Leaf and Blade: an introductory sketch

I’ve said it many times and in many ways, but I’ll say it again and in more detailed terms: our entire perspective on how our technology interacts with reality needs to be deeply modified. Every couple of weeks this gets driven home in new and creative ways, like when I was teaching for the University of Highlands and Islands in Scotland and a colleague from the Island of Lewis told me how radiation from Chernobyl prevented the sale of hebridean cattle on the European market, or when I learned back in 2007 that the ocean is in such severe danger from our fishing industries and pollutants that some 30% of oceanic species are in danger of collapse. Now the earthquake in Japan has put two nuclear power-plants in crisis and inhabitants of the local area have either been evacuated or informed to not go outside with exposed skin. The question is no longer about sustainability but morality and the qualitative nature of culture.

Couple this with the fact that our society just has no sense of itself; we are wizards of the earth and sky, but we have no real flair or even frame of reference for what we do. We think of our technology as purely accomplishing a purpose and allowing us to do ‘whatever we want,’ but our lives are goverened by our technology. It sets the pattern for our daily existence and determines what we spend our time doing. Most people plug into their computers and Facebook or Xbox their days away, or if they’re enslaved by a wage to a techno-corpse then they spend it emailing and data-crunching under flourescent lighting. even our educational system is becoming more and more like the motherboard of a computer, streamlining workers and minds into the data-paths of our techno-riddled society.

If we govern our use of technology we govern our lives and minds. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings says as much but not in so many words. The agrarian (and idealized) lifestyle of the hobbits is deliberately contrasted with the industrialized depradations of the orcs, particularly when the hobbits return to teh Shire to find it nearly spoiled by Saruman’s forces. The ideal technology for Tolkien was, of course, patterned by the elves whose craftsmanship was so marvelous that it bordered on the magical. Merry even comments on this in the Fellowship of the Ring, asking if their elven-made cloaks are magical, but the elf is confused by the question, replying that it is elven and thus the natural world is actually woven into the fabric of the cloth. I can’t help but think of our touch-sensitive technology and think that we are not far away from this level of craftsmanship, but we just don’t really know either the real use for it or what the complete ramifications are.  

The elven haven of Lothlorien shows Tolkien's ideal interaction of life and nature.

For myself, I see much of our problem lying in current presumptions that the proper state of a society is interdependence – even codependence, to resurrect a term from the eighties. Most European states are smaller than North American states or provinces, and yet the thought of each state in the U.S. being its own legal and political entity is anathema to the working of modern societies in America. Dependence of each part on the centralized whole is presumed as necessary for the ongoing “greatness” of the United States, despite the fact that the opposite was the originating vision of its founders. Is this absolute dependence not the vision of Morgoth rather than the free men of Gondor and Rohan? I cannot convince myself that Adam Smith’s economic principles were intended to bind communities together in such a way that a particular way of life is required of them, yet in order for me to live rurally, independently and according to agrarian principles, I need to be so financially successful that I don’t need a job, that I don’t have to work for someone else.

I have always wondered how airlines stay afloat financially; flying to any destination is always cheaper the more legs you take, while a direct flight involving shorter flying time (and thus less fuel consumption) is far more expensive. After asking around for a while about this, the answer was fairly clear: the government is funding the airlines in order for businesses to stay afloat. If the planes stopped flying, then traffic necessary to the most basic functioning of our society would slow to the hyperbolic “crawl” that it once was. This seems a dreaful weakness to me as there is no redundancy. In nature, redundancy is everywhere. We have multiple organs (though sometimes I wonder why we did not evolve two hearts – a question for another time) and countless seeds. Life deals in vast, overflowing quantities, yet our society has built a system of operating that is tenuous and fragile in its monocentrism. With a couple natural disasters people will devolve into raving animals when fuel lines and the food-lines that depend on them are cut. Rather than increasing the degree of our centralization, we need to diversify everything: labor, thought, transportation, finances and government.

Oh there is so much more to say, but for now it will have to wait …

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