Monday, October 19, 2015


Many recent papers have looked at the complexity of moral decisions, though in debate we tend to see “a” morality here and “a” morality there.  In frontier, war, and other confused circumstances -- say poverty or under cultures or enclaves -- outsiders see one set of rules and insiders see another.

The most important realization is understanding that “what to do” is complex.  Part of it is embedded in the body itself as a result of experience.  Much of this material is coming out of PTSD research, both the conflict between killing in combat and civilian laws against violence.  Morality turned out to have nothing to do with the reflexive hypervigilance and instantaneous reflexes of battle.  

Another major challenge to morality is coming out of the clash between industrial profit-development versus protection of the environment and the unentitled.  Globalization brings into conflict groups from ecologies that have demanded entirely different systems or have aimed for quite different goals:  maybe dominance vs. accommodation.

An historical and not always recognized difference is the change made by writing and literacy.  Moralities recorded in Holy books are a step towards “Law” in its largest sense.  They demand definition and fact-finding.  Nowadays the morality we learn from watching public media like film and TV is struggling through crime vs. compassion.  It appears that we have adopted situation ethics whether we like it or not.  And being guided by stories and images is different from reasoning through the legislation.

Writing about recent development history like the irrigation system is to take on questions and information that are “hot,” still highly defended because it’s often a source of pride and identity that winds through capitalism, race, family, wealth inequities, war, romantic ideas attached to frontiers, and the notoriety of individuals.  It’s problematic enough in schools to stop teaching civics and some histories.

Particularly in Western history and related disciplines there has developed an abyss or void between two styles of investigation.  One is the justification of such policies as Manifest Destiny and its opposing tragedy of displacement.  The 19th century is near enough in generational memory for people to believe they can recreate the times of their ancestors, whether indigenous or invading.  Then there will be a de-bunking of the myth of the virtuous and powerful with his interventions in the name of justice.  Then again there will be a re-valuing, a restoration.  All the cowboy stuff on one side of the books and Republicans -- all the saving of species and preservation of landscapes on the other side, usually with Democrats -- means politics has become constant collision.  It has also meant a struggle with revisionism, even evidence-based.

And yet the sciences find evidence that constantly compels a re-evaluation of what has happened in the past, what is likely to happen in the future, and -- most crucially -- what we should to do to protect our children as well as surviving right now.  Ironically, in the newly named Anthropocene, we are no longer the shape that occupies the whole foreground.  Now we are specks in a swiftly moving time.  And we’ve been throwing our children away, though we’re even more willing to throw away other people’s children.  
There is almost no exchange across these divides, even in universities.  People who dearly love Hollywood Westerns and Cormac McCarthy’s cynical violence, find no need to reflect on post-colonial consequences to communities of the present West.  Narratives pitch tales of exceptional individuals surviving feats -- great stories -- against the collective expertise of today’s millennials, discoveries made by girls collecting tufts of grizzly bear fur from barbed wire at bait stations and recording on computers the DNA relationships.  The closest we come are CSI in the wilderness, murders solved by “trace.”  

But these hinge on the morality of park rangers and ecologists, while most readers are in the growing cities.  The seminary principle we used to discuss maintained that the true wilderness is in the city, now particularly the improvised cities of refugees.  Even teeming masses of illiterate and impoverished people have their codes of behavior derived from experience, often learned at great cost.

What does this have to do with a little village on the east slope of the Rockies, so far north that it's continuous with the far-south of the Canadians?  I will make the case that it is relevant from the issues of global warming  to the survival issue of famine.  Ukrainians in Saskatchewan are well aware of how politics can destroy a country, as when Stalin sold the wheat and kept the profits, causing death by starvation to the people who grew the grain.  The same thing is happening now in North Korea and happened in parts of Africa.

Grain -- the most easily transported and stored form of wealth -- can be used to bribe (a cynical interpretation) or save whole countries to make them allies and clients.  This is becoming increasingly plain, so that some people are beginning to say that when agriculture first began, it began a series of hoarding, oppression, and war that we can only end by going back to hunting and gathering -- but in today’s world that would end up being looting.  IS that now.

Agriculture is often portrayed in idyllic terms based on family, a benevolent (mostly) climate, and a simple lifestyle.  Gone, baby, gone.  At its fanciest technology now, huge machines roll across the prairie, sucking up gas and oil, spraying herbicides and pesticides, destroying all nests, burrows, and shelters, and separating the operator from the dust and poisons by enclosing him (not many hers) in a glass box where he operates a computer and possibly an overhead drone that surveys and analyzes the land.  The hailstorms, weeds (which quickly adapted to being Roundup Ready themselves), earlier springs, erratic temperatures, and diminishing ground water cannot be controlled.  No designer genome can adapt to the unexpected and unprecedented.  They are limited by human minds.

Human minds are the limitation and also the salvation of the situation.  Human minds still respond to the little handful of pronghorn antelope that gaze curiously, then bound away.  We still see visions in the clouds, both the thunderheads and the mackerel skies.  It is our variousness and contentiousness that creates the outlier edge that might survive when all the rest is destroyed.  But at other times it’s the stability of people who still do what their great-grandparents did that can keep the system from tearing itself apart.  It’s how we weave them together and into the planet’s time-lines that yields a morality.

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