The atrocities being committed by militarized police on behalf of the Fossil Fuel Industry against the unarmed Water Protectors of Standing Rock Sioux is beyond appalling. A horrifying page of history is being reopened which may signal a more radical fascist turn for the US in general. With barely a peep from a weak and sycophantic corporate media, jackbooted thugs in armored trucks are firing water cannons on protectors in sub freezing temperatures, using flash grenades that can cause blindness and burns, and firing rubber coated bullets which have already maimed many.
This hideous face of Empire is nothing unique. It is the same banal, raw, aggression and power seen all over the world. The militarized police of the Dakotas share their unoriginal brutality with the Israeli Defense Force in Palestine, and the Indian Army occupying Kashmir, and the Indonesian military forces against the indigenous people of Papua New Guinea. The aim of Empire is always the same: to crush, exploit, rape and plunder the vulnerable of the earth and the living earth itself for the gain of power and coin for a select few.
President Obama’s tepid response to what is happening at this very moment at Standing Rock Sioux is nothing less than complicity in the crimes of Empire. And it is chilling to think about a Trump regime which will most assuredly ramp up the violence and state aggression to a new and more horrifying level. He can do this thanks to expanded powers the Obama regime has enabled and empowered.
I would be saddened but not be surprised in the least if drones were employed by the coming regime. Water protectors could easily be labeled with vague, all encompassing terms like “enemy combatants” and “terrorists” because they threaten “US interests,” code words for corporate industry plunder and exploitation via the State. Targeted assassinations of US citizens are now completely legal thanks to the Obama administration. In fact, US citizens have already been assassinated without due process. Indefinite detention is also now completely legal and there is no reason to think that a Trump regime would not use these powers and even expand upon them.
This signals a major shift in the US that is nothing less than monstrous. And it forces a choice on the rest of us. We must either stand on the side of the Water Protectors or we lend our tacit, albeit apathetic, support to the omnicidal madness of Empire. This avarice fueled insanity will not stop at Standing Rock Sioux; and there is no middle ground when it comes to this. Our fragile biosphere is imperiled like never before. Water is life and we must passionately protect it. Otherwise we will all suffer the immeasurable misery and self annihilation of doing without it, and that potential nightmare is sooner than anyone could ever imagine.
The epic assaults being carried out against the vulnerable around the world at this very moment will determine the fate of our species and the living earth itself. To the powerful this statement is hyperbole at its extreme, but to those of us on the other side there is no condemnation that is too exaggerated when it comes to the destruction of communities and of the biosphere itself. The attacks are taking place along ancient rivers in the American Dakotas, in the life drenched rain forests of Ecuador, in historic olive groves in Palestine, in the melting tundra of the Arctic circle, in the sun baked Niger Delta, and in the war torn or misery laden shanty’s of Aleppo, Kolkata, Jakarta, Nairobi and beyond. These may seem like separate instances to some, but they are a part of a global struggle and the outcome will in all likelihood determine our collective future and that of millions of other species that we share this planet with.
I believe that the intersectionality of these conflicts are indicative of a broader struggle over guiding principles and mythologies. Some may see this as an oversimplification, and while I would agree that we should be careful to consider and respect nuance, context and individual histories, there are some general themes which may unite us while there is still time. These conflicts have been with our species since we began to walk upright. But now they are global in scale and there are two sides that should be identified above all others.
One side values living beings over profit, and sees protection of the water and the soil and the air as the most fundamental responsibilities of any society. It values cooperation and generosity above individual ambition. It shuns all forms of violent coercion, land theft and repression. It is against aggression and wars of conquest. It is the way of Community. The other is based upon the dominance of the physically powerful and suppression of the weak. It sees the living planet merely as a means for amassing material profit. It commodifies everything, living and non. It values avarice and ruthless competition over cooperation. It believes the only viable way forward is through suppression of dissent, ridicule, marginalization of the poor and the downtrodden, jingoistic nationalism and organized State violence. It is the way of Empire.
The language of Empire is duplicitous. It employs the parlance of pale euphemisms like sustainability, austerity or free trade to obscure its true authoritarian and feudalistic intentions. It encourages nationalistic sentimentality and racial and ethnic division to obscure the reality of its imposed classism. It objectifies the living planet through clever marketing and branding with such subtle ease that it becomes ever more difficult to decipher and parse. But in the end the Empire cannot cloak the stench of a dying world forever with catchy jingles, cynical ploys, shiny new objects, paranoid bigotries or vapid distractions.
In their quest to maintain and grow their coffers, the powerful see the dissolving ice cap as a strategic business opportunity for geopolitical advancement. They see the growing difficulty in extracting high quality petroleum as an excuse to erase ancient mountaintops, pierce deep ocean trenches and scrape away primeval forests for less viable and more earth damaging fossil fuels. They see growing inequities between us and the handful of people who own half the world’s wealth as opportunities for enhanced security walls and surveillance. They see hunger and famine as a chance to litter the world with pesticides and chemically or genetically altered food or factory farms which are little more than massive concentration camps for sentient beings. They see flattened forests and fouled rivers as a way of moving indigenous peoples into overcrowded, cordoned off corporate colonies for easier exploitation, social control and abandonment. And if they continue on their path the world they are forging will rival every other civilization in history in atrocity, repression and misery.
