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Culture Change e-Letter #21

The Machine 

by Jan Lundberg

Welcome to the machine: Everytown, USA.  When we walk down the streets of our cities, the right angles and blocks that we navigate are part of our mechanical domestication.  Control over each human and over nature is what dominant society intends every second, even over centuries. This is just as a machine is supposed to do: control a process as long as it can function.  Machine parts and products are preformulated objects of uniformity, and so are our towns—despite the unique restaurant or cute house. 

The surfaces of the towns and cities are of industrial material; even lawns are biological pavement soaked with Chevron "lawn care" designed to kill those pesky (but edible and beautiful) dandelions.  Most pavement and roofing material is asphalt from the dregs of oil refining—a machine product.  

The Earth, meanwhile, is something to be sucked dry, as the oil and water are exploited for profit and population growth.  The rain is not to be soaked into the soil, but run off elsewhere, washing "away" the poison dusts and fluids, rendering the nearest bodies of water unfit (aside from the sewage) for providing shellfish, for example, as sustenance. 

Alvin Toffler pointed out in The Third Wave that our clocks and watches that became universal in recent history were part of our mechanization. (Off went my watch from my wrist permanently.)  "Time Pollution" was an unusual article in the Auto-Free Times, several years ago, on the distortion of time-keeping that warps our social existence.

Human beings are not machines, but you wouldn't know it by the flow of commuters doing the same thing day in day out, year after year, as they stifle their spirits and bring on their early demise with cancer and heart disease. Instead of a tree or a rock to touch as we may make our way on a trail, we hold a steel rail that was manufactured by machines.  As the worker or shopper holds that rail, performing the duty of getting from point A to B, the hand and rail become united and integrated as parts of the city machine.

We don't have to live like this.  Some live pleasantly in opposition as they create an alternative, while others confront the system in various ways, usually in painful and perhaps vain fashion.  It is now our role in history to put history to bed.  History is the record of domination and manipulation, and the dominant civilization has been holding it up for almost 10,000 years as the culmination of the "top" life form's work—as if living were not sufficient, and becoming the scourge of the universe was the only worthwhile way of the culture.  Our generation seems fated to get humanity back on a path of truth and justice, as just another creature among countless others.  Humility can thus triumph over pride and power. 

Maybe we don't have to throw the baby out with the bathwater, by stopping writing and printing, but the question must always be: what is sustainable?  Do we have to assure the possibility of another Shakespeare-level writer for the masses, using technologies to disseminate "the finest" art and propaganda?  Or will we give it up for the way of the Iroquois Nation which eschewed technology and growth, for the sake of the welfare of always seven generations hence?

The purpose of the city machine, or any machine, is to do a great amount of work with exosomatic—usually fossil fuel—energy, using less human or animal energy. The purpose of the energy-application is to create surpluses. The surpluses have been throughout history for the purpose of expansion of the territory or empire, and for the expansion of the personal fortunes of society's dominators. 

A home environment, and more so the typical work environment, consists of artificial objects and surfaces that circulate microscopic molecules, unseen, that we breathe and swallow. Most of these are some petroleum compound, and you don't want to smell the factories making these things. What, am I against jobs? Today's cancer victims and their families would have to question the false security that the Pollution Economy, alias the Growth Economy, has wrought. Cancer and heart attacks used to be rare, before industrial, urban living became the norm.

We don't have to pick on the USA for a good glimpse of industrial living that has turned people into machines. The foremost progenitor of machinelike social institutions is Great Britain.  From the Enclosure at the end of the Middle Ages and past the Renaissance, to today's melting pot of "subjects" teeming in and around London, the United Kingdom is the original source and epitome of packaged living. Nature barely exists in healthy form, and there is no wilderness.

Wonderful people have emerged from the dreary, grey population of the UK, and they have turned a mirror on the population in a beautiful if melancholy way.  Listen to "Shangri-La" by The Kinks. I was in London and environs in February 2003, and could spot the inspiration for such a song from the pervasive grittiness and the sad conformity to consuming.  Worse was having to see monuments to ruthless, racist and brutal Civilization that passes for enlightenment and some kind of high point in history.  They did speak English so well!

