Tag Archives: Anthropocene

Whistling Past the Graveyard

I must begin with a confession. I have always been troubled by Earth Day. As a lifelong activist I understand and appreciate the concept and how it came to be. But over the years I’ve seen it morph from an almost spiritual movement for ecological consciousness and justice into an opportunity for corporations and politicians to tout their empty gestures at “saving the planet” all while they mercilessly plunder it.  Greenwashing has now taken center stage and the effect has often lead to the neutralizing of public outrage. Like so many things corporate, Earth Day has been tinged with a pathological optimism. The dominant message today exudes an all too pervasive “feel goodism” for a situation that is by all accounts truly monstrous, not only for countless other species on the planet, but for our own.

Nearly fifty years ago in April of 1970 people of conscience gathered to address the destruction of the planet. Since that time politicians, corporations, the fossil fuel industry and their mouthpiece think tanks have worked feverishly, not at addressing the crisis, but at polishing their image.  Today their lavish conferences and consortiums generally serve as window dressing and are a distraction to our collective, growing existential angst, as each passing year gives us a terrifying glimpse into a fast approaching future for our planet, one rife with super storms, floods, mega-droughts, crop failures and species demise.

Within the last decade alone there have been monumental shifts in climate models leaving even the conservative Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) shocked and bewildered. Indeed, record breaking temperature extremes have become a defining norm of the 21st century, with an ice free Arctic summer now on the horizon. It is becoming apparent that things are more dire than anyone had previously anticipated. We are beginning to see the first stirrings of climate chaos; and it is set against the ominous backdrop of an already ravaged biosphere.

This past year we witnessed an American west coast at once bathed in fire and then awash in mud. We saw the Amazon rain forest, the vaunted “lungs of the planet,” belch out smoke as it reeled from over 200,000 fires. We stood aghast at the hurricanes which decimated the Caribbean and the floods that killed thousands and displaced many more over the summer and into autumn and winter, from China to India and Nepal, to Southeast Asia and West Africa.

Other revelations were equally staggering. Recent studies have confirmed a catastrophic drop in insect populations worldwide. Bird populations are being decimated by loss of food sources, and marine plastic pollution is set to outweigh all fish in the ocean by mid-century. Fish stocks have plummeted and over 90% of Coral reefs, the ocean’s nurseries, will have disappeared by 2050 from bleaching thanks to warming waters and ocean acidification. Forests are being felled at a rate akin to a New Zealand sized areaevery year. Yet despite these staggering developments little to nothing of substance is being done on the global scale that is required.
To be sure, history has demonstrated that most politicians will never face unpleasant realities until they are literally upon us. Our current climate and ecological crisis is no different. As this century unfolds cities and towns will likely be lost to rising seas as governments eventually find that they are too expensive to salvage. Entire regions may become uninhabitable from deforestation, pollution and drought. The specters of famine and disease will undoubtedly haunt billions of people, in fact they already plague millions today. Mass migration could easily make today’s issue appear negligible and would put a strain on fragile social and economic systems that already suffer from vast, structurally imposed inequities. Rich, biodiverse areas could become graveyards. Those in power would undoubtedly answer the concomitant unrest in more Orwellian doublespeak and with insidious distraction, coupled with draconian crackdowns on dissent, protest or objection. None of this is fiction. It has all happened, and not only in civilizations throughout history which have faced socio-economic or ecological collapse. It is happening today in societies which purport to be democratic.

 

 

Here is where people of conscience, like those untarnished souls at the first Earth Day nearly fifty years ago, must be unabashedly truthful about our monstrous and collective predicament. We must face the painful fact that our species has exceeded its limits in growth, population and the exploitation of the natural world. We must also grapple with the fact that the global north is most responsible for the decimation of the biosphere and the ruthless subjugation and exploitation of the global south.

And that there will be no substantive actions taken by our political and corporate leaders to halt this plunder or stem the carnage of the planet’s rich biodiversity. After all, according to their economic ethos they have no vested interest since they profit handsomely from this global arrangement to begin with. They have demonstrated that they are both unwilling and incapable of addressing the issue with the integrity and impetus necessary. Instead, they will continue their bait and switch dance of empty placation and denialism while they stuff their coffers with coin, even as the earth rapidly transforms into another planet before our eyes.

Despite all this we still have tremendous agency to affect the future, both personally and collectively. We have the power to create communities of solidarity and to meet the looming catastrophes and calamities with dignity and humanity. We possess the moral authority to oppose the further defilement of the water and the soil, the very source and sustenance of our lives and that of countless other species. But that agency is diluted and made ineffectual so long as we continue to lie to ourselves and others about where we are as a species.

Earth Day should no longer be taken simply as a gentle, yet trite, reminder to recycle, or use canvas shopping bags, or cycle to work one day out of the week. It should no longer be diminished to “lifestyle choices” that let corporations and governments off the hook. It must quite literally be transformed into a rallying cry for the life of the biosphere. Because anything short of that is merely whistling past the graveyard.

