The Anthropocene and Ozymandias

Much has been made lately of the so-called Anthropocene — the idea that Homo sapiens has so taken over and modified Earth that we need a new name for our geological age instead of the outmoded Holocene. One remorseless Anthropoceniac writes, ‘Nature is gone… You are living on a used planet. If this bothers you, get over it. We now live in the Anthropocene — a geological era in which Earth’s atmosphere, lithosphere, and biosphere are shaped primarily by human forces.’

One of the reasons given today for renaming the Anthropocene is that we have so impacted all ecosystems on Earth that there is no ‘wilderness’ left. Insofar as I know, other than babbling about ‘pristine’, ‘untouched’, and so forth, none of the Anthropoceniacs ever define what they mean by wilderness, which is not surprising in that none of them give a hint of having been in a Wilderness Area or having studied the citizen wilderness preservation movement.

Moreover, they behave as though their claim about wilderness being snuffed is a new insight of their own. In truth, we wilderness conservationists have been speaking out about how Homo sapiens has been wrecking wilderness worldwide for one hundred years. Bob Marshall, a founder of the Wilderness Society, warned eighty years ago that the last wilderness of the Rocky Mountains was ‘disappearing like a snowbank on a south-facing slope on a warm June day.’ Congress said in the 1964 Wilderness Act that the country had to act then due to ‘increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization’ or we would leave no lands in a natural condition for future generations. My book Rewilding North America documents in gut-wrenching detail how Man has been wreaking a mass extinction for the last 50,000 years or so.

Anthropoceniacs do not seem to understand that when we wilderness conservationists talk about Wilderness Areas we are not playing a mind-game of believing that these are pristine landscapes where the hand of Man has never set foot. Although wilderness holds one end of the human-impact spectrum, it is not a single point but rather a sweep of mostly wild landscapes. Over seventy years ago, Aldo Leopold, the father of the Wilderness Area Idea, wisely wrote that ‘in any practical program, the unit areas to be preserved must vary greatly in size and in degree of wildness‘ (emphasis added). Senator Frank Church of Idaho was the bill’s floor manager in 1964 when the Wilderness Act became law. He understood as well as anyone what Congress meant with the wording of the Act. Ten years later, in the heated fight for Wilderness Areas in the Eastern National Forests, when the Forest Service ‘would have us believe that no lands ever subject to past human impact can qualify as wilderness, now or ever,’ Church said, ‘Nothing could be more contrary to the meaning and intent of the Wilderness Act.’ The words pristine and purity are not found in the Wilderness Act, which is the best short explanation of wilderness. It seems that intellectual wilderness naysayers, whether wilderness deconstructionists or Anthropoceniacs, if they look at the Wilderness Act at all, see only the ideal definition of wilderness:

A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.

In truth, the Wilderness Act has four definitions of wilderness. The first, which I have already quoted, says why we need to protect wilderness. The second, also quoted above, is the ideal, while the third immediately following the ideal is the practical:

An area of wilderness is further defined to mean in this Act an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions and which (1) generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable. (Qualifying words in bold.)

The wish of the Wilderness Society’s Howard Zahniser, the main author of the Wilderness Act and one of its congressional champions, was to keep the idea of wilderness a bit fuzzy. The fourth definition, however, is not fuzzy. It has the lawfully binding language on how federal agencies are to protect and steward the Wilderness Areas under their hand:

Except as specifically provided for in this Act, and subject to existing private rights, there shall be no commercial enterprise and no permanent road within any wilderness area designated by this Act and except as necessary to meet minimum requirements for the administration of the area for the purposes of this Act (including measures required in emergencies involving the health and safety of persons within the area), there shall be no temporary road, no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport, and no structure or installation within any such area.

Too often, there is confusion between the loose, fuzzy entry criteria for Wilderness Areas and the tougher rules for management after designation. Before being designated as Wilderness, a landscape might have a few roads or acres that were once logged. After designation, however, the roads must be closed, vehicles banned, and future logging prohibited.

So. In the sense of the US Wilderness Act (with over seven hundred areas totalling over 109 million acres) and like wilderness systems in other lands worldwide, there is, indeed, wilderness. Moreover, some 25% of Earth’s land is lightly or seldom touched by Man.

But the Anthropoceniacs are really saying that there is no wilderness in its ideal pristine meaning. To answer this assertion, I think we need to put Homo sapiens in better perspective.

Life first wriggled on Earth some 3.5 billion years ago. That is a long time. So, let’s take an easier timeline and only go back to the unfolding of complex animal life — the Cambrian Explosion of 545 million years ago. Make that a book of 545 pages with each page being one million years. With 250 words per page, a word would be four thousand years.

Where are we? Well, if the last sentence on the last page of the book is a long one of some thirteen to fifteen words, we behaviorally modern Homo sapiens left Africa at the beginning of that sentence. We began to ransack biodiversity then as well. As we spread, we killed the biggest wildlife as we came into new lands. In the middle of the third-­to-­last word, some of our kind began farming— remaking ecosystems to suit us. In the middle of the second-to-last word, civilisations began.

The very last word in this book of 545 pages takes in the time from 2000 BCE to today. Nearly the whole world met the strictest definition of wilderness until well into the last sentence. Through almost all of that last sentence the share of Earth’s biomass held in our bodies grew very slowly. Much of Earth was untrodden by us for thousands of years. Other than the Overkill of the ‘Big Hairies’, the wounds we inflicted on the Tree of Life only slowly grew. Not until the last hundred years with our exploding population and systemic pollution of Earth with radioactive fallout, antibiotics, artificial biocides, and greenhouse gases, have we finally gotten to the day where we are having an impact everywhere. That is an impact, not total control, not even leaving no lands or seas where Man does not dominate the landscape. When I was nearly run down and stomped by a woolly bully of a musk ox bull in a 16-million-acre Wilderness Area in Alaska a few years ago, I swear to you that Man did not dominate that landscape.

Call the last hundred years the period at the end of the last sentence on the last page of the book of the history of complex animal life. Do you now have a feeling for how long the Tree of Life and Wilderness have been without any harm from a ground ape self-named sapiens?

I’ve taken this twisty path to get to my main damnation of the Anthropoceniacs. Though one can hammer them for major mistakes in history and science as many of my friends have done, my beef is with their view of Man’s place in evolution and on Earth. It is the ethics of the Anthropoceniacs that gives me shudders.

My anger with the Anthropoceniacs is not that they see how Man has taken over Earth (though they overstate greatly). The first third of my Rewilding North America tallies and weighs the ecological wounds we’ve wrought over the last 50,000 years. I know our impact is great — but not thoroughgoing. By and large, the Anthropoceniacs grossly overstate the degree to which we ‘control’ Earth.

