The earliest stirrings of modern industrial society may be traced back approximately 6,000 years ago, to emergence of the first cities, implementation of plow agriculture, and storage of food surpluses in the ancient Near East. Specialization and domestication were symptomatic of, and consequential to, these new socio-economic changes. Somewhat later in this nascent history, analytic and linguistic keys to the forward march of civilization found critical refinement in Aristotle’s syllogistic and the rudimentary founding of the sciences. The current trajectory of the West achieved full self-consciousness during the period of European Enlightenment, with the birth of rationalism and elaboration of the modern scientific method, eventually leading to industrialization, hyper-specialization, technological innovation, and increasing commodification.
With Europe and, most especially, America now leading the way, the path charted and engineered by Western civilization spawned a hegemony that is rapidly overtaking the globe, socially, economically, and culturally. This ascendancy has unleashed a domination of values, which, unlike political hegemonies of the past, is lightning fast, wide ranging, virtually unchallenged, and spreading insidiously; artfully enabled by those very technologies to which it has given rise.
Not too long ago, Americans were convinced that their culture represented the apex of this historical legacy, the best in scientific and technological advancement, as well as political and economic leadership. What America had achieved, so they believed, was a dream come true. It was this ‘American Dream’ that has been held out to (or perhaps thrust upon) the rest of the world as the meaning of the ‘good life’ – the proper locus of human happiness.
Moreover, while cheap energy, in the form of fossil fuels, has dutifully served as the lubricant of this cultural and industrial progress, recent recognition that world oil extraction has peaked surely signals the prospective collapse of industrial economy, and with it, the potential dissolution of its core institutions. The trajectory of Western civilization, characterized now by accelerating energy decline and global climate change – a trajectory that Homo sapiens started in motion with those first city walls – is possibly nearing an apocalyptic end.
Of course, there are those dreamers and wishful thinkers who tell about new oil extraction technologies, and spectacular discoveries of conventional supplies that will safeguard our future. However, the exaggeration of these claims, and the unintended consequences of technologies needed to deliver on them, will surely spell more substantial ecological fallout – further constraining our access to clean air, water, flora and fauna. Furthermore, alternate sources of energy, aside from their unique liabilities, will not substitute for the demands of industrial civilization’s extraordinary infrastructural, logistical and distribution needs. In short, we are living within an unsustainable bubble that is slowly deflating, and sustainable human existence in the not-to-distant future will likely require smaller and local approaches to everything.
So, with the globe facing epic crises – ecological, financial, economic, political, psychological – at whose feet do we lay blame? Where do we look to better understand the roots of such crises, or how to outrun their dire consequences? While many have identified pursuit of the American Dream as a proximate cause of this global unraveling, the USA was not alone in its reliance upon certain fundamental assumptions about management and control of nature, leading ineluctably to potentially devastating outcomes. All civilized regimes – from the first empires of ancient Mesopotamia to modern nations like Russia and China – all can share the responsibility. After all, industrial progress, economic growth, technological innovation, and political expansion have been the hallmarks of civilization since the beginning of history.
Not surprisingly, however, there seems to be growing disaffection in the West (of all places) with the way things are going and where we are heading. With a global financial meltdown, high unemployment, severe austerity, incessant war, insurrections popping up everywhere, unparalleled greed, apparently irrational terrorism, and the evaporation of the American Dream like warm breath on a mirror; it is as if the whole thing were coming down around us all at once. Mother nature herself seems to be speaking rather loudly as well right now, with perhaps more frequent and more brutal natural disasters than any other time in recorded history. Barely two decades into America’s uncontested ascendancy to unipolar imperial power — with the entire planet globalizing around its neo-liberal capitalist mantra — and the whole thing starts to unravel.
If you think this makes the institutional fabric of Western civilization vulnerable, you are right; it does. Yet, do not believe for one moment that it is going to come down without a struggle. There are centripetal forces holding this spectacle together as much as there are centrifugal forces pulling it apart. Aside from the greedy and controlling hands of plutocrats, there is too much raw desire out there in the hinterlands, too many people who have been living on the fringes of this “Dream” just waiting their turn, scratching for a piece of the pie.
The entire Soviet Bloc, for example, systematically excluded from all the “fun” for almost a century, now has the forbidden fruit firmly within its grasp. These now independent nations are busy chasing the dream as quickly as they can muster the energy and the capital. China, as well, has awakened from its slumber, focused on putting a car in every citizen’s driveway. While the Indians have decided, they too want to play. Mumbai has made a good beginning in this respect, taking over nearly all customer service functions for major US corporations, with consumer purchasing power filtering into their coffers.
