Joseph P. Firmage
January 11th, 1999
Evolving in a place called Eden...
Who are you?
You read this Microsoft Word document as a living homo sapiens
animal clothed in manufactured fabrics, staring into an electronic
communications system - you've called it the Internet - which for the
first time ever touched large populations of animals on planet Earth
in the early half of the last decade of the second millennium of time
since the birth of a being named Jesus. You are a speck of dust of
biology on a speck of dust of geology in a revolving arm of the Milky
Way. As far back in time as you have been able to peer through your
Hubble Space Telescope, you have learned that the Milky Way is one of
about 150 billion vast astrophysical cyclones you call galaxies, each
with hundreds of billions of suns and planets.
A strange introduction to yourself, isn't it? Yet that is actually a
more complete description of you in this moment from the eyes of the
Cosmos and distant future history books of Earth.
Whenever we think about such abstract ideas, we all seek to answer
the basic questions of life: Who am I? Why am I here? What is my
purpose? What is my place? These are difficult questions to answer.
Let us start by looking at what we're made of.
You are made of Milky Way galaxy. You are made of the Cosmos. The
Cosmos includes everything you smell, taste, touch, hear, see, know,
or do. It is everything that is.
We have been taught for millennia the tale of the origin of the
Cosmos. Scientists in the discipline of cosmology call it "the Big
Bang". Those faithful to the Western world's dominant religions call
it "Genesis". In the beginning there was a special kind of energy, or
light, a light that makes all things - a kind of temporal potential.
Billions of galaxies, trillions of stars, and an uncountable number
of worlds formed. On many of those worlds, when of just the right
size, just the right distance from their suns, with just the right
chemistry, as night parts with day in a rare ecological harmony, the
spiral of life springs forth from their oceans and gardens.
The Earth upon which you stand and all of the chemistry within your
body and in the air you breathe was formed from simpler matter as a
star perhaps like our sun exploded in death over 6 billion years ago.
It spat out atoms in forms suitable for the evolution of a wondrous
place such as Earth, and a being such as you. Perhaps the first time
we homo sapiens truly understood the majesty of Earth was when we
could see a picture of her. She was the cover star of Life Magazine
in October, 1968. For the first time in our recorded history of the
planet, millions of her own children - human beings - saw her whole
face, and understood that they were looking at the home creation has
made for them.
It took a decade from those first Apollo images of Earth for a human
to loudly proclaim that our planet is a living being. In James
2-1/002-0142443-8291277" Gaia, the evidence is as plain as ink on
a page. There is life-like precision, care, and process across all
the disciplines of "non-living" science -- physics, astronomy,
chemistry, geology, meteorology -- not just biology, particularly as
these disciplines interrelate in the definition of place suitable for
human life. If we take a brief trip to visit the life on Earth, it
becomes clear that our world simply must be categorized as an
organism herself with a metabolism tuned by biology, for the sake of
biology itself. And since biology clearly serves the purpose of
evolving consciousness, it can now be said that the Earth exists to
We live upon an amazing engine of life!
"Of all the planets in the solar system, why is Earth the only one
fit for life? Simple: because Earth has a surface that supports
liquid water, the magic elixir required by all living beings."
-- James Kasting, Scientific American, 3rd Quarterly, 1998
Oceans cover over 70 percent of the Earth's surface. Scientists
theorize that the oceans formed upon the Earth's crust through some
combination of liquid and gas release from the interior of the planet
and impact of ice-laden comets from the heavens. Whatever the source
of the water, there is now 350 million cubic miles of it sloshing
upon Earth's crust, reaching to a depth of 36,200 feet in the
Pacific's Marianas Trench, where the pressure from the weight of the
water is equivalent to over a thousand atmospheres.
The ocean is separated into its barren and fertile zones just like
the land. Massive rivers within the ocean called currents carry water
around the globe in huge circling patterns, influencing and
influenced by global weather systems. Powered as forcefully as they
are, currents move quickly only at the surface, for deep cold water
takes about 1,000 years to recirculate with the surface. With the
remarkable exception of the ocean floor itself, where perhaps
millions of species of life remain undiscovered, the deep of the
ocean is a desert compared to the dazzling garden of beings found
inhabiting the more temperate, shallow zones. The upper two percent
of the ocean's volume contains most biological organisms, at least
those familiar to us. From the smallest single-celled amoeba to the
largest blue whale, the ocean courses with simple, intelligent, and
majestic life. It might surprise you to learn that the ocean
supports a greater diversity of living body types than land. Indeed,
of 33 animal phyla, 30 describe residents of the ocean. Only 16
describe residents of dry land or freshwater.
The tree of life grows swiftly in water. Indeed, the root of the
tree of genetic biology spirals outward from the oceans, and has
turned a pregnant clump of geology into a verdant garden on the land.
If ever there was a true Garden of Eden, its last superpower sprawls
across our South American continent. No place on Earth is the
majesty, power, and truth of the double helix of life more splendidly
evident than in the depths of the jungle, across the plains, in the
canopy, along the mountain peaks, and near the edges of this great
labyrinthian river. Indeed, might not the river basin itself be
alive, and thinking the thoughts thought by it's many different cells
-- the trillions of organic life forms among millions of species
which it sustains and evolves?
We know of no other place like this in the universe, at least none
most scientists believe we could ever hope to reach. All the more
precious this last vast preserve of Eden would then have to be to the
life of Earth, and to all humans. Certainly to any true scientist.
First, the obligatory numbers. The Amazon basin and adjacent regions
in Central and South America represent 50% of the remaining
rainforests on the planet. The basin delivers 20 percent of worldwide
river water to the Atlantic ocean, from the reaches of 2.7 million
square miles of rainforest. Its total water flow is greater than that
of Earth's next eight largest rivers combined, with a mouth at the
ocean 200 miles wide, containing an island larger than Switzerland.
Oceangoing vessels can travel up the river for 2,300 miles, placing
them much closer to the Pacific ocean than the Atlantic.
The rainforests contain 50% of living species of life on this world,
yet they cover only 7% of the area of land. That 7% forms an
indispensable segment of the branch of the tree of life upon which
humanity stands at this moment.
Underlying these dry numbers rests a secret of incredible majesty:
the rainforests are the most powerful and concentrated womb of life
ever created on the land of Earth.
The most pervasively beautiful life form in this place is the tree.
Trees of every possible variety, thousands and thousands of different
species. Some individuals are older than the Bible, some stretch as
high as the length of a football field, these mighty creatures
shelter the biosphere of Amazonia. They shield most of the sun's
light from reaching the forest floor, creating an enclosed womb for
the dance of life below. At their roots, the life of the jungle is a
product of the geology and chemistry of Earth, and at their highest
leaves, they are home to the most fantastic winged life forms known
to man. In between soil and canopy is an infinitely complex yet
stable web of life, with millions of species of microorganisms,
plants, and animals evolving at a breathless pace. Would it surprise
you to learn that much of your DNA, the programming in the cells of
your body, is the same as within the cells of these trees? It should
surprise you, and it is true.
As you climb from the flood plains towards the mountainous peaks of
the Andes, the temperature drops about 1ºF for every 330 feet of
elevation, which means that ambient temperature can drop below
freezing at 16,400 feet at the equator. Hence the snowcapped peaks
above the hot heart of the tropics.
In the steep mountains of the rainforest, the clouds themselves
become the integral part of the fabric of life, rather than the
rivers of the basin below. The clouds create an atmosphere rich in
water, which accumulates on leaves through condensation and rainfall.
In this place, the leaves themselves have evolved drip systems to
gently convey condensed water to the soil below.
By shielding much of the sun's light, the clouds inhibit the pace of
photosynthesis, thereby slowing the pace of life in the misty forests
below the canopy. But among the clouds, whole new forms of life
spring forward. The trees in this zone of our ecology are coated in
thick ferns and mosses, and are inhabited by thousands of plants and
animals of incredible variety.
At night, the forest does not sleep. It is often not even completely
dark, as luminous fungi in the rotting leaves on the ground glow an
eerie green light, covering the forest floor with a veil of light
like a living Christmas decoration. And in this almost silent night,
the luminous fireflies have there way too.
In the rainforests you will find plants that eat only air, sun and
soil, plants that eat plants, and plants that eat animals. You will
find plants that can survive 50-foot floods and plants that withstand
the harshest of droughts. You will find plants larger than airplanes
and smaller than pinheads. You will find plants bearing all manner of
fruits, undiscovered thousands with the most mysterious healing
powers, some with fruit containing 30 times the Vitamin C of citrus,
and a few with the most lethal toxins known to science.
The fruit of the kingdom of plants is the kingdom of animals, and it
is yet more majestic. Animals are far more sophisticated creatures
than plants. On Earth, there have been the smallest insects, and the
largest dinosaurs. There have been the most curious beetles and the
most frightening spiders; the slowest turtle and the fastest falcon;
the florescent green frog, and the bright red snake; the sound-
navigating bat and the electric eel; the homing pigeon and the
childlike dolphin; the most gentle kitten and the fiercest tiger; the
finest horse and the fattest cow.
Living today, the smallest animals are the chlamydia and rickettsia
bacteria, and are only a few hundred atoms in diameter. The longest
insect is the pharnacia serratipes of Indonesia, measuring up to 13
inches. The longest worm is the bootlace worm, and has been recorded
at lengths up to 100 feet. The oldest form of animal on Earth are the
deep-sea snails, which have not changed in 500 million years. The
fastest land animal is the cheetah, reaching speeds up to 60 miles
per hour. The largest animal is the blue whale, with one individual
found to measure over 110 feet long. The world's largest carnivore -
the sperm whale - also has the world's heaviest brain. At 20 pounds,
it's four times heavier than the human brain. The only cold warm-
blooded mammal is the Arctic ground squirrel, which can lower its
body temperature below freezing.
What absolute cosmic majesty!
Animals live lives of wildly different durations. The longest
authenticated human life in modern times is 120 years. For a
housefly, the longest life has been about 2 months. The cat, 34
years. The goldfish, 41 years. The orca, 90 years. The tortoise, 150
years. Yet scientists do not yet know exactly why animals age the way
There are some 10-30 million species of animal on planet Earth. Of
these, we have catalogued only about 1.2 million. Each year, 10,000
new species are added to the list of forms not already included in
zoological classifications. Thousands of these wondrous forms of
creatures face extinction because of the environmental hubris of the
human animal. We are not simply killing animals. We are burning the
blueprints that made them.
As with the plant kingdom, the mecca for animal life is the
rainforest. In the Amazon, there are animals that live in the sky,
never to cross underneath the canopy below. There are animals that
live only amongst the branches. There are animals that live on the
ground, others only under the soil, and yet thousands of species that
scurry all over. Some animals eat plants, others eat animals, and
still others are omnivores. Some are day creatures, while many roam
only unseen in the black of night.
There are 30 pound rodents with webbed feet. There are tapirs,
distant relatives of rhinos, zebras and horses, with an aquatically
adapted fused nose and lip system. This accommodates their penchant
for swimming, and is used to spray water at attacking dogs. One
remarkable creature is the basilisk lizard, also known as the Jesus
Christ lizard because of its ability to literally run over water. It
would be impossible for humans to emulate this action, because the
size, shape, and power of our legs are not evolved to accommodate
such a rapid-fire energy-consuming propulsion task.
Tending the garden's soil are the ants. A mature community of leaf-
cutter ants can have as many as three million members. These animals
are the gardeners of the forest because they carry leaves into
underground chambers, not to eat, but to use as food for the fungus
gardens they cultivate. These colonies play vital roles in returning
plant nutrients into the deep soil, for the cycle of life to continue.
There are stunningly colored species of frogs, many mysteriously
disappearing, whose biological powers are remarkable. Not only do
their skin pigments warn predators of their extreme toxicity, but
many species possess a potent antibacterial substance on their skins
which may hold promise for human disease prevention. And living in
the land of these frogs are thousands of species of insects, spiders,
scorpions, and other crawling creatures, many of which are colored
and patterned so finely matched to their habitat that they are
The snakes of the rainforest are as amazing as the frogs and
lizards. Across Asia, Africa and America are the bushmasters, coral
snakes, rattlesnakes, vipers, cobras, and mambas. Of course, we seem
to know best the giants of them all, the boas, pythons, and anaconda,
which kill by constriction and consume their prey whole. But one of
the most striking snakes is the flying snake, which has no wings to
fly, but has a body shape which allows it glide as much as 165 feet
with little loss in altitude. For millennia humans have feared the
snakes of the jungle, but this fear is largely unfounded. Most
scientific teams have adventured in the jungles for years without
single instances of snake bites. The most common deaths resulting
from snakebites occur on farms.
There is the giant anteater, which forages for food in the form of
termites exclusively on the forest floor, while its lesser cousins
exploit both the floor and the canopy. Then there are the slow-moving
sloths with what you'd swear are permanent smiles on their faces,
looking like they're just fine with an other-than-A-type lifestyle.
They really don't need to move all that much, because they can turn
their heads in a 270 degree radius.
Of the exceptional large mammals of the Amazon, the jaguar is the
king cat. The jaguar climbs among the trees and swims among the
rivers, feeding upon the fish, alligators, and primates of the
jungle. These carnivores hunt either through stalking or ambush, and
they will take almost anything on. Indeed, large cats dominate the
tops of food chains in all major rainforests in the world.
The primates - the closest large classification of animals to the
human, live at all strata of the rainforests of Earth. These
creatures are stunningly beautiful and remarkably human-like. The
face-painted mandrill, the scarlet-faced uakari. The swinging
orangutan. The howling monkey. The macaque. The gibbon. The striking
black and white diurnal lemur. The stunning red-haired tamarin, being
rescued from the brink of extinction by biologists in Brazil. The
tiny, one-pount marmoset. The nectar drinking, white-faced capuchin
monkey. The cousin to the human, the chimpanzee, often seen
clutching, grooming, feeding, playing with, and generally loving
their children. And we find the largest ape, the gorilla, threatened
of extinction by civil war among homo sapiens animals in Rwanda.
To the cloud forests large mammals rarely go. But in this elevated
paradise, countless animals flourish. Tree-dwelling monkeys with
hauntingly-human looking faces stare at us through our camera film.
Hundreds of variety of scurrying mammals inhabit the holes, nooks,
and knots of the trees. Scores of species of bats navigate through
the dusk, like the vampire bat, which consumes only the blood of
other animals. And at night, as we shine flashlights into the dark,
we see thousands of pairs of reflecting retinas staring back at us
from the deep, indicating that the forest remains very much awake.
The most frightening ocular reflections are those of the caiman
crocodiles, peering back from the surface of the dark flowing waters.
Up in the canopy, the birds are the most beautiful creatures. The
resplendent quetzals. A stunning variety of hummingbirds hover
amongst the flowering plants of the forests. The toucans, macaws,
eagles, parrots, cotingas, and cacique birds live among the emergent
trees where hawks and vultures also land to perch. The vulture's
large cousin, the Adean condor, gracefully glides above the trees,
with a wingspan of over 10 feet. Under the canopy fly the
woodpeckers, trogons, jacamars, and puffbirds. At eye level you will
see ant birds, tanagers, flycatchers, and manakins, and on the forest
floor, tinamous, ground doves and wrens.
All of these animals live within and contribute to an incredibly
harmonious symphony of biology. Every animal in Amazonia is a basic
part of the ecosystem we call life.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing for modern humans to learn from
the biota of Earth is that the human may be the most sophisticated
Earth-based life form in terms of its collection of capabilities, but
it is far from the most sophisticated in terms of its specialized
capabilities. Plants directly convert inorganic chemistry into the
food of life. We do not. Some plants can live for thousands of years.
We cannot. Hawks can spot a mouse from hundreds of feet away. We
cannot. Cheetahs can outrun an automobile. We cannot. Pigeons can
home. Some snakes can see infrared light. Electric eels can shock.
Bats use sonar to see a vivid image in a pitch black night. Some sea
life can smell across their entire bodies. Some animals can see in
two places at once. Some animals can fly with wings. Some animals can
exist in water. Some animals can walk on water. Some animals can
biologically clone themselves.
We can do none of these things... yet.
These are truly majestic, awe-inspiring creatures, with kinds of
abilities we would ascribe to science fiction if possessed by a
human. What symphony is life! It is the music of time, the music of
We are just as remarkable, for the human is the only animal
presently native to Earth that can read and write, and even then only
in the last few thousand years. We have just begun the process of
learning about our Cosmos.
There are some 6 billion individual homo sapiens animals presently
living on Earth. Human animals have evolved to communicate through
physical gestures and vocal sounds, organized in temporal patterns
called speech, and have learned to record these communications
through the process of reading and writing. A human's brain is
sufficiently advanced for it to be able to correlate observations of
itself and its surroundings. Possessed with remembered senses and the
ability to interpret time -- periodicity, duration, and precision --
the human has evolved a way to manipulate its future. Homo sapiens
animals refer to themselves individually as "me" and collectively as
We have become a flower, long since evolved from seed of the plant
that created us.
Human beings are undergoing evolution of the mind as the ability to
observe is enhanced through technology and perhaps biology of our own
imagination. The rapid rise in our ability to acquire truth through
observation has, in the past 100 years, given us a most remarkable
and I believe physically significant new sense, what you might call a
sixth sense: the ability to see into time - both the past and the
future. This sense of prediction exists in the mind alone, as the
synthesis of the perception of the past and the imagination of the
future. The human is now made even more remarkably unique because of
its rapidly growing ability to learn history and predict the future
from knowledge drawn from dramatically enhanced skills and tools of
observation - skills such as science and tools such as telescopes.
The more truth we perceive, the better we predict change.
What wondrous revolutions in the history of worlds must occur when
its most advanced beings come into such power? How powerful and
sacred must evolution be, to have created such beings as we? As you
and I evolve to be able to know more through greater and greater
powers of observation, what secrets of time will we be able to
predict, or even at some point "see" in our mind's eye? Might we
someday be able to reverse this power of observation and "make"
reality with imagination alone?
Whatever we may see or do in the future, we must pause now and look
upon the history that I have just briefly described, all 15 billion
years that we know of.
What an incredibly precious legacy of creation are we! Even though
I've known and studied it for years, my jaw still drops whenever I
consider the majesty of our history.
The Cosmos has labored for billions of years to produce us.
Regardless of what life may exist outside of Earth, we know that we
are unique and special, for whatever life outer space may hold for us
to find, we know that we are rare in time. Our gestation just to the
point of reaching homo sapiens has been one of incredible majesty,
through hundreds of millions of human generations worth of time. And
the combination of all human mechanical or electrical technology ever
invented pales in comparison to the simple beauty of a single fish in
the sea, let alone a human being. The Cosmos simply must have wanted
to create beings like us.
What other forms of animal are we likely to meet one day as we
venture into the Cosmos? What capabilities might they possess which
perhaps lay undeveloped or nonexistent in homo sapiens? And how might
we acquire such powers? Will it be a natural process, or a derivative
As we prepare to ask yet the most important questions of our future,
we must ask ourselves a deeply profound question: what from this
distant past of creation do we wish to take with us, as a species,
into the distant future? We often ask this question for knowledge
recently acquired to be reused soon, but almost never do we ask this
question with an eye for eternity. Evolution has taught us that only
the most robust and stable creations will survive over time. If we
wish to make our distant future the brightest it can be, what are the
core principles we must learn from our past in order to flourish in
the crucible of billions of years of future evolution?
We shall address this question later.
Evolving in a place called Eden
is a promising young civilization...
Look at the headlines seriously this past week. Observe the
magnitude of the issues in play, in the history of civilization:
The White House and Congress are locked in battle over the
significance of the President's lies told while under the oath of
The first "city in space" is under construction.
Spacecraft are heading out to survey asteroids and physically
examine the polar caps of Mars.
A single European currency has begun its life.
Uneasy truce remains between Catholic and Protestant.
Peace or war between Arab and Jew to be determined by election.
Confrontation of superpower and dictator has the world watching.
Preparations are underway for an unprecedented test of computing
technology at Year 2000.
Rise and fall of modern national economies abroad troubles the world.
Brutal weather patterns and systems continue to circle the globe.
You are participating in all of this, every concept, person, event,
headline, and consequence as the Cosmos unfolds time.
Richard P. McBrien in his book Catholicism has related in striking
metaphor the radical degree to which human history has changed in the
last tiny fraction of our human existence. He notes that if the last
fifty thousand years were divided into periods of sixty-two year life
spans, we've enjoyed eight hundred lifetimes. "Six-hundred and fifty
were spent in caves. Only during the last seventy lifetimes has it
been possible to communicate through the written word, and only
during the last six lifetimes has the human community had access to
the printed word."
