A different take on The Great Confinement (longer read)

Jim:     …the presentation was an eye-opener, Professor. . .

Prof:    Call me Peter. And thanks for the intro and help in setting up…

Jim:     Sure thing. . . Dick, are you coming. . .

Dick:   I’ll stay behind.

Jim:     Professor…

Peter:  Peter.

Jim:     Peter, ah, this is Dick. . .

Dick:   Jim, I’ll handle my own introductions. Thanks.

Jim:     [Turns to Peter] Maybe catch you the next time you’re in the area. . .

Peter:   Right. [Jim leaves.]

[Dick and Peter are about the same age, though both older than Jim. They look at each other, almost say something, but Peter returns to packing his briefcase. The room quiets and the audience senses things are about to begin.]

Dick:   Well. . .Peter [as if testing the word], you don’t really believe that drivel of a presentation, do you?

Peter:   You came in late, didn’t you. . .Dick?

Dick:   Early enough to catch the guff about rapid population growth exceeding the earth’s carrying capacity. You’re scaring the shit out of …well, almost everyone.

Peter:   It’s pretty obvious that population growth is doing just that.

Dick:   Obvious to everybody but me, you mean.

Peter:   Obvious to everyone. [Closes the briefcase and looks about to leave]

Dick:   You know what I think is going on? The real problem is experts like you generalize too soon too much.

Peter:   “Generalize“?

What, you don’t believe the evidence? You don’t believe greenhouse gases are increasing and climate change disruptions are here to stay and worsen? You don’t believe loss of biodiversity and species extinctions are racing ahead, urban sprawl is metastasizing, waste and pollution out of control?

[More agitated]

. . .That there are just too many people consuming too many things? That global population growth is too fast, that violence and environmental conflict are on the rise everywhere? That what we need more than anything else is to reduce population growth in developing countries and per capita consumption levels in this, our so-called developed world. We went through The Great Confinement and people died all over the place. Did you miss that? You don’t believe the rest? None of it?

Dick:   The Gloomy Scenario. You do it so well:

Quote. Population is bounding forward and without limits; the most rapid growth rates are in the poorest countries; natural resources are exploited and destroyed at ever expanding rates; the gap between rich and poor is wide and widening without stop; technology has fueled overconsumption and environmental degradation; and degradation everywhere continues to accelerate, be it congestion, poor sanitation, or the destruction of ecosystems, fields, forests or fisheries; humans have irreversibly changed conditions for the worse; and, last but certainly not least—right?—disease, conflict, nationalism and worse are burgeoning. Unquote

Peter:   Read my lips: Quality-of-life-is-declining. What do you call the travesty of being confined, all over the world?

But you already know all this. . .

[It’s obvious by this point that there’s much more going on in this exchange, given its intensity.]

Dick:   There it is again: generalizing. For you it’s snap-easy to leap to the global. You guys [Peter looks at him sharply] talk about “global population,” “global CO2,” “global greenhouse gas emissions” “global markets,” and “global pandemics”. Once at the global, it’s the easiest thing for you to homogenize human beings into equalities like per capita statistics and death rates…

Peter:   And your point?

Dick:   If the global has any meaning, it’s exactly the level of analysis where you cannot generalize. The global must–right? by definition?–include all the differences that make up the world and because of that, things have to be too complex to be known with any kind of certainty at such an overarching scale. It’s not that our ignorance should humble us as much as we should be humiliated by going no further than recognizing the kind of certitude your offer is not what we have. . .

Peter:   Repeat: Your answer?

Dick:   If you want answers, start with those really-existing cases where more people mean a better environment, where more people mean less disease, less poverty, less inequality, where more people mean. . .

Peter:   You can’t generalize from a few site-specifics!

Dick:   That is my point: Nor can you generalize either. The global is too full of difference to generalize.

Peter:   So your “answer” is that every time reduced population growth and per capita consumption and globalized disease control are advocated, you find a ready opposite with which to counter? Every example of ours is matched by one of yours?

Dick:   I have no Answers, or at least the big-A ones you lot keep talking about.

My guess is that if you started with all the differences out there before you did anything like abstracting, you’d find many more cases where reduced population growth and per capita consumption and globalized disease control can’t be the solution—and it is precisely these counter examples you and yours don’t talk about.

Peter:   That’s no help, and here too you know that. Start with differences? Which ones?

At this rate, you’ll end up telling us it’s impossible to identify the ones that matter. That way, you don’t need to tell us what will happen if rapid population growth isn’t halted or per capita consumption reduced or what to do to avoid the next Great Confinement. When do we get really worried, as you keep adding to your list of differences? When the earth is suffocating under the weight of 10 billion people? 15 billion? When?

Dick:   There’s no such thing as the earth’s carrying capacity [makes quotation marks in the air with his fingers]. Which one of the hundred so expert estimates are you going to choose as the carrying capacity of the entire earth? And even if you did, there is the techno-managerial elite to regulate to that number?

Worse yet, look what’s happened since the Great Confinement! Supposedly reputable ecologists and experts who wished for an estimate of 7 billion or less now saying, see I told you so, the earth is purging itself of the excess! It’s die Götterdämmerung after all! Just like 19th century veterinarians wishing more rinderpest to reduce Africa’s “overstocking”…

Peter:   We’re million miles apart. What exactly is your point?

Dick:   That things are not what they seem to you. That there are no answers. [Pause]

There’s just. . .right here right now… [at a loss for words, he looks away from Peter]

Peter:   Don’t patronize me. You’re not talking to someone with a room-temperature IQ who does stupid. Anyone listening today knows I’m not locked into totalizing answers. What do you want from me? Continually repeating myself…

Dick:   You don’t want to see it, do you?