 

Kenn Orphan,  April 2018

The Canaries We Ignore

The images and video that have come out of Southern California this past year have been nothing less than apocalyptic. Raging fires consume dry chaparral up to the edge of bloated freeways with 10 lanes. Entire neighbourhoods have been reduced to smoldering ash. And the lives of countless residents changed forever.
          I lived in Southern California almost half my life. Wildfires and hot, dry Santa Ana winds were a part of every autumn. But something palpable shifted in the last few years I was there. The fire season became year round, wildfires became more like firestorms and those desert winds, which I had loved so much in the early years, became more like infernal blasts from an open furnace, mercurial and desiccating to everything they touched.

Like the record breaking storms, floods and hurricanes of late, these fires are more canaries in the collective coal mine we all inhabit. And with each passing year and every accumulating catastrophe their clarion call becomes more urgent and shrill. Yet in spite of their insistence the global order remains relatively unchanged and alarmingly unperturbed.

It is becoming increasingly undeniable that human beings are now at a crossroad as never before encountered in history. In its relatively short time, industrial civilization has brought amazing technological advances. Diseases have been cured, massive feats of agriculture have fed millions, and we were able to break the gravitational bonds of this planet and become a spacefaring civilization. But its marriage to corporate capitalism was one made in hell. And the Faustian bargain that fossil fuels offered humanity unleashed a boundless and insatiable greed which blinds all who profit from it to their ruination.

The result has been the despoiling of the living biosphere on which we all rely. We have entered into the Sixth Mass Extinction where at least 150 species are lost every day to human activity. Recent studies have confirmed a catastrophic drop in insect populations worldwide thanks to petro-based pesticides used in industrial scale agriculture, climate change, and destruction of habitat. Marine life is suffering a similar fate with bird populations being decimated by loss of food sources and plastic pollution which is set to outweigh all fish in the ocean by mid-century. Fish stocks have plummeted and over 90% of Coral reefs, the ocean’s nurseries, will have disappeared by 2050 from bleaching thanks to ocean acidification. Forests are being felled at a rate akin to a New Zealand sized area every year. Yet despite these staggering developments little to nothing of substance is being done on the global scale that is needed.

Here is where people of conscience must be brutally truthful about our collective predicament. We must face the painful fact that our species has exceeded its limits in growth, population and the exploitation of the natural world. We must also grapple with the fact that the global north is most responsible for the decimation of the biosphere and the ruthless exploitation of the global south. And there will be no substantive actions taken by the corrupt political and business leaders who profit from this global arrangement, to halt this plunder or stem the carnage of the planet’s rich biodiversity. They are both unwilling and incapable of addressing the issue with the integrity and impetus necessary. Instead, they will continue their bait and switch dance of empty placation and denialism while they stuff their coffers with coin, even as the earth rapidly transforms into another planet before our eyes.

 And their criminal ineptitude has never stopped at non-humans. As this century unfolds, cities will be lost to rising seas as governments will eventually find that they are too expensive to salvage. Regions will become uninhabitable from pollution and drought. The specters of famine and disease will haunt billions of people. And mass migration will put a strain on fragile social and economic systems that already suffer from vast, structurally imposed inequities.

Their answer to the concomitant unrest will be more Orwellian doublespeak and insidious distraction, coupled with draconian crackdowns on dissent, protest or objection. They will aggressively mock, smear and persecute truth tellers and peddle in jingoism, xenophobia and nationalism. War mongering, austerity and the scapegoating of vulnerable people will become their preferred method of deferring from their culpability. None of this is fiction. It has all happened, and not only in civilizations throughout history which have faced socio-economic or ecological collapse. It is happening today in societies which purport to be democratic.

Although “knowledge is power” is a cliché, it still holds some truth. We still have tremendous agency to affect the future, both personally and collectively. We have the power to create communities of solidarity and to meet the looming catastrophes and calamities with humanity, dignity and grace. But that agency is diluted and made ineffectual so long as we continue to lie to ourselves and others about where we are as a species. The risk we take includes being labeled an alarmist in a society lulled into a hypnotic trance by the slick marketing tactics of the consumerist wizards of Wall Street. But that risk pales in comparison to ignoring the screeching canaries in our midst.

 

Kenn Orphan  2017

The Normalization of Perpetual Disaster

In case you missed it…

A hole the size of the Netherlands has opened in the middle of the Antarctic ice sheet. 40,000 penguins just perished of starvation on the same continent. And earlier this summer an iceberg weighing one trillion tons broke away adding more momentum to inevitable global sea level rise.
Floods have killed thousands and displaced many more over the summer and into autumn from China to India and Nepal to Southeast Asia to West Africa. Scores of people were killed and many still missing from fires that have scorched Northern California, Spain and Portugal. Three and a half million people in Puerto Rico are still in survival mode without drinking water or electricity weeks after Hurricane Irma made landfall. Parts of the Gulf Coast are a toxic soup of chemicals. The Amazon rain forest, the lungs of the planet, are belching out smoke as it reels from 208,278 fires this year alone. And Ophelia, the bizarre tenth hurricane turned mega storm of this record breaking season is battering Ireland.

