Monthly Archives: March 2019

Grieving in the Anthropocene

“Having a conscience now is a grief-soaked proposition” – Stephen Jenkinson, author of Come of Age: The Case for Elderhood in a Time of Trouble

“We are the first generations to grow up surrounded by evidence that our attempt to separate ourselves from ‘nature’ has been a grim failure, proof not of our genius but our hubris.”  – Paul Kingsnorth, Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist and Other Essays

“The greatest challenge we face is a philosophical one: understanding that this civilization is already dead. The sooner we confront our situation and realize that there is nothing we can do to save ourselves, the sooner we can get down to the difficult task of adapting, with mortal humility, to our new reality.”  – Roy Scranton, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization  

 

A few years ago I saw my first glacier. I was on a trip to Alaska with my family before my father died and he had always dreamed of seeing the region; so we were happy we could do this one last trip to fulfill it for him. We cruised through the Inside Passage past glimmering mountains of cerulean blue ice, drove through part of the Yukon Territory of Canada by turquoise lakes, and hiked close to a receding glacier. It was breathtaking, yet throughout the journey a specter of sorrow accompanied me.

In the West we are conditioned to chase those specters away. Grief itself is often viewed as something unnatural, as some kind of disorder to be dealt with by silencing ourselves, ignoring it or medicating it to numbness. We often hear well-meaning people suggest to the bereaved that they “keep themselves busy.” If our grief lingers, we are told that we are “depressed” or “not coping well” or that we need “closure.”

But like many others I have found myself encountering a grief that envelops my entire being more and more. An existential grief that cannot ignore our collective predicament as a species and that often accompanies a sense of panic and powerlessness. And I have begun to relate even more to Edvard Munch’s iconic painting “The Scream.” It seems to me to be the perfect emblem of our times, an unheard anthem of despair silenced by the absurdity of an omnicidal status quo. And so many of us feel that sense of terrorized paralyzation at the madness of rising militarism, fascism and brutality and an unfolding ecocidal nightmare. But so often we feel confined to an interior space that our culture has consigned us to.

Today we are bombarded with distraction. Our brains are flooded with carefully programmed and meticulously marketed algorithms that condition us to respond to screens rather than each other and the living planet. The dominant economic order robs us of our feelings, thoughts and even our grief and transforms them into capital and commodities for sale. Indeed, it is incapable of doing anything else. But many ancient traditions grappled with grief in a public way that was not exploitative.

Years ago, in Europe and in the Americas, those who were mourning the death of a loved one announced their grief to others by wearing a piece of black cloth around their arm or by placing a black wreath upon their front doors. Many indigenous cultures have elaborate rituals to mark the death of loved ones and the passage of bereavement. In the small fishing and farming community where my mother grew up every able bodied person was expected to follow the casket up to the cemetery in a solemn procession. And these public expressions of private grief provided a bridge of solidarity and community.

Now many of these traditions have been rejected or forgotten. They are vestiges buried by modernity; and in their absence a deep sense of alienation has grown. Facing our grief can be transformative. It can foster empathy and has the power to galvanize people to action. It cannot alter the past. It does not have the power to halt climate feedback loops or predict and prevent tipping points. And it cannot stop a looming biospheric and societal chaos that is all but locked into the system. But it can strengthen the pysche, offer us an insight into resilience, and give us the tools we need to resist the inhumanity that accompanies collapse. It can also help us appreciate and protect what remains.

I remember pouring over wildlife books when I was a boy, always dreaming of exploring their exotic locations in person one day. The natural world was at once terrifying and abundantly rich with mystery and wonder. Of course in those days I never thought I might witness its end. I never considered that the Great Barrier Reef and scores of other coral reefs around the world would succumb to a bleached death. I never thought that the Arctic Ocean would be ice free, or that it would rain in Greenland in winter, or that gigantic nation-sized shelves of ice would simply break off and fall into the sea in Antarctica.  I never imagined the Amazon Rainforest would suffer from catastrophic fires every year, or that 40% of wildlife would be sponged away from the living earth, or that plastic in the seas would be so ubiquitous that a bag would be found in the deepest part of the ocean, the Marianas Trench. Now, decades later, I have witnessed all of that and more. This is the reality of the Anthropocene, so with all of this it becomes impossible at some point for any rational human being of conscience not to grieve.

