“What If It’s Already Too Late?”: Being an Activist in the Anthropocene
“We’re f**ked. Now what?”
From John Halstead
I had a terrible thought recently …
“What if it’s already too late?”
Actually, this idea has been haunting me, hovering on the boundary between my conscious and unconscious mind, for some time.
In 2016, Bill McKibben, founder of the climate activist organization 350.org, came to speak at a rally at the BP tar sands refinery in my “backyard” in the highly industrialized northwest corner Indiana. The occasion was a series of coordinated direct actions around the world against the fossil fuel industry, collectively hailed as the largest direct action in the history of the environmental movement.
What struck me about McKibben’s speech, though, was its tone of … well, hopelessness. Here’s how he concluded his 10 minute speech:
“I wish that I could guarantee you that we’re all going to win in the end, the whole thing. And I can’t, because we don’t know. The physics of climate change is pretty daunting at this point. The momentum of it is pretty big. We’re not going to win everything. We’re not going to stop global climate change. It’s too late for that.
“But the work you’re doing literally couldn’t be more important. There’s not many people who get to say in their lives, ‘I’m doing the most important thing I could be doing.’ But that’s what you guys are doing today. I can’t guarantee you’re going to win. But I can guarantee you in every corner of the world that we’re going to fight. And that’s going to be enough for now, just knowing that we are taking it on.”
That’s pretty sobering material for a speech at an environmental activist rally, not to mention a speech by one of the leaders of the climate movement:
“We’re not going to stop global climate change. It’s too late for that.”
At the time, I was caught up in the enthusiasm of participating in my first act of civil disobedience, so I didn’t think much about McKibben’s words.
But they kept coming back to me.
“What Did He Just Say?”
I remembered McKibben’s words later, as I was watching Aaron Sorkin’s HBO TV series, The Newsroom. In one scene, a high ranking scientist in the EPA is being interviewed by the show’s lead, a news anchor played by Jeff Daniels. The scientist explains that the latest measurements of atmospheric CO2 had passed the point of 400 ppm (parts per million) and what this means for humans:
EPA scientist: The last time there was this much CO2 in the air, the oceans were 80 feet higher than they are now. Two things you should know: Half the world’s population lives within 120 miles of an ocean.
News anchor: And the other?
EPA: Humans can’t breathe under water.
The anchor then asks the scientist what his “prognosis” for humanity is, “A thousand years, two thousand years?” The scientist’s response was bone chilling:
“A person has already been born who will die due to catastrophic failure of the planet.”
After a pause to get his bearings, the anchor resumes:
News anchor: You’re saying the situation is dire?
EPA scientist: Not exactly. Your house is burning to the ground, the situation is dire. Your house has already burned to the ground, the situation is over.
News: So what can we do to reverse this?
EPA: Well there’s a lot we could do…
EPA: …20 years ago, or even 10 years ago. But now, no.
News: Can you make an analogy that might help us understand?
EPA: Sure. It’s as if you’re sitting in your car, in your garage, with the engine running and the door closed, and you’ve slipped into unconsciousness. And that’s it.
News: What if someone comes and opens the door?
EPA: You’re already dead.
News: What if the person got there in time?
EPA: Then you’d be saved.
News: OK. So now what’s the CO2 equivalent of the getting there on time?
EPA: Shutting off the car 20 years ago.
News: You sound like you’re saying it’s hopeless.
(You can watch the full clip below.)
The first time I saw this, I felt a flood of conflicting emotions: a combination of sinking horror and an absurd desire to laugh. I recognize it now as gallows humor.
Now, this was a television show, but it’s not fiction. In the real world, we passed 400 ppm not long after the episode aired. And the fatalism of Sorkin’s EPA scientist makes sense when we understand what 400 ppm really means.
Remember Bill McKibben’s organization, 350.org? It takes its name from the research of James Hansen, the scientist who drew the public’s attention to climate change when he testified before Congress in 1988. In 2007, Hansen told the world that 350 ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere is the safe upper limit to avoid a climate tipping point.
At time of my writing this, we have already seen CO2 levels as high as 412 ppm, and we are permanently over 400 ppm. And we’re already feeling the effects: As of 2015, the planet is warmer than it has ever been in the last 11,000 years!
