The Future We’ve Inflicted on Ourselves

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Ethan Casey gave the following keynote talk at the 2015  World Affairs SeminarCarroll University, Waukesha, Wisconsin, June 22, 2015.

I’m going to start by telling you a few things that you might not have known or considered, about a country that remains very much in the news for other reasons. And one thing I want you to take away about Pakistan is that what’s “in the news” about a country or subject is not always what’s most important or true about it.

Pakistan is a large country – the sixth-largest in the world by population, with nearly 200 million people – and richly endowed with natural resources. It has huge potential for hydroelectric power via one of the world’s greatest river systems, the Indus River and its many large tributaries. I’ve seen with my own eyes a massive sluice on the Indus, as well as huge levees to control the river’s annual flooding. Because of the Indus River system, Pakistan’s Punjab province is one of the world’s most impressively productive agricultural heartlands.

Why, then, if it is blessed with such a source of both agricultural productivity and hydroelectric power, does Pakistan suffer from widespread poverty as well as chronic shortages and rationing of electricity?

The short answer is: politics, both international and domestic. One factor that complicates domestic politics is the corruption that pervades Pakistani society at all levels. Politicians and bureaucrats routinely abuse their positions of power for their own personal and partisan gain, and ordinary Pakistanis resort to stealing electricity directly from power lines, rather than paying for it. If they did pay for it, they would be subject to frequent and maddeningly unpredictable outages anyway.

In addition, Pakistan’s overly powerful military demands and receives the lion’s share of the country’s resources. This in turn is a result of the dispute between Pakistan and India over the status of the region called Kashmir, which has been unresolved ever since both countries gained independence from Britain in 1947. Not only does the Kashmir dispute siphon away Pakistan’s economic and political resources from the domestic needs of the country’s 200 million people, but Kashmir, in mountainous Central Asia, is precisely where the rivers come from that Pakistan relies on for both its agriculture and its hydropower. Essentially, because of its de facto control of Kashmir, India could cut off Pakistan’s access to most of the water that Pakistan needs to feed its people and to provide them with electricity.

How can Pakistan address its huge challenges? That’s a huge question. No one has an answer, but the starting point is to face the challenges and to articulate them honestly. The Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid does this in his book Pakistan on the Brink:

One-third of Pakistanis today lack drinking water, another 77 million have unreliable food sources, and half the school-age children do not go to school. The literacy rate is 57 percent, the lowest in South Asia and not much better than the 52 percent that prevailed at the creation of Pakistan in 1947. Half the population are not even looking for jobs, since they know they won’t be able to find them. The country needs at least a 9 percent annual growth rate to employ its under-twenties, who make up 60 percent of the population. The 37 percent of Pakistanis who are under the age of fifteen give Pakistan one of the world’s largest youth bulges.

Another country I know well is Haiti, which I’ve visited many times since 1982, the year I was a junior at Oconomowoc High School, about the age most of you are now. How visiting Haiti at age 16 changed my life is a longer story than I have time to tell you today, but that’s okay, because each of you is being given a copy of my book Bearing the Bruise: A Life Graced by Haiti, which tells that story. Like Pakistan, the real Haiti is much more interesting than the version you’re spoon-fed on television and the Internet, and I invite you to get to know it at book length. For purposes of this talk, what you need to know is that Haiti is, as someone said to me years ago, a place for big questions. In Haiti we are compelled to go back to basics, both intellectually and materially. In a country as poor and damaged as Haiti, to talk about energy in terms of oil or even electricity is to have our priorities backwards, in ways that are obvious to anyone who knows Haiti.

For example, one rural community in southern Haiti, supported by my friend Gigi Pomerantz, who is a nurse-practitioner at Aurora Hospital in Milwaukee, is very specifically committed to using human waste – their own poop – to rebuild their local environment. They build composting toilets to collect the basic stuff that’s needed to fertilize the trees that are needed for the reforestation that’s necessary to reclaim the topsoil that Haitians need to grow food. Similarly, a longstanding Haitian-led group called the Organization for the Rehabilitation of the Environment has been doggedly cultivating mango trees in southern Haiti for more than 25 years. Why mango trees, rather than any old trees? Because mango trees not only renew the soil, they also produce mangoes, which directly provide nutrition to local children.

