Welcome to the Monoculture
You can’t tune into the news today without being inundated with dire warnings about the future of the planet and the unsustainability of our growth-addicted way of life. Global warming, the yawning gap between the rich and poor, social and cultural wars, terrorism – the bad news casts a depressing pallor over the civic conversation, which itself has become anything but civil.
Our world is coming apart at the seams, driven by competing interests, ideologies and the frenetic pace of what passes for communication these days. We live in a hyperculture saturated with exaggerated images and disputed claims, a dazzling display of choices that, in the words of Bruce Springsteen, can feel like “57 channels and nothing on.”
The noise of the hyperculture, however, masks a more disturbing and potentially deadly signal beneath its mediated surface diversity, and that is the wholesale creation of a vast monoculture.
The term ‘monoculture’ has its roots in biology, where ecosystems overtaken by the dominance of a single organism – a plant, an animal, a germ – become less resilient because of lack of biological diversity and collapse over time. A recent article by the writer Michael Pollen documents the precariousness of monocultures in the rapid proliferation of MRSA, an antibiotic-resistant strain of Staphylococcus bacteria that now kills more Americans each year than AIDS; in the feeding of antibiotics to huge numbers of pigs, cattle and chickens in mechanized “meat factories;” and in the trucking in of billions of bees to pollinate groves of almond trees in California. Pollen’s point is that pigs and bees are “natural” systems themselves and exist in a complex ecosystem of diversity, reciprocity and redundancy. When we treat them as machines and apply all sorts of technological fixes to make them more efficient “producers” (industrialized farms, drugs, genetic alteration, etc.), we sacrifice biological resilience and invite ecological disaster.
The fragility and ultimate demise of monocultures are hardly limited to biology. There is a growing awareness of the dangers inherent in Microsoft’s dominance of computer software, giving rise to a pervasive monoculture of select programs that are increasingly susceptible to deadly viruses and broad system collapse. Culturally, the rise of Islamic radicalism can be seen as an extreme reaction to what is characterized as a monoculture of crass American commercialism. In aesthetics, Designers Against Monoculture refuse to promote a “corporate monoculture” based on “profit and greed.” Others groups rail against a monoculture of large media companies and “group think” on the Internet. And so on.
Even multiculturism could be said to be a variant of monoculture. Pluralism is not the same thing as diversity. A many-colored coat of race, color, tastes and faiths can be patched together by the uniform thread of unfettered economic growth and efficiency. This is the grand mono-idea: We will be liberated by science and technique. We will use reason and knowledge to solve problems. If we can’t sustain life in this natural world, we will invent another one.
Is this the ultimate conceit or our destiny? No one knows. Perhaps we should ask the bees. Their colonies are collapsing, because they can’t live here anymore.
Ironically, the more we seek control and dominion over the natural world, the more likely we are to assign ourselves to a small slice of its evolutionary history. Our own science confirms this. Resilience is born from diversity in all of its biological, social, economic and cultural dimensions. We will not sustain ourselves within a monoculture of fixed belief about economic progress and the triumph of the machine.
Man is not God. Not yet anyway.
Feedback? Send it my way: Roger.Hughes@slhi.org.
*The Drift reflects the views of the author, and does not represent the official view of SLHI’s Board of Trustees and staff.