No wonder McKibben was fatalistic when I heard him speak in 2016. When he organized 350.org, in 2007, it was already two decades after we had passed the safe threshold. Now we’re in our third decade, and CO2 level had only continued to rise, with no sign of abating. More carbon has been released into the atmosphere since Hansen’s 1988 congressional testimony than has been released in the entire history of civilization before that!
“The end of the human race will be that it will eventually die of civilization.”
Back on the TV show, the Jeff Daniels’ character asks the scientist to explain what all this would look like:
EPA scientist: Well, mass migrations, food and water shortages, spread of deadly disease, endless wildfires. Way too many to keep under control. Storms that have the power to level cities, blacken out the sky, and create permanent darkness.
In this hopes that this was hyperbole, I started researching. The math is right on, and according a Mother Jones article which fact checked the script, the predictions are pretty reasonable. Even the part about blackening out the sky might come true if the “geoengineers” have their way and start sending sulfur into the atmosphere, Matrix-like, in the hopes of reducing global warming.
In 2014, just as I was starting to wake up to climate change, the New York Times reported that a large body of research indicates that it is “inevitable” that the planetary temperature will rise by 2° Celsius (3.6° Fahrenheit) and that we are “locked into” a future of drought, food and water shortages, and rising sea levels. And that’s the optimistic estimate! In fact, we’re on track for more than 4°C of warming. That’s the temperature difference between the last Ice Age and the world now! So it’s reasonable to expect the world of the near future to be as different from today as today is from the Ice Age. According to the Times, that kind of change might render the planet “uninhabitable” to human beings.
Reports like this have become part of our daily news diet. It’s shocking that they don’t trigger a revolution. But as Steven Yeun’s character says in the recently released movie, Sorry to Bother You, when people see a problem that they don’t know how to solve, their response is to get used to it.
Archdruid John Michael Greer, author of Dark Age America agrees with Sorkin’s prognosis. From Greer’s vantage point, this bleak prediction is only notable for what it leaves out:
- expanding war and ethnic conflict
- increasingly frequent environmental disasters
- a return to a subsistence economy even in first world countries
- the collapse of governmental institutions
- the rise of charismatic authoritarian strongmen
- and drastically declining human population–
anywhere from a 70% reduction (from 7.5 billion to 2 billion), which would bring the population to a sustainable level, to complete human extinction.
Does this sound like science fiction? If it does, it’s not surprising, since these themes are increasingly common in our entertainment. There’s the food shortages, the police state, and the walled off cities depicted in USA’s Colony (minus the aliens). There’s the government-endorsed religious fundamentalism and regressive sexual politics in Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale. There’s the crop failures, resource depletion, and declining population in the movie Interstellar. There’s the collapse of governments, the rise of walled-off corporate states, and the sprawling climate refugee encampments, in the SyFy series Incorporated (more on that later). And let’s not forget the rise of feudal warlords like Negan, the villain in AMC’s The Walking Dead (which became bigger than Monday night football). Each and every one of these fictional scenarios is likely to be a part of humanity’s reality in the not-so-distant future.
The decline has already begun. Its effects can be seen everywhere, but we barely notice it because the change is usually incremental, rather than sudden. If we step back a minute from the daily barrage of news, we can see it:
- Superstorms like the three that struck the Atlantic in 2017–Harvey, Maria, and Irma–are becoming more common.
- We have already or will very soon reach the point of “peak oil”, after which the extraction of oil will enter a terminal decline, which will lead to more and more desperate and destructive attempts to extract the last drop.
- Most of our topsoil is already gone.
- Large parts of the U.S. are getting hotter and/or wetter. There are record wildfires and droughts in the western U.S., not to mention in Syria, where there the drought led to catastrophic civil war.
- Clean water is being privatized. Tens of thousands of people are denied access to water in cities like Philadelphia and Detroit.
- The “American Dream” of rising affluence has disappeared (for those who ever had access to it), as millions of people have lost jobs with benefits and been forced into effective corporate slavery or precarious employment with no health care or social security.
- Not coincidentally, we have recently witnessed the rise of the surveillance state, the militarization of domestic police forces, the popular legitimation of the alt-right.
- And not to mention the election of a demagogue/would-be dictator as President of the country that holds itself out to the world as the bastion of democracy. (And he’s building a literal wall!)
