If I was making a movie about what I’ve learned by living through the last half of the 20th Century, the film wouldn’t be about me. I’d be there only because I have to narrate it or play the lead—at least ostensibly. That requirement is enforced by the absence of other means of testifying to what one understands that don’t mask the distortion of information by the means of its delivery. But I would stand before my camera without relish, because my presence there also signals the completion of the shift from ground to figure that began with Descartes and has been the most damaging and least recognized cognitive accomplishment of the 20th Century. To stand as a figure that is central but without ground is to stand before an abyss. Within its darkness lies not that which is unknown, but the disintegration of knowledge itself.
Like everyone in the 21st Century, the governing conditions of my life are now more powerfully cultural and technological than they are private, biophysical or political. The affective forces that shape Western societies today are corporate and remote, often located outside national boundaries. They operate outside the normal visual and tactile range of any single individual and are not subject to the same laws and obligations as the citizens they affect. They are beyond the capacity of all but the most privileged and powerful to affect, and there is a possibility that even the powerful are now powerless to alter their velocity and direction. Despite the innumerable claims that we live a state of participatory democracy, the democracy offered is a specious conflation of individual human rights and civil responsibilities with commercial participation. In reality, we have abandoned our civil will along with control over our appetites to the corporations and to the cornucopia of product at the mall, choosing meaning through the singular lens of self-determination and to pursuing social justice only insofar as it redresses the ethnic, racial, sexual and gender-based aggrievements of our ancestors or our chosen predecessors. We acquire and we consume, and we discriminate, and these comprise our private and public identities. Since we no longer believe that the world can get much better than it is right now, that is all we have.
But on the planetary scale, we can’t all go to the mall, and thus self-determination has limits. There isn’t enough product to go around, and even for those of us who can afford to go, the ultimate choice is between personal gratification and long-term biological life on the planet. Thus it is a temporary choice, and because it is possible only by the expenditure of resources that can’t be renewed, terminal. It seems like the aftertaste of the 20th Century is going to be redolent of sour ironies piled atop poisonous ones: Information technologies that destroy individual knowledge; grand experiments in human liberation that result in vast injustices, deprivation and social psychosis; commodity wealth that dooms our social environments to becoming armed security camps, and the natural world to decline or monoculture.
Among the sourest of those ironies, half-hidden by the sheer grandeur and globality of the others, is one that most interests me: The Century’s productive achievements can’t be accurately calculated without considering their capacity for displacing and dispossessing the human beings whose lives they set out to liberate and enrich. Refugees and exiles are the dark side of self-determination, because it has turned out we can’t have paradise without taking it from someone else. Whether what we want is national or ethnic or commercial self-determination doesn’t matter. Each of these reduces other people and things to the dehumanizing ideological simplifications that enable exploitation and righteous violence, whether the target is entire populations or private individuals trying to improve the conditions under which they live.
I have been lucky enough to have lived a privileged existence in a privileged part of the world. But I must live my lucky life in a state of exile that has multiple levels and aspects. It is the specific cognitive conditions of this state of exile that at once elicits my diffidence toward unrestricted self-determination and self-expression and yet make personal testimony the only authentic point of view from which to examine and testify to the portion of the human condition over which I’m capable of exact knowledge. This is the way things are now.
This condition of cognitive exile mixed with relative physical and political security is peculiar to the economically privileged nations and/or classes, and needs to be distinguished from conditions outside the developed world, despite its structural similarities. That’s because we’re not starving here, most of us have a roof over our heads when we want one, and our lives are rarely threatened by common and casual violence the way they are in the rest of the world. Yet even while I am not anybody’s or anything’s victim, the society I live in, comparatively safe and secure as it is, shares several of the damaging characteristics of the disadvantaged parts of the world: cultural disorientation and alienation, the inability to recognize and protect mutually supportive social, political and economic interests, the inability to establish and pursue long-term goals beyond the millisecond of gratification or near-term expedience.
Not sure? Try seeing self-determination, as it is pursued under post-Soviet capitalism, in terms of what it doesn’t permit; what it disables. For instance, only a small minority of those of us who live in the "developed world" now gets to live our lives in a contiguous landscape or civil stage. Only a tiny fraction of this minority can say that their human and physical habitations bear any resemblance to the ones they were born into. Fewer still experience life as a continuity and a coherence or have a sense of community that does anything other than seek to defend an arbitrary collective by excluding others from it. The only universal value defended with any enthusiasm as the 21st Century begins is seemingly incidental one: that the right of post-national corporations to profits circumscribes all other rights. The cathartic aggression and violence of the ethnic and preferential tribes we are being encouraged to align ourselves with to lessen our sense of alienation somehow manages to remain subservient to that right.