Back in the USA: Food Not Lawns 
Food Not Lawns creates useful biodiverse environments, to grow food and native plants and trees instead of lawns. The network of people consists of those with gardening and farming experience and those with land. Beyond simply tearing up lawns to plant potatoes, for example, Food Not Lawns offers tool lending, seed sharing, compost, greenhouse building and educational information.  

Community Agriculture Network is the local group waving the banner of Food Not Lawns at our office, spreading awareness of petroleum-based food production and distribution.  This context for growing food within neighborhoods, with no gasoline- or diesel-delivery, provides relevance for today's historic crisis of energy.  

It was lawn conversions and depaving upon which the Victory Gardens of World War II were based.  Food, not lawns!  Can you dig it?  No need for motors!  Get your bike carts tuned!

The Machine exposed
"Welcome to the Machine" is a song by Pink Floyd recorded and released in 1975.  On the cover is an industrial man in a suit with his back in flames.  The music is machinelike, with sounds of industrial equipment churning out something ominous.  The lyrics talk about the inability of the individual's awareness and good deeds to overcome the control of society/The Machine:  "You know you're nobody's fool..." "That's alright, we know where you've been!"  

Amazingly, although the song was popular and is still broadcast today, people did not and do not heed the message or go further in their thinking so as to take any action is freeing themselves from The Machine.  Perhaps they can't see an alternative, and admittedly the Floyd were not so big on that.  Their next album, Animals, in 1977, divided people up into three songs: Pigs, Dogs, and Sheep.  Sandwiching those three works of sharp-edged, biting sociopolitical criticism were the intro/outro variations of the short song of love and solidarity, Pigs on the Wing.

In my first paragraph I spoke of society trying to control each and every human.  One could say the very rich are not subject to the control, and are the controllers.  But the reality is that they are under the illusion of controlling, and may get cancer as soon as the general population.  In Animals, the supreme controller is "Dragged down by the stone...Dying of cancer"

Animal Song, which I wrote after sleeping near a spot on Pedal Power Produce farm where bears and raccoons sneak in to take food, contains these verses:

You stalk through the night / to find a good meal
The tear on your coat from / barbed wire you feel
The chances are fewer / to live in the wild
We once were so happy / the trees almost smiled
The forests are shorter / and further between
'Cause this is the age of / the human machine!

Welcome to the Matrix
How far will the human machine go in its development?  The movie "Matrix" offers a look at the ultimate machine, whereby human inventions take on the purpose of self perpetuation and reproduction, so becoming out of control.  In the story, machines are at war with humans who have been driven underground.  Humans destroyed the sky so as to deprive the machines of solar energy.  But the machines instead began to farm humans to capture their energy.  As these slaves are bred for the system, people grow up in an illusion and think they are enjoying some autonomy in their workaday lives.  The world as a working environment is really an illusion from a computer/machine program called the Matrix.

The Matrix can be enjoyed for its well choreographed battles of good versus evil, and portrayals of human values of "love and decency" versus "control and efficiency."  But, of greater significance, "The Matrix" warns us that the world is not necessarily what we have been told it is, and our freedoms must be regained soon if we are to survive.  If we do not deal with the Matrix surrounding us, we face imminent and utter defeat by the machines (or, oppressive society) in a fast degrading world that less and less resembles nature as we knew it.


See the new website of  Food Not Lawns and Community Agriculture Network 

To learn about the imminent global peak in oil extraction, attend a gathering of experts at the meeting of The Association for the Study of Peak Oil meeting: "Second International Workshop on Oil Depletion" Paris, on 26th and 27th May 2003. See webpage

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Jan Lundberg's columns are protected by copyright; however, non-commercial use of the material is permitted as long as full attribution is given with a link to this website, and he is informed of the re-publishing:

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