In geopolitical developments, the most powerful empire on the planet is being led by a narcissistic megalomaniac surrounded by war mongers, religious fanatics and disaster capitalists. He has been madly jostling the fragile chords that stabilize nations by threatening to annihilate 25 million people in a bath of fire and countless other souls in the region and around the world, while demanding a 10-fold increase to one of the most powerfully lethal nuclear arsenals on the planet.
There is no reason to think Trump would not carry out his threats. After all, he dropped the “mother of all bombs” on Afghanistan and launched military strikes on Syria over dessert garnishing high praise from many in the corporate media and politicians from both sides of the aisle. And he will get little objection from establishment Democrats who are enthusiastic cheerleaders for US militarism and voted for the 700 billion dollar increase to the already bloated US military industrial complex.
Despite all of this an eerily bizarre normalization of this descent into global chaos continues apace. The media seems to move on seamlessly from one disaster or scandal to the next. Politicians shift focus and manufacture new outrage. Meanwhile, the real existential crises drifting us ever closer to the collapse of human civilization within this century go largely unreported and vastly underestimated. We are living in an age of convergence where the consequences of decades of excess, greed, willful ignorance and dithering are finally reaching a climax. Where the chips fall in the coming years is anyone’s guess, but if we are honest we can get a pretty good picture of our current trajectory.
Looking honestly at our situation within a profoundly sick culture can often feel alienating. If we look around we may think we are seeing thousands of people simply going about their days as if nothing is wrong. This may be due in part to the normalcy bias which is defined as “a belief people enter when facing a disaster. It causes people to underestimate both the possibility of a disaster and its possible effects, because it causes people to have a bias to believe that things will always function the way things normally function.”  But this is also reinforced by a corporate culture in which distraction and denial are encouraged and celebrated as virtues.
Conspicuous consumption is peddled as a remedy to all that ails our society. Some self medicate, some absorb themselves in the shallow, or the spectacle, or the salacious, or the vainglorious.  But still many more are simply too busy for long reflection, caring for children or sick or elderly loved ones at a time when social safety nets are being mercilessly slashed, or working 100 hours a week for a pittance just to make ends meet and struggle to pay off debts for simply living.
But on some deep level I believe we all understand our dire predicament and that it will not simply get better or go away.
Each day the unraveling of the biosphere becomes more and more apparent. The illusion that we are separate from the natural world is beginning to shatter as the human generated Sixth Mass Extinction unfurls before our eyes in real time. But in this era of late stage capitalism and the prevalence of inverted totalitarianism the last thing we should expect is for the powers that be to make the bold changes necessary to stop the descent of civilization or even provide meaningful solutions or mitigation of the current and looming catastrophes.

Given the graveness of the situation it is easy to feel a deep sense of powerlessness or even paralyzed. And it may not be exactly comforting, but we should not look at our unease as an unhealthy response to the existential crises of our times. Contrary to the prevailing mantra depression and anxiety should be expected as normal responses to what we face collectively, because our very DNA is threaded with this world’s rhythm. And without a doubt, that collective pulse appears to be quickening.

 

Kenn Orphan  2017
 

The Real World

                 “You must love nature,” she said as she passed; a stranger noticing me picking up the careless refuse dropped by another who apparently doesn’t.  Her comment strikes me as a somewhat absurd but common sentiment, and it stays with me throughout my hike. Industrial society seems to easily compartmentalize nature as just another interest or a hobby.

I smile at her as I hastily stuff the discarded plastic water bottles and chip bags into a sack I keep in my back pack, while thinking of the engorged body of a dead seabird I saw dissected by a meticulous biologist right in front of me.  Its stomach contents revealing human detritus of all manner, plastic lighters, bottle caps, pens, even a spoon. There are likely hundreds of millions like this one.  It was a surreal sight only later matched in intensity and horror when watching a video of the dissection of a deceased whale whose belly was bursting with tons of plastic bags and other hard synthetic polymers, or the sight of a deformed tortoise whose shell was strangulated throughout its life by a plastic beverage holder.

My enthusiastic, if not misguided, eco-warrior friend chides me. “We’re gonna clean up the oceans,” he says. If only it were up to him. But my mind drifts to the scale of the problem. It lingers on the seemingly unstoppable production of plastics, the enduring legacy of this Age of Petroleum and an enormous fount of wealth for the industries that harvest the earth’s primordial blood. Its not true that plastic lasts forever, but it persists, it morphs into other insidious forms, and as it breaks down it releases its copious stores of toxicity like a trillion, tiny, slow moving oil spills.

                 I wander further catching a glimpse of a dragonfly bouncing on the air between the suns waning rays. Her iridescent wings so thin they appear gossamer. The wind picks up and she is gone, adrift on the cooling late summer breeze. I think of my friend and his tenacity. I utter a silent prayer to the ether for there to be more like him, but as I wander on I come across another heap of styrofoam fast food containers and beer cans, the residue of effortless revelry, stuffed into the crevice of an ancient rock overlooking the ocean. And the truth of our cultural apathy, born of privilege and convenience, caves in my chest.

Perhaps we have evolved to this disconnection. Perhaps the only possible outcome of industrial civilization is estrangement from the natural world from which we emanate. The character of industrialization is, after all, defined by the brutal rape of the natural world. And like all rapists, this one has only contempt and loathing for his victim. She is the constant reminder of his violent crime. But in some deep recess of his mind he knows that she is in no way dependent on him, quite the contrary. The opposite is true.  And the limits of her beneficence are being recklessly pushed.