We traveled by camel caravan before the Christian era, at about
eight miles per hour. This form of travel was common for just under
eight thousand years, until the chariot, which pushed human travel to
20 mph. Steam locomotion of the early nineteenth century allowed
speed of only thirteen miles per hour, and the sailing ships, before
and after, were slower still. By the latter part of the nineteenth
century, with improvements in the steam engine, we reached speeds of
100 mph. As McBrien notes, it had taken this hominid species
millions of years to be able to communicate with each other and
travel to each other. Then, in a revolution during the last part of
the last one of our eight hundred lives of the last fifty thousand
years, we have seen planes, jets, rockets, and space travel with
astronauts and space capsules and the capacity to reach Neptune and
one of its moons, and send back computer-enhanced photographs from
celestial bodies at the edge of our solar system.
And during just the last lifetime, we have seen the rise of
literacy, telegraph, telephones, radio, television, transistors; and
computers, microchips, and the Internet; and radio telescopes and
space probes with the capacity to send and receive messages to the
outer reaches of space. Perhaps the most haunting and emotive of all
advancements in communications recorded in our lifetime are the
images from the Hubble Space Telescope -- humanity's first clear-
vision eye peering into the secret places of the history of the
Clearly we live in an important time.
But what knowledge of history has the culture of the United States,
the bastion of Western idealism, left in the minds of its children?
Instead of McBrian's yardstick of time at 800 lifetimes in 62 year
units, let us resolve further to human generations, for simplicity's
sake let's say averaging just over 20 years from time one gives birth
to the next. By that reckoning, what is the state of mind of our
newest generation, the last in 2400 human generations over 50,000
Circling recently on the Internet was a simplistic but wonderful
answer to this question, adapted below.
The people who left high school last spring across the U.S. were
born in 1980. They have no meaningful recollection of the Reagan era
and did not know he had ever been shot. They were prepubescent when
the Persian Gulf War was waged. Black Monday 1987 is as significant
to them as the Great Depression. There has only been one Pope.
They can only really remember reading about one president. They were
11 when the Soviet Union broke apart and do not remember the Cold
War. They have never feared a nuclear war. "The Day After" is a pill
to them, not a movie. CCCP is just a bunch of letters. They have only
known one Germany. They are too young to remember the Space shuttle
blowing up, and Tienamin Square means nothing to them. They do not
know who Momar Qadafi is. The New Deal is most likely a rebate on a
new VW Beetle.
Their lifetime has always included AIDS. They never had a Polio shot
and likely do not know what it is. Bottle caps have not only always
been screw off, but have always been plastic. They have no idea what
a pull top can looks like. Atari pre-dates them, as do vinyl albums.
The expression "you sound like a broken record" means nothing to
them. They have never owned a record player. They don't enjoy playing
Pac Man and have never heard of Pong. Star Wars looks very fake, and
the special effects are pathetic. There have always been red M&M's,
and blue ones are not new. What do you mean there used to be beige
They may have heard of an 8-track, but chances are they probably
have never actually seen or heard one. The Compact Disc was
introduced when they were 1 year old. As far as they know, stamps
have always cost about 32 cents. Zip codes have always had a dash in
them. They have always had an answering machine. Most have never seen
a TV set with only 13 channels, nor have they seen a black and white
TV. They have always had cable. There have always been VCR's, but
they have no idea what Beta is. They cannot fathom not having a
remote control. They were born the year that the Walkman was
introduced by Sony.
Rollerskating has always meant inline for them. They have never
heard of King Cola, Burger Chef, The Globe Democrat, Pan AM or Ozark
Airlines. The Tonight Show has always been hosted by Jay Leno. They
have no idea when or why Jordache jeans were cool. Popcorn has always
been cooked in a microwave. They have never seen and remember a game
that included the St. Louis Football Cardinals, the Baltimore Colts,
the Minnesota North Stars, the Kansas City Kings, the New Orleans
Jazz, the Minnesota Lakers, the Atlanta Flames, or the Denver Rockies
(NHL hockey, that is). They do not consider the Colorado Rockies, the
Florida Marlins, the Florida Panthers, the Ottawa Senators, the San
Jose Sharks, or the Tampa Bay Lightning "expansion teams."
They have never seen Larry Bird play, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is a
football player. They never took a swim petrified by the idea of
Jaws. The Vietnam War is as ancient history to them as WWI, WWII or
even the Civil War. They have no idea that Americans were ever held
hostage in Iran. They can't imagine what hard contact lenses are.
They don't know who Mork was or where he was from. They never heard
the terms "Where's the beef?", "I'd walk a mile for Camel", or "de
plane, de plane!". They do not care who shot J.R. and have no idea
who J.R. is. M.A.S.H., The Cosby Show, The Facts of Life, Silver
Spoons, The Love Boat, Miami Vice, WKRP in Cincinnati, and Taxi are
shows they have likely never seen.
The Titanic was found? They didn't know it was lost. Michael Jackson
has always been white. They cannot remember the Cardinals ever
winning a World Series, or even being in one. Kansas, Chicago,
Boston, America and Alabama are places, not groups. McDonalds never
came in Styrofoam containers.
Very few have felt the deep emotion from the hand-me-down memories
of World War II and the Holocaust. Fewer still have any recollection
of the basis for the Cold War. Almost none can personally relate the
two World Wars together, distinguishing or even remembering their
teachings for the future of the world. The term appeasement doesn't
ring a bell for them. Neither do they admire Churchill as a hero, if
they even know why they should.
Do you feel old now? Remember, the lucky few of the people who don't
know these things will be in college this year.
And in four years, they'll be part of the workforce. I hope college
teaches them well.
Ungrounded in technical history they may be, this new generation is
the most innately conscious of all before it. It has been barraged
with the loudest, most, biggest, brightest, strongest, tastiest,
foulest, best and worst that western marketing can offer, all
delivered in THX sound, with digital fidelity, on widescreen, at
400Mhz and at 28.8Kbps, or better yet 56, or even better, a megabit
over a cable modem. To the older generation, if you don't know what
those words mean, let it be your clue to the vast, valuable and
potent new advanced culture now leaping up on its own two feet, as
the very skeletal and nervous system of our future civilization.
Despite all this noise, or perhaps because of it, this new
generation is more resonant with the soft, subtle, true qualities of
life than any before. Their culture reveals it in the way they talk,
dress, eat, work and socialize. They have no desire for war. They
have an intuitive concern for the world, a concern that leaves some
depressed, others lost, some on a returning path to religion, and a
few motivated like crazy to save the Earth from humanity. Most of
them feel powerless in a society where the only thing that seems to
have power is money. They have the least desire for amassing wealth
since their great-grandparents' generation, which, incidentally, was
in the previous 62-year life span. Sometimes the best advances can
come only after funerals for arthritic minds.
It is this new generation that will carry our world into the future,
perhaps through some of our greatest crises, certainly through some
of our most painful challenges, and hopefully into the grandest of
discoveries. Let us teach these young men and women well, for we are
entrusting the future of the world to them, and humanity's future
across the Cosmos.
Evolving in a place called Eden
is a promising young civilization.
We grow more dangerous...
Whether you believe in a God or not, it's safe to say you would
agree that humanity has learned, however imperfectly, many lessons
over the past several millennia, lessons entrusted to progeny through
the oral and written history of our ancestors. Let us revisit several
of the more painful ones...
Holocaust is a term of enormous gravity to a huge portion of the
world. It should be so, for in reference to the slaying of six
million Jews, there are few crimes against life that compare. There
have been many conflicts among regimes in history where loss of life
has been comparable or even larger in simple numbers, but very few
such catastrophes can compare in depth of evil to the systematized
and ruthlessly calculated machine of death constructed by Adolf
Hitler, for no reason other than hatred.
Adolf Hitler and this top three henchmen, Himmler, Goering and
Goebbles, were the architects of the atrocity of the Holocaust. It
formally began on January 30, 1933 when Hitler became chancellor of
Germany, and continued over twelve years to May 8, 1945 - VE Day.
Rising from the ashes of the first world war and the Great Depression
to be the Furher of Germany, this leader created a system of murder
never before witnessed in the history of the world.
There have been numerous acts of inhumanity in the 20th Century,
such as the massacre of one million Armenians by the Ottoman Turks,
the starvation of five million Ukrainians during Stalin's forced
collectivization, the murder of 1.5 million Cambodians by the Khmer
Rouge regime, and most recently the killing of one million Tutsi by
the Hutu in Rwanda.
However, in no other case have the efficiencies of the modern
industrial age been put to such diabolical use as in Germany under
The systematic persecution of Jews and other undesirables started
immediately upon the Nazi rise to power. The Nazis' ideology of
racial purity and superiority coupled with their hatred and
intolerance of 'others' spurned their actions forward. Initially,
the Nazis merely excluded 'undesirables' from society and forcibly
induced them to leave the country.
The war in Russia saw the formation of four SS units of 3,000 men
each, expressly formed to kill Bolshevik sympathizers, but eventually
turned into the field arm of the Nazi death machine. These mobile
units were ultimately responsible for the death of over two million
Jews and other 'undesirables'.
According to Stephen Ambrose, in New History of World War II, "These
groups were called Einsatzgruppen, and although 'Bolshevik leaders'
were supposedly their major target, most of the victims were Jews.
Other victims were 'Asiatic inferiors,' gypsies and 'useless eaters'
such as mentally ill or terminally ill people. One Einsatzgruppen
unit reportedly killed 6,400 Polish mentally-challenged patients.
According to the Nuremberg International Military Tribunal on War
Crimes, altogether in the Soviet Union the SS killed two million men,
women and children. Most were shot. Himmler, who had witnessed an
execution, was upset at the sight of women and children being killed
in this way, so he ordered another method: they were put in gas vans
so constructed that at the start of the motor the exhaust was
conducted into the van, causing death in ten to fifteen minutes.
Concerns over the effectiveness of the operation, field morale in
both the civilian and military personnel, and in an attempt to keep
this operation secret from both the Jewish population and the world
led to the search for another solution. The Final Solution,
Endlosung, was made effective at the Wansee Conference in 1942. The
Final Solution was the brainchild of Reinhard Heydrich and executed
with brutal efficiency by Adolf Eichmann. The Final Solution called
for the extermination of all Jews and other 'undesirables' at six
major death camps in Poland, Auschwitz - Birkenau, Belzec, Chelmno,
Majdanek, Sobibor, and Treblinka.
Auschwitz - built originally as a POW camp in summer 1941 - was
expanded into a labor and death camp. The brutal conditions at the
camp ensured that precious few humans survived. Of the total of
16,000 Red Army prisoners sent to the camp only 96 survived. Of the
405,000 registered prisoners, as opposed to those were exterminated
upon arrival, only 65,000 survived. In one brutally efficient two-
month period in March 1944, of 350,000 Hungarian Jews sent to
Auschwitz, 250,000 were gassed. Over the course of 1944, 10,000
Jewish lives were extinguished each day. In total, between two and
four million Jews and another two million non-Jews had been gassed by
the time the Red Army liberated the camp in late 1944.
"Trainloads of Jews in sealed boxcars, packed so tightly for so long
without food or water - often for days - that the dead could not fall
down, arrived regularly at the Auschwitz siding. Guards threw open
the doors and began shouting at the Jews to get out and line up. They
were marched to an SS doctor who made a visual scan and pointed
either to the gas chamber or to the labor camps. Infants, young
children, old people, pregnant women, the disabled, and the sick were
sent to an immediate death; between 20 and 40 percent were sent to
the labor camps where they remained until, too weak to work any
longer, they too were sent to the chambers.
Just outside the gas chambers, the Jews were ordered to strip and
told they were going to take showers, for delousing purposes. First
they were shaved, and their hair saved for stuffing for mattresses
and the like. They were herded into the chamber, which looked like a
high school gym. Once they were packed in, the door was sealed shut
and cyanide gas was pumped into the room through showerheads. After
a minute or two of screaming that no one except the other victims
heard, there was silence. After clearing the gas from the room,
inmates - often Poles and sometimes Jews, always under extreme duress
- entered and pulled gold teeth, and tore open anuses and vaginas of
the cadavers to probe for hidden jewelry. The task completed, the
bodies were taken by handcart to the crematory furnaces. The ashes
of the dead went to farmers to enrich their soil."
Exact statistics for the actual total number of human beings
exterminated in various programs during the war are difficult to
arrive at, as the Nazis destroyed many records, or in other cases
kept none at all. The numbers of dead among European Jewry can be
traced to census records and Nazi official tallies presented during
the Nuremberg trials. In total 5,796,129 or 60% of the pre-war
European Jewish population were killed during the Holocaust.
The American Holocaust
There are perhaps a few other holocausts in recent history which can
compare in depth of evil, and they strike painfully close to home.
As a time and place of flowering for human civilization, Renaissance
Europe began a period of ascendancy, which was to last well into the
20th century. The cultural and scientific rebirth, whose foremost
catalysts included Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Gutenberg, Galileo, and
Copernicus, found a receptive home in the relative economic,
political and religious stability of late mediaeval Europe. This
rebirth gave the Europeans the scientific and technical means to act
on a strongly emerging economic motive, fueling the Age of Discovery.
This cultural and intellectual rebirth also provided the
philosophical and moral justification for horrendously evil actions,
as newly acquired power often does.
With the power of weapons and global mapmaking, both cultured
through mastery of the seas, late fifteenth century Europe chose to
remap the globe. Europe launched a massive rape of the new world,
when through the Pope's authority the newly discovered territories
were divided between Spain and Portugal. One Spanish historian wrote
that what they sought was "To serve God and His Majesty, to give
light to those who sat in darkness, and to grow rich as all men
desire to do."
In 1501, the Spaniard Rodrigo de Bastides had reached the coast of
South America, on orders from his king. Moving westward towards the
snowcapped mountains soaring into the clouds, he met the Tairona, one
of the most advanced of the Indian societies. The Tairona had
transformed the slopes of their mountains establishing roads,
structures, and irrigation systems of amazing complexity. Perhaps
their most remarkable, or at least most remarked, quality, however,
was their gold work, among the most beautiful produced in the
Americas. Trading posts quickly emerged, and in 1526 de Bastides
founded Santa Marta, now a part of the modern nation of Colombia.
Santa Marta soon became a center of trade.
For hundreds of years, as Europe's conquest of the last preserve of
Eden swept across the continent, an uneasy truce, pregnant with anger
and anguish, hung over the northern coast. In the remarkable words of
the very thoughtful ethnobotanist, Wade Davis, in his book One River:
"There was conflict and rebellion, and death by enslavement and
disease, but the Spaniards made no systematic attempt to destroy the
Tairona. Few in numbers, they were initially content to control the
coast, trading fish and salt, axes and metal tools for gold. The
Tairona valued peace even as they retreated further into the
It was not until the end of the sixteenth century that the Spaniards
launched a campaign of annihilation. Their excuse - and the Spanish,
obsessed as they were with jurisprudence, always had an excuse - was
completely bizarre. Hungry for gold, they were nevertheless
scandalized by the phallic and sexual representations that formed a
significant motif in Tairona ceramics and gold work. The chronicler
Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo described a gold piece weighing twenty
pesos that depicted "one man mounted on another in that diabolical
act of Sodom," a "jewel of the devil" that he righteously "smashed at
the smeltering house at Darien." Such graphic depictions of sodomy
confirmed their deepest suspicions. It was known that Tairona men
gathered regularly in large ceremonial temples, often for nocturnal
rituals that lasted until dawn and excluded women. From experience
the Spaniards recognized that when their own sailors and soldiers
spent long hours together, it was only the restraint of Christian
virtue that kept them from "unnatural acts." Since the Tairona were
not Christian, it was obvious, at least to the Spanish, what the
Indians had been up to at those nightly assemblies. When in 1599
Santa Marta's new governor, Juan Guiral Velon, undertook the final
destruction of the Tairona, he did so charged with the certainty that
all of his enemies were homosexual.
The subsequent struggle was as violent and brutal as any recorded in
the Americas. Tairona priests were drawn and quartered, their severed
heads displayed in iron cages. Prisoners were crucified or hung from
metal hooks stuck through their ribs. Those who escaped and were
recaptured had their Achilles tendons sliced or a leg cut off. In
Santa Marta, Indians absurdly accused of sodomy were disemboweled by
fighting dogs in obscene public spectacles. Women were garroted,
children branded and enslaved. Every village was destroyed, every
field burned and sown with death. When the Spaniards took the Tairona
settlement of Masinga, Velon ordered his troops to sever the noses,
ears, and lips of every adult.
Marching inland, Velon attempted to vanquish an entire civilization.
In the midst of the carnage, the Spaniards never forgot their
ultimate mission. To ensure the legality of their deeds, before each
military action Velon's captains read aloud in the presence of a
notary public the famous Requirement, a standard legal document
exhorting the heathen to accept the true faith. Recited in Spanish
without translation, it was but a prelude to slaughter. "If you do
not accept the faith," the text read, "or if you maliciously delay in
doing so, I certify that with God's help I will advance powerfully
against you and make war on you wherever and however I am able, and
will subject you to the yoke and obedience of the Church and of their
majesties and take your women and children as slaves, and as such I
will sell and dispose of them as their majesties may order, and I
will take your possessions and do all the harm and damage that I can."
The Spaniards were true to their word. In the end the entire Tairona
population was either dead or given over as slaves to the soldiers as
payment for their services. Those Indians who survived were expected
to pay the costs of their pacification. On pain of death they were
prohibited from bearing arms or retiring into the Sierra Nevada. But
flee they did - a tragic diaspora that brought thousands into the
high mountains, leaving behind a desolate, empty coast of ruined
settlements, shattered temples, and fields overgrown with thorn scrub
and ultimately redeemed by the forest."
Seven years before Rodrigo de Bastides found Santa Marta, Cortes had
stood in awe of the beauty of Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec
That great city was twice the size of Spain's largest city.
At the same time, the children of Europe were raping North America
European exploration, colonization and settlement of North America
forever altered the evolution of Native American civilizations.
Rather than an equitable mingling of cultures and societies, Native
American culture and society was largely displaced and destroyed by
disease, war and migration. The Native American civilizations were
simply not equipped to resist or even absorb the successive waves of
This pattern has occurred many times through the millennia, anytime
there has been a conflict between cultures over land, sustenance and
wealth. However, never has the impact been so profound as to
depopulate an entire continent of 90% of its population, with no hope
Exploration in the 16th century by the Spanish, French, English and
Dutch introduced new elements to tribal societies. Disease, the
horse and trade with the Europeans profoundly impacted Native
American civilization across much of North America. The diseases
introduced by the Europeans had the greatest immediate impact,
decimating much of a native population which heretofore had never
been exposed to them and consequently had no immunity.
This was especially evident in the civilizations along the
Mississippi, Tennessee and Ohio River valleys, which were almost
completely depopulated due to the disease spread by DeSoto's
expeditions. Indeed, it was disease that was the greatest European
killer, wiping out virtually all of the populations of the Caribbean,
Inca and Aztec Indian populations as well.
Horses, which were introduced to the American southwest by the
Spanish, had a largely positive impact, forever changing the way of
life of the plains Indians. With the horse, they became great
nomadic hunters dependent upon the great bison herds of the Plains
for their way of life.
Less arbitrary were the changes which came with the establishment of
trading posts along the great river valleys and the settlements along
the eastern seaboard. These settlements and trading relationships
set the pattern for waves of displacement that were to characterize
the interaction between natives and Europeans across the following
European politics played a key role in the colonial expansion of the
17th and 18th centuries. The colonies were important contributors to
European economies and were consequently involved in every major
European war of the time. With the consolidation of power along the
eastern seaboard, Indian populations began to realize that the
territorial hunger of the Europeans would not be sated. Consequently,
tribes were involved in many European conflicts, siding with one
European nation against both European and Native enemies in a
desperate fight to preserve their territory and way of life.
This was to be a losing battle.
The American Revolution would ultimately create a new chapter in
this struggle as the young nation sought to control all the land in
its domain. The young nation articulated a philosophy for what it
saw was its divine right to consolidate its hold and to expand and
settle westward into Native American land.
The attitude of European settlers in America is described by
Reginald Horseman in Race and Manifest Destiny, "...this inferior
native population, as a result of amalgamation, and that great law of
contact between a higher and a lower race, by which the latter gives
way to the former, must be gradually supplanted, and its place
occupied by this highest of races....(The United States) will occupy
the entire extent of America, the rich and fertile plains of Asia,
together with the intermediate isles of the sea, in fulfillment of
the great purpose of heaven, of the ultimate enlightenment of the
whole earth, and the gradual elevation of man to the dignity and
glory of the promised millennial day."
The "Trail of Tears" episode perhaps best exemplifies the government-
sanctioned effort to displace the native population in favor of
American settlers. Over 15,000 Cherokees were forced to migrate to
the Indian territories in Oklahoma. Of those a little over 2/3
survived the journey. With the expansion westward into river
valley's and ultimately into the Plains, the struggle continued.
