Tag Archives: consumerism

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.

IMG_1195

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:

 

Inverting Reality

     In the troubled age we live in the wealthy elite have perfected the art of inverting reality.

How else could the gutting of the social safety net be renamed austerity, and the dismantling of the public commons and transfer of its wealth to the extremely wealthy be excused as merely privatization?   How else could wars on behalf of corporate industry be re-cast as “humanitarian interventions” and the “war on terror?”
Children labor under unsafe conditions with long hours in India.  Source  GettyOr the plunder of impoverished nations for the benefit of the powerful be explained as “free trade?”  How else could the wanton destruction of the environment with impunity be seen as “job creation?”
Oil Wells in Kern County California  Photograph Mark Gamba
Or the housing of millions of sentient beings in cramped, disease ridden, concentration camps be touted as a solution to “food insecurity?”

A pig looks out of his cage of misery at a concentration camp, more commonly referred to as a factory farm.  Source  Waking TimesOr the mass incarceration of impoverished people of color be redefined as the “War on Drugs?”   And refugees fleeing from regions where corporate exploitation has made life a misery be labelled “illegal aliens,” and demonized as criminals by the slick, intelligence devoid, powerful?

Undocumented Immigrants  Source Today

Credit: S. Morgan/Alamy, NatureOn a finite planet, with humanity fast reaching the upper limit of consumption and where resources are dwindling, the machinations of this global industry of plunder are beginning to crumble under their own weight.  But it will not be a soft landing.  The elite have steadily constructed the surveillance state; and they have augmented it with a militarized police force designed to protect their power and wealth with the distribution of swift and violent punishment.  They have codified laws that allow for the indefinite detention, or extrajudicial execution, of anyone they view as a threat.  And they will not hesitate in the slightest in employing everything in their arsenal at the first sign of ecological calamity and social unrest.

Police Brutality at Occupy Wall Street  ReutersThis is the inherent nature of capitalism; and in particular its terminal stage, neoliberalism.  It is a system predicated upon wealth acquisition at the expense of the entire planet. Wherever it manifests itself the fundamental foundations of democracy are reduced to mere spectacle without substance. Wikipedia defines it 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.”  There are those that may use more euphemistic parlance to describe it, but its conclusive message to most of humanity, and countless other species, is no less cruel. It feeds on the most vulnerable through violence, disenfranchisement and humiliation.  It castigates the poor as intrinsically deficient.  And it divides the natural world into worthiness categorizes for efficient exploitation.

Capitalist  Artist UnknownIt has created a multi-national aristocracy that becomes more consumed with its corpulent privilege every day.   But it is also a system which is ultimately destined to rot of its own suppuration and conceit.

Kenn Orphan 2015

Our Shared Humanity

When our ancestors were hiding in the trees from predators the connections they had to each other were indispensable. They accounted for their ability to survive and eventually climb down to the earth. As time progressed this connection evolved into a great awakening of consciousness. They began to understand each other as more than the sum of their parts.  A complex society developed out of our cooperation, ingenuity and shared empathy for one another.  Eventually the commons, a place for the entire community to come together, was celebrated as essential.  It was never perfect or a place devoid of cruelty, aggression or intrigue. But here our demons were dealt with in the open, and the natural world was revered and cherished as the source of all life.  The concept of ownership was unknown.  Resources such as water and land provided for everyone.   And our ancestors, for the most part, maintained this era for eons.

Early humans sharing food at Gesher Benot Ya'aqov.As civilization evolved so did the complexities of our relationships with each other and with the world we live in.  Most hunter-gatherer societies became agrarian.  Hierarchical forms of governance developed and eventually imperialism commenced.  Throughout this long period of human history kingdoms rose and fell, disease and famine were rampant, one people plundered another for resources and religion, and most of the world remained unmolested, wild and vast.  Human society continued to, more or less, evolve; and despite some rather major set backs, scientific discovery gradually became accepted.  Then came the discovery of fossil fuels.  This is when civilization took a giant leap ahead, and the commons began their death spiral.

