I’ve just returned from eight months in Asia, mostly in Chiang Mai, Thailand, but also in Nepal, India and Indonesia. Many, possibly a large majority of Thais, and certainly majorities in Nepal and elsewhere, remain uninformed or oblivious to global issues, including climate change, living as they do in the narrow confines of subsistence agriculture, working in service occupations, the tourist industry or small scale local commerce. There is also a simple elegance in Thailand, combined with vitality, creativity and a surprising equanimity. Either that or I am not reading them very well. But I have never seen any Thai get angry. I have never seen aggression or even discourtesy.
Returning to my home culture, I am immediately immersed in speed, complexity, competition and self-interest. I’ve written of this before as it happened last year. This time I went directly from the San Francisco airport into the mid-day freeway traffic. It soon slowed to a familiar crawl that extends all the way to the Bay Bridge and to I-80 in the East Bay. I felt the familiar impatience rising. I wondered why so many tolerate this increasingly intolerable existence. I wonder what I am doing back here. I retreat into detachment, becoming an alien observer of the strange rituals of this foreign culture. Is this still my home? Have I undergone an irrevocable break–or merely awakened from the dream? What am I seeing–and feeling–with these fresh eyes?
I spent the next 24 hours in a small town on the western edge of Clear Lake, a different world from the relative affluence of the Bay Area, which I do not consider “real.” In my short time there, reintegration included driving, car repair, shopping, time in a motel, brief encounters before I decamp back in a rented space in Richmond for the month of June.
Everything I did became part of an experiment, a quasi-dispassionate observation of the animal responding to primal needs, the ego looking for familiar grounding experiences, the personality interacting with others, the social observer noticing details that might previously have been so routine as to be invisible. In barely more than 48 hours, diverse data points entered awareness, painting a sad and darkening picture of consumption and decay, seemingly unrelated dynamics that sharply appear as integral expressions of the state of American culture.
Sure, the malls are abuzz as if wealth is a universal fact. And incidentally, the Thai version of urban malls is overwhelming with the opulent presence of global brands. But here, beyond the glitz, the sparkle, the shimmering illusions of abundance, the condition of the roads, ageing structures, untended grounds, the increasingly obvious disrepair of residential properties, the faces of people, their voices, the cant of their gait, their eyes, the brightly coloured elaborately packaged objects in their shopping carts, the lighting, the size of the vehicles, the size of everything, the volumes and variety of products; all have either become part of the facade or evidence of its weakening everywhere, inexorably, in an increasingly desperate struggle to obscure the truth of the emptiness behind the one driving message of it all: More. Continuous extraction now showing the cracks of deferred maintenance. And I don’t mean the mere extraction of natural capital. I’m referring to the long-term degrading extraction of the rentiers from their favoured natural resource, you and me.
This is America in its long descent, crumbling from within. This is what we still call freedom, progress, the American Way. It assaults my senses. I am dismayed, slack-jawed at the depth of malaise. My body remembers these rituals, but my mind rebels. My hands reach for familiar products, but the mind wonders why. I cannot see myself using them. They are so large, the packaging so garishly overproduced. And for what? The contents, what there is, are empty. Oh yes, there is something inside, but its authenticity is suspect. Its relevance to me, its utility, its benefits are beyond my comprehension.
Both Trump and Sanders have tapped into different aspects of the emptiness. Trump is a giant step further into the dynamic of consumption-decay, himself a personification of the depravity and weakness of the paradigm. Despite his narrow message, Sanders appears more authentic and closer to the truth. How depressing will it be for him to throw his support to Hillary, the most prepared presidential candidate ever who will take us a giant step sideways? Yet he will have no choice. Sanders attracts and resonates with younger people who don’t want to live the lives they see older people living, feeling their optimism, their future stolen from them every day, with little to look forward to but the rising desperation of their parents, the ones that have already been strip mined by the oligarchy.
By preaching hegemony, Trump attracts the hollowed out who demand that their lives become relevant again. He bodes nothing less than increased conflict internationally and increased division domestically, because that’s all we have left. A Trump candidacy is one of the last tortured throes of empire. If he wins, the world will not deserve what happens next, but we will deserve what we get. And we may never recover. He cannot win.
This is a country where things appear to work. Technology increasingly takes care of us, but where are we? Is the culture more about the machine now, the systems of production and delivery? Does the person now serve the machine completely, or is there still time (and the will) to reverse course? The destruction is now almost complete. (And to think, Obama was all in for the TPP)
Decay is increasingly evident in the shoddy construction, the failing infrastructure, the dehumanising corporate systems of automation and control evident in my interactions with hotel employees, grocery store employees. I see it in their faces, the strain of living taking its toll, the desperation, the depression, the aimless pursuit of stuff as both the disease and the antidote.
Consumption used to be the term used for what came to be known as tuberculosis, a bacterial infection of the lungs, robbing the body of oxygen, overwhelming the immune system, a hollowing out of all vitality leading to a slow, wasting death.
At the turn of the twentieth century, more than 80%
of the population in the United States were infected
before age 20. Tuberculosis was the single most
common cause of death.
But that was before antibiotics. We’ve found many more subtle delivery systems for death since then. Humanity has become the planetary tuberculin
We are crossing tipping points. CO2 reaching 409 ppb is a tipping point. The east Antarctic ice sheet has reached a tipping point. A super-bug bacteria with an antibiotic-resistant gene has now been identified on three continents including North America. That is a tipping point. By our consumption of nature, we consume ourselves. Living by the imperative of endless growth, we are using and discarding ourselves, eating and buying ourselves into poverty and disease, the 1% gorging on their last meal, accelerating toward their own oblivion.
In my dreams, I imagine the storms of my grandchildren, the mass migrations, the collapse of the ocean food chain, 200 million in coastal cities on a path to being submerged. What will be left to consume then?
And yet, the immune system is not dead. It is not like this everywhere. We are not helpless. As my travels have revealed, there are many everywhere looking aghast at America, many breaking free, and many more on the way. Many are creating new systems of living, building and embodying a new economy, resacralizing family, home-care, healthy food systems, social design and climate justice, community. They are decolonizing, recovering vitality, fighting back with art, brilliance, authentic communication and creativity; resisting the neoliberal disease. The transition to renewable energy systems is accelerating geometrically. We still have lungs. But the inertia of the machine is great. And the immense well of grief and loss at its heart, at least in this country, remains largely buried.