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 Future—and 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:
- 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).