The Anthropocene Event (Part V)
In the end, it is probably no one’s fault. Or all of our fault–it’s the same thing. “Intelligence,” such as allows us to form abstractions and convince ourselves of anything we believe in our own interest, probably was responsible for allowing us to dominate the planet. But it will also prevent us from saving it. We have figured out how to devise a complex system that delivers our material comforts. That system threatens the stability of the climate, the underground water tables around the planet, the pH of the ocean, almost all vertebrates on earth and in the sea, and much of the human population. We have already seen animal extinctions at a more rapid rate than any other time (except possibly the K-Pg Event). We have seen increases in CO2 concentration in the atmosphere more rapid than we have even before seen. We are depleting the planet of resources essential to us at an unsustainable rate. We have sown the wind, and all that is left is to reap the whirlwind.
This is because we simply don’t have any social mechanisms for restraining ourselves from doing what most know is going to end up in catastrophe. It’s not that the cost of reversing course is insuperable. It’s that we are genetically or sociologically or psychologically incapable of giving up one farthing of luxury unless everybody else (or at least those we regard as our “equal”) give up at least a farthing. Resentment of perceived benefits to our competitors (those H. sapiens sitting on the same ledge we are and who, if knocked off — accidentally of course — would allow us to stretch our legs just a little) is what binds us all together in our spiraling careening towards perdition. Yes, I could cut my consumption of energy drastically, but screw it, nobody else is, so why should I? And even if everyone else is, then my contribution won’t be missed. Either way each of us refuses to give up anything.
Once there was a time when common decency restrained us from public displays of gross acts of selfishness. But that time, and with it the sense of shame, has long passed. We passed through the Age of Reagan where Greed was pronounced Good, and we didn’t need further persuasion. Maybe it was more complex. Perhaps the sense that the Republic was on its inevitable way down caused us to git while the gitting was good. There isn’t much need to retain republican virtues like civitas if there isn’t going to be a Republic much longer. And once you give up the republican virtues, there isn’t much hope for the Republic any longer. It’s a vicious cycle, or feedback loop , or self-fulfilling prophecy, whatever you like. But you can read about the End Times of a republic by leafing through various of the Federalist Papers. They got their vision of the End of Things they were embarking on from Montesquieu. He preached that Republics could only work when their members had a strict code of virtues and that exorbitant wealth–the kind that the once again ascendant Party of our Worst Selves, the one now in control of the House, celebrates and worships.
A colleague of mine many years ago once posed a question that troubled him: Why don’t the underdogs in our society simply rise up and use whatever means they can, such as the vote for instance, to simply strip the wealthy of their riches? I had learned something like the answer a bit before, when I campaigned for George McGovern. At the time the Republicans were making a big deal of his plan to sharply increase the marginal tax rates on estates above a certain (very large) number. A blue collar unskilled laborer in his late 30s, whom I worked with, told me that he could not vote for a man who would take away his right to leave however much he wanted to his own children. The idea that this man could make enough to create an estate that would have been subject to the tax plan was ludicrous. And he proved the point by dying, childless, not too long after that from alcoholism-related pneumonia. His calculation was that he would rather have the near negligible chance that he would make a fortune in his life and have heirs to give it to than to require the wealthy pay taxes that would be used in ways that he would benefit from. It is the same calculation that forces people to buy lottery tickets.
Corporations and others whose business it is to extract benefits from large numbers of people for their profit have long since perfected the fostering of that lottery mentality. The party of their political puppets spends its time and its sponsors’ money convincing people that all “liberal” ideas will take away the fortune they will certainly one day make. Then once in charge, these puppets create rules that ensure that those same people have almost no chance of making a fortune.
This explanation is simply an example of how we have become check-mated by our own ability to understand abstractions. Other societies, for example Islamic societies, have created a social organization that prevents their members from responding to the threats facing the species in the very near term. Although the steps taken in those societies are different from those taken here, and would require a detailed history to reconstruct, there is at least one technique they share: they make outrageous charges of conspiracy and perjury against all rationalists, and they demonize science as an illegitimate belief system, much of which, they claim, is made up by an underground of conspirators. They have no cognitive dissonance, however, when they accept the benefits of science (medicine, jet airplanes, telecommunications) when at the same time arguing that evolution and climate science are hoaxes.
That a large portion of the powers-that-be allow this kind of anti-rational babbling, even encourage it, shows that they are willing to stop at nothing to maintain their power. What is the intellectual’s proper response to that? There is none, because the intellect is not considered a legitimate faculty for making decisions. Ancient texts by pre-scientific peoples are treated as equal to science, and the scientifically illiterate pollute the discourse on public policy questions with their arrogant tripe, making the stupidest claims with a kind of arrogance that comes from knowing that they walk arm-in-arm with the economic forces that govern our public policy decisions.
Congressman Anthony Weiner recently said that “Democrats come to a knife fight with library books.” That statement, which cleverly encapsulates the problem of a polluted public discourse, both overstates and understates the dilemma. Many Democrats are not even in the fight. They may still control the Senate but there are enough of them willing to subvert climate legislation to make it impossible. Senator-elect Joe Manchin from West Virginia, who has vowed to fight cap-and-trade to protect the coal extraction industry of his state, is a sad example of the dilemma our political system is in. Representing the poorest of states, one which desperately needs to wean itself from the dangerous and environmentally destructive industry, the democrat has decided his short-term interest involves siding with the profit-takers who imperil the lives of their employees rather than attempt to promote a future where workers have alternatives to the low-paying and hazardous jobs in an industry which treats life, health and the environment with equal disdain. Manchin not only doesn’t bring library books to the fight, he actually joins the knife-wielders.
But Weiner’s statement is also is off the mark in another respect. It’s not just Democratic politicians who are under-armed, it’s all intellectuals. Because once public policy becomes a knife fight, all intellectuals are useless. And that’s exactly where we are. If you want an illustration of how useless the public intellectual’s contribution to the debate is, you should look at French historian Matthias Dörries’s stunningly insipid piece “Climate catastrophes and fear” in the November/December issue of Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change (full access in html and pdf available for free). It’s as though M. Dörries felt he needed to demonstrate, by personal example, how intellectuals have nothing to offer.
And so I return to the beginning. Richard Leakey doesn’t get involved in that Tea Party Stuff, because that’s not his role. The Tea Party fringe doesn’t care one way or the other because they are quite willing to call him a conspirator in the intellectual hoax they claim science is. And the powers that organize societies at this critical junction are united in preventing any meaningful action–action that would reduce their role in the world–from taking place. So as we sit here watching the beginning of the Anthropocene Mass Extinction, we wryly note how as a species we are intelligent enough to stop the Event, but we won’t. Isn’t that just another way of saying that our intelligence proved not to be a selective advantage? And Nature, “red in tooth and claw,” as Tennyson pointed out, has solutions for animals with traits that prove to be disadvantageous.