Category Archives: Readings

Our Chronic Legitimacy Crisis Might Turn Acute, Again

In the public comment I submitted last week on the Rainy River Watershed Withdrawal, I made the point that completing the withdrawal would not only help protect the Boundary Waters. It would also serve the interest of good government. A new article by Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way in Foreign Affairs helps set this point in the context of an unfolding American crisis.

“America,” argue Levitsky and Way, “may no longer be safe for democracy, but it remains inhospitable to autocracy.” Even so, the ongoing push toward autocracy is likely to bring a prolonged period of democratic instability and political violence. Even when they do not succeed in their autocratic ambitions, autocrats and their cronies in the public and private sector will destabilize government, undo rulemaking, and undermine legitimacy, as we saw clearly during the Trump era:

Trump proved to be as autocratic as advertised. Following the playbook of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, and Viktor Orban in Hungary, he worked to corrupt key state agencies and subvert them for personal, partisan, and even undemocratic ends. Public officials responsible for law enforcement, intelligence, foreign policy, national defense, homeland security, election administration, and even public health were pressured to deploy the machinery of government against the president’s rivals. (emphasis mine)

America’s chronic legitimacy crisis could once again turn acute.

If Trump or a like-minded Republican wins the presidency in 2024 (with or without fraud), the new administration will almost certainly politicize the federal bureaucracy and deploy the machinery of government against its rivals. Having largely purged the party leadership of politicians committed to democratic norms, the next Republican administration could easily cross the line into what we have called competitive authoritarianism—a system in which competitive elections exist but incumbent abuse of state power tilts the playing field against the opposition.

Corruption and political interference at Interior and USDA around a single mining project may not rank among the most serious abuses of state power we’ve seen lately or are likely to see. But documenting and understanding what happened in the case of the Rainy River Withdrawal can help us appreciate where things might be heading.

No, the Shift to Renewables Will Not Be the End of Toil

Energy derived from sources like the sun, air, and water, on the other hand, is imbued with immense liberatory potential. In principle every house, farm, and factory could free itself from the grid by generating its own power. No longer would power lines and gigantic, leak prone tankers be needed for the transportation of energy; no longer would workers have to toil in underground mines or remote deserts or rough seas; there would be no need for the long supply chains required by fossil fuels. (Amitav Ghosh, The Nutmeg’s Curse, p. 102, emphasis mine)

Context makes it clear Ghosh is thinking of coal mining, oil fields, and offshore platforms when he dreams of a world where workers no longer toil. But in his reverie, Ghosh neglects an important and undeniable feature of renewable energy: it is mining intensive.

The IEA sees demand for critical minerals surging from 2020-2050 even as the demand for and value of coal drops. In green growth scenarios, workers will likely have to keep toiling in mines as they now do in Chile’s Atacama desert, the cobalt mines of the Democratic Republic of Congo, or the copper and nickel mines of South Asia, South America, or Siberia. The list of potential sacrifice zones will grow and could someday extend from American public lands to offshore oil platforms converted to deep-sea mining.

This observation is not an argument against the transition from fossil fuels. It’s just to say that right now there are no signs the shift to renewables will undo the resource curse. Extraction for global markets continues to exact a local toll: serious human rights violations, unremediated (or irremediable) environmental destruction, conflicts over water (which Ghosh himself mentions briefly in a list of “conflicts that global warming will create or exacerbate,” p. 127), and social division. And for the foreseeable future, mineral supply chains will be nearly as long as those required by fossil fuels, strung across the globe and fraught with geopolitical tension.

A decisive shift from fossil fuels could see the end of the petro-dollar and the toppling of “global hierarchies of power,” as Ghosh imagines: “The liberatory potential of renewable energy has a very important international dimension as well: if adopted at scale it could transform, indeed revolutionize, the current global order” (p. 103). It could also precipitate another set of crises – environmental, humanitarian, and military — and it’s worth considering that eventuality.