I stumble through the gathering orange and rose hued light of the evening to the trailhead. I think about rising seas and the land borne plastics and chemicals that will find their way to the ocean after relentless storms and flooding.  I remember a recent study projecting more plastic than fish in the sea by 2050.  I think about the Sixth Mass Extinction already well underway. About the human warmed world with acidic oceans, dead zones, algae blooms, blighted forests, collapsing ecosystems and besieged biota of all kind. And I realize even the language we use serves to alienate us from the imperiled world we live in.
                The real world is not the world of constructed oblivion where enormous towers of glass and steel conquer nature.  It isn’t even “responsible growth” or “sustainability.”  Those terms only reinforce a culture of estrangement that obscures the living earth in self serving euphemisms that perpetuate mass delusion and self destruction.  The real world is that of beetles, and bats, and mice, and moths, and mold, and trees, and birds, and grass, and sharks, and coyotes, and frogs, and coral, and worms, and moss, and salmon, and ferns, and snakes, and every other imaginable species now threatened with extinction, including our own. It is of obstructed rivers and polluted streams. Of molested mountaintops, developed coastlines, and felled forests.                 The moon begins to silently hum in its detached, pellucid presence above me. Field mice scurry across my path. Crickets begin their nightly serenades of solicitation unconcerned by my intrusion.  Mosquitoes make clandestine landfalls on my exposed arms and head, foolishly underestimating the racket their wings make in such close proximity to my ear drums.  I think once again about what she said, that passerby on the trail.  “You must love nature.”  

I breathe deeply, sigh, and make my way home through the gathering darkness.

~ Kenn Orphan  2017

Trailhead near Prospect, Nova Scotia, by Kenn Orphan:

 

The Ghosts That Roam Among Us

To many of us who live near to nature the idea of ghosts is far from fantasy.  The concept is neither childish nor macabre.  We commune with our ghosts and respect them.  They are the embodiment of our lost dreams and elusive joy, and only haunt those who misinterpret their messages.  They have no malice, only longing.

 

Ghosts are the shadows of our psyche.  They, like other archetypal figures, represent our lost aspirations both as individuals and as a species.  In many indigenous societies it is the ghost who guides us toward emancipation and actualization, not the angel.  This is because every one of us can identify with a ghost. Few of us have the piety or inherent detachment necessary to make us an angel.  In mythology ghosts can never attain angelic or demonic status.  They live outside the rhythm of life like dissonant chords, condemned to only remember loss.  And it is in this very quality that we see our selves reflected.  In this time of the Great Dying, ghosts call to us more than ever before.

Unsurprisingly, the reductionist cannot understand this embrace of the mystery of transcendence.  The intangible is broken down into facile explanations which extinguish imagination and deride wonder. They equate spirit with superstition or magical thinking.  Authoritarian and patriarchal religions are much the same and have had a lot to do with this backlash.  It is understandable why this is so given their legacy of cruelty, crusades against science and repression of free thought.  But even all of that does not make the narrow reductionist perspective a correct one.

 

Neither science or religion have the final answers to the questions all of us hold deep inside us about life and death, our existence and the existence of this marvelous universe, and the meaning of it all. Throughout history there have been numerous visionaries that have found the courage to step outside their esteemed roles and institutional bias and open their hearts and minds to a greater understanding of who we are. They not only asked questions or sought truth, they yearned for a meaning greater than their societal worldview. A meaning greater than the sum of their parts. The best of them used the arts to express their quest. But art is accessible to all of us. It is the greatest passage way toward understanding.

I think that is why I have appreciated the artist Joan Jonas ever since I encountered her work. She considers rural Nova Scotia, my home, her second home. And I can see why. Outside the city, a place where the songs of ghosts are often mercilessly drowned out by modernity, there are vast stretches of wilderness dotted with sparse communities carved into history and nature like a sculpture. Jonas’ art not only touches on the ghosts of human beings, but of animals and other species, especially the ones who have disappeared forever.

 

Her and other works of this nature bring up many questions for me. When humans pass into the void will our ghosts roam with them? Are those who have gone on already doing this now? Or will we damn our souls to the mediocrity of pseudo separation and supremacy? Will we listen to the ghosts struggling to teach us? Will we hear their pleas for connection, community and solidarity with one another and the myriad of other species that inhabit this life drenched world?

Truthfully, I do not have the answers for any of these questions. But we are all staring down a gun. This is an unprecedented epoch in the age of homo sapiens.  We are witnessing the alarming acceleration of species extinction mostly caused by human activity. With this terrible knowledge we must all choose if we are going to continue to ignore the carnage or face it with courage. Of course awareness alone is not enough. But it is the beginning of transformation. Facing death, ours and that of other living beings, can ignite a fire that can burn away the illusions that fill our modern, congested lives; and rise us out of the din.  Illusions that crowd out our capacity for connection and solidarity.

 

The ghosts that roam among us should not to be feared. They are merely the refracted reflections of our missed opportunities, wars of conquest, folly, misplaced rage, scorned wonder and repressed joy.  They are, in truth, us.  But they have an urgent story to tell; and if we ignore or dismiss them it will be at our own peril.

 

Kenn Orphan 2017

 

Title art piece for this essay is Japanese Ghosts, Katsushika Hokusai: Phoenix, 1835.