No, my wrath is for the outlook many Anthropoceniacs have toward the ghastly, grisly slaughter of so many wild things. Where is the grief? Where is the shame? Where is the passion to save what’s left? Where is the outrage? Where is the sadness for the loss of so many of our neighbours?

Instead, I see many making merry over the coming of the Anthropocene. ‘We’ve done it!’ they seem to say while high­fiving one another. ‘Man has finally taken over!’ In the writings I’ve read, they seem blissful, even gleeful. ‘Now we are gods!’

The mass extinction of other Earthlings seems not to bring them a tear. Witness the words of Peter Kareiva, the chief scientist for the Nature Conservancy, ‘In many circumstances, the demise of formerly abundant species can be inconsequential to ecosystem function… The passenger pigeon, once so abundant that its flocks darkened the sky, went extinct, along with countless other species from the Steller’s sea cow to the dodo, with no catastrophic or even measurable effects.’ Field biologists and others have shown that this claim is so much biological balderdash — there have been big upsets. However, the true harm, the wound, the loss, the sin was the extinction of the passenger pigeon and the ongoing extinctions of countless other Earthlings who have just as much right to their evolutionary adventure as we have to ours. Maybe more, because they are not screwing up things for others. To say the ‘passenger pigeon… went extinct’ is akin to a mass murderer saying his victims ‘became dead.’ The passenger pigeon did not go extinct; we slaughtered them in a spree of giddy gore in little more than a score of years!

How can anyone who works for something called the Nature Conservancy not feel woe and emptiness at the extinction of the passenger pigeon and all those others we’ve wrought and are causing today and tomorrow to make way for our Brave New World — or is it our Brave New Conservation?

Such uncaring, careless, carefree brushing away of all other Earthlings but for the ecosystem services they give the last surviving ground ape is — how can I say this — WICKED. It is washed in sin, it is treason to life, to Earth, and to all other Earthlings.

Such Anthropoceniacs behave like our takeover of the Tree of Life was foreordained, that evolution meant us and meant us to take over. This is teleology if not theology, my friends, one of the deep misunderstandings Darwin cast out 150 years ago. My children’s tale of the 545 ­page Book of Life shows how we are but one of countless species that come and go. The late Stephen Jay Gould was unsparing on this conceit:

[T]he worst and most harmful of all our conventional mistakes about the history of our planet [is] the arrogant notion that evolution has a predictable direction leading toward human life.

Man is not the unerring outcome or endpoint of hundreds of millions of years of life’s descent with modification, but is, rather, a happy or unhappy (hinging on what kind of Earthling you are) happenstance. We were not ‘meant to be’. Nor is anything Man has done in its flicker of time been meant to be. We happened to become, just as did the curve-billed thrasher getting a drink right now from the birdbath outside my window.

We only happened to be.

This is maybe the hardest lesson from evolution to swallow — one that is stuck in many an Anthropoceniac throat.

It is Homo sapiens’ arrogance that blinds us to our fate. We think that we, unlike every other species, will live forever. It’s not a Thousand­ Year Reich we celebrate but an eternal Kingdom of Man Triumphant, of Man over all (über alles) other Earthlings. It is we and we alone who decide who lives and who dies, who offers ecosystem services and therefore gets to stay, and who is mere waste biomass. Some may soothe their conscience by making believe this blood-bath, like us, was meant to be. But it is not so. It is our choice to strip off one third of the limbs of the Tree of Life. We do it willingly, even gleefully, all by our own free will.

The first sentence in Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac spells out much of the moral conflict between wilderness and wildlife conservationists and the Anthropoceniacs and their so-called New Conservation (which is truly only the latest version of Gifford Pinchot’s resource conservation). Leopold wrote:

There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot.

We who fight for wilderness and all wild Earthlings cannot live without wild things. We believe wild things are good-in-themselves and need offer no services to Man to be of great worth. Those who blithely welcome the Anthropocene and can live without wild things see worth in Nature only in what it offers us as ecosystem services.

The Anthropoceniacs seem to believe that not only is Man running evolution now but that all the lessons scientists have learned about how evolution has worked for billions of years have been thrown out for Man in the Brave New Anthropocene geological era.

One who understood this mindset well, this will to power over Earth, was Percy Bysshe Shelley. Some two hundred years ago he wrote:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: ‘Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read,
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear —
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains.
Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Yes, we can read our tale as the steadily growing sway over Earth by Lord Man. But the Anthropocene technocrats who prattle about grabbing the rudder of evolution and making Earth better are the wanton heirs of a Pharaoh’s hubris. Their lovely human garden will stand unclothed as either a barnyard or Dr Frankenstein’s lab for other Earthlings. Three ­and ­a­ half billion years of life becomes a short overture before Man in all his Wagnerian glory strides singing onto the set. Does our madness have no end? Have we no humility?

For six thousand years, each coming age has puffed out its chest. As each Ozymandias falls to the lone and level sands, a greater and more prideful Ozymandias takes his stead. Goodness is overridden more and more by might and the will to power.

Wilderness Areas are our meek acknowledgement that we are not gods.

Essay adapted from the forthcoming book True Wilderness: Deconstructing Wilderness Deconstruction-

 

Why I Hear Music When I Read the Dark Mountain Manifesto

I am sitting at the old pine kitchen table, listening. I can hear the sounds of my fingers tapping on keys; the sounds of sparrows squabbling and blue tits singing. I can hear the sound of a police helicopter levitating. I can hear the sound of a dog barking and a child laughing. I can hear the sounds of cars, vans, motorbikes and aircraft. Some of the sounds I hear are close, others distant. In the course of a day, I hear sounds that tell unique stories about the whole gamut of human experience: love; departures and homecomings; life and death; fear and contentment; and happiness and sadness. Importantly, all the sounds I hear tell a story about the world we live in and the world we are going to bequeath to future generations.

We live in a world of sound, yet few of us actively listen to these sounds. In a world dominated by images and words we are increasingly cut off from the messages that reside in sound. We may hear words spoken directly to us but do we search for meaning in the other sounds that permeate our daily lives?

Perhaps it is time for us to open our ears and to hear the world anew. Every issue our politicians discuss; every campaign our activists wage; every environmental catastrophe we bear witness to; every historical event that has shaped our world; every relationship; every love affair; every birth; every death; everything on this little planet, since it came into existence 4.54 billion years ago, has either created a sound or has a sound associated with it. Sound is important and we ignore it at our peril.

