"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Most of what we read we already know. Very rarely does a book come along that changes our whole way of thinking — not just the facts, but how the facts fit into the larger scheme of things, and what that scheme actually is. Such books do not make for easy reading. Working against the grain of accepted truth, they require a lot of grappling, but once finished the reader emerges permanently altered.
Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs, and Steel” was such a book. In it, Diamond asked why European and Asian civilizations tended to prevail over others — why, for instance, Francisco Pizarro, with 168 men, triumphed over 80,000 Incan warriors in 1532. Because (we are accustomed to thinking) Pizarro was an exceedingly greedy, ruthless opportunist who took advantage of the Incas’ naiveté. Which is certainly true. But it is also true that he was not the world’s only greedy, ruthless opportunist. More important, Diamond suggested, were the guns, germs and steel — as well as a host of other advantages — that Pizarro brought with him from Europe.
This suggestion is unsettling enough, as it seems to, at least in part, exculpate Pizarro from the genocide he wrought. But Diamond didn’t stop there. Why, he goes on to ask, did Pizarro have these advantages, and not the other way around? The answer, we eventually learn, has less to do with military strategy or superior weapons than with things like climate and soil quality — factors primarily notable for having nothing whatsoever to do with human agency. Diamond presented a causal explanation of human history that has virtually nothing to do with humans. And it was convincing. What’s perhaps even more amazing is that the book sold more than a million copies in hardcover, eventually taking the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction. Here the explanation is simpler: Diamond writes well, and engagingly.
Diamond’s new book, “Collapse,” looks at civilizations both ancient and modern in search of the reasons why some succeed and others fail. The answers, not surprisingly, turn out to be largely environmental. The more gripping question is why many civilizations were unable to avert destruction. In examining one civilization after another, Diamond provides a host of answers, ranging from the imperceptibility of certain problems, such as the level of salt in a particular soil, to the inability of a society to change a dangerous but learned behavior, to plain selfishness. There comes a definite point, after many chapters under the tutelage of Diamond’s clinical perspective, when the reader begins to perceive the mortal outline of our own civilization. It’s an alarming thought, to say the least. But, in a marked departure from his last book, Diamond leaves more room here for human agency. These dread outcomes are avoidable — if, he suggests, we can find the strength to see past our cultural biases, our class prejudices, our distrust of big business, our loathing of one political party or the other, our fear of terrorism and so on. Only, in short, if we can see how peripheral we are to the future of our own civilization can we have any hope of saving that civilization.
Salon spoke with Diamond right after he returned from a family cruise to the Panama Canal from Costa Rica, a country that interested him because of its relative prosperity in Central America.
So, what did you discover?
It’s very interesting, the contrast between Costa Rica on the one hand and Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala on the other — all relatively poor countries and yet all five are adjacent to one another, and they were all joined in a single country, the Republic of Central America, for 20 years in the last century. Couple of reasons. In Costa Rica there were very few natives for the Spaniards to enslave. The Spaniards had to do the work themselves, and they therefore developed institutions that were not the enslaving and extracting sort, as in Guatemala and Honduras, where the populations were denser, but more based on free enterprise. So a different culture developed in Costa Rica, partially as a result of the different geography. It’s an example of what economists call “reversal of fortune.” Namely, the areas colonized by Europeans that were richest 500 years ago have ended up poorest today because Europeans arrived there and set up these extractive institutions.
This reminds me of the fate of the Inuit, which you discuss in your book.
The Inuit are an interesting example. The Inuit have been a success story in the past; they succeeded where a European culture, the Vikings, failed. On the other hand, it has come out within the last year that of all the peoples of the world the Inuit have the highest levels of toxic chemicals in their body tissue and in their blood — even though they are the farthest from the sites, in Europe and North America, where toxic chemicals are produced. For example, Inuit mothers’ breast milk ranks as toxic waste on the basis of its content of toxic chemicals. And the explanation is that they consume more seafood than any other people. That’s just a dramatic example of globalization. Everybody affects everyone else nowadays.
Perhaps one difference between ourselves and the Inuit is that we can rely more on technology to buffer the effects of pollution. Many people these days, for instance, use Brita filters. To what extent can we and should we count on technology to protect us?
