Saturday, April 9, 2016


The Spring edition of Lapham's Quarterly arrived a few weeks ago.  I have read about a third of it to date.   The first section (of three) is called Premonition, and includes essays from people who have written about the possibility of impending disaster, some natural, some man made.  One which recounts the days and hours leading up to the Challenger shuttle disaster was of particular interest in that a number of scientists from the company which manufactured the O rings that failed were aware of the potential problem which cold temperatures might produce, tried valiantly to convince their managers and NASA administrators to cancel the mission, and were ultimately surprised, not by the explosion but by their lack of success to preempt it.  (I have since heard an NPR segment which detailed the guilt felt by these very same engineers, who blame themselves for not forcing those decision makers to listen, and the anger some still feel on being ignored).

Similarly, the seemingly American hobby of discounting certain science, specifically science that contradicts religion (evolution deniers), and science that threatens certain industries (climate change deniers), is recalled both in the above example where NASA pride trumped caution, and in the opening article which details the ongoing research being conducted in the Greenland ice sheet which undoubtedly demonstrates the potential for disaster that will result in rising sea levels from ice melt.

But these strains of thought are not new to me. 

What is most interesting to date, were the essays taken from the writings of George Marsh and Sigmund Freud.

In 1864 (yes, during the Civil War), Marsh published Man and Nature, one of the earliest texts which argued that human activity could have significant and lasting effect on the environment.  The essay in Lapham's, touches on the destruction of the forests to harvest its wood for houses.  Marsh calls it a Want of Foresight, in that he observes how temperatures in cities are a few degrees warmer that in the surrounding countryside, how removing the trees exposes the ground to faster flow of water, which can remove the ground soil, or what he calls the vegetable mold, making it harder to grow food.  He talks about how these man induced changes, effect the ebb and flow of rivers and streams, the existence of tidal pools and marshes, all changes which effect the flora and fauna of the area.  He observes without the bias of monetary gain or loss, or religious edict.  Strangely, and I say this in light of the occupations and concerns of most of today's politicians, Marsh was an elected United States Congressman for the state of Vermont, and a lifelong conservationist who used his position and knowledge to further the cause of environmental awareness at a time when the Industrial Revolution was first changing America.  Talk about swimming against the stream!!

But the most illuminating essay was from Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents.  My familiarity with Freud was mostly focused on his Interpretation of Dreams, a topic which I investigated most seriously (and enjoyably) as a young adult, the ability to experience lucid dreaming being one of my earliest pursuits.  And, of course, as a my interest in Psychology blossomed, Freud's creation of psychoanalysis was studied and debated.  But whether I avoided his darker theories on man, or purposefully ignored them, I was not as aware of his contributions in this area.

In this edition of Lapham's is Freud's discussion of the battle between what he calls the instincts of Eros and Death.  Without getting too involved in this theory, he basically boils it all down to our all encompassing instinct of aggression, and the "civilized" concepts we use to counter that instinct to create an orderly less violent society.  What is fascinating is that he turns the basis of Christianity, original sin and the need to be saved through Jesus Christ, on its head by acknowledging that we are in fact, flawed (original sin being our aggressive and destructive nature), and proof is in the need to be saved and to adhere to the basic message of that savior, love one another.  In other words, we need to be told to be good, to have institutions that teach goodness, even to have the carrot of ultimate happiness, eternity with the creator, in order to counter our natural aggressiveness, our natural destructiveness.  Wow, talk about negative!! 

Oddly, Freud died in 1939, before the atrocities of World War 2 occurred.  I would imagine he would have silently nodded his head with the knowledge that the attempted genocide of the Jews by the Nazis, the incessant bombing of England, the firebombing of Germany and the ultimate use of atomic weapons in Japan, would have proven him right, especially in light of the fact that all of these barbarous acts were committed by people who thought such acts were the beginning of a better man,  or blessed by a righteous God, or the only way to combat those that were evil.

Want of Foresight seems even more at work now than ever.  We continue to make decisions based on short term outcomes, whether those decisions be in the business or political world, or on the battlefield or in the election booth.  And we abhor the violence of others while clamoring for our own righteous version of violence against our enemies. 

Still, there are signs that we might choose to act to prevent disaster, and that we might choose to reject aggression in favor of love.  Hopefully, the tipping point will come before we have gone too far down the wrong path.


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