Thursday, June 26, 2014

Monopoly ("Taking on the Trust" by Steve Weinberg)

At its peak, Standard Oil of New Jersey was the single most powerful company in the world, producing over 90% of the refined oil sold in the United States. And because Standard Oil was involved at every step, from discovery and extraction to refining and distribution, it could control the flow of money with absolute discretion, often adjusting its prices and payments to drive out the few competitors who remained standing against them. According to Eliot Jones, who wrote about Standard Oil in 1922, "In 1904 there were some seventy-five independent refiners all told. The total output of these companies was less than that of either the Bayonne or the Philadelphia works of the Standard Oil Company."[1] In other words, one arm of Standard Oil could produce just as much oil as every single non-Standard refinery combined--a clear indication that something was wrong.

Standard Oil's unprecedented success also meant unprecedented wealth for those who invested great sums of money in the company, and no one benefitted more from Standard Oil's monopolistic existence than its co-founder, chairman, and major shareholder, John D. Rockefeller.* Essentially retired from the company by 1897, Rockefeller remained the company's de facto CEO and its most public face, not to mention the richest man in the world at the time. (Adjusted for inflation, Rockefeller's wealth would today make him the richest man in history, valued somewhere between $300 and $650 billion, which is--conservatively--five times as rich as Bill Gates ever was. Rockefeller was also the world's first billionaire.) Rockefeller carried so much weight and was feared by so many that, investigation after investigation, he was able to avoid answering questions because of supposed lapses in his memory. These lapses were obvious fabrications, yet no elected official ever rose to challenge him.

Standard Oil dominated the oil business for decades, brushing aside legal and political challenges to its dynasty through bribes, bullying, and a thick network of connections. In 1904, however, an obscure investigative journalist named Ida Tarbell began researching the company and, in the process of courting interviews and gathering original documents, compiled a history that was thorough and damning; serialized over the course of two years, her findings were eventually published as a two-volume, 900-page book that today ranks as one of the most important works of nonfiction in American history. Seven years later, in 1911, the United States Supreme Court handed down a ruling against Standard Oil that proclaimed the company a monopoly and ordered it broken up. The ruling, based on the Sherman Act of 1890, ended the company's thirty-year reign, though it did so with an irony that is both biting and paradoxical in retrospect.

When Standard Oil eventually disassembled itself into 34 separate companies, an act that would supposedly encourage competition between not only those entities but also independent refineries that were otherwise too small by comparison, its major shareholder experienced a rapid expansion of his wealth, and all because he lost in court. The percentage of Standard Oil shares that Rockefeller owned suddenly became the percentage of shares he owned in every single one of the 34 new companies, propelling him into a stratosphere of wealth that was not only unprecedented but also unthinkable at the time. (As Steve Weinberg notes, Rockefeller's wealth "tripled, then quadrupled.") And while the one mammoth company was now a few dozen smaller ones, they remained outside of one another's zones to avoid competition--a sort of monopolized Frankenstein--for years.

In his opinion for the Supreme Court case, Justice John Harlan wrote that the American people would suffer if companies such as Standard Oil were allowed to continue unchallenged and unregulated, describing it as "the slavery that would result from aggregations of capital in the hands of a few individuals and corporations controlling, for their own profit and advantage exclusively, the entire business of the country, including the production and sale of the necessities of life." [2] Harlan's notion of enslavement wrought through business and industry could almost have been written today, and by someone warning the nation of the exact same possibilities--too much wealth in the hands of too few at the expense of too many. It is an argument that has fixed itself into our political discourse since the Great Recession of a few years ago, when phrases like "wealth gap," "income inequality," "the one percent," "redistribution of wealth," and "job creator" became grenades launched across the battlefield by both sides in a performance that had been staged more than a century earlier.

