The Civilization We Grew Up In Is Already Dead. So now what?

“If we want to learn how to live in the Anthropocene, we must first learn how to die.”

This is the last line in a fine essay by Roy Scranton, former U.S. soldier and currently a doctoral candidate in English at Princeton University.  The essay, published in the New York Times philosophy blog “The Stone,” is one of those rare attempts to really lay out the gravity of the situation we face today, as humans on a rapidly destabilizing planet.

Readers of Transition Times have been hearing me give my doom-and-gloom warnings for years now.  But it’s very rare that such grim scenarios break into the gilded precincts inhabited by readers of The New York Times.

Here is Scranton:

“The challenge the Anthropocene poses is a challenge not just to national security, to food and energy markets, or to our “way of life” — though these challenges are all real, profound, and inescapable. The greatest challenge the Anthropocene poses may be to our sense of what it means to be human.

“Within 100 years — within three to five generations — we will face average temperatures 7 degrees Fahrenheit higher than today, rising seas at least three to 10 feet higher, and worldwide shifts in crop belts, growing seasons and population centers.

“Within a thousand years, unless we stop emitting greenhouse gases wholesale right now, humans will be living in a climate the Earth hasn’t seen since the Pliocene, three million years ago, when oceans were 75 feet higher than they are today.

Aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan

Aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan

“We face the imminent collapse of the agricultural, shipping and energy networks upon which the global economy depends, a large-scale die-off in the biosphere that’s already well on its way, and our own possible extinction.

“If homo sapiens (or some genetically modified variant) survives the next millenniums, it will be survival in a world unrecognizably different from the one we have inhabited.”

Yes.  We know this.  It’s actually what Scranton does next in his essay that most interests me.

He makes a turn into the humanities, arguing that since “studying philosophy is about learning how to die,” then we have now “entered humanity’s most philosophical age — for this is precisely the problem of the Anthropocene. The rub is that now we have to learn how to die not as individuals, but as a civilization.”

Scranton reminds us that “the biggest problems the Anthropocene poses are precisely those that have always been at the root of humanistic and philosophical questioning: ‘What does it mean to be human?’ and ‘What does it mean to live?’

“In the epoch of the Anthropocene, the question of individual mortality — ‘What does my life mean in the face of death?’ — is universalized and framed in scales that boggle the imagination. What does human existence mean against 100,000 years of climate change? What does one life mean in the face of species death or the collapse of global civilization? How do we make meaningful choices in the shadow of our inevitable end?”

These are the kind of questions I ruminate about daily.  It comes back to Mary Oliver’s signature question, in her haunting poem “The Summer Day”—“What will I do with my one wild and precious life?”

We never know if our own deaths are right around the corner.  Will the truck driver around the next bend be distracted by his phone, cross the yellow line and blow me to oblivion?  Will my next physical exam reveal a terminal illness?  It could happen any time.

But as Scranton says, the climate change issue is much bigger than any of our individual lives.  It’s about the future of human civilization on the planet.

He ends his essay provocatively, saying that the problem of climate change cannot be solved by “buying a Prius, signing a treaty, or turning off the air-conditioning.” What is needed is a profound philosophical shift; to go from a civilization built on the illusion of endless growth and consumption, to a steady-state civilization that the planet can sustain.

We need to realize, Scranton says, that the human civilization all of us grew up in “is already dead. The sooner we confront this problem, and the sooner we realize there’s nothing we can do to save ourselves, the sooner we can get down to the hard work of adapting, with mortal humility, to our new reality.”

Yeb Sano breaks down speaking about the devastation in the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan, and begs the climate negotiators to act decisively to curb carbon emissions

Yeb Sano breaks down speaking about the devastation in the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan, and begs the climate negotiators to act decisively to curb carbon emissions

Watching the desperation on the faces and in the voices of the climate negotiators from sea-level nations like the Philippines, Bangladesh, and the Maldives, it’s clear that these folks have already absorbed the lesson we in the higher-terrain countries have yet to confront.

