I’ve returned to the U.S. after a trip to Italy. My goals for the trip were three-fold: (1) Visit the heart of western civilization before we complete our ongoing trip to the new Dark Age and then the neo-Neolithic, (2) collect anecdotes about the collapse of a large, powerful, seemingly invincible empire, and (3) try to determine if the hatred for a living Earth by Homo sapiens, which at this point is nearly all-consuming, was initiated — or at least accelerated — by the Renaissance. These goals echo the general themes I’ve considered throughout the history of this blog, so they seem appropriate to my one hundredth post.
I was part of a 28-member tour that met in Venice. From Venice, we took a bus to Florence, the heart of the Renaissance, and then took a bus a Rome. We spent slightly more than three days in each of the three cities, with an incredibly knowledgeable guide providing highlights and then setting us free to explore each city on our own. Before our guide turned us loose, the group walked ten to twelve miles daily. Obviously, the group was comprised of people with above-average fitness, at least for Americans.
We visited the three cities of Venice, Florence, and Rome in increasing order by size and human population and thus by increasing imperialism. My comments follow the same order, with a few final comments about my return to the ultimate contemporary empire.
We met in Venice, a city of about 60,000 people and a similar number of daily tourists. During our initial meeting, our guide asked to what we attributed Italy’s fame. After several expected responses, including “the Renaissance,” “pasta,” “fresh food,” “art,” and “Vatican City,” he let us know the real answer: chaos. Yes, he said Italy is famous for civilization and also for chaos. Apparently he knows how similar they are, and that civilization has always been two days away from chaos.
Nice start, I thought.
Venice is a lovely island city known for seafood, a stunningly low crime rate, and durability. In addition, it is commonly called the best-preserved city in Europe. The complete absence of automobiles, motorcycles, and bicycles throughout the history of the city clearly has a lot to do with it. This city relies on a well-developed system of canals and an abundance of bipedal motion for all its transportation needs. The water comes from the Alps via an aqueduct that pre-dates the industrial age. The food comes from the surrounding Adriatic Sea and also from the nearby inland plains, as it has for millennia. And a 300-year-old floor is called “new” by the locals, who are somewhat embarrassed because they couldn’t keep the old one going a little longer.
As if these attributes are not enough, I would be hard-pressed to name a city with a more durable sense of community than Venice. The city’s 2,300 named streets meander through mixed-use neighborhoods with residences atop shops. I was lost half the time I was there, but I never felt threatened. The people are generous and kind, the crime rate is near zero, and I was surrounded by good food and even better gelato. A few-minute walk in any direction leads to an iconic structure from which even I could find my way anywhere else on the island.
While in Venice, I kept searching for something from the United States, other than tourists. I came up with three exports: pop music, Hollywood films, and globalization (i.e., disaster capitalism).
On to the birthplace of the Renaissance, a city of about 400,000 Vespa-driving Florentines working hard to run over American tourists. Although reason arose in Greece, it was lost during the Dark Ages as the Catholic Church exerted its considerable power. The Renaissance saw few ideas that were truly knew, but it was awash in a rebirth of ideas and principles held in ancient Greece. That is, the Renaissance reinitiated our love affair with culture (i.e., with ourselves). As such, it kick-started our hateful, hate-filled relationship with Earth. It was a time for exploiting technology and people in the name of escaping our relationship with the living Earth.
Consider, for example, the extended conversation I had about religion with a new-Earth creationist. She and her husband view Earth as a miserable “test” through which, if we “believe” in events and ideas that have been completely discredited as faith-based junk science, and then we’re “saved,” we will land in heaven. She hates Earth. But she thought I was a kindred spirit because she confused my message with the Rapture.
It’s the apocalypse, silly. And also a new Renaissance, one which will require us to re-learn how to live as part of the planet and part of our community. Yes, there will be redemption. But we will not experience the Rapture of this woman’s fantasies.
I also had a long conversation with a self-described rationalist at a famous exhibit featuring Galileo (and, comically and appropriately, his upraised middle finger). He actually understands we’re in the midst of an economic collapse, and he understands the underlying reason — the rationalist, not Galileo, for whom I cannot speak — and he hopes we’ll keep exploiting the planet and its poor for a few more years, until he’s dead. I guess his teenaged sons will have to fend for themselves.
