Tag Archives: Anthropocene

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

 

Walking With Grief in the Anthropocene

It was a couple years ago that I saw my first glacier. I was on a trip to Alaska with my family before my father died. He had always dreamed of seeing the region, and we were happy we could do this one, last trip to fulfill it for him. We cruised through the Inside Passage past glaciers glimmering with cerulean blue ice, drove through part of the Yukon Territory of Canada by turquoise lakes, and hiked close to one of the last, ever receding glaciers.  All of it was as awe inspiring as it was heartbreaking.

IMG_4293I am one of those people who finds it difficult to set aside what I know about the planet and where we are headed, and simply enjoy the moment for what it is. I cannot walk through a forest without feeling a sense of dread that it will someday be felled. I cannot watch whales breaching the waves without wondering if they will die out in my lifetime. I cannot see a glacier and ignore the overwhelming evidence that globally, they are in retreat. And I have come to realize that I am far from being alone in this feeling of joy mixed with sorrow.

IMG_4310Grief in the West is often viewed as some kind of disorder to be dealt with by pushing it away, ignoring it or medicating it. 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.”

The reality is that our consumer culture is incapable of understanding grief. It is designed to ingest anything and everything just to keep it going. It does not pause for reflection. It is a giant throat ravenously swallowing the earth with our soul along with it. But this culture is destined to slam into a wall of reality on a finite planet with dwindling resources. There is a point of no return and it is closing in fast, and no distraction or technological fix will be able to stop the impending crash of a system that is fundamentally flawed. One way or another, we will have to face the crimes we have committed against the natural world on which we all depend.

An empty big box store. Photo by Kenn Orphan.I, like many others in the West, understand the paradox of where we stand. My family and I took this journey to Alaska thanks to our inordinate privilege. By global standards we are wealthy and benefit from being born into one of the most powerful empires the earth has ever known. And while many of us in the West mourn what industrial civilization has done, most of us still benefit from its excesses, wars of plunder and ecocidal convenience. But none of us can avoid getting caught up in the coming turmoil. It is a tide that will sweep all of humanity into its chaos. It has, in fact, already begun to do so in many areas of the planet, although this is carefully obscured by the wizards of Western, consumer society.

Air Pollution in China ChinaFotoPress Getty Images

Highly polluted and toxic lake in Bangalore, India, which routinely catches fire. Photo Anoop KumarBut perhaps if we shun the impulse to avoid feeling despair, as this culture encourages us to, we can step into our sorrow and walk with our grief as a companion rather than an adversary. In doing this we may be able to open up corridors of empathy and compassion for each other and the myriad of species we share this planet with. Grief can be a guide through the wilderness of alienation that this society perpetuates. It can deepen us and open our senses to a force greater than ourselves. It won’t spare us our fate, nothing can. But it may spare us a kind of spiritual death.

IMG_4243Standing on the deck of the boat, passing under great mountains of melting ice, I felt that sense of wonder that a child does when struck by the awesomeness of life itself.  I also felt immensely small.  My heart beat with an ache 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.   I embraced him like a long lost friend.  And he smiled at me and said, “what took you so long?”

Kenn Orphan 2015

 

IMG_0058This essay is dedicated to the memory of my father, George Orphan, Sr. (June 7th, 1925 – November 25th, 2014).  You will be forever in my heart and I can never repay you for the gifts you have given me.

Hoping for Clemency

     Travel anywhere across the “developed world” and you can find them. Featureless monoliths of concrete, glass and steel jutting out from soulless landscapes that house human cogs in a metaphorical machine. The cold emptiness of their facades tell us exactly who built them and what matters to them. Spoiler alert: it ain’t us or the planet we all depend upon.

Stock photo of corporate monoliths.These indifferent fortresses belie a dying civilization. They sit atop the mass graves of once vibrant meadows and forests scraped off the land, and wetlands that were brimming with life, now drained of their water. How easily they mask our insecurities. Many, if not most, of us in this society still support the idea that it is justified to be charged rent to live on the planet of our birth. And many cling to the hope that they will rise above their station to a place of success in this moribund spectacle the powerful have crafted. These phallic monuments to the ego stand as sentries, guarding the lies of empire and defending the insatiable demands of consumer capitalism.

