Micah Saul: This project is built on a hypothesis. There are moments in history when the status quo fails. Political systems prove insufficient, religious ideas unsatisfactory, social structures intolerable. These are moments of crisis.
Aengus Anderson: During some of these moments, great minds have entered into conversation and torn apart inherited ideas, dethroning truths, combining old thoughts, and creating new ideas. They’ve shaped the norms of future generations.
Saul: Every era has its issues, but do ours warrant The Conversation? If they do, is it happening?
Anderson: We’ll be exploring these sorts of questions through conversations with a cross-section of American thinkers, people who are critiquing some aspect of normality and offering an alternative vision of the future. People who might be having The Conversation.
Saul: Like a real conversation, this project is going to be subjective. It will frequently change directions, connect unexpected ideas, and wander between the tangible and the abstract. It will leave us with far more questions than answers because after all, nobody has a monopoly on dreaming about the future.
Anderson: I’m Aengus Anderson.
Saul: And I’m Micah Saul. And you’re listening to The Conversation.
Aengus Anderson: Well, we’re back. This time we’ve scuttled Micah.
Neil Prendergast: Just you and me, Aengus, huh?
Anderson: Yup. I think he’s off somewhere…working or something like that.
Prendergast: What a frivolous pursuit.
Anderson: I know. Let’s not do any of that.
Prendergast: Instead, should we talk about this guy Charles Bowden?
Anderson: Yeah, let’s definitely talk about Charles Bowden. He’s an author. We’ve had a couple of authors. He’s more in the vein of journalism and nonfiction. He’s written a lot about Juárez, books including Murder City, Juárez, the Laboratory of our Future, and Some of the Dead are Still Breathing: Living in the Future.
All of those titles probably give you a sense that Charles Bowden thinks about the future. And we wanted to speak to him not because he has a specific idea or a grand theory. But what we really wanted to talk to him about was that he looks at the future from Ciudad Juárez, and it’s one of the most violent cities on Earth.
Prendergast: Yeah, and you know certainly we’ve spoken with a lot of people in The Conversation who develop their perspectives from places that are marginalized or places that are dangerous. But there’s something of course special about Juárez in terms of of danger and so we wanted to see what that would create in somebody who was really paying attention the Bowden does.
And we also of course do talk to a lot of people who are thinking about the future but who are perhaps pretty well-insulated in fact, whether socially or geographically, from violence. But we do think it’s essential to ask how the future looks from a more violent setting.
Anderson: Well, I don’t think we need anymore fanfare. Let’s go.
Charles Bowden: The biggest thing we’re confronting and is going to kill us all if we don’t do something about it is fear. Climate change…detail. This fuckin’ planet’s been through the ringer several times. Meteors hit it, volcanos, you know. No, you’re never going to interview a dinosaur. But it’s the fear that’s paralyzing.
I’ve watched fear grow in my lifetime. I was born in 1945. My childhood was damaged men who’d come back from a terrible war. I come from the class of people that were—they were not officers. And yet they were optimistic. They all believed in the future. Even though a lot of them still had the shakes from World War II.
And I’ve watch fear grow. When I went into the labor market…left college basically in the 60s, my biggest concern was I’d get a job and be trapped in a fuckin’ life instead of being free. Now I talk to people in their twenties and they want to know about their pension plan. And I think what in the hell’s happened to this country? To start with, who gives a damn? How much goddamn money do you need?
I read a memoir years ago, Wanderer by Sterling Hayden. He was an actor. But Hayden came from… And odd thing, he was actually a captain of commercial ships, coastal waters and that. But what he concluded was that all you really needed was six feet of ground to sleep on and a couple thousand calories a day and everything else was an extra, a bonus. And I thought you know, he’s right.
So I don’t understand the fear. And that’s the biggest threat. And the reason it’s a threat is it makes your judgment bad. You never make good decisions when you’re afraid. And it destroys your ability to clearly look at the facts and do something. You choke, in other words. Now we have a society that can’t deal with overpopulation—can’t even say the goddamn word. Can’t deal with climate change. Can’t deal with the fact that resources are limited. And can’t deal with race. And there’s never going to be any peace or decency on Earth if race is a criterion. And so unless we deal with fear, we’re nothing.
Aengus Anderson: I’ve talked about this sort of theme in terms of denial? Or maybe ignorance? Some people have talked about it in terms of…affluence has made it easy for us to not see a lot of things. Do you think it’s fear more than those other things?
Bowden: Yeah, I think… Look, if I had to pick one thing it’s fear. And I’ll tell you why. Because it destroys your ability to deal with the other things. These other things have always been there. The Earth has never been stable, as a planet. Our populations have never been stable. Ten thousand years ago, the planet was basically a ball of ice with a couple zones for Homo sapiens. Thirty thousand years ago there were 6,000 people, we think, living in France.
