“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?”

“A person has already been born who will die due to catastrophic failure of the planet.”

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…

News: Good…

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.

EPA: Yeah.

(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.

But we passed that point in 1988–30 years ago!

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!

Science Fiction?

“Who killed the world?!” — Mad Max: Fury Road

“The end of the human race will be that it will eventually die of civilization.”

— Emerson

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 warmingThat’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:

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”

incorporated-e1500580872733-1068x589
SyFy’s “Incorporated”

“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.”

—  Dmitry Orlov

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.

We’re F**ked.

ozymandias2
“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings, Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”

“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.

And more and more experts are coming to the same conclusion.

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

“We’re doomed.”

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.

That’s the point that is glossed by so many evangelists of renewable energy: renewable energy can’t “replace” fossil fuels.1

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.

The prognosis is terminal.

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.”

Insterstellar (film)

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”.


Notes

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

halsteadJohn 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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The Ways We Breathe

“This era of mass consumerism… is imperilling the ways we breathe”

From Lorna Smithers

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

“We need to remember that our very breathing is to drink our mother’s milk – the air – made for us by countless microbial brothers and sisters in the sea and soil, and by the plant beings with whom we share the great land surfaces of our mother’s lustrous sphere.”

Stephen Harding

Inspire. Expire.
Anadlu i mewn. Anadlu i allan.
Breathe in. Breathe out.

Respiration (from spirare ‘breath’ and re ‘again’) is participation.

Inspire. Expire.
Anadlu i mewn. Anadlu i allan.
Breathe in. Breathe out.

Lungs. Two. Right and left. Each enclosed in a pleural sack in the thoracic cavity of the chest. Primary bronchus, secondary bronchi, tertiary bronchi, terminal bronchiole. In the alveoli, ‘little cavities’, across the blood-air barrier, gas exchange takes place.

Breathe in: oxygen 21%, carbon dioxide 0.04%. Breathe out: oxygen 16%, carbon dioxide 4.4%. 6 carbon glucose, oxidised, forms carbon dioxide. Product: ATP (adenosine triphosphate) ‘the molecular unit of currency of intracellular energy transfer’. The spark of all life.

Birds have lungs plus cervical, clavicular, abdominal, and thoracic air sacs. Hollow-boned they are light as balloons, breathing in, breathing out. Then there are the lungless. Through tiny holes in the abdomen called spiracles leading to trachea, insects fill their air sacs, breathing in, breathing out. Earthworms and amphibians breathe in and out through their moist skins. Fish breathe water in through their gulpy mouths then out through their gapey gills.

Plants breathe through their leaves. By daylight they photosynthesise. Stomata breathe carbon dioxide. It mixes with water. The green lions of chlorophyll work their magic by sunlight. Oxygen is released. From glucose the magical hum and buzz of ATP. At night they respire glucose and oxygen back to carbon dioxide and water. 10 times more oxygen is produced than used.

Underground, fungi breathe the air of the soil through thread-like hyphae that mass as mycelia. They respire aerobically (with oxygen) or anaerobically (without oxygen), changing glucose to ATP (it’s all about ATP!), ethanol, carbon dioxide, and water. This old, old, metabolic pathway dates back to the days before oxygen ruled our breath and is also utilised by microbes. The hidden ones of the deep, single-celled, or living colonies, breathe through their single cell walls in ancient ways – acetogenesis, methanogenesis – to gain the blessed ATP.

To live we must not only breathe, but consume. Life lives on death. And this human animal consumes not only to create ATP, but for warmth, light, housing, transport, pleasure. Some say it began with fire, others with farming, others with writing, others with machines, others that it originated deep within human cells in the power plants of mitochondria – the Anthropocene.

The spark of this era of mass consumption has become a funeral pyre fanned by the winds of greed. Its smoke is imperilling the ways we breathe. Fire triangle: oxygen, fuel, heat. Smoke from carbons and hydrocarbons is composed of water, carbon dioxide, countless other fumes.

Smoke inhalation damages the lungs through burning, tissue irritation, oxygen starvation (asphyxiation). In 1952, 4000 people died in the Great Smog of London. Great smogs hang over Delhi, Baghdad, Beijing, Los Angeles, Rome. Asthma, lung cancer, COPD, leukemia, pneumonia, cardiovascular disease, weakening of lung function, difficulties breathing in and out.

Carbon dioxide levels rising, increasing greenhouse effect, raising temperatures. The forests, cut down, cannot help. The peat bogs, drained off, cannot help. The oceans acidifying cannot help. We are choking those who breathe with us, who are dropping like canaries in coal mines.

Who would dare to douse the fires? Throttle the exhausts? Get locked out of the factories for good?

Those who inspire. Those who burn with inspiration, ysbrydoliaeth, rooted in spirit, ysbryd. The breath of the universe, the breath of our human and non-human ancestors, the breath of the gods. Those who not only consume but give and offer those gifted breaths back before expiring.

Inspired ones! Burn with me! Breathe with me! Breathing in, breathing out, with the lunged and lungless creatures with skin, fur, feathers, shells, scales, leaves, hyphae, the single-celled.

