Sunday, May 11, 2008

Without Historical Precedent

I, like anyone over the age of 30, have an indelible memory of the Damocles Sword of nuclear annihilation. For all of us in this age group, the end of the world was always nigh. While global thermo-nuclear war was always a very real possibility, in part, it was also just so much hype generated by Saint Ronnie and his national security minions to keep the rubes pissed at all the squishy liberals who thought perhaps that even pretending to be a smidge too eager to blow up the rest of the world just to spook the Ruskies into capitulation was a tad extreme. For Saint Ronnie and his Coterie of Sycophants, those pissed off rubes translated into votes for his toadies, which in turn poured dollars into the pockets of his military/industrial-complex bosom buddies. It was a win-win, really, if you were above a certain tax bracket.

Of course, post hoc/ergo propter hoc, the cackling gremlins who cooked up this fiction about Mighty Ronnie standing astride the world ultimately came to believe their own hype when the USSR folded just a few years after Saint Ronnie left his marbles on the floor of the Oval Office. That delusional and deliberately ignorant reading of history took on epic and mythical power during the 1990's, becoming a kind of manufactured conventional wisdom, a widely believed and accepted general principle that was part of the background information for any discussion of foreign policy, presidential politics or recent world history.

As this deliberate fiction curdled into policy prescriptions written by quacks at heavily-subsidized Reich-wing think-tanks during the reign of the impediment to American Global Hegemony (and adulterer) Bill Clinton, the older neo-cons forgot to impart to the new generation that it had all been a con game to bamboozle the shit-kickers, but that American power did have limits, Realpolitik was still in effect and we had deep vulnerabilities best kept hidden. We were not invincible, nor had we ever really been, but the bedtime story of The Triumph of the Virtuous and Godly United States Over The Wicked and Godless Soviet Union metasasized into an kind of instructive origin tale.

These comforting illusions were pierced rather spectacularly on September 11th, 2001, but unfortunately the people in charge of formulating a response had been politically weened on the poison milk of American Imperium. For them, We The (Chosen) People of the US of Fuckin' A could pretty much do whatever the fuck we wanted, wherever the fuck we wanted, to whomever we fucking wanted, for as long as we fucking wanted and no one in the world could do fuck all about it.

This ugly, 11-year, chest-thumping power trip culminated in the Invade Iraq chorus heard relentlessly following 9/11, 'cuz Saint Ronnie took down the whole goddam Soviet Union by himself, dude! Boo-YA!

All of which was only the military aspect of a pervasive disinformation campaign.

I bring up this little history lesson for two reasons. First, something in me, perhaps at a molecular level, is just used to idea of living with the dread of imminent obliteration, it is programmed into me at a machine code level. I remember duck-and-cover drills. That feeling subsided for a while during the Clinton years, of course, but being in New York City on 9/11 pushed that reset button hard, and now that familiar old dread lies coiled in its usual place down there in my gut (this time with a good reason - the world really, truly, actually is coming to an end). And second, because I believe that once again the rubes and shit-kickers are about to have their illusions pierced or, more correctly, are having their illusions pierced now. Perhaps even shattered. Utterly. And the people responsible for the informational snow job will only suffer in proportion with the rest of us, though that suffering could become - in a phrase - without historical precedent.

I say without historical precedent because today I read the following:
A report from the Bureau of Meteorology in Australia makes clear that, despite recent heavy rains in the eastern Australian breadbasket, years of above normal rainfall would be needed "to remove the very long-term [water] deficits" in the region. The report then adds this ominous note: "The combination of record heat and widespread drought during the past five to 10 years over large parts of southern and eastern Australia is without historical precedent and is, at least partly, a result of climate change."

Think a bit about that phrase -- "without historical precedent." Except when it comes to technological invention, it hasn't been much part of our lives these last many centuries. Without historical precedent. Brace yourselves, it's about to become a commonplace in our vocabulary. The southeastern United States, for instance, was, for the last couple of years, locked in a drought -- which is finally easing -- "without historical precedent." In other words, there was nothing (repeat, nothing) in the historical record that provided a guide to what might happen next.

Now, it's true that the industrial revolution, which led to the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere at historically unprecedented rates, was also, in a sense, "without historical precedent"; but most natural events -- unlike, say, the present staggering ice melt in the Arctic -- have been precedented (if I can manufacture such a word). They have been part of the historical record. That era -- the era of history -- is now, however, threatening to give way to a period capable of outrunning history itself, of outrunning us.
Of outrunning us. What an ominous phrase, fraught with images of Frankenstein's monster and Mickey Mouse in the wizard's workshop. Outrunning. Us.


You see, people who actually know things have known that our patterns of consumption and land use are not sustainable, not by a long shot, and versed as they are in disciplines like math and statistics, they could plug the numbers into a chart or graph and see that something had to give. Since the 1970's. In other words, people who ought to know have known our petroleum-driven world was a problem for a long time, but in the decaying citadel of what has only recently come to be called "Red State America," these people have been gleefully dismissed as just a bunch of elites, prissy egg-heads and sissi-fied "One World" liberals who want take away all the things that make America great: Big Cars, open roads and vast, sprawling shopping malls. Oh, and guns, but that's just a piece of ancillary paranoia.

It has sure been fun for these people, these last 30 years or so, flipping the proverbial bird to all those (phantom) dirty fucking hippies who wanted to make all of us live on communal farms, eat granola and ride bicycles everywhere. Yeesh. All those Chicken Littles who tried to put limits on things because just because the oil might run out. Or the atmosphere might get polluted. Don't restrict me, dude. Screw you and your spotted owls. Carter was wrong. There is no energy crisis, you wimp. Saint Ronnie said it was morning again in America, that we're free to consume and drive and eat red meat and he vanquished those godless commies so he must be right, right?