We cannot go on with business as usual any longer.

Not if we want to bequeath a livable Earth to our descendants.

Severn Suzuki speaking out

Severn Suzuki speaking out

Severn Suzuki said it all, so eloquently, speaking to a climate change summit way back in 1992, when she was just a girl of 12.  Are we ready to listen yet?

Rio+20: Fiddling While Earth Burns

I am having trouble summoning any enthusiasm over the upcoming Rio+20 UN Conference, which will begin on June 20.

When you go to the conference website, everything sounds so benign, forward-looking and responsible.  For example, talking about food security, the conference framers call for the promulgation of sustainable agriculture, meaning “the capacity of agriculture over time to contribute to overall welfare by providing sufficient food and other goods and services in ways that are economically efficient and profitable, socially responsible, and environmentally sound.”

It sounds marvelous.  But we all know that during the last 20 years, since the first Earth Summit in 1992, industrial agriculture has only gotten bigger and badder, more focused on profit at the expense of social responsibility or environmental stewardship.

Food security for the majority of people on the planet has become a pipe dream, and even the most privileged of us are growing increasingly vulnerable to disruptions in food supplies caused by climate change, monoculture and the superweeds and superbugs that have developed resistance to our chemicals.

I was not surprised to find in my inbox this morning an eloquent position paper from La Via Campesina, seeing right through the rosy language of the “sustainable development” engineers to recognize that “beneath the deceptive and badly intentioned term “green economy”, new forms of environmental contamination and destruction are now rolled out along with new waves of privatization, monopolization, and expulsion from our lands and territories.”

Here is how La Via Campesina, which represents indigenous and peasant farmers worldwide, but particularly in South America, sees the “green economy”:

“The green economy does not seek to reduce climate change or environmental deterioration, but to generalize the principle that those who have money can continue polluting. Up to now, they have used the farce of purchasing carbon bonds to continue emitting greenhouse gases. They are now inventing biodiversity bonds. This is to say, businesses can continue destroying forests and ecosystems, as long as they pay someone to supposedly conserve biodiversity somewhere else. Tomorrow they may invent bonds for water, natural “views”, or clean air.”

I am afraid that this analysis is right on target.  The whole premise of the REDD agreements, under which communities were to be paid for conserving their forests, has only resulted in a land rush to purchase the forests so as to collect the international funding.  And to add insult to injury, REDD has allowed the destruction of virgin forests and replanting of, say, palm oil plantations, to “count” as forest conservation.

So the international capitalists make out like bandits, and the local people who have lived peacefully and harmoniously in the forests for thousands of years suddenly find themselves given the boot.

In the first anthology I edited, Women Writing Resistance: Essays on Latin America and the Caribbean (South End Press, 2004), I included an essay by Rigoberta Menchu, the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize winner from Guatemala, who has become a major voice for global indigenous rights and environmental stewardship.  The essay describes Menchu’s unofficial visit to the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992.

Rigoberta Menchu Tum

“I had gone to find out what their idea of the earth, plants and nature might be, and what I found was a commercial version of ecology,” she said.  “There were T-shirts with tigers, lions and parrots painted on them, and plastic bags with animals’ faces.  It was a case of businessmen making money out of the environment.”

Although Menchu ended on a more hopeful note back in the ‘90s when this essay was first published, I have no doubt that today she is less optimistic, given the way events have played out over the past 20 years.  It is no exaggeration to say that the capitalist assault on the natural world combined with the human population overload of the planet has brought us to the brink of civilization collapse.

The calm, rationalist language of the Rio+20 architects reveals no sign of awareness of the dire state of the planet.  They seem to have constructed their conference materials in an air-conditioned bubble, through which the voices of the billions of ordinary people on the ground cannot penetrate.

