Archive for September, 2014

/rant on

I already have one post regarding theater of the absurd, but that was more a stunt with diverse unrelated elements. This one from the LA Times features California GOP gubernatorial candidate Neel Kashkari taking a mallet to a toy train to promote his idiotic position against building high-speed rail linking Los Angeles and San Francisco. (Maybe California is too bankrupt and drought-stricken — perhaps soon to experience a major diaspora — to consider infrastructure upgrades, but that’s not what’s under discussion.) Kashkari also gave away $25 gas cards to the first 100 attendees of his campaign event to sweeten the deal. In the news story, comparison is made to a similar bit of political theater by Arnold Schwarzenegger, who dropped a wrecking ball onto an Oldsmobile to signal his dissent regarding onerous annual automobile registration fees.

Now then, I can’t say for certain what’s going on inside the heads of numbskull candidates whose best ideas amount to busting shit up to make their points, but forcing Californians to climb into their cars by thwarting mass transit options is more than a little questionable when the roadways and air are already choked with traffic and smog:

I see a similar layer of smog over Chicago nearly every morning, though it’s usually visible as a layer of brown gunk only when the sun has not yet risen too far over Lake Michigan. Later in the day, it’s gray haze. Chicago traffic congestion is also a serious problem despite numerous mass transit options, which begs all sorts of other questions.

No doubt it sounds conspiratorial to suggest that automobile manufacturers and Big Oil marched everyone unwittingly into their cars and bought or installed their share of government lackeys to aid and abet. But there was and still is lots of lucre to be made by doing so. And how else can any thinking person possibly rationalize the continuing destruction of the natural world that comes with paving over the landscape and extracting the energy needed to keep happy motoring alive? This doesn’t even account for the horrific number of traffic deaths each year. True, trends have gone consistently down over time when averaged over millions of vehicle miles traveled, but maybe that’s partially accounted for by congestion. The sheer number of deaths is still startling.

Similar questions can be raised regarding economists and political hacks who fail utterly to see any limits to growth — indeed, cannot believe that finitude is anywhere or anytime nearby — despite severely diminished returns on continued extraction of resources, worsening overpopulation, and toxification of water, soil, and air. To be alive in the 21st century means knowing (if one has the courage to face the truth) that we’re slowly killing ourselves through a variety of behaviors that are now so deeply woven into industrial civilization as to be inescapable. So we all continue to drive, use electricity (generated by burning coal or by nuclear fusion), and have babies because, frankly, we don’t know how to do anything else. And no one with the power to “move the needle” is saying much about what should have us all shocked and awed, namely, the fully anticipatable wreckage of the modern world coming soon to neighborhoods near yours and mine and everyone’s. Instead, we get buffoonery such as continuous wars, campaign theater of the absurd, and political promises of a brighter future. Our disconnect from what reality will deliver could not be more complete.

/rant off

The failed Scottish referendum on independence from Old Blighty caught me off guard. I thought perhaps it would be the first secessionist movement in the 21st century to succeed. But alas, breaking up is hard to do, as the song lyric goes. A cursory survey of geopolitical hotspots reveals that there may be a quiet movement afoot, something in the air perhaps. For example, Québec also failed in its latest attempt to establish sovereignty from Canada in 1995, whereas the Free State Project in New Hampshire has yet to test the waters. Texas always has someone beating the drum about secession, but it appears to be mostly rhetoric. More sympathetically, the Republic of Lakota declared sovereignty in 2007, which is yet to be recognized by the U.S. government. There must certainly be other secessionist movements on other continents besides N. America of which I’m unaware.

Secession is only one way nation-states break apart. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.) and Czechoslovakia both dissolved bloodlessly, while Yugoslavia broke apart following a civil war. Nations located in the Middle East have had on-and-off civil wars over the past 100 years, abetted recently by destabilization efforts spearheaded outside those countries, frequently under the false humanitarian guise of “regime change.” More pointedly, high-profile calls for straightforward revolution made the news last fall, notably those of Chris Hedges and Russell Brand. Changing out a government is not quite the same as a country breaking up, but there is some overlap.

Aside: Hedges has long established himself as possessing unique erudition and perspective on the world. Brand was a surprise to me, partly because he came almost out of nowhere (as a political commentator) and partly because he insists that there is no reason in particular the pundits should pay him any attention. The obvious rejoinder is that he clearly has something to say, though he admits he can never be a voice of the people because of his fame and fortune. This contrasts with the commonplace mistake of celebrity entertainers lending their names to political causes, as though it’s somehow important that, say, Robert Redford, Eva Longoria, or Alec Baldwin have anything to add to political discussion that isn’t overshadowed and thus made worthless by their celebrity. Withholding might be one of the sacrifices necessitated by celebrity.

It’s a mistake to pretend to penetrate too deeply into the cultural moment and divine a grassroots movement of the people against big government, but I find it plausible at least to observe that the spirit of collectivism has been invalidated in our time. Communism survives only a few places on the globe, and socialism, though still widespread, has suffered a serious public relations setback — especially in the United States. People(s) organize themselves more meaningfully according to smaller social units than nation-states. Thus, the tribalism of sports fans, religions, or political parties is more rabid and motivating than nationalities. I would suggest that average people are even more atomized than that, considering the failure and breakdown of an even more granular sense of community that used to operate in parishes, schools, workplaces, neighborhoods, and families. More people see themselves today as disconnected and adrift from wider context and expect to go it alone when difficulty strikes hard. Recent history has reinforced the growing awareness that institutions that ought to serve us have instead abandoned us or become openly hostile. And yet this is occurring at the same time that economic flows — a poor but ubiquitous measure of wellbeing — are aggregating and leaving behind average folks. That’s globalization at work. However, even the very few who reap outrageous wealth from exploitation of the masses recognize they, too, have no community around them and indeed seek to become sovereign or supranational citizens, which filters down in a hobbled form to the rancher or anarchist who thumbs his nose at government. One wonders whether current political unrest in Syria, Ukraine, and of course Iraq, aren’t prime examples of conflicting motivations between the individual and society.

