The earliest stirrings of modern industrial society can be traced back to some 6,000 years ago, to the emergence of the first cities, the emergence of agriculture and storage of food surpluses in the Near East. A bit later, analytic and linguistic keys to the forward march of civilization found critical refinement in Aristotle’s syllogistic logic and the founding of the sciences. The current trajectory of the West burst into full self-consciousness during the period of European Enlightenment, with the birth of rationalism and the elaboration of the modern scientific method. These, in turn, eventually gave rise to the industrialization, hyper-specialization, technological innovation and increasing commodification of just about everything that we are witnessing today.
With Europe and, more recently, America leading the way, the path charted and engineered by Western civilization spawned a mindset that is rapidly overtaking the globe, socially, economically, and culturally. This ascendancy has unleashed a domination of values, which, unlike political hegemonies of the past, are spreading with lightning speed, virtually unchallenged, and artfully enabled by the very technologies it has spawned.
Many Americans are convinced that their culture represents the apex of this historical legacy, the best in scientific and technological advancement, as well as political and economic leadership. What America has achieved, so they believe, is a dream come true. It was this “American Dream” that has been held out to (or thrust upon) the rest of the world as the ultimate expression of the “good life”—the proper locus of human happiness. However, it was cheap energy, in the form of fossil fuels, that has enabled this cultural and industrial progress, and the recent recognition that world oil extraction has peaked surely signals the prospective collapse of industrial economy, and, with it, the dissolution of its core institutions. The trajectory of Western civilization, now characterized by accelerating energy decline and global climate change—a trajectory that Homo sapiens had set in motion upon excavating the first coal pit—is nearing its end.
There are yet some dreamers and wishful thinkers who tell us of oil extraction technologies and spectacular discoveries of new supplies that will power our future. Overlooking the insidious exaggeration of these claims, the unintended consequences of technologies needed to deliver on them will surely bring substantial ecological fallout, further limiting our access to survival necessities such as clean air, fresh water, and healthy flora and fauna. Likewise, alternate sources of energy will never replace industrial civilization’s continuous and ever-growing need for transportation fuels. We are living within an unsustainable bubble that is already deflating, slowly for now, more quickly in the near future. Sustainable human existence will require smaller-scale and more local approaches to just about everything.
With the globe facing epic crises—ecological, financial, economic, political, psychological—at whose feet do we lay the blame? Where do we look to better understand the roots of these crises, or to learn how to outrun their dire consequences? While many have identified pursuit of the American Dream as a proximate cause of this global unraveling, the USA was not alone in its reliance upon certain fundamental assumptions about subjugation and exploitation of nature, ineluctably leading to devastating outcomes. All civilized regimes—from the first empires of ancient Mesopotamia to modern nations such as Russia and China—share the responsibility for the current planetary devastation. Industrial progress, economic growth, technological innovation, political expansion and environmental devastation have been the hallmarks of civilization since the beginning of history.
Not surprisingly, there is now growing disaffection in the West (of all places) with the way things are going. Given a global financial meltdown, high unemployment, austerity, endless war, insurrections popping up everywhere, unparalleled greed, irrational terrorism, the American Dream is fading like like the trace of warm breath on a mirror. Mother nature herself seems to be speaking to us loudly, with more frequent and more brutal natural disasters than at any other time in recorded history. Barely two decades into America’s uncontested ascendancy to unipolar imperial power—with the entire planet supposedly globalizing around its neoliberal capitalist dogma—and the whole thing is starting to come apart. If you think this makes the institutional fabric of Western civilization vulnerable, you are right; it does.
Yet do not think for a moment that it is going to come down without a struggle. There are centripetal forces holding this spectacle together as much as there are centrifugal forces pulling it apart. Aside from the greedy and controlling hands of plutocrats, there is too much raw desire out there in the hinterlands, too many people who have been living on the fringes of this “Dream” just waiting for their turn, for a piece of the pie. The entire Soviet Bloc, systematically excluded from all the fun for almost a century, now holds the forbidden fruit firmly within its grasp. These now independent nations are busy chasing the dream as quickly as they can muster the energy and the capital. China has also awakened from its slumber, focused on making up for lost time in securing a position of global prominence. The Indians have decided that they too want to play: Mumbai has made a good beginning in this respect, taking over nearly all customer service functions for major US corporations, siphoning off consumer purchasing power that once went to Americans.
