#109: Three Great Books

MuseLetter #109 / February 2001
by Richard Heinberg

This month I review three truly great books. The first – Gray Brechin’s Imperial San Francisco – is a recent title (1999). The other two were published quite some time ago (Stuart Ewen’s Captains of Consciousness in 1976, and William R. Catton’s Overshoot in 1980). Few periodicals review books that have been around for more than six months. This preference for novelty is mostly understandable, given most readers’ interest in keeping up with the latest ideas and discoveries. But one unfortunate result is that many wonderful books appear and are quickly forgotten; and this tends to be the case increasingly as publishers keep titles in print for ever shorter periods (the current average is less than eighteen months). I believe that a great book is a great book, whether it is shiny and new or dusty and dog-eared. The three I discuss below are exceptional. You can find Imperial San Francisco in some good bookstores; Overshoot is (remarkably) still in print and available from the publisher; but you’ll have to search for Captains of Consciousness in libraries or used bookshops. All three are well worth the effort and/or expense.

Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin, by Gray Brechin (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999)

Gray Brechin, a geographer and journalist, tells us in his Preface that the idea for this book came to him many years ago when he was in Venice – a city that is itself a work or art, yet that was built on wealth derived mostly from piracy. Brechin remembers asking himself then, as he surveyed the decaying splendor of the canals, bridges, and palazzi, “Was it worth it?” Later, when he returned to his home in the San Francisco Bay Area, he decided to ask the same question of the city by the Golden Gate.

San Francisco is in many respects the quintessential city of the American West. Its history has been punctuated by the Gold Rush, the Great Earthquake of 1906, and the “Summer of Love” in 1967. All of this is popular knowledge. But what of the deeper story? How was the city built and by whom? Who paid for its construction and who benefited? In pursuing these obviously important yet often ignored questions, Brechin steers a course straight to the core of civilization’s inherent contradictions and excesses.

Early on, Brechin acknowledges his debt to the work of Lewis Mumford (1895-1990), the great urban historian of the past century. In a score of books in a career spanning over five decades, Mumford brilliantly traced the causes and consequences of urbanization from the early Neolithic to the late industrial era. Through Brechin, Mumford’s ecological, panoramic view of urban history finds fresh expression – presenting a welcome discovery for other Mumford devotees such as myself!

Like Mumford, Brechin locates the first cities’ origins in the archetypal activities of agriculture and mining. Agriculture is more often discussed, but it is from mining that there springs an “invisible pyramid” transforming human beings and the natural world into an enduring, wealth-producing machine. The five “corners” of that Pyramid of Power consist of mechanization, militarism, metallurgy, and money-making, with mining itself at the apex. Whether we speak of ancient Rome or modern San Francisco, any real understanding of the dynamics of a city’s growth and maintenance must issue from, or lead eventually to, ores laboriously dug by unwilling men from a devastated landscape. Brechin writes,

San Francisco’s motto – Gold in Peace, Iron in War – . . . compresses the impetus for more than five thousand years of city making into a few choice words and one salient image. . . .

A city’s parasitism inevitably increases with its size and ambition. To insure that growth, the rulers of cities needed the metals to make both weapons and currency. Metals require mines (metalla in Latin), which in turn need cheap and expendable labor to work them. Mines likewise demand forests to smelt the ores, power the machinery, and prop the tunnels. Those requirements alone spell expansion. . . .

Unlike farmers, miners toil in a lightless and timeless realm of extreme danger and hardship. If agriculture is feminine and fecund as symbolized by Demeter and Ceres, then testosterone characterizes mining, whose gods are of the underworld. Ploutos, in fact, means wealth, and the god known by this name lent it to the plutocrats who possessed riches.

The story of the California gold rush – whose romantic image is celebrated in films and novels, and in the Pioneer Monument in front of San Francisco’s City Hall – is retold here from the standpoint of its effects on the spectacular natural environment of northern California, the richest ecosystem in all of North America:

Those who practiced hydraulic mining could hardly claim ignorance of the results of their activities, for as early as 1855, the Yuba, Feather, and American River canyons had begun vomiting torrents of mud and gravel into the Sacramento valley. First the tributaries, then the trunk Sacramento, filled their beds and went rampaging across the flat valley floor. With each subsequent year that the hydraulic operations expanded, the flooding worsened until it resembled the biblical Deluge. . . . Mining company spokesmen insisted that the gold the Sierra’s rivers added to the commonwealth justified their conversion to trunk sewers.