In my lifetime, the sonic environment in which I have existed has changed dramatically. Perhaps the most telling change has been the ‘muting’ of the dawn chorus. I have returned to my childhood home many times; when I was a boy I would be woken, as the east began to glow, by the joyous song of my avian friends. Today, in the same bedroom, I’m woken by sounds of traffic on the nearby road drowning out the sounds of the few birds that still have song left in them. We know that Britain’s songbirds are in serious decline. While much has been written about this decline, nothing attests to this reality with as great an impact as the fact that we are losing bird song from our lives.

I have a memory of what once was, but what of my baby daughter? She may grow up in a world populated by a few dominant bird species that generally ‘squawk’ rather than ‘sing’. Perhaps she is the lucky one as she will have no memory of a past filled with bird song to make her sad.

It is only relatively recently that I have started to acknowledge that sound has been one of the most important determinants of the life I have chosen to live. The realisation that Rachel Carson was right and we would soon experience ‘silent springs’ is one of many reasons why I ended up becoming an environmentalist. Sitting in the forests of southeast Australia listening to the harmony of biodiversity made me a passionate spokesperson for the preservation of the wild. Walking through the slums of Dharavi in Mumbai, being assaulted by a cacophony of human generated ‘noise’, made me an ardent advocate for re-connecting people to nature as a way of fighting poverty. Sound has helped me understand that the ways we are trying to solve the many crises we face are misguided and almost certainly wrong. Forget all this nonsense about economic growth being the solution.

The sound of economic growth is disharmonic and is totally at odds with the cadence and rhythms of the natural world. Sound has helped me understand that through actively listening to the world we will be better able to find solutions to our most intractable problems.

The impact of actively listening should never be underestimated. Twenty years ago, I was in Australia doing a PhD on the links between climate change and human security. I was using words and images to describe the impacts that a changing climate could have on the small island states of the southwest Pacific. In various formats, I started to tell people about what I was discovering through my research. If action were not taken to halt emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases then some islands, namely Kiribati, Tuvalu and Tokelau, would disappear under rising seas.

Despite my protestations that action was needed to avert catastrophe, no one was heeding my message. Despite powerful images and emotive words my message was impotent. No one was listening to what I was saying.

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I resided in a perplexed — perhaps depressed — state for many years trying to understand why the human race continued to act in a way that would lead to its inevitable demise. It took me a long time to realise that the reason no one was willing to change was because the story I, and like minded people, were telling was far less compelling than the one Ronald McDonald was telling about his ‘tasty’ burgers, Coca-Cola was telling about its fizzy beverages, and Apple was telling about its computers. Despite years of cogitation — often in beautiful wild spaces — I couldn’t see how a story about saving the planet from the ravages of human greed could ever be as compelling as the stories that encouraged, and fostered, that greed. Only recently have I realised something important; the story I have been telling has been without sound. I, like many other concerned individuals, have had no ‘soundtrack’ to go with their message whereas Ronald McDonald, Coca Cola, and Apple, have! Upbeat music, linked to shiny products or fast food, is an intoxicating mix.

As I had never really understood the power of sound, I was unprepared for the impact a particular sound was to have on my life. Late one sultry afternoon I went for a beer in a bar in Balmain, Sydney. I sat down outside, with a schooner of VB, and took out my notebook, probably to write some slightly maudlin poem about the state of the world. Before pen had touched paper I had an auditory experience that was to change my life forever. From inside the bar came the sound of the didgeridoo. It was a sound that literally blew my little mind apart — every concept I had faith in, every belief I held, every value I lived by, every ego-based perspective I projected, every preconceived idea yet to be confirmed, everything just dropped away. Indeed, everything I thought I knew about the world was challenged by that sound. The sound of a hollow piece of wood transformed my world. To this day, I wonder what I would be doing if I hadn’t heard Australia’s foremost didgeridooist, Charlie McMahon, playing in a bar in Balmain?

The story of an environmentalist being drawn to the sound of the didgeridoo is, perhaps, a little hackneyed. I’m not given to slipshod statements about the ‘power’ of the didgeridoo. I do not subscribe to the view pedalled by some New Agers that by simply blowing the instrument you change the world. I am sure someone with an understanding of quantum physics could legitimately challenge my view; however, in my mind, changing the world requires a bit of banner-waving and anger too! Equally, if I were religious, or particularly spiritual, I might say that the sound of the didgeridoo had connected me to a ‘god’ or to a cosmic consciousness but none of this would be true.

My experience of the didgeridoo was profound but very simple; the instrument, and the sound it made when played, connected me to what Aboriginal people term ‘country’ — landforms, the sea, the sky, water, air, plants, animals, stories and special places (1). Somehow, the sound connected me to the Australian environment; an environment that, as an immigrant, I had loved but had never felt truly connected to — until playing the didgeridoo I had never been able to call Australia ‘home’. The sound of the didgeridoo made sense of the land — it was of the land and it connected me to that land. I have since realised that this power is not geographically specific. I have played didgeridoo throughout the world and every time I play I feel a deep sense of connection.

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What has this discussion of sound, and the didgeridoo, got to do with the Dark Mountain manifesto?

When I first read it I heard, in my head, the sound of the didgeridoo. I heard rhythms, I heard animal calls and I heard harmonies between the sound of the didgeridoo and what I was reading. Everything I read turned into sounds and, in some cases, music. The more I read of the manifesto the more I realised that sound can make sense of everything the manifesto speaks of. Sound can teach us about our disharmonious relationship with nature. It can tell us how we have constructed nature as ‘other’ through our collective amnesia of how to feel the rhythms of this nature while, at the same time, creating new rhythms that are at odds with this planet. As Jeffers states: ‘The beauty of modern Man is not in the persons but in the disastrous rhythm, the heavy and mobile masses, the dance of the dream-led masses down the dark mountain.’

Sound can tell us everything we need to know about the world we have created and why we have created it. Importantly, sound can help us understand how to address the planetary ills that our greed and fear have precipitated. As the Dark Mountain manifesto points out, Freud wrote of the inability of people to hear things which do not fit with the way they see themselves and the world. The key word here is ‘hear’. If we learn to listen to the world — to truly listen to the sounds we are creating and, even more, the sounds we are extinguishing, then we may well heed the message that ‘is screaming at us’. We will know that our current path is doomed — it is a path that has been constructed around rhythms that our planet cannot feel; around sounds that have no reference point and therefore have no harmonies to form; and importantly, around noises that tell of our disconnection to the biophysical systems that make life on Earth possible. While playing didgeridoo cannot ‘heal’ the world it can tell us of these lost connections and help us navigate a new relationship with the ‘other’.

Since hearing the sounds of the Dark Mountain manifesto I have decided, with my co-conspirator Harry Coade, to dedicate my life to making a noise about issues that matter to me. Through an organisation called Sound Matters we aim to use sound to tell new stories about the world. We want people to hear different soundscapes and understand the impact they have. We want to capture ‘dying’ sounds and re-introduce them into people’s lives. We want people to hear the lofty shrill song of the skylark and the jaunty call of the song thrush. These sounds are important; they situate our lives in something bigger, something meaningful and something enduring. We want to use sound to change the world!

