Tag Archives: mass extinction

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

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

The End of Days

Rapture  Source Theological Graffiti     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.”

Mayan Sacrifice  Source Tarlton Law LibrarySadly, 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.

Handwritten sign on farm fence during Texas drought.

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.

Hurricane  Source Carleton

Alaska Fires
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.

Religious Zealot  Source SodaheadFor 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.

William Ricketts Sanctuary Australia  Source Tourism on the Edge
Kenn Orphan 2015

As The Curtain Falls

American Sniper.  Source: Warner Brothers     In the disintegrating days of any society, nationalism, political charade and vapid farce often become the dominant narrative of the elite. These serve as distractions from their malfeasance, and the malaise and dread that most people, whether conscious of it or not, are feeling at the deepest level of their psyche. They also reflect the mania that often grips the mind when disaster is looming. And unless we insulate ourselves within this rubric of duplicity, or are so busy with the tasks imposed on us by the act of living in a society with increasingly less agency, it is near impossible to ignore the ominous signs on the horizon. Reports about mass extinction, climate chaos and a rising militarized, totalitarian state are ubiquitous.

Climate Change  Illustration from NASAThe other night I went out to the movies. This is not a big deal for many, but for me it is. I stopped going to see most Hollywood productions a while ago when I found myself increasingly alienated from the violent messages I saw being aggressively communicated. Much of it is nothing new.

Hollywood has always glamorized and championed patriarchy, gratuitous vulgarity, mindless consumerism and a detachment from the natural world. And it, ironically, has patted itself on the back for being at the forefront of social change, when historically it has dutifully supported and promoted the most entrenched, dehumanizing and churlish forms of racism, homophobia, misogyny, Islamophobia, and antisemitism. In truth it is the best mouthpiece for the status quo power class and a bulwark for the reactionary establishment. While conveniently recasting itself as a civil rights pioneer when all the hard work has been done, Hollywood takes credit for something it had once vehemently opposed.

Gone With The Wind Still Source NY Times

The Birth of a Nation (1915) Directed by D.W. Griffith Shown: Walter Long (as Gus) surrounded by Ku Klux Klan members

Promo for the WWII movie Dragon SeedSitting there in the darkened theater, waiting for the film I chose to begin, I was barraged by a cacophony of violent jingoism in each preview of movies to come. The military was cast as the savior of the world, women were objectified in persistent, degrading stereotypes, and the “other” of foreign nations were dehumanized and vilified. Of course one can trace much of this back to WWII when the Japanese were portrayed as bloodthirsty, dim witted beasts.

Bodies of Hiroshima civilian victims.  The People's Historical Archive

The lynching of William Brown in Douglas County Nebraska, 1919This insidious racism soothed the American psyche into justifying the nuclear decimation of tens of thousands of civilians and assisted the acceptance of the forced internment of Japanese Americans into concentration camps. One can go back even further to 1915 to the infamous film “Birth of a Nation” which depicted Black men as rapists and a danger to the entire republic. What better way to vindicate the horrors of Jim Crow and decades of state sanctioned terror via lynching parties?  But over the last decade there has been a surge of hyper-masculine, chauvinistic nationalism depicted in film and media with technical flare.

Promotional Photo for the movie Exodus  Source 20th Century FoxSadly, in the midst of all of this, many in America, and to a lesser extent other Western nations, appear to be retreating into a form of infantilism, clinging to religious mythologies about “end times” and supernatural tampering with humanity, or nefarious government conspiracies around every corner. This is a common response to a sense of powerlessness. Ironically, these fantasies coincide with the very real prospect of collapse and even near term human extinction.  But those who are confounded by reason, overwhelmed by a merciless onslaught of disinformation, and battered by class oppression, will often attribute calamity to the divine’s wrath at innocuous human rights and social issues like marriage equality or women’s reproductive freedom.

Hollywood nourishes this confusion by inducing a national amnesia regarding what their country has done and what crimes it is capable of committing, both at home and abroad. It achieves this by producing a never ending stream of series or movies that retell and re-frame Biblical stories, or are about natural disasters (most of which are implausible), supernatural beings like zombies or vampires that compete for gloulish and macabre attention, or imagined threats from foreign “others” who represent everything we despise.
Still from World War Z  Source Digital SpyIn truth, the wealthy power class has always thrived on violence and the incitement of division. It has been and remains the currency that they use to hold on to power and maintain the barrier that insulates them from its consequences. It is the drug of choice for brutes and psychopaths; and when it is unbridled it deftly manages to hollow out the very core of human dignity. How else could the US military, which has a long, documented history of heinous human rights violations, convince young, disaffected youth to join their ranks to fight people abroad far more impoverished than they are?  How else can they cajole them to defend an empty concept of liberty that has been systematically hacked away from them at home?

Photograph by Stanley FormanUltimately, violence masks the alienation from society and estrangement from the natural world that so many of them feel. It is the doom of virtue and the supreme manifestation of despair. The plutocracy has become unbeatable through its use of it abroad; and it has deftly worked at militarizing the police at home. They have become masters at harnessing its seductive lure; and there is no armed resistance that can counter their forces. They eagerly manufacture new, re-branded enemies to divide and conquer the beset masses; and distract them from their powerlessness. But now we are teetering on the edge of global collapse and the charades are becoming a nightmarish, technologically advanced, spectacle. From desensitizing video games to movies extolling the glory of war; the machine of propaganda is at fever pitch.