The war the Empire is waging is not about isms or ideologies, it is about power, exploitation and wealth. And to those of us being assaulted the cause is as urgent as it is dire. It is literally about life and death. We see the rising tides of an ever imperiled, acidic sea. We walk in the fallow fields where there may be no crops harvested tomorrow. We breathe the acrid air choked out by smokestacks of insatiable, blind industry. We see the walls and borders and checkpoints and guard dogs and police tanks and surveillance cameras and detention camps burgeoning as if unstoppable. We hear the drums of imperialistic war being beaten every day of every year. And we stand in shock at the unquenchable lust for wealth that stain the halls of power even as they dig our dusty mass graves. When we sound the alarm or even raise concern about any of this we can expect to be ignored, chided or silenced by the powerful in the media, corporations, the military or political establishment or even clergy. We anticipate being co-opted by the ruling oligarchy or by cynical corporate interests. But we are weary of this kind of marginalization and we aren’t going down without a fight.
The powerful will not stop waging their war this year or next. It will undoubtedly play out and grow for the next few decades even as the planet’s ecosystem’s spiral and crash, because dollar signs and dominance are all they truly understand. This is not just another chapter in some unending saga of the human story. It is not something that any resident of planet earth can afford to sit out. If they are victorious this war may very well usher in the closing chapter of the human species and far sooner than anyone could ever imagine. We must join with each other if only to ease each others suffering, or bring one small amount of justice to the oppressed, or to protect one small river way or field or stretch of beach. This war they are waging is against the living planet and their own future whether they realize it or not. But even if they do not care about their children’s future, we must.
In the past few years scientific models have been sending humanity a rather ominous message: evidence indicates that the earth’s climate has taken a dangerous and irreversible turn. As the once frozen Arctic Ocean rapidly liquefies into ice free summers, releasing tons of the potent greenhouse gas methane, and desertification stretches out across new regions, weather patterns around the globe appear to be spiraling out of control in a nonlinear manner. Each passing month we have seen record after record be demolished. The spring of 2015 has been catastrophic with scores dying from heat waves in India, forest fires in Siberia, monstrous floods in Texas, southern China and Eastern Europe and an intractable drought in the American west, the Middle-east and Brazil. And with an El Nino looming, summer and autumn are shaping up to be even more ferocious. Yet despite the recent, historic People’s Climate March in New York City, the machine of capitalist driven consumption grinds on unabated, undeterred and unconcerned about the impending collapse.
Amidst the unfolding chaos some of us still look to the environmental movement for answers, solace, or even hope. After all, it sprang out of sickness and grief at what this machine was doing to the natural world. It grew from the heart of empathy for all life, human and non. But the failure of the movement was in its acquiescence to capitalism. In so doing it imploded the consciousness of substantive transformation.
Capitalism, in its very essence, is about endless growth and exploitation of the environment for material gain. It is kept alive by a monetary system derived from how much energy is produced and consumed. And in the global “free market” system environmentalist causes may be soothed at home; but in far flung nations the earth and the poor are continually battered and raped by corporations and the corrupt governments that house them. Sweat shops abound, virgin forests continue to be razed for palm oil, poaching keeps animal populations constantly on the cusp of extinction, rainforests and wetlands continue to be polluted by mining companies and Big Oil, and the oceans remain the most abused natural resource on the planet. And militarism, which is of course married to capitalism, ensures that all of this exploitation can continue and expand while hiding it under a cloak of nationalistic jingoism, ironically extolling the fight for freedom and liberty while defending the greatest slaver of all time.
Under neoliberal capitalism, which Wikipedia defines as “privatization, fiscal austerity, deregulation, free trade, and reductions in government spending in order to enhance the role of the private sector in the economy,” the environmental movement morphed into what it is today, a meaningless exercise aimed at maintaining the implausibility of endless, mindless consumption with the veneer of concern for ecosystems. It has become all about “sustainability” despite the contradiction of it sustaining a system that is ultimately self-destructive. And it has branded itself with euphemisms like “green” or “earth friendly,” as if our species were somehow alien visitors to this planet and being friendly to it was a diplomatic concern. Of course many have been cajoled by the flashy promises of mega corporations that co-opted the environmental movement for profit. And certainly, a handful of corporations did in fact change some of their practices under public pressure and for the sake of image; but the primary engine of capitalism that has led us to the brink of devastation was never halted. It merely greenwashed its planet killing practices through slick marketing campaigns. Even oil companies, the wealthiest and dirtiest of businesses, has attempted to greenify its public persona.
