Progress throws up some startling images, and for my money this is one of them. It’s a 26-storey pig farm and slaughterhouse in Hubei, China. In the supply-and-demand scheme of things it’s probably a very reasonable development. It makes good use of technological and engineering capacity, provides for cost-efficient protein production, and could be said to have an environmentally friendly footprint compared with more land-intensive ways of growing pork. But something jars, doesn’t it? Like a sourness in the viscera. Something’s not right, and it feels like a sign. A sign, I suggest, of catastrophic disconnection.
Catastrophe’s a big word, often hyperbolic, and to be honest it’s a turnoff. The tale of Cassandra is a case in point. But it’s really hard to contemplate biodiversity collapse, snowballing climate disruption and the increasingly ferocious extractivist assault on the world, and to note the indicator trends and the abruptness of these developments when set against civilizational and geological timelines…and not reach for a word like catastrophe. And then, if you’ve got the time and inclination, and are not too caught up in the daily struggle to survive, to wonder how on earth things came to this.
As catastrophes go, war, tsunamis and other Acts of God are intelligible to some degree. We have stories to account for them, cultural protocols for accommodating them. But this catastrophe is quantitatively and qualitatively different. On a different order of magnitude. It’s like a major meteor strike, but confounding in new way because we’re piloting the meteor. It’s like we, this species, opted to manually unhitch this planet’s fate from the patterns of the universe – only to discover, as if it weren’t obvious to begin with, that on the macro-macro scale those patterns always prevail.
The perils of unmooring from Nature – of human hubris in the face of the gods – are commonly recognized in our myths, folk tales and religious and spiritual narratives. It’s been that way everywhere around the world ever since there were stories to tell, I reckon. Stories we tell to code-in cultural precautions. But the stories have had a hard time keeping up of late – over the past few thousand years, say – and we’ve binned many of the old precautions. Instead, a rootless, fast-moving culture of disconnection has grown up around and inside us. The code for a full-bore binge of extraction, consumption and excretion, consequences be damned. A culture of transactions over relationship, of paid work over rest and play, and of rigid, hierarchical institutions like schools and armies and systems of law and government over adaptive, self-organizing organic diversity.
A culture of high-rise pig farms, where cost-benefit logic dictates that we birth, raise and slaughter some of our closest allies without allowing them even once to snuffle leaf-fall for the scent of mother earth.
To earn a crust – to survive – in such a culture, we’re conditioned early to internalize social atomization (nuclear families, heroic individualism), and to value ownership of ever-expanding private space (our cars, our homes, our country estates…), as if detaching ever further (…private planes, superyachts, joy-ride rockets to the edge of space) from the tiresome and frightening concerns of the roiling mass. As if detaching ever further from our communal, earthly responsibilities.
Survival, in such a culture, means learning to “thing” others, thing the living world, and thing (or simply blank out) the pains and struggles of beings beyond our personal horizons. It’s an orgy of disconnection, and it requires the suppression of our innate sense of symbiotic, intergenerational interdependence.
No wonder so many of us don’t yet feel the urgency. Or do we?
Those tendrils of connection are always reaching out among us. Laterally and longitudinally, through time and space, within and across species. Tendrils of curiosity and affection and shared experience. Tendrils of hunger for connection and for deep, hard-earned personal and cultural wisdom. Somewhere inside we can all read the signs. We know, even if we can’t articulate it, that our disconnected way of relating to the world and each other isn’t right. And we know, of course, that the tendrils of universal law claim every one of us in the end.
“Only connect…” was the epigraph to an E.M. Forster book we had to read, and write essays on, when I was at school. I remember nothing about the book beyond its title and those two damned words (unsurprisingly, I flunked the ensuing exam), but they have haunted me ever since. These days, I’m wondering if they’re the epitaph for our times.
Was it disconnection, all along, that brought our world to this pretty pass?
Image: The Guardian