A poem by Gregory Mahrer:
What is spun from earth returns not as earth
but as something thrown. We find first the rider
and then the horse that threw him. Are we first
to run our hands over this quadrant of earth,
to find sharpened stone, gash of stirrups?
To add up depletion?
Only now we know
that what is thrown from earth stays thrown,
rider and horse tumbling beneath one another
until there is nothing in them that is falling.
Of forelock and whip only the whip remains,
as the earth grows round with what it has loved
There’s something going on in this poem that has to do with causality, which reminds me of a quote that I don’t know the author of: “The two—and only two—mistakes that people make are failing to recognize patterns when they’re there and thinking they see patterns when they’re not.”
“We find first the rider and then the horse that threw him”; we discover the natural history of the world backwards, having only the clues of what took place to piece together the antecedents.
If you speak the truth, keep a foot in the stirrup. – Turkish proverb
“Perfection is indistinguishable from futility.” – Ophelia Benson
Or, more specifically: “Glaciers in western Antarctica are melting at an ‘unstoppable’ rate that could cause worldwide sea levels to rise far quicker than previously thought, two groups of scientists said Monday.”
But we already knew that, didn’t we?
At each of these milestones (and there will be more of them, and more often—trust in that), you’ll see the same range of responses:
1. “We told you so”, pro-Democratic-Party diatribes about the need to double down on investments in “renewables”
2. Calls to vague action, such as liking some post or page on Facebook, or forwarding some letter to someone in Congress
3. Flat-out incredulity, typically under the guise of an accusation of those sounding the alarm being “alarmist”
4. Some combination of 1 and 2, coupled with a vouching of personal non-solutions to this global problem, i.e. “and that’s why I only shop locally!” or “only eco-friendly clothing for my four kids from here on out!”
And what’s up with these confirmations of the obvious, just because they’re wrapped up in the trappings of some study, being taken more seriously than the common sense of the large (and growing) community of average doomers (including most people, but especially minorities, in America’s inner cities, who have known—and been vocal about—the cracks in the sidewalk for some time now)?
NASA puts out a study confirming that we live in a society of rigid socio-economic classes, and people post that shit on Facebook like extraterrestrial intelligence has been contacted and has confirmed that it enjoys the Beatles recordings we sent into space half a century ago. Princeton publishes a study that shows the US is no longer a democracy, and people say “see!” as if Native Americans haven’t been saying this since 1776 (er, 1492)—not to mention that the country was forged in the crucible of global capitalism, which means slavery, resource exploitation, and the perpetuation of a solidified elite were, and have always been, the pillars of American virtue.
Of course we don’t live in a democracy, and of course we are bringing most species to the brink of extinction. All that these studies seem to provide is an easy out: an article to send your friends to prove your worldliness and liberal sensibilities. And then you can get back to your regularly scheduled program, having earned your medal in the identity-politics Olympics.
Or they’re an alarm bell, but the problem is that nobody’s interested in alarms (as previously mentioned, the very word “alarmist” is derogatory). Or maybe that’s unfair; the only alarm people will be interested in is the one that will be heard loud and clear when one day no water comes out of the tap. Will people post pictures of their dry sinks?
A poem by Rebecca Gayle Howell:
An isosceles of birds arrange themselves.
Two in the yard, one in the lowest branch
of a cedar weed. The first looks up at the second;
the second and third, at each other.
Rat crows. Their aurora borealis bodies.
Their oil spill down and glint. I hear
they eat trash. I hear they nest in trash.
On my way to the bridge I see them and stop.
Not one of them looks at me. All I can think is
I want one to look at me.
Of course, anyone who’s even vaguely familiar with my writing on this blog knows that I have a soft spot for grackles (I also have a soft spot for roaches—the palmetto bugs: the ones in the trees, you know what I mean—unless, that is, they sneak into my apartment). Grackles, like other “trash animals”—animals people associate with filth, or with infestation—suffer reputation-wise only because of their adeptness at thriving in human-made habitats, like sewers, alleys, and, in the case of my beloved grackle, supermarket parking lots.
So why should these kinds of animals be demonized, when, after all, the unsanitary conditions they’re associated with are human constructions? Grackles didn’t fabricate the chicken-like product or the now-greasy box it came in; they simply swoop in on it after some human has tossed it on the faded pavement, presumably on their way to some infernal (and noxious) internal combustion engine, i.e. a pickup truck.
In the same copy of Oxford American where I found this poem, there is an article about large-scale snake hunts in Florida, organized by local wildlife organizations in order to keep the Burmese Python in check. The article starts with a local group explaining to amateur snake hunters how best to kill for sport (er, protect the ecosystem):
“Two things separate us from a lot of other animals,” Fobb [Jeff Fobb: one of the stars of Swamp Wars, a reality show on Animal Planet] announced. “We have enormous brains. Big, big brains for our body size. Turn it on, use it. and keep a nice calm presence.”