It cannot be over stated that it was fossil fuels that propelled neoliberal economics and defined Western society. Beginning with the sterile environment of the delivery room to the cold slab of the coroner, from birth to death we are bathed in it. Our food is grown and protected by it. Our communication and transportation is dependent on it. It is the foundation of modern medicine. In short, petrochemicals, whether in solid, gaseous or liquid form, have ensured us, the privileged few, a relatively predictable and easy ride through life. But this ease came with a hefty price. The burning of these fuels has caused an unstoppable surge in temperature that imperils it all. And the rapacious appetite of corporations for the earth’s blood has ruined entire nations with war and corruption, and led to the demise of countless species, with our own likely to be on the list in the near future.
It is a fair conclusion that Western civilization has been provided with flocks of squealing canaries warning us of the looming catastrophe that our political, media and business leaders deftly ignored in their quest for votes, ratings and profits. When a science denying cretin like Oklahoma Senator, Jim Inhofe, chairs the committee on the Environment and Public Works, or President Obama lampoons climate change deniers only to approve of Shell’s oil drilling ventures in the Arctic, one can easily see a complete dead end in elected officials. And the disinformation campaign of news outlets like Fox or the purposeful omissions of CNN present little hope in the mainstream media.
In truth, there are no answers to be found in the halls of Washington, the hills of Hollywood or the board rooms of Wall Street. They are all faithful servants of neoliberal capitalism, and have been laboring for years to dismember the commons, grow their inordinate wealth through plunder and maintain their dominance. The sacredness of the public space has been defiled by their liturgy of self absorbed narcissism. And they have manufactured a culture of cruelty, devoid of character and predicated on the commodification and exploitation of everything that exists. In this way, neoliberalism has become the most elaborate and successful form of brainwashing and social control the world has ever known, convincing hundreds of millions of people of the necessity of its economic tyranny.
But there is a longing for connection and solidarity with one another that transcends the mindless consumerism we have been spoon fed since birth. Therefore the most coherent response to what we are witnessing should come from ordinary people in community. And it should be organized before the fall is in full swing. The Occupy movement was a glimpse into how this can be accomplished. But if it, like any other social movement, is co-opted by a politician or party it will be crushed under its heel once in power. It is also worth remembering that all social movements, like Occupy, the Arab Uprising or Black Lives Matter, are a threat to the capitalist order and will always be met with state violence and distortion by the mainstream media.
Perhaps with these concepts in mind, despite the threat of a misanthropic power class, war, famine, and a very angry climate, our species will beat the odds this time too. Indeed, homo sapiens have beaten a lot of odds. Born of the stuff that spawned all life on the planet, in ponds rich with amino acids, we eventually evolved out of several incarnations and through some very close calls into what we are today. Arguably, our altruism and communal bonds provided just as much for our survival as our cleverness and cunning. But the value of living in community and honoring the other transcends mere survival, and technology will not save civilization. This is because it was, in part, technology which instilled in humanity the myth of separateness from the natural world, and the myriad of species we share this planet with. And thanks to the insatiable consuming technology of industrialism, the delicate and essential life giving systems of our world are on the brink of breaking down, that is if they have not already begun to do so.
Industrial civilization now encompasses the entire planet with less and less arable land, acidified oceans, less potable drinking water and billions more of us on the way. When one mixes in the threat of nuclear war or meltdowns, raging storms, sea level rise and pandemics the probability of collapse becomes more prescient. And it is worth repeating that our species hasn’t figured out how to live anywhere else than this earth. One would think that would be enough to spur us to action; because it would take nothing short of a miracle to beat those odds, and we are in desperate need of one. We are standing, however, at the precipice of a Great Fall; and it would be foolish not to recognize that civilizations, both past and present, have a remarkable way of doing themselves in without much outside help at all.
Sao Paulo, Brazil, a city of over 11 million people, may literally run out of water. Let that really sink in for a moment. Politicians in Brazil ignored or downplayed this crisis until it reached the calamitous point it is at now. Instead they poured their attention and money into the World Cup and displaced thousands of people from their homes in the process. In recent weeks people across varying demographics have taken to the streets to protest the gross malfeasance of a government drunk on the lies of neoliberalism, which Wikipedia defines as “privatization, fiscal austerity, deregulation, free trade, and reductions in government spending in order to enhance the role of the private sector in the economy.” It is also the most destructive, savage and final stage of capitalism. For most of us the enormity of this catastrophe is still difficult to grasp. But there it is right in front of us. The normalcy bias, that almost hypnotic state of denial we often experience when faced with disaster, appears to be ubiquitous these days. The media reports these stories (sometimes) but there is seldom, if ever, a discussion about the global ramifications an existential threat like this presents for all of humanity. Sao Paulo should serve as a loud wail of warning that the entire world has forever changed, and we are not prepared for what lies ahead.
