achieving escape velocity

This essay appeared on the Dissident Voice and CounterPunch webzines.

I grew up with the idea that leaving Earth was inevitable. The Space Age had arrived and the sky was no limit. Per ardua ad astra was no longer a metaphor; it would happen, it was happening. Invisible radiation traveled through the air every afternoon to bring me indelible images of humans in space, benignly, bravely venturing out into the numinous beauty of the galaxy strung with stars, enticingly intercalated with exotic life. A chorus of ethereal voices accompanied their stalwart ship each time, as it boldly went where no man [sic] had gone before.

What it carried with it were clean, comfortably-appointed living spaces where slim, attractive people sported glittery, form-fitting synthetics and teased and pomaded hair that was preternaturally perfect. Mutual respect, affection and humor were their mainstays. There was racial harmony – for humans had united, at last! (Often against other species, but only if they threatened us first. Otherwise, we sought to befriend them.) Artificial intelligences informed, protected and consoled us, but knew their place, like good housemaids. If they overstepped, we pulled the plug. Our marvelous cultural diversity was still intact no matter how deracinated our existence had become, speeding along in a vacuum, light-years from home among the stretched-out stars.

Earth had figured it out. Humans had figured it out. We had solved all the challenges on our home planet, and now – on to the final frontier!

I was so happy in that promised land, as a child. I was happy being Lost in Space or going on a Star Trek, from the safety of the Danish modern sofa strewn with throws and pillows I made into a kind of cocoon. The living room always a comfortable 70 degrees, whatever was happening on the planet’s surface outside. I lived in a space craft, protected from the debilitating atmosphere of an alien world – my own.

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denial, anger, bargaining, grief, acceptance: the five stages of ecocide

This essay appeared on Dissident Voice

“There is hope, an infinite amount of hope, but not for us.” – Franz Kafka

If artists are the antennae of the race, and writers and thinkers are also artists, then a vibration some are receiving and beginning to transmit to the culture more broadly now is new in the history of our species: the world is dying.

The world, not defined as “human civilization,” or a nation, empire, or culture, but the entire living world, which undergirds all those. Not in one region, but everywhere, all at once, and with escalating speed.

The custom at this point would be to cite statistics, summarize recent UN reports, quote news stories, prominent scientists, etc. But I will take it as a given that you have already read those, or are at least aware of them. What I want to get at is how this feels, what the inner experience of this knowledge is: to be living, aging and eventually dying in uncanny lock-step with The Great Dying, the greatest our species has ever seen, caused by us to boot. Is there even a word for this? I choose xenocide: we are killing almost everything that is not us. The antennae of the race are intimating is that this is ultimately suicide, because there is no “other” in the living world; we are inextricably imbricated in it. Ecocide is perhaps the most correct: we are killing our home.

This is the definitive experience of our generation. But there are reasons why most of us living today seem unable to comprehend it, and live (or die) accordingly. Thanks to civilization, we had already largely lost the living world before we were born, and now what is dying is something we barely knew existed. You might call this Big Yellow Taxi syndrome.

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the fires this time

This essay first appeared last September on the Dissident Voice and CounterPunch webzines.

This is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it. – James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

The wildfires may be out of the headlines, but they are not out. Visual images seem the only way to comprehend the scope. The cluster of little flaming circles indicating active fires, crowded over interactive maps of the Western U.S. and Canada, covering their landmasses like an infestation of cartoon bugs, and with NASA’s hallucinatory satellite imagery color-coding them among all the atmospheric wildness in Gaia’s Revenge this summer: smoke, fire, dust, deluge, typhoon. However, the sheer acreage burned requires a return to the numerical: there’s no way to capture it in a single image. And yet whatever those numbers are, they still seem utterly disconnected from the Dow Jones, or the price of eggs at the supermarket, or flights to Spain, and so they are still inadequate.

But in Canada, with 550 fires burning last month in British Columbia alone, and smoke coating the west from border to border and beyond, someone thought to write about the mental and physical anguish of being surrounded by wildfire and its consequences, watching a familiar landscape, once vibrant, benevolent, be transformed into something fearful and toxic, in which you are trapped. When the suffocating smoke covers a thousand miles for weeks on end, where is there to run?

The article mentions the concept of “solastalgia,” a word coined to describe the experience of longing for a lost place when you are still in it—when you haven’t changed location, but it has changed character, for the worse. Uprootings, migration, exile: these, and the trauma they cause, have been endemic to civilization from the get-go, because civilization has been sustained by warfare. But to see your home place transmogrified by chthonic forces into an alien and hostile environment even as it still surrounds you—this is a sea change. (Literally, for some communities.) It means, among other things, that something is happening on a scale whereby the privilege of not being uprooted by merely human imbalances of power is no longer worth much.

There is a fearful sense that “thinking globally” will always require solastalgia now. That we are, Big Yellow Taxi-style, discovering the importance of places in our lives, and of the biosphere we grew up in, even as we lose them, forever.

