All posts by Christy Rodgers

Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Grief, Acceptance: The Five Stages of Ecocide

“There is hope, an infinite amount of hope, but not for us.” – Franz Kafka

If artists are the antennae of the race, and writers and thinkers are also artists, then a vibration some are receiving and beginning to transmit to the culture more broadly now is new in the history of our species: the world is dying.

The world, not defined as “human civilization,” or a nation, empire, or culture, but the entire living world, which undergirds all those. Not in one region, but everywhere, all at once, and with escalating speed.

The custom at this point in the essay would be to cite statistics, summarize recent UN reports, quote news stories, prominent scientists, etc. But I will take it as a given that you have already read those, or are at least aware of them. What I want to get at is how this feels, what the inner experience of this knowledge is: to be living, aging and eventually dying in uncanny lock-step with The Great Dying, the greatest our species has ever seen, caused by us to boot. Is there even a word for this? I choose xenocide – we are killing almost everything that is not us… for now. The antennae of the race are intimating is that this is ultimately suicide, because there is no “other” in the living world; we are inextricably imbricated in it. Ecocide is perhaps the most correct: we are killing our home.

This is the definitive experience of our generation. But there are reasons why most of us living today seem unable to comprehend it, and live (or die) accordingly. Thanks to civilization, we had already largely lost the living world before we were born, and now what is dying is something we barely knew existed. You might call this Big Yellow Taxi syndrome.

Denial. Just as racism is not just perpetrated by overt racists, denial is not just perpetrated by overt denialists. Perhaps you and I pride ourselves on the cognitive leap we have made – we’re not like them, the benighted masses who simply swallow the lies they’ve been fed, who can’t see through the propaganda, the ones “we” must educate. But if we have children, can we really disbelieve the lie that every parent is forced to believe – the last, best, bastion of magical thinking: that the world will somehow be “better” for them, not unspeakably worse, and that what we have done, how we have lived, will actually help them to thrive in it?

With or without children, are our daily lives altered in any substantial way by our knowledge? I’m not talking about adopting conscientious individual behaviors like eating less meat or taking the bus more. I’m talking about the fact that the infrastructure that sustains us shows no sign of reduction, exhaustion or, frankly, anything but frenzied growth. It is an infrastructure of denial. Denial, like racism, is systemic. And therefore, even once we know it’s happening, we don’t actually go around on a day-to-day basis with the Great Dying uppermost in our minds. We don’t go out in the street, and perceive immediately that “a social response of any kind [is] occurring,” as Dark Mountain Project essayist Arnold Schroeder puts it. The dying, for now, is far away, and largely invisible to most of us. There is a war, but we of the global urban working class and bourgeoisie are not on the frontlines. And, unlike those nightly casualty counts during the Vietnam War, the results are not even a blip on our now-omnipresent screens.

Around me, on the streets of San Francisco, nothing looks like it’s dying. The opposite, in fact.

I mean, seriously, how does it get any better than what we have here? With a certain level of income and education, admittedly within reach of only a few tens of thousands among our country’s hundreds of millions, you can live in historically unprecedented comfort in a place where it’s spring all year, gorgeous vistas await you at every turn, the shops and markets are filled with an abundance of good, fresh things to eat and fun things to own; the streets are regularly cleaned (in the nicer neighborhoods); all manner of diversions abound; parks, flowering trees and sidewalk gardens are maintained by gangs of enthusiastic volunteers; willing lads and lasses can be hailed to deliver you to your destination in their private cars with a tap on your phone…

I sometimes wonder: is this it? Is this the pinnacle? Is contemporary San Francisco at its savagely unequal best the apogee of human civilization, the best it will ever be?

The smoke from the most destructive and deadly wildfire in California’s history, which settled over the city for two weeks last year – giving it, briefly, the worst air quality in the world, worse than Delhi or Beijing – was, cognitively, something like the tiny spot on your lungs that the X-ray barely images. You get a scare, and for a little while, the inevitability of decline and death comes rushing in to overwhelm you, filling your whole field of vision, coloring everything black. Then you look again a little later; it seems to be gone. What was that? You feel relief, then oblivion. Life goes back to normal.

Until…

And here face downward in the sun,
And here beneath earth’s noonward height
To feel the always coming on, the always rising of the night…

Anger. Meanwhile, somewhere else, some people have realized that something is dying, but it isn’t the living world, to which they are largely indifferent, in both the cognitive and concrete sense, except possibly to view specific pieces of it as resource or adversary, depending on the circumstances. It is their own possibility for economic advancement that is moribund, and the cultural superiority that perhaps they were taught to associate with that lost possibility. For them, growth has stopped. Around them, others have risen, taken unfair advantage, over-reproduced themselves. External enemies are everywhere. Demagogues with war mongers whispering in their ears arise to stoke their rage. Weapons are everywhere. Information floods synapses, triggers responses: fight, fight, fight, or die. In Hungary, Poland, Italy, Germany, France, Sweden, Britain, Brazil, the Philippines, the U.S – “end-of-history” liberalism fades like a hothouse flower. Pre-existing authoritarian regimes double-down in a confusing game of Friend-or-Enemy? (We are at war with Oceania. We have always been at war with Oceania.) Everybody practices the Two-Minutes Hate.

Somewhere altogether elsewhere vast
Herds of reindeer move across
Miles and miles of golden moss
Silently, and very fast.

Bargaining. Here come the technocrats, the hope-sellers, the humanists. We can beat this thing. Look: slavery, fascism, nuclear war – we beat them! (Except, not really…) A new global generation is rising with new values, new insights, new technologies. There’s still time to turn this around. In 12 years…10…9…8… If we just do… x… Build this movement, implement this program, stop subsidizing fossil fuels, put carbon back in ground, save 50% of the land for wildlife, get the plastic out of the oceans, eliminate CAFOs, trust women, end capitalism…

But the science we trust when it speaks of technological possibility, we fail to heed when it speaks of feedback loops. Or of critical slowing down, the diminishing ability of a complex system to resist increasing pressures from within and without, so that once it reaches a certain point, collapse is unstoppable. We fail to heed that we have already “baked in” an irreversible degradation of the living world, and we are not changing course in time to stop it.

That doesn’t mean nothing proposed in the bargaining stage is worth attempting. The metaphor of a single person’s dying begins to lose currency when you are talking about all life. Becoming Mars is not inevitable, and the islands of relative biodiversity, social harmony and ecological coherence humans and other species may be able to sustain within the rising seas of climate chaos could still influence a proximate outcome for the biosphere.

But the world our species came of age in, the only one we know; that world is definitively dying. What we have already done heedlessly over the last two centuries has set processes in motion that are irreversible in any term of less than thousands, perhaps millions of years. No amount of bargaining, of socio-political or techno-optimism will change that. It won’t rebuild the ice sheets or the glaciers, it won’t save the millions of species that can’t migrate, or the ocean ecosystem that depends on the chemical balance and food chain we have upended. It won’t preserve our forests, tropical or temperate, at anything like their present size. We are moving into a new regime, which will be increasingly chaotic and thus inhospitable to life, until it stabilizes at an unknown point. If we refuse to accept that or try to bargain it away, it will still happen. That is what dying means.

Grief. Ten years ago, a pair of disenchanted British activists declared that it was time to stop bargaining and start mourning. They had seen enough to comprehend that for all the fulminating of politicians, the triumphalism of corporate scientists and CEOs, and the creative resistance of woke activists, humans were not, and would never be, in charge of the destructive forces we had unleashed. And the idea embodied by our civilization, of somehow being in control of all life, or disconnecting ourselves entirely from the living world and still having lives worth living, was a lie. It was not Eastern or Western civilization but civilization writ large that had brought us to this point. And if it was too late to bring down its walls in the material world in time to prevent the Great Dying, we could still do something worthwhile by bringing them down in our minds, and making space for new stories to grow. So, the Dark Mountain Project was born, and its manifesto, Uncivilization (From the Mourning of the World) was published. And it went out into our culture largely through the abstract, bloodless, but profoundly far-reaching veins of the internet, indelibly a product of the catastrophic civilization that had thrown it up to better conduct its wars. With its vast effluence of entropy, our civilization is a toxic and clumsy parody of a functioning ecosystem, but it is still a system, and we all still operate within it.

To the dismay of some progressives, many tropes of progressive politics were abandoned by Dark Mountain’s writers and artists, because progressivism could or would not come to grips with what was really happening to the living world. This didn’t mean the project entered into an embrace of some kind of mystical, nature-centered proto-fascism either. Those who saw that seeking justice in human society was still part of the equation of meaningful survival, and was in any case inevitable and necessary (Respect Existence or Expect Resistance, as the saying is) could still find a home for their ideas there.

I like to think I was one of those. For me, Dark Mountain has been a needed oasis for feelings and ideas ignored or rejected by a Left that not only had little concern for the wellbeing of non-human ecosystems, but no place for interiority as an essential component of collective human wellbeing. Everything that didn’t advance us down the mechanized chute to a rigorously rational socialism was elitist and reactionary. And human progress was inevitable, because Marx said so. (Except, he didn’t…) Pay no attention to that disappearing glacier behind the curtain.

So, thanks to Dark Mountain, I found I could transform paralyzing depression into thought and action by joining the emerging legions of grief. We mourned together in the catacombs of social movements that could not publicly acknowledge us, and in the shared but Balkanized spaces of the internet. And now, ten years later, ten years deeper in greenhouse gases, exhausted topsoil, destroyed rivers, razed forests, drowning coastlines, animal genocides, whirling continents of plastic trash, upended lives, fires and floods – the world’s first social movement founded not in anger or bargaining but in grief, Extinction Rebellion, has appeared.

Tragedy ∆ Farce: A Litany

First, they came for the amphibians, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t an amphibian.
Then they came for the charismatic megafauna, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t one of them either.
Then they came for the marine life, and I was a little depressed about that because – no more seafood. But I kept quiet about it.

Then they came for the last Indigenous Peoples, and for the poor – who were, in fact, almost all of the people by then. But, well, whatever.
Finally, they came for me, and there was no one left to speak out.
Just a lot of cockroaches, jellyfish, and microbes.
(And I think they were glad to see me go, to be honest.)

Acceptance.

“A willingness to live without hope allows me to accept the heartbreaking truth of our situation, however calamitous it is. Grieving for what is happening to the planet also now brings me gratitude for the smallest, most mundane things […] I have found that it’s possible to reach a place of acceptance and inner peace, while enduring the grief and suffering that are inevitable as the biosphere declines.” Dahr Jamail, author of The End of Ice, in a recent interview.

As the Uncivilization Manifesto reminds us, “The end of the world as we know it is not the end of the world full stop.” Acceptance of death is not the place where activity ends, but the only place from which activity that is has real potential to sustain meaningful life can spring. Because acceptance of death is an acknowledgment of truth, and only from a place of truth can any action come that understands life well enough to be beneficial to it.

Acceptance doesn’t mean accommodation with oppression and injustice. It means acknowledgment that we aren’t trying to prevent the apocalypse, because civilization is the apocalypse. We are trying to open a path to a future that is worth living in. Our feelings are experienced individually, and they do not directly impact the material world. But they are not irrelevant. The path to truth for a complex being must itself be complex. On the day a hundred thousand people come into the streets to grieve together for the lost reefs, the lost forests, and all the unnumbered victims, human and non-human, of civilization’s rise, we can mark the beginning of a new era in human life on this planet.

Dark Mountain’s latest anthology, #15, In the Age of Fire, has just been published. Material from its 51 authors and artists is showcased on the project’s website.

Achieving Escape Velocity

I grew up with the idea that leaving Earth was inevitable. The Space Age had arrived and the sky was no limit. Per ardua ad astra was no longer a metaphor; it would happen, it was happening. Invisible radiation traveled through the air every afternoon to bring me indelible images of humans in space, benignly, bravely venturing out into the numinous beauty of the galaxy strung with stars, enticingly intercalated with exotic life. A chorus of ethereal voices accompanied their stalwart ship each time, as it boldly went where no man [sic] had gone before.

