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]

Anderson: [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.

Anderson: Right.

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.

Bowden: Yes.

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?

Bowden: No.

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—

Bowden: No.

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?

Bowden: Optimistic.

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.

Anderson: Exactly.

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.

Prendergast: Yeah…

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.

Prendergast: Right.

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.

Anderson: Yeah.

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 find​the​con​ver​sa​tion​.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.

Further Reference

This interview at the Conversation web site, with project notes, comments, and taxonomic organization specific to The Conversation.


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