On Sunday, wind and rain crippled the region. This past Spring, thunder literally shook the house. Both then and now, intense rains pummeled the ground, basements flooded and rivers surged, regional lakes went feet over their spillways. Over the weekend, roads bucked and were washed away, homes destroyed, bridges out, trees down and piled like kindling. Everywhere in the region roads are closed, states of emergencies have been called, and the roaring bodies of water continue to bulge against the flood lines. One man in Jay watched as the river rose, crossed the street, and started up his driveway toward his home in a matter of an hour, as some silvery, churning beast. Like the rain-drenched Spring that set flood records in the Adirondacks, so Irene has upped the ante and wrought some of the worst devastation in the region’s history, with gale winds raking the land and water ravaging all.
Lately, these natural disasters, along with their counterpart, the man-made calamities, have really got me thinking. Are we really in some disastrous time in history, or is it just mother nature being her usual capricious, powerful self?
When I think of the “end-times” type sentiments, I picture some image that must have gained access to my mind: It’s some black and white 1950s footage I see of a scraggly guy (who likely has a mental illness) walking around the sidewalks with a sandwich board strapped to his shoulders declaring “the sky is falling” or “the end is near.” And, of course, there’s the story of Chicken Little, the Mayan calendar and its prophecies, or the Bible itself. Of the literature which foretells the end times, each bears multiple interpretations. There is no such thing as predicting a date that the world ends. And yet here we are, in an era, at least, that it seems our collective conscious has pointed to for centuries, saying, “Yo. Bad shit is going to happen at this time. You know, give or take a few decades.”
It’s inconsistencies and the inability to back theories up with hard data that lead people to declare “snake oil science” is involved in the efforts to understand climate change. Yet we also have to factor in agendas, be they political or personal. On a personal level, nobody really wants the world to end, or for people to suffer catastrophes. Maybe some people do, and maybe even the majority of us feel a distant twinge of excitement at the prospect, but anyone who’s been in a real disaster will certainly tell you it’s nothing to wish for. Yet we gape at countless films that foretell a bleak future either post-major-catastrophe or in the midst of it, we celebrate literature that depicts a future of myriad calamities, from superflus to meteors to alien invasions to technological overthrows. These works, to my thinking, are both born from and play to the fear we each have of such things actually taking place. No one wants disaster to befall them, especially not those persons who have families, are doing well, and have a lot to lose. And sometimes these fears factor into what we believe about climate change and the times we live in. They just have to; personal psychology factors into everything from economics to politics to religion. Everyone has an agenda, even if it’s not to have an agenda.
Thing is, though, the Pentagon has actually recognized climate change. In the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Report, the Pentagon states that climate change – and particularly, flooding due to strong storms, rainfall rate, and rising sea levels – will lead to food and water scarcity, the spread of disease and mass migration. It seems like our artists and writers (according to Doctor Freud, “everywhere I’ve gone, a poet has been there before me”) are hitting around the bull’s-eye. Even I have recently completed a three-year book called Highwater wherein the Adirondacks and Lake Champlain region flood. (A forthcoming book, incidentally, is about massive immigration into the Adirondack Park when cities in the northeast become uninhabitable.) So, it’s been there in our subconscious, and it’s now in the reports of our governing bodies.
Then there’s the economic crises to consider. The narrowly avoided government shut down in April. The massive bank bailouts of 2008 which nearly crippled the economy irreversibly. The nuclear disaster in Japan. Last year’s BP oil spill. Of course, the Exxon Valdez spill more than a decade before that. And, no, do I even have to mention New York City ten years ago?
The natural disasters are equally jaw-dropping. Katrina. Haiti. Tunisia. Japan’s 9.0 earthquake and 40 foot tsunami.
And then there are the potential catastrophes emergency specialists are looking at just so the next “black swan” event doesn’t take us by total surprise. How about massive solar flares knocking our the entire national electric grid? Or the dormant Yellowstone caldera at last erupting to bury several states beneath molten lava?
One has to wonder – has it always been this way? We have to admit that our communication capabilities certainly enhance the expedience and abundance of information we get. There was no way of knowing, say, in Julius Caesar’s time, or Christopher Columbus’s time, what was happening in some other country in terms of a natural disaster. But no doubt, things were occurring. And wars like the Crusades could certainly be considered the “man-made calamities” of those days of yore. So is it just spurt theory? Are we just hypervigilant, extra-attuned to such things, thereby making it all seem worse? We are a herd, after all, and herds tend to get spooked.