Mining debris ruined up to 40,000 acres of farmland and damaged an additional 270,000 acres. Rivers once clear and teeming with salmon became lifeless (the last healthy run of salmon up the Sacramento River occurred in 1852). Meanwhile, fortunes accrued not to the romanticized early prospectors, who toiled alone with pan and pick, but to mining engineers, bankers, lumber barons, financiers, and mine owners.

A third necessity for every city, along with agriculture and mines, is an adequate source of fresh water. In a long and fascinating chapter, Brechin tells how rivers issuing from runoff in the Sierra Nevada mountains were siphoned (via taxpayer-financed aqueducts) to feed land values in San Francisco. Along the way, we learn how banker-speculator William Ralston developed Golden Gate Park, again with a view to increasing property values: the park, originally consisting of sand dunes, had to be coaxed into luxuriance through an ingenious method of plant succession and the application of vast quantities of imported water.

A fourth and final requirement – especially for a modern industrial city – is energy. Since California lacks sources of good coal, the first generations of industrial San Franciscans relied on cordwood and imported coal for fuel. “On windless days,” writes Brechin, “the city appeared wreathed in smoke. Ashes fell upon Oakland and Alameda to the east.” In 1892, oil was discovered in southern California, and by the early years of the twentieth century the state had become the world’s leading oil-producing region; the problem now was to find ways to sell and use all this oil so as to keep its price from plummeting. The private automobile proved the ideal outlet.

We also learn of the origins of Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E), whose “corporate genealogy included more than five hundred different companies, stretching back to the gold rush.” As we read of all the mining, banking, land speculating, water diversion, and power generation that went into making San Francisco, a handful of names surface repeatedly – William Crocker, Lloyd Tevis, James Phelan, Charles and Michael de Young, and John D. Spreckels. Few of these names are widely known other than to city historians; however, as Brechin notes,

Power veils itself. From the mystery of what it does, what it owns, and, above all, who it is, it assumes added strength. Within cities, the paths of power grow exceedingly complex and subtle over time as elite families marry to agglomerate wealth and as their heirs retain favored attorneys and bankers to manage and expand their fortunes. These paths resemble the cumulative network of utilities under the streets to which there is no comprehensive guide. Yet it is no less necessary to map these pathways of power than it is to map the physical systems themselves if one is to understand how the city works. . . .

Brechin’s chapter on William Randolph Hearst – publisher of the San Francisco Examiner and the New York Journal, and owner of vast mining and real estate interests – is, by itself, worth the price of the book. This famous originator of “yellow journalism” incited the Spanish-American War and inflamed imperialist ambitions in a nation bursting with finance capital and munitions. Hearst was “A devoted fan of vaudeville and of elaborate practical jokes” whose newspapers “erased any clear distinction between news, entertainment, and propaganda,” pointing the way to “the profitable and persuasive uses of communications technologies in the twentieth century.”

Born during the Civil War, his life bridged two centuries [Hearst died in 1951]. . . . He had converted a Western mining fortune into the world’s greatest, and most autocratically run, media conglomerate, permitting him to live like an emperor while preaching democratic values to his readers. He had helped elect mayors, governors, and presidents, defeated others, and imposed his will, whenever possible, on national and international events.

For those who have a personal tie to northern California, this book is absolutely essential reading. For others, it can serve as a revelation of the processes by which every city is built. After reading Imperial San Francisco, one can never again wander through a city of any size without thinking about the environmental and human costs of the enterprise. Was it all really worth the effort? It probably wouldn’t be considered so, if those reaping the rewards were also paying the price. But time and social distance separate the beneficiaries from bearers of the debt.

