Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Savage and the Sustainable: Part Three (Derrick Jensen)

Derrick Jensen, Endgame, vol. 1:

'I have another problem with Mumford's statement. In claiming that the widening of communication and economic intercourse are admirable, he seems to have forgotten--and this is strange, considering the sophistication of the rest of his analysis--that this widening can only be universally beneficial when all parties act voluntarily and under circumstances of relatively equivalent power. I'd hate to have to make the case, for example, that the people of Africa--perhaps 100 million of whom died because of the slave trade, and many more whom find themselves dispossessed and/or impoverished today--have benefited from their "economic intercourse" with Europeans. The same can be said for Aborigines, Indians, the people of pre-colonial India, and so on.

'I want to reexamine one thing Mumford wrote, in part because he makes an argument for civilization I've seen replicated so many times elsewhere, and that actually leads, I think, to some of the very serious problems we face today. He concluded the section that I quoted above, and I reproduce it here just so you don't have to flip back a couple of pages: "ultimately the purpose [is] to make available to all men [sic] the discoveries and inventions and creations, the works of art and thought, the values and purposes that any single group has discovered." But just as a widening of economic intercourse is only beneficial to everyone when all exchanges are voluntary, so, too, the imposition of one group's values and purposes onto another, or its appropriation of the other's discoveries, can lead only to the exploitation and diminution of the latter in favor of the former. That this "exchange" helps all was commonly argued by early Europeans in America, as when Captain John Chester wrote that the Indians were to gain "the knowledge of our faith," while the Europeans would harvest "such riches as the country hath." It was argued as well by American slave owners in the nineteenth century: philosopher George Fitzhugh stated that "slavery educates, refines, and moralizes the masses by bringing them into continual intercourse with masters of superior minds, information, and morality." And it's just commonly argued today by those who would teach the virtues of blue jeans, Big Macs TM, Coca-cola TM, Capitalism TM, and Jesus Christ TM, to the world's poor in exchange for dispossessing them of their landbases and forcing them to work in sweatshops.

'Another problem is that Mumford's statement reinforces a mindset that leads inevitably to unsustainability, because it presumes that discoveries, inventions, creations, works of art and thought, and values and purposes are transposable over space, that is, that they are separable from both the human context and the landbase that created them. Mumford's statement unintentionally reveals perhaps more than anything else the power of the stories that hold us in thrall to the machine, as he put it, that is civilization: even in brilliantly dissecting the myth of the machine, Mumford fell back into that very same myth by seeming to implicitly accept the notion that ideas or works of art or discoveries are like tools in a toolbox, and can be meaningfully and without negative consequence used out of their original context: thoughts, ideas, and art as tools rather than as tapestries inextricably woven from and into a community of human and nonhuman neighbors. But discoveries, works of thought, and purposes that may work very well in the Great Plains may be harmful to the Pacific Northwest, and even moreso in Hawai'i. To believe that this potential transposition is positive is the same old substitution of what is distant for what is near: if I really want to know how to live Tu'nes, I should pay attention to Tu'nes.

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