Tag Archives: climate change

Life, the Sea, and Big Oil

“It is a curious situation that the sea, from which life first arose, should now be threatened by the activities of one form of that life. But the sea, though changed in a sinister way, will continue to exist: the threat is rather to life itself.” – Rachel Carson

When I learned about the oil giant BP’s plan to drill off the coast of my home, my heart felt like it dropped out of my chest. As I write this the West Aquarius rig is well on its way to the Nova Scotian Shelf. By the time this is published, it might have already arrived. My thoughts went immediately to those oil sullied shorelines in the Gulf of Mexico, and to the fishermen there whose families and livelihoods were shattered to pieces, and the countless species of fish, mammals and marine birds suffocated in the earth’s primordial blood. BP forever damaged that region and not only in an environmental way. The scars, the untraceable diseases, the suicides and domestic conflicts induced by despair, the financial ruin, displacement and alienation persist to this day.

Many of my ancestors were fishermen here in Nova Scotia for generations. They negotiated the treacherous storms endemic to the North Atlantic and many of them perished in the icy waters which surround this rocky, unforgiving peninsula. I’ve several relatives whose livelihoods are still dependent upon the ocean. But it is more than just a job. The sea is entwined with one’s heart here. It informs the culture, the food, the language. The life of this province cannot be separated from it.

Until settlers stole their ancestral lands, Mi’kmaq, the region’s First People, lived in balance and harmony with this sea for thousands of years, carefully studying its character and respecting its surly and churlish mood swings. They still ply the currents of the deep cold inlets and hidden coves.Nova Scotia’s rugged and breathtaking coastline, often blanketed in fog and punctuated by ancient, craggy pines, has been sang about at cèilidhs (Celtic social gatherings) for centuries. The provincial license plates proudly bares the logo “Canada’s Ocean Playground.” Indeed, the ocean remains one of the chief economic engines of the region generating billions of dollars annually. Above all of this is the biodiversity this place is graced with. But none of this, no wealth of culture, nor livelihoods, or biodiversity, or even physical beauty is of concern when a region catches the covetous eye of Big Oil.

In the case of Nova Scotia, a sparsely populated province with an abundance of natural resources, BP saw an opportunity. And a neoliberal government beholden to the interests of Big Oil paved the way for exploitation. The drilling will be in over stormy waters that are 3000 metres deep (roughly 10,000 feet) and is in one of the primary spawning areas for fish like haddock. To add insult to this great injury: if there is a blow out the primary strategy for dealing with it will be the infamous toxic dispersant corexit, used in the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. And it would take at least two weeks for the company to transport a “capping stack” from Norway under normal circumstances, not taking into account the strong currents and wild storms of the North Atlantic. If and when such a cap arrived there is absolutely no guarantee that such an intervention would even be workable in these deep and rough waters. After all, nothing like this has ever been attempted here. Nothing.In a world where the fossil fuel industry inhabits the precincts of policy making and regulation, no place is off the table for exploration and exploitation. And history has proven that Big Oil enjoys near impunity for its crimes. In the Niger Delta, one of the most biodiverse places on the planet, Royal Dutch Shell has spilled an estimated 1.5 million tons of oil into the rich ecosystem while simultaneously assisting the Nigerian military in the violent suppression of protest from the indigenous communities of the Ogoni. In the Ecuadoran Amazon, Chevron Texaco deliberately fouled huge swaths of the rain forest with at least 17 million gallons of oil and waste, and poisoned scores of indigenous communities with carcinogenic toxins. In the Alberta Tar Sands the fossil fuel industry has left a scar that is literally visible from space. There is no place on the planet that Big Oil will not sacrifice or future it will not jeopardize for money. No society or ecosystem will be spared its plunder for profit, large or small.

The fossil fuel industry is the most profitable business the world has ever known and today it is accountable to virtually no one. Its executives sit atop a virtual Lazy Susan which glides them seamlessly and effortlessly from boardrooms to the halls of legislature and back. It fuels conflicts, spurs wars, and funds massively coordinated and aggressive campaigns of disinformation against climate change scientists and those who dissent. And in the end we are all being held hostage to its existential madness. It is the greatest tyranny humanity has ever known, to be deprived of a living earth for the avarice and shortsighted sake of a privileged few.

