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The world is a civilised one, its inhabitant is not

May 4th, 2009

In researching ‘A Brief History of Nakedness’ I’ve become fascinated by the way so much of alternative culture’s roots can be traced back to the late 19th and early 20th century. In the course of this I’ve come across the work of splendidly named Alexis Madrigal (surely made up?) See his website: Inventing Green: The Lost History of American Clean Tech.

This is an excerpt from an older blog of his:

There seems to be something peculiar to American culture about the way that we live in cities. That is to say: we don’t know how.

I’ve thought about this for months, but as I was walking through the park, I happened to be reading The Machine in the Garden by Leo Marx, and I think he provides some clues to our strange behavior. He quotes José Ortega y Gasset from back in 1930, noting the rise of, “a new kind of man, ‘a Naturmensch rising up in the midst of a civilised world’:

The world is a civilised one, its inhabitant is not: he does not see the civilisation of the world around him, but he uses it as if it were a natural force. The new man wants his motor-car, and enjoys it, but he believes that it is the spontaneous fruit of an Edenic tree. In the depths of his soul he is unaware of the artificial, almost incredible, character of civilisation, and does not extend his enthusiasm for the instruments to the principles which make them possible.

Marx contines, “If his industrial Naturmensch bears a striking resumblance to many Americans we should not be entirely surprised. After all, what modern nation has had a history as encouraging to the illusion that its material well-being is, in Ortega’s phrase, “the spontaneous fruit of the Edenic tree.’”

In some ways, I think this is right on. Particularly about not seeing the civilization around us. We locate our infrastructure far from our people and forget about it.

But Ortega y Gasset misses a key poin about the Naturmensch: if she doesn’t understand the principles, the underlying structures of our civilization, she can’t make changes to them. She can use the products as naturally as fruit, but only in the way their makers intended. Without deeper knowledge about the technics of the world, she can only use its products, not make new products or change the ones that she receives.

That’s the challenge for Inventing Green — to be an instrument for seeing the energy-intensive civilization that surrounds us. When I say this, I don’t mean simply showing you a carbon footprint or something. I mean narrating how the automobile industry solidifed around the petroleum-fueled internal combustion engine. And how the high speeds it allowed changed the nature of The Road, allowing rural folks and city dwellers unprecedented long-distance mobility, but foreclosing other possibilties for using paved ground.

Because one day, having had The City built for them, the children wake up to find that they can’t live in it. They are unaware of how to inhabit it. Give the maladapted city-dweller a cement-paved park and he sees a road.

But they don’t know how to live anywhere else, either. The City is their home. So they go to the “natural” and private preserves purpose-designed and with instructions included. And that’s where they live, leaving the real city to the cars and the old Chinese people doing tai chi.

Read more here