Numerous wars were fought, and treaties broken as the natives sought
to halt the migration westward and preserve their way of life, but to
The notion that the natives were inferior justified the settlers
rights to take and settle the land with little regard for the Native
With each lost battle and with each treaty, the majestic and humble
Native American way of life was further demeaned through the 20th
century, as Native Americans were reduced to living on government-
policed reservations. Thus, Manifest Destiny for the Native American
population proved to be a destiny of enslavement, poverty, death and
By 1900, the taking of the bulk of the American continents would be
A Century of Total War
As war was coming to a close in America, the originating
militaristic tendencies, honed through centuries of conquest,
continued in the hearts of European nations. The mentality of empire
building was confronted with the constraints of Earth's surface area.
As one might with hindsight expect, the culture of imperial war
turned inward on itself, with the unfortunate, unplanned, and totally
groundless entrance into the First World War. A system of total war,
driven by technology that made it possible, occurred as Europe fought
two civil wars in the same century which came to involve the entire
world. It would not end until November 1989.
Within the 20th century, legal restraints to prevent war, or failing
that, to make its effects less savage and all-pervasive, were
obliterated: institutions for the peaceful resolution of disputes
were ignored or destroyed; limitations upon armaments, distinctions
between combatants and non-combatants, civilians and soldiers,
neutral nations and belligerents, laws of engagement designed to
limit war to a discernable, finite "battlefield," all were lost.
To a limited degree, some of these elements began as sinister
portents of the fate of the next century in America's Civil War. The
power of defensive positions with increasingly accurate rifles became
apparent. A war of attrition appeared, where economic resources
became irresistible factors in determining success, whatever the
individual valor and the quality of generalship on the weaker side.
Hence, making war on an entire society, including the civilian
economic and social infrastructure of the opponent, seemed necessary.
Sherman's "March to the Sea", cutting a miles-wide swath of civilian
destruction through the heart of Confederacy, was a mild harbinger of
the horror of the next century.
The First World War was an accidental war, a war none of the major
powers wanted, but each feared. Acting on those fears, responding to
stereotypes of the other that they themselves had largely created,
then seemingly frightened by their own projection, each side acted
upon their own self-fulfilling fearful prophecies about the other.
Political and military leadership among the participants never
reached the high point of mediocrity. Unlike the wars before and
after, territorial aggrandizement didn't seem to be a major declared
factor. Neither faction was economically advantaged. England and
Germany, each other's major trading partner, linked historically by
history, language, and by monarchial intermarriage, lurched into war
driven by their own fears, a naval arms race, and finally, an
alliance system which invited pugnacious smaller states to involve
the major states in a war which could never result in anything but
A contemporary English writer noted that, "the lights are going out
all over Europe, and they will not come on again in our time." In
fact, the lights never came on upon the society that entered the war.
The major imperial systems of governments that plundered the
Americas fell. The genocidal slaughter suffered by Russia and the
chaos that followed birthed the Bolshevik Revolution. The economies
and the societies of all the major participants were catastrophically
damaged. With the advent of trench warfare and machine guns, battles
occurred resulting in mass slaughter never before seen. Each state
was exhausted. After a brief respite, the world plunged into a deep
depression; Germany into both depression and the greatest inflation
the modern world has ever seen. The war-guilt clause of the
Versailles Treaty was the final element necessary for a mad genius of
manipulation to come to power in a Germany roiling in tumult which
never came to rest since the advent of the First World War.
Unlike the First World War, the Second World War was a war of naked
aggression where something much closer to battles between good and
evil actually occurred. Nevertheless, the seeds of the Second World
War were clearly planted in the first great struggle, rendering
almost inevitable a re-engagement of most of the same powers in
another war more terrible than the first.
Now, tanks and massed mobile artillery would allow for an extended
front to sweep back and forth throughout Europe, devastating huge
areas of the continent, sometimes several times. Civilian casualties
for the first time exceeded military losses. The greatest crime and
sin of the twentieth century occurred in this context, the holocaust:
Hitler's nearly successful effort to exterminate European Jewry.
Mass bombing of civilian centers of population occurred by day and
night. Fifty million people died, and Russia, where the ultimately
critical battles of the Second World War were fought, again in the
same century lost 10% of her population. With awesome portent for
any later world war, the Second World War ended with the advent of
the nuclear age and the use of the only nuclear weapons ever employed
in war, dropped by the United States upon Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
A Cold War commenced as unlikely allies, forced together by the
threat of Hitler's Germany, broke apart under the fears and the naked
extensions of power by the former allies against each other. Soviet
Russia, a creature of World War I, attempted to secure Eastern
European border states as satellites and allies to buffer them
against yet a third assault on the motherland in the same century
from Germany. The United States and its European allies saw this
extension of brutal totalitarian dictatorship as an atrocity in
itself, and, more threatening, a portent of an intention to extend
Soviet power throughout Europe.
The natural assumption of "a state of war" is that it is a highly
unnatural condition resulting from desperate and unique conditions
necessitating the resort to violence, normally to be avoided. The
natural condition is that of peace. Now, war became the "natural
condition". Whole generations of people never really knew a
condition of peace. The Cold War introduced war of the mind: the
definition of our national interest and identity negatively
determined by the existence of the enemy. We entered an age of
perpetual war of the mind. Our advantage, our well-being, was defined
as that which threatened or made more precarious the well-being of
our enemy. Where previously, peace was the norm, highly valued,
sought and protected; now, war was the norm, manifest always in the
mind, and frequently in hot wars between surrogates of the two super
powers, punctuated by covert and overt actions of sabotage,
espionage, assassination of political and military leadership of the
enemy, and covert undermining of governments thought to be
sympathetic with the enemy, even though legally and diplomatically a
condition of peace and diplomatic relations and recognition existed
between the superpower and the target state.
In Asia, the Chinese civil war, interrupted by Japanese attacks on
Manchuria and then throughout China, resumed with the triumph of
Chinese Communism. The Cold War was born, now fully worldwide,
including both Asia and Europe. This war was punctuated by dozens of
hot wars. Some of these were resumptions of wars of national
liberation against colonial governments, the result of the
reimposition after World War II of the last vestiges of European
colonialism and imperial power. Other wars, most prominently
Vietnam, were clearly fought between surrogates or proxies of the two
superpowers which emerged from a Europe in which the other states of
Europe, previously the world's most powerful, were now exhausted
shells of their former selves, at least until a later economic
recovery. The existence of nuclear, and then thermonuclear weapons,
served at once as deterrents to full-scale global war, and as
potential instruments of global destruction if ever, by accident,
miscalculation, or design, they should be used.
A numerical nuclear arms race between the superpowers commenced.
This was joined by a technological arms race which always threatened
to allow one or the other superpower somehow to leap beyond the
opponent and tempt one or the other to accept the suicidal
proposition that such advantage might allow one side actually to
fight and "win" a nuclear war. Finally, a horizontal nuclear arms
race began among the previously non-nuclear states, extending outward
the number of nuclear states able to trigger a nuclear conflagration.
Finally, the collapse of the Soviet Union under the weight of its
own monstrous bureaucratic and totalitarian structure allowed
respite. With the decision in November 1989 of President Gorbachev
not to intervene in genuine national uprisings in Eastern Europe, as
his predecessors had done so brutally decades before in Hungary and
Czechoslovakia, the Soviet empire crumbled in all of Eastern Europe;
the Berlin wall fell; and the contagion of freedom swept through the
Soviet Union, ending the last great imperial system to survive World
War I. The century of total war was at its end.
Once started, each of these wars had to be fought. The best human
decision-makers could not reasonably control the past, given their
knowledge. The momentum of hatred founded in utter lie had been
energized and would run its genetic course. The roots of 20th century
military conflict stemming from politically-based ideological hatred
were sown in war guilt and wallowed in the pain of an economic
The Century of Total War cost uncountable hundreds of millions of
lives and resulted in the political, military, and industrial
superstructure to facilitate wars over ideology. This superstructure
now begs to be dismantled and its energies and funding redirected
into defensive functions and peace-keeping operations.
The Nature of Human War
Throughout recorded history, wars have been given intellectual
justification in the creation of a myth of inherent distinction of
rights to freedom among groups of intelligent beings. We have fought
wars because we could not communicate with the "enemy". We have
fought wars over the color of skin. We have fought wars over cultural
rituals. We have fought wars over political structures. We've fought
wars over rivers, islands, mines, oil, water, and seas. We have
fought wars over economics. And we have fought wars for no
identifiable reason at all other than vague fear.
But the most common ideology employed to justify war is the
precisely the one least able to do so: faith. We have fought wars
over every religious difference imaginable, and yet a rational mind
strains to find scriptural basis for any religion's god declaring an
offensive warmaking intent, however confidently invoked by "inspired"
leaders. It is in mis-interpretations of religious teachings on every
nation's part that humanity has killed the most combatants and
civilians alike. Had there been integrity to the history of core
spiritual teachings rather than interpretive dogma, no wars would
ever have been fought.
But, perhaps only the fighting of these frightening wars, and the
cumulative personal experiences of great loss, can now equip humanity
with the ability to see the ugly truth of this.
When we do one day discover or receive the means to voyage to other
worlds across the heavens, to touch other verdant continents and
valleys and oceans, will we not engage and enforce the most solemn
"prime directive" to intelligently interact with a foreign biosphere?
We in the United States of America must remember that it was our
ancestors who came from Europe to plunder the Americas. The lessons
of what happened must never be forgotten.
An End to Slavery?
If holocaust and war are the relatively loud and declared crimes of
humanity, then humanity's most heinous silent cultural choice has
been the toleration of enslavement. Both science and religion have
taught us nothing if not this fact.
When Western humans think of slavery, they often envision slavery
involving blacks and native peoples in the Americas between the
latter part of the 15th century during early European colonization,
up to the late 19th century and the end of the US Civil War. Slavery
was hardly unique to the United States, the New World, or what is
considered western civilization and culture. Nor was it restricted to
this time period.
It is likely that indentured servitude has been a part of world
society as long as war and trade have existed between differing
peoples. It is well known that the ancient Chinese, Indians,
Egyptians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, and Arabs practiced
some form of slavery. The indigenous peoples of the Americas and the
coastal regions of West Africa practiced slavery as well. These
practices were supported worldwide for centuries, the last
governments officially abandoning slavery as recently as 1962.
The definition of slavery varies with culture and time period.
These differences have made cross-cultural and temporal studies of
slavery difficult. Nevertheless, there are attributes common to all
slave-owning cultures and to all definitions of slavery.
One common point of view in slave societies is that ownership of one
person by another is perfectly right and natural. Another is that a
slave is something less than human, a chattel similar to a farm
animal or pet, to be used and disposed of as needed. Western
civilization best exemplifies this. Ownership of human chattel was a
central characteristic of the slave society's socio-economic way of
life and cultural development. It is remarkable that an institution
that existed for thousands of years should in little more than a
century be abolished and considered wrong in the eyes of God and the
laws of man. This is a profound change, which gives hope for our
continued social evolution.
The first known western slave society was the Hellenic culture of
Athens in during the 6th through 3rd century BCE . In the earliest
times period, the slave population was composed of prisoners taken in
battle, criminals, Athenians (often children) bartered for debt,
Kidnapping, especially of women, was common. Only the poorest and
most wretched of Athenians were without slaves. Slaves performed a
variety of tasks. On the estates of the wealthy, they were household
servants; farmers, estate managers, and tutors. House servants were
typically all under the direction of the woman of the house, the wife
or eldest daughter of the owner. Some of these houses had as many as
Slaves were the artisans and craftsmen of Athens. They also served
many bureaucratic functions such as scribes, clerks and accountants.
At one time slaves administered the police and treasury. Some
estimates suggest that slaves accounted for close to one third of the
In 570 BC. The leader Solon, faced with a crisis in the Athenian
economy, instituted laws that cancelled debts of the enslaved and
repealed the laws allowing debtors and their families to be sold into
slavery. From this point on, Athenians relied on non-Greeks for
slaves, importing them from around the Aegean through regular trade.
During their brief period of imperialism the Athenians used more
direct methods. In 416 BC, an expedition landed on Melos, a neutral
Aegean and sacked it, executing all men of military age and selling
the women into slavery. As justification, they said:
"We believe that Heaven, and we know that men, by a natural law,
always rule where they are stronger. We did not make that law nor
were we the first to act on it; we found it existing and it will
exist forever, after we are gone; and now we know that you and anyone
else as strong as we are would do as we do."
-- Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War 5.105
The life of a slave was not easy. While there were laws that
protected slaves against the vilest abuses, slaves were not
considered citizens. Non-Greek slaves were barely considered human,
though there was the notion that they might be raised from their
baseness. Their masters chose their names. Slaves were not allowed
to marry, although they developed a pseudo-marriage known as
countubernium that had no legal status.
Children born of female slaves were automatically slaves. It was
not unusual for criminals, the mentally disturbed, and slaves who
have fallen out of favor with their masters to be selected to crew
ships or work mines. This was hazardous work and often ended in the
death of the slave.
In contrast to how they were treated under Athenian law, slaves were
a principal source of the prosperity of Athens. This provided
leisure time for the aristocrats to develop what we now call "the
roots of Western civilization". Athenian imperial power would be
broken at the end of the Peloponnesian War in 371 BC. Their social
system would continue for another forty years, until conquest by
Phillip of Macedonia at the battle of Chaeronea in 338 put an end to
their way of life.
The Roman civilization between about the 2nd century BC and the 4th
century AD would be the next western culture to develop a slave
Early Rome was little more than a collection of farmers, craftsmen
and laborers which developed into a loose knit society. The conflict
with Carthage and the result of the Punic and Greek wars would change
all that. By the end of 202 BC, Carthage was beaten, with all its
territories from North Africa to Spain subjugated and turned into
The Greeks, who had aligned themselves with Carthage while Hannibal
laid waste to much of Italy, were subjugated and enslaved. When
Carthage later defied Rome's order to move its inhabitants inland,
the entire city was put to the sword. The city was leveled, and
surrounding lands salted to insure that Carthage would never rise
again. The few that were spared were ushered off in chains. Rome had
gained an accidental empire.
With much of the farms and towns outside the Rome destroyed. Many
once-able farmers and artisans found themselves without work, and no
way to support themselves. But most of the citizens who had stayed
within the walls of Rome were vastly unaffected and saw the
destruction as an economic opportunity. Merchants and aristocrats
quickly bought up the land that had been ravaged. In the conquered
lands, the military and their sponsors did the same. They had no way
of working the vast acreage themselves. They wouldn't have to. There
were many able hands available.
There were a number of ways people became slaves. Thieves, debtors,
murderers and those who avoided military service would end up as
slaves. If a child's mother was a slave, then the child was a slave
as well. Anyone captured and taken prisoner by a hostile people,
regardless of citizenship, would become a slave.
Piracy, kidnapping and the selling of newborns were also common,
though the latter died out in the later Republic as the number of
foreign slaves increased. Like Athens, Romans preferred to use
foreign slaves when they were available. People who were far from
home, with no family, a different look and languages stood out and
were easier to capture if they escaped. It is a pattern that would be
repeated in the Americas.
The hardest labors were in the mines, as naval oarsmen and in rural
field labor. Most of this grueling work was done in chains and
perceived slackers were quickly beaten or killed outright. Slaves
also served as servants, cooks, musicians and artisans. Dozens would
be maintained to run the households of the aristocracy. In the
cities, public slaves were hired as bureaucrats and functionaries,
tending to the needs of running the city.
As the empire developed, more and more of the population were
considered slaves. By the 1st century, it is estimated that a third
of the population of Rome were slaves. The ratio in the large estates
was even larger, sometimes ranging between five or ten slaves to each
Romans developed an early fear that their slaves were going to
revolt and slaughter their masters, due to growing numbers and their
masters' brutal treatment. Thus, any hint of uprising would be dealt
with swiftly and brutally. When the Spartacus rebellion was crushed
in 71 BCE, over 6,000 slaves were crucified and placed along the
Appian Way as a reminder of what awaited the rebellious slave.
No act was too small to take notice. In 61 BCE Pedanius Secundus
was killed by one of his slaves. As a result, all 400 of his slaves
were put to death in order to frighten others from following the
In the later years, as the empire began to collapse, external slaves
became harder to come by. Roman slave society ended as the slaves
were legally converted into coloni, or serfs who were tied to the
land. This system would last in the West until the end of the middle
But the best known and documented of slave societies were those of
the so-called New World. At the beginning of the 16th century, the
Portuguese and Spanish were moving into the Americas and establishing
their colonies. Their initial quests were to become rich mining gold
and silver, but following 1645, the explosive demand for sugar
shifted their focus to growing sugar cane. The work was highly
demanding and required extreme amounts of labor. European diseases
were ravaging the native populations and the harsh climate took its
toll on Europeans colonists.
The Europeans found the perfect solution: African slaves. During the
years between 1500 and 1867 when the slave trade was abolished, it is
estimated that 9-10 million African slaves were shipped to the
Americas. At least another 2-3 million did not survive enslavement.
About 41% went to Brazil, 47% to the Spanish Americas, British and
French Caribbean, 5% to the Dutch, Swedish and Danish colonies and 7%
for what eventually became the United States.
About 2/3 of all slaves shipped over ended up in sugar colonies. At
their time, sugar plantations were considered among the world's most
profitable enterprises with returns ranging from about 10 to 20%.
At first, transport of slaves to the New World was primarily a
Portuguese enterprise. They had mapped a significant part of the
African coast as early as the mid 15th century in their search for
gold and a route to the orient. They soon found that slaves were a
much more valuable commodity. At first they raided the African
coastlines for slaves, but it became clear they could do much better
by trading with the coastal tribes.
In 1445, they established their first base. Slaves were captured
inland by Africans and brought to the coast for sale. This usually
consisted mostly of males, the females and young often being kept for
lineage incorporation. The slaves were exchanged for weapons and
exotic goods, the former of which gave the native slavers significant
advantage over their rivals.
Over the years, a vast and complex slave network developed to feed
the demands for labor, depopulating whole regions of Africa and
decimating entire tribes. The slaves were examined, shackled, and
shipped off for work in the New World. The system developed by the
Portuguese would serve the Dutch, Spanish and English just as well.
To the slavers, their goods were just a different type of cargo,
similar to cattle, hogs or any other economic livestock.
In most of the New World, the Africans grew to vastly outnumber the
Europeans. On some of the Caribbean islands, the number of slaves
ranged from more than a third in Cuba to some 90 percent in Jamaica,
Antigua and Grenada. In 1800, almost half the population of Brazil
was slaves, though that number decreased rapidly with the end of the
slave trade and a program of free immigration by the government to
draw in more Europeans. Of all the proto-American slave societies,
only that of the southern United States had a population where the
numbers of whites was initially similar to blacks.
While slaves were first brought to Virginia in 1619, the English
mostly relied on indentured servants rather than slaves. Tobacco was
initially the profitable crop of the south, and did not lend itself
well to the work-gang methodology used around the Caribbean. The
number of slaves an owner had was usually small, rarely more than a
handfull, except on the largest plantations.
Women were bought as domestics and nannies while men more commonly
worked the fields. All that would change in the latter half of the
18th century. The opening for settlement of the New Southern States
of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana made huge areas of land
available for cultivation, bringing with it a huge need for labor. In
1793 Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin which would revolutionize
the processing of cotton for use in textiles, increasing the demand
(and profits) in cotton ten fold over night.
Planting and cultivation of cotton did indeed lend itself to the
gang methodology. Hence, the pattern that developed the huge sugar
cane plantations of the New World would be played out again in the
New South, but this time with cotton. By 1850, nearly two thirds of
the slaves on plantations were engaged in the production of cotton.
An advantage of cotton was that it could be grown profitably on less
land, and required fewer skilled laborers and artisans for
processing. The labor was less rigorous, some of which could be
easily performed by men as well as women. The ratio of men to women
was closer in the United States, more like 3-2 versus anywhere from 8
or 20 to one in other parts of the new world, which helped create a
boom in slave population.
By 1825, it is estimated that the southern United States accounted
for more than 35% of all the slaves in the New World, the majority of
whom were at least second generation slaves. The profits from the
sale and maintenance of slaves coupled with proceeds from textiles
were one of the most profitable enterprises of the day.
It wasn't until the beginning of the 18th century that the emerging
social, religious and political systems would call the legitimacy of notion of enslaving other Europeans barbaric, this notion only
covered people who shared the religions and culture of Europe.
Indians, Africans, Asians, and other supposed cultural inferiors
were excluded. Some thinkers in Scotland, France, England and
America voiced strong misgivings about the handling of Africans, but
their objections were noise in a hurricane. A few looked beyond
simply the slave issue at the impact the institution had on the
"The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise
of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on
the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. Our children
see this...and thus nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny,
cannot but be stamped by it with odious pecularities. The man must be
a prodigy who can retain his manners and morals undepraved by such
-- Thomas Jefferson
History and precedent were on the side of the slavers, and
opportunity itself can be a harsh mistress. But things were beginning
to change. Some began to open themselves to listening to others and
hearing about alternative perspectives. What was it like to be a
slave? How did the slaves see life? Fredrick Douglass made it
perfectly clear that what American Blacks saw was considerably
different than what most saw in this land of opportunity.