Iron and Coal, 1855–60, by William Bell Scott

Population Growth, Energy Consumption and the Industrial Revolution Source Nature

Powerful merchants and nobles in Europe and North America learned fast that they could amass enormous wealth through industrialization with the use of these new fuels.  This led to a rise in the standard of living for many who languished under feudalism, but it also allowed for the powerful to impose new forms of exploitation and abuse.  While famine and disease were reduced, global population exploded; and widespread pollution of the environment and the decimation of forests and wild lands burgeoned.   By the mid-twentieth century, following a world war that killed over 60 million people, most of the remaining commons began to be dismantled to make way for a consumer driven, assembly line society.

Assembly Line in ChinaThe materialism and convenience this offered evolved into a global machine of corporatism whose appetites have become insatiable.  But, in spite of all this, a piece of the enlightened dawning in our evolution as a species has been retained. Many still stand in wonder at the natural world and grieve at its demise.  Most feel empathy for the suffering of others.  And despite being immersed in a sea of mindless consumerism, human beings still yearn for a connection we once knew before materialism became the dominant force of our day.

The emergence of the social media at the beginning of this century signifies a collective longing for the commons of old. It has also been a powerful tool for dissent and activism; and has been instrumental in organizing protests against tyranny around the world. But in this medium individuals are easily categorized into camps or groups. It has made advertising far simpler and made corporations far richer. And it has forged a new era of social control and authoritarianism that emanates from the mentality of the mob.  The vacuous, soul sucking maw of commercialism stalks every page. It offers us agency, while it robs us of one of the most precious liberties we have, our privacy.

Artist Pawel KuczynskiIn this age privacy is often looked at as a quaint vestige of a bygone era. Yet with its disintegration, the very essence of democracy is assaulted. The private is a sacred space in which to contemplate issues and construct critical thought before returning to the commons. But social media entices people to give this space up and turn over every piece of information. It is a place that has been created by corporate interests and informed by the surveillance state. And while its secrets are sacrosanct, the individual is expected to bare all lest they be suspected of a misdeed.

Social media is not going to go away as long as industrial civilization is around. And its algorithmic hypnotism, that undoubtedly creates new pathways in the brain for dopamine induced pleasure, will continue to hold most of us under its spell.  But its days, too, are numbered.  Without the machine of industrial society, social media cannot exist. It is dependent on mines in Africa and petrochemicals that are accelerating climate change. Those who place complete faith in technology do not pay attention to the enormous cost that is exacted from the planet or the billions of people who are mercilessly exploited to make all of this “first world” technology possible. They choose to ignore the mass extinction of species, the dying, acidified oceans, the super heated atmosphere, or the tens of thousands of people fleeing for their lives from these ravaged regions.

Refugees in Budapest, Hungary. Source The Guardian.

Photo Mining Equipment via Shutterstock

Mine in the Congo Johan Spanner for The New York TimesThere are those that say; “the same thing was said about television; but the world didn’t end.” I contend that television did, in fact, end the world as we knew it.  It, too, promised a deeper connection to each other and a better life.  And it, too, provided a medium for authoritarianism. The corporate state was nourished by television, and it still dominates it like a plague.  It, like the social media, influences our perception of the world and of ourselves. It sold us cigarettes, vanity and war; and in the process the commons, a place for all, was privatized and sold to the highest bidder.

In the days to come the social media, like television, will increasingly be used by the powerful for social control and disseminating propaganda for the corporate state.  It has been, and will continue to be, a means of surveillance of those who dissent.  And it will justify every brutality of a ruthless police state.  The death machine of endless consumption will be celebrated on it until the last forest is felled and the last fish is taken from a dying sea.

Police brutality at a protest in Paris. Source Getty

Alberta Tar Sands were once pristine boreal forests

But as industrial civilization draws closer to its end from the ravages of climate change, perpetual war and mass species extinction, the social media is the only thing modern society has left that even remotely resembles the commons of antiquity.   It can be used by the powerful to nourish havoc, but it can also provide a space for the rest of us to make sense out of senselessness, and share our collective grief.  Sadly, unlike those days of old, we may not have any trees to ascend back to when the earth has finally had enough of our pillage, and all that humanity has built crumbles to dust.  But in the meantime we have within us a heritage that is deeper and richer than the emptiness of mindless consumption; our shared humanity.