An interview with artist Joan Jonas:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g4CCsVFhi9o

The Preachers of Fear and the Winds of Peril

Donnie Swaggart. Photo source, Catch The Fire.The other day I had the misfortune of coming across Donnie Swaggart on a channel surf. He is the son of the disgraced, fire and brimstone televangelist Jimmy Swaggart. I never thought anyone could be more horrifying of a preacher than Jimmy, but his son appears to have successfully surpassed his father in being a completely repugnant and hate-filled lunatic. It seems the progeny of televangelists strive to excel at medievalism and vitriol. One look at Franklin Graham should confirm this to almost anyone.

I ran across the blustering extremist Chuck Hagee on another day and had to question my own ears. His sermon sounded more like a war room briefing for Dr. Evil in an Austin Power’s movie. He “educated” his congregation, with the measured cadence of a a traveling snake oil salesman, on Iran’s nefarious plans somehow known only to him. He warned his followers of the perils of not “blessing” the state of Israel even though this smacks of idolatry, a grave sin in his religion.  But the camera panned out to his megachurch filled with saucer eyed congregants applauding when he talked about bombing the Islamic Republic in a pre-emtive strike.  My skin literally crawled.

John HageeThe same was true of Donnie Swaggart’s tele-church. Applause and “praise the Lord’s” rang out after each screaming rant against Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists, or marriage equality and transgender people, or “abortion” doctors and “lukewarm Christians” and all I could do is feel a deep sense of grief and dread. Is this emblematic of a dying empire?  Are they a foreboding sign of the Dark Ages we stand poised to enter given our planetary trajectory towards ecocide and climate chaos?  With a bombastic egotist, proud of his racism and misogyny, running for the highest office in the nation against a promoter of military aggression and defender of the corporate plutocracy, could this portend a dystopic landscape in the not too distant future?

As the Mayan civilization died their leaders became even more fevered in their bloodlust for scapegoats. Human sacrifice was amplified to frantically stave off the ravages of crop failure and drought. Life in the cities became a living hell for many. And in ancient Rome the plutocracy became more obsessed with bread and circuses to distract demoralized masses from their misery as they feasted on whatever remained in their dying empire.   The megacity of the 21st century appears to be setting itself up for similar horrors but on a global scale, with those on the margins of empire suffering the greatest and most immediate pain. And in the midst of this I see preachers like Swaggart, Graham and Hagee gleefully celebrating apocalypse and ushering in a new era of “Inquisition” where anyone “otherized” is fair game for scapegoating. It would be unfair and inaccurate to paint all evangelicals with a broad brush, but it is a fair conclusion that after each coming drought or flood certain zealots, like the aforementioned televangelists, will jump up to point a finger of blame at the refugee, or those who oppose war, or the gender non-conforming person, or the immigrant, or the socialist, or the woman wearing a hijab.  This is not so far fetched a scenario when one considers that one front runner in US Presidential elections spews racist xenophobia to cheering crowds and a sycophantic media, and the other has a long history of warmongering and reactionary policies.
Mayan Civilization. Image from Storify.Americans have a remarkable capacity to think theirs is a society that is exceptional even with mountains of history to demonstrate otherwise. And they have been fed a steady diet of pablum to sate any thirst or longing for knowledge about the world in which they are a part of.  Consumerism is the real religion of America, and it is the greatest threat to all life on the planet.  How, then, will they react when their world begins to disintegrate in this new epoch of ecocide and the Anthropocene?  When climate change becomes the unbearable reality? When the infrastructure that is taken for granted begins to fail?  History has dark lessons to teach us on how that might very well look.   If allowed, those who peddle fear and those who revel in authoritarianism will marry each other at the first winds of peril.

World under water. Image from Adweek.And with daily reports of temperature records being broken, drought and crop failure expanding, the oceans dying and fresh water waning, I cannot help but fear that those winds are beginning to blow in earnest.  If they are, God help us all.

Kenn Orphan  2016

Grieving in Silence

When I was in my early twenties I never thought that in my lifetime I would see the death of the Great Barrier Reef and scores of other coral reefs around the world.  I never thought I would see the temperature of the North Pole reach 50 degrees Fahrenheit above normal, or gigantic nation-sized shelves of ice simply break off and fall into the sea in Antarctica.  I never thought I would read about scores of species dying en masse, washing up on shores, or going extinct every single day.   I never thought that plastic in the seas would outweigh marine life by mid century, or huge swaths of forest succumb to pine beetles and blight.  Now twenty years on I have witnessed all of that and more, and most of it has happened in just the last few years. I often find myself being overwhelmed by an enormous tide of grief that envelopes my entire being; and it doesn’t countenance being ignored.

But I live within a society that values denial over truth.  And lately I have begun to relate more to Edvard Munch’s iconic painting “The Scream.” It seems to me to be the perfect emblem of our times, an anthem of despair silenced by the absurdity of the status quo.   I realize that many of us feel this deep sense of sorrowful terror; but many more can do little more than cry out in that private, interior space that our culture has consigned us to.
The Scream by Edvard Munch.Many traditions have a public means for displaying private grief.   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. Today much of that has been rejected as being too morbid or depressing Perhaps part of this normalization is due to our evolutionary heritage; but certainly the distractions of our industrialized culture have numbed most of our senses and reinforced the myth of our separateness from the natural world.  How else can the absence of outrage or public lamentation regarding the unfolding ecocide be explained?