"What to the American slave is your Fourth of July? I answer, a day
that reveals to him more than all other days of the year, the gross
injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him your
celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty an unholy license; your
national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are
empty and heartless; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow
mock; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with
all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him mere bombast,
fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy - a thin veil to cover up
crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages."
-- Frederick Douglass - July 4, 1852
What is amazing is that in the span of just over a century, the
unassailable institution of slavery which was accepted without
question would be outlawed in the entire western world.
The Society of Friends (Quakers) in both England and Pennsylvania
were some of the first to take action against slavery of any kind. In
1774 they voted for expulsion of any member participating in the
slave trade and in 1776, required any members holding slaves to
emancipate them or be expelled. Pennsylvania adopted a gradual
emancipation program in 1780 to free all children of slaves born
after 1780. Rhode Island and Connecticut followed suit three years
later and this trend was more or less adopted by most of the northern
In 1787, formation in England of the "Society for the Abolition of
the Slave Trade", a non-sectarian organization originally made up
most of the Quakers. They started by circulating pamphlets and
preaching. Their influence grew first with the masses and then with
parties in Parliament that eventually lead to the passage of the 1807
Act to abolish the slave trade.
The United States followed suit. Sweden and Holland agreed to
abolish the trade in 1813 & 1814 respectively. France and Spain paid
lip service to the agreement while, with Portugal, they continued the
trade in earnest. Britain's naval muscle was unchallenged, and they
took it upon themselves to press agreements with other countries for
them to patrol the West Coast of Africa.
In 1841 the Quintuple Treaty is signed under which England, France,
Russia, Prussia and Austria agree to mutual search of vessels on the
high seas to suppress the slave trade. Ships caught trafficking in
slaves would be confiscated, their crews and owners tried according
to the laws of their nation.
Between 1820 and 1870, the British captured some 1600 slave ships.
The British presence increased the price and risk of acquiring slaves
from Africa. Brazil, one of the largest importers of African slaves
acquiesced in 1851. Cuba was the last of the New World to give in,
yet in 1867, they too folded. The Atlantic Slave trade was over.
With the exception of the Southern United States, where the slave
trade had ended, the end of slavery soon followed. By 1830, more than
a third of the blacks in the New World were free. In the Spanish and
French-founded country, only 25% were still slaves. Slavery was
abolished in the old Spanish Americas between 1824-1850), all British
colonies in 1838, French and Danish Colonies in 1848, Dutch colonies
by 1863 and the United States in 1865. Brazil, one of the first
countries to begin the slave trade, was the last to abolish it in
The legalized dealing in human flesh was finished.
So in little more than a century, societies round the world have
taken significant steps in ending an institution that has been with
us for as long as we've considered ourselves civilized.
This is not meant to imply that holding other humans as chattel has
by any means vanished in the world. Slavery is still practiced,
albeit more discretely, in remote corners of the world. Many
cultures still consider women and children little more than property,
subject to the will of their husbands, fathers or male siblings.
Race, sex religion and ethnicity are still excuses for hate, violence
And the world's economy is now dangerously close to enslavement by
yet a different human classification system - the zeros and ones
stored as magnetized bits on a hard disk computer holding our bank
The important lesson taken from our progress with slavery is this:
we as a world society have the ability to change and grow. We can
move and grow toward tolerance of others if we choose. We've
developed missiles and weapons of mass destruction. Scientists have
developed specialized biological and chemical weapons capable of
decimating populations. The disenfranchised will eventually have
access to sources of retribution like they've never had before.
Wisdom would suggest that we find solutions for living together and
"The conveniences and comforts of humanity in general will be linked
up by one mechanism, which will produce comforts and conveniences
beyond human imagination. But the smallest mistake will bring the
whole mechanism to a certain collapse. In this way the end of the
world will be brought about."
-- Pir-o-Murshid Inayat Khan, 1922 (Sufi Prophet)
"Y2K" has become an increasingly frequent placeholder in the
headlines of the world, in reference to the forthcoming challenge we
face looming throughout the information systems that run modern lives
at the year 2000. The opinions on the seriousness of the crisis run
the gamut from "smoke in the theater" overblown way out of
proportion, to the end of civilization as we know it.
One of the brightests futurists I have come across is a man by the
name of John Petersen, President of the HYPERLINK
"http://www.arlinst.org/"Arlington Institute. An expert in the
emerging discipline of scenario planning, Mr. Petersen has written
extensively on Y2K. Early last year, he wrote a seminal article that
can be credited for raising the consciousness of tens of thousands of
people, helping to motivate action to prevent crisis and deal
effectively with whatever the severity of circumstance that may
Some excerpts follow from his article on the Year 2000 crises...
"The millennial sun will first rise over human civilization in the
independent republic of Kiribati, a group of some thirty low lying
coral islands in the Pacific Ocean that straddle the equator and the
International Date Line, halfway between Hawaii and Australia. This
long awaited sunrise marks the dawn of the year 2000, and quite
possibly, the onset of unheralded disruptions in life as we know it
in many parts of the globe. Kiribati's 81,000 Micronesians may
observe nothing different about this dawn; they only received TV in
However, for those who live in a world that relies on satellites,
air, rail and ground transportation, manufacturing plants,
electricity, heat, telephones, or TV, when the calendar clicks from
'99 to '00, we will experience a true millennial shift. As the sun
moves westward on January 1, 2000, as the date shifts silently within
millions of computerized systems, we will begin to experience our
computer-dependent world in an entirely new way. We will finally see
the extent of the networked and interdependent processes we have
At the stroke of midnight, the new millennium heralds the greatest
challenge to modern society that we have yet to face as a planetary
community. Whether we experience this as chaos or social
transformation will be influenced by what we do immediately.
We are describing the year 2000 problem, known as Y2K (K signifying
1000.) Nicknamed at first "The Millennial Bug," increasing
sensitivity to the magnitude of the impending crisis has escalated it
to "The Millennial Bomb." The problem begins as a simple technical
error. Large mainframe computers more than ten years old were not
programmed to handle a four digit year. Sitting here now, on the
threshold of the year 2000, it seems incomprehensible that computer
programmers and microchip designers didn't plan for it.
But when these billions of lines of computer code were being
written, computer memory was very expensive. Remember when a computer
only had 16 kilobytes of RAM? To save storage space, most programmers
allocated only two digits to a year. 1993 is '93' in data files, 1917
is '17.' These two-digit dates exist on millions of files used as
input to millions of applications. (The era in which this code was
written was described by one programming veteran as "the Wild West."
Programmers did whatever was required to get a product up and
working; no one even thought about standards.)
The same thing happened in the production of microchips as recently
as three years ago. Microprocessors and other integrated circuits are
often just sophisticated calculators that count and do math. They
count many things: fractions of seconds, days, inches, pounds,
degrees, lumens, etc. Many chips that had a time function designed
into them were only structured for this century. And when the date
goes from '99 to '00 both they and the legacy software that has not
been fixed will think it is still the 20th century -- not 2000, but
Peter de Jager, who has been actively studying the problem and its
implications since 1991, explains the computer math calculation: "I
was born in 1955. If I ask the computer to calculate how old I am
today, it subtracts 55 from 98 and announces that I'm 43. . . But
what happens in the year 2000? The computer will subtract 55 from 00
and will state that I am minus 55 years old. This error will affect
any calculation that produces or uses time spans. . . . If you want
to sort by date (e.g., 1965, 1905, 1966), the resulting sequence
would be 1905, 1965, 1966. However, if you add in a date record such
as 2015, the computer, which reads only the last two digits of the
date, sees 05, 15, 65, 66 and sorts them incorrectly. These are just
two types of calculations that are going to produce garbage."
The calculation problem explains why the computer system at Marks &
Spencer department store in London recently destroyed tons of food
during the process of doing a long term forecast. The computer read
2002 as 1902. Instead of four more years of shelf life, the computer
calculated that this food was ninety-six years old. It ordered it
thrown out. A similar problem happened recently in the U.S. at the
warehouse of a freeze-dried food manufacturer.
But Y2K is not about wasting good food. Date calculations affect
millions more systems than those that deal with inventories, interest
rates, or insurance policies. Every major aspect of our modern
infrastructure has systems and equipment that rely on such
calculations to perform their functions. We are dependent on
computerized systems that contain date functions to effectively
manage defense, transportation, power generation, manufacturing,
telecommunications, finance, government, education, healthcare.
The list is longer, but the picture is clear. We have created a
world whose efficient functioning in all but the poorest and remotest
areas is dependent on computers. It doesn't matter whether you
personally use a computer, or that most people around the world don't
even have telephones. The world's economic and political
infrastructures rely on computers. And not isolated computers. We
have created dense networks of reliance around the globe. We are
networked together for economic and political purposes. Whatever
happens in one part of the network has an impact on other parts of
the network. We have created not only a computer-dependent society,
but an interdependent planet.
We already have frequent experiences with how fragile these systems
are, and how failure cascades through a networked system. While each
of these systems relies on millions of lines of code that detail the
required processing, they handle their routines in serial fashion.
Any next step depends on the preceding step. This serial nature makes
systems, no matter their size, vulnerable to even the slightest
problem anywhere in the system. In 1990, ATT's long distance system
experienced repeated failures. At that time, it took two million
lines of computer code to keep the system operational. But just three
lines of faulty code brought down these millions of lines of code.
And these systems are lean; redundancies are eliminated in the name
of efficiency. This leanness also makes the system highly vulnerable.
In May of this year, 90% of all pagers in the U.S. crashed for a day
or longer because of the failure of one satellite. Late in 1997, the
Internet could not deliver email to the appropriate addresses because
bad information from their one and only central source corrupted
Compounding the fragility of these systems is the fact that we can't
see the extent of our interconnectedness. The networks that make
modern life possible are masked by the technology. We only see the
interdependencies when the relationships are disrupted -- when a
problem develops elsewhere and we notice that we too are having
problems. When Asian markets failed last year, most U.S. businesses
denied it would have much of an impact on our economy. Only recently
have we felt the extent to which Asian economic woes affect us
directly. Failure in one part of a system always exposes the levels
of interconnectedness that otherwise go unnoticed-we suddenly see how
our fates are linked together. We see how much we are participating
with one another, sustaining one another.
Modern business is completely reliant on networks. Companies have
vendors, suppliers, customers, outsourcers (all, of course, managed
by computerized data bases.) For Y2K, these highly networked ways of
doing business create a terrifying scenario. The networks mean that
no one system can protect itself from Y2K failures by just attending
to its own internal systems. General Motors, which has been working
with extraordinary focus and diligence to bring their manufacturing
plants up to Year 2000 compliance, (based on their assessment that
they were facing catastrophe,) has 100,000 suppliers worldwide.
Bringing their internal systems into compliance seems nearly
impossible, but what then do they do with all those vendors who
supply parts? GM experiences production stoppages whenever one key
supplier goes on strike. What is the potential number of delays and
shutdowns possible among 100,000 suppliers?
The nature of systems and our history with them paints a chilling
picture of the Year 2000. We do not know the extent of the failures,
or how they will effect us. But we do know with great certainty that
as computers around the globe respond or fail when their calendars
record 2000, we will see clearly the extent of our interdependence.
We will see the ways in which we have woven the modern world together
through our technology.
Until quite recently, it's been difficult to interest most people in
the Year 2000 problem. Those who are publicizing the problem (the
World Wide Web is the source of the most extensive information on
Y2K,) exclaim about the general lack of awareness, or even the
deliberate blindness that greets them. In our own investigation among
many varieties of organizations and citizens, we've noted two general
categories of response.
In the first category, people acknowledge the problem but view it as
restricted to a small number of businesses, or a limited number of
consequences. People believe that Y2K affects only a few industries-
primarily finance and insurance-seemingly because they deal with
dates on policies and accounts. Others note that their organization
is affected by Y2K, but still view it as a well-circumscribed issue
that is being addressed by their information technology department.
What's common to these comments is that people hold Y2K as a narrowly-
focused, bounded problem. They seem oblivious to the networks in
which they participate, or to the systems and interconnections of
The second category of reactions reveals the great collective faith
in technology and science. People describe Y2K as a technical problem
and then enthusiastically state that human ingenuity and genius
always finds a way to solve these type of problems. Ecologist David
Orr has noted that one of the fundamental beliefs of our time is that
technology can be trusted to solve any problem it creates. If a
software engineer goes on TV claiming to have created a program that
can correct all systems, he is believed. After all, he's just what
we've been expecting.
And then there is the uniqueness of the Year 2000 problem. At no
other time in history have we been forced to deal with a deadline
that is absolutely non-negotiable. In the past, we could always hope
for a last minute deal, or rely on round-the-clock bargaining, or
pray for an eleventh hour savior. We have never had to stare into the
future knowing the precise date when the crisis would materialize. In
a bizarre fashion, the inevitability of this confrontation seems to
add to people's denial of it. They know the date when the extent of
the problem will surface, and choose not to worry about it until then.
However, this denial is quickly dissipating. Information on Y2K is
expanding exponentially, matched by escalation in adjectives used to
describe it. More public figures are speaking out. This is critically
important. With each calendar tick of this time, alternatives
diminish and potential problems grow. We must develop strategies for
preparing ourselves at all levels to deal with whatever Y2K presents
to us with the millennium dawn.
As individuals, nations, and as a global society, do we have a
choice as to how we might respond to Y2K, however problems
materialize? The question of alternative social responses lies at the
outer edges of the interlocking circles of technology and system
relationships. At present, potential societal reactions receive
almost no attention. But we firmly believe that it is the central
most important place to focus public attention and individual
Y2K is a technology-induced problem, but it will not and cannot be
solved by technology. It creates societal problems that can only be
solved by humans. We must begin to address potential social
responses. We need to be engaged in this discourse within our
organizations, our communities, and across the traditional boundaries
of competition and national borders. Without such planning, we will
slide into the Year 2000 as hapless victims of our technology.
Even where there is some recognition of the potential disruptions or
chaos that Y2K might create, there's a powerful dynamic of secrecy
preventing us from engaging in these conversations. Leaders don't
want to panic their citizens. Employees don't want to panic their
bosses. Corporations don't want to panic investors. Lawyers don't
want their clients to confess to anything. But as psychotherapist and
information systems consultant Dr. Douglass Carmichael has written:
Those who want to hush the problem ("Don't talk about it, people
will panic", and "We don't know for sure.") are having three effects.
First, they are preventing a more rigorous investigation of the
extent of the problem. Second, they are slowing down the awareness of
the intensity of the problem as currently understood and the urgency
of the need for solutions, given the current assessment of the risks.
Third, they are making almost certain a higher degree of ultimate
panic, in anger, under conditions of shock.
Haven't we yet learned the consequences of secrecy? When people are
kept in the dark, or fed misleading information, their confidence in
leaders quickly erodes. In the absence of real information, people
fill the information vacuum with rumors and fear. And whenever we
feel excluded, we have no choice but to withdraw and focus on self-
protective measures. As the veil of secrecy thickens, the capacity
for public discourse and shared participation in solution finding
disappears. People no longer believe anything or anybody-we become
unavailable, distrusting and focused only on self-preservation. Our
history with the problems created by secrecy has led CEO Norman
Augustine to advise leaders in crisis to: "Tell the truth and tell it
Behaviors induced by secrecy are not the only human responses
available. Time and again we observe a much more positive human
response during times of crisis. When an earthquake strikes, or a
bomb goes off, or a flood or fire destroys a community, people
respond with astonishing capacity and effectiveness. They use any
available materials to save and rescue, they perform acts of pure
altruism, they open their homes to one another, they finally learn
who their neighbors are.
We've interviewed many people who participated in the aftermath of a
disaster, and as they report on their experiences, it is clear that
their participation changed their lives. They discovered new
capacities in themselves and in their communities. They exceeded all
expectations. They were surrounded by feats of caring and courage.
They contributed to getting systems restored with a speed that defied
When chaos strikes, there's simply no time for secrecy; leaders have
no choice but to engage every willing soul. And the field for
improvisation is wide open-no emergency preparedness drill ever
prepares people for what they actually end up doing. Individual
initiative and involvement are essential. Yet surprisingly, in the
midst of conditions of devastation and fear, people report how good
they feel about themselves and their colleagues. These crisis
experiences are memorable because the best of us becomes visible and
available. We've observed this in America, and in Bangladesh, where
the poorest of the poor responded to the needs of their most
destitute neighbors rather than accepting relief for themselves.
As we sit staring into the unknown dimensions of a global crisis
whose timing is non-negotiable, what responses are available to us as
a human community? An effective way to explore this question is to
develop potential scenarios of possible social behaviors. Scenario
planning is an increasingly accepted technique for identifying the
spectrum of possible futures that are most important to an
organization or society. In selecting among many possible futures, it
is most useful to look at those that account for the greatest
uncertainty and the greatest impact.
For Y2K, David Isenberg, (a former AT&T telecommunications expert,
now at Isen.Com) has identified the two variables which seem obvious -
the range of technical failures from isolated to multiple, and the
potential social responses, from chaos to coherence. Both variables
are critical and uncertain and are arrayed as a pair of crossing
axes. When displayed in this way, four different general futures
In the upper left quadrant, if technical failures are isolated and
society doesn't respond to those, nothing of significance will
happen. Isenberg labels this the "Official Future" because it
reflects present behavior on the part of leaders and organizations.
The upper right quadrant describes a time where technical failures
are still isolated, but the public responds to these with panic,
perhaps fanned by the media or by stonewalling leaders. Termed "A
Whiff of Smoke," the situation is analogous to the panic caused in a
theater by someone who smells smoke and spreads an alarm, even though
it is discovered that there is no fire. This world could evolve from
a press report that fans the flames of panic over what starts as a
minor credit card glitch (for example), and, fueled by rumors turns
nothing into a major social problem with runs on banks, etc.
The lower quadrants describe far more negative scenarios.
"Millennial Apocalypse" presumes large-scale technical failure
coupled with social breakdown as the organizational, political and
economic systems come apart. The lower left quadrant, "Human Spirit"
posits a society that, in the face of clear adversity, calls on each
of us to collaborate in solving the problems of breakdown.
Since essentially we are almost out of time and resources for
preventing widespread Y2K failures, a growing number of observers
believe that the only plausible future scenarios worth contemplating
are those in the lower half of the matrix. The major question before
us is how will society respond to what is almost certain to be
widespread and cascading technological failures?
What is a possible natural evolution of the problem? Early, perhaps
even in early '99, the press could start something bad long before it
was clear how serious the problem was and how society would react to
it. There could be an interim scenario where a serious technical
problem turned into a major social problem from lack of adequate
positive social response. This "Small Theatre Fire" future could be
the kind of situation where people overreact and trample themselves
trying to get to the exits from a small fire that is routinely
If the technical situation is bad, a somewhat more ominous situation
could evolve. Government, exerting no clear positive leadership and
seeing no alternative to chaos, cracks down so as not to lose control
(a common historical response to social chaos has been for the
government to intervene in non-democratic, sometimes brutal fashion).
"Techno-fascism" is a plausible scenario -- governments and large
corporations would intervene to try to contain the damage -- rather
than build for the future. This dictatorial approach would be
accompanied by secrecy about the real extent of the problem and
ultimately fueled by the cries of distress, prior to 2000, from a
society that has realized its major systems are about to fail and
that it is too late to do anything about it.
Obviously, the scenario worth working towards is "Human Spirit," a
world where the best of human creativity is enabled and the highest
common good becomes the objective. In this world we all work
together, developing a very broad, powerful, synergistic, self-
organizing force focused on determining what humanity should be doing
in the next 13 months to plan for the aftermath of the down stroke of
This requires that we understand Y2K not as a technical problem, but
as a systemic, worldwide event that can only be resolved by new
social relationships. All of us need to become very wise and very
engaged very fast and develop entirely new processes for working
together. Systems issues cannot be resolved by hiding behind
traditional boundaries or by clinging to competitive strategies.
Systems require collaboration and the dissolution of existing
boundaries. Our only hope for healthy responses to Y2K-induced
failures is to participate together in new collaborative
At present, individuals and organizations are being encouraged to
protect themselves, to focus on solving "their" problem. In a
system's world, this is insane. The problems are not isolated,
therefore no isolated responses will work. The longer we pursue
strategies for individual survival, the less time we have to create
any viable, systemic solutions. None of the boundaries we've created
across industries, organizations, communities, or nation states give
us any protection in the face of Y2K.
We must stop the messages of fragmentation now and focus resources
and leadership on figuring out how to engage everyone, at all levels,
in all systems.