Corporate slavery. Artist Unknown.Success in this suicidal fantasy is defined by the accumulation of imaginary numerals and the acquisition of objects, or property, or even people and other living beings. There is no self imposed limit to its expansion. It is ravenous and pays no attention to consumption except in its encouragement. But the natural earth on which all of this is derived is beginning to crumble under our feet. And this culture of self absorbed, self-medicated misery is beginning to unravel before our eyes along with it.

celebrity couples Art by Daiana FeuerThe response of a society to its impending demise is in accordance with how it was formed, who leads it, what it cares about, and what has kept it going. Ours has been built through conquest, industrialization and war, and upon the backs of billions of human beings not fortunate enough to be born into its higher ranks, and a myriad of species slated for exploitation or eradication. It is led by sociopaths who care only for their vapid self-importance and meaningless lifestyles. And its heart beats with the constant infusion of new blood. Whether that blood be of the earth or of other living beings is of no consequence to it.

Every morning I wake up on the wrong side of Capitalism. Source Street Art, Open Democracy.This kind of society is incapable of responding to suffering with empathy. It cannot be reasoned with. It knows only distraction, violence, control, mania and alienation. And as its foundations disintegrate, it will become even more brutal and detached from reality. It will cast the weakest, the foreigner, and most vulnerable as scapegoats for its malfeasance and failure; and in the end no one will be spared its fury. Once a person of conscience begins to realize that they live in an empire that has savaged the planet and destroyed dozens of societies the world over, it becomes impossible to be swayed by puerile patriotic sentimentality. The misery this machine has caused, and continues to cause, blots out any feeling of pride.

US imperialism-militarism. Photo Source- Institute for Policy Research and Development.But the American Empire, and industrial civilization itself, appear to be destined to meet their end sometime within this century. It has reached its upper limit and the earth is beginning to answer to its folly with unmatched rage. Think this is hyperbole? We now know with certainty that the seas will rise and swallow cities whole, and drought will expand to bleach fields like bones in the sun. It has already started in many places. Beaches are eroding, wells are running dry, and people are beginning to flee.

Alberta Tar Sands were once pristine boreal forestsAll of this leaves us with few choices, but not without hope. The question is, what do we hope for? Is it the status quo, keeping the privileged few of the planet in the current state of relative comfort while the rest of the planet languishes in abject misery? Or is it for the salvation of technology to somehow sweep all of our over-indulgences and careless extravagances away? Or is it for some business, religious or political leader to rise up and answer all of our problems miraculously, like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat? In the quickness of time, none of these options are viable.

Devolution. Photo credit, CollapseofIndustrialCivilization.com.There was a time when our ancestors understood that they were merely one species in a chorus of billions, who all had a birthright to this world. But that ended when some decided that our dominance and luxury were more important than a living planet. Now countless species are going extinct from our excesses and recklessness each day, and we are beginning to realize that we are not so powerful as to not be one of them at some point in the future. One way or another the earth will choose for us. We can only hope that she can forgive us for our blindness, and bestow on us a mercy that we rejected for our own human family and scores of other species that have had the misfortune of crossing our path.

Mother Earth. A painting by Jeness Cortez Perlmutter.May clemency smile upon us.

Kenn Orphan 2015

The Great Migration

This week Austrian police discovered the bodies of 71 migrants in a truck by the side of the highway outside Vienna. It is widely believed that they had suffocated to death when they were abandoned by their smugglers. One cannot fathom the horror and agony they must have suffered; but it is a story that is fast becoming the norm. Indeed, thousands have perished in their valiant attempts to cross the Mediterranean, well over a 100 just this week.  In the Americas, untold numbers have died on their journeys north out of Central and South America. On the Andaman Sea boats brimming with starving members of the Rohingya community languished in limbo for weeks because no country would admit them. And when they reach the border their ordeals are far from over.

In Macedonia, police forces beat and tear gassed scores of refugees attempting to leave Greece; and hate crimes against undocumented immigrants in the US and Western Europe are on the rise.  None of this should come as any surprise to those of us who have been paying attention; but it does not make what we are seeing any easier. This year a combination of climate change, perpetual war and economic devastation has forced huge surges of people all over the world out of their native lands in their quest for survival. The Great Migration has begun; and I must admit, it has started far sooner than I had ever imagined.

A little girl cries as she tries to take shelter from the rain on Greece's border with Macedonia Photo Reuters

Refugees waiting for hours to cross the border to Macedonia. Photo by Erik Marquardt.

Somali refugees wait at check point. Source UNHCR

Rohingya refugees stranded on a boat off Thailand Photo Source IB TimesOf course, Western leaders are reacting to this unfolding human tragedy in typical fashion. They are either spewing racist vitriol and stoking the most base fears of their constituents, or blathering on with patronizing platitudes about immigrants and their plight. Whether it be US presidential candidate Donald Trump proudly demonizing undocumented immigrants as rapists and murderers to cheering crowds, or German Chancellor Angela Merkel callously explaining to a sobbing 14 year old Palestinian girl, whose family faces deportation to a land that is foreign to her, that “politics is hard sometimes,” the message to migrants could not be clearer: We do not care about you. We will not help you. And we will certainly not take responsibility for the foreign policies, economic exploitation and military assaults we launched on your nations that destroyed your societies and caused you to flee in the first place.