Let’s put aside our personal agendas, if we can, for a moment. Put aside political ideologies. Let’s look at the data. In a nutshell, it says this: Thanks to the study of glacial layers, containing air samples from tens of thousands of years ago, we’ve learned that the carbon component in the atmosphere has indeed fluctuated over time. The Earth’s imperfect ellipse brings it closer to the sun at times over the eons, creating big weather changes on the planet, warming and cooling trends, hot periods and ice ages. Yet we also know from these studies that there are different kinds of carbon. The type of carbon present in the recent spike, carbon 12 – the one that crests high above any previous spike over the millennia – is a carbon specific to our greenhouse gasses. In other words, yes, it is irrefutable: the type of carbon we produce has added to the Earth’s natural cycles and enhanced the global warming for our time.
Our busy-bodied lifestyles, our ideas of progress and industry have influenced the climate. How could they not? There are people, though (typically the same people who shake their head at all the “doomsayers” and their “snake oil science”) who say that humans are insignificant role-players in the Earth’s saga, that we haven’t been here long enough to make a dent. Again, we have to look at the agendas of these people to pooh-pooh the inference that we’ve changed the Earth: are they afraid? Are they self-preserving of their companies, or their lifestyles? What is gained from denying climate change? Perhaps a sense of security. Security, though, is not something I felt this morning when I awoke to a closed county, or this Spring to thundering rains, and looked out at the high, fast-moving and muddied river behind my house. This is not to say that I lack the faith in human kind to prevail. I simply don’t put all my eggs into the basket of man-made systems. (In the Hunter Safety course they tell you that the safety on a gun is mechanical, and can fail, so it is not to be exclusively relied on.)
Nearly every disaster in recent history has shown our great fault: our lack of back-up systems. In Nature, everything has a back-up. There’s a reason we have two lungs, two kidneys, two eyes. These redundancies provide for a fail-safe. Nor, though, do I simply rest on my conviction that an otherworldly being will come down to save us, thereby absolving me of any civic or earthen responsibility. I don’t take it upon myself to change the world, I merely get an idea of where things are going, and I prepare and adapt. That’s the best of humankind, to my thinking, our ability to adapt. To be innovative. So do I think the end of the world is coming? No. Do I think massive changes and hard times are afoot? Yes.
We are not insignificant role-players in the story of the Earth. We have had a profound impact. Just like a virus can come on suddenly and strongly, shutting your body down, disrupting your routine for a few days, so too we have impacted the stasis of the Earth. The virus is a handy metaphor, though the connotation is something nefarious. I don’t think humans or bad, or a scourge. We are the blessed stewards of the Earth. I believe we were meant to flourish, to progress. Could we blast back in a time machine to primordial times and convince a cave man not to invent the wheel, or pick up and use a sharp rock? No – there is an inexorability to the trajectory of the human race.
By the same token, we are given great responsibility. As much as our individual psychologies become, collectively, the shape of our species on the planet and inherent within us is the motivation to advance and progress, we have come to see that the paradigm of infinite growth is not sustained by the finite resources on planet Earth. So, we adjust. We adapt. This is our calling now. Not to fear the end, or to wait for a saviour, or to just keep plugging away so that we don’t have to face our insecurities, but to dissolve our sense of entitlement. It is said, “those who exalt themselves will be humbled.” Have we not exalted ourselves, celebrated our culture and our nations and our way of life? Have we not stood on high and said that we are monarchs of all we survey? That we have dominion over the Earth and its creatures? We have come far from certain brutalities. We were meant to progress beyond the atrocities of human torture, pillaging and plundering. But, have we? Some of the sadism seems to have been decocted from the human world, or has it just been glossed over?
George Carlin had a bit where he talks about how syndromes created in soldiers who experienced the horrors of war used to be called “Shellshock,” which was an apt, emotional description, bringing to mind a wide-eyed, disheveled soldier on the brink of madness. Carlin said that this has been mamby-pambied down to “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder,” which sounds like a sprained ankle in comparison. We may no longer place prisoners to torture them upon “the rack,” but employ “enhanced interrogation” tactics (like waterboarding, which sounds like a coastal sport). There may no longer be Vikings pillaging and plundering, but aren’t our modern Vikings hiding in suits and ties, like Enron, like Goldman Sachs, like lobbyists who buy politicians?