In another part of Haiti, the Central Plateau, the extraordinary new teaching hospital opened by Haiti’s Ministry of Health and the celebrated group Partners in Health is powered by solar panels and is helping improve not only the health but also the economy of Haiti away from the capital, Port-au-Prince, which tends to suck resources and vitality out of the country’s provincial regions. And finally, my Haitian friend Gerald Oriol Jr. works hard to enlist the talents and personal resources of the many Haitian people who are physically handicapped, as he is himself. An important point that Gerald emphasizes is that Haiti cannot afford simply to assist handicapped people; it needs to enlist them, to make use of their talents and skills to benefit the country. Gerald claims that 10 percent of all Haitians are handicapped, many of them as a result of the January 2010 earthquake, and he says that Haiti needs all of its citizens to contribute to rebuilding its landscape and society.

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Now I want you to help me ask a question: What can we in the United States learn from Pakistan and Haiti?

I know that asking that question, in itself, represents a challenge for many Americans. We tend to think in terms of what we Americans can teach others, in what we tend to call developing countries. I’d like to suggest that it can be very helpful to us, both intellectually and practically, to turn around our usual way of thinking and ask what we can learn from them.

A writing project I happen to be working on right now brings this point home, especially in terms of energy and power, the subjects of this seminar. One of the wonderful benefits of having a career as a writer is that you get to learn for a living, and I’m learning a lot. The man whose life story I’m researching was connected to a family right here in Waukesha County and, among other impressive achievements, he was responsible for choosing the site of the Grand Coulee Dam in Washington State. So I’ve been learning about the Grand Coulee Dam.

The Grand Coulee Dam is a supreme example of something that seemed like a good idea at the time. Here in overwhelmingly Republican Waukesha County, it’s fair to note that the Grand Coulee Dam was the political brainchild of the Democratic administration of President Franklin Roosevelt, and that the famously left-wing folk singer Woody Guthrie was paid to write songs that were little more than propaganda for the dam and its alleged benefits. It’s true that the Grand Coulee Dam has provided a lot of inexpensive electricity to a lot of people for eighty years, as well as irrigating many acres of productive farmland. But – like the Peligre Dam in Haiti or the Tarbela Dam in Pakistan, or the enormous Three Gorges Dam in China – the Grand Coulee Dam has also done a lot of damage.

I’ve learned a lot about the Grand Coulee Dam from a short, powerful book called A River Lost: The Life and Death of the Columbia, by Blaine Harden. The Columbia, which flows from western Canada through Idaho, Washington State, and Oregon to the Pacific Ocean, is one of the great rivers of North America. At the time it was built on the Columbia River in the 1930s, the Grand Coulee Dam was the largest man-made structure in the world. To make a long story short, the damage the dam has done includes the probably irreversible decline, almost to the point of extinction, of many species of migratory salmon, as well as the economic and social devastation of Native American communities whose way of life depended on the salmon for thousands of years. To be sure, the dam has also brought benefits. But – and this is something we’re obligated to confront – the people who have enjoyed those benefits have overwhelmingly been middle-class white people.

The Pacific Northwest is a deeply middle-class place, a lot like Wisconsin. There’s nothing inherently wrong with being middle-class; some of my best friends are middle-class, as I am myself. Nor is it about Democrats versus Republicans. Or rather it is about Democrats and Republicans, but in a way that illustrates that both of America’s partisan factions are in the wrong. The states of Washington and Oregon are divided in half both geographically and socially by the Cascade Mountains, through which the Columbia River flows on its way to the ocean. The people who live east of the Cascades own farms that are productive and profitable only because they use water for irrigation that is heavily subsidized by the federal government, courtesy of the Grand Coulee Dam. They overwhelmingly vote Republican. In my opinion they are hypocrites because they despise and resent the federal government, yet their farms and communities exist at all only thanks to heavy and ongoing federal subsidies.