I have no happy ending to this story as it is written today. After countless “spills, incidents, and accidents” Nova Scotia may become just one more open wound this industry has inflicted on the living flesh of the earth. They will extract what they can and when they pollute they will do so with impunity. The Mi’kmaq and rural, working people will suffer the worst, as will countless species of marine birds, fish and mammals. Even in the absence of any particular “incident” with the West Aquarius rig, our fragile biosphere will lunge even further toward mass extinction thanks to the cumulative impact of industry’s rapacious extraction and reckless pollution. It will mean death by a thousand cuts. Or in this case, perhaps, a thousand climate change fueled catastrophes. The sea, as Rachel Carson said, will continue. Life, on the other hand, may not.Nova Scotians will take on BP and Shell and Chevron, and every manifestation of this future killing behemoth, building on the strength and courage of everyone else who has been mercilessly punished by this industry’s greed driven recklessness. Sadly, that list is growing longer by the day.

Kenn Orphan, May 2018

 

 

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
 

Puerto Rico: Climate Change on the Margins of Empire

Right now Puerto Rico, an American island of over 3.4 million people, is in ruins thanks to the rampage of two major hurricanes, Irma and Maria respectively. Most are facing months without electricity, many are homeless, more face poor access to fresh drinking water, farms have been razed, and the specter of disease looms over flooded towns and toxic industrial and military superfund sites. Officials on the island have described the situation as “apocalyptic.” Now a dam is dangerously close to bursting. This is our climate changed present and future. But if you pay attention to the corporate media you might never know these facts or what they mean.

Puerto Rico seldom gets much coverage in the US mainland press because it lies in the grey zone of Empire. In fact, polling has demonstrated that most Americans do not even realize it is part of the US. But it was one of the first victims of American global expansion and hegemony following Spanish colonialism and served as a base of operations for the US military in its forays throughout the Caribbean and Central America. It was never granted statehood thanks in part to many Puerto Ricans who resisted American occupation, but also due to elites in Washington for its geopolitical advantage to the US. As a result of this marginalized status its residents cannot vote in national elections, and it has scant control over internal issues when it comes to neoliberal austerity measures, US military installations and environmental protections.

In recent years it has been put in the vice grip of debt by vultures on Wall Street, much like Greece, Spain and Argentina. And with increasing swaths of the planet engulfed in climate chaos it has been ensnared in a widening circle of sacrifice zones where residents of impoverished neighbourhoods, cities or regions are largely left to fend for themselves when faced with pollution, climate change related disasters and ecological destruction. This has disproportionately effected immigrants, indigenous peoples and people of colour, but the lines are also being drawn based upon class.

Puerto Rico is another early example of the world to come. In truth, most of the world’s population already lives in some form of this dystopia; but it is the future for the rest of us thanks to the current course of unrestrained production and consumption of fossil fuels and the corruption, greed and apathy of the global elite. They aren’t slouches when it comes to protecting their interests and saving their own hides either. In articles from CNN to The New Yorker, tales of the sprawling estates and luxury bunkers being bought or built by them show how seriously they take the coming shocks to civilization.

So how will the powerful respond to a future of disasters and chaos for essentially anyone who isn’t part of the wealthy elite? The answer can perhaps be gleaned from a tweet President Trump sent out Monday, his first response to the devastation in Puerto Rico a full five days after the hurricane made landfall. He began by saying the island had “massive debt” that is “owed to Wall Street and the banks” and which “must be dealt with.” This was the first priority given, not the welfare of the people or the environment but how much the beleaguered people of Puerto Rico owe to vulture capitalists and the extortionists on Wall Street.

 

It doesn’t get much simpler than that.

 

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:

 

Getting Out ain’t that Easy

Yesterday the Governor of Florida, Rick Scott, delivered an ominous warning.  He said that Hurricane Irma was “the most catastrophic storm the state has ever seen.”  He went on to tell the residents of areas in its crosshairs to “get out.”  Ironically, this is the same man who forbade the mention of the term “climate change” in his administration.   He has also made no effort to fund projects to make the state more capable of dealing with climate change disasters like sea level rise, drought and stronger storms.

