Averting Disasters

January 6, 2019
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As a new year begins I’m struck by the peculiar syncopation of seasons and daylight. Sunrise and sunset shift so predictably that it is possible to know the exact time of either for a particular day in a particular place centuries in the future. Meanwhile the weather is unpredictable a week out, generally holding to certain parameters but in no way bound by them. And it is pulled almost unwillingly in the wake of the changing light, so the shortest day of the year is rarely the coldest. (This year, in fact, the winter solstice was 50 and rainy, downright tropical for this part of the country.) True winter comes in January and February; even as the afternoons begin stretching towards dinnertime temperatures drop and the snow flies, with a full season of increasing daylight needed to precipitate spring. Of course, the reverse also holds, with the heat of summer belied by the creeping expansion of night.

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Three articles preoccupied me through the holidays. The first is an elaboration of a study that made the news a few years back by reporting on a terrifying decline in flying insects. It’s a sad comment on the human tendency to measure and value what is most obvious while neglecting the vast, subtle substrate that actually underpins life. The second is a profile of contemporary followers of the Unibomber, people who more or less share his analysis that the modern world, meaning humanity writ large, is a catastrophic mistake that should be burned to the ground. The thread connecting these is obvious. That something as significant as a precipitous decline of insects could go virtually unnoticed for decades suggests even the harshest critics of civilization  have some frightening facts on their side.

Both articles are concerned with nothing less than the fate of the entire world, and placing these issue in the largest and most dramatic frame possible is completely appropriate since both have global implications. But they’re hardly alone in this - climate change, famine, war, mass extinction, the displacement of labor by machines, the loss of topsoil, the strip mining of all life from our plastic choked oceans - all of these compete for attention. Theoretically they also compete for our resources, but only tangentially. There are the discrete choices of consumption, like opting for a more efficient car or being fastidious about recycling, and there are monetary donations to organizations seeking to address them in a systematic way. But few of us can reorganize our lives so that they are built around trying to address any of these, let alone all of them.

In other words, there is a mismatch between the scope of the world’s troubles and our individual actions, between the amount of attention many of us (quite understandably!) pay to each potential apocalypse and the amount of energy we are able to spend directly addressing them. Though they have human causes and must have human solutions, their scale is profoundly inhuman. The appeal of a radical response, then, becomes obvious; if the various economic, social, and political structures that contribute to these crises circumscribe our lives in ways that make it impossible to actually solve them, stepping outside the system entirely starts looking reasonable.

And this brings me to the third article, a profile of one of the men being held responsible for the 2016 Oakland warehouse fire that claimed thirty-six lives. Called the Ghost Ship, the space in which this disaster took place was an art collective. Here were people consciously trying to organize their lives around community and creativity, and rather than contributing to some alternative paradigm they ended up providing a stark reminder that even the most mundane bureaucracies - zoning, building codes, event permitting - may be stifling, but they are rarely as pointless as they seem.

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In his essay The Place, The Region, and the Commons Gary Snyder has pointed out the way a landscape is a mosaic not just of space but of time. If we could step back and see my farm over years, decades, and centuries, we would recognize it as both the same and a different place. Imagine it as forest cleared incrementally and allowed to partially regrow. Envision cows and horses, then tractors and more cows, corn and soybeans, sheep and pigs, and of course people, all coming and going. The mere shift from summer to winter can make it seem like a different world entirely. Miraculously, the transition between each of these states is seamless.

We may remember the drastic and jarring change, but even profound shifts don’t have to be traumatic if they aren’t overwhelmingly abrupt. Given a little space at least some of the aspects of life and place and society that are worthwhile can be conserved, some can fall away, and new forms can be created. Far more than catastrophe this is the natural order. Today’s snapshots attest to life’s peculiar momentum. January has begun, and the crows cawing in the corn stubble across the street are vigorous and black against the snow. The pigs snuffle through mulch hay and pile up to sleep at night. Orders for my next round of deliveries trickle in. Best of all, my son has just been potty trained. There’s hope, I think, in this perspective.

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