Tag Archives: Sixth Mass Extinction

On Being a Climate Migrant

When I first moved to San Diego twenty years ago I fell in love.  Blue skies, blue Pacific, lush, rolling hills of scrub oak and chaparral and warm sun most of the year. Back then the freeways did not seem to be full all day and night as they do now. People weren’t as aggressive towards each other either. I could walk along the beach alone and feel like I was the only one for miles; and the tide pools were brimming with life. The containment of urban sprawl was a cherished community value. The cost of living may have been high compared to many other places, but one could enjoy a very satisfying life even with a meager income.

San Diego Traffic. Photo from LA Times Blog.Now living here has become very costly, and enjoyment a rare luxury. The people seem perpetually hurried and harried. And so many of the hilltops have been scraped away for housing developments, shopping malls and industrial parks. Wildlife has been cordoned off into “preserves” and roadways lace the canyons and mesas. Make no mistake, I love California and will always consider it my home in many ways. But the state I knew only exists in memory. And now we are facing a megadrought in a place where the population is ballooning with seemingly few taking notice.

Suburban Sprawl in San Diego. Photo, Getty Images.So my partner and I decided a couple years ago that it was time to move on. We are collecting what we need and embracing our loved ones before we embark on a journey northward to the place of my ancestry and that I consider a home from my childhood, in what is shaping up to be the last epoch of human civilization as we know it.  I would like to carve out a small sanctuary in one of the few pristine places left on the planet. Is this hyperbolic? Am I only two cans of corn away from being an “end times prepper?”   I’m sure to many Americans I am being extreme. When I tell people that I am migrating from California because of abrupt climate change, and the ecological and societal collapse that will accompany it, I am often met with blank stares or eye rolls. I think this is because the reality of our dire circumstances has not yet hit home to most Americans who live in privileged, coastal cities. But to those of us who are paying attention the approaching maelstrom is undeniable.

San Bernadino Fires Getty

Homes fall to flash flooding in California. Source NBC News.Our planet has been warming, but this trend has taken leaps and bounds in the past few years with each one hotter than the last. Records are being shattered each month. For most of the world’s population calamity is not some distant risk factor. Water scarcity and famine now tower over hundreds of millions of people from Sudan to India to Malaysia and beyond like ravenous angels of death. Species extinction is accelerating across the globe as well. It is like watching a dystopic science fiction flick with no end of the chaos in sight.

Drought in India. Photo Source India Water Portal.

Rohingya Refugees Source The GuardianTo say that all of this is overwhelming is an understatement. But I think what is perhaps worse than this is living in the heart of a culture where grief is ridiculed and that is defined by a collective disconnect from the unfolding reality of ecocide. The sham that is American democracy is also demoralizing, especially when given the current spectacle we are seeing in the Presidential election cycle. And with climate change appearing to accelerate, the prospect of living in a divisive, burgeoning police state is terrifying to say the least. Dying empires cast long shadows of cruel absurdity as they unravel. And if one lingers too long in its darkness the soul begins to wither and harden.

Bread and Circuses Source International TimesSo I am declaring myself a climate migrant. But I am lucky. I do not have to clamber on to shoddy boats and risk drowning, or take a perilous journey on foot across a parched and dangerous land. I see what is ahead and I have the privilege of fleeing from a lot of it. This isn’t much consolation, though. Only a smug sociopath would get satisfaction with being right in this instance. For anyone with a conscience there is no joy in telling people “I told you so” when faced with their suffering and sorrow, even if you have been largely ignored or dismissed as over the top for years. Some can do this with ease. They can point jagged, scornful fingers at the smoker who is now dying from lung cancer, and feel somehow justified in doing so even as such callousness reduces their own humanity to ashes. I believe that the depth of ones character is measured in the compassion one has for other beings; and I haven’t shed near enough tears to measure up to the tremendous suffering of our planet and all of its inhabitants.