Angela Merkel makes a 14-year old Palestinian girl cry by telling her she is not welcome in Germany Source Mondoweiss

Donald Trump Photo Source Boston GlobeThe disconnect from reality is stunning, but predictable. Indeed, if Merkel or Obama or Clinton were to acknowledge that it was their governments that destroyed and destabilized Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Libya, their entire house of cards would collapse to the ground in a smoldering, hypocritical heap. And if Trump or Bush were to acknowledge that it has been US neoliberal economic policies that have created the dire circumstances in Mexico,  or in Central and South America, that have forced tens of thousands to flee for survival, their dehumanization of refugees and migrants would be shown for the vile, empty rhetoric that it is.

Central America. A young girl cries as her home and neighborhood are forcefully dismantled in a shanty town after the government claimed that the settlement was illegal. Photo Spencer Platt Getty

Central American refugees seeks shelter. Photo by Elizabeth Ruiz AFP GettyIn truth all Western leaders, politicians and oligarchs alike, sit atop a historic pyramid of oppression and exploitation that is not of their own making. But each successive US president and Western leader has preserved the integrity of this system by faithfully growing the military/police/surveillance state and rewarding the wealthy elite with more and more loot, and bailouts and impunity for their crimes. This scheme, however, is beginning to unravel.  And we need only look to the not so distant past to get an inkling of what lies ahead.

Residents wait on a rooftop to be rescued from the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina on Sept 1, 2005 Photo by STR Reuters

National Guard soldier walks past a covered body at the Convention Center on Sept. 3, 2005, where people took refuge after Hurricane Katrina. Source NOLAThis week marks the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and it should also serve as a wake up call for those Americans, and Westerners in general, who are still under the misconception that their government has their back in disaster. With more millionaires in the Senate, and unlimited money influencing elections, it should be clear to anyone that the United States is effectively an oligarchy with little to no regard for the poor and most vulnerable.

All of this was made plain in the weeks and months following the storm and subsequent floods in New Orleans and the region. Over a thousand lost their lives, tens of thousands more lost their homes and livelihoods. But the majority of those who suffered were poor people of color; and the American Empire had better things to do than dispatch the military in full force for rescue operations of its own citizens, especially when they had little or no money to offer them in return.  After all, they had already over extended themselves in a war, based upon lies, against another group of poor, brown people on the other side of the planet.  Nurse Mary Jo D'Amico fans a patient in the car park of New Orleans Memorial hospital

Woman collapses while residents attempt to rescue her and husband from flood waters in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina Photo source AFPI still remember the mainstream media and some politicians calling the victims of Hurricane Katrina “refugees,” a label previously unheard of in the West. They had been abandoned by their government and it should have served as a warning to us all. No matter how much our leaders “otherize” those who are forced to abandon their homes and dire circumstances, they are a reflection of our collective future.

Although climate change will have unpredictable ramifications; it is becoming more apparent by the day what our world will begin to look like in the decades to come. It all but promises a North American West that will become a virtually uninhabitable desert. Rapid glacial melt will see Amsterdam, London, New Orleans and half of Florida submerged under the waves of an ever acidifying ocean, bereft of much of its life except for an abundance of jellyfish, invasive sea grasses, toxic algae blooms and plastic debris. Paris and Tokyo will see heat waves that rival anything we have seen so far in India or Pakistan.  And more and more species of wild life will fall to extinction.  With all of this it is hard to imagine that mass migrations will be a fate assigned only to the poor of the “developing world.”

Drought Induced Wildfires Photo David McNew Getty Images

NYC following Superstorm Sandy Christos Pathiakis Getty ImagesUndoubtedly, there is an epic storm brewing that threatens all life on this planet; and it is building up steam before our eyes. Those of us who tell this painful truth can expect to be labeled “doomers,” or fatalists, or be exiled from the conversation completely.  But there is a point at which this exile from a deluded, shallow and corrupt culture becomes a welcome gift.

