We have misunderstood the meaning of the Columbus “discovery” of the new world. He – and Ferdinand Magellan who came after him — proved the world was round, but 1492 unleashed flat-earth “frontierism” and the powerful myth of endless economic growth at the core of our modern industrial culture. The fact is that there are no “frontiers” in any ultimate sense in the global ecosystem because it is spherical.
Frontiers are based on a the metaphor of linear movement outward upon infinite space along which people or things are thought to move, expand and conquer. For much of American history (and that of other “white settler societies” like South Africa, Canada, Australia, etc) , the concept of linear expansion toward an ever receding horizon on a flat earth surface seemed to function as a plausible metaphor collective experience — for a while.
Nevertheless,the limits of this kind of flat-earthism should have become apparent immediately to anyone who took the discoveries of Columbus and Magellan seriously. The attempt to link a linear metaphor to something like expansion around the globe or off the spherical earth into space is a sadly misplaced metaphor. Yet while the notion of expanding “frontiers” makes no sense off a sphere like earth, the persistent grip of linear flat-earth frontierism is so powerful as a metaphor that politicians in America simply cannot avoid repeating and amplifying the metaphor:
Politicians are simply resonating with and seeking to capitalize upon a metaphorical structure that is deeply ingrained in Western civilization. Moreover, they are not alone in this. Even the most sophisticated minds have embraced the nonsensical notion of “frontiers of space.”
- “Food, Famine and the Frontier Mentality,” Worldview, 24, 12 (December 1981), 14-16.
- “Rubbish and Racism: Problems of Boundary in an Ecosystem,”The Yale Review, (Winter, 1983), pp. 225-244.
- “Agents of Empire: Steps Toward an Ecology of Imperialism,” Environmental Review, 11, 4, (Winter, 1987),
as well as:
- The Troublesome Legacy of Columbus: Look Out ! What Are We Celebrating?
- The Rise and Coming Demise of “Free-Market” Fundamentalism – Viewpoints from Balliol College Over Time
- Infinite Growth on a Finite Planet Is Not Possible
- Video: Tim Weiskel – Advice to Young People: Environmental Sustainability