10 Twine in the Baler

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I recall a true story about an Ozark farmer who telephoned his neighbors

one fine June day asking for help in getting in his hay. Arriving

at the hayfield, people found the farmer baling his hay, but without

twine in the baler. Unbound piles of hay, which would have to be entirely

reraked and rebaled, lay all over the field. The farmer, with a

bottle of whiskey in his lap, was feeling no pain, as they say, and did

not seem to notice the problem, nor did the dozen or so men, similarly

anesthetized, standing around the pickup trucks at the edge of

the field. Believing the lack of twine to be a serious problem, one of

the volunteers, a newcomer to such haying operations, suggested putting

a roll of twine in the baler. To which an old-timer replied: “Naw,

no need for that. Ol’ Billy-Hugh [the farmer in question] is having

too much fun to stop now.”

This story says something important about intention. Those of us

who arrived on the scene ready to work failed to understand that the

purpose of the event had nothing to do with getting in hay. This was a

party, haying the pretext. Once we understood that, all of us could get

in the flow, so to speak.

A good many things, including politics, work similarly. One of the

best books ever written about politics, The Symbolic Uses of Politics

(Edelman 1962), develops the thesis that the purpose of political activity

is often not to solve problems but only to appear as if doing so.

The politics of sustainability, unfortunately, provide no obvious exception

to this tendency to exalt symbolism over substance. And of

symbols and words there is no end. The subject of sustainability has

become a growth industry. Government- and business-sponsored

councils, conferences, and public meetings on sustainability proliferate,

most of which seem to be symbolic gestures to allay public anxieties,

not to get down to root causes. What would it mean to put

twine in our baler? I would like to offer three suggestions.

Getting serious about the problem of sustainability would mean,

first, raising difficult and unpolitic questions about the domination of

the economy by large corporations and their present immunity from

effective public control. All of the talk about making economies sustainable

tends to conceal the reality that few in positions of political

or economic power have any intention of making corporate power accountable

to the public, let alone reshaping the economy to fit ecological

realities. Free trade, as it is now proposed, will only make

things worse. Scarcely any countervailing power to predatory capital

exists at the national level, and none exists at the global level. In such

a world, economic competitiveness will be the excuse for any number

of egregious decisions that will be made by people who cannot be

held accountable for their actions.

Putting twine in the baler in this instance would mean, among

other things, enforcing limits on the scale of economic enterprises and

undoing that piece of juristic mischief by which the Supreme Court

in 1886 (Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad) bestowed

on corporations the full protection of the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth

Amendment, giving them, in effect, the legal rights of persons

(Grossman and Adams 1993). That decision, and others subsequently,

have placed U.S. corporations beyond effective public control.

The right to use their wealth as persons enables them to influence

the votes of legislators and to evade the law and weaken its

administration. Exercising their right of free speech, corporations fill

the airwaves with incessant advertisements that condition and

weaken the public mind. The exercise of their economic power creates

dependencies that undermine public resolve. Their sheer perva-

siveness erodes the basis for alternative, and more sustainable,ways to

provision society. The practical effect is that corporations are seldom

motivated to do what is in the long-term interest of humanity if it

costs them much. And were they to do so, their stockholders could

sue them for failing to maximize returns to capital. It is hardly possible

to conceive of any long-lived society that provisions itself by

agents so powerful yet so unaccountable and so focused on shortterm

profit maximization. Twine in the baler would mean putting

teeth in the charters of corporations in order to make them accountable

over the long term and dissolving corporations for failure to

abide by their terms.

Getting serious about sustainability, second, would require a radical

reconsideration of the present laissez-faire direction of technology.

Many advocates of sustainable development place great faith in

the power of technology to improve the efficiency with which energy

and resources are used. Better technology may well succeed in doing

so, but the same unfettered development of technology has a darker

side about which little is said. For example, Marvin Minsky (1994), in

a recent issue of Scientific American, asked whether “robots will inherit

the earth.” His answer was an enthusiastic yes. He and others

are, accordingly, working hard to “deliver us from the limitations of

biology,” intending to replace human bodies with mechanical surrogates

and our brains with devices having the capacity to “think a million

times faster than we do” (Minsky 1994, 112; Moravec 1988).

Other knowledgeable observers predict that artificial intelligences

“will eventually excel us in intelligence and it will be impossible to

pull the plug on them. . . . They will be impossible to keep at bay. . . .

