IN A PLACE CALLED EDEN IS A
PROMISING YOUNG CIVILIZATION. WE GROW MORE DANGEROUS...
Whether you believe in a God or not, it's safe to say you would
agree that humanity has learned, however imperfectly, many lessons
over the past several millennia, lessons entrusted to progeny
through the oral and written history of our ancestors. Let us
revisit several of the more painful ones...
Holocaust is a term of enormous gravity to a huge portion of the
world. It should be so, for in reference to the slaying of six
million Jews, there are few crimes against life that compare. There
have been many conflicts among regimes in history where loss of life
has been comparable or even larger in simple numbers, but very few
such catastrophes can compare in depth of evil to the systematized
and ruthlessly calculated machine of death constructed by Adolf
Hitler, for no reason other than hatred.
Adolf Hitler and this top three henchmen, Himmler, Goering and
Goebbles, were the architects of the atrocity of the Holocaust. It
formally began on January 30, 1933 when Hitler became chancellor of
Germany, and continued over twelve years to May 8, 1945 -VE Day.
Rising from the ashes of the first world war and the Great
Depression to be the Furher of Germany, this leader created a system
of murder never before witnessed in the history of the world.
There have been numerous acts of inhumanity in the 20th Century,
such as the massacre of one million Armenians by the Ottoman Turks,
the starvation of five million Ukrainians during Stalin's forced
collectivization, the murder of 1.5 million Cambodians by the Khmer
Rouge regime, and most recently the killing of one million Tutsi by
the Hutu in Rwanda.
However, in no other case have the efficiencies of the modern
industrial age been put to such diabolical use as in Germany under
The systematic persecution of Jews and other undesirables started
immediately upon the Nazi rise to power. The Nazis' ideology of
racial purity and superiority coupled with their hatred and
intolerance of 'others' spurned their actions forward. Initially,
the Nazis merely excluded 'undesirables' from society and forcibly
induced them to leave the country.
The war in Russia saw the formation of four SS units of 3,000 men
each, expressly formed to kill Bolshevik sympathizers, but
eventually turned into the field arm of the Nazi death machine.
These mobile units were ultimately responsible for the death of over
two million Jews and other 'undesirables'.
According to Stephen Ambrose, in New History of World War II,
groups were called Einsatzgruppen, and although 'Bolshevik leaders'
were supposedly their major target, most of the victims were Jews.
Other victims were 'Asiatic inferiors,' gypsies and 'useless eaters'
such as mentally ill or terminally ill people. One Einsatzgruppen
unit reportedly killed 6,400 Polish mentally-challenged patients.
According to the Nuremberg International Military Tribunal on War
Crimes, altogether in the Soviet Union the SS killed two million
men, women and children. Most were shot. Himmler, who had witnessed
an execution, was upset at the sight of women and children being
killed in this way, so he ordered another method: they were put in
gas vans so constructed that at the start of the motor the exhaust
was conducted into the van, causing death in ten to fifteen minutes.
Concerns over the effectiveness of the operation, field morale in
both the civilian and military personnel, and in an attempt to keep
this operation secret from both the Jewish population and the world
led to the search for another solution. The Final Solution,
Endlosung, was made effective at the Wansee Conference in 1942. The
Final Solution was the brainchild of Reinhard Heydrich and executed
with brutal efficiency by Adolf Eichmann. The Final Solution called
for the extermination of all Jews and other 'undesirables' at six
major death camps in Poland, Auschwitz -Birkenau, Belzec, Chelmno,
Majdanek, Sobibor, and Treblinka.
Auschwitz -built originally as a POW camp in summer 1941 -was
expanded into a labor and death camp. The brutal conditions at the
camp ensured that precious few humans survived. Of the total of
16,000 Red Army prisoners sent to the camp only 96 survived. Of the
405,000 registered prisoners, as opposed to those were exterminated
upon arrival, only 65,000 survived. In one brutally efficient
two-month period in March 1944, of 350,000 Hungarian Jews sent to
Auschwitz, 250,000 were gassed. Over the course of 1944, 10,000
Jewish lives were extinguished each day. In total, between two and
four million Jews and another two million non-Jews had been gassed
by the time the Red Army liberated the camp in late 1944.
"Trainloads of Jews in sealed boxcars, packed so tightly for so long
without food or water -often for days -that the dead could not fall
down, arrived regularly at the Auschwitz siding. Guards threw open
the doors and began shouting at the Jews to get out and line up.
They were marched to an SS doctor who made a visual scan and pointed
either to the gas chamber or to the labor camps. Infants, young
children, old people, pregnant women, the disabled, and the sick
were sent to an immediate death; between 20 and 40 percent were sent
to the labor camps where they remained until, too weak to work any
longer, they too were sent to the chambers.
Just outside the gas chambers, the Jews were ordered to strip and
told they were going to take showers, for delousing purposes. First
they were shaved, and their hair saved for stuffing for mattresses
and the like. They were herded into the chamber, which looked like a
high school gym. Once they were packed in, the door was sealed shut
and cyanide gas was pumped into the room through showerheads. After
a minute or two of screaming that no one except the other victims
heard, there was silence.
After clearing the gas from the room,
inmates -often Poles and sometimes Jews, always under extreme duress
-entered and pulled gold teeth, and tore open anuses and vaginas of
the cadavers to probe for hidden jewelry. The task completed, the
bodies were taken by handcart to the crematory furnaces.
of the dead went to farmers to enrich their soil."
Exact statistics for the actual total number of human beings
exterminated in various programs during the war are difficult to
arrive at, as the Nazis destroyed many records, or in other cases
kept none at all. The numbers of dead among European Jewry can be
traced to census records and Nazi official tallies presented during
the Nuremberg trials.
5,796,129 or 60% of the pre-war
European Jewish population were killed during the Holocaust.
The American Holocaust
There are perhaps a few other holocausts in recent history which can
compare in depth of evil, and they strike painfully close to home.
As a time and place of flowering for human civilization, Renaissance
Europe began a period of ascendancy, which was to last well into the
20th century. The cultural and scientific rebirth, whose foremost
catalysts included Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Gutenberg, Galileo, and
Copernicus, found a receptive home in the relative economic,
political and religious stability of late mediaeval Europe.
rebirth gave the Europeans the scientific and technical means to act
on a strongly emerging economic motive, fueling the Age of
Discovery. This cultural and intellectual rebirth also provided the
philosophical and moral justification for horrendously evil actions,
as newly acquired power often does.
With the power of weapons and global mapmaking, both cultured
through mastery of the seas, late fifteenth century Europe chose to
remap the globe. Europe launched a massive rape of the new world,
when through the Pope's authority the newly discovered territories
were divided between Spain and Portugal.
One Spanish historian wrote
that what they sought was "To serve God and His Majesty, to give
light to those who sat in darkness, and to grow rich as all men
desire to do."
In 1501, the Spaniard Rodrigo de Bastides had reached the coast of
South America, on orders from his king. Moving westward towards the
snowcapped mountains soaring into the clouds, he met the Tairona,
one of the most advanced of the Indian societies. The Tairona had
transformed the slopes of their mountains establishing roads,
structures, and irrigation systems of amazing complexity. Perhaps
their most remarkable, or at least most remarked, quality, however,
was their gold work, among the most beautiful produced in the
Trading posts quickly emerged, and in 1526 de Bastides
founded Santa Marta, now a part of the modern nation of Colombia.
Santa Marta soon became a center of trade.
For hundreds of years, as Europe's conquest of the last preserve of
Eden swept across the continent, an uneasy truce, pregnant with
anger and anguish, hung over the northern coast.
In the remarkable
words of the very thoughtful ethnobotanist, Wade Davis, in his book
"There was conflict and rebellion, and death by enslavement and
disease, but the Spaniards made no systematic attempt to destroy the
Tairona. Few in numbers, they were initially content to control the
coast, trading fish and salt, axes and metal tools for gold. The
Tairona valued peace even as they retreated further into the
It was not until the end of the sixteenth century that the Spaniards
launched a campaign of annihilation. Their excuse -and the Spanish,
obsessed as they were with jurisprudence, always had an excuse -was
completely bizarre. Hungry for gold, they were nevertheless
scandalized by the phallic and sexual representations that formed a
significant motif in Tairona ceramics and gold work.
Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo described a gold piece weighing twenty
pesos that depicted "one man mounted on another in that diabolical
act of Sodom," a "jewel of the devil" that he righteously "smashed
at the smeltering house at Darien."
Such graphic depictions of
sodomy confirmed their deepest suspicions. It was known that Tairona
men gathered regularly in large ceremonial temples, often for
nocturnal rituals that lasted until dawn and excluded women. From
experience the Spaniards recognized that when their own sailors and
soldiers spent long hours together, it was only the restraint of
Christian virtue that kept them from "unnatural acts." Since the
Tairona were not Christian, it was obvious, at least to the Spanish,
what the Indians had been up to at those nightly assemblies. When in
1599 Santa Marta's new governor, Juan Guiral Velon, undertook the
final destruction of the Tairona, he did so charged with the
certainty that all of his enemies were homosexual.
The subsequent struggle was as violent and brutal as any recorded in
the Americas. Tairona priests were drawn and quartered, their
severed heads displayed in iron cages. Prisoners were crucified or
hung from metal hooks stuck through their ribs. Those who escaped
and were recaptured had their Achilles tendons sliced or a leg cut
In Santa Marta, Indians absurdly accused of sodomy were
disemboweled by fighting dogs in obscene public spectacles. Women
were garroted, children branded and enslaved. Every village was
destroyed, every field burned and sown with death. When the
Spaniards took the Tairona settlement of Masinga, Velon ordered his
troops to sever the noses, ears, and lips of every adult.
Marching inland, Velon attempted to vanquish an entire civilization.
In the midst of the carnage, the Spaniards never forgot their
ultimate mission. To ensure the legality of their deeds, before each
military action Velon's captains read aloud in the presence of a
notary public the famous Requirement, a standard legal document
exhorting the heathen to accept the true faith.
Recited in Spanish
without translation, it was but a prelude to slaughter.
"If you do
not accept the faith," the text read, "or if you maliciously delay
in doing so, I certify that with God's help I will advance
powerfully against you and make war on you wherever and however I am
able, and will subject you to the yoke and obedience of the Church
and of their majesties and take your women and children as slaves,
and as such I will sell and dispose of them as their majesties may
order, and I will take your possessions and do all the harm and
damage that I can."
The Spaniards were true to their word. In the end the entire Tairona
population was either dead or given over as slaves to the soldiers
as payment for their services. Those Indians who survived were
expected to pay the costs of their pacification. On pain of death
they were prohibited from bearing arms or retiring into the Sierra
But flee they did -a tragic diaspora that brought thousands
into the high mountains, leaving behind a desolate, empty coast of
ruined settlements, shattered temples, and fields overgrown with
thorn scrub and ultimately redeemed by the forest."
Seven years before Rodrigo de Bastides found Santa Marta,
stood in awe of the beauty of Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec
That great city was twice the size of Spain's largest city.
At the same time, the children of Europe were raping North America
European exploration, colonization and settlement of North America
forever altered the evolution of Native American civilizations.
Rather than an equitable mingling of cultures and societies, Native
American culture and society was largely displaced and destroyed by
disease, war and migration. The Native American civilizations were
simply not equipped to resist or even absorb the successive waves of
This pattern has occurred many times through the millennia, anytime
there has been a conflict between cultures over land, sustenance and
wealth. However, never has the impact been so profound as to
depopulate an entire continent of 90% of its population, with no
hope of revival.
Exploration in the 16th century by the Spanish, French, English and
Dutch introduced new elements to tribal societies. Disease, the
horse and trade with the Europeans profoundly impacted Native
American civilization across much of North America. The diseases
introduced by the Europeans had the greatest immediate impact,
decimating much of a native population which heretofore had never
been exposed to them and consequently had no immunity.
This was especially evident in the civilizations along the
Mississippi, Tennessee and Ohio River valleys, which were almost
completely depopulated due to the disease spread by DeSoto's
expeditions. Indeed, it was disease that was the greatest European
killer, wiping out virtually all of the populations of the
Caribbean, Inca and Aztec Indian populations as well.
Horses, which were introduced to the American southwest by the
Spanish, had a largely positive impact, forever changing the way of
life of the plains Indians. With the horse, they became great
nomadic hunters dependent upon the great bison herds of the Plains
for their way of life.
Less arbitrary were the changes which came with the establishment of
trading posts along the great river valleys and the settlements
along the eastern seaboard. These settlements and trading
relationships set the pattern for waves of displacement that were to
characterize the interaction between natives and Europeans across
the following four centuries.
European politics played a key role in the colonial expansion of the
17th and 18th centuries. The colonies were important contributors to
European economies and were consequently involved in every major
European war of the time. With the consolidation of power along the
eastern seaboard, Indian populations began to realize that the
territorial hunger of the Europeans would not be sated.
Consequently, tribes were involved in many European conflicts,
siding with one European nation against both European and Native
enemies in a desperate fight to preserve their territory and way of
This was to be a losing battle.
The American Revolution would ultimately create a new chapter in
this struggle as the young nation sought to control all the land in
its domain. The young nation articulated a philosophy for what it
saw was its divine right to consolidate its hold and to expand and
settle westward into Native American land.
The attitude of European settlers in America is described by
Reginald Horseman in Race and Manifest Destiny,
native population, as a result of amalgamation, and that great law
of contact between a higher and a lower race, by which the latter
gives way to the former, must be gradually supplanted, and its place
occupied by this highest of races....(The United States) will occupy
the entire extent of America, the rich and fertile plains of Asia,
together with the intermediate isles of the sea, in fulfillment of
the great purpose of heaven, of the ultimate enlightenment of the
whole earth, and the gradual elevation of man to the dignity and
glory of the promised millennial day."
The "Trail of Tears" episode perhaps best exemplifies the
government-sanctioned effort to displace the native population in
favor of American settlers. Over 15,000 Cherokees were forced to
migrate to the Indian territories in Oklahoma. Of those a little
over 2/3 survived the journey. With the expansion westward into
river valley's and ultimately into the Plains, the struggle
continued. Numerous wars were fought, and treaties broken as the
natives sought to halt the migration westward and preserve their way
of life, but to no avail.
The notion that the natives were inferior justified the settlers
rights to take and settle the land with little regard for the Native
With each lost battle and with each treaty, the majestic and humble
Native American way of life was further demeaned through the 20th
century, as Native Americans were reduced to living on
government-policed reservations. Thus, Manifest Destiny for the
Native American population proved to be a destiny of enslavement,
poverty, death and cultural extermination.
By 1900, the taking of the bulk of the American continents would be
A Century of Total War
As war was coming to a close in America, the originating
militaristic tendencies, honed through centuries of conquest,
continued in the hearts of European nations. The mentality of empire
building was confronted with the constraints of Earthís surface
area. As one might with hindsight expect, the culture of imperial
war turned inward on itself, with the unfortunate, unplanned, and
totally groundless entrance into the First World War.
A system of
total war, driven by technology that made it possible, occurred as
Europe fought two civil wars in the same century which came to
involve the entire world. It would not end until November 1989.
Within the 20th century, legal restraints to prevent war, or failing
that, to make its effects less savage and all-pervasive, were
obliterated: institutions for the peaceful resolution of disputes
were ignored or destroyed; limitations upon armaments, distinctions
between combatants and non-combatants, civilians and soldiers,
neutral nations and belligerents, laws of engagement designed to
limit war to a discernable, finite "battlefield," all were lost.
To a limited degree, some of these elements began as sinister
portents of the fate of the next century in Americaís Civil War. The
power of defensive positions with increasingly accurate rifles
became apparent. A war of attrition appeared, where economic
resources became irresistible factors in determining success,
whatever the individual valor and the quality of generalship on the
Hence, making war on an entire society, including the civilian
economic and social infrastructure of the opponent, seemed
necessary. Shermanís "March to the Sea", cutting a miles-wide swath
of civilian destruction through the heart of Confederacy, was a mild
harbinger of the horror of the next century.
The First World War was an accidental war, a war none of the major
powers wanted, but each feared. Acting on those fears, responding to
stereotypes of the other that they themselves had largely created,
then seemingly frightened by their own projection, each side acted
upon their own self-fulfilling fearful prophecies about the other.
Political and military leadership among the participants never
reached the high point of mediocrity. Unlike the wars before and
after, territorial aggrandizement didnít seem to be a major declared
factor. Neither faction was economically advantaged.
Germany, each otherís major trading partner, linked historically by
history, language, and by monarchial intermarriage, lurched into war
driven by their own fears, a naval arms race, and finally, an
alliance system which invited pugnacious smaller states to involve
the major states in a war which could never result in anything but
A contemporary English writer noted that, "the lights are going out
all over Europe, and they will not come on again in our time." In
fact, the lights never came on upon the society that entered the
war. The major imperial systems of governments that plundered the
Americas fell. The genocidal slaughter suffered by Russia and the
chaos that followed birthed the Bolshevik Revolution. The economies
and the societies of all the major participants were
catastrophically damaged. With the advent of trench warfare and
machine guns, battles occurred resulting in mass slaughter never
before seen. Each state was exhausted.
After a brief respite, the
world plunged into a deep depression; Germany into both depression
and the greatest inflation the modern world has ever seen. The
war-guilt clause of the Versailles Treaty was the final element
necessary for a mad genius of manipulation to come to power in a
Germany roiling in tumult which never came to rest since the advent
of the First World War.