What it carried with it were clean, comfortably-appointed living spaces where slim, attractive people sported glittery, form-fitting synthetics and teased and pomaded hair that was preternaturally perfect. Mutual respect, affection and humor were their mainstays. There was racial harmony – for humans had united, at last! (Often against other species, but only if they threatened us first. Otherwise, we sought to befriend them.) Artificial intelligences informed, protected and consoled us, but knew their place, like good housemaids. If they overstepped, we pulled the plug. Our marvelous cultural diversity was still intact no matter how deracinated our existence had become, speeding along in a vacuum, light-years from home among the stretched-out stars.

Earth had figured it out. Humans had figured it out. We had solved all the challenges on our home planet, and now – on to the final frontier!

I was so happy in that promised land, as a child. I was happy being Lost in Space or going on a Star Trek, from the safety of the Danish modern sofa strewn with throws and pillows I made into a kind of cocoon. The living room always a comfortable 70 degrees, whatever was happening on the planet’s surface outside. I lived in a space craft, protected from the debilitating atmosphere of an alien world – my own.

My physical relationship to the biosphere surrounding my spaceship house, which silently and imperceptibly sustained it all, was limited; I spent most of my time indoors. And even out of doors, that relationship was always mediated. Not so much by technology or gear, as it is for bourgeois children (and adults) today, but a state of mind that was omnipresent, and which has facilitated the exponentially increasing reliance on complex technology that characterizes my personal timeline. I wasn’t staying inside because I was sickly or frail, but because I was afraid.

My family lived in pleasant college towns, not wilderness, human-made or otherwise. I was a member of the most protected class in the most protected country, judged by wealth and weaponry, in the history of the world. And yet that was not enough to be safe, ever.

Outside my spaceship were dangers, just like in the shows. They lay in wait everywhere, although within the hedge and fence-bound yard, I was still tethered, at least, to the life-support systems onboard. The woods beyond the fence (a disused orchard gone wild) were off-limits. We were told there was an abandoned well somewhere back there – we could fall in and drown. There might be snakes, foxes, feral dogs or rabid raccoons. In summer, enormous moths battered the spaceship’s plate glass windows in inexplicably suicidal, desperate, but somehow menacing swarms. June bugs flung themselves like stones against the screen doors. Burrowing creatures scratched at the concrete foundations. In winter, when I went out into the snow, I wore a puffy, full-body suit with attached boots and gloves, like an astronaut.

Other children, were, of course, the most dangerous element of all. We had lived in three different places before I was six; the neighborhood children were not just strangers, they were an alien race. When spring came, I climbed a willow tree in the yard, and from there I had a vantage point; I could perceive the approach of any threat. I have no sense of actually comprehending that tree as a living thing; it might have been a watchtower made of plank and steel. I would sit on the roof of the carport in the same way, watching for movement, wishing for a jetpack that could hoist me aloft, let me fly to safety if the aliens spotted me. I just wanted to escape. Wherever I lived as a child, I wanted to be somewhere else. I achieved escape velocity only through television.

My grandfather spoke proudly of having been born in the era of the horse and buggy and living to see the advent of the Space Age. For a settler-colonialist-descended people such as we, there was no finer description of progress: our mobility, our expansion could now go on forever. And yet somehow, when that triumphant July day rolled around, it was less real and compelling to me than the dullest Jetsons episode to hear the grainy epigram (“one small step for man…”) or see actual boot prints on the barren moon. And the erection of that flag, the same one that was then flying atop gunships plying Southeast Asian seas, overseeing an escalating slaughter in a burning jungle; just another story the television told us at night.

The moon, a living goddess, a smiling benefactress in so many tales, was only a lifeless rock covered in gray dust. Now we knew. Now it had been proven.

What was the dark energy that powered the Space Race anyway? And planted that flag to hang in listless isolation on that spiritless plain? What was its political engine? It was the Cold War, with its sharp foretaste of nuclear annihilation, the capability we had recently acquired to destroy not just ourselves but all life on earth – even, potentially, the earth itself. In our fear-filled quest for safety through domination of the material world, humans had with bottomless irony achieved a state in which we would never be safe again. Now we had a lot more to fear than fear itself.

One night when I was ten or eleven, not long before the moon landing, Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove was on TV and we were allowed to watch it. “They’re too young,” my mother moaned. “They should know about this,” my father intoned. So, we watched, utterly baffled. At the end, a bunch of crazy things happened: Slim Pickens whooped as he rode that descending warhead, Peter Sellers marveled as he stood up from that wheelchair, and then suddenly there were bombs going off one after another, nuclear bombs, with a woman singing a sentimental song in the background. The End. WTFH? And yet at some level we children knew it was the end of the world. My brothers and I got fractious and started whining and fighting afterward. (When Dr. Strangelove had, much later, become one of my memorized films, I would remember “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here, this is the War Room!”) “You see,” said my mother to my father. “I told you.” I couldn’t fall asleep that night. There was no safety. Rockets didn’t carry you to new worlds in interstellar space; they fell to earth. And when they did, everything blew up.

I didn’t know I was white then; my milieu, the liberal intelligentsia, was open to many socially progressive thoughts and ideas and still as racially circumscribed as any reactionary’s. But while I breathed the rarefied air inside my spaceship, Gill Scott-Heron was singing bitter poetry about the moon landing; he told how the America that lives in the shadows of racialized poverty watched that feat with a jaundiced eye.

A rat done bit my sister Nell

Her face and arm began to swell

(but Whitey’s on the moon)

Was all that money I made last year
(for Whitey on the moon?)
How come there ain’t no money here?
(Hmm! Whitey’s on the moon)

The year before Apollo landed was the fateful fork: cities had burned when Dr. King was murdered, martyr to a dream that turned out to be a fantasy, the peaceful realization of equality not by shiny idealized people out in space someday, but on this earth now.

Our only great prowess was technological. In no other way had we triumphed. We hadn’t solved anything on earth before launching ourselves into space.

And yet, without even straying from the yard, I can also recall that my childhood held the smell of turned earth, damp leaf mold, lilacs, pine duff, incipient rain. The feel of an onrushing summer storm, of the air as it seems to undergo a phase change. The almost sub-conscious morning and evening soundtrack of bird and insect song, frogs in the ponds and creeks. The minnows darting at the edges of the lakes we ventured in to swim. The alien world was there, at the exurban fringe, wilder (even after 300 years of settler-colonialist unconcern for intact ecosystems), more varied and fantastical than the wildest fantasies of life on other planets, if you just raised or lowered your eyes to it. One cubic inch of earth’s soil, says E.O. Wilson, contains more living organisms than the rest of the solar system combined, so far as we can tell.

Why were we schooled, long before television or space travel came along, to pay so little attention to this? To be so indifferent? Why were we so afraid of this that we ran into the arms of an unending nightmare?

Remaking authentic communities into packaged forms of themselves, re-creating environments in one place that actually belong somewhere else, creating theme parks and lifestyle-segregated communities, and space travel and colonization—all are symptomatic of the same modern malaise: a disconnection from a place on Earth that we can call Home. With the natural world—our true home—removed from our lives, we have built on top of the pavement a new world, a new Eden, perhaps; a mental world of creative dreams. We then live within these fantasies of our own creation; we live within our own minds. Though we are still on the planet Earth, we are disconnected from it, afloat on pavement, in the same way astronauts float in space. – Jerry Mander, In the Absence of the Sacred

Almost fifty years since, while racialized inequality has skyrocketed, an incalculable diversity of the planet’s biome has been reduced to livestock, monocrops and humans, and the global climate is on the verge of chaos. Now another dark, annihilating vision drives the contemporary fantasy of space colonization: the uninhabitable earth. Pick your poison: quick (nuclear war) or slow(ish): diminished, sweltering, lifeless continents surrounded by acid seas. Before he died, Stephen Hawking warned: this is the most dangerous time in the history of humanity, because we have acquired the capability of destroying the planet without being able to escape it.

This from a man kept alive for decades by mechanical intervention, who studied the most abstract objects in the universe, where the laws of physics themselves break down. A man who had no reason to love the living earth that gave him the genetic makeup that caused his body to start destroying itself in early adulthood. The perfect example of the expert: one whose unsurpassed sophistication and mastery of complex thought in one area, theoretical physics, was combined with an almost childlike simplicity where biological systems or social relations are concerned. This was a man who loved Star Trek too.

His remedy was not that we retreat, respectfully, from the disaster we have caused, and humbly use millennially acquired knowledge to try to repair something of what we have broken before “biological annihilation” becomes terminal. It was that we redouble our efforts to achieve escape velocity as soon as possible.

Escape we must, then, somehow, if he said so. There Is No Alternative, just as we are told about neoliberal capitalism, artificial intelligence, bioengineering, industrial agriculture, drone warfare, and (up next) geoengineering. We must keep up the 10,000 year-long attempt to transcend the biosphere and its constraints, because otherwise we won’t be free.

Dreaming of the key, each confirms the lock, said T.S. Eliot.

How free is anything to which there is no alternative?

Not long before he died, John Trudell, American Indian Movement activist and poet, came to San Francisco (on whose high-priced pavement I’ve been afloat for over two decades now, lucky me). He spoke prophetically, an ancient role, ignored then as now – or we wouldn’t be in this Groundhog Day-like predicament, facing the endemic prospect of civilization’s collapse, again. A defining characteristic of civilizations, right up there with walls, writing, agricultural surplus and standing armies, must be that they ignore their prophets. Trudell said something shocking to anyone steeped in Western liberalism: “I don’t trust that word, ‘freedom.’ To me, there is no such thing as freedom, there is only responsibility.”

This whole question of freedom and frontiers (which have nothing to do with borders, that’s another essay) is etched deeply into the settler-colonialist psyche. Television programming from my generation forward has been the equivalent of myths and tales told around the fire, and it’s easy to find examples from my youth of how this worked in practice. I think of the popularity of Westerns, waning as I grew. They were the final abstraction of the American frontier, transmuted into the dimensionless landscape of broadcasting when it no longer existed in the physical world. Those free lands that once must have seemed infinitely vast, by now ensnared in a stale gray net of concrete, another project made necessary by the Cold War: the completion of the interstate highway system. Once the frontier was officially “closed” in the 19th century, civilization had encircled the globe and there was nowhere else to go but up. The ensuing hot wars gave us the technology, the Cold War gave us the drive. And so, the space race and Star Trek, its consumer-friendly mythology, were born.

But what if you were forced to work the land, and freedom meant freedom from it? Leah Perriman of Soul Fire Farm describes the work of re-forging a link broken in this nation by chattel slavery. She says of Black Americans: “We have confused the subjugation our ancestors experienced on land with the land herself, naming her the oppressor and running toward paved streets without looking back. We do not stoop, sweat, harvest, or even get dirty because we imagine that would revert us to bondage.”

She goes on to describe a student first resisting, then allowing himself to experience for the first time the sensation of his bare feet on the earth, the almost electric charge that goes through him as another past is recovered, one that could be transformative if it were accessed collectively.

While billionaires like Musk and Bezos are literally shooting into space the surplus value extracted from workers and the earth, others are trying to sink their bare feet back into the ground. But the ground is shifting so fast now, and more of it is being covered by cement or blown off in dust storms or washed into the oceans every day. Is it too late to re-establish roots? To put aside a specious, emptied out “freedom,” and take not just individual but collective responsibility, once and for all? Will enough people relinquish their deadly privilege, will enough of the global bourgeoisie turn from the hamster-wheel of consumption and throw their lots in with repair and reparations? Before…what?

Too late isn’t the right way to frame the question; there’s no such thing till after the fact. Millions will try/are trying to make these changes, but only a generalized humility, not human exceptionalism, might guide them to success – by which I mean meaningful survival. Processes are in motion of which we are only barely becoming aware; they are larger than our global civilization, they are older than our species. We are not in charge. We only ever dreamed we were, anyway, just as we only ever dreamed we could be “free” of the earth or one another.

Dreaming of freedom without collective responsibility created the lock, built the progress trap, strengthened the feedback loop of capital, technology and consumption. And fear of the Other, human or not, fired the pursuit of safety that is killing the world. Even if we could achieve escape velocity as a species, we would be bringing all of that right along with us.