Postscript, 20 January 2022: For more on the geopolitical risks of the energy transition, see Jason Bordoff and Meghan L. O’Sullivan, “Green Upheaval The New Geopolitics of Energy,” Foreign Affairs, January/February 2022.

Four Post Growth and Green Growth Scenarios

This passage about a “transformation of values on which a different kind of economy might be built” is the core of Tim Jackson’s argument in Post Growth: Life After Capitalism, as I read it.

Developing the foundations for a postgrowth economy demands more of us than bemoaning the massive damage inflicted on society and the planet through the power of accumulation. Just as we need to unravel the dynamic through which human work is degraded and distorted under capitalism’s yoke, so we need to delve more deeply into the machinery of capital itself before we can arrive at the transformation of values on which a different kind of economy might be built. (p. 131)

A longer discussion might pick up each of the threads here and trace them through Jackson’s book: the critique of GDP as the measure of prosperity (or wealth as accumulation); the discussion of Arendt on meaningful human work and the building of a durable world; and prescriptions to correct human craving and consumption, or to transform values, from Aristotle to Thich Nhat Hanh.

Focusing just for the moment on the last of these, on the transformation of values, four scenarios present themselves.

A “transformation of values”:

  1. may go as Jackson would like it to go (Green Prosperity);
  2. may not ever happen, even as we make the transition to renewables (Green Profligacy);
  3. may not happen in a timely way, impeding the transition  (Green Delay);
  4. may come about, but not in the direction Jackson imagines (Green Austerity).

Of these four futures, I suspect the second, third, and fourth are more likely than the first.

Arendt on Enlightened Self-Interest

From the essay “On Violence” in Crises of the Republic (1972):

Nothing, unfortunately, has so constantly been refuted by reality as the credo of “enlightened self-interest,” in its literal version as well as in its more sophisticated Marxian variant. Some experience plus a little reflection teach, on the contrary, that it goes against the very nature of self-interest to be enlightened. To take as an example from everyday life the current interest conflict between tenant and landlord: enlightened interest would focus on a building fit for human habitation, but this interest is quite different from, and in most cases opposed to, the landlord’s self-interest in high profit and the tenant’s in low rent. The common answer of an arbiter, supposedly the spokesman of “enlightenment,” namely, that in the long run the interest of the building is the true interest of both landlord and tenant, leaves out of account the time factor, which is of paramount importance for all concerned. Self-interest is interested in the self, and the self dies or moves out or sells the house; because of its changing condition, that self cannot reckon in terms of long-range interest, i.e., the interest of a world that survives its inhabitants…. Self-interest, when asked to yield to true interest — that is, the interest of the world as distinguished from the self — will always reply, Near is my shirt, but nearer is my skin. That may not be particularly reasonable, but it is quite realistic; it is the not very noble but adequate response to the time discrepancy between men’s private lives and the altogether different life expectancy of the public world. To expect people, who have not the slightest notion of what the res publica, the public thing, is, to behave nonviolently and argue rationally in matters of interest is neither realistic nor reasonable.

Purdy on Public-Lands Populism

From the closing paragraphs of Jedediah Purdy’s Whose Lands? Which Public?

In its monuments proclamations, the Trump Administration asserts a sweeping power to reclassify fifteen million acres of protected federal land and hundreds of millions of marine acres. The proclamations already issued, which purport to strip more than a million acres of monument status, are redolent of this Administration’s illiberal and procedurally dubious tendencies. They elevate to federal policy the themes and goals of a strand of Western populism that is tainted with outlawry and racism. The proclamations also cater to extractive industries, particularly uranium, oil and gas, and coal, in ways that resonate with the Trump Administration’s relentless mixing of public wealth and private interest–in a phrase, its penchant for corruption….