A new generation of Russians is racing to be first at the finish line. The Russian Federation, in concert with its regional administrations, is aggressively stripping forestland, building new roads and expanding old ones, and refurbishing and building-out regional and the international airports. They are doing so with great abandon, as if there is no tomorrow—and perhaps there won't be. Yet no one in Siberia younger than fifty years old seems to want to discuss this possibility. They are having too much fun with their newfound wealth, and are enjoying the spectacle. This is most evident when you look at the younger generation of Siberians and the nouveau riche in Barnaul, Biysk, Belokurikha, and across Altai Krai. They cannot live without their cell phones, their iPods and their credit cards; without their health club memberships, pricey coffee houses and their air conditioners; without their recently financed foreign automobiles and their newly minted driver's licenses. In short, they have tasted the promise of this “society of the spectacle.” They are mesmerized by its allure and hooked on its fascinating appeal. It is not just blue jeans they want. They want it all! Short of an abrupt exhaustion of basic vital resources like fossil fuel, clean water, or fresh air, the only way we could see a quick collapse of this “curriculum of the West” as it moves east, is by prying it from the clutching hands of all those who previously had little, but now choose to have hope for more.
But there is also something ancient and primitive pulling at the emotional core of Siberians, something that once spoke clearly to a more archaic need, and perhaps still speaks to the older generations of Siberians even today. I am referring to the thoroughly mythologized Russian soul: a soul that in the mother tongue is feminine in gender—душа [dushá]—and, as such, is intimately connected with the mystery of Mother Earth. Recall Dostoevsky’s many references to the Russian soul as a reflection of the people’s unfailing and non-negotiable connection to the land from which life springs. There is a well-articulated and indestructible sentiment among our people that does not allow complete separation, physically or emotionally, from the land in which they were born and where they naturally survive and flourish. The Russian people have the greatest appreciation for, love of and attachment to their homeland and families, as well as to the broader ties of kinship these entail. They understand all of this to be intimately connected, as their language makes abundantly clear:
род [rod]: family, kind, sort, genus
родина [ródina]: homeland, motherland
родители [rodíteli]: parents
родить [rodít']: to give birth
роднить [rodnít']: to unite, bring together
родовой [rodovói]: ancestral, tribal
родство [rodstvó]: kinship
Over their historically, Russians have had to endure the hardships and struggles of political turmoil and repeated invasion, and Siberians understand struggle as a given, as part of the cycle of life, death and nature. The normal conditions of existence here, whether in the city or the village, are not what we Americans would consider easy, convenient, or comfortable (although they are improving). Those who live here have preserved some age-old instincts in order to survive, and even to celebrate life in the midst of recurrent hardships and strife. The personal and cultural resolve that personifies this soul has been forged over generations of people facing down aggression, natural and political, then calmly and courageously returning to their roots and rebuilding their lives upon an archaic foundation in which they never lost faith. It is impossible to understand the depth and mystery of this soul separately from its rootedness in the simplicity of the Russian peasantry and the inviolability of the Russian soil. There is an earthly sensuousness that infuses the Russian experience; this culture remains drenched in the primacy of the body and the natural world that nourishes it. This autochthonous connection to the land—the Siberian’s more elemental experience of life in wilder, mysterious nature—may still be capable of influencing the future trajectory of both the new Russia and Western civilization.
Perhaps Russia’s long-suffering messianic mission still stands firm in the Siberian wilderness, albeit less vociferously than before, quietly recalling humanity from the abyss of alienated spirit that haunts the self-absorbed West with its scientific rationalism, its consumerism and its otherworldly transcendence—a self-misunderstanding that seems to be marching all of us mindlessly toward global collapse. Perhaps the more primal Siberian awareness can summon us back to a feral memory trace, helping us recall our essential rootedness in Mother Earth and the earthly sensuousness of our flesh, the flesh of the world. But the delusion of ‘manifest destiny’ that drives Western hegemony and its commodity culture is chipping away relentlessly and callously at that archaic Russian soul, perhaps more rapidly than she is able to redirect and dissipate the self-destructive energy of Western imperialism and its global appetite. Siberians, and those of us living here in Altai Krai, must rethink their commitment to this Western curriculum as it continues to lead us relentlessly, mindlessly, toward a precipice.