Orson Welles in End Times

They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead is Morgan Neville’s not–very-helpful addition to the canon of “Who Was Orson Welles and How Did He Do It?” documentaries, of which I have already seen several, since I’m a fan. It didn’t make me particularly enthusiastic about The Other Side of the Wind, Welles’ simultaneously released final monsterpiece (42 years in coming!) which is the nominal focus of the documentary. The footage of Welles pastiching European New Cinema (which did a fine job all on its own) and somehow critiquing toxic masculinity by having John Huston chew scenery while slathering the bronze body of his talentless late-life muse Oja Kodar across the screen (talk about having your cake and eating it) and wasting the talented Susan Strasburg in a vengeful bitch-critic role left me cold and rather sad (in solidarity with critics, I suppose, and Antonioni, and the billions of women who may be any number of worthy things without ever being the muses of iconic film directors).

I may still go to see the film, out of completism, which for Welles fans is an exercise in frustration and almost Borgesian impossibility. Or maybe I’ll watch it on Netflix, since I assume my subscriber fees helped pay for it (both films are Netflix productions). As fans know, there’s usually at least one scene or shot in any Orson Welles film that actually makes you see in a new way, and that’s worth the price of many misfires.

The documentary is also full of baffling and irritating choices: why have Alan Cumming narrate, PBS style, but in various extraneous and tricksy settings, such as through a monitor in a faux editing room? Why shoot interview subjects side-on or over the shoulder—one of them, Henry Jaglom I think, even questions this on camera—or wearing headphones, in bled-out black and white? Why not identify any of them with title cards, at least once? Why are some only voiceovers, never seen at all?

Who knows? But if you have to ask, you’re being unnecessarily distracted from the subject.

Still, I’m glad I saw it; it gave me a lot of Welles to contemplate, and that caused me to reflect on the Greater Meaning of Movies. And this is because Welles was massive, iconic and chimerical enough to be a metaphor for the medium itself, during a time the cinema will not see again, for good or ill. He was like Prometheus, bringing fire to the masses, and condemned to exile and slow torture by the vengeful gods of the System for doing so.

Welles was also big enough to bookend High Anglo Culture historically: the artist most equal to the challenge of interpreting on stage or screen—in the final decades of unobstructed Anglo cultural dominance—the work of that foundational artist, Shakespeare, who literally reinvented our language in the incipient years of the empire, which, its life fatally extended by settler colonialism, and having linguistically and economically conquered the world, is finally on the knife-edge of ultimate decline. And Welles in turn gave us a new cinematic language for the story Shakespeare had mastered in that earlier time: the rise and fall of the Great Man.

It was sheer myth, what Welles created, what he seems to have lived for, myth in both the modern sense of fabrication, and the ancient sense of a story of cosmic significance. Twentieth century movies and movie-going were the first and last gasp of a universal secular mythology: once upon a time we went to temples to commune with gods, larger than life, made of light, who danced before us, or really forever just beyond, touching us without being touched. But they were also fictions, embodied by small (if pretty) actual humans wearing the giant masks of projection. And Welles, consummately among his peers, understood that in human life, duplicity and transcendence were inextricable. That’s probably why his masterpieces are masterpieces of surface, to paraphrase the late Pauline Kael (who apparently earned herself the Strasburg caricature in The Other Side of the Wind for this insight).

But now that the ending he wrote for his own story is at last before our eyes, both as document and as fiction, are we allowed to ask what it was all for? Not the quest for mythic expression, the creation of narratives of cosmic significance, which we will need as long as we remain human, but the particular myths, the stories, his own Promethean story—where do they fit in our contemporary psychic toolbox? Do they have the power to persist in the future as they have dominated the past?

Tragedy, the rise and fall of larger-than-life heroes, comes out of a culture of surplus, because the rise that precipitates the ruin is only possible where there is lots to gain. A culture that raises up Prometheus or Faust has the luxury of not needing to honor humility or resilience, because it has the resources to waste on great striving and great loss.

That seems unlikely to be the culture of the future.

In The Age of Derangement, Amitav Ghosh notes how ironic it is that, so far, only lowly genre fiction, and not much of that, seems able to grapple with what will likely be the defining phenomenon of our lives: the exhaustion of the biosphere and the chaos that will engulf us if we run it to death the way our ancestors ran down the mammoths. So-called literary fiction is obsessed with meticulously chronicling the phenomena and mapping the psychology of individual lives; so-called serious films may have extended their subject matter to include a bourgeois liberal embodiment of certain social issues in an individual’s story, but our culture’s back is turned when it comes to a situation so monstrous it requires nothing less than the mythic, the cosmological approach to storytelling.

And in that onrushing storm, the Great Man is lost and useless. The Great Man degenerates, as the Faustian bargain unravels, into a telegenic fascist, a blank-eyed billionaire eyeing only the next quarter’s returns, a slug-like Hollywood mogul strip-mining the humanity of naïve and vulnerable starlets. They aren’t even interesting villains, not a Hamlet or Macbeth or a Charles Foster Kane among them. All the while, a much bigger story, the story of how to survive and thrive in a living world, goes untold.

Peter Bogdanovich quotes Welles: “no story has a happy ending, unless you stop telling it before it’s over.” That’s a riff on Hemingway’s “every true story ends in death.” (Hemingway, possibly more than Welles himself, is the artist Huston is meant to be channeling in The Other Side of the Wind.) That’s the tragic view, and tragedy is an exclusive creation—one might say a self-fulfilling prophecy—of the boom-and-bust West. But comedy is universal, and survival is always comic, as the literary scholar and biologist Joseph Meeker (author of a seminal work of eco-criticism, The Comedy of Survival) reminds us. Comic heroes and heroines forgo transcendence for adaptation, fluid identity, minimization of risk and conflict. Their talent is a profound and sophisticated understanding of context, not a blind will to subdue the elements.

To make Welles’ late films and many others, lives were broken, bonds of friendship and love betrayed, chaos unleashed, all to chase some flickering remnant of magic that’s hailed as timeless even as it’s already fading back into all the other stories incessantly bubbling up, the rising din of billions who just got a toehold in modernity, and are only beginning to understand that their assigned job in it is to harvest the grapes of wrath. Magic forged in a privileged medium that won’t survive in any meaningful way in inundated cities, migrant camps, or vast resource-poor settlements where electricity has become an impossible luxury, won’t survive or have meaning in the sparkless eyes of the mechanical beings or burrowing animals that will haunt the ruins we’re rushing toward.

We murdered, we suppressed the age-old stories of connection to plants, animals, women, soil, one another. In one place on earth after another, the humble stories were displaced by Promethean pulp fiction, and now the price of that so-called progress may be the whole earth, and every living thing upon it. We may not even have Ozymandias’ “trunkless legs of stone” to gaze upon in a thousand years, much less the cinema of Orson Welles.

To avert this, sometime in the 21st century, during the lives of those now living or just being born, Prometheus must die, not merely be punished by serpents gnawing at his liver. He must die, or we will.

But for a little while longer, the shadows still dance before our hungry eyes, in lavishly restored Beaux Arts movie palaces like the Castro Theater, attended by the cultured and well-fed in the lucky rich cities like San Francisco, or in the booming multiplexes the slightly less felicitous drive to in their dinosaur boxes just off the life-abhorrent superhighways, or on the ever-smaller screens we’re increasingly encouraged to insert between ourselves and all innate perception, full stop. On those screens still flicker daily the stories of the Great (White) Men, their lushly violent dreams, their overweening, complex projects, their hapless, idolatrous muses—rising and falling like the stock market in speed-up, making us believe, in our timorous and misplaced awe, that when they finally fall for the very last time, our whole world goes down with them.

The Fires This Time

This is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it.

— James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

The wildfires may be out of the headlines, but they are not out. Visual images seem the only way to comprehend the scope. The cluster of little flaming circles indicating active fires, crowded over interactive maps of the Western U.S. and Canada, covering their landmasses like an infestation of cartoon bugs, and with NASA’s hallucinatory satellite imagery color-coding them among all the atmospheric wildness in Gaia’s Revenge this summer: smoke, fire, dust, deluge, typhoon. However, the sheer acreage burned requires a return to the numerical: there’s no way to capture it in a single image. And yet whatever those numbers are, they still seem utterly disconnected from the Dow Jones, or the price of eggs at the supermarket, or flights to Spain, and so they are still inadequate.

But in Canada, with 550 fires burning last month in British Columbia alone, and smoke coating the west from border to border and beyond, someone thought to write about the mental and physical anguish of being surrounded by wildfire and its consequences, watching a familiar landscape, once vibrant, benevolent, be transformed into something fearful and toxic, in which you are trapped. When the suffocating smoke covers a thousand miles for weeks on end, where is there to run?

The article mentions the concept of “solastalgia,” a word coined to describe the experience of longing for a lost place when you are still in it—when you haven’t changed location, but it has changed character, for the worse. Uprootings, migration, exile: these, and the trauma they cause, have been endemic to civilization from the get-go, because civilization has been sustained by warfare. But to see your home place transmogrified by chthonic forces into an alien and hostile environment even as it still surrounds you—this is a sea change. (Literally, for some communities.) It means, among other things, that something is happening on a scale whereby the privilege of not being uprooted by merely human imbalances of power is no longer worth much.

There is a fearful sense that “thinking globally” will always require solastalgia now. That we are, Big Yellow Taxi-style, discovering the importance of places in our lives, and of the biosphere we grew up in, even as we lose them, forever.

The Meaning of 1968

It is also exactly half a century since the “fateful fork” year of 1968. We have just passed the anniversary of the bloody police riot at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago – Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy are already assassinated, Paris’ May uprising quelled and its energy disintegrating, the Prague Spring crushed. The final phase of the Tet offensive ends with no general revolt and staggering Viet Cong casualties, preparing the way for years of mass slaughter in a military deadlock, the U.S. defeat already inevitable, the Vietnamese victory Pyrrhic. Still ahead that year: the murder of hundreds of student protesters and fellow marchers in Mexico City in October, to make Mexico safe for the Olympics. In November: the triumph of Richard Nixon, successfully playing on the fears of Southern racists to get them to abandon the Democratic Party.

We have never escaped the shadow of that year of disenchantment. Not with the formal decolonization of Africa, or the fall of the Berlin Wall, or the election of a neoliberal black man as U.S. President. In the ensuing 50 years, only one revolution has had the kind of cumulative, irreversible, touching-all-lives effect that we used to mean when we used the term: the technological one. Information, communication, and the means of production have been revolutionized, without in any way diminishing alienation, systemic violence, or exploitation. “Everything has changed, except the mind of man [sic],” said Einstein after the atom was split. The second half of that sentence ought to be tagged on every time the first is used nowadays as well.

James Baldwin’s rhetoric was already apocalyptic in 1962 when the essays in The Fire Next Time were published. By 1968 he had seen too much of it, too much of “kill the best and buy the rest,” (as Bruce Cockburn sang twenty years later, when the utopian hopes that had been razed in the U.S., Europe, Africa, and Asia rose briefly in Latin America, only to be crushed again.) Ed Pavlic, Baldwin scholar, says in one of a group of excellent articles in the Boston Review: “Baldwin described the journey from 1955 to 1969 as a ‘terrible descent.’” It’s interesting how differently white progressives and radicals saw that same arc. But history bears Baldwin out as the more prescient—he knew that if race relations in the U.S. could not be transformed, there would be no meaningful social progress of any kind. The rest of the “two-thirds” world, and now, we clearly see, the world of nature, are simply other foci of systemically reinforced objectification.

Baldwin, America’s greatest essayist, perhaps the 20th century’s best from any land, suffered himself to vibrate in every nerve and capture with every word the horror of a society in complete denial of just about everything that could redeem it: its past, the blood on its hands; its fears: of blackness, sensuality and sexuality, honesty, complexity, intellect, love. Its servile and now centuries-long acceptance of the constructed notion that “the concept of Property was more important—and more real—than the possibilities of the human being.”

