Vulgarity and Nature: Chapter from Robert Grudin's Upcoming Book - American Vulgar

The author of The Most Amazing Thing and Time and the Art of Living, Robert Grudin is a modern day Renaissance Man whose profound insights emerge through both his fiction and non-fiction writings. Despite many other scholars' tendencies to overemphasize logic and reason, Grudin's credence to creativity conjures the aura of fellow polymath and Treehugger hero - R. Buckminster Fuller.


Robert Grudin has wonderfully graced Treehugger with a sneak peak of his next book, American Vulgar. This preview (after the jump) is actually a draft of an entire chapter entitled "Vulgarity and Nature", so be prepared to bookmark this one. The book is scheduled for a Fall 2006 release and will be published by Shoemaker & Hoard.

::Link to another essay from American Vulgar: "The Education of the Vulgar" - and the revised version ::Robert Grudin on Gurteen

[By Karla Calderon]Vulgarity and Nature
From American Vulgar, by Robert Grudin, to appear in 2006
Copyright © by Robert Grudin 2005

1. The Issue of Growth

If some day you would like to observe a near-perfect fitness club, as well as a model for a robust economy, go for a walk in a virgin forest. You will notice that none of its animal citizens is overweight (unless stocking up for hibernation), and that they go about their business with an alertness and an engagement unmatched in human society. Hang around for a few years, and you will notice something else of equal importance: change is slow. Diverse animal and plant populations have achieved balance with each other. The forest, though full of liveliness, is historically at rest.

Of course, to learn this natural wisdom first hand, one has to find a virgin forest, and that can be difficult. As of 1996, 95% of America's virgin timber had been logged. Saving the last 5% has become the mission of an advocacy group called Save America's Forests, but as of 2005, The Act to Save America's Forests was still stalled in Congress. Admittedly, there is broad support for the bill, but it flies in the face of an American prejudice as old as the Frontier: the insistence on unimpeded growth. Americans, it would seem, always want to push the envelope, and in this case the envelope is a finite and defenseless environment.

Growth is not just a cultural obsession. Growth has become a theoretical model for economists, executives and even civil servants. The idea is that economic entities, be they towns or corporations, cannot remain robust unless they keep growing, and that this growth imperative has no chronological limit. The Growth People are no amateurs either. They can cite factors and crunch numbers. But what they cannot do, apparently, is confront the dangers implicit in their model and their imperative. They would do well to note the teaching of the forest. They would do well to remember that the most dramatic example of unimpeded growth in nature is cancer, which kills its host and, necessarily, itself. The most colossal and preposterous of all vulgarities would be a civilization that, in the course of its busy, growing ways, paved over its environment and destroyed its only source of sustenance.

'Growth' translates into real estatese as 'development.' Development is a talismanic word to civil servants, because (given the growth model) the tax income derived from development is the only way that they can project civil services into the future. Civil servants, in the main, have to ignore the long term. They are paid to make things work, and cannot do so without an ever-increasing pool of funds. Often the only way to pay the piper is through the approval of large-scale building projects.

Development usually takes place gradually, like flood waters in Venice. Sometimes, however, it is so dramatic as to provoke attention. Take the Centennial-Newhall phenomena events in southern California in 2003. National attention focused on Los Angeles County's approval proceedings for Centennial (the former Tejon Ranch, approved in 2005) and Newhall Ranch (how's that for a developer's euphemism?), two housing developments so vast that, were they located in Oregon instead of California, they would immediately rank among the state's ten largest cities. These developments would eat up about 12,000 acres (18.5 square miles) of grassland in the Antelope and Santa Clarita valleys. The demographic impact of these and other planned subdivisions would be substantial:

Between the two tract towns - whose plans include shopping centers, industrial parks, schools and libraries - and several smaller subdivisions, there will be an influx of more than 200,000 people in the region. And that's just the beginning, according to analysts who predict that the population in the Santa Clarita Valley region could more than triple in size by 2030, with Interstate 5 as its primary connection to the Los Angeles job base.

The environmental impact would also be severe, even if viewed only from the practical angles of water use and air pollution. But other threats inhered. Los Angeles County (about 4,000 sq. miles in area) would lose its remaining grassland habitats. Mountainous land aside, the county would become wall-to-wall city and suburb.