All one breath.

Inspire. Expire.
Anadlu i mewn. Anadlu i allan.
Breathe in. Breathe out.

Respiration (from spirare ‘breath’ and re ‘again’) is participation.

Inspire. Expire.
Anadlu i mewn. Anadlu i allan.
Breathe in. Breathe out.


Lorna Smithers

Lorna Smithers profile pic IILorna Smithers is a poet, author, awenydd, and Brythonic polytheist. She is currently exploring how our ancient British myths relate to our environmental and political crises and dreaming new stories. As a devotee of Gwyn ap Nudd, a ruler of Annwn, she seeks to reweave the ways between the worlds. She has published two books: Enchanting the Shadowlands and The Broken Cauldron, and edited A Beautiful Resistance. She blogs at Signposts in the Mist.


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Not Climate Agreement, But Climate Revolt

“The withdrawal by the United States, the nation with the second highest carbon output in the world (behind China, whose per-capita emissions are less than half those of the US), seems deeply catastrophic.

It is catastrophic, yes. But not for the reasons we might think.”

Environmental and political analysis, from Rhyd Wildermuth

“Philosophers of freedom were mainly, and understandably, concerned with how humans would escape the injustice, oppression, inequality, or even uniformity foisted on them by other humans or human-made systems. Geological time and the chronology of human histories remained unrelated. This distance between the two calendars, as we have seen, is what climate scientists now claim has collapsed….

The mansion of modern freedoms stands on an ever-expanding base of fossil-fuel use.”

Dipesh Chakrabarty, The Climate of History


The world awoke to the news on Thursday that President Donald Trump announced his intention to withdraw the United States from the COP 21/Paris Climate Accords.

Environmentalists and the environmentally-conscious everywhere are reacting with horror and panic, as are politicians and leaders of many of the largest industrialized nations. The governors of several states within the US announced they will still voluntarily partake in the accord, the mayors of Montreal, Paris, Mexico City and many other massive metropolitan areas ordered official buildings to be lit green in defiance:

Climate change is a catastrophic problem. Already thousands of species go extinct each year, islands flood, entire ecosystems die off, and disruptions of long-term weather patterns are causing famine, resource wars, and death. Many saw the agreements reached during the Paris COP 21 summit as the last best hope humanity had of slowing and finally stopping the damage. So the withdrawal by the United States, the nation with the second highest carbon output in the world (behind China, whose per-capita emissions are less than half those of the US), seems deeply catastrophic.

It is catastrophic, yes.

But not for the reasons we might think.

 Waste Management

Climate change occurs through human activity. “Greenhouse gas emissions” (primarily CO2 and methane) are the product of burning fossil fuels like oil and coal through automobiles (and other transport), industrial production (everything from toilet paper to ‘smartphones,’), and all the activities which go into sustaining modern civilization (including the data servers hosting this essay).

To put this as plainly as possible, all our economic activity produces carbon in the same way that everything we eat produces shit. The more we eat, the more we defecate, and all that left-over needs to go somewhere. Those emissions go into the air.

Emissions are the primary problem, but other activity speeds up the process. Deforestation, for instance, decreases the ability of nature to ‘sink’ carbon: each tree, each plant, and each of us is composed of carbon, and our very existence locks carbon out of the atmosphere until we decompose and release it again. Plants, trees, and plankton are much better at this than animal life: when we replace plant-life with asphalt and forests with agricultural land, we speed the carbon output cycle while reducing the ability of the earth to ‘fix’ carbon out of the air.

Likewise, pollution, soil erosion, development, and the damming of rivers decreases the ability of the earth both to absorb carbon output as well as magnifying the effects of climate change. In Florida and Louisiana, for instance, much swampland has been drained to make way for new housing developments and industry. Swamps hold intense rainfall better than any other bio-region, so with the increasing hurricanes caused by climate change, flood-damage, pollution run-off, and erosion are amplified, weakening other linked ecosystems such as the Gulf of Mexico as well.

To pick up the fecal metaphor again, it’s like all septic tanks are full and overflowing, the sewage treatment plants over-capacity, and the overflow is leaking everywhere, polluting everything else.

This process of cascading damage is repeated in  every bio-region in the industrialised world. Not just industrialised regions, either: some of the countries with the least damaging economic activity, who have contributed only a tiny fraction to the carbon output of the world, suffer the most damage.  Nauru, and other tiny Pacific island nations, are sinking under the rising ocean levels caused by the melting ice-caps. Caribbean islands such as Haiti (per-capita yearly income $800 US, rank 123/141 in per capita carbon emissions) see relentless death from stronger and stronger hurricanes.

Industrialised nations tend to be more resilient against these changes, precisely because they are richer. But there’s a paradox here: the wealth they have that helps them recover from and accommodate to climate change was gained from the very activity which caused climate change in the first place.

With all this in mind, the goals of the COP 21/Paris agreement seem both sound and charitable:

“The deal requires any country that ratifies it to act to stem its greenhouse gas emissions in the coming century, with the goal of peaking greenhouse gas emissions “as soon as possible” and continuing the reductions as the century progresses. Countries will aim to keep global temperatures from rising more than 2°C (3.6°F) by 2100 with an ideal target of keeping temperature rise below 1.5°C (2.7°F).