It's also ironic to note Harlan's use of the term "slavery" to describe the impact of consolidated wealth and monopolized industry on the rest of the country, since Harlan had come to be both respected and reviled for his standalone dissents in civil rights cases, when he would fight for the rights of African-Americans and escaped slaves while every single other justice wrote of non-white races with hatred, prejudice, and disgust. And while Harlan himself possessed racist tendencies and ideas not unlike those of his colleagues, his legacy as one of the most outspoken proponents of racial tolerance suggests that his choice of "slavery" in this context was far from coincidental. In his mind, the trust issue and the issue of slavery were one in the same:  one person beholden to another. In this case, millions of Americans--people of every race, age, and gender--were forced to purchase a necessity without choice, and in doing so they lined the pockets of men who controlled the prices through unethical business practices.

Last year, more than a century after Harlan's opinion, "slavery" was employed yet again by a public figure in talking about money. This time, former vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin used the word in describing the United States' future indebtedness to countries like China, saying, "Our free stuff today is being paid for today by taking money from our children and borrowing from China. When that money comes due and, this isn’t racist, so try it, try it anyway, this isn’t racist, but it’s going to be like slavery when that note is due. Right? We are going to be beholden to a foreign master." When she was later asked to clarify her remarks, Palin said, "There is another definition of slavery and that is being beholden to some kind of master that is not of your choosing. And, yes, the national debt will be like slavery when the note comes due." [3]

In Palin's words we see hints of the very mindset Harlan was so passionately writing against. Two completely dichotomous individuals and careers, to be sure, but it is in this dialogue--divided over 100 years--that we see the opposing ideals that now dominate our national discussion on the topic of business and government, one that is rooted deeply in the story of Standard Oil and has been growing ever since. On one side we have those who believe that the American people must not be controlled by companies and industries--businesses--that operate without ethics, undermine their competition, remove the freedom of choice from consumers, fix prices, and amass unparalleled profits. On the other side are those who believe we must not suffer under a government that spends money it either doesn't have or garners unethically while simultaneously targeting businesses and business-owners who are achieving record success in a free-market system. Or, to reduce these argument to even greater platitudes, it is corporations versus government. One is seen as a force for good against the evils of the other. Unfortunately, discussions like this will never disappear from national discourse because the causes of such turbulent economics will never disappear:  greed, vampiric competition, and a desire for ever-increasing profits. It's part of capitalism to want increased business, that is true, but this truth exposes a flaw in that same system--namely, that it depends on people to keep it fair for as many as possible, and far too often those in control of the system are more interested in themselves than the "many" out there.

In the decades since Rockefeller, much has changed about the American economy. Where Rockefeller was the first billionaire, there are now almost 500 such people in the United States. Where Standard Oil once raked in record profits, we see monthly reports celebrating when another company--Apple, ExxonMobil, surpassed that same benchmark. Even the story of Standard Oil's downfall has been distorted; the subtitle of Weinberg's book, "How Ida Tarbell Brought Down John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil," is a misleading suggestion that Rockefeller and his company suffered because of Tarbell's expose, even though the records show otherwise, and all that Tarbell accomplished in the end was exposing corruption and leading to a company's charade dissolution, which are respectable accomplishments but far from the ones professed in textbooks and historical nonfiction. Similarly, competition is much more readily available than it was in Rockefeller's time, though we see the occasional suggestions that this reality may not exist for much longer. In the current fight over net neutrality, we see large media corporations attempting to change the rules to give themselves greater control over the internet, which will make it harder for small, independent companies to compete; at the same time, those very same media giants have staked out areas in the country where they can dominate the market without coming into direct contact with other giants. It's similar to Standard Oil both before and after their court-ordered dissolution, only now there is no Ida Tarbell to render their transgressions in print. Even worse, there is a public that seems disinterested in knowing the truth of the situation and unaware of how much a monopoly can damage their livelihoods--a lesson that was learned over a century ago before being quickly--and tragically--forgotten.

*As Steve Weinberg points out, Rockefeller encouraged all of his employees to reinvest in the company by buying stocks, though in no way did their profits match Rockefeller's.

1.  Jones, Eliot. The Trust Problem in the United States. Macmillan & Co.:  New York, 1922. 59. eBook (Questia).

2.  Weinberg, Steve. Taking on the Trust:  How Ida Tarbell Brought Down John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil. W.W. Norton & Co.:  New York, 2008. 255. Print.

3.  Capehart, Jonathan. "Sarah Palin invokes slavery, inappropriately of course." N.p. 15 November 2013. Web. 26 June 2014.

Filth ("Carsick" by John Waters)

When I was still an adolescent, I was given a copy of the Movies Unlimited catalog, a thick, small-fonted, glossy-paged piece of junk mail that left me instantly captivated. It seemed as though every movie that had ever been made was available for order from its pages, thousands upon thousands of DVDs and VHS tapes, all arranged haphazardly in a layout that now seems almost anarchic. But I loved movies, even at that age, and I pored over every colored column or shaded insert, beginning with the films and directors I knew--Hitchcock, The Wild Bunch, Tim Burton, Jurassic Park, anything with John Wayne or Vincent Price--and moving on to ones I didn't, until I came to Pink Flamingos, a solitary film whose very description defied my comprehension:
The landmark "exercise in poor taste"....that still fascinates and repels moviegoers. From a trailer hideout near Baltimore, "filthiest person alive" Divine and her demented family defend her title from would-be usurpers David Lochary and Mink Stole, and the results include rape, incest, cannibalism, cruelty to chickens, and the most famous film ending since "King Kong." With Mary Vivian Pearce, Danny Mills, and Edith Massey as Edie the Egg Lady. 108 min. 
What's more, the catalog publishers included a photograph of the VHS cover:  an obese drag queen wrapped in tight pink fabric, her blond hair drawn back behind an ocean of bald scalp, and a cosmetic-counter's worth of make-up painting her face up like a clown's. She held a gun in one hand while the other sat cocked on her hip--the very personification of grit and defiance. I didn't know what to think of the film and its description, though I imagined a poorly-done melodrama in trailer-park CinemaScope, but I knew I had to see the film. I would never get the courage to ask my parents to purchase it for me--it was rated NC17--and it would take me at least another decade to track down a copy on my own, but in that moment on the floor of our living room, a ten-year-old was suddenly introduced to John Waters.

In the years since, I've grown to love John Waters, not just for his ability to bask in all things controversial without any hint of irony--an unconditional love of sorts--but for his belief that people should be unabashedly themselves, especially in a world that demands conformity. In turn, the Baltimore filmmaker, once an infamous director of censor-worthy "smut," is now an American cultural institution, something even he would have never predicted all those years ago. He has appeared in guest roles on television, most notably as himself on The Simpsons, where his animated character challenged Homer's homophobia; hosted a true-crime show on CourtTV; had a supporting role in one of the Chucky horror films; has been interviewed on late-night TV multiple times by Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Bill Maher, Jay Leno, Conan O'Brien, David Letterman, and Craig Ferguson; had his books published by a renowned publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux; had one of his films, Hairspray, turned into a Tony-winning Broadway musical; and had his traveling monologue filmed and given a wide release on DVD and Netflix Instant. In a way, the world in which John Waters basked so beautifully all those decades ago has become the America we now know, where filth, fetish, and brazen individuality have gone mainstream, if not actually become the norm.

Which, it turns out, can be a problem, even for John Waters. Now that he is an elder statesmen of sorts, he is surrounded by men and women--writers, filmmakers, artists--who have pushed boundaries even further, and what was once filthy is by modern standards almost dull. Which means the first two-thirds of his newest book, Carsick, don't quite have the desired effect as they would have had twenty years ago. Imagining the best possible hitchhiking journey across the continental United States, Waters populates his fantasy with attractive young men, a kidnapped pro-lifer stuffed in the trunk of a stolen car, a sideshow where his lack of tattoos makes him the main attraction, and demolition-derby sex reminiscent of something J.G. Ballard wrote about in the 70s. The stories are cheeky and fun, though it's almost impossible not to bemoan how innocent it all seems. Waters has given himself 100 pages to imagine the most hedonistic, indulgent, and pleasurable road trip he can, and his delivers a dozen rides that are underwhelming.