The powerful elite have absolutely no plan to address what is coming outside of drumming up racist xenophobia and fear of the other, and continuing on with the “business as usual” paradigm that has driven countless species to their extinction and ushered in the epoch of the Anthropocene. And the conference that is due to convene in Paris this winter is merely a charade to pantomime concern and action.
Barack Obama, Silvio Berlusconi and Dimitry Medvedev share a good laugh at the G20 Summit. Photograph by Dominique Faget AFP Getty. Images

Still from CNN broadcast. Photo source College Humor.Do not expect any ideas from the corporate owned media either. Their job has always been to be a mouthpiece for the wealthy elite and to keep the masses distracted and subdued.  They will continue pouring out celebrity gossip and stoking fears about things that pose no significant threat to the West, like Ebola or ISIS, even as the fires rage and waters rise. Encouraging objectification and mindless consumption is their sole charge.  Considering all this, to look for salvation from those with power and wealth, even the ones who may appear more sympathetic to ordinary people, would be the height of foolishness.

Indeed, the only sane way to approach this storm is by realizing that ignoring it will not make it disappear, acknowledging that no one will be spared its wrath, and banding together in solidarity with others of like minds and souls. Doing this is unlikely to save our civilization as it is, or spark empathy in the powerful.  And it will not stop the unfolding nightmare of climate change and mass extinction.   But it may give us the courage to stop believing the never ending lies of nationalism, and help us to dismantle the artificial barriers that the elite have erected to keep us fearful of each other.  We can begin right now by looking at the immigrant and the refugee as though they were us.  Because, in all truth, they are.

Photo from the Refugee Council of the UK.

Kenn Orphan  2015

Normalizing Extinction

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Several years back I had the good fortune of traveling through the rainforest in a remote part of Panama. Along the way I stayed in a small cabin at an ecolodge with the warm waters of the Caribbean Sea just steps away. There were no roads, televisions, or internet access, and no phones or electricity except in the main house. Out back was a trail that meandered through a dense forest brimming with tree frogs, sloths, iguanas, leaf cutter ants, and countless species of birds hopping from branch to branch. Just a couple feet into the water and I counted dozens of bright orange sea stars. And at night the sea shore came alive with biolumeniscent dinoflagellates, who would respond to my flashlight signals in short bursts of blue-green neon and the canopy was a cacophony of countless species in song. The abundance of life in that tiny corner of the world crowded out most signals of modern civilization.

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But as with any trip like this, I eventually had to return home where the reality of “The Great Dying” is everywhere. Like climate change, the Sixth Mass Extinction, is not a hyperbolic, political trope. It is in fact the death of most complex forms of life on earth at our own hands. And by all accounts, with mass die offs of bees, coral, salmon, frogs and beyond, it is in full swing. Elizabeth Kolbert, author of “The Sixth Extinction” makes this plain:

“If we assume, very conservatively, that there are two million species in the tropical rainforests, this means that something like five thousand species are being lost each year. This comes to roughly fourteen species a day, or one every hundred minutes.”

Yet in the midst of this tremendous catastrophe, the magicians of our consumer society continue to normalize the carnage. Indeed, under the economic model of global capitalism all life, human and non, is measured by its ability to produce or create material wealth for a select, privileged few. And it is a system that encourages both amnesia and indifference. So it is unsurprising that mass species extinction barely registers on its radar unless their profit line is affected. This is how over fishing, clear-cutting of thousands of acres of virgin forests and piercing the Arctic seabed for oil, like a fiendish vampire sucking out the earth’s primordial blood, can all be justified and even celebrated as “growing the economy.” As long as it produces intangible numbers that indicate wealth it is all fair game. And in the meantime it manages to numb our senses to the spiral of death that is beginning to engulf us.

Photo Jason Hawkes National Geographic

Garbage and sewage chokes a river. Source Getty

I often go back to places like that rain forest in Panama in my mind when I feel hollowed out from the alienating sterility of modern society. It is a sacred place in my memory that is a balm to the wounds inflicted by the  landscapes of capital. A part of me never wishes to actually return there, because I fear that, like so many other wild places, I will be struck by the cruel realities of a world under siege.   I fear my own memory of all the creatures that are no longer there.  But this is not how the story should end.

These species at the very least deserve the recollection of their existence; and the only way to break free from the indifferent paralysis imposed on us from an apathetic, self-absorbed culture is to remember, and mourn and take action.  Indeed, the catastrophe unfolding around us can be overwhelming; and we may not be able to hold back the enormous tide of destruction coming our way. But we have a choice. We can step into our grief, feel the pain and use it to deepen us and our capacity for compassion. Or we can sleepwalk through it all into oblivion, normalizing the cruel madness, as the dominant culture encourages us to do. One way has the potential to lead us to meaning and enrich our lives no matter what the outcome. But the other will surely deaden our souls and lead us to our doom.

Kenn Orphan 2015

Panama by Kenn Orphan
Kenn Orphan 2015

(1) “The Sixth Extinction” by Elizabeth Kolbert at Amazon:

 

Time to Listen

Dying Trees Source The GuardianIt was a little over a year ago when I was on a meditation walk, in a beloved park, that I began to notice trees that once provided me shade and a sense of embrace were now starting to go brown, only it was not Autumn, it was Spring. Since then a sense of sadness and alienation has followed me as I chart my course through the new world of the Anthropocene.

