“I Prefer Not To” …

Several days ago “I prefer not to” popped into my mind.  That sentence is from Herman Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener:  A Story of Wall-street (1856)—a short story that I had first encountered in an American Literature course, while an undergraduate.  (Bartleby first speaks this sentence on p. 8 of the version to which a link is provided above.)

As I had no recollection of this story—except that I had somehow remembered the “I prefer not to” sentence—and hadn’t even thought of the sentence in question for years, I was puzzled as to why it entered my consciousness now.  Not being able to discern a reason, I thought it best to search for how others had reacted to this sentence, and began an internet search.

In doing so, I found these opinions, for example:

Bartleby is the archetypal working man, described as “pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn!”  Bartleby is instantly swept into the hustle of the Wall-Street atmosphere.  Bartleby is placed in the corner of the narrator’s office and shielded by a curtain from anyone’s view.  Bartleby is expected to work rigorously yet he is ultimately ignored by his co-workers and employer, called upon only when he is needed.  It is only when he begins to protest his position that any attention is paid to Bartleby.   The narrator becomes obsessed with Bartleby’s refusal to do any sort of work or comply with any request made of him.   Bartleby’s desperation becomes the catalyst that reveals the narrator’s sympathetic quality; however, the narrator refuses to make any personal connection with Bartleby.   Every attempt by the narrator to reach or aid Bartleby is impersonal; whether he offers money or to write to a family member.   It becomes clear that the narrator really only cares enough about Bartleby to make him someone else’s problem.   Eventually the narrator, unwilling to forcibly remove Bartleby from his office, abandons Bartleby for another office uptown, leaving the problem of Bartleby for the next unfortunate occupant of the office.   In the Tombs Bartleby is left alone by the other prisoners and guards and the only person who offers to associate with Bartleby is the “grub-man” Mr. Cutlets, who offers to take care of Bartleby, but for a price.   Bartleby refuses the false concern of Mr. Cutlets and begins the slow and lonely path to eventual starvation.  In the last lines of the story, the narrator realizes the inhumanity of Bartleby’s life and his own unwillingness to help Bartleby crying out “Ah Bartleby!  Ah humanity!”

That is, “Bartleby” is interpreted as a commentary on American society of Melville’s time—how a concomitant of increasing urbanization was the creation of boring jobs, impersonal relationships in the workplace; in short, the creation of inhumane working conditions, virtually forcing people to have meaningless lives.

That interpretation of the “Bartleby” story caused me to realize that a deeper factor was at work—one of which Melville would have been unable to recognize:  The Discrepancy.

The basis for this concept/factor is that prior to the Neolithic Revolution a co-development had occurred between (a) humans as biological entities and (b) their (foraging) way of life.  That is, humans had developed certain “design specifications” (see pp. 39–118 in this) prior to the Neolithic, and had lives that accorded well with those “specifications.”

As the Neolithic “progressed,” however, new ways of life began to develop, whereas human biology changed but little; sociobiologist David P. Barash has referred to the former as a “hare,” the latter as a “tortoise.”  Put another way, a “discrepancy” was developing between the (a) way of life for which humans had become “designed” and the (b) new ways of life that were developing—the ways of life that they now had.

A history of humans that uses the concept of a “discrepancy” has yet to be written, but these two speculative comments seem to be highly plausible:

  1. Human problems began to develop and fester (such as poverty, anti-social behavior, health problems, etc.).
  2. Humans—although never before conscious of the fact that they were a part of Earth System—began to think of themselves as apart from Earth System.

Neither of these developments was of a positive nature, but the latter development was of particular importance.  As Eugene Linden asserts, in his concluding words in (Affluence and Discontent: The Anatomy of Consumer Societies, 1979, p. 178):

We will continue on our present course, and . . the probability of one or another proposed [earlier in the book] disasters will rapidly increase until some small event triggers the apocalypse of the consumer society.

If one accepts Linden’s perspective on history (I do!), one will not be surprised to read the following ominous statement, posted in May of this year:

With little or no action taken on global warming, it appears that the Anthropocene will lead to extinction of the very human beings after which the era is named, with the Anthropocene possibly running from 1950 to 2021, i.e. a mere 71 years and much too short to constitute an era. In that case a better name for the period would be the Sixth Extinction Event . . . .

Professor Michael E. Mann’s famous “hockey stick” figure, shows an upward trend in mean temperature since about 1850—and there is no reason to expect that this trend will not continue, adding plausibility to the assertion that our species will “be no more” after 2021!  Hurricane Harvey, which has been affecting the Gulf coast of Texas and now Louisiana is likely a “product” of the global warming now occurring—as were the wildfires in the West earlier this summer.

What’s likely, as we look to the future, is that:

  1. Droughts, and consequent wildfires, will become more common.
  2. Severe storms—hurricanes and tornadoes, with consequent flooding—will increase in both frequency and severity.
  3. Unusual weather will increase in frequency, causing crop failures to become increasingly common.

We should see these weather changes as “signaling” the occurrence of global warming; and should perceive global warming as a serious threat—but few do.  Thus, because of both (a) what we humans have been doing to Earth System and (b) our failure to (1) recognize what we’ve been doing and (2) react meaningfully to what we’ve been doing, it appears that we humans have doomed ourselves!

John Gowdy and Lisi Krall, in their recent “Getting Control of the Superorganism by Managing Evolutionary Change” (a copy of which was provided to me by Dr. Gowdy) wrote that they have been led to:

consider the possibility that the evolution of human society is, to an extent not fully recognized, driven by forces not under conscious human control.

I agree with this, and have even argued—facetiously, I might add!—that a puppet master has been directing human history, wishes to remove that “cancer,” humankind, from Earth System—and will soon succeed!

“I prefer not to” think about this possibility—as one with five wonderful grandchildren; but think about it I must!

Al Thompson retired over seven years ago from an engineering (avionics) firm in Milwaukee. His e-mail address is: sven3475@gmail.com. Read other articles by Alton.