The next hundred pages, in which Waters imagines the worst that could possibly happen, are substantially better in terms of the depravity and feculence--both figurative and literal--that Waters inflicts on himself:  a suicidal drunk-driver who has removed seat-belts from his car; an ecoterrorist fighting for "garbage diversity"; an animal-rights activist infested with tapeworms; a real-life killer resurrected from the dead; an entire small town in Kansas where homophobia reigns supreme; unstoppable public diarrhea; and so on. It almost becomes a game of sorts, to see how Waters will take the misery that has been visited on him by a highway of disturbed Americans and feed it so that it grows exponentially worse, and always for himself. Essentially, these thirteen rides are the embodiment of John Waters, in which unrestrained liberal thinking and thoughtless conservative ideals collide to form a world in which everyone is disgusting while also being disgusted at each other.

The final third of the book is the impetus behind the preceding 200 fantasy-borne pages:  Waters has decided to hitchhike across America, from Baltimore to San Francisco, all through the power of his personality, the wagging of a thumb, and a wonderfully simple series of cardboard signs. He worries that no one will pick him up, and he wonders if the good/bad scenarios he's already written will be the last words he ever writes before disappearing along Highway 70--a strange, foreboding artifact of an unfinished and unusual life. But what Waters discovers is a country of people who are kind, considerate, and accepting, regardless of race, age, class, politics, orientation, or location. He is given rides from, among others, a minister's wife, a small-town mayor, a coal-miner, a cop, an indie rock band, a judge and his activist wife, and--twice--a young Republican from Maryland who keeps driving, despite his parents' concern that he's been kidnapped by a madman. By the time Waters' journey ends, he's cut a path across the entire country, stood outside in extreme weather for hours, almost given up, and found himself happily surprised by the people who will open their vehicles to a random stranger. It is as far from a John Waters film as you can get:  no filth, no outrage, no melodramatic emotions, no kitsch, just average Americans trying to do right by each other in the only way some of them know how.

And even though Waters' fame sometimes makes getting rides easier, most of the people who pick him up don't know who he is, and a few even scoff at the idea that he is a filmmaker. There's a temptation to look at the final third of Carsick and make an overreaching statement about America now being so open-minded that uneventful rides are now the norm--that Waters' trip is shocking because of its ordinariness, and most hitchhiking trips are joyrides of danger and debauchery--but such impulses are ridiculous, even when they fit in nicely with Waters' pop-culture acceptance. Instead, through Waters we see an America that moves as one, in spite of the million individual differences radiating just beneath the surface. It is the validation of something John Waters has known and celebrated for decades--that we are a nation constantly pushing out at the boundaries keeping us in, if only to be the people we have always told ourselves we are.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

YA: A Response to Ruth Graham

In a recent article for Slate Magazine--which was bylined "Read whatever you want. But you should feel embarrassed when what you're reading was written for children"--Ruth Graham assesses the current status of young-adult literature in American society, especially where adult readers are concerned. Building arguments off her experience reading John Green's wildly popular The Fault in Our Stars, which has been on various bestseller lists for more than a year and has found a strong readership among adults, Graham chides those who populate their shelves with books written for the under-18 crowd. Unfortunately, her arguments against this cross-generational practice, while varied, do little more than make Graham seem like a self-appointed keeper of the cannon--a pesky Internet librarian rolling her eyes at you from behind the check-out desk when your selections do not meet her stern, devastating criteria.