That day I walked as I usually did. My speed started in a measured manner. I took the paths I usually took, walked by familiar sights and listened to familiar sounds. But there was one sound which I could not initially identify, and it was persistent.

At first I did all the things I our society has taught me to do; I invented things in my mind that soothed my conscience and searched my memory for any distracting thought. But the sound was incessant and unyielding. Then, suddenly, it was undeniable. It was the sound of wailing. When I realized what it was I was hearing, my pace quickened. I felt that pain one feels in their heart when brutally confronted with loss and grief, and it overwhelmed me. The trees around me were dying slowly and in obscurity, crying in silence in the deafening din of civilization’s march of progress.

Pines killed by pine beetles in British Columbia, Canada.  Photo by Udo Weitz, Getty Images.We don’t listen to trees in this society. I know this very well. But I’ve got a secret that many of you may share. I have always heard them. Now admitting this in some circles might earn you a one way trip to a psychiatric ward. But I can no longer ignore the lamentations around me. And as time goes on I care less about what others think of me or the consequences of my truth telling. There were others on the path who crossed my way. Parents with strollers, young lovers holding hands, old men strolling the speed of snails. But none of them seemed to notice that the non-human world around them was suffering. Life seemed to go on as it always has.

Our society trains us to avert our senses to what is literally before us, marshaling our attention to narcissistic celebrities or the latest iPhone. Mindless consumption, whether of entertainment or objects, is the national religion; and the high priests of Wall Street and Madison Avenue work over time to ensure that their profits grow exponentially, regardless of the cost to other human beings or to the countless species with whom we share this planet. But the signs surround us all. Climate chaos is nearly upon us, if it isn’t already. And truthfully, we have been given ample warning of the consequences of our way of life. Now the Great Dying, the Sixth Mass Extinction, is in full swing.
work buy consume die Source Truth Theory

The mechanisms of Western civilization are constantly conspiring to prevent us from contemplating all of this. To the powerful, doing nothing is a lazy, if not punishable, offense. It is not a surprise that in such a system loitering is a crime. If we are not consuming, we become suspicious to the established order. When we are not at work we are expected to shop, or eat, or drink, or drive somewhere, or watch something, or text, or check Facebook. This is because all of this requires our attention to the consumption of something. But if we find ourselves still and quiet, without being asleep, we may hear the sorrow we have inflicted on the nature that surrounds us through this rapacious devouring.

shopping cart

If we manage to loosen the grip of consumer culture on our consciousness, for even a short time, marvelous things can happen. I have learned that this is not an easy or one time practice; on the contrary, it is the hardest task we will ever do.  It will not spare us from all of the calamity that lies ahead.  It offers no redemption for humanity’s crimes. But it may carve out a sanctuary in our soul from where we can draw strength when the gales commence and the water rises.
Barkbeetle damage.  Photo from the Colorado State Forest Service.
The ears of society have been deafened to the wails of countless beings on this life drenched earth.  It is high time we started listening again, like our ancient ancestors did, to express our grief, stir our imagination and, most important, enliven our compassion, while there is still time left to hear.

Kenn Orphan 2015

Before the Fall

Houston Floods Source Twitter PKandDK      In the past few years scientific models have been sending humanity a rather ominous message: evidence indicates that the earth’s climate has taken a dangerous and irreversible turn. As the once frozen Arctic Ocean rapidly liquefies into ice free summers, releasing tons of the potent greenhouse gas methane, and desertification stretches out across new regions, weather patterns around the globe appear to be spiraling out of control in a nonlinear manner. Each passing month we have seen record after record be demolished. The spring of 2015 has been catastrophic with scores dying from heat waves in India, forest fires in Siberia, monstrous floods in Texas, southern China and Eastern Europe and an intractable drought in the American west, the Middle-east and Brazil. And with an El Nino looming, summer and autumn are shaping up to be even more ferocious. Yet despite the recent, historic People’s Climate March in New York City, the machine of capitalist driven consumption grinds on unabated, undeterred and unconcerned about the impending collapse.

Washington State Fire

Polyp cartoon Climate

Amidst the unfolding chaos some of us still look to the environmental movement for answers, solace, or even hope.  After all, it sprang out of sickness and grief at what this machine was doing to the natural world. It grew from the heart of empathy for all life, human and non. But the failure of the movement was in its acquiescence to capitalism. In so doing it imploded the consciousness of substantive transformation.

