The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.
P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
7.4 (Fall 2007)
A Taxonomy of North American Society’s Narratives of Catastrophe and Dissolution
John R. Harris
Like many of this journal’s devoted readers, I have come to appreciate Mark Wegierski’s clinical assessments of civilization’s chances to survive another century, or to survive in a certain form—and even his mere presentation of likely post-civilized alternatives without further comment. This is an Aristotelian endeavor, open to charges of being dry or (the cardinal sin these days) without passion. Yet the passion for passion is itself highly toxic, and may be regarded (I certainly regard it so) as a symptom of cultural collapse. When I was little more than a boy, Sir Kenneth Clark was assembling his magnificent BBC series Civilisation, an epic documentary which integrated visual art and architecture seamlessly with the music and literature of shifting times and customs. (The series has grown more valuable than ever today since, all unwittingly, Sir Kenneth committed to film several of Europe’s most historically rich metropolitan areas just before they would dissolve in the sludge of traffic and contemptuous alien populations.) I distinctly recall the scene—it has been haunting me for years—where the grand old man crunched through the riverbed gravel beneath a Roman aqueduct in southern France and delivered the following lines: “There is a poem by the modern Greek poet, Cavafy, in which he imagines the people of an antique town like Alexandria waiting every day for the barbarians to come and sack the city. Finally the barbarians move off somewhere else and the city is saved; but the people are disappointed—it would have been better than nothing.”
How well I know that sentiment from observations of my fellow Westerners during my own lifetime! I recall also, a mere twenty years ago now, an excursion to the ancient Irish site of Emain Macha which I took in the company of several young scholars, all of us enrolled in the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies’ summer program. The talk in the bus at one point became snagged upon the image of our being stopped by an IRA roadblock (for Emain Macha lies a few miles within the Ulster border). There would be bearded men with machine guns (my compatriots fantasized with shivering delight)—and if we made a break for it, the machine guns would shoot out our tires. I drew only dark stares when I laughed that a bus moving at 40 miles per hour would not only shatter any extempore obstruction, but would advance so far along our twisting rural road that, by the time the blackguards could extract themselves from “the furzy hedge” (as John Millington Synge has dubbed it), their hiccoughing automatics could never hit any target so small as a tire. I quickly realized that these thin-shouldered, well-washed Ph.D. candidates wanted to be detained by road agents. Perhaps the women wanted to be kidnapped and ravished, and the men to be recruited under duress. Such was their boredom. The learning which had been heaped upon them seemed, if anything, to have multiplied their impatience and disgust with the resources of Western culture for bestowing coherence and value upon life. They wanted to be profoundly shaken up: they wanted to become passion’s next prey.
Anyone who has ever endured immense emotional strain knows that the calm voice of an analytical Aristotle, far from being tedious and deathly, is a lifeline back to sanity. You cannot not cultivate a cool head and still survive in circumstances where people behave like ravening animals. Actually to court the excesses of taraxia, the opprobrious turbulence of emotions universally condemned in ancient philosophy, is to grow infatuated with lunacy. Yet it is an inescapable truth that many of our best educated and most influential citizens long to be somewhat “out of their heads”. Why is that, and what prognosis does it suggest for our sickly ruin of a culture? I should like to make my own best effort at taxonomizing the possibilities, as surgically as I can. Though my attempt is doomed to be more Theophrastian than Aristotelian as I inventory my experience of people, I solemnly vow to purge irony of bile.
I. Natural Calamity
To begin with, allow me to dispose of roughly half a dozen lurid scenarios much publicized in popular fiction, made-for-TV movies, and even—lately—the political forum, all forecasting the collapse of our civilization due to a natural calamity which mankind will either provoke or failed to neutralize. I have global warming very much in mind, to be sure; but it is only the early twenty-first century’s most compelling projection of our species’ suicide, for reasons to be discussed shortly. As well as I can recall, it was preceded by 1) a high alert that the Western United States, in particular, would run out of water; 2) an alarm that acid rain would massively destroy crops, voiding several vital links in the food chain; 3) a fear of the impending earthquakes that are sure to devastate major population centers along the West Coast; 4) apprehension over a large meteor’s colliding with the Earth and plunging the planet into a “clean” nuclear winter; and, just before the recent heat-up of Global Warming Anxiety, 5) a nerve-racking rumor that a tsunami like that which scourged Southeast Asia on Christmas of 2004 could well wash over the East Coast’s population centers with unspeakable slaughter.
Now, all such doomsday scenarios have several elements in common. Each enjoys a certain amount of scientific plausibility. In fact, of major earthquakes out West and perhaps even the asteroidal menace, one might say that the risk is 100%: “not if, but when”. Most of these scenarios also involve at least a small degree of human complicity with the forces of doom. Water is being depleted because we choose to waste it, rain is acidifying because we choose to pollute the air, and even the catastrophe wreaked by earthquakes depends somewhat upon our choice of where and how to build our cities. I should stress the obvious in the matter of human choice, as well: none of the calamities has been projected as the grim consequence of deficient personal morality rather than of social and economic policy. That is, when “we choose” to pollute or abuse or ignore, we are not really choosing individually at all: those in charge of our lives, rather, are failing us. Dour prophets warn that large factories are permitted to foul the air, that Las Vegas is permitted to sap the Rocky Mountain water table, that pork-barrel politics has robbed the public of adequate tsunami or asteroid detection outposts. The suggestion is never floated that the typical American citizen has turned his back on frugality to embrace frivolity—disdaining close-to-home jobs for better-paying ones, gambling and partying too often, hitting the beach in a kind of gluttony for sun-bathing. The natural threat is invariably related, sooner or later, to our technology, whose liabilities are in turn related to greedy, wicked people in positions of power.
Finally, and not without connection to the previous point, I observe that most scenarios insist upon truly catastrophic die-offs in spectacular events of flame, tumult, and collapse. Only the water-shortage and acid-rain options lack this aspect. Both of them—surely not by chance—were roiling the public mind before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, when nuclear holocaust still seemed an imminent possibility. In other words, with the disappearance of the nuclear threat as a likely “extermination event” for the human race, natural disasters have proceeded to buy up the available shares of terror (as it were) which flooded the market for mass hysteria.
