Smoking in the girls’ room, sneaking a drink, napping
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The concept of the Long Now places us where we belong, neither at the end of history nor at the beginning, but in the thick of it. We are not the culmination of history, and we are not start-over revolutionaries; we are in the middle of civilization’s story.
When the earth is whole, it is resilient. But when it is damaged too severely, its power to heal itself seeps away. If we continue to turn against the land, pour chemical fertilizers onto worn-out fields, sanitize wastewater with poisons, dam rivers, burn oil, and bear more children, then there may be no chance of healing. A weakened world cannot forgive us.
State and federal expenditures on highways and major roads total more than $160 million a day. The Cyprus Freeway in Oakland, for example, cost taxpayers thirty-five hundred dollars per inch. Simply to maintain U.S. roads in their current poor state would cost taxpayers about $25 billion per year. Yet we typically spend only $16 billion per year on maintenance, thus assuring that existing roads will deteriorate. Meanwhile, we spend more than $60 billion per year to widen existing roads and build new ones. Even from a strictly fiscal standpoint, it makes no sense to build more roads when we’re not maintaining the ones we’ve got.
Our new false god is the idea that we can order the future. It’s a secular messianic view of a world in which there will be no death, no sickness, no stupidity — a world we will have totally ordered by the force of our own intellects and technology.
As Marx himself knew, sheer physical discomfort is not the worst form of suffering. Greater by far is the hardship that results when privation is due to injustice, incompetence, corruption. Then the pain is compounded by the indignity of victimization.
The first necessity is to teach the young. If we teach the young what we already know, we would do outlandishly better than we’re doing. Knowledge is overrated, you know. There have been cultures that did far better than we do, knowing far less than we know. We need to see that knowledge is overrated, but also that knowledge is not at all the same thing as “information.” There’s a world of difference — Wes Jackson helped me to see this — between that information to which we now presumably have access by way of computers, libraries, and the rest of it, great stockpiles of data, and the knowledge that people have in their bones by which they do good work and live good lives.
But let me give an example of the scale of the destruction that’s going on. We know that the amount of solar energy necessary to sustain the hydrological cycle in the Amazon jungle — the energy necessary to lift that water into the atmosphere — is equivalent to the energy put out by two thousand hydrogen bombs a day. The vegetation that grows there captures that much energy. It creates a huge heat engine that drives the winds of the world, those winds that the ancient mariners knew, and the same winds that deliver moisture regularly and predictably to North America and to Europe. Those winds don’t simply exist — they’re continuously being created and maintained by large biological systems. The Amazon is one of the vital organs of the living planet.
The pressing issue for us Westerners, the famously alienated, is that our relationship to the world is that of master to slave. We think we’ve solved slavery in the human realm by turning iron shackles into low paychecks. But the shackles on nature grow tighter. In Brazil, a chain stretched between two Caterpillar tractors mows down forests.