Unlike the First World War, the Second World War was a war of naked
aggression where something much closer to battles between good and
evil actually occurred. Nevertheless, the seeds of the Second World
War were clearly planted in the first great struggle, rendering
almost inevitable a re-engagement of most of the same powers in
another war more terrible than the first.
Now, tanks and massed mobile artillery would allow for an extended
front to sweep back and forth throughout Europe, devastating huge
areas of the continent, sometimes several times. Civilian casualties
for the first time exceeded military losses. The greatest crime and
sin of the twentieth century occurred in this context, the
holocaust: Hitlerís nearly successful effort to exterminate European
Mass bombing of civilian centers of population occurred by
day and night. Fifty million people died, and Russia, where the
ultimately critical battles of the Second World War were fought,
again in the same century lost 10% of her population. With awesome
portent for any later world war, the Second World War ended with the
advent of the nuclear age and the use of the only nuclear weapons
ever employed in war, dropped by the United States upon Hiroshima
A Cold War commenced as unlikely allies, forced together by the
threat of Hitlerís Germany, broke apart under the fears and the
naked extensions of power by the former allies against each other.
Soviet Russia, a creature of World War I, attempted to secure
Eastern European border states as satellites and allies to buffer
them against yet a third assault on the motherland in the same
century from Germany.
The United States and its European allies saw
this extension of brutal totalitarian dictatorship as an atrocity in
itself, and, more threatening, a portent of an intention to extend
Soviet power throughout Europe.
The natural assumption of "a state of war" is that it is a highly
unnatural condition resulting from desperate and unique conditions
necessitating the resort to violence, normally to be avoided. The
natural condition is that of peace. Now, war became the "natural
condition". Whole generations of people never really knew a
condition of peace. The Cold War introduced war of the mind: the
definition of our national interest and identity negatively
determined by the existence of the enemy. We entered an age of
perpetual war of the mind.
Our advantage, our well-being, was
defined as that which threatened or made more precarious the
well-being of our enemy.
Where previously, peace was the norm,
highly valued, sought and protected; now, war was the norm, manifest
always in the mind, and frequently in hot wars between surrogates of
the two super powers, punctuated by covert and overt actions of
sabotage, espionage, assassination of political and military
leadership of the enemy, and covert undermining of governments
thought to be sympathetic with the enemy, even though legally and
diplomatically a condition of peace and diplomatic relations and
recognition existed between the superpower and the target state.
In Asia, the Chinese civil war, interrupted by Japanese attacks on
Manchuria and then throughout China, resumed with the triumph of
Chinese Communism. The Cold War was born, now fully worldwide,
including both Asia and Europe. This war was punctuated by dozens of
hot wars. Some of these were resumptions of wars of national
liberation against colonial governments, the result of the
reimposition after World War II of the last vestiges of European
colonialism and imperial power.
Other wars, most prominently
Vietnam, were clearly fought between surrogates or proxies of the
two superpowers which emerged from a Europe in which the other
states of Europe, previously the worldís most powerful, were now
exhausted shells of their former selves, at least until a later
economic recovery. The existence of nuclear, and then thermonuclear
weapons, served at once as deterrents to full-scale global war, and
as potential instruments of global destruction if ever, by accident,
miscalculation, or design, they should be used.
A numerical nuclear arms race between the superpowers commenced.
This was joined by a technological arms race which always threatened
to allow one or the other superpower somehow to leap beyond the
opponent and tempt one or the other to accept the suicidal
proposition that such advantage might allow one side actually to
fight and "win" a nuclear war.
Finally, a horizontal nuclear arms
race began among the previously non-nuclear states, extending
outward the number of nuclear states able to trigger a nuclear
Finally, the collapse of the Soviet Union under the weight of its
own monstrous bureaucratic and totalitarian structure allowed
respite. With the decision in November 1989 of President Gorbachev
not to intervene in genuine national uprisings in Eastern Europe, as
his predecessors had done so brutally decades before in Hungary and
Czechoslovakia, the Soviet empire crumbled in all of Eastern Europe;
the Berlin wall fell; and the contagion of freedom swept through the
Soviet Union, ending the last great imperial system to survive World
War I. The century of total war was at its end.
Once started, each of these wars had to be fought. The best human
decision-makers could not reasonably control the past, given their
knowledge. The momentum of hatred founded in utter lie had been
energized and would run its genetic course. The roots of 20th
century military conflict stemming from politically-based
ideological hatred were sown in war guilt and wallowed in the pain
of an economic depression.
The Century of Total War cost uncountable hundreds of millions of
lives and resulted in the political, military, and industrial
superstructure to facilitate wars over ideology.
now begs to be dismantled and its energies and funding redirected
into defensive functions and peace-keeping operations.
The Nature of Human War
Throughout recorded history, wars have been given intellectual
justification in the creation of a myth of inherent distinction of
rights to freedom among groups of intelligent beings. We have fought
wars because we could not communicate with the "enemy". We have
fought wars over the color of skin. We have fought wars over
cultural rituals. We have fought wars over political structures.
We've fought wars over rivers, islands, mines, oil, water, and seas.
We have fought wars over economics. And we have fought wars for no
identifiable reason at all other than vague fear.
But the most common ideology employed to justify war is the
precisely the one least able to do so: faith. We have fought wars
over every religious difference imaginable, and yet a rational mind
strains to find scriptural basis for any religion's God declaring an
offensive war-making intent, however confidently invoked by
"inspired" leaders. It is in mis-interpretations of religious
teachings on every nation's part that humanity has killed the most
combatants and civilians alike. Had there been integrity to the
history of core spiritual teachings rather than interpretive dogma,
no wars would ever have been fought.
But, perhaps only the fighting of these frightening wars, and the
cumulative personal experiences of great loss, can now equip
humanity with the ability to see the ugly truth of this.
When we do one day discover or receive the means to voyage to other
worlds across the heavens, to touch other verdant continents and
valleys and oceans, will we not engage and enforce the most solemn
"prime directive" to intelligently interact with a foreign
biosphere? We in the United States of America must remember that it
was our ancestors who came from Europe to plunder the Americas.
lessons of what happened must never be forgotten.
An End to Slavery?
If holocaust and war are the relatively loud and declared crimes of
humanity, then humanity's most heinous silent cultural choice has
been the toleration of enslavement. Both science and religion have
taught us nothing if not this fact.
When Western humans think of slavery, they often envision slavery
involving blacks and native peoples in the Americas between the
latter part of the 15th century during early European colonization,
up to the late 19th century and the end of the US Civil War. Slavery
was hardly unique to the United States, the New World, or what is
considered western civilization and culture. Nor was it restricted
to this time period.
It is likely that indentured servitude has been a part of world
society as long as war and trade have existed between differing
peoples. It is well known that the ancient Chinese, Indians,
Egyptians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, and Arabs
practiced some form of slavery. The indigenous peoples of the
Americas and the coastal regions of West Africa practiced slavery as
These practices were supported worldwide for centuries, the
last governments officially abandoning slavery as recently as 1962.
The definition of slavery varies with culture and time period. These
differences have made cross-cultural and temporal studies of slavery
difficult. Nevertheless, there are attributes common to all
slave-owning cultures and to all definitions of slavery.
One common point of view in slave societies is that ownership of one
person by another is perfectly right and natural. Another is that a
slave is something less than human, a chattel similar to a farm
animal or pet, to be used and disposed of as needed. Western
civilization best exemplifies this. Ownership of human chattel was a
central characteristic of the slave societyís socio-economic way of
life and cultural development. It is remarkable that an institution
that existed for thousands of years should in little more than a
century be abolished and considered wrong in the eyes of God and the
laws of man.
This is a profound change, which gives hope for our
continued social evolution.
The first known western slave society was the Hellenic culture of
Athens in during the 6th through 3rd century BCE . In the earliest
times period, the slave population was composed of prisoners taken
in battle, criminals, Athenians (often children) bartered for debt,
Kidnapping, especially of women, was common. Only the poorest and
most wretched of Athenians were without slaves. Slaves performed a
variety of tasks. On the estates of the wealthy, they were household
servants; farmers, estate managers, and tutors. House servants were
typically all under the direction of the woman of the house, the
wife or eldest daughter of the owner. Some of these houses had as
many as 10-20 slaves.
Slaves were the artisans and craftsmen of Athens. They also served
many bureaucratic functions such as scribes, clerks and accountants.
At one time slaves administered the police and treasury. Some
estimates suggest that slaves accounted for close to one third of
the Athenian population.
In 570 BC. the leader Solon, faced with a crisis in the Athenian
economy, instituted laws that cancelled debts of the enslaved and
repealed the laws allowing debtors and their families to be sold
into slavery. From this point on, Athenians relied on non-Greeks for
slaves, importing them from around the Aegean through regular trade.
During their brief period of imperialism the Athenians used more
direct methods. In 416 BC, an expedition landed on Melos, a neutral
Aegean and sacked it, executing all men of military age and selling
the women into slavery.
As justification, they said:
"We believe that Heaven, and we know that men, by a natural law,
always rule where they are stronger. We did not make that law nor
were we the first to act on it; we found it existing and it will
exist forever, after we are gone; and now we know that you and
anyone else as strong as we are would do as we do."
History of the Peloponnesian War 5.105
The life of a slave was not easy. While there were laws that
protected slaves against the vilest abuses, slaves were not
considered citizens. Non-Greek slaves were barely considered human,
though there was the notion that they might be raised from their
baseness. Their masters chose their names. Slaves were not allowed
to marry, although they developed a pseudo-marriage known as
countubernium that had no legal status.
Children born of female slaves were automatically slaves. It was not
unusual for criminals, the mentally disturbed, and slaves who have
fallen out of favor with their masters to be selected to crew ships
or work mines. This was hazardous work and often ended in the death
of the slave.
In contrast to how they were treated under Athenian law, slaves were
a principal source of the prosperity of Athens. This provided
leisure time for the aristocrats to develop what we now call ďthe
roots of Western civilizationĒ. Athenian imperial power would be
broken at the end of the Peloponnesian War in 371 BC. Their social
system would continue for another forty years, until conquest by
Phillip of Macedonia at the battle of Chaeronea in 338 put an end to
their way of life.
The Roman civilization between about the 2nd century BC and the 4th
century AD would be the next western culture to develop a slave
Early Rome was little more than a collection of farmers, craftsmen
and laborers which developed into a loose knit society. The conflict
with Carthage and the result of the Punic and Greek wars would
change all that. By the end of 202 BC, Carthage was beaten, with all
its territories from North Africa to Spain subjugated and turned
into Roman Provinces.
The Greeks, who had aligned themselves with Carthage while Hannibal
laid waste to much of Italy, were subjugated and enslaved. When
Carthage later defied Romeís order to move its inhabitants inland,
the entire city was put to the sword. The city was leveled, and
surrounding lands salted to insure that Carthage would never rise
again. The few that were spared were ushered off in chains. Rome had
gained an accidental empire.
With much of the farms and towns outside the Rome destroyed. Many
once-able farmers and artisans found themselves without work, and no
way to support themselves. But most of the citizens who had stayed
within the walls of Rome were vastly unaffected and saw the
destruction as an economic opportunity. Merchants and aristocrats
quickly bought up the land that had been ravaged. In the conquered
lands, the military and their sponsors did the same. They had no way
of working the vast acreage themselves. They wouldnít have to. There
were many able hands available.
There were a number of ways people became slaves. Thieves, debtors,
murderers and those who avoided military service would end up as
slaves. If a childís mother was a slave, then the child was a slave
as well. Anyone captured and taken prisoner by a hostile people,
regardless of citizenship, would become a slave.
Piracy, kidnapping and the selling of newborns were also common,
though the latter died out in the later Republic as the number of
foreign slaves increased. Like Athens, Romans preferred to use
foreign slaves when they were available. People who were far from
home, with no family, a different look and languages stood out and
were easier to capture if they escaped. It is a pattern that would
be repeated in the Americas.
The hardest labors were in the mines, as naval oarsmen and in rural
field labor. Most of this grueling work was done in chains and
perceived slackers were quickly beaten or killed outright. Slaves
also served as servants, cooks, musicians and artisans. Dozens would
be maintained to run the households of the aristocracy. In the
cities, public slaves were hired as bureaucrats and functionaries,
tending to the needs of running the city.
As the empire developed, more and more of the population were
considered slaves. By the 1st century, it is estimated that a third
of the population of Rome were slaves. The ratio in the large
estates was even larger, sometimes ranging between five or ten
slaves to each free person.
Romans developed an early fear that their slaves were going to
revolt and slaughter their masters, due to growing numbers and their
masters' brutal treatment. Thus, any hint of uprising would be dealt
with swiftly and brutally. When the Spartacus rebellion was crushed
in 71 BCE, over 6,000 slaves were crucified and placed along the
Appian Way as a reminder of what awaited the rebellious slave.
No act was too small to take notice. In 61 BCE Pedanius Secundus was
killed by one of his slaves. As a result, all 400 of his slaves were
put to death in order to frighten others from following the example.
In the later years, as the empire began to collapse, external slaves
became harder to come by. Roman slave society ended as the slaves
were legally converted into coloni, or serfs who were tied to the
land. This system would last in the West until the end of the middle
But the best known and documented of slave societies were those of
the so-called New World. At the beginning of the 16th century, the
Portuguese and Spanish were moving into the Americas and
establishing their colonies. Their initial quests were to become
rich mining gold and silver, but following 1645, the explosive
demand for sugar shifted their focus to growing sugar cane. The work
was highly demanding and required extreme amounts of labor. European
diseases were ravaging the native populations and the harsh climate
took its toll on Europeans colonists.
The Europeans found the perfect solution: African slaves. During the
years between 1500 and 1867 when the slave trade was abolished, it
is estimated that 9-10 million African slaves were shipped to the
Americas. At least another 2-3 million did not survive enslavement.
About 41% went to Brazil, 47% to the Spanish Americas, British and
French Caribbean, 5% to the Dutch, Swedish and Danish colonies and
7% for what eventually became the United States.
About 2/3 of all slaves shipped over ended up in sugar colonies. At
their time, sugar plantations were considered among the worldís most
profitable enterprises with returns ranging from about 10 to 20%.
At first, transport of slaves to the New World was primarily a
Portuguese enterprise. They had mapped a significant part of the
African coast as early as the mid 15th century in their search for
gold and a route to the orient. They soon found that slaves were a
much more valuable commodity. At first they raided the African
coastlines for slaves, but it became clear they could do much better
by trading with the coastal tribes.
In 1445, they established their first base. Slaves were captured
inland by Africans and brought to the coast for sale. This usually
consisted mostly of males, the females and young often being kept
for lineage incorporation. The slaves were exchanged for weapons and
exotic goods, the former of which gave the native slavers
significant advantage over their rivals.
Over the years, a vast and complex slave network developed to feed
the demands for labor, depopulating whole regions of Africa and
decimating entire tribes. The slaves were examined, shackled, and
shipped off for work in the New World. The system developed by the
Portuguese would serve the Dutch, Spanish and English just as well.
To the slavers, their goods were just a different type of cargo,
similar to cattle, hogs or any other economic livestock.
In most of the New World, the Africans grew to vastly outnumber the
Europeans. On some of the Caribbean islands, the number of slaves
ranged from more than a third in Cuba to some 90 percent in Jamaica,
Antigua and Grenada. In 1800, almost half the population of Brazil
was slaves, though that number decreased rapidly with the end of the
slave trade and a program of free immigration by the government to
draw in more Europeans. Of all the proto-American slave societies,
only that of the southern United States had a population where the
numbers of whites was initially similar to blacks.
While slaves were first brought to Virginia in 1619, the English
mostly relied on indentured servants rather than slaves. Tobacco was
initially the profitable crop of the south, and did not lend itself
well to the work-gang methodology used around the Caribbean. The
number of slaves an owner had was usually small, rarely more than a
handful, except on the largest plantations.
Women were bought as domestics and nannies while men more commonly
worked the fields. All that would change in the latter half of the
18th century. The opening for settlement of the New Southern States
of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana made huge areas of land
available for cultivation, bringing with it a huge need for labor.
In 1793 Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin which would
revolutionize the processing of cotton for use in textiles,
increasing the demand (and profits) in cotton ten fold over night.
Planting and cultivation of cotton did indeed lend itself to the
gang methodology. Hence, the pattern that developed the huge sugar
cane plantations of the New World would be played out again in the
New South, but this time with cotton. By 1850, nearly two thirds of
the slaves on plantations were engaged in the production of cotton.
An advantage of cotton was that it could be grown profitably on less
land, and required fewer skilled laborers and artisans for
processing. The labor was less rigorous, some of which could be
easily performed by men as well as women. The ratio of men to women
was closer in the United States, more like 3-2 versus anywhere from
8 or 20 to one in other parts of the new world, which helped create
a boom in slave population.
By 1825, it is estimated that the southern United States accounted
for more than 35% of all the slaves in the New World, the majority
of whom were at least second generation slaves. The profits from the
sale and maintenance of slaves coupled with proceeds from textiles
were one of the most profitable enterprises of the day.
It wasnít until the beginning of the 18th century that the emerging
social, religious and political systems would call the legitimacy of
slavery into question. While most Western Europeans considered the
notion of enslaving other Europeans barbaric, this notion only
covered people who shared the religions and culture of Europe.
Indians, Africans, Asians, and other supposed cultural inferiors
were excluded. Some thinkers in Scotland, France, England and
America voiced strong misgivings about the handling of Africans, but
their objections were noise in a hurricane.