Yet, a new generation of Russians is racing to be first at the finish line. The Russian Federation, in concert with its regional administrations, is aggressively stripping forestland, building new roads and expanding old ones, as well as refurbishing and building-out regional and the international airports. In fact, they are doing so with great abandon, as if there were no tomorrow; and perhaps there will not be. Yet, no one in Siberia younger than fifty years old seems to care to discuss this possibility. They are having too much fun with their newfound wealth and enjoying the spectacle.
This is most evident when you look at the younger generation of Siberians and the nouveau riche in Barnaul, Biysk, Belokurikha, and across Altai Krai. They cannot live without their cell phones, their iPods and their credit cards; without their health club memberships, pricey coffee houses and their air conditioners; without their recently financed foreign automobiles and their newly minted driver’s licenses. In short, they have tasted the promise of this “society of the spectacle;” they are mesmerized by its allure and hooked on its fascinating appeal. It is not just blue jeans they want. They want it all!
So, short of an abrupt exhaustion of basic vital resources like fossil fuel, clean water, or fresh air, the only way you are going to see a quick collapse of this “curriculum of the West” as it moves east, is by prying it from the clutching hands of all those who previously had little, but now choose to have hope.
Yet, there is something ancient, nay, primitive, pulling concurrently at the emotional core of Siberians, something that once spoke clearly to a more archaic need, and perhaps still speaks to the older generations of Siberian’s even today. I am referring to the well-mythologized Russian soul: a soul that in the mother tongue is feminine in gender (душа: dusha) and, as such, is intimately connected with the mystery of Mother Earth. I recall Dostoevsky’s many references to the fact that the Russian soul is a reflection of the people’s unfailing and non-negotiable connection to the land from which life springs.
As I understand it, there is an articulable and inescapable sentiment among these people that does not allow complete separation, physically or emotionally, from this land in which they were born and where they naturally survive and flourish. The Russian people have the greatest appreciation for, love of, and attachment to their homeland and families, as well as to the broader ties of kinship these entail. They understand all of this to be intimately connected, as their language makes abundantly clear:
(rod) – family (kind, sort, genus)
(rod.ina) – homeland, motherland
(rod.iteli) – parents
(rod.nit) – to bring together
(rod.ovoi) – ancestral (tribal)
(rod.stvo) – kinship
As well, historically, Russians have had to endure the hardships and struggles of constant political turmoil and invasion. Indeed, the Siberians understand struggle as a given, as part of the cycle of life, death, and nature. The normal conditions of existence here, whether in the city, the village, or at the forest dacha, are not what we Americans would consider easy, convenient, or comfortable (although conditions are ever changing). Yet those who live here have maintained some age-old instincts to survive, and even to celebrate life in the midst of repeated challenges and strife.
So, the personal and cultural resolve that personifies this soul must be a strength steeled over generations of people facing down aggression, natural and political, then calmly and courageously returning to their roots and rebuilding their lives upon an archaic foundation in which they never lost faith. In short, it is impossible to understand the depth and mystery of this soul independent of its rootedness in the simplicity of the Russian peasantry and the inviolability of the Russian soil.
There is an earthly sensuousness that infuses the Russian experience; this culture remains drenched in the primacy of the body and the natural world that nourishes it. Yet, this autochthonous connection to the land – the Siberian’s more elemental experience of life in wilder, mysterious nature – may still be capable of influencing the future trajectory of both the new Russia and Western civilization.
Perhaps Russia’s long-suffering messianic mission still stands firm in the Siberian wilderness, albeit less vociferously than before: quietly recalling humanity from the abyss of an alienated spirit that haunts the self-understanding of the West – its scientific rationalism, its consumerism, and its otherworldly transcendence – a self-understanding that seems to be marching all of us mindlessly to global collapse. Perhaps a more primal Siberian awareness can call us back to a feral memory trace, helping us recall our essential rootedness in Mother Earth and the earthly sensuous – our flesh, the flesh of the world.
Unfortunately, the delusion of ‘manifest destiny’ driving the Western hegemony and its commodity culture is chipping away relentlessly and callously at that archaic Russian soul, perhaps more rapidly than she is able to redirect the self-destructive trajectory of Western imperialism and its global appetite. Siberians, and those of us living here in Altai Krai, must rethink their commitment to this curriculum of the West as it continues to lead us relentlessly, mindlessly, towards a precipice.
* A truncated version of this article will appear in an upcoming edition of the newspaper Business Biysk, in Altai Krai, Russia.