For starters, Graham's definition of what constitutes "literary fiction"--that is, the books against which she is comparing YA fiction--goes undefined, though she leaves quite a substantive list of qualities that she finds less than appealing in young-adult literature: endings that are "uniformly satisfying," the teenager perspective presented in a "fundamentally uncritical way" because the writer abandons "the mature insights into that perspective that they (supposedly) have acquired as adults," and stories that do not grow with you into adulthood, as the stories of other authors--Updike, Wharton, Dickens, Munro--do. By writing an article devoid of concrete definitions, Graham is trying to have it both ways:  denigrating an entire genre of literature and praising another without defining where the boundary between them lies. Does she believe it's simply the intended audience that defines "literary" versus "non-literary"? Is it the author's purpose? Is it the subject-matter? If John Green announced tomorrow that The Fault in Our Stars was actually written for middle-aged adults, would that affect Graham's assessments in any way? After all, a publishing company and its army of authors can advertise a book to whomever they want; the audience that reads the book, on the other hand, cannot be controlled.

Similarly, Graham seems to believe that "literary fiction"--however it's defined--is more redeeming to its reader than young-adult literature, and as examples she name-checks the aforementioned greats. However, I am also an adult who has read all four of those revered authors, and I must admit, many of their works leave me wanting more. Updike, for one, wrote with such suffocating focus--immature, libidinous white men struggling to survive the banality of middle age and the middle class--that almost every novel he wrote over his half-century career will be out of print long before colleges decide to abandon him. The same applies to Edith Wharton, whose entire literary output has been narrowed down to two lone novels, both of which are kept in print simply because of university reading lists and high school AP classes. Young adult books, on the other hand, survive solely because they have a following--they will be kept in print based on their ability to sustain a readership and not because they are forced on unsuspecting undergraduates, which should be the true measure of a book.

And before a question is raised as to my pedigree when it comes to literature, I should add that my list of personal favorites includes Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jose Saramago, Thomas Pynchon, Flannery O'Connor, Toni Morrison, and Jerzy Kosinski. I consider One Hundred Years of Solitude to be arguably the most perfect book ever written, and Flannery O'Connor to be the single greatest writer the United States has ever produced. A lightweight I am not, and yet I enjoy young-adult literature with the same enthusiasm as I do the works of Nobel Prize-winners. I would never consider elevating any genre of literature--or author, or subject, or intended audience--above another, as it inherently devalues a form of art that is, by its very nature, personal and subjective. Furthermore, the truths inherent in many of these authors' works--the frailty and dangers of love, the disappointments of adulthood, the empty promises of dreams, the utter aloneness of bravery and justice--are just as prevalent in young-adult novels, however more blatantly presented they may be.

For instance, what makes The Perks of Being a Wallflower any less powerful than Catcher in the Rye? Having read the latter in high school and then again in college, I can attest to the fact that Holden Caulfield is an arrogant, delusional, whiny young man who cannot process the world beyond himself. Reading Salinger's novel through the eyes of Caulfield is a torture in itself, and whether or not this was intentional on the author's part--giving us someone to identify with as teenagers, then dismiss when we reread him as adults, as a representation of what it's like to grow up--it isn't worth the 200-page commitment that his novel requires. Call it a classic if you want, but I would prefer to read Stephen Chbosky's adaptation-cum-ripoff; at least there we have a narrator whose sense of alienation is founded in reality, as is the emptiness felt by his two friends, and the cause of his problems is one that many young readers might find uncomfortably familiar and therefore more redeeming. 

