By William Irwin Thompson
“We Irish think
Thoughts on Bailing Out Detroit
pt 2, November 22, 2008
What do extinction and apoptosis have in common? (Relax, you have a dictionary and Wikipedia just a mouse
click away.) Roshi Joan Halifax would say impermanence. Without
extinction, biospheres would suffocate; without programmed cell death,
cancerous organs would kill organisms.
With apologies to Darwin, properly speaking, species
don’t evolve, biospheres do. In the hominization of the primates, the narrative of the moment tells
us that upright posture and encephalation were characteristic of the shift from
hominid to hominin; but both these traits are expressed in a shift of
environments in which the climate in the biosphere changes from tropical rain
forest to sparsely forested savannah. Individual apes, such as gibbons can do
nicely for themselves in the dense forest with a single mate in a group of two
or three; they have only to reach out lazily and pluck their fruit from the
tall trees in which they safely live. But when the climate changes and the
trees become sparse and widely separated, the primates have to descend, stand
tall to look around for predators, and learn how to deal with all their fellows
doing the same thing. Those who can read faces and body language, understand
news systems of association through dominance, come to terms with complex
mating and collective protection of neonates in small groups, begin to
experience selective pressure toward developing brains that can map all this
new activity. And so in the Baldwinian evolution of “use it or lose it,”
an activity reinforced heightens its further development. That is the good
news; the bad news is that the shift from one biospheric organization (or
attractor) is a catastrophe bifurcation.
As we all are beginning to learn living through this
economic catastrophe bifurcation, our global economy is not a market but a
planetary biosphere. Trying to understand the day’s news with the eighteenth
century economics of Adam Smith is like trying to understand the neuroscience of the
brain with phrenology.
There is, however, good news for conservatives.
Evolution is not simply a linear system of progress; it is also inherently
conservative. If a cell develops that works through olfactory detection, it can
be tinkered with to work also for photoreception. If a fin works well in water,
it may also be conserved to be used in a new way as an arm. If cyanobacteria can be useful at large in the
shallow seas to produce an oxygenated atmosphere; they can also be tinkered
with to become mitochondria inside cells to aid the larger and more complex
cell with a nucleus to consume interior pollutants, produce a new energy cycle
with ATP, and help the nucleus along with its invention of sexual reproduction.
And in the archetypal association of sex and death–what Opera is all
about–mitochondria take up a new role in apoptosis. Innovation is cool, but
conservation is good. We need both.
So when conservatives try to conserve something, it
is a mistake to become Jacobins and send them to the guillotine or Leninists to send them to the firing squad. But it is also a mistake
to follow them and refuse to come down out of the trees.
In my lifetime, the social biosphere has been built
upon the automobile. It gave us the suburbs and the shopping mall. But notice
now that there are waves of foreclosures in the suburbs and the closings of
many retail chain stores in the malls that can’t hold out even a few weeks for
a Christmas season that may prove to be the worst in memory. This social
biosphere is a world built on cheap gas, credit cards and charge accounts. In
World War II, FDR extended credit to the producing factories to get us out of
the Depression; in the postwar era, Truman extended credit to the consumers to
keep us out.
In my father’s time, there were still horses and
buggies and blacksmiths. He moved from his family farm in Indiana to Chicago
and became first an auto mechanic in World War I and then an auto salesman for
fleets of trucks for GM in the thirties and forties. Then came World War II and
there were no longer fleets of trucks to sell to businesses but only tanks and
army trucks to make for the Government. Times were hard, and like so many
others, we moved to California in 1945 and took part in the emergence of the
era that is now coming to an end.
I am no prophet, but it seems to me that the world
that is emerging for a new generation is quite different from my time. If we
resist it, and an unimaginative government seeks to respond to lobbies and
pressure groups to block innovation, then this new generation will suffer
greatly and it will take another twenty years and perhaps another country for
the new cultural ecology to emerge. Certainly, this transition will be easier
for Switzerland, Denmark, or Ireland than for us.
I would hazard a generalization to say that this new
cultural ecology is one of the suburbs re-clustering into small cities, with
ribbons of ecosystems replacing parking lots and added to freeways, and upscale
whole foods being produced locally by subscription farming for local markets
and artisanal restaurants rather than fast food fuel stations in strip malls.
Dead factories will be recycled into workshops for new Green technologies. On
the turn of the spiral, this would be going back to the nineteenth century on a
higher level. Don’t just think of the dark satanic mills of Manchester and
Birmingham, but think of the university town of Schiller’s Jena or Goethe’s Weimar in Germany.
To make the shift from postindustrial
civilization to an endosymbiotic biosphere of government, business, and
individuals, we need to invest directly in our citizens and not create nursing
homes of assisted living for dinosaurs like GM. The GI Bill and the Highway Act of 1956 that created the Interstate highway
system brought forth the post-Depression era of postindustrial civilization.
Once again, citizens will need scholarships to go back to colleges and stipends
to live on, and communities will need a new infrastructure of green
architectures and bacterial “living machines” for environmental
remediation. The difference between collapse and emergence is vision.
Cultural Historian William Irwin Thompson writes regularly for Wild River Review.