For a time, he used his formidable skills to try to wake white people from the zombie-like trance of their parsimonious privilege to see that the richness of a real life would only be possible—for them—if all were free. In the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, as an old order seemed to be breaking down around the world, his central question was: How much can Americans truly stand of this nightmare before we shake it off? Surely, now we must begin to wake. But with the murder of King, he realized without question that whiteness would not be dissolved on his watch. The collective capacity to go along to get along, to refuse to know what was profoundly evident, to ignore or even defend lies, torture and killing, turned out to be every bit as great as he had feared, and infinitely greater than he might once have dared to hope. He went on speaking out for two more decades, but with the bitter knowledge that his words were without agency against the Biggest American Lie.

Beyond the Fateful Fork

That privileged capacity for denial, accommodation and selective blindness is as pronounced as ever, now that the world is burning and flooding. Fifty years on from 1968, a global consumer society now exists that has not resolved a single fundamental question that the 20th century posed of how we ought to live, in the way Baldwin construed it, one which has only deepened its contradictions (“incoherence,” Pavlic says, was Baldwin’s chosen word, for both the personal and the political miasma) at electronically accelerated speed. This, now that the teleological ideologies of the 20th century have all dissolved in blood, is a civilization with no vision beyond immediate perpetuation, become nothing more than a Brobdingnagian game of Jenga.

Lerone Bennett, historian of slavery, coined the phrase “fateful fork.” When he reviewed the history of European civilization on this continent, he identified missed opportunity after missed opportunity to create a society that did not depend upon the objectification of some by others in order to function.

A nation is a choice. It chooses itself at fateful forks in the road by turning left or right, by giving up something or taking something — and in the giving up and the taking, in the deciding and not deciding, the nation becomes. And ever afterwards, the nation and the people who make up the nation are defined by the fork and by the decision that was made there, as well as by the decision that was not made there. For the decision, once made, engraves itself into the landscape, engraves itself into things, into institutions, nerves, muscles, tendons; and the first decision requires a second decision, and the second decision requires a third, and it goes on and on, spiraling in an inexorable process which distorts everything and alienates everybody.1

With the utmost respect for those uncounted millions who have valiantly tried to rescue civilization from itself—to create, out of the torrents of blood that have gushed down the millennia like those in the elevator scene from The Shining, the first civilization that was not also “a document of barbarism,” as Walter Benjamin wrote—perhaps the notion of missed opportunity isn’t really salient here. Perhaps there’s something more fundamental at work. In fact, what Bennett seems to be describing is more like what scientists call a feedback loop. Once a collective choice is inscribed it is reified, making its unmaking impossible, and even its overturning increasingly difficult. The idea that revolution would represent a tabula rasa, a total reboot, was the ultimate logical fallacy. We need to revise our notion of progress, because the old Enlightenment view of an inevitably upward trajectory for humanity, as unidirectional as the timeline, is patently wrong.

And now a revolution is happening, on a scale larger than humans have ever seen. But it is nature’s revolt, not humanity’s. We have never lived in a world warming as quickly (and thus as chaotically) as the one we are entering. We have never witnessed a Great Extinction, never mind perpetuated one. At the same time, human society has never been a single global entity, so populous, so vastly complex, and therefore so vulnerable to reverberating effects from seemingly minor events as it is now. And our civilization’s response so far is to double down on the behaviors that unleashed the revolution—but that is because hierarchical civilization is the very definition of a feedback loop, one that has been reifying its precepts for thousands of years to attain this global reach.

Energy and systems theorist Richard Heinberg says our contemporary hierarchies, our systemic inequalities, are stark enough to be analogous to predator-prey relationships. While he rightly qualifies the metaphor repeatedly in order to avoid pernicious social Darwinism (like predators being somehow “superior” to prey species), he uses it to show how extreme inequality (over-predation) is a feature of a particular phase in both natural ecosystems and human societies. That phase generally heralds a rapid reduction in energy consumption, levels of complexity and population size. In the context of an integrated global society, however, it becomes a question of impacts that stretch beyond a single generation:

To the extent that we are today eroding the carrying capacity on which future generations would otherwise depend, our way of life could be characterized as intergenerational “predation;” to put it crudely, the old are “eating” the young.

Reinventing the Futureand the Present

What to do with such a time? Many conscientious collective responses are possible; many are already in motion; none is likely on its own to be transformative. But since you can’t solve a problem with the thinking that created it, maybe one meaningful place to start is in re-conceptualizing the real, and then re-imagining the possible.

In an essay for The Dark Mountain Project, ecologist Tim Fox asks us to flip our conceptual script. Imagine that there is not a final cataclysm somewhere on the horizon (nor is there some kind of anthropo-topia, technocratic socialist or otherwise), but that you are already living in an apocalypse that has been unfolding for generations, like a volcanic eruption in slow motion. This is what civilization looks like from the perspective of the planet’s biodiversity, and the diversity of its indigenous cultures. Then begin to imagine that the post-apocalypse, instead of being a dreaded wasteland, is the time when a different human presence emerges: multiform, circumscribed, integrated—like the non-human species in a healthy ecosystem. A revivification and re-diversification, such as have followed previous mass extinctions. As Fox says:

So long as the prevailing stories continue to paint the Apocalypse as a nightmarish tomorrow rather than as a current event, we’ll continue to prolong and worsen the very thing we are trying, with increasing desperation, to avoid. We will also continue to miss the opportunity before us: a better world.

And that is where words come in, and images, and agency. For our narratives have only one kind of agency, and that is to enable the survival of ideas that can inspire broadly collective behaviors at some confluence of events that we can try to facilitate but cannot foresee.

L’imagination au pouvoir! comes echoing through the clouds of tear gas down the decades since May 1968. And somewhere a picture of John Carlos and Tommie Smith raising their fists on the podium at the Mexico City Olympics is circulating right now. The survival of such memes is as important for our cognitive and social evolution as genes are for our physical evolution. As long as they remain in our collective memory, however faintly, they have a chance to find expression in the culture we create, down the eons or in the next instant. We are both shaper and shaped, and the stories we tell ourselves are as important to the shaping as anything else we do. If they appropriate our imaginations instead of stimulating them, that’s a sure sign they are not the narratives that will help us thrive in a thriving world.

In his introduction to the 1984 edition of Notes of a Native Son, Baldwin quotes Doris Lessing: “…while the cruelties of the white man toward the black man are among the heaviest counts in the indictment against humanity, colour prejudice is not our original fault, but only one aspect of the atrophy of the imagination that prevents us from seeing ourselves in every creature that breathes under the sun.” (emphasis mine)

If we are faithful to that conception, then we will recognize that our new pietá is the image of an orca mother in the Salish Sea carrying her dead calf for 17 days. We won’t worship death, or despise our own humanity, but we will allow ourselves to grieve a lost ecosystem, a species gone extinct, and we will understand how we are implicated in them. We won’t wait for a future cataclysm and some eschatological redemption; we will recognize that the post-apocalypse begins now, with us. Rather than conjuring up the classic post-apocalyptic wasteland, we will conjure up an Enlivenment, our stunted political imaginations revivified by biophilia, regeneration, belonging.

Baldwin, knowing exactly how bad things were by 1984, how miserabilist American society was, and how much human possibility had been betrayed since the fateful fork of 1968, responds to Lessing’s words:

“Amen. En avant.”

  1. Lerone Bennett, “The Road Not Taken,” from The Shaping of Black America. Chicago: Johnson Publishing Co., 1975, pp. 61-82. Originally published in Ebony, vol. 25 (August, 1970), pp. 71- 77).

The First Thanksgiving

No, really, it isn’t any trouble at all. I’m thrilled that you’re interested, because I love to tell the story of this place; I feel the story is part of its healing quality, you know, and that is why you’re here, why we’re all here. And it wasn’t always like you see it now—by no means! We had to work at it; we really had to create it from nothing, but we did it because we believed in what we were doing, and you know, when you really believe, the universe makes a way…

I think it helped that we were all, the group of us who started it, of truly like mind. We’d been meeting at conferences for years; we’d been talking and thinking and hearing about all these wonderful ideas for a different way of life, as things just kept getting worse and worse in the world–you know, the wars, and the destruction of nature, and the terrible violence in the cities–and everyone was thinking the same thing: there’s got to be a better way! We need to stop just talking about it and actually start to live it. For the sake of the planet!

So, our minds were definitely starting to form a gestalt; we were all thinking along the same lines, and when we talked about it we discovered we all agreed on the basic ideas, and it was finally simply a matter of when, not if.

(Of course, the other thing it turns out we all had in common, which some of the others who tried to “do” sustainable living around the same time didn’t, was investments. Which we were also savvy enough to liquidate before the Crash—that’s the “creative class” for you, I like to say!)

Now, even though we had been urban or suburban people all our lives, we knew that to create the kind of community we really wanted, we needed land. I mean, humans are really village dwellers, you know, that’s how we’re meant to live. We made such a mistake throwing away all those thousands of years of social and spiritual evolution for a life of high-rises and traffic and concrete! And I say this even though I used to love my little local café, and going to the movies or the theater, and the museums and so forth… But really, we felt the cities were a terrible mistake for humanity. Of course that mistake is evident to a lot of people now, but most of them are trapped. They don’t have the money or the education to escape, even temporarily—and we learned, once we took our rose-colored glasses off and actually started building this place, that sustainable living really requires both. Someday it may be different, it may be accessible to everyone, and of course we all pray for that day, and focus our ceremonies on the hope that humanity is moving towards that understanding, but in the meantime, we simply try to serve as an example of what is possible.

Later, of course, we’ll take the full tour, so you can see all our beautiful straw bale and cob houses, and Irv will explain the water system and the solar system—I mean the solar heating, of course—and the rest of it; it’s really quite fascinating! It required a lot of planning and outlay of resources to set it all up, and this was happening right around the time of the coup, just after the Crash, so we had to work out all sorts of exotic deals with the contractors, some of which were almost like guerrilla actions, you know, because, as you recall, everybody was being ordered to spend money in certain places in order to keep the economy going, and peoples’ bank accounts were all being frozen if there wasn’t enough activity on them, and, well, you remember! It was chaos! But we’d been predicting something like that would happen, so we were readier than most. It helps to have a financial analyst or two in your core group, let me tell you!

But you know, I’ve gotten a bit ahead of myself here. People always want to know how we chose this particular place. I’d like to say we did it all by some process of divination, feng shui or whatever, but of course, if I’m honest, I have to tell you there were more practical concerns involved! You noticed the old sign on the road in from the airstrip? So you know that this is—well, was—“reservation” land. You see, during the crisis, a number of laws were suspended, for economic reasons of course; I’m sure you remember, but most people didn’t know that one of them was actually the inviolability of the Indian reservation lands! The government, even as it was falling apart, was trying to make a huge land grab. We were on the side of the tribal people, of course—they had taught us so much; they always presented at our conferences, and many of our ideas of sustainability came from them! So, through some contacts that one member of our group had with this tribe because he used to come up here to hike and fish, we offered the native people a deal. We would buy up the land, keep it out of the hands of the government, take a small piece for our community, and of course all the native people living there would retain the right to inhabitation in perpetuity—it was all in a contract, and the lawyer who drew it up was even part Native American!

We thought it was a really perfect solution. Especially because, while we had all the technological ideas of sustainable construction and solar power, and composting toilets, and bio-dynamic farming and so on, we had been city dwellers for so long—generations, in some cases—and we all had our separate careers, and our own apartments, and so we really had no idea how to actually live in community, you know! We thought we would need to learn from the ancient tribal people in our midst just to survive in this new context. So we saw having them here as really an asset for us.

Well, as it turns out, it was a much more complicated situation… There were only about ten native families left living on the land when we came here. Three of them had all their young men in prison or the National Guard. Ironically, one of the mothers told me her son was actually patrolling the city where I lived, during the riots just before the coup. The Crash and all the fighting basically cut him off from going back home, although at least he was still able to send some money… But frankly, I have never seen people living in poorer conditions than those families, and I’ve been to Africa! And the drinking! It seemed like everybody that was still there was drunk all the time! And the fighting! I almost despaired when I saw it; I said to myself, how naïve I was about these people! They’re a mess! Who knows if we can learn anything from them at all?