A few looked beyond
simply the slave issue at the impact the institution had on the
ďThe whole commerce between master
and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous
passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and
degrading submissions on the other. Our children see thisÖand
thus nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny, cannot
but be stamped by it with odious pecularities. The man must be a
prodigy who can retain his manners and morals undepraved by such
History and precedent were on the side
of the slavers, and opportunity itself can be a harsh mistress. But
things were beginning to change. Some began to open themselves to
listening to others and hearing about alternative perspectives.
was it like to be a slave? How did the slaves see life?
Douglass made it perfectly clear that what American Blacks saw was
considerably different than what most saw in this land of
ďWhat to the American slave is your
Fourth of July? I answer, a day that reveals to him more than
all other days of the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to
which he is the constant victim. To him your celebration is a
sham; your boasted liberty an unholy license; your national
greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty
and heartless; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mock;
your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all
your religious parade and solemnity, are to him mere bombast,
fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy -a thin veil to cover
up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.Ē
July 4, 1852
What is amazing is that in the span of
just over a century, the unassailable institution of slavery which
was accepted without question would be outlawed in the entire
The Society of Friends (Quakers) in both England and Pennsylvania
were some of the first to take action against slavery of any kind.
In 1774 they voted for expulsion of any member participating in the
slave trade and in 1776, required any members holding slaves to
emancipate them or be expelled. Pennsylvania adopted a gradual
emancipation program in 1780 to free all children of slaves born
after 1780. Rhode Island and Connecticut followed suit three years
later and this trend was more or less adopted by most of the
In 1787, formation in England of the ďSociety for the Abolition of
the Slave TradeĒ, a non-sectarian organization originally made up
most of the Quakers. They started by circulating pamphlets and
preaching. Their influence grew first with the masses and then with
parties in Parliament that eventually lead to the passage of the
1807 Act to abolish the slave trade.
The United States followed suit. Sweden and Holland agreed to
abolish the trade in 1813 & 1814 respectively. France and Spain paid
lip service to the agreement while, with Portugal, they continued
the trade in earnest. Britainís naval muscle was unchallenged, and
they took it upon themselves to press agreements with other
countries for them to patrol the West Coast of Africa.
In 1841 the Quintuple Treaty is signed under which England, France,
Russia, Prussia and Austria agree to mutual search of vessels on the
high seas to suppress the slave trade. Ships caught trafficking in
slaves would be confiscated, their crews and owners tried according
to the laws of their nation.
Between 1820 and 1870, the British captured some 1600 slave ships.
The British presence increased the price and risk of acquiring
slaves from Africa. Brazil, one of the largest importers of African
slaves acquiesced in 1851. Cuba was the last of the New World to
give in, yet in 1867, they too folded. The Atlantic Slave trade was
With the exception of the Southern United States, where the slave
trade had ended, the end of slavery soon followed. By 1830, more
than a third of the blacks in the New World were free. In the
Spanish and French-founded country, only 25% were still slaves.
Slavery was abolished in the old Spanish Americas between
1824-1850), all British colonies in 1838, French and Danish Colonies
in 1848, Dutch colonies by 1863 and the United States in 1865.
Brazil, one of the first countries to begin the slave trade, was the
last to abolish it in 1888.
The legalized dealing in human flesh was finished.
So in little more than a century, societies round the world have
taken significant steps in ending an institution that has been with
us for as long as weíve considered ourselves civilized.
This is not meant to imply that holding other humans as chattel has
by any means vanished in the world. Slavery is still practiced,
albeit more discretely, in remote corners of the world. Many
cultures still consider women and children little more than
property, subject to the will of their husbands, fathers or male
siblings. Race, sex religion and ethnicity are still excuses for
hate, violence and conflict.
And the world's economy is now dangerously close to enslavement by
yet a different human classification system -the zeros and ones
stored as magnetized bits on a hard disk computer holding our bank
The important lesson taken from our progress with slavery is this:
we as a world society have the ability to change and grow. We can
move and grow toward tolerance of others if we choose. Weíve
developed missiles and weapons of mass destruction. Scientists have
developed specialized biological and chemical weapons capable of
decimating populations. The disenfranchised will eventually have
access to sources of retribution like theyíve never had before.
Wisdom would suggest that we find solutions for living together and
"The conveniences and comforts of
humanity in general will be linked up by one mechanism, which
will produce comforts and conveniences beyond human imagination.
But the smallest mistake will bring the whole mechanism to a
certain collapse. In this way the end of the world will be
--Pir-o-Murshid Inayat Khan
1922 (Sufi Prophet)
"Y2K" has become an increasingly
frequent placeholder in the headlines of the world, in reference to
the forthcoming challenge we face looming throughout the information
systems that run modern lives at the year 2000. The opinions on the
seriousness of the crisis run the gamut from "smoke in the theater"
overblown way out of proportion, to the end of civilization as we
One of the brightest futurists I have come across is a man by the
name of John Petersen, President of the Arlington Institute. An
expert in the emerging discipline of scenario planning, Mr. Petersen
has written extensively on Y2K. Early last year, he wrote a seminal
article that can be credited for raising the consciousness of tens
of thousands of people, helping to motivate action to prevent crisis
and deal effectively with whatever the severity of circumstance that
may present itself.
Some excerpts follow from his article on the Year 2000 crises...
"The millennial sun will first rise over human civilization in the
independent republic of Kiribati, a group of some thirty low lying
coral islands in the Pacific Ocean that straddle the equator and the
International Date Line, halfway between Hawaii and Australia. This
long awaited sunrise marks the dawn of the year 2000, and quite
possibly, the onset of unheralded disruptions in life as we know it
in many parts of the globe. Kiribatiís 81,000 Micronesians may
observe nothing different about this dawn; they only received TV in
However, for those who live in a world that relies on satellites,
air, rail and ground transportation, manufacturing plants,
electricity, heat, telephones, or TV, when the calendar clicks from
í99 to í00, we will experience a true millennial shift. As the sun
moves westward on January 1, 2000, as the date shifts silently
within millions of computerized systems, we will begin to experience
our computer-dependent world in an entirely new way. We will finally
see the extent of the networked and interdependent processes we have
At the stroke of midnight, the new millennium heralds the greatest
challenge to modern society that we have yet to face as a planetary
community. Whether we experience this as chaos or social
transformation will be influenced by what we do immediately.
We are describing the year 2000 problem, known as Y2K (K signifying
1000.) Nicknamed at first "The Millennial Bug," increasing
sensitivity to the magnitude of the impending crisis has escalated
it to "The Millennial Bomb." The problem begins as a simple
technical error. Large mainframe computers more than ten years old
were not programmed to handle a four digit year. Sitting here now,
on the threshold of the year 2000, it seems incomprehensible that
computer programmers and microchip designers didn't plan for it.
But when these billions of lines of computer code were being
written, computer memory was very expensive. Remember when a
computer only had 16 kilobytes of RAM?
To save storage space, most
programmers allocated only two digits to a year. 1993 is Ď93í in
data files, 1917 is í17.í These two-digit dates exist on millions of
files used as input to millions of applications. (The era in which
this code was written was described by one programming veteran as
"the Wild West." Programmers did whatever was required to get a
product up and working; no one even thought about standards.)
The same thing happened in the production of microchips as recently
as three years ago. Microprocessors and other integrated circuits
are often just sophisticated calculators that count and do math.
They count many things: fractions of seconds, days, inches, pounds,
degrees, lumens, etc. Many chips that had a time function designed
into them were only structured for this century.
And when the date
goes from '99 to '00 both they and the legacy software that has not
been fixed will think it is still the 20th century --not 2000, but
Peter de Jager, who has been actively studying the problem and its
implications since 1991, explains the computer math calculation:
was born in 1955. If I ask the computer to calculate how old I am
today, it subtracts 55 from 98 and announces that Iím 43. . . But
what happens in the year 2000? The computer will subtract 55 from 00
and will state that I am minus 55 years old.
This error will affect
any calculation that produces or uses time spans. . . . If you want
to sort by date (e.g., 1965, 1905, 1966), the resulting sequence
would be 1905, 1965, 1966. However, if you add in a date record such
as 2015, the computer, which reads only the last two digits of the
date, sees 05, 15, 65, 66 and sorts them incorrectly. These are just
two types of calculations that are going to produce garbage."
The calculation problem explains why the computer system at Marks &
Spencer department store in London recently destroyed tons of food
during the process of doing a long term forecast. The computer read
2002 as 1902. Instead of four more years of shelf life, the computer
calculated that this food was ninety-six years old. It ordered it
thrown out. A similar problem happened recently in the U.S. at the
warehouse of a freeze-dried food manufacturer.
But Y2K is not about wasting good food. Date calculations affect
millions more systems than those that deal with inventories,
interest rates, or insurance policies. Every major aspect of our
modern infrastructure has systems and equipment that rely on such
calculations to perform their functions. We are dependent on
computerized systems that contain date functions to effectively
manage defense, transportation, power generation, manufacturing,
telecommunications, finance, government, education, healthcare.
The list is longer, but the picture is clear. We have created a
world whose efficient functioning in all but the poorest and
remotest areas is dependent on computers. It doesnít matter whether
you personally use a computer, or that most people around the world
donít even have telephones. The worldís economic and political
infrastructures rely on computers. And not isolated computers.
have created dense networks of reliance around the globe. We are
networked together for economic and political purposes. Whatever
happens in one part of the network has an impact on other parts of
the network. We have created not only a computer-dependent society,
but an interdependent planet.
We already have frequent experiences with how fragile these systems
are, and how failure cascades through a networked system. While each
of these systems relies on millions of lines of code that detail the
required processing, they handle their routines in serial fashion.
Any next step depends on the preceding step. This serial nature
makes systems, no matter their size, vulnerable to even the
slightest problem anywhere in the system. In 1990, ATTís long
distance system experienced repeated failures. At that time, it took
two million lines of computer code to keep the system operational.
But just three lines of faulty code brought down these millions of
lines of code.
And these systems are lean; redundancies are eliminated in the name
of efficiency. This leanness also makes the system highly
vulnerable. In May of this year, 90% of all pagers in the U.S.
crashed for a day or longer because of the failure of one satellite.
Late in 1997, the Internet could not deliver email to the
appropriate addresses because bad information from their one and
only central source corrupted their servers.
Compounding the fragility of these systems is the fact that we canít
see the extent of our interconnectedness. The networks that make
modern life possible are masked by the technology. We only see the
interdependencies when the relationships are disrupted --when a
problem develops elsewhere and we notice that we too are having
problems. When Asian markets failed last year, most U.S. businesses
denied it would have much of an impact on our economy. Only recently
have we felt the extent to which Asian economic woes affect us
directly. Failure in one part of a system always exposes the levels
of interconnectedness that otherwise go unnoticedówe suddenly see
how our fates are linked together. We see how much we are
participating with one another, sustaining one another.
Modern business is completely reliant on networks. Companies have
vendors, suppliers, customers, outsourcers (all, of course, managed
by computerized data bases.) For Y2K, these highly networked ways of
doing business create a terrifying scenario. The networks mean that
no one system can protect itself from Y2K failures by just attending
to its own internal systems.
General Motors, which has been working
with extraordinary focus and diligence to bring their manufacturing
plants up to Year 2000 compliance, (based on their assessment that
they were facing catastrophe,) has 100,000 suppliers worldwide.
Bringing their internal systems into compliance seems nearly
impossible, but what then do they do with all those vendors who
supply parts? GM experiences production stoppages whenever one key
supplier goes on strike. What is the potential number of delays and
shutdowns possible among 100,000 suppliers?
The nature of systems and our history with them paints a chilling
picture of the Year 2000. We do not know the extent of the failures,
or how they will effect us. But we do know with great certainty that
as computers around the globe respond or fail when their calendars
record 2000, we will see clearly the extent of our interdependence.
We will see the ways in which we have woven the modern world
together through our technology.
Until quite recently, itís been difficult to interest most people in
the Year 2000 problem. Those who are publicizing the problem (the
World Wide Web is the source of the most extensive information on
Y2K,) exclaim about the general lack of awareness, or even the
deliberate blindness that greets them. In our own investigation
among many varieties of organizations and citizens, weíve noted two
general categories of response.
In the first category, people acknowledge the problem but view it as
restricted to a small number of businesses, or a limited number of
consequences. People believe that Y2K affects only a few industriesó
primarily finance and insuranceóseemingly because they deal with
dates on policies and accounts.
Others note that their organization
is affected by Y2K, but still view it as a well-circumscribed issue
that is being addressed by their information technology department.
Whatís common to these comments is that people hold Y2K as a
narrowly-focused, bounded problem. They seem oblivious to the
networks in which they participate, or to the systems and
interconnections of modern life.
The second category of reactions reveals the great collective faith
in technology and science. People describe Y2K as a technical
problem and then enthusiastically state that human ingenuity and
genius always finds a way to solve these type of problems. Ecologist
David Orr has noted that one of the fundamental beliefs of our time
is that technology can be trusted to solve any problem it creates.
If a software engineer goes on TV claiming to have created a program
that can correct all systems, he is believed.
After all, heís just
what weíve been expecting.
And then there is the uniqueness of the Year 2000 problem. At no
other time in history have we been forced to deal with a deadline
that is absolutely non-negotiable. In the past, we could always hope
for a last minute deal, or rely on round-the-clock bargaining, or
pray for an eleventh hour savior. We have never had to stare into
the future knowing the precise date when the crisis would
materialize. In a bizarre fashion, the inevitability of this
confrontation seems to add to peopleís denial of it. They know the
date when the extent of the problem will surface, and choose not to
worry about it until then.
However, this denial is quickly dissipating. Information on Y2K is
expanding exponentially, matched by escalation in adjectives used to
describe it. More public figures are speaking out. This is
critically important. With each calendar tick of this time,
alternatives diminish and potential problems grow. We must develop
strategies for preparing ourselves at all levels to deal with
whatever Y2K presents to us with the millennium dawn.
As individuals, nations, and as a global society, do we have a
choice as to how we might respond to Y2K, however problems
materialize? The question of alternative social responses lies at
the outer edges of the interlocking circles of technology and system
relationships. At present, potential societal reactions receive
almost no attention. But we firmly believe that it is the central
most important place to focus public attention and individual
Y2K is a technology-induced problem, but it will not and cannot be
solved by technology. It creates societal problems that can only be
solved by humans. We must begin to address potential social
responses. We need to be engaged in this discourse within our
organizations, our communities, and across the traditional
boundaries of competition and national borders. Without such
planning, we will slide into the Year 2000 as hapless victims of our
Even where there is some recognition of the potential disruptions or
chaos that Y2K might create, thereís a powerful dynamic of secrecy
preventing us from engaging in these conversations. Leaders donít
want to panic their citizens. Employees donít want to panic their
bosses. Corporations donít want to panic investors. Lawyers donít
want their clients to confess to anything.
But as psychotherapist
and information systems consultant Dr. Douglass Carmichael has
Those who want to hush the problem ("Donít talk about it, people
will panic", and "We donít know for sure.") are having three
effects. First, they are preventing a more rigorous investigation of
the extent of the problem. Second, they are slowing down the
awareness of the intensity of the problem as currently understood
and the urgency of the need for solutions, given the current
assessment of the risks. Third, they are making almost certain a
higher degree of ultimate panic, in anger, under conditions of
Havenít we yet learned the consequences of secrecy?
When people are
kept in the dark, or fed misleading information, their confidence in
leaders quickly erodes. In the absence of real information, people
fill the information vacuum with rumors and fear. And whenever we
feel excluded, we have no choice but to withdraw and focus on
self-protective measures. As the veil of secrecy thickens, the
capacity for public discourse and shared participation in solution
finding disappears. People no longer believe anything or anybodyówe
become unavailable, distrusting and focused only on
Our history with the problems created by secrecy
has led CEO Norman Augustine to advise leaders in crisis to:
the truth and tell it fast."
Behaviors induced by secrecy are not the only human responses
available. Time and again we observe a much more positive human
response during times of crisis. When an earthquake strikes, or a
bomb goes off, or a flood or fire destroys a community, people
respond with astonishing capacity and effectiveness. They use any
available materials to save and rescue, they perform acts of pure
altruism, they open their homes to one another, they finally learn
who their neighbors are.
Weíve interviewed many people who participated in the aftermath of a
disaster, and as they report on their experiences, it is clear that
their participation changed their lives. They discovered new
capacities in themselves and in their communities. They exceeded all
expectations. They were surrounded by feats of caring and courage.
They contributed to getting systems restored with a speed that
defied all estimates.
When chaos strikes, thereís simply no time for secrecy; leaders have
no choice but to engage every willing soul. And the field for
improvisation is wide openóno emergency preparedness drill ever
prepares people for what they actually end up doing. Individual
initiative and involvement are essential. Yet surprisingly, in the
midst of conditions of devastation and fear, people report how good
they feel about themselves and their colleagues. These crisis
experiences are memorable because the best of us becomes visible and
available. Weíve observed this in America, and in Bangladesh, where
the poorest of the poor responded to the needs of their most
destitute neighbors rather than accepting relief for themselves.
As we sit staring into the unknown dimensions of a global crisis
whose timing is non-negotiable, what responses are available to us
as a human community? An effective way to explore this question is
to develop potential scenarios of possible social behaviors.
Scenario planning is an increasingly accepted technique for
identifying the spectrum of possible futures that are most important
to an organization or society. In selecting among many possible
futures, it is most useful to look at those that account for the
greatest uncertainty and the greatest impact.
