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Ecce Heston

How to Survive Our Own Success –

In Santa Fe dramatic thunderstorms are common late on summer days. Afterwards the massive banks of purple clouds will often part, allowing shafts of intense sunlight to angle down, creating sometimes vivid rainbows. At a house near downtown last summer I saw a rainbow like this, clear as a Technicolor dream. I was with a group of young scientists and I watched as their wonder shifted into analytical mode – here is an example of water molecules interacting with rays of refracted light – and then back again toward a more embodied appreciation. The sequence reminded me of the Buddhist saying in which a mountain becomes, for the meditator, something very different …and then, at a later stage, returns again to being just a mountain. Then, as the rainbow faded in the sky, we trooped inside to watch Charlton Heston chew the scenery (and a few other things) in the Sci-fi flick Soylent Green.

“Charlton Heston is an axiom,” said Michel Mourlet, the film critic, in 1960. Mourlet was a member of the French New Wave, and one must never argue with the French New Wave. “He constitutes a tragedy in himself,” Mourlet continued, “his presence in any film being enough to instill beauty.” This serenade comes as a shock to us today, given the political causes Heston shackled himself to late in life. But think of Heston playing Vasquez in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, or the title role in Sam Peckinpah’s Major Dundee, the film that inspired novelist Cormac McCarthy’s masterpiece, Blood Meridian. And on a more iconic level there’s also, of course, the latex miracle that is the Planet of the Apes series, not to mention the be-sandaled epics Ben Hur and The Ten Commandments.

In all these films, Heston serves to emblemize aggrieved masculinity, the strong and righteous father-figure who recoils in disgust as evil and injustice are unmasked. As soon as the Hestonian visage enters the frame all problems, apocalyptic or otherwise, begin to whither of their own accord. If evil has flourished recently, it’s only because this man’s attention was occupied elsewhere. Even when Heston himself goes down to death and defeat, we know the forces of good will prevail in the end…because man, in his essence, is like this. If ever there were a man to teach us how to survive our own success as a species, wouldn’t it be Heston?

On a mythic level I would make the case that the iconic appeal of Charlton Heston is linked to the essentially Protestant archetype of man as a fixed and separate instrument of divine providence, taming unruly nature. With the Reformation, God was thought to be an immanent presence in this world, as well as a transcendent deity. Man’s destiny was to make God’s will manifest in a perfectible happiness. The Enlightenment was animated by this mythic ambition, and the scientist remains the most significant embodiment of the world-conquering, Protestant impulse. From Galileo forward, the view of science has been reductive, oriented toward locating the indivisible units of matter and energy upon which an edifice of fixed values could be erected and against which all things could be measured. This reductive inquiry culminated in the great discoveries of 20th century – General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics – which seemed to deliver us, paradoxically, into a world defined by non-local, spooky effects our minds are not set up to comprehend in any direct way.

This breakdown of the Heston effect occurred to me at the screening of Soylent Green in Santa Fe. In case you don’t recall, the film takes place in 2022 in New York City, a time when overpopulation has resulted in frequent food riots and other horrors. Loosely based on a book by Harry Harrison, the film features Heston as detective Thorn, dispatched to investigate the murder of a wealthy industrialist named Simonson played by Joseph Cotton. Gum-shoeing his way through sweltering streets, Thorn discovers that Simonson was murdered before he could go public with a shocking truth: the new food product, Soylent Green, is made, not from a highly nutritious form of algae …but out of dead people.  Driven by insurmountable environmental problems, the species has turned to cannibalism in its corporate form.

Dennis Meadows

Doyne Farmer, who hosted the screening, has devoted his career in physics to the new field of complex systems. After exploring this terrain in various contexts, including Los Alamos National Labs and Wall Street, Farmer has come to focus on the arena, rich in complexity, of environmental sustainability. The screening of Soylent Green closed out the second week of an annual Sustainability Summer School, organized by Farmer and hosted by St John’s College, to catalyze new research and debate. Presenting lectures were a roster of heavyweights in various fields, including economist Samuel Bowles, anthropologist Lisa Curran, paleobiologist Doug Erwin and the seminal environmentalist Dennis Meadows. In his presentation, Meadows looked back to the Club of Rome “The Limits of Growth” report of 1972, which he co-wrote. Surveying the forty year interlude since that talk, Meadows underscored how resource depletion and over-consumption have unfolded pretty much as predicted, with the most challenging patches coming at us now around the next corner.

The screening of Soylent Green was attended by young working scientists and post-docs, roughly the same demographic mix that would have heard Meadows speak 40 years ago. I had been wondering how they were bearing up under the steady barrage of dire predictions, and the screening was my first chance to meet outside the St. John’s lecture halls. When the lights came up there was a good deal of amusement about the costumes in the film, the sexual morays and the cheesy dialogue of the 1970s. But there was also an uncomfortable, deflated silence. Among the few comments people managed to make was the sobering notion that, given the problems that confront us, eating each other might turn out to be a decent idea.

But before you start measuring your neighbors for the tureen, Soylent Green, in its very dated-ness, revealed where we might look for the expansive energies of optimism. The bleak city-scape of the film seems dated when compared to the more prescient production design of, say, Blade Runner, which was made only a decade later. Working in the 1970s the filmmakers failed to anticipate the explosion in the speed with which human beings are able to process information, the computers and digital imaging technology that decorate urban landscapes today. This exponential increase in information processing – commonly known as Moore’s Law – is ongoing, and while it’s unclear how much it will weigh in the balance against large scale threats such as global warming, its transformative effects remains a wild card in a deck which is otherwise stacked against us.