Captains of Consciousness: Advertising and the Social Roots of the Consumer Culture, by Stuart Ewen (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976)

A century ago, the U.S. was inhabited mostly by farm families; now, most people work at jobs in cities. During the past century, women entered the work force in large numbers. While people formerly typically lived in large extended families, throughout the twentieth century the number of people typically living together dwindled. In the late nineteenth century, the home and family were functional economic production units; today, households are inhabited by isolated consumers. Back then, local communities were mostly self-sufficient; now, we are all tied to globalized markets, with nearly every kid wearing Nikes made in Indonesia, her parents driving a car made in Japan, and all eating food grown in New Zealand or Chile. This immense social transformation occurred with amazing rapidity. How? Why? Did it somehow happen by itself, without conscious design or forethought?

We like to think we have some perspective on history: there are dozens of books that explain who fought the Civil War and why, who benefited from the slave trade, etc. But as we get closer to our own time, the picture tends to blur. Standard “twentieth-century-in-review” renditions only skim the surface of obvious facts. Who made the decisions that transformed American society from agrarian isolationism to military-commercial imperialism? What strategies were used? Who benefited?

A helpful way of approaching these questions is through a historical study of advertising – because it was the new institution of advertising, more than any other, that offered early twentieth-century leaders of finance and industry the means to sculpt the American psyche. Stuart Ewen’s classic study, Captains of Consciousness, is perhaps the best place to start. In it we learn that the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was a period in which new sources of energy were being tapped, resulting in new opportunities for a technological transformation of society. But the new machines of production were so powerful that they created a new problem – overproduction: goods could now be made and shipped so quickly, and in such quantities, that existing markets were easily overwhelmed. The new energy sources also made possible a host of novel inventions, such as the automobile. But what good were all these products and inventions if no one wanted them?

The solution, of course, was advertising. In the wake of World War I, industrial scientists began to envision the human and social changes that would be necessary to meet the emerging needs of industrial capitalism, and how those changes might be wrought. In the nineteenth century, austere values like discipline, self-denial, and thrift had made sense, since early industrialists had required a hard-working, self-disciplined labor force. Now, what manufacturers needed was a mass culture permeated by a very different value system – one capable of changing habits, breaking apart families, erasing memories, and reshaping the fantasy life of young and old alike. They needed consumers.

At the same time, labor unrest imperiled the social order. If workers could be both enabled and persuaded to find satisfaction of their basic human needs in consuming mass-produced goods, then two problems – labor unrest and overproduction – could be solved at once. Ewen writes:

Beyond standing at the helm of industrial machines, businessmen understood the social nature of their hegemony. They looked to move beyond their nineteenth-century characterization as captains of industry toward a position in which they could control the entire social realm. They aspired to become captains of consciousness. . . . The development of an ideology of consumption responded both to the issue of social control and the need for goods distribution. . . . The developments of advertising and mass markets did not bring the social crisis of industrialization to an end. They altered its course and its meaning within people’s lives.

Ewen lets early public relations strategists speak for themselves and analyzes the texts of early advertisements. For example, in her book Selling Mrs. Consumer (1929), Mrs. Christine Frederick had proclaimed: Consumptionism is the name given to the new doctrine; and it is admitted today to be the greatest idea that America has to give to the world; the idea that workmen and masses be looked upon not simply as workers and producers, but as consumers. . . . Pay them more, sell more, prosper more is the equation.

We also hear from John B. Watson, a founder of the behaviorist school of psychology. Watson (who taught at Johns Hopkins before leaving, in 1922, to join the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency) advocated transferring the locus of children’s psychological development away from home and family and into the commercial sphere. “We must face the fact that standards of training are changing,” he wrote, “and that these standards must now conform to the dominant trends in our changing civilization.” Here is Ewen’s chilling summary of Watson’s contribution to consumer culture:

Painting a sordid picture of traditional home life, one in which “unscrupulous nurses” were known to gratify infant wants by stroking, fondling, and kissing their children, Watson contended that such nurturing was injurious to the individual and society. Infantile sensual pleasure was, he felt, bad preparation for the social reality of commercial and professional life. Undercutting the home as an institution on which the child might rely, Watson led a move toward accepting the industrial apparatus as a more proper authority. “We have to stick to our jobs in commercial and professional life regardless of headaches, toothaches. . . . There is no one . . . to baby us.” While the specific orientation of these pronouncements is geared toward encouraging a passive fidelity to the unsympathetic character of the workplace, Watson also provided psychological avenues by which home life might be supplanted by the stimulation of the senses – a direction toward which business in its advertising was increasingly gravitating. Pleasure that could be achieved by the individual within the home and community was attacked and de-emphasized, as corporate enterprise formulated commoditized sensual gratification. Watson labeled all but the “gratifications” of the marketplace as perverse and psychologically and socially damaging.

