Power And Decadence

If you take the Military Highway (as I did) from Buffalo to Lewiston, you will pass through a formidable wasteland. Landfills stretch in all directions where enormous trucks - tiny in that landscape - incessantly deposit sludge, which great bulldozers, like yellow ants, then push into the ground. These machines are the only signs of life, for in the miasma that hangs in the air, no birds, not even scavengers, are seen. Along colossal power lines that crisscross this dismal land, the dynamos at Niagara push electric power south, where factories have fled, leaving their remains to decay. To drive along this road is to feel the awe and sense of mystery one experiences in the presence of so much power and so much decadence.

Henry Adams responded in a similar way to the dynamos displayed at the Paris Exposition of 1900. To him the dynamo became a "symbol of infinity" and functioned as the modern counterpart to the Virgin -that is, as the center and focus of power: "Before the end, one began to pray to it; inherited instinct taught the natural expression of man before silent and infinite force."1

Adams asks in his essay "The Dynamo and the Virgin" how the products of modern industrial civilization will be compared with those of the religious culture of the Middle Ages. If he could see the landfills and hazardous-waste facilities bordering the power stations and honeymoon hotels of Niagara Falls, he would know the answer. He would understand what happens when efficiency replaces infinity as the central conception of value. The dynamos at Niagara will not produce another Mont-Saint-Michel. "All the steam in the world," Adams writes, "could not, like the Virgin, build Chartres."2

At the Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima, on a plateau north of the Military Highway, a larger-than-life sculpture of Mary looks into the chemical air. The original of this shrine stands in central Portugal, where in May 1917 three children said they saw a lady, brighter than the sun, raised on a cloud in an evergreen tree.3 Five months later, on a wet and cold October day, the lady again appeared, this time before a large crowd. Some in the crowd reported that "the sun appeared and seemed to tremble, rotate violently and fall, dancing over the heads of the throng."4

The shrine was empty when I visited it. The cult of Our Lady of Fatima, I imagine, has few devotees. The cult of welfare economics, however, has many. Where some people see only environmental devastation, its devotees perceive utility, willingness-to-pay, welfare, or some such theoretical construct. They see the satisfaction of wants. They balance benefits and costs.

As I looked from the shrine over the smudged and ruined terrain, I thought of all the wants and preferences that are satisfied in a landscape full of honeymoon cottages, commercial strips, and dumps for hazardous waste. I hoped that Our Lady of Fatima, worker of miracles, might serve, at least for the moment, as the patroness of cost-benefit analysis. The prospect, however, looked only darker in that light.

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