That’s a really key question, and one that I’ve discussed with some of the most thoughtful people in the business and financial worlds. One was Bill Gates. Bill Gates is a very thoughtful person. I was really impressed by him. Nevertheless, he said — in a diffident, self-deprecating way — “Well, I think technology will solve our environmental problems, and so I’m not so concerned about them as I am other things.” But I think that he’s wrong — I know that he’s wrong.
Let me give you an example. I was born in 1937 so I remember the revolution in refrigerators that happened in my childhood, the introduction of Freon and CFCs [chlorofluorocarbons]. The refrigerator gases that were used in my childhood were things like ammonia. Of course, if they leaked they were toxic, and therefore it was hailed as a breakthrough when these supposedly nontoxic gases, the CFCs, were introduced. They were tested and under earth conditions they appeared to be perfectly benign. What people couldn’t predict was that under stratospheric conditions CFCs get broken down into substances that destroy the ozone layer, and it took 20 years to get that well established. And I see that as a metaphor for why technology alone won’t solve our problems, namely that there are lots of technologies out there and they have unexpected side effects.
It’s heartening, at any rate, to know that you have access to people like Gates, and that he was willing to listen. Our current administration has not shown itself to be particularly willing to listen — especially to scientists, who often carry the most urgent news. Can we hope to develop a better relationship between science and policy?
We have to be able to do what you say. One way to think of it is to ask ourselves what science means. Science is simply accurate knowledge of the real world. It’s not laboratory experiments, not always. Like tsunamis. You don’t do laboratory experiments on tsunamis, but if you want to deal successfully in the world you have to have accurate knowledge of the real world; that’s what science is. So if you don’t have a straight pipeline from knowledge of the world to fixing the world you are doomed to failure.
I would think we’re doomed to failure, then, given how politics work in this country. Between the science and the policy there’s this ineradicable layer of money and lobbying.
I can easily become pessimistic, just as you say, but in the balance I can find reasons for optimism as well. If you look at our track record in the United States for the last 40 years, yes, there have been some bad outcomes, but there have also been some good outcomes. One example is air quality. Here I sit in L.A., the city that is a metaphor for bad air, and the fact is that air quality in the United States in general and in California in particular has actually improved. The levels of bad air quality indicators have decreased by about 30 percent, even though the population of the United States increased and the number of cars has increased greatly. So air quality is a success story.
Other success stories involve forestry policy and fishing policy. Again, one can think of bad news. But an example of good news is that the biggest forestry products wholesaler in the world, Home Depot, several years ago decided in their own self-interest to phase out buying wood products from old-growth forests and unsustainably managed forests and switch to getting their wood products from sustainably managed forests. So that’s encouraging. And the Alaskan wild salmon fishery is sustainably managed. And soon what’s called the West Coast pollock fishery — that’s the white fish that ends up in McDonald’s fish sticks — is also going to be accredited for sustainable management.
These examples seem to underscore the importance of trying to work with big business, a notion that I think strikes many environmentalists as alien, if not offensive.
That’s right. If you don’t work with business, you are certain to be doomed to failure, because businesses along with governments are the most potent forces in the world today. Also, it’s important to understand why some businesses make messes and some businesses don’t make messes, and insofar as the laws of society itself produce those different outcomes, it’s the responsibility of the public to pass laws, buy products and boycott products that will encourage businesses to behave better.
Is there an environmental award that is given to businesses that do well? Is Home Depot being recognized for what it’s done?
They’re recognized within the World Wildlife Fund, on whose board I sit. I don’t know if the general public has an appreciation for what Home Depot is doing. The general public certainly does not have wide sympathy for what the oil companies are doing. And partly that’s the result of history. And there still are oil spills; there’s been a bad oil spill within the last two weeks. But you have to read the newspaper carefully. That oil spill was not a tanker belonging to ChevronTexaco or ExxonMobil; it was a tanker belonging to a private oil carrier, and it’s the private carriers that are still using the single-hull tankers and are adhering to low standards. So they give the oil industry a bad name. I’m not saying that the oil industry is a saint; there are still big problems with oil industries operating in dictatorial countries, but the public should also understand the very high standards to which some oil companies are adhering.