We are paralyzed because we think now is the way it’s always been and has to be. We take this boom since the Second World War as the standard. And that’s silly. It isn’t going to persist, nothing persists. But change isn’t the end of the world. Frankly, the collapse of industrial civilization isn’t the end of the world. If every factory in the country folded tomorrow, the moon would still look good on Saturday night. I mean this is just ridiculous. You don’t need a McMansion to be happy. Most people in our species never had their own room in the history of the world. And so yeah, fear.
Now, the other things people tick off, like I think climate change is real. I think it could kill several billion people. I think American agriculture and global agriculture’s a disaster, because it’s dependent on fossil fuels which are going. Because the green revolution, which Norman Borlaug got the Nobel Prize for, was to buy us time. Literally that’s what he said. That he could buy a couple decades to avoid famine, to give us time to restructure ourselves, essentially downsize the goddamn population.
Well, instead we didn’t do that, we expanded it. But he was not a fool, but he is the reason Paul Ehrlich’s population bombs didn’t ignite. Because he bought us time. What I don’t think is that’s the end of the world.
Anderson: But as far as our world goes…
Bowden: Well as far as our world, the clock’s ticking.
Anderson: Right. And we do [crosstalk] care about that.
Bowden: You can’t keep pouring these gases into the atmosphere where they’re creating an environment where a huge number of Homo sapiens are going to lose their lives because they’re going to lose the ability to eat because there won’t be food for them.
Anderson: So actually, that makes me think of—
Bowden: Right now I’ll give you an example. There’s seven billion people. But the solar system, meaning sun poured into tissue and etc., without fossil fuel subsidy, can feed four billion. So if you want to postpone this stuff, somebody has to go tell the other three billion they’re dead men and women.
Anderson: Right. Or you’ve gotta—
Bowden: Or I don’t think that’s the honorable way to behave. So you try and avoid this catastrophe.
Anderson: And population’s something that I’ve talked about a lot in this project, but it’s also something that a lot of people are really afraid to talk about.
Bowden: I live in a country where people…conservatives and liberals can come out in favor of gay marriage. But nobody will say the word “overpopulation.” Keep listening to National Public Radio till the end of time, and you’ll hear “fuck” more often than “overpopulation.” They just won’t say it.
Anderson: Are you familiar with ZPG, Zero Population Growth?
Bowden: Oh, yeah. Yeah.
Anderson: That organization still exists under a different name and I interviewed the president of it in DC. He really pushes education for younger kids about population issues. But also is a real advocate for sort of…just, birth control. And then the assumption that people will bring things back in line—
Bowden: Well also look—
Anderson: But that’s kind of been the only person—
Bowden: Well also look, I’m… I believe I’m building refuges now. Like I was a member of Earth First!, which is a radical group. I’m not an environmentalist when I’m crazed about other species. And I think they’re going through a Holocaust. And I have to create places to preserve them. I’ve been part of efforts that’ve probably saved half a million, a million acres. I feel like it’s Germany and I’m hiding Jews in the cellar till this insanity ends.
But the fact is, what I’m driving at, is I’ll give you an example. Mexico has 112 million people now. It will have at least 150 million. It’s population—as far as fertility for women, it’s almost a zero population. But there’s so many people at the age of fertility that it’s going to continue to grow. I mean, when I was rolling joints in the 60s, the average Mexican woman was bearing 6.8 children. Now it’s about 2.1 or 2, which is functionally just replacement because some of them get killed, you know.
But the planet is going to continue to grow even with zero population. China’s going through it. So what we have to do is facing this fact, limit population, realize it’s going to grow, and cut consumption. That anybody that wants a 3,000 square foot house, unless they’re a family of fifty gets shot. I mean…we can’t afford this.
Anderson: And yet we were talking earlier about—
Bowden: We have to go beyond “shower with a friend.”
Anderson: [laughs] But we were talking earlier about sort of your antiauthoritarian bent. How do you deal with a question like population or consumption without something like…authoritarian?
Bowden: Yeah. It’s partly tough love. I mean basically you give no subsidy to births. It’s that simple. You want to have fifteen kids, fine, we won’t help you. Because in fact, nobody’s ever been able to police fertility successfully, including China. So.
Probably because it’s too late. It’s too late to avoid real bloodshed. I remember working in a kind of think tank in the early mid-70s. And it was possible then to sit down, knowing both the demographic realities…and also the ecological ones, which were known then, and figure out a soft landing. But now there’s twice as many human beings. The landing isn’t going to be that soft.
I had an argument years ago— I remember drinking with Robert Kaplan on my patio, you know. And he thought that you know, basically our time, the 21st century would be cybernetic and well-policed. And I said it’s gonna be a catastrophe of nationalism and tribalism. Because the systems containing things are going to break down, and the match in the powder room was the collapse of Soviet Union. There’s nothing containing tribalism in a lot of the planet now, which we’re seeing. I said it’s going to be a bloody mess. I don’t want that, but I mean…
Anderson: Do you think that—
Bowden: But we haven’t addressed anything. The only thing that erases tribalism and that is prosperity.