In addition, the idea that ridiculous, eye-rolling moments are only a staple of young-adult literature speaks to Graham's total unfamiliarity with other works of literature. Regardless of a novel's reputation and history, each has at least one moment in which the author, perhaps caught in a flurry of emotions, commits themselves to a line or two that is inherently guffaw-inducing. (Sometimes these moments come about purely by accident, or due to the passage of time, when something once considered serious and profound becomes little more than silly.) A perfect example of this can be found in the novels of Charles Dickens, a pinnacle of serious "literary fiction"whose works are nevertheless haunted by some of the most maudlin and irritating lines imaginable. Or, for a better comparison, the works of William Shakespeare, which are far more overblown at times than any problematic line John Green might write. For instance, a line from The Fault in Our Stars that Graham isolates as exemplifying this problem--“I’m in love with you, and I’m not in the business of denying myself the simple pleasure of saying true things”--expresses the exact same sentiments, albeit in a different way, as Shakespeare more than four centuries earlier when he wrote as part of a sonnet, "My love is as a fever, longing still / For that which longer nurseth the disease, / Feeding on that which doth preserve the ill, / Th’ uncertain sickly appetite to please." In essence, the love our speaker has for another is so powerful it cannot be denied. Same sentiments, same motivation; the only difference is that they were written across epochs and oceans, and one has the benefit of having been around 400 years longer than the other. And perhaps it goes without saying, Shakespeare was far from a literary legend in his day:  his plays were staged for both royalty and common-man, and they drip with adult humor and purposely indulgent lines. 

This addresses another of Graham's arguments, that young-adult literature is not as critical of its subjects than it should be. In essence, she wants the authors of these books to not only write for a specific audience but attack that very same audience in the process, if for no other reason than to make it more palatable for adults. But that's not why adults read YA novels--they are not searching for a vague sense of validation, that the local teenagers are in fact a wily and hopeless bunch of idealistic dreamers, clueless drug-users, or wild social animals. Adult readers, just like all readers, read for their own individual reasons, and trying to assign one lone motivation is an arrogant task in itself, as it allows Graham to bestow a level of intelligence and understanding on herself that no person, regardless of their background, could possibly attain. Furthermore, the belief that YA novels are inferior because they lack the insights gained by adulthood demonstrates a total lack of understanding about what literature is supposed to be:  not a representation of reality but an exploration of possibility. (If all novels were based in reality, the local bookstore would be like one million reality TV shows rendered in print.) 

If Graham believes that "literary fiction" must convey what it means to be an adult, based on adult experiences and understandings, then she must also dismiss Harlequin romance novels--a billion-dollar industry---for their baseless ideals about love and sex. She must dismiss fantasy novels for their complete detachment from the insights inherent in our own reality--after all, ogres and wizards and dragon-slayers who operate by foreign codes and strange social norms can in no way be representative of our own human experiences. And she must dismiss science fiction for being so overt in its imbuing of other life forms--extraterrestrials, androids, clones--with human qualities, as any attempt to depict the humanity in all of us must be couched in heavy symbolism and ambiguous endings in order to be taken seriously. These other genres do not follow Graham's paradoxically strict yet unexplained criteria for being "literary," at least not more so than the young-adult novels she references, and therefore her list of "acceptable" works of literature becomes even smaller still.

Reading this argument, you get the sense that Graham would very much like to stand outside the nearest prom and berate its teenage attendees for the hollowness of their puppy-love, all the while waving statistics in their face attesting to the failure rates of high-school relationships and questioning the logic behind the entire endeavor. ("How much did you spend on that dress?" I imagine her saying as she corners a 15 year-old girl. "Do you know how much you'll need that money when you're 50 years old with two kids in college?!") The idea that writers of YA literature are not worthy of adult validation because they do not write critically of their subjects is entirely absurd, and it suggests that Graham believes herself entirely complete as a human being now that she is no longer a teenager. She is done growing, done learning, done experiencing new emotions or needing to untangle complicated feelings. Apparently, Graham does not believe that the very issues that so thoroughly haunted her and everyone else as teenagers--love and loss, death, shame, pride, jealousy, friendship, infamy--are constant for the rest of our lives.

Which is yet another instance of Graham unwittingly undermining her own argument. Anyone who has read even a fraction of the "literary fiction" Graham so passionately extols understands that those very problems experiences by teenagers become amplified in adulthood. Take Under the Volcano, about a man whose alcoholism destroys his life. Or Of Mice and Men, a look at how we're all damaged in some way, and it's those damages that would make us worthy of one another if they didn't also drive us away from each other. Or 1984, about the importance of thinking for one's self, even as those around you compromise freedom for illusions of comfort and safety. Anyone who has spent time around teenagers--or, for that matter, remembers what it's like to be young--knows that these experiences affect them just as much as they affect us, which is part of the reason YA novels are so popular:  they speak to a reality that often goes overlooked by writers of more "serious" books, as adults are often trained to dismiss the problems of teenagers as insignificant, temporary, or exaggerated. Anyone who has read any young-adult books by Laurie Halse Anderson, for example, sees that this is not the case, and anyone who has ever spent time with teenagers who are not their own knows it with certainty.