I do not wish to imply that I view all of these gloomy forecasts as the alarmist exaggerations of a public incapable of enjoying the quiet life. They mostly highlight real dangers, in some cases imminent dangers. I honestly do not know the status of the mid-continental water table or of the predations of acid rain. The threat of earthquake to southern California, however, is immense—a major event during rush hour could easily kill thousands, as quakes have recently done in China and India. In the case of collision-course asteroids and tsunamis, we appear to enjoy a rather more advanced system of detection and early warning. (Since tsunamis are an effect of mid-oceanic earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, they offer us a kind of built-in recovery time even when the earth’s crust takes our seismographs by surprise.) In either case, we could probably avert catastrophe. Even a metropolitan center could be largely evacuated in a day. That New Orleans was given almost a week to clear its streets before Hurricane Katrina made landfall and still bungled the job deserves a closer look momentarily. Local evacuation would make little difference in the final tally of casualties inflicted by a meteorite of, say, a mile’s diameter, for the vast majority of deaths would ensue months after impact, as crops failed globally thanks to a thick haze of debris high in the atmosphere. Yet we possess the technology at this instant to intercept such an apocalyptic missile with a nuclear weapon whose detonation would fragment it. The most heavenly of the menaces is probably the least of our worries.
I wrote just above that I am ignorant of what inroads have been made against the problems of depleted water resources and acid rain. I am not a scientist or a specialist in any field relevant to such issues. In a way, this is precisely the point I wish to draw from the foregoing discussion—for I was no more a specialist when water and rain were front-page news than I am now. The front page thrust them into my face.2 These matters, that is, though they deserve to be taken seriously, consistently have not been so over the past half-century, during which span “impending natural calamity” has been a favorite means of soliciting readership and viewership. They have been handled exactly like “stories”—like primetime serial melodramas whose denouement is referenced to a ticking clock. Bored people enjoy them: bored people enjoy being scared. Will the bullet be dodged at the last possible instant, or will Mr. Jones, CPA, be one of his species’ hundred surviving members? Which scenario would Mr. Jones prefer to see? (Mrs. Jones is a bit long in the tooth; as forlorn castaways, the last beautiful women could not well afford to be too choosey about which of the last men they allowed into their bed to regenerate the race.) Ms. Smith, teacher’s aid, a single parent with few prospects for advancement, generally feels that the world has ganged up on her. The notion of cosmic forces ganging up on the world is not unpleasant—but there is also the child to think of, and Ms. Smith has a quasi-religious faith in the ability of avuncular authorities to defuse ticking time-bombs (which may say much about how she has allowed men to reduce her personal life to a ruin). All in all, the “catastrophe” theme is good for sales and ratings. It appeals to a great many latent fears and longings in a society with a great many frustrations. If Catastrophe did not exist, Man would have to invent it.
I repeat that I am not dismissing such high-risk behaviors as our high-tech culture routinely adopts in its straining or violating of natural law as the text of a wry joke. It is because these risks are substantial—sometimes very substantial—that our melodramatizing of them is itself risky. We cry wolf. Eventually, those among us who are bored with this antidote to boredom will mock our cries by wearing wolf’s ears. There is a kind of person who installs a back-yard swimming pool and buys a gas-guzzling Humvee to putter around town in just because he has tired of what he regards as “alarmist whining”. The whiners are far more apt to inhabit the political Left, and the polluters-and-proud-of-it the political Right. One can well imagine that any exchange between two such adversaries is unlikely to reach a truly responsible conclusion, no matter which finally amasses more muscle on its side of the rope. For both are responding to passion: the Leftist is “passionate” about protecting the environment, while the Rightest is “passionate” about protecting consumerist free enterprise. The one truly relevant datum here to mapping our most likely path of descent, then, is the omnipresence of passion as a tolerable motive for major decisions. The Leftist wears green baseball caps, drinks green tea, sorts glass and plastic from his garbage, rides his bike to work, lets his lawn’s grass grow unshorn, eats vegetarian, and buys only recycled paper products. His lifestyle is a role, a mission: it offers lines to utter for every situation and gestures to mime in every crisis. Some of his tactics may actually benefit the environment (e.g., bike-riding), some are mere tokens of tribal loyalty (e.g., clothing and diet), and a few could even prove destructive of the cause to which he claims abject dedication (e.g., the messy lawn: ticks, mosquitoes, and other vermin complicate, aggravate, and sometimes abbreviate the existence of higher life forms). He may also cancel out all the virtuous petrol-abstinence so arduously practiced on a bicycle’s seat by jetting to a couple of conferences or “wilderness” vacations per year. Passion rules good sense: acting the part trumps promoting the desired end.
The Rightest, meanwhile, manicures his lawn to golf-course perfection, prowls the city needlessly every evening in search of “take-out” food and amusement, plunges for the latest electronic gismos, spends Sunday afternoons sprawled before a wide-screen projection of the football game, and packs his children off to soccer practice and Tai Kwan Do after school. The traditional virtues of thrift, temperance, industry, modesty, humility, and gravity are little in evidence (though pressuring clients to buy more insurance or computer upgrades or motor vehicles may qualify as a certain kind of industry), or else patently contradicted (grass trimmed beyond a certain point and kids forcibly enrolled in costly extra-curricular tutelage are among our time’s pre-eminent forms of bourgeois ostentation). But how could he live otherwise? For he, too, has fallen prey to passion: his inclinations weave a chain around his neck. His acts and utterances have all been choreographed and scripted to flatter basic appetites. The space beyond his part’s well-worn limits is needless hardship.
In short, I contend that the least resistible influence upon the West’s collapse is not “the big one” due any time now along the San Andreas Fault, but the incapacity of its citizens to live as individual moral agents, rationally accepting or rejecting options on the basis of their relation to objective goodness. For instance, the automobile is a necessary evil: no other portrayal of it makes any sense at all. It is dirty, dangerous, and socially disruptive, and our common moral ambition should be to eliminate it. To the extent that we need it to cover the vast distances between home and workplace and marketplace which we have allowed to open up (largely in accommodation of the car’s technical parameters), our problem is one of reconstructing the spaces where we sleep, eat, shop, and work. Yet neither side—neither Left nor Right—has any such plan on the drawing board. The Left periodically proposes higher emission standards which would force hundreds of American businesses to shut down or higher gas taxes which would force millions of our poorest citizens into destitution. The Right racks its collective brain for ways to continue the existing dilemma—thereby offering the single defensible explanation for its curious commandeering of the word “conservative”. The privileged bureaucratic class, in other words, cannot understand why commoners are not eating cake when the price of bread goes up, while the private-sector middle class cannot understand what’s so wrong about wanting the latest model of car with a TV and DVD -player on board. Neither side understands—there is a crisis of moral understanding. The “way of life” to which both sides are inseparably wedded can make no more convincing claim upon an impartial bystander than that its adherents have laced their emotions through and through it.
