“World-as-Resource” wins while we lose

Cop 26 was a failure, and the reporting on it was shocking. Only “Democracy Now!” focused on the 100,000 youth and others protesting in the street. If we want to know why COP 26 was a failure, we don’t have to go any further than Amitav Ghosh’s newest book, The Nutmeg Curse. It starkly lays bare the ideology of “world-as-resource.”

Ghosh traces the centuries long devastation of the planet for commerce. He starts with the nutmeg and the Dutch so called Venerable East India Company (VOC). VOC arrived on a remote Indonesian island, the only place where nutmeg grew in the early 17th century, to force the inhabitants to give them a monopoly, a product that the residents had been trading with other islands for centuries. When they refused to do that, they were all killed. When the price of the spice fell in the 19th century because it was suddenly considered “harmful to the moral fiber of the body,” VOC decided to keep the price up by eradicating nutmeg trees to create scarcity.

The VOC was the embodiment of early capitalism, it was run by stolid burghers who prided themselves on their rationality, moderation and common sense. Yet they pursued a policy that perfectly illustrates the unrestrainable excess that lies hidden at the heart of the vision of the world-as-resource–an excess that leads ultimately not just to genocide, but an ever greater violence, an impulse that can only be called “omnicide, the desire to destroy everything.

We can draw a straight line from the VOC to the British control of India, to the conquest of the Americas for profit that “justified” the genocide of Native Americans, the slave trade, and today, the extracting of coal and oil, all examples of domination in the pursuit of “world-as-resource.”

He goes on to discuss the “role of fossil fuels in war-making” and military power. And now we come to why there can be no climate agreement: “The Pentagon is the single largest consumer of energy in the United States. . . but the job of the world dominant military establishment is precisely to defend the most important drivers of climate change, the carbon economy, the systems of extraction, production and consumption that it supports.” In other words, it isn’t just about the military as a profligate consumer of fossil fuels and generator of eco destruction, but its purpose is to be the protector of global energy flows, so we can maintain global hegemony.

Ghosh states “To be ‘civilized’ was to accept the Earth as inert and machine-like, and that no aspect of it can elude human knowledge. A defining characteristic of ‘savagery’ … was ‘the belief in the vitality of natural and celestial objects.’ … Vitalism, savagery, and extinction were a series in which each term implied the next.” Subduing “savages” seeks to destroy their belief in the sacredness of nature. Fortunately Indigenous peoples are still with us and perhaps our only hope of survival.

So now I turn to two art exhibitions, briefly, that connect to these themes. “Frisson” at the Seattle Art Museum is a recent donation of 21 Abstract Expressionist works from the estate of Richard E. Lang and Jane Lang Davis. These are benchmark artists from the post World War II era, when America dominated the “free” world. Jackson Pollock, Willem De Kooning, Clyfford Still, Franz Kline, and others, were championed by critics as giving us “universal truth” and circulated by the government as propaganda for “freedom.” The only human figures appear in the distortions of Francis Bacon, and one work by Philip Guston, a biting satirist who accepted abstraction only briefly (the collection includes an example). One sculpture by Giacometti presents a deeply emaciated female.

If we look at the two Rothkos, we see domination at work. In Untitled 1945, Rothko explores surrealist imagery drawn from mythology. The intricate spiny lines reach out of the depths of darkness to suggest growth in a substrata of the earth. The second work, also Untitled, 1963 has only the dark horizontal bands of color without any indication of life.

Installation view, Morgan Peterson, “Born of Our Culture, American Excess” Method Gallery

In contrast to these “universal abstractions,” we have Morgan Peterson at Method Gallery. In “Born of Our Culture, American Excess” she lays bare examples of power and control, racism and classism intertwined with drugs and murder. One installation features a glass platform with large oxycodone pills, and other drug paraphernalia. It references Martin Shkreli who raised the price of life saving drugs from 13. to 750. per pill. Nearby is a music box with a gallows, and lynch rope woven from pearls (think about that). In a second installation, Fred Hampton’s iconic chair references his horrific murder by police just after Charles Manson’s effort to link Black Panthers to multiple murders by his cult members in 1969 in order to start a race riot. These historical events clearly demonstrate Ghosh’s thesis of the brutal manipulations by people in power.

That same brutality emerged at the COP 26 as the thousands of youth asking for a future were ignored by both the participants and most of the media, and the focus on the need of powerful world leaders to maintain their control took center stage.

~Susan Platt, PhD www.artandpoliticsnow.com

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly named Morgan Peterson’s show at Method Gallery. The show is titled “Born of Our Culture, American Excess.”