This disturbing fact was brought up by one of the developers, but instead of voicing regret that nature was being destroyed, he showed disappointment that there would soon be no more land to build on:

"We see this providing a great pipeline of homes," said Jon Jaffe, Western region president of Lennar, which developed Stevenson Ranch in the area.
"We view this as a great strategic opportunity for us. Los Angeles County has tremendous population growth that is projected to continue. L.A. County is very constrained as far as entitled land -- a lot of the land is developed and a lot of it is mountainous and undevelopable."


Expectably, such developments and attitudes arouse controversy. The opposition may have the moral high ground, but it is often proven to be short on legal clout. Development is built into county planning. Governments think in terms of the quality of services rather than in terms of the quality of life. Development produces capital value and makes 'economic' sense. As Matthew Jalbert admits,

As long as it is affordable to commute long distances, to buy a large single-family home, and to irrigate a green grass lawn in the desert, people will do so. Developers will build it, and they will come. As long as cities and older suburban areas are considered dangerous and crowded and their schools inadequate, developments such as the Antelope Valley will be generated and continue to degrade the vitality of society and the Earth as a whole.

To this might be added, "As long as planners are invested in a monolothic and obsessive model of growth..."

Is there any escape from unregulated growth? Only, writes economist Richard Douthwaite, if we can recontextualize our basic idea of growth and capital:

Another good thing to have come from the World Bank recently is Ismail Serageldin's work on the Four Capitals approach to sustainability. The Four Capitals are physical, human, social, and natural capital. The idea here is that we are living on the income from these capitals - the benefits we enjoy are their product - and therefore sustainability entails each generation passing on to the next a stock of these four capitals at least equivalent to that which it received from the previous generation.

Reconceiving economics in terms of Four Capitals is 'sustainable' because it figures the environment directly into the equation:

The [World] Bank's mental model focuses on finance, and to the degree that it embraces development, is a growth model that seems to assume: a high degree of substitutability between the "four capitals", social development through economic growth, and intrinsically strong environmental resilience.
-Gerald O. Barney

It is rather easier to understand how this is going to work on undeveloped countries, where the World Bank can exert enlightened leadership, than to project it into developed national economies. Will the Four Capitals approach trickle down to the Federal Reserve? How will private lenders implement the approach? Nonetheless, the idea has striking merit in that it transforms economics from a merely fiscal study into an understanding of the humanity-nature continuum.

Let us look at how the Four Capitals strategy might work in a small city (population 100,000-200,000) that wishes economic growth without necessarily increasing its size. It could increase its human capital by investing in primary and secondary education, starting a lifelong learning program and rezoning an industrial area to accommodate a college campus. It could increase its natural capital with tough pollution laws, a light rail system and parks that at once preserve nature and bring it into the social infrastructure. It could increase its social capital by creating programs in health education and focusing on law enforcement as a protective rather than punitive institution. And its physical capital -- its money, that is — would grow in terms of a more highly skilled, healthier and safer population.

The economics of this projection is fairly simple. Because our population is skilled, it produces more money. Because it is enlightened, it loses less money to illness and crime.

The model of unlimited economic growth must be considered from four other perspectives: ethics, culture, natural curbs and climax economics.

Ethics. Because stockholders and stock traders are hooked on 'growth,' the growth model often becomes an ethically corrupting force. Merely consider the dozens of book-cooking scandals of 2001-02, the resultant bankruptcies and the $1 trillion dip on Wall St., and you get some idea of the danger of subscribing to the growth model. No matter how vehemently this model is defended, it simply does not account for the complex ebb and flow of economic reality. In other areas its influence can border on the obscene. A federal investigation of the Redding Medical Center (Redding, CA) and Tenet Healthcare, its parent, resulted in charges that doctors at the Center were performing unnecessary heart operations in order to cash in on Medicare payments and show corporate growth. Kurt Eichenwald writes,

Until federal agents raided Redding last fall, Tenet's business model was based on maximizing the dollars it could collect from Medicare, the nation's biggest buyer of health care. And Medicare's complex formulas — the template for private insurers, as well — reward some kinds of health care more richly than others, and few more richly than cardiac care.

So it was that two heart doctors at Redding... became immensely powerful, people who worked there said. Tenet promised investors growing profits, and at Redding, these people said, that required steady growth in cardiac care.

