The Crisis of Now: What is it?

The human mind needs clear concepts to make sense of the world. When a chronic problem has not been properly named, we are unable to think clearly about it and figure out how to solve it.

-Joe Brewer, “Solving a Problem that Has Not Been Named”

I feel that I need to clarify what exactly I mean when I bring up The Crisis of Now in these essays; this clarification is for myself as much as it is for anyone who has been following my posts. The name “Crisis of Now” is an imprecise label, a phrase I concocted on my own so that I could easily refer to the interlocking emergencies of global warming, late stage capitalism, ecological collapse, hydrocarbon depletion, and the erosion of democratic norms and values (especially in the West). Yet even that slightly more nuanced explanation only feels at the hem of the converging trends whose consequences will remake life as we know it in the more affluent parts of the world.

Fans of Irish poetry will recognize that I am essentially trying to sketch the outlines of that rough beast slouching towards Bethlehem after twenty centuries of sleep. The language of the Crisis of Now, however, need not be biblical, esoteric, or apocalyptic. Joe Brewer, a Seattle-based complexity researcher, has grappled with this same question of how to properly identify the bottleneck we as a global civilization are approaching. His preferred term, The Great Transition Beyond Empires, is more adequate than the Crisis of Now on a number of fronts. First, a name like “The Great Transition Beyond Empires” recognizes that we are indeed living through the disintegration of a truly global empire – the enterprise of corporate globalization – and that its zenith and demise rounds out a six millenia-long era of ever more ambitious empire building.

In Beyond the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, James C. Scott enumerates the evidence arrayed against the “social contract” theory of early state-building. The earliest states of the Near East and China were not the products of reasoned, ingenious communal cooperation; they were brought into being only by the typically violent coercion enacted by centralized palace elites. They employed mass slavery, agricultural levies, harsh penal codes, and militarized physical barriers in order to maintain their spheres of influence (the reach of taxation). Now in 2018, in the wake of the Great Recession and the one-two punch of Brexit and the ascension of Donald Trump, the coercive underpinnings of corporate globalization and their shortcomings are in plain view. Fifteen years ago, the most ardent opponents of the WTO-IMF-World Bank triumvirate were small farmers and public sector employees in developing countries hit hardest by structural adjustment schemes. But when voters in the nerve centers of the neoliberal consensus can be convinced to reject the status quo (however artificial such campaign promises may be), you know the days of our paradigm are numbered.

So is corporate globalization the empire to end all empires? After all of the planet’s climatological positive feedback loops have scrambled Earth’s biosphere, after we’ve chewed through the low- to mid- hanging fruit of the hydrocarbon tree, it’s hard to imagine any financial or political entity (or an alliance of entities) wielding power the way corporatocracy does now. But whatever follows corporate globalization depends on what decisions we make in the decades to come, how we choose to fill the vacuum where consumption, wealth hoarding, and unbridled monetization once held sway.

That brings me to the second reason why I like the name, “The Great Transition Beyond Empire.” The shocks and tremors that are currently destabilizing our ideas of how we see ourselves in the world are also opportunities. Disorientation can allow us to rethink our priorities, how we organize ourselves in the landscape and relate to our co-denizens, both human and non-human. In the interim, there will be profound pain and suffering as political turmoil and dueling elements of the social body rush to fill the vacuum. Just ask the people of Syria and Venezuela, or the thousands of families separated these past months at the US border; they are already in the crucible. The dangers being unleashed by global warming, ecosystem collapse, and the sputtering of capitalism are real, but recognizing the potential of disruption and chaos gets to the heart of what crisis can mean. “Emergency” comes from the Latin emergens; to rise up or outward. We as a people – the human tribe, if you like – have the potential to emerge from the rubble of our dying way of life.

Okay, enough of the abstract theorizing. It’s time to talk specifics. Where will this transformation take place? Who will power it? Change will come from people like you and me, anyone weary of centralized bureaucracies and decision making, who  circumvent rigid federal and supranational power structure and try to effect change on the local level. I recently cut out a New York Times op-ed piece by David Brooks titled “The Localist Revolution,” which posits that the real change makers going forward will be locally oriented: neighborhood associations, state and municipal officials, farmers’ cooperatives. All 7.6 billion of us alive today face the same global emergencies, but only individuals with an intimate sensitivity to their immediate surroundings will be able to respond to how those crises manifest on the ground. After all, do you really think Congressional committees will know how to best allocate the water supplies of Oregon’s Klamath River, or that Brussels technocrats possess the regionally particular knowledge that is vital to stalling the die-back of ancient olive groves in Calabria?