I am no longer interested in the transient sounds of a modern culture that will surely die. I want to celebrate the enduring sounds of this and other lands. Our soundscape tells us stories of the lives we are living and the lives we may wish to create. If we wish to float in a world of computer generated ‘beeps’, ‘buzzes’ and ‘hums’ then that, in itself, speaks volumes about the state of our souls.

After reading the Dark Mountain manifesto, Harry and I sat down with cellist Hannah Lloyd and created the following piece of music. I am not sure why we called the piece ‘Western Wilderness’ but is seemed, at the time, a fitting title.

 

CLICK HERE TO HEAR WESTERN WILDERNESS

(1) http://www.visitmungo.com.au/aboriginal-country

Dark Thoughts on Ecomodernism

It’s been a year for manifestos. With the dust only recently settled on the British general election, much has been heard about the different (though not that different) ‘narratives’ offered by the major political parties in their manifesto commitments. Meanwhile, a cabal of environmentalist thinkers and activists were busy putting together a manifesto of their own in the form of the Ecomodernist Manifesto (henceforth, EM), which was published in April (1).

Unlike some of those election manifestos, the EM is a model of clarity. It has a goal to be reached, a process for reaching it, a problem that must be solved along the way, and a solution to the problem. The goal is ‘vastly improved material well-being, public health, resource productivity, economic integration, shared infrastructure, and personal freedom’ (p.28). The process is modernisation. The problem is leaving ‘room for nature’. And the solution is decoupling: decoupling human consumption from the drawdown of natural resources, and decoupling humans themselves from the world of nature and from their dependence upon it.

Dark Mountain has a manifesto of its own, of course. It could hardly be more different from the EM. I assume that people reading this blog have an idea of its contents, so I won’t dwell on it here. Nor will I pretend to be neutral in my estimation of these two manifestos’ respective merits. But like any ornery voter, I don’t willingly surrender myself to other people’s manifestos of whatever kind. When it comes to manifesto ‘narratives’, I want to find the stories that lie beneath the words, and compare them with my own. So here I’m going looking for the stories of ecomodernism in Dark Mountain’s light – and if that sounds oxymoronic, so be it. Perhaps there are some truths that only reveal themselves in another’s shadow.

Material wellbeing

Looking at the list of ecomodernist goals the key one is surely ‘vastly improved material well-being’ because things like public health are implied by it, while things like economic integration are a (debatable) means for achieving it. But the question arises, ‘vastly improved’ compared with what? The EM seems to have two answers. One is vastly improved with respect to people who lived in the past. The other is vastly improved for poor people living in the present.

On the first point, the EM states that humanity has flourished in the past two centuries, citing various pieces of supportive evidence: life expectancy increasing from 40 to 70 years, reductions in infectious diseases, a decline in violence and the rise of liberal democracy. Most of these claims are debatable. Two hundred years ago the global human population was around a billion; today, it’s seven billion and counting, but a billion are clinically undernourished – as many as existed two hundred years previously. Is that flourishing?

Well, maybe. I don’t see much merit in arguing the counter-thesis that the human condition has worsened in that time, but there are issues of emphasis and interpretation. Indeed, the EM is peppered with tendentious statistics and factoids that prompt an exasperated ‘yes, but…’ Take life expectancy. In England in 1841 (when records began) it was indeed around 40. But that was because of stunningly high infant mortality, which an urbanising country was only beginning to control in the cities. The modal age of death for females over ten in 1841 was 77, and it wasn’t until 2001 that ten more years were added to that figure, giving a more sober sense of the pace of change. The upward trend came mostly through rather basic public health improvements such as adequate diets and clean water, which don’t in themselves suggest any particular need for us to embrace complex ‘nature-distancing’ technologies today. Good diets, clean water: such fundamentals of human flourishing have often been the birthright of ‘non-modern’ peoples both past and present as well as modern ones.

Let me pursue the EM’s two-century timeframe a little further. In England in 1815, parliamentary enclosures were putting the finishing touches to a process of land divestment that had turned rural peasants into urban proletarians over the previous 50 years. Waterloo brought a shuddering end to one particular ‘modernising’ project that very year. The Peterloo massacre was four years in the future, the Reform Act 17. Slavery in the British Caribbean only had another 23 years to run, but plantation agriculture with coerced labour was gearing up in Africa, Asia and Latin America, and British depredations in India had barely started. ‘Modernisation,’ states the EM ‘has liberated ever more people from lives of poverty and hard agricultural labour, women from chattel status, children and ethnic minorities from oppression, and societies from capricious and arbitrary governance’ (pp.28-9). Maybe so, but it has also delivered ever more people into them, both in the past and still today, often through colonial and neo-colonial projects of extraordinary violence which have always been part of the modernisation package. So if today we can celebrate the improvements wrought over the last two centuries, what we’re ultimately celebrating is the ability of modernisation to solve some of its own internal contradictions, usually through the struggles of those who’ve suffered at its hands, and usually without thought to the longer term environmental consequences. To compare 1815 with 2015 is in many ways to compare a low point with a high point in a longer, messier modernisation cycle.

So much for poverty in the past. What of it today, for those people or those countries living in straitened circumstances in the midst of modernist plenty? A word you won’t find in the EM is inequality. There are glancing references to poverty, poor people and poor nations. But in the ecomodernist vision poverty is equated with a lack of modernisation. There is no sense that processes of modernisation cause any poverty. So there is no mention here of the vast literatures on the changing and varied economic fortunes of the many civilisations that have come and gone, or the changing and varied ideas they’ve had about themselves. There’s nothing on uneven development, historical cores and peripheries, proletarianisation, colonial land appropriation and the implications of all this for social equality. The ecomodernist solution to poverty is simply more modernisation. And you then begin to understand why the improvement in material wellbeing needs to be ‘vast’. Every year, for example, US citizens each eat 100kg of meat on average, whereas the rest of the world makes do with 31kg. Since ecomodernism lacks any critique of consumption, instead choosing to equate increased consumption with increased wellbeing, its only feasible solution to this maldistribution of meat must be to raise up global meat consumption. If global levels equated with US levels, we would need to conjure something like another half billion tonnes of meat from global agriculture annually, and that probably would require the impressive breakthroughs in technology and resource use efficiency that the ecomodernists crave.

An obvious question is whether increasing meat consumption from 31kg to 100kg, or likewise increasing the consumption of anything much else, really does equate with ‘vastly improved material wellbeing’, still less with wellbeing writ large. A humbler ecomodernism might acknowledge that other people construe wellbeing and humanity’s place in the world differently, and consider how its programme might interact with theirs.