But you can’t push the river, as they say. The land was bought, the deed was done; we had gotten out of our city lives just in time, and couldn’t go back; now we had to make this work. We had to deal with what was there. We had to see what would come of it.

So we started out meeting with the families, just to try to make friends, you know, and letting them know, in spite of our reservations—no pun intended!—that we really respected their culture and wanted to learn about it. The response we got initially was, I have to say, somewhat mercenary. It was basically: “that’s great, but what can you do for us?” And we had to explain again, well, we’re letting you stay here, remember? And we’ll pay for what we need, just like we always used to pay the presenters at our conferences—quite well, actually…

It was a terribly slow process. We hit a lot of walls just trying to find out who were the right people in the tribe to talk to; one person would tell us one thing, and somebody else another; it got really tiring. We couldn’t find anyone who was interested in helping us with spiritual knowledge, or ancient wisdom, or anything like that. Everybody we talked to just wanted to complain to us about something somebody else in the tribe had done, and tell us not to give them any money! I think at some point the light dawned on me that what we were learning about village life was exactly the opposite of what we wanted to learn: we were learning about deviousness, and manipulation, and resentment and backstabbing—it was horrible!

Then the first winter came, and suddenly things changed. With what was going on after the coup, I don’t think we realized how totally cut off we were going to be, and the builders still hadn’t built much, and were working out a lot of kinks in terms of the techniques they were trying that, of course, no one anticipated at the time. That was when, in an odd sort of way, the Indians really came to our rescue. I mean, they had learned to survive with nothing for so long! When our truck broke down in sub-zero weather, one of the women—the women, mind you! fixed it just like that. When our stores froze because we hadn’t dug the root cellar properly, we found out they had a whole garage full of macaroni and cheese and other army surplus stuff, that their kids in the Guard had been sort of appropriating and bringing home on leave—in truckloads! It wasn’t the organic produce we’d been hoping to be living on all winter, but it was food! (I mixed sundried tomatoes in with the macaroni and cheese and got to quite like it!)

And then there was the Dramatic Rescue, as I call it, when five of our little group of pioneers went ice fishing and totally miscalculated the depth of the ice! My goddess! These two old men we’d never seen doing anything but sitting in front of their broken-down trailer drinking beer appeared from nowhere and got them all out before they had time to feel the cold, as my husband said. And never said a word the whole time, just disappeared after they’d built a fire and dried them out and dropped them off back at our log house. And meanwhile their grandsons pulled enough fish out of the hole in the lake to feed us all dinner that night!

There must have been a dozen other little incidents like that that winter. We got through, miraculously! And we were very grateful to them, of course, and tried to pay each time they helped us, and they wouldn’t take anything, so we didn’t know what else to do.

But I think in the end we realized that we’d been on the wrong track with the idea that we could learn about community from the native people. Because what we saw was that the community only kicked in when you were on the verge of real catastrophe. Then everybody put aside their grievances and suspicions and helped out. Once we learned that, we saw there was really nothing else they could teach us. It made more sense to focus on trying to follow our sustainability plan and manage our assets well so that this place could give us all a good income. That was something we did know how to do. I mean, it seems obvious perhaps, but who wants to live on the verge of catastrophe all the time? Our aim was to be sustainable and comfortable.

After that winter, things slowly improved every year. We learned from our mistakes, believe me! By the time the national situation stabilized enough, with the whole GovCorp reorganization, martial law was lifted so people could travel, and money was circulating again, we were ready to open the retreat center. Within a few years we could bring in spiritual teachers from all over the world; we’ve had Maoris, Bushmen, Mayans—although of course the amount of fighting going on in all these different parts of the world, and the restriction of flights because of the Climate Laws makes that a very expensive process! But such wisdom is really a priceless commodity, and our guests realize this, and know how fortunate they are to be able to afford it.

Anyway, that was when we finally figured out how to work out a mutually beneficial relationship with the native people here. We needed staff, to take care of the guests; they needed jobs. At first, we said, we could only pay very little, but as things picked up there would be good jobs, and more jobs—tending the biodynamic gardens, and repairing the lodge, keeping the vehicles running! And so on. And laundry of course, there’s always a lot of laundry! Being a laundress here is skilled labor! We sun dry everything; there’s a real art to the way our sheets are done that you will experience for yourself…

In the last couple of years things have really taken off for us, particularly since GovCorp liquidated the old national parks, and set up the Extraction Zones there, so that people have had to come to private reserves like this even to experience nature, much less natural living! Well, it soon became obvious that we really needed more land to expand the resort, so we said to the families: look, most of you are living on the grounds already, let’s just acknowledge the reality of the situation; if you let us build on the land your few old trailers are still on, we’ll take care of it, we’ve shown we know the real value of it, after all, and you can live in beautiful, sustainable houses that we’ll build for you, (although not in exactly the same spot, of course, so you’re not on top of the guests) and you can just work for us to pay them off! No strings attached! How about that?

A few individuals balked at this, and mentioned wanting to look at the contract again, but most of the people recognized a good deal when they saw one. There wasn’t much choice, really, and we could have been much less generous if we’d wanted to; they knew what it was like in the outside world… One or two of the men ran off, grumbling about how they wouldn’t take it lying down, and we should watch out because they had fought in the Mid-East Wars, and knew about armed resistance, and all this very primitive talk, frankly. That was a brief scare; we did purchase a few guns and keep them around the place after that, but we’ve never had any problems, and we’ve never seen them again from that day to this. Which just goes to show, this land is truly blessed!

So that’s our story. I hope I haven’t tired you out—I know how dreary that flight over the Wasteland is. So sad, to think of all that land poisoned by one reactor in a single incident. At least it makes you truly appreciate havens like this one, yes? And that is what we are here for. To make sure you get the healing and renovation you need during your time with us. Just leave all your worries behind! You’re in the Running Brook house, I believe? You just follow that path over the little bridge. I’ll have Akwesane bring your bags.

 

The First Thanksgiving

No, really, it isn’t any trouble at all. I’m thrilled that you’re interested, because I love to tell the story of this place; I feel the story is part of its healing quality, you know, and that is why you’re here, why we’re all here. And it wasn’t always like you see it now—by no means! We had to work at it; we really had to create it from nothing, but we did it because we believed in what we were doing, and, you know, when you really believe, the universe makes a way…

I think it helped that we were all, the group of us who started it, of truly like mind. We’d been meeting at conferences for years; we’d been talking and thinking and hearing about all these wonderful ideas for a different way of life, as things just kept getting worse and worse in the world–you know, the wars, and the destruction of nature, and the terrible violence in the cities–and everyone was thinking the same thing: there’s got to be a better way! We need to stop just talking about it and actually start to live it. For the sake of the planet!

So our minds were definitely starting to form a gestalt; we were all thinking along the same lines, and when we talked about it we discovered we all agreed on the basic ideas, and it was finally simply a matter of when, not if.

(Of course, the other thing it turns out we all had in common, which some of the others who tried to “do” sustainable living around the same time didn’t, was investments. Which we were also savvy enough to liquidate before the Crash—that’s the “creative class” for you, I like to say!)

Now, even though we had been urban or suburban people all our lives, we knew that to create the kind of community we really wanted, we needed land. I mean, humans are really village dwellers, you know, that’s how we’re meant to live. We made such a mistake throwing away all those thousands of years of social and spiritual evolution for a life of high-rises and traffic and concrete! And I say this even though I used to love my little local café, and going to the movies or the theater, and the museums and so forth… But really, we felt the cities were a terrible mistake for humanity. Of course, that mistake is evident to a lot of people now, but most of them are trapped. They don’t have the money or the education to escape, even temporarily—and we learned, once we took our rose-colored glasses off and actually started building this place, that sustainable living really requires both. Someday it may be different, it may be accessible to everyone, and, of course, we all pray for that day, and focus our ceremonies on the hope that humanity is moving towards that understanding, but in the meantime, we simply try to serve as an example of what is possible.

Later, of course, we’ll take the full tour, so you can see all our beautiful straw bale and cob houses, and Irv will explain the water system and the solar system—I mean the solar heating, of course—and the rest of it; it’s really quite fascinating! It required a lot of planning and outlay of resources to set it all up, and this was happening right around the time of the coup, just after the Crash, so we had to work out all sorts of exotic deals with the contractors, some of which were almost like guerrilla actions, you know, because, as you recall, everybody was being ordered to spend money in certain places in order to keep the economy going, and peoples’ bank accounts were all being frozen if there wasn’t enough activity on them, and, well, you remember! It was chaos! But we’d been predicting something like that would happen, so we were readier than most. It helps to have a financial analyst or two in your core group, let me tell you!

But, you know, I’ve gotten a bit ahead of myself here. People always want to know how we chose this particular place. I’d like to say we did it all by some process of divination, feng shui or whatever, but, of course, if I’m honest, I have to tell you there were more practical concerns involved! You noticed the old sign on the road in from the airstrip? So you know that this is—well, was—“reservation” land. You see, during the crisis, a number of laws were suspended, for economic reasons, of course; I’m sure you remember, but most people didn’t know that one of them was actually the inviolability of the Indian reservation lands! The government, even as it was falling apart, was trying to make a huge land grab. We were on the side of the tribal people, of course—they had taught us so much; they always presented at our conferences, and many of our ideas of sustainability came from them! So, through some contacts that one member of our group had with this tribe because he used to come up here to hike and fish, we offered the native people a deal. We would buy up the land, keep it out of the hands of the government, take a small piece for our community, and, of course, all the native people living there would retain the right to inhabitation in perpetuity—it was all in a contract, and the lawyer who drew it up was even part Native American!

We thought it was a really perfect solution. Especially because, while we had all the technological ideas of sustainable construction and solar power, and composting toilets, and bio-dynamic farming and so on, we had been city dwellers for so long—generations, in some cases—and we all had our separate careers, and our own apartments, and so we really had no idea how to actually live in community, you know! We thought we would need to learn from the ancient tribal people in our midst just to survive in this new context. So we saw having them here as really an asset for us.

Well, as it turns out, it was a much more complicated situation… There were only about ten native families left living on the land when we came here. Three of them had all their young men in prison or the National Guard. Ironically, one of the mothers told me her son was actually patrolling the city where I lived, during the riots just before the coup. The Crash and all the fighting basically cut him off from going back home, although at least he was still able to send some money… But frankly, I have never seen people living in poorer conditions than those families, and I’ve been to Africa! And the drinking! It seemed like everybody that was still there was drunk all the time! And the fighting! I almost despaired when I saw it; I said to myself, how naïve I was about these people! They’re a mess! Who knows if we can learn anything from them at all?

But you can’t push the river, as they say. The land was bought, the deed was done; we had gotten out of our city lives just in time, and couldn’t go back; now we had to make this work. We had to deal with what was there. We had to see what would come of it.

So we started out meeting with the families, just to try to make friends, you know, and letting them know, in spite of our reservations—no pun intended!—that we really respected their culture and wanted to learn about it. The response we got initially was, I have to say, somewhat mercenary. It was basically: “that’s great, but what can you do for us?” And we had to explain again, well, we’re letting you stay here, remember? And we’ll pay for what we need, just like we always used to pay the presenters at our conferences—quite well, actually…

It was a terribly slow process. We hit a lot of walls just trying to find out who were the right people in the tribe to talk to; one person would tell us one thing, and somebody else another; it got really tiring. We couldn’t find anyone who was interested in helping us with spiritual knowledge, or ancient wisdom, or anything like that. Everybody we talked to just wanted to complain to us about something somebody else in the tribe had done, and tell us not to give them any money! I think at some point the light dawned on me that what we were learning about village life was exactly the opposite of what we wanted to learn: we were learning about deviousness, and manipulation, and resentment and backstabbing—it was horrible!

