An unusually toxic smog descended on cities in the far northeast of China, near the border with Russia. Harbin, a city of about 11 million people, was virtually shut down, as were smaller cities in the region like Daqing and Shenyang.
Such destructive air pollution events are common in industrial China, and there are no wide-scale efforts to combat them. In late 1952, a killer smog in London caused thousands of deaths and led to radical environmental legislation.
It seems sensible that if China is to become the cultural and economic center of the world, it must address these environmental concerns. At some point, economic growth is hindered by the damage done to the land and the people who live on it. Also grand landmarks like the San Sophia church pictured will always have fewer tourists if the backdrop is so grim.
The history of America is one of false promises and broken treaties to indigenous peoples. Settlers would invade a treaty territory and exploit the surrounding resources. Indigenous culture would be eradicated as their ancestral lands were destroyed or transformed.
Some pre-or early agricultural tribes live deep in the Amazon basin. Some of these communities are considered uncontacted, or lost tribes– meaning that they have very little or no contact with wider society. However, the Amazon is rich in resources that get large companies involved. There have fierce clashes between indigenous groups and illegal gold miners, which has led to intervention by Brazilian law enforcement. With the small and partially-uncontacted Awá, the threat of loggers is serious. Of their main section of land, over 30% of the tree cover has been removed. An 8-year-old Awá girl was burned alive by loggers last year, part of a wider system of massacres and intimidation moves by logging interests. Survival International, a group dedicated to helping tribal groups survive serious threats to their way of life, states that 450 indigenous people were murdered from 2003 to 2010.
This is usually when we’d start writing the eulogy to the Awá- they’re outmatched with money and power. But pleas from the tribe and groups, joining with a Survival International campaign, have led to the Brazil government not only listening, but coming to the area with an impressive show of force. Sawmills are being destroyed, and future movements may eradicate illegal logging both within Awá territory and immediately around it.
Any student of American history knows what happened to the indigenous populations, who once lived on wide swaths of land before being escorted off by soldiers with bayonets. These same issues repeat for different countries at different times. Here is a chance to make the story end a little bit better.
On Monday, I published something about the economic collapse of a industrialized nation, as expertly chronicled in the book Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demrick. A huge, widespread shift backwards in economic development has happened in many places over human civilization, but the North Korean example is both recent and unusual. War is the most common destroyer of people and their economic capital, but the 1990s showed that international politics could be just as brutal.
I was mulling the term “de-evolution” to refer to what happened in North Korea, but I then thought of my own biases. To some degree, coming from an advanced post-industrial nation, I’m a chauvinist for a certain, consumer-oriented type of economic development. The number of TVs per 1,000 people, the electricity usage of a city, how much they export and how much personal debt they take on. Though I don’t subscribe to the “whoever has the most stuff wins”model of progress, it made me broaden my thinking. Clearly the North Korean example was an unwanted and ultimately deadly series of events. The society had grown to rely on thing like artificial fertilizer, large amounts of electrical power, and a complex and demanding transit infrastructure. When the lights went out, so went industry and agriculture. Disaster.
But, what if a society moved in such a manner, but didn’t require complex industrial products? A society that plans for a regression into a less consumerist, industrialized mindset. I wouldn’t call that a de-evolution- it’s an evolution on a different path.
A few years ago I took a series of long-distance train trips across the United States. During my trip on the Coast Starlight, running from Seattle to Los Angeles, I read the famous novel Ecotopia by Ernest Callenbach. Published in 1975, it stands alongside The Dispossessed as an important utopian novel of the late Vietnam period. Both work along similar lines- an absence of consumerism, collective ownership, changes to the social and family structure. However, Ecotopia takes place in my backyard, not another solar system.
I read it during a journey through the lands that formed the nation of Ecotopia. For a couple days the train rolled through the thick forests, mountain passes, and undulating farmland that carpeted a whole valley. Callenbach was speaking of a society that moved beyond petroleum and artificial products, but didn’t miss them.