Corruption is not a novel concern here. For well over a century, the field [of public-lands law] has been shaped by recognition that precipitate and opportunistic privatization is a perennial temptation in a body of law that governs nearly a third of the country’s acreage and a great deal of its natural wealth. The Executive branch’s capacity for rapid, unilateral, and obscure action makes it especially suited to this form of misappropriation. Recognition of these facts is built into public-lands law in the long-standing asymmetric preference for Presidential power to preserve lands over Presidential power to privatize them…. The kind of opportunistic favoritism that the Trump proclamations display is precisely what public-lands law has been structured over centuries to avert. These proclamations are paradigms of why unilateral Presidential reclassification toward privatizing natural resources would be anomalous in public-lands law. A Court would properly consider the anomaly in deciding whether the power to create national monuments should imply the power to unmake them.

In the case of the Trump proclamations, the question of opportunism and favoritism in reclassification decisions interacts with the influence of racially inflected nationalism and localist outlawry on the Administration’s priorities. Here too, as with corruption, these themes are not novel or alien to public-lands law. Extractivism, settler-colonialism, and the priority of property-style resource claims and local control are, in key ways, continuations of the themes that governed the first hundred years of public-lands law. Their constituencies have never left the field. It is partly because of these constituencies’ persistent opposition to preservation agendas that public-lands law has always been inflected by disputes over national identity, from the utilitarian nationalism of Gifford Pinchot and Theodore Roosevelt’s national forests to the national parks’ much-advertised status as the American answer to Europe’s cathedrals to the claim that wilderness preservation would keep the country from becoming a “cage.”

Here too, public-lands law has been shaped by grappling with the themes that the Trump proclamations raise. And here too its shape contains a good part of an answer. The public-lands populists’ claims on behalf of privatizing and extractive policies already have a specific legal expression that is deeply embedded in public-lands law: in long-standing public rights-of-way across the federal lands of the West, in mining and mineral-leasing regimes, in grazing rights, and in the default policy of extensive public recreational access — and, above all, in the private real estate that was substantially created under federal privatization schemes. In other words, these claims do not come from outside public-lands law. They are part of it, and they occupy a specific place in its structure. Where they have been vested, they tend to persist within new regimes that otherwise emphasize preservation over extraction and economic use. On multiple-use lands, they play a prominent part in the statutorily mandated planning process. Where, however, they are not vested but take the form of inchoate expectations of continued access, they yield on categorically protected lands: new privatizing and extractive claims are almost uniformly excluded under preservation regimes. For such claims to get traction again, the lands themselves must be reclassified. That reclassification is generally reserved to Congress. If the Antiquities Act authorizes the President to hand a victory to public-lands populists by reclassifying hotly contested lands, then it is a dramatic anomaly in public-lands law. It would authorize constant perennial and shifting reopening of precisely the disputes that the field exists to structure and resolve, and through a mechanism that is procedurally orthogonal to the rest of the field.

The Trump proclamations raise a novel question for interpretation of one of the most important public-lands statutes. Like much that this Administration does, however, it is not so much new as it is an effort to reopen questions that many of us had hoped were closed. In this case, they should remain closed.

Cary Wolfe on “Another Moral Vocabulary”

FridayStoopFocus

Friday on the stoop.

This is from Natasha Lennard’s 2017 interview with Cary Wolfe in The Stone:

On the one hand, rights discourse is Exhibit A for the problems with philosophical humanism. Many of us, including myself, would agree that many of the ethical aspirations of humanism are quite admirable and we should continue to pursue them. For example, most of us would probably agree that treating animals cruelly, and justifying that treatment on the basis of their designation as “animal” rather than human, is a bad thing to do.

But the problem with how rights discourse addresses this problem — in animal rights philosophy, for example — is that animals end up having some kind of moral standing insofar as they are diminished versions of us: that is to say, insofar as they are possessed of various characteristics such as the capacity to experience suffering — and not just brute physical suffering but emotional duress as well — that we human beings possess more fully. And so we end up reinstating a normative form of the moral-subject-as-human that we wanted to move beyond in the first place.