The New York Times is hardly a den of fringe intellectualism, and David Brooks is only picking up on what legions of thinkers and activists have been saying for decades. In her essay collection, The Algebra of Infinite Justice, Arundhati Roy shares her hope that the 21st century will be the century of the dismantling of the big, and that the god of small things will finally be shown the deference she deserves. Already, small farms in Puerto Rico are demonstrating a newfound robustness in the wake of Hurricane Maria, and town civic associations throughout Spain are working to provide support and integration services to an influx of asylum seekers arriving from North Africa. In the digital realm, groups like Tamera and Bayo Akomolafe’s Emergence Network are working to connect and build a dialogue between local change makers across the globe. Taken together, I like to think that all of these initiatives and trends hint at a germinating reverence for the beauty and diversity of the particular.

The photograph featured at the beginning of this post was taken in the final days of the Standing Rock protests in North Dakota, when the Water Protectors vacated the main camp, Oceti Sakowin, in anticipation of Governor Doug Burgum’s eviction order.  A lot is captured in that photo. The colorless sky, stagnant water, burning structure, and backhoe waiting to clear the detritus of a once-jubilant resistance movement make for a dystopian tableau. But those who closely followed the Lakota Sioux’s standoff with Energy Transfer Partners, LP, especially after the Dakota Access Pipeline was lain under the Missouri River, have taken heart in the invocation that we the living are the Eighth Generation, and that our decisions, not just the single action of a government agency or corporation, will shape the world of the seven generations that follow. As our global crises converge, will we muster the fortitude needed to assemble our own resistance camps and triage centers, to halt and reverse the depredations of corporate globalization? The answer lies in whether each of us is willing to engage with and assume a deeply embedded citizenship of the places we call home.

Wampum, the Iroquois Connection, and Monetizing the Landscape

A couple of months ago a professor of mine and I were ushered into an anteroom of the Akwesasne Cultural Center and Museum in St. Regis, NY. The space was dedicated to a single exhibit; a glass case containing a 250-year old belt made from white and purple wampum beads. Our guide, Sue, explained to us that the belt is referred to by her people as the Wolf Belt, and commemorates the peace between the various Iroquois communities of the St. Lawrence Valley and the English crown following the Seven Years War. The Wolf Belt, which had been housed at the New York State Museum in Albany since the turn of the 20th century, was repatriated to the Akwesasne Mohawks in 2010.

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Wolf Belt upon its return to Akwesasne (©Indiantime.net)

At the time of my visit to the museum I was reading Katherine Howlett Hayes’s Slavery Before Race, and thus was aware of the possibility that some of the beads threaded into the Wolf Belt, if not from Shelter Island, may have been manufactured in the general eastern Long Island area. Wampum, which comes from the Algonquian wampumpeague, is manufactured from either whelk or quahog shells, depending on the maker’s desired bead color. Contrary to popular historical misperception, wampum was not “Indian money.” It could not be used to purchase goods or services. Instead, wampum was exchanged among coastal Algonquian communities as a gift that carried political undertones; several strings of wampum might be exchanged among visiting sachems as a substantiation of a diplomatic partnership. These networks of exchange penetrated inland into the eastern Great Lakes region, where the Iroquoian nations, especially Haudenosaunee came to value wampum as a means of declaring war or, in the case of the Wolf Belt, friendship.

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Spiraled whelk shells were used to make white wampum beads, which were considered to be less valuable than purple beads from quahog shells.

Europeans, however, did treat wampum as a currency. Dutch settlers used wampum as a means of procuring beaver pelts from inland Indians, while both Dutch and English colonial officials at times sanctioned wampum as legal tender in monetary transactions for lack of standard coinage. Given Shelter island’s estuarine location, it is unsurprising that the manufacture of wampum was one of multiple commercial activities that took place at Sylvester Manor during its plantation days between 1652 and 1680. A ready supply of Manhanset laborers experienced in the techniques of shell bead making provided Nathaniel Sylvester with an additional source of wealth, at least until overproduction of wampum (as a result of the introduction of steel awls) ate away at its value. Excavations of the original plantation core have turned up copious amounts of tool-worked outer shell fragments that were discarded in favor of the inner shell parts from which beads were produced. Some beads stayed in the economy of Long Island Sound, while others undoubtedly ended up in Haudenosaunee territory in the St. Lawrence Valley.