Edward Bernays, a nephew of Freud, was a founder and leader of modern commercial public relations and another key figure in the deliberate creation of mass culture. Bernays wrote:

If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, is it now possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing it. . . . Mass psychology is as yet far from being an exact science and the mysteries of human motivation are by no means revealed. But at least theory and practice have combined with sufficient success to permit us to know that in certain cases we can effect some change in public opinion . . . by operating a certain mechanism.

In chapters on “The Family as Ground for Business Enterprise,” “Youth as an Industrial Ideal,” “Consumption and the Ideal of the New Woman,” and “Consumption and Seduction,” we learn how admen informed generations of people how to live – how to be modern, enlightened, efficient, clean, popular, independent, beautiful, and sexually fulfilled. We trace the takeover of social space and everyday life by corporate messages – a process now culminating in globalized corporatism – to its origins in the ad agencies and corporate board rooms of the 1920s. However, as Ewen points out, It was in the 1950s that the proffered dreams of the captains of consciousness, worked out in the twenties, really began to take concrete form. . . . The mass-marketing of television (invented in 1925) carried the consumer imagery into the back corners of home life. The vision of the modern family informed a suburban migration which dwarfed (five fold) even the massive European migration to these shores in the first decade of the century. The shift of work and commercial activity into areas of bureaucracy, service, and communications further minimized the notion of popular self-sufficiency. The new society was one which distributed culture on a mass scale.

Reading Captains of Consciousness, one gains needed perspective on the present – a bizarre moment in history in which virtually everyone’s mind is colonized. Today, the average American is bombarded by 3,000 advertising images or messages each day, and corporations compete to “brand” schools by signing proprietary contracts with school administrators so that children will be exposed exclusively, for example, to Pepsi ads and Pepsi machines.

Ewen’s latest book is PR!: A Social History of Spin (Basic Books, 1998); a couple of other recent related books are: Toxic Sludge Is Good for You: Lies, Damn Lies, and the Public Relations Industry, by John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton (Common Courage Press, 1995), and Can’t Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel, by Jean Kilbourne and Mary Pipher (Touchstone, 2000). While these are worthy updates and additions to the discussion, Captains of Consciousness remains the essential primer in explaining how and by whom the twentieth-century American mind was deliberately redesigned, as though it were itself a consumable, mass-produced product.

Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change, by William R. Catton, Jr. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1980)

This is quite simply one of the best and most important books I’ve ever read, and I regret that it took me so many years to discover it. In it, Catton rigorously examines human society as an ecosystem, which is ultimately constrained – as all ecosystems are – by such basic factors as energy, air, and water. His conclusion is familiar, if disturbing:

Today [hu]mankind is locked into stealing ravenously from the future. That is what this book is about. It is not just a book about famine or hunger. Famine in the modern world must be read as one of several symptoms reflecting a deeper malady in the human condition—namely, diachronic competition, a relationship whereby contemporary well-being is achieved at the expense of our descendants. By our sheer numbers, by the state of our technological development, and by being oblivious to differences between a method that achieved lasting increments of human carrying capacity [i.e., agriculture] and one that achieves only temporary supplements [i.e., reliance on fossil fuels], we have made satisfaction of today’s human aspirations dependent upon massive deprivation for posterity.

Human beings have used two basic strategies to increase the carrying capacity of their environments. The first is one that Catton calls the “takeover method”:

Invading and usurping lands already occupied by others was essentially what [hu]mankind had been doing ever since first becoming human. Each enlargement of carrying capacity . . . consisted essentially of diverting some fraction of the earth’s life-supporting capacity from supporting other kinds of life to supporting our kind. Our pre-Sapiens ancestors, with their simple stone tools and fire, took over for human use organic materials that would otherwise have been consumed by insects, carnivores, or bacteria. From about 10,000 years ago, our earliest horticulturalist ancestors began taking over land upon which to grow crops for human consumption. That land would otherwise have supported trees, shrubs, or wild grasses, and all the animals dependent thereon—but fewer humans. As the expanding generations replaced each other, Homo sapiens took over more and more of the surface of this planet, essentially at the expense of its other inhabitants.