The natural calamity, I believe, is much more than another diversion to these people in full flight from responsible self-examination. Now is not the time to psychoanalyze the two political polarities and discuss in detail just what appeal either of them finds in tales of a contemporary Deluge or Vesuvius. Obviously, the crowd on the Right could be expected to take rather more pleasure in the scenario’s fireworks and special effects. Not only does the Right appear to enjoy spectacle more (as opposed to the catharsis of mass hysteria, where the Left’s affections incline): anything on the order of The Last Days of Pompeii offers ample scope for individual action and unhampered freedom during the critical hours when survivors struggle against chaos. On the Left, consumers of so nightmarish a narrative are more likely to perceive it as an allegory of corrupt leadership—or even of an outraged Mother Earth punishing the entire race for condoning the hybris of a few. To the Left-leaning audience, that is, the scenario is less entertaining than sacral—i.e., enabling of proper worship. For I should say nothing new in remarking that environmental causes are the Left’s religion: the sequence of garden, custodianship, violated command, and severe punishment is clearly visible just beneath the surface of any Left-wing crusade in this direction.
A Right-tending filmmaker, we might summarize, might choose to threaten the Earth with a rogue asteroid, while a Left-leaning one would prefer the rupturing of the government’s hush-hush nuclear waste dumps in an earthquake… but, as I say, such is not my theme here. I would stress, instead, the remaining member of the Doomsday Scenario’s recurrent characteristics: the refusal to admit any genuine personal culpability. For if the Left postpones guilt until it clings to the highest levels of leadership, the Right tends to evade the issue entirely: again, one hears no homilist on either side exhorting us simply to shut down Las Vegas, simply to resuscitate farming as a livelihood, or simply to stop dividing our residences from the rest of our lives. Indeed, my perception is that the alleged phenomenon of global warming has considerable traction in both camps, and that both are comfortable indicting mysterious forces atop the political-economic hierarchy for it. A Rightest is infinitely less apt to reproach certain senators for not supporting the Kyoto Accord’s limits on emissions, and infinitely more to mention China’s ruthless charge into the future, asphyxiate who may. What we do not hear from him is an entirely different program for living in the tradition of New England Puritanism or Ohio Valley Quakerism or Southern agrarianism. The residue of the “hippy” fringe is perhaps closer to making an “alternative lifestyle” proposal… but then again, maybe not. Just as electric amplifiers were essential to that fringe in its original form, so its present morphos relies heavily upon digital amusements. At some relatively superficial level, responsibility for the planetary crisis always shifts to the Establishment. One’s personal conveniences and fantasies must not be jeopardized.
Global warming, as a socio-political phenomenon (where it is incontestably real), is the crystallization of our collective finger-pointing and role-playing. Companies market products by touting their absurdly minuscule reduction of some minor pollutant. Schools announce the planting of a few trees about the campus with much fanfare, though their buses continue to belch soot all about the city twice a day. We all rush to embrace the “do your little bit” approach, since it is the reverse side of heaping a guilty onus upon a select few: a personal conscience cleansed with a dime. Traffic is indeed cited as the primary contributor to greenhouse gases in all the summations of the theory that I have seen, yet citizens of almost every political persuasion cannot seem to stake out a coherent position on any series of issues related to transportation. Municipal governments persist in constructing loops around their city limits to ease rush-hour “slow goes”, despite ample evidence that more roads draw more traffic as a magnet draws metal shavings.3 Car manufacturers boast of cleaner-running engines, yet the miles-per-gallon averaged by their products have increased over the past decade in response to the public’s clear preference for heavier, higher-suspended vehicles. The most zealous environmentalists—people who, perhaps, ride bicycles to work—are among the most enthusiastic supporters of open international borders (about which, more anon). Yet a vast infusion of day-laborers, constantly driving to new temporary work sites in vehicles neither properly inspected (if not legally registered) nor state-of-the-art, has immensely exacerbated air pollution in southwestern cities.
We are a shallow people, and the major threat to our civilization’s sustained survival is, precisely, our shallowness. The thick lather of indignation over the flawed evacuation of New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina made landfall is surely the most stunning monument to our absurd ineptitude. Hundreds of people perished needlessly, some of them having freely chosen to take their chances, some of them allegedly having lacked the resources to depart. Yet the resources necessary were minimal, since a high alert was publicized five days in advance; and, in any case, one must suppose that local government and volunteer help from private organizations like churches would or could have taken up the slack. Of course, subsequent indignation centered upon the failure of state and (especially) federal agencies to provide timely relief after the catastrophe. The decision fatally embraced by the victims to stay put—and other decisions not to dissuade them vigorously which their neighbors must have reached in many cases—never fall under scrutiny. The personal tragedies which ensued are packaged as nothing less than a plot hatched in the White House.
At first glance, the plague appears to be an entirely natural phenomenon—and so it is, if one considers it strictly as phenomenon (i.e., as a fact whose reality begins as soon as it becomes visible). Massive die-offs due to infection are common throughout all tiers of biological existence, in both plants and animals. Indeed, our own time’s tendency is again to belittle or ignore the element of choice in human epidemics, as if we were so many microbes in a Petrie dish. Nothing could be more absurd—or more patently illustrative of why human plagues are often not natural calamities—than the selling of the AIDS epidemic over the past two decades as a guilt-free thunderclap: essentially, a stroke of bad luck. In North America, where most of the HIV-infected were not born so, this is plainly inaccurate. Homosexual activity is definitively unnatural if one simply builds statistics upon mammalian behavior, the specific high-risk behavior here has always been the opting for promiscuous activity, and intravenous drug use is also a deliberately chosen series of acts. Yet AIDS has been aggressively represented to the public as a fatal version of the common cold. Apparently, it was not unheard-of in the early days of this scourge for certain men infected with the HIV virus to spread their contagion to unsuspecting women with careful premeditation so as to “upgrade” the disease’s moral status to a pure misfortune. As we have already seen, the American masses were well primed to adopt the desired view, for Americans tend to see any sort of catastrophe—public or private, medical or natural or financial—as engineered by wicked authorities rather than admitted by personal decision. Furthermore, a few homosexuals in recent years have publicized their active attempts to become infected, a suicidal behavior which once more reminds us that catastrophe is an antidote to boredom.
