Thursday, July 14, 2011

Ecocalypse Now: Neo-Utopianism vs. Ecology; OR the Theory of the Un-Bad Person, part 1: "Island" by Aldous Huxley; Arlo Guthrie vs. Bob Dylan

"You can't have a light, without havin' a dark to stick it in," Arlo Guthrie once said, and proceeded to put forth one of the greatest stupid jokey ideas of the 20th century: the Theory of the Un-Neutron Bomb.

The theory goes thus: Since you can't have an object without its opposite object (for example, alternate universe Spock with a beard), then it should be possible to construct something called the un-neutron bomb. This, Guthrie explained, would be a weapon that could be deployed against any national threat (presumably including domestic tyranny). On detonation, buildings, weapons and other infrastructure would disintegrate, and clothing would also vanish, leaving naked people inhabiting, as Guthrie evoked, a landscape of flowers, trees and butterflies (presumably the UN-bomb has some sort of bio-generative properties opposite to the degenerative effects of nuclear fallout on DNA).

Even at age twelve or whatever I was when I heard this, I didn't take it seriously. Yes, I had a pre-teen Doctor Who fan's concept of what radiation actually is. Yes, I was already an aspiring fantasy author (and now, nearly 30 years later, still aspiring to be published). Yes, I half-believed in the premise of the UN-bomb theory, namely that there are "opposites" in that sense (and by reduction, the pre-premise: that there are "objects"). Still, there was something about it (I mean besides the fact that it was a joke) that didn't seem quite plausible.

Let's forget, for a moment, that the physical science of such an idea is nonexistent: that's sort of irrelevant here, because what I'm trying to get to is the motivation behind the development of such a theory. Who wants the un-neutron bomb, and why? Is such an idea compatible with ecology? Would it be a good thing if there were an un-neutron bomb?

I think Derrick Jensen would welcome it. The fact that such an infrastructural holocaust as a global un-thermonuclear war would undoubtedly result in the slow, painful and brutal extermination by attrition and cannibalism of at least 90% of the human population might, I dare credit his soul, give him pause. Still, in the end I suspect that, like Kurtz in Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now, Jensen would arrive at the final solution. "Drop the UN-bomb! Exterminate all the brutes!"

I find Arlo Guthrie sometimes pleasant to listen to. Hippies in general tend to be fun to look at, as a sort of aesthetically inspiring eye-candy--just as long as you don't look too closely, too deep or for too long.

"Dude," said a guy I met at the Cal Expo Grateful Dead shows in the summer of 1990, "like, I got four different kinds of bugs in my hair. They're part of me, man. Look, see? Like, I got red ones, 'n' I got black ones, 'n' I got brown ones, 'n' I got white ones. They're part of me, man. Hey, Kind Rainbow Brother, can I get a ride to Ohio in your bus? I can totally kick you down some gas, after we get there, 'cause there's this Kind Brother who owes me a sack, and I'm pretty sure he's gonna be there, but I'm not, like, totally sure he's gonna be there, so I might not be able to kick down right away, but..."

Dude, shut up. First of all, I'm not going to Ohio. Second of all, if you so much as come near my vehicle with all your beloved Kind Rainbow Vermin, they will soon have need of something else to be "part of".

I consider myself reasonably compassionate, but am not above the use of Draculian terrorism in the cause of self-preservation from lice. For "Kind Rainbow Brother", read "Beautiful Soul".

I also have a soft spot, even as a post-OOO thinker, for utopian literature, especially the neo-utopian fantasies of the deep ecology and ecofeminist movements. One day, I'd like to write a paper (or maybe just a bunch of electrons, since the "paperless" method is supposed to save trees...though it doesn't do much for Africans) on this sub-multi-genre of literature. What would I call that, in the first place? Leave that for later.

Without a doubt, my absolute favorite of these books is the granddaddy of them all, the great eco-socialist fantasy Island, by the great Aldous Huxley. If you haven't read this, I don't want to talk to you. I used to buy all the copies of this I could find and hand them out for free. The story is of a journalist-cum-spy named Will Farnaby who travels to the fictional South Pacific island of Pala, home to a nation of democratic village-socialist syndicalist Mahayanists of Native-Tibetan-Indian-Scottish heritage. Never yet conquered by a more powerful state due to a lack of anything to motivate such conquest prior to the discovery of oil, Pala has been allowed to develop pretty much as it chooses, accepting such foreign influences as can be of use (sustainable agriculture from Rothamsted in the UK, spiritual practices from Tibet, secular humanism from the only Westerners who chose to go and live there, concrete and hydroelectricity for refrigeration, biology labs, etc.) while eschewing those which they deemed destructive (sports cars, mass media, physics labs and other unaffordable toys). Farnaby's mission, unknown to the Palanese, is to make contact with elements in the island nation's government who wish to exploit Pala's rich and largely unused oil reserves and broker a deal between them and Farnaby's boss, an unscrupulous and disgusting petroleum tycoon who owns several newspapers. But in the act of sneaking onto the island (journalists are not normally given Palanese visas), Farnaby is injured in a shipwreck and scared half out of his wits. He is rescued, as luck would have it, by the Scots-Palanese physician Dr. Robert MacPhail, an influential man on the island. Farnaby's injuries--both superficially physical and deep-seated, long-term psychological--are very effectively treated by the holistic Palanese medical system, and he is soon able to explore the island's various facilities and talk to its people. He meets the greedy government officials and brokers the deal, knowing full well that his actions are odious, but justifying it to himself through the cynical assertion that Pala's seemingly ideal way of life can not possibly be real, and that even if it were real, it can not possibly last with the world being what it is. He soon finds, however, that Pala is no ideal, but a reality, and that he loves the island and wants to stay. The message of Island, finally, is that despite the observable realities of war, conquest and the repetitive, savage idiocy of human history, there is nevertheless the equally observable "fact that there was this capacity even in a paranoiac for intelligence, even in a devil worshipper for love; the fact that the ground of all being could be totally manifest in a flowering shrub, a human face; the fact that there was a light and that this light was also compassion". (Quote taken from the book.) 

