Thursday, January 31, 2002
Wednesday, January 30, 2002
I live on an island; nowhere does Absecon island rise higher than twenty feet above sea-level. Two hundred years ago, this barrier island was covered with grass-cloaked dunes, and it sheltered one of the most productive East Coast coastal estuaries. Today, this island is gridded with asphalt streets, sprinkled with tourist shops, casinos, and vacation beach-houses. Four causeways link this island with the mainland; they funnel road traffic, water, and electricity in, and pump garbage, sewage, and wasted labor out. The Great Egg Harbour estuary is now protected: migratory birds nest here; sportsman fish the fecund waters from gaudy powerboats; clammers palpate the bottom silt for quahogs with their feet. There is no significant natural difference between the developed barrier islands, mainland, and causeway-blocked estuary of Great Egg Harbour, and the similar uninhabited natural complex twenty miles northeast, at Little Egg Harbor and Great Bay, designated the Brigantine National Wildlife Refuge. Only the accident of development and the persistence of non-development determined which region would be paved, and which would be preserved.
Unrefreshed by persistent flow of stream-carried silt and sand, Absecon island suffers severe wind and water erosion at its margins – each winter dredgers make their doleful way up the diminished coastline, chewing up the ocean bottom and dumping it on shore. Over my life, the beach has shrunk. At high tide in Ventnor and in Atlantic City, the ocean reaches the concrete sea-wall, above which hotels and villas perch. Storms, irregular high tides, and strong winds encourage the water to encroach uncomfortably close to the edge of the neighbor’s property. In winter, nearly every lavishly-appointed house less than two blocks from the shore is empty; they are second homes owned for summer recreation. Yet all homes are heated and, at night, lit – a pantomime of human presence. This place became a tourist destination because of its natural features, and later, because of the infrastructure that was installed to enable humans to appreciate those natural features easily and cheaply; finally, now, people go to Atlantic City ignorant of the beach – poker and slots have superseded sand, sun and surf.
Atlantic City, the other towns of Absecon Island, and the rim suburban communities of the mainland perfectly encapsulate the unstable relationship between modern development, individual material consumption, and the punishments and rewards of living in close proximity to a gracefully degrading natural environment. These communities exist because of Promethean vanity (the natural adjunct of the modern industrial and commercial economy) and individualist aesthetics (handmaiden to laissez-faire consumption). Corporate hospitality and real-estate developers took the pulse of material demand, and harnessed the power of economic demand to remake this landscape. The communities instituted extensive municipal government to channel and regulate the remanufacture of the marshes.
Here, nature is objectified, quantified, subdivided and packaged for human use, as it has been everywhere and everywhen people have lived:
Man’s world is imperfectly programmed by his own constitution. It is an open world…it is a world that must be fashioned by man’s own activity….Man must make a world for himself. The world-building activity of man, therefore, is not a biologically extraneous phenomenon, but the direct consequence of man’s biological constitution. Berger, Peter L. The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion
This island, this crafted world, produces the venom that is destined to strangle it. The profligacy and waste of energy, water, and other raw materials used to construct and maintain this community provoke environmental damage; human-caused global warming, and the expected two meter rise in sea level that will follow, will end this place. If the seas do not rise, the increasingly energetic ocean storms that lash the shoreline will destroy property and life. The insatiable demand for fresh water, coupled with runaway suburban sprawl on the mainland, will divert and deplete available fresh water sources; already, development has constrained and poisoned the run-off from which the estuary feeds.
How can this fate be reconciled as product of what is understood to be an unalloyed human good: pleasure and enjoyment of the physical word? People live here because they take pleasure from the human community that lives here and the natural surroundings. I enjoy this place because of the salt breeze, the crashing surf, the golden dawns, and the warm, welcoming Jewish community. How can I condemn the existence of this place?; how can I conceive that this human place might better be if it were not? I can’t. This warm, large house by the shore is pleasant and I want it. I want everything that it implies – I want abundant physical culture; I want the products of our industrial/technical society. I want the freedom to travel at whim. My wants are the wants of the vast majority; Their denial, for the protection of “the natural world” (a product of an alternate value system) will fail, because people want, and they vote their want with dollars, and dollars build beach houses and Bradlees’.
