Because I spend a lot of time below ground, the raw marks of geology are a regular part of my life. When I think of bedrock and mountains, I don’t think of them as solid things. They shift uneasily in my mind, and their brittle skins are not enough to disguise restless history. People who live near fault lines or volcanoes remember this; the rest of us generally forget it.
I think the structures of a society are very similar. The slow violence of geology and the slow violence of society are both ever ongoing.
Like mountains, the upheavals of a society are quickly eroded down. Their jagged edges and violent breaks smooth out with a little time, and we forget that they weren’t always there. Like bedrock, the habits of a society feel solid and unchanging, and yet we can measure the difference between what they were, and what they are, and what they will eventually be. Like fault lines, the tensions of society build up and let loose, sometimes in long series of tremors, and sometimes in rapid shifts of position.
And as with geology, those of us who do not live on the breaking edges have the dubious privilege of ignoring what goes on below the surface. As with geology, we make the often unwise presumption that things will and should continue as they are. We build our lives accordingly.
When an earthquake hits, or a landslide sweeps away homes, or a flood plain settles, we feel betrayed, as though we were entitled to stability. When people on the edges of society tire of being ground down and force their way toward equity, the rest of society reacts with haughty outrage. Who are they to shift that bedrock? Don’t they know our privileges are built on it?
Yes, they know. Those of us who live on the edges are never allowed to forget that the bedrock is not very solid, and that it will not support us for long. When you spend time near the points of breakage, you can’t fool yourself into thinking the rest is stable, and you don’t see the trappings of society as quite so immutable or sacred.
So why do the rest of us flatten the curve of change? Why do we project our present into the future and the past both? Why do we build in places that cannot hold, on premises that will not last, on ideas that flare briefly and die violently? And why do we cling to those ideas long after they have cracked and overturned? You cannot rebuild a mountain that has fallen, but we build on the rubble and presume it will not shift again.
The builders continue to resent those who argue for change, but I think they misunderstand the argument. They think it is an argument for tearing up their bedrock, but it is their bedrock that is shifting, whether or not they chose to admit it. The people on the edges have everything and nothing at stake—their lives shift already, so they might as well acknowledge it, and plan for it, and strive to build something better.
I think the cycle of upheaval will continue, whatever we admit along the way. I also think, if we choose to look beyond the present, the directions of change are also directions of growth. We can see where society has shifted in the past, and where it is likely to shift in the future—if stability is something we must have, I think it would be better to build with that in mind.