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The Columbian Legacy and the Ecosterian Response
In the fifteenth century the subcontinent of Europe, containing perhaps sixty million souls, was a society in crisis, a crisis of spirit as much as of substance: sickly, miserable, melancholic, anguished, without a faith to believe in or institutions to trust or values to rely on, it was the victim of such a series of calamities, and had been for well over a century, that violence had become the tenor of everyday life (“The citizens of Mons,” writes the historian Huizinga, “bought a brigand, at far too high a price, for the pleasure of seeing him quartered, at which the people rejoiced more than if a new holy body had risen from the dead”), and disease had become a daily agent of death (“How can it even be called a life,” cried Thomas à Kempis at the time, “which begets so many deaths and plagues?”) and starvation had become the regular alternative to scarcity (“Famine constantly visited the continent,” historian Fernand Braudel notes, “laying it waste and destroying lives”). A French poet of the time, Eustache Deschamps, was moved to write:
Before the end: yes, none doubted, as the Habsburg court historian then put it, that “the end of the world is near and the waters of affliction will flow over the whole of Christendom,” such is “the miserable corruption and the wretchedness of all classes.”
He was perfectly a man of his age, so it is no surprise that just at that time a middle-aged merchant seaman named Cristóbal Colón, a native of Genoa but then living in Cordoba, apparently without any other visible means of support than the ministrations of a generous mistress, was obsessed with the idea of Armageddon, the approaching end of the world, and spent countless hours with his Bible and religious tomes figuring out exactly how many years remained until the Final Judgment, eventually deciding that the world would end after its seven thousandth year—which, he reasoned, was about 155 years away, or less, depending on which authority to trust. And thus he was moved, so he later said, to think of sailing to new islands and mainlands in the unknown parts of the Ocean Sea, there to fulfill the two necessary conditions that must be met before the Final Judgment—the conversion of all heathen idolaters on earth to Christianity, including such heathen idolaters as might be found in those parts, and the military assault to free the holy city of Jerusalem from the infidel, payment for which was to be supplied by such treasure as might be found there. These, apparently, the basic elements of the proposal he was even then trying to put to the King and Queen, the plan that would bring Europe the salvation it so badly needed and so desperately sought in those dark days.
As we know, Cristóbal Colón (who has come down to those of us in the English-speaking world as Christopher Columbus) did indeed find heathen idolaters and considerable treasure, but he did not find salvation. Or, more accurately, he found salvation, and it was there among those idolaters and their exquisite relationship to the natural world, but he did not know it, did not even have the capacity to know it. And he began the long process by which those idolaters—some 100 or 120 million of them, I believe—were effectively destroyed and much of their culture annihilated and by which the treasures of their two continents—gold, silver, pearls, timber, fish, tobacco, potatoes, corn, and medicines, among much else—were discovered, exploited, and exported, with most of the land laid waste besides; it was this long process by which Europe, on the strength of that treasure and very little else, was able to finance and forge the institutions that gave it the power to spill out from its borders and conquer not only those two vast continents but most of the rest of the world as well. To this day it is European culture and artifacts and technologies that exist everywhere, European languages that are spoken right around the world, European institutions and economies that dominate all countries of whatever land or longitude—the most successful domination by any civilization in the history of humanity and leading to, even more, the most successful domination by any single species in the history of life.
That, in all its glory and all its terror, is the Columbian Legacy.
The details are available in a book I have just written (The Conquest of Paradise), and I won’t attempt to regale you with them now, but I do want to touch upon a few of the elements of this legacy so that today, after the five-hundred-year trajectory of that worldwide conquest, we can see it in fullest clarity and ponder what it has brought us to. I have isolated four of its essential characteristics, those that may be said to be the cornerstones of European civilization nascent in the fifteenth century and embedded somewhere in the soul of the Great Discoverer, who spread them across the ocean sea, and that, thanks to him, came to support the edifice we call the Modern Age, indeed modern civilization:
Those four, then—humanism and its domination, rationalism and its science, materialism and its capitalism, nationalism and its militarism—were the characteristics that made Europe successful, that made Europe powerful, that made Europe Europe. Fueled by the treasure extracted from the New World and working synergistically in a unique and marvelous way, they allowed one small set of people to expand and spread out and ultimately dominate not only the other peoples but the other species of the world and to do so unremittingly for five centuries—a dominance of white male over dark, technics over sodality, the mechanical over the organic, and, above all, of human over nature.
Those characteristics may all seem natural and inevitable, yet we might remind ourselves that they are not eternal givens but rather constructs, inventions, of a particular time and place and people, and they have had a life of barely more than half a millennium. They also may seem desirable and invaluable—humanism, science, modernity, civilization; how could they be anything but good? Yet it is well to realize that this is so only because those who believe in them and profit by them declare them to be so, and to realize, too, that there is a growing body of people beginning to question their merit and wondering if they are perhaps the cause of our modern multiple crises.