But on that trip years ago I had the opportunity to meet grief face to face. I stood alongside my father in silent reverence at the nature before us. At the time I could not have known that he would not be with me on this earth much longer. Perhaps some other sense did. Standing on the deck of the boat, passing under great mountains of melting ice, I felt that sense of awe that a child does. I also felt immensely small. My heart beat hard in my chest as I attempted to comprehend what my species and, in particular, my society has done to this precious life giving earth.  I felt the cold air from that melting glacier roll over me.  But this time I decided to not chase that specter of sorrow away. For a brief moment I wouldn’t view him as an adversary, but as a companion. So I embraced him like a long lost friend and he smiled at me and said, “What took you so long?”

Kenn Orphan  2019

The Blindness of Empire

“The essence of capitalism is to turn nature into commodities and commodities into capital. The live green earth is transformed into dead gold bricks, with luxury items for the few and toxic slag heaps for the many. The glittering mansion overlooks a vast sprawl of shanty towns, wherein a desperate, demoralized humanity is kept in line with drugs, television, and armed force.” – Michael Parenti, Against Empire

“What do nations care about the cost of war, if by spending a few hundred millions in steel and gunpowder they can gain a thousand millions in diamonds and cocoa?” – W.E.B. DeBois

“It’s being made out that the whole point of the war was to topple the Taliban regime and liberate Afghan women from their burqas, we are being asked to believe that the U.S. marines are actually on a feminist mission.” – Arundhati Roy, Come September

“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” – J. Krishnamurti

Last week a startling meme showed up on my Facebook newsfeed. It pictured what was apparently the youngest US soldier fighting in the war on Afghanistan today, and noting that he was not even born when that war began. Perhaps what is more startling, however, is how quickly that shocking fact was buried. I imagine for many Americans it was simply one more news item to scroll on by.

It was about 1 ½ years ago that President Trump vowed to expand the US war in Afghanistan, now the longest one in American history. Started by George W. Bush (with the help of his father who made preliminary advances in the latter part of the 20th century) and maintained by Barrack Obama who happened to drop over 26,000 bombs around the planet in his last year in office alone, Afghanistan has become one of the most vital colonial assets to the American Empire. It has been called the “graveyard of all empires” a statement which tends to downplay the enormous suffering ordinary Afghans have had to endure through these imperialistic incursions over the centuries. But with each passing year that phrase appears to carry more weight. And as this assailed nation sits atop a treasure trove of rare earth minerals amounting to at least a trillion dollars, there is little doubt why the American Empire refuses to leave.

Militarism is essential to empire; but it is also its Achilles’ heel. This is because it exacts a heavy price and takes an enormous toll on the stability and capacity of a government to provide for the basic needs of its citizens. This is especially true of capitalist societies where profit flows upward to an increasingly smaller group of extremely wealthy people. While it spends trillions on war, it denudes its own society’s well-being in the process.

That the United States began by expanding westward across North America through violent ethnic cleansing, genocide and slave trade economics is no exception to the general course of empire. And in its short time on the world stage it has managed to become the most powerful dictatorship of capital wealth and money the world has ever seen. Here the ruling elite routinely buys the allegiance and voice of politicians and the media, and police and military agencies serve to protect the accumulated wealth of those upper classes. But like its forebears it is now an empire teetering on a precipice of social, financial and ecological catastrophe thanks to a convergence of climate change, endless exploitation of finite resources, and perpetual war to maintain it all. Join this with rampant corruption, gross social and economic inequities, a rising fascist element and the militarization of the police/surveillance state and a recipe for collapse is writ large.