Telling people to “get out” is easy.  It has also become terribly easy to ridicule or judge those who do not “get out.”  We saw this during Hurricane Katrina when poor, mostly people of colour, were castigated for not “heeding” the warnings given by local officials.  And we are seeing it once again.  Hurricane Irma is behemoth at 400 miles across. The length of the state is a mere 400 miles or so. Bigger and stronger than any hurricane recorded in the Atlantic. In addition to this there has been little to nothing done by the state (or the federal government) to assist people or adequately address the looming catastrophes associated with human caused global warming.
 
It’s true that there are wealthy people in this region. The media informed us about some of the sprawling island estates owned by billionaires that have been decimated already. But as is the case of many of the Caribbean islands, most of the residents of Florida are not rich by any stretch. I know this state. My parents had lived in Florida for 20 years. I have a brother and his family and several friends who are there now. They work hard, have bills to pay and don’t have second homes to flee to or mansions that can be simply written off.
 
Many are elderly, many are working people, many are immigrants or undocumented people escaping dire circumstances, some are homeless, some are disabled, some are mentally ill, many have children, beloved pets they won’t abandon, and most have enormous debt and little to no healthcare or financial resources. Bearing this in mind, with gas stations closed, supermarkets empty, and the two main arteries in and out of the state clogged, where should they go?  Where would they stay if they did?  How would they pay for all of it? And who will reimburse them? They remember (as we all should) how badly things went after Hurricane Katrina and Sandy. Most of those people are still putting their lives back together with little help from the government services supposedly set up to address the aftermath, all while disaster capitalists profited off the misery.
 
It should go without saying that these people deserve our assistance and solidarity, not self righteous judgement or ridicule. This is especially true for the coming months when the focus of attention will shift from this storm to the next disaster or spectacle. In the coming years to decades most of us will find ourselves in similar situations, as victims of the convergence of a system infested with corporate greed and political corruption and facing the harsh realities of a militarized, resource depleted, climate changed world.

Whether we accept it or not, we are all facing this frightening new world.  And I think its time we face it together.  
Kenn Orphan  2017

Resistance in an Age of Absurdity

“One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.”
― Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark

 

From an incessant flow of paranoid tweets to bizarre statements about massacres that never happened or secret cameras fitted in microwaves, Donald Trump’s regime has ushered the unhinged spectacle of reality show television right into the Oval Office with stunning success.  Were this absurdity to be contained within the confines of a political thriller it might be mildly entertaining.  But in the real world, a world in which real civilians are being blown to bits by smart bombs, real children are starving to death, real refugees are being turned back to face certain death, and where the real biosphere is perilously close to the edge of catastrophe, this derangement is utterly terrifying.

 

Trump is a master at manipulating the corporate media via the manufacture of controversy and melodrama.  Of course the irony is that the very same broadcasting behemoths he routinely demonizes provide his unhinged theatrics with non stop coverage which, in turn, has given them unprecedented ratings and profits.  But behind the spectacle lurks a far more insidious method to this madness.  In a mere three months the Trump regime has managed to replace the heads of institutions like the Department of Education, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, with individuals who wish to dismantle them.  He has codified racist xenophobia through executive orders which ban Muslims and persecute undocumented immigrants. And through his elevation of white supremacist Steven Bannon to astonishing power, he has animated the latent white nationalist movement.

The Trump regime has also demonstrated its eager willingness to expand the war machine of American Empire, pouring billions of dollars into an already bloated military industrial sector while gutting social and medical services.   In this short time Trump’s militarism has empowered the Pentagon and has claimed the lives of scores of men, women and children from Syria, to Yemen, to Iraq, and it is only just ramping up.   There is also little to cast doubt on the prospect of wars and military conflicts involving China, North Korea and Iran in the not too distant future given the administration’s unhinged saber rattling and provocation.