Peter:   Spare me the condescension. . .

Dick:   No, I mean, Peter, why are you always in a future? Why aren’t you here, with that view [points to the window], in this instant?

Peter:   I am here. I am the one living in the present. We may see the same view, but I’m the only one who wants to ensure it’s there to see. At any time. Your navel-gazing means before we know it it’ll all be gone, not just over, but gone.

Dick:   Who’s “we”, bwana?

Peter:   We—you, me, every—

Dick:   You and me?

Peter:   . . .everyone.  Almost everyone knows we can’t continue using up Nature’s capital. Everywhere cries out for setting limits, for stewarding our resources. . .

Dick:   Stewardship! God, nothing is safe from that gaze. Stop a rocket from leaving earth, and it means you’re stewarding outer space!

There’s nothing you guys say you can’t manage, or at least try to, because there’s nothing that you guys aren’t responsible for stewarding, nothing, anywhere, no matter how far away. “We have no alternative!” you say.

Talk about delusional. Talk about confinement! Just another garden-variety imperialism…

Peter:   Excuse me, but where were you during the Great Confinement? Haven’t you learned by this point? Repeat, we can’t continue on as we have been doing—and if you want to call that imperialism, capitalism, colonialism, bullshit, be my guest! We can’t go on abusing the planet this way. We have to love it and that means setting limits. . .

Dick:   . . .limits on love?

Peter:   [As if he can’t believe what Dick just said]

. . .when everything cries out for setting limits, safe limits, critical thresholds, establishing carrying capacities, accepting the very real risks that have to be balanced against the so-called benefits of new technologies etcetera. Rangelands, forests, wetlands, that sea over there. Every indicator of sustainability and health is a flashing red light, and here you’re BABBLING as if none of this matters in your version of here and now.

Dick:   You see complete disaster where I see unfinished business.

Peter:   Whatever has this to do with saving the planet?

Dick:   Everything. We can’t save it, because there’s no such planet to save at the level you’re talking about.

Peter:   Christ, what a recipe for despair…

Dick:   Not despair. If we can’t find meaning in what remains, are you telling me you and the others’ll do a better job of finding meaning in the future. . .

Peter:   Just postmodern scholasticism.

Dick:   Not really. “Saving the planet” has meaning only because it’s never possible to finish the task.

Peter:   This is getting nowhere. . .

Dick:   Sure this is getting us somewhere. It means it’s up to us to decide which unfinished business we want to give meaning to.

[Pause] Like any relationship.

Peter:  Everything has always had to be personal for you, on your terms. We can’t generalize, you say. We have to stay specific, you say. When all you’re saying is, I like tea. You like coffee. And there’s the end of it.

Dick:   So you’d still like me to believe.

Peter:   [Long pause, as if finally deciding something] OK, Dick.

What are you really trying to say?

Go on, what is all this to-and-fro about?

Dick:   You know. You knew from the minute we started talking, the minute I showed up in this room…

Peter:   I don’t.

Dick:   You do.

Peter:   No.

Dick:   It has to be your way, like always?

Peter:   You have no solutions, no answers, only opinions, personal views.

Dick:   “Only”?

Peter:   [Pause] What’s the upshot, Dick?

Dick:   Hah! “up-shot-dick”.

Peter:   [Avoiding the obvious] What are you trying to say?

Dick:   Oh, Peter.

Peter:   What. Are. You. Saying.

Dick:  [Says nothing, and then]

So. . .let’s talk about the anger.

Peter:   Will you PUHLEESSE keep to the point!

Dick:   QED: Anger.

Peter:   Anger?

Dick:   . . .and its flip side, hurt.

Peter:   And you’re not angry. No anger behind all this of your “here and now”?

Dick:   So, we’re both angry and not talking about it.

Peter:   What’s left to say?

Dick:   Ok, Peter, ok.

But try to meet me half way this time round.

Peter:   Your stakes and mine in all this aren’t the same. If they ever were.

Dick:   Try to meet me halfway.

Peter:   Which means?

Dick:   [Realizing Peter is not going to budge]. Ok, your way, Peter.

But enough of the ABSTRACTIONS!

Peter:   [The longest pause of both yet.]

Half way? OK.

When I walked in today, I half hoped you’d be in the room. And when I didn’t see you, I thought, What a fool I’d been to think I could try this. I must have been crazy.

[Another long pause]

…and while we’ve been arguing just now, I wondered for a moment, What would we be saying to each other instead?

Dick:   Me?

…I wanted to come up and cup your face in my hands and say, “When do we kiss? Now, later. . .never?”

Peter:  Hah!

Dick:   I won’t give up my fantasies.

Peter:   You’ve always been crazy for happy endings.

Dick:   That’s bad?

Peter:   Where’s the reality?

Dick:   Love protects reality.

Peter:   Even when the reality then was “Good-bye, Peter”?

Dick:   [Smiling for the first time in the play] That was then!

[Pauses] You know, Peter, no one can put his arm around you [Dick puts his arm around Peter’s shoulder, moves closer] and say [taps Peter’s chest], “You know, Professor, you really are right and have been all along!”

You know that.

[They face each other and Dick slides his other arm onto Peter’s shoulder, moving closer]

Peter:   Your addiction to happy endings. . .

Dick:   Happiness? That too is confined to the mess.

Speaking of crazy, [Dick places his forefinger on Peter’s lips] you always said my mouth was your perfect fit. . .

Peter: Hmmm. So, all the rest we’ve talked all about is left to “Until then if not later”?

Dick: Until then if not before.


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