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John Clare, the poet of the environmental crisis – 200 years ago

George Monbiot, Guardian
This great poet showed how the era of greed began with the enclosure of the land

‘What John Clare suffered was the fate of indigenous peoples torn from their land and belonging everywhere.’

The land around Helpston, just to the north of Peterborough in Northamptonshire, now ranks among the most dismal and regularised tracts of countryside in Europe. But when the poet John Clare was born this coming Friday in 1793, it swarmed with life. Clare describes species whose presence there is almost unimaginable today. Corncrakes hid among the crops, ravens nested in a giant oak, nightjars circled the heath, the meadows sparkled with glow worms. Wrynecks still bred in old woodpecker holes. In the woods and brakes the last wildcats clung on.

The land was densely peopled. While life was hard and spare, it was also, he records, joyful and thrilling. The meadows resounded with children pranking and frolicking and gathering cowslips for their May Day games; the woods were alive with catcalls and laughter; around the shepherds’ fires, people sang ballads and told tales. We rightly remark on the poverty and injustice of rural labour at that time; we also forget its wealth of fellowship.

All this Clare notes in tremulous bewitching detail, in the dialect of his own people. His father was a casual farm labourer, his family never more than a few days’ wages from the poorhouse. Clare himself, from early childhood, scraped a living in the fields. He was schooled capriciously, and only until the age of 12, but from his first bare contact fell wildly in love with the written word.

… And then he sees it fall apart. Between 1809 and 1820, acts of enclosure granted the local landowners permission to fence the fields, the heaths and woods, excluding the people who had worked and played in them. Almost everything Clare loved was torn away. The ancient trees were felled, the scrub and furze were cleared, the rivers were canalised, the marshes drained, the natural curves of the land straightened and squared. Farming became more profitable, but many of the people of Helpston – especially those who depended on the commons for their survival – were deprived of their living.

… Clare documents both the destruction of place and people and the gradual collapse of his own state of mind. “Inclosure came and trampled on the grave / Of labour’s rights and left the poor a slave … And birds and trees and flowers without a name / All sighed when lawless law’s enclosure came.”
(9 July 2012)
John Clare is a poet for us to re-discover. -BA

How to Think

Chris Hedges,
Cultures that endure carve out a protected space for those who question and challenge national myths. Artists, writers, poets, activists, journalists, philosophers, dancers, musicians, actors, directors and renegades must be tolerated if a culture is to be pulled back from disaster. Members of this intellectual and artistic class, who are usually not welcome in the stultifying halls of academia where mediocrity is triumphant, serve as prophets. They are dismissed, or labeled by the power elites as subversive, because they do not embrace collective self-worship. They force us to confront unexamined assumptions, ones that, if not challenged, lead to destruction. They expose the ruling elites as hollow and corrupt. They articulate the senselessness of a system built on the ideology of endless growth, ceaseless exploitation and constant expansion. They warn us about the poison of careerism and the futility of the search for happiness in the accumulation of wealth.

… Human societies see what they want to see. They create national myths of identity out of a composite of historical events and fantasy. They ignore unpleasant facts that intrude on self-glorification. They trust naively in the notion of linear progress and in assured national dominance. This is what nationalism is about—lies. And if a culture loses its ability for thought and expression, if it effectively silences dissident voices, if it retreats into what Sigmund Freud called “screen memories,” those reassuring mixtures of fact and fiction, it dies. It surrenders its internal mechanism for puncturing self-delusion.

… Students who are denied the wisdom of the great oracles of human civilization—visionaries who urge us not to worship ourselves, not to kneel before the base human emotion of greed—cannot be educated. They cannot think.

To think, we must, as Epicurus understood, “live in hiding.” We must build walls to keep out the cant and noise of the crowd. We must retreat into a print-based culture where ideas are not deformed into sound bites and thought-terminating clichés. Thinking is, as Hannah Arendt wrote, “a soundless dialogue between me and myself.”

… Our corporate culture has effectively severed us from human imagination. Our electronic devices intrude deeper and deeper into spaces that were once reserved for solitude, reflection and privacy. Our airwaves are filled with the tawdry and the absurd. Our systems of education and communication scorn the disciplines that allow us to see.
(9 July 2012)

Scarcity of Will

Hans Noeldner, Entropic Journal
The most pressing scarcity we face in the United States today is not a scarcity of things – energy, food, natural resources, or manufactured items. It is, rather, a shortage of will: of willingness to allocate a sufficient portion of our discretionary spending[1] to labor inputs into the production and delivery of goods, services, and infrastructure. This lack of will is manifest in a shortage of employment opportunities for those among those of us who require employment income to purchase the necessities of life.

