Many ancient civilizations in their declining days were swept into hysteria and superstition as famine, war, drought and disease engulfed their societies. In some, sacrifices of both animals and human beings exploded in efforts to appease their angry gods. In others, minority ethnic or religious groups were persecuted for heresy or violations of sexual mores. One might think that in a time when human beings have reached the moon, and mapped the human genome, such antiquated notions would cease to persist. But according to a poll by the Public Religion Research Institute in 2014, 49% of Americans attribute climate change to Biblical “end times.” And this belief is reflected in an astonishing number of political leaders. Earlier this month, for example, California Assembly Member Shannon Grove said publicly regarding the drought in her state: “Texas was in a long period of drought until Governor Perry signed the fetal pain bill. It rained that night. Now God has His hold on California.”
Sadly, with climate change accelerating, the apocalyptic narrative these Americans foresee is becoming inevitable. What is additionally troubling is that many, as in past civilizations, see this as God’s punishment for what they perceive to be sexual immorality or apostasy. With history as a guide, this suggests that some could be easily swayed by a fanatical zealot to scapegoat and persecute LGBTQ people, immigrants, Muslims, feminists, socialists and any minority or marginalized group in this country, for the expected ramifications (drought, extreme weather, etc.) of a warming planet.
Because so much of the population has been purposely mis-educated when it comes to science, how nature works and the dire impact we are having on it through our mindless consumption and reckless industrial growth, religious fundamentalism has flourished in numerous parts of the country. The recent Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality has demonstrated this through comments made in its wake by conservative politicians, preachers and pundits. Add into the mix rising income disparities, infrastructure failure, water scarcity, militarization of the police and nuclear proliferation, and you have the perfect recipe for dystopia.
By all indications, the weather is becoming angrier and more unpredictable by the day. Drought is expanding, wildfires are rapidly growing, heatwaves are killing thousands, and ecosystems are being systematically decimated. And in the coming days we can expect to see more of this fanaticism grip the American psyche. Some will undoubtedly welcome the end in order to fulfill their religious interpretations of the afterlife.
To be sure, not everyone in United States subscribes to these extreme beliefs. And to most, spirituality and faith can be powerful forces of compassion and altruism in times of calamity. But American pop culture has insulated the majority of us in a bubble of illusion, filled with plastic products, new devices, reality shows, celebrity worship and other vapid distractions. And the corporate media has continued to foster an irrational fear of the other, dehumanizing the poor, the foreigner and those who differ from societal norms. A preponderance of the population are completely unaware of just how close humanity is to societal collapse and even extinction; and this ignorance provides fertile ground for zealots to spread bigotry and terror as very real, existential threats begin to emerge with intensity.
For those of us on the sidelines, observing all of this can be paralyzing. But believing we have any control over these unfolding events is a myth that does no one any good. Creative, moral imagination is born in the acceptance of impermanence and the unknowable future. Inhabiting the moment, with all of its uncertainty, joy and terror, is a sacred space for the devout and secular alike. And the agency that we do possess is to stand outside of the madness and fear. In this way we are able to meet the suffering of humanity, other species, and ourselves with simple compassion. And perhaps then we may be able to offer a passage to sanctuary and a bright light in the very dark days that lie ahead.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
From a months worth of rain falling in a matter of hours, to wildfires devouring the lush rainforests and the icy Arctic tundra, we are witnessing records being broken one after another with each passing day. One does not need to be a scientist to see a shocking increase of extreme weather events. Yet, still, denialism persists. “We must grow the economy!” “Drill, baby drill!” It is madness on an epic scale.
The earth doesn’t care about our economy. She has no use for our political protestations either. She responds only to our folly. And she is groaning from the injuries we have inflicted on her. She has a fever; and if she does not treat it soon the results will prove dire for her future.
No greater visual exists to demonstrate her malady than the Alberta Tar Sands. It is a blight that covers an area the size of Florida and can be seen from space. It is a cancerous tumor, a melanoma on the skin of the earth that continues to grow and metastasize, spewing its noxious breath into the atmosphere while being fueled by the fallacious myth of infinite growth on a finite planet.
The West continues to be mired in a corporate fantasy world, drowning as we toast our good fortune. All the while the real world, that every species relies on for sustenance and survival, is withering and suffocating before our eyes. Those who call attention to the ecocide are often maligned and marginalized, living as exiles from the Kingdom of Eternal Optimism. The oceans are acidifying, intractable drought threatens our food and water supply, floods threaten our cities. We are facing extinction; not just of countless other species but of our own. Yet there is little to no alarm or pause from the mass media and popular culture.
We may be alone in this universe, but it is unlikely. Perhaps it is filled with other species who made it as far as we did and survived or even thrived. Or perhaps it is littered with the bones of long dead societies who had similar aspirations. We may never know. What we do know is this, the planet that we live on is rapidly changing before our eyes. The earth, our only home, has a raging fever. And she will not wait for our over indulgent deliberations. Her prognosis is good though. She is going to survive her disease. For humanity, however, it isn’t looking so good.
Kenn Orphan 2014
Alberta Tar Sands, once pristine boreal forest. Photographer Peter Essick
Alberta Tar Sands at night. Photographer Garth Lenz
Pristine Alberta boreal forest before destruction/National Geographic