For Y2K, David Isenberg, (a former AT&T telecommunications expert,
now at Isen.Com) has identified the two variables which seem obvious
Ė the range of technical failures from isolated to multiple, and the
potential social responses, from chaos to coherence. Both variables
are critical and uncertain and are arrayed as a pair of crossing
axes. When displayed in this way, four different general futures
In the upper left quadrant, if technical failures are isolated and
society doesnít respond to those, nothing of significance will
happen. Isenberg labels this the "Official Future" because it
reflects present behavior on the part of leaders and organizations.
The upper right quadrant describes a time where technical failures
are still isolated, but the public responds to these with panic,
perhaps fanned by the media or by stonewalling leaders. Termed "A
Whiff of Smoke," the situation is analogous to the panic caused in a
theater by someone who smells smoke and spreads an alarm, even
though it is discovered that there is no fire. This world could
evolve from a press report that fans the flames of panic over what
starts as a minor credit card glitch (for example), and, fueled by
rumors turns nothing into a major social problem with runs on banks,
The lower quadrants describe far more negative scenarios.
"Millennial Apocalypse" presumes large-scale technical failure
coupled with social breakdown as the organizational, political and
economic systems come apart. The lower left quadrant, "Human Spirit"
posits a society that, in the face of clear adversity, calls on each
of us to collaborate in solving the problems of breakdown.
Since essentially we are almost out of time and resources for
preventing widespread Y2K failures, a growing number of observers
believe that the only plausible future scenarios worth contemplating
are those in the lower half of the matrix. The major question before
us is how will society respond to what is almost certain to be
widespread and cascading technological failures?
What is a possible natural evolution of the problem?
even in early í99, the press could start something bad long before
it was clear how serious the problem was and how society would react
to it. There could be an interim scenario where a serious technical
problem turned into a major social problem from lack of adequate
positive social response. This "Small Theatre Fire" future could be
the kind of situation where people overreact and trample themselves
trying to get to the exits from a small fire that is routinely
If the technical situation is bad, a somewhat more ominous situation
could evolve. Government, exerting no clear positive leadership and
seeing no alternative to chaos, cracks down so as not to lose
control (a common historical response to social chaos has been for
the government to intervene in non-democratic, sometimes brutal
fashion). "Techno-fascism" is a plausible scenario --governments and
large corporations would intervene to try to contain the damage
--rather than build for the future. This dictatorial approach would
be accompanied by secrecy about the real extent of the problem and
ultimately fueled by the cries of distress, prior to 2000, from a
society that has realized its major systems are about to fail and
that it is too late to do anything about it.
Obviously, the scenario worth working towards is "Human Spirit," a
world where the best of human creativity is enabled and the highest
common good becomes the objective. In this world we all work
together, developing a very broad, powerful, synergistic,
self-organizing force focused on determining what humanity should be
doing in the next 13 months to plan for the aftermath of the down
stroke of Y2K.
This requires that we understand Y2K not as a technical problem, but
as a systemic, worldwide event that can only be resolved by new
social relationships. All of us need to become very wise and very
engaged very fast and develop entirely new processes for working
together. Systems issues cannot be resolved by hiding behind
traditional boundaries or by clinging to competitive strategies.
Systems require collaboration and the dissolution of existing
boundaries. Our only hope for healthy responses to Y2K-induced
failures is to participate together in new collaborative
At present, individuals and organizations are being encouraged to
protect themselves, to focus on solving "their" problem. In a
systemís world, this is insane. The problems are not isolated,
therefore no isolated responses will work. The longer we pursue
strategies for individual survival, the less time we have to create
any viable, systemic solutions. None of the boundaries weíve created
across industries, organizations, communities, or nation states give
us any protection in the face of Y2K.
We must stop the messages of fragmentation now and focus resources
and leadership on figuring out how to engage everyone, at all
levels, in all systems.
As threatening as Y2K is, it also gives us the unparalleled
opportunity to figure out new and simplified ways of working
together. GMís chief information officer, Ralph Szygenda, has said
that Y2K is the cruelest trick ever played on us by technology, but
that it also represents a great opportunity for change. It demands
that we let go of traditional boundaries and roles in the pursuit of
new, streamlined systems, ones that are less complex than the
entangled ones that have evolved over the past thirty years.
Thereís an interesting lesson here about involvement that comes from
the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. Just a few weeks prior the
bombing, agencies from all over the city conducted an emergency
preparedness drill as part of normal civil defense practice. They
did not prepare themselves for a bomb blast, but they did work
together on other disaster scenarios. The most significant
accomplishment of the drill was to create an invisible
infrastructure of trusting relationships.
When the bomb went off, that infrastructure displayed itself as an
essential resource--people could work together easily, even in the
face of horror. Many lives were saved and systems were restored at
an unprecedented rate because people from all over the community
worked together so well.
But thereís more to this story. One significant player had been
excluded from the preparedness drill, and that was the FBI. No one
thought theyíd ever be involved in a Federal matter. To this day,
people in Oklahoma City speak resentfully of the manner in which the
FBI came in, pushed them aside, and offered no explanations for
their behavior. In the absence of trusting relationships, some form
of techno-fascism is the only recourse.
Elizabeth Dole, as president
of the American Red Cross commented:
"The midst of a disaster is the
poorest possible time to establish new relationships and to
introduce ourselves to new organizations . . . . When you have taken
the time to build rapport, then you can make a call at 2 a.m., when
the riverís rising and expect to launch a well-planned, smoothly
The scenario of communities and organizations working together in
new ways demands a very different and immediate response not only
from leaders but from each of us. "
The Major Crises of the Our Generation
As John Petersen cogently suggests, Y2K is a serious challenge, one
that must be addressed at all levels of society, across the world.
also believe that Y2K will be conquered by humanity. Thanks to many
loud and proactive stands taken by futurists and clear-minded
technology thinkers, a lot has been accomplished in 1997 and 1998.
The United States is likely to suffer regional crises, and a few
systemic ones, but is also likely to come through with society
firmly intact if decisive preventive action and contingency planning
continue through 1999. In this country, I believe we will do far
better than doomsayers suggest.
Other nations will have other levels of success in correcting the
problem this year. Some nations' infrastructures will simply shut
down because of their level of unpreparedness. Our attention must
quickly expand to include international preparedness, for the
world's problems will be the problems of the only remaining
All in all, I am hopeful and cautiously optimistic that the world
will focus this year sufficient to tackle Y2K without fundamental
disaster. But Y2K is by no means the only, nor the most serious, set
of problems we face.
Because modern humanity has accelerated the pace at which we change,
we have dictated not only the range of our positive experience, but
also the pace at which we must learn painful new lessons Ė lessons
impossible to foresee and equally impossible to avoid once glimpsed.
Because of the acceleration of change in our lives in the past 100
years in particular, there are several crucial challenges beyond Y2K
that humanity will face in coming years, fundamental challenges of
its own creation.
In my opinion, these challenges are best considered and reviewed by
Eugene Linden in his stunningly insightful book The Future In Plain
Sight. Linden writes on science and technology for Time, and is
well-respected across the media.
Linden reviews several crucial
problems faced by modern human civilization that are not widely
appreciated in their portent, briefly summarized below...
"Hot" Tempered Markets
During an extraordinary four-month period starting on June 27, 1997,
the currencies of Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore,
Indonesia, Taiwan, and Korea all went into a free fall. Even places
like Hong Kong, whose currencies escaped the plummeting, suffered
stock-market collapses. The contagion spread also to Latin America,
where markets in Mexico and Brazil suffered precipitous declines...
That the Southeast Asian crisis came about only two years after the
international community had supposedly learned the lessons of the
Mexican crisis speaks volumes about the inherent volatility of an
integrated global market. Bankers and policy makers can set up
bailout funds or an international bankruptcy court, improve the flow
of financial information, and take other actions designed to soothe
markets, but these will not work.
Both the Mexican and Southeast
Asian examples demonstrate that market instability is about not only
information and systems but perception and human nature. If the
story is that Thailand or Mexico or Indonesia is a good place to get
good returns on money, the relatively homogeneous investment
community will put money into that country, ignoring warning signals
until it is too late. Then they will all try to leave...
Without the $52-billion bailout in Mexico, a cascade of bankruptcies
and bank collapses could have plunged the nation into complete
anarchy, fostering an immense wave of migration to the United
States. The question facing Mexico, Southeast Asia, and the global
investing community is whether these bailouts have bought nations
time to institute necessary reforms, or merely postponed a much more
painful day of reckoning...
The triumph of capitalism in this century has set the stage for an
integrated global economy. This globalization of markets is supposed
to spread risks and reduce volatility. Instead it actually increases
the likelihood of violent swings, because of the homogeneity and
synchronicity that characterize the actions of the institutions
governing the flows of capital...
What happened was but a dust devil on a summer day compared with
what will happen ever more frequently in the coming decades.
and adjustments are an inevitable part of any economic system, but
as the scale of the integrated market grows, these jerks will only
increase in frequency and amplitude, promising more instability in
The Decay of the City
In the poorer nations of the world, the latter part of this century
has seen a massive, unprecedented migration to the cities. The
percentage of population living in cities in the richer countries
increased by about 37 percent between 1950 and 1995, but the
percentage of urban dwellers more than doubled in less developed
nations during that same period and more than tripled in the least
developed nations, according to UN statistics...
Some public-health experts are now beginning to believe that the
statistical portrait of the advantages of urban life does not
capture dramatic declines in living standards for large numbers of
the poor, who have become worse off than their counterparts in the
Studies of such disparate cities as Accra, Ghana, and Sao Paulo
reveal that the poor bear a double burden of disease, finding
themselves weakened by infectious water-borne diseases as well as
chronic problems, such as heart disease and cancers, traditionally
associated with affluence. Thus the urban poor have to face the
added stresses of urban life in a weakened state (in Africa, between
40 and 80 percent of urban dwellers are afflicted with one or more
parasite at any given time), drinking and bathing with expensive and
often bad water, surrounded by casually disposed-of toxic materials
and chemicals, eating unhealthy high-fat street food, breathing
foully polluted air, and contending daily with ever more resilient
Unstable cities project instability beyond their boundaries through
the incubation of microbes, through political and social disorder
that can also spread as a contagion, through the disruption of
national and regional economies, and through the launching of new
tides of migrants.
No "Vent for Surplus"
If the exploding cities of the developing world are one indication
of how demographic pressures will destabilize life in the next
century, human migration is another...
History has shown that people tend to move when they find themselves
squeezed for space, but what happens when there is no place to go?
In the past, wild lands and new territories provided what the
economist Adam Smith called a "vent for surplus." Migrants today are
finding that there is no "vent for surplus" even as the population
pressures and environmental degradation force greater numbers of
people to uproot their families in search of new places to settle...
The example of Rwanda and Zaire shows how migration can set in
motion ripples that in turn destabilize an entire region. The
potential for catastrophic collisions of migrants and residents will
only rise in the future, as the population continues to increase by
roughly a hundred million a year....
Looming across the Pacific is a case in point. China, the world's
most populous nation, faces building pressures for internal
migration that terrify the government. Despite the economic boom
that has given China one of the fastest-growing economies on Earth,
the communist government sites on top of a powder keg of forces that
could produce mass movements within the country on an unprecedented
scale... China's history is marked by a series of collapses brought
about by uncontained population growth, according to Jack Goldstone,
an expert on the history of revolution and rebellion. He argues that
the stage is set for this cycle to be played out again...
What will happen as the Earth becomes more crowded while images of
suffering become ever more available? Will people tune out and turn
inward, if only to preserve their humanity? Very likely. Will
xenophobia and various forms of racism become resurgent as those
living in favored regions search for ways to rationalize their
inability to help the millions who seek aid or entry? Also very
The point, however, is that population pressures affect
societies in many surprising ways, putting huddled masses at the
gates of their neighbors, yet fueling atavistic antagonisms that can
dehumanize even those nations that feel smugly insulated from the
The rise of eco-migration offers a disturbing
preview of coming upheavals.
The Ubiquitous Wage Gap
Thirty years ago, political scientists warned that a widening gap
between rich and poor threatened to produce political and social
upheaval. At that point, the richest 20 percent of the people on
earth earned thirty times more than the poorest 20 percent. Instead
of narrowing, however, that gap has expanded, so that the better-off
now earn sixty times as much as the poorest.
This gap has widened despite statistics that show huge improvements
in incomes, educational opportunities, and health care in the
developing world, where the bulk of the world's poor live. How can
this be? Part of the answer is a synergy between population growth
and technological change, which rewards the educated and adept and
marginalizes everyone else. Despite much-trumpeted improvements in
nutrition and infant health, in 1996 more than 2.4 billion people -a
number greater than the total world population in 1945 -still lived
on less than $2 a day. Despite an integrated global economy, two
billion people, more than a third of the earth's human population,
still live unconnected to the grid of the industrial world by either
electricity or oil.
A country such as Indonesia can attract manufacturing jobs to the
Jakarta area with labor priced at $1.50 a day, but industries can
easily pick up stakes and find highly motivated workers elsewhere,
should either workers or their governments make demands for higher
wages or better working conditions. In the meantime, unrelenting
migration from overpopulated agricultural regions gives workers
ever-declining leverage over employers. In Egypt, where five hundred
thousand new job seekers enter the market each year, per-capita
income has fallen from $750 to $620 in eight years.
As these surplus workers become more desperate, the line between
freedom and slavery begins to blur. In northeastern Brazil,
agricultural workers live in perpetual indenturement to landowners
who pay them so little that, no matter how hard they work, they only
fall deeper into debt. In Africa, an organization called the
American Anti-Slavery Group has produced evidence of the return of
outright slavery in Mauretania and the Sudan.
The group reported in
The New York Times that, as supplies of slaves secured by raids
increased, the price of a woman or a child dropped from $90 to $15
between 1989 and 1990.
The return of slavery is noteworthy because it is the extreme
expression of a trend toward the marginalization of those at the
bottom of the global economy. In an integrated global economy,
consumers will have increasing power over how products are produced,
so slavery is unlikely to return on a large scale, since the concept
has become morally abhorrent in most of the world. Of course, there
is no guarantee that the global economy will remain integrated fifty
years from now, or that slavery will still be morally repugnant. If
it does return to any significant degree, it is more likely to be
camouflaged by the paternalism of landowners, corporations, or the
Around the world, 4.5 billion people live in conditions that James Gustave Speth, administrator of the
United Nations Development
Program, describes as "deplorable." Of that number, one billion live
in absolute poverty. In 1996, Speth wrote that every day sixty-seven
thousand babies a day-twenty-five million a year-are born into
families so poor their parents cannot afford sufficient food to
perform normal work. The International Labor Organization estimates
that 750 million of the world labor force of 2.5 billion people are
either unemployed or underemployed.
Thus the fruits of worldwide economic growth disproportionately
accrue to an ever-smaller percent of the population. As a trend,
this cannot continue without producing violent reactions from those
left behind. The forces driving this widening gap -the population
explosion, the integration of the world economy, and the automation
of work -are fundamental.
Moreover, two of these forces, technological advance and the
increasing integration of the global economy, are the keys to the
present economy. So the world faces a dilemma: the widening income
gap between rich and poor may be integral to continued economic
growth as capitalism extends its reach and human numbers expand.
This widening gap is not confined to the developing world. In the
U.S., twenty years ago the average CEO earned thirty-five times more
than the average worker; now it is 150 times more. In that same
period, the poorest 20 percent of U.S. workers have seen their real
earnings drop by 24 percent, and the upper 20 percent have increased
their real income by 10 percent. And in the wealthier nations alone,
there are thirty million jobless...
It is not just blue-collar workers who find themselves forced from
their customary livelihoods. Whereas population pressures are a
force driving unemployment and underemployment in the developing
world, technology impels change in the richer nations: the
information revolution is completing the automation of the workplace
that began two hundred years ago with the industrial revolution.
First armies of blue-collar employees were swept away by efficiency
improvements, but now hundreds of thousands of clerical, managerial,
and other white-collar workers who never dreamed they might be out
of a job are being laid off. Between 1979 and 1993, 18.7 million
white-collar jobs disappeared in the United States. New jobs have
been created as well, millions of them, but often at lower pay, with
fewer benefits and less security.
Many paternalistic and
bureaucratic companies that resisted the trend for white-collar
layoffs during the 1980s used the recession of 1991 and 1992 as an
excuse to achieve workforce reductions that were in fact driven by
If the future were a simple projection of the past, most of these
dislocated employees would find new opportunities after an initial
period of turmoil. This time around, such happy endings are
improbable for many. Computers can now analyze sales data, perform
credit analyses, and allocate discount seats on airlines, and
workers who developed such esoteric expertise are finding themselves
out on the street with unmarketable skills. Sandwiched between a
younger generation and well-educated, cheaper labor abroad, they
have nowhere to go but down.
This picture of the future is at extreme variance with the
conventional wisdom in the booming economy of 1997. With the global
economy growing at nearly 4 percent a year, and the U.S. economy in
its fifth year of sustained growth, both downsizing and integration
were beginning to look like flat-out wins. U.S. productivity was
climbing, and by December 1997, the 4.6-percent unemployment rate
was the lowest in thirty years and below the 5-percent level
considered to represent full employment. The unprecedented bull
market created a lot of paper wealth as well.
If there was a troubling sign on the horizon in the U.S., it was
that consumer debt in 1997 reached an all-time high at $1.2
trillion. This represented a 50-percent increase since 1991. Total
household debt, which includes mortgages, reached $5.4 trillion, and
by 1997 the average person was spending 18 percent of income just to
service debt, the highest level since the mid-1980s, but in terms of
burden, the highest level ever, since consumers no longer had the
ability to deduct interest on debt from their taxes.
