Twine in the Baler

I recall a true story about an Ozark farmer who telephoned his neighbors one fine June day asking for help in getting in his hay. Arriving at the hayfield, people found the farmer baling his hay, but without twine in the baler. Unbound piles of hay, which would have to be entirely reraked and rebaled, lay all over the field. The farmer, with a bottle of whiskey in his lap, was feeling no pain, as they say, and did not seem to notice the problem, nor did the dozen or so men, similarly anesthetized, standing around the pickup trucks at the edge of the field. Believing the lack of twine to be a serious problem, one of the volunteers, a newcomer to such haying operations, suggested putting a roll of twine in the baler. To which an old-timer replied: "Naw, no need for that. Ol' Billy-Hugh [the farmer in question] is having too much fun to stop now."

This story says something important about intention. Those of us who arrived on the scene ready to work failed to understand that the purpose of the event had nothing to do with getting in hay. This was a party, haying the pretext. Once we understood that, all of us could get in the flow, so to speak.

A good many things, including politics, work similarly. One of the best books ever written about politics, The Symbolic Uses of Politics (Edelman 1962), develops the thesis that the purpose of political activity is often not to solve problems but only to appear as if doing so. The politics of sustainability, unfortunately, provide no obvious exception to this tendency to exalt symbolism over substance. And of symbols and words there is no end. The subject of sustainability has become a growth industry. Government- and business-sponsored councils, conferences, and public meetings on sustainability proliferate, most of which seem to be symbolic gestures to allay public anxieties, not to get down to root causes. What would it mean to put twine in our baler? I would like to offer three suggestions.

Getting serious about the problem of sustainability would mean, first, raising difficult and unpolitic questions about the domination of the economy by large corporations and their present immunity from effective public control. All of the talk about making economies sustainable tends to conceal the reality that few in positions of political or economic power have any intention of making corporate power accountable to the public, let alone reshaping the economy to fit ecological realities. Free trade, as it is now proposed, will only make things worse. Scarcely any countervailing power to predatory capital exists at the national level, and none exists at the global level. In such a world, economic competitiveness will be the excuse for any number of egregious decisions that will be made by people who cannot be held accountable for their actions.

Putting twine in the baler in this instance would mean, among other things, enforcing limits on the scale of economic enterprises and undoing that piece of juristic mischief by which the Supreme Court in 1886 (Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad) bestowed on corporations the full protection of the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment, giving them, in effect, the legal rights of persons (Grossman and Adams 1993). That decision, and others subsequently, have placed U.S. corporations beyond effective public control. The right to use their wealth as persons enables them to influence the votes of legislators and to evade the law and weaken its administration. Exercising their right of free speech, corporations fill the airwaves with incessant advertisements that condition and weaken the public mind. The exercise of their economic power creates dependencies that undermine public resolve. Their sheer perva siveness erodes the basis for alternative, and more sustainable, ways to provision society. The practical effect is that corporations are seldom motivated to do what is in the long-term interest of humanity if it costs them much. And were they to do so, their stockholders could sue them for failing to maximize returns to capital. It is hardly possible to conceive of any long-lived society that provisions itself by agents so powerful yet so unaccountable and so focused on short-term profit maximization. Twine in the baler would mean putting teeth in the charters of corporations in order to make them accountable over the long term and dissolving corporations for failure to abide by their terms.

Getting serious about sustainability, second, would require a radical reconsideration of the present laissez-faire direction of technology. Many advocates of sustainable development place great faith in the power of technology to improve the efficiency with which energy and resources are used. Better technology may well succeed in doing so, but the same unfettered development of technology has a darker side about which little is said. For example, Marvin Minsky (1994), in a recent issue of Scientific American, asked whether "robots will inherit the earth." His answer was an enthusiastic yes. He and others are, accordingly, working hard to "deliver us from the limitations of biology," intending to replace human bodies with mechanical surrogates and our brains with devices having the capacity to "think a million times faster than we do" (Minsky 1994, 112; Moravec 1988). Other knowledgeable observers predict that artificial intelligences "will eventually excel us in intelligence and it will be impossible to pull the plug on them They will be impossible to keep at bay Human society will have to undergo drastic changes to survive in the face of artificial intelligences. . . . Their arrival will threaten the very existence of human life as we know it" (Crevier 1994, 341). True or not, many believe such things are possible, desirable, or merely inevitable, and that belief means that such things will almost certainly be attempted. But do we really want some research scientists—for the sake of profit, fame, or just the sheer fun of it—to create machines with the potential to displace the rest of us and our children? Who has given them the right to threaten the existence of human life?

Little or no public effort is being made to question whether we want to go where technologies such as artificial intelligence, nano-technologies, genetic engineering, or virtual reality are taking us. Nor do we have the institutions necessary to weigh the consequences of technological change against alternative paths of development. Modern society is approaching the future with the throttle of technological change jammed to the floor, and the issue of slowing and directing it is not on the public agenda in any coherent way. Putting twine in the baler in this instance would mean admitting that technological choices are often political choices that affect the entire society. As political decisions, such choices should be made in an open and democratic manner in participatory institutions capable of evaluating technological choices as thoroughly as possible against alternatives that may accomplish better results more cheaply and with fewer side effects.

