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Civilization is like a jetliner, noisy, burning up enormous amounts of fuel. Every imaginable and unimaginable crime and pollution had to be committed in order to make it go. Whole species were rendered extinct, whole populations dispersed. Its shadow on the water resembles an oil slick. Birds are sucked into its jets and vaporized. Every part, as Gus Grissom once nervously remarked about space capsules before he burned up in one, has been made by the lowest bidder.

Civilization is like a 747, the filtered air, the muzak oozing over the earphones, the phony sense of security, the chemical food, the plastic trays, all the passengers sitting passively in the ordered row of padded seats staring at Death on the movie screen. Civilization is like a jetliner, an idiot savant in the cockpit manipulating computerized controls built by sullen wage workers, and dependent on sleepy technicians high on amphetamines with their minds wandering to sports and sex.

Civilization is like a 747, filled beyond capacity with coerced volunteers - some in love with the velocity, most wavering at the abyss of terror and nausea, yet still seduced by the advertising and propaganda. It is like a DC-10, so incredibly enclosed that you want to break the tin can walls and escape, make your own way through the clouds, and leave this rattling, screaming fiend approaching its own breaking point. The smallest error or technical failure leads to catastrophe, breaking all your bones like egg shells and scattering your sad entrails like belated omens over the runway.

Of course, civilization is like many other things besides jets - always things - a chemical drainage ditch, a woodland knocked down to lengthen an airstrip or buld a slick new shopping mall where people can buy salad bowls made out of exotic tropical trees which will be extinct next week. Or perhaps a graveyard for cars, or a suspension bridge which collapses because a single metal pin has shaken loose. Civilization is a hydra. There are a multitude of styles, colors, and sizes of Death to choose from.

Civilization is like a Boeing jumbo jet because it transports people who have never experienced their humanity to places where they shouldn't go. In fact it mainly transports businessmen in suits with briefcases filled with charts, contracts, more mischief - businessmen who are identical everywhere and hence have no reason to be ferried about. And it goes faster and faster, turning more and more places into airports, the (un)natural habitat of businessmen.

It is an utter mystery how it gets off the ground. It rolls down the runway, the blinking lights along the ground like electronic scar tissue on the flesh of the earth, picks up speed and somehow grunts, raping the air, working its way up along the shimmering waves of heat and the trash blowing about like refugees fleeing the bombing of a city. Yes, it is exciting, a mystery, when life has been evacutated and the very stones have been murdered.

But civilization, like the jetliner, this freak phoenix incapable of rising from its own ashes, also collapses across the earth like a millions bursting wasps, flames spreading across the runway in tentacles of gasoline, samsonite, and charred flesh. And always the absurd rubbish, Death's confetti, the fragments left to mock us lying along the weary trajectory of the dying bird - the doll's head, the shoes, the eyeglasses, a beltbuckle.

Jetliners fall, civilizations fall, this civilization will fall. The guages will be read wrong on some snowy day, (perhaps they will fail). The wings, supposedly de-iced, will be too frozen to beat against the wind and the bird will sink like a millstone, first gratuitously skimming a bridge (because civilization is also like a bridge, from Paradise to Nowhere). A bridge laden, say with commuters on their way to or from work, which is to say, to or from the airport, packed in their cars (wingless jetliners) like additional votive offerings to a ravenous Medusa.

Then it will dive into icy waters of a river, the Potomac perhaps, or the River Jordan, or Lethe. And we will be inside, each one us at our specially assigned porthole, going down for the last time, like dolls' heads encased in plexiglass.

By David Watson, originally published 1983 in the magazine Fifth Estate. Reprinted 1997 in the excellent collection Against the Megamachine: Essays on the Empire & Its Enemies (Autonomedia; Brooklyn, NY). Anti-copyrighted for non-commercial use; the links are, of course, my own addition.

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