In the previous post on the environmental movement in conflict with genetic improvement I associated the environmental movement with romanticism and idealization of the middle ages. This article offers up a cultural artifact as an example of the association.
In the fall of 1971 I was in the U.S. Peace Corps working in Ethiopia. I was on traveling by bus to the capital, Addis Ababa, to pick up some supplies, and stopped in a town where a new Peace Corp volunteer couple had recent installed themselves. The visit was just to get to know some new Americans in the area and chat. They had a copy of the Neil Young’s, After the Goldrush album on tap and I listened to it for the first time.
There was a connection between the lyrics of After the Gold Rush and Ethiopia. The song is divided into 3 stanzas. The first is about the idealized medieval past; the second about our troubled fractured present and the third about a dream of the polluted future. The connection is that until 1974 Ethiopia was still a medieval community with a feudal political system, and a largely non-commercial agricultural economy. The Ethiopian Orthodox church provided a unifying culture to the social core of Christian Ethiopia.
The Romantic Environmentalist Praise of the medieval world is associated with rejection of the modern world with its commerce, science, and cheap communication
The supposition in the romantic times of the 1960s and 1970s in America was that the medieval world constituted a time in which there was social harmony and common people supported the actions of governments because both people and governments agreed on a set of culturally predetermined roles in which each class was aware of their social obligations. That is not really how feudal government works. Those common conceptions of social roles were not automatically accepted. Feudal government is about a hierarchical order in which lords pledge loyalty to a monarch in a mutual protection pact. The local lord promises to protect the monarchy in exchange for a royal promise to protect the lord from his rivals. The lord receives land rights to so that he will have the economic means to raise an army, in exchange for the obligation to help the monarch collect taxes for the royal army. In Medieval Europe the social constraints on the roles of the powerful were embodied in the Catholic Church which could define moral limits on the exercise of power. The Church helped establish the concept of rule of law which had evolved along the pattern of law within the Church. The Church was itself both hierarchical and limited by its own traditions, but it was strong enough to put limits on the ranges of action of the feudal warrior hierarchy. The modern world is associated with the middle class world of the towns which evolved somewhat apart from the structures of the Church and feudal princely order.
In 1971 Ethiopia’s middle class had yet to emerge as a power in the society. It was still a small farmer society ruled buy a land owning farmer-aristocrats committed to a royal government who could unite them in response to foreign threats and suppress any local revolts against taxes or which reflected the rights of some new charismatic leader who was out to create a place for himself among the lords and princes. It was true that social and religious constraints limited government, but the acceptance of the aristocracy of church and government was not all harvest festivals and walks in the sun, there was force behind it and the power of the aristocracy depended on control of an economy based on non-technological agriculture. Agricultural business would have eroded the ties between the land owning aristocracy and the share crop peasantry.
But to Neil in this song the medieval past was a viable alternative to the environmental disruption of the present, where “Mother Nature on the run” described the environment. In the 1960s Romantic elevation of the medieval world there was a denial of the force and restriction which was behind the social order which existed and a denial of the economic privation and poverty which was associated with the lack of technology, education and commerce in real medieval society. When the social order was mentioned it was only “something about a queen,” and not something about her husband’s armies, his tax collection bureaucracy and his secret police. When the economic order was mentioned it was peasant singing rather than thin peasants squatting with a short handled hoe to do the weeding or peasants handing over the landlord’s share of the harvest. The medieval world was far enough removed in time that its real characteristics could be neglected.
This romantic vision of the 1960s and 1970s associated warfare with the modern world. In practice the feudal world was filled with wars among princes who could not agree with the established social order. The common people lived close to the land and when war interrupted planting or harvest there was starvation and disease. The medieval situation is not so different than battles over resources in today’s Africa. There are studies that document that pre-modern society was more, not less, violent than the modern middle class world.
The romantic vision of the 1960s and 1970s associated pollution with the modern world. The use of nuclear weapons was the ultimate act of pollution. The second stanza is a battlefield scene. It is quite possible that what the friend had said was that the modern world is condemned to self-destruct and that the sun bursting through the sky was a nuclear explosion.
Neil Young, cover of the After the Gold Rush Album, 1970
In the modern commercial seed world, we are involved in the exchange between farmers and the seed industry. It is the assumption that the middle class commercial vision is associated with environmental disaster and with nuclear destruction which is problematic for our relations with broader society. This song does not mention business or commerce, but the use of the medieval past as an idyllic contrast to the corrupt present implicitly rejects commerce which was not an important part of the medieval scene. The title “After the Gold Rush” suggests that Neil is thinking that the environmental problems of the modern world follow its commercialism.
In the last stanza Neil dreams of a world grown so polluted that mankind must find a new planet to inhabit. He dreams of people boarding the spaceship to leave on their journey.
The elevation of the medieval world also implicitly rejects science, although science is not mentioned in the song either and Neil’s dream of a space ship to take people to another place in the universe might be construed to be positive toward science. The attitude toward human science turns on the interpretation of the 3rd and 4th lines from the end: “They [or We] were flying Mother Nature’s/Silver seed to a new home in the sun. “They” might be aliens in whose hands technology might be safe when it might not be in human hands. If the pronoun is “we” then the use of the space ship technology to save mankind would be an indication that there is a possibility that humankind might put technology to good use as well as use it for destruction.