Herein lies the lesson for all of us. As climate change accelerates and the resources of our planet dwindle, rivers dry up, fields lay fallow, and flood waters rise, the wealthy and powerful will do the only thing they know how to do. They will ignore or downplay serious environmental problems. They will build more prison walls. They will arm their police forces with the equipment of the battlefield. They will launch war after war of imperialistic plunder cloaked in a veil of meaningless slogans and jingoism. They will employ racism to divide. They will continue to dismantle civil liberties under the guise of national security. They will instruct the media to distract and invert the truth. And they will keep us all on a diet while they feast on what remains. Israel’s treatment of Gaza also provides a window into a future that all humanity may soon know all too well. It is emblematic of a future of militarized walls and open air prisons. Since the beginning of the blockade in 2007 Gaza has been reduced to rubble over and over again, the last time in the summer of 2014, in what can accurately be called collective punishment. Food and construction materials are still restricted. And an Israeli official spoke plainly regarding their intentions. “The idea,” he said, “is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger.” After Israel repeatedly destroyed its infrastructure, Gaza may now be out of clean drinking water as soon as 2020. The casualness of such barbarity is staggering, especially since the population of Gaza is over 40% children under 14 years of age. No matter how one views the history of this region, it should be clear to most that Israel is far more powerful than Gaza, which is restricted by Israel in exporting goods, and has no army, air force or navy. In contrast, Israel is an economic powerhouse which exports military technology and pharmaceuticals, and is the fourth largest military power in the world in addition to possessing nuclear weapons.It also controls Gazan airspace, restricts travel in and out of the strip, and routinely fires on fishermen off its coast. It is an example of neoliberal plunder being played out with textbook precision in a Western nation. The powerful vanquish the powerless; and the wealthy grow their wealth in stupefying proportions in the midst of immense and imposed poverty. In India, the world’s most populous democracy, neoliberalism has carved out a landscape that magnifies wealth inequities. As in China, river ways are polluted with industrial waste in a mad dash toward the reward of material wealth and an inevitable descent into dystopian misery. It is a nation that is literally on the brink of mass migration, social collapse and extinction, but is one of the most lauded among the neoliberal elite. Here one can see the grotesque display of wealth sitting upon a pile of refuse being praised for its so-called progress. Mumbai is a visual aid to understanding the end result of neoliberalism. Gilded towers rise in supercilious impudence above fetid shanty towns of exploitation and misery. And the wealthy have created an insular bubble to shield them from the blight of indigence that surrounds them. As in Israel, there is a growing reactionary nationalism which poses unique and terrifying prospects given that it too possesses nuclear arms.
In truth the immoral metric of neoliberal capitalism is incapable of preparing us for the catastrophes looming on the horizon. Its machinery is greased by illusion, distraction and willful ignorance. It is the reason why depression and anxiety dominate the Western psyche. It is the most emblematic feature of a dying civilization, medicated to numbness through drugs, alcohol, violence, political spectacle and vacuous entertainment. It is an order that views the powerless as either commodities for exploitation or nuisances for disposal. The oil under the thawing Arctic or the beleaguered rainforests of South America and the bread basket of war torn Ukraine are all business opportunities. The damage done is calculated as “externalities,” essentially someone else’s problem. But the world is getting smaller and the dumping grounds are getting closer, even to the enclaves of the privileged and powerful.
We, as a species, have either created, permitted or have been oppressed by the order that is threatening our collective demise in a mere blip of geologic time. Indeed, it is this order that has already sentenced countless species to the halls of extinction; and enslaves millions of people around the world in sweatshop fire traps, pesticide ridden fields and lung choking mines. But our dissent is a raft to actualized freedom. Our ability to simply say no may be our last and greatest action against the brutality and cruelty of our age. It is certain that neoliberal capitalism’s days are numbered. To wit, regardless of its implacable hubris, it simply cannot outsmart nature. Sao Paulo, Gaza and India provide us with some of the best examples we have of its dystopian future. They should serve as warnings and ignite our conscience and imagination. But the minutes to midnight are quickening; and the ability of our species to deny reality and delay action is staggering. It is true that human beings have a remarkable capacity to rise from improbable ashes, but now we are facing the greatest nemesis we have ever encountered… ourselves. And the odds of us rising again after this ever impending fall are getting slimmer by the second.
“When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.” – John Muir
Standing on the precipice of the Sixth Mass Extinction I am reminded that the ironic Latin meaning of homo sapiens is “wise man.” But in a cemetery crowded with the bones of countless species, I am left with little room to marvel at our cleverness. Modern civilization has been driven toward its inevitable end in ecocide, yet even in the deafening collapse unfolding, the high priests of industry persist in manufacturing the illusion of endless consumption. Indeed, they have crafted such an intricate chimera that it appears that even they are no longer able to discern fact from fiction. But nature is unbound by our fantasies.
In the West the majority of us have been robbed of our agency save the power of how much legal tender we possess. And when that has been depleted, we are robbed of our very humanity. But, as in Plato’s cave, most of us are distracted by shadows and enslaved by a system that we are told is indispensable. Economic neoliberalism, which Wikipedia defines as “privatization, fiscal austerity, deregulation, free trade, and reductions in government spending in order to enhance the role of the private sector in the economy” is the last phase of capitalism, and it is also the most cruel. Under its dictates the ownership class has sanctified plunder as a virtue, and codified poverty as a grave sin with no redemption offered to the weakest among us. Nature has no value to it unless it can be packaged and sold.
