What multiple car pile-ups, the emergence of the U.S. as a new global oil power, spreading nuclear contamination in Japan, and replacing more human workers with robots tell us about the need for some “New Creation”

Posted December 9th, 2013 in Blog, Featured 1 Comment »

Fostering Ecological Hope
Reflections on Culture and Meaning

by Margaret Swedish
[I offer this essay for your reflection, pondering, sharing among friends, family, community. Responses are more than welcome, more like embraced.]

My part of the world made it onto national news for the most dubious of reasons: it seems we have forgotten how to drive in a little snowstorm.

Have you seen the pics? Just north of Milwaukee, there was a 80-vehicle pile-up on Hwy 41/45 – 80 vehicles!!! And just south of the city between Milwaukee and Racine, another multiple-vehicle pile-up caused the closing of I-94 for hours, while on I-43 at highway 100 in a west suburb, a rollover crash resulted in the death of a 39-year-old women who was thrown from her SUV. She wasn’t wearing a seat belt. A 3-year-old in a car seat had only minor injuries. The newspaper doesn’t say what the relationship was, but has a toddler just lost its mom because she didn’t buckle her seat belt – in a snowstorm?!?!

The Milwaukee County sheriff counted 53 crashes, Racine county had 60. Many people were taken to area hospitals and several remain in critical condition this morning.

We had anywhere from 3-5 inches of snow yesterday. Much of the mess happened as the first inch or two fell, before crews could get out ahead of it.

How is this possible?

I was out yesterday. I was on the freeway. The conditions were not good. Because of the bitter cold of recent days, the fluffy lake effect snow froze quickly making things very slick. Yes indeed, it was a wintry day on the roads in southeastern Wisconsin – like every single other winter of our lives, snow happens.

I learned how to drive in this stuff. I remember how one bends for reality. I remember the unique skills and adjustments involved. You slow down – a lot! You don’t make any sudden moves because this can cause you to lose control of the vehicle. If when you brake you start to slide, you take your foot off the brake, and off the gas pedal, and turn in the direction of the skid. You avoid changing lanes quickly to speed by a slower vehicle. And you allow plenty of space between you and the vehicle in front of you. You never, ever, EVER, tailgate!!

In the small world of yesterday’s snow, that’s called adjusting one’s life and expectations to reality.

Credit: Margaret Swedish

Credit: Margaret Swedish

Yesterday, I saw a lot of behavior that reminded me yet again of why we are moving so quickly into ecological mayhem. I saw plenty of behavior that manifested denial of reality – just plow on through as if nothing is happening, nothing in one’s behavior needs adjusting. Damn the weather! I’ve got to get to where I’m going. Except thousands of people ended up not getting “there” at all.

So why in all the world would we expect a culture like this to respond appropriately to changes on scales like climate change, environmental degradation due to the rise in extraction and burning of fossil fuels, mind-boggling economic disparities, explosive population growth, and on and on. If the whole point of one’s individual life is to get where one is going as fast as one can without consideration of others or the real conditions of our lives, then you just plow on through, you get mad at the weather, you show anger on the road toward those who do respond appropriately (like the drivers who slow down and become careful, like the plows clearing the snow and ice and putting salt down – earth to said drivers, the plow will win every time!!). Don’t blame the weather, or accept it, blame the other drivers who are in your way.

One driver involved in the 60-vehicle mess said it was incredible to see how people were driving – way too fast to adjust to cars beginning to spin out of control, sliding across lanes.

I think we are going insane. I think this growing inability to adjust to limits, to reality, to confront the fantasy of our culture’s ideology of individualism, as if we live unconnected to the whole, is doing on a large scale exactly what happened on our highways yesterday – we are crashing headlong into chaos and wreckage as how we live starts making all sorts of things smash into each other.

Okay, as for the relevance of today’s headline, to connect some dots – because that’s what we try to do here, to show how this is all connected…

Our world is going through HUGE changes, and those changes are far beyond oil pipelines and consumerism and Monsanto seeds. Big forces are at work underneath most of the issues we care about so much, and those forces are so much bigger than whether or not a pipeline gets built. It’s about a global transition rooted in the rise of population from 2.5 billion when I was born to 9-10 billion by the time I die. It is about technological development that has changed, and will continue to change, human labor, how we extract energy to serve that growth and development, and about who, what powers, will control the things the world needs for life, to power cities, production, mobility.

In our nation, here are a couple of things that don’t often enter our discussion as we work on our ecological crisis. While most of us focus a lot, for example, on the enormous costs to the environment because of the explosive growth of the oil and gas shale industry, made possible by technological “advances,” we don’t often see this on the scale of the balance of global power. While we want to save water, farms, soil, air, climate, the US is seeing the potential for reasserting global energy dominance for decades to come. I would say that’s a fairly hefty pushback against our mere desires to live on a healthy planet in healthy ecologically sustainable and resilient local communities.

