~Chief Joseph, Washington D.C., 1879
Earlier this year the New York Times published a fine piece by Andrew McCarthy recounting his journey into the Omo Valley of Southwestern Ethiopia. The extremely remote Omo, where human remains date back 2.5 million years, is home to seven primary tribes of people who are now watching, defenseless, as their once productive lives and culture are bulldozed into dependence and idle misery.
Like the sound of bugles and rifle fire in the next canyon over, there is a warning in that for us.
Patterns of life in the Omo have, for millennia, been predicated on the health and behavior of the Omo River. Pastoralists, the various tribes of the Omo have relied on its annual flooding to, by all accounts, sustainably maintain their crops of sorghum, maize, and beans, and to water the herds of domesticated livestock that supplement their diet. They have lived well, were satisfied with their lives, and neither looked for, nor needed, any outside help.
“If I knew for certain that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life.”
~Henry David Thoreau
But all of that is now changing as the Ethiopian government and a consortium of international conglomerates complete work on a series of dams across the Omo, creating, downstream, what National Geographic has called “a spreading humanitarian emergency that threatens to spawn conflict…(and) is largely being met with silence from both the Ethiopian government and the international community…People are starving and dying.”
The people of the Omo live far downstream from the dams, but more importantly they live far downstream from the sources of money and power that created them.
Those same pressures are at work for those of us living downstream from the power and money centers of America. The pressures are dressed up differently for us—neatly disguised by our world of technology and super abundance—but we too are increasingly dependent on, and dominated by, machinations of industry and government that operate far beyond any capacity we might have to meaningfully influence an outcome in our favor.
You can’t fight city hall, and you sure as hell can’t fight Google.
What’s most dangerous about the intertwining of government programming with corporate dreaming, like a couple of mating snakes, is that they ultimately work in concert to create, promote, and enforce utter dependency–either on the stuffs they produce or by means of the laws they pass. And we have no choice, really, because they are jealous creatures and ultimately whatever they may decide on—from pipelines to bullet trains, from Alexa to Driverless Cars, is ultimately imposed on us whether we like it or not. And if necessary, they’ll do it by force.
As Addis Ababa and the World Bank are to the Omo Valley, so Washington D.C. and corporate boardrooms are to River City. That is especially true if you happen to live in more rural climes, where your objections don’t scale and your vote is essentially meaningless.
It gets worse, naturally. As the Omo river has failed to flood, so has a new government policy of “villagisation” taken hold, wherein Omo Valley peoples are stripped of their ability to raise their own food, subsequently lose their self-reliance and independence–and are finally force-marched into displacement camps.
As usual, those who go passively onto the reservation are left starving and destitute, while those who resist are outlawed and eventually killed–in order to make more room for ecologically ruinous hydro-electric schemes and enormous, internationally controlled plantations of sugarcane, cotton, rice, and palm oil.
The script now playing out in the Omo has, from Africa to South America, from Australia to Canada, traditionally been what we held up as the progress of western civilization in service to mankind. And it has admittedly provided unparalleled luxury and long periods of security, even as we destroyed every model of sustainable agriculture along the way, enslaved entire populations either literally or virtually, and ultimately quashed any notions of independence and self-reliance for the sake of all that comfort.
In The Unsettling of America, celebrated novelist, poet, and ecologist Wendell Berry offers us this:
“If there is any law that has been consistently operative in American history, it is that the members of any established people or group or community sooner or later become “redskins”—that is, they become the designated victims of an utterly ruthless, officially sanctioned and subsidized exploitation. The colonists who drove off the Indians came to be intolerably exploited by their imperial governments. And that alien imperialism was thrown off only to be succeeded by a domestic version of the same thing; the class of independent small farmers who fought the war of independence has been exploited by, and recruited into, the industrial society until by now it is almost extinct. Today, the most numerous heirs to of the farmers of Lexington and Concord are the little groups scattered all over the country whose names begin with “Save”: Save Our Land, Save the Valley, Save Our Mountains, Save Our Streams, Save Our Farmland. As so often before, these are designated victims—people without official sanction, often without official friends, who are struggling to preserve their places, their values, and their lives as they know them and prefer to live them against the agencies of their own government, which are using their own tax moneys against them.”
Take a drive through any American Indian reservation, inner-city housing project, the coal seams of Appalachia, or enjoy a toxic stroll across the potato fields of Idaho if you want to see the finer fruits of subsidized exploitation, and its consequent government-enforced dependency.
The injuries to character and community Berry notes are real, lasting, and visible all around us. They are the manifest symptoms of a commodity rich and yet spiritually diseased and corporatized culture that has invaded our better judgment under the banner of the “growth economy”. Worse, seen on such a grand and pervasive scale, those symptoms are also reliable bell-weathers of an empire whose finest days are probably in the rearview mirror.
Post World War II, manufacturing in the United States has been off-shored and replaced by behemoth, mysterious, and unaccountable service corporations such as Amazon and Google whose power probably, like a vine of strangling kudzu, outreaches even that of our elected government.
Even the corporate name is suggestive of the “counterfeit paradise of South America,” a place full of vibrant life and activity where one can easily starve to death.
As Candice Millard wrote so evocatively in The River of Doubt:
“The rain forest was not a garden of easy abundance, but precisely the opposite. Its quiet, shaded halls of leafy opulence were not a sanctuary, but rather the greatest natural battlefield anywhere on the planet, hosting an unremitting and remorseless fight for survival that occupied every single one of its inhabitants, every minute of every day.”
