Journal Entry #36

Letters from a Reader and Friend.

NORFOLK, CONN., JUNE 22—I am blessed with some loyal readers, among whom one or two or three stand out for their encouragement of the work, their support of the work, and a certain kind of intimacy. “A certain kind” because we have met only cyberly and live great distances from one another. It is another way of saying the columns bring friends. I count them friends in the pre–21st century meaning.

One of these wrote a few times recently and I neglected replying, shabbily enough. Finally I found the time by setting the time aside with determination, and wrote back in reply to two of her notes. When I finished, her questions and my replies were such that the exchanges seemed to me modestly worthwhile, enough so to share with others. And this I do now. I have edited.

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...IN ANY CASE, your recent notes.

A coupla points require reply. More than a couple, indeed, but these two have been lodged in my mind as esp deserving.

One. You mention the environmental consequences of Belt & Road, China’s vast cross-border development project, about which I’ve written severally. “This is something that’s been a significant concern of mine all along,” you advise, “and I wonder what your thoughts are.” I read the Truthdig item you sent in this connection, by Alex Kirby of Climate News Network, with interest.

China’s Trade Plan May Cause Lasting Harm”: From the headline alone I knew where this was going. This, from the copy, confirmed the problem:

China’s trade plan, the Belt and Road Initiative, may pose an unacceptable risk to the environment, scientists say.

Launched in 2013, the BRI plans a huge expansion of trade routes linking Asia, Africa and Europe, involving China itself and 64 other countries, and affecting about two-thirds of the world’s people and one-third of its economy. There will be new ports on the Pacific and Indian Ocean coasts, new roads, and a rail network linking China to northwest Europe.

But an international group of scientists, writing in the journal Nature Sustainability, expresses serious doubts about the possibility of completing the scheme without causing permanent environmental damage.

Then comes a subhed: “Economy vs. Environment.” And then:

The scientists write: “Economic development aspirations under the BRI may clash with environmental sustainability goals, given the expansion and upgrading of transportation infrastructure in environmentally sensitive areas, and the large amounts of raw material needed to support that expansion…

The next word in the piece is “if.” Take the cue, friend.

Go back and review the verbs and altogether the vocabulary: “serious doubts,” “possibility,” “may pose,” “may cause,” and so on. These sentences are true as cast. But they do not mean much as cast. They are not of much use. They reflect, do note, the views of a gathering of Western scientists. It is merely one small part of our (Western) determination to diminish the truth of China’s emergence as best we can for as long as we can.

As for the subhed, it sets up a familiar but altogether facile and not very useful polarity, the old either/or trick. Some Asians—Singaporeans most notably—try this on with regard to democracy: It is either democratic rule or economic development and social order. We cannot afford the first and prefer the latter two. It is a false apposition. So is “economy vs. environment.” It is no less destructive of useful thinking.

My point here is this:

Development has long been a dirty business, yes. I think there is far too much of it, setting aside the needs of a far-too-large global population. I don’t like to look at what we call “development.” Rather look at a trout stream, of course. But this is not a defensible position. There is no setting aside the needs of the global population other than selfishly, while sitting in a New England village of 1,700 people.

It is fair, thus, to speculate as to the environmental impact of BRI. But there is nothing going on to suggest that the Chinese are unmindful of this impact. It is true China is in many regions an enviro disaster. When I lived in Beijing for a time, I marveled that friends would raise their children in such a toxic environment. But precisely because of the mess China’s rise has made, they have made themselves v. green-conscious in recent years, as a lot of evidence indicates.

As soon as BRI was announced the Western press, not least the liberal Western press, started grousing about the environmental effects (among many other complaints). Naturally, the verbs and vocabulary in all those reports were just as those in the Truthdig piece. China’s management of environmental questions as BRI proceeds remains entirely to be seen and I could be wrong, but my money is the Chinese will take proper care.

Corollary point: Never leave out history.

I saw a headline the other day that ran something like, “We Destroyed a Hemisphere in 500 Years.” A touch exaggerated, and I did not have time to read the piece, but one gets the point. It is the Western development model that has the planet drowning in its own refuse and whales ingesting quantities of plastic bags such that they die on beaches. “Economy vs. environment” has indeed proven an either/or choice. But we must draw a distinction here: It is “economy” in the Western mode that has made this so. The non–West is complicit in the disaster—and it is very complicit—but only insofar as it buried its own traditions to follow the West once the Age of Materialism took hold in Europe and America in the mid–19th century.

