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.

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.

Manor Ghosts

In the Spanish film El Bosque Animado (The Enchanted Forest), a spirit instructs the protagonist that “Every forest has a right to its ghost.” As a student of environmental and ecological thought in college, that is a lesson I have learned first-hand; I have lain on my back, as if invited, and stared up at a grove of Adirondack white pines taller than the Statue of Liberty that somehow escaped the whims of nineteenth century lumber barons. Yet I have also stumbled through a vine-tangled oak savanna not far from where I grew up in Connecticut. The latter forests’s ghost did not seem keen on my intrusion.

Two weeks into my stay on Shelter Island, I think it is more than appropriate to say that every landscape has a right to its ghosts, and one would be hard-pressed to locate a tract of American land whose ghosts are as multitudinous as those that inhabit Sylvester Manor. There are the obvious resident specters – those of Nathaniel Sylvester and his 10+ generations of descendants. There are also the notables of American history – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Mary Dyer, Asa Gray – who have left imprints on the property in the course of pursuing their own life’s work. Yet, like the family historian motivated solely by a desire to trace his lineage back to Henry VIII (or Marie Antoinette, or Genghis Khan, or whoever you fancy), enumerating all of the past luminaries associated with Sylvester Manor misses the point. Human history is an ecology of stories, and we can only do justice to that ecology by understanding the multiplicity of lives, big and small, that have crafted the world of today simply by having once walked this earth.

So, as a start, it helps to remember Isaac Pharaoh, a Montaukett man who was indentured to the Gardiner family in 1829 at the age of five and ended up spending the rest of his seven decades at Sylvester Manor. There is also Julia Dyd Havens Johnson, born circa 1810, whose step-father, Comus Fanning, was a manumitted Long Island slave; Julia served as Manor housekeeper for three generations of Gardiners and Horsfords. There is also the Colored Burial Ground, a fenced off parcel of woodland where multiple generations of  enslaved Africans and impressed Manhansett laborers are interred. Such are the beginnings of Sylvester Manor’s historical ecology.

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Burying Ground of the Colored People of the Manor

But what to make of these lives, these Manor ghosts whose stories are integral to the landscape? Sometimes at nightfall, after a long day of work in the Windmill Field, I may be walking among the garden’s ancient boxwoods or by the north lawn’s copper beech, and feel compelled to stop and contemplate. When I do halt in my path, I become aware of a presence, a collective calling to attention that says “We were here.” I suppose the presence I’ve become familiar with at Sylvester Manor is a spirit of sorts, born of this parcel of land’s particular ghosts. They are ghosts of loss, injustice, and sorrow. Yet they are also ghosts of contentment, joy, and the mundane experiences of human life lived on a day-to-day basis. They have a different story to tell of American history than the occluded, amnesia-ridden tale most of us were brought up with. And, like every history grounded in a cultural landscape, they can tell us something about the human condition. Regardless of what stories we unearth, though, the ghosts of Sylvester Manor implore us the living to pay attention and listen close.

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