The people who live west of the Cascades, especially in the salubrious and very livable cities of Seattle – where I live – and Portland, overwhelmingly vote Democratic. They – we – are hypocrites too, because they – we – enjoy very inexpensive electricity and buy fruits and vegetables in our local grocery stores that are grown in eastern Washington and Oregon, yet not only do we scorn the social values of that region, but we scarcely notice that our prosperity and comfort are due largely to an enormous engineering project – the Grand Coulee Dam – that altered an entire regional ecosystem beyond repair and devastated communities that were minding their own business for thousands of years and never invited us to show up in the first place. We Seattle liberals are sentimentally attached to Indians and fish, but the honest truth is that we don’t bother to do much to support or help or even acknowledge them. But we certainly do enjoy Washington apples and cherries, Walla Walla onions and wine, and cheap electricity.

A River Lost is a difficult book to read. Actually, it’s easy to read – it’s written well and accessibly – but it’s also difficult to make yourself read, because it puts in your face some hard and ugly things from which we all would prefer to avert our eyes. Blaine Harden has a great deal of credibility when he shows us the hypocrisy of middle-class Northwesterners – on both sides of the Cascades, both Republicans and Democrats – because he lived it: he grew up in Moses Lake, Washington, very near the Columbia River. Harden was a very good foreign correspondent, covering Africa and Eastern Europe for the Washington Post, but he came home to write A River Lost. Here is what I take to be the essence of his message:

The engineered West offered its inhabitants a superior brand of life, particularly in the far northwest corner. Dams gave people who lived in the Pacific Northwest the cheapest electricity in the country. They turned the deserts of eastern Washington and Oregon into gardens. Their power made aluminum for the airplanes and fuel for the atomic bombs that helped win World War II. Their locks turned a town in Idaho – a town 465 miles from the sea – into a major seaport. … The river was engineered to rise and fall with the daily appetites of a western power grid that covers half the land area of the United States, serves more than fifty million people, and reaches north to Canada, east to Nebraska, and south to Texas. … [G]ates in the dam open to spill the river through turbines that spin generators that feed electricity to make toast in Seattle and cool air in Tucson. … In a region that consumed twice as much electricity per capita as the rest of the nation, at rates half the national average, everyone with a light switch was a collaborator.

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I know I’m giving you a lot of information for one speech, but really I’m only scratching the surface. This is where you come in. You’ve been kind enough to give me your attention, and now I’m going to ask you for more of it. Not for me in particular, but for writers and books in general. The Internet is a marvelous thing, just like the Grand Coulee Dam, but the deeper we get into the era of digital media, the more ruefully aware I am of the things that we’re damaging and losing because of our largely unthinking faith in technology. I do take this personally, because when I was young my ambition was to be a writer of books, and now that I’ve achieved that ambition I find myself living and trying to communicate in a society that is forgetting how and why to read books.

But don’t worry about me; we should be worrying about all of us. We owe it to ourselves – each of you owes it to yourself – to train our attention spans to remain alert for the duration of a book, because stories worth telling – stories that truly help us understand our world and our place in it – can’t be told at the length of a tweet or a blog. We really need stories at book length, and we need to slow down our lives enough to be able to absorb, comprehend, and question them. This is not a problem only for your generation; I find myself struggling with the state of distraction that’s induced by the constant and perpetual ability to be online. I have to make a point of turning off my iPhone and closing my laptop.

So I know that it’s difficult, for any of us. But I refuse to believe that it’s impossible, and for me it’s partly a matter of self-respect: of controlling and directing my own lifelong education, rather than just giving in to what people glibly claim is “just the way things are.” For example, last year I was offended on behalf of your generation when a woman who runs a program in Delaware similar to this one informed me:

You and I are part of a “generation of readers.” That cannot be said for today’s high school students.  It is frankly inconceivable that a book on Pakistan would be read by today’s students – even those 2,300 students from six public, private, parochial and charter high schools which participate in our annual series for high school students titled “South Asia: India & Pakistan.”

