The life of a social critic has a significant cost: I have many acquaintances, but I’ve managed to offend most of my former friends. As an equal-opportunity offender, ever willing to speak truth to power, I’m largely an ascetic. To an increasing extent, I live as we all must die: alone.
One result of my abstemious existence, as we venture into the dark days ahead, is that I spend considerable time reflecting on my life goals and evaluating — constantly re-evaluating — what I live for. I have abandoned vigorous attempts to right the sinking ship of civilization, as well as half-hearted efforts to convince university administrators that my cause is just and therefore worthy. But my inability to adopt a completely hermetic life leaves me pathetically seeking solace from an indifferent universe, uninterested colleagues, and you, my online comrades.
Obviously, it didn’t start out this way.
As a carefree child in a tiny redneck logging town, smack in the heart of the Aryan nation of northern Idaho, I didn’t have a clue. According to the many email messages I’ve been receiving about my lack of belief in a single god, I still don’t. But that’s another issue. I spent the 1960s and 1970s in youthful ignorance, chasing athletic fame and the girls who came with it. In college, hormonal lust had me blowing off a decent education while I majored in basketball and women’s studies, even though Women’s Studies departments didn’t yet exist. I wasn’t particularly good at either subject, and immature adolescence eventually gave way to a responsible life in avid pursuit of the “American Dream” of financial security.
To paraphrase author and social critic Daniel Quinn, the problem was not that I thought too highly of myself, or that I thought too little of myself, but that I thought constantly of myself.
As I was working hundred-hour weeks in graduate school and beyond, I was socking away the money and serving the cultural machine of western Civil-Lie-Zation. I was simultaneously reading and failing to heed the words of Edward Abbey: All gold is fool’s gold.
Somehow, though, despite my best attempts to hide from reality, I discovered that relationships are far more important than accomplishments. Stunningly, that occurred even before I earned tenure. Not surprisingly, I learned it from my students.
I left the ivory tower to work for The Nature Conservancy, only to find more of the same. I came back and immediately taught Bill Calder’s Conservation Biology course in the wake of this friend’s death. It changed my life. It was the best course I’d ever taught because it was populated with students from more than 20 different majors, from creative writing to biology, none of whom was required to be there. During the autumn of 2001, we applied art and literature to the newly emerging enterprise of conservation biology in an attempt to bridge the two cultures of C.P. Snow (and Socrates before him, and E.O. Wilson after).
Needless to say, we failed.
Actually, we succeeded, in our own small way. Forty of us came together as a group, but society didn’t come along. We had our bubble, but reality kept sneaking in and thwarting our efforts. But I learned something important, albeit small and personal: I had to serve, in my own small way, as a teacher and social critic and companion and friend and mentor. I had to bridge the two cultures, as if that’s possible, and I had to show others how to do the same.
Along with this realization, I lost my anchor. Until I discovered myself, at the age of forty, I had believed science would save us. I had believed that rational thought was our savior. I had believed that, by abandoning fairy tales and magical thinking, we could find a secular way to enlightenment.
I failed to account for how badly scientists have lost their way. Science, as a process and a way of knowing, has unrivaled power. And you know what they say about power and corruption.
Science has not lost its way, but scientists have. They have been co-opted by objectivity, failing to recognize the impossibility of the task. They are unwilling to sacrifice their objectivity, which they do not and can not have, in exchange for doing the right thing. Like everybody else, they are unwilling to make sacrifices to serve the common good. Indeed, many of them believe they are serving the common good, although they most often are confusing the common good with common culture.
Science is no longer my anchor. But teaching is, at least for now. And trying to live, for now, as if my life matters, as if it has meaning beyond the meanings I assign it. But I’m a lot more cynical and a lot less enthusiastic than I used to be about my tiny role in this grand play.
I still struggle every day to find meaning in a universe without meaning. Who shall I serve? For now, I can serve students and society by teaching and acting as if a single life can make a difference in a world gone awry. For now, I can demonstrate the value and importance of relationships, relative to accomplishments. For now, I can be kind to individuals while forcing institutions to do right, even if it means being unkind to individuals who represent institutions. For now, I can serve people by criticizing society.
And I can find meaning everywhere, in small observations and small acts. I can find meaning, and mystery, in cliff swallows and butterflies, the kindness of strangers, and a child’s love.
But there’s no role for a social critic when civilization collapses. What then?
And there’s no role for a university professor when the university ceases to exist. What then?
It’s too late to meet the three goals I had for myself as a teenager: Live fast, die young, and leave a pretty corpse. I’m too slow, too old, and too late, respectively.