Modernisation

But the EM doesn’t do this. Instead, it insists there is no alternative. Once the historic brakes are off, it claims, modernisation is intrinsic to human nature. And the ecomodernists want to release the brakes. This, they say, is no matter of narrow ideology: ‘Too often, modernisation is conflated, both by its defenders and critics, with capitalism, corporate power and laissez-faire economic policies. We reject such reductions’ (EM, p.28). At first this move seems generous, but its effect is to make modernisation something universal and ineluctable, a process to which all right-thinking humans are committed, apart perhaps from a few straggling hunter-gatherers, peasants, backward agrarians and their latter-day champions, for ‘modernisation is not possible in a subsistence agrarian economy’ (p.13).

Now, there really is no such thing as a ‘subsistence economy’ – or if there is, then every economy is a subsistence economy inasmuch as it produces what those in control of it deem necessary for human subsistence. The anthropology of those so-called ‘primitive’ societies that we like to call ‘subsistence economies’ documents the elaborate measures they take to prevent the multiplication of material ‘needs’ and the emergence of inequality. Pierre Clastres, for example, has written, ‘when the Indians discovered the productive superiority of the white men’s axes, they wanted them not in order to produce more in the same amount of time, but to produce as much in a period of time ten times shorter'(2).

Only in ‘modern’ societies does it strike people as obvious that the correct thing to do with superior technology is to produce more with it, and though not all modern societies have been capitalist ones capitalism has pushed this logic of modernisation furthest. Its basic feature is the insecurity of both capitalist entrepreneurs and the populace at large before the impersonal dictates of the interest-bearing loan, forcing entrepreneurs into a ceaseless search to lower relative input costs and the populace into a wholesale reliance on monetised market exchange. In that process lies the fury of capitalist modernisation to find new markets, new human relationships to monetise, new ways of improving efficiency and extracting value. And the result of that process is the ‘modern’ world that the ecomodernists describe – with its incredible material wealth for the few and its misery for the many (the true ‘subsistence agrarian economies’ are the ones that have been made such by losing out in the battles of modernisation), its prodigious energy use, its constantly revolutionising technology, its relative resource efficiency and its absolute resource drawdown, its profound disruptions of the human and non-human environments.

The EM devotes considerable space to arguing that preindustrial peoples were worse environmentalists than we moderns – for example pointing to the relative inefficiency of foraging over farming, and raising the issue of the North American megafauna extinctions arguably associated with Paleoindian hunting. As a matter of historical accuracy, it seems hard to sustain the view that the environmental impact of the North American Paleoindians was any match to that of North Americans today. But the larger question is why the ecomodernists should feel the need to scorn the doings of peoples who preceded them by over 10,000 years. What exactly is their beef?

Perhaps one answer is that the ecomodernist worldview depends upon a universalising narrative of smooth and pristine forward progress: ‘smooth forward progress’ in the sense that the human story it wishes to tell is one of almost uniform ascent towards greater wellbeing and greater control of nature; ‘pristine’ in the sense that the process involves no major contradictions. If the Paleoindians were indeed responsible for the megafauna extinctions, perhaps this makes them modernisers too, but not necessarily worse ones than us. Human actions always have consequences in the wider world, but we have choices over how we respond to them. The ecomodernists replace choices with an unyielding historical progression: their worldview demands that there can have been no past times in which people might have lived as well or better in their own terms than we live today.

I accept the dangers of primitivism: we achieve little by simply reversing the modernist narrative of progress towards future perfection with a primitivist narrative of degeneration from a perfection in the past. But all these dualities of progress-regress, Eden-Fall, heaven-hell etc. are products of civilisation itself and its doctrines of modernisation. From ancient Mesopotamia to modern China the evidence is clear: development implies underdevelopment, material wealth implies material poverty, freedom implies slavery and so on. These couplets are not two ends of a historical process, with modernisation ringing the death knell for the misery of the past, but contradictions within the modernisation process itself. Often, the negative term is merely placed beyond sight of modernisation’s victors. Thus, the EM notes the reforesting of New England but fails to note the deforesting of New Guinea, or any possible connection between the two. It claims that reforestation is a resilient feature of development, without noting that global net reforestation rates are negative. And it implicitly assumes that ‘development’ is some unassailable historical achievement that can never be undone, rather than a temporary flux in longer-term political relationships that are always subject to renegotiations of the kind we’re currently seeing in the gradual transfer of America’s economic assets to China.

For its part, the Dark Mountain manifesto describes progress as a myth. I largely agree, or at least I reject the metaphorical topography of going ‘back’ or moving ‘forwards’ as a way of thinking about ‘progress’ historically. Here is the anxiety in the ecomodernist argument: once you abandon the notion of a smooth upward progress undergirded by technology, once you abandon the common or garden ethnocentrism that our own times and our own people sit at the apex of human achievement, then it’s possible to look at other peoples and ask open-mindedly whether there is anything we can learn from them, not so that we can live just like them, but so we can live better in our own terms.

The whole thrust of the EM is to answer ‘no’ to that question, but it becomes ensnared in contradiction. It states: ‘The parts of the planet that people have not yet profoundly transformed have mostly been spared because they have not yet found an economic use for them – mountains, deserts, boreal forests, and other “marginal” lands’ (p.19). And yet these places have long been occupied by hunter-gatherers, herders, ‘primitive’ agrarians, the uncivilised, the ‘marginal’ and supposedly inefficient non-moderns whose ‘economic use’ of them stretches way back. I think the answer is ‘yes’. I think we can learn much from the uncivilised about equality, equanimity, self-reliance, the illusory nature of material acquisitiveness and what we, but not they, might call ‘natural resource management’. So much of the discourse of the modern world religions and so much of the angst in contemporary civilised society chafes on those very points, because we know that modernising civilisation hasn’t got them right.

In that sense, the EM reads like a religious tract. Despite all the trappings of science and policy analysis, it’s really an attempt to keep the barbarians from the gate and to insist that, while few now believe in the perfectibility of humanity in heaven as a sacred process, we can still believe in the perfectibility of humanity on earth as a historical process. We can, in the words of the EM, have a ‘great Anthropocene’. Well, maybe – but I don’t believe in perfectibility, sacred or profane. So I’m standing uncertainly at the gate, ready at least to give the barbarians a hearing.