A candlelight ceremony at a Budapest railway station in memory of 71 refugees who died in a truck. Photo Source Reuters Laszlo BaloghKenn Orphan 2014

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.

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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

Coming Out of the Cave

Office Cubicles  Stock Footage     To succeed in America, we are constantly told, is to occupy a cubicle: in an office, in a suburb and, finally, in one’s own mind. We internalize the belief that attaining the carrots of meretricious wealth maliciously dangled before our eyes will somehow fill the void created by industrial civilization itself.  But the limits to this folly are obscured by its ubiquitous distractions.  It is a terrain of self-delusion, divorced from reality and self-medicated to numbness.

Consumerism  MK FeeneyNourished by the fossilized blood of the ancient earth, this nightmarish landscape of banality flourishes almost endlessly across the horizon. Insulated enclaves of cloned track houses, featureless monolithic office buildings, green golf courses and flowing water are surrounded by parched earth and razed wilderness. It is architecture designed for alienation. It is the triumph of extraordinary conformity and authoritarianism. And it is a celebration of blind and insatiable consumerism for the benefit of the privileged few.

Las Vegas suburbia  Source: Stock FootageThe American psyche has been conditioned to resist deepening or self-examination thanks to the merchants of Wall Street, Hollywood and Washington DC. They aver that endless growth is necessary, good and even patriotic. In reality they are a gang of self-aggrandizing thieves who present themselves as a vanguard here to save us all; and their task is a simple one. They must maintain the unassailable sacrosanct liturgy of capitalism and the mythology of the free market while reducing the natural world to monetary units, replacing the commons with strip malls, and placing life, both human and non, into categories of productivity or disposal. They must manipulate base prejudices against “the other” with jingoism to induce compliance for imperialistic wars of plunder.  They must shrink wrap all that is sacred and life-giving into commodities and parade an endless spectacle of manufactured outrages and celebrity gossip/worship.

celebrity couples Art by Daiana FeuerBut keeping up appearances is untenable and not very sexy when ecosystems are collapsing around you, reservoirs are drying up, and species are rapidly going extinct. The absurdity of their scheme is evinced in their simultaneous denial of climate change and rapacious attempts to extract oil from a rapidly melting Arctic Sea. Such paradigms have the habit of doing themselves in; and this one appears very close to full on collapse. It is death by a thousand cuts or, in this case, a thousand climate change induced storms and droughts.

crane among trashWhere then does this all leave those of us who cannot look away any longer? We can join the ranks of those who wish to reform the system; but how does one reform a metastasized cancer? Most of us have rooted ourselves in self-delusion, partly out of apathy, but mostly out of defeat. The magicians of wealth and power can put on a dazzling show.  And liberation from the claustrophobic confines of their corporate controlled prison of illusion is not easy.  It is also neither sudden or permanent. It requires constant attention and re-visiting. But as in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave we possess the power to spurn the shadows on the wall and rise to the surface of our own accord and, in the process, help others who are weary clamber their way out too. The puppeteers be damned.

Allegory of the Cave by Plato  Source Pixgood

In the light of day the banal landscape of mindless consumerism shatters to create possibility even in the midst of devastation and despair. The vapid forms of entertainment and celebrity adoration that were once alluring, crumble to heaps of hackneyed dust. Here there is no object that can replace the soul, no product that can entice away from the birthright of nature or human connection.

What becomes of us who cannot live comfortably anymore within the emptiness of consumerism? Where do those of us who can no longer ignore or placate the death machine of industrial civilization go? We are pushed out of the cave and to the margins of the empire.  We are forced to the surface. And it is there where we can either languish or decide that freeing our soul is worth the price of exile and even persecution.  In any case, the view at the top is magnificent.

Light of Nature  Source Pichost
Kenn 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