As recently as a hundred years ago people in my inherited cultural and political systems experienced life very differently than I do today. Individual and collective life was then set within a tactile complex—an extensive physical community it was possible to be intimate with, and knowledgeable about. In that most simple sense, life was "organic".
Technology has changed the structure and the content of human experience, at least for the majority of people who live in North America and Western Europe, and for the wealthy and technology-using classes across the rest of the world. No specific, dramatic change nor any single technology advance is responsible, as futurists are fond of believing. It has been, rather, the gradual and slightly insidious improvement of the cognitive and physical prostheses that—willy-nilly and without our consent—have extended our outlook and our grasp so far beyond our tactile perimeters that we have lost the sense that there is anything out there larger and more interesting than near-term human self-interest and ego. Only the kids are catching on, as witnessed by the escalating intensity of the protests against Globalization over the past few years. Whatever else these protests are, they’re the only politics being waged anywhere on behalf of humanity as a collective. Everything else is tribal: my gang against yours, or someone’s economic abstraction against starving children.
The self-involving abstractions of Globalization and the prosthetic technologies of contemporary life have supplanted the web of natural and social interdependencies within which our immediate ancestors lived with a brew of dependencies on binary logic and electronic systems that do not respond organically to feedback. Along with them, the 20th Century’s noble dreams of world community have been supplanted by a global monetary racketeering, cultural gang warfare and mob rule cybernetically manipulated by multinational corporations and the financial overclass that has overpowered the nation state. The double shame of this is we’ve burned up much of the planet’s resources getting here, and that our technical instruments were designed to make it possible for the first time in history to calculate both the whereabouts of the fail-safe points and the consequences of exceeding them. We’re flying in the darkness, and as the events of September 11th, 2001 demonstrated so brutally, anything can happen, even to the wealthy and innocent.
In such a context, therefore, what thoughtful Christians used to call free will has devolved, I think, to those rare instances in which it is possible for an individual to script a degree of unmediated and immediate environmental equilibrium and sense, and then play out the script without chewing on the scenery or playing it into a tragic farce for which "others" are to blame. Hence, if I could sweep all the remote controls aside to write and direct the movie about what I’ve seen, it would be a movie about the people and the things I’ve lived with, amidst, around, atop of. In my specific case–—which is only specific and neither special nor unusual—the things and the people I live in exile from constitute the central stage: home, its people and its civil and natural environment.
I and my kindred—in this case, the citizens of Prince George, B.C.—are not a special case. To make that claim would mean that everyone and everything else is a potential insult to our group dignity and a possible threat to the sanctity of our group identity. I accept no tribal affiliations, not with my fellow citizens or with other writers. I may live across a continent from where I started, but that’s hardly unique or extreme. I’ve been lucky enough to stay within the same nominal culture and language, and I haven’t been involuntarily separated from my kin by circumstances or violence. I’m simply a well-dressed well-fed and extensively if not classically educated human being a long way from home, with the leisure to think about what that might mean.
* * *
Now, I concede that part of my movie—its main theme; its steamrollering high concept designed to entice the production heads and their bankers—must inevitably be about How Things Fall Apart, How the Centres No Longer Hold. That theme is the epic dimension of Globalization, a technology-infused replaying of the fumbling beast that the poet W.B. Yeats sensed at the outskirts of history and civilization in the early years of the 20th Century. Today anyone can feel that globalizing machinery slouching over and through everything worth cherishing about the present and past. Those of us who live in the privileged West live inside its belly, so it is for us, also, the story of Jonah replayed.
Dramatizing the machinery of Globalization would be the easy part of the script, because it describes what everyone can see and feel: the ribs of the beast, and the sour acidity of its digestive juices. The 20th Century saw more of it than any era since human beings climbed down from the trees and began to walk without scraping knuckles along the ground. My personal era of consciousness—the decades since, say, l960—has experience of the machinery to the exclusion of nearly all else except existential self-aggrandizement and acquisitive vanity, and the cognitive retribalization of the species that has been our primary reaction to it.
In the twelve years I’ve spent trying to concoct a book about it—most of it spent deciphering precisely what its subject matter is—what began as its minor elements have come to interest me more than depicting the grand abstractions that explain the world as it is. I’ve become interested, instead, in those moments, however fleeting, when the registration pins align the overlays of immediate precision, complex perspective and common prejudice; those moments when I begin to see my subjects and objects as a coherent, paratactic field connected by physical proximities without losing sight of the overlays.
