Saturday, April 26, 2008

Counterculture

Maybe this week I should be writing about Earth Day, because the 39th annual Earth Day occurred a few days ago on April 22nd, but I'm not going to. I will say, however, that when Earth Day was established back in 1970, the idea behind it was to raise public awareness about our slowly collapsing ecosystem and prevent it from deteriorating much further. But 40 years later, the only thing that's really happened is that the quality of our environment has gotten a lot worse, and Earth Day has become nothing more than a day to pay lip service to being "green." And as for raising public awareness, Earth Day comes and goes each year without most people even being aware of it. So any thinking person who celebrates Earth Day must be aware of the irony in celebrating a day that marks our 40-year failure to do anything about our worsening environmental conditions.

But while we're on the subject of the Earth, here's something I've always thought was kind of strange. As you know, the word "Earth" with a capital E refers to the planet, and the word "earth" without the capital E simply refers to the ground we walk on. It makes sense at some level, but it's also sort of reductionist, since the Earth consists of a lot more than just dirt. As a matter of fact, why did we name our planet after the dirt, when most of the planet is actually water? Why didn't we name the planet "Water"?

Or maybe I've got it wrong. Maybe we came up with the name of the planet first, and then named the dirt after it. If that's the case, then what do we call the ground on Mars? Do we call it "mars"? And what about the stuff on the moon? Do we call it "moon"?

And speaking of the moon, why is it that every other planet has names for their moons, but we don't? Jupiter's moons have names like Io and Ganymede, so how come our moon doesn't? It's weird, because it's not like the people of Jupiter named their moons -- those moons were named by astronomers on Earth, so why did they decide to name the moons of other planets and not ours? The same thing is true of the sun. It's got a name -- The Sun -- but all the other stars have cool-sounding names, like Andromeda and Betelgeuse and Sirius.

Okay, let's forget about the solar system for a while, so I can ask you a simple question: When was the last time you heard the word "counterculture"? I haven't heard it in so long I can't even remember, and do you want to know why? It's because nobody uses the word anymore because there isn't really a counterculture anymore.

Before you shake your head in violent disagreement, let me explain what I'm talking about. It seems like for just about every decade or so, there was a counterculture that defined the era. In the '50s there were the Beat poets and writers, but this was more than just an isolated literary movement, because the Beat movement attracted a lot of followers and wanna-bes, and it didn't take long before people started dressing in black and growing goatees and drinking in caf├ęs and ignoring the prevailing societal standards of the time.

I don't know what countercultures there were before the Beats, but I'm sure they existed. I was too young to be aware of the Beats when they were around, so anything that preceded them is just ancient history to me.

But in the '50s, there were also the Greasers, named after the way the guys slicked back their hair with some sort of greasy hair product. I never saw the movie Grease, but my understanding is that it took place in that era.

And by the way, I don't claim to be a historian -- or even particularly knowledgeable on the subject -- so I could be getting a few facts wrong, but the Greasers were also part of the burgeoning Car Culture movement.

Before I go any further, I'll just state what's probably obvious: These countercultures were primarily youth cultures, and at their core was a rebellion against the establishment. Even the Car Culture, which was mostly involved with customizing cars, was a sort of rebellion against societal norms.

Then of course there was the Surfer culture of the early and mid '60s. This counterculture was so popular that it gave birth to a new form of music, and people who had never touched a surfboard or even seen an ocean were listening to surf music and using expressions from the surfer patois.

And then of course came the hippies -- perhaps the most widely-known subculture of the past hundred years. It's almost impossible to think of the '60s without thinking of hippies. Hippie culture became a worldwide movement, and even though it was pretty much dead by the time the decade was over, there are still hippies here and there all over the world.

Then, in the '70s, there were the punks. They didn't last very long -- only a couple of years, according to some calculations -- but in that short period of time, they made their presence very well known. Regardless of what they thought of it, everybody knew about punk rock, and everybody knew about punk style.

For that matter, all the countercultures I mentioned had their own music and their own style of dress. Maybe that's what made them so noticeable. Of course, at their core, they also had their own style of thought.

So there's my brief summation of late 20th century countercultures. But before I move on, here's a question for you: What do all those countercultures I just mentioned have in common? Give up? Don't care? Okay, I'll tell you. They were all defined by the people who were part of them -- they weren't something pushed on the youth population by advertisers and corporate marketers. As a matter of fact, they were a revolt against the dominant culture telling them what to wear, how to live, and how to think.

Of course, most of those cultures were quickly co-opted by the corporate world -- hippies originally made their own tie-dye shirts, but it didn't take long before anybody could buy one in a department store, and I also seem to recall people being able to buy pre-torn and safety-pinned punk attire from trendy boutiques.

Be that as it may, I can't think of any countercultures after the punks -- or at least no major ones that defined an era. There were the yuppies, of course -- and they certainly defined the '80s -- but they were so much a part of the establishment that they couldn't be considered a counterculture.

There were also fads, of course, like the whole disco thing in the '70s and the work-out craze of the '80s. And there have always been subcultures as well, but those are different. Motorcycle gangs have been around for longer than I have, but they're more of a subculture. The same is true of skate culture -- it's a firmly entrenched culture but it's not very widespread. It spans continents, but it's a culture that most people never see any signs of, so it can hardly define an era.

So what's the closest thing we have to a counterculture today? I can't think of one, but the second-closest thing I can think of is probably online culture. Everybody and his dog uses the internet today, so you could definitely say that online culture is what defines our era, but it's not a counterculture -- it's the dominant culture. There might truly be an online counterculture -- the people who spend all their free time in front of a computer (as opposed to people who do it because that's what they do for a living) -- but by its very nature, online culture is invisible. You can't just look at someone and tell he's a gamer or a hacker, for example. So the online counterculture, if there is one, can't define an era, just because so few people are even aware of it.

That's about all I have to say about that, as I'm sure you'll be relieved to hear. I don't know what made me even start thinking about it in the first place. It might have been because I was thinking about music and I remembered that once upon a time, "indie" music was truly independent. People recorded their own songs in their garages or wherever, and distributed the cassettes themselves. Or maybe they paid some company to press a few hundred records for them, and they tried to sell the records after live performances. A lot of punk music was indie music -- you used to see record labels you'd never heard of before and haven't heard of since. But today it seems like indie and punk are just genres, nothing more than different styles of music, like rock, pop, hip hop, or whatever.

But all this talk about countercultures and subcultures and movements has got me thinking about Earth Day again. I'm trying to figure out why the environmental movement has had so little effect on the planet in the last four decades or so. Unlike all the countercultures I mentioned, they never did anything to annoy people -- like listen to music that most people thought sounded like noise, or dress in a way that scared people -- they just brought attention to the fact that cars pollute the air too much and toxins pollute the sea. In the '70s, car manufacturers starting worrying about gasoline efficiency, but I don't know if that was because of the environmental movement or the problems we were having trying to get oil from the Middle East.

Our problems with the Middle East are a lot worse now, of course, and gasoline currently costs about five or six times as much as it did back then, but gas mileage on most cars built today is no better than it was in the '70s -- it might even be a little worse. And despite the fact that everyone knows about global warming, whether you believe it's caused by human activity or just part of the Earth's natural cooling and warming cycle, you can't help noticing that Greenland is melting a lot faster than the most pessimistic computer models predicted it would, or that most of the glaciers in Montana's Glacier National Park are gone. Not so long ago, there were more than about 150 of them, and now they number somewhere in the twenties. So happy belated Earth Day, everyone. Let's see how bad things are a year from now.