Getting serious about the crisis of sustainability will mean, third, a considerable change in how we think about our responsibilities as citizens. On one side of the issue are those who believe that environmental policy must be based solely on rational self-interest, not on appeals to moral behavior. "Whenever environmentalism has succeeded," they argue, "it has done so by changing individual incentives, not by exhortation, moral reprimand, or appeals to our better natures" (Ridley and Low 1993, 80). Certainly, public policies ought to tap self-interest whenever possible, but proponents often go beyond this truism to say something more sweeping about human potentials and, by implication, the nature of the emergency ahead. At the core of this view is the cynical belief that humans are entirely self-seeking creatures unable or unwilling to sacrifice for the common good, especially if that good is some time off in the future. In short, we are presumed to be consumers with desires, not citizens, parents, neighbors, and friends with duties. They propose, accordingly, that in the shaping of environmental policy "governments [ought] to be more cynical about human nature" (ibid., 86), which is to say, government must buy off its citizenry.

Aside from the fact that such views tend to promote the very behavior they purport only to describe, what's wrong here? For one thing, the view does not square with the evidence from the grass roots, where outraged citizens attend rallies, march, and organize to stop the dams, highways, toxic waste dumps, clear-cuts, and shopping malls proposed by the rational self-maximizers. Not a few risk a great deal to do so. Why? Precisely because they are fed up with cynicism and greed and are willing to sacrifice a great deal for their communi ties, their children's future, and for a vision of something better. Furthermore, imagine for a moment Winston Churchill instead of saying to the British people in 1940, "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat," saying something like "I'd like to ask each one of you to check your stock portfolios, bank accounts, and personal desires and if you are so inclined let us know what you are willing to do." A deal with Adolf Hitler would have been promptly struck. The fact is that we face a global emergency for which self-interest alone is woefully inadequate in the absence of deeper attachments and loyalties. To bring the enormous and destructive momentum of the human enterprise to a sustainable condition will require much more of us than the exercise of our individual self-interest would have us do, the kinds of things we are moved to do, in William James' words, because of "the big fears, loves, and indignations; or else the deeply penetrating appeal of some one of the higher fidelities, like justice, truth, or freedom" (James 1955,211).

Rational self-interest, furthermore, seldom generates much imagination, creativity, and foresight, which will be greatly needed in coming decades. Philosopher Mary Midgley puts it this way: "Narrowly selfish people tend not to be very imaginative, and often fail to look far ahead Exclusive self-interest tends by its very nature not to be enlightened, because the imagination which has shrunk so far as to exclude consideration for one's neighbors also becomes weakened in its power to foresee future changes" (1985, 143). The reason that rational calculation alone does not amount to much has to do with how the embodied mind actually works. In the words of neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, "New neurological evidence suggests that ... emotion may well be the support system without which the edifice of reason cannot function properly and may even collapse" (1994, 144). Emotion, far from being antithetical to rational thought, is a prerequisite for it.

The crisis of sustainability is nothing less than a test of our total character as a civilization and of our "personal aptitude or incapacity for moral life" (James 1955, 214). That being so, putting twine in the baler will mean expanding our perception of self-interest to include our membership in the larger enterprise of life over a longer sweep of time, and doing so with all the emotionally driven rationality we can muster.


Institutions purportedly dedicated to the life of the mind often suffer their own peculiar version of the twineless baler problem. Ideally, however, no institutions in modern society are better situated and none more obliged to facilitate the transition to a sustainable future than colleges and universities. If the public dialogue about sustain-ability gets beyond symbolism and down to hard realities, it will be because a much more fully educated and morally energized citizenry demanded it. What would it mean for educational institutions to meet this challenge?

For one thing, it would mean fostering, in every way possible, a broad and ongoing dialogue about concentrated economic power and the changes that will be necessary to build a sustainable economy. I know of no safe way to conduct that conversation that would not threaten the comfortable or risk losing some of the institution's financial support, a sensitive topic when the average cost of a college education is becoming prohibitively expensive.

Furthermore, colleges and universities ought to equip students, by every means possible, to think systematically, rationally, and, yes, emotionally about long-term technological choices and how such decisions ought to be made. That discussion, too, would raise contentious issues having to do with the meaning of progress and economic growth. And it would implicitly challenge the unbridled freedom of inquiry, if the extreme exercise of that freedom undermines biological order, democratic institutions, and social stability that gave rise to it in the first place. Issues of "who gains and who loses from unrestricted inquiry will press heavily on the university" (Michael 1993, 201) and cannot be dodged much longer.

Finally, the cynical view, pawned off as "objective" social science, that humans are only self-maximizers must be revealed for what it is: half-truth in service to the economy of greed. Increasingly, the young know that their inheritance is being spent carelessly and sometimes fraudulently. I believe that a sizable number know in their bones the truth of Goethe's words that "whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it, boldness has genius, power, and magic in it." What they may not know is where we, their teachers, mentors, and role models stand or what we stand for.

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment