Tag Archives: fossil fuels

Earth Day and the Phantoms of a Pathological Culture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kenn Orphan  2016

#earthday  #climatechange  #capitalism  #ecocide  #consumerism

The Illusion of American Democracy

hillary-clinton-for-warI have always been fascinated by the capacity of people to block out facts that either trouble them or do not align with their preconceived beliefs about the world. This is most evident when it comes to religion and politics. And we can see it clearly in the dog and pony show that is the 2016 American Presidential campaign.  Trump supporters lovingly embrace a disconnect from reality partly due to entrenched racism and xenophobia, but mostly because of a deep sense of disenfranchisement and humiliation. However Clinton supporters on the other side are just as much, if not more, deluded in their blind devotion to the bloody queen of chaos.

Even though Ms. Clinton, and her philandering husband, have expressed their undying love for Wall Street time and time again, and are firmly embedded in the 1% elite, they believe she is for working people. Even though she was against marriage equality until as late as 2013, they think she supports the LGBTQ community. Even though she championed and still defends a right wing coup in Honduras which has led to the murders of scores of indigenous, environmental and LGBTQ activists, they think she supports universal human rights. Even though she pushed the US and NATO into decimating Libya, voted to decimate Iraq in a war based solely on lies and has consistently pushed for attacking Syria and Iran, they believe she will be the most level headed when it comes to foreign policy. Even though she has accepted boat loads of money from the fossil fuel industry, they believe she will defend environmental regulations and address climate change with urgency. Even though she and her husband carved up Haiti for neoliberal capitalistic profit through their notorious foundation, they believe she is for the underdog.  Even though she has accepted truck loads of money from the private prison industry, they believe she will work to end the racist policies that imprison millions of Americans for non-violent offenses. Even though she attacked whistleblower Edward Snowden for allegedly helping terrorists when he revealed  nefarious government malfeasance, they believe she will enforce transparency.   Even though she defended her husband’s economic policies which adversely effected women of color, they think she is a feminist who will champion the rights of all women.

It is cognitive dissonance on a grand scale.

As of today, Hillary Clinton is the projected winner of New York and, by proxy, the Democratic nomination. Not very remarkable given that the plutocracy selected her to be the executive director of Plunder the Planet, Inc. a long time ago. And it shouldn’t be surprising that it matters little what the masses think to the corporate aristocracy.  They hate Trump because he is too erratic and, frankly, too stupid. They despise Cruz because he is a religious nut case. They fear Sanders because he may be radicalized even further toward the left. But they adore Hillary because they know she will have their back. Her allegiances are clear to anyone who really wants to see them.

One thing is for sure, Hillary’s win will be a hollow victory, and she knows this full well. She has only gotten this far by pandering to Wall Street, Hollywood A-listers, the fossil fuel industry, and a pro-Israel, right wing billionaire for years, not from common people interested in real social justice and change. But this is of little consolation, especially to the people who will undoubtedly suffer greatly under her policies of militarism and support for right wing, apartheid and repressive regimes around the world.

America is a dying, but well armed, empire.  And historically, empires drown themselves in farce, fiction and mythology as they collapse.  A Clinton presidency will ensure the illusion of American democracy will continue to sputter forward for at least a few more years. But illusions are like junk food, they will never sate the demands of reality.  And I feel nothing but sadness and dread when I think about the continuing massacres, coups, interventions and wars which are now all but assured on a planet spiraling mindlessly into ecocide.

Kenn Orphan 2016

The Sky is Falling

A few years back I had an experience that hammered home the notion of the normalcy bias. I worked for a healthcare service in Southern California which assisted home bound patients and their families. That summer the hills and scrub brush ignited into one of the West’s most ferocious wild fires. As it devoured the countryside my colleagues and I hurried to warn all of them who were in harms way and advise them to evacuate. We told them to listen to the firefighters as they knew best. One family I called were unconvinced. They said that others in the neighborhood weren’t leaving so why should they?

Drought induced wildfires threaten a neighborhood in California. Photo: David McNew/Getty ImagesA few hours later we made another frantic call to that same family to urge them to leave. They said they could see flames coming up the hillside behind their house and the black smoke was thick and almost unbearable.  But they were still unconvinced of the urgency since the electricity was still on and they could watch the news on television which did not warn them of any immediate threat. Eventually they did leave at the behest of determined firefighters. They were spared, their house was not. I have thought about them a lot over these past few years when thinking about the unfolding events in our world today. There is a segment of the population who appear to go too far in preparing for disaster; and in doing so they forfeit appreciating life here and now. But have we, as a society, normalized our dire predicament and the looming ecological catastrophe so much that we have paralyzed ourselves in a collective trance?

The human brain is a remarkable organ, but it is far less unique than our egos would like to admit. Like practically every other species we share this terrestrial orb with, we possess an evolutionary defense mechanism which protects us from overwhelming stress. The normalcy bias has been analyzed by many clinicians and scientists for years. It is that strange ability of an organism to deny impending danger, standing almost paralyzed in a hypnotic stupor in its face. This is most likely where the expression “deer in headlights” comes from. And it may be accurate to surmise that, similarly, the human species has its gaze fixed ahead into the blinding beams of a racing truck.

Normalcy bias. Image from Stock FootageWe have never been here before. This sentence sums up practically everything we are seeing unfold before us when it comes to carbon emissions, polar and glacial ice melt, erratic temperature fluctuations, ocean warming and acidity and species extinction. It is a new and terrifying landscape of the unknown. But despite all of this, industrial civilization appears to be accelerating toward the abyss rather than slowing down. Indeed, our leaders have reinforced this trance of normalization by numbing our senses with mindless entertainment and advertisements. How easy they distract us from our own existential crisis with new, plastic bobbles or gadgets and salacious celebrity gossip. How easy they play our emotions with political spectacle, nationalistic nonsense and manufactured outrage.

But they are not as intelligent as all this may imply; they have simply mastered the art of illusion. They are clever magicians in a rather cruel and, ultimately, fatal performance. Thanks to capitalistic authoritarianism they own the media which has become an effective mouthpiece and stage. They also own the institutions which are, in theory, designed to protect civilization and the common good. But cupidity, avarice and power are their only interests. They can see the fire climbing the hillside and they can certainly smell the smoke; but they know they are powerless to stop it so, instead, they do what they do best. They divert attention and create dazzling spectacle. They manufacture crises which they can, at least in pretense, handle effectively while they downplay actual threats. All this while they accumulate enormous material wealth as if to protect them from the angry hordes ascending their piles of gold with blazing torches.  But are they, alone, to blame for where we are at now?

To be sure, civilization began before any of us where born; and within it lay the seeds of planetary destruction yet unborn. And industrialization sealed this covenant. The institutions our forbears built codified and ritualized our artificial separation from the natural world. They created elaborate myths to justify raping and slaying it, and profiting from the crime. But though we cannot ignore the sins of our ancestors, we are the ones to blame for continuing the illusion and the pillage and even expanding upon it. Consider this definition of civilization from Wikipedia:

“A civilization… is any complex society characterized by urban development, social stratification, symbolic communication forms (typically, writing systems), and a perceived separation from and domination over the natural environment by a cultural elite. Civilizations are intimately associated with and often further defined by other socio-politico-economic characteristics, including centralization, the domestication of both humans and other organisms, specialization of labor, culturally ingrained ideologies of progress and supremacism, monumental architecture, taxation, societal dependence upon farming as an agricultural practice, and expansionism.

Historically, a civilization was a so-called “advanced” culture in contrast to more supposedly primitive cultures. In this broad sense, a civilization contrasts with non-centralized tribal societies, including the cultures of nomadic pastoralists or hunter-gatherers. As an uncountable noun, civilization also refers to the process of a society developing into a centralized, urbanized, stratified structure.

Civilizations are organized in densely populated settlements divided into hierarchical social classes with a ruling elite and subordinate urban and rural populations, which engage in intensive agriculture, mining, small-scale manufacture and trade. Civilization concentrates power, extending human control over the rest of nature, including over other human beings.”

With few exceptions, we haven’t yet shattered the illusion of this separation from or dominance of the natural world, and groped our way out of the cave and into the light. We have not yet realized, as the above definition demonstrates, that it is we who are fully dependent upon the benevolence of nature, and not the opposite.  But nature is uninterested in our timetable. She looks indifferently at our bridges and buildings, or our money and digitalized memory, as she does our arrogance, folly and foibles.  And our ignorance, willful or not, of the consequences of all of this will not delay her fury. Is all this to say that nothing good has come of industrial civilization?  No, but it has most certainly proven to be both the poison and the cure for all that afflicts human existence.  It developed within an unnatural framework that purported to control the uncontrollable. And this paradigm has driven countless species to their end, with our own being on a very short list.

Normalcy Bias End of world. Image from veryfunnypics.euLike the family resistant to fleeing their imperiled home, we are resistant to fleeing the trappings of industrial civilization. Scientists, like the firefighters, have been warning us all about what looms ahead. And we have largely dismissed them, preferring instead to hold fast to the fleeting comfort of an illusion. I say all of this knowing full well that I am in the same place as many reading this. I have enjoyed the luxury afforded to me through a system of madness and disconnect. But now the ancient blood of fossils on which all of this is built is beginning to wane and become ever harder to come by. We could say this is a good thing, but that would be less than honest. The damage is done and the dominoes have begun to fall. Nuclear armed nation states are sparring, crowds are lining up for water and rice, and birds, fish, frogs and animals are beginning to die out en masse. We in the privileged West have not yet seen what most in the world are witnessing, but to think we are insulated simply because we possess more money is the height of farce and absurdity.  We are all in the same house, and the fire is getting closer by the day.

No one wants to be the alarmist chicken who believed the sky was falling when struck on the head by a falling acorn in the children’s tale “Henny Penny.” But the signs of a looming catastrophe are far more plentiful than one acorn. The fires will come. The waters will rise. The storm clouds will gather. And we are running out of places to escape to. In the years ahead we will be faced with the greatest challenges our species has ever known. Many will be clambering to higher ground away from the rising seas, others will be chasing after water in drought stricken lands. The best response to all of this is to face the storms together, fearful, trembling, yet in the embrace of each other and our shared humanity, especially for the weakest among us.  But it is hard to imagine what will become of us after the final warning has been issued, and so many remain unconvinced that there is even a fire to begin with.

Kenn Orphan 2016

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

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

No Happy Ending

Chukchi Sea Getty ImagesIn May of this year, the fate of the Chukchi Sea in the Arctic Ocean was placed in the hands of a corporation responsible for decimating the once biodiverse Niger Delta. President Obama, barely a month after giving a speech that lampooned climate change deniers, gave the green light to Royal Dutch Shell to proceed with drilling operations in the remote, frozen and biodiverse region. Of course all the usual empty assurances accompanied this announcement; but history tells a different story. Countless oil spills and ravaged ecosystems around the world provide a litany of facts to easily dispel the industry’s hubris. Bird in Oil Spill Source Greenpeace

The Niger Delta is one of the most important wetland regions on the planet. Millions of people depend upon its migratory fish. But since Shell moved in the Delta has been systematically ravaged. Gas flares contaminate the air with benzene, causing birth defects and cancer among the indigenous communities. Over the past fifty years an estimated 1.5 million tons of oil has spilled in the ecosystem. In fact there is a long list of devastation around the world wrought by Royal Dutch Shell and it can be accessed here: http://www.corp-research.org/royal-dutch-shell.

Shell’s ecological destruction goes hand in hand with its brutal suppression of human rights. Its presence in the Niger Delta has brought deforestation, water pollution and poverty. Nearly 85 percent of all oil revenues go to less than 1% of the population in a country where, according to the African Development Bank, more than 70 percent live on less than one US dollar per day. Shell has had a long history of assisting and directing the Nigerian military in the violent suppression of dissent and protest; and Nigerian environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa presented a problem to the oil giant in that he organized defiance of their destruction of Ogoni lands. On November 10, 1995, Saro-Wiwa was among nine other Ogoni activists murdered after being convicted in a kangaroo court at the behest of Royal Dutch Shell in Nigeria. Ken Saro-Wiwa Nigeria

Oil from a leaking pipeline burns in Goi-Bodo, a swamp area of the Niger Delta in Nigeria October 12, 2004. Oil company Royal Dutch Shell said the leak was caused by unknown saboteurs on Monday who used a hacksaw to cut open a major pipeline feeding oil to an export terminal at Bonny, southern Nigeria. The fire was still raging on Wednesday, but the company said the impact on oil output was minimal. Picture taken October 12, 2004. REUTERS/Austin Ekeinde Pictures of the Month October 2004 TA/RSS/WS - RTRDAI9

Niger Delta Oil Flaring Royal Dutch Shell Getty Images But this is by no means limited to this one corporation. The fossil fuel industry is the most profitable business in human history. And it is accountable to no one. It funds the massive smear campaigns against climate change science, yet in its quest for Arctic oil it ironically dispels this denialism with its actions. As climate change accelerates the Arctic Ocean is melting. It is estimated to have ice free summers in just a few years, something that has never happened since humans stood upright. And now its reserves of oil and gas are being seen by the short sided, the powerful and the greedy as an unprecedented opportunity for exploitation. Oil Executives Source Chip Somodevilla Getty Images North AmericaThis story has no happy ending as it stands right now. When the first spill happens there will be no way to clean it as no technology exists. There will be no one who will be able to stop the gushing of the earth’s toxic blood into the sea. The wealthy will jet away to their seclusion and count their money while the planet burns; and the poor of the world will shoulder the hardest burdens our civilization has wrought. Countless species, some yet unknown, will die silent deaths in obscurity.  And after the Niger Delta, the Alberta Tar Sands and the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, it will become one more visible lesion our species has inflicted on the flesh of the earth.

Kenn Orphan 2015 Polar Bear in the Chukchi Sea Sounce Reuters Greenpeace-Beltra Indigenous People of the Chukchi Sea Source Before They Pass Walruses in the Chukchi Sea https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gonsu2WgXog

Before the Bulldozers Arrive

When I was a boy my family would travel to Nova Scotia to visit my grandmother.  She lived on an island off the coast that was close enough to get to by ferry in an hour, yet far enough away from “civilization” that one could feel happily secluded from its distractions and trappings.  A breeze fresh with sea salt and pine off the bay would hurry me along dirt roads that led to no where. Deep in the wood I would be gently reminded of the ocean around me on all sides by the distant ping of a buoy.  The pleasures there were simple, yet profoundly rich.  Coming from New York I reveled in this solitude and natural wonder. My grandmother’s porch let out onto a beach strewn with round rocks and seaweed, and the backdoor opened onto a wood thick with pine and carpeted with moss. It was a land that seemed both exotically foreign and warmly familiar. I would spend my days going back and forth to each of these magical places with only short pit stops for an ice cream or a can of pop.

A forest in Nova Scotia The Chronicle Herald

I am often reminded of these ethereal experiences when I have the good fortune to be in some place wild. I have been lucky to have hiked through jungles in Central America and across mountain ranges in the American west. I have been awed by the endless span of the desert and the billions, upon billions of stars that filled moonless nights. But sadly these moments have become mere punctuations in my life as adulthood has taken me through the underbelly of “civilization” and I struggle to breath in its plastic emptiness. It has become painful to see wildlife too close to the burgeoning sprawl, because I know that it will soon be trampled under the busy feet of progress, bulldozed into heaps of wood and entombed in concrete, glass and steel.

Industrial civilization, with its petro-economy, doomed the wilds of the earth centuries ago. Its cancerous penchant for endless growth and its disease of cupidity and avarice have commodified and butchered the natural world of which we are all born.  Consumer capitalism has become the religion of the 21st century.  Its liturgy of “market driven free trade” views the earth as an exploitable object and human beings as valuable only in terms of their material wealth. There is no room for the sacredness of the wild.  Cloaked in garments of moral piety, the priests of Wall Street hold the ultimate power over all life on the planet.  Their eyes may have been blotted out by greed, but their hands still grope feverishly for the next spoil.  Meanwhile the oceans acidify and the permafrost is no longer permanent as it thaws rapidly and releases tons of methane, accelerating the warming of the climate. Despite the overwhelming evidence, extraction of fossil fuels has only increased.  The melting Arctic ocean has become a playground for the petro-industry and the bloated military that protects their interests. They are not worried about a warming planet or dancing perilously close to another world war. They are busy piercing the surface of our fragile world like rapacious vampires that can never seem to draw enough of the earth’s blood to sate their appetite.

Credit S Morgan Alamy Nature

Mountaintop Removal in the Sierras source NRDC

Watching the storms grow on the horizon can fill one with dread in those moments where denial is not at work. There is no where on this earth that industrial civilization has not touched. Plastic debris fills its oceans, industrial chemicals saturate its already diminished soil, and the air has become the repository for the poisonous byproducts of its feckless consumption. Its economic ideology has created an ownership class that has divided the world map into farms for its own wealth acquisition. It expands like bacteria engulfing what was once lush fields, meadows and woods. It crushes the powerless of foreign nations, colonizes their land and enslaves them in endless servitude for the perpetuation of its monstrous system. It scrapes away the tops of ancient mountains for minutes of electrical power.

Urban Sprawl in Virginia Sarah Leen

The insanity that is industrial civilization was born of imperialism. Materialistic ideas of fortune became the priority of the aristocracy, and so the village and the community were sacrificed for the promise of more stuff. Petro-chemicals fueled the Green Revolution, where agriculture was industrialized on a massive scale. It dressed up the drive for these things in the guise of good intentions. Feeding the hungry became its pious mantra, even though the profit based economy was its true engine. Neoliberal capitalism, defined as “privatization, fiscal austerity, deregulation, free trade, and reductions in government spending in order to enhance the role of the private sector,” emerged from the shadows of imperialistic plunder.  It rendered vast swaths of the earth open for boundless exploitation by the wealthy elite; and sentenced entire populations of indigenous people to a life of alienation, debt slavery and urban poverty.

Amazonas_floating_village,_Iquitos,_Photo_by_Sascha_Grabow

There is no political will among the elites to acknowledge, much less address, the coming collapse that all of this has spawned.   Multinational corporations and banks that control the world economy (and thus the world) would not tolerate a loss in their already over the top profits that would come as a result of any meaningful reform. “The economy must grow” is their unassailable chorus; and their existence, however fleeting, is dependent upon the continued, systematic rape of the natural world.   The wilds be damned.

To be sure, I have no answer to the conundrum of industrial civilization. In addition to being a product of it, I am also a beneficiary of its plunder by virtue of when and where I was born. I have not fled to the last remaining wilderness from where I can pontificate beyond reproach.  I understand how easy it is to become paralyzed by the spectacle of its dazzling, self-destructive decadence. But, by all accounts, it appears to be in its final act with its curtain call being the demise of countless species, including our own.

David McNew AFP Getty Images

In my childhood wildlife seemed to be forever and untouchable. The woods, the meadows and the sea appeared to me to be endless and invincible. I could walk under the canopy of trees and never hear a plane or smell petrol or run across another soul for hours on end. Now that I am grown I see that all of it is as fragile as glass. I am beginning to grasp just how dire the situation really is and, despite the false hope that the environmental movement peddles, there are no viable solutions to address what lies ahead, save the immediate cessation of fossil fuels and of industrial society itself. Indeed, on our current trajectory we appear to be headed for a world more like Venus than the lush, green earth we have been privileged with. But despite all of this, there are still forests unfelled and fields untilled to walk through, and I hope that this realization will cause me to have more reverence for the wilds that are left and time to stand in awe of their sacredness…

before the bulldozers arrive.

Kenn Orphan  2014

(For photo credit and/or source click on photograph.)

Bearing Witness

“Extinction is the rule. Survival is the exception.” – Carl Sagan

We are all witnesses to the Great Dying, a sixth mass extinction, the last one being 65 million years ago which wiped out the dinosaurs. This is not hyperbole; it is a defining feature of our age.

Jonathon Blair - Copy

Countless species are falling prey to the wealthy’s indifference, militarism and folly everyday. As in ancient civilizations, the wealthy and the privileged are generally the last to feel the pain of collapse, yet are most often the root cause. And compared to the mass of humanity we share this planet with, and as a result of rapacious exploitation and plunder, Americans, and westerners in general, are the wealthy and the privileged of modern civilization.

Great Hammerhead in Bimini Bahamas Photo by Laura Rock

Despite overwhelming evidence of crashing ecosystems, many of us living in the twilight years of the American empire seem oblivious to the canaries in the coal mine. Every human being who has ever lived, lived here, on this little, saltwater drenched rock suspended in the endless, cold ocean of space. Yet so often one can feel as if they were alone, wandering among zombies and phantoms, unaware of or uninterested in grappling with what lies ahead of us. The magicians and merchants of corporate consumerism foster this disconnection gleefully, and create a labyrinth of distractions and doubts that add to the self-delusion.

I Shop Therefore I Am

Insipid optimism is the demand of our corporate kingdom. Eternal youth, popularity, and economic fortune, are to be believed not only possible, but necessary for fulfillment and social connection. This is not an optimism that enjoins the soul to more wondrous places, or that stirs a connection to the nature we are all born of. This is the kind of optimism that unhinges you from reality; and that chaffs the skin of your soul. It is like a chisel set against your skull. It is the kind of optimism that condescendingly tells us that “everything is going to be okay.” Even if this were somehow true, everything is NOT okay for millions of people and countless species around the planet right now.  And not acknowledging that underscores the inherent callousness in this way of thinking. It masquerades as hope; but it is merely cruelty obscured by a deceptive, mocking jingle.

In our society we are temporarily appeased by objects created for one use. In fact many wars of our age are fought for just this purpose. The plastic items that are choking our oceans were born in the darkness of oil wells and tar sands, drilled and scraped clean for the ease of a fleeting moment, and tossed away to become forgotten, yet enduring pollution. The shaming evidence is scuttled away in the darkness of the early morning, so that our day, our very important day, is not inconvenienced by the unending moan of the nature we crush under busy, productive feet.

Plastic debris that has washed up along the shore of the Azores. Photo courtesy of 5 Gyres.

Plastic debris that has washed up along the shore of the Azores. Photo courtesy of 5 Gyres.

The petro-dollar has made our penchant for convenience and self-delusion incredibly efficient. It has spawned the neoliberal economics that repress hundreds of millions of people and that is now driving us all toward extinction. And we have been conditioned to see this all as merely “the way of progress,” and to malign and ridicule those whose hearts see such sights and mourn the enormous weight of history, the staggering lack of empathy and the gaping dearth of a viable future for a species callously divorced from its soul.

We have been meticulously trained to separate life itself into worthiness categories, in fact, to be seen only as useful if it serves our copious desire for more. We house millions of sentient beings in concentration camps, bereft of comfort or even the ability to turn around, often brutally beaten and mutilated, stripped of the dignity any creature has a birthright to, all to sate our unending appetite for flesh.

cows at a factory farm

We avert our eyes to the plastic bags clinging to the branches of decrepit trees, or the bottle caps that outnumber seashells on the shore, or the birthday balloons floating atop the waves at the beach, even while knowing their destination will in all likelihood be the stomach of some hapless sea turtle. After all, paying attention might cause us to question. It might cause us to change. It might reignite the sacred reverence our ancestors knew. It might cause us to face the demons of our cupidity and the resulting devastation and suffering they cause.

A seabird with a stomach full of plastic waste Photographer Chris Jordan (photo: Chris Jordan)

We can remain in denial about the ecocide we are all witness to, as the cult of optimism would have us do, or we can acknowledge and embrace the sorrow that is a natural response to loss, devastation and catastrophe. In grief we make a choice to honor the lost and their existence. We speak in a clear voice, to anyone who will listen, that their lives mattered. And we are also forced to face our own mortality in the process.

Agreeing to walk through our grief honestly can be a catalyst for creative defiance and undaunted dissent. It is perhaps the only resistance we can offer to the insistence of apathy imposed on us from the wraiths on Wall Street and Madison Avenue. The unnatural barriers they have erected to mask our humanity crumble in the rancid pile they deserve when a soul is set free to grieve. It is in grief that we find ourselves to be inseparable from each other, and from the nature from which we are all born. In this way, sorrow is the only coherent answer to extinction. It is a wail of conscience.

sea turtle

(photo: Getty Images)

Bearing witness to the unprecedented crime of ecocide sweeping our planet is not accepting the carnage, it is lending another voice to testify on the behalf of the victims. And in doing so, it succeeds in making the difficult case for the worth of the human soul.

Kenn Orphan  2014

The Earth and Her Raging Fever

Alberta Tar Sands were once pristine boreal forests      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.

Tar Sands at night  Photographer Garth LenzNo 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.

Pristine Alberta boreal forest  National GeographicWe 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

Photo Credits:

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