So on the other hand, what one wants to do is to find a way of valuing nonhuman life not because it is some diminished or second-class form of the human, but because the diversity and abundance of life is to be valued for what it is in its own right, in its difference and uniqueness. An elephant or a dolphin or a chimpanzee isn’t worthy of respect because it embodies some normative form of the “human” plus or minus a handful of relevant moral characteristics. It’s worthy of respect for reasons that call upon us to come up with another moral vocabulary, a vocabulary that starts by acknowledging that whatever it is we value ethically and morally in various forms of life, it has nothing to do with the biological designation of “human” or “animal.”

Having said all that, there are many, many contexts in which rights discourse is the coin of the realm when you’re engaged in these arguments — and that’s not surprising, given that nearly all of our political and legal institutions are inherited from the brief historical period (ecologically speaking) in which humanism flourished and consolidated its domain. If you’re talking to a state legislature about strengthening laws for animal abuse cases, let’s say, instead of addressing a room full of people at a conference on deconstruction and philosophy about the various problematic assumptions built into rights discourse, then you better be able to use a different vocabulary and different rhetorical tools if you want to make good on your ethical commitments. That’s true even though those commitments and how you think about them might well be informed by a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the problem than would be available to those legislators. In other words, it’s only partly a philosophical question. It’s also a strategic question, one of location, context and audience, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone that we can move more quickly in the realm of academic philosophical discourse on these questions than we can in the realm of legal and political institutions.

Acts and Sets of Acts

This passage in Derek Parfit’s Reasons and Persons (1984) deserves calling out, not least because it sets the stage for the arguments against climate change despair I reviewed in a previous post.

In small communities, it is a plausible claim that we cannot have harmed others if there is no one with an obvious complaint, or ground for resenting what we have done.

Until this century, most of mankind lived in small communities. What each did could affect only a few others. But conditions have now changed. Each of us can now, in countless ways, affect countless other people. We can have real though small effects on thousands or millions of people. When these effects are widely dispersed, they may be either trivial, or imperceptible. It now makes a great difference whether we continue to believe that we cannot have greatly harmed or benefited others unless there are people with obvious grounds for resentment or gratitude. While we continue to believe this, even if we care about effects on others, we may fail to solve many serious Prisoner’s Dilemmas. For the sake of small benefits to ourselves, or our families, each of us may deny others much greater total benefits, or impose on others much greater total harms. We may think this permissible because the effects on the others will either be trivial or imperceptible. If this is what we think, what we do will often be much worse for all of us.

If we cared sufficiently about effects on others, and changed our moral view, we would solve such problems. It is not enough to ask, ‘Will my act harm other people?’ Even if the answer is No, my act may still be wrong, because of its effects. The effects that it will have when it is considered on its own may not be its only relevant effects. I should ask, ‘Will my act be one of a set of acts that will together harm other people?’ The answer may be Yes. And the harm to others may be great. If this is so, I may be acting very wrongly…. We must accept this view if our concern for others is to yield solutions to most of the many Prisoner’s Dilemmas that we face: most of the many cases where, if each of us rather than none of us does what will be better for himself — or for his family, or those he loves — this will be worse, and often much worse, for everyone.

A Note on Stone’s “Should Trees Have Standing?”

A report in the New York Times the other day about the Federal District Court case naming the Colorado River as plaintiff led me to Christopher D. Stone’s 1972 Southern California Law Review article, “Should Trees Have Standing?” Justice Douglas drew on Stone’s arguments to formulate his dissent in Sierra Club v. Morton, and since that time the essay has been widely influential, a classic that helped define a field.