The elevation of Mother Nature implicitly involves rejection of the manipulation of nature which science makes possible. The ability to manipulate nature has been held up as the justification for the encouragement or support of science since Francis Beacon published Novum Organum Scientiarum (‘New Method’), in 1620. The old socialists put the blame for the misuse of science and technology on capitalism and commerce. The new romantic postmodernists tend to reject both middle class commerce and science. They dislike the authority which the idea that any truth is universal gives and the objective of science is to discover universal truths.
It is this new postmodern rejection of science which is behind the activist rejection of the Consultative Group in International Agricultural Research, CGIAR, in international agricultural development and the role of the Gates Foundation in international agricultural research. The old socialists would be satisfied with the rejection of the commercial companies. It is the new romantic postmodernist who reject science itself as corruption and corrupting.
In the 1960’s and 1970s romantic vision of the modern world there was an association of science, commerce and the urbanized world with pollution, warfare and nuclear destruction. Of course the perception of that association does not make it a reality. Science may facilitate may make control over nature possible, but that does not mean that society will not use control over nature to protect nature. Commerce might allow the wealth which permits modern warfare but that does not mean that we in society will not decide to use that wealth for peaceful ends.
Poets and the seed industry
Neil has given the pre-modern world a character which it did not have. There is a good reason why this social order has now almost entirely disappeared from the face of the earth. After the Gold Rush might be a harmless and quite beautiful piece of music and poetry, but music and poetry are important in society, and this particular piece of music probably does some damage to the seed industry in a very abstract way.
Given the power of song I perhaps should not give the link to After the Gold Rush, but there is enough of the romantic left in me that I cannot resist.
I have another trivial personal connection to After the Gold Rush. In the late 1960s Neil Young lived in a house in the Hills behind Stanford University. I was a student at Stanford at the time and lived in a dormitory on campus. One of the guys in my part of the dorm had the nerve to drive up to visit Neil at his home and struck up a friendship. Neil Young considers himself a country boy from the small towns of Manitoba and Ontario; although a lot of his youth was spend in the suburbs. He was always a bit uncomfortable with the bright lights of the music business and the life of being a famous rock star. He didn’t like the commercial side of the music business. He purchased the small ranch off La Honda Rd. outside Redwood City in the late 1960s, after he had his first big success in the music business with Buffalo Springfield in Los Angeles. Given that he is a private guy, it is surprising that my college friend got in the door, but he was a personable sort.
This song shows Neil’s interest in environmental issues. He has also been involved with the Farm Aid effort since the 80s in support of family farming. That gives him a substantial connection with the critics of the technology treadmill that I commented on in the second part of my series describing arguments for and against agricultural biotechnologies capacity to help the poor. The fact that Neil want to the effort of buying and keeping a farm indicates that his commitment to the rural world is heartfelt. But I think that he fits with the romantic environmentalist more than the old socialist economic arguments about why bankers would end up dispossessing small farmers.
I do not wish to criticize Farm Aid for helping farmers who were or are in financial trouble. But I personally do not think that helping the poor necessarily means rejection of the successful. A quick visit to the Farm Aid website will take you to a page about corporate concentration in agriculture which blames the commercially successful for the problems of small farmers. They also have a page praising Jim Gerritsen and the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association for their fight against GMOs and the classification of GMOs as pollution. In a restored medieval world, people like Gerritsen aspire to be princes in the new feudal order 1 and traveling balladeers like Neil Young help to create social environments in which it would be possible.
Analytical types at least since Plato have been warning about the influence of poets. Dylan Thomas put it this way:
A good poem helps to change the shape and significance of the universe,
helps to extend everyone’s knowledge of himself and the world around him 2
Poets engage in a bit of world construction. Plato preferred to leave the construction of world to philosopher kings and said that “there is, from of old, a quarrel between philosophy and poetry” 3 Plato proposed to limit poetic influence by using censorship. 4 In a free society we are just going to have to trust that more concrete forms of argument are going to win out in the conflict of ideas that construes the medieval world as somehow more free and virtuous than the modern.
After the Good Rush is an example of finding fault with the modern world of free markets, science, individual rights, easy communication and easy travel without having a workable alternative. The medieval world is not a model that can work can work for us now. It did not work very well for the people who once inhabited it.
The personal challenge for me is that I still like this kind of poetry. I still listen to Neil, Willy Nelson and Bob Dylan. Luckily the human brain is big enough of hold more than a few contradictions.
1 In the old Ethiopian order any political rebel tended to be identified as a bandit. If the Occupy Movement appeared in old Ethiopia, they would have been labeled as bandits. There is an element of truth to this. In our commercial society opposition political groups can get contributions from friendly industrialists or rock musicians. In a society without a commercial sector and with no mass communication, if you want to get the economic means to stage a rebellion there are few choices. The best viable alternative is to steal from feudal hierarchy, which makes you a bandit like Robin Hood.
2 Dylan Thomas, “On Poetry,” Quite Early One Morning, New Directions, 1954, pp. 192-93
3 Alan Bloom, The Republic of Plato, translated with notes and an interpretive essay, New York: Basic Books, 1968. Book 5–6. 607.
4 Griswold, Charles L., “Plato on Rhetoric and Poetry”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2012/entries/plato-rhetoric/>.
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philosophy, values, Neil Young, After the Gold Rush, seed industry, agricultural biotechnology, seed, biotechnology, medieval, feudalism, poverty, poet, Farm Aid, help poor, GMO, development.