But what about the common cold—or a common case of winter influenza? Our society has lately been harrowed with rumors that a major outbreak—a pandemic—of “bird flu” (borne by migratory wildfowl from Southeast Asia all around the world, then spread among domesticated fowl and thence to other animals and to humans) is poised to cut our numbers in half, perhaps. Might some particle of “lifestyle choice” affect the dreadful progress of such a scourge? At a certain level, yes: certainly more so than in the case of an Earth-asteroid collision or a volcanic eruption. One of the major factors in the spread of any plague is frequent long travel. European merchants didn’t understand this in the days of Marco Polo, nor European explorers in the days of Columbus. We understand it very well now, however—yet never have so many people traveled so far so frequently. We travel for amusement as well as for profit: we travel simply to “get away”. The best-educated travel expensively to conferences several times a year, even though staying at home and reading dozens or hundreds of position-papers has never been easier. The wealthy travel in order to spend their wealth; the retired travel in order to convince themselves that the shackles of routine have truly been struck off.
Besides compounding problems involving traffic and pollution, and besides wearing the traveler’s physical resistance down due to decreased exercise and irregular diet, these habits jeopardize everybody back home who is likely to come in contact with the returned globe-trotter, now a breeding ground for opportunistic infections. Yet I must repeat (at the risk of belaboring the point) that nobody during the bird-flu scare’s opening volley of advice and reproaches ever hinted that our North American lifestyle is really rather frivolous, and that we would have to worry far less about this sort of misery if we would make our local communities more habitable, learn how to read for pleasure, and take up gardening. To this day, such a strand of argument has not worked its way into the public debate. Because of our continued resistance to changes in our basic habits, and now because the first bird-flu alarm has proved a false one (the “cry wolf” syndrome again), we are probably more vulnerable to decimation by plague than we have been since the discovery of penicillin.
For the fact remains that wandering people, not migrating geese, are responsible for all of the few reported cases of Avian Influenza in this hemisphere; yet the unsanitary conditions which nurtured the flu in Southeast Asia are being replicated—with an official determination to court disaster and an official indifference to the risks—even as I write these words. Diseases such as tuberculosis and leprosy have grown exotic in our part of the world, the scourges of distant times and places (like the Black Plague itself). Now, however, with the throwing open of its southern border to millions of destitute immigrants unschooled in basic hygiene, the U. S. is transforming its cities into incubators for such all-but-extinct contagions. In Dallas public schools, diagnosed cases of tuberculosis have skyrocketed. Most disturbing is that new strains of the bacillus are proving untreatable with existing antibiotics: as we saturate our national pharmacopia in thousands and thousands of cases bred not only in dense populations, but also newly and constantly mixed populations, we are writing the perfect recipe for the invincible infection. The phrase “melting pot” is acquiring a new, morbid meaning.
Of course, penurious refugees from the wastes of Chihuahua can be supposed to understand the mechanism of bacteriological infection no better than (if even as well as) Boccaccio’s Florentines. The typical American citizen, however, is fully aware that sneezing in somebody’s face, drinking from somebody else’s glass, or eating a morsel that has occupied an unclean place can cause illness. Yet many very well-educated Americans, apparently—occupying positions of private ownership and public leadership—are not alarmed at the probable consequences of unleashing Third World health habits upon the high-tech metropolis, where people of all walks of life can cover vastly more miles and mingle with vastly more sub-populations during the average day than they would in Mexico. When a treatment-resistant strain of TB finally sweeps across the nation (and, as with the 8.5 earthquake in southern California, it’s only a matter of time), the response will be the same as it was to the first tiny outbreaks of bird flu—and, for that matter, to Hurricane Katrina and to the “Christmas tsunami”: “Where were the reinforcements? Why were our rulers not fully prepared to intercept this threat, or at least neutralize its aftermath? What plot is being hatched against us good, ordinary people at the very highest levels?”
III . Technological Short-Circuit
Most of us have known the frustration of being stuck in a power outage after a violent electrical storm or, perhaps, a wintry blizzard. Practically every amenity in our environment, all of our tools at work, all of our amusements at play—our garage doors, our lights, our heating and air conditioning, our ovens and microwaves, our clocks, our hair-dryers, our computers, our televisions, our stereos—our whole world is electronic. Suddenly deprived of this magical current, we are apt to reflect (if we are at all thoughtful) upon what utter havoc a protracted breakdown would wreak. Water would not be treated at municipal plants; essential transactions could not be made at bank windows; traffic lights would not work. In the Robert Wise sci-fi classic, The Day the Earth Stood Still, the benign but stern Martian visitor impresses upon the world’s recalcitrant population the gravity of his mission by shutting down everything electrical for one hour. His point is soon taken.
Computers have probably heightened our awareness of vulnerability. In the early days of the word-processor, many of us were introduced to the exquisite frustration of losing every trace of an important document because we had not saved it properly. Such lapses were almost routine. In the case of yesteryear’s typed or printed document assembled from handwritten notes, an entire building would have to burn down to wipe out one’s hard labor so completely. Important e-mails continue regularly to go astray in ways that the layman cannot begin to understand, and cell phone reception is notoriously unreliable.
The notion of our slave Technology’s rising up like Spartacus and throwing our empire into chaos, therefore, is not at all far-fetched to us. It is an experience which we have known on a small scale, and which hence need only be magnified to produce a disaster narrative. In contrast, most people cannot begin to formulate an image of what assault by tsunami or asteroid would be like. This particular pest, because we have already been dosed with its toxin in tiny amounts, seems less exotic all the time. The 2001 in which Stanley Kubrick projected his Space Odyssey has now come and gone; the Mutiny of the Computer, having become part of our cultural drill in a small way, has lost its teeth. The boy has cried “wolf” too often.