This is one of those articles that kind of sobered me up a lot when thinking about this, Rise of ‘Saudi America’ Will Alter Globe, by Tim Johnson of McClatchy News:

Photo: Joan Shrout

Oil processing plant near Williston ND. Photo: Joan Shrout

Rather suddenly, the center of gravity of global energy production has swung toward the Americas as shale oil and gas fields in North Dakota and Texas hum with activity. America is moving to the fore as the world’s largest producer of petroleum and natural gas.

That change will reorder the globe in ways large and small.

U.S. experts say it will prolong the United States’ position as the predominant global superpower…

“There are not many times in history where you can see the balance of power shift,” said David L. Goldwyn, founder of Goldwyn Global Strategies, an energy intelligence consultancy in Washington. “We are going to see that.”

Can you imagine any politician or either of the two political parties pondering this reality and deciding to eschew the opportunity to assert this kind of global power?

Here’s another force at work, the ongoing transformation of manufacturing from a human labor force to robots, one of the reasons why higher productivity these days does not translate into jobs in this sector. Robotic technologies increase productivity, and you don’t have to pay wages or provide health benefits, pensions, or vacation time for robots. Of course, you have also caused an enormous disruption in the human post-war industrial economy and millions of people get hurt. Not the corporate owners, of course, and rich investors, who also don’t want to have to pay taxes to provide a dignified and substantial safety net to support those millions as they live through this transition.

Instead, you can do what is being done in the Milwaukee suburbs of Wauwatosa and Brookfield – create massive developments for more retail so that people once earning $30 an hour for skilled work in a factory can fill those retail jobs at minimum wage.

This is called addressing high unemployment.

Contamination spreads from Fukushima plant. Source: Earthweek - A Diary of the Planet

Contamination spreads from Fukushima plant. Source: Earthweek – A Diary of the Planet

Meanwhile, let me just mention this, because it is part of the whole picture, though we are trained by the culture not to see it that way. Five typhoons in Japan in October, a record for that month, have spread the radioactive contamination from the Fukushima nuclear power planet farther across the land, into more streams, into groundwater, into agricultural land. This is an ongoing unfolding catastrophe which jeopardizes the future of that nation. And then there’s that plume that continues to spread across the ocean and which is little by little reaching our own west coast.

Does all this sound overwhelming? I could sit here and write a whole book about it (actually, sort of did several years ago – see sidebar). But I am not trying to paralyze us, depress us, or make us feel powerless to change anything. Quite the opposite!!! What I’m hoping to do here (and, trust me, this is my struggle in this work for many years now) is to understand why so often the work we do, even with some successes, does not seem to change much, and certainly not quickly enough. I think the Keystone battle is a great example – terrific organizing and a lot of consciousness raising, tremendous political awakening, but how much impact on these greater forces at work?

Same thing with fracking, and, in my state, frac sand mining. Again, tremendous citizen awakening, terrific grassroots organizing, the rise of incipient grassroots movements in fiercely local areas working in “defense of place,” places that are being contaminated and ruined, but the fracking industry booms faster than we can even keep up with it because what drives it is what is in that article above – the drive for energy dominance which translates into global political power .

As a culture, are we willing to surrender that power? Because that is what is required to turn this around.  What needs to be given birth in all these incipient movements, in all that creative and empowering ferment of citizen action and advocacy, is a brand new culture with entirely different values than those that drive this one. And I mean big things – like replacing mobility with rooting in place, replacing individualistic self-seeking and advancement with the building of resilient local communities sharing local resources, replacing a concept of labor as a flexible cog in the machine of productivity with the recovery of a concept of human labor rooted in community production of well-being for all, bringing about the collapse of the retail culture and replacing the consumption of things with engagement with “life” and meaning.

We need some “New Creation.” And that is going to take some rethinking about most every part of this culture. What I see in so many groups that are rising up because their homes, communities, farms, rivers, families, local cultures are being threatened by this rapid acceleration of oil and gas production, by this drive for US global power against all competitors, is a deep awakening of what all those things mean to them, to us, to me. In turning to the preciousness of those things, in protesting and resisting what threatens them, a far more fundamental challenge is underway, whether or not that is always seen or even desired. That we can’t go on like this is not just a matter of climate change, contamination of water and land, destruction of habitats, and the Sixth Great Extinction – those are results, not causes. The real matter is the drive for power – power over, including power over nature and human labor and our local communities.

The decision to not participate in that power assertion anymore – not with our land, our families, our money, our ways of life – is one of the most radical we can make. Forming communities around the necessary new creation, with new values that match the reality of our precious planet, is how that creation comes about. Speaking out, engaging, educating, advocating, and resisting are all ways we participate in that new creation.

And then maybe we’ll learn again how to drive in a snow storm – or even better, stay home and enjoy it!

 

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One Response

  1. Harvey Taylor

    profound and motivating…thank you!
    here is a music video of mine addressing related concerns: The Real World
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zc9Dar_pdLE