Capitalism, in its very essence, is about endless growth and exploitation of the environment for material gain. It is kept alive by a monetary system derived from how much energy is produced and consumed. And in the global “free market” system environmentalist causes may be soothed at home; but in far flung nations the earth and the poor are continually battered and raped by corporations and the corrupt governments that house them. Sweat shops abound, virgin forests continue to be razed for palm oil, poaching keeps animal populations constantly on the cusp of extinction, rainforests and wetlands continue to be polluted by mining companies and Big Oil, and the oceans remain the most abused natural resource on the planet. And militarism, which is of course married to capitalism, ensures that all of this exploitation can continue and expand while hiding it under a cloak of nationalistic jingoism, ironically extolling the fight for freedom and liberty while defending the greatest slaver of all time.

Defense Contractor FlagLogos

Under neoliberal capitalism, 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,”  the environmental movement morphed into what it is today, a meaningless exercise aimed at maintaining the implausibility of endless, mindless consumption with the veneer of concern for ecosystems. It has become all about “sustainability” despite the contradiction of it sustaining a system that is ultimately self-destructive. And it has branded itself with euphemisms like “green” or “earth friendly,” as if our species were somehow alien visitors to this planet and being friendly to it was a diplomatic concern.  Of course many have been cajoled by the flashy promises of mega corporations that co-opted the environmental movement for profit. And certainly, a handful of corporations did in fact change some of their practices under public pressure and for the sake of image; but the primary engine of capitalism that has led us to the brink of devastation was never halted. It merely greenwashed its planet killing practices through slick marketing campaigns. Even oil companies, the wealthiest and dirtiest of businesses, has attempted to greenify its public persona.

odin-new bear ad

General Motors Greenwashing Billboard Source Greenwashing Index

It cannot be over stated that it was fossil fuels that propelled neoliberal economics and defined Western society.   Beginning with the sterile environment of the delivery room to the cold slab of the coroner, from birth to death we are bathed in it. Our food is grown and protected by it. Our communication and transportation is dependent on it. It is the foundation of modern medicine. In short, petrochemicals, whether in solid, gaseous or liquid form, have ensured us, the privileged few, a relatively predictable and easy ride through life. But this ease came with a hefty price. The burning of these fuels has caused an unstoppable surge in temperature that imperils it all. And the rapacious appetite of corporations for the earth’s blood has ruined entire nations with war and corruption, and led to the demise of countless species, with our own likely to be on the list in the near future.

Oil Wells in Kern County California Photograph Mark Gamba

Traffic Source Shutterstock

It is a fair conclusion that Western civilization has been provided with flocks of squealing canaries warning us of the looming catastrophe that our political, media and business leaders deftly ignored in their quest for votes, ratings and profits. When a science denying cretin like Oklahoma Senator, Jim Inhofe, chairs the committee on the Environment and Public Works, or President Obama lampoons climate change deniers only to approve of Shell’s oil drilling ventures in the Arctic, one can easily see a complete dead end in elected officials. And the disinformation campaign of news outlets like Fox or the purposeful omissions of CNN present little hope in the mainstream media.

Senator Inhofe Brings a Snowball to the Senate to Disprove Climate Change Source CSpan

In truth, there are no answers to be found in the halls of Washington, the hills of Hollywood or the board rooms of Wall Street. They are all faithful servants of neoliberal capitalism, and have been laboring for years to dismember the commons, grow their inordinate wealth through plunder and maintain their dominance. The sacredness of the public space has been defiled by their liturgy of self absorbed narcissism. And they have manufactured a culture of cruelty, devoid of character and predicated on the commodification and exploitation of everything that exists. In this way, neoliberalism has become the most elaborate and successful form of brainwashing and social control the world has ever known, convincing hundreds of millions of people of the necessity of its economic tyranny.

Well heeled 1% look on at Occupy Wall Street protestors Photo Associated Press

But there is a longing for connection and solidarity with one another that transcends the mindless consumerism we have been spoon fed since birth. Therefore the most coherent response to what we are witnessing should come from ordinary people in community. And it should be organized before the fall is in full swing. The Occupy movement was a glimpse into how this can be accomplished. But if it, like any other social movement, is co-opted by a politician or party it will be crushed under its heel once in power. It is also worth remembering that all social movements, like Occupy, the Arab Uprising or Black Lives Matter, are a threat to the capitalist order and will always be met with state violence and distortion by the mainstream media.