When patients began discovering that they had been, or were about to be, cut open without due cause, whistles sounded, and investigations began. In August, 2003, Tenet agreed to pay $54 million "to resolve accusations that Redding Medical doctors conducted unnecessary heart procedures and operations on hundreds of healthy patients." Greed was of course the issue here, but it was that particular form of greed which gratifies itself by imitating the popular Wall St. model of growth.

Different hospitals can be run more efficiently, but ultimately, health care is a commodity; the science available at one hospital is the same across the street. The industry itself is ancient. Yet Wall Street expects and rewards the same sort of double-digit earnings growth from hospital companies that it expects from new and developing businesses.

"The hospital industry is by its very nature a mature industry," said Mr. [Uwe] Reinhardt, the Princeton economist. "It is not a high-margin business. It can't be a growth industry like some Internet company. That is just unreasonable."

Reinhardt's sensible assumption that some businesses, like forest trees, 'mature' and no longer can be expected to grow has, up to now, proven a bit too mature for Wall Street and its customers.

Culture. Douthwaite argues that growth is not an economic necessity in non-industrialized communities. Take for example of the Indian state of Kerala:

The Keralans have a long history of educating women, hence its high literacy levels and its declining population - the average is just 1.7 children per family - again a European level. So economic growth is not necessary to get countries through the demographic transition, as has been maintained. Professor William Alexander, who has studied Kerala, thinks much of its success is linked to its matrilineal social structure. Instead of a top-down structure with long command chains and little feedback from those at the bottom, it has a flat structure that makes for more efficient resource use.

So Kerala's case provides material for the argument that growth is not necessary. If we had a better distribution of income, if the resources being used to generate growth were instead used to provide directly for those at the bottom of the social system, then the results would be much better than relying on 'increasing the size of the pie' and 'trickle-down' theories.

Here, however, we have a non-industrialized society, and Douthwaite is quick to admit that industrialized societies need growth of some sort. But this brings up another issue. Is future industrialization a fact of life for all cultures? Must the Keralans change their winning ways and, if so, why? Paul Theroux, whose travels in Africa were the basis for his book Dark Star Safari, has returned with the impression that many grassroots African cultures want neither to be industrialized nor Westernized at all. Here is a section of his NPR interview with Robert Siegel:

SIEGEL: It's much more fashionable nowadays to say Africans have the same political and material aspirations as anyone else in the world. We just have to get the right relationship between the marketplace and the government and the other institutions, like public health education. You're saying something different. You're saying, for whatever reasons, the aspirations that people bring to life are quite different in much of Africa.

Mr. THEROUX: I think that--I mean, we tend to impose our will on Africans and our dreams and our hopes and, I think, subvert their ambitions. But in general, rural Africa, living through the seasons--planting, gleaning, harvesting and whatever--is going on just as it has for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

Though Westerners have much that non-Westerners might want, it is both incorrect and dangerous to assume that all nations must and will follow a Western path. We do exactly this when we use phrases like "pre-industrialized nations" and "developing countries" (a slip made even by the vigorously anti-growth Mr. Douthwaite).

Natural Curbs. Growth predictors seldom factor in vectors that operate quite naturally in growth situations. One of these vectors might be called the value curb. When a stock's price rises, all else being equal, it becomes less and less of a bargain; when it falls, more and more of one. Thus market trends tend to be self-curbing rather than unregulated. Value curbs can operate with all sorts of growth. In the 1960's it was très chic to sip coffee at Les Deux Magots across from Ste. Germaine in Paris. Then Les Deux Magots started showing up in tourist guides, and the price of a café au lait went through the roof. Suddenly Les Deux Magots was no longer a fashionable dive. The waters of its exoticism had been fished out.

A second natural curb might be called growth disease. Corporations that grow massively and quickly seldom have time to develop self-regulatory infrastuctures and intra-communicative systems, the lack of which exposes them to a multitude of risks. Consider the misfortunes of three high tech golden girls: Oracle, Sun Microsystems and Microsoft. One overstated its profits, the next overdiversified, and the third failed to develop an anti-trust mechanism. All three of these problems were caused by growth without structure, and all three served to limit growth. Such natural curbs operated even more dramatically on Enron and Global Crossing and many other corporations that did not survive the disease of growth.

Natural curbs can teach us something about growth. Though growth per se is a morally neutral phenomenon, it is full of danger to itself and to the world at large. To work for society, growth must not only integrate with its social and natural environment but also develop its own unique internal awareness. Growth must limit and refine itself in order to endure.

Climax Economics. We return to the virgin forest and walk deeper into it. Towering 225 feet above us, tossing their heads in the mountain winds, are Douglas firs, who share the forest with small shrubs, a 20- 30 foot-tall undergrowth of smaller trees, and a diverse population of fauna. This is known to biologists as a climax forest: an ecosystem in which dominant species exist in harmony with each other. Especially dramatic in this harmony is the role of the massive firs. Unlike almost everything else alive (cancer of course excepted), the Doug fir has no biological life- or growth-limiter. It keeps growing and growing and growing, sometimes for centuries and to heights of over 300 feet, until forces of nature like disease, lightning or its own colossal mass take it down. The climax forest has found a natural way to endure and even profit from these heroics.

Can a complex economic system function in this way? In other words, can certain economic entities maintain the function of growth, while others contribute to balance and stability? This counterpoint, coupled with the inevitable mortality of some entities, might ensure us a better alternative to the self-defeating strategy of unlimited growth. It might also prove an appropriate context for the implementation of Serageldin's theory of the Four Capitals.

2. Technology and Vulgarity

How does it feel to be vulgar? Asking the question, we miss the point. That vulgarian yakking into his cell phone next to you on the beach is not thinking, "Ah, how deliciously vulgar I'm being." He's simply thinking about what he's doing. The hallmarks of vulgarity are self-obsession and unawareness of context.

Thus the cell phone, for all its intrusive potential, is not a vulgar instrument until it is put to vulgar use. On the other hand, we can call the cell phone a vulgarizing idea, because it carries with it the temptation, even the provocation, to behave objectionably in public.

We may lump the cell phone together with the ATV, the jet ski, the car stereo, the Palm Pilot, the hand-held game, the earphones and the laptop as a nuisance group of machines: devices that invite their users to disturb nature and/or disrupt public space.

Yet even these machines can dialogue with their environment in surprising ways. The Surf Rescue station at Kamaole Beach on the island of Maui is equipped with a pair of jet skis and an ATV. These allow the lifeguards to answer distress signals that can be over ten miles away. It is impressive to see this cheerful bunch in action. The ATV tows a trailer-borne jet ski from the garage to the ocean in under a minute. The trailer is disconnected from the ATV and rolled into the water. A woman life-guard jumps onto the jet ski, revs it and pops it off the trailer. To see her, clad in the Maui colors of red and yellow, heading off across the ocean on a mission of mercy with spray flying behind her, is to remember knightly missions long past.

Not so with most owners of ATV's and jet skis, who spend their time polluting nature and disturbing the silences of the outdoors.

Something similar inheres in the pickup truck culture of Maui. American TV ads mainly market full size V-8 pickups whose styling is a blatant appeal to vulgar yearnings for power and control. The Mauian pickup, on the other hand, is almost always a comparatively humble compact version, usually powered by a modest four-cylinder engine. The body language of these little trucks can be summed up in one word: WORK, because people who did not need these vehicles for work would have no reason to use them at all. Work for a Mauian often means direct contact with the land, because the island flora is so overwhelming as to demand attention from professional and homeowner alike. This shared concern with work and nature has produced a kind of chivalry, a tacit public understanding, among pickup truck drivers. They tend to treat each other with special courtesy and will often greet each other when passing on country roads. Thus contact with machines can humanize as well as vulgarize.

Compare this with the way in which technology impacts middle-class American children. If they live in a typical subdivision, they inhabit a house whose construction has destroyed nature and whose architecture does its best to minimize contact with nature. They are driven to school and home in the family SUV, maybe one of those new ones that remind you of nasty war machines. You won't find any river mud or rhinoceros dents on this SUV, because it has never been farther than the country club, but you will find an inboard DVD and a dashboard navigation system (one subdivision looks so much like another!) The kids' life is so electronic that you would think they had been born with built-in pop-outs and USB connections. They ease their tensions after strenuous work at school by playing electronic games, enjoying earphone music and surfing the TV channels. For serious business, however, they turn to the Internet and get to work swapping tunes, games and porn.

After several years of this regime, parents may discover that their kids look kind of vague, can't participate in social activities and have lots of trouble concentrating on anything. Doctors inform the worried couple that the problem is Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), an Act of God of course, and prescribe the appropriate drugs.

Doctors and social workers call such events, and the even worse things that are happening to our children, 'unfortunate,' and 'tragic.' Why don't we, for a change, call them criminally vulgar? Why don't we brand the parents with old-fashioned shame and reprobation, and send the marketers scurrying to their lawyers? I guess we're just not the type for placing blame.

We may conclude that, though many machines are still used to good effect, proliferating technology threatens to vulgarize our society by disrupting our children's growth, alienating us from nature and denying us the opportunity to practice humanity. While many new machines are marketed as conveniences or pleasures, they function instead as controllers and blinders, keeping us from direct contact with society and nature, robbing us of essential life challenges and distracting us from consciousness of the world. In so doing they present the most profound of spiritual intrusions possible, the infiltration of market vectors into our core of being.

3. The Body Vulgar

It is familiar to hear vulgarity linked to the human body, as though enjoyment of the body were something low and vile. The opposite is more likely true. Vulgarity obviously touches on the body and its pleasures, but vulgarity in fact separates us from our bodies by turning them into commodities and products. Take the fitness machine industry whose two look-alike sound-alike leaders, Crossbow and Bowflex, run continuous ads on late-night TV. Crossbow presents its product exclusively in terms of the sexy appearance you will achieve after using it:

MEN

Strength training builds bigger, thicker muscles through low repetitions and high resistance. Plus, you'll achieve that lean, sculpted look you've always dreamed of thanks to the superior fat burning results attributed to a proper strength training workout.

WOMEN

Strength training with high repetitions and low resistance produces long, lean, beautiful muscles in women. You'll burn fat and uncover muscle tone without getting bulky.

A Bowflex endorsement is more specific:

Hi, I have been using the Bowflex for 6 months now I started at 130 pounds max and have worked up to 260 pounds max. It is unbelievable. I never ever thought that my strenght [sic] could double 2x in 6 months but with my Bowflex I look good now and I like it. Hehe I am proud to take off my shirt now at the beach and be checkin out some hotties hehe..

Let's ignore the question of whether you can look "thicker" and "lean" at the same time, or whether somebody who describes women as "hotties" should have beach privileges at all. We have more serious business here. Deciphering the target-language, we conclude that Crossbow and Bowflex are pitching to young-to-mid-aged consumers, whom they encourage to conceive of fitness as a ticket to eroticism. A no-no? Not at all. But just remember that in connecting these two ideas, and these two only, the advertisers are keeping mum about the many non-erotic benefits of fitness, as well as the many non-fitness-related aspects of eros. They are also touting the body as a commodity in the market of mutual consent.

This brings us right downtown, to that center of commercial activity, the corner of Sex and Market. Beneath the hubbub of booths and stalls, the array of pills, perfumes, instruments, lubricants, protectants, pharmaceuticals, soaps, shampoos, cosmetics, jewelry, body metal, self-help books, videos, CDs, DVDs, linen and mountains of clothing, run two subtexts. One is for women:

Erotic attractiveness is the be-all and end-all. Possessing it is the ticket to good times. Having it will bring you wonderful men. Even if having sex somehow fails to fulfill you, being attractive will keep your husband's attention. And even when you're not with your husband, being attractive will increase your self-esteem and bring you power in the world around you. But Mother Nature just can't do it all, gal. Men like all the bells and whistles.

The other is for men:

Having sex with an attractive woman is the be-all and end-all. The rest of life is mere fluff. But gals are sort of like cars, don't you think? Would you rather have a Plain Jane, or wouldn't you rather get one that's fully-loaded?

We need not be overly outraged by these messages, or even their business purport: "Buy, buy, you ninnies!" After all, isn't sex itself a kind of market, an evolutionary bazaar that finances the world with babies? The only problem is that the marketing of the body can backfire. If you ever tried kissing somebody and almost drowned in goo, you get the idea. Sex itself, with all its mysterious complexity and all its transfiguring simplicity, can get drowned in goo. Love can be marketed to death. This begins to happen when women and men present themselves not as individuals but as market artifacts, and when TV reality series like The Bachelor pig out on erotic voyeurism.