The deal will also encourage trillions of dollars of capital to be spent adapting to the effects of climate change—including infrastructure like sea walls and programs to deal with poor soil— and developing renewable energy sources like solar and wind power. The text of the agreement includes a provision requiring developed countries to send $100 billion annually to their developing counterparts beginning in 2020. That figure will be a “floor” that is expected to increase with time.

The agreement gives countries considerable leeway in determining how to cut their emissions but mandates that they report transparently on those efforts. Every five years nations will be required to assess their progress towards meeting their climate commitments and submit new plans to strengthen them.” [Source]

Investing $100 billion dollars annually to undeveloped nations (such as Haiti and Nauru) to help them accommodate to climate change seemed to be a significant start, especially since it would represent the beginnings of a transfer of wealth from the countries most responsible for the damage to those least responsible. Without such aid, many people may die.

We can also read that provision as: “sorry we are making money by dumping our shit in your water supply. Have some of the money to help clean it up.”

This humanitarian element of the agreement is the part which seemed most ‘radical,’  a proof that the wealthy nations of the world were serious about being sorry for what they’d done.  Thus the United States’ decision to no longer participate seems particularly malevolent.

“As Soon As Possible”

Read the above summary of the agreement again. Did you happen to catch the words in quotes? (If not, they’re in this subheading.)

One of the two greatest problems with the Paris accords is that no specific timeline is outlined for the reduction of carbon output, or even the ‘peaking’ of greenhouse gas emissions. That is, there’s no regulatory or binding aspect to the agreement and no promises made as to when the industrialized countries in the world will stop increasing their output, let alone reducing it.

Instead, signatories agreed to stop increasing carbon pollution ‘as soon as possible,’ which is about as meaningful as an abuser telling you he’ll stop hitting you “when I’m done.”

The other targets (keeping global warming below 2°C/3.6°F and ideally below 1.5°C/2.7°F) are just as nebulous, and set to a future date so far away that it is guaranteed not a single person who negotiated the agreement will be alive to answer to their failure: the year 2100.

Climate agreements often suffer from an overdose of Realpolitik, the idea that while certain ideals are worth striving for, we must be pragmatic. Make the agreements too ambitious and (the reasoning goes) no countries will sign to them. Make them binding, with economic penalties for those who cheat, and no leader who agreed would ever get re-elected.

That pragmatism, however, conceals something more insidious, what is rarely spoken of by liberals (who often spearhead such agreements) or even leftists: climate change is not merely some global problem to be managed by the governments of the world, but the very result of the global economic systems by which those governments exist in the first place.

The High Cost of Living

Capitalist expansion, Liberal Democracy, and the increasing availability of technology to help humanity live longer, communicate over vast distances, and have access to the products of far-flung lands at any time of the year have come with the mass extinction of species, deforestation, melting ice-caps, polluted water supplies, and all the other cascading cycles of damage we call “Climate Change.”

We have smartphones and the internet, personal automobiles and life-saving pharmaceuticals, plastics and global travel, social media and strawberries in winter. We also have flooding islands, eroded top soils, resource wars and super-storms. These are not separate aspects of modern existence; they come by means of the very same thing, and the former produces the latter.

Again with the toilet metaphor: the ‘progress’ which we embrace is the food we eat; the climate destruction the Paris Accords promised to address is the shit that comes after.

That is, the agreement which Trump endangered by withdrawing the United States from its provisions was a sham in the first place, a dazzling illusion meant to assure the billions of humans upon the planet that we could continue on our present course of “progress” and not die from rising temperatures and oceans.

Thus we should not see the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris Accords as a blow to the planet. Rather, it is a crippling wound to Liberal Democratic global capitalism. COP 21 represented the last hope for those who wanted to eat their cake and not see the shit too, but it was no hope at all. The United States pulling out is the final blow to the Liberal Democratic promise that both Capitalism and humanity can continue together.

And anyway: voluntary reductions ‘as soon as possible’ with nebulous targets negotiated by people who will be long dead by the time anyone could judge their failure or success? That was not a plan, it was a hoax.

We know what causes climate change. We know the connection between our economic system and the CO2 it shits out into the atmosphere. We know that our entire ‘way of life,’ our religious faith in progress, and endless capitalist expansion is killing us, and it will kill the poorest people of the world first. And more than anything, we know that the only way to stop it is to pull the emergency brake on the capitalist train hurtling us into destruction.

It’s time to pull that brake. We cannot rely on governments and corporations to do the right thing, nor can we afford to delude ourselves that there is another way to stop the destruction of the natural world.

It’s time we stop putting our hope in climate agreements, and become the climate revolt.


Rhyd Wildermuth

Rhyd is the managing editor and a co-founder of Gods&Radicals. He is a poet, a writer, a theorist, and a pretty decent chef. He can be supported on Patreon, and his other work can be found at Paganarch, and shirtless selfies occasionally seen on his FB. and also his Instagram


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