Needless to say, our ongoing adoption of labor productivity[2] only makes matters worse. Highway spending, for example, does little for local employment when the lion’s share of spending goes to fuel purchases and payments on giant earth-moving machinery. Yet we consistently describe ourselves as unwilling and/or unable to resist labor productivity[3].

Persisting unemployment leads to social unrest, and high levels can lead to societal breakdown and violence. Therefore we believe we must increase acquisition of wealth, consumption of luxuries, construction of infrastructure, emissions of wastes, and aggregation of military power at a cumulative rate which matches or exceeds the rate at which we adopt labor productivity.

I see little evidence that this is recognized in our contemporary political discourse – and to the extent that it is, it is invariably drowned out by the heated rhetoric of opposition-blaming. We-the-people cannot yet imagine the power inherent in choosing the labor of a man over the work potential of a gallon of gasoline. It does not yet occur to us there could be too much of a good thing called “productivity”.

[1] Including taxes, credit, and money creation
[2] By labor productivity I mean technologies, methods, and inputs of non-anthropogenic energy which reduce or eliminate human labor input per unit output).
[3] For some persons this is true: no corporation engaged in producing commodities in competitive, price-driven markets can afford to employ people for the sake of employing people. But many working-class Americans – and virtually all in the middle-class and above – have significant discretion to choose more labor-intensive goods and services over capital- and non-anthropogenic-energy-intensive ones. This even includes choices to use one’s own labor for such things as walking and bicycling (rather than driving), entertaining one’s child (rather than using TV), pushing a human-powered lawnmower (rather than sitting on a motorized one), growing some of one’s food (rather than employing 300 HP tractors and 200 HP harvesters
(5 July 2012)

Not Dark Yet: But I Have Seen The Footlong Hot Dog Of The Apocalypse

Phil Rockstroh, CounterCurrents
Almost exactly ten years ago, in June of 2002, my wife and I were driving through Colorado, on our way from Los Angeles to New York City. In the early afternoon, while paused to tank-up our Toyota Corolla, at a massive convenience store/self-service gas island that boasted of “two-for-the-price-of-one, One and One Half Footlong Hot Dogs.” we watched a family of six emerge from a late model, oversized pickup truck, proceed into the store, and return with a bounty of hot dogs and super-gulp soft drinks.

A few minutes later, we passed their vehicle on Interstate 70, and I remarked to my wife on the connection between oversized consumer goods, oversized people, and the oversized amount of greenhouse gases trapping heat in the atmosphere. I queried, “Do you think they would even look up from their titanic hot dogs, if the world before them ignited into flames?”

A few minutes later, my question was answered when a series of wildfires (very much like the ones that are scorching Colorado to ash and cinder, as I write these words) began to close in on our periphery.

Stunningly, mortifyingly, the answer to my question was, no. The occupants of the pickup proceeded straight through the screen of wafting smoke without averting their gaze from their gigantic snack food.

When the world is on fire and a people refuse to take note…we’re apt to find ourselves in a bit of a fix.

People, I have seen the Footlong Hot Dog of the Apocalypse. Apparently, the end of the world, as we know it, comes with your choice of condiments.

… Individually and en masse, U.S. citizens are checked-out, lost, possessed by inertia or manic jags of distraction, feelings of hopelessness and powerless rage, and are desperate for some kind of quick fix…as if that were even possible. For example, why else would so many be addicted to unhealthy corporate food, anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medications? Why are so many so desperate for relief from reality itself?

One reason: There exists a void of purpose, both communal and personal; a keening hollowness that becomes present when a person has been rendered by circumstance bereft of the belief that life can be resonant with meaning…that he is in possession of a unique destiny. The concept has been lost that one’s life is a fascinating question that is addressed to the world — and it is imperative that one quests for answers.

The tragedy is that too many look to their exploiters for answers. Those who insist on dwelling in an ad hoc architecture of denial — as flimsy as the prefab edifices of this Strip Mall Nation, as empty as the soul-devoid rooms of a McMansion — conjure disaster, and those who evince a noxious innocence (when no adult is innocent in a blood-sustain empire) become monsters.

