[45.0] on collapse
rationalizing crises of yore
Read the tea leaves! Read all the leaves, for that matter! With the right can-do attitude, you too might see nature as a blockchain. A distributed ledger, that is, capable of storing information.
If he were a crypto bro in a ten-person Bahamian polycule, Clarence King, American geologist and author of Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada (1871), would no doubt say the same thing. He once extolled the virtues of interpreting the glaciers of the Yosemite as a “great open book,” and the valley as an archive.
To-day their burnished pathways are legibly traced with the history of the past. Every ice-stream is represented by a feeble river, every great glacier cascade by a torrent of white foam dashing itself down rugged walls, or spouting from the brinks of upright cliffs.
King and other settler-colonial thinkers like him from both sides of the Pacific—John Muir, Josiah Whitney, Julius von Haast, among others—form a cohort of nineteenth-century ~*disruptors*~ who used the land and its aberrations to make sense of their purpose in a supposed terra nullius. Through objectivist statements like the one above (land as book/archive), this geographically distributed community of intellectuals helped colonizers rationalize catastrophe and moralize periods of distress through scientificity.
Australian historian Jarrod Hore digs into this history in his essay “Settlers in Earthquake Country: Apprehending Instability in New Zealand and California.” What happens when burgeoning colonial settlements suddenly collapse or are badly damaged? Is how I interpret Hore’s core query. In addition to: Do settlers realize the hubris at the core of their project—or, at the very least, that of building directly above fault lines?
The answer is no. Rather than mourn losses of life and abandon colonial projects or deign to adjust them to something less profiteering, settlers turned to physical objects and capital as ways to claim resilience and double down. “In these places broken landscapes were urgently resettled, images of damage became popular reminders of settler tenacity, and new environmental knowledge was cultivated and celebrated,” Hore explains.
The Christchurch Cathedral in New Zealand, for instance, which saw its steeple damaged in an earthquake in 1888, was described as “injured” and became an enduring symbol of white New Zealand’s steadfastness in the face of adversity.
Behind this #SteepleStrong boosterism was simple economics. Settler communities reacted to natural disasters with a formula that ensured continued financial support and growth. ”Investment in colonial infrastructure was supported by an almost unlimited access to credit,” Hore elaborates. “For much of the late nineteenth century, opportunity outweighed anxiety and development mindsets did not adequately acknowledge risk.” In the wake of an 1855 earthquake that caused little damage in Wellington, New Zealand, a local paper began coverage with relief and ended its article with pseudo-marketing copy in favor of settler-colonial agriculture and the affordable credit available to prospective settlers through the “loan system.”
The risks of living on fault lines were often intentionally obfuscated. One San Francisco earthquake commission in 1868 even quashed its final report to mitigate the effects of relocation and zoning reform on the property markets—with land and real estate being asset classes that affect the commissioners personally, too.
Concomitantly, geologists attempted to make sense of these earthquakes as part of a larger, global trend. Since a chain of earthquakes on settler land must mean that cataclysms are happening with greater frequency everywhere. (Now read that last sentence sarcastically, which is how I mean it.) Geologist Joseph LeConte argued that the whole world was in a “rather unstable condition of equilibrium” due to a notably damaging earthquake cycle in 1872.
What’s with this seismological synopsis and exposition? Returning to the blockchain: It’s helpful to think of the ongoing collapse of the crypto world in these historical and self-mythologizing terms. How have previous settlers—many gracing the same spaces (Stanford/Palo Alto) as disgraced FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried and his venture-capital backers—made sense of collapse, and gained power from it?
When, as Hore explains, “an area of land the size of Trinidad was lifted up and tilted west towards Australia” during the 1855 earthquake, a captain surveying the damage said it was “matter of congratulation to the inhabitants that they have gained or can easily redeem a large tract of building ground.” A lake had turned into a swamp, which could then be turned into dry land with some elbow grease and determination.
Don’t wanna get too Trumpy with my hydrological language, but we’re in the crypto swamp now; multibillion-dollar institutions once hailed as the “clean” vanguard of a stodgy sector were, in fact, worse than many of the “worst” bad actors. Livelihoods have been wiped away, a stupid amount of energy has been used for mining, polycules have disbanded, and we have little to show for in terms of global civilizational or ecological benefit. Will venture capitalists continue to push a bajillion dollars into this enterprise, hoping that the punishment of one (Sam Bankman-Fried) will symbolically cleanse the industry of its sins? How expensive will it be to turn the swamp into dry land, only for another quake to strike?
[stay tuned for part two!]
Divine Innovation is a somewhat cheeky newsletter on spirituality and technology. Published once every three weeks, it’s written by Adam Willems and edited by Vanessa Rae Haughton. Find the full archive here.