The Meaning of 1968

It is also exactly half a century since the “fateful fork” year of 1968. We have just passed the anniversary of the bloody police riot at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago – Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy are already assassinated, Paris’ May uprising quelled and its energy disintegrating, the Prague Spring crushed. The final phase of the Tet offensive ends with no general revolt and staggering Viet Cong casualties, preparing the way for years of mass slaughter in a military deadlock, the U.S. defeat already inevitable, the Vietnamese victory Pyrrhic. Still ahead that year: the murder of hundreds of student protesters and fellow marchers in Mexico City in October, to make Mexico safe for the Olympics. In November: the triumph of Richard Nixon, successfully playing on the fears of Southern racists to get them to abandon the Democratic Party.

We have never escaped the shadow of that year of disenchantment. Not with the formal decolonization of Africa, or the fall of the Berlin Wall, or the election of a neoliberal black man as U.S. President. In the ensuing 50 years, only one revolution has had the kind of cumulative, irreversible, touching-all-lives effect that we used to mean when we used the term: the technological one. Information, communication, and the means of production have been revolutionized, without in any way diminishing alienation, systemic violence, or exploitation. “Everything has changed, except the mind of man [sic],” said Einstein after the atom was split. The second half of that sentence ought to be tagged on every time the first is used nowadays as well.

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a rapture of distress: auden’s augury

icarus

This essay first appeared on The Dark Mountain Project website.

I was born into an age and circumstances in which the idea of prophecy was highly suspect. My father, a professor of psychology at Cornell University, was an admirer of the philosopher John Dewey and the scientific method. According to him, science had shown us that the only way to predict the future successfully was to identify the correct mathematical equation underlying a given relationship or activity in the physical world. The rest was blind superstition, and through the universal provision of modern education we would ultimately leave it behind.

At the edge of our town there was a flickering neon ‘Psychic Readings’ sign in the cracked window of a decaying clapboard house. I learned from him to read this synecdochically: fortunetelling practiced by hucksters was all that remained of the seers and prophets whose utterances had once guided whole societies.

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the third world war

This essay first appeared on the Dissident Voice and CounterPunch webzines.

Was undeclared. Exactly where and when it began is debatable. Most would say there had been low-level conflict for millennia, but it only became a world war toward the end of the 20th century CE. Some choose the symbolic date when we ran that tanker, the Exxon Valdez, aground in Prince William Sound, because its cargo was the secret weapon that had brought the war into this new stage.

Our global forces were still divided into two antagonistic camps at that time, but both were at war with the greater enemy. The eastern camp had already killed the Aral Sea and poisoned 180,000 square kilometers of land with nuclear radiation (although this action was a Pyrrhic victory, resulting in more drastic consequences to us than the enemy). Shortly thereafter, we declared a truce of sorts between the factions, so we could make further gains in the great war, ostensibly without so much damage to ourselves. For the remainder of the last century, our forces were on the march everywhere, and the enemy fell back.

But in the early years of this century, some unseen fulcrum began to shift. Rather than the widely and randomly interspersed events we experienced in the relatively mild regime we grew up with, we saw destructive actions that escalated in their scope and frequency until they came to seem like calculated responses.

The waves of heat and cold. They caught us off-guard with their new intensity. Then the storms, to which we continued to give bland, suburban names: Mitch, Dennis, Katrina, Irene, Sandy, Iris, Maria. At first mostly a threat to the growing legions of the unprotected poor, they soon showed themselves a match for our largest cities. And beyond that: whole provinces, countries were paralyzed for days, weeks, months. And then the fires – early on they were far from where we lived and breathed, in the still-vast northern forests, but then they came closer, filling the skies of our cities apocalyptically with drifting ash and smoke, and finally, audaciously, striking at the sprawling cities themselves, taking thousands of buildings in a single attack.

Our initial casualties were so small – a few tens of thousands a year against all our billions. We published the tiny body counts for each incident, as if nothing else was of consequence. But overall, we took little notice, because we killed ourselves with friendly fire in vastly greater numbers. And against the enemy, we unleashed a holocaust. Total war. We took no prisoners. It was xenocide; we were willing to exterminate not just individuals but whole species to win our freedom. Thousands, then tens of thousands of species began to fall.

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the end of the enlightenment: a fable for our times

This essay first appeared on the Dissident Voice and CounterPunch webzines.

Literary scholar and critic Walter Benjamin said that for human social progress to occur it was necessary to “dissolve myth into the space of history” but he was wrong. From the vantage point of the early 21st century, myth is back, and badder than ever. It is the ultimate Ghost in the Machine of the Scientific Revolution. And I’m going to suggest that not only will we not rid ourselves of the mythic worldview in any conceivable social formation that might actually be thought of as progress, but that it has been a great mistake even to try.