La Via Campesina is calling for a return to small-scale agriculture as the solution to the Earth’s problems. They argue that a relocalization of agriculture is necessary, with indigenous and peasant farmers given cooperative control over their lands, as it was for the thousands of years preceding our own unfortunate era.

We will never get the diplomats, technocrats and financial oligarchs in the air-conditioned conference halls to agree to such a simple, unprofitable solution to food security.

But the feedback loops that have made our planet stable since the last Ice Age are now becoming severely disrupted, and so Earth may take matters into her own hands, forcing a relocalization in which only those who still remember how to subsist in small groups close to the land will be able to survive.

Is this the great transition prophesied by the Mayans long ago?  The end of the age of technocratic capitalism, and the return to a simpler way of life?

Global meetings such as Rio+20 should be occasions for making plans, together with the small-scale farmers on the ground all over the world, for intelligent transitions to truly sustainable communities. There is still time to prepare for the coming ecological shocks so as to prevent mass misery.

Instead, governments are using this precious time to build up armies and police forces to ensure the control of ever-shrinking resources by the wealthy, and selling small-scale arms to local gangs to encourage violence and terror outside of the gated communities of the rich nations.

This is a strategy that keeps us all in line—we in the wealthy nations are terrified of the violence we see outside our borders, and so we docilely do as we are told, which is to say, continue to participate in the aggressive policies that are bringing us all to ruin.

I see the twin monsters of the weapons and the chemical industries as the most destructive forces on our planet today.  If these two industries could be stopped, and their destructive products destroyed, imagine what a different world we’d be living in.

We may not be able to put those evil genies back into the bottle ourselves.  But the planet will take care of it, sooner or later.

Right now, it’s looking like it’s going to be soon.

Staring down the crystal ball

I really want to believe it’s all a hoax.

Why else would not one mainstream media outlet be reporting on the massive danger posed by the unused fuel rods in Fukushima Reactor 4?

Today I learned (through a link posted by on Facebook by my friend, the author Susan Griffin) that a group of high-level scientists, diplomats and civil society organizations has issued an urgent call to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, requesting U.N. leadership in an international effort to stabilize the fuel the wrecked Fukushima plant.

This call has been endorsed by U.S. Senator Roy Wyden, who visited the plant in April and reiterated the call for urgent international action.

If the fuel in the plant were released into the atmosphere, which would be almost inevitable in the event of another earthquake, “this could result in a catastrophic radiological fire involving nearly 10 times the amount of Cesium-137 released by the Chernobyl accident,” according to the letter to Secretary Ban.

Fukushima burning

Given the climatological realities of wind and ocean currents, this could potentially put hundreds of millions of people at risk of radiation poisoning—not to mention the devastating effects on flora and fauna.

Remember the reports of thousands seals with fatal skin lesions washing up in the Arctic? Apparently polar bears and whales are also known to be affected.

Imagine that multiplied tenfold, and affecting not just marine life, but humans as well.

And then ask yourself, why is only one U.S. Senator engaged with this issue?

Why are we frittering away our precious time on White House Correspondents Dinners and sports events, when in so many ways our future hangs in the balance, connected by a very short fuse to multiple forms of total catastrophe?

Sometimes I look down at my peacefully sleeping dog and think, maybe he has the right idea.

Why fret and worry about the future?  It will come soon enough…might as well enjoy life while it lasts.

But that is what separates us humans from other species.  We can see into the future.  We can spin out possible future scenarios based on how we act today.

And given these crystal balls of ours, can we really in good conscience shrug our shoulders and head off peacefully to bed?

A new generation rises, and with them, our hopes

Today I gave the keynote address at the regional Model UN student conference sponsored by Bard College at Simon’s Rock.

On the one hand, it was heart-warming to look out and see that crowded lecture hall filled with bright, eager young faces, ready to step on to the world stage, if only in theory, and play leadership roles.

On the other hand, it was sobering to have to be the bearer of such grim tidings.