Young Buck On The Second Peninsula Lunenburg Nova Scotia is a photograph by William OBrien.

Giants Lake Wilderness, Nova Scotia. Source, The Chronicle Herald.I hope that this move will at least demonstrate just how serious and dire I think things really are. Maybe it will cause some to sit up and pay attention. I realize that most people do not have the resources to take bold steps like this; and I am not attempting to cast myself as a martyr. I do not possess the spiritual credentials to warrant such a distinction anyway. But I think if more of us take steps, big or small, that shun mindless consumerism and recognize the urgent state we are all in, we may have a chance of building communities of compassionate souls who cherish each other and hold sacred this beautiful planet while we still have time left to do so.  I can only hope it will.

Kenn Orphan  2016

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 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

Another Year, Another Paradigm Shift

“Our own life has to be our message.” ~ Thích Nhất Hạnh

This month the solstice gently ushered us all into a new year. In times past, this occasion was often viewed as an opportunity for reflection.   It is a turning point when the sun begins to intrude into our lives just a bit more each day, casting away shadows, one by one.  As the calendar scrolls down another year I have been reflecting on my personal journey as it relates to the changing and tumultuous world around me.

2015 was a year where climate change, endless war, mass migration (the biggest since the second World War), the growth of the repressive, militarized police/surveillance state and environmental decimation all appeared to be converging at a crossroad, with industrial civilization itself teetering on the brink of collapse as a result.  Has it happened yet?  No.  But collapse should be understood as a nonlinear phenomenon. It is more akin to the sputtering engine of a damaged airplane, dying in fits and starts before the ultimate plunge.

Colonial church emerging from a receding reservoir in Mexico. Photo, David Von Blohn, STR.
The acknowledgement of any of this can send us in the direction of conscious grief and deepened empathy or paralyzed despair and indifference.  It has the power to “widen our circle of compassion” as Albert Einstein encouraged and view the death of one thing as the foundation of life for another, or find us at a dead end of alienation and apathy.  Ours is a culture of denial, fraught with vapid phantoms peddling sadistic entertainment and extolling rapacious consumption on a planet with finite and dwindling resources.  It is a theater where all the players are mindless and the audience is blind.  When ones eyes are pried open a searing light is cast on a stage of depravity and misery.  But this experience, traumatic as it is, can also be a catalyst for “a fundamental change in approach or underlying assumptions.”  A paradigm shift.

Selfie. Image from Shutterstock
In our society narcissism has become a celebrated virtue; but I have never been very good at separating myself from the suffering of others.  A forest somewhere is felled, I feel as though my body has been hacked into.  A refugee is demonized, I feel as though it is a personal attack on my own character.  Another species goes extinct, I feel as though a piece of my soul has died.  Mind you, I am not admitting any of this to curry admiration in anyone’s eyes.  In fact, this part of who I am I consider deeply private and I often struggle with my own grief as a result of this kind of association.  But how can I, as Thích Nhất Hạnh says, make my life my message without acknowledging this pain publicly?

Beijing air pollution in December, 2015. Photographer, Xiao Lu Chu, Getty Images.Industrial, consumer civilization, with all of its self destructive trappings, deeply wounds the soul as much as it wounds the body, communities and the living earth itself.  But wounds, both physical and psychic, have a remarkable ability to heal with an intelligence that is beyond our consciousness.  The soul, just like the body, will repair itself too leaving a scar as a testament to the struggle and a symbol of solidarity with others who suffer.  But this can only happen when we show it to the world.

A physical wound must be covered for a certain amount of time to protect it from infection, but its bandages must eventually be removed exposing it to fresh air if it is to complete the healing process.  This is also true of wounds to our soul.  We must eventually reveal them to the world and be receptive of the empathy that can bring.  This, in turn, becomes our message.  It is up to us, though, to nourish the conditions that make this healing possible, and to apply whatever balm is necessary.  Healing our wounds does not spare us from death.  But in nature, even death itself is a fount for the renewal of life.