…”Yeah, we don’t want it to suffer,” Fobb said. He began describing how to destroy a python’s brain by running a metal rod up its severed spinal canal into its cranial bulb. But nobody in the crowd was interested in learning how to euthanize an animal so reviled that the state was giving out prizes to slaughter it en masse. People trickled away to the display tables, snatching up snake identification brochures, bumper stickers, and free snacks made from other invasive species endemic to Florida: caiman chili, snakehead tacos, iguana ragu. Fobb coaxed the python back into the sack and tied the drawstring. He never got a chance to address the second thing that separates humans from other animals, aside from our enormous brains. But if I had to venture a guess, I’d say that we’re the only animal exempt from being classified as invasive.
“If you had asked me, in 1968, to come up with the names of American women who had been active in the struggle for legal justice for their sex in the past, the only one I am certain I could have pulled out of my head was Susan B. Anthony. I might, possibly, have thought of Eleanor Roosevelt, because I knew she had been ridiculed as the wife of the president for her interest in both the status of women and black Americans.
The forgetting of the history of marginalized groups is both a cause and effect of their marginalization. If you are marginalized, you don’t have the clout to move your story into mainstream institutions—such as public schools—that automatically pass on the stories considered foundational to a society. Indeed, one of the main rationales for the existence and public support of such institutions is that they are necessary to passing on the common heritage of a culture. But the pertinent question is: Just who defines what is ‘common’ in our heritage?”
– Susan Jacoby
Here’s author and activist Jim Shultz’s response to Paul Kingsnorth (“To My Friend the Climate Defeatist”), who wrote a week or so ago about the realization that we can’t really do anything about climate change. Kingsnorth’s article, from which I quoted last week, is here, and my most recent thoughts on why I agree with Kingsnorth—and fellow “climate defeatist” Carolyn Baker—are here.
In this most recent piece, Shultz does make some valid points, including the fact that nobody but world-destroying corporations wins from people who give a shit about ecosystems giving up and doing nothing. He writes: “Finally, we must not let despair and resignation become the greatest gift we could ever hand to those who would love nothing more than for the climate movement to lose heart.”
But that’s not what Kingsnorth—nor Baker, nor I—is saying. We think everyone needs to take action, as often as possible, and for as long as it takes. But what we want is realistic action: action that will not be a waste of time at best, and counterproductive at worst. From the aforementioned Kingsnorth piece:
Instead of trying to “save the earth,” Kingsnorth says, people should start talking about what is actually possible. Kingsnorth has admitted to an ex-activist’s cynicism about politics as well as to a worrying ambivalence about whether he even wants civilization, as it now operates, to prevail. But he insists that he isn’t opposed to political action, mass or otherwise, and that his indignations about environmental decline and industrial capitalism are, if anything, stronger than ever. Still, much of his recent writing has been devoted to fulminating against how environmentalism, in its crisis phase, draws adherents. Movements like Bill McKibben’s 350.org, for instance, might engage people, Kingsnorth told me, but they have no chance of stopping climate change. “I just wish there was a way to be more honest about that,” he went on, “because actually what McKibben’s doing, and what all these movements are doing, is selling people a false premise. They’re saying, ‘If we take these actions, we will be able to achieve this goal.’ And if you can’t, and you know that, then you’re lying to people. And those people . . . they’re going to feel despair.”
If thinking that recycling a few more (or a million) more plastic bottles, or signing a petition to ask someone in congress to mention climate change at a press conference, or (the silliest thing ever) putting a bumper sticker on your car are all merely attempts to make people feel better about the coming ecological disaster—while allowing everyone to keep their lifestyle (as Hakim Bey once wrote, we don’t have lives in America, only lifestyles)—makes me a “collapsitarian” (or a nihilist or a doomer, etc.), then guilty as charged!
But that doesn’t mean I think people should just resign themselves to surfing the tube, just because the climate change battle is lost. The climate change battle, let’s not forget, is not the only battle. We still have the collapse of bee populations, monarch butterfly populations, bat populations, and many others to try to contain. We still have the poisoning of our ground water to deal with. We still have the have the human overshoot problem to try to figure out. Instead of signing petitions and writing letters to people who don’t read them, and holding meetings and joining campaigns that go nowhere, wouldn’t we be better, more active activists if we planted flowers and milkweed, sued fracking companies, and disseminated information (and contraceptives) to empower women and curb an unsustainable birth rate?
It’s not simply that the world is fucked and all we can do is enjoy the ride. The world is fucked because of our actions—and inactions. Therefore we have a responsibility to do whatever we can to ameliorate the crash. But in order to do that, the first step is admitting, by looking at the overwhelming evidence, that the crash is both inevitable and imminent. Is reducing my personal carbon footprint going to do an ounce of good, when taking into account that industry is responsible for the majority of carbon emissions, water use, and pollution anyway, or that gas mileage won’t mean anything when all the bees are gone?
Mind you, I’m not even saying that the measures I’ve listed will do all that well towards saving humanity. But they may give the bees a chance. At current clip, we’re taking them all down with us—while patting ourselves on the back for founding non-profit organizations or getting one more “like” on the Facebook page. Silliness.