Wednesday, May 27, 2009

In defense of artifice

I have just got around to reading Jay Griffiths' essay "Artifice v. Pastoral" in the March-April issue of Orion. For those who don't know it, Orion is a first-rate, handsomely-produced journal devoted primarily to conservation of the natural world. Poetry, art, and spirituality all fall with its purview. Only rarely do I find myself taking issue with what appears in Orion, but Griffith's essay -- although well-intentioned, and by a writer of enormous sensitivity and talent -- strikes me as so much balderdash.

Everything that is wrong with the world, Griffith suggests, is rooted in our preference for artifice over what is natural. Climate change, financial crisis, unsustainable energy use -- she squeezes it all into the straitjacket of artifice versus pastoral. We know what artifice means, presumably: the product of human agency and cunning. And pastoral? "In the pastoral, the world is familiar: the squeaky gate, the cottage garden, the snug joining of things, each acre and each person known."

Well, who doesn't love the squeaky gate? But isn't the gate itself an artifice. Does Jay Griffith forego electricity, mechanical transportation, computers, antibiotics? What about her clothing, her house, her food? All artifice.

Does she really suggest that we should empty out the cities and send everyone out into the pastures, a cottage garden and squeaky gate for all 7 billion of us, "common people on common land"? For her ideal human she turns to indigenous peoples, as if indigenous people are not equally adaptive to television, snow mobiles, and AK47s when they can get their hands on them. Would she deprive indigenous peoples access to modern health care?

If this critique of Griffiths' essay sounds reductionistic, it is because her thesis is reductionistic. Of course there are problems in the world, huge problems, and excesses, and violence. But to blame it on artifice is simply silly. How about overpopulation and greed? How about abuse of power? How about, in other words, the less admirable side of human nature.

The pastoral is an unrealistic ideal in a world of 7 billion people. Only artifice can give us anything like a sustainable future -- artifice tempered by beauty and wisdom. While Griffiths putters in her cottage garden, let us hope that somewhere an artificer is working on clean energy sources, a new green revolution in agriculture, and cures for the diseases that afflict so many of humankind.

(There is an anti-science subtext to Griffiths' essay that I will address tomorrow.)