Sylvester Manor’s one-time status as a mass producer of wampum bears special significance on several fronts, not least because it represents an early, explicit instance of European commercial interests monetizing an indigenous cultural practice. As it happens, Nathaniel Sylvester’s great-grandson, the lawyer Ezra L’Hommedieu, (whose daughter, Mary Catherine, served briefly as the mistress of Sylvester Manor in the 1830s) had a hand in determining how the state of New York dealt with its indigenous nations. As a member of New York”s Indian Affairs Commission in the 1790s, Ezra and his colleagues negotiated with constituent members of Haudenosaunee (which was still divided in the aftermath of the American Revolution) for the overwhelming majority of each nation’s historical lands in exchange for reserve territory. The commission also treated the indigenous population as citizens of the new Republic; not out of altruism, but because land belonging to a citizen could more easily be sold to settlers than land belonging to a sovereign nation.

The realm of monetary valuation is a topic I will return to repeatedly in my writing, for the relentless commodification of the natural and human cultural spheres is a critical factor in creating the Crisis of Now. Yet Sylvester Manor offers a unique perspective from which to consider how Anglo-Dutch speculation and investment in the 1600s created the monetary system me know today, and how such an economic model marginalized the lives and power of American Indians.

From its inception, the colonial project in North America was an economic endeavor aimed at extracting raw materials that were growing scarce in Europe. Even the Puritans, those righteous “First Americans,” could not have established Plymouth Colony without the backing of the London Virginia Company and the Merchant Adventurers. It therefore follows that, where one year Nathaniel Sylvester is overseeing Manhanset laborers turn shells into currency, another year Ezra L’Hommedieu is paving the way for white Americans to establish homesteads in what used to be Haudenosaunee country. Since capital for such monetary claims of ownership flowed exclusively from Europe and America’s settled coast, it was almost inevitable that indigenous landholdings in the American Republic would be decimated by the market demands of a new transoceanic Western society.

The Akwesasne Mohawk, with whom I worked this past spring as part of this project, are engaged in a decades-long, incremental mission to regain historically Mohawk land that was sold to non-native settlers under questionable legal maneuverings. They are not alone in this goal. The Schaghticoke Tribal Nation in Connecticut has been trying to defend its land claims in the northwestern part of the state since the 1980s, while, here in the neighborhood of Sylvester Manor, the Shinnecock nation still disputes the legitimacy of the Shinnecock Hills Golf Club. If the indigenous peoples of the world were among the first to feel the shock of global investment capitalism, then, by reclaiming their lands and removing them from the market, it is appropriate that they should be at vanguard of transitioning away from the economic system that has landed us amidst so many converging global crises. Yet they are joined by many allies, including Sylvester Manor Educational Farm, which focuses on reviving local cultural traditions; reconnecting island residents with the rhythms of the growing seasons; and shedding light on the American landscape’s true past. Surely this mission constitutes a movement away from the dominant mindsets of the past 500 years or so. If the the repatriation of a revered piece of Mohawk beadwork is a part of this new movement as well, then all the better.

The Amsterdam Connection

When the Manor house was refurbished in 1908, Cornelia Conway Felton Horsford, the mistress at the time, chose to embellish the front parlor’s fireplace with delftware tiles – an apparent nod to Nathaniel Sylvester’s upbringing in seventeenth century Amsterdam’s community of exiled English Separatists. The parlor delftware constitutes one of the more visible attestations to the Sylvester family’s time in the Dutch Republic. When a team of historical archaeologists from UMass-Boston began excavating the Manor grounds in the 1990s, they unearthed a surfeit of Dutch-made tobacco pipes and yellow bricks that resembled the bricks fired in Gouda kilns.

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Delftware trim, front parlor.

I am interested in the Netherlands of the 1600s. One could argue that the global order of things as we know them today – our world of intercontinental commerce, service-oriented economies, and staggering material wealth, all powered by growth-based economics and investment capital – was first realized in the damp, peaty lowlands of the Rhine delta at the turn of the seventeenth century. Intriguingly, Yale anthropologist James C. Scott also speculates that the year 1600 marks the point in world history when the concept of ‘the state’ came to predominate human social organization. It just so happens that no state at that time had a wealthier population than the Dutch Republic.