I take up the West–East point here in detail in Somebody Else’s Century, the book published in 2010. In brief: Having fallen for the trap of the Western model of modernization—at bottom man as distinct from nature, nature’s master in the Old Testament sense—the East is now waking up to the error. I have seen this as it is occurring—more here, less there, but the drift can be detected. The task of the East, the non–West if you prefer, is one of overcoming: It must advance beyond the West now and reconnect with its own most profound traditions, wherein man is understood as embedded in nature.

At the risk of getting too cosmic, this is where humanity’s future lies, in my view—at least in the best of outcomes. The scientists cited in the Truthdig piece suffer from insufficient vision—they cannot see outside their own culture—and an inadequate knowledge of history.

As to Truthdig and Climate News Network, so far as I can make out they are merely tagging along with the mainstream orthodoxy: If China is doing it we must find the flaws in it, for China will never get it right—as, of course, we in the West with our plagues of plastic bags, shopping malls, and assorted other planetary desecrations have it right. Without even knowing it, these two have published nothing more or less than a self-criticism wrapped as a criticism of others.

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You wrote in response to a few observations I made in a recent column, wherein I made my customary allowance for optimism:

on what basis does America “advance imaginatively into a new time?” I’m genuinely curious and at a loss. Lacking the will to abide by international law and the imagination to undergo a process that seeks truth and restorative justice—including reparations for the massive land theft and genocide of indigenous Americans, enslavement of African peoples, multiple current and historic war crimes as well as environmental crimes—I personally don’t see how the U.S. can reinvent itself in any meaningful way. Perhaps that’s my imaginative failing.

On a basis, generous friend, that we are charged with creating ourselves for ourselves such that we emancipate our imaginations and reconnect with some fundamental grasp of our own agency.

Is what I write of—some new time we make for ourselves because we will it—possible as things stand now? Your answer is quite right: Given how smothered we are in encouragements of low self-esteem, worthlessness, and the futility of effort, it is hard to see we have any chance of getting this done,. Next question, and we must ask it for it is key: Are we prisoners of history, the historical record? It is easy to think so, but the truly complete answer is this: Only if we incessantly build and rebuild the jail, furnish the bars, and hand the keys to wardens we allow to appoint themselves in our names by way of what we quaintly call elections.

I don’t think we can start out, not in our time, with, “What is possible?” Clinton-style, mainstream liberal-style, “progressive-style.” This is the improvements-at-the-margin line, and at its core it reflects discouragement and some pessimistic embrace of powerlessness. It is the canonization of “What is.” No. I insist on a more fulsome idea of what it means to be alive. We must therefore start with, “What is necessary, what is urgent?” Then: “How do we make the necessary and urgent possible?”

You tilt my mind to Bergson. I have long loved the old French philosopher for his élan vital, a difficult concept to grasp, to say nothing of summarize, and his thinking on time, “duration” in his lexicon. Bergson understood living as a continuously recurring act of becoming—a thought we ordinarily associate with the Parisian existentialists. We cannot understand ourselves or the world out our windows—space, matter—without taking into account duration, meaning the incessant occurrence of these things in time. The present is part of the past—has the past in it, maybe—but it is not the past: It is itself, free of the past. Élan vital describes the innate and inevitable dynamic of actualization. To live is to actualize, if I can attempt an interpolation. If it is not actualizing, it is not organic—not alive, in other words.

Gilles Deleuze published a brief, fine book on Bergson in 1966. It was brought into English 22 years later as Bergsonism, a very interesting effort to retrieve Bergson from a long period during which he was far out of favor. It may appeal to you, given your Buddhist leanings: Among much else, Deleuze explores Bergson’s dismissal of all dualities—questions and answers, past and present, and (to address the other topic of this note) man and nature. Yes, differentiation is a reality in the context of duration, but this must be rediscovered once we escape the infinite dualities we enclose ourselves within.

I am sure I have done a poor job explaining Bergson. So I will leave it to him. Here is a passage from The Two Sources of Morality and Religion, which he published in 1932 and which is among the lesser-known of his books. Maybe it will put what I have attempted to explain in a practical context such that it addresses your question about what we are and are not capable of doing. Here Bergson is writing about “a fuller realization than the last of personality and consequently of humanity”:

It is no use maintaining that this leap forward does not imply a creative effort behind it, and that we have not to do here with an invention comparable with that of the artist. That would be to forget that most great reforms appeared at first sight impracticable, as in fact they were….

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