Emergence in Empire

Emergence in Empire November 5, 2014

It’s a four-year-old’s game of infinite regression, yet more profound than she can possibly know.

“Daddy, what would we do if we couldn’t buy gas?,” she asks with an impish grin when she knows she should be eating breakfast.

I will play the game if she’ll have another bite.  “Well, sweetie, I guess we’d go to a different gas station!”

“And what if that gas station was out of gas too?  And the other one. What if all of them were out of gas?”

denariusPushing back flashbacks to my favorite TV show ‘The Walking Dead’, my mind starts moving faster.  “Well, I guess we’d need to wake up earlier in the morning so we could walk to school instead of driving you… or maybe just ride our bikes.”

She’s smiling even bigger now.  “And what if our bike tires didn’t have any air?  What would we do then?”

I answer her best I can, but my mind is racing now.  Food and water– we would need food and water.  Sure, we could walk to the grocery store, but how long would the store continue to have food without a fuel supply?  A few years ago I shopped at a nearby grocery store in the wake of a snowstorm:  a single missed shipment by a single truck left the place looking like a post-apocalyptic movie.

I remember the first time I heard someone use the phrase ‘the American Empire’.  The idea seemed surprising, unsettling, disturbing, dangerous, and subversive.  I still feel a tingle whenever I apply it to the land of my birth, even after I’ve come to see the disturbing truth of it, played out in both theory and practice.  It’s about much more than oil, of course, but that’s certainly a part of it.  And it’s much bigger than the government, in fact a kind of participatory individuated democracy which we endorse every time we buy some cheaply produced good.

What I can’t tell the girl who won’t eat is that she would be very, very hungry if we couldn’t get any gas.  I can’t tell her that our whole food supply and way of life is borne on the backs of dinosaurs and all of our fossil fuels.  That our existence is dependent upon their extinction.  That the whole system hangs in a tenuous balance, furthered by an Empire that buys and sells fuel, and wages wars to ensure the supply continues.  The whole thing is obviously unsustainable, but also seems inextricable.

It’s an ugly truth, and one I’d rather ignore.  Her innocence only magnifies my guilt, and amplifies our family’s complicity in this system.  Her unconscious observations undermine my own illusion that I’m an innocent, slightly pacifistic person who is charting a course separate from this empire.  I would like to ignore the fact that her breakfast is bought with blood.

It’s fun to denounce the American Empire, until you see how complicit you are in it. We like to think of ourselves as agents of emergence— as independent actors in a self-organizing system.  But that idealist vision takes on another layer of complexity when we pause to consider the system of empire in which we find ourselves.

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