Much of the food we eat are sentient beings born into death camps where they are sentenced to a life of cruelty and terror. Our clothing is little more than sweatshop bandages masking wounds of unspeakable inhumanity. Our homes are over-sized while huge swaths of our population freeze on city streets; and they are carved out of sanctuaries that were once diverse communities thriving with countless species. “Growth and sustainability” is the resounding chorus of the privileged few, even though what it really means is growing and sustaining the death machine that is rapaciously feeding on countless species and millions of people around the world. We fill our shopping carts with objects produced out of devastation and exploitation. And with a jingle, we are sent on our way. Meanwhile mega-cities like Sao Paulo are literally drying up, an intractable drought is ravaging the American southwest, and India and Pakistan swing from killing heatwaves to drowning deluges within weeks of each other.
A system like this inevitably leads to annihilation. But a society unwilling to face this and conditioned to think of itself as “exceptional” will cling to myths about Bronze Age heroes. It will be unable to distinguish between the shadows in the cave and light from the surface, and retreat into ever more banal, humiliating and sadistic forms of entertainment. It will grow paranoid about the foreigner or the ‘other’ and be unable to separate truth from illusion. It will render invisible the suffering of the weak while it deifies the celebrity class. It will react with violent denialism and embrace apocalyptic answers as the catastrophes unfold. And its leaders will exert every barbaric method available to them to maintain their seat at the top of a crumbling heap.
If one day an archeologist of some wiser species uncovers this cemetery, our species will be the only one without a tombstone, surrounded by countless species that most of us in the Western world have labeled disposable. And perhaps that is fitting since, for the vast majority of them, we were the careless cause of their demise. We are ferociously pulling at nature, and in the process we are rapidly unraveling the net that holds us. Nature will undoubtedly reweave its net with or without us. If it breaks can our species avoid extinction when we land? Perhaps, perhaps not. But if most of us do not even recognize that we rest atop a grand and wondrous net of life in the first place, the odds are stacked against it.
“We did not weave the web of life, we are merely strands in it. Whatever we do to the web we do to ourselves.” ― Chief Seattle (attributed).
When I was a boy my family would travel to Nova Scotia to visit my grandmother. She lived on an island off the coast that was close enough to get to by ferry in an hour, yet far enough away from “civilization” that one could feel happily secluded from its distractions and trappings. A breeze fresh with sea salt and pine off the bay would hurry me along dirt roads that led to no where. Deep in the wood I would be gently reminded of the ocean around me on all sides by the distant ping of a buoy. The pleasures there were simple, yet profoundly rich. Coming from New York I reveled in this solitude and natural wonder. My grandmother’s porch let out onto a beach strewn with round rocks and seaweed, and the backdoor opened onto a wood thick with pine and carpeted with moss. It was a land that seemed both exotically foreign and warmly familiar. I would spend my days going back and forth to each of these magical places with only short pit stops for an ice cream or a can of pop.
I am often reminded of these ethereal experiences when I have the good fortune to be in some place wild. I have been lucky to have hiked through jungles in Central America and across mountain ranges in the American west. I have been awed by the endless span of the desert and the billions, upon billions of stars that filled moonless nights. But sadly these moments have become mere punctuations in my life as adulthood has taken me through the underbelly of “civilization” and I struggle to breath in its plastic emptiness. It has become painful to see wildlife too close to the burgeoning sprawl, because I know that it will soon be trampled under the busy feet of progress, bulldozed into heaps of wood and entombed in concrete, glass and steel.
Industrial civilization, with its petro-economy, doomed the wilds of the earth centuries ago. Its cancerous penchant for endless growth and its disease of cupidity and avarice have commodified and butchered the natural world of which we are all born. Consumer capitalism has become the religion of the 21st century. Its liturgy of “market driven free trade” views the earth as an exploitable object and human beings as valuable only in terms of their material wealth. There is no room for the sacredness of the wild. Cloaked in garments of moral piety, the priests of Wall Street hold the ultimate power over all life on the planet. Their eyes may have been blotted out by greed, but their hands still grope feverishly for the next spoil. Meanwhile the oceans acidify and the permafrost is no longer permanent as it thaws rapidly and releases tons of methane, accelerating the warming of the climate. Despite the overwhelming evidence, extraction of fossil fuels has only increased. The melting Arctic ocean has become a playground for the petro-industry and the bloated military that protects their interests. They are not worried about a warming planet or dancing perilously close to another world war. They are busy piercing the surface of our fragile world like rapacious vampires that can never seem to draw enough of the earth’s blood to sate their appetite.
Watching the storms grow on the horizon can fill one with dread in those moments where denial is not at work. There is no where on this earth that industrial civilization has not touched. Plastic debris fills its oceans, industrial chemicals saturate its already diminished soil, and the air has become the repository for the poisonous byproducts of its feckless consumption. Its economic ideology has created an ownership class that has divided the world map into farms for its own wealth acquisition. It expands like bacteria engulfing what was once lush fields, meadows and woods. It crushes the powerless of foreign nations, colonizes their land and enslaves them in endless servitude for the perpetuation of its monstrous system. It scrapes away the tops of ancient mountains for minutes of electrical power.