 

His appointment of former ExxonMobil executive, Rex Tillerson, to the State Department signifies a blatant display of the influence of the fossil fuel industry in regard to US foreign and domestic policy.  Tillerson presided over the company in the 1970s, a period in which the oil giant launched massive campaigns to deny its own research which confirmed human caused global warming.  Trump’s recent executive order related to climate change delivered a blow to reason.  It was meant to.  His absurdist view that it is a hoax manufactured by the Chinese is a hallmark of his risible ignorance and, remarkably, still has currency in many conspiratorially minded circles.  But in this Age of Absurdity facts and the truth itself have become the first victims.

As a resurgent fascism stands poised to sweep over the West we can expect increasing brutality against dissent; and it would be foolish to think the repercussions of this would remain localized.  We will be increasingly asked to choose between compliance with monstrous state repression or bold resistance. The protests which have sprung up against the onslaught of misogynistic and xenophobic polices have been encouraging to see, but there are already a slew of laws in the works designed to stifle direct action. And the Democratic Party establishment is not interested, nor is it equipped to offer up any kind of meaningful resistance since it has acquiesced to the demands and interests of Wall Street, corporations and the war industry long ago. Their role has been one of normalizing the ruthless exploits of global capitalism.  Indeed, the Clinton and Obama administrations championed the brutality of neoliberal capitalism and weakened civil liberties and gutted social safety nets for the poor while deporting millions of undocumented immigrants and bolstering the imperialistic war machine.  

 

If there is anyone to look to in these dark times for inspiration it would be the ongoing struggles of Black Lives Matter, Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS), and Standing Rock Sioux which largely began during the previous administration and are international in scope.  These movements have endured and weathered police and state intimidation, brutality, violence and arrest; and it is their fortitude and integrity which offers us all a living example of how bold we will need to be in the face of an ever more oppressive tyranny.  They were born of the historic struggles of indigenous peoples against colonialism, police brutality and environmental racism.  And with the perilous times that lie ahead solidarity with them is needed now more than ever before.

Thanks to the convergence of a climate ravaged world and a fragile biosphere that is teetering on collapse and extinction, the global despotism rising today will be unlike anything we have ever seen before.  The flames of nationalism and xenophobia will be fanned by fascists who will ride a rising and unfortunate tide of climate chaos.   They will use famine, austerity and social unrest and uncertainty to justify brutal authoritarianism, repression and state violence; and they will have no problem employing chicanery, scapegoating and dehumanization to achieve their end.  Indeed, their embrace of absurdity, or its pretense, is their strength.

 

In The Origins of Totalitarianism Hannah Arendt said: “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the dedicated communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction, true and false, no longer exists.”    The more fascists are permitted to make a mockery of justice, humanity and protection of the living earth, the more easy it will be for them to manipulate the deepest fears and prejudices of the public.  They will continue to launch mendacious smears against climate scientists, assault the poor and the most vulnerable, advance racism, expand war and militarism, disparage the press, and promote the inversion of reality to their favor even as the planet burns.   And if we continue to allow them to bend the arc of truth we will most assuredly see truth itself begin to die.   Our resistance to tyranny begins the day we refuse to allow this to happen on our watch.

 

Kenn Orphan 2017

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

Free Fall

Perhaps you can commiserate.  I keep having this recurring thought.  I am perched on a branch above a flooding stream. The muddy waters below me churn and swell.  The winds howl around me.  Torrents of rain beat down on my head. Others clamber up the tree near me. I reach out a hand only to watch them pulled away into the dark waters.  Then the branch on which I sit begins to crack and I realize I am in free fall. It is a helpless and desperate feeling.  It is the end of the world… the end of my world.

No, this recurring feeling I have had is not about the circus unfolding in Washington DC.  It is rooted in our collective predicament as a species.  I have said this several times before, but I believe more and more that we are at a place in human history where the status quo of almost everything is about to shift and the American political landscape is only one piece of this dire reality.  It is true that no one can predict the future with certainty, but it it is also true that many of us have a pretty good idea of where we are all heading.

floods-in-thailand-source-the-atlanticIn case you were off world and missed it, let me break it down: the climate is rapidly transforming in real time before our eyes.  Ice sheets in Antarctica, frozen for millions of years, are disintegrating rapidly and collapsing in a months time.  Massive wildfires and intractable drought on each continent have become a year round reality.  Biblical floods are a terrifying, new normal.  Soil depletion is widespread; and the integrity of biomass is greatly degraded and imperiled.  The planet’s oceans are acidifying with dead zones growing exponentially in size each year.   What we are witness to is the Sixth Mass Extinction, a human caused disaster that is sweeping over us like a tsunami.  In its insurmountable wake it is taking with it the earth’s largest living organism, a being visible from orbit, the Great Barrier Reef.  Petrifying it in a blanket of stark, white death.

