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Paris Sorts Sheep from Wolves

Photo by Vinoth Chandar | CC BY 2.0

We are possessed of a protean president who has now turned his back on the world: as he explained last Thursday, he has plumped for Pittsburgh not Paris. We are now exiles from the climate accord and having thus abandoned a planetary consensus we find ourselves on the very frontier of the civilized world. This is a place in which many Americans feel comfortable: it was where generations of the most enterprising of this nation lived for nearly three centuries (1607-1890). Indeed, it is a place that has a highly valued role in our economic and cultural heritage – in a profound historical sense, our president has led us back home.

There is a passage in J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer, 1782, in which he explains his optimism when, after his family’s farm is threatened by Indian attack, he picks up and moves west: he writes,

“I will revert into a state approaching nearer to that of nature, unencumbered either with voluminous laws or contradictory codes, often galling the very necks of those whom they protect; and at the same time sufficiently remote ….where far removed from the accursed neighborhood of Europeans, its inhabitants live with more ease decency and peace than you can imagine; where governed by no laws, yet find, in uncontaminated simple manners all that laws can afford.”

We are about to experience again the pleasures and perils of the frontier – where we can prosper, or not, under the broiling western sun, governed by no (climate) laws and unbothered by the disapproval of the wider world. The President, in his simple act of renunciation has rekindled our historical purpose: to stand apart and be the (coal-fired) beacon that lights the world.

Jefferson would have understood. Francophile that he was, he nevertheless believed that America’s destiny was as a pastoral paradise far from the intellectual ferment of Europe and its fast developing industrial base. In spurning our voluntary commitment to national carbon reductions (based on a scientific consensus of the perils of global warming) established in Paris, Trump has effectively taken us a step away from the leading edge of science, not only in terms of the amelioration of a worsening climate, but by implication, from all those cooperative endeavors that occur at the very highest levels of academic and technological inquiry. As a nation, we have likely become the poison pill of international scientific research. Together with our long-standing refusal to adopt the metric system (admittedly largely ignored by almost all American scientists who now no longer professionally enumerate in Imperial) this further retreat from international consensus may consign our home grown technologies to a creeping primitivism and even lead, eventually, to a de-industrialization of The United States.

Does a pastoral future beckon – a land of husbandmen and women following the oxen and plow over roughly furrowed ground, tending chickens, goats, sheep and cattle on the meadow and rejoicing in ‘uncontaminated simple manners’? Many would wish it so.

After all, the spirit of progress, which has driven history since the mid-seventeenth century, has been greatly discredited by almost four decades of neoliberalism. Initiated in the late 1970’s by Paul Volcker (he was appointed by Carter in 1979 and re-appointed in 1981 by Reagan) whose policy of high interest rates resulted in recession, unemployment, low inflation (thus protecting the wealth of the moneyed classes) and the decimation of organized labor, neoliberalism truly came of age under the 1987 Reagan appointee Alan Greenspan. It was he, under the notional control of four presidents – Reagan, Bush Snr., Clinton and George W. – who proceeded to deregulate the financial sector which led directly to the financial crisis of 2008. Much of his philosophy was mirrored in Europe, most notably in Britain under Margaret Thatcher. Its purpose has been to allow the market to control major social and political decisions and corporations to become state actors. Its results have been a winnowing of social protections, a decline in real wages, the destruction of Trade Unions, and an obscene enrichment of the elites.

With the passage of Brexit, the election of Trump and now the U.S. rejection of the Paris climate accords, the candle flame of regression is beginning to flicker. In Mexico, the council of the Zapatista candidate for the presidency, María de Jesús Patricio, has called for “anti-capitalist and honest” government. It proclaims that “we don’t seek to administer power; we seek to dismantle it……”. Ironically, the council seeks an end to representative democracy and a reversion to indigenous, consensual means of achieving social harmony in a post maquiladora-based industrial state: a reversion, in other words, to a pastoral land. In such a North American world, the vast panoply of property laws erected to supplant individual savagery and replace it with state sanctioned violence might yet be distilled into ‘simple manners’. Jefferson understood as much. In his only book, Notes on Virginia, 1782, he writes,

“…were it made a question, whether no law, as among the savage Americans, or too much law, as among the civilized Europeans, submits man to the greatest evil, one who has seen both conditions of existence would pronounce it to be the last: and that the sheep are happier of themselves, than under the care of the wolves.”

It may be debatable as to whether the global climate czars are wolves, but the President has deemed it thus: that the American people are happier of themselves.

So it is that we have arrived at a point of inflexion: to proceed with arguing over the ‘content of progress’ as Paul Kingsnorth has it (an argument that has been effectively reduced to mildly differing degrees of neoliberalism); to retreat into stasis or actively pursue a course of regression. This latter option might bring us towards what John Berger, the British novelist and critic who died at the beginning of this year, has called ‘the culture of survival’, the culture of the peasant, of the indigenous and of the pre-modern and it is this culture toward which our president may unknowingly be leading us.

There are many in the middle of this country who actively spurn notions of liberalism and its implications of progress. It is they, we are told by a liberal media, who are responsible for voting into office the anathema that is our president. His was a triumph of the under-educated, under-paid and under-appreciated. Similarly, across the pond, in the passage of Brexit, Kingsworth writes, “The working classes and the lower middle classes – not the cultural or political elites – pulled off a kind of peasants’ revolt, against the advice of every section of the establishment”.

Last time I checked, Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris accord has been roundly criticized by most of the chattering classes as churlish, anti-international and potentially disastrous for the climate and our standing in the world. What if instead, it signifies the creation of another chink in the wall; of another rending of the fabric that is the Modernity Project; of another nail in the coffin of neo-liberalism; of another adobe brick that might rebuild indigenous cultures? Is it entirely blasphemous to ask in these troubled, tipping point times, in echo of Yeats, “……what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

Into the gyre we have been pitched and the center may not hold, but given what the center has come to represent these past forty years surely that is no bad thing: some revelation too, may be at hand as we regress twisting and tumbling far, far back to a time when, as Locke perceived, All the World was America.

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John Davis is an architect living in southern California. He blogs at Urban Wildland

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