The insanity that is industrial civilization was born of imperialism. Materialistic ideas of fortune became the priority of the aristocracy, and so the village and the community were sacrificed for the promise of more stuff. Petro-chemicals fueled the Green Revolution, where agriculture was industrialized on a massive scale. It dressed up the drive for these things in the guise of good intentions. Feeding the hungry became its pious mantra, even though the profit based economy was its true engine. Neoliberal capitalism, defined as “privatization, fiscal austerity, deregulation, free trade, and reductions in government spending in order to enhance the role of the private sector,” emerged from the shadows of imperialistic plunder. It rendered vast swaths of the earth open for boundless exploitation by the wealthy elite; and sentenced entire populations of indigenous people to a life of alienation, debt slavery and urban poverty.
There is no political will among the elites to acknowledge, much less address, the coming collapse that all of this has spawned. Multinational corporations and banks that control the world economy (and thus the world) would not tolerate a loss in their already over the top profits that would come as a result of any meaningful reform. “The economy must grow” is their unassailable chorus; and their existence, however fleeting, is dependent upon the continued, systematic rape of the natural world. The wilds be damned.
To be sure, I have no answer to the conundrum of industrial civilization. In addition to being a product of it, I am also a beneficiary of its plunder by virtue of when and where I was born. I have not fled to the last remaining wilderness from where I can pontificate beyond reproach. I understand how easy it is to become paralyzed by the spectacle of its dazzling, self-destructive decadence. But, by all accounts, it appears to be in its final act with its curtain call being the demise of countless species, including our own.
In my childhood wildlife seemed to be forever and untouchable. The woods, the meadows and the sea appeared to me to be endless and invincible. I could walk under the canopy of trees and never hear a plane or smell petrol or run across another soul for hours on end. Now that I am grown I see that all of it is as fragile as glass. I am beginning to grasp just how dire the situation really is and, despite the false hope that the environmental movement peddles, there are no viable solutions to address what lies ahead, save the immediate cessation of fossil fuels and of industrial society itself. Indeed, on our current trajectory we appear to be headed for a world more like Venus than the lush, green earth we have been privileged with. But despite all of this, there are still forests unfelled and fields untilled to walk through, and I hope that this realization will cause me to have more reverence for the wilds that are left and time to stand in awe of their sacredness…
before the bulldozers arrive.
Kenn Orphan 2014
(For photo credit and/or source click on photograph.)
“Extinction is the rule. Survival is the exception.” – Carl Sagan
We are all witnesses to the Great Dying, a sixth mass extinction, the last one being 65 million years ago which wiped out the dinosaurs. This is not hyperbole; it is a defining feature of our age.
Countless species are falling prey to the wealthy’s indifference, militarism and folly everyday. As in ancient civilizations, the wealthy and the privileged are generally the last to feel the pain of collapse, yet are most often the root cause. And compared to the mass of humanity we share this planet with, and as a result of rapacious exploitation and plunder, Americans, and westerners in general, are the wealthy and the privileged of modern civilization.
Despite overwhelming evidence of crashing ecosystems, many of us living in the twilight years of the American empire seem oblivious to the canaries in the coal mine. Every human being who has ever lived, lived here, on this little, saltwater drenched rock suspended in the endless, cold ocean of space. Yet so often one can feel as if they were alone, wandering among zombies and phantoms, unaware of or uninterested in grappling with what lies ahead of us. The magicians and merchants of corporate consumerism foster this disconnection gleefully, and create a labyrinth of distractions and doubts that add to the self-delusion.
Insipid optimism is the demand of our corporate kingdom. Eternal youth, popularity, and economic fortune, are to be believed not only possible, but necessary for fulfillment and social connection. This is not an optimism that enjoins the soul to more wondrous places, or that stirs a connection to the nature we are all born of. This is the kind of optimism that unhinges you from reality; and that chaffs the skin of your soul. It is like a chisel set against your skull. It is the kind of optimism that condescendingly tells us that “everything is going to be okay.” Even if this were somehow true, everything is NOT okay for millions of people and countless species around the planet right now. And not acknowledging that underscores the inherent callousness in this way of thinking. It masquerades as hope; but it is merely cruelty obscured by a deceptive, mocking jingle.
In our society we are temporarily appeased by objects created for one use. In fact many wars of our age are fought for just this purpose. The plastic items that are choking our oceans were born in the darkness of oil wells and tar sands, drilled and scraped clean for the ease of a fleeting moment, and tossed away to become forgotten, yet enduring pollution. The shaming evidence is scuttled away in the darkness of the early morning, so that our day, our very important day, is not inconvenienced by the unending moan of the nature we crush under busy, productive feet.
Plastic debris that has washed up along the shore of the Azores. Photo courtesy of 5 Gyres.