4. Vested Interests and Environmental Vulgarity

It happens now and then that institutions and industries, created to serve society, end up serving themselves. Christianity started with the dramatic ministry of a single individual, but by 1300 it was an international corporation, and the Pope was declaring political hegemony over all of Europe. Microsoft was born in a garage, but within a generation was richer than many whole nations and asserted imperial power in the marketplace. Phenomena of this sort are connected with growth. As institutions grow, they become wealthier and more powerful. As they swell in size, they develop internal authority structures to confer and apply their power. The individuals in these power structures form networks of vested interests, whose selfish goal is to retain, confirm and increase the power of the institution at large. The church or corporation no longer sees itself as a tributary to society. It has become an entity in itself and for itself.

This cycle is the preamble to corruption. Dominant corporations become money castles that must be defended by any means possible. The corporate entity is an end unto itself; the end justifies any means. Authorities are bribed. Rebels and interlopers are crushed. Plain facts give way to a medley of euphemisms, omissions and equivocations. Account books read like fairy tales.

Effects of this sort have characterized the activities of the American oil industry over the past few decades. Oilmen are no pikers; they think in trillions. If there has ever been anything like a mother church of the American economy, it is Big Oil. And Big Oil has behaved accordingly. Together with its galaxy of affiliates — car-makers, airlines, railroads, the military, energy companies and numerous subsidiaries — Big Oil has used its massive influence vigorously to resist the development of alternative energy sources, even when the fate of the nation lies in the balance. How does it publicly justify its hegemony? Its trump debating card, played with soporific regularity, is that "Gas is cheap." This morsel of apparent street wisdom has regularly interrupted debate and slowed research.

I say "apparent" because the statement is at best a half-truth. The gas station price of refined oil is nothing like its real cost to the consumer. In 1998, when the price of unleaded was about a dollar, a liberal watchdog group called The International Center for Technology Assessment issued a figure-loaded report entitled "The Real Price of Gas." The Center estimated that, factoring in "(1) Tax Subsidization of the Oil Industry; (2) Government Program Subsidies; (3) Protection Costs Involved in Oil Shipment and Motor Vehicle Services; (4) Environmental, Health, and Social Costs of Gasoline Usage; and (5) Other Important Externalities of Motor Vehicle Use" (many of which estimates varied broadly), the hidden cost to the consumer was $5.60 to $15.14 per gallon.

The CTA report, while insightful, fails to be fully convincing because it is guilty of some liberal rhapsodics. On top of the evidence of hidden expenses listed above, the report provides some much softer figures derived from such fossil-fuel consequences as air pollution, traffic jams, environmental degradation and urban sprawl. These ballpark figures are much less effective arguments than the tax breaks, subsidies and protection expenses that the CTA report so ably documents. The disparity between hard and soft figures makes the report look inconsistent and robs it of public-forum bite. (For the complete report, see Appendix).

The irony is that, even if the CTA had omitted its softer estimates, it would have come up with some shocking figures. Factoring in tax breaks, program subsidies and protection, by my estimate, would give us hidden costs of sixty cents to one dollar per gallon, a 60-100% tax kicker. If the CTA had announced that Americans were actually paying $1.60-$2.00, instead of a mere dollar, per gallon in 1998, and then discussed the other hidden costs without using dollar figures, it might have made waves and brought about some public action.

What has all this to do with vulgarity? The lie about the real price of gas was vulgar in two important ways: it vulgarized consumers by withholding critical knowledge, and it promoted environmental vulgarity by ensuring years of continued air pollution. The world of 2005 (in which, by the way, the 1998 price of unleaded has now tripled) owes its poor record in gas economy and environmental protection in part to the glib corporate fiction that "Gas is cheap."

5. Conclusion: The Balance of Nature

We began this chapter in a forest that symbolized the balance of nature, and we have since passed through four episodes of the subversion of balance by self-absorbed human markets. I have no doubt at all that these destabilizing influences will continue to work until their dangers are brought to national awareness and public sector attention. Walk in a virgin forest some day, and remember that the woods would not be there at all if conscientious people, provoked by love of the land, had not worked for years and taken considerable heat to preserve them. It is people like this, if anyone at all, who will reconcile us with nature and balance our society.