I started out by taking them back to a choral Ode in the Antigone that has always haunted me, the one where the Chorus sings the praises of human technological prowess, while at the same time sounding a warning note about how mankind’s “cunning…is the fertile skill which brings him, now to evil, now to good.

“When he honors the laws of the land, and that justice which he has sworn by the gods to uphold, proudly stands his city: no city has he who, for his rashness, dwells with sin.”

In other words, I told the students, we humans can do all kinds of amazing things with our great intelligence, but we will only prosper if we keep our moral compass and use our powers for good.

The Ode is basically a list of areas in which human beings have excelled, and that list is as valid today as it was in the 5th century B.C.: our power of navigation and transportation; agriculture; our dominion over other animals, wild and domestic; our ability to withstand the elements by building shelter and creating fire; our medical arts; our facility with language and “wind-swift thought.”

Truly we are a “wondrous” species.  And yet the fact that this list is recited in the tragedy of Antigone bears witness to the fact that our great “cunning” does not always guide us well.

In Antigone, Creon is a proud, vindictive tyrant who demands absolute allegiance from his subjects, including his niece Antigone.  When Antigone defies his order to let her brother’s remains be left in the open for the crows to feast on, and goes out alone to bury him, Creon goes into a fury and orders her arrested and sentenced to death.

It’s clear that the Chorus in this play believes Creon’s action is wrong.  Antigone was obeying her own moral judgement, putting her filial and religious obligations before her allegiance to the King. And just as the Chorus predicted in the initial Ode, because he is not using his power wisely and ethically, in the end Creon’s house will fall.

In our time, I told the students, the same kinds of battles rage, of good people standing up for their beliefs against oppressive tyrants, who don’t hesitate to imprison and even execute any who defy their power.

The Arab Spring showed us what can happen when enough people dare to speak truth to power and defy an authoritarian state  In the United States, the Occupy movements are now standing up, not so much against the state, as against the corporate capitalist elites—who often are the power behind the thrones of the various nations.

Even in our own country, the price of defying the status quo can be high.

But, I told the students, given the perilous state of the world today, the price of staying quiet and going along with the flow is inevitably going to be much higher.

I reminded them of the many dangers that face us today, including:

  • the homogenization of media and the reduction of education to multiple choice tests, instead of a media that stands strong in its watchdog role and an educational system that focuses on teaching students how to think creatively and question authority;
  • the tremendous militarization of police and national forces, with most countries fairly bristling with lethal weapons, from handguns to bombs;
  • environmental degradation and loss of biodiversity, including the contamination of our air, soils and waters with toxic chemicals caused by the very agriculture celebrated in the Antigone Ode;
  • serious health problems caused by environmental toxins and chemical additives in our food supply;
  • and above all, the looming menace of anthropogenic global warming.

These will be familiar themes to anyone who has been reading my blog these past few months.  But it was good to speak these ideas out loud this time, to the young people who are going to have to bear the brunt of the problems.

I quoted U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, who told negotiators from 200 nations gathered at the recent COP17 climate conference in Durban that the situation was so urgent that they could not afford to wait for unified global action.

“Don’t wait for a binding agreement,” he said. “It could take years. All member states should take their own measures,” before it’s too late.

“Last year we saw the highest emissions ever,” Mr. Ban said. “If we carry on as though it is business as usual we will be out of business.”

Those are pretty stark, unequivocal words from the leader of the closest thing we have to a global government.

Given the need for drastic change in the way we do business as a civilization, I challenged the students to dare to think outside the box.

I encouraged them to let Antigone be their guide as they began their Model UN negotiations. “If you know that a policy is wrong, don’t be afraid to say so, and to fight for what you believe,” I told them.

I urged them not to let artificial boundaries like nation, race, class, religion or gender cloud their vision of what is needed to succeed in the goal of making human society safer, more nurturing, and more sustainable for us all.