I say this not just as someone who loves reading fiction--any fiction--but also as a high school English teacher who, semester after semester, sees just how deeply his students are affected by the YA books they read. Yes, many of the plot-lines and characters are cliched--just like many of the plots and characters in non-YA books are cliched--but I've never had a single student hold up their Sarah Dessen or Mike Lupica book and extol how much they'd like to live in its pages. No, teenagers are smart enough to understand the difference between fiction and reality, just as they're smart enough to understand that what they're reading now is not something they will read forever. My students read their fill of young-adult books, but they also move effortlessly into works by other, more "literary" writers:  Harper Lee, John Steinbeck, Kurt Vonnegut, Jane Austen, Tim O'Brien, Cormac McCarthy. They may not like what some of these authors write, just as they may not like the newest book by Nicholas Sparks or find that Rick Riordan is becoming a little too repetitive for their taste, but that's what makes reading an adventure that is forever surprising. What I see are teenagers--future adults--who are finding connections in the books they read, and as far as I'm concerned, in this age of short attention spans and instant gratification through a myriad of digital sources, the fact that they're spending hours hunkered down with a book gratifies me to no end, and I couldn't care less what they're reading or why.

Teenager are much more intelligent and discerning than Graham gives them credit, and the simple fact that she bases much of her understanding of YA literature on her own experiences, along with random samples of Internet fandom, underscores the complete lack of research she undertook in trying to understand the appeal of books like The Fault in Our Stars. After all, if I were to base my own understanding of adult readers on what I read on the Internet--say, an article from Slate Magazine--I might also reach incorrect conclusions of my own...namely, that some adults are too caught up in their own egos to actually understand that the wider world does not revolve around them. Which would make someone like Ruth Graham the perfect audience for young-adult literature, if Ruth Graham is to be believed.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Time ("The Oldest Living Things in the World" by Rachel Sussman)

We like to think of ourselves as the crux of history:  time begins and ends with us, and any aspect in which we are not involved in any way is unimportant. And yet, for much of its existence, this great big planet has churned without us, indifferent to our existence--or lack thereof--and unwilling to change itself to meet our petty demands. In fact, in the grand story of Earth, we are a recent addition--a footnote on the very last chapter--as we've occupied space here for less than one-ten-thousandth of one percent of this planet's total existence. We live on a world that we claim to dominate and oversee but in truth barely understand...a world that, were it not for our own irrevocable decisions, would scarcely know or care that we live among its rivers and trees. And so, unaccommodated and ignored, we began to cut and dig and burn; we killed off hundreds of species, leveled millions of acres of pristine ecosystems, and domesticated animals so thoroughly that they are now totally unable to survive in the wild; we changed the very genetic make-up of foods, rendered certain vegetables inedible, and poisoned soil through industrialized farming; we bored through and cut the tops off mountains, dammed up rivers, and emptied lakes; we did all of this and more until, at last, the world finally acknowledged us. In this case, it did so by beginning the long, slow process of killing itself.