For Stone, a river or a lake, a mountain or a forest, a species or the biosphere can have roughly the same status as other “legal incompetents.” A human guardian or, as we might say nowadays, a protector brings a complaint for a natural entity that has suffered some injury. The case is brought “at the behest of” the river or mountain, without having first to prove injury to the guardian or some third party (e.g., a fishing guide whose business has suffered as the result of stream pollution); and the natural entity itself would be the beneficiary of an award or remedy ordered by the court. So, for instance, a judgment against those who have polluted a stream might direct them to undo the damage done to its waters, mitigate erosion of its banks and depletion of its plant life, restock its fish, and so on. The stream would have a “right” to be made whole again.

Stone recognizes that his proposal “is bound to sound odd or frightening of laughable,” but that, he notes, has been true of any movement to confer rights on rightless “things”:

There will be resistance to giving the thing “rights” until it can be seen and valued for itself; yet it is hard to see it and value it for itself until we can bring ourselves to give it “rights” — which is almost inevitably going to sound inconceivable to a large group of people.

Stone’s thinking can seem way ahead of its time — and ours (even if the writing here is sometimes redolent of Southern California in the early 1970s). This is especially true toward the end of the piece, where Stone moves from making strictly jural arguments for the standing of rivers, trees, and other natural entities to broader observations about the “shift from the view that nature exists for men”:

…the time is already upon us when we may have to consider subordinating some human claims to those of the environment per se. Consider, for example, the disputes over protecting wilderness areas from development that would make them accessible to greater numbers of people. I myself feel disingenuous rationalizing the environmental protectionist’s position in terms of a utilitarian calculus, even one that takes future generations into account, and plays fast and loose with its definition of “good.” Those who favor development have the stronger argument — they at least hold the protectionist to a standstill — from the point of advancing the greatest good of the greatest number of people. And the same is true regarding arguments to preserve useless species of animals, as in [the case of sea urchins endangered by a nuclear power plant.] One can say that we never know what is going to prove useful at some future time. In order to protect ourselves, therefore, we ought to be conservative now in our treatment of nature. I agree. But when conservationists argue this way to the exclusion of other arguments, or find themselves speaking in terms of “recreational interests” so continuously as to play up to, and reinforce, homocentrist perspectives, there is something sad about the spectacle. One feels that the arguments lack even their proponent’s convictions. I expect they want to say something less egotistic and more emphatic but the prevailing and sanctioned modes of explanation in our society are not quite ready for it. In this vein, there must have been abolitonists who put their case in terms of getting more work out of the Blacks. Holdsworth says of the early English Jew that while he was “regarded as a species of res nullius … [H]e was valuable for his acquisitive capacity; and for that reason the crown took him under its protection.” (Even today, businessmen are put in the position of insisting that their decent but probably profitless acts will “help our company’s reputation and be good for profits.”)

For my part, I would prefer a frank avowal that even making adjustments for esthetic improvements, what I am proposing is going to cost “us,” i.e., reduce our standard of living as measured in terms of our present values.

We may still not be “ready for it,” as Stone puts it; and, he goes on to say, there might be a more “fundamental problem” with asking human beings to put their own immediate self-interest aside and act on ethical principle, or to limit our rights in order to respect the rights of others:

Insofar as the proposal is not just an elaborate legal fiction, but really comes down in the last analysis to a compromise of our interests for theirs, why should we adopt it? “What is in it for ‘us’?”

This is a question I am prepared to answer, but only after permitting myself some observations about how odd the question is. It asks for me to justify my position in the very anthropocentric hedonist terms that I am proposing we modify. One is inclined to respond by a counter: “couldn’t you (as a white) raise the same questions about compromising your preferred rights status with Blacks?”; or “couldn’t you (as a man) raise the same question about compromising your preferred rights status with women?” Such counters, unfortunately, seem no more responsive than the question itself. (They have a nagging ring of “yours too” about them.) What the exchange actually points up is a fundamental problem regarding the nature of philosophical argument. Recall that Socrates, whom we remember as an opponent of hedonistic thought, confutes Thrasymachus by arguing that immorality makes one miserably unhappy! Kant, whose moral philosophy was based upon the categorical imperative (“Woe to him who creeps through the serpent windings of Utilitarianism”) finds himself justifying, e.g., promise keeping and truth telling, on the most prudential-one might almost say, commercial-grounds. This “philosophic irony” (as Professor [S. Morris] Engel calls it) may owe to there being something unique about ethical argument. “Ethics cannot be put into words”, Wittgenstein puts it; such matters “make themselves manifest.” On the other hand, perhaps the truth is that in any argument which aims at persuading a human being to action (on ethical or any other bases), “logic” is only an instrument for illuminating positions, at best, and in the last analysis it is psycho-logical [sic] appeals to the listener’s self-interest that hold sway, however ”principled” the rhetoric may be.

