By Jim Miller
Just when you think you are living in a dystopian science fiction novel, the world keeps upping the ante. It’s not just scenes of burning cars and storefronts in Ferguson on TV evoking the mood either. There are some even darker clouds on the horizon that many of us just don’t want to acknowledge, no less come to terms with in a thoroughgoing and serious fashion.
Last week, as the country went through yet another round of dismay, rage, and painful racial self-examination in the wake of a New York Grand Jury’s failure to bring any charges against a policeman for the death by chokehold of Eric Garner, a pair of other unsettling stories emerged on the margins of the American media.
First at Alternet, it was noted that Gregory Clark, a UC Davis researcher, had concluded that the American Dream is now officially dead:
“America has no higher rate of social mobility than medieval England or pre-industrial Sweden,” Clark said. “That’s the most difficult part of talking about social mobility, is because it is shattering people’s dreams.” He said social mobility is little different in the United States than in other countries, where ancestry strongly predicts adult social status.
“The status of your children, your grandchildren, your great-grandchildren, (and) your great-great grandchildren will be quite closely related to your average status now,” Clark said.
Following in the footsteps of work by Thomas Piketty, Clark’s observations, published by the Council on Foreign Affairs, warn against the creation of a permanent underclass of unskilled workers with no hope of bettering their lives.
Elsewhere, over at Truthout, Dahr Jamail notes in his introduction to his interview with Guy McPherson that:
We are currently in the midst of what most scientists consider the sixth mass extinction in planetary history, with between 150 and 200 species going extinct daily – a pace 1,000 times greater than the “natural” or “background” extinction rate. Our current extinction event is already greatly exceeding the speed, and might eventually even exceed the intensity, of the Permian mass extinction event. The difference is that ours is human caused, isn’t going to take 80,000 years, has so far lasted just a few centuries and is now gaining speed in a nonlinear fashion.
Is it possible that, on top of the vast quantities of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels that continue to enter the atmosphere in record amounts yearly, an increased release of methane could signal the beginning of the sort of process that led to the Great Dying? Some scientists, McPherson included, fear that the situation is already so serious and so many self-reinforcing feedback loops are already in play that we are in the process of causing our own extinction. Worse yet, some are convinced that it could happen far more quickly than generally believed possible – even in the course of just the next few decades.
…it’s difficult for me to imagine a scenario where we’ll survive even a 4-degree Celsius [above pre-industrial baseline] temperature rise, and we’ll be there in the very near future, like by 2030, plus or minus.
Stark stuff indeed and when Jamail asks McPherson, a professor emeritus of natural resources and ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona, how soon things could proceed, it makes for even grimmer reading than the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report whose worst case scenario has already raised eyebrows. According to McPherson, it may not just be the next generation’s problem:
That’s such a hard question, and we are such a clever species. It’s clear that abrupt climate change is underway. Methane has gone exponential in the atmosphere. Paul Beckwith, climate scientist at University of Ottawa, indicates we could experience a 6-degree Celsius temperature rise in the span of a decade. He thinks we’ll survive that. I can’t imagine how that could be. He’s a laser physicist and engineer, so I think he doesn’t understand biology and requisite habitat that we need to survive.
So it’s difficult for me to imagine a scenario where we’ll survive even a 4-degree Celsius [above pre-industrial baseline] temperature rise, and we’ll be there in the very near future, like by 2030, plus or minus. So it’s hard for me to imagine we make it into the 2030s as a species.
But when I deliver public presentations I try not to focus on any particular date; I just try to remind people that they are mortal. That birth is lethal, and that we don’t have long on this planet even if we live to be 100, so we might want to pursue what we love, instead of pursuing the next dollar.
Yes, that’s right, 2030. And while it’s clear that McPherson is more aggressively pessimistic than other scientists, if he is even marginally close to the mark, we may be living through the last days of human civilization as we know it. So, what is to be done? McPherson again:
So the next step is to try to scale up the notion of anticipatory grief, and have it reach more people as well as pointing out that this is what is. That we can’t be stuck any more in what “should be,” we can’t be bogged down by the world of “should.”
Instead, as Byron Katie points out in her latest book, we need to love what “is.” And what “is” is reality. So let’s embrace that, and love this living planet, even as we cause it to become a lot less lively. And experience and bring moments of joy to those around us.
Before you take the easy path and dismiss McPherson as an outlier, consider the fact that in the same week, an important debate erupted between Naomi Klein and Elizabeth Kolbert in The New York Review of Books over whether or not Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism versus Climate is too optimistic in its call for a radical transformation of our politics in order to address the climate crisis.
…the far more important discussion is between those who are calling for a radical transformation of our lives to save the future of the planet and those who think it may be too late to do so.
That’s right, outside of the brain-dead mainstream debate between corporate-funded climate change denialists and those who acknowledge reality, the far more important discussion is between those who are calling for a radical transformation of our lives to save the future of the planet and those who think it may be too late to do so.
One might think that such grave questions, not just about individual cases of police brutality but systemic racism, as well as the resurgence of entrenched oligarchy, and the potential demise of our species would be at the very heart of our national discussion but, alas, they are not.
Indeed, on the environmental front, many national media organizations are actually cutting back on coverage and that abandonment of duty to inform the public combined with a heavily funded climate change denial industry threaten to do harm beyond measure.
At the very moment when we most need truth tellers not afraid to take on the powers that be and challenge corporate hegemony and the unquestioned neoliberal gospel of the market, there are very few takers. In fact, many times, those brave enough to enter the fray and ask the hard questions that go to the root of our problems are pushed to the margins, accused of extremism and ushered away in favor of the least objectionable programming that is less likely to interfere with the collective “buying mood.”
We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings.
The same can be said of our art, which in so many ways is also failing to rise to the moment as the same corporate forces that harness our media seek to neuter American letters. Perhaps this is why so many people took heart when Ursula Le Guin, while accepting an award for her distinguished contribution to American letters, put it plainly:
Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom – poets, visionaries – realists of a larger reality.
Right now, we need writers who know the difference between production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximise corporate profit and advertising revenue is not the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship . . .
Books aren’t just commodities; the profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.
I’ve had a long career as a writer, and a good one, in good company. Here at the end of it, I don’t want to watch American literature get sold down the river. We who live by writing and publishing want and should demand our fair share of the proceeds; but the name of our beautiful reward isn’t profit. Its name is freedom.
Thus we need not only an art and literature, but also a larger public discussion and politics that embodies the “realism of a larger reality.” In fact, unless we overcome the poverty of imagination that enchains us to what we see as the “inescapable” world of late capitalism, we will keep moving closer to having to embrace McPherson’s counsel to nurture “anticipatory grief” rather than Le Guin’s call for “real grounds for hope.”