Personal bankruptcies were also at an all-time high.
By the middle
of the year, credit-card delinquencies reached 7 percent, also near
record levels; since most credit-card debt is repackaged by the card
issuers as asset-backed bonds, rising delinquencies can rapidly
spread through the financial system, undermining the liquidity of
the card issuers as well as the institutions that trade the
Perhaps more significantly, the rising delinquencies revealed a
fault line in the otherwise rosy economic landscape. A lot of
different reasons account for the rise in bad credit, ranging from
bad judgment on the part of credit-card issuers, to the declining
stigma of bankruptcy, to the failing efforts of those with downsized
incomes to maintain their former standards of living. But the
combination of full employment with rising indebtedness and
delinquency suggests that people are working harder, yet not making
enough money to meet their material aspirations.
This fault line was also indicated by low inflation, conventionally
interpreted as an indicator of the robustness of the economy.
Ordinarily, low unemployment would be an indicator of future
inflation, because, with labor scarce, employees could demand raise
hikes and also pour money into the economy, driving up prices. In
the 1990s economy, however, years of low unemployment and a booming
economy did not result in wage hikes or in strong increases in
consumer spending (except in services -a further indication that
people were working harder, and thus forced to eat out more often
and pay for functions like child care and laundry that housewives
used to perform, before the advent of the two-income family).
Savings continued their long-term downward trend. In the
post-downsizing era, workers had nowhere near the perks, the
guarantees, or, in many cases, the incomes they had in previous
decades. Moreover, even with labor theoretically scarce, employers
could turn to a steady supply of immigrants willing to work for very
little. This is exactly what has happened. As the boom of the
mid-1990s created a demand for new employees at the bottom end of
the wage curve, Hispanic workers, many of them immigrants, joined
the workforce at four times the rate of black or white workers.
Federal Reserve Bank worried about inflation, but the
combination of job insecurity, decreasing family incomes in the
middle class, and global overcapacity in most industrial sectors
created a strong momentum toward disinflation, if not deflation.
Even as goods were getting cheaper in the U.S., thanks to imports,
many Americans found that their discretionary income was relatively
flat. The rising credit-card delinquencies reflected the reality
that borrowers can suffer in deflationary times, particularly since
real interest rates in 1997 were at a very high 4 percent and above.
With inflation, which tends to guide wage increases, hovering at 2
percent, many people were steadily falling behind in their ability
to pay bills. If inflation and raises continue to fall because of
global overcapacity on almost all goods, then the indebted will fall
behind even faster, unless interest rates come down as well.
The entrepreneurial and gifted will still thrive in these harsh
times for workers, but a growing population of white-collar workers
whose fortunes have turned sour depresses the prospects of a country
as a whole. In the U.S., consumer spending drives the economy,
accounting for two-thirds of GDP. As mentioned earlier, layoffs in
recent years have focused on professionals, managers, and
administrators, the segment of the middle class that traditionally
has the most discretionary income...
A disenfranchised managerial class could pose a real threat to
stability in the future. One need only look to the chaos of Russia
in the early 1990s to see how difficult it is for white-collar
workers with obsolete skills to adapt to new conditions, and how
much mischief this politically sophisticated class can cause when it
finds itself stripped of its perks.
This means that a large pool of voters will have more reason to
remain angry and dissatisfied, becoming fertile ground for radical
and xenophobic causes. The danger to society comes not so much from
extreme events such as the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah
Federal Building in Oklahoma City, which was the product of paranoid
fantasies about government conspiracies, as from ever-wilder
oscillations in political positions, in which moderates lose
influence and the more passionate extremists take control of the
This is one reason why the widening gap between the top and the
bottom income groups cannot continue to widen indefinitely. The few
can maintain their wealth only with the permission of the many. If
the middle continues to stagnate in the developed countries while
the top prospers, the majority will demand action, and politicians,
being politicians, will give it to them. But what can they offer the
middle and the poor, given the ceilings imposed by an integrated
One thing politicians can deliver is inflation. As a policy tool,
inflation is always tempting, because it redistributes wealth from
those who lend to those who owe, while camouflaging who did what to
whom. Again, however, the potential negative reactions of the
integrated global market means this is not really a policy option
for the U.S. -which is not to say that it will not happen anyway...
In the developing world, the resolution of the widening gap promises
to be even more unruly, as the examples of Mexico and China cited
earlier suggest. Many of the countries with the widest gaps between
rich and poor, such as Russia and Venezuela, have fragile
democracies. One conclusion of a confidential CIA-sponsored study of
the nations that collapsed over the past forty years was that
emerging democracies were more unstable than dictatorships when
times turn bad, because people can give voice to frustrations for
the first time yet democratic institutions remain too weak to
address the underlying causes of the misery.
Could the widening gap between rich and poor resolve itself
Theoretically, this could happen if a global economic
boom outpaced both population growth and the application of
productivity improvements. However, even with global economic growth
at nearly 4 percent a year in 1997, the gap continues to widen.
The gap might also narrow if labor became scarce again. With the
global workforce growing by over fifty million people a year, this
is not likely barring some catastrophe or radical social change. The
latter happened in Afghanistan, where the Taliban has enforced a
harsh version of Islamic law and forced women to abandon jobs for
home life, greatly reducing the number of professionals.
The gap between the rich and poor cannot widen indefinitely without
producing instability, and it is difficult to imagine it shifting
toward a more equitable distribution of wealth without instability.
The forces marginalizing both ordinary labor and knowledge workers
derive from deep, long-term trends, including the automation of the
workplace, the integration of the global economy, technological
advances that permit companies to tap a global labor market for many
types of work, and the inexorable expansion of human numbers.
of these trends will change without upheaval.
A Warning from the Ice
The messages the world has been getting from its atmosphere and
climate have been hard to ignore, even if they are difficult to
interpret.... It was not until 1985 that atmospheric chemists began
to realize that the Antarctic skies were sending a message. The
message was that humanity had unleashed an entirely new chemical
reaction in the atmosphere, a process powerful enough to punch a
hole the size of North America in a shield that protects life
On March 26, 1995, a massive iceberg Ė measuring forty-eight by
twenty-three miles Ė broke off from the Larsen Ice Shelf in
Antarctica. At the same time, the three-hundred-foot-thick ice shelf
that bridged the Prince Gustave Channel, between Antarctica and
James Ross Island, disintegrated, allowing ships to circumnavigate
the island for the first time in recorded history.
Elsewhere on the
frozen continent, rocks poked through ice that had been buried under
nearly two thousand feet of ice for more than twenty thousand years.
Since the 1950s, the Wordie Ice Shelf, Antarctica's most northerly
stretch of permanent sea ice, has disappeared, moving the upper
limit of the ice dramatically southward. And one gigantic river of
ice within the West Antarctic Ice Sheet seems to be surging toward
The cause of the breakup of the peninsular ice shelves is clear.
Since the 1940s, parts of Antarctica have warmed by nearly five
degrees Fahrenheit, as evidenced by records at the United Kingdom's
Faraday Station. The reason for the warming is far less clear, but
these rapid changes in Antarctic ice must give pause to hundreds of
millions of coastal dwellers around the world.
The West Antarctic
Ice Sheet is half the size of the U.S. and more than three miles
thick at its deepest point. Were it to break up or slide into the
ocean, sea level around the world might suddenly rise by twenty
feet, imperiling billions of people, inundating ports, drowning
megacities like Jakarta, putting almost the entire Florida peninsula
under water, and flooding millions of acres of prime coastal
As the costs of extremes in climate ripple through society, people
in the developed world will rediscover that climate, fair or foul,
is the context for all human activity, and that nature is more than
This reorientation will have profound effects on
everything from demographics to religion.
A Biosphere in Disarray
A few years ago, biologist Thomas Eisner and colleagues came upon a
curious plant in the mint family that grew in only a few hundred
acres in central Florida. Despite the fact that Dicerandra
frutescens had tempting, succulent leaves, the plant was not
bothered by insects.
Subsequent investigation revealed that, to protect itself, the plant
produced a powerful insect-repellent, and that it had developed an
arsenal of antifungal compounds as well. Like a midget R&D
laboratory, this one plant, growing on a mere speck of land, may
lead to new products for the multibillion-dollar insect-repellent
and antifungal industries.
Who knows what other chemical miracles were produced by neighboring
species but have now disappeared because of urbanization and
agricultural development? Development might well have wiped out this
species as well, except that the tiny niche where it grows lies in a
A happy story? Just the opposite.
Although the succulent is
protected for the moment, most of Florida is an ecological disaster.
Development-driven decisions to tame the Everglades and turn the
land to agriculture have led to the collapse of its bird and mammal
populations, and contributed to the destabilization of Florida Bay,
which now suffocates under regular algal blooms. There are still
wood storks and white ibises, but their numbers have dropped by 90
percent in this century. Each of Florida's indigenous species
adapted to perform some role in the maintenance of the system. When
populations collapse, the system falls into disarray, and ultimately
that disarray affects humans as well.
This is the clue camouflaged by the more dramatic problem of
extinction. Extinction has been sold to the public as a problem for
humanity because drug companies lose valuable sources of new
pharmacologically active agents. That impression has been bolstered
by the negotiations surrounding the Biodiversity Treaty, which came
out of the vaunted Earth Summit that took place in Rio de Janeiro in
1992. The treaty was supposed to be an international accord to
protect species and ecosystems, but it has degenerated into a
squabble over issues of intellectual property.
The loss of biodiversity, however, is much, much more than a problem
of intellectual property, or even of protecting individual species.
It cannot be fixed by protecting representative samples of earth's
biota in preserves, or simply giving people rights to benefit
financially from the wonders nature creates as species struggle to
survive. Long before creatures begin to go extinct, the ecosystems
that support them can get so fragmented or diminished that they
become dangerously spastic, as both symbiotic and predator-prey
relationships break down.
Earth has gone through five major extinction crises during the past
few billion years, including the Permian extinctions of 245 million
years ago, which wiped out three-quarters of the life forms on
earth, and the cataclysm of sixty-five million years ago, which
spelled the doom of the dinosaurs. It is going through one now, and
this promises to be a whopper...
Today's crisis is the product of the direct and indirect effects of
Destruction of habitat is the biggest culprit.
Migratory birds find they have no place to land or breed as wetlands
and forests vanish. In Africa, brilliantly colored mouth breeding
fish called cichlids are losing their species diversity and merging
into a dull-colored mongrel because human contamination of the lake
waters has made it too difficult for females to distinguish the
markings of their proper mates.
Almost all the great apes in Africa are now endangered, in part from
hunting, in part from disease, and in part from habitat destruction
as land is converted for agriculture. With the great apes, the
social upheavals of these changes can be as destructive as the loss
of habitat itself, argues Lee White of the Wildlife Conservation
Society: logging is driving chimp bands into neighboring
territories, setting off fierce chimp wars in which as many as four
out of five animals die in hand-to-hand combat.
Whereas many previous extinction events developed over time scales
of many thousands of years and more, the present loss of
biodiversity has accelerated in just a few decades. On any future
chart plotting species diversity over time, the loss of biodiversity
will appear instantaneous, as though some awful contagion swept
around the globe indifferently extinguishing species. Not only rare,
precariously specialized species like the river dolphin are
succumbing, but also some of nature's most ubiquitous lines, such as
frogs and sea turtles; the latter had survived the aftershocks of
comets, the reign of volcanoes, and twenty ice ages, but not the
combined effects of air and water pollution, ozone depletion, human
encroachments on habitat, and the diseases unleashed by all of these
Fictions like Jurassic Park notwithstanding, extinction is
irreversible. Even if it were possible to bring extinct forms back
to life, their importance to life on earth is the role they play in
an ecosystem. As scientists have discovered, it is extremely
difficult to restore a damaged ecosystem, even when all the parts
are still available.
No one really knows how many species are disappearing, because no
one really knows how many species there are. Scientists have
documented only 1.4 million species of plants, animals, insects,
fungi, etc., but the full range of the diversity of life on dry land
and in the oceans may include between thirty and a hundred million
species if bacteria and other microscopic life forms are included.
Skeptics openly ridicule the notion that humanity should worry about
saving every bacteria, gnat, or salamander, noting that nature
herself has done in countless species down -through the ages without
jeopardizing life on earth.
This is true, but not the issue.
The loss of biodiversity puts
humanity in the position of assuming that we know exactly which
species we can do without. This is dubious, since scientists have
only the most rudimentary notion of what makes an ecosystem work. In
just a few cases do scientists know which creatures are crucial to
the functioning of an ecosystem. Nor, since values and technology
change in unpredictable ways, do we know which species might prove
vital to our health and well-being in the future.
Moreover, if the only issue were conserving the greatest number of
species, governments could go a long way in that direction by
protecting so-called biodiversity hot spots around the world. Most
of the world's species live in relatively few places, such as the
eastern slopes of the Andes, the island of Madagascar, and the
Philippines, through accidents of geography and continental drift.
The Geneva-based International Union for the Conservation of Nature
estimates that targeting for protection these strategically
important ecosystems alone, which cover less than 3 percent of the
globe, would ensure the survival of more than 50 percent of earth's
The biodiversity crisis, however, is much more than a simple
question of accounting. Animals, plants, and insects do not have to
become extinct for an ecosystem to begin a wobble toward chaos. The
issue is not simply how many individuals of a given species remain,
but where they are and, equally important for migratory creatures,
where they can go. Even though they may persist in large numbers in
the aggregate, the disappearance of a species from a given locality
can lead to a dramatic decline in an ecosystem...
Consider, for instance, the missing elephants of West Africa.
Elephants are not extinct, but they have been hunted out of many of
the forests of the Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone, Cameroon, Nigeria, and
a host of other sub-Saharan countries. Today, they persist in any
concentrations only in a corner of central Africa where the Congo,
the Central African Republic, and Cameroon meet. (In Kenya,
Zimbabwe, and a few other East and Southern African nations,
elephant populations have recovered somewhat, but find themselves
crowded Out of most of their original habitat by farmers.) There is
no confusing these forests with those in the region that no longer
The remote Ndoki region of the northern Congo is crisscrossed with
elephant trails. The main trails tend to run north to south, but
they intersect with east-to-west trails linking the elephant
thoroughfares to favorite watering holes and mud baths. It seems
that elephants, like urban planners, favor a grid pattern for their
transportation infrastructure. Scattered through the region are bias,
or clearings, created by the elephants.
Countless animals benefit from the earthworks of this elephant
civilization. Terrestrial herbaceous vegetation, or THV, abounds in
the gaps the elephants create in the forest, thus providing food for
the lowland gorilla, the bongo, and other large grazing creatures.
Perhaps because of the transportation infrastructure created by
elephants, this region of central Africa has some of the densest
concentrations of gorillas on earth. Also, as the only animal
capable of passing the large seeds of some species of
trees-including some members of the mahogany family, which is prized
by loggers-the elephant is crucial to the forest.
When elephants are eradicated, the forest gradually reclaims their
roads and clearings, reducing ground vegetation. Over time, gorillas
and the large ungulates disappear as well. A number of scientists
argue that the trickle-down effects of elephants may explain why
Africa's forests abound with large mammals but the tropical forests
of South America do not.
Few would doubt that the largest land mammal on earth would play a
crucial role in its ecosystem, but smaller, less charismatic
creatures also turn out to be surprisingly important. As noted
earlier, parrot fish and other coral-reef grazers prevent algae from
covering corals. When parrot fish are overharvested, corals
suffocate, and the whole reef ecosystem begins to collapse.
Innumerable such dislocations are occurring around the world, always
accompanied by unanticipated consequences. The disappearance of
predators in the Northeastern U.S. led to a huge increase in deer
populations and their attendant deer ticks. As a result, Lyme
disease, unknown and unnamed two decades ago, is now epidemic
virtually throughout the U.S.
It would seem that saving ecosystems should be an urgent undertaking
that governments would pursue in their own interest. In reality,
most governments treat the notion of ecosystem conservation as an
amenity issue, except where wild-lands provide watershed or some
other function easily reducible to an economic argument.
Even if the international community made the preservation of earth's
life-support systems the world's most urgent priority, the nature of
ecosystems makes them ill-suited for the neat, systematic attempts
at preservation favored by bureaucrats. What is an ecosystem anyway?
Is it Yellowstone Park, or the swamps, pine deserts, wetlands, and
other distinct biomes within the park, or is it the park and the
surrounding forests and mountains that provide its watershed,
corridors, and buffers?
According to the current theory of ecosystem
viability, if Yellowstone Park and its surrounding protected areas
were not sufficient to protect the ecosystem, over time species
populations would diminish. They have not, suggesting that
Yellowstone, at least, is big enough to remain vital. Yellowstone,
however, is the largest park in the lower forty-eight states. Most
of America's other parks show declining populations of key species.
This may suggest that the parks are either too small or too isolated
from vital migration corridors.
That is the problem. Life on earth is so complicated that neither
scientists nor governments can answer such basic questions as the
minimum size of a protected area necessary to preserve its life
forms in perpetuity; the minimum population of a species before it
enters the slippery slope toward extinction; or when a population of
a species becomes so isolated that it loses its genetic vitality,
expressed by the splitting of populations into evolutionarily
Even if scientists could answer these questions and impose ironclad
protections for regions vital to ecosystems, both humanity and
earth's creatures are now vulnerable to global forces unleashed by
humans. For instance, the polluted Arctic front, a curse laid on the
Far North by the industrial world, results from global air currents
that pool the collected contaminants of the Northern Hemisphere over
the polar region during wintertime.