I, like almost everyone else I know, go about my day in the routine that has been assigned to me by society.  I get up in the morning, take the drugs that keep my blood pressure in check, eat something processed, wash up and merge into the busy and confining passages that define modernity.  Living within this labyrinth discourages any introspection. There simply isn’t enough time, ever.  Thoughts about our place in the universe, or our mortality, or the meaning of it all are summarily dismissed in this culture.  In the media or in popular entertainment this subject is usually only included as a form of comic relief.  “What is the meaning of life?” has become the crux of jokes.  We are chided or ridiculed for thinking too much and sent to a cubicle to perform as a useful cog in the machine of industry; and then to another cubicle to shop for items we are told we need or that will “enhance” our lives, and then to a cubicle that we are charged money to live in and sit in front of yet another cubicle that tells us what to think, how to feel, and what is important.

Cubicles via The Repetitive Swan.This is the only way that it can all work.  It is the only way that the natural world can be compartmentalized and commodified.  It is the only way that the killing ideologies of militarism, nationalism and capitalism can go unquestioned.  Now, of course, we can see it has worked all too well as we march head long into extinction with nary a concern.  But the tower of mythology that supports every aspect of industrial civilization is beginning to crumble beneath the weight of its own hubris and apathetic indulgences.  We ignored the planet’s boundaries, and now those boundaries are closing in on us fast.

The world will look very different in just a mere decade or so.  This is not a prophetic declaration, it is a certainty that is easy to demonstrate.  Our leaders, when they are not in outright denial, reinforce the absurd notion that we still have plenty of time to stop climate change even as it is abruptly shifting before our eyes.  And sustainability is nothing more than a lie of consumer capitalism.  What, after all, is worth sustaining?  A societal model that requires an economy that must grow regardless of the ecological and social costs?  Or that tolerates mass species extinction?  Or that allows for endless military aggression to ensure a constant flow of minerals and fuel to produce objects which will end up in a landfill or in the ocean for eons?  If depression and neuroses are companions of cancer and heart disease in this model of sustainability, is this really worth preserving?

The stark truth is that there is little collective will to change the path we are currently on as a species.  Its trajectory is solidly towards collapse of the biosphere.  And even if monumental changes were implemented tomorrow by the powers that be it would not stop the seas from rising, or stop the process of ocean acidification, or resolve the plastic soup that churns at its center, or solve the never ending meltdown at Chernobyl or Fukushima, or prevent the release of methane from the seabed, or stave off famine for millions of people, and bring back thousands of species now gone forever.

Greetings from California by Joe Webb.I realize that this entire essay is antithetical to the zeitgeist of interminable optimism that defines our age.  In truth, I gave up trying to fit into this model a long time ago when I saw it as merely a kind of collective psychosis.  I write because, selfishly, I must.  It is my silent scream outward from a dark, interior pain of alienation, frustration and sadness.  I am not looking for a magic elixir or a pharmaceutical or an intervention to medicate or block out this pain either.  I want to feel it because it exists and because this is a culture that I wish to separate myself from; and I think we must all feel it and show this publicly while we still have time.  I don’t think that doing any of this will spare us the calamities that appear to be waiting for us just down the road, but maybe it can help us reclaim a sense of meaning to it all that has been robbed from us by an insipid, manic and brutal system of mindless consumption, and vacuous distraction.

I see what is unfolding and I cannot help but feel great sorrow.  My scream of anguish, though silent, can no longer be inward.  I am in mourning.  I grieve all that has been and will be lost.  And I will place a black wreath upon my door and wear a black cloth around my arm for all the world to see, not because I am brave, but because I simply cannot grieve in silence anymore.

Kenn Orphan  2016

Earth Day and the Phantoms of a Pathological Culture

I must start with a confession.  I have always been troubled by the concept of Earth Day.  I understand its origin and why it came to be, but as an environmentalist I see it as window dressing an unfolding disaster of monumental proportions.  It’s not that it is useless.  Raising awareness is never useless.  But over the years it has morphed from an almost spiritual movement for ecological consciousness and justice into an opportunity for corporations and politicians to tout their empty gestures at “saving the planet” all while they mercilessly plunder it.  It also has the effect of neutralizing public outrage at the dire state our world is in.  It spreads an all too pervasive “feel goodism” to a situation that is truly existential, not only for countless other species on the planet but for our own.

Corporate Greenwashing, by Pete Dolack via Climate and CapitalismIn our time, the powerful have crafted enormous facades of pomp and ceremony extolling their efforts.  Their conferences and consortiums serve as a distraction from their business as usual pillage, and a placation of our collective angst against the backdrop of a gathering storm.  But each year gives us a terrifying glimpse into a fast approaching future.  One rife with super storms, floods, mega-droughts, crop failures and species collapse.

Reocrd breaking Houston floods, April 2016, photo via Traci Siler.The economic model that dominates the world is incapable of grappling with our dire predicament.  It simply does not possess any sense of ethical obligation, even when it comes to its own species.  It has become imperative for us to shake free from this paradigm of self destructive failure and begin the process of true community building.  We can talk about the benefits of permaculture and a gift economy, but in order to reach this we need to do something that the Western world routinely scoffs at and ridicules.  We must take a long, hard and urgent look into the underpinnings of our entire way of life and the pathology that is industrialized civilization itself.  We must look into our soul.