Human society will have to undergo drastic changes to survive in the

face of artificial intelligences. . . . Their arrival will threaten the very

existence of human life as we know it” (Crevier 1994, 341). True or

not, many believe such things are possible, desirable, or merely inevitable,

and that belief means that such things will almost certainly

be attempted. But do we really want some research scientists—for the

sake of profit, fame, or just the sheer fun of it—to create machines

with the potential to displace the rest of us and our children? Who

has given them the right to threaten the existence of human life?

Little or no public effort is being made to question whether we

want to go where technologies such as artificial intelligence, nanotechnologies,

genetic engineering, or virtual reality are taking us. Nor

do we have the institutions necessary to weigh the consequences of

technological change against alternative paths of development. Modern

society is approaching the future with the throttle of technological

change jammed to the floor, and the issue of slowing and directing it is

not on the public agenda in any coherent way. Putting twine in the

baler in this instance would mean admitting that technological choices

are often political choices that affect the entire society. As political decisions,

such choices should be made in an open and democratic manner

in participatory institutions capable of evaluating technological

choices as thoroughly as possible against alternatives that may accomplish

better results more cheaply and with fewer side effects.

Getting serious about the crisis of sustainability will mean, third,

a considerable change in how we think about our responsibilities as

citizens. On one side of the issue are those who believe that environmental

policy must be based solely on rational self-interest, not on appeals

to moral behavior. “Whenever environmentalism has succeeded,”

they argue, “it has done so by changing individual incentives,

not by exhortation, moral reprimand, or appeals to our better natures”

(Ridley and Low 1993, 80). Certainly, public policies ought to

tap self-interest whenever possible, but proponents often go beyond

this truism to say something more sweeping about human potentials

and, by implication, the nature of the emergency ahead. At the core

of this view is the cynical belief that humans are entirely self-seeking

creatures unable or unwilling to sacrifice for the common good, especially

if that good is some time off in the future. In short, we are presumed

to be consumers with desires, not citizens, parents, neighbors,

and friends with duties. They propose, accordingly, that in the shaping

of environmental policy “governments [ought] to be more cynical

about human nature” (ibid., 86), which is to say, government must

buy off its citizenry.

Aside from the fact that such views tend to promote the very behavior

they purport only to describe, what’s wrong here? For one

thing, the view does not square with the evidence from the grass

roots, where outraged citizens attend rallies, march, and organize to

stop the dams, highways, toxic waste dumps, clear-cuts, and shopping

malls proposed by the rational self-maximizers. Not a few risk a great

deal to do so. Why? Precisely because they are fed up with cynicism

and greed and are willing to sacrifice a great deal for their communi-

ties, their children’s future, and for a vision of something better. Furthermore,

imagine for a moment Winston Churchill instead of saying

to the British people in 1940, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil,

tears and sweat,” saying something like “I’d like to ask each one of you

to check your stock portfolios, bank accounts, and personal desires

and if you are so inclined let us know what you are willing to do.” A

deal with Adolf Hitler would have been promptly struck. The fact is

that we face a global emergency for which self-interest alone is woefully

inadequate in the absence of deeper attachments and loyalties.

To bring the enormous and destructive momentum of the human enterprise

to a sustainable condition will require much more of us than

the exercise of our individual self-interest would have us do, the kinds

of things we are moved to do, in William James’ words, because of

“the big fears, loves, and indignations; or else the deeply penetrating

appeal of some one of the higher fidelities, like justice, truth, or freedom”

(James 1955, 211).

Rational self-interest, furthermore, seldom generates much imagination,

creativity, and foresight, which will be greatly needed in coming

decades. Philosopher Mary Midgley puts it this way: “Narrowly

selfish people tend not to be very imaginative, and often fail to look

far ahead. . . . Exclusive self-interest tends by its very nature not to be

enlightened, because the imagination which has shrunk so far as to

exclude consideration for one’s neighbors also becomes weakened in

its power to foresee future changes” (1985, 143). The reason that rational

calculation alone does not amount to much has to do with how

the embodied mind actually works. In the words of neuroscientist

Antonio Damasio, “New neurological evidence suggests that . . . emotion

may well be the support system without which the edifice of reason

cannot function properly and may even collapse” (1994, 144).

Emotion, far from being antithetical to rational thought, is a prerequisite

for it.

The crisis of sustainability is nothing less than a test of our total

character as a civilization and of our “personal aptitude or incapacity

for moral life” (James 1955, 214). That being so, putting twine in the

baler will mean expanding our perception of self-interest to include

our membership in the larger enterprise of life over a longer sweep of

time, and doing so with all the emotionally driven rationality we can

muster.