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The Tools of Disconnection: Part 2

Posted on Thursday, April 8th, 2010 at 11:30 am by Keith Farnish

Connection: A state of empathy with, and understanding of our critical dependence on the natural world and other human beings. This is the natural state of human beings.

Disconnection: The inability to relate to, or understand the natural world and humans’ critical dependence on it. This is the normal state of civilized humans.

Tool of Disconnection: A device by which humans are disconnected from, and prevented from being reconnected to, the natural world and other human beings.

Tool of Disconnection 4: Pretend We Have a Choice

When you accept the label of ‘consumer’, you accept that you have become a financial object, willing to be manipulated by whatever marketing tricks abound. Consumer choice would be far better entitled ‘Conchoice’, a term describing the true level of choice that individuals are provided with, should they find themselves within the consumer culture. Benjamin R. Barber puts it like this: “The apparent widening of individual consumer choices actually shrinks the field of social choices. . . . For example, the American’s freedom to choose among scores of automobile brands was secured by sacrificing the liberty to choose between private and public transportation. This politics of commodity . . . offers the feel of freedom while diminishing the range of options and the power to affect the larger world.” The individual is being conned: there is no choice.

Step outside the business districts of most cities in the Western world, and your ability to move around is dramatically curtailed. I tried to advise an ecologist friend of mine how to travel the 1,300 miles to Boston from a town in Iowa without using car or aircraft – it was just about possible using a combination of suburban and cross-country buses, along with three different trains running on three different rail networks and a couple of taxi journeys along the way. Her journey would have taken around 31 hours, not including the waits between the various legs of her journey. Her ‘choice’, in reality, was no choice at all: a car to the airport, and a plane to Boston – about seven hours in all.

America is a very large country, but even in small countries the way people travel is limited by whatever economic policies the government of the time decide best serve the thinking of the time. The 1960s nearly dealt the railway system in Britain a fatal blow: had the recommendations of Dr Richard Beeching – a transport adviser working for the British government – been fully carried through, the UK would have been left with just 3,000 miles of trunk route rather than the 12,000 miles that exists today.

As it was, a third of the stations and a third of the track were shut down in the space of two years. It turns out that Doctor Beeching was only doing what he was told, for as Charles Loft writes: “[Transport Minister] Ernest Marples was a selfmade man who owned a road-construction company. He was required to sell his stake in the business on becoming Minister of Transport in October 1959, but was slow to do so. . . It was easy to attribute ulterior motives to the Minister’s apparent enthusiasm for closures, particularly as he also presided over a shift in investment from rail to road. . . . With both road freight and the motor-car industry now essential sectors of the British economy, with restrictions on motoring a political impossibility and congestion a growing problem, the case for more and better roads seemed clear.” There is little doubt that the British government, under severe pressure from the car industry, had tried – and partially succeeded – to kill off the railways, and entirely remove one genuine choice.

Look at the way you are currently living: you can ‘choose’ between plasma, LCD, cathode ray tube or Internet TV, but not having a television is inconceivable to most people in the consumer culture; you can ‘choose’ between shopping at Walmart, Aldi, Tesco, Carrefour or any other supermarket, but not using a supermarket is impossible for hundreds of millions of people who need to buy food and have no way of growing it themselves. Some ‘choices’ are even more blatantly false:

An off-camera interviewer asks a woman, “What would you rather have: a car or
a cleaner environment?”

The woman pauses, seemingly thoughtfully, before at last saying, “I can’t imagine me without my car. Of course I’d rather have a clean environment, but I think that that compromise is very hard to make where we are.”

The ad ends with a voiceover saying what BP is doing to make the world a better place.

How would the ad run if we changed the question to, “What would you rather have, a planet that is not being made filthy and in fact destroyed by automobiles and other effects of civilization, or your car?”

How much of your life was simply picked off the shelves of the Conchoice Mall, and how much of it came out of a conscious decision to live in that particular way?

Tool of Disconnection 5: Sell Us A Dream

On 1 April 2007, the Brazilian city of São Paulo officially became billboard-free. The tide of advertising that had swamped every physical dimension of the city had become intolerable, even to the local authorities; such was the scale of the problem. The law that demanded the removal of all billboards was – incredibly – passed by a huge majority, with the only ‘no’ voter being an advertising executive on the council. People are happy, except the advertisers, who made their position clear after the law was proposed:

Border, the Brazilian Association of Advertisers, was up in arms over the move. In a statement released on 2 October, the date on which law PL 379/06 was formally approved by the city council, Border called the new laws “unreal, ineffective and fascist”. It pointed to the tens of thousands of small businesses that would have to bear the burden of altering their shop fronts under regulations “unknown in their virulence in any other city in the world”.