The synthetic Amazon, one can’t help but think, is a first-cousin to the natural one, only its many ways to kill you are deliberately, and seductively, camouflaged by the patterns of ease and convenience.
Amazon’s recent move into the food business—by acquiring Whole Foods Corp.—ought to scare the daylights out of those of us living downstream. By injecting itself into the control and distribution of food networks, Amazon highlights once again our utter dependency on unaccountable, centrally planned, and unreliable corporate behemoths for the sources even of our own nutrition.
If there is ever a break in that chain you can be certain that it won’t be Jeff Bezos who is going hungry. But you probably will be. And just like the people of the Omo, when you can’t feed yourself, or your family, you are easily exploitable, and will soon find yourself stripped of everything else you hold dear, including your dignity.
If you aren’t trying to raise a few vegetables of your own, or securing your own sources of meat–and I mean this sincerely–you probably should be.
Victor Davis Hanson, in his excellent treatise The Fragility of Complex Societies, wrote:
“…In a wider sense, America’s strength has always been found in the self-reliant, highly individualist, even eccentric citizen…We need these cranky independent people, if only as a minority to remind the rest of us who are plugged into huge conglomerations, both private and public, for our wages and sustenance, that there are dangers with reliance on hierarchy, centralized government, and high density—which, well beyond fragility, inevitably results in groupthink, fad, and cultural uniformity.”
What Hanson proposes as our greatest cultural strength–those independent, cranky, and eccentric citizens–are often precisely the people we need most. But as a result of all that independence, they are also often the first to discover themselves turned into outlaws and Indians. That remains true even as we are making fewer of them, and even as those who manage to reach a majority are eventually chased onto the reservation by an army of relentless hashtag soldiers and social justice warriors.
“Today’s popular culture knows Facebook well, but does one in a thousand know that a bee is necessary for an almond to set, or what a piston and cylinder are, or the difference between a southern and northern storm? I once asked my students to explain the winter solstice, not just the astronomy of it, but what such a date portended in terms of work, culture, and mindset. It was in the 1990s, and my favorite answer was, ‘She was a rap singer, Sister Solstice that mouthed off too much.’”
This widespread intellectual lassitude shows up in the trends of our national conversations too, which mostly happen on television, and where they often devolve into incomprehensible shouting matches moderated by the media lawn-jockeys at CNN or FOX–equally unwatchable spectacles of corporate self-aggrandizement and binary political pandering.
As one example of the disabling of our famous American self-reliance–under what is now, in many states, legislated dependency–I offer the example of a 911 call for service I once responded to as a police officer in California. The reporting party met me at the door and explained, in a state of near hysteria, that her emergency was a ten year-old child—a profane, obese, and filthy lump I could see brachiating around the living room behind her–who was refusing to go to school.
Wendell Berry cites a related and easily observable phenomenon. “Our model citizen,” he writes, “is a sophisticate who before puberty understands how to produce a baby, but who at the age of 30 will not know how to produce a potato.”
Admirably, he restrains his alarm, leaving the rest of us to study the import and impact of this phenomenon, a true-enough generational pox which can only hasten the demise of a once fine dream: the dream of a free nation inhabited by self-reliant, self-sufficient, and therefore independent peoples likewise endowed with the capacity and desire to defend those ideals against the extremely agile and powerful forces who would exploit and control them. Those forces have always included the government and corporate boardrooms.
“That great strength and bulwark of the 19th century civilization, vested rights and inheritance, will be a prime factor in its complete undoing. But…when the old order of things have passed away as a dream of the night, will we rebuild on a better and truer basis? Being an optimist, I think yes.”
~Frederick Russell Burnham
Sadly, the current model of successful citizenry doesn’t seem to mind losing all of that freedom and independence, or even notice that they are losing it. Which is a direct result of allowing ourselves to be herded onto retail sales and marketing reservations where our every waking moment is subject to increasing, rather than decreasing, dependency on the modern version of Indian Agents.
Decades of that has, Berry says, left us “…frustratingly helpless and ignorant in regard to basic human skills—growing food, maintaining a home, caring for and educating children, promoting friendship and cooperation, facing illness and death—as well as financially dependent on other specialists.”
The end result of this dependency is now clearly observable in politics, where virtually any celebrity, regardless of qualification, has a legitimate prospect of being elected into public office–and even of becoming the President of the United States.
Those of us making a deliberate choice to resist these pernicious influences in our lives had better accept that we will, eventually, be made into outlaws and Indians. Our insistence on remaining reasonably self-reliant—and vigorously defending the benefits of independence–is ultimately threatening to those who would exploit us for profit and notions of progress.
But it is never enough to point a finger at the horizon and declare that a storm is coming. Far better, one thinks, to prepare for its arrival and to safeguard our natural rights in advance. Which is a thing we do well by reducing our trust in, and therefore our dependency on, predatory corporations and retail representation in government. In the long term, we build stout resilience when we devote our energy to local communities and local economies—where our voices, our money, and our votes may still matter.
And, perhaps most importantly, we can help keep our children off the reservations, and out of the intellectual stockades of the future, by teaching them to value things that last, to fix things that break, and to consider innovation with an eye on conservation. We can arm them for meaningful resistance in the long fight to preserve their own independence by teaching them to think–rather than merely feel—their way through the pitch darkness and howling winds of a gathering storm.