I’ve been mulling over this sentiment a lot lately. It comes from a line in the PBS adaptation of Robert Graves’ classic “I, Claudius,” when Claudius as emperor voices his intention to allow all of the accumulated evil fostered by the Roman Empire, and his own demented family in particular, play itself out in an orgy of wicked indulgence. Having seen who preceded him—Tiberius and Caligula—and what is about to follow him with Nero, we the audience understand what Claudius means. Imperial Rome shortly after the first emperor, Augustus, gave himself the title, has become a cesspool of murder, bestiality and perversion. The thoughtful Claudius presumably hopes that once Nero inflicts his apocalyptic evil upon Rome, Romans will be so fed up with emperors that they will bring back the republic. Of course, it doesn’t happen, but that’s another matter—or perhaps it isn’t. Because in a way, that’s what I once thought regarding our own Nero, Little Georgie Bush, and have been thinking again regarding our still-thriving, if slightly tottering American empire. Like the out-of-control Roman Empire, our once-democratic republic, no matter who is nominally in charge, has become a cesspool of inequality, money-grubbing, government spying, influence-peddling, war-mongering, extra-judicial murder by drone, poisonous despoliation of land, air and water, and the infliction of our mountains of toxic waste upon it all. Only this time, not just America but the whole world is involved, the whole world seems bent on following our example, and the whole world, the entire planet, is at risk from exploitation, increasing species die-offs, and of course, global warming due to CO2 pollution from the burning of fossil fuels. While most people, including myself, who write about this usually feel obliged to present a variety of possible solutions to the problem—increasingly desperate ways to moderate capitalism or evolve steady-state solutions to production, or impose limits on population growth and carbon burning—my inclination at times of late has been to say, ‘why not emulate old Claudius?’ Let all the poisons lurking in the mud hatch out, let the corporations and bankers and corrupt politicians and idiot fundamentalists continue their vicious ways, let the population expand to 9 or 10 billion with its attendant poverty, let the pollution and greenhouse gases overrun the planet and melt the icecaps and flood the oceans—until global warming puts an end to that most indomitable and destructive of all pests, homo sapiens.
In this I am following not only the Emperor Claudius, but also Herman Melville’s most memorable character, Bartleby the Scrivener. You remember Bartleby. So disillusioned had he become with his lot in the Wall Street firm where he’d recently been hired as a copyist, that he one day refused to do a proofreading job the boss/narrator asked him to do; and then increasingly refused to do anything at all. He simply stared at the wall of his office, and repeated his phrase: “I prefer not to.” Soon the narrator discovers that Bartleby’s refusal has extended even to his living place: he has taken up living in the office, and refuses to move to a more comfortable spot when it is offered. Even when the narrator moves his business out of his office in a last attempt to bring Bartleby to understand the consequences of his actions, it has no effect: Bartleby continues his absolute refusal. New tenant or no, Bartleby simply stays in the building, sleeping on the stairs when he is ejected from the office, until he is finally removed by the law and placed in the Tombs, New York city’s jail. By now thoroughly absorbed in his one-time employee’s strange fate, the narrator visits him in jail, but no matter what forms of comfort or salvation he offers, Bartleby’s response is always the same. I prefer not to. This inimitable phrase is as brilliant in its brevity as it is unflinching in its finality. Don’t ask me to demonstrate human sociability or common sense or determination to save myself and thrive or even survive. I prefer not to. Nor does Bartleby ever really explain what has driven him to this pass, what has eventually driven him to refuse even minimal nourishment to keep himself alive. We and the narrator simply understand—especially when we learn at the end that Bartleby had once worked in the dead letter office of the U.S. Postal Service—that Bartleby has concluded that life simply wasn’t worth the struggle. Or perhaps that his fellow Americans weren’t worth emulating or even associating or communicating with. That life as it was practiced in success-at-all-costs America was simply a dead letter.
This gets to some of my recent feelings. The other night I saw a documentary on the collapse of Detroit called Detropia, and it only confirmed the sense that the civilization we once thought we had here in America—the last, best hope of mankind—is fading fast. Whole areas of the once-thriving Motor City were burned out and boarded up, while others were denuded of homes and skeletal factories and life itself and were overgrowing with weeds and vacant lots. The population had plummeted to less than half of its 1.8 million people, reaching below 700,000 recently. People, mostly black people, were lost, both disgusted and terrified of what lay ahead for them, the workers that a once-proud and prosperous corporate America had abandoned. As I watched, I too became increasingly disgusted by the system that had brought Detroit and all of us to this pass (the last time I was in my once-thriving industrial hometown, Bridgeport, CT, I saw the same type of wasteland in progress, with homes in once-lovely neighborhoods boarded up, and once-bustling factories rotting in the weeds). And my disgust grew with the larger thought of what humans do to each other in the name of getting-ahead, of profit, not just in Detroit, which may be only the canary in the coalmine, but everywhere. Because according to recent UNICEF statistics, nearly half the world's population lives on less than $2.00 a day, a billion children live in soul-destroying poverty, and 22,000 of them die each day because of it. Moreover, the upwards of a billion people who lack access to adequate drinking water (this can only get worse with glaciers melting and groundwater being polluted by industrial chemicals), and who go hungry every day, could be lifted out of hunger several times over by the incomes of only 100 of the richest people who are their companions on this planet. So it is not so much that I am disgusted with my fellow human beings, though I am, and therefore wouldn’t mind taking my leave of them. It is also that I am disgusted with the apparently unstoppable human impulse towards a greed so pervasive that it is leading to planetary suicide. I am disgusted with the apparent death wish of our corporate capitalist civilization that simply cannot or will not open its eyes to see beyond the latest stock prices. I am disgusted with the priorities that place the wealth of a few corporations and their leaders over the well-being of billions of ordinary, mostly starving people. And with the insistence of those billions of starving, enslaved people to keep reproducing themselves and trudging on, bearing up beyond all reason, beyond all hope, beyond the carrying capacity of the planet.