Like Chevron in Papua New Guinea. Now I can’t swear that Chevron is being clean everywhere in the world, but I’ve talked with lots of Chevron employees who told me about how Chevron operates, for example, in Bahrain and Dubai and Kuwait, and it sounds, from what I’m told, that their standards there are as high as their standards in Papua New Guinea.
So do governments recognize these high standards and reward companies that adhere to high standards?
There are governments that do recognize high standards, and an example of that is what happened in Norway roughly 10 years ago. The Norwegian population as a whole and the Norwegian government in particular are extremely environmentally conscious, and they’re also sitting on top of these valuable oil and gas fields in the North Sea, where they were going to sell the leases for oil developments. A number of companies made bids. Chevron was one of the companies that made bids. And I’m told that Chevron’s bid financially was not better than the bids of some of the other companies, but the Norwegian government nevertheless awarded the lease to Chevron. And the reason is that the Norwegian government knew very well how rigorously Chevron had been managing its oil field in Papua New Guinea and some other places.
But what about the U.S. government?
Our current government, I think it would be fair to say, is not interested in these accomplishments.
Is there any reason to expect that companies can be encouraged to improve their records and pursue cleaner technologies when the administration is changing every four or eight years, and environmental policy with it?
The reason companies are not going to switch over to environmentally dirty policies — despite the current American administration being less friendly to the environment than its predecessor — is because companies are not answering just to the government but to the public, and the American public still cares about environmental issues. For example, Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Our current federal administration is eager to develop oil in that wildlife refuge. But I talk to my friends in the oil industry and they tell me they, the oil companies, are not eager to operate in the wildlife refuge, even if the government lets them, because they recognize that the public is so hostile to it.
What difference does it make to the companies what the public thinks?
The most direct difference is public boycott, when things go really bad, as after the Exxon Valdez spill. Another problem is that companies recognize that they have to go through a long and expensive public approval process, and if the federal government wants to approve drilling in Alaska’s wildlife refuge, the public has ways of delaying it, and if the public is not convinced that the oil companies’ methods are going to be clean, the public can delay it for a long time.
On the other hand, some of the biggest threats we’re going to be facing in the coming decades are international. You spend a chapter in your book, for instance, talking about China.
China is the country with the world’s biggest population and it also has the fastest-growing economy. The Chinese would like to catch up to first-world living standards but there are so many Chinese, the population is so large, and their consumption rates are, on average, so far below the First World today that if China alone caught up to first-world living standards that would double the entire world’s consumption of steel, zinc, tin, lead and other major metals. So China has enormous impact on the world. When you think about that you can get discouraged, particularly when you see pictures of air quality in Beijing.
But on the other hand the Chinese government is — let’s think of the correct way to describe it — they’re not a simple dictatorship, they’re not a simple democracy. But nevertheless they can make decisions and implement those decisions more rapidly than first-world democracies, and sometimes that means doing bad things quickly, but sometimes that means doing good things quickly. For example, a few years ago the Chinese government decided that lead in gasoline was a bad thing, so they just announced, “No more lead in gasoline,” and in something like one year the Chinese have been able to make progress in phasing out lead in gasoline, progress that has taken 10 years in the United States and in Europe. Therefore, I’m not totally discouraged about the Chinese. When they decide they want to do something — for example, halt their population growth with the one-child policy — they can act fast.
You support that policy?
Well, the one-child policy, that’s something for the Chinese to figure out. I would not say that I’m in support of it. It’s a pretty drastic way to do it. It also has to be said that there are other third-world countries that have been able to dramatically decrease their rate of population growth without resorting to China’s draconian methods.
Bangladesh is the seventh most populous country in the world, and it’s perhaps the most densely populated, with 170 million people crammed into an area of a few tens of thousands of square miles. But Bangladesh has instituted population planning in a low-key, nonforced way and it has something like halved its population growth rate in recent decades. If Bangladesh can do it, any country can.
We certainly haven’t been making it any easier, what with the current administration prohibiting the use of federal funds to help with family planning in other countries.
Sadly that’s the case. The current administration forbids government funding going to family planning efforts elsewhere in the world, and yet overpopulation is disastrous for the countries that are overpopulated. And it’s also bad for the world as a whole.