Wednesday, January 23, 2002
Monday, January 21, 2002
Sunday, January 20, 2002
Monday, January 14, 2002
Wednesday, January 09, 2002
Friday, January 04, 2002
Such tacit codes are most conspicuous in the economic sphere, where they avert or settle property disputes, and in the honor codes that allocate communal duties (for instance, serving on a condominium board). Coexisting with those are what you might call "Main Street Codes"--the rules governing how "decent" people behave in a civic context. ("Decent" people help the cops, welcome new neighbors, don't let their lawns or kids run wild.) Then there are the much less talked-about, but no less important, "Old Wives' Rules" that regulate conduct at a more personal level. Written on the bones of every hausfrau or yenta, these rules--such as the requirement that a man marry a woman if he gets her pregnant--are the main regulators of love and romance.
Underlying all of those are the craftily balanced regimes of hypocrisy that dissolve the most insoluble conflicts, the issues of deepest moral disagreement: what I call Hidden Law. "Law" because these codes are as widely observed as rules in a statute book; "Hidden" because to make them work people must often pretend they don't exist. The trick with Hidden Law is to make social bargains whose terms include an agreement to deny that there is any such bargain.A prim and proper answer to this earth-shaking revelation is, essentially, 'duh'. But hold the 'duh' back for a second: it's a powerful point. We live in a rational and varied culture of laws, leading us to the assumption that the explicit boundaries of permissible action are those contained in the laws. Stupid us. It's never that free, and never so simple. In the referenced piece, Kinsley described the 300lb boa constriction of discourse squeezing the cognoscenti since the eleventh of September: the desire not to piss the majority off, and the fear of being publically humiliated for saying stupid things. Pundits are little Enrons in the fungible marketplace of current-events interpretation. Interpreters of the news, political trends, and advocates of particular political ideologies, their currency is audience. Say something "interesting" in collision with the overwhelming trend of public discourse, and voila, presto chango the credibility of $pundit approaches the null set. Not because of some vast conspiracy, mind you, but because once a rhetorical consensus is reached, it is not fragile, and it is the audience rejecting the pundit*, not the reverse. This is a bad thing, because self-censorship reaches further than the official bureacratic brand of censorship. Kinsley is right: What gets suppressed when you're watching what you say is not formal political dissent or important revelations about government malfeasance. Those things you say with care in any event. It's the lesser criticisms of our government and our leaders, the odd speculative comment that you're not even sure of yourself, the joke that may fall flat. But these are important too. My New Year's resolution for 2002 is to stop listening to my Inner Ashcroft and to be less careful about what I say. How about you? * Love the OED - here's its etymology of 'pundit': a. A learned Hindu; one versed in Sanskrit and in the philosophy, religion, and jurisprudence of India. b. A learned expert or teacher. 1816 ‘QUIZ’ Grand Master III. 73 For English pundets condescend Th' observatory to ascend. 1862 Sat. Rev. 15 Mar. 296 A point upon which the doctors of etiquette and the pundits of refinement will differ. 1896 SAINTSBURY Hist. 19th Cent. Lit. v. 213 Hallam..an honoured pundit and champion of the Whig party. 1924 C. E. MONTAGUE Right Place xiv. 222 To say things and try to believe them, just because some aesthetic pundit or critical mandarin has said them before. 1938 R. HUGHES In Hazard ii. 37 First, this was developing into a true hurricane; and, second, it was not at all where it was thought by the pundits to be. 1941 C. H. WADDINGTON Scientific Attitude iv. 51 The architect who wished to build for a scientific and sceptical age had to..find out what was left when scepticism had done its worst. The pundits would say that nothing was left. 1957 Listener 5 Sept. 338/1 The British Association..is holding its 119th annual meeting... The pundits have gathered at Dublin. 1976 Times 30 Sept. 8/7 Though frowned upon by some pundits as out-of-date and middle-class, Swallows and Amazons and its many sequels remain immensely popular with children. 1977 J. I. M. STEWART Madonna of Astrolabe iii. 51 Here is what some pundit calls the phantom aesthetic state.