The truth is that we are probably less prepared for this kind of calamity, more exposed to its real occurrence in some devastating form, and more inept at reading its early rumbles than in the case of any disaster so far discussed. Earlier in this essay, I have accused North Americans of not understanding, of being shallow, and of not recognizing the significance of personal choice in their affairs. These charges are fundamentally the same charge, and it has repeatedly surfaced when technology was under consideration. Technology is what we do not understand adequately; technology is rendering us shallow; technology obscures to our eyes the importance of our own choices—and even the existence of those choices. We are uniquely exposed to technological abuses or miscues, in my opinion, because we seldom have any notion of just what’s at stake in a high-tech crisis of the simplest kind.
I admitted that I myself have only the weakest intellectual grasp of what issues currently surround our water supply or the acidification of rain. I am clearly not alone in being puzzled about the degree to which global warming is fact rather than theory (I am indeed joined, it seems, by a great many climatologists); and this, like the various concerns about ground- and rain-water, is at last a matter of how the modern production of energy and material affects the environment (for no one would be very exercised about rising temperatures or falling water tables if the trend turned out to represent a natural cycle). We are outraged when “science” doesn’t warn us of a coming earthquake or tsunami, or when it fails to predict a hurricane’s path reliably enough that no boy at the National Weather Service can be suspected of crying wolf. We tend to view the persistence of heart disease and cancer as a national disgrace, just as a fairly common opinion holds that AIDS could be cured next year if the medical community would really apply itself.
These views, I would emphasize, come from people who are shocked at the damage done by a motor vehicle “barely moving” at 30 miles per hour, who will chatter away on a cell phone while watching an electrical storm, who believe that an old keyboard tossed in the trash will disintegrate at the landfill like apple cores and leftover spaghetti, and who expect to cheat sleep year after year with caffeine while suffering no long-term ill effects. North Americans are ignoramuses about every kind of science, from physics to meteorology to anatomy. So is virtually everyone else in the world, for that matter. The scientist’s calling is that of a specialist—and few people can specialize, by definition. (Even the nuclear physicist usually knows nothing about engineering, and the cardiologist nothing about nutrition.) But the great danger is that we are immersed in applied science as no other culture on earth, although many are overtaking us rapidly. They, too, will soon share our dilemma. Their lives will be awash in gadgetry which makes no more sense to them than a wristwatch to a caveman. They will grow very familiar only with what these marvels are supposed to do when the right buttons are pressed in the right succession (and making such sequences simple is known as being “user-friendly”—a euphemism for burying every last trace of the mystery and enhancing the false sense of security). Were a vast network of such things to malfunction in unison, whether by accident or design, not one in ten thousand of us could take effective action.
The most homespun and “scaled down” example of this risk is the minor catastrophe of a fatal car wreck. Drivers have grown quite anesthetized to the risks they incur when traveling at 60 or 70 miles per hour—to the point, indeed, that they suppose themselves freed up to handle phones or food or radio dials. We feel ourselves to be entirely in command. What we do not feel is the extremely fine edge of that command: one instant of inattention or one over-correction, and we could end several lives on the highway around us as well as our own. Imagine now that a mechanical failure were to occur at high speed. Even the most conscientious driver, ignorant of the warning signs and of the malfunction’s immediate effects, would be diving off Niagara Falls in a barrel, just as if he were one more drunk behind the wheel. The tally of traffic fatalities per annum is already approaching that of the entire Vietnam War. It is symptomatic of our dense insulation from such realities that we do not even style the figure—more than double that of China’s Tangshan earthquake in 1976—as a calamity.
Yet the most relevant class of cases involving misidentified or ignored technological menace may be found in the file devoted to terrorist attacks. From the evening of September 11, 2001 , until this very instant, the techniques of Al Qaeda have been praised or damned as “sophisticated”. They are nothing of the sort. They are astute, but not sophisticated. They involve the mere exploitation of loosely stitched seams in our high-tech lifestyle’s fabric. We happen to have many such seams. One of these is the number of conveyances moving at anywhere from three to 15 times a racehorse’s fastest gallop with a high volume and density of travelers on board—at least dozens, often hundreds. One stumble, and the contemporary iron horse spills all his riders like grape shot fired out of a cannon… so the trick is to figure out how to catch a hoof. In the case of a bullet-train or a jetliner, this turns out to be remarkably easy. No one remembers now, but shortly before 9/11, a favorite scenario for disaster was widespread “metal fatigue” in commercial jets (a theme at least as old as the classic James Stewart film, No Highway in the Sky). To our terrorist-obsessed mentality, every new plane crash or train derailment is immediately assumed to conceal another dastardly plot; yet the plain truth is that such disasters were already occurring frequently of their own accord before twisted young men armed themselves with box-cutters.4 Our techniques of mass transportation are quite terrifying in and of themselves.
Another seam ever ready to split in contemporary habits of living is the skyscraper. Terrorist masterminds were at first somewhat overmatched by the task of destroying a high-rise’s inhabitants in North America, where building codes are more stringent than in other parts of the world. Yet the edifice need not be toppled: if simply set on fire, its occupants will be trapped like rats on the proverbial sinking ship. Civilian targets in tall structures could also be struck by a massive curb-side explosion—the equivalent of an IRA “supermarket bomb” ignited in a locality where the supermarket is a multi-tiered complex. Timothy McVeigh did not induce the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City to collapse—he simply took off one of its faces at a time when most of the chambers were occupied, and this with no more than a rented truck and some fertilizer. Timing, of course, is of the essence. A commercial tower leveled in the dead of night would not only possess little photogeneity: it would claim relatively few victims.
