Saturday, April 12, 2008

Moving People

I'm just back from a cruise, one that took us from Galveston, Texas, to Cozumel and Progreso on the Yucatan Peninsula, and back to Galveston. You might say I ate my way through the Gulf of Mexico; that's certainly what my scale seems to be saying.

It struck me on this cruise that tourism is, to a great extent, a people-moving industry. American Airlines moved us through its check-in terminal, the security lines, the gate, the air, the baggage claim. We went wherever they told us or their retractible line designator directed us. (Continental Airlines, incidentally, moved us from Texas back home, although American moved us to Continental, over the course of ten hours in the Houston airport.)

Carnival Cruise Lines took over from baggage claim and moved us by bus to Galveston and by a labyrinthine passage of retractable line designators and gangways onto the ship. They moved us up and down, fore and aft, through an impossibly large though comparatively small cruise ship (the "Ecstasy") so that we'd be out of their hair while they cleaned portions of the ship (including our teensy-weensy cabin) and out of each other's hair during densely populated events such as dinner or theatrical revues. They moved us through buffet lines and beverage stations, directing our paths inevitably toward the shops and casino. They deposited us on the shores of Cozumel and Progreso right where the cab drivers and street vendors wanted us to land. From there we were moved from the pier to the beach, or from the pier to the ruins of Chichen Itza, depending on the port of call. We went, as usual, wherever they moved us.

On the cruise I began reading The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollen, a gift from a friend I'm currently editing. I wonder if it should be surprising to me, given the context of my reading, that I identified more with the cattle and chickens in the book than the people who were harvesting the corn or raising the livestock. Even those farmers and ranchers, however, are being moved--not by the tourism industry but by a market economy built on a shaky foundation: a cult of perpetual and exponentially increasing consumption. The market demands ever more and ever cheaper product, so the producers systematically strip out ecological complexity in favor of mass-producible monocultures; the government and industry sponsor processes that allow for production and distribution at an enormous scale; consumers adapt their eating habits to embrace, as the author suggests, a diet constructed largely of corn and petroleum.

Tom Sine, in his book The New Conspirators, characterizes the global econonmy as a "ship of fools," and I think now, on the far side of this cruise, I get the analogy. We've happily ceded control of our destiny to forces we've unwittingly created. We go where our free market direct us; we do what our corn tells us.

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