Mother Earth. A painting by Jeness Cortez Perlmutter.We cannot stop the convergence of very bad things in this world. None of us can hold back the rising seas or quell the warming air. And the specters of war, avarice and tyranny continue to haunt our world every day.  In truth, the end of all we know may be closer than any one of us could fathom. But that does not mean that all is lost.  In her book “Love in the Age of Ecological Apocalypse: Cultivating the Relationships We Need to Thrive,” Carolyn Baker eloquently expresses how we can react to all of this:

“As the bearers of conscious self-awareness on this planet, we have failed miserably thus far in recognizing our inextricable oneness with the universe. Whether we can refine this innate capacity in time to prevent the annihilation of the Earth—a travesty in which we have consciously and unconsciously colluded, is unknown. Nevertheless, in the remaining days of our presence here, we can love the Earth and we can love all its sentient beings.”

Indeed hope does exist, but it is meaningless unless it expands our capacity to love.  This truth is the paradigm shift we are all in desperate need of, and one that will be even more urgent in the troubled and stormy days that lie ahead.

Kenn Orphan 2015

For the Record

When I was a young boy I dreamt of other planets in far flung solar systems in our galaxy.  I would draw pictures for hours of what I thought alien life might look like and try to imagine civilizations that may have evolved to our level of technology or beyond. I would build starships out of loose leaf paper and plastic utensils and fly them through my house and out into the backyard.  As I grew older these musings faded, but never died.

I confess I still have some of those starships in an old trunk, and every now and then when no one is around, I take them out for a flight around the room and picture myself traveling to one of the countless planets that fill the Milky Way.  The alien life I imagined as a child has expanded, but in ways I could never have dreamed of when I was very young. I have had the good fortune and privilege to travel the world, learn about other cultures and encounter wildlife up close. I began to realize that I did not have to travel to a distant world to see alien life.  It was all around me, and it was wondrous.

According to a growing number of scientists, we are in the grips of the Sixth Mass Extinction; and, sadly, we can only guess how many incredible life forms have been eliminated by the rapacity and carelessness of industrial civilization.  Hundreds more species go extinct every day, and it is likely that our own may be on that list in the future, given our trajectory and penchant for self-destruction.  But I have compiled a humble collection of some of the creatures my partner and I encountered on our numerous journey’s to Central America.  And I wanted to put them on the record and share them here.

Please keep in mind that I am not a biologist so I will not attempt to identify any of the insects, plants or animals with scientific names.  This is merely a photo essay to register their marvelous existence on this planet.  I hope they fascinate you and enliven your imagination and sense of wonder as they do mine.

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IMG_1405IMG_1607IMG_1586IMG_1609IMG_1691IMG_1621IMG_1718IMG_1633IMG_1635IMG_1628IMG_1612IMG_1746IMG_1555IMG_1576IMG_1618IMG_1767IMG_1416IMG_1415IMG_1407IMG_1768IMG_1562IMG_1693IMG_1713 IMG_2521IMG_2560starfishslothgeckored frog

Kenn Orphan  2015

 

Hoping for Clemency

     Travel anywhere across the “developed world” and you can find them. Featureless monoliths of concrete, glass and steel jutting out from soulless landscapes that house human cogs in a metaphorical machine. The cold emptiness of their facades tell us exactly who built them and what matters to them. Spoiler alert: it ain’t us or the planet we all depend upon.

Stock photo of corporate monoliths.These indifferent fortresses belie a dying civilization. They sit atop the mass graves of once vibrant meadows and forests scraped off the land, and wetlands that were brimming with life, now drained of their water. How easily they mask our insecurities. Many, if not most, of us in this society still support the idea that it is justified to be charged rent to live on the planet of our birth. And many cling to the hope that they will rise above their station to a place of success in this moribund spectacle the powerful have crafted. These phallic monuments to the ego stand as sentries, guarding the lies of empire and defending the insatiable demands of consumer capitalism.