The contaminants condense and fall with snow, and then, during the
spring melt, they go into the tundra, where they are taken up by
animals and plants and the people who eat them. Because of the
Arctic front as well as ocean dumping of radioactive and toxic
material, animals and humans in some of the most remote parts of the
Far North carry huge concentrations of mercury and carcinogens in
their fat and hair.
Some seals in the Arctic Russian Far East have
radioactive growth-rings in their teeth. The bodies of some whales
that wash up in the mouth of the St. Lawrence Seaway contain such
concentrations of toxins that they would be declared a
hazardous-waste site in the United States.
Despite the fact that the pesticide DDT was banned by the U.S. and
most industrial countries in the 1970s, its use in the developing
world still threatens bird life. As reported by Les Line in The New
York Times, the reach of the poisons extends to Midway Island, smack
in the center of the Pacific Ocean and thousands of miles from any
industrial or agricultural center; here DDT is one of several toxins
accumulating in the bodies of the black-footed albatross, a giant
pelagic bird with a seven-foot wingspan. The DDT, which the birds
ingest with flying-fish eggs, causes their own eggshells to thin,
leading to crushing and high mortality among chicks.
There is no part of the globe where species and ecosystems do not
already feel the weight of humanity. A team of ecologists led by
Peter Vitousek of Stanford University published an account of human
domination of earth's ecosystems in the journal Science in 1997. The
figures this group produced are awesome: half the world's mangroves,
vital buffers and nurseries of the oceans, altered or destroyed; 66
percent of all recognized marine fisheries either at the limit of
their exploitation or already overexploited; half the accessible
fresh water on earth co-opted for human use; roughly one-quarter of
all bird species on earth driven into extinction; and on and on.
Lurking in the future are the unfolding consequences of ozone
depletion, which may be weakening the immune systems of many
creatures on the planet, and the dislocations of ecosystems that may
come from climate change. Clearly, a changed climate poses a
profound threat to any creature that has adapted to a narrow range
of temperature and rainfall, but the subtle ways in which climate
change might throw ecosystems into chaos were dramatically
demonstrated on remote Wrangell Island, in the Russian Arctic, just
a few years ago.
The dominant land-based predator in this ecosystem is the polar
bear. The white bear is a kind of mirror image of a marine mammal,
spending most of its life at sea, albeit on top of the ice rather
than below. Over the millennia, polar bears acquired a white coat,
which concealed them from their prey; blubber for warmth; and
oversize feet, which help them paddle in the water and distribute
their weight so that the eight-hundred-pound creatures can walk on
ice too thin to support a human being.
Together these adaptations make the polar bear a formidable killing
machine. Bears conceal themselves by lying on the ice facing their
prey, so that only their noses break the tableau of whiteness. It is
said that if an unarmed man sees a hungry polar bear on the ice it
is already too late for escape. The animal has been forced to
develop its stalking skills because it is a pure carnivore. To
survive, an adult bear must kill an animal the size of a seal every
week of its life.
Ordinarily, the bears leave the island in the late spring and stay
on the ice pack as it shrinks toward the north, returning to
Wrangell with the fall freeze. In 1992, the ice pack retreated
dramatically, stranding polar bears and walruses on the island for
the summer. The result was bloody carnage, as predator and prey
found themselves locked in tight quarters together.
The distinct warming of the past couple of decades has already had
perceptible effects on smaller life forms as well.
an entomologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara,
published a study in the journal Nature which detailed local
extinctions and changes in the range of a butterfly called Edith's Checkerspot, an insect that is very sensitive to climate change. She
found that warming temperatures had killed off the butterfly in much
of the southern reaches of its range in Mexico, but that it was
expanding its range in Canada and cooler areas at higher elevations.
Even without climate change, countless species will continue to
decline. Ignorant of the workings of the systems that sustain us, we
continue to squeeze them, not knowing whether we are squeezing them
too much. There is absolutely no question that there will be a day
of reckoning for this mad gamble.
David Quarnmen, author of The Song of the Dodo, which explores the
anarchy wrought by the fragmentation of nature, quotes conservation
biologists Michael Soule and Bruce Wilcox on the net result of
humanity's impact on the biosphere: "There is no escaping the
conclusion that in our lifetimes, this planet will see a suspension,
if not an end, to many ecological and evolutionary processes which
have been uninterrupted since the beginnings of paleontological
If scientists do not know how an ecosystem sustains itself, they do
know that nature tends to seek equilibrium. As the players or
circumstances change in any given ecosystem, nature adjusts, seeking
some new equilibrium. That period of adjustment can be quite
volatile. It can also take a long time for nature to recover from a
spasm of extinctions.
Ten million years is the figure that the great
Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson uses, and it is useful to keep this
figure in mind when those who doubt the seriousness of the
fragmentation of habitats and the loss of biodiversity argue that
societies can restore their ecosystems once they have made economic
progress. Wildlands may be easily convertible into capital, but the
reverse is not so easy.
Of all the clues to what lies ahead, the squeezing of earth's
life-support system may have the most direct and immutable ties to
Back to Climate Changes
Living With Limits
A variety of signals suggest that the next round of improvements in
food production are not going to be as easy as the gains achieved
during the (past 50 years). Nor are there now great stretches of
wildlands ready to be brought under plow, as there were decades ago,
or great sources of untapped fresh water that might be used for
All of these factors, plus the stresses of producing
enough of five basic crops Ė corn, wheat, soybeans, barley, and rice
Ė to feed six billion people, have conspired to produce a compelling
clue to the future: an increase in the volatility of the global food
Rice has a special place in the world food system, because it is the
staple of people in warm nations who are too poor to afford anything
else. If these three billion people cannot afford rice, they have
nowhere to turn for food. What worries (experts) is that, to keep
pace with population growth, rice production has to increase by more
than 70 percent in the next thirty years...
On the horizon are new
strains of biotech hybrid rice and a high-yielding "super rice" now
in development, but (experts) estimates that these improvements
might ultimately increase the rice harvest by only 25 percent.
Somehow rice growers must find another 45-percent increase. Where it
will come from is not obvious at the moment, particularly given the
trends in the world today.
The amount of irrigated land around the world has not significantly
increased since 1992, and erosion, the salinization of fields, and
other forms of desertification are taking millions of acres out of
production each year...
There are other instabilities inherent to the production of crops
themselves. Developing an agricultural system to feed an expanding
and increasingly urbanized world population involves a number of
trade-offs. The need for standardized, easily transportable foods
has tended to focus attention on just a few crops, creating a
self-reinforcing cycle in which farmers look to increase yields and
increase focus on ever-fewer varieties, grown in ever more similar
ways. Bangladesh, which once grew ten thousand variants of rive, now
relies on just five...
Primitive variants of basic crops such as wheat and corn carry with
adaptations to an enormous variety of threats. Some corn varieties
that originated in high-altitude regions of Mexico, for instance,
have purple tassels that may store heat, providing protection from
frosts and some defense against ultraviolet radiation; the latter
issue may prove important as the ozone layer continues to
deteriorate under assault by man-made chemicals... The danger is
that pests, blights, or climate change may produce an emergency in
one of the staple crops to which scientists cannot respond...
And then there is water. Whether or not climate becomes more
unstable, water scarcity looms as a huge limit to future increases
in productivity. The International Food Policy Research Institute
estimates that 338 million people live in countries now suffering
water stress, which means that the region suffers major problems
during drought years. IFPRI estimates that by 2025 roughly 50
countries, with a total population of three billion people, will
suffer water stress. This projection represents a nine-fold increase
in water scarcity in just thirty years.
As per-capita supplies of fresh water diminish, global demand
increases at 2.4 percent annually, a rate faster than population
growth. This sets up a no-win competition between industry,
agriculture, households, and ecosystems for ever-smaller amounts of
The competition for water also raises the likelihood of conflict
between nations. Turkey controls the headwaters of both the Tigris
and Euphrates rivers, and its past actions to dam the rivers have
prompted its bellicose downstream neighbors, Iraq and Syria, to
Tensions could flare again as Turkey moves to complete
its $21 billion Greater Anatolia Project, which would divert water
to irrigate 1.65 million hectares of agricultural land. The
possibility of conflict over water extends to dozens of countries in
Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, and at the heart of the tensions
will be the issue of food security.
The experience of recent years suggests that the shrinking margin
for error that comes with diminishing surplus stocks and humanity's
ever-greater dependence on a small range of seeds and diminishing
supplies of fresh water will foster ever-greater turmoil.
Infectious Disease Resurgent
Down through history, plagues and epidemics have brought low great
empires. Measles and other diseases, not conquest, brought down the
civilizations of the New World and Polynesia, and a virulent strain
of influenza that circled the world in 1918-19 killed more people
than World War I. Disease is an indicator of instability, but also a
precursor to future instability.
When ecosystems are out of balance,
microbes tend to benefit; when populations of any given species
explode, disease can bring them back into balance with brutal
Microbes are configured to respond extraordinarily quickly to any
environmental change. They have in their favor a particular
reproductive strategy, dubbed the "R-strategy" by those who study
population dynamics. R-strategists secure their perpetuation through
massive reproduction in very short periods of time. The creatures
that prey on microbes and the mosquitoes and other vectors that
spread disease tend to be so-called K-strategists.
have fewer offspring but protect and nurture them, so that they are
more likely to survive. In the normal course of life, the two
strategies tend to remain in balance, but when weather, human
activities, the loss of biological diversity, or some other upheaval
upsets that balance, the R-strategists are better poised to exploit
the opportunity and proliferate.
This is happening today on a massive scale around the world, as
human activities and human movements transform the globe. Each of
the clues discussed in earlier chapters contributes in some way to
the resurgence of infectious disease...
Indeed urban migration in the developing world threatens to undo one
of the great victories of the twentieth century, the first period in
which it has been safe to live in cities. Previously, plagues and
epidemics periodically decimated cities once they grew past their
capacity to dispose of wastes and maintain clean water.
Unfortunately, future historians may look back upon the respite of
the past few decades as the last period in which it was safe to live
Diseases bring about profound change. In an article for the Journal
of Preventative Medicine, Paul Epstein argued that the first
European plague pandemic in 541 A.D., in the disorder following the
fall of the Roman Empire, let to a flight from cities and
contributed to the development of feudalism. The next pandemic, in
1346, brought about a labor shortage that broke the power of feudal
landlords over labor and led to the development of the middle class.
What social change will accompany the next round of plagues when
If Eugene Linden is correct in any one of these scenarios, and he is
most likely correct in all of them, then human civilization is
headed for fundamental changes within our lifetimes.
The longer we
ignore these systemic issues Ė and anything less than proactive
systemic corrective strategies constitutes ignorance Ė the more
severe the shift back to equilibrium.
I completed this section of The Truth with tears in my eyes, as I
concluded reading and integrating into this text one of the more
powerful tales Iíve come across in the course of this work. I
realize that above all other reasons for investing so much in this
project, it is out of anguish for the youth of our world that I am
motivated to act.
In the fall of 1998, I asked a colleague of mine - Drew Stepek,
a phenomenally talented young writer in Los Angeles - to share with me
his thoughts as we approach the millennium. After a good
conversation I sent him this message:
"I'd like you to write a ten
page characterization of civilization from the eyes of a young
person entering college... What hopes, fears, desires, concerns,
ethics, passions, hates, and motives do they feel at this time in
He recounted this remarkable story. Parental guidance is
Some things are best left unsaidóthings considered taboo, the most
unspeakable acts, the most senseless of crimes. And, whenever I
found myself faced with this cruel reality, I found myself hiding.
Ironic that I would have ended up hidden at the most important
transition of my life: my great escape.
This was the only place that
I found solace. I never told anyone. It was just me, my mind and my
confusion. I wasnít an escapist.
I never envisioned a threatened
Harry Houdini rolling around in a chilling underwater grave, jealous
of my hidden world. That would be the glamorized fantasy of a
romantic. As a mentor, Samuel Langhorn Clemens would have found that
petty. I always thought myself a realist; I observed the world, took
notes and passed judgment. But suddenly, I had to face a 150 mile
per hour wake-up call to my mortality and I struggled for answers. I
always thrived to come to terms with the world and myself. The
question: what could I possibly add to this world-unbound?
During my final year of high school, I discovered a way to cleanse
myself of the confines of prom dates, football pep rallies and lame
tri-screen, amped-up motivational speeches. The latter of those
three interested me the least. Although the intention seemed
honorable, those presentations were always M.C.ed by some hack
ex-cop who evidently honed his audio/visual skills rather than his
Besides, I donít believe
these "Drink, Drive, Die" speeches are what George Lucas envisioned
when he created THX. Instead of indulging in the lackluster rah-rah
of high school life, I chose to pay my respects to a tree.
Donít worry. "Paying my respects to a tree" isnít slang for getting
high. This tree was something for me to believe in. It was a place
where I could write, think and be alone.
At the center of my Nirvana was a tree so magnificent, I never
understood how it grew from the tainted soil of this town-condemned.
Standing about 35 feet, the tree, which I jokingly dubbed
"Nazareth," nested on the side of a bog bank contaminated by the
atrocities of the now defunct paper mill upstream. The paper mill
shut down about nine months ago, leaving most of our town, including
my workaholic father, unemployed. Its closing however, didnít rid
this area of the unbearable pulp burning stench, extenuated by the
odor of dead animals.
Most of the wildlife, of course, was killed
drinking the shit that filled the water. It wasnít uncommon to
stumble upon a carcass.
In one respect, I guess I could thank that paper mill, however.
After all, it did give me the resources to fill out the necessary
paper work for a scholarship. Strangely enough, 40-some odd years of
the toxins from the mill didnít seem to affect the tree anywhere
near as much as their absence had destroyed the town and its people.
Quite a persistent old bastard, it had been there for as long as I
could remember. It had two extended limbs that sprouted upwards,
eternally reaching for some sort of hope. The shaft displayed the
agony of a martyrís face; twisted, torn and weathered beyond
recognition. Brought to the tree by the moisture from the venomous
swamp, were thousands of gnats and marsh bugs that sucked at its
tears of sap. Although quite a majestic landmark, the beauty never
stopped me from baptizing it after a good night of writing and a few
too many beers.
A behemoth from top to bottom, this tree wasnít going anywhere. As a
matter of fact, the base was so thick and soundly embedded into the
ground, that even the swampy muck that sucked the life out of most
seedlings was forced upwards, rolling right back down into the bog.
Evidently, it remembered something promising about this shithole
that must have existed long before my conception.
Wrapping and covering almost every other inch of the colossus was
"the virus vine"óthat was, in our part of the country, what people
called the uncontrollable kudzu weed. You see, kudzu seemed to be
the scapegoat that spread and covered and swallowed our
townóeliminating it and all of its moral value from the face of the
earth. It grew on houses, it grew on phone lines. If you left your
car untended long enough, it grew on your car.
Maybe the town was
best that way. Unseen. Unsaid. Unnoticed. Unbound.
The first time that I made one of three donations to Nazareth was
early last October. The wind had started to take on a burnt embers
smell as it breezed through town, fighting away the always lurking
smell of the old paper mill. This was not an Indian Summer. Quite
the contrary, it was bitterly cold.
This particular night, the homecoming football game my senior year,
the cheerleaders were so cold that not even their leggings and
mascot-blessed sweaters could help them avoid the crowd heckling
them, their mascara-enhanced, red, goose-bumped faces and their
protruding headlights. Danny Wilks, bundled up and tribally
face-painted red and black (the school colors), and I headed out to
the game to cheer on the team. Sadly, there wasnít a whole lot to
cheer for. We were the weakest and smallest team in our conference.
Our homecoming rival blasted through our rag-tag bunch of, shall I
say, maybe-they-should-have-played-soccer, players and left them for
the over-populated janitorial staff to clean up. Actually they
werenít much of a rival in the truest sense of the word, we hadnít
beaten them in over 20 years. We lost 45-3. Luckily, our field goal
kicker, Dave "Launch" Loncharís day job was playing soccer. He
seemed to be the teamís only real asset and helped save a little bit
Although nothing was worse than losing your homecoming game
every year, this year it didnít seem to faze football fanatic Danny.
He was always impressed by the primetime feel of bright lights and
shiny helmets but always insisted that he could never play the game
because of his inability to concentrate. Iím sure that it had
nothing to do with the fact that the kid stood five-six on his
tip-toes and weighed a buck-twenty with his pockets filled with bars
I had known Danny almost my entire life. We grew up directly across
the street from each other. Luckily for him, he was rich by our
townís standards. His father, Buck Wilks had made some sound
investments years ago and his mother, Trudy, came from old money.
The youngest of four Wilks boys (Billy, Timmy, Tommy and Danny
consecutively), he wasnít the brightest kid I knew. As a matter of
fact, he had spent much of his early life juiced-up on Ritalin to
control his outbursts of hyperactivity. Also plagued with ADD and
dyslexia, he spent a lot of time in those "special" classes.
However, all of these birthright setbacks never stunted his
"Hey man, youíre not going to believe the news I got today."
as we jumped into his overly-lifted Jeep CJ-7. As he popped the
clutch to take off, he kicked his theme song, "Stigmata" by
Ministry, into the CD player.
As the thundering drums and stinging
vocals of one of the evilest songs in history blared out of his
trick, five-speaker system, he subtly injected,
"I got into State
early admission. Iím out of here, kid."