The EM also reads like a literary tract. Curiously, despite adopting the moniker of modernism for themselves, the ecomodernists don’t identify with modernism as an aesthetic movement – and yet their programme meshes perfectly with that of the literary modernists. Like Baudelaire wandering through the less salubrious streets of 19th-century Paris, the ecomodernists want to invent a new language that scorns romanticism and the naturalistic, and embraces the city in general and the slum in particular as the engine of a new world order involving a self-conscious rupture with everything that has gone before. I won’t dwell on all the connections, or on the career and aftermath of modernism: from Baudelaire to Eliot to Iain Sinclair, from Marx to Stalin to Lyotard’s ‘incredulity towards metanarratives’, from Le Corbusier to Ronan Point to the mock Tudor semi, from the Factory Acts to Henry Ford to Mark Zuckerberg. But as self-avowed ‘modernists’ the eco-modernists might do well to ponder the long career and drawn out death of modernism in the arts and policy sciences. Certainly, modernism was an important moment in its time. But now it’s over. The moment for eco-modernism is over too.

Decoupling

Inasmuch as modern civilisation’s drawdown of non-renewable natural resources is a problem (for the ecomodernists it’s essentially civilisation’s only problem; I’d offer a wider indictment), it makes sense to seek technical innovations that make more sparing use of resource inputs for a given output. This is called relative decoupling. But relative decoupling is only useful if it enables societies to use less total resources or emit less total pollution, in other words to achieve absolute decoupling.

Clastres’ story of the Indians, the white men and the axe comes to mind here, for though we’re achieving relative decoupling on some measures, we’re not achieving absolute decoupling. In 2012, CO2 emissions from coal and natural gas were more than double their levels in 1980, with petroleum emissions over 40% higher – and yet the EM claims that nations have been ‘slowly decarbonising’ (p.20) . Nitrogen pollution is also rising, as the EM acknowledges, while adding the irrelevant qualification that ‘the amount used per unit of production has declined significantly in developed nations’ (p.14). Another example is meat consumption, which the manifesto correctly states ‘peaked in many wealthy nations’ (p.14). But in 2012, the world produced about 238 million tonnes of meat, up a third from 179 million tonnes in 2000. And so it goes on. The EM consistently muddies the water between relative and absolute decoupling to create a rosier picture of global resource use than the data warrant.

It also consistently muddies the water between the certain, available technologies of today, and the uncertain, possible technologies of the future. ‘Human civilisation can flourish for centuries and millennia on energy delivered from a closed uranium or thorium fuel cycle, or from hydrogen-deuterium fusion’ it states (p.10), without acknowledging that there are scarcely any full-scale power plants currently in operation using these technologies. It follows this with an upbeat assessment of human prospects ‘given plentiful land and unlimited energy’. That raises the bar for disagreement pretty high, given those givens – but first I’d like more evidence about how ‘given’ they are. Despite excitable talk of unlimited nuclear energy, the truth is that currently only 31 of the world’s 200 countries have any nuclear energy capacity, and this furnishes less than 2% of global energy production. That figure may well go down. India, a leader in the push for a thorium-powered nuclear future, is also planning to treble its per capita coal use by 2030. This alone would make a mockery of the ecomodernists’ equation between development and decarbonisation. Present global energy scenarios remain almost wholly wedded to a fossil fuel future.

The other kind of decoupling the EM advocates is a physical decoupling of people from nature through urbanisation, agricultural intensification and the restoration of wildlands, for in its words ‘Nature unused is nature spared’ (p.19). As noted earlier, the Eden myth, the notion of a pristine and uncorrupted nature, has such a deep currency in our ‘modernising’ culture that this sentence probably seems uncontroversial to many. But I find it strange and troubling. For uncivilised thought, its sentiments are unintelligible. ‘Nature’ is not something that goes ‘used’ or ‘unused’. And though humans can probably never escape entirely from a godlike differentiation of self from nature-other, our power lies not in ‘sparing’ nature but rather in moving purposefully within the realm of its power. Here the EM is caught in a morbid dialectic of capitalism, which first reduces everything in the world to a set of instrumental use values and then, abhorring what it’s done, tries to extricate a sacred wholeness from the consequences of its own ugliness. In contrast to the more anti-modern strands of radical environmentalism, ecomodernism is often characterised as an optimistic doctrine. But listen to the melancholy:

We write this document out of deep love and emotional connection to the natural world. By appreciating, exploring, seeking to understand, and cultivating nature, many people get outside themselves. They connect with their deep evolutionary history. Even when people never experience these wild natures directly, they affirm their existence as important for their psychological and spiritual well-being. Humans will always materially depend on nature to some degree (p.25).

As a philosophical statement, there seems a grand absurdity in advocating rupture from something that you need to be a part of. I empathise with the sadness, but it’s a pity the ecomodernists try to overcome it with chest-thumping affirmations of human independence. They sound like the jilted lover, at once defiant: ‘I don’t need her anyway, I’m better than her’; then alone, and afraid: ‘she was everything to me, what will I do without her?’ Eventually, the lover moves on. It’s less clear where a denatured humanity would move to. Here, again, the modernism of the ecomodernists already meets its end.

So, the ecomodernists seem to be saying, despite our human need for nature, we can’t be trusted to get along with it. We need a divorce, a division of the spoils: to us the city, and the minimum amount of farmland necessary to support it, to the rest of creation the wilderness where humans can go to look but not to live. I think this will prove self-defeating. Absent people from the production of their subsistence and install an economy of modernisation which offers no philosophical challenge to the proliferation of material demands and you unleash the bedlam we see already: the ecological reach of wealthy cities is global. Beyond global – the demands of ‘developed’ urbanised countries exceed the planetary capacity to furnish them long-term. Maybe city wealth buys the ecological conscience to shop in farmer’s markets and subscribe to Greenpeace, but it buys a lot of other things as well – too many for the world to provide. And the notion that, properly managed, capitalist modernisation will deliver fair wages, efficient production and ecological restoration for all is a utopian fantasy, just as it has always been. The ecomodernists’ programme will more likely terminate with an entrenched urban poverty that allows them, the elite, but not the newly enclosed urban masses, the luxury of ‘connecting emotionally’ with a cowed nature, or else perhaps just with metrogeddon.

The policy framework of ecomodernism is equally concerning. The EM in muted fashion, and other writings by some of its authors more forcefully, are in favour of urbanisation and agricultural intensification, and against low-yield farming, people who depend on firewood for fuel, and the consumption of bushmeat. The targets here are obvious. Better to knock peasants, hunter-gatherers, commoners and other people not yet fully coopted by the capitalist dialectic off their perch and corral them into the slums of the growing global metropolis. ‘Let no one romanticise the slum conditions’, EM co-author Stewart Brand has written, before doing precisely that, ‘But the squatter cities are vibrant‘ (3).