Not right.
Even for Americans, constitutionally convinced that there will always be a second act, and a third, and a do-over after that, and, if necessary, a little public repentance and forgiveness and a Brand New Start -- even for us, the world looks a little Terminal right now.

It's not just the economy. We've gone through swoons before. It's that gas at $4 a gallon means we're running out, at least of the cheap stuff that built our sprawling society. It's that when we try to turn corn into gas, it sends the price of a loaf of bread shooting upwards and starts food riots on three continents. It's that everything is so inextricably tied together. It's that, all of a sudden, those grim Club of Rome types who, way back in the 1970s, went on and on about the "limits to growth" suddenly seem… how best to put it, right.

All of a sudden it isn't morning in America, it's dusk on planet Earth.

There's a number -- a new number -- that makes this point most powerfully. It may now be the most important number on Earth: 350. As in parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
No, not right at all. Wendell Barry, gentleman farmer and famous Kentucky poet, in "Faustian Economics" in this month's Harper's (behind a subscription firewall - sorry) wrote of those hateful, hateful limits:
"Our national faith so far has been: “There’s always more.” Our true religion is a sort of autistic industrialism. People of intelligence and ability seem now to be genuinely embarrassed by any solution to any problem that does not involve high technology, a great expenditure of energy, or a big machine.


“. . . It is this economy of community destruction that, wittingly or unwittingly, most scientists and technicians have served for the past two hundred years. These scientists and technicians have justified themselves by the proposition that they are the vanguard of progress, enlarging human knowledge and power, and thus they have romanticized both themselves and the predatory enterprises that they have served.”
Different ways of saying the same thing, really. America is not exempt from the same historical pitfalls that befell other nations, even if Jesus is a Republican. Libraries full of doctoral theses have been written about the reasons, but for me they boil down an unfortunate historical convergence, some 200 years ago, of young-nation exuberance coinciding with and ultimately driving a mechanization of industry that fed on the vast and seemingly inexhaustible resources of a virtually untapped and - as luck, divine providence and reckless genocide would have it - largely uninhabited continent, all of which ultimately led to a perception of limitlessness.

Go west, young man, indeed.

It is this perception, this belief, this Religion that infuses our thinking of limitlessness more than any other single thing from all sides with a faith that scientists will "come up with something." Afterall, they always have, right? It is commonplace these days, and I hear it even from the smartest people who should fucking know better, that the egg-heads will invent something because the Magic Hand of the Free Market will force a solution, presumably in the form of some Michael Jordon-style fade-away 3-pointer jumpshot at the buzzer, but by some nerd in a labcoat having an Edison-style "Eureka!" moment. Then once again American ingenuity will save the day and we can keep on driving our SUV's to Wal-Mart for more cheap crap from China. Boo-YA!

To which I reply: to what end? Are we to keep consuming, chewing up farmland and paving over forests and spewing CO2 and dumping plastic crap in the oceans and blighting entire ecosystems just so we can have ever bigger vehicles and bigger yards and use up even more of the planet's resources? And on and on until the planet becomes a used-up husk? A smoldering cinder drifting inert through space? Where is that logical limit? A certain Englishman thought he found it 210 years ago:
"The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race. The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation. They are the precursors in the great army of destruction, and often finish the dreadful work themselves. But should they fail in this war of extermination, sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence, and plague advance in terrific array, and sweep off their thousands and tens of thousands. Should success be still incomplete, gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow levels the population with the food of the world."
Mechanization, people have argued in the intervening decades, and petroleum-based technologies have rendered Malthus' calculations moot. I think we can all agree that now that assumption has been a mistake. Everything comes with a price and for decades the darker-skinned peoples of the southern hemisphere have been paying it for the prosperity of the lighter-skinned peoples of the northern hemisphere. For them, the 20th Century has been one long lesson in the limits of modern technology, as lesson we are only now beginning to learn in the north. We are learning the hard way that we cannot consume the world and discard it with impunity forever. Everything has limits. Especially this planet, the only one we'll ever get.

I find great irony in a global object lesson in "no free lunch" on a large scale. Our domestic proponents of that creed cling to it in a socio-economic defense of the systemic inequalities of the American Way Of Life, with no understanding that the very way of life they "defend" is most responsible for the mess we're in now precisely because a piper must always be paid somewhere, sometime. It is all about limits.

$4/gal. gasoline will take the optimistic wind out of anyone's sails. Get ready for $8. And $10. What little of that shiny American optimism which some may desperately cling to now will likely evaporate completely in the face of such prices.

From the time of another economic depression (eventually to be less Great than the one we're staring down the barrel of right now), I am reminded of this aching lament from F. Scott Fitzgerald about New York City upon his first ascent into the Empire State Building:
Full of vaunting pride the New Yorker had climbed here and seen with dismay what he had never suspected, that the city was not the endless succession of canyons that he had supposed but that it had limits—from the tallest structure he saw for the first time that it faded out into the country on all sides, into an expanse of green and blue that alone was limitless. And with the awful realization that New York was a city after all and not a universe, the whole shining edifice that he had reared in his imagination came crashing to the ground.
Which echoes for me the sentiments behind the image that gave birth to the modern environmental movement, an image from a trip to the top of the world which, like Fitzgerald's experience writ large, reminded the whole of humanity for one all-too-brief moment that this vessel, this fragile blue thing, is the only planet we'll ever have, Spaceship Earth:

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Damn nice writing!