Anderson: And that gets—
Bowden: We’ll solve this problem through three things. Genocide; World War II killed a lot of people. Two, World War II relocated populations afterwards, for ethnic homogeneity. And the third thing was money.
Anderson: And if money…
Bowden: You know, the prosperity of the European Union covered a lot of antagonism. It will take something catastrophic for the opportunity to do the structural changes essential. We have to build a community based on taking care of each other and enjoying life rather than acquisition. Because you can’t have acquisition in a zero-sum planet with too many people.
Anderson: So I was talking to a guy named Robert Zubrin. He’s the head of The Mars Society. Something Zubrin was saying which I wanted to throw at you, that we don’t face a material crisis because human creativity is infinite.
Bowden: Oh, yeah… They’re assholes.
Anderson: But there’s that—
Bowden: They have no comprehension of how national systems work. They have no comprehension of energy prices. They have no comprehension of Kelvin’s laws of thermodynamics. I’ve been listening—[crosstalk]
Anderson: Which you know, in that case we’re talking about like—
Bowden: —to that lying crap all my life. “There’s no problem with water, Chucky. The ocean’s full of it, we’ll just take the salt out.” Well Christ, I’m 67 years old and nobody can do it cheaply, then or now. This is the idiotic technocratic self.
There’s a guy who’s dead—I’m sorry you can’t interview him for this project—and it’s H.T. Odum—Howard T. Odum. He devoted his entire life to try and figure out a better future. He was down in Gainesville, Florida. And he figured out—you know, he would figure out how a town could use wetlands as their entire sewage system. That kind of stuff.
But he taught me a lot. He’s one of the people that changed my life. He had this radical view of ecology, which was not like the Sierra Club or something. He invented a field called energetics, where you could measure flows. So you could actually somehow see it as a system, measure it, monitor it.
Now, what he saw in the early 70s was that nuclear energy, all these things, were negative. Forget radiation kills you, it took more calories to build the goddamn plant than it produces. And he could calculate it and give you real numbers. And he became a pariah for that reason.
Look, Stewart Brand’s out there now, flacking for atomic energy. This is insane. It doesn’t pay off. That’s an act of faith. No human being, or culture, has ever existed that has ever managed a single ecosystem. That we are ignorant pigs. We don’t run the world, but we can lose the world. And our time is ending unless we change.
My concern is that I know there’s going to be a future, and how do we incorporate the gains from this war against nature, a war against the planet, war against most other Homo sapiens, into the future? I believe that things have really been achieved. I believe millions of people at a minimum were sacrificed to create what we call computers. We now have the capacity to store enormous amounts of knowledge. I believe God knows how many people in India and other places, for British imperialism died so someone’s fuckin’ bread could make a mistake and create penicillin. But we have antibiotics. I want to know how we preserve these gains.
We do not have to maintain the level of consumption and the population we have to preserve knowledge and information and insight. We do not have to create empires to create the great age of classical music. The issue is how willing are we to preserve our treasures? Right now we’re in a time when many people in the world want to burn the libraries. This anti-science attitude, which is one way of knowing, is ludicrous to me. I mean, I’m a guy who believes in things that science doesn’t believe in. But I also believe in science.
The debate should be what helps make the world a better place for every living thing? What makes people better in the way they treat other people? What makes people happy? And if you think what makes people happy is Walmart, or Fifth Avenue, New York, you’re fuckin’ sick.
Anderson: So as we’re talking about that I’m wondering like, the origin of the fear. Why is the fear an increasing thing? And I wonder—
Bowden: I think it’s materialism.
Anderson: That’s what I was going to ask.
Bowden: I think the fear comes from thinking objects tell you who you are. Edward Abbey was a friend of mine—he’s dead now. But he wrote a line I really like, which I’ll probably misquote but what the hell I don’t have to be perfect. Said, “I’ve never heard a mountain lion bawling about his fate.” [laughs]
Bowden: Well, it’s true. I mean… And I, unlike most people, I don’t believe in a hierarchy of species. I don’t think we’re evolving into something magnificent. I don’t think I’m any better than those dogs outside, and I don’t think they’re any better than the goddamn worms in the ground. They’re sustaining the peas and beans in the garden. I think there is complexity in nature that increases, etc. But not merit. And so you know, to go back to the mishmash of the elements of the Earth isn’t a terrible thing to me.
I don’t think the world ends if my country collapses, and I certainly don’t think the world ends if I die. I mean, most of everything that matters to me was created by people we don’t know the names of. It’s this anonymous thread going back thousands and tens of thousands of years. So how can we think that the obliteration of our own ego matters?
It is impossible to think there’ll be a world 5,000 years from now where they remember who Beethoven was. But it’s impossible to think in that world there won’t be echoes of his music. So what are people afraid of?
And what fear does is deny your ability to live in the present. It denies your ability to enjoy the sun out today. And it denies your ability to feel love and give love. You spend all your time paralyzed and full of anxiety.
Anderson: Because you’re looking forward and you’re [crosstalk] seeing something out of control?
