Friday, April 30, 2010

The Old Earth and the New Eaarth

According to Jungian theorist Edward Edinger, we are currently experiencing the "archetype of the Apocalypse" as a negative archetype representing the smashing of previous ways of thought and ways of being. I won't/can't deny it: these days I pretty much inhabit this archetype as a full-time denizen. The thing that continues to surprise me is that more folks don't live there, too--that others manage not to be preoccupied or obsessed as I am with the drastic meltdown of society and the accelerating prospects of environmental cataclysm.

The volcanic explosion of Eyjafjallajokull through a glacial ice cap in Iceland on April 14th, that threw a plume of ash into the atmosphere seven miles high and brought air travel to a grinding halt for nearly a week, did nothing to assuage or smoothe the feathers of my archetype. Instead, it caused a flare-up of feelings somewhere between eerie, creepy, and scary--despite the extravagant beauty of how it all looked on film. The whole airline economy seemed to hang in the balance, depending on which way the wind blew.

Our utter helplessness in the face of what was happening is stunning. Now the volcano seems, at least for the moment, to have calmed down, but this week we have a monstrous oil spill from another kind of (as yet unexplained) explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, relentlessly advancing toward the shore of Louisiana and getting worse by the minute, because no one can contain it. Now it's the fishing industry that is running scared.

Have you ever had the feeling that the universe is trying to tell you something, and you can no longer ignore its message? Have you noticed that the seas are rising and the ice is melting much faster than we once expected? This week I began reading my first climate-change book in years, just published, called "Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet" by Bill McKibben. I bought it after seeing a review, because I had the feeling that somehow this book would be different to all the others. I have not been disappointed. From the moment he starts writing, McKibben goes full-bore into the eye-popping truth: we had our chance, he says, a brief opening to steer a different course, away from the rocks. But we didn't take it.

McKibben is a no-frills writer. There are no "feel-good" projections about an optimistic future in which we have all significantly "changed our consciousness," no hectoring about humanity's devastating failure to live sanely on the planet. There is neither bristle, nor bluster. Just this excruciating x-ray of what worldwide ecocide actually looks like:

Hurricanes have risen in frequency seventy-five percent in the last thirteen years. There have been four times as many weather-related disasters in the past thirty years, more than in the first three-quarters of the century combined. Polar ice is melting fifty years ahead of schedule. Lightning strikes in the Arctic have increased twenty-fold in 2009, igniting the first tundra fires ever observed. Tons of carbon in the form of methane are being released into the atmosphere from melting permafrost. Large forest fires now burn four times as long as a generation ago, also pumping millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Oil, the very basis of our modern, techology-intensive lifestyle, is disappearing. Coal, the dirtiest of all fossil fuels, produces twice the carbon dioxide of oil and so extending its use will trigger even more global warming. The costs of environmental restoration and humanitarian disasters have become prohibitive, the insurance industry is flailing, and we can't possibly afford to repair things fast enough to preserve the planet we used to live on.

"Here's all I'm trying to say: the planet on which our civilization evolved no longer exists," McKibben writes. "The stability that produced that civilization no longer exists...We MAY, with commitment and luck, yet be able to maintain a planet that will sustain SOME KIND of civilization, but it won't be the same planet, and hence it can't be the same civilization. The earth that we knew--the only earth that we ever knew--is gone."

You can't refreeze the Arctic or restore the pH of oceans even if we all convert to solar power and bicycles this afternoon. Which we aren't doing anyway. That's not the world we live on any longer, says McKibben, and there's no use in pretending otherwise.

To read this book is to understand how all philosophical debates about whether or not climate change really exists or doesn't--whether it is a man-made calamity or just a hoax driven by politics and money--are hopelessly out-of-date. At this point, such questions are beyond mattering. The provocative events of this past month, for instance, make irrevocably clear just how much any alteration of the features of nature affects the destiny of mankind, and vice versa. Mankind's activities affect nature. It is all one big, totally enmeshed, feedback loop.

What we need to focus on is how to survive what's coming at us, because as McKibben points out, "We simply can't live on the new earth as if it were the old earth; we've just foreclosed that option." The thing to pay attention to now is that life on the new planet "Eaarth" is likely to be a lot harder for humans than on the old one. It won't be easy going, an uphill slog at best, and with considerably less time for hypothetical, pointless arguments.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Filling in the Gaps

Last Sunday, Easter, I spent the end of the afternoon sitting outside on a friend's deck, overlooking the woods and drinking wine, eating homemade Chinese vegeterian dumplings with wooden chopsticks, and discussing politics with a perfect stranger--actually the husband of a friend of a friend, who was visiting from out of town for the weekend. The guy was a real tracker, up-to-the-minute on everything. I'll probably never see him again, and I can't even remember his name, but I sure had a blast in time and space conversing with him.

Truth is, I don't get to talk with people that often who are so engaged, informed, and open-minded, and know exactly who's who and what's what across the board. It was rather like, if you happen to enjoy tennis or chess, unexpectedly getting to play a game with somebody who's really good at it. Given the utter scuzziness of politics now, most folks are more sporadic and ho-hum about it, depending on how much else is going on in their lives.

I used to be like that myself: pretty much asleep at the switch, I have to confess, for most of my life. I am not proud of the fact that I slept right through the Vietnam war, the struggle for civil rights, McCarthyism, Watergate, presidential assassinations--you name it. Living quite happily, thank you, without all that, I was well insulated inside my own bubble. It took radical Islam flying airplanes into the World Trade Center to finally wake me up to all that was going on. Only then did I set out to master the political curriculum of government and war on the world stage, and today I have ended up swallowing it whole. Even so, I am still having to catch up with so many past years of ignorance.

What I'm saying is that there are significant gaps in what I know, some of which got some unexpected remediation this week. First, I found myself boning up, of all things, on the Holocaust, as I began to study a large catalogue about art and Auschwitz--a connection I hadn't known even existed. "The Last Expression: Art and Auschwitz," was given to me by David Mickenberg, the new director of the Taubman Museum of Art in Roanoke (and also one of the book's three editors). I didn't realize, until I started reading, that a significant body of art exists made during World War II in concentration camps.

The catalogue is huge, not least because of the ten scholarly essays it contains. It also contains reproductions of some 300 art works created primarily (but not exclusively) at Auschwitz by Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Collected and retrieved by Mickenberg (and others) for an exhibition held at the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University in 2002, they offer an insider's view of what life was like in a concentration camp: how it was run and what it was like to be there under such barbaric conditions. It seems amazing to me to discover only now that, amid unthinkable scenes of mass murder and slave labor, gas chambers and crematoria, art was being furtively made from whatever "fragments" of material could be found. Not art as we normally think of it or see it hanging in museums, but something more like a diary of atrocities, a living record of the conditions and complexities of life in the camps.

Most striking is the unrelenting sameness and homogeneity to the images--of persons enduring deathlike regimentation, crude beatings, torture, and unendurable boredom--in the absence of any color or luminosity in their world. What you get is a sense of drab, hopeless hours following one upon another, punctuated only by random atrocities, 24 hours a day without respite. I try to imagine life without pleasurable distractions. Unable to enjoy a java-chip frapuccino while reading the newspaper at Starbucks, after exercise class. I imagine not being able to turn away from the horror of what I'm reading about the Nazis by freely switching mind channels--moving on now to watch American Idol, just as Crystal Bowersox starts singing her Beatles song, with a black man accompanying her on the didgeridoo. These small but necessary treats that make life worth living.

Bowersox was not all I saw on TV this week. I have been absolutely gripped by the PBS documentary about the civil rights movement, "Eyes on the Prize." Filling in those gaps again, I was aware of Rosa Parks, who is one of my heroines, as an icon of resistance. Her refusal to go to the back of the bus that day in Montgomery, Alabama, was a primary inspiration for the movement, but honestly I hadn't known about the year-long bus boycott it inspired among black people after she was jailed. Under the sublime tutelage of Martin Luther King, Jr., black people in Mointgomery agreed to walk to work after that, hurrying along in the streets, sometimes in groups, sometimes with arms linked, and often cheerfully singing. Judging by the film clips, it was an incredible sight to behold. Financially, the bus companies took a real beating from the loss of their best customers. But they were never violent, never once lost their dignity--not even when they were being rounded up and stuffed into paddy wagons, and hauled off to jail by the truckload during their peaceful protests. They kept on hanging in there together, and they sang. There wasn't a single vicious or vile placard remotely like those you see these days, carried around by Tea Partiers.

Watching the in-depth story of the struggle for civil rights half a century ago, in all its horror and glory, certainly offers perspective about the raging battle over health-care reform, which is really a code action for ending the current administration. From what I hear in the news today, Republicans are gearing up for drop-dead war against Obama. The country is definitely in for it, with yet another race war looming. History repeats. "The point of history," according to Richard Hofstader, "is to remind us that our present times are not uniquely oppressive."

Maybe they aren't--but isn't another point of history to learn something from mistakes of the past? At least, this was the key idea floated in a lecture I attended this week at Roanoke College, given by Jared Diamond, an evolutionary biologist well known for his writing on civilizational collapse. Diamond was talking about how societies CHOOSE to succeed or fail. What made him "cautiously optimistic" in present circumstances, he said, was that our present unlimited access to history and the media increases the possibilities for learning from our mistakes. But will we do that?

Introducing the notion of choice as a key component in civilizational collapse is very intriguing, but it does seem as if what we are choosing (collectively, if not individually) at our point in history is not course correction, but the same dead-end path that is slowly sealing our fate. While half of the country, under Obama's leadership, desperately tries to turn the ship around, the other half is determined to prevent it happening.