Alberta Tar Sands were once pristine boreal forests. Photographer Peter EssickWe can start with natural landscapes.  They are the contours of the soul.  And they have been, and continue to be, brutalized and decimated, or replaced by concrete, glass and steel.  The effect this has had on our species is collective alienation and crushing despair.  Modern mega-cities are emblematic of this tremendous disconnect from reality.  They are scratched onto the land with feverish disregard for nature as well as for their inhabitants.  They create an illusion that we are separate from nature, divorced from its power except when confronted by a storm, earthquake, volcano, flood or heatwave.  Western science and religion, in whatever form it takes, reinforces the myth of separateness from the natural world, and otherizes the myriad of species we share this planet with.

Mexico City. Source Stock Footage.When European explorers set out to “discover” the world most did not do so as observers.  They unmoored their ships and set sail in search of gold and other “precious” metals.  In the process they decimated indigenous societies and imposed their world view on where ever they landed.  They justified all of this madness through a perverted form of patriarchal religion which augmented a hierarchical system of domination and class that persists to this day.  This paradigm still informs the current global economic system, neoliberal capitalism, which commodifies every thing and everyone in the known universe, and transforms them into exploitable, consumable or disposable products.

mindless consumerism Philosophers StoneThe truth is that materialism corrupts the very nature of the human soul. It deadens the tendrils of empathy and compassion that have evolved to give meaning to our existence.  And it creates an insatiable void needing to be filled by elusive and meaningless junk, which is eventually discarded once the novelty wears off.  It is the reason landfills are bursting their confines. It is the reason the world’s oceans have become a toxic soup where plastic refuse is fast out weighing fish and other wildlife.  It is behind the rising global temperatures and changing climate. It is the cause of stagnation, addiction and ennui within the general public. It is the reason for every war and conflict; and why our species, along with every other one on this planet, is facing extinction.

Landfill, photo from Stock Footage.To be sure, we cannot expect the dominant culture to bring about any positive or substantive change.  It cannot.  Not now, not ever.  It reflects the pathology that industrial civilization is at its heart.  Its “solution” to the looming ecological collapse is to spruce up its image to the “consumer” by taking small, meaningless actions that momentarily sooth our conscience at the moment we are consuming their product.  At its very core it is a cancer that must grow rapaciously regardless of the terminal malignancy it inflicts upon the living planet and the weakest of our species.  And, as I have noted before, a cancer cannot be “reformed.”  It must be extracted or eradicated, or the condition will lead to nothing other than death.

But we need not be plugged into this matrix of delusion and absurdity.  We need not play the cruel game of mindless consumption of sentient beings housed in torturous concentration camps, or gadgets crafted in suicidal sweatshops that promise a better life, or entertainment that dehumanizes us or others, or trends that celebrate avarice, militarism and violence.  That choice is still left to us.  And our agency lies in us realizing this and beginning a transformation that connects us to each other and to the living, yet besieged and battered planet on which we all depend.

IMG_2560I have another confession.  I am not a preacher.  I loath those who connive or badger or guilt people into altering their lives.  I am one of you.  I was born into this theater of the absurd, bathed from conception in petroleum, the primordial life blood of industrial civilization.  I have been dazzled by the spectacle and I have consumed far more than I have ever had a right to.  So I am taking this journey with you because none of us, not one, can do it alone.  We cannot face the phantoms of our pathological culture in isolation and think we will emerge on the other side unscathed, intact and whole.  One thing I am certain of is that the future of humanity, perhaps nearer than anyone of us could fathom, is destined to be full of misery and strife.  In truth it already is for the vast majority of us and countless species we are not even aware of.  But if there is any solace to be found it begins in our refusal to be willing participants in the unfolding ecocide, and the recognition of ourselves in each other and every other life form we are surrounded by.

The only way I can honor Earth Day is to grieve all that has been lost, and to refuse to participate in the ongoing destruction.  It only has meaning to me if it is not externalized as a commodity with a catchy jingle, and is the beginning of the end for the pathological mindset that has gotten us to where we are now and the collective death knell that lies before us.  Maybe the best way to “celebrate” it is in realizing that we need a new community with a natural soul, unseparated from this world.  Because in its absence it is nothing more than a mechanical set of empty routines.  And a soul without a community has no meaning at all, and is adrift in a universe where love cannot penetrate.

Kenn Orphan  2016

#earthday  #climatechange  #capitalism  #ecocide  #consumerism

Another Year, Another Paradigm Shift

“Our own life has to be our message.” ~ Thích Nhất Hạnh

This month the solstice gently ushered us all into a new year. In times past, this occasion was often viewed as an opportunity for reflection.   It is a turning point when the sun begins to intrude into our lives just a bit more each day, casting away shadows, one by one.  As the calendar scrolls down another year I have been reflecting on my personal journey as it relates to the changing and tumultuous world around me.

2015 was a year where climate change, endless war, mass migration (the biggest since the second World War), the growth of the repressive, militarized police/surveillance state and environmental decimation all appeared to be converging at a crossroad, with industrial civilization itself teetering on the brink of collapse as a result.  Has it happened yet?  No.  But collapse should be understood as a nonlinear phenomenon. It is more akin to the sputtering engine of a damaged airplane, dying in fits and starts before the ultimate plunge.