Then the first winter came, and suddenly things changed. With what was going on after the coup, I don’t think we realized how totally cut off we were going to be, and the builders still hadn’t built much, and were working out a lot of kinks in terms of the techniques they were trying that, of course, no one anticipated at the time. That was when, in an odd sort of way, the Indians really came to our rescue. I mean, they had learned to survive with nothing for so long! When our truck broke down in sub-zero weather, one of the women—the women, mind you! fixed it just like that. When our stores froze because we hadn’t dug the root cellar properly, we found out they had a whole garage full of macaroni and cheese and other army surplus stuff, that their kids in the Guard had been sort of appropriating and bringing home on leave—in truckloads! It wasn’t the organic produce we’d been hoping to be living on all winter, but it was food! (I mixed sundried tomatoes in with the macaroni and cheese and got to quite like it!)

And then there was the Dramatic Rescue, as I call it, when five of our little group of pioneers went ice fishing and totally miscalculated the depth of the ice! My goddess! These two old men we’d never seen doing anything but sitting in front of their broken-down trailer drinking beer appeared from nowhere and got them all out before they had time to feel the cold, as my husband said. And never said a word the whole time, just disappeared after they’d built a fire and dried them out and dropped them off back at our log house. And meanwhile their grandsons pulled enough fish out of the hole in the lake to feed us all dinner that night!

There must have been a dozen other little incidents like that that winter. We got through, miraculously! And we were very grateful to them, of course, and tried to pay each time they helped us, and they wouldn’t take anything, so we didn’t know what else to do.

But I think in the end we realized that we’d been on the wrong track with the idea that we could learn about community from the native people. Because what we saw was that the community only kicked in when you were on the verge of real catastrophe. Then everybody put aside their grievances and suspicions and helped out. Once we learned that, we saw there was really nothing else they could teach us. It made more sense to focus on trying to follow our sustainability plan and manage our assets well so that this place could give us all a good income. That was something we did know how to do. I mean, it seems obvious perhaps, but who wants to live on the verge of catastrophe all the time? Our aim was to be sustainable and comfortable.

After that winter, things slowly improved every year. We learned from our mistakes, believe me! By the time the national situation stabilized enough, with the whole GovCorp reorganization, martial law was lifted so people could travel, and money was circulating again, we were ready to open the retreat center. Within a few years we could bring in spiritual teachers from all over the world; we’ve had Maoris, Bushmen, Mayans—although, of course, the amount of fighting going on in all these different parts of the world, and the restriction of flights because of the Climate Laws makes that a very expensive process! But such wisdom is really a priceless commodity, and our guests realize this, and know how fortunate they are to be able to afford it.

Anyway, that was when we finally figured out how to work out a mutually beneficial relationship with the native people here. We needed staff, to take care of the guests; they needed jobs. At first, we said, we could only pay very little, but as things picked up there would be good jobs, and more jobs—tending the biodynamic gardens, and repairing the lodge, keeping the vehicles running! And so on. And laundry, of course, there’s always a lot of laundry! Being a laundress here is skilled labor! We sun dry everything; there’s a real art to the way our sheets are done that you will experience for yourself…

In the last couple of years things have really taken off for us, particularly since GovCorp liquidated the old national parks, and set up the Extraction Zones there, so that people have had to come to private reserves like this even to experience nature, much less natural living! Well, it soon became obvious that we really needed more land to expand the resort, so we said to the families: look, most of you are living on the grounds already, let’s just acknowledge the reality of the situation; if you let us build on the land your few old trailers are still on, we’ll take care of it, we’ve shown we know the real value of it, after all, and you can live in beautiful, sustainable houses that we’ll build for you, (although not in exactly the same spot, of course, so you’re not on top of the guests) and you can just work for us to pay them off! No strings attached! How about that?

A few individuals balked at this, and mentioned wanting to look at the contract again, but most of the people recognized a good deal when they saw one. There wasn’t much choice, really, and we could have been much less generous if we’d wanted to; they knew what it was like in the outside world… One or two of the men ran off, grumbling about how they wouldn’t take it lying down, and we should watch out because they had fought in the Mid-East Wars, and knew about armed resistance, and all this very primitive talk, frankly. That was a brief scare; we did purchase a few guns and keep them around the place after that, but we’ve never had any problems, and we’ve never seen them again from that day to this. Which just goes to show, this land is truly blessed!

So that’s our story. I hope I haven’t tired you out—I know how dreary that flight over the Wasteland is. So sad, to think of all that land poisoned by one reactor in a single incident. At least it makes you truly appreciate havens like this one, yes? And that is what we are here for. To make sure you get the healing and renovation you need during your time with us. Just leave all your worries behind! You’re in the Running Brook house, I believe? You just follow that path over the little bridge. I’ll have Akwesane bring your bags.

The Third World War

Was undeclared. Exactly where and when it began is debatable. Most would say there had been low-level conflict for millennia, but it only became a world war toward the end of the 20th century CE. Some choose the symbolic date when we ran that tanker, the Exxon Valdez, aground in Prince William Sound, because its cargo was the secret weapon that had brought the war into this new stage.

Our global forces were still divided into two antagonistic camps at that time, but both were at war with the greater enemy. The eastern camp had already killed the Aral Sea and poisoned 180,000 square kilometers of land with nuclear radiation (although this action was a Pyrrhic victory, resulting in more drastic consequences to us than the enemy). Shortly thereafter, we declared a truce of sorts between the factions, so we could make further gains in the great war, ostensibly without so much damage to ourselves. For the remainder of the last century, our forces were on the march everywhere, and the enemy fell back.

But in the early years of this century, some unseen fulcrum began to shift. Rather than the widely and randomly interspersed events we experienced in the relatively mild regime we grew up with, we saw destructive actions that escalated in their scope and frequency until they came to seem like calculated responses.

The waves of heat and cold. They caught us off-guard with their new intensity. Then the storms, to which we continued to give bland, suburban names: Mitch, Dennis, Katrina, Irene, Sandy, Iris, Maria. At first mostly a threat to the growing legions of the unprotected poor, they soon showed themselves a match for our largest cities. And beyond that: whole provinces, countries were paralyzed for days, weeks, months. And then the fires – early on they were far from where we lived and breathed, in the still-vast northern forests, but then they came closer, filling the skies of our cities apocalyptically with drifting ash and smoke, and finally, audaciously, striking at the sprawling cities themselves, taking thousands of buildings in a single attack.

Our initial casualties were so small – a few tens of thousands a year against all our billions. We published the tiny body counts for each incident, as if nothing else was of consequence. But overall, we took little notice, because we killed ourselves with friendly fire in vastly greater numbers. And against the enemy, we unleashed a holocaust. Total war. We took no prisoners. It was xenocide; we were willing to exterminate not just individuals but whole species to win our freedom. Thousands, then tens of thousands of species began to fall.

What we didn’t understand was that the enemy, who had seemed outmatched, capable only of rear guard actions, had retrenched and begun fighting a war of attrition: displacing millions, infiltrating town and countryside with hunger, sickness, despair. Leveling its aim at our infrastructure, our economy, our very desires for comfort and ease. So many were uprooted and then discovered there was no refuge elsewhere. We were under siege and didn’t realize it.

Besides the weather it controlled, the enemy bred armies of the small: ticks, mosquitoes, cancers, viral plagues. Again, we had the sense that it was using our very advances in the wider war to undermine us. For example, we decimated the great tropical forests so we could install our farms and industries in them, only to find that the enemy had begun to burn the peat under the desiccated region surreptitiously to release more of the atmospheric carbon that we had just begun to understand was its greatest weapon. Carbon: an invisible and odorless waste product, something we simply breathed out, threw away. A stroke of the enemy’s blind genius.

There were some pacifists. They marched in the streets, shouted at buildings. They performed dramatic stunts at remote battle sites, recruited rich celebrities. Stop the War! they cried, with colorful banners unfurled. Many of their actions were heroic. But they were relatively easy to marginalize. If they were well-to-do, our leaders made sure they were seen as hypocrites, trying to deny the poor their hope. If they were poor, they killed them, imprisoned them, or simply ignored them. They were expendable.

In the end, we discovered our leaders had betrayed us. Our titans of industry betrayed us. Too late we realized: they were actually on the side of the enemy; they were provoking its ever-stronger attacks on our homes, our food, our pleasures. They sacrificed us to enrich themselves. And, in time-honored fashion, the enemy was using our own strength against us…

A Personal Memory

The thing that struck me most about living for years in a country at war was how much normalcy there was. Every day the streets of the capital were jammed with traffic, the stores crowded with shoppers. We went to the mall, to birthday parties, the beach. Occasionally a car bomb would go off. A light post would be blown up. There were bored soldiers with assault rifles at the entrances to the banks, the airport and the bus stations. The television and newspapers were heavily censored. They ran the same non-sequitur crime stories every day. They said nothing about the war.

In the distant countryside, bombers screamed overhead, dropping payloads that destroyed villages, and helicopter gunships prowled, seeking out columns of fighters moving through the bush to mow them down. But when I visited the far-flung villages in the later years of the war, I never saw and scarcely heard any fighting. The doughty buses ran regularly over the rough roads and were always full of passengers, although sometimes they had to stop at checkpoints and be searched. The tropical sun shone, the farmers left for their fields before dawn, the teachers held classes in the tin-roofed sheds. It all just went on. Somewhere out of sight, thousands of troops were on the march; skirmishes were being fought daily, people were killing and being killed. A tiny place, that country at war, and yet most of the time the war was far away unless you were actually fighting in it.

The Forever War

So now, understanding at last that we are all at war, the final war, the forever war between our species and our vast complex single enemy, the planetary ecosystem that engendered us, I know how I will live, girded by the invisible armor of the middle class everywhere, but especially in the rich world. I know that I can go down the street to the coffee shop every day, and one day the sky will be thick with the smoke of wildfires incinerating a town to the north, and everybody will be wearing surgical masks, and the sun will be red as molten steel in the sky’s furnace, but in a few days the smoke will dissipate and I’ll go back to the coffee shop and joke with the waitress and get my coffee. “It’s a good day to be alive,” she’ll say, and I’ll agree.

And next winter, a mammoth storm will wreck the highway, and a few dozen unwary cars will slide into the abyss, but we will take a detour, or change our vacation plans. The crews will show up eventually, although the road will be blocked for months, and maybe one lane buried under a massive rock slide will never open again. But the traffic will keep moving regardless. We’ll get there. We’ll get to a place where the forest hasn’t burned yet, or floods destroyed the dam that held back the lake, or the hotel closed because one or the other of those things happened.

And then there will be the attack from the sea – the Dungeness crab will be poisoned with a new bacterium, or its numbers will crash for a year, and then another, or this will happen to the salmon or bass, till many of the fish markets close, but we will go on finding good things to eat; intrepid chefs in the downtown bistros will do creative things with jellyfish and squid. Thousands of seals dead of starvation will litter our beaches one year, pods of whales another, but we will step over them, in mild dismay, and wait for the authorities to clear them away. And then we’ll go back to the beach, unless another storm comes that washes it away for good. And then we’ll find another beach that hasn’t been washed away yet.

The heat waves will hit, and the pavement will melt so the planes can’t fly for a day or two, and we will grumble about the delay and wait in whatever air conditioned space we can find until the temperature drops again. We’ll still find a way to visit our distant families or get our business done. It will just be a little more time-consuming, unpleasant, and expensive each year.

The helicopters will prowl overhead more often; the sound of sirens will be a more constant backdrop. The news will be a garish pageant of non-sequitur crime stories. Most will say nothing about the war.

On the quiet days when no battle rages anywhere near us, we will stand on our doorsteps for a moment and breathe the soft air that reminds us of peacetime. As you do when you live with terminal illness, we’ll have a sudden sharp memory of what it was like before, when we were healthy, or thought we were. Our happy past will seem so vivid and real, for an instant. And then we’ll push the memory aside, and with it the hope that health or peace will return one day. We’ll just get on with it, burying our sorrow and regret deep in the urgent trivia of the day-to-day, for whatever time we have left.

The Third World War

Was undeclared. Exactly where and when it began is debatable. Most would say there had been low-level conflict for millennia, but it only became a world war toward the end of the 20th century CE. Some choose the symbolic date when we ran that tanker, the Exxon Valdez, aground in Prince William Sound, because its cargo was the secret weapon that had brought the war into this new stage.