It’s true that the fizz of urban economies draws in the rural poor – often temporarily, sometimes permanently. But it rarely delivers them out of poverty. And though it’s doubtless true that non-moderns can cause local environmental degradation, in the ecomodernists’ hands this small tail wags the large dog of the widespread degradation caused by wealthy, modernised citi-zens – and the tragic results of this kind of thinking reverberate around the nature parks and forests where indigenous peoples are cleared in the name of progress. Twenty-first century ecomodernism is an enclosure movement, much like the discourse of 18th-century ‘agricultural improvement’: clear the commons, for the commoners are poor and indigent. Better they labour for others, where they will earn more and cause less trouble. As in the case of that earlier debate, there’s scope for much massaging of the evidence on both sides, but it’s by no means settled that modern, high-tech agriculture produces higher yields than small-scale farming; that the ‘intensive’ arable grain farming on which the urban world relies better promotes biodiversity or food security than small, mixed plots; that city slums provide good routes out of poverty for the rural poor; and that the nature-dependent rural poor exert a more baleful environmental influence than the nature-decoupled urban wealthy.

The same ‘improver’ arguments were used by John Locke in the 17th century to justify colonialism in words that, barring changes in literary convention and racial sensibility, wouldn’t be out of place in the EM:

For I ask whether in the wild woods and uncultivated waste of America left to nature, without any improvement, tillage or husbandry, a thousand acres [will] yield the needy and wretched inhabitants as many conveniences of life as ten acres of equally fertile land do in Devonshire where they are well cultivated? (4)

Civilisation and Uncivilisation

That brings us back to the American Indians. Locke in his time and the ecomodernists in ours presumably considered the ‘modernisation’ they underwent at the hands of European ‘improvement, tillage or husbandry’ beneficial. It’s not a view I can share. That’s not to say I’d endorse the Eden that other currents of civilised thought might wish to make of the uncivilised Indian, but I am drawn to Dark Mountain’s notion of ‘uncivilisation’ – not so much as a social state to aspire to, but as an idea we might use to escape from false dualities in ‘civilised’ thought.

What lies beyond civilisation? I’m not sure, and I’d need another essay to even begin outlining it. But, in brief, I think something more attuned to social contradiction and the need to keep certain human tendencies (acquisitiveness, hierarchy) in check. Something that values the quality of human relationships in their everyday particularity rather than their quantity in relation to abstract manifesto-style nostrums like development, freedom or productivity. Something that doesn’t reduce wellbeing to material wellbeing, and reduce the latter to questions of energy, objects and infrastructures. The EM’s narrative, like that of the major political parties, tells us that if we knuckle down we’ll soon be back on track. But, beyond civilisation, the tracks are many, and it’s high time we explored off the beaten one.

Ecomodernism: a response to my critics

This article provoked a vociferous reaction online from some ecomodernists, most notably from Mike Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute. Chris Smaje responds to this criticism with another essay published on his blog, further developing his analysis of ecomodernism as ‘neoliberalism with a green veneer’. Read this essay here.

Notes

(1) Asafu-Adjaye, J. et al (2015) An Ecomodernist Manifesto www.ecomodernism.org

(2) Clastres, P. (1989) Society Against The State, Zone Books, p.196.

(3) Brand, S. (2010) Whole Earth Discipline, Atlantic Books, p.36.

(4) Locke, J. (1689) The Second Treatise of Government, 37.

Our Footprints on the Earth

Why don’t people want to remove all their footprints from the Earth? Everything people do has an impact, so what’s the big deal about carbon? Where did this carbon fixation come from? Rather than a biological or meteorological perspective, I’m more interested in the sociological impacts of the climate change movement on the environmental community; the shift in values that happened when the focus went from local ecosystems to planetary issues, establishing the new globalised environmen.

I began working in the environmental movement in the late ’90s, and spent many years on campaigns to protect the last old growth forests in the Pacific Northwest. That’s how I learned about the development of environmental policy. I could tell both grassroots organising and direct action were needed in the battle for wilderness preservation.

At the time, the core values we used to ‘market’ environmental legislation to the public were ‘clean water, wildlife, and recreation’. We were told by the campaign director not to mention ‘global warming’ in our outreach work, and if someone asked one of us what our group thought of global warming, to say we didn’t have a position on that subject. He said that would be the best approach because the science was still inconclusive, and it was a bizarre, fringe, tin-foil hat idea. A brilliant, diplomatic fellow, he designed our campaigns to target the ‘average, middle of the road folks’. That strategy turned out to be effective, we were successful in protecting lots of wilderness.

It’s empowering to discover ‘we the people’ can sometimes win grassroots campaigns. While it’s true there was support and funding from some organisations that can most politely be described as ‘right wing’, in my personal experience these forests were saved through policies that were created and pushed through from the ground up. Our blood, sweat and tears went into these campaigns. We went door to door, gathering support from key legislative districts. Some of us devoted the best years of our lives to this. On glorious, endless summer days, we did not lose focus. In the fall, when the mood became suddenly more thoughtful, and others were enrolled in classes, some of us did not relent. We had to win. Undeterred by rain and snow, driven by a passion that kept us warm in the bleakest winter, we continued.

Why did we do this? What kept us going? We simply thought the forest was beautiful. Our souls were stunned by the beauty, so we became devoted to protecting Mother Earth in any way possible. Of course, when we explained this to ‘the public’, we used the jargon provided to us by the ‘green culture’: biodiversity, the web of life, watersheds, threatened and endangered species, habitat protection, ecosystem restoration, and saving places to be enjoyed by future generations. Back then people still talked about salmon and owls; they complained about dams. Somehow it seemed we could sense a bigger picture… we were an army in defence of beauty, and we were unstoppable.

And what was it exactly that was so lovely? Was it the way mist can sometimes make little rainbows in small alcoves of a rushing, sparkling stream? Was it the way huge tree roots form hollow caves, big enough to crawl into, that must certainly be the homes of fairies, goblins, gnomes and elves? Was it those giant trees that get so tall it’s impossible to see the top; so big they look like they hold up the sky? Maybe it was the look on a friend’s face as they walked barefoot in the soft, springy, green moss that carpeted everything, the way their eyes lit up as they admired the tiny white flowers that grew so shyly, secretly… or it could have been the surprise of climbing a mountain to see what was up there, and discovering a waterfall rushing down the side of a cliff, a sight more joyful than it had any right to be.

Beauty, I suppose, is a matter of perspective. How can one explain it to those who are unable to see it for themselves? We must employ vaguely scientific sounding terminology to get the message out. ‘Marketing’ the importance of saving the forest had to be done very delicately. The idea of wilderness is one that makes some people uneasy, and others delighted. A place where however far you walk you won’t see a trace of ‘civilisation’, a place where you can gaze forever in each direction and only see trees, brings peace to my heart, but fear to others. The word ‘wilderness’ conjures up primeval fears that city people don’t often contemplate. Fear of the dark, the savage beasts, the unknown. They don’t venture out to spend a night in such territory, so they don’t know how good it feels to hear the wind in the trees, to have no city lights that interfere with the sight of all the incredible stars. In the city they can never know how many stars there really are, or how it feels to be free.