This was the stuff of science fiction not too long ago. Today, it’s our reality–and our entertainment. While shows like The Handmaid’s Tale and Colony have the potential to numb us to our present reality, sometimes science fiction can help us see our present more clearly. Watching one of these shows not too long ago, I had another terrible thought …
What if none of this is an accident?
“Everything is Going According to Plan”
“Everything is going according to plan. I don’t know whose plan it is, and I think that it’s a really stupid plan, but everything is going according to it anyway.”
I had always thought racism was a glitch in America’s social system, something that could be overcome with time and education. Recently, however, I’ve begun to see how racism is actually a function of a capitalist system. It keeps the poor and working class divided along race lines, to the benefit of the rich. As Malcolm X succinctly put it, “You can’t have capitalism without racism.”
What if, like racism, biosphere-wrecking climate change is not an accidental byproduct of our capitalist system? What if it isn’t a bug, but a feature? What if the system isn’t broken, as progressives claim? What if the system is functioning exactly as it is supposed to?
It was another television show that got me thinking about this, a series called Incorporated, which premiered on SyFy in 2016. The premise of the show was that world governments had gone bankrupt and had been effectively replaced by large corporations. These corporations functioned in walled-off cities, called “Green Zones”, outside of which was a sea of displaced people living in “Red Zones”, which included refugee camps overflowing with people having fled coastal cities flooded due to climate change.
In the show, there is virtually no mobility between the residents of the Green Zone, the corporate class, and the residents of the Red Zone, the unincorporated. There are no checks on the corporations, other than the threat of violence from other corporations. Although they live very privileged lives by comparison, those living within the corporate walls are virtual slaves to the corporation.
As I watched this, I was struck by two thoughts. The first was the close similarity between Incorporated‘s dystopic future to our present reality.
The second thought was: “What if this the goal?” What if this is the desired outcome for some of the corporate class? Zero government regulation. Anything can be bought for a price. Extremely exclusive social status. Technological wonders for the few who can afford them. In short …
What if everything is going according to plan?
It doesn’t require believing in a conspiracy to see that our capitalist system is driving us toward the future depicted in Incorporated, and that it isn’t by accident.
For it to function, capitalism depends on growth. Without growth, the incentive for capital investment disappears and the system breaks down. In an ideal capitalist system, there are no limits to growth. In order to grow without limit, capitalism needs two things: unlimited demand and unlimited supply. On the demand side, this means conspicuous consumption, socially manufactured needs, and disposable goods. On the supply side, this means access to cheap and abundant energy, i.e., fossil fuels. Without these conditions, the system cannot produce the kinds of surpluses which motivate the capital investment that perpetuates the system. But these conditions–unchecked consumption and the burning of fossil fuels–inevitably lead to disasters, both economic and environmental.
It turns out, that’s part of the system too.
In The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (2007), Naomi Klein describes how the corporate class has learned to profit from natural and economic disasters, by pushing through policies of deregulation and privatization while the impacted citizenry is too distracted and disorganized by the disaster to notice. Examples include Hurricane Katrina, the Gulf War, and 9/11, to name just a few of the many. The corporate class benefits from these policies, while the rest of the population is left with collapsing public infrastructure, declining incomes and increasing unemployment.
“An economic system that requires constant growth, while bucking almost all serious attempts at environmental regulation, generates a steady stream of disasters all on its own, whether military, ecological or financial. The appetite for easy, short-term profits offered by purely speculative investment has turned the stock, currency and real estate markets into crisis-creation machines …. Our common addition to dirty, non-renewable energy sources keeps other kinds of emergencies coming: natural disasters … and wars waged over scarce resources …, which in turn create terrorist blowback …”
“Given the boiling temperatures, both climatic and political, future disasters need not be cooked up in dark conspiracies. All indications that simply by staying the current course, they will keep coming with ever more ferocious intensity. Disaster generation can therefore be left to the market’s invisible hand.
“While the disaster capitalism complex does not deliberately scheme to create the cataclysms on which it feeds (though Iraq may be a notable exception), there is plenty of evidence that its component industries work very hard indeed to make sure the current disastrous trends continue unchallenged.”
— Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine
According to Klein, this leads to an increasingly divided world. Whether it is post-Gulf War Iraq or post-Katrina New Orleans, everything is divided between “Green Zones” and “Red Zones”, stark partitions between the privileged and the precariat. In the Red Zones, infrastructure is left to decay and social services are stripped of resources, while the privileged withdraw to the gated Green Zones, which are protected by the police/military. In many places, this is the present day reality, and it’s not so far removed from the future depicted in Incorporated.