This is no longer a debate, regardless of how some choose to distort--or ignore--the evidence; the debate is over. And by demanding the Earth live within our needs rather than vice versa, we have claimed victory over a planet while also unknowingly bestowing ourselves with defeat:  over the next 100 years alone, the Earth's average temperatures will change wildly, affecting our ability to grow food and sustain an adequate water supply; the seasons will become unpredictable, the affects on our health will become even more pronounced, and entire ecosystems will be destroyed. And the greatest tragedy of all is that, on a personal level, the ways in which we will fight the affects of climate change will only exacerbate the problem. In summer, we will turn up the air conditioners even more, which will require more electricity and put more strain on already outdated power grids across the world; this increase in demand means power companies will need to generate more electricity through coal and gas, which pollute the environment and lead to even more climate change. (According to statistics from the Energy Information Administration, or EIA, 40% of the electricity currently produced in the United States comes from coal.) In winter, we will heat our homes with gas or electricity, once again putting stress on our nation's supplies on nonrenewable energy. The longer and more extreme the seasons, the more energy we use.

The evidence of this problem is just beyond our doors and windows. This year alone, while the rest of the world faced an unprecedentedly hot January and February, the United States faced the opposite--a winter so cold that it broke records almost a century old. At the same time, deniers pointed to those same decades-old records as proof that evidence of climate change is little more than a series of freak occurrences, all the while ignoring the fact that freak occurrences are so-called because they happen so infrequently and not, as is the case today, year after year. Unfortunately, it's those who deny climate change who seem to have control over the legislative powers needed to address the causes and, where possible, enact workable solutions to slow down the progression of disaster. (As it's been noted publicly, it's too late to actually stop climate change from happening.) It is therefore up to individuals to find their own solutions and reduce their own negative influence on the environment, even though this means we must sacrifice a little bit of comfort and convenience for the sake of a better, more stable, and more livable future:  little to no air conditioning when possible, reducing car travel to only the most necessary journeys, growing more of our own food and buying food locally, heating homes through renewable resources, adopting solar and wind power, recycling, composting, eating less store-bought meat, and so on. The resources are there, and they are plentiful, but the impetus--and, in our shaky economy, the ability--is not, at least not to a great enough scale that we can have a measurable impact just yet. There are those who have already changed their lives, to be sure, but the vast majority continue on as they always have, either oblivious or ignorant to the harm they are causing.

There are also those few who see the inevitabilities of climate change and are racing to document the world as it is before it's too late. In the case of Rachel Sussman, this means photographing the world's oldest organisms. Traveling to some of Earth's most remote places, one continent after another, Sussman chronicles trees, plants, lichen, corral, bacteria, and anything else that is more than two millennia old. What she finds are astonishing symbols of life and its ability to persevere--living things that thrive despite disease, infestation, age, and human interference. However, the power of these organisms is tempered by the reality that, in our lifetimes alone, many will disappear due to man-made changes in the environment. This, despite having survived so much else, will be their undoing. Many of the living things Sussman documents are protected in one way or another, either through human measures or simple isolation from people--for example, the whereabouts of the oldest trees in the United States are undisclosed to keep them safe, and reaching the map lichens of Greenland (3,000 - 5,000 years old) requires extensive foot travel across a largely uninhabited part of the world. But even human intercession may not be enough for some, unaccustomed as they are to such rapid and unbearable changes.

There are those who might argue that, regardless of their age, these organisms are part of a great cycle of life on Earth, one which not only creates but destroys, recycling itself to make new organisms that can adapt more easily. They might dismiss Sussman's photography, not to mention the passion she has for her subjects and the overall premise of her work, as sentimental or near-sighted or even little more than a Thoreauvian delusion. The problem is that we all belong to this world and are of this world, and when another living thing--especially one that has survived for millennia--dies because of our actions, we are doing something wrong, and it is our responsibility to change. What's more, these organisms--regardless of their age, their locations, their incredible features--are much like us in that they are designed to survive in a narrow range, and any change in that range leads to death. Yes, we are unlike them in that we can move--a redwood, after all, cannot uproot itself after two thousand years--but the point is obvious:  if climate change is hurting them in this way, how much longer will it be before these changes begin to hurt us, too? That question has an answer, and it's an unfortunate one:  the changes already are. We just haven't accepted this yet, even though the world around us--the trees, the algae, the lichen, and so on--has already provided us with all the evidence we will ever need. It is evidence that most of us have chosen to ignore.