Waist Deep in the Big Muddy – A Conversation with a Friend in Cape Town

Land Grab

Friend: I see that Trump has entered South African politics. This bloody issue of  [land] expropriation might really be a tipping point. How far does it go? Sure the whole colonial bit and apartheid were abhorrent. But firing the pendulum to the complete opposite also seems to invite chaos and evil. Yessus! The Institute of Race Relations here does some reliable measurements of attitudes and those do not show the excessive inter-group hatred that seems to be promoted by populist leaders. But who will gain the upper hand in the power stakes?

Me: Trumpian populism in South Africa’s politics!? Hadn’t been following the recent expropriations. Can’t think of a worse setting for populism. Talk about pouring gasoline on a fire.


One of my profs (economics) in grad school at Oregon in the ‘70s had a line he liked repeating: “The world is globalizing and tribalizing simultaneously.” He insisted it was an unsustainable dynamic that would eventually come to a fork in the road. He seemed to have no idea which fork we’d take, understandably, but he sure seemed worried about it. At the time I didn’t pay much attention to his caution. I was intoxicated by the myth that “international development” would save the day. And I was going to do my part by joining the Peace Corps and going to Africa to help in the education sector. I finally woke up after living in Swaziland a while in the early 1980s and, while there, talking and drinking a lot with Zulu, Swazi and Sotho friends sitting on the ground behind the bottle store, across the highway from the school where I taught…

Demonstrator Johnny Benitez faces off with a counter-protester during an America First rally in Laguna Beach

At that time, the late ‘70s, early ‘80s, and up until BREXIT and Trump, most economists thought the world would take and stay on the rational, all-ships-rise-with-the-tide fork in the road – the one toward ever greater globalization.

These days it seems the sapient ape, all puffed up in his nation-states and suits, is more the emotional primate willing to fight for control of all the pie in a zero sum game. And the bloody politicians of the world are willing to ride the unbridled horse of capitalism over a cliff, and take the rest of us with them. Problem is, most of those buggars will get rich in the process and escape the abyss. They will fall into their walled, well-armed, gated communities with a golden parachute. Meantime the rest of us will drown in the “blood-dimmed tide” where “the best lack all conviction and the worst are filled with passionate intensity…”

For most of my adult life I’ve been optimistic about Humankind. I’ve written about it often on my blog citing three innovations and inventions in our evolutionary prehistory and history – stone tool use, language and cooperative living; writing and the Gutenberg printing press; and the Internet – as reasons for my optimism. Surely, I thought, these are lessons and means enough to educate a critical mass of the world’s population with facts and methods needed to ensure Humankind will survive and flourish.

But like the economic models that rely on the rational man arguments, I too became blinded to the darker but equally powerful side of Homo sapiens – that greedy, cheeky little monkey in too many humans who will screw his brother’s mate or steal his candy if he thinks he might get away with it without a drubbing or worse.

Two Options

The Western Enlightenment notion of individual and group flourishing through reason and science/tech was a dream ahead of its time, one not warranting the confidence we and ultimately the rest of the world have placed in it. Or, we must accept that that dream must be postponed because the wars and genocides of the 20th Century were evidently not lessons enough and our memories too short.

DMP New Web Image

Maybe the Dark Mountain Project has it right – the myth of unbridled capitalism fueled by the myth of progress has doomed us to suffer unprecedented catastrophes and civilizational collapse. Until then, DMP says, our only hope is to prepare for it and craft a new myth/story. That being a guiding story of human survival and flourishing not created by the rich, the politicians, or the scientists and technologists; rather, one created by the creators of literature. A new literature of Earth and community sustainability and cooperation at all levels.

Our Owl & Ibis group looked at the DMP premises and arguments for six months, in depth. We concluded Humankind has no real option but to continue its still meager and undermined-by-nationalism efforts at improving global cooperation (UN and others), and to stave off the harmful toll of free capitalism through sci/tech intervention. That a new story by the literati along the way couldn’t hurt. That perhaps the trajectory of Humankind’s time on Earth is not as controllable as we thought. Hunker down, do what you can.

Big Muddy

So buckle up folks. The only way through to the other, better side of being human is straight ahead across the Big Muddy (lyrics), as Pete Seeger sang about the Vietnam War in 1967 (video). Analogously, Humankind is waist deep in the Big Muddy of capitalist exceptionalism and the big fools in power keep sayin’: “Push on!” Will we make it or we will have to turn back and find another way, if such an option presents itself?

Like all other needle eyes of evolution we’ve made it through by the skin of our teeth, there’s no guarantee we’ll make it through this current one. Two-thirds of us are theists and are convinced prayer and God will save us. I’m less optimistic than I used to be.

Friend: The Big Muddy and Muddling Through are clearly parallel philosophies. Onward!


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