Colonial church emerging from a receding reservoir in Mexico. Photo, David Von Blohn, STR.
The acknowledgement of any of this can send us in the direction of conscious grief and deepened empathy or paralyzed despair and indifference.  It has the power to “widen our circle of compassion” as Albert Einstein encouraged and view the death of one thing as the foundation of life for another, or find us at a dead end of alienation and apathy.  Ours is a culture of denial, fraught with vapid phantoms peddling sadistic entertainment and extolling rapacious consumption on a planet with finite and dwindling resources.  It is a theater where all the players are mindless and the audience is blind.  When ones eyes are pried open a searing light is cast on a stage of depravity and misery.  But this experience, traumatic as it is, can also be a catalyst for “a fundamental change in approach or underlying assumptions.”  A paradigm shift.

Selfie. Image from Shutterstock
In our society narcissism has become a celebrated virtue; but I have never been very good at separating myself from the suffering of others.  A forest somewhere is felled, I feel as though my body has been hacked into.  A refugee is demonized, I feel as though it is a personal attack on my own character.  Another species goes extinct, I feel as though a piece of my soul has died.  Mind you, I am not admitting any of this to curry admiration in anyone’s eyes.  In fact, this part of who I am I consider deeply private and I often struggle with my own grief as a result of this kind of association.  But how can I, as Thích Nhất Hạnh says, make my life my message without acknowledging this pain publicly?

Beijing air pollution in December, 2015. Photographer, Xiao Lu Chu, Getty Images.Industrial, consumer civilization, with all of its self destructive trappings, deeply wounds the soul as much as it wounds the body, communities and the living earth itself.  But wounds, both physical and psychic, have a remarkable ability to heal with an intelligence that is beyond our consciousness.  The soul, just like the body, will repair itself too leaving a scar as a testament to the struggle and a symbol of solidarity with others who suffer.  But this can only happen when we show it to the world.

A physical wound must be covered for a certain amount of time to protect it from infection, but its bandages must eventually be removed exposing it to fresh air if it is to complete the healing process.  This is also true of wounds to our soul.  We must eventually reveal them to the world and be receptive of the empathy that can bring.  This, in turn, becomes our message.  It is up to us, though, to nourish the conditions that make this healing possible, and to apply whatever balm is necessary.  Healing our wounds does not spare us from death.  But in nature, even death itself is a fount for the renewal of life.

Mother Earth. A painting by Jeness Cortez Perlmutter.We cannot stop the convergence of very bad things in this world. None of us can hold back the rising seas or quell the warming air. And the specters of war, avarice and tyranny continue to haunt our world every day.  In truth, the end of all we know may be closer than any one of us could fathom. But that does not mean that all is lost.  In her book “Love in the Age of Ecological Apocalypse: Cultivating the Relationships We Need to Thrive,” Carolyn Baker eloquently expresses how we can react to all of this:

“As the bearers of conscious self-awareness on this planet, we have failed miserably thus far in recognizing our inextricable oneness with the universe. Whether we can refine this innate capacity in time to prevent the annihilation of the Earth—a travesty in which we have consciously and unconsciously colluded, is unknown. Nevertheless, in the remaining days of our presence here, we can love the Earth and we can love all its sentient beings.”

Indeed hope does exist, but it is meaningless unless it expands our capacity to love.  This truth is the paradigm shift we are all in desperate need of, and one that will be even more urgent in the troubled and stormy days that lie ahead.

Kenn Orphan 2015

For the Record

When I was a young boy I dreamt of other planets in far flung solar systems in our galaxy.  I would draw pictures for hours of what I thought alien life might look like and try to imagine civilizations that may have evolved to our level of technology or beyond. I would build starships out of loose leaf paper and plastic utensils and fly them through my house and out into the backyard.  As I grew older these musings faded, but never died.

I confess I still have some of those starships in an old trunk, and every now and then when no one is around, I take them out for a flight around the room and picture myself traveling to one of the countless planets that fill the Milky Way.  The alien life I imagined as a child has expanded, but in ways I could never have dreamed of when I was very young. I have had the good fortune and privilege to travel the world, learn about other cultures and encounter wildlife up close. I began to realize that I did not have to travel to a distant world to see alien life.  It was all around me, and it was wondrous.

According to a growing number of scientists, we are in the grips of the Sixth Mass Extinction; and, sadly, we can only guess how many incredible life forms have been eliminated by the rapacity and carelessness of industrial civilization.  Hundreds more species go extinct every day, and it is likely that our own may be on that list in the future, given our trajectory and penchant for self-destruction.  But I have compiled a humble collection of some of the creatures my partner and I encountered on our numerous journey’s to Central America.  And I wanted to put them on the record and share them here.

Please keep in mind that I am not a biologist so I will not attempt to identify any of the insects, plants or animals with scientific names.  This is merely a photo essay to register their marvelous existence on this planet.  I hope they fascinate you and enliven your imagination and sense of wonder as they do mine.

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IMG_1405IMG_1607IMG_1586IMG_1609IMG_1691IMG_1621IMG_1718IMG_1633IMG_1635IMG_1628IMG_1612IMG_1746IMG_1555IMG_1576IMG_1618IMG_1767IMG_1416IMG_1415IMG_1407IMG_1768IMG_1562IMG_1693IMG_1713 IMG_2521IMG_2560starfishslothgeckored frog

Kenn Orphan  2015