That logic may have its limits and ethical argument its attendant ironies should not deter us. “The strongest case can be made from the perspective of human advantage,” Stone writes; and after reviewing that case, he goes on to suggest that protecting the environment will actually raise our standard of living, if not in terms of our present values, then (this point deserves emphasis) in terms of new and more durable values.

Stone is even prepared to argue that “a radical new conception of man’s relationship to the rest of nature would not only be a step towards solving the material planetary problems” (and the problems Stone identifies here, in 1972, are still very much with us and more urgent than ever before: melting polar ice caps, dying oceans, serious threats to water). “There are strong reasons for such a changed consciousness [Stone admits that he is uncomfortable with the term] from the point of making us far better humans.” Recognizing the rights of those whose standing once seemed “unthinkable,” to borrow Stone’s phrase, surely has.

Levinson on primitive economies of information

Ndap y Ke Rossel

Rossel Island shell currency.

An excerpt from Stephen C. Levinson, “Interrogative Intimations: On A Possible Social Economics of Interrogatives” in Questions. Formal, Functional and Interactional Perspectives. ed. Jan P. de Ruiter. Cambridge: 2012.

Levinson sketches a model of conversation in which interlocutors measure both the semantic and the social value of information. In this scheme, the semantic measure would be apportioned in units called Carnaps (after philosopher Rudolf Carnap), the social in Goffman units (after sociologist Erving Goffman). The Goffman measure involves ongoing estimations of position relative to others, social costs (which might explain the reluctance, say, to ask a question), authority, expertise, and so on. It underwrites a “micropolitics” of conversation.

Levinson offers an analogy with the shell money system of Rossel Island, in Papua, New Guinea.

An economic model of social information transfer is not going to look like a modern market economy. It might perhaps have some passing resemblance to the “primitive” economics of pre-industrial societies, with multiple measures for specific goods (bushels and grosses, cords and cubits), and multiple barter and exchange systems. Take the so-called shell money system of Rossel Island…, which consists of twenty-odd denominations of shells, with no exact equivalences of value and a delimited arena in which they can be used — it offers only the faintest semblance of a market economy (the shells are usable, e.g., for bride price, the purchase of pigs, houses and canoes, but not for food or manual labour). Shells are stores not only of economic but of social value, and top shells have names, like the Koh-i-noor diamond. Gaining possession of an individually named shell is like being temporary owner of a Picasso: it is an individual, not a mass of multiple undifferentiated tokens, and it reflects glory on its owner. Large injustices and delicts can be atoned for by the assuaging properties of such shells, even if only on loan for a fortnight. Shells go in one direction in exchange for goods, services and immaterial benefits (like forgiveness) in the other; but because there is constant flow in both directions, and shells are borrowed from all and sundry with intended eventual repayment, the market is about as murky as subprime derivatives. Such a system, with a multitude of special factors, frictions and exuberant irrationalities, offers us a better picture of the economics of everyday social life than textbook market economics.

It also moves us well beyond the transactional “ask-bid” model of conversation I described, and found wanting, in an earlier post.