“It is a deeply flawed, damaged world you will all soon be stepping out into as young adults,” I said.  “We live in a time of accelerated change and unprecedented transition.  None of us knows what lies around the bend.  But we do know that no matter what, we will be better off if we work proactively to overcome narrow national self-interests and begin to think in planetary terms—and not just about human interests, but in terms of the good of the entire web of life of which we are a part.”

Our only chance at changing the way we do business as a civilization, I said,  rests with our ability to successfully communicate with one another–to use the powers of “speech and wind-swift thought” commended by the Chorus of Antigone. 

What we need are not the stylized battles of debate, but the true, open-hearted communication of consensus building, where all viewpoints are listened to respectfully, and all positions are judged both on their own merits and on how well they’ll contribute to the collective goal of making the world a better place.

As I stepped away from the podium, I felt sad that I had to lay such a heavy burden on these bright young people, who through no fault of their own have inherited a planet in such disarray.

But I also felt the surge of hope that always rises again with each new generation.  Maybe this generation will be the one to turn off the beaten path and forge a new relationship with our planetary home.  Perhaps they will be able to resist the centripetal pull towards conformity.

As they all filed out of the room to take up their places at the Model UN negotiating tables, my heart went with them.  They are our last best hope.

 

Carbon Colonialism: Just Say No!

Do ordinary people need to commit suicide to gain the attention of the global elites?

You may remember, back in 2003, a Korean farmer named Lee Kyung Hae committed suicide outside the grounds of the World Trade Organization meetings in Cancun, Mexico, as a protest against the impact of first world subsidies of grain production, which effectively pushed small farmers in developing countries out of business.

He set himself on fire right in front of the police barricades keeping him and others like him outside of the WTO talks.

Afterwards, there was a movement by the representatives of developing countries to form a bloc of resistance to the demands of the global elites.  It worked, for a while.

But now, 8 years later, the global elites are at it again, worse than ever.

At this year’s climate talks in Durban, South Africa, representatives of indigenous communities worldwide are protesting at the barricades again, locked out of the talks on complex trade negotiations over carbon offsets, sequestration and deforestation.

It’s not easy to understand the documents produced by the U.N. and government agencies, laying out what’s called the REDD accords: Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation.

It all sounds very nice when you read the summary on the U.N. website.

“Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) is an effort to create a financial value for the carbon stored in forests, offering incentives for developing countries to reduce emissions from forested lands and invest in low-carbon paths to sustainable development. “REDD+” goes beyond deforestation and forest degradation, and includes the role of conservation, sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon stocks.

“It is predicted that financial flows for greenhouse gas emission reductions from REDD+ could reach up to US$30 billion a year. This significant North-South flow of funds could reward a meaningful reduction of carbon emissions and could also support new, pro-poor development, help conserve biodiversity and secure vital ecosystem services.”

Yes, well, it does sound nice.  But in fact, when that much money is at stake, corruption is not far behind.

As detailed in an important new report called the No REDD Papers, what’s been happening in the name of REDD is a gigantic forest grab, with major multinational energy corporations ruthlessly buying up and bullying their way into land rights to forests in the global south, so that they can not only make money by going on their merry way of fostering carbon emissions in the North, but also make money by collecting the rewards for forest conservation in the south.

And there’s more.  Under REDD+, reforestation is also potentially a growth industry.  But there are insufficient regulations on what constitutes reforestation.  A complex rainforest environment could be harvested, destroyed, and “reforested” with a monocultural non-native cash crop, like bamboo or eucalyptus or palm, which will be “sustainably harvested,” yes, but will actually store a fraction of the carbon of the original rainforest, and will support a tiny fraction of the original biodiversity.

It also results in Native people being pushed off their ancestral lands, by swindle or by force.

The indigenous people, from Niger to Alberta to the Amazon, are not stupid.  They’re wise to what they’re calling “carbon colonialism.”