Corporate slavery. Artist Unknown.Success in this suicidal fantasy is defined by the accumulation of imaginary numerals and the acquisition of objects, or property, or even people and other living beings. There is no self imposed limit to its expansion. It is ravenous and pays no attention to consumption except in its encouragement. But the natural earth on which all of this is derived is beginning to crumble under our feet. And this culture of self absorbed, self-medicated misery is beginning to unravel before our eyes along with it.

celebrity couples Art by Daiana FeuerThe response of a society to its impending demise is in accordance with how it was formed, who leads it, what it cares about, and what has kept it going. Ours has been built through conquest, industrialization and war, and upon the backs of billions of human beings not fortunate enough to be born into its higher ranks, and a myriad of species slated for exploitation or eradication. It is led by sociopaths who care only for their vapid self-importance and meaningless lifestyles. And its heart beats with the constant infusion of new blood. Whether that blood be of the earth or of other living beings is of no consequence to it.

Every morning I wake up on the wrong side of Capitalism. Source Street Art, Open Democracy.This kind of society is incapable of responding to suffering with empathy. It cannot be reasoned with. It knows only distraction, violence, control, mania and alienation. And as its foundations disintegrate, it will become even more brutal and detached from reality. It will cast the weakest, the foreigner, and most vulnerable as scapegoats for its malfeasance and failure; and in the end no one will be spared its fury. Once a person of conscience begins to realize that they live in an empire that has savaged the planet and destroyed dozens of societies the world over, it becomes impossible to be swayed by puerile patriotic sentimentality. The misery this machine has caused, and continues to cause, blots out any feeling of pride.

US imperialism-militarism. Photo Source- Institute for Policy Research and Development.But the American Empire, and industrial civilization itself, appear to be destined to meet their end sometime within this century. It has reached its upper limit and the earth is beginning to answer to its folly with unmatched rage. Think this is hyperbole? We now know with certainty that the seas will rise and swallow cities whole, and drought will expand to bleach fields like bones in the sun. It has already started in many places. Beaches are eroding, wells are running dry, and people are beginning to flee.

Alberta Tar Sands were once pristine boreal forestsAll of this leaves us with few choices, but not without hope. The question is, what do we hope for? Is it the status quo, keeping the privileged few of the planet in the current state of relative comfort while the rest of the planet languishes in abject misery? Or is it for the salvation of technology to somehow sweep all of our over-indulgences and careless extravagances away? Or is it for some business, religious or political leader to rise up and answer all of our problems miraculously, like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat? In the quickness of time, none of these options are viable.

Devolution. Photo credit, CollapseofIndustrialCivilization.com.There was a time when our ancestors understood that they were merely one species in a chorus of billions, who all had a birthright to this world. But that ended when some decided that our dominance and luxury were more important than a living planet. Now countless species are going extinct from our excesses and recklessness each day, and we are beginning to realize that we are not so powerful as to not be one of them at some point in the future. One way or another the earth will choose for us. We can only hope that she can forgive us for our blindness, and bestow on us a mercy that we rejected for our own human family and scores of other species that have had the misfortune of crossing our path.

Mother Earth. A painting by Jeness Cortez Perlmutter.May clemency smile upon us.

Kenn Orphan 2015

The Great Migration

This week Austrian police discovered the bodies of 71 migrants in a truck by the side of the highway outside Vienna. It is widely believed that they had suffocated to death when they were abandoned by their smugglers. One cannot fathom the horror and agony they must have suffered; but it is a story that is fast becoming the norm. Indeed, thousands have perished in their valiant attempts to cross the Mediterranean, well over a 100 just this week.  In the Americas, untold numbers have died on their journeys north out of Central and South America. On the Andaman Sea boats brimming with starving members of the Rohingya community languished in limbo for weeks because no country would admit them. And when they reach the border their ordeals are far from over.