Bowden: Well you’re looking forward but what you’re really doing is being terrified of losing your present. Of not having something. Lookit, people with nothing all look forward—they want to get somewhere. But that’s not the same as fear.
Anderson: That makes me think of something I wanted to ask, the genesis of fear. Where is that coming from? You know, we talked a little bit about materialism, but I was thinking about increasing…secularism, in a way. You know, we were just talking about experien—and I’m not talking about like, [crosstalk] secularism versus—
Bowden: What do you mean, God is dead?
Anderson: It’s…sort of, but… This is one of these challenges with wording that I run into a lot. But um…secular versus a faith that there’s something more. You know, when you mentioned materialism I was thinking, is that part of this ensemble of just thinking of the world as a bunch of stuff? And when you just think of the world as a bunch of stuff, then your experience in it is the only thing that matters. And does that then leave you like, without any sort of faith that there’s a bigger purpose or something like that? Then do you get more fear?
Bowden: That has merit. I’ve never felt that way. As I said, you could characterize me as an anarchist. But I’ve never believed in individualism. I agree with John Donne that no man is an island. I’ve always felt I belonged to a web of life. And that I always will. I’ve never cared if I died. I don’t give a damn about Heaven if my dog can’t go there. And so that kind of attribute of what, materialism, secularism, you know, that it’s just about one ego, is inconceivable to me. On the other hand I’m not religious, to the despair of some of my friends.
Anderson: Though is the web of life a type of if not religion…is there a sense that there is meaning in the web?
Bowden: I believe there’s meaning in life, but you give it to life. There was a survivor of the death camps of World War II, Viktor Frankl. And he said look, life doesn’t give you meaning, you give life meaning. It’s just like this empty bottle you fill. And I think if you live that way, you won’t care if you die, and you’ll be happy.
I know two people who live in one of the worst, most murderous barrios in Cuidad Juárez, and Juárez is one of the more violent places on the surface of the Earth. And Peter’s ninety, and Betty’s about eighty. Peter’s a priest, and Betty’s a nun. And all they do and all they’ve done every day for decades is live among the poor in Latin America and try to physically just help them. And I don’t think I’ve ever known happier people.
People like that, that give to life, get a life. And you know, their life has not been Cadillacs or the big parish house or any of that. They live not only among the poor but like the poor. And they’re both happy people. They’re kind of a joy in my life, just knowing them.
Now like, I’m not a religious person, at all. I’m a guy who decided you know, God didn’t exist when he was about eight or something, one of these damn things, read a pamphlet. But I’m now living on the border—I’ve spent most of my life on the border. The border is full of a lot of hardship, enormous poverty, violence. And I actually don’t know of anyone doing significant work on the border that isn’t religious. And it’s because I think it gives them the ability to keep going under these terrible conditions. And in a real sense I’m not sure how much they really believe except they believe you should try and help people. And believing in God helps them keep going.
If you want to say secularism limits some human beings’ ability to be compassionate, I think that’s true. I don’t go along with the argument— I have friends that’re religious who think that atheists can’t be moral. That’s preposterous. People are moral for other reasons than God’s going to punish them.
Anderson: Yeah, and you know in this project, generally the direction I try to take every conversation ultimately is to talk about your arational assumptions of what’s good, right. And that’s a morality that you can have if you’re an atheist or if you’re religious—
Bowden: Morality isn’t rational.
Bowden: That’s part of the bullshit of anthropology, Marvin Harris’ utilitarians—it’s just nonsense.
One of the most severe chastisements I ever got from my father… I’d parroted to him that honesty was the best policy. And he said, “Don’t you ever say that again. You’re not honest because it’s going to benefit you. You’re either honest or you’re a goddamn liar.”
And he was right. It took me years to understand it.
Anderson: [crosstalk] The moral versus the utilitarian.
Bowden: Because the police might arrest you. You’re not moral because you’ll earn more money. Your moral because it’s the right way to live, period. Or you’re not moral.
And so I don’t have much truck for these complicated conversations. And the fact is almost any human being’s going to feel better if they help other human beings. Almost any human being’s going to feel better if they feed a bird rather than shoot one. You know, that’s just…the way we are.
Anderson: I mean, this all sounds like stuff that infuses life with enough meaning that the present is good enough that you wouldn’t fear for the future? I’m just thinking of in your case, because I want to back up eventually to the [bigger?] fear.
Bowden: I don’t fear the future, and I don’t fear for the future. But the real question that most people evade is evil. And the way they evade it is by saying things are evil, saying people are evil. And the hardest lesson in life is to find out there are things that are evil, but people usually aren’t. That all the things that are terrible, that every Jew that was slaughtered by the Nazis was slaughtered by people that were basically decent.
And that that’s what we have to deal with. What we have to deal with is this is inside all of us. That these monstrous things are latent in us. That there’s over 100,000 Mexicans that’ve been slaughtered in Mexico in the last six years, and they’re dead at the hands of basically decent people. That I was part of a project where we interviewed at length and we made a documentary film, The Sicario, which was a professional killer in Latin America. And this man had killed hundreds of people. I’ll never know how many. I know he can take me to 250 different graves in the city of Juárez alone. And the only way you’d know where grave is is you put somebody in it.