Vigil in Bangalore

Perhaps with these concepts in mind, despite the threat of a misanthropic power class, war, famine, and a very angry climate, our species will beat the odds this time too. Indeed, homo sapiens have beaten a lot of odds. Born of the stuff that spawned all life on the planet, in ponds rich with amino acids, we eventually evolved out of several incarnations and through some very close calls into what we are today. Arguably, our altruism and communal bonds provided just as much for our survival as our cleverness and cunning. But the value of living in community and honoring the other transcends mere survival, and technology will not save civilization.  This is because it was, in part, technology which instilled in humanity the myth of separateness from the natural world, and the myriad of species we share this planet with.  And thanks to the insatiable consuming technology of industrialism, the delicate and essential life giving systems of our world are on the brink of breaking down, that is if they have not already begun to do so.

Crops Dying Time

Storm Between Green Island and Cairns Photo by Robin Wei

Industrial civilization now encompasses the entire planet with less and less arable land, acidified oceans, less potable drinking water and billions more of us on the way. When one mixes in the threat of nuclear war or meltdowns, raging storms, sea level rise and pandemics the probability of collapse becomes more prescient. And it is worth repeating that our species hasn’t figured out how to live anywhere else than this earth. One would think that would be enough to spur us to action; because it would take nothing short of a miracle to beat those odds, and we are in desperate need of one. We are standing, however, at the precipice of a Great Fall; and it would be foolish not to recognize that civilizations, both past and present, have a remarkable way of doing themselves in without much outside help at all.

The Fall of Rome, painting by Thomas Cole.Kenn Orphan  2015

A Living Testament to Perpetuity

Nautilus  Source NYT

The chambered nautilus demonstrates a marvelous grace that is next to impossible to describe. The name nautilus is derived from Latin for “sailor.” And indeed, it has traversed the world’s oceans for millions of years, virtually unchanged.  Some may think that a failure of evolution; but in its enduring form it has proven this assumption wrong.  Human beings have only walked this earth for a blip of its sojourn, a mere 200,000 years. And, given our penchant for avarice and aggression, it is not yet clear we will survive even a fraction of a blip more.

Pollution of industrial civilization.  Source Air BetterBiologists around the world have been racing against time to collect as much information as they can about species like the nautilus.  Species that are now imperiled with imminent extinction.  It is a noble pursuit, if not one racked with sorrow.  The Anthropocene Epoch, or the age of homo sapiens, is defined by our continued destruction of the climate and every ecosystem on earth.  Epochs are generally identified by what, or in this case who, has the greatest influence. What’s ironic is that although this epoch bears our name our species is unlikely to survive long enough to see its end.   And sadly, the devastation we have wrought will continue long after we are gone.

The Panamanian golden frog has been pushed close to extinction by fungal disease.It is debatable whether the damage our species has done will prevent this planet from seeing another epoch of life emerge.  But there is hope.  Extremophiles like the tiny tardigrade, or water bear, prove that life can beat odds that we humans would never stand a chance at.  Like the nautilus, the tardigrade stands as a living testament to perpetuity.  Extreme heat, extreme cold, cosmic radiation, no water, none of that matters to this remarkable creature.
A water bear (Paramacrobiotus craterlaki).
Perhaps in a few hundred thousand or even millions of years, after the radioactive fallout from our reckless ventures in nuclear technology abate, and the seas return to a liveable pH balance, species like these will once again ignite an explosion of life on this planet.   Maybe the conditions will be right for one of these species to evolve toward a complex society.  We will never know.  But we can only hope that if they do they will have the wisdom to avoid our mistakes and follies.  And maybe, unlike us, they will be able to sustain a deeper and lasting appreciation for this life drenched ball in space we call earth.

Earth  Source Stock Footage  India TimesKenn Orphan  2015

Facing Our Greatest Nemesis

Photographer Paulo Fridman Bloomberg Sao Paulo, Brazil, a city of over 11 million people, may literally run out of water. Let that really sink in for a moment. Politicians in Brazil ignored or downplayed this crisis until it reached the calamitous point it is at now.  Instead they poured their attention and money into the World Cup and displaced thousands of people from their homes in the process.  In recent weeks people across varying demographics have taken to the streets to protest the gross malfeasance of a government drunk on the lies of 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.”   It is also the most destructive, savage and final stage of capitalism. Photograph Andre Penner AP For most of us the enormity of this catastrophe is still difficult to grasp.  But there it is right in front of us. The normalcy bias, that almost hypnotic state of denial we often experience when faced with disaster, appears to be ubiquitous these days. The media reports these stories (sometimes) but there is seldom, if ever, a discussion about the global ramifications an existential threat like this presents for all of humanity.  Sao Paulo should serve as a loud wail of warning that the entire world has forever changed, and we are not prepared for what lies ahead.