“REDD/ REDD+ is bad for people, bad for politics and bad for the climate,” says Tom B.K. Goldtooth of the Indigenous Environmental Network. “It will inevitably give more control over Indigenous Peoples’ forests to state forest departments, loggers, miners, plantation companies, traders, lawyers, speculators, brokers, Washington conservation organisations and Wall Street, resulting in violations of rights, loss of livelihoods—and, ultimately, more forest loss.”

I don’t want to be part of this scheme.  To me, as to the indigenous forest defenders, it’s all quite simple.  We must reduce carbon emissions.  We must not only reduce deforestation, but encourage forest regeneration–and not of plantations, but of natural biodiverse forest habitats.

It’s not about making money any more.  It’s about sustaining life–our lives, our children’s lives, the entire web of life upon which we depend.

This time the neocolonial cowboys are not going to be able to get away with murder.  The glare of the internet is upon them.  We will not stand by passively and let a new era of displacement and exploitation take place under the euphemism of “conservation.”

Not this time.  Never again.

And we shouldn’t have to be committing suicide to get attention, either.  There has been enough death and destruction in our world these first years of the 21st century.  Let’s go forward under the banner of Eros, not Thanatos.

Let’s work together for Life.

Peace Day Travesties

Last night my son reminded me that it was Peace Day yesterday, and my heart sank even lower.  How could it be that on the day dedicated to world peace, the U.S. allowed an improperly tried man to be put to death by lethal injection?

Perhaps even worse, how could it be that our President chose this day to appear before the United Nations opposing the Palestinian government’s efforts to negotiate a two-state resolution with Israel?

Obama’s speech was laden with bitter irony for those who could hear between the lines.  How could he laud the people of other Middle Eastern states like Egypt, Libya and Yemen for taking matters in their own hands and violently overthrowing oppressive rulers, while at the same time telling the Palestinians that they should wait, be patient and let others decide their fate?

What difference is there, really, between an oppressive dictator like Qaddafi and an oppressive state dictatorship like the one Israel exercises over Palestine?  In both cases it’s a matter of people’s basic human rights being violated.  In neither case do the people have the “democracy” that Obama praised in his speech yesterday.  Why is it OK for the Libyans to rise up and throw out the oppressors, but not for the Palestinians?

Of course, we know the answer.  Because American Jews have too much invested in the success of the state of Israel, and are too afraid of the Palestinians to see them as anything other than potential terrorists.  Because American Jews wield considerable power in the U.S. government, and their support can make or break a political candidate here at home.

Under these circumstances, I am not proud to be an American of Jewish descent (I can’t call myself a Jew because I have never practiced the religion and am largely unfamiliar with it).

I’m not happy to be a white American either, given the clear racialization of the American criminal justice system, with people of color receiving much harsher treatment, from the police on the streets to the courts and the prisons, than people of European descent.

What do I do with my guilt over the way “my people” are treating others?  I can “pass” as a non-Jew and distance myself from that community, but I can’t exactly “pass” as a person of color.

What I have to do, and what all of us who deplore the oppression that was blazoned across the headlines on World Peace Day should do, is to ally myself firmly with those who stand for freedom.  In many cases, sad to say, this would mean opposing the policies of the U.S. government and many of its cronies, like the state of Israel.

Dissent from majority opinion has a long and proud history in our country and we should not be afraid to stand up for what we believe, even if we appear to be opposing the powers that be.

Yesterday the Supreme Court of the United States declined to step in and save the life of Troy Davis even though it was plain to hundreds of thousands of onlookers that he did not deserve execution.  Yesterday President Obama went on record as opposing the efforts of President Abbas of Palestine to finally take his rightful place among the league of nations at the U.N.

Justices and President, I respectfully disagree with you.  A lot of us disagree with you, a lot of the time.  You need to start listening to us ordinary folks again, and give us a government we can be proud of.

Otherwise, you might just wake up one morning and find the Arab Spring has come to America–with you, or at least the oppressive establishment you represent–as the targets this time.

 

 

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