But here’s the point. I knew this guy for a couple of years, before he disappeared. I honestly don’t think he was evil. I honestly don’t think he was a psychopath. I honestly don’t think there’s any difference between him and me except he’s a devout Christian now and I’m not. That I think what I learned was the ability to torture people—and he used to cook them alive…among other things—is in us.
Anderson: How do you see that all of these people doing these atrocious things are often normal people, and then go forward without the fear?
Bowden: It’s not easy. If you have some of the experiences I have, you’re stripped of one of the defenses other people have, that you know you’re not better than these people that’ve done monstrous things. If I wanted to explain to myself how these things happen, I couldn’t just call them evil. I had to understand why human beings do evil things.
Which is why I wrote a magazine story about the sicario and why the film and the book eventually happened. It was not a desire to learn about morbid things. And so what you have to do is one, have an interest outside of it. I got into birdwatching because I discovered I could be on a murder scene and there’d be birds. So I got these little binoculars I’d carry in my pocket. Because I had to have some connection to the natural world or the sane world if I was going to do this.
The other thing you learn is you have to take time out. When I was doing—covering sex crimes and homicides for a daily newspaper for three years, every couple months I’d crack, just crack up. And I’d just disappear with a backpack and walk a couple hundred miles. But I never said anything. And then I’d come back and go back at it.
We have to do that. You have to take care of yourself. Because if you really break , you’re no good to anyone.
Anderson: Where do you think we go if say we sort of follow the trajectory we’re on right now, as a world?
Bowden: Well lookit, we’re not going to follow the trajectory we’re on, because the trajectory we’re on goes out off an actual cliff not a fiscal cliff. This has to change. And not for moral reasons, not because I believe in change. It will end. The only thing we get to decide is how abrupt it will end and how hard the landing is.
In order of magnitude, that’s not great. What is on an order of magnitude great is how do we maintain civilized values with mass death? Four percent of the global economy is Africa. Africa is not developing. It’s never going to develop. The rest of the world decided to let it sink beneath the oceans. Except China, who’s busy looting it of their natural resources. You are going to see massive death in Africa. Everybody knows it. And I don’t know how to maintain moral values and deal with that. But I know if you just say, “Well, we’ll pretend it’s not happening,” it is a form of self-mutilation. That you cannot do that. You cannot shut the door and pretend you don’t hear them screaming.
Anderson: We were talking earlier about the sicario who you you were saying, the ability to do awful things is within all of us. It’s within decent people.
Anderson: So, if you believe that the ability to sort of do awful things is within decent people doesn’t it stand to reason that we could just say, “Well, there goes Africa,” and still be decent people?
Anderson: Ah. So what’s wrong with that?
Bowden: Well what’s wrong with that is you can’t stay decent and do that. We can do something. And we don’t have to do it on the basis of liberalism or conservatism or anything else. We have to do it on the basis of do you want centuries of darkness or do you want light? Do you want the culture you believe in to thrive, or do you want it to die? Do you want to be the people of yes, or the people of no? Do you want to love, or do you want to go to your grave with your goddamn legs crossed? Now, I think that’s an easy choice. But I realize other people don’t.
Anderson: So, when we’re talking about stuff like this and I’m thinking about you know, we’ve had this…the arc of our conversation sort of goes from fear of confronting things, to a crisis of a whole variety of shapes and sizes involving environment and economics and race… And then the question of like, do we say yes or do we say no—how do we deal with it assuming that it’s inevitable, right? It seems like that’s—
Bowden: Yes is always better than no.
Anderson: Do you think we’re equipped to say yes? I mean—
Anderson: —culturally equipped to say yes. Are we gonna do it?
Bowden: The world I was born in was equipped to say yes. The world I’m living in is afraid to say yes.
Anderson: What’s changed?
Bowden: I was born in a world where people fucked, and now they talk about safe sex. And no one who’s ever had sex thinks it’s safe. Since the beginning of time. [laughs] ‘Cause you gotta take a risk.
I live in a world where people in American cities walk around with little bottles of water. Like the tap water may kill them. Do they want to live forever? I mean what is this about?
Anderson: So what do you think’s changed? Or why has it changed?
Bowden: You know, I’ve been puzzled by that, because of my peculiar background. And I don’t have a pat answer. But I think it’s the Cold War. Which was a massive teaching about fear. See, I remember when people were building bomb shelters in the early 60s. I’m also old enough that I was taught in school to get below the desk and tuck my head and all. But I didn’t know people would believe it.
Anderson: So you think the fear of that era was internalized? And even after the Soviet Union that’s sort of the fear we’re dealing with now?
Bowden: Actually I used to think Ralph Nader caused it all. That this whole seatbelt culture took over. That everything was dangerous. Which it is. Everything is dangerous.