If you walk up to most any sane, intelligent person on the street and say that natural disasters and man-made disasters are retribution for our criminal actions on the planet, that person is likely to think you a silly God-freak and turn away. Because we cannot connect the dots so simply. A person who is going to balk at such drawn conclusions needs to be led through the steps one at a time, to illustrate the connection. It is not enough, like Paolo Coelho writes through his vivid characters in The Alchemist that “all things are one.” While that may resonate personally and philosophically for some, it is too vague to be swallowed by more literal types. The connections, though, are an intense webwork of equations, linking a sense of individual entitlement to a corporate response which places demands on the Earth, thereby stressing the environment and spurring natural disasters and either separately, or in tandem, the man-made calamities.
There is no single person or group at fault in such equations. It is very difficult to ferret out a true culprit. When the early industrial revolution had people living in cities in order to work in the factories, let’s say, and someone had the idea that people ought to live in the areas outlying the cities, and these became suburbs, was that wrong to do? No. It’s no more “wrong” than a cave man discovering the cooking use of fire. Did great responsibility arise with the dawn of the suburb and the inception of sprawl? Yes, absolutely. Every privilege is counterweighted by its responsibility. Every blessing, when not attended to properly, will become a curse. The demand for transportation arose, and human innovation and engineering responded. Nothing happens without business, of course, and so profits are made. When profits become the chief objective, however, this is where trouble comes into paradise. Greed is an extension of entitlement.
So, Biblical times, or business as usual? In truth, neither, and yet, a little bit of both. Somehow, in ways beyond my ability to comprehend, other than to say “all things are one,” or to cite the mysteries of the collective unconscious and maybe to say that we all come from the same stuff stars are made of, we’ve been more or less predicting this period of time for ages. Through the literature of various religions, from the hearts of artists and writers, we’ve anticipated this. We put out and consume disaster movies and novels in droves. For some reason, it satisfies a huge part of who we are. The triumph of the human being in these stories, the fears they represent – whether its a terrestrial or extraterrestrial disaster, whether its our own technology growing beyond our control and turning back on us. We seek redemption in our stories, because we ourselves hope to be redeemed for our gross entitlement. This is nothing new, this sense of entitlement. It has simply been mushroomed thanks to the population boom of the past century. Since we first began harvesting oil and configuring it into every part of our lives from our vehicles to our plastic toothbrushes and emergency infant incubators, we’ve grown in record numbers. Our vaccines, our medical discoveries like penicillin the use of blood plasma, antiseptics, and the invention of certain pharmaceuticals have all contributed to lower a morality rate and longer lives. We’re astoundingly more copious and we live twice as long as we did a hundred years ago. As we near seven billion people, a number doubled only in the last forty years, it’s no wonder the Earth is “shell-shocked.”
So where does that leave us? How do we enforce the need for a sense of responsibility superior to what exists today? I shudder to think about any more over-regulation, and the idea of a global government gets me thinking about a kind of fascism that would make the previous fascist scourges seem like well-tempered suggestions. “Hi, would you please not be Jewish?” “Would you mind – sorry to bother you – would you mind if you believed only what I told you and that your career was what I said it was going to be? Thanks.” So then, what?
If the extreme end of Capitalism is “kill ’em all and let God sort ’em out; the best of the best will survive,” and the extreme end of Socialism is “the People don’t know what’s good for them; we’ll tell them and enforce that they do everything we say,” then what are the good points of these economic models? Capitalism seems to very much be at the heart of Democracy, that we should be able to pursue our goals to their ends untrammeled by the government. But, of course, that is an ideal, and hard to achieve. The reason is because not everyone is capable of standing on their own two feet. Not everyone has the same ethical, moral standards some of our best maintain. Many of us are sick, infirm, poorly educated, unable to do the same for themselves that we might. Are we such savages that we would just see those persons be naturally selected out? No, of course not. Our humanity lies in our treatment of our neighbor. At the same time, do we, a healthy person of sound mind and capability, want to be limited by the least among us?