We remarked that time would be a major factor, too, in determining the devastation inflicted by a Los Angeles earthquake. Our masses move to the clock’s tempo: many of our machines require some sort of chronological coordination—perhaps internal, perhaps with other machines—in order to reach their peak performance. Yet many also do not. Indeed, I can think of no apparent reason why office space would not be maximally utilized if workers came and went around the clock. Traffic would certainly be diminished, fuel consumption would be reduced, opportunities for ancillary businesses (e.g., all-night coffee shops or gyms next to office buildings) would be multiplied, and general stress would be relieved (assuming that the round-the-clock regimen translated into greater flexibility of schedules). In this case, I believe we may divine one of the machine’s greatest menaces: that its habits are infectious to neighboring humans. Instead of acquiring greater freedom thanks to the machine’s having liberated us from the sun and the seasons, we spring to life far more rigidly at the alarm’s claxon than any farmer ever did at cockcrow. We steadily create new technology that allows us to “cheat” a little—drugged drinks to wake us up faster or new conveyances or routes to get us to the job on time. We do not, however, seem to spend much thought on creating jobs that begin or resume when we’re ready—at dawn, at sundown, at 2 a.m. The truth is that there were many more such jobs in the past than there are now: the carpenter’s, the seamstress’s, the baker’s, the writer’s.
So technical catastrophe is not invited only by the physical structuring of contemporary North American life, with its emphasis on breakneck speed and precariously juggled population densities; the short-circuit may also occur in our own nervous systems, one individual at a time yet with plague-like abundance. It is difficult to compare the nature and extent of nervous disorders from one generation to another, and certainly from one century to another: many ailments were not even identified as such in the past, many today are obscured or mitigated by advanced treatments, circumstantial factors such as diet and exercise have changed radically, and so forth. Nevertheless, the deterioration of manners in recent generations has achieved an acceptance so near to the universal that it has grown to be a cliché. People certainly seem to be more tense. Anecdotal evidence abounds—some of us can even remark an increased aggression in our own deportment as the electron has sped up everything we do. To argue that North Americans already suffer from a plague of machine-inspired neuralgia, then, does not seem at all far-fetched.
Of course, the most popular scenarios for cultural dissolution involve something more explicit and dramatic: a take-over by robots, for instance (the projection, one might say, of 2001: A Space Odyssey into the terrestrial and the bourgeois). Several reputed scientists and technicians have lately created a stir by suggesting that robots will, in fact, supplant the human species eventually.5 This narrative seems to have enjoyed a considerable magnetism upon our audiences for generations already, if one may view the highly mechanized aliens in H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds as robotic (or, to adjoin the ridiculous to the sublime, take those devils-on-coasters, the Daleks, from the campy Dr. Who series). What most interests me about the scenario here—perhaps the only one in this group which truly and persistently captures the popular imagination—is that it once again minimizes the citizen’s willful collaboration in the process of decline. We drive cars, we hop aboard elevators, we log on to computers… but we have no apparent hand in “artificial intelligence”. Some Frankenstein-like figure in a white coat invented it, perhaps an evil genius, perhaps simply a naïve introvert who failed to foresee his plaything’s ruinous consequences. In any case, the fault is not ours. We may admit it as a collective guilt, for such guilt costs us nothing personally (and may, indeed, ennoble us personally for “admitting” to a sin on behalf of others). Nothing we do in our quotidian routine, however, seems to bear the remotest relation to this reified menace of circuitry. By agreeing to fear our technology in this form, we have yet again succeeded in missing the point.
IV. Weapons of Mass Destruction
No discussion of doomsday scenarios would be complete without The Bomb. The Baby-Boomer generation was raised in the shadow of a mushroom cloud: some North Americans can recall actually drilling for nuclear attack in school the way youngsters do today for tornados. (The tornado sirens used in early warning systems around the U. S. were actually developed back in the fifties as alarms for incoming Russian missiles.) Nuclear weapons have the “advantage” over other forms of catastrophe, from the standpoint of “doomsday credibility”, that they have indeed been used and that their effects were indeed immensely more widespread in time and space than anyone had predicted (another example, by the way—the preeminent one—of technology’s tendency to exceed even the understanding of its specialist creators). A-Bombs and H-Bombs well support the thesis that a general exchange of them would end life on Earth. They constitute a special class of technology which we need not—probably should not—attempt to squeeze under the foregoing rubric; for, while as distant from most of our daily lives as robots, they have none of the robot’s potential for farming ocean bottoms and mining planetary surfaces. They are invincibly extraordinary: their purpose is to obliterate the ordinary and plunge reality back into primal chaos.
This malodorous reputation clings to nuclear power even when attempts are made to harness it as domestic energy. In the popular mind, it will remain a “bomb”, first and foremost. The identification may not be ill-advised, especially with the proliferation of terrorism around the world and the painful revelation that none of our security systems is fully secure. For all that, I suspect that the most popular narrative is once again among the least likely: not the least serious, but among the easiest to avert. A missile or a bomb must be delivered, and airborne weapons can be detected and destroyed in flight. Something like the defensive net of satellites proposed by President Reagan, and which was at once derided with the tag “Star Wars”, will probably soon be in place over North America. An infinitely more disturbing WMD , given the relative ease of introducing it into the target society, is the bacteriological weapon. A vial poured into a major city’s water supply or a highly infectious bacterium like anthrax dusted over a few large crowds could leave millions dead, and its lingering effects could be just as difficult to purge from the environment as radioactive fallout. The evidence that Saddam Hussein was developing such weapons included the blunt fact that he had already gassed dozens of Kurdish villages (leaving tens of thousands of non-combatants dead in their tracks) and that his own scientists confessed to having developed such a hellish arsenal.6 Yet both the popular mind and the Bush Administration fixed upon the image of a mushroom cloud. The question of where, exactly, Saddam’s vials and dishes of “Satan Bug” ended up has been left not only unanswered, but unasked.
If the nuclear bomb overlaps with the renegade robot as a portrait in high-tech evil, then the bacteriological weapon overlaps with the naturally occurring plague. To infuse a population with smallpox would be to “jump-start” Mother Nature down one of her most destructive paths. The factors which make of the pandemic a harrowing possibility today—enormous concentrations of people moving over unprecedented distances with unprecedented speed and frequency—also elevate the planted contagion to the status of a “dirty bomb”. The suitcase-bomb with fissionable material would at least give a quick death to immediate bystanders, and its long-term effects could be circumscribed and anticipated within a fairly specific area. The infused bug would have neither redeeming quality. Let us not suppose, either, that only governments, or government-sponsored paramilitary groups, would have access to it. A deranged lab technician could conceivably slip a vial into his pocket and head for the mall. The scare created one week after 9/11 over certain items of mail dusted with anthrax points to just such an individual or minute group.7 The coverage of that story exposed that such living time-bombs as anthrax and smallpox can be rather easily obtained from their “secure storage” for purposes of “research”.