We worked to gather bipartisan support, and there were times when it seemed like the campaign leaders were pandering to Democrats or Republicans, but actually they were very savvy and did exactly what needed to be done to protect the last wild places. In our hearts and minds we were neither democrats nor republicans. In our spirits we knew we were not statistics and demographics. We were wild too. We could look deep into your eyes and you would see you were looking at someone who was truly free, untamed inside. We were anarchists at heart. Also, we were family. Other grassroots groups are aware, somewhat jokingly, of the cult-like atmosphere that often develops in campaign work, but we took that to the next level. We really cared about each other. We all moved in with each other and formed small households of friends. Some of us fell in love, and others even stayed together and had families. We would celebrate our victories and comfort each other through our misfortunes.

We went to see Julia Butterfly speak after she spent two years living in a redwood tree and was successful in protecting the headwaters forest in California. Her victory inspired us to keep going. We kept each other going. Some people got land, and lots of them had beautiful children, and they named them mostly after flowers and trees.

We marched together at the Battle of Seattle, at the end of 1999, to help our city successfully shut down the WTO in solidarity with cities across the world who cheered as we stood up to the global corporations that threatened us all. I was amazed by the bravery of my brothers and sisters in the movement, who put their lives on the line in defence of what seemed to be workers rights, environmental rights, fair trade — but was actually this more obscure sense of beauty and freedom, which had become the most important thing in life.

Another protest, tiny and quiet, went unnoticed. About a dozen of us volunteered on behalf of an international organisation to protest at Fidelity Investments, part of a campaign targeting stockholders to make them aware of the damage being done by Occidental Oil. In the Colombian Andes, a tribe called the Uwa were threatening to commit mass suicide if Oxy didn’t stop drilling in the rainforest where they lived. Fidelity did eventually divest from Oxy because of the pressure put on stockholders from people like us. Protests on behalf of the Colombian people continue.

Long ago it was clear to us all why the Earth should be ‘saved’. The Earth was an awesome place to be! Mountains, forests, oceans, and all the creatures who lived in them were beautiful, so we thought they all deserved to live in peace and flourish. Although we couldn’t manage to explore very many wild places, just knowing they were there was comforting. They were not there for us to explore, but for their own sake. The idea was that such living ecosystems had an intrinsic value that was more important than the resources that could be extracted from them for human use. It was understood that if an old growth forest is logged, it will never grow back. A tree farm is not a forest. When replanting is done in a clear-cut, the soil is soaked in toxic herbicide and mono-crop plantations are grown for later harvesting. It was silly to pretend this replanting was somehow replacing the old growth forest ecosystem that had been destroyed.

Old_growth_forest_scenic

These days, in the ‘new green economy’, trees are seen simply as things that make the air better for people to breathe. This new, modern functionality stems from the next generation of green propaganda, which strives to homogenise everything into one giant communist planetary pie chart. Small ecosystems like a forest or river no longer matter in this grand global picture. It sounds almost acceptable now to hear someone say something like ‘But after they clear-cut the old growth forest, they replant way more trees than were there before, so they improve the climate, now it’s even better than it was!’ Marketing air as a commodity from trees created things like carbon credits and off-setts.

It’s not just trees that have been given a new global importance. Any ecosystem must now prove it has value according to what it has to offer humanity. As we are all linked in the web of life, and humans are most important, it’s possible to see how everything in the natural environment is somehow important for human survival, so now to care about the environment has become… humanitarian. Was this a ‘natural’ trend within the environmental movement and scientific community? Or was it put into motion by things like the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment? A worldwide 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment enlisted hundreds of scientists to develop a view of ecosystems through the lens of services those ecosystems provide humanity.

Although climate change seems like a selfish movement, such attitudes make it look altruistic to care about the molecules that compose our atmosphere. I, on the other hand, question the whole idea of an ‘ecosystem’. I propose an ‘ecochaos’ instead, where things are random sometimes. These things might be not only unpredictable, but also unknowable, mysterious and undiscovered. Nature might not be systematic and balanced. People seek to find ‘harmony’ in nature, but is it really there? Is nature only a machine? No, nature is alive.

Climate change is something that appeals to shallow consumers, so even they can get involved in environmental issues. Once people think maybe they themselves may become uncomfortable, they fear change. Even if it isn’t always getting hotter, change is happening left and right. It scares them. What about Greenland? What about the hole in the ozone? What about Fukushima, Hanford, or the Deepwater Horizon disaster? Gone are the days of blaming god for floods, fires, and storms. Atheists have found a new religion in climate change. It’s a weak form of megalomania. They indulge in a common pseudo-scientific superstition by thinking their SUVs are responsible for freakish weather patterns all over the world.

If rivers flow red in China and Lebanon, and a red flood swallows Hungary, and rivers flow black in Venezuela, how does climate change manage to capture everyone’s attention year after year? Pollution is still deadly to the people nearby the source of it, not so much to those far away. Who is going to stand up for people whose local environment gets destroyed? Local bureaucrats can’t afford it, and the US Environmental Protection Agency appears just as worthless as it ever has been. We have to hold these bureaucrats accountable on the local level, we have to go to meetings, submit comments, do our part. Yet forests are still being deforested, even if you recycle.

In the ‘new green economy’, corporations can pay to continue polluting and deforesting. They can pay someone else to implement a ‘green’ policy somewhere else, one that wouldn’t have otherwise happened. Maybe some of those projects are fine and good. What irks me is how they make everything a globalisation, a commodification, a tiny particle of a planetary climate in a disastrous cycle, so the devastatingly singular incidents of ecocide are overlooked. In any environmental organisation around today, I’ll bet you five bucks you won’t find anyone to speak out about the Belo Monte Dam.

It’s weird to me personally that people want to stop using fossil fuels in order to clean up their personal and global oxygen supply, rather than doing so because of what oil production does to local areas. They still continue with the tar sands and the keystone pipeline.

Here in the Pacific Northwest, people still work to protect the environment for actual reasons. Yet, in a global movement for protecting a global atmosphere, local areas often seem obsolete. Local communities, driven to extinction and even mass suicide, go mostly unnoticed as rich, white people worry about carbon.

The truth is everyone isn’t equally to blame for the destruction of this planet. Some folks are more to blame than others.

And when was the last time you heard of the Marbled Murrelet?

Image: ‘Old growth forest’. Licensed under Pubic Domain via Wikimedia Commons