Our global forces were still divided into two antagonistic camps at that time, but both were at war with the greater enemy. The eastern camp had already killed the Aral Sea and poisoned 180,000 square kilometers of land with nuclear radiation (although this action was a Pyrrhic victory, resulting in more drastic consequences to us than the enemy). Shortly thereafter, we declared a truce of sorts between the factions, so we could make further gains in the great war, ostensibly without so much damage to ourselves. For the remainder of the last century, our forces were on the march everywhere, and the enemy fell back.

But in the early years of this century, some unseen fulcrum began to shift. Rather than the widely and randomly interspersed events we experienced in the relatively mild regime we grew up with, we saw destructive actions that escalated in their scope and frequency until they came to seem like calculated responses.

The waves of heat and cold. They caught us off-guard with their new intensity. Then the storms, to which we continued to give bland, suburban names: Mitch, Dennis, Katrina, Irene, Sandy, Iris, Maria. At first mostly a threat to the growing legions of the unprotected poor, they soon showed themselves a match for our largest cities. And beyond that: whole provinces, countries were paralyzed for days, weeks, months. And then the fires – early on they were far from where we lived and breathed, in the still-vast northern forests, but then they came closer, filling the skies of our cities apocalyptically with drifting ash and smoke, and finally, audaciously, striking at the sprawling cities themselves, taking thousands of buildings in a single attack.

Our initial casualties were so small – a few tens of thousands a year against all our billions. We published the tiny body counts for each incident, as if nothing else was of consequence. But overall, we took little notice, because we killed ourselves with friendly fire in vastly greater numbers. And against the enemy, we unleashed a holocaust. Total war. We took no prisoners. It was xenocide; we were willing to exterminate not just individuals but whole species to win our freedom. Thousands, then tens of thousands of species began to fall.

What we didn’t understand was that the enemy, who had seemed outmatched, capable only of rear guard actions, had retrenched and begun fighting a war of attrition: displacing millions, infiltrating town and countryside with hunger, sickness, despair. Leveling its aim at our infrastructure, our economy, our very desires for comfort and ease. So many were uprooted and then discovered there was no refuge elsewhere. We were under siege and didn’t realize it.

Besides the weather it controlled, the enemy bred armies of the small: ticks, mosquitoes, cancers, viral plagues. Again, we had the sense that it was using our very advances in the wider war to undermine us. For example, we decimated the great tropical forests so we could install our farms and industries in them, only to find that the enemy had begun to burn the peat under the desiccated region surreptitiously to release more of the atmospheric carbon that we had just begun to understand was its greatest weapon. Carbon: an invisible and odorless waste product, something we simply breathed out, threw away. A stroke of the enemy’s blind genius.

There were some pacifists. They marched in the streets, shouted at buildings. They performed dramatic stunts at remote battle sites, recruited rich celebrities. Stop the War! they cried, with colorful banners unfurled. Many of their actions were heroic. But they were relatively easy to marginalize. If they were well-to-do, our leaders made sure they were seen as hypocrites, trying to deny the poor their hope. If they were poor, they killed them, imprisoned them, or simply ignored them. They were expendable.

In the end, we discovered our leaders had betrayed us. Our titans of industry betrayed us. Too late we realized: they were actually on the side of the enemy; they were provoking its ever-stronger attacks on our homes, our food, our pleasures. They sacrificed us to enrich themselves. And, in time-honored fashion, the enemy was using our own strength against us…

A Personal Memory

The thing that struck me most about living for years in a country at war was how much normalcy there was. Every day the streets of the capital were jammed with traffic, the stores crowded with shoppers. We went to the mall, to birthday parties, the beach. Occasionally a car bomb would go off. A light post would be blown up. There were bored soldiers with assault rifles at the entrances to the banks, the airport and the bus stations. The television and newspapers were heavily censored. They ran the same non-sequitur crime stories every day. They said nothing about the war.

In the distant countryside, bombers screamed overhead, dropping payloads that destroyed villages, and helicopter gunships prowled, seeking out columns of fighters moving through the bush to mow them down. But when I visited the far-flung villages in the later years of the war, I never saw and scarcely heard any fighting. The doughty buses ran regularly over the rough roads and were always full of passengers, although sometimes they had to stop at checkpoints and be searched. The tropical sun shone, the farmers left for their fields before dawn, the teachers held classes in the tin-roofed sheds. It all just went on. Somewhere out of sight, thousands of troops were on the march; skirmishes were being fought daily, people were killing and being killed. A tiny place, that country at war, and yet most of the time the war was far away unless you were actually fighting in it.

The Forever War

So now, understanding at last that we are all at war, the final war, the forever war between our species and our vast complex single enemy, the planetary ecosystem that engendered us, I know how I will live, girded by the invisible armor of the middle class everywhere, but especially in the rich world. I know that I can go down the street to the coffee shop every day, and one day the sky will be thick with the smoke of wildfires incinerating a town to the north, and everybody will be wearing surgical masks, and the sun will be red as molten steel in the sky’s furnace, but in a few days the smoke will dissipate and I’ll go back to the coffee shop and joke with the waitress and get my coffee. “It’s a good day to be alive,” she’ll say, and I’ll agree.

And next winter, a mammoth storm will wreck the highway, and a few dozen unwary cars will slide into the abyss, but we will take a detour, or change our vacation plans. The crews will show up eventually, although the road will be blocked for months, and maybe one lane buried under a massive rock slide will never open again. But the traffic will keep moving regardless. We’ll get there. We’ll get to a place where the forest hasn’t burned yet, or floods destroyed the dam that held back the lake, or the hotel closed because one or the other of those things happened.

And then there will be the attack from the sea – the Dungeness crab will be poisoned with a new bacterium, or its numbers will crash for a year, and then another, or this will happen to the salmon or bass, till many of the fish markets close, but we will go on finding good things to eat; intrepid chefs in the downtown bistros will do creative things with jellyfish and squid. Thousands of seals dead of starvation will litter our beaches one year, pods of whales another, but we will step over them, in mild dismay, and wait for the authorities to clear them away. And then we’ll go back to the beach, unless another storm comes that washes it away for good. And then we’ll find another beach that hasn’t been washed away yet.

The heat waves will hit, and the pavement will melt so the planes can’t fly for a day or two, and we will grumble about the delay and wait in whatever air conditioned space we can find until the temperature drops again. We’ll still find a way to visit our distant families or get our business done. It will just be a little more time-consuming, unpleasant, and expensive each year.

The helicopters will prowl overhead more often; the sound of sirens will be a more constant backdrop. The news will be a garish pageant of non-sequitur crime stories. Most will say nothing about the war.

On the quiet days when no battle rages anywhere near us, we will stand on our doorsteps for a moment and breathe the soft air that reminds us of peacetime. As you do when you live with terminal illness, we’ll have a sudden sharp memory of what it was like before, when we were healthy, or thought we were. Our happy past will seem so vivid and real, for an instant. And then we’ll push the memory aside, and with it the hope that health or peace will return one day. We’ll just get on with it, burying our sorrow and regret deep in the urgent trivia of the day-to-day, for whatever time we have left.

Fire and Rain

Run to the trees
Trees will be burning
Run to the sea
Sea will boiling
All on that day

So, summer, the frivolous season of our supposed repose, now brings dread, east and west, north and south. As summer peaks in the west, everything dries and dies, and as the suffocating heat grows inland and the dry grass whispers we start watching the skies fearfully for lightning, and we wait for the news that actually it wasn’t lightning; it was a tossed cigarette, a forgotten campfire, some guys shooting rifles, a firebug with a can of gasoline. And then the sight of the firestorm on the jagged horizon, moving faster than anything that doesn’t fly, the flames joining together in an impossible roaring uprush that feeds on itself, that grows like a living thing, and the trees light up like great torches, the pain of whose immolation we cannot feel because thanks to the scientific worldview we know trees have no brains and no nerve endings and thus don’t feel pain anyway. They are just matter, burning.

Of course, coming from a species that has set alight its own members, with their highly developed nervous systems, when it seemed politically necessary, this suggests that even if we did think individual trees felt pain we wouldn’t necessarily care if we needed other things more than large numbers of trees, which we clearly do, because we, collectively, are watching them go up in flames on a grander scale every year without making much of a peep about it, and the trashed trophy homes and cars scattered back in there are all we can really mourn for, the only things that have a compelling reality for us. Forests grow back, right?

Except when they don’t, because some invisible calculus has determined that the underlying conditions which made their existence possible are gone. We may not be there yet for what’s left of the great boreal forests, but we won’t actually know when the threshold is crossed – invisible means just that. Chaos theory means just that. Biologists have identified a phenomenon in complex living systems called “critical slowing down” whereby those systems become gradually less resilient in the face of repeated onslaught until some non-trivial boundary is crossed and they collapse. Where is the line, exactly? Well, the scientists tell us with marvelous equanimity, that’s precisely the puzzle. Hard to say…

We of the bourgeoisie rise momentarily from our stupor when fascists begin to stir in the shallows of our societal swamp, ironically more like some monstrous presence out of an H.P. Lovecraft story than the miscegenated, racist, fever-dream monsters Lovecraft actually gave us. We’ll even take the kids out for an afternoon to send those fascists back “where they came from,” which is the same place we come from, so good luck with that. But when the distant forests burn in their hundreds of millions of acres over the longer, hotter, drier summers, we barely so much as sigh – what good would marching in the streets do?

Whether we can see it or not, the inanimate (to us) forests have been set alight by the lineaments of our gratified desire: cars, roads, houses, electronic devices, cosmetic surgery, food from everywhere. Thanks, capital! Thanks, science! No more hands and backs into the hard labor of pulling sustenance from the soil or forging steel or tending gigantic machines – our livelihoods are gained now by our dancing fingertips alone! Who will be the first bourgeois to blow up that bargain? Who will be the first of the expendable classes not to seek it? And at least we are compensated by the quality of the sunsets – what beauty there is in annihilation really! It’s as if we told ourselves, well, all those tiki torches sure did make for a pretty procession!

Those who can’t turn their attention to other distant horrors or daily cares will then have to listen to the insane barking of politicians who blame tree-loving enviros for preventing responsible forest-destruction that would, according to those wise men of capital, make these fires of growing intensity, scale and frequency somewhat less damaging. Never mind the climatic elephant in the ideological room, that’s a non-starter with men whose fanatical devotion to the profit system can be diminished by no preponderance of evidence. Why bother to argue, even shoving the elephant aside for a second, that massive thinning and brush clearing further dries out the forests and impoverishes their soils, making them even more susceptible to catastrophic burning, or that “responsible logging” is an oxymoron when you throw in economies of scale? Why argue that the vast, safe, checkerboard tree plantations of the coastal Northwest are no more forests anyway than Nebraska’s wheat fields are prairies? Not even apples and oranges, it’s apples and ball bearings. There is no basis for a discussion because there is no shared conceptual framework. That living systems have any right to exist apart from our usage of them is inconceivable within capitalist (or socialist, frankly) doxa.

I am reminded of the late, great Douglas Adams’ little parable about the first humans: how they decided they needed a currency in order to build civilization and chose to make leaves their currency because of how easy they were to collect and exchange and then in turn saw that the unending regeneration and proliferation of leaves made the currency almost worthless, and so set out to burn down the trees en masse to increase the value of the leaf…

Here in San Francisco under an unprecedented heatwave tamped down inside a pall of smoke from massive fires to the north and south, on Labor Day, what did we do? Go to the park and incinerate chunks of already burned trees to cook our meat with friends and loved ones. Can you hear those heads on Easter Island speaking to you yet?

I am also reminded of a poem I read in junior high school that sent shivers of timelessness down my spine, Robert W. Service’s “The Pines:”

We surge in a host from the sullen coast, and we sing in the ocean blast;
From empire of sea to empire of snow, we grip our empire fast… 

To us was the Northland given, ours to stronghold and defend;
Ours till the world be riven in the crash of the utter end.

