Monday, April 12, 2010

Walking Away from Omelas

Poet, essayist and novelist Wendell Berry is known for writing only by daylight. His words stop when the sun goes down.


Because he's from coal country, and knows the damage coal does to the land and the people. So he refuses to give any more money to the coal-powered utility companies than he must, or to use one more ounce of coal than absolutely necessary.

Recent news stories made me think about Berry's refusal. The West Virginia mining "accident," of course. (I put accident in quotes because, as Tom Vanderbilt says in Traffic, it's the wrong word for an occurrence that could have been foreseen.)

But also the new power line story in Sunday's Star Tribune (not on their website yet), which told of the CapX2020 high voltage lines that are about to be built across southern Minnesota, connecting the Dakotas and Wisconsin. This is part of the new grid that's needed (I assume) to carry the wind power under development on Dakota wind farms, and to generally meet anticipated increased demand. (Actually, demand has decreased in the years of the recession, but the utility companies believe that it will return to the originally plotted rates soon.)

The story focused on homeowners and small business owners opposed to the line. I didn't get a complete picture of why they are opposed -- I got the idea the lines would be loud, though no details were given. I'm sure it's partly aesthetic: who wants a 100-foot-tall metal tower in their line of view? And there were vague and inconclusive references to possible health effects of the electrical fields. The net effect, of course, is that it will be bad for property values.

While reading the story, I wondered if the people living in the path of the power line have done anything to decrease the need for the power line. The Johnsons, who were profiled in the story, have three young children, and live on a large lot in a house that's the result of new or at least recent construction. Assuming the parents have jobs, they're driving some distance to get to them since there isn't much of an economic center in their exurban location. (The newspaper photo shows a long asphalt driveway holding three vehicles, although one of them might belong to the reporter.)

A second homeowner mentioned is Bob Johnson. (I assume he's not related to the other family; Minnesota is the land of 10,000 Johnsons, after all). Having hiried a lawyer, he's fighting the power line from "his office high in the former World Trade Center in downtown St. Paul" -- which means he has a 25-mile commute in each direction.

I know that the driving habits of these people don't affect the amount of electricity needed to power the state. But it seems plausible that one type of energy profligacy will correlate with the other.

Another part of the country facing property value decreases is a 40,000-resident community called The Acreage, west of Palm Beach, Florida. According to a story I heard on NPR, the community has been identified as a cancer cluster -- specifically, a cluster of brain cancer. In children.

How terrible, I thought. But catch this: "Tracy Newfield says she moved [to The Acreage] with her family in 2002 because of the area's beauty and the large lots. The extra land gave her family room for Jet Skis, a boat and ATVs."

That means The Acreage represents the worst kind of sprawl known in the sprawling United States. Its construction destroyed over a hundred square miles of wetlands in Florida's fragile ecosystem. And the privileged families who moved there are shocked, shocked I tell you, that their children's lives are endangered. And angry that the CDC says it's unlikely anyone will ever know why the cluster exists. And outraged that their property values are going to fall through the floor (if they can even sell their houses at all).

One possible cause of The Acreage's cancer cluster might be the fill materials used to even out the naturally swampy topography of the area, making it flat and dry enough for home construction. According to the Palm Beach Post, the materials mostly consist of waste from demolition and construction sites.

Americans need to wake up and realize that our way of life is built on pollution and resource depletion. We need to recast our lives to decrease both as much as possible, and demand that industry and government do the same. Demand that we should be paying the long-term cost of the things we consume, not just the oversimplified production and distribution cost.

I know this sounds like I'm blaming the victims. But we're all villains, as well as victims.

We need to change our behavior, and to do that, we have to change the infrastructure that supports our current ways. And I write this knowing that I am sitting here using a computer to compose this for my blog, while my daughter watches television and does her homework on a computer at the same time. We are all implicated (except Wendell Berry, I suppose).

Almost 40 years ago, Ursula LeGuin wrote a short story called "The Ones Who Walk Away for Omelas." It's a morality fable about a beautiful city, named Omelas, where everyone is happy and well cared for. But the city has a secret that's revealed to young people by the time they're 12 years old: The existence of this utopia is dependent on a starving, debased child who is kept in a dark and dirt-floored closet. Covered in sores. Crying to be let out.

Everyone has seen the child, and while all are disturbed by the knowledge, they also understand that helping the child would destroy the city's prosperity, and so most go back and live their happy lives.

But sometimes, they don't return to their lives. Instead,

They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.


Blythe said...

Another stunning post. You have seen through the story to a hard truth.

I have deep admiration from Wendell Berry. I also have admiration for his wife, who I read once, types out his work on a manual typewriter. I remember thinking, but HE DOES use a word-processor and thinking about the relationship between "women's work" and the availability of technology. Sewing machines. Washing machines.

I hope we all find the conscience required to make the better choice, to walk away from Omelas. But first we have to be conscious of the child--or worker--who pays for our paradise.

(Omelas = Salem O. in a rearview mirror. I love LeGuin. She made me a better person, I like to think.)

Blissed-Out Grandma said...

This is a powerful piece, no pun intended. I agree that sprawl is a terribly wasteful phenomenon...and it's everywhere you look. And thanks for the "Walking Away from Omelas" story.