The petro-dollar has made our penchant for convenience and self-delusion incredibly efficient. It has spawned the neoliberal economics that repress hundreds of millions of people and that is now driving us all toward extinction. And we have been conditioned to see this all as merely “the way of progress,” and to malign and ridicule those whose hearts see such sights and mourn the enormous weight of history, the staggering lack of empathy and the gaping dearth of a viable future for a species callously divorced from its soul.
We have been meticulously trained to separate life itself into worthiness categories, in fact, to be seen only as useful if it serves our copious desire for more. We house millions of sentient beings in concentration camps, bereft of comfort or even the ability to turn around, often brutally beaten and mutilated, stripped of the dignity any creature has a birthright to, all to sate our unending appetite for flesh.
We avert our eyes to the plastic bags clinging to the branches of decrepit trees, or the bottle caps that outnumber seashells on the shore, or the birthday balloons floating atop the waves at the beach, even while knowing their destination will in all likelihood be the stomach of some hapless sea turtle. After all, paying attention might cause us to question. It might cause us to change. It might reignite the sacred reverence our ancestors knew. It might cause us to face the demons of our cupidity and the resulting devastation and suffering they cause.
(photo: Chris Jordan)
We can remain in denial about the ecocide we are all witness to, as the cult of optimism would have us do, or we can acknowledge and embrace the sorrow that is a natural response to loss, devastation and catastrophe. In grief we make a choice to honor the lost and their existence. We speak in a clear voice, to anyone who will listen, that their lives mattered. And we are also forced to face our own mortality in the process.
Agreeing to walk through our grief honestly can be a catalyst for creative defiance and undaunted dissent. It is perhaps the only resistance we can offer to the insistence of apathy imposed on us from the wraiths on Wall Street and Madison Avenue. The unnatural barriers they have erected to mask our humanity crumble in the rancid pile they deserve when a soul is set free to grieve. It is in grief that we find ourselves to be inseparable from each other, and from the nature from which we are all born. In this way, sorrow is the only coherent answer to extinction. It is a wail of conscience.
(photo: Getty Images)
Bearing witness to the unprecedented crime of ecocide sweeping our planet is not accepting the carnage, it is lending another voice to testify on the behalf of the victims. And in doing so, it succeeds in making the difficult case for the worth of the human soul.
Recently, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, one of the most conservative, scientific/political organizations, issued its most dire report to date. It warned that climate change will have “severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts” in coming decades. It goes on to say that “the risk of abrupt and irreversible change increases as the magnitude of the warming increases.” Unknown to most of the public is that this panel is very conservative and years behind reality in its assessments. Their reports are also subject to being watered down for geopolitical and economic reasons. As a UN body, the IPCC responds to its masters. And, like the World Bank, they follow the dictates of neoliberal capitalism. The common definition of neoliberalism, the dominant geopolitical force of our age, refers to “economic liberalization, privatization, free trade, open markets, deregulation, and reductions in government spending in order to enhance the role of the private sector in the economy.”
Economic neoliberalism attaches a monetary value to everything that exists and, in doing so, catastrophically demeans that value, transforming it into something that is easily disposable. It commodifies the very building blocks of life. It dismantles the commons by enforcing private ownership. It replaces citizenship with consumerism. It hustles us toward extinction and ecocide with a jingle in our heads and a shopping bag in our hand. It endorses endless war, endless distraction and the rape of the natural world, because these are the only things that will sustain its existence. It is self destruction, writ large.
The malignant tide that brought us to this place is rising fast. Centuries of plunder and exploitation are rendering the oceans and the planet barren and fallow. Soon it will be impossible for any human being to traverse this landscape unsullied, where the snares of a beleaguered ecosystem are ubiquitous, the currency of the state is violence, and the native tongue of its leaders is cruelty. In fact, the established plutocratic class is getting nervous. They do not have a plan outside of maintaining their current campaigns of plunder, distracting the public, and constructing a police state to insure their power and wealth remain intact. So it is a fair assumption that their well deserved paranoia will spark even more heavy handed repression and violence.
But more people are beginning to shake off the shackles of endless fear mongering and war drumming imposed on them from the powers that be. More are beginning to tire of the vapid celebrity worship, the car-wrecks of cruel humiliation that pass as entertainment, and the empty promises of fulfillment and wholeness that feckless cupidity and consumerism offer. More are beginning to see through the lies.
It is unclear if our species will weather the coming storms, droughts, social unrest, police state violence, corporate plunder and threat of nuclear war. Indeed our right to go on is questionable given our long history of horrific treatment of the most vulnerable among us, and the countless species with whom we share this planet. But one thing is certain; no one will be able to take this journey unmolested. Even as it is being decimated, we are all inextricably connected to this marvelous world. And perhaps, with that in mind, we can turn away from the self-indulgent madness of our time and appreciate what is left and realize just how good we had it.
From a months worth of rain falling in a matter of hours, to wildfires devouring the lush rainforests and the icy Arctic tundra, we are witnessing records being broken one after another with each passing day. One does not need to be a scientist to see a shocking increase of extreme weather events. Yet, still, denialism persists. “We must grow the economy!” “Drill, baby drill!” It is madness on an epic scale.