As threatening as Y2K is, it also gives us the unparalleled
opportunity to figure out new and simplified ways of working
together. GM's chief information officer, Ralph Szygenda, has said
that Y2K is the cruelest trick ever played on us by technology, but
that it also represents a great opportunity for change. It demands
that we let go of traditional boundaries and roles in the pursuit of
new, streamlined systems, ones that are less complex than the
entangled ones that have evolved over the past thirty years.
There's an interesting lesson here about involvement that comes from
the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. Just a few weeks prior the
bombing, agencies from all over the city conducted an emergency
preparedness drill as part of normal civil defense practice. They did
not prepare themselves for a bomb blast, but they did work together
on other disaster scenarios. The most significant accomplishment of
the drill was to create an invisible infrastructure of trusting
When the bomb went off, that infrastructure displayed itself as an
essential resource--people could work together easily, even in the
face of horror. Many lives were saved and systems were restored at an
unprecedented rate because people from all over the community worked
together so well.
But there's more to this story. One significant player had been
excluded from the preparedness drill, and that was the FBI. No one
thought they'd ever be involved in a Federal matter. To this day,
people in Oklahoma City speak resentfully of the manner in which the
FBI came in, pushed them aside, and offered no explanations for their
behavior. In the absence of trusting relationships, some form of
techno-fascism is the only recourse. Elizabeth Dole, as president of
the American Red Cross commented: "The midst of a disaster is the
poorest possible time to establish new relationships and to introduce
ourselves to new organizations . . . . When you have taken the time
to build rapport, then you can make a call at 2 a.m., when the
river's rising and expect to launch a well-planned, smoothly
The scenario of communities and organizations working together in
new ways demands a very different and immediate response not only
from leaders but from each of us. "
The Major Crises of the Our Generation
As John Petersen cogently suggests, Y2K is a serious challenge, one
that must be addressed at all levels of society, across the world. I
also believe that Y2K will be conquered by humanity. Thanks to many
loud and proactive stands taken by futurists and clear-minded
technology thinkers, a lot has been accomplished in 1997 and 1998.
The United States is likely to suffer regional crises, and a few
systemic ones, but is also likely to come through with society firmly
intact if decisive preventive action and contingency planning
continue through 1999. In this country, I believe we will do far
better than doomsayers suggest.
Other nations will have other levels of success in correcting the
problem this year. Some nations' infrastructures will simply shut
down because of their level of unpreparedness. Our attention must
quickly expand to include international preparedness, for the world's
problems will be the problems of the only remaining superpower.
All in all, I am hopeful and cautiously optimistic that the world
will focus this year sufficient to tackle Y2K without fundamental
disaster. But Y2K is by no means the only, nor the most serious, set
of problems we face.
Because modern humanity has accelerated the pace at which we change,
we have dictated not only the range of our positive experience, but
also the pace at which we must learn painful new lessons - lessons
impossible to foresee and equally impossible to avoid once glimpsed.
Because of the acceleration of change in our lives in the past 100
years in particular, there are several crucial challenges beyond Y2K
that humanity will face in coming years, fundamental challenges of
its own creation.
In my opinion, these challenges are best considered and reviewed by
Eugene Linden in his stunningly insightful book HYPERLINK
-7056954-0237859" The Future In Plain Sight. Linden writes on
science and technology for Time, and is well-respected across the
media. Linden reviews several crucial problems faced by modern human
civilization that are not widely appreciated in their portent,
briefly summarized below...
"Hot Tempered Markets
During an extraordinary four-month period starting on June 27, 1997,
the currencies of Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore,
Indonesia, Taiwan, and Korea all went into a free fall. Even places
like Hong Kong, whose currencies escaped the plummeling, suffered
stock-market collapses. The contagion spread also to Latin America,
where markets in Mexico and Brazil suffered precipitous declines...
That the Southeast Asian crisis came about only two years after the
international community had supposedly learned the lessons of the
Mexican crisis speaks volumes about the inherent volatility of an
integrated global market. Bankers and policy makers can set up
bailout funds or an international bankruptcy court, improve the flow
of financial information, and take other actions designed to soothe
markets, but these will not work. Both the Mexican and Southeast
Asian examples demonstrate that market instability is about not only
information and systems but perception and human nature. If the story
is that Thailand or Mexico or Indonesia is a good place to get good
returns on money, the relatively homogeneous investment community
will put money into that country, ignoring warning signals until it
is too late. Then they will all try to leave...
Without the $52-billion bailout in Mexico, a cascade of bankruptcies
and bank collapses could have plunged the nation into complete
anarchy, fostering an immense wave of migration to the United States.
The question facing Mexico, Southeast Asia, and the global investing
community is whether these bailouts have bought nations time to
institute necessary reforms, or merely postponed a much more painful
day of reckoning...
The triumph of capitalism in this century has set the stage for an
integrated global economy. This globalization of markets is supposed
to spread risks and reduce volatility. Instead it actually increases
the likelihood of violent swings, because of the homogeneity and
synchronicity that characterize the actions of the institutions
governing the flows of capital...
What happened was but a dust devil on a summer day compared with
what will happen ever more frequently in the coming decades. Shocks
and adjustments are an inevitable part of any economic system, but as
the scale of the integrated market grows, these jerks will only
increase in frequency and amplitude, promising more instability in
The Decay of the City
In the poorer nations of the world, the latter part of this century
has seen a massive, unprecedented migration to the cities. The
percentage of population living in cities in the richer countries
increased by about 37 percent between 1950 and 1995, but the
percentage of urban dwellers more than doubled in less developed
nations during that same period and more than tripled in the least
developed nations, according to UN statistics...
Some public-health experts are now beginning to believe that the
statistical portrait of the advantages of urban life does not capture
dramatic declines in living standards for large numbers of the poor,
who have become worse off than their counterparts in the
Studies of such disparate cities as Accra, Ghana, and Sao Paulo
reveal that the poor bear a double burden of disease, finding
themselves weakened by infectious water-borne diseases as well as
chronic problems, such as heart disease and cancers, traditionally
associated with affluence. Thus the urban poor have to face the added
stresses of urban life in a weakened state (in Africa, between 40 and
80 percent of urban dwellers are afflicted with one or more parasite
at any given time), drinking and bathing with expensive and often bad
water, surrounded by casually disposed-of toxic materials and
chemicals, eating unhealthy high-fat street food, breathing foully
polluted air, and contending daily with ever more resilient microbes.
Unstable cities project instability beyond their boundaries through
the incubation of microbes, through political and social disorder
that can also spread as a contagion, through the disruption of
national and regional economies, and through the launching of new
tides of migrants.
No "Vent for Surplus"
If the exploding cities of the developing world are one indication
of how demographic pressures will destabilize life in the next
century, human migration is another...
History has shown that people tend to move when they find themselves
squeezed for space, but what happens when there is no place to go? In
the past, wildlands and new territories provided what the economist
Adam Smith called a "vent for surplus." Migrants today are finding
that there is no "vent for surplus" even as the population pressures
and environmental degradation force greater numbers of people to
uproot their families in search of new places to settle...
The example of Rwanda and Zaire shows how migration can set in
motion ripples that in turn destabilize an entire region. The
potential for catastrophic collisions of migrants and residents will
only rise in the future, as the population continues to increase by
roughly a hundred million a year....
Looming across the Pacific is a case in point. China, the world's
most populous nation, faces building pressures for internal migration
that terrify the government. Despite the economic boom that has given
China one of the fastest-growing economies on Earth, the communist
government sites on top of a powder keg of forces that could produce
mass movements within the country on an unprecedented scale...
China's history is marked by a series of collapses brought about by
uncontained population growth, according to Jack Goldstone, an expert
on the history of revolution and rebellion. He argues that the stage
is set for this cycle to be played out again...
What will happen as the Earth becomes more crowded while images of
suffering become ever more available? Will people tune out and turn
inward, if only to preserve their humanity? Very likely. Will
xenophobia and various forms of racism become resurgent as those
living in favored regions search for ways to rationalize their
inability to help the millions who seek aid or entry? Also very
likely. The point, however, is that population pressures affect
societies in many surprising ways, putting huddled masses at the
gates of their neighbors, yet fueling atavistic antagonisms that can
dehumanize even those nations that feel smugly insulated from the
overcrowded world. The rise of ecomigration offers a disturbing
preview of coming upheavals.
The Ubiquitous Wage Gap
Thirty years ago, political scientists warned that a widening gap
between rich and poor threatened to produce political and social
upheaval. At that point, the richest 20 percent of the people on
earth earned thirty times more than the poorest 20 percent. Instead
of narrowing, however, that gap has expanded, so that the better-off
now earn sixty times as much as the poorest.
This gap has widened despite statistics that show huge improvements
in incomes, educational opportunities, and health care in the
developing world, where the bulk of the world's poor live. How can
this be? Part of the answer is a synergy between population growth
and technological change, which rewards the educated and adept and
marginalizes everyone else. Despite much-trumpeted improvements in
nutrition and infant health, in 1996 more than 2.4 billion people - a
number greater than the total world population in 1945 - still lived
on less than $2 a day. Despite an integrated global economy, two
billion people, more than a third of the earth's human population,
still live unconnected to the grid of the industrial world by either
electricity or oil.
A country such as Indonesia can attract manufacturing jobs to the
Jakarta area with labor priced at $1.50 a day, but industries can
easily pick up stakes and find highly motivated workers elsewhere,
should either workers or their governments make demands for higher
wages or better working conditions. In the meantime, unrelenting
migration from overpopulated agricultural regions gives workers ever-
declining leverage over employers. In Egypt, where five hundred
thousand new job seekers enter the market each year, per-capita
income has fallen from $750 to $620 in eight years.
As these surplus workers become more desperate, the line between
freedom and slavery begins to blur. In northeastern Brazil,
agricultural workers live in perpetual indenturement to landowners
who pay them so little that, no matter how hard they work, they only
fall deeper into debt. In Africa, an organization called the American
Anti-Slavery Group has produced evidence of the return of outright
slavery in Mauretania and the Sudan. The group reported in The New
York Times that, as supplies of slaves secured by raids increased,
the price of a woman or a child dropped from $90 to $15 between 1989
The return of slavery is noteworthy because it is the extreme
expression of a trend toward the marginalization of those at the
bottom of the global economy. In an integrated global economy,
consumers will have increasing power over how products are produced,
so slavery is unlikely to return on a large scale, since the concept
has become morally abhorrent in most of the world. Of course, there
is no guarantee that the global economy will remain integrated fifty
years from now, or that slavery will still be morally repugnant. If
it does return to any significant degree, it is more likely to be
camouflaged by the paternalism of landowners, corporations, or the
Around the world, 4.5 billion people live in conditions that James
Gustave Speth, administrator of the United Nations Development
Program, describes as "deplorable." Of that number, one billion live
in absolute poverty. In 1996, Speth wrote that every day sixty-seven
thousand babies a day-twenty-five million a year-are born into
families so poor their parents cannot afford sufficient food to
perform normal work. The International Labor Organization estimates
that 750 million of the world labor force of 2.5 billion people are
either unemployed or underemployed.
Thus the fruits of worldwide economic growth disproportionately
accrue to an ever-smaller percent of the population. As a trend, this
cannot continue without producing violent reactions from those left
behind. The forces driving this widening gap - the population
explosion, the integration of the world economy, and the automation
of work - are fundamental.
Moreover, two of these forces, technological advance and the
increasing integration of the global economy, are the keys to the
present economy. So the world faces a dilemma: the widening income
gap between rich and poor may be integral to continued economic
growth as capitalism extends its reach and human numbers expand.
This widening gap is not confined to the developing world. In the
U.S., twenty years ago the average CEO earned thirty-five times more
than the average worker; now it is 150 times more. In that same
period, the poorest 20 percent of U.S. workers have seen their real
earnings drop by 24 percent, and the upper 20 percent have increased
their real income by 10 percent. And in the wealthier nations alone,
there are thirty million jobless...
It is not just blue-collar workers who find themselves forced from
their customary livelihoods. Whereas population pressures are a force
driving unemployment and underemployment in the developing world,
technology impels change in the richer nations: the information
revolution is completing the automation of the workplace that began
two hundred years ago with the industrial revolution.
First armies of blue-collar employees were swept away by efficiency
improvements, but now hundreds of thousands of clerical, managerial,
and other white-collar workers who never dreamed they might be out of
a job are being laid off. Between 1979 and 1993, 18.7 million white-
collar jobs disappeared in the United States. New jobs have been
created as well, millions of them, but often at lower pay, with fewer
benefits and less security. Many paternalistic and bureaucratic
companies that resisted the trend for white-collar layoffs during the
1980s used the recession of 1991 and 1992 as an excuse to achieve
workforce reductions that were in fact driven by technological change.
If the future were a simple projection of the past, most of these
dislocated employees would find new opportunities after an initial
period of turmoil. This time around, such happy endings are
improbable for many. Computers can now analyze sales data, perform
credit analyses, and allocate discount seats on airlines, and workers
who developed such esoteric expertise are finding themselves out on
the street with unmarketable skills. Sandwiched between a younger
generation and well-educated, cheaper labor abroad, they have nowhere
to go but down.
This picture of the future is at extreme variance with the
conventional wisdom in the booming economy of 1997. With the global
economy growing at nearly 4 percent a year, and the U.S. economy in
its fifth year of sustained growth, both downsizing and integration
were beginning to look like flat-out wins. U.S. productivity was
climbing, and by December 1997, the 4.6-percent unemployment rate was
the lowest in thirty years and below the 5-percent level considered
to represent full employment. The unprecedented bull market created a
lot of paper wealth as well.
If there was a troubling sign on the horizon in the U.S., it was
that consumer debt in 1997 reached an all-time high at $1.2 trillion.
This represented a 50-percent increase since 1991. Total household
debt, which includes mortgages, reached $5.4 trillion, and by 1997
the average person was spending 18 percent of income just to service
debt, the highest level since the mid-1980s, but in terms of burden,
the highest level ever, since consumers no longer had the ability to
deduct interest on debt from their taxes.
Personal bankruptcies were also at an all-time high. By the middle
of the year, credit-card delinquencies reached 7 percent, also near
record levels; since most credit-card debt is repackaged by the card
issuers as asset-backed bonds, rising delinquencies can rapidly
spread through the financial system, undermining the liquidity of the
card issuers as well as the institutions that trade the obligations.
Perhaps more significantly, the rising delinquencies revealed a
fault line in the otherwise rosy economic landscape. A lot of
different reasons account for the rise in bad credit, ranging from
bad judgment on the part of credit-card issuers, to the declining
stigma of bankruptcy, to the failing efforts of those with downsized
incomes to maintain their former standards of living. But the
combination of full employment with rising indebtedness and
delinquency suggests that people are working harder, yet not making
enough money to meet their material aspirations.
This fault line was also indicated by low inflation, conventionally
interpreted as an indicator of the robustness of the economy.
Ordinarily, low unemployment would be an indicator of future
inflation, because, with labor scarce, employees could demand raise
hikes and also pour money into the economy, driving up prices. In the
1990s economy, however, years of low unemployment and a booming
economy did not result in wage hikes or in strong increases in
consumer spending (except in services - a further indication that
people were working harder, and thus forced to eat out more often and
pay for functions like child care and laundry that housewives used to
perform, before the advent of the two-income family).
Savings continued their long-term downward trend. In the post-
downsizing era, workers had nowhere near the perks, the guarantees,
or, in many cases, the incomes they had in previous decades.
Moreover, even with labor theoretically scarce, employers could turn
to a steady supply of immigrants willing to work for very little.
This is exactly what has happened. As the boom of the mid-1990s
created a demand for new employees at the bottom end of the wage
curve, Hispanic workers, many of them immigrants, joined the
workforce at four times the rate of black or white workers.
The Federal Reserve Bank worried about inflation, but the
combination of job insecurity, decreasing family incomes in the
middle class, and global overcapacity in most industrial sectors
created a strong momentum toward disinflation, if not deflation. Even
as goods were getting cheaper in the U.S., thanks to imports, many
Americans found that their discretionary income was relatively flat.
The rising credit-card delinquencies reflected the reality that
borrowers can suffer in deflationary times, particularly since real
interest rates in 1997 were at a very high 4 percent and above.
With inflation, which tends to guide wage increases, hovering at 2
percent, many people were steadily falling behind in their ability to
pay bills. If inflation and raises continue to fall because of global
overcapacity on almost all goods, then the indebted will fall behind
even faster, unless interest rates come down as well.
The entrepreneurial and gifted will still thrive in these harsh
times for workers, but a growing population of white-collar workers
whose fortunes have turned sour depresses the prospects of a country
as a whole. In the U.S., consumer spending drives the economy,
accounting for two-thirds of GDP. As mentioned earlier, layoffs in
recent years have focused on professionals, managers, and
administrators, the segment of the middle class that traditionally
has the most discretionary income...
A disenfranchised managerial class could pose a real threat to
stability in the future. One need only look to the chaos of Russia in
the early 1990s to see how difficult it is for white-collar workers
with obsolete skills to adapt to new conditions, and how much
mischief this politically sophisticated class can cause when it finds
itself stripped of its perks.
This means that a large pool of voters will have more reason to
remain angry and dissatisfied, becoming fertile ground for radical
and xenophobic causes. The danger to society comes not so much from
extreme events such as the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah
Federal Building in Oklahoma City, which was the product of paranoid
fantasies about government conspiracies, as from ever-wilder
oscillations in political positions, in which moderates lose
influence and the more passionate extremists take control of the
This is one reason why the widening gap between the top and the
bottom income groups cannot continue to widen indefinitely. The few
can maintain their wealth only with the permission of the many. If
the middle continues to stagnate in the developed countries while the
top prospers, the majority will demand action, and politicians, being
politicians, will give it to them. But what can they offer the middle
and the poor, given the ceilings imposed by an integrated global
One thing politicians can deliver is inflation. As a policy tool,
inflation is always tempting, because it redistributes wealth from
those who lend to those who owe, while camouflaging who did what to
whom. Again, however, the potential negative reactions of the
integrated global market means this is not really a policy option for
the U.S. - which is not to say that it will not happen anyway...
In the developing world, the resolution of the widening gap promises
to be even more unruly, as the examples of Mexico and China cited
earlier suggest. Many of the countries with the widest gaps between
rich and poor, such as Russia and Venezuela, have fragile
democracies. One conclusion of a confidential CIA-sponsored study of
the nations that collapsed over the past forty years was that
emerging democracies were more unstable than dictatorships when times
turn bad, because people can give voice to frustrations for the first
time yet democratic institutions remain too weak to address the
underlying causes of the misery.
Could the widening gap between rich and poor resolve itself
painlessly? Theoretically, this could happen if a global economic
boom outpaced both population growth and the application of
productivity improvements. However, even with global economic growth
at nearly 4 percent a year in 1997, the gap continues to widen.
The gap might also narrow if labor became scarce again. With the
global workforce growing by over fifty million people a year, this is
not likely barring some catastrophe or radical social change. The
latter happened in Afghanistan, where the Taliban has enforced a
harsh version of Islamic law and forced women to abandon jobs for
home life, greatly reducing the number of professionals.
The gap between the rich and poor cannot widen indefinitely without
producing instability, and it is difficult to imagine it shifting
toward a more equitable distribution of wealth without instability.
The forces marginalizing both ordinary labor and knowledge workers
derive from deep, long-term trends, including the automation of the
workplace, the integration of the global economy, technological
advances that permit companies to tap a global labor market for many
types of work, and the inexorable expansion of human numbers. None of
these trends will change without upheaval.
A Warning from the Ice
The messages the world has been getting from its atmosphere and
climate have been hard to ignore, even if they are difficult to
interpret.... It was not until 1985 that atmospheric chemists began
to realize that the Antarctic skies were sending a message. The
message was that humanity had unleashed an entirely new chemical
reaction in the atmosphere, a process powerful enough to punch a hole
the size of North America in a shield that protects life itself...
On March 26, 1995, a massive iceberg - measuring forty-eight by
twenty-three miles - broke off from the Larsen Ice Shelf in
Antarctica. At the same time, the three-hundred-foot-thick ice shelf
that bridged the Prince Gustave Channel, between Antarctica and James
Ross Island, disintegrated, allowing ships to circumnavigate the
island for the first time in recorded history. Elsewhere on the
frozen continent, rocks poked through ice that had been buried under
nearly two thousand feet of ice for more than twenty thousand years.
Since the 1950s, the Wordie Ice Shelf, Antarctica's most northerly
stretch of permanent sea ice, has disappeared, moving the upper limit
of the ice dramatically southward. And one gigantic river of ice
within the West Antarctic Ice Sheet seems to be surging toward the
The cause of the breakup of the peninsular ice shelves is clear.