It is one’s societal (perhaps, even sacred) duty to strive for awareness. Those who demur will become slaves, and, in ways overt and tacit, argue for the exploitative and cruel caprice of their masters.
(29 June 2012)
Suggested by EB contributor Luane Todd.

The Righteous Road to Ruin

Chris Hedges, TruthDig
“The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion”
A book by Jonathan Haidt

Jonathan Haidt’s book “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion” trumpets yet another grand theory of evolution, this time in the form of evolutionary psychology, which purports to unravel the mystery of moral behavior. Such theories, whether in the form of dialectical materialism, Social Darwinism, biblical inherency or its more bizarre subsets of phrenology or eugenics, never hold up against the vast complexity of history, the inner workings of economic and political systems, and the intricacies of the human psyche. But simplicity has a strong appeal for those who seek order in the chaos of existence.

Haidt, although he has a refreshing disdain for the Enlightenment dream of a rational world, fares no better than other systematizers before him. He too repeatedly departs from legitimate science, including social science, into the simplification and corruption of science and scientific terms to promote a unified theory of human behavior that has no empirical basis. He is stunningly naive about power, especially corporate power, and often exhibits a disturbing indifference to the weak and oppressed. He is, in short, a Social Darwinian in analyst’s clothing. Haidt ignores the wisdom of all the great moral and religious writings on the ethical life, from the biblical prophets to the Egyptian Book of the Dead, to the Sermon on the Mount, to the Quran and the Bhagavad Gita, which understand that moral behavior is determined by our treatment of the weakest and most vulnerable among us. It is easy to be decent to your peers and those within your tribe. It is difficult to be decent to the oppressed and those who are branded as the enemy.

Haidt, who is the Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business, is an heir of Herbert Spencer, who coined the term “survival of the fittest” and who also attempted to use evolution to explain human behavior, sociology, politics and ethics. Haidt, like Spencer, is dismissive of those he refers to as “slackers,” “leeches,” “free riders,” “cheaters” or “anyone else who ‘drinks the water’ rather than carries it for the group.” They are parasites who should be denied social assistance in the name of fair play. The failure of liberals, Haidt writes, to embrace this elemental form of justice, which he says we are hard-wired to adopt, leaves them despised by those who are more advanced as moral human beings. He chastises liberals, whom he sees as morally underdeveloped, for going “beyond the equality of rights to pursue equality of outcomes, which cannot be obtained in a capitalist system.”

… Haidt holds up the collective euphoria of college football games—which he says are religious rites—as an example of the positive benefits of collective emotions. He links school and team spirit to Emerson’s and Thoreau’s transcendentalism, which is, to say the least, a gross distortion of transcendental thought. He says football games also lead us to reverence. The crowd in a football stadium allows us to experience, he writes, awe and the sacred. It turns us, he writes approvingly, into a human hive. “It flips the hive switch and makes people feel, for a few hours, that they are ‘simply a part of a whole,’ ” he writes of corporate or crowd experiences. He calls on us to surrender to these collectives. He writes that “a nation that is full of hives is a nation of happy and satisfied people.”

Happiness, then, comes with conformity. If we are unhappy it is not because there is something wrong with the world around us. It is because we have failed to integrate into the hive. This, of course, is the central thesis of positive psychology, which Haidt is closely associated with. And it is an ideology promoted by corporations and the U.S. military to keep people disempowered.

… Haidt mistakes the immoral as moral. Totalitarian structures, including corporate structures, call for us to sublimate our individual conscience into the collective. When we conform, we become, in the eyes of the state, or the corporation, moral and righteous. Haidt would do well to remember historian Claudia Koonz’s observation that “the road to Auschwitz was paved with righteousness.” This is a book that, perhaps unwittingly, sanctifies obedience to the corporate state and totalitarian power. It puts forth an argument that obliterates the possibility of the moral life. Submission, if you follow Haidt, becomes the highest good.

The moral life is achieved only by fostering a radical individualism with altruism. The Christian Gospels call on us to love our neighbor, not our tribe. Immanuel Kant says much the same thing when he tells us to “always recognize that human individuals are ends, and do not use them as mere means to your ends.” Morality is never the domain of crowds. And if you follow Haidt’s advice on how to become righteous you will, like so many of the self-deluded in history, end up a slave.
(28 June 2012)
Suggested by EB contributor Luane Todd.