Benjamin applied a profoundly poetic insight to the critical appreciation of imaginative literature, one of the major narrative traditions that emerged from ancient myth. But he was also a follower of Marx and thus a materialist. As such he was a late product of the European Enlightenment. If any records or scholars to analyze them survive in, say, three hundred years, I believe they will determine that the Enlightenment ended sometime around the turn of the 21st century (and Benjamin’s quixotic life and death under the shadow of European fascism may provide an interesting sidelight to its demise).

The Enlightenment was thoroughly and inevitably Trumped (a term that – for now – has the resonance of a fable) largely by the unintended consequences of the work of three of its final, and greatest, heroes. Perhaps a Ragnarök analogy is not out of place here.

What I’m about to do is present our recent history to you as a mythic fable. Bear with me, and at the end I will tell you why.

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fire and rain

This essay first appeared on the CounterPunch and Dissident Voice webzines.

Run to the trees
Trees will be burning
Run to the sea
Sea will boiling
All on that day

So, summer, the frivolous season of our supposed repose, now brings dread, east and west, north and south. As summer peaks in the west, everything dries and dies, and as the suffocating heat grows inland and the dry grass whispers we start watching the skies fearfully for lightning, and we wait for the news that actually it wasn’t lightning; it was a tossed cigarette, a forgotten campfire, some guys shooting rifles, a firebug with a can of gasoline. And then the sight of the firestorm on the jagged horizon, moving faster than anything that doesn’t fly, the flames joining together in an impossible roaring uprush that feeds on itself, that grows like a living thing, and the trees light up like great torches, the pain of whose immolation we cannot feel because thanks to the scientific worldview we know trees have no brains and no nerve endings and thus don’t feel pain anyway. They are just matter, burning.

Of course, coming from a species that has set alight its own members, with their highly developed nervous systems, when it seemed politically necessary, this suggests that even if we did think individual trees felt pain we wouldn’t necessarily care if we needed other things more than large numbers of trees, which we clearly do, because we, collectively, are watching them go up in flames on a grander scale every year without making much of a peep about it, and the trashed trophy homes and cars scattered back in there are all we can really mourn for, the only things that have a compelling reality for us. Forests grow back, right?

Except when they don’t, because some invisible calculus has determined that the underlying conditions which made their existence possible are gone. We may not be there yet for what’s left of the great boreal forests, but we won’t actually know when the threshold is crossed – invisible means just that. Chaos theory means just that. Biologists have identified a phenomenon in complex living systems called “critical slowing down” whereby those systems become gradually less resilient in the face of repeated onslaught until some non-trivial boundary is crossed and they collapse. Where is the line, exactly? Well, the scientists tell us with marvelous equanimity, that’s precisely the puzzle. Hard to say…

We of the bourgeoisie rise momentarily from our stupor when fascists begin to stir in the shallows of our societal swamp, ironically more like some monstrous presence out of an H.P. Lovecraft story than the racist, miscegenated, fever-dream monsters Lovecraft actually gave us. We’ll even take the kids out for an afternoon to send those fascists back “where they came from,” which is the same place we come from, so good luck with that. But when the distant forests burn in their hundreds of millions of acres over the longer, hotter, drier summers, we barely so much as sigh – what good would marching in the streets do?

Whether we can see it or not, the inanimate (to us) forests have been set alight by the lineaments of our gratified desire: cars, roads, houses, electronic devices, cosmetic surgery, food from everywhere. Thanks, capital! Thanks, science! No more hands and backs into the hard labor of pulling sustenance from the soil or forging steel or tending gigantic machines – our livelihoods are gained now by our dancing fingertips alone! Who will be the first bourgeois to blow up that bargain? Who will be the first of the expendable classes not to seek it? And at least we are compensated by the quality of the sunsets – what beauty there is in annihilation really! It’s as if we told ourselves, well, all those tiki torches sure did make for a pretty procession!

Those who can’t turn their attention to other distant horrors or daily cares will then have to listen to the insane barking of politicians who blame tree-loving enviros for preventing responsible forest-destruction that would, according to those wise men of capital, make these fires of growing intensity, scale and frequency somewhat less damaging. Never mind the climatic elephant in the ideological room, that’s a non-starter with men whose fanatical devotion to the profit system can be diminished by no preponderance of evidence. Why bother to argue, even shoving the elephant aside for a second, that massive thinning and brush clearing further dries out the forests and impoverishes their soils, making them even more susceptible to catastrophic burning, or that “responsible logging” is an oxymoron when you throw in economies of scale? Why argue that the vast, safe, checkerboard tree plantations of the coastal Northwest are no more forests anyway than Nebraska’s wheat fields are prairies? Not even apples and oranges, it’s apples and ball bearings. There is no basis for a discussion because there is no shared conceptual framework. That living systems have any right to exist apart from our usage of them is inconceivable within capitalist (or socialist, frankly) doxa.

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