Crops Dying Time
Herein lies the lesson for all of us.  As climate change accelerates and the resources of our planet dwindle, rivers dry up, fields lay fallow, and flood waters rise, the wealthy and powerful will do the only thing they know how to do. They will ignore or downplay serious environmental problems.  They will build more prison walls. They will arm their police forces with the equipment of the battlefield. They will launch war after war of imperialistic plunder cloaked in a veil of meaningless slogans and jingoism. They will employ racism to divide. They will continue to dismantle civil liberties under the guise of national security. They will instruct the media to distract and invert the truth. And they will keep us all on a diet while they feast on what remains. Gaza City Photo AFP Israel’s treatment of Gaza also provides a window into a future that all humanity may soon know all too well. It is emblematic of a future of militarized walls and open air prisons. Since the beginning of the blockade in 2007 Gaza has been reduced to rubble over and over again, the last time in the summer of 2014, in what can accurately be called collective punishment. Food and construction materials are still restricted. And an Israeli official spoke plainly regarding their intentions. “The idea,” he said, “is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger.” After Israel repeatedly destroyed its infrastructure, Gaza may now be out of clean drinking water as soon as 2020. The casualness of such barbarity is staggering, especially since the population of Gaza is over 40% children under 14 years of age. Khuzaa Gaza ruins No matter how one views the history of this region, it should be clear to most that Israel is far more powerful than Gaza, which is restricted by Israel in exporting goods, and has no army, air force or navy. In contrast, Israel is an economic powerhouse which exports military technology and pharmaceuticals, and is the fourth largest military power in the world in addition to possessing nuclear weapons. It also controls Gazan airspace, restricts travel in and out of the strip, and routinely fires on fishermen off its coast. It is an example of neoliberal plunder being played out with textbook precision in a Western nation.  The powerful vanquish the powerless; and the wealthy grow their wealth in stupefying proportions in the midst of immense and imposed poverty. Pollution in India Source Voice of India In India, the world’s most populous democracy, neoliberalism has carved out a landscape that magnifies wealth inequities. As in China, river ways are polluted with industrial waste in a mad dash toward the reward of material wealth and an inevitable descent into dystopian misery. It is a nation that is literally on the brink of mass migration, social collapse and extinction, but is one of the most lauded among the neoliberal elite. Here one can see the grotesque display of wealth sitting upon a pile of refuse being praised for its so-called progress.  Mumbai is a visual aid to understanding the end result of neoliberalism.  Gilded towers rise in supercilious impudence above fetid shanty towns of exploitation and misery.  And the wealthy have created an insular bubble to shield them from the blight of indigence that surrounds them.  As in Israel, there is a growing reactionary nationalism which poses unique and terrifying prospects given that it too possesses nuclear arms.

Mumbai India Source Getty Images
In truth the immoral metric of neoliberal capitalism is incapable of preparing us for the catastrophes looming on the horizon. Its machinery is greased by illusion, distraction and willful ignorance. It is the reason why depression and anxiety dominate the Western psyche. It is the most emblematic feature of a dying civilization, medicated to numbness through drugs, alcohol, violence, political spectacle and vacuous entertainment.  It is an order that views the powerless as either commodities for exploitation or nuisances for disposal. The oil under the thawing Arctic or the beleaguered rainforests of South America and the bread basket of war torn Ukraine are all business opportunities. The damage done is calculated as “externalities,” essentially someone else’s problem. But the world is getting smaller and the dumping grounds are getting closer, even to the enclaves of the privileged and powerful.

02. Misery's CompanyWe, as a species, have either created, permitted or have been oppressed by the order that is threatening our collective demise in a mere blip of geologic time. Indeed, it is this order that has already sentenced countless species to the halls of extinction; and enslaves millions of people around the world in sweatshop fire traps, pesticide ridden fields and lung choking mines. But our dissent is a raft to actualized freedom. Our ability to simply say no may be our last and greatest action against the brutality and cruelty of our age.  Walruses are finding less and less sea ice. Image by the U.S. Geological Survey.Unique Fish Species is Dangerously Close to Extinction. Photo Source Animal Planet.Endangered Sea Turtles. Photo Jordi Chias PujolIt is certain that neoliberal capitalism’s days are numbered. To wit, regardless of its implacable hubris, it simply cannot outsmart nature.  Sao Paulo, Gaza and India provide us with some of the best examples we have of its dystopian future.  They should serve as warnings and ignite our conscience and imagination.  But the minutes to midnight are quickening; and the ability of our species to deny reality and delay action is staggering.  It is true that human beings have a remarkable capacity to rise from improbable ashes, but now we are facing the greatest nemesis we have ever encountered… ourselves.  And the odds of us rising again after this ever impending fall are getting slimmer by the second.

Kenn Orphan   2015