Hunting, for some people, is not about sport, but an exercise in survival. Sure, most of us can trot off down to the local grocery and get what we need for that night’s dinner, but what happens when we no longer can? Or, what about those people who just don’t want to be a part of that system? If a hunter has a spiritual understanding of his actions, is safe and respectful, shouldn’t he be allowed to harvest his game however he sees fit? Whether you feel he should be or not, he isn’t. Environmental regulations prohibit a hunter from doing all sorts of things that, to some thinking, maybe just as good a way as any other to harvest a deer, even if it’s not “sportsmanlike.” But spotlighting a deer from your car and shooting it is not allowed because of those people who will end up abusing the privilege and drinking and acting irresponsibly. We regulate because of those individuals who make poor decisions.
Is there a happy medium? A simple cap on capitalism seems like a no-brainer. There should be limitations to how much money a company can make. Who needs more than a billion dollars? For what? Or perhaps monies made over a certain mark could be siphoned off and funneled into area where needed. The more money you make, the more civic responsibility you have financially. The problem is that the legislation is compromised when the very people whose lives certain laws would alter are the same people influencing the politicians who would pass such laws. And now it’s legal for corporations to donate to political campaigns, so it seems like we’re going in the opposite direction.
The reality is, we’re going to have to ride this out. It’s time for every individual, from poor to rich, to reevaluate their priorities and their lifestyles. The rich will not be protected; those million dollar mansions that line the coasts will be the first to go. The meek shall indeed inherit the Earth; the people busy landscaping and maintaining those properties, working in the fast-food restaurants and cleaning up the roadways.
The wars overseas will not end, the ideological struggles are too entrenched; thousands of years of disputes over religion and territory will not go away or be glossed over by an imposed democracy. The storms will continue – all storms, be they natural or man-made, are attempts to rectify an imbalance. The fever gets the highest just before it breaks.
There’s no heading this one off at the pass – that time has come and gone, and, frankly, was never really possible to change in the first place. This is all inevitable. There is the inexorable force of entropy at work, the universal, cosmic struggle of chaos versus order. Right now, chaos is on the upswing. There is no panacea, there will be no one person who can rise to stop the flood or part the waters for the people to pass through, no matter how many exciting new Presidents we elect. People place all of their eggs in the presidential basket for the same reason people deny that global warming exists in the first place: fear of changing their own lives, fear of establishing their own new mental paradigms that say, “I am not so entitled I can do whatever I want without the commensurate responsibility.” No one person can do it, no one political or religious ideology. It comes down to each and every single individual, what happens from here on in. “Be the change you wish to see in the world” – ? Yeah, okay, but that’s a little to cutesy for my taste. “Be the survival you wish to see in the world,” is better, which, to my thinking, begs the question of whether or not you really wish to see the world survive.
Do you? I mean, do you really – beyond your own desire to self-preserve, beyond your own fears of mortality, do you wish to see the human race prevail? If it was part of our make-up to really and earnestly see humankind prevail through the ages, wouldn’t we have spent more time considering the fate of future generations? Or have we just been going through a sort of species adolescence, feeling invulnerable, the way a sixteen year-old does? Are we now going through a painful sort of puberty, a maturation as a species on this planet? Are we starting to wake up, to take stock of the reckless ways we’ve behaved in our youth? It’s time to think about a real career. About what we want to do with our lives. We’ve tested the boundaries, we’ve been rebellious, we’ve shrugged the authority of our parents, and now we must learn to live on our own.
We have to decide what we’re here for. It’s not for the “fun and games” we’ve felt was our due while we were in our teen years as a species. Our adulthood is calling us, asking us to be responsible, to stop going out to the bars and cavorting all over the place, seeking fun and adventure at whatever cost. It is time for our species, in the same way each of our individual lives go, to put aside these childish attitudes and to build towards a fruitful future. There is indeed a paradise waiting for us, there is hope at the end of all of this. But, we have to earn it. We don’t get it because its our birthright. We get it because we earn it.
So, get those jugs of water in to the basement, along with some food stores. Prepare redundant systems in your life, back-ups for when things fail. Learn how to hunt, or, if you don’t want to hunt, learn how to garden. (You should learn how to garden if you hunt, too.) Put aside some good books somewhere, so that when a week goes by with no power, you’ve got some good reads, some reminders of why the human race is so great. And above all, talk to your kids about why they need to learn to be responsible for every gift they’re bestowed, from the air they breathe to the roof over their heads to the fun they enjoy. Tell them that new worlds are always possible.
As I write this, the sun is coming out.
Oh woops, I spoke to soon; it just went behind the clouds again. Looks like more rain.