Finally, I had a short conversation with an engineer. As I’ve come to expect from lovers of technology, he dismissed the notion of energy decline and consequent economic collapse with a comment about the TechnoMessiah arriving in the form of nuclear power and biodiesel as soon as the all-knowing market indicates these solutions are necessary for economic growth.
Which leads naturally to my take on the Renaissance and our current condition: I think the rise of reason led to a separation of our species from the Earth on which we depend for our lives. Even self-proclaimed rationalists, secular humanists, and other people with world views anchored in reality think our species is special, something justifiably apart from the natural world. I am not ignoring our big brains, nor our ability to reason. After all, humans are the most rational of animals: We can rationalize anything. But our big brains and ability to reason do not allow, much less require, us to act as if the other species on the planet are ours to exploit. And don’t get me started on the suffering we bring to other humans in the name of God and culture.
Reason led us astray. Perhaps science is the big lie, after all, instead of technology, as I’ve long believed.
At this point in time, Florence is a shining example of (consumer) culture. The few living things in the city are tolerated, but hardly revered, by harried, hurried, Vespa-addicted citizens.
As we entered Rome, a city of some five million people, our first sight was police in riot gear. Our guide explained the necessity of having police in riot gear everywhere in the city, essentially all the time. After all, Rome is the very heart of civilization, hence chaos. It surrounds the city with the highest crime rate in the world, Vatican City, so perhaps those police officers are trying to keep Romans safe from the priests and nuns.
During the good old days of the Roman Empire, the Coliseum was used to appease the masses with free food and increasingly violent displays of aggression against humans and other animals. Between weekly to monthly events, the ruling class constantly reminded the sheeple how easy were their lives, especially the citizens who stayed out of trouble (i.e., those who did not threaten the property of the ruling class). Our excellent local guide pointed out the obvious parallel with contemporary television. She also explained the thousands of small holes in the walls of the Coliseum: As the Empire collapsed, the iron used to attach marble to the walls was stripped and re-used. We see the same pattern today as abandoned big-box stores are stripped of copper and other metals. Seems history doesn’t repeat, but it rhymes.
And here’s something to think about as industrial civilization draws its final gasps: The human population of Rome declined from more than a million during the days of Empire to less than 20,000 during the Middle Ages. The aqueducts were destroyed by the barbarians (who also go by names such as “terrorists,” “marauders,” “criminals,” and, depending on their success, “freedom fighters”), forcing the Romans to drink from the polluted Tigris River. The choices were to die of thirst or die of cholera. The reduction in the human population exceeded 98%.
To recap, then, the brief history of western civilization: We traded oppression by the state for oppression by the Church, thus cashing in imperialism for, well, imperialism with an imaginary reward. The subsequent rise of reason led to a convoluted mixture of oppression by the state and oppression by the Church that continues to this day. We call this mix “culture,” and we usually don’t even pretend there is a separation between church and state. This cultural milieu, variously known as “reality” or the “culture of make believe,” depending on one’s perspective, has produced bonds that are far stronger than anything observed in the prior history of the West. After all, only two-thirds of Romans were enslaved.
Along my journey through Italy, it became embarrassingly easy to pick out people from my home country. I spotted one in a Florentine church that banned bare shoulders and knees: A twenty-something woman sporting a baseball cap (no, that’s not bad enough) emblazoned in bold letters proclaimed, “WHAT THE FUCK.” Then there was the teenaged dipshit in St. Peter’s Basilica with the following statement on his tee shirt: “whileyoureadthisIamstaringatyourtits.” Although I find the Catholic Church and its ostentatious displays of stolen riches to be horribly offensive, even I am offended by these individual actions. I guess I’m getting old.
Back in the U.S., barefoot and beltless as I navigated our woefully reactionary security “system,” a quick glance around the airport suggests the Master of Metaphor was correct: We are indeed a nation of overfed clowns. Never has an empire been filled with such ill-prepared, overweight people. And yet we are entering an era in which the intellectual and physical challenges will be great. Will we be overwhelmed by these challenges? At this juncture, how could we not be?
I conclude with the toast given by our guide as we dined together for the final time: “To lying, cheating, stealing, and drinking. [pregnant pause] May you lie to save a friend. May you cheat death. May you steal the heart of the one you love. And may you drink with many friends.”