Maxfield Parish, The Fisherman and the Genie
Before the pandemical pandemonium struck I attended a symphony concert that sent my heart and head spinning, as music often does. How do those combinations of vaporous vibrations reach so deeply into our being? What neuronal maze do they electrify? What mysterious auras fluoresce in the mists of our souls? And what process coordinates the strumming and plucking and huffing and thumping and sawing of all those individual artists? What creative magic gave the music birth in some genius composer’s mind, and what about the legions of genius minds before that which conceived of the notation that lets all those musicians read that dead composer’s mind simultaneously?
A stirring musical event exemplifies our amazing ability to work collectively. Of course we’re not the only species to thrive because of our unusual ability to cooperate. Ants, bees and a few other mammals share it. But as far as I know, there are no ant symphonies. By synergising cooperative behavior with imagination, forward thinking and other forms of intelligence we’ve become uniquely able to concretize one another’s imaginings. And the fact that a concert performance can then twitch the insides of a batch of microphones and instantaneously reproduce the concert in thousands of living rooms a continent away gobsmacks. What a species we are! Little wonder people have trouble believing we descended from apes.
But we did. Once upon a time a few globs of protoplasm obtained a competitive advantage over their peers by clumping together and coordinating their activity. The great evolutionary clock ticked onward and a couple of billion years later the survival advantage of group hunting by those who could rein in their selfish instincts and work together to implement a group plan surely made it easier to put a mastodon haunch on the table and assure the survival of one’s offspring. It doesn’t take much imagination to attribute the subsequent development of centralized government, nationalism, team sports, symphony orchestras and the modern-day corporation as steps along that same trajectory. Combine that with a concatenation of ideas, culture, global diffusion and an economic system which pools resources, promises profit, protects investors from consequences and gives that abstraction personhood before the law and the colossus of corporate capitalism is born!
The benefits have been uncountable. When a group of us humans see benefit and profit in a common goal it is as good as achieved. From health to welfare, from tawdry entertainment to profound intellectual stimulation, from convenience to comfort, we have been reaping those benefits. Look what we’ve done to scourges like measles and poliomyelitis and what we no doubt will one day do to this damn coronavirus; how we fly around the globe in hours pushed by solar energy stored in distillates of the goop of rotten leaves hidden underground eons ago until we found a way to suck it out; how we’ve doubled our lifespan; shrunk suffering; warm or cool ourselves with the flick of a switch; and – instead of having to make every implement we want or need by hand – we simply pluck it off the shelves at WalMart and soon will be 3D printing it in our homes!
Unfortunately, like the loaded phrases buried in telecommunications contracts, there have been hidden costs. Like the creeping decrepitude of aging, they’ve been accumulating silently, at a speed just below our perception threshold. Then one day we walk by a reflective storefront and don’t recognize the stooped old guy walking next to us.
Once the scales fall from our eyes, the unintended consequences of our cleverness are everywhere. Some we’ve recognized early and been able to mitigate. Let’s stop drenching our fields with DDT before all the hawks and eagles are gone. Get thalidomide out of the pharmacies pronto. Don’t attribute the bone marrow failure and jaw necrosis those radium girls are dying from to their “loose morals”; instead, stop asking them to lick their brushes in order to get delicate lines of radium on watch faces. But there are many more consequences for which the solution remains elusive. The diffuseness, power and anonymity of the perpetrators are so great; the engines fueled by those thousands of points of self interest so powerful .
Climate change, of course, is the poster child of these creeping consequences. Granted,the industrial revolution led to generations with steadily improving standards of living but we’ve known about the coming crisis for over a decade and the smokestacks and tailpipes keep spewing. The incredible promise of plastics foreshadowed in the single word of advice given to Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate has borne incredible fruit but by 2050 the stuff is projected to exceed the weight of fish in the ocean and now, with no knowledge of the consequences, we unwittingly slurp down microplastic particles in the flesh of every shellfish we consume without a clue of the consequences. Enormous dams power millions but in the process trigger cultural, ecological and geophysical tsunamis that extinguish salmon populations, reduce forest floor fertility, destroy ancient cultures, threaten orca extinction, and even cause polar drift and speed up the rotation of the earth!
We need to rethink the grand scale with which we produce and do things because now (Warning – here comes a bouquet of mixaphors) it’s looking more and more as if we’ve been making some pretty big Faustian bargains and the bill is coming due. Let’s admit we sorcerers’ apprentices have lost control of the Frankensteins we’ve conjured up. It’s time to pay the piper or else our goose, and most everything else, including us, is cooked!
We’ve been attempting to rein in the apocalyptic cayuse of corporate capitalism since the Interstate Commerce Law of 1817 followed by the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, The Federal Trade Commission Act of 1914 and the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010 but those were just directed at minimizing economic injury to consumers. Now, as grandiose at it may sound, we need a second go at taming this beast if we are to salvage life on earth as we know it – including our own. We need the hard working naturalists who are each documenting the decline of the species du jour, the geophysicists warning about the reconstitution of our atmosphere, the climatologists measuring the global temperature rise, the oceanographers following sea acidification, the multitude of reporters dishing this up in lay language we can all understand, the environmentalists working away in their NGO’s for a fraction of the salaries they could earn in the private sector and – yes, and, – every single one of us doing our share to generate the political will to take back control of the system we’ve brilliantly created. We also need radical new ideas.
How about an FDA-like body to oversee a thorough study of the possible unintended consequences of every industrially produced chemical before it leaves the manufacturer’s door . How about really considering all those cost externalities – maybe require plastic manufacturers (Exxon Mobil is the world’s largest producer) to be responsible for fishing a certain number of tons of plastic out of the ocean before they issue a stock dividend. How about taking down the legal walls protecting CEOs’ personal fortunes from destructive blunders their companies make whether or not they covered up the problem. Sound like crazy pie in the sky? Social Security and Workmen’s compensation did before they were passed into law. So did women’s suffrage. And you can be sure those snake oil salesmen squawked and hollered to try to block the establishment of the FDA.
We face a big challenge. How do we unstick ourselves from the tar baby we’ve unwittingly smacked. What twelve steps will lead us away from our addiction to comfort and convenience and the incredible power we’ve harnessed? I don’t have an answer, but I take hope in a wonderful poem a dear friend sent recently:
“It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.”
Wendell Berry: Standing by Words, 1983
Most of us will get through the corona crisis, but in the rear view mirror it will look like a trivial bump in the road compared to the cataclysmic climate crisis we’re hurtling towards. Between now and when that Big One becomes unbearable we’ll get back to going to concerts and watching all those hardworking musicians create music. But to succeed at the troublesome task ahead we are going to need extraordinarily effective leaders, like orchestra conductors, who can get us all working together. Coaxing the genie back into the bottle and all those furies back into Pandora’s box is going to be nowhere near as easy as it was to let them out. We’re going to need to work in an unprecedentedly cooperative and coordinated way and use all our creative and intellectual gifts, be they god-given or the product of evolution, to turn things around.
Walt Kelly: Pogo, 1970