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As the affluence of society depends increasingly on the uninterrupted production and consumption of waste, gadgets, planned obsolescence, and means of destruction, the individuals have to be adapted to these requirements in more than the traditional ways.”
—Herbert Marcuse (Political Preface, Eros and Civilization, 1966)
“Progress” in the Valley
On November 14, the State Mining and Geology Board voted to not interfere with Fresno County Board of Supervisor’s decision to approve the nearly 1,000 acre Carmelita Mine and Reclamation Project. Thus the digging, destruction, pollution will commence. According to The Business Journal, the project “aims to extract 1.25 million tons of aggregate per year to make asphalt, cement and other construction materials” (July 9, 2013). The plan states that the mine will operate for 100 years and will contain 22 pits, which will be roughly 50 feet deep. Gerawin Farming, one of the largest fruit producers in the world and a massive contributor to the environmental and social degradation of the San Joaquin Valley owns the project. Now the exploited workers in the orchards-of-wrath will not only breathe the poison of pesticides, but also the cocktail of mining pollution.
Leading the opposition to the Carmelita mine was the “Friends of the Kings River.” While any resistance to Gerawin Farming is surely a valiant effort, we should examine the discourse and framework in which this resistance took place. According to their mission statement, the need for “responsible growth,” and the assumption that “aggregate mining is essential” guides the policies and actions of the group. Thus, the “Friends of the Kings River” are not against the mine in and of itself, but are merely against the process and specifics of the project. The ideas that the mine should not exist, that growth should not be pursued, and that we should perhaps reverse the destructive capabilities of our community, are absent from the discourse. While this specific debate may have been confined to the Central San Joaquin Valley, it represents larger trends of our plagued society.
In the West we have adopted what I will call the “progress paradigm.” The concept of “progress,” defined herein as development, industrialization, modernization and extraction as inherently good things, has become the hegemonic paradigm of the ruling classes in most of the world. While brave people in Latin America, Asia and Africa have mounted resistance to the extractive industries in-and-of themselves, us in the West consistently frame our resistance within the “progress paradigm” and merely criticize the way in which the destruction should take place. The widespread popularity of consumer choices and “green technology” as means for combating the impending environmental disaster provide numerous examples. In this paradigm, technology and consumption are not analyzed, criticized or even questioned, despite widespread evidence that they are indeed at the root of the environmental catastrophe. The terms “developed” and “developing” as categories in which to place all regions of the world show that the progress paradigm has left no room for those who seek to live outside of it.
It seems today that the social theorist of the Frankfurt School, Herbert Marcuse, was correct when he pointed out that the tools of advanced industrial society are, “capable of containing social change—qualitative change which would establish essentially different institutions, a new direction of the productive process, [and] new modes of human existence” (One Dimensional Man, 1964, p. xii). The gadgets of modernity, which keep us distracted from ourselves, from our environment and from each other have contained resistance to destruction within confines that take destruction as a necessity. We continue to “submit to the peaceful production of the means of destruction [and] the perfection of waste” (Ibid, p. ix).
In the United States, the progress paradigm led to the forced removal and mass murder of Native Americans in order to pave the way for the gifts of progress: railroads, telegraphs, mines, and other industries. Those who did not seek to extract from and develop the natural world were, and continue to be, seen as “backward.” Thus, as the philosophy of the “Friends of the Kings River” shows us, the need for development and growth is not questioned. Resistance must fit within the confines of the progress paradigm. “The mine must happen, but it should only happen in this way,” is the thinking of the progress paradigm. In the words of Marcuse, this represents “One Dimensional Thought.”
Would anybody take us seriously if we demanded the end to the progress paradigm? Would anybody take us seriously if we demanded no more mining, no more growth, no more development? In the West, probably not. However, we should take a lesson from those who have not consumed and are not currently choking on the destruction of progress.
Indigenous and campesino communities in Latin America—and elsewhere—have resisted the development of the extractive industries in and of themselves. While the proponents of development and extraction claim that the development projects will bring these communities wealth and the gadgets of modernity, the communities reject these distractions as well. Thus, they recognize that their current social relations between human and the non-human world are more important than the “gifts” of modernity and their destructive tendencies. They are content with their clean water in the rivers, with their pesticide-free foods, and their homes without televisions or iphones. By resisting development projects and embracing their traditional lifestyle, rather than one of modernity, they begin the process of redefining the concept of “poverty” on non-monetary terms. Indeed, when viewing the prospects of resistance and a substantial paradigm shift, these communities have the advantage of having not fallen into the depths of the progress paradigm:
“The historical advantage of… technical ‘backwardness,’ may be that of skipping the stage of the affluent society. Backward peoples by their poverty and weakness may be forced to forego the aggressive and wasteful use of science and technology, to keep the productive apparatus à la mesure de l’homme, under his control, for the satisfaction and development of vital individual and collective needs” (Marcuse, Eros and Civilization).
Until those of us in the West begin to question the progress paradigm, we will continue to see the destruction of the natural and social world. The Carmelita Mine will provide the Central San Joaquin Valley with more aggregate, which will pave more roads, which people will drive on individually in their cars, paving the way for a more isolated, alienated, and polluted society. We will work to obtain the next gadget (which was built with materials pried from the bowels of our mother earth), and we will not resist destruction, but only the process and specifics by which this destruction commences. If we seek a true revolution, this must be a revolution that questions the progress paradigm. Once again, in the words of Marcuse,
“whereas previous revolutions brought about a larger and more rational development of the productive forces, in the overdeveloped societies of today, revolution would mean reversal of this trend: elimination of overdevelopment, and of its repressive rationality” (Ibid)
Matt Ford is a graduate student in the History Department at California State University, Fresno. He studies Latin American History and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org