Within mere decades many, if not most, of the coastal areas of the world will be inundated.  Drought is poised to cause widespread famine and disease will follow close behind.  Of course the poorest of the poor who have always suffered the most will suffer exponentially in the years to come.  A refugee crisis not seen before in human history is on the horizon, but Westerners should not kid themselves.  We are all in the same sinking spaceship; and at some point this global catastrophe will leave no one untouched.

Greetings from California by Joe Webb.The companion to this appears to be a collective lunacy among world leaders and the most powerful.  Armed to the teeth with life extinguishing nukes, they seem to have reduced our collective, existential predicament to a joust between failing empires.  They are bolstering a renewed, reactionary authoritarianism and stoking base prejudices among the masses.  The melting Arctic sea does not alarm them.  On the contrary, it presents them with new opportunities for exploitation of ever dwindling and harder to reach oil reserves, the earth’s poisonous primordial blood.  They look at the coming collapse with shrugged shoulders while they fill their coffers with coin.  And make no mistake, they will not cease this destruction voluntarily.  In the end the failing systems of the earth’s biosphere and climate and the impossible equation of infinite growth on a planet with finite resources will put a stop to their unhinged folly.  But what price will we all have to pay for their madness?
I Shop Therefore I AmAnd how, then, can we make sense of our predicament?   How do we live lives of dignity, purpose and meaning in the midst of a free fall of civilization and the biosphere?   I think it begins with disengaging from the dominant narrative of a profoundly sick culture.  It is a narrative which reinforces separation from nature and the universe itself.  It is a message center which controls how we see the world and all of its inhabitants.  It objectifies, commodifies and nullifies the inherent worth of all living things and replaces them with absurd facsimiles of life which end up both mocking and crushing the soul and polluting the verdant earth.  It is a culture responsible for war, poverty and avarice; and it is blind to its own imminent demise.

This age we live in reinforces alienation, denial, apathy and despair by hapless design.  If we are to reclaim our humanity and our place in this rapidly deteriorating world we must return to that most childlike of qualities: imagination.  We need to find the courage to place ourselves unashamedly into that dream time of imagining a world of connection with all that lives and the sense of wonder that comes with it.  We need to give ourselves permission to pry open the cultural locks that have constrained our soul in a prison of lies, and reject anything that devalues us or separates us from the other.  Perhaps then we can really begin to live the life we were all intended to live on this life drenched planet, even if we are in the last great epoch of our species.

refugees-seek-sanctuary-souce-the-vienna-reviewA growing number of scientists argue, and with compelling empirical evidence, that a free fall of the biosphere is already under way.  If this is true it will inevitably lead to the breakdown of complex societal systems and social order.  The increase in relentless storms, droughts, famines and disease will accompany the rise of authoritarianism, racist xenophobia and militaristic nationalism around the globe.  Truthfully, we are already seeing much of this happening today.  In fact, much of the world now deals with this uncertain brutality and barbarism.  But in the dark days that lie ahead no one will be spared the painful choices such a convergence will bring.

Many of us who have lived relatively calm lives in more affluent or stable societies will be increasingly asked to take uncomfortable stands that billions in poorer countries encounter daily.  These stands can result in the loss of social status, jobs or even relationships.  Many of us may endure unjust hearings, inquisitions or trials, or even face state or mob violence if we speak out against social hatred, defy repression, break unethical or inhuman laws, or provide shelter, sustenance or sanctuary to the foreigner, or the migrant, or the persecuted.  It will not always be straightforward and certainly not easy.  In the end. however, it has always come down to a fundamental choice between the better part of our humanity or in its rejection.  We must all find this part and grapple with these troubling things sooner or later, but for me the choice is a clear one.

 

Kenn Orphan 2017