“There is no reason for amazement: surely one always knew
that cultures decay, and life’s end is death.”
— Robinson Jeffers, “The Purse-Seine”
Of course, the world of Incorporated isn’t the end of the story either; it’s just a chapter in the story of civilizational decline. And we know how that story ends: death.
Our civilization is going to die.
If you’re like me, you need to sit with that last sentence for a while.
Of course, there’s plenty of people out there saying otherwise. I could pick different sources to believe. With the World Wide Web at our fingertips, it’s quite easy nowadays to choose the answers you like. I could choose more comforting answers.
But it was a question, not an answer, that really devastated me. Radical environmentalist, Derrick Jensen, asks this question of his audiences, and it’s one which I think every environmental activist should ask themselves:
“Do you think this culture will undergo a voluntary transformation to a sane and sustainable way of life?”
That question is what convinced me that the world as we know it is going to end, sooner rather than later.
Like Brad Werner, a pink-haired complex systems researcher who, in 2012, presented a provocatively titled paper to thousands of scientists at the Meeting of the American Geophysical Union, titled “Is Earth F**ked?”
Werner’s answer: “More or less”.
Or like Daniel Kahneman, the cognitive psychologist who won a Nobel prize for his studies of how irrationally humans respond to problems which require immediate personal sacrifices now to avoid uncertain collective losses. When asked to assess humanity’s chances for survival, Kahneman responded, “This is not what you might want to hear. I am very sorry, but I am deeply pessimistic. I really see no path to success on climate change.”
Or like Mayer Hillman, a social scientist and senior fellow emeritus of the Policy Studies Institute who has spent the last 20 years writing and speaking about climate change policy, and who, in 2017, announced his withdrawal from speaking and writing on climate change, declaring
Hillman raised the same question as Jensen: Do we really think human beings will move to zero global emissions in the near future? More specifically, Hillman asks,
“Can you see everyone in a democracy volunteering to give up flying? Can you see the majority of the population becoming vegan? Can you see the majority agreeing to restrict the size of their families?”
Hillman can’t. Jensen can’t. And I can’t either.
About two hundred years and fifty ago, human beings started using fossil fuels–first coal, then oil–to power civilization. What followed was unprecedented explosion of growth. The civilizational “progress” which we take for granted is result of the burning of fossil fuels. But the fossil fuels are a finite resource, and when they are gone, that will be the end of growth and progress too.
Renewable energy sources cannot produce as much energy as fossil fuels. And transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy only addresses the supply side of the equation. A renewable energy economy would only work if we simultaneously reduced our consumption. I’m not talking about people taking shorter showers and turning off the lights when they leave the room. I’m talking about a contraction of the economy which would crash the global capitalist system.
We simply can’t transition to a 100% renewable energy economy without also ending capitalism. Nothing short of a global socialist revolution is going to be enough (and I’m using “revolution” quite literally here). But capitalism has proven so adept at adapting to challenges and absorbing dissent, nothing short of the end the world is likely to bring it about.
“Someone once said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism. We can now revise that and witness the attempt to imagine capitalism by way of imagining the end of the world.”
— Fredric Jameson, “Future City”
While it’s easy for most people in developed countries to look around and think that all is well, the fact is we are living in what Roy Scranton calls the gap between sowing the wind and reaping the whirlwind. We are like the patient goes to the doctor for a routine checkup. They feel fine, but the doctor returns looking grim.
For some, this might actually be welcome news. I have communist friends who have been waiting a long time for the collapse of capitalism. And I have anarchist friends for whom the collapse of civilization is good tidings of great joy. “Everything is going according to plan,” indeed. (There’s even some people who are trying to accelerate the collapse by undermining any attempt to reform capitalism which might prolong its demise.)
It turns out that the Marxist are partially right: Capitalism is going to collapse, but it won’t require the revolution of the working class. It’s going to happen through the natural process of capitalism doing what capitalism does: consuming forests, species, and human potential and excreting carbon dioxide, toxic chemicals, and radioactive waste–in short, eating everything in sight and shitting where it eats.
