Friday, February 01, 2013

Smoggy Days

Glancing through pictures of an obscured Beijing skyline provides a sobering perspective on the local Walmart and Target discount stores, or any product that has 'Made in China' stamped on its exterior. The Atlantic has posted a rather stunning collection, and I recommend to you number 9, especially, as a good example of visual irony. The workshop of the world, it seems China must also therefore be a tailpipe on the engine of economic progress.

It's not as though the Western world is unfamiliar with coal-fired smog. The Great Smoke (or Smog) of London in 1952 lasted four days and killed 4,000 and made 100,000 more ill. More recent research, examining complicating factors, suggests the actual number of fatalities lies north of 12,000. The Great Smoke was the last of the 'pea-soupers', which plagued London through the 19th and early 20th centuries.  On this side of the Atlantic, Los Angeles and Mexico City both have notorious records through the middle of the 20th century. The city of New York also had its problems during the 1960s.

The narrowly defined needs of economic development appear out of step with a much larger set of concerns that impinge on human life--for example, the need to eat, sleep, and, in this specific case, to breathe. These later concerns don't sound as if they are larger, of course, and that has something to do with the way we have been taught to think about ourselves in relation to others. Breathing seems a rather minor affair, by comparison to the number and volume of transactions on the NYSE trading floor or the year-over-year growth of the Chinese GDP.

The way we have been taught to think about ourselves owes something to a titanic debate between the 'ancients' and the moderns', which, on account of being modern, we have largely forgotten about. Specifically: over the definition of 'material'.

For the ancients, material was the stuff that never got into a person's head. One could think about a tree; one could imagine different things to do with a tree. The idea of a tree was in a person's head. But the tree itself, it's bodily, material existence, was out there in the material world, never completely assimilable to human purposes, because it could never be completely comprehended in thought.

For the moderns, the idea that bodily, material existence was somehow beyond the human mind became more and more difficult to mentally digest. Astute commentators have noted that both Adam Smith's account of capitalism and Karl Marx account of communism share in common a 'materialist' basis. But here 'material' refers to the human activity of 'rationalizing' labour processes to maximize economic productivity and 'material' prosperity--or, as Marx would so aptly put it, 'material activity'. In principle, nothing escapes rationalization. What does escape is labelled 'false consciousness'.

The difference between these two definitions of material is obvious. The ancient definition admits that something always escapes the grasp of the human mind, stubbornly evades our best efforts to reduce it to a simple formula, while the modern definition forgets the same. Every once in a while, however, that something rears itself ugly head in very immediate and tangible ways. It does in John Brunner's perceptive 1972 novel The Sheep Look Up, which attempted to describe how a society on the edge of environmental collapse might function. And it is now doing so now in China.

It becomes apparent, in the process of creating artificial forms of material wealth, we cannot simply assume the natural materials--air, soil, water--needed to sustain human life will always be there.

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