I mean, there’s two ways to look at life. One is how do I get to do it, and the other is what’ll happen if I do it? I don’t think anyone should date who wonders what’ll happen if I do it.
So I come from a different culture. My idea was like when I was a kid I’d fantasize about hunting deer. And it’s how do you get the dear? Not what might happen if I go get the deer?
I like people with appetite. I want people that want things. I want people to believe in the future. I don’t understand people that give up the belief. I understand the people that learn from experience. But not give up the belief. Who the hell wants to get out of bed to say things are hopeless? Who wants to get out of bed to say you can’t make things better? Who wants to get out of bed to say, “I don’t believe in love?” Fuck that. I want to get out of bed and think, “You look nice.” [Anderson laughs]
I mean this is just nonsense. It’s not the way to live and this is not being Pollyanna. This is not the way you create a new world. There isn’t a goddamn bird on Earth next spring that isn’t going to mate and build a nest. But you think you know more than they do? Well they’ve got a longer track record than anybody I’ve ever met. They’ve been through living hell, a lot of these species. And they all say yes.
Anderson: Do you think—
Bowden: Next question.
Anderson: [laughs] You said you don’t have the gift of prophecy, but what would a better future look like? We’ve pretty well chewed over the present.
Bowden: Well I know what the future’s going to look like. Either life ends; we create something on this planet that reverses an anomaly that in this entire solar system this is the only place we find proteins, amino acids, etc. actually existing. Or we reverse the tendency and preserve life here. I’m not concerned if my species is preserved. I would just as soon it’s preserved because I like girls. But I’m willing to you know, take the blow for the team.
But, we’ve looked out in space for a long time. We’ve sent these radio messages. Nobody’s responded. That doesn’t mean there’s nothing out there, but what is happening here is unique. As unique as what happened in classical Greece. As unique as what happened in Abraham Lincoln’s mind. That doesn’t happen often. And we should try and treasure it. We should try and treasure this biosphere.
I mean I was just out in the Western deserts. Arizona, organ pipe, saguaro… These are unique entities that can survive in these fierce environments, and they’re worth preserving. The same way the Bible’s worth preserving. The same way Beethoven’s worth preserving. And we’re goddamn fools to throw it away. And we, unfortunately, are the only human generation that’s ever faced this decision.
Anderson: So this is…[crosstalk] unprecedented.
Bowden: Homo sapiens until recently never had enough power to fuck it all up. They could just fuck up patches. We can queer the whole deal. And we should answer to that and face up to it. We should be better than the way we’re going.
In the end, it isn’t about left or right, or short or tall. It’s about yes or no. Whether this experiment on the surface of this planet is going to end or continue. I think it should continue, and I think we can make it continue. And I think if human beings are around for it, doesn’t matter. You know, I like to look at birds. And sandhill crane fossils on the Platte River are ten million years old and they look exactly like now. And sandhill cranes live decades, have a monogamous culture, dance and celebrate. And so if we’re not around the hell with us. I can’t dance anyway, they’re probably better than I am.
Anderson: Are you optimistic or are you pessimistic [crosstalk] that we’ll say yes?
As a kid I used to play pick-up games of baseball every day after school in Chicago. And you can’t step up to the plate without thinking you’re going to get a hit. Otherwise why the hell would you pick up the goddamn bat? Yeah, of course I’m an optimist. We can do this. But we can fuck it up.
But what I don’t believe is if we fuck it up we can destroy all life. I think that’s possible, but not likely. I want to preserve the good parts of what I’ve seen. I want to preserve human joy. I’m not a pessimist. I’m critical. But I’m critical because I’m in a ship that’s springing leaks and nobody wants to admit it. I want to fix the boat before we sink.
But if we do sink—people—all the other things I love won’t give a damn, they’ll be better off. If all the people died the grizzly bear’ll be happier. The birds in the sky’ll be happier. The fish in the sea’ll be happier. All the trees and flowers’ll be happier. It’s about time we did a little payback and earned our keep.
Anderson: So we need to pay back all these critters, huh, for the amount of damage we’ve been inflicting upon them for all of this time.
Prendergast: Yeah. This coming from a guy who says he’s not an environmentalist. Clearly he’s a person who’s difficult to pin down in terms of a unified position, or someone who’s developed a seemingly unified theory about the way the world works.
Anderson: Which is kind of nice in a way. We’re not really worried about finding some thread of consistency or a network of perfectly supporting arguments here.
Prendergast: There’s a certain humility in sort of thinking yourself as somebody who’s not supposed to try to figure that out.
Anderson: You know, maybe this is one of the things where Charles brings such an amazing literary sensibility to this. I mean, you just hear it in the way that he talks and all of the turns of phrase that he uses. He’s got this deep experiential quality about the way that he moves to the world and then he relays his sensations back to you. It’s very different than someone who is maybe in a university and is working on constructing an A, B, C sort of rational argument.