Even if climate change were not a reality, our civilization would still die. Capitalism is just not sustainable. The combination of overconsumption (only partially the result of overpopulation) and overpollution will lead inevitably to civilizational collapse. Considering the damage capitalism is doing to the planet, that might not be such a bad thing. But unfortunately, our civilization is going to take a good part of the biosphere down with it.
The Stages of Grieving for a Civilization
“When you become a parent, one thing becomes really clear. And that is that you want to make sure your children feel safe. And it rules out telling a ten year old that the world’s ending.”
When my son was 13, he went through an existential crisis. He was losing his faith in the religion he had been raised in, including the belief in an afterlife. The thought of personal extinction terrified him. Over the next several years, he made peace with his own mortality. He did so, at least in part, by taking refuge in a new faith, the faith in human progress. He could accept the fact that he will die one day, but at least the accumulated knowledge of humanity would survive.
I felt the same way. And I know many atheists and religious naturalists who do as well. We accept our own mortality, while we cling to faith in the immortality of civilization.
But I don’t believe that anymore … and I don’t know what to say to my son.
It turns out, it’s not just individuals who die. So do civilizations. As Archdruid John Michael Greer, explains in Dark Age America, the last 5,000 years of human history have not been a straight line. There have been many dark ages. Europe in the early Middle Ages is only the most recent example in the West. There was also the collapse of Mediterranean and Near Eastern civilization in the Bronze Age. There were three separate Egyptian dark ages. And there have been others, in both the West and the East.
The causes of these prior dark ages are familiar: climate change, population growth, soil degradation, and widening social inequality.
“Many clever men like you have trusted to civilization. Many clever Babylonians, many clever Egyptians, many clever men at the end of Rome. Can you tell me, in a world that is flagrant with the failures of civilisation, what there is particularly immortal about yours?”
— G. K. Chesterton, The Napoleon of Notting Hill
Our present situation is unique, however. Those civilizations before us exceeded the carrying capacity of their land bases, but we are connected to a global economy. We are facing collapse, not just on a regional level, but on a planetary scale. And while civilizational decline is not uncommon, the speed at which we are rushing toward ours is. The reason why we are so rapidly rushing toward this end is because we have a terminal case of denial.
In The Denial of Death (1974), Ernest Becker theorized that the basic motivation for human behavior is the desire, in fact the need, to deny the reality of our own deaths. According to Becker, we engage in “immortality projects” in an attempt to create something that will transcend death. But these immortality projects are maladaptive, because they sever us from the flow of life–of which death is a part.
We do this on an individual level, but also on a collective level. Western civilization itself can be understood as a collective immortality project–one giant, complex attempt to deny our connection to nature, to the Goddess, and hence to deny our mortality. Climate change denial is just a special case of a much broader and deeper denial–a denial of our limits.
And it’s not just climate change deniers who are in denial. Many activists on the other side of the spectrum, like me, are in denial as well. I wasn’t denying that climate change is happening, but I was denying what it meant. “I believe that we will win!” I chanted along with my fellow activists. I was in denial. And the origin of that denial, a faith in human progress, is what got us into this mess.
Looking back, a lot of my environmental activism looks like the stages of grief: denial, anger, and bargaining. I moved into the depression phase recently. The good thing about the depression is that it allows me to recognize this process for what it is:
I am grieving for the death of human civilization.
The last stage of grief, I am told, is acceptance. But what does that look like? Do we go on protesting? Do we go on fighting, like Bill McKibben says, because fighting is better than doing nothing?
To be continued tomorrow in “‘Die Early and Often’: Being Attis in the Anthropocene”.
1 Nor is nuclear energy the panacea that many techno-wizards hope it is, due to insurmountable problems of scale, waste, and energy-return-on-investment.
John Halstead is a native of the southern Laurentian bioregion and lives in Northwest Indiana, near Chicago. He is one of the founders of 350 Indiana-Calumet, which works to organize resistance to the fossil fuel industry in the Region. John was the principal facilitator of “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment”. He strives to live up to the challenge posed by the statement through his writing and activism. John has written for numerous online platforms, including Patheos, Huffington Post, PrayWithYourFeet.org, and here at Gods & Radicals. He is Editor-at-Large of HumanisticPaganism.com. John also edited the anthology, Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans. He is also a Shaper of the Earthseed community which can be found at GodisChange.org.
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