Since the 1940s, parts of Antarctica have warmed by nearly five
degrees Fahrenheit, as evidenced by records at the United Kingdom's
Faraday Station. The reason for the warming is far less clear, but
these rapid changes in Antarctic ice must give pause to hundreds of
millions of coastal dwellers around the world. The West Antarctic Ice
Sheet is half the size of the U.S. and more than three miles thick at
its deepest point. Were it to break up or slide into the ocean, sea
level around the world might suddenly rise by twenty feet, imperiling
billions of people, inundating ports, drowning megacities like
Jakarta, putting almost the entire Florida peninsula under water, and
flooding millions of acres of prime coastal agricultural lands...
As the costs of extremes in climate ripple through society, people
in the developed world will rediscover that climate, fair or foul, is
the context for all human activity, and that nature is more than a
backdrop. This reorientation will have profound effects on everything
from demographics to religion.
A Biosphere in Disarray
A few years ago, biologist Thomas Eisner and colleagues came upon a
curious plant in the mint family that grew in only a few hundred
acres in central Florida. Despite the fact that Dicerandra frutescens
had tempting, succulent leaves, the plant was not bothered by
Subsequent investigation revealed that, to protect itself, the plant
produced a powerful insect-repellent, and that it had developed an
arsenal of antifungal compounds as well. Like a midget R&D
laboratory, this one plant, growing on a mere speck of land, may lead
to new products for the multibillion-dollar insect-repellent and
Who knows what other chemical miracles were produced by neighboring
species but have now disappeared because of urbanization and
agricultural development? Development might well have wiped out this
species as well, except that the tiny niche where it grows lies in a
A happy story? just the opposite. Although the succulent is
protected for the moment, most of Florida is an ecological disaster.
Development-driven decisions to tame the Everglades and turn the land
to agriculture have led to the collapse of its bird and mammal
populations, and contributed to the destabilization of Florida Bay,
which now suffocates under regular algal blooms. There are still wood
storks and white ibises, but their numbers have dropped by 90 percent
in this century. Each of Florida's indigenous species adapted to
perform some role in the maintenance of the system. When populations
collapse, the system falls into disarray, and ultimately that
disarray affects humans as well.
This is the clue camouflaged by the more dramatic problem of
extinction. Extinction has been sold to the public as a problem for
humanity because drug companies lose valuable sources of new
pharmacologically active agents. That impression has been bolstered
by the negotiations surrounding the Biodiversity Treaty, which came
out of the vaunted Earth Summit that took place in Rio de Janeiro in
1992. The treaty was supposed to be an international accord to
protect species and ecosystems, but it has degenerated into a
squabble over issues of intellectual property.
The loss of biodiversity, however, is much, much more than a problem
of intellectual property, or even of protecting individual species.
It cannot be fixed by protecting representative samples of earth's
biota in preserves, or simply giving people rights to benefit
financially from the wonders nature creates as species struggle to
survive. Long before creatures begin to go extinct, the ecosystems
that support them can get so fragmented or diminished that they
become dangerously spastic, as both symbiotic and predator-prey
relationships break down.
Earth has gone through five major extinction crises during the past
few billion years, including the Permian extinctions of 245 million
years ago, which wiped out three-quarters of the life forms on earth,
and the cataclysm of sixty-five million years ago, which spelled the
doom of the dinosaurs. It is going through one now, and this promises
to be a whopper...
Today's crisis is the product of the direct and indirect effects of
human activities. Destruction of habitat is the biggest culprit.
Migratory birds find they have no place to land or breed as wetlands
and forests vanish. In Africa, brilliantly colored mouth breeding
fish called cichlids are losing their species diversity and merging
into a dull-colored mongrel because human contamination of the lake
waters has made it too difficult for females to distinguish the
markings of their proper mates.
Almost all the great apes in Africa are now endangered, in part from
hunting, in part from disease, and in part from habitat destruction
as land is converted for agriculture. With the great apes, the social
upheavals of these changes can be as destructive as the loss of
habitat itself, argues Lee White of the Wildlife Conservation
Society: logging is driving chimp bands into neighboring territories,
setting off fierce chimp wars in which as many as four out of five
animals die in hand-to-hand combat.
Whereas many previous extinction events developed over time scales
of many thousands of years and more, the present loss of biodiversity
has accelerated in just a few decades. On any future chart plotting
species diversity over time, the loss of biodiversity will appear
instantaneous, as though some awful contagion swept around the globe
indifferently extinguishing species. Not only rare, precariously
specialized species like the river dolphin are succumbing, but also
some of nature's most ubiquitous lines, such as frogs and sea
turtles; the latter had survived the aftershocks of comets, the reign
of volcanoes, and twenty ice ages, but not the combined effects of
air and water pollution, ozone depletion, human encroachments on
habitat, and the diseases unleashed by all of these disturbances.
Fictions like Jurassic Park notwithstanding, extinction is
irreversible. Even if it were possible to bring extinct forms back to
life, their importance to life on earth is the role they play in an
ecosystem. As scientists have discovered, it is extremely difficult
to restore a damaged ecosystem, even when all the parts are still
No one really knows how many species are disappearing, because no
one really knows how many species there are. Scientists have
documented only 1.4 million species of plants, animals, insects,
fungi, etc., but the full range of the diversity of life on dry land
and in the oceans may include between thirty and a hundred million
species if bacteria and other microscopic life forms are included.
Skeptics openly ridicule the notion that humanity should worry about
saving every bacteria, gnat, or salamander, noting that nature
herself has done in countless species down -through the ages without
jeopardizing life on earth.
This is true, but not the issue. The loss of biodiversity puts
humanity in the position of assuming that we know exactly which
species we can do without. This is dubious, since scientists have
only the most rudimentary notion of what makes an ecosystem work. In
just a few cases do scientists know which creatures are crucial to
the functioning of an ecosystem. Nor, since values and technology
change in unpredictable ways, do we know which species might prove
vital to our health and well-being in the future.
Moreover, if the only issue were conserving the greatest number of
species, governments could go a long way in that direction by
protecting so-called biodiversity hot spots around the world. Most of
the world's species live in relatively few places, such as the
eastern slopes of the Andes, the island of Madagascar, and the
Philippines, through accidents of geography and continental drift.
The Geneva-based International Union for the Conservation of Nature
estimates that targeting for protection these strategically important
ecosystems alone, which cover less than 3 percent of the globe, would
ensure the survival of more than 50 percent of earth's biota.
The biodiversity crisis, however, is much more than a simple
question of accounting. Animals, plants, and insects do not have to
become extinct for an ecosystem to begin a wobble toward chaos. The
issue is not simply how many individuals of a given species remain,
but where they are and, equally important for migratory creatures,
where they can go. Even though they may persist in large numbers in
the aggregate, the disappearance of a species from a given locality
can lead to a dramatic decline in an ecosystem...
Consider, for instance, the missing elephants of West Africa.
Elephants are not extinct, but they have been hunted out of many of
the forests of the Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone, Cameroon, Nigeria, and
a host of other sub-Saharan countries. Today, they persist in any
concentrations only in a corner of central Africa where the Congo,
the Central African Republic, and Cameroon meet. (In Kenya, Zimbabwe,
and a few other East and Southern African nations, elephant
populations have recovered somewhat, but find themselves crowded Out
of most of their original habitat by farmers.) There is no confusing
these forests with those in the region that no longer have elephants.
The remote Ndoki region of the northern Congo is crisscrossed with
elephant trails. The main trails tend to run north to south, but they
intersect with east-towest trails linking the elephant thoroughfares
to favorite watering holes and mud baths. It seems that elephants,
like urban planners, favor a grid pattern for their transportation
infrastructure. Scattered through the region are bais, or clearings,
created by the elephants.
Countless animals benefit from the earthworks of this elephant
civilization. Terrestrial herbaceous vegetation, or THV, abounds in
the gaps the elephants create in the forest, thus providing food for
the lowland gorilla, the bongo, and other large grazing creatures.
Perhaps because of the transportation infrastructure created by
elephants, this region of central Africa has some of the densest
concentrations of gorillas on earth. Also, as the only animal capable
of passing the large seeds of some species of trees-including some
members of the mahogany family, which is prized by loggers-the
elephant is crucial to the forest.
When elephants are eradicated, the forest gradually reclaims their
roads and clearings, reducing ground vegetation. Over time, gorillas
and the large ungulates disappear as well. A number of scientists
argue that the trickle-down effects of elephants may explain why
Africa's forests abound with large mammals but the tropical forests
of South America do not.
Few would doubt that the largest land mammal on earth would play a
crucial role in its ecosystem, but smaller, less charismatic
creatures also turn out to be surprisingly important. As noted
earlier, parrot fish and other coral-reef grazers prevent algae from
covering corals. When parrot fish are overharvested, corals
suffocate, and the whole reef ecosystem begins to collapse.
Innumerable such dislocations are occurring around the world, always
accompanied by unanticipated consequences. The disappearance of
predators in the Northeastern U.S. led to a huge increase in deer
populations and their attendant deer ticks. As a result, Lyme
disease, unknown and unnamed two decades ago, is now epidemic
virtually throughout the U.S.
It would seem that saving ecosystems should be an urgent undertaking
that governments would pursue in their own interest. In reality, most
governments treat the notion of ecosystem conservation as an amenity
issue, except where wildlands provide watershed or some other
function easily reducible to an economic argument.
Even if the international community made the preservation of earth's
life-support systems the world's most urgent priority, the nature of
ecosystems makes them ill-suited for the neat, systematic attempts at
preservation favored by bureaucrats. What is an ecosystem anyway? Is
it Yellowstone Park, or the swamps, pine deserts, wetlands, and other
distinct biomes within the park, or is it the park and the
surrounding forests and mountains that provide its watershed,
corridors, and buffers? According to the current theory of ecosystem
viability, if Yellowstone Park and its surrounding protected areas
were not sufficient to protect the ecosystem, over time species
populations would diminish. They have not, suggesting that
Yellowstone, at least, is big enough to remain vital. Yellowstone,
however, is the largest park in the lower forty-eight states. Most of
America's other parks show declining populations of key species. This
may suggest that the parks are either too small or too isolated from
vital migration corridors.
That is the problem. Life on earth is so complicated that neither
scientists nor governments can answer such basic questions as the
minimum size of a protected area necessary to preserve its life forms
in perpetuity; the minimum population of a species before it enters
the slippery slope toward extinction; or when a population of a
species becomes so isolated that it loses its genetic vitality,
expressed by the splitting of populations into evolutionarily
Even if scientists could answer these questions and impose ironclad
protections for regions vital to ecosystems, both humanity and
earth's creatures are now vulnerable to global forces unleashed by
humans. For instance, the polluted Arctic front, a curse laid on the
Far North by the industrial world, results from global air currents
that pool the collected contaminants of the Northern Hemisphere over
the polar region during wintertime.
The contaminants condense and fall with snow, and then, during the
spring melt, they go into the tundra, where they are taken up by
animals and plants and the people who eat them. Because of the Arctic
front as well as ocean dumping of radioactive and toxic material,
animals and humans in some of the most remote parts of the Far North
carry huge concentrations of mercury and carcinogens in their fat and
hair. Some seals in the Arctic Russian Far East have radioactive
growth-rings in their teeth. The bodies of some whales that wash up
in the mouth of the St. Lawrence Seaway contain such concentrations
of toxins that they would be declared a hazardous-waste site in the
Despite the fact that the pesticide DDT was banned by the U.S. and
most industrial countries in the 1970s, its use in the developing
world still threatens bird life. As reported by Les Line in The New
York Times, the reach of the poisons extends to Midway Island, smack
in the center of the Pacific Ocean and thousands of miles from any
industrial or agricultural center; here DDT is one of several toxins
accurnulating in the bodies of the black-footed albatross, a giant
pelagic bird with a seven-foot wingspan. The DDT, which the birds
ingest with flying-fish eggs, causes their own eggshells to thin,
leading to crushing and high mortality among chicks.
There is no part of the globe where species and ecosystems do not
already feel the weight of humanity. A team of ecologists led by
Peter Vitousek of Stanford University published an account of human
domination of earth's ecosystems in the journal Science in 1997. The
figures this group produced are awesome: half the world's mangroves,
vital buffers and nurseries of the oceans, altered or destroyed; 66
percent of all recognized marine fisheries either at the limit of
their exploitation or already overexploited; half the accessible
fresh water on earth co-opted for human use; roughly one-quarter of
all bird species on earth driven into extinction; and on and on.
Lurking in the future are the unfolding consequences of ozone
depletion, which may be weakening the immune systems of many
creatures on the planet, and the dislocations of ecosystems that may
come from climate change. Clearly, a changed climate poses a profound
threat to any creature that has adapted to a narrow range of
temperature and rainfall, but the subtle ways in which climate change
might throw ecosystems into chaos were dramatically demonstrated on
remote Wrangell Island, in the Russian Arctic, just a few years ago.
The dominant land-based predator in this ecosystem is the polar
bear. The white bear is a kind of mirror image of a marine mammal,
spending most of its life at sea, albeit on top of the ice rather
than below. Over the millennia, polar bears acquired a white coat,
which concealed them from their prey; blubber for warmth; and
oversize feet, which help them paddle in the water and distribute
their weight so that the eight-hundred-pound creatures can walk on
ice too thin to support a human being.
Together these adaptations make the polar bear a formidable killing
machine. Bears conceal themselves by lying on the ice facing their
prey, so that only their noses break the tableau of whiteness. It is
said that if an unarmed man sees a hungry polar bear on the ice it is
already too late for escape. The animal has been forced to develop
its stalking skills because it is a pure carnivore. To survive, an
adult bear must kill an animal the size of a seal every week of its
Ordinarily, the bears leave the island in the late spring and stay
on the ice pack as it shrinks toward the north, returning to Wrangell
with the fall freeze. In 1992, the ice pack retreated dramatically,
stranding polar bears and walruses on the island for the summer. The
result was bloody carnage, as predator and prey found themselves
locked in tight quarters together.
The distinct warming of the past couple of decades has already had
perceptible effects on smaller life forms as well. Camille Parmesan,
an entomologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara,
published a study in the journal Nature which detailed local
extinctions and changes in the range of a butterfly called Edith's
Checkerspot, an insect that is very sensitive to climate change. She
found that warming temperatures had killed off the butterfly in much
of the southern reaches of its range in Mexico, but that it was
expanding its range in Canada and cooler areas at higher elevations.
Even without climate change, countless species will continue to
decline. Ignorant of the workings of the systems that sustain us, we
continue to squeeze them, not knowing whether we are squeezing them
too much. There is absolutely no question that there will be a day of
reckoning for this mad gamble.
David Quarnmen, author of The Song of the Dodo, which explores the
anarchy wrought by the fragmentation of nature, quotes conservation
biologists Michael Soule and Bruce Wilcox on the net result of
humanity's impact on the biosphere: "There is no escaping the
conclusion that in our lifetimes, this planet will see a suspension,
if not an end, to many ecological and evolutionary processes which
have been uninterrupted since the beginnings of paleontological time."
If scientists do not know how an ecosystem sustains itself, they do
know that nature tends to seek equilibrium. As the players or
circumstances change in any given ecosystem, nature adjusts, seeking
some new equilibrium. That period of adjustment can be quite
volatile. It can also take a long time for nature to recover from a
spasm of extinctions. Ten million years is the figure that the great
Harvard biologist E. 0. Wilson uses, and it is useful to keep this
figure in mind when those who doubt the seriousness of the
fragmentation of habitats and the loss of biodiversity argue that
societies can restore their ecosystems once they have made economic
progress. Wildlands may be easily convertible into capital, but the
reverse is not so easy.
Of all the clues to what lies ahead, the squeezing of earth's life-
support system may have the most direct and immutable ties to future
Living With Limits
A variety of signals suggest that the next round of improvements in
food production are not going to be as easy as the gains achieved
during the (past 50 years). Nor are there now great stretches of
wildlands ready to be brought under plow, as there were decades ago,
or great sources of untapped fresh water that might be used for
irrigation. All of these factors, plus the stresses of producing
enough of five basic crops - corn, wheat, soybeans, barley, and rice -
to feed six billion people, have conspired to produce a compelling
clue to the future: an increase in the volatility of the global food
Rice has a special place in the world food system, because it is the
staple of people in warm nations who are too poor to afford anything
else. If these three billion people cannot afford rice, they have
nowhere to turn for food. What worries (experts) is that, to keep
pace with population growth, rice production has to increase by more
than 70 percent in the next thirty years... On the horizon are new
strains of biotech hybrid rice and a high-yielding "super rice" now
in development, but (experts) estimates that these improvements might
ultimately increase the rice harvest by only 25 percent. Somehow rice
growers must find another 45-percent increase. Where it will come
from is not obvious at the moment, particularly given the trends in
the world today.
The amount of irrigated land around the world has not significantly
increased since 1992, and erosion, the salinization of fields, and
other forms of desertification are taking millions of acres out of
production each year...
There are other instabilities inherent to the production of crops
themselves. Developing an agricultural system to feed an expanding
and increasingly urbanized world population involves a number of
trade-offs. The need for standardized, easily transportable foods has
tended to focus attention on just a few crops, creating a self-
reinforcing cycle in which farmers look to increase yields and
increase focus on ever-fewer varieties, grown in ever more similar
ways. Bangladesh, which once grew ten thousand variants of rive, now
relies on just five...
Primitive variants of basic crops such as wheat and corn carry with
adaptations to an enormous variety of threats. Some corn varieties
that originated in high-altitude regions of Mexico, for instance,
have purple tassels that may store heat, providing protection from
frosts and some defense against ultraviolet radiation; the latter
issue may prove important as the ozone layer continues to deteriorate
under assault by man-made chemicals... The danger is that pests,
blights, or climate change may produce an emergency in one of the
staple crops to which scientists cannot respond...
And then there is water. Whether or not climate becomes more
unstable, water scarcity looms as a huge limit to future increases in
productivity. The International Food Policy Research Institute
estimates that 338 million people live in countries now suffering
water stress, which means that the region suffers major problems
during drought years. IFPRI estimates that by 2025 roughly 50
countries, with a total population of three billion people, will
suffer water stress. This projection represents a nine-fold increase
in water scarcity in just thirty years.
As per-capita supplies of fresh water diminish, global demand
increases at 2.4 percent annually, a rate faster than population
growth. This sets up a no-win competition between industry,
agriculture, households, and ecosystems for ever-smaller amounts of
The competition for water also raises the likelihood of conflict
between nations. Turkey controls the headwaters of both the Tigris
and Euphrates rivers, and its past actions to dam the rivers have
prompted its bellicose downstream neighbors, Iraq and Syria, to
threaten war. Tensions could flare again as Turkey moves to complete
its $21 billion Greater Anatolia Project, which would divert water to
irrigate 1.65 million hectares of agricultural land. The possibility
of conflict over water extends to dozens of countries in Asia,
Africa, and the Middle East, and at the heart of the tensions will be
the issue of food security.
The experience of recent years suggests that the shrinking margin
for error that comes with diminishing surplus stocks and humanity's
ever-greater dependence on a small range of seeds and diminishing
supplies of fresh water will foster ever-greater turmoil.
Infectious Disease Resurgent
Down through history, plagues and epidemics have brought low great
empires. Measles and other diseases, not conquest, brought down the
civilizations of the New World and Polynesia, and a virulent strain
of influenza that circled the world in 1918-19 killed more people
than World War I. Disease is an indicator of instability, but also a
precursor to future instability. When ecosystems are out of balance,
microbes tend to benefit; when populations of any given species
explode, disease can bring them back into balance with brutal
Microbes are configured to respond extraordinarily quickly to any
environmental change. They have in their favor a particular
reproductive strategy, dubbed the "R-strategy" by those who study
population dynamics. R-strategists secure their perpetuation through
massive reproduction in very short periods of time. The creatures
that prey on microbes and the mosquitoes and other vectors that
spread disease tend to be so-called K-strategists. These species have
fewer offspring but protect and nurture them, so that they are more
likely to survive. In the normal course of life, the two strategies
tend to remain in balance, but when weather, human activities, the
loss of biological diversity, or some other upheaval upsets that
balance, the R-strategists are better poised to exploit the
opportunity and proliferate.
This is happening today on a massive scale around the world, as
human activities and human movements transform the globe. Each of the
clues discussed in earlier chapters contributes in some way to the
resurgence of infectious disease...
Indeed urban migration in the developing world threatens to undo one
of the great victories of the twentieth century, the first period in
which it has been safe to live in cities. Previously, plagues and
epidemics periodically decimated cities once they grew past their
capacity to dispose of wastes and maintain clean water.
Unfortunately, future historians may look back upon the respite of
the past few decades as the last period in which it was safe to live
Diseases bring about profound change. In an article for the Journal
of Preventative Medicine, Paul Epstein argued that the first European
plague pandemic in 541 A.D., in the disorder following the fall of
the Roman Empire, let to a flight from cities and contributed to the
development of feudalism. The next pandemic, in 1346, brought about a
labor shortage that broke the power of feudal landlords over labor
and led to the development of the middle class. What social change
will accompany the next round of plagues when they come?"
