February 15, 2014

Saturday Morning Essay: Sometimes A Great Notion

Brought to you by Peet's Dark Roast Colombian...

For the hell of it, I Googled "Waldenswimmer" and came across this:

"Once in a while in that vast nothingness of the internet I’ll happen across a blog from someone who has something of substance to say. I have also learned that Dmitry Orlov is likely discontinuing any more ‘collapsitarian’ blog posts. Probably not a good subject to dwell on when you have an infant son. In ’Dmitry flicks it in‘, Harry Willis reminds us that America has been the epicenter of capitalism, always for sale to the highest bidder and now home to a new growth industry – Doomsaying."

Thus begins a post from the blogmeister at collapseofindustrialcivilization.com.  He then proceeded to quote virtually the whole post (from November, 2013).  The post was nominally about Dmitry Orlov's retirement from the field of collapse writing.  Not that I actually think Dmitry will do that, because it's his brand and power base.  If he's serious about writing only about things like sailing and his newfangled idea of a different alphabet for the English language, he'll soon be down in the weeds with me and the bloggers who write about new brownie recipes.  Keep collapsing, Dmitry; it's where the action is.

The post went on to describe Sheldon Wolin's concept of "inverted totalitarianism," something I've done on several occasions but at greater length there.  I have to say the post made me sound a little more radical than I really am by nature.  I'm more of a passive "social systems analyst."  I'm very curious about how we got into the present configuration of wealth distribution, for example, and why the hold of Big Money over Big Government is so absolute, worldwide.  Sketching out my ideas about how that happened is an absorbing enterprise.

The basic facts become more fantastic by the day.  Paul Beckwith quotes an analysis showing that the wealthiest 85 individuals have as much wealth as the bottom one-half of all humanity (over 3.5 billion people, that is to say).  This factoid is related to what I was writing in November and to Sheldon Wolin's thesis.  Because of globalization, the same kinds of forces of monopolization, market dominance of brands, and acquisition of smaller business entities by giant holding companies tend to continue the relentless process of concentrating money and power in fewer and fewer hands.  It is a self-reinforcing feedback loop: vast concentrations of wealth enable acquisition, acquisition of competition enables monopoly, monopoly enables vertical integration of ownership of everything, including governments.

This last step is a consequence of the McLuhan Age, naturally enough.  Politics in America is now mostly a sub-specialty of the advertising and public relations business.  To achieve visibility in American politics requires access to big media, which in turn are owned by six large corporations.  Without such visibility, a candidate has no chance of breaking through to a position of power; however, only a candidate from one of the two officially sanctioned political parties will be given the visibility, or "oxygen," necessary to become a brand that the minority of Americans interested in politics will vote for.  Thus, although we nominally have a democracy, it is in fact controlled and circumscribed by the same financial forces that control everything else.

Like chain restaurants and hotels, such concepts typically begin in America but then through globalization tend to spread to all parts of the modern industrial world, and the next thing you know, 85 individuals control as much wealth as three and a half billion similar mammals. Humans are indeed a species which tends toward hierarchical arrangements, and these hierarchies tend to become more rigid and inefficient the longer they are in place, until the hierarchy's only raison d'etre is the perpetuation of its own power.

Attempting to shift or reform the negative consequences of such ossification is extremely difficult, even in a democracy with an educated electorate.  This would certainly leave the United States of America out of the loop.  For one salient example, a recent survey demonstrated that one in four Americans did not know the Earth revolves around the Sun.  This mighty cohort of 25% of American adults are included in the same electorate who must assess America's energy policies, for example, and its effect on climate change.  One could even argue from such data that perhaps an enlightened power elite may be the best hope for steering us through the dangerous cataracts up ahead.

Maybe The Big 85 can be in Paris in 2015 at the make-or-break conference on climate change.  They're probably pretty well informed.  At a certain juncture in the history of civilization, maybe even the fattest of fat cats realizes that all the money in the world profiteth a man nothing if he doesn't have a tolerable planet to spend it in.

As for Paul McCartney up above: I just found the video astounding.  Abstractions and conceptualization are one thing; watching a genius casually demonstrate why he's who he is quite another, and a needed balm for the contemporary soul. Besides, money can't buy talent like that. 