Hiding from the Nazis for years in somebody's attic, diarist Anne Frank still found it possible to declare that "I somehow feel that despite everything, people are good at heart." Our fate at this time would seem to hang on whether or not this young girl was right. "It's always been a yin/yang struggle between the forces of good and evil," says my friend Liz. She's definitely right, and the truth is, we still don't know how the story will end. We may find out the ending soon, however, perhaps much sooner than we think, or than we would like.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Worry Wart

I didn't really have an overweening theme for this week, so I decided to ramble rambunctiously for a bit and see where things took me. What finally emerged as my blog boiled egg for Easter was this: what a cruddy, crappy creep Hamid Karzai is.

No sooner had President Obama left Kabul this week than Karzai, in a rambling speech which the New York Times referred to as "delusional," was accusing U.N. and Western officials of having interfered with last summer's presidential election in Afghanistan. He blamed them for the fraud his own supporters patently engineered. Karzai has been "palling around with terrorists" like Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad--who visited Afghanistan recently and promptly gave a fiery anti-American speech--and he is now mouthing the same accusations that Ahmadinejad did concerning the Iranian elections. The pair of them are up to no good. Taking their cue from the Republican handbook, they are cozying up together in order to undermine Obama and undercut his strategy to win over the Afghan people. (That strategy will be sorely tested in the next couple of months when the U.S. military embarks on its big battle to take back Kandahar from the control of the Taliban.)

"Is this what American service members are dying for in Afghanistan? Can you imagine giving up your life, or your child’s life, for that crowd?" Bob Herbert asks. He quotes Dexter Filkins and Mark Landler, who stated in The Times this week: “Even as Mr. Obama pours tens of thousands of additional American troops into the country to help defend Mr. Karzai’s government, Mr. Karzai now often voices the view that his interests and the United States ’no longer coincide.' ” Well now, fancy that!

As one reader of Herbert's column slyly pointed out, one of our biggest problems in attempting to take the high road with these countries is that our own electoral system is nearly as corrupt as theirs. We compromised one election in 2000 when the Supreme Court baldly handed over the presidency hook, line, and sinker to George W. Bush, even though Al Gore had won the popular vote. The weird electoral machinations now going on in Iraq curiously mirror those of our own 2004 election in the U.S., when votes for John Kerry in Ohio mysteriously transferred over to the Republican candidate as a result of Republican-engineered, voting-machine irregularities.

Anyway, the whole business in Afghanistan has me very worried--but then, I have a reputation (for being a worry wart), and I have to uphold it somehow, don't I? Besides, the coup with the Supreme Court way back in 2000 was only the beginning of trouble to come. Now, given the latest ruling in January by the Supreme Court that allows corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money on elections, the truth is, we may never see another Democrat in the White House again.

I do really worry about this, especially with the prospect of the ugly, partisan, confirmation battle that is looming when the Court's Senior Justice John Paul Stevens, an 89-year-old liberal, announces his retirement, likely to come in the next few weeks. There is just no way Republicans will allow another liberal, thereby balancing out the current preponderant conservative forces in the Court, to replace him. So prepare for a bruising showdown.

Nor would Republicans allow Obama, should he even want to, to back out of Afghanistan. As another reader of Herbert's column commented: "The jingoistic elements in this country would raise such feverish opposition to his decision that much of the country would think he was Neville Chamberlain incarnate and was a treasonous leader. If large segments of the country think that he is a Muslim, socialist or even the Antichrist, imagine the furor if he ended the war in Afghanistan. Imagine the fever that the Republicans would stir up in the country backed by the media hate machine, Fox News. He would be unable to govern."

Of course, that is my biggest fear: that, as time goes on, Obama will become increasingly unable to govern. The same reader had some further cogent comments, worth thinking about:

"What may be happening is that Obama is allowing Karzai to hang himself by continuing his corruption and criticism of America. Perhaps he is waiting for Karzai to compile such a miserable record of corruption, duplicity, and theft of services that he can take to the public as justification to end the war. Karzai it seems to me is playing into his hands if my speculation is at all accurate...I think Obama as a politician knows that he cannot lead the country where it does not want to go, given the ferocity of organized and well funded opposition against him. Unfortunately, millions of Americans, to put in politely, are not the brightest political bulbs on the planet. Obama's policies suffer because of this and he has to govern with one hand tied behind his back so to speak because so much of the country has become politically irrational."

Anyway, it's not like there isn't plenty of stuff for a Worry Wart like me to worry about. I haven't even touched on all the legal assaults being cooked up by Republicans to try to repeal the health-reform bill by declaring it unconstitutional--on the grounds that Congress has no power under the Constitution to compel individuals to buy health insurance or pay a penalty. And I haven't once mentioned the threat letters sent to state governors demanding that they leave office in the next three days. That would definitely reduce the size of government, big time!

If you don't happen to think any of these things are worth worrying about--if you see these concerns as the dubious pursuit of some guilty pleasure--please, don't hesitate to speak up. Because, after all is said and done, I do worry about my own worrisome place in the cosmos; and I wouldn't want to just waste it on things not worth worrying about. Happy Easter!