In other words, don’t bother asking young Americans today to be all they can be; students today don’t read books, silly; that’s “just the way things are.” I don’t know any of you in this room personally, but I know that you are better than that stupid woman thinks you are. I’m reminded of the great Nobel Prize acceptance speech by the great novelist William Faulkner, who said, “I decline to accept the end of man.” Not that I’m comparing myself to William Faulkner. (I’m reminded of what John Grisham said when an interviewer asked whether he saw similarities between himself and Faulkner: “Yeah, we’re both from Mississippi.”) But what Faulkner was saying was that he refused to give up. By the time he gave that speech, Faulkner had done a lot of hard work over many years, writing quite a few carefully wrought and demanding novels. He believed in and understood the importance of writing and reading books. So do I. I have at least that in common with William Faulkner. Please take our word for it.

But what does this have to with electricity, anyway? For one thing, the Internet is for our time what the Grand Coulee Dam was for the 1930s: an enormous technological totem, a monument to our willingness to deceive ourselves into believing that we can live and prosper separate from the natural world. We can’t. And the Internet itself requires an enormous amount of electricity. Blaine Harden observes in A River Lost that

[T]he Columbia’s remarkable capacity to make cheap electricity has been discovered and is being aggressively gobbled up by an entirely new category of user: goliaths of the Internet. Google, Amazon, and Microsoft have rushed down to the river in eastern Washington and Oregon to build “server farms.” These huge data centers – air-conditioned warehouses filled with thousands upon thousands of power-hungry servers that communicate with Internet users around the globe – now give nearly everyone on Earth who sends e-mail, uses a smartphone, or streams video a personal stake in the damming of the Columbia.

A related point – and my final point – is that perhaps our most urgent task today is to imagine a future for ourselves, a way of living in the world, that’s different from the one we’ve become used to. The world around us is changing swiftly and drastically, and we must change with it if we want to survive. Thus it behooves us first to imagine a different world, before we are forced to experience it whether we want to or not. The great American author Norman Mailer once remarked that “there’s no clear dividing-line between experience and imagination.” The great British novelist J.G. Ballard claimed that “the unrestricted imagination is the most accurate guide to reality.” The two comments together suggest that we should rely on our experience, and at the same time exercise our imagination. Don’t let anyone ever tell you that the way things have been for a certain period is “just the way things are,” even if that period is your whole lifetime so far. And train your mind and imagination to perceive and know the world accurately, the same way you would train your body to play baseball or tennis or to run cross-country, so that you’ll be well equipped to live in the world as it really is.

And in these drastically changing times, when we might rightly wonder whether – even after all the damage we’ve wrought with contraptions like the Grand Coulee Dam – we will have enough electricity in the future to power our iPads and watch our streaming sitcoms – I have found no more accurate guide to reality than what’s called speculative literature or science fiction: fiction that imagines alternative worlds and futures, especially near futures. And so I want to end by strongly recommending that you read some fascinating and compelling novels that imagine not the world that we fondly think we live in, but the one we actually live in: the science fiction of the peerless Ursula Le Guin; the visionary novels of Octavia Butler, especially Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, about a group of misfits stumbling up the West Coast to Seattle because California is running out of water; Kim Stanley Robinson’s science and politics trilogy beginning with Forty Signs of Rain, and his mind-blowing Mars trilogy, starting with Red Mars; and the extremely suggestive and intriguingly optimistic World Made By Hand novels of James Howard Kunstler.

Your generation of Americans will be living in the future that we’ve inflicted on ourselves. That is mostly not your fault, but the fault of my generation – your parents’ generation – and the generations of our parents and grandparents. But you’re going to be living in it longer than we are, so it behooves you to familiarize yourselves with the future before it arrives here in Wisconsin, as it has already begun to arrive in Pakistan and Haiti and the Columbia River Valley.

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