I think the administration perceives this as a moral issue, as opposed to an ecological or population issue. Perhaps you reach a certain point where you simply have to set morality aside and make tough choices?
Absolutely not, because some people say that offering family planning is immoral and others say that denying family planning to those who would like to have it, denying reproductive rights to women who do the work of reproduction, is absolutely immoral, as well as disgraceful and disgusting. One frequently hears it said, particularly among those opposed to family planning, “We in the United States should not prevent those people in the Third World from having as many babies as they want.” We have this fantasy that people in the Third World don’t care about population issues and would like to have lots of babies, when in fact my experience, from countries such as Indonesia, the Solomon Islands, Kenya and Tanzania, is that people in the Third World understand the dangers of overpopulation much better than people in the United States. They know about contraceptives but they can’t afford the contraceptives. And the American government is making it difficult for them to get the contraceptives.
Toward the end of “Collapse” you describe two crucial factors for determining whether or not a civilization will survive, and one of them is whether there’s a willingness to discard unhelpful values. Clearly we have some values in this country that are very important to us, but some of them, like anathematizing family planning, aren’t very helpful in this day and age.
You’re right. One of the two or three key issues is discarding values dear to us, values that we held for a long time and that were important in the history of the United States but just no longer make sense today. The two traditional American values that I think — that I know — have to be discarded are, first, unbridled consumerism resulting from our sense of being in a land of unlimited resources. Historically the United States has viewed itself as the land of infinite bounty, endless fields of grain. But now we’re in a world that does not have unlimited resources, and we have to come to grips with that.
And the other long-held American value is the value derived from the United States’ relative isolation. George Washington in his farewell address warned Americans about the danger of entangling alliances, and for a couple of hundred years the United States was able to function well because we were separated by oceans from any country that might damage us. But now the oceans don’t separate us from countries that could damage us. Now, even desperately poor countries like Afghanistan and Iraq can raise absolute hell with our economy — as well as killing a few thousand people in the process. So the other long-held value with which we have to come to grips is our sense of isolation. We’re not isolated anymore. We have to engage with the rest of the world — not in order to be charitable to them but for our own self-interest. It’s much cheaper to put a few tens of billions of dollars into world programs for public health and environment than to throw $150 billion into Iraq and $100 billion into Afghanistan, when there are about 20 other countries waiting to become the next Iraq and Afghanistan. We can’t afford it.
But how exactly do you go about discarding an idea?
One can answer that two ways: first, by looking at countries that have successfully replaced or are successfully replacing dearly held ideas; second, one can ask what’s going to replace — for us — unbridled consumerism.
I was a graduate student in the late 1950s and early 1960s in England, so I lived in England for four years. Those were crucial years in England because of the attempted British invasion of the Suez in 1956. That was the event that in effect convinced the British that they were no longer a world empire. And it meant a really painful readjustment for the British, to discard what had been really their guiding identity for a long time. And the British have struggled to find a new identity. But today it’s becoming clear that Britain’s new identity is the English-speaking country within Europe in a world where English is going to be the common language.
Now, as for us, what’s going to replace consumerism will be the recognition that we have to live within our means, that we’re part of the whole world, and that consumerism simply is no longer viable if we want to make a world that’s going to make sense for our children. We have to live in such a way that we pass on a worthwhile world to our children. And that’s a wonderful ideal that can replace consumerism, that will have to replace consumerism.
Have you heard of Michael Crichton’s new book, “State of Fear,” and its premise that a bunch of environmentalists are upset that their cause isn’t getting the attention it deserves so they go around staging environmental disasters? Crichton has said publicly, as well as in his heavily footnoted book, that global warming is bunk — which would be laughable were not the print run of his book one and a half million copies.
Everything you say is true. There are a couple of things to be added to it. One is that my previous book, “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” has sold more copies than Michael Crichton’s one and a half million, so I think my new book will get to more readers. And the other thing is that Michael Crichton is a very skilled writer of fiction. And fiction is, by definition, the telling of stories that are untrue. He’s very good at that. And I’m a writer of nonfiction, which aims to be the telling of stories that are true.
Oliver Broudy is a freelance writer living in New York.More Oliver Broudy.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)