For most of the twelve years, I’ve assumed that the book would be about the clear-cutting of the Bowron river valley southeast of Prince George. I began by thinking of the clear-cutting as an environmental atrocity for which the perpetrators ought to be brought to justice. As my grasp of the overlays firmed, I began to recognize it as an industrial riot, one that is at once typical of the myopic machinery of Globalization but is also a predictable episode in a serial progression of mercantile behaviors that have governed European settlement in this part of the world—and to a startling extent, its aboriginal prehistory. I believed that the rawness and transparency of the way things are here would provide a paradigm of post-modern post-industrial human behavior, blah, blah. And maybe I hoped that I could torque my understanding of it sufficiently that it would demonstrate the velocity and the trajectory of Globalization’s machinery so clearly that others might see it for what it is—and move to stop it.
From the day I first stumbled into the Bowron River Valley in 1990, the 530 square kilometre clear-cut there has seemed a microcosm of what has been taking place everywhere, part of the triumph of Capitalism, which has mostly been the triumph of short-sighted opportunism coupled, in the West and beyond, with a growing inability to imagine practical and humane alternatives. The clear-cut itself is a cipher for the accelerating degradation of the planetary environment, but it is also an object lesson on what can be done to redress the damage to the forests—and testimony that the boreal forests are less fragile than the human communities in their midst. If, in 2002, the forests on the Bowron River are recovering, the city of Prince George and its people don’t seem able to.
The forces that created this mess have, if anything, powered up since 1990, and are now more aggressive and violently confident that there are no alternatives. Their fumes pervade everything in this book, because those fumes now stink up everything in the world, and their pervasiveness raise some questions that have made me increasingly uncomfortable as the book progressed: What will I have made once they have been revealed? What am I and others obliged to do about them? Is it possible that revealing the way things are without also providing alternatives and antidotes simply makes the stink stronger, and those who would oppose them more demoralized and weak?
During the early and mid 1980s when the clear-cutting of the Bowron was in progress and the physical damage to the hillsides and waterways was recent and raw, the machinery of Globalization still seemed vulnerable to the liberal sense of fairness that is part of constitutional democracy’s political and social heritage. When I discovered the clear-cut in 1990, the cutting was over and done, and the local belief in fairness was dissolving in a cynicism almost as ugly as what had been done to the valley. Now that we’re into the 21st Century, cynicism has become demoralization: nobody believes anything.
Like resource harvesting in Canada in general, the practice of forestry in northern British Columbia is a vast, high-tech pyramid scheme that has been over-cutting the forests for a lifetime, and it uses stunningly wasteful harvesting practices to do it. That’s not even an opinion, because everyone involved in forestry admits it is true—or was until a few hours before you walk in and begin to ask questions. What they don’t admit is that during the last 30 years, particularly in B.C., the industry hasn’t been giving local communities a fair share of the profits they’ve taken. Prince George, and places like it, have been running on empty for more than a decade, partly perfume from the boom period between 1945 and 1975, and partly spill-over from the deficit financing by governments that characterized most of the two decades after 1975. But the boom is over, and the next one won’t see much profit reinvested locally. The governments are broken and defanged, and the harvest rights and equipment is owned by corporations that can’t include quality of life concerns in their mandate even if they wanted to.
Life in the North isn’t going to end, but in the next few decades it is sure as hell going to get harder and uglier. When people get around to looking for someone and something to blame, the forestry corporations will either be gone, or will have changed names and share structure so many times no one will recognize them as the culprits. This doesn’t mean we should stop cutting down trees. That’s as crazy as the belief inside the forestry industry that it is possible to keep raising the harvest levels forever. There are no simple answers here. That’s the way things are.
The clear-cut, meanwhile, is healing. It is no longer visible from outer space, even though no one out there has confirmed this one way or another. Like the rest of us, the astronauts are too busy flying commercial missions or making public relations appearances in classrooms and shopping malls to care about a bunch of skinny spruce and pine trees in a valley where no one has any reason to go until the next generation of trees are ready for cutting. So as the trees grow larger, the real story, for me, gets smaller, more specific, and less personal. It is about where people go, where people stay, and how they succeed at it or don’t. And beneath their feet is the question of what it might mean to stand one’s ground in the here and now, in their midst.
2962 w. Uploaded September 23, 2002