There is no longer room to doubt that now, five hundred years later, Europe—and all the continents it has peopled and all the cultures it has touched—represents a society in crisis, like the previous one a crisis of spirit as much as of substance. Now it is the industrial world, the European-culture world, of which this nation is a preeminent example, that is sickly, miserable, melancholic, anguished, without a faith to believe in or institutions to trust or values to rely on. It suffers from the disease I have called “affluenza,” the frenzied amassment of packages and products to the point that they choke our lives and clutter our landscapes while at the same time we amass slums, crimes, drugs, prisoners, suicides, debts, diseases, and pollution on a scale without parallel in history—and now stand at the point where not only is the survival of the human animal in real question but the survival of all oxygen-dependent species and indeed the living earth itself. We have as a culture subscribed to the theory of progress; it is time to cancel that subscription.
The Columbian Legacy stands before us today as never before—that legacy which we know by the name of European civilization, brought from the Old World to the New by the man who, as Columbia, is the very personification of the United States, the hero and champion of progress—stands before us, I might say, in the dock, affording us a chance, before it is too late, to examine its record, assess its crimes, pass judgment, and weigh its future. That above all should be the project of this nation in the next two years as we approach the much-ballyhooed Columbian Quincentennial, a project that I trust you have already begun upon and will, with me, intensify in the months to come. For we really have no choice. Our planet, we now know, is on the endangered species list.
It is a somber and sobering prospect, and it poses an especially complex problem for all of us who realize the peril we are in but realize also the immense power and pervasiveness of Western civilization, which is, in effect, the sea we swim in. What can we possibly do? What must we do? And how?
Those are the crucial questions of our time, and I am asked them often. I am afraid I must tell you, even after more than two decades of pondering, that I have no sure, no easy answers. But I would like to look briefly at our options, our choices as a society.
We can, of course, ignore the signs of the apocalypse and bury our heads in the sands of materialism and mindlessness, drugging ourselves insensate on the palliatives offered by press and pulpit and politics. This is the way, the easiest, of our leaders so far, who see no special reason to change a system that has given them so much wealth and power, no reason despite the fact that it assures the virtual doom of their grandchildren.
Or we can acknowledge the crisis and give it over to the “experts,” the lawyers and environmental lobbyists and professionals, to solve. This is a familiar solution as we approach the twenty-first century. We have even created, as John McKnight pointed out in this forum some years ago, professional “bereavement counselors” to replace family and friends in a time of grief over the death of a loved one, but the record of the environmental experts over the past few decades, as the world has gone to hell, does not give much cause for comfort.
Or we can decide the crisis is real and turn it over to the scientists to quantify and calculate, trusting them to come up with the magical technofixes that will let us go right on with what we are doing and yet be miraculously clean and green. As if we haven’t learned by now that every technofix creates a whole array of new problems, all unforeseen by these same scientific geniuses, and as if it wasn’t that very technofix mentality and the blind worship of science that got us into the eco-mess in the first place.
Or we can give the crisis over to the government and the politicians and the responsible agencies of the bureaucracy—those who have been so successful, for example, in cutting the deficit, solving the savings-and-loan crisis, creating a responsible budget, and eliminating campaign improprieties, defense-contract corruption, and junk-bond scandals. Those whose dedication to swift and meaningful environmental action is attested to, in a symbolic way, by the agreement of the solons of Congress definitely to end by the year 2030 the production of hydrochlorofluorocarbons, among the most lethal of the chemicals destroying the ozone layer.
Or we can try to do the job ourselves, to create a home-grown version of the process by which much of Eastern Europe was able, in the space provided by Gorbachev, to overthrow its multiple tyrannies and embark on those exciting experiments that, we may hope, do not partake of so much of the free-market cure that they will kill the patient. This process, little noticed over here, was one in which first a few intellectuals and then increasing numbers of ordinary people came to understand that meaningful changes occur only through organizing structures outside those of the state and political apparatus, in multifarious task-oriented social groupings designed not to reform the system but to redefine and reconstitute civil society itself. Hence what the Poles called “social self-defense” and the Czechs called “the parallel polis,” the building of small-scale structures that avoid the traps of reformism and co-optation because they look elsewhere, build alternative sources of power, and devote themselves to real needs as expressed by real people, unmediated by the shell game of politics.
This last seems like the most promising strategy for us today, and it is perfectly in keeping with the very values of decentralism, democracy, and small-scale empowerment that E. F. Schumacher expressed so well—although we have to acknowledge that the task here in America is far different and far harder, on a far larger scale against far more potent forces, and without the black hole of Russian powerlessness to help us out. Still, it does seem our only choice, certainly the only hopeful one.