This drive to persevere and reproduce in the face of planetary misery and incapacity doesn’t endanger only other human beings, either. It endangers all other beings on the planet as well, lesser (in our view) beings like animals and fish and fowl and insects whom we have busied ourselves for several hundred years pushing beyond the limit of their range and extincting as if we, we humans, were the only beings on the planet. As if we, we humans, were the only beings who matttered. It is at the core of our sickness, this notion that only humans deserve to live, and then only human beings, like ourselves, of the “right sort,” or the right color, or the right belief system or city or nation, and that the only place for all other beings is in unlivable ghettos or marginal islands or zoos or “nature preserves” that we set up for them to live a truncated and impoverished and unbearable existence. It is the height of pride and arrogance—one that we always pretend to eschew but really don’t—and it deserves the comeuppance that is surely coming. Though part of my renunciation, my willingness to ‘let all the poisons hatch out,’ would be to have nothing to do with that comeuppance. All I would be agreeing to do is to express my intention to accept its playing out and eventual, natural consummation. People are determined to survive and reproduce and hope and invent always inadequate because selfish solutions, so who am I to advise them to stop? Let them. Carry on brave humans. Carry on. Let all the poisons that lurk in the mud hatch out.
Of course, some might ask if it doesn’t grieve me that the poisons that emerge will be painful to billions of innocents, my own kin included. My answer is that it surely does. But there seems no help for it. Not to mention the fact that pain for billions is an ineluctable part of our current system; that pain inflicted on others, particularly dark others or remote others, seems not to prick the conscience of most humans—and in particular not the conscience of those in power—one bit. It is a major portion of what humans do, and enjoy doing: inflicting pain and domination and exploitation on helpless others. And not accidentally, either; with full intention and malice aforethought (an email in Jeff Madrick’s Age of Greed on how Wall Streeters see their own business strategy said it well: “Lure the people into the calm and then totally fuck ‘em.”) Always, of course, finding sophisticated justification for it in “natural laws” and the privileges and duties of those chosen to dominate over lesser beings, those so gifted they need no other beings.
And so, what other response will do, other than to accept it, let natural processes (many of which we have hopelessly compromised) hatch out, and observe, for as long as one is alive to observe, what happens. And grieve for it.
This is not, by the way, to say that I think the planet itself is in danger. Nor do I think that most life on the planet is in danger of expiring along with us. No. The planet will adapt, the planet will survive. Life will survive and blot out all trace of us (see Alan Weisman’s 2007 best seller, The World Without Us), perhaps to even generate a new species to replace us—though I hope not for several million years. The planet, after all, needs a rest. Especially from us. A rest from our plunder. A rest from our domination. A rest from our sick cleverness and arrogance and ignorance. The only thing that might be useful for us to leave behind is some sort of easily accessed record that a new species might be able to learn from. Though perhaps that will be easy enough for future archeologists to find even without our help—we will have left such an indigestible mess behind. No matter. Any new species, if it turned out to be anything like us, probably wouldn’t pay attention in any case. ‘Ah, those stupid homo sapiens,’ they might conclude; ‘how fortunate that we’re not like them. How fortunate that we have evolved differently. How fortunate that we understand that exploitation must be done with care, and balance, and the right amount of attention to those one dominates, and a proper provision for waste disposal. How fortunate we are to be so superior.’
Ah yes. And it will all begin again. In the awful contemplation of which, how could one not prefer the Bartleby option? How could one not ‘prefer not to?’
Although it must also be admitted that, given the grimly repressive nature of the so-called civilization we have spawned, and the urgent need of those in power to maintain the illusion that they care for each and every one of those in their charge, that they care for “life” and the precious sanctity of each embryo, given all that, even the Bartleby option may no longer be allowed. I mean, look at the poor bastards in Guantanamo who have resorted to a hunger strike. Can Big Brother allow them to do that? Can they be allowed to have control even over their own willingness or unwillingness to take in nourishment, to live or not live? Not on your life. Our noble caretakers, so concerned for the law and procedure and the “right” and “proper” way to end a life, insist on keeping such prisoners alive by force-feeding (as they do in hospitals), even if such force-feeding amounts to torture. And it does. Even if the end state of such force-feeding is a living death. And it is. But after all, isn’t torture unto living death preferable to dead death? Isn’t the living death of endless imprisonment or enslavement preferable to dead death? Isn’t concerned coercion unto living death preferable to the terrible publicity, the terrible example for the children, the terrible danger of despair, the terrible exposure of the entire system that “preferring not to” would result in?
Think about it, for I believe it’s something a whole lot of us may well have to decide—and soon.