Prendergast: Right, right. But you know even then, without a sort of unified, rational argument about the way the world works, I think it is easy to see that there are some major threads that he brings together. Some threads that we’ve seen in other conversations before. I’m kind of most obviously thinking about Reverend Fife, in large part because of their location, both near the US/Mexico border. But also you know, that brings that concern for immigration that binds them together. But I’m also thinking of ideas about happiness. Not getting too into the idea of material acquisition that we’ve seen in another conversations like with Musikanski, for example.
Anderson: Mm hm. He really critiques a lot of the material forms of happiness we have. And yet, he’s not an anti-technologist at all. He doesn’t have any of the Zerzan in him, even though he self-describes as an anarchist at different points, at least in his sympathies if not pragmatically. I like that he mentions that we have all of these fruits of science and culture and a lot of them have come at an enormous expense. And that while he feels that we shouldn’t continue on the path of basically juicing the real world for our material gizmos, we should keep the progress we’ve had, or try to keep as much of it as we can. And that we should celebrate those things that’ve been yielded by industrialization.
Prendergast: Right, we’re not going to throw away penicillin, for example.
Prendergast: I’d like to tackle what I think is his big contribution to the conversation, which is his discussion of fear. When you asked him what the crisis is you know, he said, “We have a crisis right now because people are living their lives afraid.” And so I want to jump right into that.
Anderson: That sounds like a good plan. When we talk about fear, something that I really worked on in this conversation was kind of trying to get him to parse it out. Trying to define what it is, how it works. And I feel like we got some of that, but I feel like there’s more that we’re just going to have to interpolate.
Prendergast: Right, yeah. And I mean I guess as far as interpolation goes, I was kind of reading in between the lines a little bit. And it sort of seemed to me like he might have been gesturing towards a generational argument about fear. That maybe fear is around a little bit more today in a way that it wasn’t when he was growing up. And I don’t know if that’s really change over time he’s describing, or if it’s like a change between generations which are kind of slightly different.
I like the idea that it’d be great if we had a world without fear. But I kind of wonder if he might be suggesting that we have fear because we’re just kind of…well, maybe we’re wussies.
Anderson: That came across, too. And of course, we’re both members of his fearful generation, and so I think we can take issue with this. Because I’m not sure that I buy the fear thing. I mean, if you talk about any generation, you’ve had people who’ve felt fear or uncertainty about the future. I think it’s always been there in different forms.
I feel like what he’s not acknowledging here is maybe a change in…optimism and pessimism. That maybe the fear kind of comes and goes with different generations, but what we’re seeing between his fearful Cold War generation and our fearful whatever the hell you want to call our generation, is not an increase or decrease in fear but it’s a change from optimism about the future to pessimism about the future. But I think that’s really different than fear.
I don’t think it’s that we have a generation of people who are afraid of the future as future. I don’t think they’re afraid of change for change’s sake. But I think they live with really rapid change. Like, there are all of these systemic forces that have momentum that also feels uncontrollable and like it has a life of its own, where you don’t feel as directly empowered. I don’t know. Do you think I’m pulling to much from that? Because I really—I don’t buy his fear thing.
Prendergast: Yeah, there’s something I’m kind of uneasy with about his fear thing, too. I kind of wonder if it might be interesting to put his discussion of fear in conversation with Douglas Rushkoff’s idea about present shock?
Anderson: Ah, there you go.
Prendergast: Because you know, in the idea of present shock that Rushkoff elaborates, there is this sort of feeling that look, the world is just constantly changing around you all the time and you know, you have to pay attention to all these little changes. And that creates like a nervousness and I think perhaps a fear in people you know, that they’re not keeping up with the present.
And it’s really interesting to me, therefore, that Bowden makes the argument that we shouldn’t be afraid by giving us a really long historical time span to place us in. In other words saying look, don’t be so concerned just about all these present things that seem so goddamn important.
Anderson: Right. Which is a really…odd antidote to fear, [crosstalk] right.
Anderson: I mean, to replace the fear it’s saying, “Look, everything has lived and died. You’re going to do this, too. That part is inevitable. Stop freaking out and start living in the moment and enjoying the moment and like, really trying to grab on to the future and make it better.”
Prendergast: I think those things kinda work together, actually. I kind of expect Bowden and Rushkoff to sort of nod and agree with each other a little bit.
Anderson: Yeah, they might. And you know, it’s interesting because I think they also both acknowledge the role of community.
Anderson: When Rushkoff left us with this note of really the best thing you can do is just start making acquaintances. Meet your neighbors. Form the low-level networks. And I think that’s something Bowden would be right on the same page with. That’s essential. That’s part of the gusto for life as well. It’s these human connections, it’s community, it’s that you can’t escape that, and to deny that, there’s a sickness to it.
Prendergast: Yeah. And just to kind of add a little bit more that, that’s what Musikanski says about happiness, too.
Anderson: Exactly. And you know, we’ve been talking about Fife in this conversation as well, and I think his obliteration of the nation-state is getting to the same thing. It’s thinking about that community, scaled all the way up.
Prendergast: Oh yeah, that’s right. I thought about that, actually.