This process was applied at first to other species, then to other humans – societies with denser populations and more powerful weapons taking over the territories of groups with less intensive demands on the environment. This latter strategy has come to its ultimate conclusion with the European takeover of the rest of the planet during the past 500 years.

But once complete takeover was within sight – a situation characterized by a majority of the planet’s basic biological productivity having been channeled to human use, and the wealthy few having taken over the majority of the wealth of virtually all people in all cultures – this method could be relied upon no longer. Around 1800, a new ecological strategy began to be implemented: the drawdown method.

Industrialization made use of fossil energy. Machinery powered by the combustion of coal, and later oil, enabled [humans] to do things on a scale never before possible. New, large, elaborate tools could now be made, some of which enhanced the effectiveness of the farming that of course had to continue. Products of farm and factory could be transported in larger quantities and for greater distances. Eventually the tapping of this “new” energy source resulted in the massive application of chemical fertilizers to agricultural lands. Yields per acre increased, and in time acreages applied to the growing of food for humans were substantially increased – first by eliminating draft animals and their requirements for pasture land, but also by reclaiming land through irrigation, etc.

The drawdown method resulted in a dramatic, quick increase in the global carrying capacity for humans. The human population did not reach the one-billion mark until 1820; in two centuries, it will have doubled nearly three times. From a biological point of view, this might be seen as a tremendously successful strategy for our species – except for one problem: our newly expanded carrying capacity is based upon the drawdown of finite, exhaustible resources. This is what Catton calls “phantom carrying capacity.” Once the fossil fuels begin to run out, carrying capacity will vanish just as quickly as it appeared.

So what to do? His two-decades-old advice is still sound, even though we’ve lost precious time.

Whichever of the two historic approaches we take, either choosing to accelerate drawdown or indulging in additional takeover, our new ecological paradigm enables us to see that eventually we will end up shifting back to the other. Either traditional way, if prolonged, leads to an inhuman future—not toward the lasting solution of temporarily vexing problems. . . . For any lasting solution, we must abandon both of these ultimately disastrous methods. Drawdown bails us out of present difficulties by shortening our future. Takeover was of lasting value earlier in human history, but that time is past.

We must learn to live within carrying capacity without trying to enlarge it. We must rely on renewable resources consumed no faster than at sustained yield rates. The last best hope for [hu]mankind is ecological modesty.

Along the way, Catton illuminates ancient and recent history by viewing the human being as an organism seeking to enlarge its niche. For example, he discusses human tool use as prosthesis and Homo sapiens as “the prosthetic animal.” He points out that

all humans inhabiting other than tropical environments are users of essentially prosthetic devices—clothing. . . . Likewise, our shoes have served as kind of prosthesis for the hooves we were not equipped with at birth, enabling us to walk additional portions of the uneven face of the earth. The evolutionary and ecological significance of such prosthetic devices has been to facilitate the spread of [hu]mankind over a more extensive range than we could have occupied with only the equipment of our own bodies.

Catton notes wryly that “when an airline pilot with thirty-three years of flying experience refers to the familiar act of buckling his cockpit seatbelt as ‘strapping a DC-8 to my waist,’ it is clear that even a modern jetliner can be seen as an elaborate prosthetic device.” Moreover, through division of labor, humans have become a species of many niches: “the members of one species discovered ways to behave almost as if they were many different species. . . . A man or woman with one set of tools could do one sort of job (fill one sort of niche), while a person with a different set of tools could do another sort of job (fill another kind of niche.” Thus, “tools could be said to have enabled Homo sapiens to homogenize an otherwise diverse world – making all of it available for human habitation.” Unfortunately, the spectacular success of this set of strategic adaptations has led us to lose sight of “the mutuality of impact of organism and habitat upon each other,” and of the fact that too much success can sometimes lead to spectacular failure.

Overshoot is a searing, unsentimental assessment of the physical reality of the human condition. Though not for the faint of heart, it is truly brain food for any and all who sincerely wish to understand our predicament so that we can identify the behavioral changes that will lead to collective survival, and initiate them.

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