The earth doesn’t care about our economy. She has no use for our political protestations either. She responds only to our folly. And she is groaning from the injuries we have inflicted on her. She has a fever; and if she does not treat it soon the results will prove dire for her future.
No greater visual exists to demonstrate her malady than the Alberta Tar Sands. It is a blight that covers an area the size of Florida and can be seen from space. It is a cancerous tumor, a melanoma on the skin of the earth that continues to grow and metastasize, spewing its noxious breath into the atmosphere while being fueled by the fallacious myth of infinite growth on a finite planet.
The West continues to be mired in a corporate fantasy world, drowning as we toast our good fortune. All the while the real world, that every species relies on for sustenance and survival, is withering and suffocating before our eyes. Those who call attention to the ecocide are often maligned and marginalized, living as exiles from the Kingdom of Eternal Optimism. The oceans are acidifying, intractable drought threatens our food and water supply, floods threaten our cities. We are facing extinction; not just of countless other species but of our own. Yet there is little to no alarm or pause from the mass media and popular culture.
We may be alone in this universe, but it is unlikely. Perhaps it is filled with other species who made it as far as we did and survived or even thrived. Or perhaps it is littered with the bones of long dead societies who had similar aspirations. We may never know. What we do know is this, the planet that we live on is rapidly changing before our eyes. The earth, our only home, has a raging fever. And she will not wait for our over indulgent deliberations. Her prognosis is good though. She is going to survive her disease. For humanity, however, it isn’t looking so good.
Kenn Orphan 2014
Alberta Tar Sands, once pristine boreal forest. Photographer Peter Essick
Alberta Tar Sands at night. Photographer Garth Lenz
Pristine Alberta boreal forest before destruction/National Geographic
The World Bank, perhaps the best example of a “front man” for today’s corporate, capitalistic, economic policies, eagerly promotes and defends the gospel of 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.” But however it is spun, it is essentially organized crime with an official seal. It takes poor nations, previously colonized, exploited, and enslaved, and says “here, take this impossible loan to pull yourselves out of the impoverishment we imposed on you for centuries, and in return we will allow multinational corporations to take your resources and enslave your people in low wage, sweat shops.”
And water is its next project.
Echoing mission statements of multi-national, mega-corporations, it recently declared that water should be privatized. In other words: owned. Shelter, food, air and water are essential to life. Shelter and food have already been privatized around the planet. Air is still out of reach although they are polluting it as fast as the other three. But water is what they are eying now.
(Coca Cola extracts huge quantities of water in India, often robbing poor communities of their only access. Photo credit: Oxfam)
Water sources around the world are being consumed and polluted by industry at a staggering rate, and communities that suffer from this exploitation seldom have any legal recourse against the offending companies. From Michigan to India to Africa, huge corporations like Coca~Cola and Nestle have bought up aquifers, wells and springs, and have sold back the water they extract in huge quantities to already impoverished communities at a highly inflated rate.
(Boys transport water jugs in South Sudan. Photo credit: Geoff Pugh/Oxfam)
The impact of water, or the lack of it, often spawns or exacerbate conflicts. Syria has suffered for years with an intractable drought; and many attribute the civil war that has claimed thousands of lives to this crisis. If water continues to be privatized we will undoubtedly see this tragedy repeated the world over as poor or disenfranchised populations are forced to relocate to urban areas or neighboring countries. Add to this the other dire ramifications of climate change, and the dust bowl conditions it induces, and the privatization of water becomes just one more banal cruelty inflicted on the poor.
(an Iraqi farmer sits by a trickling stream in Dayala province. Photo:Reuters)
Recent events in Detroit attest to the reality that this battle for human life and dignity is not merely a “third world problem.” Water rights are being assaulted everywhere. In this once thriving American city, it has become a tool of social control. The city has “shut-off” water to thousands of residents due to their inability to afford the exorbitant cost. It has effectively informed the public that it’s “right to life” is only viable insofar as their ability to pay for it. The part that racism plays in all of this is troubling too, as most of the communities targeted are disproportionately people of color. This is all unfolding in the richest nation on the planet; yet the situation has deteriorated so much that the United Nations has been called in to investigate.
The world over, ruthless profiteers have been trying to convince the public that it is natural to attach a dollar sign to everything, including water. For example the former CEO and now-Chairman, Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, of Nestle was quoted as saying “access to water is not a public right.” Under their scheme, they aim to own all rights to it, and only the wealthiest will be able to pay the extortionate cost assigned to it.
(A protestor in Detroit, Michigan. Photo credit: Occupy.com)
Whether it is Detroit, Michigan or Nagpur, India, access to clean water should be understood as a fundamental human right. But, like so many other rights, it is being systematically stripped away from us by corporations, industry and their henchmen at the World Bank. All things considered there is one certainty, this issue is destined to become a defining feature of the 21st century, and, perhaps, the most important struggle against this new age of tyranny.
Kenn Orphan 2014
(Photo at top: Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, Nestle. Credit: AP)