If Eugene Linden is correct in any one of these scenarios, and he is
most likely correct in all of them, then human civilization is headed
for fundamental changes within our lifetimes. The longer we ignore
these systemic issues - and anything less than proactive systemic
corrective strategies constitutes ignorance - the more severe the
shift back to equilibrium.
I completed this section of The Truth with tears in my eyes, as I
concluded reading and integrating into this text one of the more
powerful tales I've come across in the course of this work. I
realize that above all other reasons for investing so much in this
project, it is out of anguish for the youth of our world that I am
motivated to act.
In the fall of 1998, I asked a colleague of mine -- Drew Stepek, a
phenomenally talented young writer in Los Angeles -- to share with me
his thoughts as we approach the millennium. After a good conversation
I sent him this message: "I'd like you to write a ten page
characterization of civilization from the eyes of a young person
entering college... What hopes, fears, desires, concerns, ethics,
passions, hates, and motives do they feel at this time in history?"
He recounted this remarkable story. Parental guidance is suggested...
Some things are best left unsaid-things considered taboo, the most
unspeakable acts, the most senseless of crimes. And, whenever I
found myself faced with this cruel reality, I found myself hiding.
Ironic that I would have ended up hidden at the most important
transition of my life: my great escape. This was the only place that
I found solace. I never told anyone. It was just me, my mind and my
confusion. I wasn't an escapist. I never envisioned a threatened
Harry Houdini rolling around in a chilling underwater grave, jealous
of my hidden world. That would be the glamorized fantasy of a
romantic. As a mentor, Samuel Langhorn Clemens would have found that
petty. I always thought myself a realist; I observed the world, took
notes and passed judgment. But suddenly, I had to face a 150 mile
per hour wake-up call to my mortality and I struggled for answers. I
always thrived to come to terms with the world and myself. The
question: what could I possibly add to this world-unbound?
During my final year of high school, I discovered a way to cleanse
myself of the confines of prom dates, football pep rallies and lame
tri-screen, amped-up motivational speeches. The latter of those
three interested me the least. Although the intention seemed
honorable, those presentations were always M.C.ed by some hack ex-cop
who evidently honed his audio/visual skills rather than his filling-
out-retirement-paperwork skills. Besides, I don't believe these
"Drink, Drive, Die" speeches are what George Lucas envisioned when he
created THX. Instead of indulging in the lackluster rah-rah of high
school life, I chose to pay my respects to a tree.
Don't worry. "Paying my respects to a tree" isn't slang for getting
high. This tree was something for me to believe in. It was a place
where I could write, think and be alone.
At the center of my Nirvana was a tree so magnificent, I never
understood how it grew from the tainted soil of this town-condemned.
Standing about 35 feet, the tree, which I jokingly dubbed "Nazareth,"
nested on the side of a bog bank contaminated by the atrocities of
the now defunct paper mill upstream. The paper mill shut down about
nine months ago, leaving most of our town, including my workaholic
father, unemployed. Its closing however, didn't rid this area of the
unbearable pulp burning stench, extenuated by the odor of dead
animals. Most of the wildlife, of course, was killed drinking the
shit that filled the water. It wasn't uncommon to stumble upon a
In one respect, I guess I could thank that paper mill, however.
After all, it did give me the resources to fill out the necessary
paper work for a scholarship. Strangely enough, 40-some odd years of
the toxins from the mill didn't seem to affect the tree anywhere near
as much as their absence had destroyed the town and its people.
Quite a persistent old bastard, it had been there for as long as I
could remember. It had two extended limbs that sprouted upwards,
eternally reaching for some sort of hope. The shaft displayed the
agony of a martyr's face; twisted, torn and weathered beyond
recognition. Brought to the tree by the moisture from the venomous
swamp, were thousands of gnats and marsh bugs that sucked at its
tears of sap. Although quite a majestic landmark, the beauty never
stopped me from baptizing it after a good night of writing and a few
too many beers.
A behemoth from top to bottom, this tree wasn't going anywhere. As
a matter of fact, the base was so thick and soundly embedded into the
ground, that even the swampy muck that sucked the life out of most
seedlings was forced upwards, rolling right back down into the bog.
Evidently, it remembered something promising about this shithole that
must have existed long before my conception.
Wrapping and covering almost every other inch of the colossus was
"the virus vine"-that was, in our part of the country, what people
called the uncontrollable kudzu weed. You see, kudzu seemed to be
the scapegoat that spread and covered and swallowed our town-
eliminating it and all of its moral value from the face of the earth.
It grew on houses, it grew on phone lines. If you left your car
untended long enough, it grew on your car. Maybe the town was best
that way. Unseen. Unsaid. Unnoticed. Unbound.
The first time that I made one of three donations to Nazareth was
early last October. The wind had started to take on a burnt embers
smell as it breezed through town, fighting away the always lurking
smell of the old paper mill. This was not an Indian Summer. Quite
the contrary, it was bitterly cold.
This particular night, the homecoming football game my senior year,
the cheerleaders were so cold that not even their leggings and mascot-
blessed sweaters could help them avoid the crowd heckling them, their
mascara-enhanced, red, goose-bumped faces and their protruding
headlights. Danny Wilks, bundled up and tribally face-painted red
and black (the school colors), and I headed out to the game to cheer
on the team. Sadly, there wasn't a whole lot to cheer for. We were
the weakest and smallest team in our conference. Our homecoming
rival blasted through our rag-tag bunch of, shall I say, maybe-they-
should-have-played-soccer, players and left them for the over-
populated janitorial staff to clean up. Actually they weren't much
of a rival in the truest sense of the word, we hadn't beaten them in
over 20 years. We lost 45-3. Luckily, our field goal kicker, Dave
"Launch" Lonchar's day job was playing soccer. He seemed to be the
team's only real asset and helped save a little bit of face.
Although nothing was worse than losing your homecoming game every
year, this year it didn't seem to faze football fanatic Danny. He
was always impressed by the primetime feel of bright lights and shiny
helmets but always insisted that he could never play the game because
of his inability to concentrate. I'm sure that it had nothing to do
with the fact that the kid stood five-six on his tip-toes and weighed
a buck-twenty with his pockets filled with bars of gold.
I had known Danny almost my entire life. We grew up directly across
the street from each other. Luckily for him, he was rich by our
town's standards. His father, Buck Wilks had made some sound
investments years ago and his mother, Trudy, came from old money.
The youngest of four Wilks boys (Billy, Timmy, Tommy and Danny
consecutively), he wasn't the brightest kid I knew. As a matter of
fact, he had spent much of his early life juiced-up on Ritalin to
control his outbursts of hyperactivity. Also plagued with ADD and
dyslexia, he spent a lot of time in those "special" classes.
However, all of these birthright setbacks never stunted his optimism.
"Hey man, you're not going to believe the news I got today." He
said as we jumped into his overly-lifted Jeep CJ-7. As he popped the
clutch to take off, he kicked his theme song, "Stigmata" by Ministry,
into the CD player. As the thundering drums and stinging vocals of
one of the evilest songs in history blared out of his trick, five-
speaker system, he subtly injected, "I got into State early
admission. I'm out of here, kid." It looked like Danny was to be the
first. "And check this out man." As he reached into his center
console, I saw a look unlike any I had ever seen him make: one of
pride. "Look what my old man got me. He opened the letter before I
got home from school today." Then, Danny showed me his pride. The
one gift from his hard-ass father that wasn't a token of his
wealth...at least to Danny. It was a Mont Blanc pen. He didn't care
about the price. Maybe because he didn't realize that it was worth
more than I made in a month. He just cared about his accomplishment
and what this pen, with his name engraved on it, symbolized. After
being pinned as an underachiever and a dunce by ignorant teachers
most of his life, it truly reflected his rising above the hubbub.
"Dude, this pen can write on anything" he began, "and according to
the little manual that came with it, it's indestructible." He then
complemented his ridiculous sports fan outfit by placing his trophy
in his front shirt pocket.
Then, I said the unthinkable. "Oh, so you can read." I don't
really know why I said it. It just kind of fired out...out of
"What the hell is that supposed to mean? I haven't seen any
acceptance letter for you yet pal." He lunged back.
I quickly tried to salvage the conversation, as well as our
friendship. "No, man. I didn't mean to say that. I just want to
get out of here. I hate this place. There has to be a better truth,
a better life, out there somewhere. Life doesn't revolve around an
old, abandoned paper mill. The fools in this town really believe
that it's going to re-open. I only write on paper. I don't give a
fuck where it comes from."
"Whoa!!! Fair enough, dick head. Don't worry D, you're letter will
come." He gave me a shadow boxer "duck and punch" and then gunned
out of the high school parking lot. "If you could only learn how to
speak as well as you write."
"Thanks. I'm an ass. Where are we going, anyway?" I asked.
"I don't know. A few of the football players are having a party.
Probably to honor Lonchar for putting some numbers on the board."
That was Danny's way of dressing up piece of shit with a cherry. It
was a skill that he had mastered. For example, he didn't really see
himself as a slow learner. He saw the teachers as moving too fast.
"Hey man, what's up with Susan's step dad and the Christmas lights?"
At first I didn't know what he was talking about. "Check it. It's
the middle of October and he's already building a shrine to the baby
Jesus. First one to get them up every year. Last one to take 'em
down." As we drove by Susan's house, I looked out the plastic Jeep
window and there was Rick Conroy, whistling away and lacing the house
with bright flashing lights. The guy couldn't have been happier. I
guess since the paper mill closed, the locals would do just about
anything to raise their spirits and keep themselves busy.
"I don't know." I answered, "Susan has kind of a strange family.
She's a little messed up." I knew Susan Glass well, but I didn't
have a clue as to the motivation behind her stepfather's holiday-envy.
"You're telling me. When was the last time that twig had a burger?
She needs to get with it. Maybe she fasts all year and feasts on
"I think there is more to it than that." I left it at that. I knew
that Susan was anorexic and didn't think it was any of Danny's
business. We all had problems communicating our fears. Hers all
seemed to be buried and concealed deeply inside.
"Well, alright then," he said.
After driving around for close to an hour, Danny and I ended up
parking at McDonald's-a common meeting place for all those anxious
seniors who were looking for the locale of the night's festivities.
"Hey, Dano. I heard about State. You outta here boyeeeeeee!"
yelled the star field goal kicker, Lonchar, from across the parking
"Nice field goal Launch. Maybe I can talk to the State football
coach." Danny answered, nudging the champ in the ribs.
"Football. I want to play soccer." They both shared a laugh and
then proceeded to cheers each other in the air. As much as Lonchar
joked, it was obvious that a part-time football career paid fairly
well. The field goal hero was surrounded by an entourage of star-
struck girls. If you didn't know any better you'd swear that Lonchar
had just won the Super Bowl and signed a seven-figure commercial deal
with McDonald's. The sad thing was, his parents could never afford
to send him to college and his grades...well...maybe it was a good
night for him to be "The Man." "Hey boys, Dodge is having a jammie
at his house. Parents are gone, two kegs and probably whatever other
poison you want."
"Sounds good man. We'll catch you there," I said as we headed out
of the parking lot, both Danny and I anticipating a messy night.
"Hey man. I didn't get anything to eat before the game. Can we
stop at the donut shop and pick up a snack? I didn't want to get too
wasted." I looked at Danny and I couldn't think of anything worse
than donuts and beer for a hyperactive kid having the most exciting
night of his life so far.
"You're drivin'," was the only thing that I could say. As we pulled
in front of the donut shop, that resentful sentence continued to echo
through my mind. It was the tongue of my desperation. The voice of
a caged and spiteful animal. I hoped that he would forgive me.
"Do you want to come in D? Maybe you can get something."
"Yeah, that's cool." I had come to terms with the fact that I would
be babysitting for a drunken maniac that night. It didn't bother me,
I owed it to him.
On our way into Al's Do-Nuts, we both noticed an unfamiliar, aggro
kid ranting nervously at passers-by and screaming into the phone. He
had a bushy home-sculpted mullet hairdo, a cheap pleather jacket, and
sweat beading-up on his Cro-Magnon brow. As we passed him, he gave
us a once over and remained fully tuned into his important
conversation. Obviously, he was just passing through, picking up a
package from one of the unemployed town folk striving to make ends
meet. Funny, judging from his sunken black eyes and beyond pasty
skin, the only place that this kid would qualify as a familiar face
"Take note young Daniel. Butane is not a proper inhalant when mixed
with crystal meth," I joked.
"Ya think? That kid needs some sugar about as much as I do right
now." He laughed and shuffled through his pockets as we entered Al's
to the ringing, distorted doorbell. "Hey D, order me a bear claw, a
honey glazed and a couple of the gross old ones to throw at people at
Dodger's house. I left my dinero in the car."
"Cool. Hey, Gerry. What up?" The Do-nut man of the night was our
football team's ex-all star running back Gerald Denn.
"What up, D?" He returned. "Deed mine boys sing redemption
tonight?" A funny thing about Gerald was that after ninth grade he
began speaking like a Rastafarian. He told everyone that he was born
in Jamaica, then moved to America at a young age. If you didn't know
any better, you'd swear he was the long lost descendant of Bob
Marley, Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer, Marcus Garvey and Jah himself. I
suspected that his birth records would tell a different story and
that the whole charade was an excuse to smoke a lot of weed and look
"I and I did not tink so. Any partyin' a-goin' on later?" Gerald
was the one great hope that our football team ever had of winning a
homecoming game. However, you've heard the saying about big fish in a
small pond. After one article too many in the local newspaper about
the great Gerald Denn, he dropped out his junior year and tried to go
pro. It didn't exactly work out the way he expected. Oh well, he
took some night classes and successfully completed his G.E.D.. Unlike
most of the ex-sports heroes who still lusted for the glory years,
he tried extremely hard not to talk about the past. He did however,
dream. The rest is Do-Nut history.
"Yeah, Dodge and those clowns are having a party. Can you grab me a
bear claw, a honey glazed and a couple of those old heinous ones?"
"Is done," he said as he flicked open a bag and masterfully juggled
the donuts into the bag. Then, something caught his attention. "Ey,
D, t'looks like Dano s'havin' some trouble with dat ragamuffin
outside." I guess I forgot about the living dead lingering outside,
because at first I didn't register Gerald's comment. Nonetheless,
before I could turn around, the bell signaled that Danny was already
on his way in.
"What was that all about." I asked.
"That freak just wanted to borrow my pen to write down a number."
Danny didn't even seem to think twice about lending his trophy.
"Where is it now?"
"He's bringing it in when he's finished."
"He better." Before I could dig into Danny about lending out the
pen, the bell chimed and the mystery man shot through the door. He
was picking at the scabs on his face and his right eye twitched like
someone had just sprayed him in the face with a sandblaster.
"Hey man. Can I buy this pen off of you?" he asked Danny.
"No. It's a gift. Why don't you go down the street to Rite Aid and
"Because I need to copy down this information now. You got any
paper?" Once again, Danny fumbled through his pockets. The only
thing that he had was his acceptance letter to state. Funny how you
never seem to have a piece of paper when you need it.
"Nope. Just write it down on your hand. That pen writes on
anything. Maybe if you wash your hands first, you'll be able to read
it," Danny answered, beginning to get a little perturbed. It was
obvious that he was heating up because the red and black face paint
started to run together all over the place.
"God dammit!" The severely neurotic kid yelled as he spun around in
a frenzy and headed back to the phone. The doorbell didn't work.
"Maybe we should invite psycho to Dodger's house. Looks like he
could use a beer." Danny had cooled down but I was quickly absorbing
"Fuck that, let's bring him there and give him a blanket party." I
shot. A blanket party was our way of letting troublemakers know that
they stepped out of line. Usually performed as a joke, or an homage
to the infamous "Code Reds" of the military, we would pull a blanket
over someone's head and then beat them until they begged for mercy.
"Oh, relax. What's happening Ger?"
"Natta much, Dano. 'Ere is dem donuts." Once again, the mullethead
plowed into the shop. Once again, the bell didn't work.
"Don't be a dick, dude. I need this pen. I'll give you twenty
bucks for it." One of his face pickings had started to bleed. This
was really starting to get annoying. Danny was beginning to show
early signs of that hyperactive youth who used to light himself on
fire and jump into the lake behind his house as a joke.
"Look fuck, just write down your info and give it back." The
pleather clad warrior kicked the door open and returned to the phone.
Gerald didn't seem agitated. Besides, he didn't own the shop.
In an attempt to alleviate some of the stress, I stepped up to the
counter in front of Danny. "I got it Dan. I owe you something for
being an ass earlier." I reached across the counter to give Gerald
my money. Then, it happened.
FWAP! FWAP! FWAP!
Three gunshots rang out behind me. I hadn't ever heard a gat fired
so close to me. It shook my teeth and burnt my gums. As terror
thrusted up my veins, my balls shriveled into my chest. Terrified, I
jumped behind the counter with Gerald who had already taken cover. I
didn't hear Danny cry out, so I figured he had taken cover with us as
well. Two seconds later, the reluctant bell rang and the gunman was
instantly squealing out of the parking lot. With my eyes closed, I
propped myself up slowly. Gerald was shivering in shock. I was also
shaking. I was shaking so hard that the cheap imitation glass donut
case rattled and the cakes inside fell from their designated homes.
With one eye, I looked up through the display case, beyond the mixed
pile of donuts. All I could see was slightly twitching remains of
college student Danny Wilks. It was difficult to tell where his
blood stopped and where his smeared makeup began. It was even harder
to tell who he was. As I began to lose control of my breathing and
collapse, I looked down at my mangled life-long friend, the first one
of my allies to escape, and saw his Mont Blanc pen tightly gripped in
his hand. Engraved on the base was "You did it. Love, Dad" proudly
displayed in the poorly lit ambiance of Al's Do-Nut shop. He
twitched. He twitched again. His arms fluttered uncontrollably and
then his last living squirt of blood spat all over the front of the
counter. "Breathe, Danny. Breathe God dammit. Breathe," is all I
managed to get out.
A week later, I crossed the street to the Wilks's house. His father
gave me the pen, saying that I should have it. At first, I was
reluctant to take it, but he insisted that it belonged to me. He
couldn't bear the sight of what remained of his youngest son. Maybe
he blamed himself for giving Danny such an expensive gift. I told
him that the killer didn't have any idea of the pen's value.
"The bastard didn't even have the balls to face his crime," Buck
Wilks sniffed out in a shattered voice. Apparently, after the killer
bailed from Al's, he headed down the highway where he was eventually
pursued by the local cops. While driving towards the Bay Bridge, his
only escape route, he emptied the gun into his own face, swerved off
the road and was engulfed in the flames of his car. Coward.
That night, I went to visit Nazareth to bury Danny's trophy at the
foundation. I didn't think that I was ever going to be able to write
with it. Much to my chagrin, some neighborhood kids had constructed
a rope swing by hammering two railroad spikes into his hands,
securing a long nylon rope connected to an old tire. I was so
furious that I ripped down the apparatus, tearing the nails through
the limbs of the tree. Angered, I turned and hoisted the blasphemous
plaything into the sewer. The fiery rage pumping through my arms
quickly froze midstream when I noticed what I had done. I had
weakened the pleading appendages, forcing sap to gush out everywhere.
Instead of clutching towards any prospect for survival, the limbs
weakly dangled like the ornaments on a pathetic Christmas tree.
After my initial shock, surprisingly, it didn't upset me. With the
senseless loss of Danny, I was beginning to lose interest in the
majesty of Nazareth. Without looking again, I quickly dug a hole at
the Herculean base and buried Danny's trophy.
In the winter, another ring was added to Nazareth's long life. I
spent the day home "sick" from school so I could crank out a couple
poems that were due for my creative writing class. I knew that they
wouldn't take me that long to complete but I really wanted to leave
high school with a bang and make my presence as a writer remembered.
How heroic of me. I never felt that anything could make people
listen like the written word. Besides, what did I have to compete
with; the theatre kids and their obsession with the bored rebellion
of Holden Caufield, the stoners and their Gonzo-esque carbon copies
of Hunter S. Thompson, and the countless other caustic attempts at
metaphorically mutating "roses are red" by paying tribute to Tupac
Shakur or Biggie Smalls. I wanted to tell something bold, something
After pacing unconstructively around Nazareth in a zombified
lethargy, I concluded that every other kid in my class was going to
sum up the closing of the paper mill and how it had taken its toll on
our town. Since I hadn't taken the time to deal with Danny's death,
I decided to leave that topic to one of the many girls in class who
fancied themselves his widow. So, I diverted my attention elsewhere.
Susan Glass's misery was the first thing that came to mind...