Still from Video Game Call of Duty  Source CNN

United States Navy Promotional shots of Navy SEALs.As the US empire continues to expand its reach through its spread of military bases, and its constant antagonism of other world powers, like China in the South China Sea or Russia in the Ukraine, we can expect reactionary nationalism at home to be stoked further. It has even expanded the war on nature, as the US Navy prepares to conduct military exercises, the largest of their kind in history, in the pristine waters off Alaska and in the Arctic. And with the curtain falling on Western civilization through its own hubris, Hollywood will become even more manic and detached from reality than it is today. It is, after all, the global voice of corporate capitalism and it faithfully follows the dictates of Wall Street and the Pentagon. Sadly, it cannot do anything but limn the lies of empire, even as ecosystems fall around them and war and totalitarianism become permanent features of the 21st century. How long it will be able to cast its shadows on the wall of this cave, before it all comes down around them, is unclear.  But we do have a choice on whether to continue watching the spectacle, or turn away in time to salvage some of what is left of our humanity and this world.

Kenn Orphan 2015

Time to Listen

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

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

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

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

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

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

shopping cart

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

Kenn Orphan 2015

A System Destined to Self Destruct

“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” ― Jiddu Krishnamurti

American Poverty Source North Dallas Gazette

It shouldn’t come as a shock to any of us. The sadism of the uber rich in American society was bound to morph into a reality show. This month CBS, whose CEO Les Moonves earned over $54 million last year alone, saw the release of “The Briefcase.” The premise of the show is to place poor people in the predicament of having to decide whether to keep $101,000 all for themselves, or give away half or all of it to another struggling family. The mainstream media is fond of depicting the working class, recipients of welfare or the homeless as having no motivation to improve their situation and, thus, deserving of their plight. This soothes their conscience (that is if they are even in possession of one), while they amass more and more material wealth at everyone else’s expense. But this latest display of blatant exploitation signifies a new low, even for them.

Still from CBS The Briefcase Source The Daily Banter

Being poor in America is not an easy road. Working class families and those in poverty must routinely choose between healthcare, food or shelter, and are much more likely to be harassed or arrested by the police for non-violent offenses. The homeless, too, are often brutalized by law enforcement and gangs of privileged and disaffected youth. But the pernicious effects of neoliberal economic policy, the final and most merciless manifestation of capitalism, can now be seen in practically every facet of popular culture in the United States. It is a system which glorifies the wealthy while demonizing or rendering the poor invisible.

Private Jet
From reality shows to books and movies, wealth accumulation and narcissism are incessantly extolled as virtues. Professional socialite Kim Kardashian’s autobiography (if one can call it that) is emblematic of the oblivious conceit of the uber rich. Filled with a plethora of monstrous “selfies,” it is a testament to the worship of the banal vulgarity of celebrity. And, unsurprisingly. Caitlyn Jenner’s transformation was characterized by this same culture, placing more value upon her outward appearance than her inner life as a transgender person. This spectacle masks the tremendous cruelty meted out by this society on economically disenfranchised, transgender people, particularly people of color; and reinforces misogynistic and ageist prejudices. But dehumanization and objectification are the signatures of American mass media. Depth and nuance are discouraged. This unrelenting message has had deleterious effects seen in the explosion unnecessary plastic surgeries and eating disorders that have come to characterize young adulthood, especially in women.

Kim Kardashian Source Business Insider
Arguably, popular culture today is one of the most effective methods of social control. It plays on our society’s obsessions, neuroses and angst, albeit in rather superficial styles. This extends out from an establishment that is sustained by internalized authoritarianism or, as political philosopher Sheldon Wolin expressed, inverted totalitarianism. An example of this is in the enormous amount of television series, from the early days of television up to today, that glorified the police, corporate executives and law professionals. For example. the long running series “Cops” turned the plight of crime plagued neighborhoods into sport and mockery. They divided Americans into worthiness classes and instilled a false notion that these institutions are impervious to reproach. And they served the interests of the power class perfectly.

Cops Still Source Fox
There is little doubt that our society is, as Jiddu Krishnamurti stated, profoundly sick. But the disease does not lie in a lack of moral codes. In fact, American culture is among the most moralistic in the world, with shades of its historic and oppressive puritanism clouding virtually every human rights issue, from marriage equality to reproductive rights. The rot at the core of this culture lies in its acquiescence to the dictates of corporate capitalism, a system predicated on dissolving all communal bonds, and replacing them with shallow consumerism and exploitation of the weakest among us, and the natural world on which we all rely. To it, human suffering is a commodity and an opportunity for exploitation. Given all of this there is little wonder that dystopic themes in science fiction have gained so much currency in the wider public. They offer the only form of popular culture that resonates with ordinary people because they speak to their suffering and fears; and they portend a reality that, in many tangible ways, is already here for billions of people around the world. Even though most of these books or movies deal with non-existent threats, e.g. zombies, there is a collective angst that is common to all of them. It is one that recognizes our shared, dire state and the existential threats that we, and countless other species, face.

Cars are stranded on 288 at the 610 loop, which became flooded after an afternoon downpour in Southwest Houston, Saturday, April 27, 2013. (AP Photo/Houston Chronicle, Cody Duty)

American culture is becoming more and more fractured in the crumbling days of the empire. In the midst of this uncertainty and malaise the power class, who own all of the mainstream media, are scrambling to produce programs that pit the poor and other marginalized segments of society against each other to provide misanthropic forms of entertainment. But they are incapable of grappling with reality itself and, if history is any guide, they will not here the drums of revolution on their doorstep. The elite, ownership class gutted their souls long ago to make room for their obsessive penchant for wealth; and they have become drunk on the fruit of their own hubris. They dismantled the commons that afforded a space for community, and insulated themselves behind gilded, gated communities, immune, for now, to the suffering that surrounds them. Their media is bound to reflect this indifference; and it will only grow more cruel in the coming years as the weather grows angrier, and the oil, on which all of this is built, begins to wane.  Without a doubt, our conformity to their culture of cruelty is not securing our own survival in the slightest.  On the contrary, it is merely perpetuating a system destined to self destruct.

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