The Aboriginal tribes of Australia are the earth’s oldest known continuous civilization, dating back forty thousand years. An Aboriginal tribal elder, when asked why his culture had left behind no structures that compared with the Pyramids, the Parthenon, or the great monuments of other civilizations, replied that his people had strived to leave the land just as they had found it: that was their most enduring monument.
It seems frightening yet strangely appropriate that the most enduring monuments the West will leave for future generations will not be Stonehenge, the Pyramids of Giza, or the cathedral at Chartres, but rather the hazardous remains of our industry and technology. The temples of the Aztec and Mayan civilizations have survived a mere 500 to 2,000 years; Native American Anasazi cave dwellings and pictographs date back only 1,000 to 2,500 years. How much longer lasting—and how tragic in consequence—will be the contemporary wasteland that has been created in the United States during the past 200 years, and especially the past 50.
The radioactive contamination from American plutonium factories will be in evidence long after the Pyramids have disappeared, our soaring modern architectural edifices have crumbled, and entire cultures have risen and fallen. Remaining deadly for more than 250,000 years, this legacy of ours will last for 10,000 generations into the future. (To put this into perspective, Homo sapiens in its present form has been on the earth for 60,000 to 100,000 years.) This then is the final stage in our exploration and development of the American continent. Instead of the Zen garden of Kyoto’s Ryoanji, we leave behind vast gardens of ashes and poisons. Instead of the sculpted temples of Borobudur in Java or Ajanta in India, we leave to future generations Rocky Flats and the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.
Mythologies have a way of becoming flesh, of embodying themselves in social realities. Like the ancient megaliths of Stonehenge or the lines of Nazca, these waste sites may be seen as monuments to the dominant myths and obsessions of our culture. It is clear that our civilization and its relationship to the earth and all its inhabitants is diametrically opposed to the attitudes of certain tribal cultures who felt so devoted to and united with nature that they could not bring themselves even to farm for fear of cutting into the Mother.
Instead of a sacred sense of our place within a miraculous cosmos and a deep respect for the interconnectedness of nature and our role within its vast rhythms and cycles, we have created a patriarchal society buttressed by a religion that mythologizes—and a science that justifies—the separation, even opposition, of God, humanity, and nature. Our culture and its dominant religions reinforce in us a deep fear and distrust of the natural world. What we seem to be reenacting in our own time is a central myth of the Judeo-Christian religions: the Fall and the Expulsion from the Garden. Like a self-fulfilling prophecy, we attempt to rival the power of “the gods” and as punishment for our hubris, we cast ourselves into a Paradise Lost. The American landscape at the end of the second millennium is becoming a contemporary reflection of our ancient vision of the Apocalypse.
These hazardous sites also demonstrate the dramatic contradiction between Americans’ public reverence for nature—proclaiming the virtues of the “virgin” wilderness—and our inability to respect the land that we actually live on. Clearly these places signal a radical shift from the savoring and fetishizing of landscape as Nature’s Body, to an unconscious American scorched-earth policy motivated by power, ambition, greed, and deceit. Instead of fulfilling the utopian promises of the industrial-technological age, we have manifested the dark side of the American Dream and created a landscape of failed desire. In our society’s insistent fear and denial of death, we are surrounding ourselves with entire landscapes of death.
Geologists estimate that the North American continent as we now know it has existed for some sixty million years. What we have managed to do to it in a mere two hundred years, and to the American West in much less time, defies the imagination. Driven by our distorted notions of progress, we have realized the logical conclusion of our Manifest Destiny, and have transformed our natural world from wilderness to pastoral landscape to industrial site and now to wasteland.
Excerpt from Waste Land by David T. Hanson, published by Taverner Press