V. The Most Likely Scenario
I am a great consumer these days neither of science-fiction novels nor of “disaster genre” movies. I have tried to create an inventory of what appear to me the most widely circulated narratives into which our national anxiety about the decline of the West has been compressed in recent years; and I have tried to leaven this mass of material, furthermore, with what I perceive to be less publicized and less naive versions of the story. That is, I have sought to knead the whole from inventory to taxonomy—to impose certain priorities, at least by implication. The metaphor of raw dough is not entirely inapt, for the substance with which I have worked does not lend itself to clear separation. We have seen that commonly styled natural calamities tend to overlap with the effects of our technology on the environment, that plagues are also part natural and part consequence of “lifestyle” choices, that technology itself is widely perceived by the masses as a “given” of nature and its malfunction hence as “bad luck” or “an act of God”,8 and that weapons of mass destruction substantially intersect both the region of high-tech and that of nature (in the form of plagues). The ultimate end of such an exercise, of course, cannot be simply to produce a curious arrangement of diverse objects. A responsible investigator must look over the whole and attempt to reach a reasonable conclusion about which scenarios are the more likely ones—for we are not, all metaphor aside, merely surveying beads on a string or a recipe for making bread: we are contemplating the possible collapse of North American society, as precipitated by a catastrophic event that will prove too much for its waning or overstretched energies. Anyone who can raise a warning should do so.
I will immediately observe in response to this challenge that a major catastrophe may surely occur without jeopardizing society’s survival. Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and tidal waves will happen, and some of them will claim thousands of lives despite our best efforts at prevention and preparation. I find that one of this topic’s most fascinating lessons, therefore, lies in the popular mind’s tendency to associate such events with societal collapse. The earthquake, the tsunami, and especially global warming have all been presented in fiction and on film lately as likely to disrupt the North American way of life irreparably. A foregone conclusion of personal vulnerability and general ineptitude seems to rest at the bedrock level beneath every narrative. These scenarios, at least as much as anticipations of natural cycle, are symptoms of an advanced moral anemia. Americans do not feel in control of their lives, and they readily flinch when the shadow of some major event requiring accommodation or change falls over their shoulder.
I remarked time and again throughout my survey—I could not restrain myself from a commentary so patently justified—that all varieties of disaster show a tendency to thrust whatever measure of human responsibility may exist onto the “higher-ups”. The proliferation of a dreadful disease has no more to do with one’s personal decisions than whether rain will fall tomorrow; the failure of traffic to move smoothly indicts poor planning on the part of corrupt or stupid politicians, and the pollution dumped by so many cars into the atmosphere clearly proves that manufacturers have bribed Congress to settle for low emission standards. The jet which struck the first World Trade Tower was (though nobody now recalls this) immediately assumed to have veered off course through pilot error, and we were told that such accidents had in fact been fearfully anticipated when the towers were constructed; yet the emphasis at once and permanently shifted when the terrorist plot surfaced (except for some talk of suing the construction company because the sprinkler system malfunctioned). The presumptuous height of the Towers ceased being an issue: they had done it—the others, the bad guys!
Several pieces of the puzzle’s most likely picture, then, must be drawn from a condition which precedes all specific disasters: the persistent and characteristic evasion of personal responsibility notable in Americans’ responses to calamity. Why have we surrendered to this sad ebb of morale? The chief culprit in my view would be our technology: we are so accustomed to having vast amounts of labor done for us by systems which we don’t begin to understand that shut-downs, break-downs, and melt-downs may always credibly be laid at the door of “them”. How can we be responsible for something which we personally didn’t build, can’t repair, and can’t explain? A house was constructed, and we bought it: what did we know about mud-slides? A desirable apartment in a high-rise came available, and we rented it: were we not entitled to assume that someone was protecting us from stray aircraft?
I believe that the average American’s profound ignorance of how his technology works is a major national problem, and growing day by day. We are asked to approve a bond for a new loop around town in order to reduce traffic, having no knowledge whatever of the rigid connection between such projects and increased traffic. We are asked to oppose the construction of a nuclear power plant on a ballot initiative, abysmally ignorant of what environmental costs a conventional coal plant will exact or of whether the nuclear option can in fact function safely. The personal computer has been part of my life for about twenty years: has there been a single study of entering college freshmen, from the cradle to the present, who grew up before the PC? Parents were once warned not to let their children sit within five feet of a television: what unwholesome effects are observable in a generation which has spent its collective life within two feet of these new screens—or held them in its lap? Is such a study being designed even now? Do we know the long-term effects of wearing an earpiece all day long which pipes in loud music? The public bristled a few years ago over rumors that cell phones produce brain tumors, and a few years before that over rumors that power lines over one’s residence produce all kinds of cancers. Both rumors were eventually shot down derisively… but how many more plausible worries will never reach the status of a rumor because the boy has already cried “wolf” twice?9
At a subliminal level, if not consciously, most of us must surely be somewhat nervous. And there are more practical, even political reasons to fidget. When all of your financial transactions are at last done online, how vulnerable will you be to the kind of savvy depredation which plunders life-savings from a terminal? How will you guard your identity and private information? What if the whole system “crashes” in a massive and protracted power outage, caused either by accident or malicious design? What if the public is allowed to vote by computer—how difficult will election fraud be then, when online surveys are already notoriously hard to police for “stuffing the box”? How much personal information will intelligence agencies extract about us, with or without legal permission? How much truth are we likely to be told by our leaders when rhetorical “spin” can be vetted before a focus group in an hour, then finessed and fed to the general public according to cues from electronic polling? How easy will we be to lead about by the nose—how hard will we find it to dig in our heels and not be led?