A Translation from La Tregua

From the chapter called “The Dreamers” in Primo Levi’s La Tregua:

In the evenings — those long Polish evenings — the air of our quarters, already heavy with tobacco and human odors, became saturated with crazy dreams. This is the first fruit of exile and uprootedness: the unreal prevails over the real. Everyone dreamed, dreams of the past and of the future, of slavery and redemption, of improbable paradises, likewise of mythical and far-fetched enemies: cosmic enemies, perverse and subtle, ubiquitous, ambient, like the air. Everyone, with the exception perhaps of Cravero, and certainly of D’Agata.

D’Agata had no time to sleep, because he was in the grip of terror: bedbugs. Naturally, none of us were exactly fond of these troublesome companions, but we had all grown accustomed to them. They were not few or far between, but a little bug regimen, which had invaded all our bunks with the arrival of spring. By day, they nested in the crevices of the walls and in the wooden bedframes, and they would not set out on a raid until the comings and goings of the day had ceased. We were all resigned to surrender a little portion of our blood, even to do so willingly; it was less easy to get used to feeling them steal across your face and all over your body, underneath your clothing. Only those who had the good fortune to enjoy a heavy slumber, and who succeeded in losing consciousness before they awoke, could sleep in peace.

D’Agata, who was a little man, a Sicilian bricklayer, sober, reserved, and fastidious, had been reduced to sleeping during the day. He spent nights stretched out on his bed, watching all around, his eyes huge from the horror, the vigil, the spasms of attention. In his hand, he tightly grasped a gadget fashioned from a stick and a piece of wire mesh, and the wall next to him was covered with a lurid constellation of bloody stains.

At first these habits of his were the target of mockery: was his skin so much thinner than ours? But then pity took over, mixed with a trace of envy, because among us all, D’Agata was the only one whose enemies were concrete, present, tangible, and could be drawn into combat, struck, and squashed against the wall.

Nelle lunghissime sere polacche, l’aria della camerata, greve di tabacco e di odori umani, si saturava di sogni insensati. È questo il frutto piú immediato dell’esilio, dello sradicamento: il prevalere dell’irreale sul reale. Tutti sognavano sogni passati e futuri, di schiavitú e di redenzione, di paradisi inverosimili, di altrettanto mitici e inverosimili nemici: nemici cosmici, perversi e sottili, che tutto pervadono come l’aria. Tutti, ad eccezione forse di Cravero, e certamente di D’Agata.

D’Agata non aveva tempo di sognare, perché era ossessionato dal terrore delle cimici. Queste incomode compagne non piacevano a nessuno, naturalmente; ma tutti avevamo finito col farci l’abitudine. Non erano poche e sparse, ma un esercito compatto, che col sopraggiungere della primavera aveva invaso tutti i nostri giacigli: stavano annidate di giorno nelle fenditure dei muri e delle cuccette di legno, e partivano in scorreria non appena cessava il tramestio del giorno. A cedere loro una piccola porzione del nostro sangue, ci saremmo rassegnati di buon grado: era meno facile abituarsi a sentirle correre furtive sul viso e sul corpo, sotto gli abiti. Potevano dormire tranquilli solo quelli che avevano la fortuna di godere di un sonno pesante, e che riuscivano a cadere nell’incoscienza prima che quelle altre si risvegliassero.

D’Agata, che era un minuscolo, sobrio, riservato e pulitissimo muratore siciliano, si era ridotto a dormire di giorno, e passava le notti appollaiato sul letto, guardandosi intorno con occhi dilatati, dall’orrore, dalla veglia e dall’attenzione spasmodica. Teneva stretto in mano un aggeggio rudimentale, che si era costruito con un bastoncello e un pezzo di rete metallica, e il muro accanto a lui era coperto di una lurida costellazione di macchie sanguigne.

In principio queste sue abitudini erano state derise: aveva forse la pelle piú fina di noi altri? Ma poi la pietà aveva prevalso, commista con una traccia di invidia; perché, fra tutti noi, D’Agata era il solo il cui nemico fosse concreto, presente, tangibile, suscettibile di essere combattuto, percosso, schiacciato contro il muro.