When I was 18 I created an independent study that allowed me to examine urban decay and how different parts of the 20th century attempted to revitalize cities. After reading about the iron-fisted destruction of the Bronx by Robert Moses, one tends to gain sympathy for new ideas of sustainability and community. New schools of urban planning emphasize mixed development, environmentally-friendly building, and walkability. The Bay Area sometimes follows these lines, though one look at the traffic-choked highways shows there is much work to be done.
However, much of this thinking is a side-step. Cars aren’t eliminated- they’re made more efficient and perhaps made less necessary through public transit. Cities are still big concrete jungles- just with newer housing and perhaps a couple new parks. It’s not eliminating consumerism, but rather changing to more responsible brands.
Whether this type of society will stave off the huge problems posed by climate change is an open question. Large cities in industrial or post-industrial nations still use huge quantities of water and non-renewable resources. It’s not just the cars, but the pesticides, plastics, and consumer electronics.
Ecotopia has the advantage of being a utopia in the confines of a work of fiction, but it is a portrait of a society that made serious decisions over many years. Large cities like San Francisco are partially abandoned in favor of smaller, more self-sustaining suburbs. Major thoroughfares are turned into gardens and walkways. Policy changes don’t implement authoritarian population control, but do address whether a high birth rate is a major priority. Overall, many of the developments since white migration became substantial in the mid-19th century are slowed or stopped altogether. At the end of the day, there is a smaller electrical grid, a less robust transit system, and very little production of objects which cannot be replenished. In some ways, it’s like 1995 in North Korea, except as a desired outcome rather than a crisis. I, the consumer growth chauvinist, can see a society that moves forward despite moving back in my usual perspective.
Much like Unitarian Universalists have moved to the interdependent web over a linear chain of being, what progress and what regression are should be reconsidered. Society has overall goals that are not always quantitative- happiness, community, tranquility. There is no number of cars per city or megawatts of power consumed that is required to achieve these goals. What is needed is a system that works on the whole, and can work well into the future.
How you achieve that is the great debate.
Two years ago, I took course titled “First Peoples of North America.” It was taught Tuesday nights, from six to ten PM- and since it was the winter we often arrived in darkness. The classroom seemed to be an oasis in a large, mostly empty campus.
The teacher was Mark, soft-spoken white guy who grew up in the same sleepy California suburb that I did. However, a unusual conflict during his stint at Humboldt State led to an interest in indigenous people and their rights. In the late 70s, Northern California natives were pitted against federal authorities over fishing rights in the Klamath River- a conflict sometimes referred to as the “Salmon War.”
From this article:
“Federal agents began to assert control over the Indian gillnetting fishery on the Klamath River. About 20 agents armed with billy clubs grabbed five Yurok Indians and confiscated their salmon catch. The Department of the Interior set up a Court of Indian Offenses to prosecute the cases, however, the judge dismissed the charges and ordered the fish returned to the Indians. The Yurok informed the Department of the Interior that they planned to continue fishing in spite of the fishing ban.
In the conflicts which followed, Indian boats were rammed by federal officials and Indians arrested and jailed by heavily armed agents. In one instance, a federal agent held an Indian’s head under water until he was out of air, let him breathe, and then pushed him back under water. In another instance, an Indian woman was sexually fondled while in handcuffs.”
The conflict took thirty years to finally resolve (improve the salmon run by removing dams on the river), and as the above quote shows, the federal agents used an amount of force that I would call inappropriate.
Mark returned to the Bay and met a large contingent of Lakota that had settled in San Jose- including several leaders in the American Indian Movement (AIM). His story is full of interesting events- helping build and maintain a native-run college called D-Q University, being inducted as an honorary Lakota and communing in a sweat lodge, running across the state to raise money for D-Q and stumbling into a farm worker’s camp run by César Chávez. His history was colorful and his storytelling ability unmatched.
A point he made early on, and reiterated throughout the course, was that this course was not simply a history course. Indigenous inhabitants of North America did not disappear and leave their artifacts behind. They are still here, their story is not finished. It continues.
Thus, a new era is born.