Perpetual war is a hallmark of the American Empire. It has been in some kind of military action, occupation or intervention for at least 224 of its 243 years as a self-described republic. Yet despite the enormous and appalling healthcare, social and financial neglect of the working class veterans of its many wars, the magicians of the ruling class never cease in casting the spell of “American exceptionalism” over the general public. They routinely conjure up new villains and boogeymen, foreign and domestic, for ordinary Americans to project their animus, frustration and alienation on. Maduro today, Qaddafi a few years ago. Hussein some years before that. None of them were or are an actual threat to the American homeland, but they stood in the way of wealth and capital, the only thing the American ruling class truly cares about. And for that reason the lie of militarism and war must continue to go unchallenged.

In this way collective amnesia is induced every time a flag is unfurled or jets fly over a packed stadium. The illusion extends to popular entertainment. Themes of the “white savior” persist and are ubiquitous, giving American military exploits a veneer of nobility while masking its inherent racism. Even the American super hero genre continues to thinly mask an insidious militarism that almost always casts wealthy capitalists in an esteemed light while promoting a distinctly orientalist worldview. Others who happen to live outside the beneficent grace of capital, and in some cases within, who are in opposition to Empire, are vilified. This well financed and popular Hollywood generated mythology is no small thing since so much of the arts and humanities in the US have been greatly defunded or cancelled over the last few decades. And this has served to hollow out much of the conscience, awareness and critical thinking skills necessary for organized dissent to its violent, unending excesses.

But like so many other empires of history America is sleepwalking into calamity and, quite possibly, its quietus. Its ruling class, which includes the corporate media, routinely ridicules or renders invisible the warnings of its scientists. The moneyed and powerful from both ruling political parties continue to disregard the worsening plight of the working class. Infrastructure continues to crumble and the social safety nets that remain are riddled with holes. The police/surveillance state violently stamps out any real or substantive dissent. And the moral imagination of young people is diminished even as “reality” stars, the celebrity class, corporate executives and military generals continue to be put on pedestals. Most ordinary and working class citizens of the American Empire are perpetually repressed in a sort of prison of entrenched or intractable debt, terrified of being incarcerated or shot for a petty crime, and the growing costs associated with being sick, injured, educated, or housed. And all this while being ladled with guilt from the ruling classes who perpetuate the damning and willfully obtuse mythos of “self-determination” and “personal responsibility.”

It is no wonder, then, that the wide use of psychotropic medications and opioids, two of the most heavily marketed items, have become normalized within American society. Of course there are many cases where these medicated responses to human suffering are warranted, but at some point one must also see that there is a goal, whether conscious or not, to numb the senses of the public to the crushing weight of their alienation, oppression and disenfranchisement and, indeed, to the looming crises ahead. Even young children are heavily medicated should they show “antisocial signs” which conflict with the required conformity to a profoundly ill society. And this speaks volumes to a system incapable of grappling with the root of its malady.

To be sure, in its present form and on its present course the American Empire cannot be salvaged.  Nor should it be. After all, it represents a global capitalist class whose aim is nothing less than the full scale plunder of the planet via unending war on one side and utter contempt for the consequences of its ecocidal plunder on the other. And it must be understood that this is the reason for such a bloated military in the first place.

The US surpasses any other nation on the planet by far in military expenditure, but it would be foolish to think this is merely a sign of obsessive defense or excessive nationalism. While they are a component, the larger role of the US military is to protect the interests of global capital. It has no viable threats to its hegemony, especially following the fall of the USSR, so it invented the “war on terror,” a phantom that makes the US military into mere mercenaries in service to corporations and finance. While there are rivals like the Russian Federation or China, the US stills remains the most militarily powerful. Its client states including Canada, the UK, the EU, Australia, Israel, Saudi Arabia, India, Brazil and beyond understand that role completely and accept it. And this global ruling elite does not care about the future of the planet in the least.