In Macedonia, police forces beat and tear gassed scores of refugees attempting to leave Greece; and hate crimes against undocumented immigrants in the US and Western Europe are on the rise.  None of this should come as any surprise to those of us who have been paying attention; but it does not make what we are seeing any easier. This year a combination of climate change, perpetual war and economic devastation has forced huge surges of people all over the world out of their native lands in their quest for survival. The Great Migration has begun; and I must admit, it has started far sooner than I had ever imagined.

A little girl cries as she tries to take shelter from the rain on Greece's border with Macedonia Photo Reuters

Refugees waiting for hours to cross the border to Macedonia. Photo by Erik Marquardt.

Somali refugees wait at check point. Source UNHCR

Rohingya refugees stranded on a boat off Thailand Photo Source IB TimesOf course, Western leaders are reacting to this unfolding human tragedy in typical fashion. They are either spewing racist vitriol and stoking the most base fears of their constituents, or blathering on with patronizing platitudes about immigrants and their plight. Whether it be US presidential candidate Donald Trump proudly demonizing undocumented immigrants as rapists and murderers to cheering crowds, or German Chancellor Angela Merkel callously explaining to a sobbing 14 year old Palestinian girl, whose family faces deportation to a land that is foreign to her, that “politics is hard sometimes,” the message to migrants could not be clearer: We do not care about you. We will not help you. And we will certainly not take responsibility for the foreign policies, economic exploitation and military assaults we launched on your nations that destroyed your societies and caused you to flee in the first place.

Angela Merkel makes a 14-year old Palestinian girl cry by telling her she is not welcome in Germany Source Mondoweiss

Donald Trump Photo Source Boston GlobeThe disconnect from reality is stunning, but predictable. Indeed, if Merkel or Obama or Clinton were to acknowledge that it was their governments that destroyed and destabilized Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Libya, their entire house of cards would collapse to the ground in a smoldering, hypocritical heap. And if Trump or Bush were to acknowledge that it has been US neoliberal economic policies that have created the dire circumstances in Mexico,  or in Central and South America, that have forced tens of thousands to flee for survival, their dehumanization of refugees and migrants would be shown for the vile, empty rhetoric that it is.

Central America. A young girl cries as her home and neighborhood are forcefully dismantled in a shanty town after the government claimed that the settlement was illegal. Photo Spencer Platt Getty

Central American refugees seeks shelter. Photo by Elizabeth Ruiz AFP GettyIn truth all Western leaders, politicians and oligarchs alike, sit atop a historic pyramid of oppression and exploitation that is not of their own making. But each successive US president and Western leader has preserved the integrity of this system by faithfully growing the military/police/surveillance state and rewarding the wealthy elite with more and more loot, and bailouts and impunity for their crimes. This scheme, however, is beginning to unravel.  And we need only look to the not so distant past to get an inkling of what lies ahead.

Residents wait on a rooftop to be rescued from the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina on Sept 1, 2005 Photo by STR Reuters

National Guard soldier walks past a covered body at the Convention Center on Sept. 3, 2005, where people took refuge after Hurricane Katrina. Source NOLAThis week marks the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and it should also serve as a wake up call for those Americans, and Westerners in general, who are still under the misconception that their government has their back in disaster. With more millionaires in the Senate, and unlimited money influencing elections, it should be clear to anyone that the United States is effectively an oligarchy with little to no regard for the poor and most vulnerable.

All of this was made plain in the weeks and months following the storm and subsequent floods in New Orleans and the region. Over a thousand lost their lives, tens of thousands more lost their homes and livelihoods. But the majority of those who suffered were poor people of color; and the American Empire had better things to do than dispatch the military in full force for rescue operations of its own citizens, especially when they had little or no money to offer them in return.  After all, they had already over extended themselves in a war, based upon lies, against another group of poor, brown people on the other side of the planet.  Nurse Mary Jo D'Amico fans a patient in the car park of New Orleans Memorial hospital

Woman collapses while residents attempt to rescue her and husband from flood waters in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina Photo source AFPI still remember the mainstream media and some politicians calling the victims of Hurricane Katrina “refugees,” a label previously unheard of in the West. They had been abandoned by their government and it should have served as a warning to us all. No matter how much our leaders “otherize” those who are forced to abandon their homes and dire circumstances, they are a reflection of our collective future.

