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.


b/eve/rly said...

When the blinders come off, and you see the slow apocalypse we've been living in for decades (late capitalism and its greed, plunder and imperialism which has brought various forms of misery to peoples & ecosystems in the developing world long before it was an endocrine disrupter caused pimple on a Western white middle class person's nose), it is not easy to sit with the fact that every other person you meet is ignoring what you see, and thinks you're a drag for mentioning it. So what do we do about it? Keep well informed. Learn skills that will be needed to pass on to the next generations. Keep the faith in all the communities who have been working for social change around the world, some who've been successful. Invite neighbors over for tea, learn what their concerns are, make some art together, bring it out into the community and see if that generates more artmaking, storytelling and even some activism. Keep doing it. What other choices do we have? Cynicism (been there, done that), Suicide (not an option), Numbing (read Joanna Macy - numbing only works for so long), and Continuing Reckless Behavior (I think once the eyes are open, the latter is truly not possible). Thanks for provoking more thought on the topic, Suzi.

anne thulson said...

As I wake up to bird calls, this spring's beauty is heart breaking in this late season of our planet.

Anonymous said...

So, Sooz,
At the last salon, when I asked if anyone said "good", when the financial system clearly showed that it was failing, I was mocked. It seems to me that we are beyond knowing that things have changed. We need to have a relationship with that change. We are well past being mesmerized by the drama.

Emily said...

Dearest Suzi,
I must comment on something that bevtherev has said. S/he writes beautifully, by the way.

On the biting comment about capitalism -
"(late capitalism and its greed, plunder and imperialism which has brought various forms of misery to peoples & ecosystems in the developing world long before it was an endocrine disrupter caused pimple on a Western white middle class person's nose)"

One thing that capitalism creates is disposable income. No other system of government does this effectively. There are many rich folks who give generously during disasters. For example, Oprah, in concert with Habitat for Humanity, built a whole new town in Louisiana, complete with post office, after Katrina. Professional athletes (active and retired) such as Art Monk and Darryl Green (yes, I'm a die hard Redskins fan) have created foundations to help disadvantaged kids get a "leg up" educationally. Bill Gates has given untold millions to help schools purchase computers. There are at least four buildings at Old Dominion University that are named for the donors who gave the millions of dollars to have them built or completely renovated. Whether or not these philanthropists received a tax break is irrelevant. I would call that a win/win situation.

Let me also acknowledge that there are many greedy folks out there who will eventually reap what they sow. But they are not all capitalists (Hugo Chavez is definitely not personally experiencing the poverty to which he has subjected his country, for example). For every evil, greedy person out there, there is at least a compassionate capitalist counterpart.

I do agree with most of bevthere's prescription:
"Invite neighbors over for tea, learn what their concerns are, make some art together, bring it out into the community and see if that generates more artmaking, storytelling and even some activism. Keep doing it."

Love you, Suzi -

Anonymous said...

Suzi, you're way too smart to be so ignorant. You read one book and swallow it all as gospel? My God, you'd flunk any student that made such ill-informed decisions.

Your father confessor McKibben is a gossip columnist, not a scientist! He sells books, Suzi. Maybe McKibben is not selling snake oil on purpose. He may even be a sincere individual, but he is completely irrational. Like so many "cause" advocates, he confuses facts with cause. It is not the Rooster's cry that causes the Sun to rise above the eastern horizon.

Your own observation shows the same willful leap of irrationality. On the one hand you realise the complete inability of mankind to have any effect on the fantastic power of a volcano. Iceland's little mountain is belching out Carbon Dioxide, Methane, particulates and God knows what else in inconceivable amounts. And that’s just a single eruption.

Then you turn your brain off, drink the mind numbing Kool-aid and swallow this doomsday author's irrational conclusion. The same impotent species has managed to overwhelm the atmosphere and the seas to bring the planet to it's knees in 100 years of industrialization. Leaving to all of civilisation a miserable and desperate future.

Horse manure.

How did the Vikings manage to reach Greenland? Why did they abandon it? Four hundred years ago the James River was 20 feet lower than it is today. OMG! The Jamestown settlers must have raised too many cows or burned too much Whale Blubber causing the ice caps to melt!

Can’t you see how superficial that kind of thinking is? The Earth’s climate has been warming and cooling from the beginning. Not just since the internal combustion engine was invented.

Stop being so negative and naive. Act like the intelligent thinker you are and search the other possibilities about a planet whose climate varies over millennia. Do the seasons that result from tilts in the planet’s axis teach you nothing of the power of the sun? Did mankind change the number of sunspots? Did mankind cause the planet to cool since 1998? Do you know that magnetic North moves around and will soon be in Russia instead of Canada? Or that from time to time (long historical times) it actually flips to the Southern hemisphere? Now THAT’s going to be a civilisation changing event next time it happens! And you can count on some McKibben-type conman grabbing for your brain to blame mankind for that, too.

Have you stopped to think of the positive effects of global warming on the world's food supply? Do you know the oceans are actually Carbon Dioxide banks? Absorbing and releasing CO2 in response to climate changes (not causing them)? With a little global warming, the Russian steppes will again be a breadbasket. The growing season in Canada will be extended. There will be more food for all of mankind.

There are other valid explanations for changes to our climate. But, you are choosing to believe the worst, and that is going to cause bad psychological reactions in you. Bad reactions that are based on foolish and unfounded opinions.