February 12, 2014

The New "On the Beach" Scenario

Someone was suggesting recently that what was needed to galvanize mass reaction to the catastrophe of climate change was a work of art similar in effect to Nevil Shute's On the Beach.  That's not a bad idea.  Semi-inspired, as Dan Jenkins might have written.

Nevil Shute authored the novel in 1957 after he had immigrated to Australia from his native England.  Shute was 58 at the time he wrote this story about the last survivors on Earth living out their final days in Melbourne, awaiting a deadly cloud of radiation drifting down from the Northern Hemisphere after a nuclear holocaust in the early 1960's.

A movie was made of the novel in 1959, and like most disaster movies, the film was forced to focus on the personal as the only way to carry the narrative.  The idea was not to make a documentary about nuclear war, after all; still, as I remember the movie, things were a little hokey, with Fred Astaire driving race cars as a way to demonstrate the desperate devil-may-care attitude of the survivors.  There's a doomed love story, of course; disaster flicks must always have two things happening in the middle of the general desperation: a doomed love story and a part for Ernest Borgnine (although for some reason he wasn't in this cast, which included Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner and Anthony Perkins). Gregory Peck is the straight-arrow Navy captain of the Sawtooth, a submarine which happened to be on patrol near Australia when Armageddon broke out. His wife and kids were in the United States, and while rationally he knows they were doomed, he maintains a kind of hopeful denial.  Ava Gardner falls for him, of course, because who can resist Atticus Finch in Navy whites.

There is a long reconnaissance submarine voyage to California and eerie scenes of deserted streets in San Francisco and San Diego.  Everyone up north is dead.  Pretty soon everyone in Australia will be dead, too.

In British usage, "on the beach" means retired from the naval service.  It's catchy if you know the slang, otherwise a little mystifying.  In Australia all the denizens were On the Beach, having retired from the world of normality to the waiting room of extinction.

A creative mind could doubtless come up with a scenario where a personal story is told with global warming, presumably in an advanced state, as a backdrop.  Ernest Borgnine will obviously not have a part, so that leaves George Clooney, Matt Damon, Brad Pitt and Don Cheadle.  One of them is no doubt cast as a climate scientist.  That's probably Matt Damon, since he likes roles where he plays a super-bright character, as unlikely as that usually looks. Another is a fighter pilot who's trying to figure out a way to bomb humanity back to a stable climate.  Maybe Don Cheadle is the President; why, he asks himself, did I play golf all those Saturdays? Amy Adams, Rachel McAdams and Michelle Williams will have parts, since no one is ever sure which one is which anyway.

I see some difficulties in mounting a production with the same impact or social utility as "On the Beach."  For one thing, what was of great relief to audiences leaving theaters in 1959 (I remember seeing the movie at the drive-in and feeling creeped-out when I first saw that "1964" on the calendar - we're not in the present anymore, Toto!)  was the sense that they had just seen a movie based on a fantasy: as of 1959, there had been no nuclear war.  The Cuban Missile Crisis had not yet occurred.  Everything the viewers had just seen could all be avoided.  It was "out there" somewhere, not a living reality.  When you went home, it was not to a house seething with radioactivity.

A disaster movie about global warming, by contrast, is about a world which is already undergoing critical, perhaps catastrophic, climate change.  When you walk out of the theater, it is not with the sensation of escaping from a disturbing fantasy world; it is with a sense of looking at the world around you with newly horrified eyes.  An honest movie about climate change cannot truthfully portray a reality where the disasters depicted are necessarily avoidable.  The tag line can't be, if you want to avoid the world you just observed for 128 minutes, then support immediately a new energy paradigm.  It must be, if we finally do something other than continuing to emit gigatons of CO2 from fossil fuel combustion, we have a shot at not living the nightmare you just saw. As The Dude said when he read the ransom note handed to him by Philip Seymour Hoffman in the role of Brandt:  "Bummer, man. That's a real bummer."

Still, I hope Soderbergh or some other talent takes this on.  Not Scorsese, because whacking everybody is not going to get us under 400 parts per million all by itself.  Someone needs to write the novel.  Probably not Cormac McCarthy, great as he is, because when I finished The Road I wondered for a few days why I was getting up in the morning.  But someone, and the sooner the better.