What I learned from Hiawatha

A thousand-odd words on something I’m thinking and feeling about a lot right now.

I am slowly waking up.

Choppy waters ahead. For all of us. The more I read, the more I think, the more I talk to people I respect and experience different corners of this civilization we have built, the more immediate our destiny seems. Our way of life, our institutions, our collective values over the past hundred and fifty years have put us squarely in opposition to our planet. I think many of us lefties and liberals and hippies and whatnot will readily admit this intellectually, but how many of us really experience the reality of it day to day? Not many, I think. That’s a big problem.

In the 1970’s when we started becoming aware of all this, it still felt a couple of generations away, and thus abstract in a sense, and that wasn’t wrong. But today, it is wrong. There is mounting evidence that major, I mean MAJOR disruption to our civilization in the next 20, 30, 40 years is a huge risk, even a likely scenario. We’re talking global famine, unprecedented draught, large scale economic collapse when the oil runs out, martial law and rioting in the streets. It’s increasingly clear that this isn’t about our “children” in some abstract, n’th generational sense — it’s about our literal children, the one’s we’re having now, the one’s well be having over the next five or ten years. When we are old, there’s a very real possibility that we will watch the American Dream collapse around them as we have to consider how to best prepare them for a society that feels a lot more like “A Boy and his Dog” than it does “Boy Meets World”.

This is becoming increasingly real, increasingly dangerous to me. Like many of my friends, I have a lot of privilege and resources at my disposal. For people like me it’s easy to rely on a backup plan. If things get bad, someone in the family has a farm in the woods somewhere, we have useful skills, we can make do. There are a couple of big problems with this:

  • What about everyone else, asshole?
  • Do I really want to raise a family in a society of scarcity, where they are raised to be mistrustful of strangers, prepared to fight or scavenge constantly and are confined to our backwoods fortress? Ok to be fair some parts of that sound kind of cool but no, obviously in practice that would really suck.

So what’s the good news, here? We understand, at least at a high level, what we need to do to avoid this worst case scenario. Invest heavily in cheaper, more sustainable energy. Reduce our waste and aggressively research technologies that take carbon out of the air and reverse the acidification of the ocean. Massively cut our dependence on fossil fuels and reduce our water usage (or figure out how to cheaply increase the water supply). A lot of these technology investments are already happening, but arguably way too slowly given the models and projections and the changes we see happening around us today (CA draught? WA fires? Record heat, like, everywhere, all the time?).

What really worries me is that our institutions, “the system”, our political process seem to have been set up (intentionally or not) in such a way that they actively discourage this sort of aggressive change. Corporate consumerism keeps us chained to our desks and our possessions, without the space and the presence to take a step back from our daily rhythm and look around us, to really ponder these larger issues and how they might affect us as individuals. Our approach to capitalism falls far too short on accounting for externalities of pollution and long term planetary change, actively dis-incentivizing companies from accounting for these issues in order to remain competitive. And our leaders are beholden to quarterly earnings reports, a stock market that seems increasingly arbitrary, and an election cycle that keeps us looking as far as the next election, the next budget deadline, or the next lobbyist meeting. Worst of all, we identify with so many small-fry issues and groups that amount to “us” vs “them” without the larger, shared view of the real problems facing our entire society. All of this is heavily exacerbated by the current political climate, tactics, and influx of private money at the national and state level.

So what do we do? With the future of our own, present, tangible children at stake I find that I increasingly relate to the position of activists like ‪#‎BLM — due process is moving too slow, the “negative peace” (MLK) of the status quo leaves us all in grave danger. I want to think hard and talk openly about how we can disrupt, overturn, realign the structures and incentives that have kept us locked here for the past 40 years. Certainly Tyler Durden had one solution, but I would like to think we can come up with something a little less sudden, a little less violent. We’ll see.

At the end of the day, I’m an optimist. I can’t help it. But I feel more and more that I, and many of those of us with privilege, power and resources have an obligation, to future us and everybody else, to think hard and take action on this one — action that goes beyond even our own local impact. If we don’t, I’m not sure that anyone else will.

I haven’t posted anything online about the tattoo I got a few months ago (my first), but it’s related to all of this. It’s called Hiawatha’s Belt. The real Hiawatha (not the moronic caricature fictional character made up by Longfellow) was an Iroquois statesman who, incidentally, I may share a North American ancestor with. He and another fellow saw that their society, the Iroquois tribes, were on a similar crash course with disaster many centuries ago, with constant warring and revenge. So, they used their lives and their influence to go around and forge peace between all of the tribes. After 15 or 20 years of working steadily at this, they achieved peace and founded the Iroquois Confederacy, and their children lived in peace and prosperity for hundreds of years. Without his action, the history of the Iroquois would have almost certainly been filled with a lot more bloodshed, pain and despair.

I truly believe that now is another pivotal time in the history of our civilization, that like in the time of Hiawatha there is a very real need for those with power to step up and take action. And I also truly believe that we should “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

If you want to think and talk and research with me about what all of this might look like, let me know.


Originally published at joshcarroll.xyz on September 5, 2015.