Commerce, Culture and Nature – a Clash of Chronologies by Paul Hawken
“Commerce requires the governance of politics, art, culture, and nature, to slow it down, to make it heedful, to make it pay attention to people and place. It has never done this on its own.”
A clash of chronologies
But something else was happening in Seattle underneath the debates and protests. In Stewart Brand’s new book, The Clock of the Long Now – Time and Responsibility, he discusses what makes a civilization resilient and adaptive. Scientists have studied the same question about ecosystems. How does a system, be it cultural or natural, manage change, absorb shocks, and survive, especially when change is rapid and accelerating? The answer has much to do with time, both our use of it and our respect for it. Biological diversity in ecosystems buffers against sudden shifts because different organisms and elements fluctuate at different time scales. Flowers, fungi, spiders, trees, laterite, and foxes all have different rates of change and response. Some respond quickly, others slowly, so that the system, when subjected to stress, can move, sway, and give, and then return and restore.
The WTO was a clash of chronologies or time frames, at least three, probably more. The dominant time frame was commercial. Businesses are quick, welcome innovation in general, and have a bias for change. They need to grow more quickly than ever before. They are punished, pummeled and bankrupted if they do not. With worldwide capital mobility, companies and investments are rewarded or penalized instantly by a network of technocrats and money managers who move $2 trillion a day seeking the highest return on capital. The Internet, greed, global communications, and high-speed transportation are all making businesses move faster than before.
The second time frame is culture. It moves more slowly. Cultural revolutions are resisted by deeper, historical beliefs. The first institution to blossom under perestroika was the Russian Orthodox Church. I walked into a church near Boris Pasternakfs dacha in 1989 and heard priests and babushkas reciting the litany with perfect recall as if 72 years of repression had never happened. Culture provides the slow template of change within which family, community, and religion prosper. Culture provides identity and in a fast-changing world of displacement and rootlessness, becomes ever more important. In between culture and business is governance, faster than culture, slower than commerce.
At the heart, the third and slowest chronology is Earth, nature, the web of life. As ephemeral as it may seem, it is the slowest clock ticking, always there, responding to long, ancient evolutionary cycles that are beyond civilization.
These three chronologies often conflict. As Stewart Brand points out, business unchecked becomes crime. Look at Russia. Look at Microsoft. Look at history. What makes life worthy and allows civilizations to endure are all the things that have “bad” payback under commercial rules: infrastructure, universities, temples, poetry, choirs, literature, language, museums, terraced fields, long marriages, line dancing, and art. Most everything we hold valuable is slow to develop, slow to learn, and slow to change. Commerce requires the governance of politics, art, culture, and nature, to slow it down, to make it heedful, to make it pay attention to people and place. It has never done this on its own. The extirpation of languages, cultures, forests, and fisheries is occurring worldwide in the name of speeding up business. Business itself is stressed out of its mind by rapid change. The rate of change is unnerving to all, even to those who are supposedly benefiting. To those who are not, it is devastating.
What marched in the streets of Seattle? Slower time strode into the WTO. Ancient identity emerged. The cloaks of the forgotten paraded on the backs of our children.
What appeared in Seattle were the details, dramas, stories, peoples, and puppet creatures that had been ignored by the bankers, diplomats, and the rich. Corporate leaders believe they have discovered a treasure of immeasurable value, a trove so great that surely we will all benefit. It is the treasure of unimpeded commerce flowing everywhere as fast as is possible. But in Seattle, quick time met slow time. The turtles, farmers, workers, and priests weren’t invited and don’t need to be because they are the shadow world that cannot be overlooked, that will tail and haunt the WTO, and all its successors, for as long as it exists. They will be there even if they meet in totalitarian countries where free speech is criminalized. They will be there in dreams of delegates high in the Four Seasons Hotel. They will haunt the public relations flacks who solemnly insist that putting the genes of scorpions into our food is a good thing. What gathered around the Convention Center and hotels was everything the WTO left behind.
In the Inuit tradition, there is a story of a fisherman who trolls an inlet. When a heavy pull on the fisherman’s line drags his kayak to sea, he thinks he has caught the “big one,” a fish so large he can eat for weeks, a fish so fat that he will prosper ever after, a fish so amazing that the whole village will wonder at his prowess. As he imagines his fame and coming ease, what he reels up is Skeleton Woman, a woman flung from a cliff and buried long ago, a fish-eaten carcass resting at the bottom of the sea that is now entangled in his line. Skeleton Woman is so snarled in his fishing line that she is dragged behind the fisherman wherever he goes. She is pulled across the water, over the beach, and into his house where he collapses in terror. In the retelling of this story by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, the fisherman has brought up a woman who represents life and death, a specter who reminds us that with every beginning there is an ending, for all that is taken, something must be given in return, that the earth is cyclical and requires respect. The fisherman, feeling pity for her, slowly disentangles her, straightens her bony carcass, and finally falls asleep. During the night, Skeleton Woman scratches and crawls her way across the floor, drinks the tears of the dreaming fisherman, and grows anew her flesh and heart and body.
This myth applies to business as much as it does to a fisherman. The apologists for the WTO want more-engineered food, sleeker planes, computers everywhere, golf courses that are preternaturally green. They see no limits; they know of no downside. But Life always comes with Death, with a tab, a reckoning. They are each other’s consorts, inseparable and fast. These expansive dreams of the world’s future wealth were met with perfect symmetry by Bill Gates III, the co-chair of the Seattle Host Committee, the world’s richest man. But Skeleton Woman also showed up in Seattle, the uninvited guest, and the illusion of wealth, the imaginings of unfettered growth and expansion, became small and barren in the eyes of the world. Dancing, drumming, ululating, marching in black with a symbolic coffin for the world, she wove through the sulfurous rainy streets of the night. She couldn’t be killed or destroyed, no matter how much gas or pepper spray or how many rubber bullets were used. She kept coming back and sitting in front of the police and raised her hands in the peace sign, and was kicked and trod upon, and it didn’t make any difference.
Skeleton Woman told corporate delegates and rich nations that they could not have the world. It is not for sale. The illusions of world domination have to die, as do all illusions. Skeleton Woman was there to say that if business is going to trade with the world, it has to recognize and honor the world, her life, and her people. Skeleton Woman was telling the WTO that it has to grow up and be brave enough to listen, strong enough to yield, courageous enough to give. Skeleton Woman has been brought up from the depths. She has regained her eyes, voice, and spirit. She is about in the world and her dreams are different. She believes that the right to self-sufficiency is a human right; she imagines a world where the means to kill people is not a business but a crime, where families do not starve, where fathers can work, where children are never sold, where women cannot be impoverished because they choose to be mothers and not whores. She cannot see in any dream a time where a man holds a patent to a living seed, or animals are factories, or people are enslaved by money, or water belongs to a stockholder. Hers are deep dreams from slow time. She is patient. She will not be quiet or flung to sea anytime soon.
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- Appropriate Science and Technology, Change in Change, Democratic Democracy, Ecosocionomics, Global Governance, Learning for Life, Life's Necessities, Means, Paths, Ends, Spirituality, Unity in Diversity