What’s So Natural About Nature?
1) A native of a place or country.
2) One naturally deficient in intellect; a half-witted person.
Here we go again with the supposedly “natural” disaster lament in which even we leftists like to indulge. Like there’s something natural about building living quarters for humans within spitting distance of the sea (not to mention in a seismically tumultuous area) or something natural about not teaching our children to run away from the sea when there’s an earthquake.
The Wisdom of Negra Modelo
We had a rash of pretty big quakes in Mexico one year, and we ran back with little Sebastian away from the beach, I’ll tell you. Bats, hell, out of, run like—that’s how it works when you’re on the beach and the ground starts acting like waves. Most people just sat around like they were experts on how there wouldn’t be a tsunami, looking at us like we were hysterical. We knew it was serious because all the Negra Modelo bottles were falling over. That’s practically the definition of serious. The surfers had the best of it. They were hooked up by radio to the shore. They couldn’t feel the quake but they were sure hoping for a big wave. They were crackling away on their headsets to each other with the pure joy of hefty hydraulics and maybe bigger to come.
Japanese wave: dance! Japanese coastal sprinter: how hai?
Remember the “natural” disaster nonsense with Katrina? Natural, Jesus. Like there was something natural in the first place about digging a hole ten feet below the Mississippi in a well-known hurricane area and building a city for black people down in the hole, then relying on the integrity of leaders to keep the Mississippi out of the hole. How’d that work out? How retarded would you have to be to think relying on a leader is a good thing?
I’m writing this in Mexico City, which from a seismic point of view is an unnatural act, so I should be careful what I say. And it’s also, full disclosure, not like I got down here on a burro, so take my righteous indignation as the compromised entity it is. It’s about a week after the Japanese terremoto, so I’m hearing that word on the street a lot. The buildings here are built out of lava rock, so it’s not like—that not-quite exculpatory negative again—not like we haven’t been forewarned. Visiting Mexico City is like the Everest climbers who have to step over the frozen preserved bodies of earlier climbers to get to the top. You know it’s dangerous, but it’s so beautiful.
So I Said To My Drowning Friend: Bob
Are you feeling reassured that the authorities have told us this Japan nuke thing is fine? When I was a kid, my dad and brother used to like to say that more people had been killed in Ted Kennedy’s front seat than in all the nuclear disasters in history. Oops. I’m Japanese on the asses of my John Bircher dad and brother these days, not mentioning their old claim so they can save face. Hai.
The first house we bought—Eva-Lynn and me—was an hour’s bike ride downwind of Three Mile Island. My old training ground for my canoe was a few miles downstream of Three Mile in a feisty patch of hydraulics on the Susquehanna. Well, radiation is natural, after all—it comes out of the earth, right? I’ve been hearing pro-nuke folks for a half century go on about how the earth emits “background radiation” and how everything is fine. You can always tell when you’re going to get The Speech when one of these guys with a BS degree emits the “background radiation” mantra. Apologies to my brother Clive if he sneaks in here and reads this. But he should know that my nose is more red than it was before we lived downwind of Three Mile.
Actually, I’m not so down on that Ted guy. I wrote to him about our (Clive’s and mine) friend’s drowned body—this is back in the day, you understand—and he called out the cavalry and got these newly invented duck boats out smashing the ice and they found poor Bob. What a name for a drowned guy. Bob. I’ve been condemned to gallows humor ever since. I’m not really responsible for Bob’s death—I just happened to be skating on a different pond nearby when he went down because of a last-minute change of plans. Okay, my last-minute change of plans. That Ted guy and me, we both had eastern Massachusetts drowning ghosts, weird stuff; strange connection. I try to remember that soft spot we share with the high and mighty when I get to ranking on leaders, as is my wont. Well, Ted is dead. Ted is dead—how’s that for a rhyme loitering a lifetime for its man?
So how’s about that nature? Nature. What a word. Soon as I hear someone say “natural,” my first thought is, “what are they hiding?” If I’ve learned one thing in life, or maybe it was in grad school or kindergarten, it’s that nature is camouflage. Is a Bush natural, or is it there to hide something? Bushes thrive on people who are dumb enough to believe, for example, that sticking the best jazz musicians in the country in a hole below a dike is natural. Natural disaster? Give me a break, said the dike. I’ll show you what’s natural, said the dike.
Nature in Cafe Tacuba
You want natural? Eat a bunch of lettuce on the street here in Mexico. A few hours later, follow the signs posted inside all the buildings: Ruta de Evacuacion.
You want natural? Follow your inclinations. It never works for me, but it might for you. For example, I went out to Cafe Tacuba with a woman tonight who was quite attractive. I didn’t flirt, except for one little dig towards the end of the evening. When she stretched and said, “oh, I’m sleepy, I can feel my bed calling to me,” I said, “me too.” Heh heh. If she noticed, she gave no sign. Find your calling, as the minister used to say. Of course, I’ve never found mine, so there’s no reason to listen to me.
Love in the time of call-her-a, eh? World’s going to hell, and we’re still trying to grab on, mate, love, work two jobs with only one real salary, notice other women, not notice them, the whole thing. Love in the time of disasters, like you’re writing a political essay and someone changes the topic apparently at random and you’re suddenly writing a personal essay.
What’s a disaster is the nature of disaster rhetoric. Natural’s the old noun meaning a simpleton or a mentally retarded person, it might be worth mentioning [actually, I just looked it up in the 1980’s OED back here at the ranch, so it was still in use when people had those big naturalistic Eighties hairdos.] Natural. Saw down all the trees in Haiti and call the result a “natural” disaster. Reap what you saw. Steal from the locals till they’re screwed, then send in “aid.” Fuck Africa fifty ways to Sunday, including attack-subsidies against the farmers, then sing a Live-Aid song for the people whose habitat we’ve destroyed with our “natural” survival-of-the-fittest “free” rigged markets. Give ’em a laptop as a consolation prize. Nach.
My Wife Married an Alien
Now we’ve got some of those natural clean-air clouds making their way across the Pacific from Japan to California, so we can all start enjoying what the Nuclear Energy Institute calls on their website “The Clean-Air Benefits of Nuclear Energy.” I’m old enough to remember my parents’ ambivalent response to the phrase “made in Japan.” Japanese clean-air benefits. They should get a bunch of Japanese nukes downtown here in Mexico, hook them up to the exhaust pipes of the cars, and pump in some clean-air benefits. Hai, si.
Nuclear energy is natural. It’s essentially Stone Age technology. It uses dirty fuel to boil water, just like old times. But what a complicated, dangerous way to boil some water. At least in the first Stone Age they had figured out how to do the job without a lot of moving parts. People who like nuclear hot plates would probably admire the automobile, an invention requiring in excess of five thousand moving parts per unit and a worldwide subsidized web of military and bureaucratic exertions to get a few fat folks a half mile to the Winn Dixie.
Natural is people not even noticing how stupid automobiles in cities are. They’ve always been there, apparently, so they get naturalized, camouflaged. Or natural is: a nation-state. “Where are you from?” becomes through the camo of nature the question “what is your political fealty?” My dad, in that America place, got naturalized—that’s precisely the word the bastards use to describe what happens to certain immigrants—and now they don’t see him at the American border. But I never got naturalized. I was born an alien and stayed one. My wife, if she is my wife, married an alien. An unnatural act. The homeland securicorps home in on me at borders like a T-rex on a moving human in Jurassic Park.
I Heart the Planet in Contrail Font
Now I’m reading El Pais on the plane on the way back from Mexico. I never read newspapers in my own language; I need something to buffer me from the form as much as the content. I guess ironic detachment and a couple of aspirin can get most people through a bout of the New York Times, but I’m too sensitive for that. I should probably start reading newspapers in Japanese, tracing the characters with my middle finger. Right now I’m scanning El Pais and blowing smoke with my name on it out the ass of our Boeing onto my brother Clive down in Brownsville and then onto the good folks of the Mississippi delta down there—I can see the whole thing from here. Fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke, type of thing. Environmentalist going by—look out. Sky writing with my signature all over it. I Heart the Planet, in contrail font. Duck and cover, suckers.
When I think about this flight, it’s not just my nose, but my cheeks that get red. I can see with my own eyes the riverway to Mexico—so what am I doing in a plane? What a pretty pickle this is, I think, an environmentalist with a strong paddle arm sitting in an airplane, like some sick joke about human flight gone awry. The short answer, that I appease certain familial and social gods in my personal life by offering up my casual relation to human flight and capitalist temporality on the altar of Continental [™] sacrifice, smoke rising heavenward, is pretty good, considering. But it still leaves a small-to-mid-size remainder of pure guilt. I’m a smoker who hasn’t quite kicked the habit.
Let that be entered in the record. It all has to go into the archive, the full confession, because I write these pieces in CounterPunch for people fifty years from now who might be checking the archive, wondering what kind of stupid polluting numnuts lived back in 2011. Is it really true that back in 2011 even environmentalists flew smokers? That environmentalists would hop a smoker to get to a conference on…environmentalism, for example?
I should also say in my own defense that as someone who has been trained in cultural sensitivity at some of the best universities, my mandate as an intellectual and as a writer is to go to other cultures, meet interesting people, and make fun of them. I’ve been involved in some fieldwork on the aesthetics of Aztec women, who are generally so beautiful as to be impervious to my jokes. On Monday night Telma at a pulcheria on Insurgentes let me hold her suave hand for two hours and pump eye rays into her ojos while I explained—not that she didn’t know—the intricacies of the paradox of Mexica/Aztec devotion to canoes, sun, and organic chinampas gardening, on the one hand, and the Aztecs’ awkward respect for hierarchies on the other, till she found an uglier, younger man who knew how to dance, and left me bereft of jokes, if not bereft, period. I’m just another older guy with a lot of history. Those who don’t know they’re history are condemned to repeating platitudes about it. God I’m funny. At least, I’m pretty sure I’m funny in Japanese. I remember people laughing at me in Tokyo, anyway.
Let us press on. The facts of the case are these: we’re smoking up the sky for the good folks of New Orleans, a little insult to their injury, and this El Pais I’m reading is telling us we were silly to get all worked up about that Japan thing. So those of you dusting through the archive fifty years from now, what do you think?
The Nuclear Epistemology of Homer Simpson
For all I know, by the time this gets into print on Friday, attention will have moved on to Africa or somewhere, like fuck Africa is news. I’m the last person to ask about the news. You can’t really get out of earshot of the state television station, CNN, in any airport, but I have my ways. In O’Hare the station threatens to further foul the acoustical space by bringing a speech from the “leader,” some brutal ‘black’ guy I get mixed up with the dictator of Libya or one of those places. I roll up little toilet paper balls, wet them, and stuff them in my ears as I walk around. Good system—you can still hear the women’s high heels without having to listen to the fat ’crats duck-and-cover their asses.
Unless it actually leads to an outright massive explosion, nuclear stuff is natural, which is to say camo’d, for the average person. This is the essential nuclear principle. We’re not walking around with Geiger counters, and who knows what type of radiation would count anyway. With a Hummer, by contrast, you can run it into the garage, close the garage door, and feel how sick you get in three minutes or less. Unless you run your own garage test, you’ll have to take the experts’ word for it on how “internal” the combustion engine is, and about how harmless all that background asphyxiation is from all the other vehicles. I’ve done so many garage tests with my dad’s 1980 Chevy Caprice Classic V8 I can skip the test now and get sick just by looking at big cars.
As my longtime readers know, we do our own street testing here in the ungoogleable parts of nowtopia. We’re not waiting on experts.
Short of an actual full-scale explosion, nuclear spectacle is best thought of as a set of epistemological (knowledge) and hermeneutical (interpretation) events with real world outcomes. How do we know what we know? Who gets to decide what it means? Consumers of spectacle tend to think of themselves as tough hombres with a critical, skeptical worldview. Their inflated sense of their own powers of discernment is why advertising works so well and why leaders elected by such people tend to be vicious or incompetent or both—a trend likely to continue indefinitely (even most of my ‘intellectual’ friends voted for that ‘black’ brute). It’s also why Americans are considered by so many people in the world to be a bunch of fat morons, though to be fair Americans are often also severely disliked.
If you’re a nuclear expert and you want to have your fifteen minutes of fame, it’s easy to reassure people that there’s no threat because non-explosive atomic byproducts take time to maim and kill. The spectacle of nuclear disarray is thus very similar to religious ritual and belief, inasmuch as the consumer of spectacle cannot touch or see the entity about which claims are made. So from the point of view of an expert making claims, well, fantasy’s free and you might as well tell a big whopper as a small one. The face you save might be your own.
Epistemological rigor would suggest that experts should not be allowed to make claims without establishing counterfactuals. What would count as being wrong? How would we know if you were wrong? In the absence of such clearly established parameters—my readers will let me know if CNN ever suddenly goes rigorous—the jawflap of experts is of less hermeneutical consequence than the smoke signals of a dying reactor.
I learned to nightsail in the harbor in Duxbury, Massachusetts, and we never paid attention to the nuclear power station there, though it glimmered in the starlight. It was just part of the background. It was natural.
Nature’s what you don’t see, said the Thomson’s gazelle as it ceded its life to the cheetah. It’s a jungle out there.
DAVID Ker THOMSON is an occidental historiographer (Princeton, ’97). dave dot thomson at utoronto dot ca