We’re all smart enough to see through the rhetoric of these comments: “unreal, ineffective and fascist” are perfect descriptors for the synthetic, disconnected, material world that advertising has forced upon humanity – a world that is swamped with branding, corporate ‘messages’, sponsorship, flyers, free sheets, pop-ups and numerous other forms of corporate propaganda. São Paolo may have lost its billboards, but the advertisers can still feed their messages to the public through newspapers, magazines, television, radio; even schools, into which corporations don’t so much sneak advertising, as blatantly trumpet the goodness of their products and services. Almost every school in the UK collects Tesco’s and Sainsbury’s supermarket tokens, through which they can acquire computers and books. Every token handed over by every child is a graphic advertisement for competing brands that want their cut of the family shopping budget, and the future loyalty of the children who carry these little pieces of paper into the classroom. North America has it far worse: “It is never enough to tag the schools with a few logos. Having gained a foothold, the brand managers are now doing what they have done in music, sports and journalism outside the schools: trying to overwhelm their host. They are fighting for their brands to become not the add-on but the subject of education.” As you have seen, the individual is not offered real choice in this culture of consumption – simply ‘Conchoice’. The real choice has already been lost in favour of corporations that have sold entire populations down the commercial river: the individual’s ultimate dream is no longer a response to “what can I achieve in my life?” but “what can I buy?”

This goes back further than you can imagine. Long before mass advertising and competition between corporations, commerce was the prime motivator in the foreign policies of the imperial powers of Europe and, later on, the USA. The events in Haiti over the last 500 years reflect this perfectly. Like countless tribal peoples prior to European settlement, the Taíno people lived a connected life – connected with the land, the sea and the sky that drove much of their mythology. Then Christopher Columbus landed at Hispaniola in 1492 – the island that would become Haiti and the Dominican Republic – and irreversibly changed things:

It took no time at all for the [people] who first greeted Christopher Columbus to be all but erased from the face of the earth. . . . Less than 30 years after Columbus’ three ocean-crossing ships dropped anchor off the island of Hispaniola, the Taíno would be destroyed by Spanish weaponry, forced labour and European diseases.

Those that survived lived at the behest of the invaders, and somehow managed to hold on to a semblance of their ancestry. The commercial advantage such a fertile environment provided to invaders in terms of crops, slave labour (both local and imported) and trading routes made Haiti the subject of continued negotiation and conflict ever since; but it was the specific words that were used with reference to Haiti that reveal so much. In 1833, in relation to the Haitian people but, no doubt, a view that could be applied across the entire British Empire, a British parliamentarian observed: “To make them labour, and give them a taste for luxuries and comforts, they must be gradually taught to desire those objects which could be attained by human labour. There was a regular progress from the possession of necessaries to the desire of luxuries; and what once were luxuries, gradually came . . . to be necessaries. This was the sort of progress the negroes had to go through, and this was the sort of education to which they ought to be subject in their period of probation.” In a striking parallel to this, Arthur Millspaugh, an adviser to the occupying USA government wrote in 1929: “The peasants, living lives which to us seem indolent and shiftless, are envariably [sic] carefree and contented; but, if they are to be citizens of an independent self-governing nation, they must acquire . . . a new set of wants.” In other words: the commercial Americanization of a culture.

Quite what the people of Haiti did to deserve such a long period of turmoil, especially considering their ‘carefree and contented’ existence in the past, is difficult to understand at first glance. The more you look at the history of commerce, though – the ravenous British East India Company; the endemic slavery to feed the coffee, cotton and sugar industries; the limitless ambition of Coca- Cola and McDonalds – the more you realize that this is just par for the course. The reason you are surrounded by logos, adverts and brands, and the reason entire cultures are being cut up into bite-sized pieces and swallowed is because commerce needs to constantly sell a dream of a new reality in order to survive.

