It is a powerful and intoxicating machine; this experiment set in motion thousands of years ago. Or was it millions of years ago? I don’t know enough about it to determine when or how it started. I only know I am living my life deep within the laboratory designed by our collective actions. Actions directed and designed to maximize the sustenance, comfort and convenience of the lucky ones who rise to the top in response to the experimental treatments applied to all of us.
I didn’t design this laboratory. I didn’t design the parameters of the experiment. I only know I was born into this machine and I will die a part of it. And I know that, somehow, even though I am not personally at fault, I am a necessary and vital part of what is happening. I am one of billions of lab animals and at the same time I am also one of billions of experimenters. I push the levers and turn the switches; yet I am also responsible for the continued functioning of those levers and switches.
I have tried; indeed, I have made it one of my life’s goals, to come to some understanding of how this experiment came about. There are numerous, enormous, overwhelming fields of active research working on this problem. The more I read the more I come to feel, as Jacques Ellul eloquently put it, I am "caught in a web of facts I have been given … the mechanisms of modern information induce a sort of hypnosis…”
I am able to grasp that this experiment has something to do with big brains, opposable thumbs, agriculture and technology and it seems to have taken place over a vast sweep of historical time. And it seems to have been an inevitable process. I also know that, thanks to the accident of my birth in a privileged corner of the laboratory, I am well cared for. I am not “food insecure.” In fact, in my corner of the laboratory 96 billion pounds of food are thrown away every year. Half of the food produced here is never eaten and becomes garbage. And in the other far corner of the laboratory millions of children starve to death from lack of food.
But that’s all part of the experiment. An experiment I struggle to understand and come to terms with. It is as if a great weight of inertia smothers me under a blanket of attractive, soothing, manipulative images and I continue to pull the levers and flick the switches. I am well taken care of. I am enticed away from my uneasiness and anxiety, my grief and despair. Mmmmm… chocolate truffles, from Switzerland.
Max Weber said “the basis of every system of authority, and correspondingly of every kind of willingness to obey, is a belief…” What is it that so commands my obedience to this experimental regime? I know this experiment is devouring everything I hold dear, yet I continue to obey.
I know that this typing I'm doing right now is my declaration of obedience to a system that values electrical power over the survival of salmon that can no longer navigate the rivers because of the dams that send me this power. Yet I love wild rivers and am deeply saddened by the plight of diminishing wild salmon. The car I drive is my declaration of obedience to a system of manufacturing, road-building and urban design which values conveniently running errands over the very fabric of the web of life which is being destroyed by CO2 and other polluting externalities. The fabric of the web of life is far, far more important to me than any automobile. Yet, I still turn the key and pull the gear shift lever; my obedience continues in spite of my noble feelings and intentions.
I mouth words about my concerns. I denounce the sociopathic behavior of corporate malefactors. I urge shoppers to pound their shopping carts into plowshares and turn highways into gardens. I am a good person. I grow some of my own food. I raise chickens. I have a small ecological footprint. I buy local. I write letters to politicians. I vote.
Nevertheless, my obedience continues. For I believe, if I did not obey, I would be exiled from the laboratory. And I am not a wild animal. I am a lab animal. I would die in the wilderness.