The future is not easy to contemplate, but it is obviously where we are going to spend the rest of our lives, and if these lives are to be anything more than the nasty, brutish, and short passages we are experiencing at the close of the twentieth century, it has to be an ecological future. Now, it seems to me that there are only two possible paths to achieving such a future: either by design or by catastrophe. By design if during the next decade the hopelessly large institutions of our industrial world prove themselves utterly inept and bankrupt and the citizens begin looking around for alternative, responsive, eco-centered institutions to put in their place; or by catastrophe, some devastating global eco-catastrophe, which alters or eliminates all existing systems and structures and vastly reduces many species, including the human, assuming they survive at all.
In either case, I would argue that the challenge for us is the same: to start now to establish small, local, bioregionally guided alternative institutions that provide the information by which human communities can live in harmony with nature, the strategies by which such communities would go about doing this, and the model of how it is actually to be carried out. Specifically, I mean institutions guided by three essential tasks: (1) to gather the scholarship and lore that teach us the characteristics of the species and habitats of our own local area, from eco-niche to bioregion; (2) to inaugurate projects of rehabilitation, chiefly by ecological restoration that returns designated areas of the land and its species to their natural, largely wild state, within which humans fit their social and cultural constructs; and (3) to develop human communities, small-scale and eco-centered, that will carry out these tasks and guide us toward living within our restored eco-niches on the species level.
I have in mind something that might be compared, within European history, to the time after the fall of Rome when there emerged a small-scale, community-based, agriculturally rooted society and along with it the invention of the monastery, the institution that more than any other kept alive the wisdom of the past, provided models of a new way of living, and became the source of creation and invention, not to mention inspiration and dedication, for the next thousand years. I am suggesting that the most important institution we can begin to create right now is something we might think of as an “ecostery”—a small community of men and women living and working together to learn about and restore important, sacred, and fructive portions of the earth to their fullest complexity and productivity, living within and keeping holy and learning from those ecosystems, systems that are wild and free and that recognize us as one more large mammalian species marked especially by a capacity to carry on knowledge through myth and ritual and by the ability, unique in humans, to blush. Ecosteries that, however odd they may look now, come to be understood as the only ecologically based way of human existence in the future, where there is kept alive for at least the next thousand years the minority sensibility that has existed for centuries, even as the Modern Age was forming and marginalizing it, from St. Francis to Aldo Leopold, from the Celtic witches to Rachel Carson, the sensibility that has always reminded us of the right method of living on the earth. Ecosteries where there is developed and spread the system of values that reminds us of the inherent tragedy of the modern industrial way and teaches us that though we may have—I suppose we will have—the knowledge of how to cross the oceans, to make war, to build skyscrapers, to construct atomic bombs, to splice genes, none will choose to do those things, because they transgress the will of Gaea, bespeaking an alien, violent, disregardful, and nature-hating culture.
I am suggesting, in sum, that we understand our tasks right now to be the pursuit of scholarship, restoration, and community—not as separate tasks, you see, but as interrelated—and that we understand our goal as the building of these model ecosteries, in urban settings as well as rural, working to reinhabit the land with the wisdom that the original peoples had who inhabited there first. I know, of course, even as I say all this that it seems daunting and slightly mad. I know these are not easy tasks, especially in our current world—I myself have been struggling for a year and more just to give birth to a restoration project in New York City—and the forces that resist them are great. But I also know that there are even now some suggestive models, glimpses of how this all might work: ecological restoration is being done across the country, people in community are understanding ecosystems in a bioregional way, quasi think tanks like Sister Miriam McGillis’s farm and the permaculture centers and the Ecostery Foundation and the E. F. Schumacher Library are assembling the wisdom and the lore. And I know these tasks are the ones that must be done, one way or another, starting now, starting wherever the vision can locate.
I have come to think of the ecostery as something like the extra horse. You may know the fable of the father who died owning seventeen horses, and his will decreed that half should go to his first son, a third to the second son, and a ninth to the third son. This was plainly an insoluble problem; try as they might, his children could not put those horses into groups that would satisfy their father’s wishes, for there was no way to take a half or a third or a ninth of seventeen.
Eventually they took their problem to the local wise man, who said: “I understand your problem and your dilemma. Let me help you. I will give you one of my horses.” The sons were perplexed. What good would that do?
“Well,” said the wise man, “then you will have eighteen horses, and the first son may have half, that’s nine; the second a third, that’s six; and the third son a ninth, that’s two; now you will be able to do as your father asked.” The sons were delighted and sat beaming at the old man, shaking his hand in gratitude. “But then,” the old man added, “you will have seventeen horses—nine plus six is fifteen plus two is seventeen—and so you may give the extra horse back to me. As soon as you have finished with it, of course.”
The problems of the late twentieth century appear to be insoluble. But it is just possible that in the ecostery, or something very much like it, as an ecological model, we might have our extra horse—the small, appropriate, organic, living solution that will finally allow us to understand and become a cooperative part of nature in her fullest, which means to let ourselves be, as we were no doubt meant to be, connected inextricably to the infinite web of life.