The rapid spread of internet communications is itself an “emergent” aspect of the steady increase in our capacity to process information. No doubt political authorities are working overtime to figure out ways to put the genie back into the bottle, but our sudden ability to communicate with anyone on this planet, is a powerful and unpredictable force. We may discover that it’s harder to demonize people when you’ve friended them on Facebook. Also the Solylent company is going to have a substantially harder time hiding its tracks when one whistle blower is all it takes. In the era of complex systems, perhaps connective wealth will come to replace material wealth as the signifier of social value.

The internet has other surprising effects as well, including rich cultural cross-pollination. Insights from Asian wisdom traditions, for example, have been integrated with Western psychology and brain science in ways that shed new light on the psychological dynamics that are fueling over-consumption. Readers of this column will sense the approach of a plug for the “revolutionary” Buddhism historian David Loy advocates in his work, and they would be right to do so. I subscribe to Loy’s diagnosis of our root malady – that our problems arise from an inability to make peace with our fundamental groundlessness with respect to being. From this point of view the vast array of problems confronting us can be viewed as a single mistake we are making in a vast array of contexts: seeking to ground what can never be grounded.

Techno-pastoralism – the idea that salvation will arrive via new technology – is a dangerous tendency, no doubt. But in the view of some, the science of complex systems reverses the reductionist focus of the material science that first ignited uncontrolled industrial growth three centuries ago. Something may have shifted at the source of the problems of over-development, in other words.  And looking back some years from now we may discover that this shift has transformed the scientific establishment into a powerful ally in the effort to reverse the dangerous trajectory we are traveling…and all Charlton Heston needs to do is get out of the way.


  1. Charles Heston won’t save us from the singularity, but you will be able to watch his performances on the john since you opted for the cheaper digi-primer.

    American Triumphalism stomped all over the spooky & non-local. Dojen Zenjo asked us “Who makes the grass green?” but we went and said screw it- I’m going full hd video this time around. Now you can take in his fine his sermon on the mount on the can while the pigments in your bathroom wall rearrange themselves to present your iTunes library. Meanwhile in the next room your 3D goop printer craps out a new espresso maker from that kit you downloaded Amazon.

    At first they celebrated the new techno-pastoralism on rectangles that they showed off to their friends. They designed and unveiled massive new structures to let loose the singularity in their stadiums and along their dasher boards, but behind the scenes architects worked feverishly to contain this new creeping luminance. At first it seeped out of their coves and crept up the edges of buildings and often times broke out loose on billboards- pimping itself over and over until neighborhood groups fought back.

    At first digi-primer seemed like an eco-win. Less home redecoration meant less debris so wallpaper died with the print version of the Times. It was cheaper than pigments and infinitely mod-able so the people took to it in droves, killing the tee-vee and computer screens in a single go.

    Things seems to be somewhat contained until those bored chaps in the suburbs grew bored of their pre-ordained Rancho Cuca-Irvine color collections and got usy. The encryptions were secure and had been for decades and until the jailbreak was leaked on Gizmodo (big surprise there), and now cubes everywhere found their gentle beige and sandstone digi-prime setting jacked and replaced with the latest of visualizers, collaping tunnel spaces, and twinkling crystal lightscapes that the DJ kids seems so found of, overriding the reflective/ absorptive properties wall primers and demanding their own representation of the spooky non-local situation. Thanks for that chaps- Times Square got nothing on us now.

    It all broke out everywhere- immediately. It started first in the floor boards and moulding trims and then hit the main walls and building exteriors hours later. No one could stop it- it was a luminescent freight train that hit in an instant. People played chatroulette on their ceilings and wordswithfriends on their coffee table. Roaming wi-fi light hackers graffitied the night, each night- forever, in the name of enlightenment.

    The entire world came to what Alan Watts called the “great button-pushing place” and of course got completely bored- the digital refreshing cage is seen for what it is and movement to irradicate the illuminance grew. Homeowner groups struck back at the digi-primers and demanded immediate whitewashing everywhere while armies of bandana’d furries piled out of Glow in Santa Monica tossing led throwies and glowsticks in battalion formation.

    It’s a grim scene but at least William Gibson and Terrance McKenna predicted it…

  2. Dov Rudnick says:

    I agree that if humanity has any hope at all of side-stepping ecological disaster we will need to summon untapped “expansive energies of optimism” in our efforts to reverse the course. With respect to social responsibility the challenge of our daily lives is striking a balance between an honest view of the severity of the situation and a dogged pursuit of solutions. There is also the requirement that we give a damn about other people. Your article takes a decidely optimistic stance. Look what has happened already! you say. Who could have predicted the miracle of technology which processes and transmits informations at such alarming speeds. The question, I think, is how fast can the human mind process the urgency to radically transform our industrial civilization, and how quickly can the human heart be moved to care, to feel, to hope, to love, to trust, to believe, to act. It has been observed that humans change with the technology at their disposal but the vital question is what kind of change. Yes, let us be optimistic but let us also be practical. The two, I would imagine, go hand-in-hand. My suspicions of unrestrained confidence in the wonders of new technologies is that with every step we seem to get farther from a connection to the natural world. To live in harmony with nature we must be active participants as well as keen observers of the entire awesome phenomenon. There is a time to theorize infront of computer screens and a time to fix the gears on your bike.

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