Knights and Flatlanders

I am reading Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth. I also just returned from a Unitarian Universalist service focusing on the climate crisis. Students organizing a Climate Strike in Harrisonburg this Friday spoke as well as some local members of our Harrisonburg organization devoted to fighting against politicians, businesspeople, and flatlanders who privilege economic development over environmental sustainability. Put another way, they think their welfare is more important than what they will leave to their children. 

I realize that Virginia politicians like Ben Cline, Tony Wilt, and Mark Obenshain struggle to find other ways to frame the choice between the economy and the environment, perhaps denying the scientific consensus that we have a window of about eleven years to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius by slashing current global emissions by forty-five percent. This is the flatlander argument. Their related argument (see Ben Cline’s letter to constituents) is that oil and gas production (like offshore oil wells) will make our electricity cheaper. Green energy is more expensive. This is the us-not-them argument. The only other argument I can imagine is the fatalist one: the atmosphere is warming and there is nothing we can do about it, so let’s focus on profits and jobs. Spend now and let the future take care of itself. 

Some flatlanders, like Donald Trump, don’t understand the difference between climate and weather or the evolution of our planet from its inception four and a half billion years ago. Less generously, I think people like Trump, Scott Pruitt, Andrew Wheeler, and Mike Mulvaney are selfish people who care only about their own welfare far more than they do about the community, other species, and planet earth. Mulvaney seems intelligent. Unlike President Trump, he can clearly read. So what drives him? What can he be thinking?

I wonder the same thing about people like Vladimir Putin, Mohammad bin Salim, or Nicolás Maduro. What drives these people to destroy others and wantonly rape the earth? Do they really imagine they are contributing to some greater good? Trump’s narcissistic drive is an open book, but these others who can read and reason? What? Or is it that I and most of my friends who think in terms of community and the welfare of our planet and our descendants are . . . I don’t know . . . naïve? That we don’t know life is a zero-sum game, that there is only so much to go around and smart people grab what they can get? 

I am caught up in Pillars of the Earth. I am ignoring other things I should be doing, like mowing the lawn (I know—I probably shouldn’t be doing that). The narrative of PoEoccurs in mid-twelfth century England after the death of Henry I, the consequence of which are a series of struggles among King Stephen, the Empress Maud, earls, bishops, and priests. I am far from an 12thCentury scholar, but I know enough about it to know that Follett has deeply researched the era and through the magic of writing brought an illusion of the 12thCentury back to life. 

These are the Middle Ages, mid-Feudalist culture when Knights were mostly people who liked killing other people. In the evolution of human social systems, people had moved from the bonds of community to the hierarchical relationships forecasting capitalism. The kings, earls, and bishops are fighting for power and money—as if they were born to this struggle. The trappings of wealth and privilege mark their place in the struggle for gaining power over those beneath them. The people beneath them are pawns. By exploiting the labor of those beneath them, the upper classes build castles and cathedrals to signify their power. They go to war with each other, convincing serfs to throw themselves into battle for their lords. The lands are wasted, burned; the peasants slaughtered, the women raped. There are a few people within the ruling classes who are in fact generous to the people over whom they hold power, but they are not the norm. It’s a tough world up there. 

I see the Middle Ages as the embryo of the present. Our political systems may be more developed but not by much. Our nominal leaders seem obsessed by the trappings of power. They build their castles, sail their yachts, obsess over their obscene wealth. They don’t really care about the people beneath them, certainly not the people from whose labor they take their living. 

It’s not difficult to imagine how people drawn into the capitalist game have become insensitive to other species, environmental preservation, the heritage they leave to their children and grandchildren. I don’t view these people as evil; mostly myopic, incapacitated by their training to see beyond themselves. But I cannot imagine how anyone who wants a castle thinks he or she is a Christian. 

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