I did not intend this post to be a review of Island, but it looks like that's what it's going to be this time. I had intended to cover the multi-sub-genre of eco-utopian fantasy more generally, but I now see that this is beyond the scope of my ability to fit a finished blog post into a reasonable amount of time. Whatever. On with it. 

I don't really want to talk about Brave New World; we are dealing with utopias in this genre, not dystopias, and as dystopian novels go, BNW is not Huxley's best, in my opinion. That distinction belongs to a later work, the post-nuclear Ape And Essence, which I will review at another time, as it is extremely relevant to what I'm trying to get to in this blog series on eco-utopian literature. Nevertheless, you can't really talk about Island as a novel without mentioning BNW, because the former was intended by Huxley to be a sort of antithesis to the latter...the Un-Dystopian Novel, I will call it here. Here are the specific antitheses of the two novels: 1) In BNW, hallucinogens and opiates are used for pacification of individuals and the masses, whle in Island, psychoactive entheogens are used for enlightenment and self-knowledge; 2) In BNW, the political system encourages group living for the sake of eliminating destructive individuality (totalitarianism), while in Island, group living is also encouraged, but mainly in the form of "Mutual Adoption Clubs", so that children will have alternatives other than compulsory exposure to their parents neuroses; 3) In BNW, trance states (research into which Huxley was passionately interested) are technologically induced for the purpose of indoctrination of individuals into the sociopolitical monoculture, while in Island, trance is a technique taught to those with the natural aptitude, for the purpose of accelerated learning (from which follows that those who generally become programmed followers in Western society would become leaders and innovative problem-solvers in Pala); 4) In BNW, reproduction is universally assisted and everyone grows from a high-tech test-tube baby, while in Island, assisted reproduction is not compulsory, but is common in the form of low-tech artificial insemination (reproduction being highly intentional in Pala, much more so than most of us would be used to); 5) In BNW, contraception is mandatory, and sex itself is mandated to be promiscuous and purely recreational, while in Island, contraception is not mandated, but made freely available to enable reproductive choice, and Tantric sex is made part of the school curriculum as a means of promoting physical and mental health; 6) In BNW, people are given monthly doses of adrenalin to provide them with their ration of fear and rage without having to act on it, while in Island, stress is diffused through dangerous sports such as rock-climbing; 7) In BNW, ubiquitous disembodied mechanical voices lull people into conformity, while in Island, mynah birds whose ancestors were trained by the originators of Pala's social system fly and perch freely about the island, uttering "Attention!" and "Karuna!" to remind people to attend to the moment and to have compassion (a non-technological and non-stupefying form of mass-media). 

Wow. Every time I read Huxley (and I've read Island more times than Bob Marley read the Bible, and transcribed it, and even tried to adapt it for film), I learn something new. These seven factors are a really good summary of the elements of a society relative to human health and ecology. Let's briefly summarize them: 1) use of psychoactive substances; 2) emphasis of the importance of the society or the individual; 3) use of the abilities of exceptionally impressionable individuals; 4) policies on reproduction; 5) policies on sex (NOT the same as reproduction, unless reproduction is allowed to be totally unintentional); 6) policies on the diffusion of human emotional stress; and 7) the psychological use of mass media (in whatever form). Let's call these the Seven Huxleyan Principles of an Intentional Nation. SHPIN? We'll work on it. 

These seven principles, I will argue, will have to be dealt with in any society that attempts to be ecologically--or in any other way--sustainable. Drugs exist. Individuals and groups exist. A substantial proportion of the population will always be easy to hypnotize or educate in one way or another. If we want to survive as a species, we must reproduce, and so must everything else. Sex exists, and tends to be less hygienic the less it is intentionally dealt with. Stress happens. There will always be mass media in one form or another, even without TV, radio or the internet. These things are all facts, and can not be deconstructed; furthermore, they all tend to become problems if they are not dealt with in a very intentional way...exercised, to put it one way. 

It will take a lot more than an Un-Neutron Bomb to create a world that Huxley, or I, would consider worth living in; namely, it will take intention and responsibility. To the extent that people idealize holocaust or disaster, we fail in our aspiration to ecology and are reduced to a kind of selective nihilism. Each neo-utopian self-styled "ecologist" probably sees the only survivors of the blessed disaster as people with the same ideas and priorities as themselves: Good People. This is a manifestation of what Timothy Morton calls "Beautiful Soul Syndrome". But ecology, by definition, must include the realization that there is no "other", no object "over there" that is different, separate from or opposite to that which perceives it. There is no Un-Neutron Bomb, and there is no Un-Bad Person. So if you find yourself thinking how ideal it would be to erase the civilization we have for the sake of seeing the rise of one that you think would be better, just remember that somewhere--probably somewhere fairly close by--someone else is imagining a utopia of their own, and you are very likely not in it. 

"Half of the people can be part right all of the time, and some of the people can be all right part of the time, but all of the people can't all be right all of the time. I think Abraham Lincoln said that. I'll let you be in my dream if I can be in yours." 

Bob Dylan said that. 

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