Update: This post at Stratfor Global Intelligence appears to argue the same main point I made. Naturally, the arguments are a lot beefier, as befits a geopolitical intelligence and advisory firm that trades in such analyses. It even has a world map showing significant separatist movements. I knew they were out there.

This is the third of four parts discussing approaches to the prospect of NTE, specifically, “The Last of Everything” by Daniel Drumright, a blog essay for denizens of Nature Bats Last, which has recently narrowed its focus to discussion of NTE. Part one is found here; part two is here.

Despite having had the longest period of engagement (of the three authors reviewed in this blog series, I’m guessing) with industrial, economic, and ecological collapse that will precede population collapse and most likely extinction of the preponderance of life on Earth, Drumright still writes with the raw emotion of someone who has just become aware that we are all now staring inescapable death in the face  — the death of our species. Indeed, the number of ways Drumright rephrases the damning dawning realization still waiting to break across the popular mind or public sphere is exhausting. Here is one from the outset of the essay:

This is a commiserative thought experiment written ONLY for those whose lived experiences have afforded them the intellectual/emotional freedom to fully explore the dismal implications that virtually no one will survive near term global starvation.

Again and again, Drumright comes back to the stark reality of NTE using a variety of evocative phrases, none of which fully encapsulates the immensity of NTE because, frankly, humans have great difficulty trying to grok things so far outside standard frames of reference. He rightly points out, too, that no humans up to this point in history have had to contend with such awful conclusions, foreseeable and delayed or postponed in their effect but nonetheless unavoidable. Accordingly, his essay is written with none of the sober detachment and objectivity of the professional critic or academic. Instead, he writes as though he were a parent destroyed by the death of a child. That comparison fails, of course, because despite our familial responsibility for the fate of the living planet, we are all participants in this prospective death, referred to elsewhere on this blog as a megadeath pulse.

Whether because of this emotional overlay or mere sloppiness, Drumright’s essay suffers from unnecessary restatement and rambling, poor grammatical and paragraph structure, and excessive length. (To decipher the tortured language, I edited the copy I pasted into MS Word for safekeeping.) But maybe it’s just as well that the writing is choked and spluttering in places; its tone is what I actually expect even from those who have dealt with the NTE meme complex for some time. We’re just not culturally equipped to absorb the death of our species with much composure.

One of Drumright’s principal ideas is acceptance, as distinguished from (I guess) denial, resistance, desperation, or hope (now frequently renamed as the placebo drug hopium). Only with acceptance does the time remaining begin to offer forms of sanctuary for the soul. But this can only be an individual response and refuge. Conjecture by those with a lengthy period of collapse-awareness more typically envisages scenarios of anarchic chaos and destruction before it’s all over. Rather like the last tortured gasps of empire, an expectation of out-of-control crowds (mobs, really) and wanton, end-of-days benders (including some nasty jaunts toward revenge and victimization) seems a greater likelihood than calm, wizened acceptance. Indeed, few achieve the peace of mind needed to go to one’s death with grace and resignation.

Drumright provides numerous insights hard won in his time fighting for environmental justice. Only on “this side of acceptance,” however, has he broken through the idols and illusions of political activity and recognized that the trajectory we’re on is not guided or controllable (if it ever was, in fact). Similarly, various impediments stand in the way of acceptance and continue to thwart the next, not-quite-final step:

Let’s start talking about how we’re all going to die, not vaguely, halfheartedly or sarcastically, but specifically so that we can actually begin to get beyond that specter, and start being creative in figuring out how we’re going to live through [the ongoing process of] extinction until that fateful day comes for each of us. Because if we’re talking about acceptance, it’s probably time we get around to actually talking about what IT is we’ve come to accept, beyond endlessly lamenting the loss of all the rest of life, and incessantly debating our legacy of agency which has nevertheless led us to where we are today irrespective of our personal opinions.

Drumright goes on to discuss (at length) as a case in point the suicide this past spring of whistle-blower and truth-teller Michael Ruppert. Somewhat surprisingly, Drumright is critical of Ruppert for having squandered an opportunity to lead the way with a meaningful or beautiful death, albeit by suicide. Part of Drumright’s indignation stems from Ruppert’s position in the vanguard among the collapse-aware (I’ve adopted the term doomer but for reasons yet unclear cannot stomach collapsitarian). Ruppert’s approach was never, best as I can assess, spiritual or therapeutic. Rather, he was always trying to break through the wall of denial, obfuscation, and ignorance that characterizes most people, some who know better and most who don’t. To deny him (after the fact) his own personal response, shocking though ultimately harmless to those of us who puzzled over his choice of exit strategy, seems to me a niggardly response.

From a wider perspective, Drumright appears to make a mistake of metonymy, lamenting that in his final act Ruppert failed to teach by example how we all might take our leave in the company of love and dignity. The discontinuity between individual and society, however, will not be bridged even by hundreds of prime examples. Irrational fear as we recognize death stalks each of us simply cannot be undone or overcome at the level of society. Still, for those who can take instruction and choose consciously how to end things, Drumright offers thoughtful alternatives. Absent from those alternatives are the usual frothy, lofty incantations that soothe the faithful, which are not actually humane responses, considering how they rely on other idols and illusions. He does, however, offer a glimpse of beauty by reminding us that the bonds of community, whether shared digitally or in person, are to be embraced and cherished in our remaining time.