It should come as no surprise then that on the same day President Trump announced the expansion of America’s imperial reach he also disbanded an advisory council on climate change. This was not some denialist ploy either. Trump, or at least some of the moneyed class and elite brass who surround him, understand that climate change calamity is not only real, but imminent. Indeed, the Pentagon has done several studies on the unrest that would accompany the unfolding chaos, albeit with a focus on containment and paying special attention to the risk toward the private property and resources of the rich.

In fact in the short time following this decision the US has seen several major climate change caused catastrophes, including the hurricane that devastated Puerto Rico, the one Trump callously ignored and which claimed thousands of lives. To be sure, this is the primary reason for the “build the wall” campaign along the southern border. The ruling class understands that with drought and flooding comes famine, shortages and unrest. And all of the nations the American Empire has plundered to the south over the last two centuries will justifiably demand reparations. But Trump’s reasoning for disbanding the council on climate change is banal and simple. He merely does not want anything to impede or derail the flow of capital, and scientific evidence along with public panic might actually do that.

The only coherent response to any of this brutality is an unflinching solidarity among all who are oppressed by the Empire. Those who live at the margins of its selective beneficence. Those who have been disappeared or erased by its ruthless machine. And this, of course, extends beyond the artificial borders that it maintains. This solidarity must take the form of building communities of resistance and resilience that go beyond our personal or group identities. They must be about our status as an underclass within a ruthless global socioeconomic order bent on the rampant destruction of the biosphere for the profit of a few. These communities must be organic in origin and remain uncorrupted from the powers that be, because the unraveling of empire will undoubtedly be both chaotic and terrifying. And a ruling class that has remained drunk on its own purulent privilege, insulated to the real time suffering of the masses, and surrounded by the most elaborate surveillance/police state apparatus in history, will also be more belligerent and cruel when their power is finally challenged.

Indeed, the aim of the ruling class has always been the same: first to expand, then to crush, exploit, rape and plunder the vulnerable of the earth and the living earth itself for the gain of power and coin; and then to rewrite or erase them and their stories entirely from the pages of history. This much has never changed and it is aided today by a digitally enhanced, inverted totalitarianism, where self-censorship and bourgeois values of conformity to power not only go unquestioned, but are unassailably taken as absolute truths.

And this is why that story about the young American warrior, the one who wasn’t even born when the Empire began its bloody foray in Afghanistan, went buried so fast. It is why the memory of the dead civilians of Afghanistan, and Iraq, and Libya, and Syria, and Gaza, and Yemen, and Vietnam, and North Korea, and Laos, and Honduras, and Congo, and Indonesia, and so on, all victims of Empire, have also been buried alongside their bodies.

But we must remember also that irony is a gift of awareness most often missed by the powerful. So another thing that occurred on that day a year and a half ago might be seen as an omen. As he stepped out unto the White House balcony, appearing generally uninterested and even doltishly bumptious at the magnitude of the celestial event about to take place, Trump ignored the warning of scientists and stared briefly into the blinding rays of a solar eclipse without protective eyewear. And so it goes for the American Empire as it stares arrogantly into a blighted and brutal future, only seeing its own inflated greatness while the searing beams of reality scorch it all to ash.

Kenn Orphan   2019

 

The Global Assault on Indigenous Peoples

“There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.” – Arundhati Roy

We must answer their call. Our Mother Earth, militarized, fenced-in, poisoned, a place where basic rights are systematically violated, demands that we take action. Let us build societies that are able to coexist in a dignified way, in a way that protects life. Let us come together and remain hopeful as we defend and care for the blood of the Earth and of its spirits.” – Berta Caceres, Indigenous rights and environmental activist of the Lenca people, murdered in Honduras in 2016

A few years ago when I was in Panama I was fortunate to spend some time with the indigenous Ngäbe–Buglé. They reside in the lush rainforest that blankets much of the country. Their villages are simple, but graciously laid out with the natural world around them. The people have a reverence for wildlife, using only what they need; and culture, ancestral ways and community are paramount. But as in every other place on the planet they have been under siege by the forces of capital.