Not so a century on, all bets on eternity are off; those timeless legions could fall before the firestorm and the insect hordes in less than an eyeblink of geological time. They could be gone before we are…

Meanwhile in the east and south as summer culminates they are watching the shore, the gray line of hissing waves, the blank horizon. Somewhere beyond it, still invisible, that shape you can only really grasp from above, in the abstract realm of the weather map: a hundred-mile-wide cloud vortex rotating and growing like, yes, like a living thing as it speeds across the ocean, its course as unpredictable as child’s spinning herself faster and faster through a room, until – presto, change-o! – there it is on your town’s doorstep, everything turned in moments to whirling water, no more up or down, just the unified roaring of wind, surging waves, downpour, all one single moving mass the force of which turns houses to matchsticks, walls to rubble.

And then the rain. More water than you thought possible coming out of just one piece of sky, but not a biblical deluge by a long chalk, because after all they are still roasting in the bone-dry heat a few hundred miles to the west, so how can this be happening over your head? Fifty inches of rain burying your elevated off-ramps in water, not just the dirt tracks of all those impoverished millions Somewhere Else, whose similar and simultaneous plight barely raises your news channel’s equivalent of an eyebrow, but your freeways, your marvels of engineering and sheer amount of concrete coverage, your center of can-do, charge ahead, build-baby-build culture. All this in a floodplain, on the shores of a rising sea. Where would the water go?

Last summer the fires incinerated a northern oil city, this summer the rains inundated a southern oil city, but we don’t dig the symbolism, you know; it’s tacky and retrograde to mention it. Keep your fable-filled mouth shut and keep on admiring the non-existent drapery on that guy wearing the crown, much easier.

Yes, we humans may lurch onward through alternately drenched and smoke-filled landscapes, billions of the poor in constant forced migration from war or famine or genocide, the bourgeoisie cutting out the middle man in the delivery system and simply melding themselves with machines, killing off any remnants of the mythological in their cybernetic psyches because in that was contained what they would otherwise have to understand as self-fulfilling prophecy: the lost Golden Age, the lost Eden. Which we were once taught was a poetic reference to a mythical past, but was actually our civilization’s symbolic roadmap to its own future. Will their pseudo-intelligent implanted daemons save those future elites from realizing what some long-since exterminated peoples had conceptualized without technical assistance ages before: that what we experience as time is neither a one-dimensional line in a four-dimensional block, nor a closed loop of eternal return, but more like an infinite manifold of zero dimensions in which all times equally exist? And thus, began their mythic stories with: “Once upon a time, in the future…”

Beyond all the immediate drama is the resiliency of life and the dispensability of individual species, and the foretold outcome when they begin to gnaw away at life’s negentropic feedback loops, its relentless climbs up the chain of complexity. Something will probably survive us here, if and when all our thrashing fails. What will it be? Don’t you wish you could know? But “it” will be made by circumstances that aren’t knowable in advance. There’s no better proof that time is real than the existence of the living world, no matter what our relativistic physical equations purport to say in their lifeless abstractions of it.

Beyond even this planet’s little story is the near infinity of worlds, each one likely unique as a snowflake or fingerprint. You come from one irreplaceable, fabulously life-filled place, and you, a uniquely self-aware being there, make that place uninhabitable – I can’t know this of course, but I imagine that does something to you, something that’s not eradicable, cannot be superseded. Turns you into a kind of monster. Are we then to be imperialists and colonizers in perpetuity, throughout the universe? To become the saurian or cybernetic aggressors whose behavior we’ve projected onto other “races” in our space-opera fantasias? Is it cowboys and Indians in space, forever? There is no more nihilistic thought, and I say that with all the regret of a one-time Star Trek fan.

But I’m betting (well, actually, I’m hoping, bets are foolish), pace Mr. Hawking and Mr. Musk, that we don’t make it off the runway. We may manage to rocket Wall-E to Mars to trundle for generations over the lonely rocks while overshoot sends us zinging past critical slowing down into catabolic collapse, but I can’t countenance a full-on Blade Runner outcome here. My utopian alternative – that we come to love our home above all else, and shape ourselves to please it – might not pass the laugh test either, but the beauty of time is its creativity, and the enormity of its span.

Pre-conditions humans are currently establishing will not have linear outcomes. Our species retains the ability to evolve into something more than an unprecedented annihilator of biodiversity and sower of a geological layer of plastic detritus, but here’s the catch – only if we can shed what we call civilization, which is as much an evolutionary dead-end as the line of dinosaurs whose decomposition currently powers it. We did without it for a long, long time, in many places – was that life really just nasty, brutish and short? I don’t think the Haudenosaunee would have said so, or the Arawak. (Which doesn’t mean a future non-civilization would look anything like that.) Of course, you and I, and all the bourgeois typists would no longer be possible, but – small price to pay, no? Once upon a time, in the future…

Meanwhile, summer is changing, the skies are filling with fire and rain. Our long national 1950s is disintegrating before our eyes. Our empire that never dared to speak its name is in lock step with all previous empires that did, as they crumbled. We can keep turning away from the firestorm and the flood, but they will be with us now, close as our own shadows, as will all the other ways we are failing to thrive, whether we turn to face them or not.

Fire and Rain

Run to the trees
Trees will be burning
Run to the sea
Sea will boiling
All on that day

So, summer, the frivolous season of our supposed repose, now brings dread, east and west, north and south. As summer peaks in the west, everything dries and dies, and as the suffocating heat grows inland and the dry grass whispers we start watching the skies fearfully for lightning, and we wait for the news that actually it wasn’t lightning; it was a tossed cigarette, a forgotten campfire, some guys shooting rifles, a firebug with a can of gasoline. And then the sight of the firestorm on the jagged horizon, moving faster than anything that doesn’t fly, the flames joining together in an impossible roaring up-rush that feeds on itself, that grows like a living thing, and the trees light up like great torches, the pain of whose immolation we cannot feel because thanks to the scientific worldview we know trees have no brains and no nerve endings and thus don’t feel pain anyway. They are just matter, burning.

Of course, coming from a species that has set alight its own members, with their highly developed nervous systems, when it seemed politically necessary, this suggests that even if we did think individual trees felt pain we wouldn’t necessarily care if we needed other things more than large numbers of trees, which we clearly do, because we, collectively, are watching them go up in flames on a grander scale every year without making much of a peep about it, and the trashed trophy homes and cars scattered back in there are all we can really mourn for, the only things that have a compelling reality for us. Forests grow back, right?

Except when they don’t, because some invisible calculus has determined that the underlying conditions which made their existence possible are gone. We may not be there yet for what’s left of the great boreal forests, but we won’t actually know when the threshold is crossed – invisible means just that. Chaos theory means just that. Biologists have identified a phenomenon in complex living systems called “critical slowing down” whereby those systems become gradually less resilient in the face of repeated onslaught until some non-trivial boundary is crossed and they collapse. Where is the line, exactly? Well, the scientists tell us with marvelous equanimity, that’s precisely the puzzle. Hard to say…

We of the bourgeoisie rise momentarily from our stupor when fascists begin to stir in the shallows of our societal swamp, ironically more like some monstrous presence out of an H.P. Lovecraft story than the miscegenated, racist fever-dream monsters Lovecraft actually gave us. We’ll even take the kids out for an afternoon to send those fascists back “where they came from,” which is the same place we come from, so good luck with that. But when the distant forests burn in their hundreds of millions of acres over the longer, hotter, drier summers, we barely so much as sigh – what good would marching in the streets do?

Whether we can see it or not, the inanimate (to us) forests have been set alight by the lineaments of our gratified desire: cars, roads, houses, electronic devices, cosmetic surgery, food from everywhere. Thanks, capital! Thanks, science! No more hands and backs into the hard labor of pulling sustenance from the soil or forging steel or tending gigantic machines – our livelihoods are gained now by our dancing fingertips alone! Who will be the first bourgeois to blow up that bargain? Who will be the first of the expendable classes not to seek it? And at least we are compensated by the quality of the sunsets – what beauty there is in annihilation really! It’s as if we told ourselves, well, all those tiki torches sure did make for a pretty procession!

Those who can’t turn their attention to other distant horrors or daily cares will then have to listen to the insane barking of politicians who blame tree-loving enviros for preventing responsible forest-destruction that would, according to those wise men of capital, make these fires of growing intensity, scale and frequency somewhat less damaging. Never mind the climatic elephant in the ideological room, that’s a non-starter with men whose fanatical devotion to the profit system can be diminished by no preponderance of evidence. Why bother to argue, even shoving the elephant aside for a second, that massive thinning and brush clearing further dries out the forests and impoverishes their soils, making them even more susceptible to catastrophic burning, or that “responsible logging” is an oxymoron when you throw in economies of scale? Why argue that the vast, safe, checkerboard tree plantations of the coastal Northwest are no more forests anyway than Nebraska’s wheat fields are prairies? Not even apples and oranges, it’s apples and ball bearings. There is no basis for a discussion because there is no shared conceptual framework. That living systems have any right to exist apart from our usage of them is inconceivable within capitalist (or the socialist, frankly) doxa.

I am reminded of the late, great Douglas Adams’ little parable about the first humans: how they decided they needed a currency in order to build civilization and chose to make leaves their currency because of how easy they were to collect and exchange and then in turn saw that the unending regeneration and proliferation of leaves made the currency almost worthless, and so set out to burn down the trees en masse to increase the value of the leaf…

Here in San Francisco under an unprecedented heatwave tamped down inside a pall of smoke from massive fires to the north and south, on Labor Day, what did we do? Go to the park and incinerate chunks of already burned trees to cook our meat with friends and loved ones. Can you hear those heads on Easter Island speaking to you yet?

I am also reminded of a poem I read in junior high school that sent shivers of timelessness down my spine, Robert W. Service’s “The Pines:”

We surge in a host from the sullen coast, and we sing in the ocean blast;
From empire of sea to empire of snow, we grip our empire fast…
To us was the Northland given, ours to stronghold and defend;
Ours till the world be riven in the crash of the utter end.

Not so a century on, all bets on eternity are off; those timeless legions could fall before the firestorm and the insect hordes in less than an eyeblink of geological time. They could be gone before we are…

Meanwhile in the east and south as summer culminates they are watching the shore, the gray line of hissing waves, the blank horizon. Somewhere beyond it, still invisible, that shape you can only understand from above, in the abstract realm of the weather map, a hundred-mile-wide cloud vortex rotating and growing like, yes, like a living thing as it speeds across the ocean, its course as unpredictable as child’s spinning herself faster and faster through a room, until – presto, change-o! – there it is on your town’s doorstep, everything turned in moments to whirling water, no more up or down, just the unified roaring of wind, surging waves, downpour, all one single moving mass the force of which turns houses to matchsticks, walls to rubble.

And then the rain. More water than you thought possible coming out of just one piece of sky, but not a biblical deluge by a long chalk, because after all they are still roasting in the bone-dry heat a few hundred miles to the west, so how can this be happening over your head? Fifty inches of rain burying your elevated off-ramps in water, not just the dirt tracks of all those impoverished millions Somewhere Else, whose similar and simultaneous plight barely raises your news channel’s equivalent of an eyebrow, but your freeways, your marvels of engineering and sheer amount of concrete coverage, your center of can-do, charge ahead, build-baby-build culture. All this in a floodplain, on the shores of a rising sea. Where would the water go?

Last summer the fires incinerated a northern oil city, this summer the rains inundated a southern oil city, but we don’t dig the symbolism, you know; it’s tacky and retrograde to mention it. Keep your fable-filled mouth shut and keep on admiring the non-existent drapery on that guy wearing the crown, much easier.

Yes, we humans may lurch onward through alternately drenched and smoke-filled landscapes, billions of the poor in constant forced migration from war or famine or genocide, the bourgeoisie melding themselves with machines, killing off any remnants of the mythological in their mechanized psyches because in that was contained what they would otherwise have to understand as self-fulfilling prophecy: the lost Golden Age, the lost Eden. Which we were once taught was a poetic reference to a mythical past, but was actually our civilization’s symbolic road map to its own future. Will their pseudo-intelligent implanted daemons save those future elites from realizing what some long-since exterminated peoples had conceived ages before: that what we experience as time is neither a one-dimensional line in a four-dimensional block, nor a closed loop of eternal return, but more like an infinite manifold of zero dimensions in which all times equally exist? And thus began their mythic stories with: “Once upon a time, in the future…”