“When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.” – John Muir
Standing on the precipice of the Sixth Mass Extinction I am reminded that the ironic Latin meaning of homo sapiens is “wise man.” But in a cemetery crowded with the bones of countless species, I am left with little room to marvel at our cleverness. Modern civilization has been driven toward its inevitable end in ecocide, yet even in the deafening collapse unfolding, the high priests of industry persist in manufacturing the illusion of endless consumption. Indeed, they have crafted such an intricate chimera that it appears that even they are no longer able to discern fact from fiction. But nature is unbound by our fantasies.
In the West the majority of us have been robbed of our agency save the power of how much legal tender we possess. And when that has been depleted, we are robbed of our very humanity. But, as in Plato’s cave, most of us are distracted by shadows and enslaved by a system that we are told is indispensable. Economic neoliberalism, which Wikipedia defines as “privatization, fiscal austerity, deregulation, free trade, and reductions in government spending in order to enhance the role of the private sector in the economy” is the last phase of capitalism, and it is also the most cruel. Under its dictates the ownership class has sanctified plunder as a virtue, and codified poverty as a grave sin with no redemption offered to the weakest among us. Nature has no value to it unless it can be packaged and sold.
Much of the food we eat are sentient beings born into death camps where they are sentenced to a life of cruelty and terror. Our clothing is little more than sweatshop bandages masking wounds of unspeakable inhumanity. Our homes are over-sized while huge swaths of our population freeze on city streets; and they are carved out of sanctuaries that were once diverse communities thriving with countless species. “Growth and sustainability” is the resounding chorus of the privileged few, even though what it really means is growing and sustaining the death machine that is rapaciously feeding on countless species and millions of people around the world. We fill our shopping carts with objects produced out of devastation and exploitation. And with a jingle, we are sent on our way. Meanwhile mega-cities like Sao Paulo are literally drying up, an intractable drought is ravaging the American southwest, and India and Pakistan swing from killing heatwaves to drowning deluges within weeks of each other.
A system like this inevitably leads to annihilation. But a society unwilling to face this and conditioned to think of itself as “exceptional” will cling to myths about Bronze Age heroes. It will be unable to distinguish between the shadows in the cave and light from the surface, and retreat into ever more banal, humiliating and sadistic forms of entertainment. It will grow paranoid about the foreigner or the ‘other’ and be unable to separate truth from illusion. It will render invisible the suffering of the weak while it deifies the celebrity class. It will react with violent denialism and embrace apocalyptic answers as the catastrophes unfold. And its leaders will exert every barbaric method available to them to maintain their seat at the top of a crumbling heap.
If one day an archeologist of some wiser species uncovers this cemetery, our species will be the only one without a tombstone, surrounded by countless species that most of us in the Western world have labeled disposable. And perhaps that is fitting since, for the vast majority of them, we were the careless cause of their demise. We are ferociously pulling at nature, and in the process we are rapidly unraveling the net that holds us. Nature will undoubtedly reweave its net with or without us. If it breaks can our species avoid extinction when we land? Perhaps, perhaps not. But if most of us do not even recognize that we rest atop a grand and wondrous net of life in the first place, the odds are stacked against it.
“We did not weave the web of life, we are merely strands in it. Whatever we do to the web we do to ourselves.” ― Chief Seattle (attributed).
Kenn Orphan 2015