Dam projects largely devised to benefit mining companies have inundated scores of villages and devastated farms and fishing. Rare species like the Tabasará rain frog are threatened with extinction due to the loss of habitat. Four years ago a dam claimed a small indigenous village on the sacred Tabasará River. The villagers narrowly escaped drowning as their homes flooded in the night. They were given no warning.

In May of last year the river was shut down for maintenance on the Barro Blanco hydroelectric dam. Tens of thousands of fish and crustaceans were left to suffocate in the mud. Many more dam projects are planned for this small country. While the Ngäbe–Buglé have protested their dispossession and the destruction to their way of life, they have been met with threats, disappearances and violence from the state and operatives from various companies who stand to benefit from the projects. But the lords of capital, the banks, hold the most power. For instance, FMO Bank of Holland and DEG Bank of Germany were responsible for the Barro Blanco dam.

In stark contrast to the Ngäbe–Buglé way of life is the wealthy new high rise section of the capital, Panama City. Here glass and steel towers scrap an unforgiving hot Central American sky. Yet there are few sidewalks in this area. The moneyed elite drive directly into their palatial condos through secured garage doors on the street. There isn’t a need nor is there a desire to walk here unless you are poor.

It is a landscape of alienation repeated around the world from Jakarta to Manilla to Mumbai where the wealthy cordon themselves off from an ever growing peasantry behind gilded gates. But about an hour and a half away from the capital is the forgotten city of Colón where most of the inhabitants are people of colour and poverty is crushing. In truth, most of the extreme wealth entering the Panama Canal is concentrated in the ruling top .01%.

And this gets to one of the most tragic outcomes of these economic and ecological assaults: displacement. Millions of indigenous people around the world have been evicted from their ancestral lands only to wind up in the hellhole slums of megacities. Here they are most often locked in poverty, forced to abandon their culture and language for conformity, and forgotten by society. To be sure, this is the world that global capitalism envisions for us all.

But whether it is the Ngäbe–Buglé in Panama, or the Bonda in India, or the Wet’suwet’en in Canada, or the Papuan in New Guinea, or the Kariri-Xoko in Brazil, or the Aboriginal in Australia, or the Ogoni in Nigeria, or the Lakota in the US,the threat of annihilation is both real and imminent. Thanks to a system of global capital they are up against powerful forces that seek to strip the earth of every last resource for the profit of a few. And they will eliminate anyone who stands in their way. The NGO Global Witness reported that over 200 indigenous rights activists have been murdered around the world last year. A record. The activist Berta Caceres was a victim of this global crime. And today there is no sign of this carnage slowing down.

The assaults on indigenous people around the world bear one thing in common. These are the people on the front lines of a war for what remains. A war of resources that amount to enormous profits for the very few. Of course they have always been on that front line since the early days of colonialism. Days where outright genocide was common. But through the lens of catastrophic climate change and biospheric collapse the current economic order must be seen as the death cult that it is. Incapable of introspection or self-restraint. Drunk on their hubris and narcissism. Ominicidal in their pursuit of coin. And it is the indigenous who are closest to the living earth who stand most in the way of their plunder. They are rendered non-persons in corporate media and displaced or eliminated so that the flow of capital continues uninterrupted. And with capitalism itself on its last legs, that death cult is becoming ever more desperate, duplicitous, vicious and bold.

I remember when I was in Panama walking through a Ngäbe village on a balmy afternoon. Insects hummed around me. Tropical birds pierced the canopy of trees with shrieks. The humid air dampened my clothes. I could hear the sounds of children laughing as they came home from school. Old women hung out colourful clothes to dry and they immediately reminded me of Tibetan prayer flags. A young artist was sitting in his cabin with the door open carving a beautiful piece of fallen wood. He looked at me and smiled. “Welcome, and come in,” he said. I wonder sometimes what has become of him and that village. But I will admit I am afraid to find out.

Kenn Orphan   2019