Nathaniel Sylvester’s parents, Mary and Giles, migrated with their Separatist families across the English channel to the relative safety of Amsterdam in the first decade of the 1600s. By Nathaniel’s birth in 1620, Giles was a well-regarded member of the Ancient Church (Englelse Kerk) and an up-and-coming merchant in a country that was willing to out up with foreigners and religious iconoclasts rejected by the rest of Europe. As such, the Amsterdam Nathaniel grew up in was one of satin-clad housewives and colorful row houses fronted by spotless stoeps which resounded with the raucous footsteps of children engrossed in neighborhood play. It was a port city from which more than 100 merchant vessels might disembark and set sail across the IJsselmeer in a single day. Such an ’embarrassment of riches,’ as Simon Schama puts it, was made possible by the Dutch Republic’s subordination of Spain and Portugal in the realm of Atlantic shipping. Absent the mercantilist royal bureaucracies which helped contribute to the demise of Iberian transoceanic hegemony, Dutch exploits in the New World and Asia were financed primarily by private investors via joint-stock companies – the forebears of today’s transnationals. Raised amidst so much commercial ferment, it is unsurprising that Nathaniel and his four brothers followed their father into the merchant trade.

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Profile of Amsterdam Seen from the IJ by Pieter van der Keere (1618)

All of the Sylvester sons returned to the English fold, either settling in Britain or one of its colonies just as the English began challenging Dutch turf. Yet part of the Dutch Republic’s inheritance in wealth came with an unquantifiable human cost, a cost that the Sylvesters were also complicit in exacting: by the 1600s, the Dutch were the most active European slave traders. Northern Europe’s growing taste for sugar shifted the flow of African slaves northward from South America to the French and English-dominated Caribbean, where Constant Sylvester, Nathaniel’s older brother, established a Barbadian sugar plantation. Nathaniel then acquired the 8,000 acres of Shelter Island in order to establish a plantation of his own for the purpose of provisioning his brother’s operation with horses, salted beef, and any other goods that could not be produced in a tropical colony whose entire bonded work force of several thousand was engaged solely in the production of a sweetener.

This is to say nothing yet of the presence of slaves at the Manor (upon his death, Nathaniel Sylvester bequeathed 23 enslaved Africans to his wife, Grizzell, and their children); the marginalization of Indians on Long Island’s East End (the system of debt bondage and impressed Manhansett/Montaukett labor under the Sylvesters was slavery in all but name); or the wealth inequality among Europeans themselves as a new economic order took shape (1600s Amsterdam had its districts of grinding urban poverty, while Sylvester Manor possessed its share of indentured servants from the British Isles). But it is not my purpose here to recount every human injustice associated with Sylvester Manor’s past – as I have already noted, the human toll of the patterns of commerce and statecraft born in the 1600s is beyond quantifying.

Instead, I wish to reflect on how Sylvester Manor serves as a relatively intact index of the social trends and revolutions of the past 400 years whose cumulative effects are manifesting in what I like to refer to as the Crisis of Now – the interlocking environmental, economic, and spiritual emergencies that define the 21st century. Despite the Manor’s bucolic rural character, it took the labor and wealth extraction on the margins of three different continents (four, if South America is included) to make its existence possible. Now, in 2018, the infamous Triangle Trade of the Atlantic has evolved into the globally-connected society in which we all are enmeshed, and Sylvester Manor is one of many regional nerve centers that were vital in catalyzing that transformation.

So it is that when I look across the north lawn towards the white wooden gate and Gardiners Creek, I find it impossible to ignore the global reach of these 240 acres on the edge of North America. The white gate, which now opens onto a land bridge, marks the landing where barges and longboats unloaded wares from Europe for Nathaniel Sylvester’s provisioning operation before loading Barbados-bound cargo. In the wake of those ships of yore, I try to discern the skeins of connective historical tissue that link this place with the slave castles of the Guinea Coast and the tribal councils of Eastern Algonquian tribes just as much as with the windmills of Holland or the sheep pastures of Somerset. Here multiple human trajectories and the fates of nations collide, and today our lives are thoroughly etched by that collision.

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Gardiners Creek Landing

This is intellectual rumination, an attempt to make sense of the entanglements of the injustices of the past with the lives of the 7.5 billion humans living right now. These are not jolly thoughts to be preoccupied with, but I believe that parsing and understanding the knotted interface of past and present is necessary if we are to see through our converging global crises. And from deposits of yellow Dutch bricks to a burial ground for the enslaved, from archived documents bearing the signatures of Long Island sachems to parlors decked out in cosmopolitan colonial opulence, Sylvester Manor offers a unique vantage point from which to begin that work of belated comprehension.