Although climate change will have unpredictable ramifications; it is becoming more apparent by the day what our world will begin to look like in the decades to come. It all but promises a North American West that will become a virtually uninhabitable desert. Rapid glacial melt will see Amsterdam, London, New Orleans and half of Florida submerged under the waves of an ever acidifying ocean, bereft of much of its life except for an abundance of jellyfish, invasive sea grasses, toxic algae blooms and plastic debris. Paris and Tokyo will see heat waves that rival anything we have seen so far in India or Pakistan.  And more and more species of wild life will fall to extinction.  With all of this it is hard to imagine that mass migrations will be a fate assigned only to the poor of the “developing world.”

Drought Induced Wildfires Photo David McNew Getty Images

NYC following Superstorm Sandy Christos Pathiakis Getty ImagesUndoubtedly, there is an epic storm brewing that threatens all life on this planet; and it is building up steam before our eyes. Those of us who tell this painful truth can expect to be labeled “doomers,” or fatalists, or be exiled from the conversation completely.  But there is a point at which this exile from a deluded, shallow and corrupt culture becomes a welcome gift.

The powerful elite have absolutely no plan to address what is coming outside of drumming up racist xenophobia and fear of the other, and continuing on with the “business as usual” paradigm that has driven countless species to their extinction and ushered in the epoch of the Anthropocene. And the conference that is due to convene in Paris this winter is merely a charade to pantomime concern and action.
Barack Obama, Silvio Berlusconi and Dimitry Medvedev share a good laugh at the G20 Summit. Photograph by Dominique Faget AFP Getty. Images

Still from CNN broadcast. Photo source College Humor.Do not expect any ideas from the corporate owned media either. Their job has always been to be a mouthpiece for the wealthy elite and to keep the masses distracted and subdued.  They will continue pouring out celebrity gossip and stoking fears about things that pose no significant threat to the West, like Ebola or ISIS, even as the fires rage and waters rise. Encouraging objectification and mindless consumption is their sole charge.  Considering all this, to look for salvation from those with power and wealth, even the ones who may appear more sympathetic to ordinary people, would be the height of foolishness.

Indeed, the only sane way to approach this storm is by realizing that ignoring it will not make it disappear, acknowledging that no one will be spared its wrath, and banding together in solidarity with others of like minds and souls. Doing this is unlikely to save our civilization as it is, or spark empathy in the powerful.  And it will not stop the unfolding nightmare of climate change and mass extinction.   But it may give us the courage to stop believing the never ending lies of nationalism, and help us to dismantle the artificial barriers that the elite have erected to keep us fearful of each other.  We can begin right now by looking at the immigrant and the refugee as though they were us.  Because, in all truth, they are.

Photo from the Refugee Council of the UK.

Kenn Orphan  2015

Normalizing Extinction

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Several years back I had the good fortune of traveling through the rainforest in a remote part of Panama. Along the way I stayed in a small cabin at an ecolodge with the warm waters of the Caribbean Sea just steps away. There were no roads, televisions, or internet access, and no phones or electricity except in the main house. Out back was a trail that meandered through a dense forest brimming with tree frogs, sloths, iguanas, leaf cutter ants, and countless species of birds hopping from branch to branch. Just a couple feet into the water and I counted dozens of bright orange sea stars. And at night the sea shore came alive with biolumeniscent dinoflagellates, who would respond to my flashlight signals in short bursts of blue-green neon and the canopy was a cacophony of countless species in song. The abundance of life in that tiny corner of the world crowded out most signals of modern civilization.

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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:

 

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