The kinds of situation I have just sketched out are already first-tier disasters for our society. Natural disasters will occur on their own time and without our provocation—but our moral disaster will compound them. People unwilling to leave their homes as a hurricane descends, or all too willing to build homes on a fault line, because “it’s out of their hands” and, in any case, “they will be taken care of”… people unwilling to change their travel plans just because the flu season has turned virulent, or all too willing to engage in exotic sexual activity, because “you can die slipping in the bath tub” and, in any case, “modern medicine can handle it”…. Such crises will certainly be exacerbated by the misplaced fatalism and obtuse trust in higher powers typical of contemporary North America. Technological malfunction will abound, for the same reason. Seismometers will not prove quite accurate enough, antibiotics not quite potent enough, because this population will have allowed itself to pressure existing resources to the breaking point. Traffic will grind to a halt, and computer systems will black out—but the public outcry will demand only more highways and more fiber-optic cable. Malevolent souls will exploit the universal stress of every network for their wicked ends, tossing in a wrench, loosening a rail, crossing a couple of wires. Public outrage will demand more police, better-welded joints, and “hack-proof” software. Though an excessive reliance on technology has created the problem, the only solution recognized by our citizens’ passive mentality is yet another technological appendage; for, since they did not understand the original miracle before it malfunctioned, they cannot understand why a supplemental miracle should not correct the malfunction.
In such a scenario, an elite coterie high in the central government could conceivably transform the political landscape. Elections might well be engineered, or voters otherwise manipulated. A deceased hero might even be resurrected digitally and appear on screens everywhere to solicit votes or support. The potential for propaganda would free itself from all practical limitation—entire nations could be invented and then obliterated, invasions by interplanetary pirates mounted and repelled, without the viewing public’s being any the wiser. Contagions could be selectively released and “steered” like a raging forest fire so as to eliminate certain undesirable demographic elements. All sorts of comic-book caliber narratives could suddenly find accommodation in the twenty-first century’s now highly plastic reality.
I return to the affirmation, though, that these exotic nightmares are no more than the endgame of a society whose primary catastrophe was to lose its will power. If I put it thus Delphicly in closing, I hope I will now make sense: our best defense against an asteroid on a collision-course with us may be to stop buying every new gadget. We should begin striving to understand as well as we can whatever technology we allow into our lives; what we do not well understand, we should allow to affect as small a part of our lives as possible. Being surrounded by incomprehensible switches, levers, and buttons is diminishing—not enhancing—our technical skill. What good would an asteroid-shooting laser-gun do us—a device understood by all of half a dozen people on earth—if not even these happy few could calculate how the original rock’s fragments would behave? How will we know whether the elite six would misuse the gun? How would they know whether its side-effects might poison the atmosphere? How will we know that the asteroid or the gun exists, either one, and that we are not being manipulated by a propagandistic fabrication? Free people cannot live like this. If we are to inhabit so complex a world, then our society can only preserve its freedom by placing an immensely greater value on seeing things clearly and weighing things soberly.
 This scene comes early in the initial episode, entitled, “The Skin of Our Teeth.” I have copied the text from the volume in which Clark eventually published series transcripts and photos, Civilisation: A Personal View (New York and Evanston: Harper & Row, 1969), 4.
2 Within hours of writing these words, I discovered on the cover of U. S. News & World Report for June 4, 2007 , a dried-up lake’s basin spanned by the alarming title, “Why you should worry about water.” Yet the cover story (pp. 37-46) in fact addresses a crisis in water purification as facilities age and funds diminish. A trail of brief related features ignores actual depletion of subterranean sources, both in the U. S. and abroad. As for the sensational cover photo, it turns out to be attributed to no locality, and frankly looks more like the Dead Sea region or a shriveled Lake Baikal than any North American site. The editors appear to have decided that a new high alert about our water’s cleanliness did not lend itself to apocalyptic images (microbes swimming under the microscope indeed lack sublimity), and so retreated to vistas which stirred anxiety three decades ago.
3 Cf. Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck, Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream ( New York : North Point Press, 2000), 88-94.
4 When American Airlines Flight 587 crashed into Belle Harbor just after take-off on November 12, 2001 , just two months after the terrorist hijackings, the assumption was instantly made by the general public that Al Qaeda had struck again. Yet the culprit turned out to be faulty tail structure.
5 Cf., “Will Spiritual Robots Replace Humanity by 2100?” a symposium held at Stanford University on April 1, 2000 . Conference notes appear at http://www.ceptualinstitute.com /nuc/robo-souls-more.htm.
6 Reporter Jane Corbin narrated a documentary for PBS Frontline titled “Chasing Saddam’s Weapons” which first aired on January 22, 2004 . The following are Corbin’s own words in summary of her findings: “So far, the strongest indication that Iraq may have continued a clandestine program is the ISG’s discovery of 97 samples [of bacteriological matter]—reference strains. A scientist had kept them hidden in his refrigerator at home for the past 10 years. One of the test tubes, or vials, contained an organism called botulinum;” and later this: “Dr. Rihab Taha, the woman U.N. inspectors called ‘Dr. Germ’, had used her skills in Iraq’s past bio-weapons program. She admitted that in the 1980s, she’d played a key role in developing anthrax and botulinum—for Iraq ’s self-defense, she claimed.” Corbin retained a coolly skeptical tone throughout the presentation, yet the claim of a captured technician working on methods of mass murder surely deserves at least as much skepticism as that of intelligence officers concerning the probable end of such “experiments”. As for the dismissively tendered presence of deadly bacteria in homespun storage, it can only raise suspicions about what vials were deemed important enough not to sit languishing in an old refrigerator. Ultimately, however, the Bush Administration preferred to shrug off the paucity of pieces for nuclear missiles lying about rather than pursue the many biochemical leads, and neither the Fourth Estate nor the public has demanded answers.
7 The first contaminated mail was discovered on September 18, 2001 , exactly one week after 9/11; the offices of two U. S. senators were eventually among the known targets. Though the case has never been solved, the very absence of useful leads flowing from organized terrorist cells suggests that a single disgruntled functionary may have been “freelancing”.
8 Of course, José Ortega y Gasset noted decades ago in The Revolt of the Masses that citizens of modern Western societies view their technological amenities as a natural and self-sustaining endowment, like the air they breathe. See especially Ch. 6, “The Dissection of Mass-Man Begins.”
9 I may volunteer anecdotally that I have struggled for years to combat certain side-effects—headache, insomnia, indigestion—induced by long sessions before my computer. I now sit before it in relatively comfortable truce halfway across the room, with a thick cardboard box screening me from the main unit’s electricity. Medical people scoff when I recount my troubles; but from others, I gather an increasing supply of similar evidence.