It looked like Danny was to
be the first.
"And check this out man."
As he reached into his
center console, I saw a look unlike any I had ever seen him make:
one of pride.
"Look what my old man got me. He opened the letter
before I got home from school today."
Then, Danny showed me his
pride. The one gift from his hard-ass father that wasnít a token of
his wealthÖat least to Danny. It was a Mont Blanc pen. He didnít
care about the price. Maybe because he didnít realize that it was
worth more than I made in a month. He just cared about his
accomplishment and what this pen, with his name engraved on it,
After being pinned as an underachiever and a dunce by
ignorant teachers most of his life, it truly reflected his rising
above the hubbub.
"Dude, this pen can write on anything" he began,
"and according to the little manual that came with it, itís
He then complemented his ridiculous sports fan
outfit by placing his trophy in his front shirt pocket.
Then, I said the unthinkable.
"Oh, so you can read." I donít really
know why I said it. It just kind of fired outÖout of jealousy.
"What the hell is that supposed to mean? I havenít seen any
acceptance letter for you yet pal." He lunged back.
I quickly tried to salvage the conversation, as well as our
"No, man. I didnít mean to say that. I just want to get
out of here. I hate this place. There has to be a better truth, a
better life, out there somewhere. Life doesnít revolve around an
old, abandoned paper mill. The fools in this town really believe
that itís going to re-open. I only write on paper. I donít give a
fuck where it comes from."
"Whoa!!! Fair enough, dick head. Donít worry D, youíre letter will
come." He gave me a shadow boxer "duck and punch" and then gunned
out of the high school parking lot. "If you could only learn how to
speak as well as you write."
"Thanks. Iím an ass. Where are we going, anyway?" I asked.
"I donít know. A few of the football players are having a party.
Probably to honor Lonchar for putting some numbers on the board."
That was Dannyís way of dressing up piece of shit with a cherry. It
was a skill that he had mastered. For example, he didnít really see
himself as a slow learner. He saw the teachers as moving too fast.
"Hey man, whatís up with Susanís step dad and the Christmas lights?"
At first I didnít know what he was talking about.
"Check it. Itís
the middle of October and heís already building a shrine to the baby
Jesus. First one to get them up every year. Last one to take Ďem
As we drove by Susanís house, I looked out the plastic Jeep
window and there was Rick Conroy, whistling away and lacing the
house with bright flashing lights. The guy couldnít have been
I guess since the paper mill closed, the locals would do
just about anything to raise their spirits and keep themselves busy.
"I donít know." I answered, "Susan has kind of a strange family.
Sheís a little messed up." I knew Susan Glass well, but I didnít
have a clue as to the motivation behind her stepfatherís
"Youíre telling me. When was the last time that twig had a burger?
She needs to get with it. Maybe she fasts all year and feasts on
"I think there is more to it than that." I left it at that. I knew
that Susan was anorexic and didnít think it was any of Dannyís
business. We all had problems communicating our fears. Hers all
seemed to be buried and concealed deeply inside.
"Well, alright then," he said.
After driving around for close to an hour, Danny and I ended up
parking at McDonaldísóa common meeting place for all those anxious
seniors who were looking for the locale of the nightís festivities.
"Hey, Dano. I heard about State. You outta here boyeeeeeee!" yelled
the star field goal kicker, Lonchar, from across the parking lot.
"Nice field goal Launch. Maybe I can talk to the State football
coach." Danny answered, nudging the champ in the ribs.
"Football. I want to play soccer." They both shared a laugh and then
proceeded to cheers each other in the air. As much as Lonchar joked,
it was obvious that a part-time football career paid fairly well.
The field goal hero was surrounded by an entourage of star-struck
girls. If you didnít know any better youíd swear that Lonchar had
just won the Super Bowl and signed a seven-figure commercial deal
with McDonaldís. The sad thing was, his parents could never afford
to send him to college and his gradesÖwellÖmaybe it was a good night
for him to be "The Man." "Hey boys, Dodge is having a jammie at his
house. Parents are gone, two kegs and probably whatever other poison
"Sounds good man. Weíll catch you there," I said as we headed out of
the parking lot, both Danny and I anticipating a messy night.
"Hey man. I didnít get anything to eat before the game. Can we stop
at the donut shop and pick up a snack? I didnít want to get too
wasted." I looked at Danny and I couldnít think of anything worse
than donuts and beer for a hyperactive kid having the most exciting
night of his life so far.
"Youíre driviní," was the only thing that I could say. As we pulled
in front of the donut shop, that resentful sentence continued to
echo through my mind. It was the tongue of my desperation. The voice
of a caged and spiteful animal. I hoped that he would forgive me.
"Do you want to come in D? Maybe you can get something."
"Yeah, thatís cool."
I had come to terms with the fact that I would
be babysitting for a drunken maniac that night. It didnít bother me,
I owed it to him.
On our way into Alís Do-Nuts, we both noticed an unfamiliar, aggro
kid ranting nervously at passers-by and screaming into the phone. He
had a bushy home-sculpted mullet hairdo, a cheap pleather jacket,
and sweat beading-up on his Cro-Magnon brow.
As we passed him, he
gave us a once over and remained fully tuned into his important
conversation. Obviously, he was just passing through, picking up a
package from one of the unemployed town folk striving to make ends
Funny, judging from his sunken black eyes and beyond pasty
skin, the only place that this kid would qualify as a familiar face
"Take note young Daniel. Butane is not a proper inhalant when mixed
with crystal meth," I joked.
"Ya think? That kid needs some sugar about as much as I do right
now." He laughed and shuffled through his pockets as we entered Alís
to the ringing, distorted doorbell. "Hey D, order me a bear claw, a
honey glazed and a couple of the gross old ones to throw at people
at Dodgerís house. I left my dinero in the car."
"Cool. Hey, Gerry. What up?" The Do-nut man of the night was our
football teamís ex-all star running back Gerald Denn.
"What up, D?" He returned. "Deed mine boys sing redemption tonight?"
A funny thing about Gerald was that after ninth grade he began
speaking like a Rastafarian. He told everyone that he was born in
Jamaica, then moved to America at a young age. If you didnít know
any better, youíd swear he was the long lost descendant of Bob
Marley, Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer, Marcus Garvey and Jah himself. I
suspected that his birth records would tell a different story and
that the whole charade was an excuse to smoke a lot of weed and look
"I and I did not tink so. Any partyiní a-goiní on later?" Gerald was
the one great hope that our football team ever had of winning a
homecoming game. However, youíve heard the saying about big fish in
a small pond. After one article too many in the local newspaper
about the great Gerald Denn, he dropped out his junior year and
tried to go pro. It didnít exactly work out the way he expected. Oh
well, he took some night classes and successfully completed his
G.E.D.. Unlike most of the ex-sports heroes who still lusted for the
glory years, he tried extremely hard not to talk about the past. He
did however, dream. The rest is Do-Nut history.
"Yeah, Dodge and those clowns are having a party. Can you grab me a
bear claw, a honey glazed and a couple of those old heinous ones?"
"Is done," he said as he flicked open a bag and masterfully juggled
the donuts into the bag. Then, something caught his attention. "Ey,
D, tílooks like Dano síhaviní some trouble with dat ragamuffin
outside." I guess I forgot about the living dead lingering outside,
because at first I didnít register Geraldís comment. Nonetheless,
before I could turn around, the bell signaled that Danny was already
on his way in.
"What was that all about." I asked.
"That freak just wanted to borrow my pen to write down a number."
Danny didnít even seem to think twice about lending his trophy.
"Where is it now?"
"Heís bringing it in when heís finished."
"He better." Before I could dig into Danny about lending out the
pen, the bell chimed and the mystery man shot through the door. He
was picking at the scabs on his face and his right eye twitched like
someone had just sprayed him in the face with a sandblaster.
"Hey man. Can I buy this pen off of you?" he asked Danny.
"No. Itís a gift. Why donít you go down the street to Rite Aid and
"Because I need to copy down this information now. You got any
paper?" Once again, Danny fumbled through his pockets. The only
thing that he had was his acceptance letter to state. Funny how you
never seem to have a piece of paper when you need it.
"Nope. Just write it down on your hand. That pen writes on anything.
Maybe if you wash your hands first, youíll be able to read it,"
Danny answered, beginning to get a little perturbed. It was obvious
that he was heating up because the red and black face paint started
to run together all over the place.
"God dammit!" The severely neurotic kid yelled as he spun around in
a frenzy and headed back to the phone. The doorbell didnít work.
"Maybe we should invite psycho to Dodgerís house. Looks like he
could use a beer." Danny had cooled down but I was quickly absorbing
"Fuck that, letís bring him there and give him a blanket party." I
shot. A blanket party was our way of letting troublemakers know that
they stepped out of line. Usually performed as a joke, or an homage
to the infamous "Code Reds" of the military, we would pull a blanket
over someoneís head and then beat them until they begged for mercy.
"Oh, relax. Whatís happening Ger?"
"Natta much, Dano. ĎEre is dem donuts." Once again, the mullethead
plowed into the shop. Once again, the bell didnít work.
"Donít be a dick, dude. I need this pen. Iíll give you twenty bucks
for it." One of his face pickings had started to bleed. This was
really starting to get annoying. Danny was beginning to show early
signs of that hyperactive youth who used to light himself on fire
and jump into the lake behind his house as a joke.
"Look fuck, just write down your info and give it back."
The pleather clad warrior kicked the door open and returned to the
phone. Gerald didnít seem agitated. Besides, he didnít own the shop.
In an attempt to alleviate some of the stress, I stepped up to the
counter in front of Danny. "I got it Dan. I owe you something for
being an ass earlier." I reached across the counter to give Gerald
Then, it happened.
FWAP! FWAP! FWAP!
Three gunshots rang out behind me. I hadnít ever heard a gat fired
so close to me. It shook my teeth and burnt my gums. As terror
thrusted up my veins, my balls shriveled into my chest.
jumped behind the counter with Gerald who had already taken cover. I
didnít hear Danny cry out, so I figured he had taken cover with us
as well. Two seconds later, the reluctant bell rang and the gunman
was instantly squealing out of the parking lot. With my eyes closed,
I propped myself up slowly. Gerald was shivering in shock. I was
also shaking. I was shaking so hard that the cheap imitation glass
donut case rattled and the cakes inside fell from their designated
With one eye, I looked up through the display case, beyond
the mixed pile of donuts. All I could see was slightly twitching
remains of college student Danny Wilks. It was difficult to tell
where his blood stopped and where his smeared makeup began. It was
even harder to tell who he was. As I began to lose control of my
breathing and collapse, I looked down at my mangled life-long
friend, the first one of my allies to escape, and saw his Mont Blanc
pen tightly gripped in his hand.
Engraved on the base was "You did
it. Love, Dad" proudly displayed in the poorly lit ambiance of Alís
Do-Nut shop. He twitched. He twitched again. His arms fluttered
uncontrollably and then his last living squirt of blood spat all
over the front of the counter.
"Breathe, Danny. Breathe God dammit.
Breathe," is all I managed to get out.
A week later, I crossed the street to the Wilksís house. His father
gave me the pen, saying that I should have it. At first, I was
reluctant to take it, but he insisted that it belonged to me. He
couldnít bear the sight of what remained of his youngest son. Maybe
he blamed himself for giving Danny such an expensive gift.
him that the killer didnít have any idea of the penís value.
"The bastard didnít even have the balls to face his crime," Buck
Wilks sniffed out in a shattered voice.
Apparently, after the killer
bailed from Alís, he headed down the highway where he was eventually
pursued by the local cops. While driving towards the Bay Bridge, his
only escape route, he emptied the gun into his own face, swerved off
the road and was engulfed in the flames of his car. Coward.
That night, I went to visit Nazareth to bury Dannyís trophy at the
foundation. I didnít think that I was ever going to be able to write
with it. Much to my chagrin, some neighborhood kids had constructed
a rope swing by hammering two railroad spikes into his hands,
securing a long nylon rope connected to an old tire. I was so
furious that I ripped down the apparatus, tearing the nails through
the limbs of the tree.
Angered, I turned and hoisted the blasphemous
plaything into the sewer. The fiery rage pumping through my arms
quickly froze midstream when I noticed what I had done. I had
weakened the pleading appendages, forcing sap to gush out
everywhere. Instead of clutching towards any prospect for survival,
the limbs weakly dangled like the ornaments on a pathetic Christmas
tree. After my initial shock, surprisingly, it didnít upset me. With
the senseless loss of Danny, I was beginning to lose interest in the
majesty of Nazareth.
Without looking again, I quickly dug a hole at
the Herculean base and buried Dannyís trophy.
In the winter, another ring was added to Nazarethís long life. I
spent the day home "sick" from school so I could crank out a couple
poems that were due for my creative writing class. I knew that they
wouldnít take me that long to complete but I really wanted to leave
high school with a bang and make my presence as a writer remembered.
How heroic of me. I never felt that anything could make people
listen like the written word.
Besides, what did I have to compete
with; the theatre kids and their obsession with the bored rebellion
of Holden Caufield, the stoners and their Gonzo-esque carbon copies
of Hunter S. Thompson, and the countless other caustic attempts at
metaphorically mutating "roses are red" by paying tribute to Tupac
Shakur or Biggie Smalls. I wanted to tell something bold, something
After pacing unconstructively around Nazareth in a zombified
lethargy, I concluded that every other kid in my class was going to
sum up the closing of the paper mill and how it had taken its toll
on our town. Since I hadnít taken the time to deal with Dannyís
death, I decided to leave that topic to one of the many girls in
class who fancied themselves his widow. So, I diverted my attention
elsewhere. Susan Glassís misery was the first thing that came to
Susan was always a really close friend to everyone, but she kept to
herself. It was obvious that she suffered from severe anorexia and
it seemed to consume all of her time. I remember one time when I
went out to get some frozen yogurt with her, she threw a fit at the
poor employee when he refused to measure the already non-fat yogurt
into exactly 10 oz.. She was very obsessed and all the warning signs
were there. A couple of my friends and I used to make fun of her
mustache and call her "Hitler."
Whenever she walked by, we would
stand attention and salute her by lunging our arms into the air,
exclaiming, "heil!" One day she took me aside in tears, explaining
that because of the affliction, her bodyís hormones produced a soft,
thin layer of hair everywhere on her body. All of her friends
ignored her cry for help, relying on a societal debate concerning
high school females and their infatuation with super models.
For this, I owed her something. I didnít want to expose her personal
demons to my teachers or make her uncomfortable around her peers,
but I did want to let her know that I cared. I worked all that day
under the weakened arms of Nazareth, creating something true. That
fabulous shaft supported my back and kept me attentive to the task I
had outlined for myself.
However, the stench of the bog was a
painful reminder of lifeís setbacks and the atrocities tucked away
in the deepest clearings of the town. Sure, my poem may have been
driven by a plea of forgiveness, but the result was a painting of
her beauty. At dusk, I was finally satisfied with the finished
product. I read it to myself over and over. It was everything I
hoped it would be. It wasÖpoetic. The first real piece of poetry
that I had ever written. Still, the completion of her maze lead back
to the beginning. I searched what I knew about her for an answer to
her perpetual self destruction.
I guess deep down I thought it a
little selfish for someone who lived in this town to refuse food.
Nevertheless, excited about my tribute, I called Sue and asked her
to meet me at the McDonaldís parking lot.
"You canít bring this to class!" she screamed as she read of the
words in horror. "You will totally single me out. I donít have a
problem and I donít want to be your secret little joke. Iím not your
"Sue, I just wanted toÖ" I began. She pulled out a cigarette,
probably the first of her second or third pack of the day, from
behind her ear. Then, in one swift, circular motion, she pulled her
trademark Zippo out of her pocket, lit the cigarette and returned
the faithful lighter to its home. She must have practiced that move
so many times to get it right, I remember thinking in admiration.
"What? Tell everyone how fucked-up I am. You donít understand, D."
She continued to look at my poem and began to cry. The power of her
tears piled on top of her chiseled jaw, picked up weight and then
fell onto her sweater in piles. "He fucks me, D." As I searched
through my mind to try and pin-point Susanís latest co-dependent, I
came upon a frightening realization. "He fucks me all the time. When
my mom goes out, even when she goes to the store to pick up a couple
of things, he rapes me. He beats me like his bitch and calls me by
his dead wifeís name. ĎAngie! Angie, you whore! Angie!í All over the
house. He wonít stop."
"Rick?" Rick Conroy always seemed so happy, stringing his Christmas
lights, paying tribute to Christ. It all made sense. I guess I
finally had the solution to her maze and the reasoning for how such
a beautiful girl with everything going for her would want to
re-invent herself as something unappealing, skeletal, unable to
reproduce. "How come you never told anybody?" I whispered.
"Would you tell anybody? My mom? Sheís always so piss drunk, she
ignores what she may or may not know. She doesnít care. All she does
is sit around or relive her glory years as the homecoming queen by
stumbling around the house with her stupid crown on."
"Susan, as a friend I have to tell somebody.
Jesus Christ, you
should have told someone other than me." I didnít want to be the
sole protector of such an incredibly sick secret.
"No way. I donít want to be the freak. I know what people say. I
hear those tweaked cunts who pretend to be my friends say they want
to help when they are secretly wishing they were as thin as me. I
see how all of you make jokes about me. LOOK AT ME!" she screeched
revealing her lifeless bone of a limb by pulling up the arm of her
"You arenít a freak. You just need help."