Tool of Disconnection 6: Exploit Our Trust

If I were to tell you to hit someone, just because I wanted them hurt, you would almost certainly refuse, and probably report me to the authorities for suggesting such a thing – and quite right, too. If I were to don a white coat, welcome you into a laboratory and explain that you were to take part in an experiment, and that the person on the other side of the screen who you were about to apply extremely painful electric shocks too was a willing volunteer, you would probably say, “Thanks, but no thanks.” Or would you?

The groundbreaking experimental work of Stanley Milgram simply reinforced what he already knew – that individuals, when exposed to an authority figure in a pressure situation will obey the authority figure far more readily, and to a greater extent, than would have been possible in other circumstances. The reason Milgram already knew the power of authority – although he was, himself, surprised at the level of obedience in his experiments – was historical. In 1961, when the experiments were first conducted, World War II was fresh in the minds of every adult living in the parts of the world where the conflict had taken place.

The hierarchy of authority within the Axis Forces had been carefully designed to ensure maximum obedience: from Hitler, the master orator and ‘saviour’ of the German people; through to the SS guards and local enforcers operating on behalf of the Third Reich; the weight of power upon ordinary citizens and soldiers was irresistible. But, even given such a level of authority, it is still shocking to read of the ease in which people were coerced to carry out appalling acts:

Judicial interrogations of some 125 of the [reserve police battalion] men indicated that, while no one had to participate . . . the great majority stayed in ranks and later killed whoever was brought to them out of loyalty to those ranks, and to maintain their standing in their units. Thus the men chose to become murderers rather than look bad in the eyes of the other men.

Over time, as the battalion participated in more and more mass murders, it became far more relaxed and efficient in its deadly operations. These ordinary men got used to killing thousands of people at close range as part of their day’s work. By the time their part of the ‘Final Solution’ was completed in Poland, the battalion had shot at least 38,000 Jews to death.

You might think that you would behave differently to these ordinary people caught up in the rigors of war, and that you would refuse to obey the requests of those in authority. In fact, only about 20% of those ordered to kill Jewish prisoners, without fear of repercussions if they refused, did refuse.19 The chances are that if you were put in this same situation, you would not refuse and would, yourself, become a murderer. It is a chilling thought that the simple act of being in a controlled situation where there is a hierarchy of authority pushing down on them can turn people into something that would otherwise be unthinkable to them – but that is the power of authority. In effect, it is our good nature, our trust of other people that allows us to be manipulated in such a dramatic way; and not even the threat of certain death can change that.

The daily grind of work exposes billions of people to some form of authority, but only in a minority of cases do people ever think to question the tasks they are given. To be sure, many of the people carrying out their work are in a very difficult situation: however mundane and soul-destroying, the completion of these tasks is simply the only way they can envisage earning the money necessary to buy food to keep themselves alive. The sweatshops of south-east Asia and Central America starkly bear testament to that reality. There are people, though, who carry out work that is utterly destructive; yet because of the deep disconnection between what that person is doing and the impact of that work on the environment, and humanity in general, they continue to do it – and authority serves to deepen that disconnection.

The person operating the feller-buncher in Chapter 6 knows quite clearly that he is removing trees, destroying habitat and leaving behind bare earth which will be washed away in the next rainstorm. He also knows – despite the efforts of those who have tried to suppress this information – that the removal of trees contributes to the greenhouse effect, which is heating up the planet and threatening to bring on a catastrophic cycle of events at all scales of life. He knows all these things, and yet he continues to do his work.20 The CEO of the forestry company – say Georgia-Pacific, Kimberly-Clark or Asian Pulp and Paper – knows the impact of his company’s activities; as do the directors, upon whom the pressure to meet financial targets is imposed by their CEO; as do the managers, upon whom the pressure to improve output is imposed by their directors; as do the operators of the feller-bunchers, who have been clearly told that they are doing an important job, and they have to process a set tonnage of timber every day, otherwise the contract will be lost. The hierarchy imposes authority, and the destruction continues.

As you will see later, the threat of financial loss is most definitely a factor in the continuation of highly destructive activities; but, as Stanley Milgram demonstrated all those years ago, we don’t really need those threats: we just do what we are told.

This is an extract from “Time’s Up! An Uncivilized Solution to a Global Crisis” by Keith Farnish. The author considers the Tools of Disconnection to be so critical to the understanding of civilization’s destructive behaviour that all of the Tools will be detailed on the Chelsea Green Blog over the next few weeks.


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