Welcome to Issue 33.1 of Digestable, your daily mouthful of real things happening in the world, minus alarmist pandemic news.
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Today’s news, fermented:
Happy Monday, and thanks to all of you who responded to my bonus action email on Friday to show solidarity with the people of Nigeria. If you’d like to sign the petition to demand an international inquiry into the Nigerian government’s mass killing of people in Lagos, it’s here.
This week, I’ll be digging into what we stand to gain from a Biden administration, for all my people who are disappointed in him as the nominee and understand the importance of voting the lying maniac out of office (provided that works). If you come across any articles about concrete things a Biden administration can do for us, send them my way!
While we’re on choices about how to govern, here’s some guidance from our animal friends.
The Second Look
Half-baked cultural criticism from Gabriel Coleman.
I want to talk about the Netflix series The Good Place. It’s a brightly colored entertaining series about quirky dead people navigating an even quirkier afterlife. The series wrapped up its fourth and final season this year, but I’m going to focus in on events at the end of the third season, so if you’re allergic to spoilers please watch before reading.
The series centers around four recently deceased characters destined for “The Bad Place” who mistakenly end up being sent to “The Good Place,” or so they think. The first two and a half seasons focus mostly on the struggle of these individual characters: grappling with what makes them “bad people” and how it is they can change and improve. However, in the end of the third season the show turns to the global, asking not what is wrong with these people but what is wrong with the world that makes people “bad.” This change in perspective takes hold when it is revealed that the last time a person got into The Good Place was 521 years ago – remember that number.
The afterlife in The Good Place functions based on a system of points that correlate to the amount of good or bad a person does over their lifetime. To use an example from the show, the first points were granted to proto-human Og when they gave a rock to fellow proto-human Grog (+10,000 points) and the first points were taken from Grog when they bashed Og’s brains in with that same rock (-1,000,000 points). I mentioned the idea for this column to Lena last week and their reaction was “I refuse to entertain the idea of a capitalist afterlife,” which is an important point when you think about how in this example |10 rocks given = 1 murder committed|, but the show is less concerned with the points themselves than the reasons why they are given or taken away.
During this investigation into why no one is getting enough points to make it into The Good Place, almost all the examples of good or bad behavior are environmental in nature. The first stop in their investigation is to Doug Forcett, who is seen as a bastion of good behavior. Doug powers his house with solar panels, eats only lentils because of their ability to grow with little water and radishes because they were already growing near his house and he didn’t want to disturb them (radishes aren’t perennials but anyway). He drinks his purified urine instead of drawing from the local aquifer, adopts every stray that wanders onto his property, and holds a funeral for a snail – whom he does not name in case the snail has their own name. Unfortunately, Doug’s low impact lifestyle still doesn’t give him enough points to get into The Good Place and the show elaborates why using two additional environmentally rooted examples. The first is a contrast between two people, also both named Doug, who gave roses to their moms. Doug W. picked roses from his garden in 1534 netting him 145 points, but Doug E., in 2009, ordered pesticide laden roses picked by underpaid workers on his sweatshop manufactured cell phone. The roses were then shipped via carbon intensive methods altogether meaning this gift to his mom actually lost him 4 points. The second example is the purchase of a tomato which, when grown in pesticide rich farmland, picked by underpaid laborers, and transported with fuel inefficient vehicles, can actually lose someone points even if their intention is to fix a healthy salad for their family.
The conclusion the characters come to is that life today is just too complicated to make good [consumer] choices and that even when intentions are good systems of power and oppression continually force people to act badly. The choice of agro-environmental examples in explaining this is telling in two ways. On the surface it speaks to the widely felt anxiety about the impact individual choices have on Earth systems and landscapes – the dual legacy of the mainstream environmental movement and of corporations that continually shift responsibility for their environmental impact to the capitalist consumer. But I think there’s a deeper layer to this sense of ever increasing entanglement between our species and the systems that support us. To paraphrase Ted Danson’s character: “Eleanor, come on in. You’re in the Anthropocene.”
The Anthropocene is a proposed geologic era, like the Cambrian, Jurassic, and Holocene, that sets mankind, or just a few very specific men depending on how you look at it, as the primary force shaping the planet today. Everything about the Anthropocene, from its existence to its definition to its start date, is hotly debated and folks have come up with several different variations like the Capitalocene or the Chthulucene but I want to focus in on one variation in particular: the Plantationocene. The Plantationocene, theorized by Donna Haraway and further developed by Anna Tsing, concentrates this Earth shaping power in the construction of the plantation: a novel landscape based around the coerced labor of displaced humans and plants. An early example are the sugar cane plantations of Hispaniola (the Dominican Republic and Haiti today) where enslaved people from West Africa and sugarcane, which is native to India and Southeast Asia, were forced together in a foreign land to form a simplified monoculture. This new landscape was created to turn the forced labor of both plant and human into the profitable commodity of sugar. Plantationocene advocates link the idea of the plantation to the development of the fossil fuel industry, modern consumerism, and more. Plantations themselves have an even stronger presence in our world today, from palm oil plantations in the former rainforests of Indonesia to the coerced agricultural labor of undocumented people in the United States. I personally like the Plantationocene for its emphasis on agriculture as a primary interface between humans and other species and its linking of human oppression with the devastation of landscapes and planetary systems.
The Plantationocene also works because it's intuitive – it resonates well with public discussion about labor, food, justice, and environmentalism. The Good Place, whether intentionally or not, invokes the concept through its emphasis of agriculture’s labor and environmental costs as a driving force in humanity’s “badness.” It’s also telling that 521 years before the show’s air date in 2018 (remember, that was the last time someone was let into The Good Place) it was 1497, just when this new plantation concept was gaining traction during colonial expansion into the Americas.
The Good Place has its ups and downs as a show and I generally like it, but my biggest frustration is the way the characters react to this revelation about the world. Instead of banding together to fight systems of oppression and make the Earth more just and less complicated, they decide to re-tool the point system to fit our new reality. They capitulate to the status quo and create an afterlife for the Anthropocene. But I can’t really be that mad at them, they are dead after all. And the dead can’t save us, that’s our job.
Back tomorrow from the superb Latifah Azlan.