Susan was always a really close friend to everyone, but she kept to
herself. It was obvious that she suffered from severe anorexia and
it seemed to consume all of her time. I remember one time when I
went out to get some frozen yogurt with her, she threw a fit at the
poor employee when he refused to measure the already non-fat yogurt
into exactly 10 oz.. She was very obsessed and all the warning signs
were there. A couple of my friends and I used to make fun of her
mustache and call her "Hitler." Whenever she walked by, we would
stand attention and salute her by lunging our arms into the air,
exclaiming, "heil!" One day she took me aside in tears, explaining
that because of the affliction, her body's hormones produced a soft,
thin layer of hair everywhere on her body. All of her friends ignored
her cry for help, relying on a societal debate concerning high school
females and their infatuation with super models.
For this, I owed her something. I didn't want to expose her
personal demons to my teachers or make her uncomfortable around her
peers, but I did want to let her know that I cared. I worked all
that day under the weakened arms of Nazareth, creating something
true. That fabulous shaft supported my back and kept me attentive to
the task I had outlined for myself. However, the stench of the bog
was a painful reminder of life's setbacks and the atrocities tucked
away in the deepest clearings of the town. Sure, my poem may have
been driven by a plea of forgiveness, but the result was a painting
of her beauty. At dusk, I was finally satisfied with the finished
product. I read it to myself over and over. It was everything I
hoped it would be. It was...poetic. The first real piece of poetry
that I had ever written. Still, the completion of her maze lead back
to the beginning. I searched what I knew about her for an answer to
her perpetual self destruction. I guess deep down I thought it a
little selfish for someone who lived in this town to refuse food.
Nevertheless, excited about my tribute, I called Sue and asked her to
meet me at the McDonald's parking lot. She agreed.
"You can't bring this to class!" she screamed as she read of the
words in horror. "You will totally single me out. I don't have a
problem and I don't want to be your secret little joke. I'm not your
"Sue, I just wanted to..." I began. She pulled out a cigarette,
probably the first of her second or third pack of the day, from
behind her ear. Then, in one swift, circular motion, she pulled her
trademark Zippo out of her pocket, lit the cigarette and returned the
faithful lighter to its home. She must have practiced that move so
many times to get it right, I remember thinking in admiration.
"What? Tell everyone how fucked-up I am. You don't understand, D."
She continued to look at my poem and began to cry. The power of her
tears piled on top of her chiseled jaw, picked up weight and then
fell onto her sweater in piles. "He fucks me, D." As I searched
through my mind to try and pin-point Susan's latest co-dependent, I
came upon a frightening realization. "He fucks me all the time.
When my mom goes out, even when she goes to the store to pick up a
couple of things, he rapes me. He beats me like his bitch and calls
me by his dead wife's name. 'Angie! Angie, you whore! Angie!' All
over the house. He won't stop."
"Rick?" Rick Conroy always seemed so happy, stringing his Christmas
lights, paying tribute to Christ. It all made sense. I guess I
finally had the solution to her maze and the reasoning for how such a
beautiful girl with everything going for her would want to re-invent
herself as something unappealing, skeletal, unable to reproduce.
"How come you never told anybody?" I whispered.
"Would you tell anybody? My mom? She's always so piss drunk, she
ignores what she may or may not know. She doesn't care. All she
does is sit around or relive her glory years as the homecoming queen
by stumbling around the house with her stupid crown on."
"Susan, as a friend I have to tell somebody. Jesus Christ, you
should have told someone other than me." I didn't want to be the
sole protector of such an incredibly sick secret.
"No way. I don't want to be the freak. I know what people say. I
hear those tweaked cunts who pretend to be my friends say they want
to help when they are secretly wishing they were as thin as me. I
see how all of you make jokes about me. LOOK AT ME!" she screeched
revealing her lifeless bone of a limb by pulling up the arm of her
"You aren't a freak. You just need help."
"It's not that easy. Just keep it to yourself. If I find out that
you told anyone, I will kill you. I'm getting out of here. I am
going to stay with my sister until summer and I'll find out next week
whether or not I got into State. My mom has the money tucked away
from when my grandfather died. My grades are pretty solid...err...at
least until this year." She flicked her cigarette out the window and
immediately lit up another. Same motion, same precision.
"You have to quit suffering. Now!" All I could do was offer simple
solutions to the terror of her existence. I couldn't feel her pain,
but it spoke powerfully and burned my skin through her eyes.
"Keep your mouth shut, D. You aren't God here." She pulled deep on
her cigarette and shot me a trusting look.
"Okay I promise."
"Thanks." She continued to look at the poem and continued to cry.
"Can I keep this? I'll give you my lighter." From her pocket she
pulled out her precious Zippo. This time, she pulled it out slowly.
I attempted to shoo it away , but she insisted. "Take it, I have to
quit smoking. It's killing me." We both laughed and the exchange
was made. I heard her bones creak as she carefully exited the car.
Then, she poked her head in and blew me a kiss. She followed her
token of love by performing this crazy skeleton dance. She bounced
around aimlessly, flapping her grossly thin body around like an
uncontrollable marionette. This was her way of letting me know
everything was okay.
The next day, I ended up turning in an obvious poem about the
closing of the paper mill how it would have affected Mark Twain.
Apparently, my teacher didn't agree with my views on obscure literary
references focusing on Twain and how he was consumed by James
Fenimore Cooper and his fraudulent, romantic writing style. I
thought it was funny, but my teacher fancies herself quite a
Deerslayer when it comes to grading. I got a C. At least Susan's
secret was safe.
About a week and a half later, the phone rang at around 2:00 in the
morning. My mom answered it and immediately rushed into my room.
"Honey, Lonchar is on the phone. He says that it's really
important." Great, I thought, Dodge must be having another one of
his epic all-nighters.
"What do you want Launch. I'm sleeping," I grumbled as I wiped
away the first signs of snot from my eyes.
"Dude. Susan jumped off the Bay Bridge. They found her car parked
out there with a note. They haven't found her yet. She may still be
alive. I might go up there and search around." This was no time for
a hero, I thought.
"What? What are you talking about?" I wasn't really shocked, just
confused. "What did the note say? Was it about Rick?" Quickly, I
felt loss and delivery creep up my body. She was cold as she lifted
"About Rick? Rick who? Chambers? Were they dating? No, it was a
letter from State, refusing her admission." The phone dropped from
my hand and I started to gag. As I walked away, I heard Lonchar
yelling, "D! D! Are you there? D! Are you there?
As I thought about Sue jumping off the 50 foot Bay Bridge, I clearly
saw her agony released. She knew she was trapped. I walked into my
room and put on my clothes. My mom peaked in through my door.
"Honey, what did he want? Did something happen?" I picked up
Susan's Zippo from my bed stand and headed out. Breathe, Danny.
Breathe God dammit. Breathe!
"Don't worry about it mom. I'll be back in a little while." I
should have told her something but I had another agenda.
When I went to Nazareth to bury Susan's lighter at its base, I saw
him in a completely different light. The darkness may have been
deceiving, but at night he didn't look as strong. He seemed
weathered, beaten down, tired. And looking at the moonlight shadow,
he didn't reflect any tangible form other than a big pile of kudzu.
I fell to my knees and began digging directly next to the burial
location of Danny's trophy. Never looking down, I dropped Susan's
provider into the hole and covered it up.
They would eventually find her decayed body in the next couple of
days. It washed up on the banks of the bay. I'm sure that even in
her decomposed state she was still as beautiful as she had always
been. As much as I wished that it was all a hoax, I knew deep down
that she didn't see any other way out. She was so close to escaping.
I decided to keep her secret. At that time, I wanted her beauty to
live on forever, untarnished. This was a problem that couldn't have
been solved by an extra two ounces of yogurt.
I remember the feeling when I opening the mail box that Spring day.
I enjoyed the mystery of what lay ahead. Unlike the past few months,
in which I opened the box only to be showered with a number of
countless delinquent bills that my parents had tried unsuccessfully
to ignore, there was only a sole letter. I immediately knew what it
was. I bit my lip, pulled it out and my stomach howled. It felt
thin. That wasn't a good sign. Shooting through my mind were
thoughts like, "Why would I, a kid from a shitty little town beat out
every other aspiring writer to get a scholarship to a stuffy private
Luckily, my parents were gone. They wouldn't have to see my
disappointment as I unfolded the letter. More thoughts raced through
my mind. "Well, I could always go to the community college and raise
my grades. I would then hear my personal devil's advocate answer.
"This isn't about grades, it's your only chance."
As I sat down and continued to play with the letter-holding it up to
the light, bending it for contents-I expected nothing but the worst.
Why was the world I was escaping to any better than the one that I
lived in? Where exactly was I going? What did I expect to do with
my life? Then, I thought about Danny Wilks and Susan Glass for the
first time since they had passed. Is our world so fucked up and
deranged? What did they have to look forward to? What could they
change? For God's sake this is a world where the President fucks his
intern with a cigar, murderers get off because of their social
status, good people are killed for saying what they want, image
drives violence in the inner-city, and the figure heads of the world
vomit all over themselves, leaving a mess and creating a perpetual
circle of mistakes for us to clean up. What was so good about the
world? Was it any better than the dying town where I lived? Am I
supposed to have these answers? Did Danny or Susan? Everything that
I looked forward to, everything that I had ever wanted was on this
one piece of paper.
I sat down and began tearing the envelope open. There was a single
piece of paper inside, nicely folded on a cheap, thin stock of paper.
Something I wouldn't have noticed except I always envisioned my
college acceptance or rejection letter would be printed on a thick
paper, laced with gold and ripe for framing. I unfolded the first
flap. What if I just didn't fit in? What if I couldn't cut as a
writer? I unfolded the second flap revealing the contents of my
life. I immediately noticed that it was about three paragraphs in
length. Fairly unimpressive for the foretelling of my future. I
began to read. Fuckers! They spelled my name wrong! Well, that
wasn't important. I read the first line. "Congratulations, you have
been accepted on scholarship to attend..." I was in!
When my parents arrived home that evening-my father had taken on a
part-time job as an engineering consultant a few towns over and my
mother worked at the local book store-I proudly showed them my
conquest. They both went to college. As a matter of fact, they both
went to a better college than the one I had gotten into. However,
the military brainwash of his academy school and the Lutheran
teachings of her mid-western school didn't appeal to me. I wanted to
write and I wanted out.
"Good job, son. You did it." my father said, extending his hand
for a firm shake.
"I don't know, honey. Are you sure you want to leave?" my mother
I handed my father the letter. "Fuckers! They spelled our name
After a good dinner, I took my letter off of the fridge. "Are you
going to go and show it to your friends?"
"Something like that." I had one last sacrifice to make to the
great icon. One last duty.
As I counted the days before my triumphant escape, I sat on the
stump of the powerful Nazareth. Once, standing so proud, an enigma
in our decaying society. Now, just a pew surrounded by a lump of
torn kudzu and left-over bark. Unbeknownst to me, they leveled this
entire area sometime over the past couple of months. Even the
smaller disciples across the bog were mowed down.
I guess I lost interest. When you're forced to grow up, security
blankets, crutches, idols, and religions fade away. Why should I
give faith to something based solely on its test of time? My
internal focus grew as my dependency on higher powers disappeared,
becoming nothing more than a lesson-a perverse structure. I don't
think that spending any more time here would have made any
difference. It wouldn't bring Danny and Susan back. Like I said
before, I'm a realist, not a dreamer. I'm sure they'll build a strip
mall or something equally worthless. I can see it now. Maybe, a pop
culture coffee house, a health conscious smoothie joint or any
countless number of new age franchises that no one in this town can
afford to frequent.
I cleared away the piles of Nazareth and dug up Danny's trophy and
Susan's provider. I wanted to cry. Senseless. What could have been
done to prevent their deaths. Nothing. First, I pulled out the
lighter. I lit the Zippo's flint as I envisioned Susan's one-motion
trick that she had proudly mastered. All I could think about was her
pain. It was about more than escape for her. I held my acceptance
letter up and in one circular motion, I lit it on fire. They spelled
my name wrong and I knew my dad would make sure they sent another.
The paper slowly burned away and the light breeze broke the ends off
and exiled them to the disgusting waste of the bog below. The thin
paper burned brightly, but eventually the flames became
uncontrollable and the letter doubled over and collapsed on itself.
Before I could dispel the last corner, however, one lucky flame,
burnt the tips of my fingers.
I then dug for Danny's trophy. Sure enough, just like he said, it
was indeed "indestructible." I read the inscription aloud to the
fallen Nazareth. "You did it. Love, Dad." It was roughly the same
thing that my father had said to me. I know he would have rather had
me go to some military school, but he was proud of me, just as much
as old Buck Wilks was of Danny. Although I had tried to shut out
that fateful night for the rest of my life, certain elements always
flashed by; Danny masked behind his ridiculous face make-up, Lonchar
the hero, Gerald the dreamer, the speed freak coward and me...the
jealous asshole. I am still haunted by the sight Danny's shaking
body. He just laid there, begging for a minute, a second, a moment
and twitched. As his leg quivered uncontrollably, the blood from his
wounds pumped out. It was almost as if his leg was working as a
death machine, pushing him to the end as quickly a possible. It was
I fumbled around in my pockets for a piece of paper to write on.
Just like Danny at Al's Do-Nuts, I didn't have a piece. God, if he
had a piece of paper. Anything for that freak to write down whatever
information was so fucking important. Why is that every time you
really need a piece of paper you can't find one? I began stamping
around like a lunatic, crushing the worthless remains of Nazareth as
the blazing hell of Ministry's "Stigmata" pounded in my head.
Frantic, I threw Susan's lighter into the bog. I shredded pieces of
the virus vine. I kicked at the stump and smashed scraps of bark. I
was unleashed, uncaged. Just as I lifted my arm to throw that
fucking pen, that terrible fucking pen, a memory surged through my
head, "Dude, this pen can write on anything." I stopped and then
slowly picked up a piece of bark from one of Nazareth's two reaching
limbs. I wrote the truth. My truth. Then, I paid my last respects
to the fallen God. It had finally been useful. It wasn't my hiding
place anymore and it wasn't the burial ground of my friends.
It was late, so I fished Susan's lighter out of the smelly pissing
hole, put the piece of bark under my arm, proudly placed Danny's pen
in my front pocket and headed home.
For the first time in a long while, I started to observe. The
dilapidated homes, the rummage growing in the yards...it was all so
wrong. And then, I came to my school, most likely the cleanest high
school in the country. As far as I knew, our good natured principal
hired an over-abundant amount of out-of-work custodians when the mill
closed. I walked by the football field and saw Lonchar kicking field
goals. Apparently, since Danny's death, he stayed late after soccer
practice to warm up for next year's football season.
"Good job D. I heard the news from your mom when I called you to
tell you about a shindig tonight at Dodger's pad. A real kick-ass
party. Honeys everywhere. Pick your own poison. You up?" he yelled
across the field.
"Yeah bro. I'll be there, I just got some shit to take care of
first." Lonchar booted a 40 yard filed goal. It was good.
"Kind of a fucked up year, huh?" He wiped some sweat off of his
"Yeah. Kind of a very fucked up year. Catch you later." I turned
"Oh, your mom told me to tell you to call if I ran into you. Use
the phone over there by the locker room. It's free."
"Thanks." I headed towards the locker room, listening to his grunts
and groans. Provided he got that soccer player nonsense out of his
head, Launch was going to make it out of here. I picked up the phone
and started to dial my house. I hesitated and then just as easily as
I had picked up the receiver, I hung it up. I fell into the wall in
front of me. This time, and only this time, I cried. It felt good.
Some things are best left unsaid. Some things aren't. I dialed a
number. It was not the number of my house.
It's strange when everything seems to come together. After I walked
by the high school, I caught a glimpse of something out of the corner
of my eye. To be sure I wasn't dreaming, I looked down at my watch.
Sure enough, April 16th: nowhere near Christmas. Shocked, I dropped
everything that I was holding. There he was. It was Rick Conroy,
whistling away, tearing down the lights that were still covering the
house like an overgrowth of kudzu. After collecting my memories, I
walked up to his ladder.
"Nice night, huh Mr. Conroy?" I said angelically.
"Wha??? Oh, ya scared me." He looked up at the sky. "It's
alright. I can feel something's coming in from the west though." He
re-adjusted his hat, snorted and spat onto the ground. All I could
do was stare at him. Hatred. "You gotta problem son? What're
Quickly, I shook myself out of the hypnotic death stare and got
myself together. "I just think that it's brilliant how you leave
your Christmas lights up practically all year round. It's almost
like you want to constantly bring joy to the town."
"Somethin' like that," he answered confused.
"Well, here. I've decided to bring joy to this town as well." I
placed the piece of bark at the bottom of the ladder and walked away.
"Boy, what in the hell?" I heard him stepping down from the ladder
but I didn't turn around. I just kept walking. Walking home.
"Is this some kind of joke, kid?" He screamed after me. "Hey, I'm
talking to you, ya little shit." I continued to walk and he
continued to scream. "What does this mean? Who are you?" He didn't
run after me, he didn't understand the message that I scrawled on the
bark. As his ranting became more distant, nearly out of my reach, I
"Merry Christmas fucker!" I whispered, remembering my message.
The great Harry Houdini would be proud.
The Crisis Faced by Our Children
With the market forces of Wall Street dictating a three-month
horizon to the vision of civilization, we have lost the opportunity
to found our culture on the bedrock of long-term survival,
advancement, and happiness. What makes these human challenges all
the more painful to witness is the degree to which we self-impose
ignorance of them. Western civilization's greatest single crime is
the form of lying called denial - bearing false witness to ourselves.
We see these portents of future crises in evidence all around us,
yet we bicker over President Clinton's sex life. The economy of a
once-superpower has imploded in the face of the first of many cold
winters of depression, and we find no global leadership rising even
to the level of mediocrity to confront its implications. And we
haven't even begun to talk about the psychosocial crises within our
own back yards - crises of education, economics, and crime.
When the robust education that will spark the young mind is
unreachable by the average child, are we truly surprised to witness
children reaching for frightening alternative ways to expand the
meaning of their lives? When the real-life prospects of a child's
future can never even come close to the fantasies of Madison Avenue,
is it any wonder that a generation of inner city youth becomes
utterly demoralized? When fictional entertainment becomes the only
source of powerful storytelling, and the stories are ethically
bankrupt, is it any wonder that we see the crumbling of goodness? I
weep for the human race when its future potential is so depressed as
to become less mysterious, less full of wonder, and just as ethically
vacant as its present fiction. In such a time, hope is lost, and we
What will save the children not so gifted or lucky to escape the
horrors of today's inner city life? How will society grapple with the
resulting catastrophe as those children raise children? How are all
of our children - in every city and town and of every class - going
to deal with the environmental catastrophes we are creating for them
as our legacy? How will the history books remember this generation?
When our children are young, not only do we deny their obstacles and
pain, we inflict them. We glamorize their beautiful faces and then
ridicule their average ones. We complain about their education and
then fail to educate. We complain about violence in entertainment and
fail to tune it out. We paint the vision of college and "success",
and then keep the same vision out of reach for all but a few. We
pound absolute guilt into their minds regarding natural explorations
of adolescence - bodies, sex, substances, music, friends, dreams,
faiths - and refuse to promote balanced and truthful education of
what behavior is truly risky and what is simply unscientific and
unnatural fundamentalist moralism.
We punish our children as our proxies - for they show the symptoms
of our crimes of negligence.
These crimes are made more deeply wrong because Western civilization
boasts "the most educated societies in the world", in the fullest
possession of the knowledge of the consequences of our choices and
the means to make better choices.
We must realize that murder is murder whether it occurs in a
nanosecond or a decade, across an ocean or a street, through the
barrel of a gun, the disintegration of a childhood, the fouling of a
river, the devastation of a rainforest, the crumbling of a city in
debilitating poverty, or the rape of the resources of a younger
What shall we do in the face of these challenges? Shall we simply
turn away and ignore them? Shall we rely upon some kind of magical
salvation? Of course not. We should commit ourselves along two paths,
with the hope that has characterized humanity through our history.
First, we should study, acknowledge, teach, and act to confront these
challenges using the best ideas available. Some changes may be
difficult to absorb, but we will ultimately become a happier people.
Our politicians must focus on these issues, or they are unfit to be
given the public's most sacred trust, the trust of our future.
Second, we should pay very dear, close attention to the promising
research into new realms of science whose applications speak
fundamentally to every one of these crises: a new emerging
understanding of space-time itself. Studies at the forefront of
science reveal the startlingly imminent possibility that the energy,
transportation, and biological technologies of the future will look
very little like those of today. The studies and research appear to
indicate these new technologies are "green" - extracting energy from
the vacuum of space-time itself, with no known by-product of
ecological damage. And new technologies of propulsion will break open
the frontier of space-time, firing the imagination for an eternity of
This sober and serious agenda is one for the world as a whole to
approach, as one global community. If the United Nations is in search
of a true mission beyond hollow-sounding proclamations in behalf of
peace, these two endeavors are worthy of the sustained focus of the
body of concerned governing leaders around the world.
The earlier we begin to seriously deal with these issues and pioneer
these technologies, the less abrupt will be the force of change in