"Itís not that easy. Just keep it to yourself. If I find out that
you told anyone, I will kill you. Iím getting out of here. I am
going to stay with my sister until summer and Iíll find out next
week whether or not I got into State. My mom has the money tucked
away from when my grandfather died. My grades are pretty
solidÖerrÖat least until this year." She flicked her cigarette out
the window and immediately lit up another. Same motion, same
"You have to quit suffering. Now!" All I could do was offer simple
solutions to the terror of her existence. I couldnít feel her pain,
but it spoke powerfully and burned my skin through her eyes.
"Keep your mouth shut, D. You arenít God here." She pulled deep on
her cigarette and shot me a trusting look.
"Okay I promise."
"Thanks." She continued to look at the poem and continued to cry.
"Can I keep this? Iíll give you my lighter."
From her pocket she
pulled out her precious Zippo. This time, she pulled it out slowly.
I attempted to shoo it away , but she insisted.
"Take it, I have to
quit smoking. Itís killing me."
We both laughed and the exchange was
made. I heard her bones creak as she carefully exited the car. Then,
she poked her head in and blew me a kiss. She followed her token of
love by performing this crazy skeleton dance. She bounced around
aimlessly, flapping her grossly thin body around like an
This was her way of letting me know
everything was okay.
The next day, I ended up turning in an obvious poem about the
closing of the paper mill how it would have affected Mark Twain.
Apparently, my teacher didnít agree with my views on obscure
literary references focusing on Twain and how he was consumed by
James Fenimore Cooper and his fraudulent, romantic writing style. I
thought it was funny, but my teacher fancies herself quite a
Deerslayer when it comes to grading. I got a C. At least Susanís
secret was safe.
About a week and a half later, the phone rang at around 2:00 in the
morning. My mom answered it and immediately rushed into my room.
"Honey, Lonchar is on the phone. He says that itís really
important." Great, I thought, Dodge must be having another one of
his epic all-nighters.
"What do you want Launch. Iím sleeping," I grumbled as I wiped away
the first signs of snot from my eyes.
"Dude. Susan jumped off the Bay Bridge. They found her car parked
out there with a note. They havenít found her yet. She may still be
alive. I might go up there and search around." This was no time for
a hero, I thought.
"What? What are you talking about?" I wasnít really shocked, just
confused. "What did the note say? Was it about Rick?" Quickly, I
felt loss and delivery creep up my body. She was cold as she lifted
"About Rick? Rick who? Chambers? Were they dating? No, it was a
letter from State, refusing her admission." The phone dropped from
my hand and I started to gag. As I walked away, I heard Lonchar
yelling, "D! D! Are you there? D! Are you there?
As I thought about Sue jumping off the 50 foot Bay Bridge, I clearly
saw her agony released. She knew she was trapped. I walked into my
room and put on my clothes. My mom peaked in through my door.
"Honey, what did he want? Did something happen?"
I picked up Susanís
Zippo from my bed stand and headed out. Breathe, Danny. Breathe God
"Donít worry about it mom. Iíll be back in a little while." I should
have told her something but I had another agenda.
When I went to Nazareth to bury Susanís lighter at its base, I saw
him in a completely different light. The darkness may have been
deceiving, but at night he didnít look as strong. He seemed
weathered, beaten down, tired. And looking at the moonlight shadow,
he didnít reflect any tangible form other than a big pile of kudzu.
I fell to my knees and began digging directly next to the burial
location of Dannyís trophy. Never looking down, I dropped Susanís
provider into the hole and covered it up.
They would eventually find her decayed body in the next couple of
days. It washed up on the banks of the bay. Iím sure that even in
her decomposed state she was still as beautiful as she had always
been. As much as I wished that it was all a hoax, I knew deep down
that she didnít see any other way out. She was so close to escaping.
I decided to keep her secret. At that time, I wanted her beauty to
live on forever, untarnished. This was a problem that couldnít have
been solved by an extra two ounces of yogurt.
I remember the feeling when I opening the mail box that Spring day.
I enjoyed the mystery of what lay ahead. Unlike the past few months,
in which I opened the box only to be showered with a number of
countless delinquent bills that my parents had tried unsuccessfully
to ignore, there was only a sole letter. I immediately knew what it
was. I bit my lip, pulled it out and my stomach howled. It felt
thin. That wasnít a good sign.
Shooting through my mind were
"Why would I, a kid from a shitty little town beat
out every other aspiring writer to get a scholarship to a stuffy
Luckily, my parents were gone. They wouldnít have to see my
disappointment as I unfolded the letter. More thoughts raced through
"Well, I could always go to the community college and raise
my grades. I would then hear my personal devilís advocate answer.
"This isnít about grades, itís your only chance."
As I sat down and continued to play with the letteróholding it up to
the light, bending it for contentsóI expected nothing but the worst.
Why was the world I was escaping to any better than the one that I
lived in? Where exactly was I going? What did I expect to do with my
Then, I thought about Danny Wilks and Susan Glass for the
first time since they had passed. Is our world so fucked up and
deranged? What did they have to look forward to? What could they
change? For Godís sake this is a world where the President fucks his
intern with a cigar, murderers get off because of their social
status, good people are killed for saying what they want, image
drives violence in the inner-city, and the figure heads of the world
vomit all over themselves, leaving a mess and creating a perpetual
circle of mistakes for us to clean up.
What was so good about the
world? Was it any better than the dying town where I lived? Am I
supposed to have these answers? Did Danny or Susan? Everything that
I looked forward to, everything that I had ever wanted was on this
one piece of paper.
I sat down and began tearing the envelope open. There was a single
piece of paper inside, nicely folded on a cheap, thin stock of
paper. Something I wouldnít have noticed except I always envisioned
my college acceptance or rejection letter would be printed on a
thick paper, laced with gold and ripe for framing. I unfolded the
first flap. What if I just didnít fit in? What if I couldnít cut as
a writer? I unfolded the second flap revealing the contents of my
life. I immediately noticed that it was about three paragraphs in
length. Fairly unimpressive for the foretelling of my future. I
began to read. Fuckers!
They spelled my name wrong! Well, that
wasnít important. I read the first line.
"Congratulations, you have
been accepted on scholarship to attendÖ" I was in!
When my parents arrived home that eveningómy father had taken on a
part-time job as an engineering consultant a few towns over and my
mother worked at the local book storeóI proudly showed them my
conquest. They both went to college. As a matter of fact, they both
went to a better college than the one I had gotten into. However,
the military brainwash of his academy school and the Lutheran
teachings of her mid-western school didnít appeal to me. I wanted to
write and I wanted out.
"Good job, son. You did it." my father said, extending his hand for
a firm shake.
"I donít know, honey. Are you sure you want to leave?" my mother
I handed my father the letter. "Fuckers! They spelled our name
After a good dinner, I took my letter off of the fridge. "Are you
going to go and show it to your friends?"
"Something like that."
I had one last sacrifice to make to the great
icon. One last duty.
As I counted the days before my triumphant escape, I sat on the
stump of the powerful Nazareth. Once, standing so proud, an enigma
in our decaying society. Now, just a pew surrounded by a lump of
torn kudzu and left-over bark. Unbeknownst to me, they leveled this
entire area sometime over the past couple of months. Even the
smaller disciples across the bog were mowed down.
I guess I lost interest. When youíre forced to grow up, security
blankets, crutches, idols, and religions fade away. Why should I
give faith to something based solely on its test of time? My
internal focus grew as my dependency on higher powers disappeared,
becoming nothing more than a lessonóa perverse structure. I donít
think that spending any more time here would have made any
difference. It wouldnít bring Danny and Susan back.
Like I said
before, Iím a realist, not a dreamer. Iím sure theyíll build a strip
mall or something equally worthless. I can see it now. Maybe, a pop
culture coffee house, a health conscious smoothie joint or any
countless number of new age franchises that no one in this town can
afford to frequent.
I cleared away the piles of Nazareth and dug up Dannyís trophy and
Susanís provider. I wanted to cry. Senseless. What could have been
done to prevent their deaths. Nothing. First, I pulled out the
lighter. I lit the Zippoís flint as I envisioned Susanís one-motion
trick that she had proudly mastered. All I could think about was her
pain. It was about more than escape for her. I held my acceptance
letter up and in one circular motion, I lit it on fire. They spelled
my name wrong and I knew my dad would make sure they sent another.
The paper slowly burned away and the light breeze broke the ends off
and exiled them to the disgusting waste of the bog below. The thin
paper burned brightly, but eventually the flames became
uncontrollable and the letter doubled over and collapsed on itself.
Before I could dispel the last corner, however, one lucky flame,
burnt the tips of my fingers.
I then dug for Dannyís trophy. Sure enough, just like he said, it
was indeed "indestructible." I read the inscription aloud to the
fallen Nazareth. "You did it. Love, Dad." It was roughly the same
thing that my father had said to me. I know he would have rather had
me go to some military school, but he was proud of me, just as much
as old Buck Wilks was of Danny. Although I had tried to shut out
that fateful night for the rest of my life, certain elements always
flashed by; Danny masked behind his ridiculous face make-up, Lonchar
the hero, Gerald the dreamer, the speed freak coward and meÖthe
jealous asshole. I am still haunted by the sight Dannyís shaking
body. He just laid there, begging for a minute, a second, a moment
and twitched. As his leg quivered uncontrollably, the blood from his
wounds pumped out. It was almost as if his leg was working as a
death machine, pushing him to the end as quickly a possible. It was
I fumbled around in my pockets for a piece of paper to write on.
Just like Danny at Alís Do-Nuts, I didnít have a piece. God, if he
had a piece of paper. Anything for that freak to write down whatever
information was so fucking important. Why is that every time you
really need a piece of paper you canít find one? I began stamping
around like a lunatic, crushing the worthless remains of Nazareth as
the blazing hell of Ministryís "Stigmata" pounded in my head.
Frantic, I threw Susanís lighter into the bog. I shredded pieces of
the virus vine. I kicked at the stump and smashed scraps of bark. I
was unleashed, uncaged. Just as I lifted my arm to throw that
fucking pen, that terrible fucking pen, a memory surged through my
head, "Dude, this pen can write on anything." I stopped and then
slowly picked up a piece of bark from one of Nazarethís two reaching
limbs. I wrote the truth. My truth. Then, I paid my last respects to
the fallen God. It had finally been useful.
It wasnít my hiding
place anymore and it wasnít the burial ground of my friends.
It was late, so I fished Susanís lighter out of the smelly pissing
hole, put the piece of bark under my arm, proudly placed Dannyís pen
in my front pocket and headed home.
For the first time in a long while, I started to observe. The
dilapidated homes, the rummage growing in the yardsÖit was all so
wrong. And then, I came to my school, most likely the cleanest high
school in the country. As far as I knew, our good natured principal
hired an over-abundant amount of out-of-work custodians when the
mill closed. I walked by the football field and saw Lonchar kicking
Apparently, since Dannyís death, he stayed late after
soccer practice to warm up for next yearís football season.
"Good job D. I heard the news from your mom when I called you to
tell you about a shindig tonight at Dodgerís pad. A real kick-ass
party. Honeys everywhere. Pick your own poison. You up?" he yelled
across the field.
"Yeah bro. Iíll be there, I just got some shit to take care of
first." Lonchar booted a 40 yard filed goal. It was good.
"Kind of a fucked up year, huh?" He wiped some sweat off of his
"Yeah. Kind of a very fucked up year. Catch you later." I turned
"Oh, your mom told me to tell you to call if I ran into you. Use the
phone over there by the locker room. Itís free."
I headed towards the locker room, listening to his grunts
and groans. Provided he got that soccer player nonsense out of his
head, Launch was going to make it out of here. I picked up the phone
and started to dial my house. I hesitated and then just as easily as
I had picked up the receiver, I hung it up. I fell into the wall in
front of me. This time, and only this time, I cried. It felt good.
Some things are best left unsaid. Some things arenít. I dialed a
number. It was not the number of my house.
Itís strange when everything seems to come together. After I walked
by the high school, I caught a glimpse of something out of the
corner of my eye. To be sure I wasnít dreaming, I looked down at my
watch. Sure enough, April 16th: nowhere near Christmas. Shocked, I
dropped everything that I was holding. There he was. It was Rick
Conroy, whistling away, tearing down the lights that were still
covering the house like an overgrowth of kudzu.
After collecting my
memories, I walked up to his ladder.
"Nice night, huh Mr. Conroy?" I said angelically.
"Wha??? Oh, ya scared me." He looked up at the sky. "Itís alright. I
can feel somethingís coming in from the west though." He re-adjusted
his hat, snorted and spat onto the ground. All I could do was stare
at him. Hatred. "You gotta problem son? Whatíre lookiní at?"
Quickly, I shook myself out of the hypnotic death stare and got
"I just think that itís brilliant how you leave
your Christmas lights up practically all year round. Itís almost
like you want to constantly bring joy to the town."
"Somethiní like that," he answered confused.
"Well, here. Iíve decided to bring joy to this town as well." I
placed the piece of bark at the bottom of the ladder and walked
"Boy, what in the hell?" I heard him stepping down from the ladder
but I didnít turn around. I just kept walking. Walking home. Walking
"Is this some kind of joke, kid?" He screamed after me. "Hey, Iím
talking to you, ya little shit." I continued to walk and he
continued to scream. "What does this mean? Who are you?" He didnít
run after me, he didnít understand the message that I scrawled on
the bark. As his ranting became more distant, nearly out of my
reach, I heard sirens.
"Merry Christmas fucker!" I whispered, remembering my message.
The great Harry Houdini would be proud.
The Crisis Faced by Our Children
With the market forces of Wall Street dictating a three-month
horizon to the vision of civilization, we have lost the opportunity
to found our culture on the bedrock of long-term survival,
advancement, and happiness. What makes these human challenges all
the more painful to witness is the degree to which we self-impose
ignorance of them.
Western civilizationís greatest single crime is
the form of lying called denial Ė bearing false witness to
We see these portents of future crises in evidence all around us,
yet we bicker over President Clinton's sex life. The economy of a
once-superpower has imploded in the face of the first of many cold
winters of depression, and we find no global leadership rising even
to the level of mediocrity to confront its implications. And we
haven't even begun to talk about the psychosocial crises within our
own back yards Ė crises of education, economics, and crime.
When the robust education that will spark the young mind is
unreachable by the average child, are we truly surprised to witness
children reaching for frightening alternative ways to expand the
meaning of their lives? When the real-life prospects of a childís
future can never even come close to the fantasies of Madison Avenue,
is it any wonder that a generation of inner city youth becomes
When fictional entertainment becomes the only
source of powerful storytelling, and the stories are ethically
bankrupt, is it any wonder that we see the crumbling of goodness?
weep for the human race when its future potential is so depressed as
to become less mysterious, less full of wonder, and just as
ethically vacant as its present fiction. In such a time, hope is
lost, and we devolve.
What will save the children not so gifted or lucky to escape the
horrors of today's inner city life? How will society grapple with
the resulting catastrophe as those children raise children? How are
all of our children Ė in every city and town and of every class Ė
going to deal with the environmental catastrophes we are creating
for them as our legacy? How will the history books remember this
When our children are young, not only do we deny their obstacles and
pain, we inflict them. We glamorize their beautiful faces and then
ridicule their average ones. We complain about their education and
then fail to educate. We complain about violence in entertainment
and fail to tune it out. We paint the vision of college and
"success", and then keep the same vision out of reach for all but a
few. We pound absolute guilt into their minds regarding natural
explorations of adolescence Ė bodies, sex, substances, music,
friends, dreams, faiths Ė and refuse to promote balanced and
truthful education of what behavior is truly risky and what is
simply unscientific and unnatural fundamentalist moralism.
We punish our children as our proxies Ė for they show the symptoms
of our crimes of negligence.
These crimes are made more deeply wrong because Western civilization
boasts "the most educated societies in the world", in the fullest
possession of the knowledge of the consequences of our choices and
the means to make better choices.
We must realize that murder is murder whether it occurs in a
nanosecond or a decade, across an ocean or a street, through the
barrel of a gun, the disintegration of a childhood, the fouling of a
river, the devastation of a rainforest, the crumbling of a city in
debilitating poverty, or the rape of the resources of a younger
What shall we do in the face of these challenges? Shall we simply
turn away and ignore them? Shall we rely upon some kind of magical
salvation? Of course not. We should commit ourselves along two
paths, with the hope that has characterized humanity through our
history. First, we should study, acknowledge, teach, and act to
confront these challenges using the best ideas available.
changes may be difficult to absorb, but we will ultimately become a
happier people. Our politicians must focus on these issues, or they
are unfit to be given the public's most sacred trust, the trust of
our future. Second, we should pay very dear, close attention to the
promising research into new realms of science whose applications
speak fundamentally to every one of these crises: a new emerging
understanding of space-time itself. Studies at the forefront of
science reveal the startlingly imminent possibility that the energy,
transportation, and biological technologies of the future will look
very little like those of today.
The studies and research appear to
indicate these new technologies are "green" Ė extracting energy from
the vacuum of space-time itself, with no known by-product of
ecological damage. And new technologies of propulsion will break
open the frontier of space-time, firing the imagination for an
eternity of human generations.
This sober and serious agenda is one for the world as a whole to
approach, as one global community. If
the United Nations is in
search of a true mission beyond hollow-sounding proclamations in
behalf of peace, these two endeavors are worthy of the sustained
focus of the body of concerned governing leaders around the world.
The earlier we begin to seriously deal with these issues and pioneer
these technologies, the less abrupt will be the force of change in