Bringing up Fife is another way to delve a little bit deeper into what Bowden was saying. Bowden talks about religion quite a bit.
Anderson: Yeah, and he talks about it in some really interesting ways. I mean, I don’t know what jumped out at you—the thing that stuck with me was the example of his friends in Juárez, the 90 year-old priest and the 80 year-old nun and his sense that you kind of have to have religion to do that sort of work. But he doesn’t know if they believe it.
Prendergast: Yeah, that’s true. He says that he doesn’t know if they believe it, but he’s also obviously in admiration of those people. And I think that has a lot to do with the way that probably what that faith brings to them, that anti-materialism, that motivation for community, etc… You know, those are the things he already believes in. So I think he sees this religious thought as…I don’t know, somehow like a sibling kind of to him but not quite the same as him.
Anderson: There are such commonalities, though. He describes himself as—I don’t know if he uses the word “atheist” per se, but he’s not a theist in any way. But he does have the sense of being embedded in this vast natural system, and I think in a way… You know, we were talking earlier about he gives us this long historical time frame. I feel like that kind of acts as a surrogate for religion for him. You know, kind of like the giant mechanical turning wheels of the universe. They do give him something outside of himself, and the inevitability of their working, there’s kind of a solace in that.
Prendergast: Right, yeah. If we want to say that religion at least has one of its major qualities as being “hey look, this is sort of the most abstract realm of belief you have or the largest scale of thinking that you have,” then certainly the largest scale of thinking that Bowden has is about time.
Anderson: You know, there’s something that grows out of this conversation, which I think is the difference between morality as it sort of viscerally is, and morality as it’s socially constructed. We had that conversation where he talks about that interaction he has with his dad, and I really like the story when he was a little kid and he’s like, “Honesty is the best policy!” And his dad’s like, “Never say that. It’s not a policy issue,” you know, “it’s a right or wrong thing.” And for Bowden that’s kind of like, the moral conversation stops there. Morality is visceral, it’s felt, it’s not something that you can parse. And as a result of that, more systematically organized religions lose something. They have less of a grasp on morality.
Prendergast: So if he has this visceral sense of morality, what does that say about the way he thinks of human nature?
Anderson: Oh man, I was afraid you were going to ask that. [both laugh] That’s a hard question. I really like the part where he talks about we have this sort of evil in us. That really felt like the conversation of a guy who’s spent a lot of time in Juárez. But something I had a difficult time reconciling was he says that on one hand like, everyone has this evil in them, we need to look at why people do evil not just write them off as “some people are evil.”
At the same time, right, we have this conversation about the international, economic, and ecological setting. And he says essentially that the rest of the world is going to hang Africa out to dry. And I ask him, “Well, if evil is just in us, kinda do you expect this? Is it okay if we just hang Africa out to dry?” I mean, not okay, but is it like kind of an inevitable part of human nature? He goes, “No.” And I wonder where does that no come from?
You know, so much of his other conversation draws upon this sprawling picture of history. And you get the sense of like, things don’t really change that much. There are moments of up and down, but basically we’re the same animal. And if that’s the case, I kind of end up asking is morality just this kind of dignity that we give ourselves to pretend that we can do better but we’re always at some point or another going to hang someone out to dry, because that’s just the kind of animal we are?
And I know that he doesn’t feel that, right. He repeatedly talks about optimism and trying to do better. But it feels like his sense of history doesn’t get me there. It gets me to the point of like now, we’re basically just always doing awful things. And a lot of times we do good things and it’s nice to try for that. But to some extent, it doesn’t matter.
Prendergast: I feel like you’ve just described someone who lives in Juárez. Right? We’re interested in Bowden because he lives on the border, in a place that is openly violent. And we were curious about what sort of worldview that creates, right? Or maybe what sort of person is drawn to to living in that sort of place, when they have a choice not to. And I think you’ve kind of just described it, right. This sense that yeah, there’s some things you can do but man, there’s a lot of awful stuff that’s just going to happen.
Prendergast: And that’s a lot different than other people we’ve spoken with.
Anderson: And you know, I think that’s why he brings us again and again back to this point of we’re all going to die, don’t sweat it. You’re just a speck in time. It really doesn’t matter so you might as well try to make things a little better because that’s viscerally the morally good thing to do. I mean, it doesn’t feel like there’s some sophisticated moral system here. It feels like for him it’s so self-evident and it’s just like good God, stop getting tangled up in your own mind. Do some good and enjoy yourself.
That was Charles Bowden recorded December 12th, 2012 in Las Cruces, New Mexico.
Micah Saul: And you are of course listening to The Conversation. Find us on the web at findtheconversation.com.
Prendergast: You can follow us on Twitter at @aengusanderson.
Saul: I’m Micah Saul.
Prendergast: I’m Neil Prendergast.
Anderson: And I’m Aengus Anderson. Thanks for listening.
This interview at the Conversation web site, with project notes, comments, and taxonomic organization specific to The Conversation.