest rather than verbalizing and systemizing it…. Two new political movements, the ecology movement and the feminist movement, emerged during the seventies and together provided the much-needed broad framework for our critique….In the eighties, we are fleshing it out.
I thought, sonufabitch, people have been working on this stuff for years. The yawning frustration I had felt after watching The Corporation suddenly had context and an implicit community. Riding the N train on the last leg of my commute, I was excited and I looked around the car to see if anyone else was excited, but of course I was the only person reading Uncommon Wisdom and geeking out about it.
You don’t have to agree with me or Capra or The Corporation, and I welcome critical comments (except from Tucker Carlson, who is a jerk). This is part of a larger narrative about expanding my brittle, Gollum-like brain to include concepts like interdependence. It’s also a time of consolidation – taking threads and scraps of environmentalism and political awareness that have percolated over the years and making them in to a coherent ideology. After all, I need something to deploy against the skeptics with whom I have to dialogue – revelation has to be backed up by facts and sound reasoning.
Is it possible to be a bookish vigilante? I hope so. I am seeing that the teachings of a yogi are just as important as data from a research physicist at CERN, and that it doesn’t matter what I’m reading or watching, as long as it brings me closer to acting on my principles.