The documentary (based on the book) “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” by Jared Diamond, professor of geology and physiology at UCLA, chronicles an interdisciplinary attempt by Diamond to explain why Eurasian civilizations have survived and conquered other civilizations, while at the same time maintaining that this dominance is not due to any intellectual, moral, or genetic superiority. Diamond began to explore this dilemma after being impacted by a conversation with Yali, a politician of New Guinea, who asked: “Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?”
Why do we have so much cargo? What is the real impact of this cargo – these possessions – on our communities?
As I turned out onto the main street that parallels the the street I live on, I drove past a steel cabinet with 2 doors covered with marks in red paint. The cabinet stood about 5-6 feet high and about 5 feet wide. Attached to the door on the right was a paper sign that read: “FREE.”
These days, craigslist supplies us with an endless listing of items we need, or at least want. Some of these items are offered for free, some for a price less than retail asking. All we have to do is to make the connection online, text or phone an agreement and method of payment: cash? or not? and then drive across town to pick up our latest piece of cargo.
If you happen to drive past an item left on the street, though, you don’t have to go through all those steps, and maybe you’ll find just the chair or lamp or sofa you’ve been looking for. When he was setting up his room in the house during his college days, my nephew would arrive home from school or work on his bike, holding a new piece of cargo in one of his hands. That’s how he decorated his space – eclectic, at best!
As I turned out onto the main street that parallels the the street I live on, I drove past a steel cabinet with 2 doors covered with marks in red paint. I drove a mile south of my house toward the freeway. The concrete and steel pillars that hold the freeway are painted with bright colors and community-oriented quotes in my city, swirls of color and letters, some in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr: ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.’
As I passed under the freeway, I saw cargo carefully stacked and covered with bright blue tarps for protection behind several of the pillars on which the freeway perches. I didn’t see any folks that day, but I recognized the pillars of cargo under the pillars of the freeway as the possessions of the homeless people who live in the community, along with you and me.Their cargo is more vulnerable than ours, to be sure, although I suppose no cargo is safe from being taken as cargo by someone else.
Their lives are vulnerable, too, in ways ours are not – vulnerable to weather, to violence, to encroachment by others who live in the spaces under the freeways, to drugs, and to police who make it their business to break up the encampments that arise, little communities of their own, in shady and almost-hidden places in the cities. Their lives are vulnerable to what it means to sleep on the ground under the shaking freeway, to illnesses that don’t go away and won’t go away, even with treatment, when home is a place barely out of traffic.
I don’t know why we need this cargo, but apparently we do. We can’t imagine life without it. We’re dependent on it, to be sure. We’re so dependent on cargo that even when we have nothing, we have cargo, and we need a place to store it, to keep it from getting wet.
When I turned into my street from the main street an hour later, the steel cabinet was gone.