Hedges: We Distract Ourselves With Petty Spectacles While the World Goes to Hell
I retreat in the summer to the mountains and coasts of Maine and New Hampshire to sever myself from the intrusion of the industrial world. It is in the woods and along the rugged Atlantic coastline, the surf thundering into the jagged rocks, that I am reminded of our insignificance before the universe and the brevity of human life. The stars, thousands visible in the night canopy above me, mock human pretensions of grandeur. They whisper the biblical reminder that we are dust and to dust we shall return. Love now, they tell us urgently, protect what is sacred, while there is still time. But now I go there also to mourn. I mourn for our future, for the fading majesty of the natural world, for the folly of the human species. The planet is dying. And we will die with it.
The giddy, money-drenched, choreographed carnival in Tampa and the one coming up in Charlotte divert us from the real world—the one steadily collapsing around us. The glitz and propaganda, the ridiculous obsessions imparted by our electronic hallucinations, and the spectacles that pass for political participation mask the deadly ecological assault by the corporate state. The worse it gets, the more we retreat into self-delusion. We convince ourselves that global warming does not exist. Or we concede that it exists but insist that we can adapt. Both responses satisfy our mania for eternal optimism and our reckless pursuit of personal comfort. In America, when reality is distasteful we ignore it. But reality will soon descend like the Furies to shatter our complacency and finally our lives. We, as a species, may be doomed. And this is a bitter, bitter fact for a father to digest.
My family and I hike along the desolate coastline of an island in Maine that is accessible only by boat. We stop in the afternoons on remote inlets and look out across the Atlantic Ocean or toward the shoreline and the faint outline of the Camden hills. My youngest son throws pebbles into the surf. My daughter toddles over the rounded beach stones holding her mother’s hand. The gray and white seagulls chatter loudly overhead. The scent of salt is carried by the wind. Life, the life of my family, the life around me, is exposed at once as fragile and sacred. And it is worth fighting to save.
When I was a boy and came to this coast on duck hunting trips with my uncle, fishing communities were vibrant. The fleets caught haddock, cod, herring, hake, halibut, swordfish, pollock and flounder. All these fish have vanished from the area, victims of commercial fishing that saw huge trawlers rip up the seafloor and kill the corals, bryozoans, tubeworms and other species that nurtured new schools of fish. The trawlers left behind barren underwater wastelands of mud and debris. It is like this across the planet. Forests are cut down. Water is contaminated. Air is saturated with carbon emissions. Soil is depleted. Acidity levels in the oceans skyrocket. Atmospheric temperatures soar. And someone, somewhere, makes obscene sums of money from it. Corporations, indifferent to what is sacred, see the death of the planet as another investment opportunity. They are scurrying to mine the exposed polar waters for the last vestiges of oil, gas, minerals and fish. And since the corporations dictate our relationship to the ecosystem on which we depend for life, the chances of our survival look bleaker and bleaker. The final phase of 5,000 years of settled human activity ends with collective insanity.
“All my means are sane,” Captain Ahab says of his suicidal pursuit of Moby-Dick, “my motive and my object mad.”
The ocean floor off the coast of Maine, which this summer has seen a staggering five-degree rise in water temperature, is now covered in crustaceans—lobsters and crabs—that no longer have any predators. The fish stocks have been killed for profit. This crustacean monoculture carries with it the fragility of all monocultures, a fragility that corn farmers in the Midwest also have experienced. Lobsters provide 80 percent of Maine’s seafood income. But how much longer will they last? When a diverse and intricately balanced biosystem is wiped out, what future is there? After you dismantle nature and throw away the parts, what happens when you desperately need to put them back together? And even if you can nurture back to life the fish stocks decimated by the commercial fleets, as valiant organizations such as the Penobscot East Resource Centerare attempting to do, what happens when sea temperatures and acidity levels continue to rise amid global warming, dooming most life in the oceans?
The warmer water this year caused lobsters to shed six weeks earlier than usual. What happened to the sea further south is now happening off New England. Long Island Sound, two decades ago, had an abundance of lobsters. Then as the water heated up they disappeared. They fell prey to parasite infestations and shell disease, and the survivors migrated to colder water.
All natural resources are being exploited until exhaustion. They will diminish and soon vanish. Droughts are affecting forests in the Northeast as well as the Northwest. The wintertime die-off of pine beetles and other pests—a reduction vital for the health of the forests—is no longer happening as the planet steadily warms. The traditional hardwoods of the northern forests and the great conifer trees are dying. They are being replaced by oak-hickory forests, dooming the biodiversity, eradicating the habitat of a variety of songbirds and other wildlife and ending the maple syrup industry. Maple syrup was produced a few decades ago in Connecticut and Massachusetts. As a child I would hike in snowshoes to the farmers’ sheds deep in the woods containing vats of boiling syrup. We would pour syrup on the blanket of snow outside to make brittle winter candy. But production in the southern New England states has been largely extinguished and shifted to northern Maine and Canada. These are the small natural indicators that something is terribly wrong.
The daily loss of Arctic sea ice this summer is the most severe on record. The amount of sea ice has fallen by 40 percent since satellite tracking began in the late 1970s. The complete disappearance of summer Arctic sea ice may be no more than a decade or two away. And with the disappearance of the summer ice, our planet’s weather patterns will become dominated by freakishly powerful and sudden storms and other violent natural disturbances. Droughts will devastate some parts of the Earth, and in others there will be unrelenting rainfall. It will be a world of extremes. Hurricanes. Tornadoes. Floods. Dust bowls. Fire and water.
Our political leaders, Democrat and Republican, are complicit in our demise. Our political system, like that in the declining days of ancient Rome, is one of legalized bribery. Politicians, including Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, serve the demented ends of corporations that will, until the final flicker of life, attempt to profit from our death spiral. Civil disobedience, including the recent decision by Greenpeace activists to chain themselvesto a Gazprom supply vessel and obstruct a Russian oil rig, is the only meaningful form of resistance. Voting is useless. But while I support these heroic acts of resistance, I increasingly fear they may have little effect. This does not mean we should not resist. Resistance is a moral imperative. We cannot use the word “hope” if we do not fight back. But the corporations will employ deadly force to protect their drive to extract the last bit of profit from life. We can expect only mounting hostility from the corporate state. Its internal and external security apparatus, as the heedless exploitation and its fatal consequences become more apparent, will seek to silence and crush all dissidents. Corporations care nothing for democracy, the rule of law, human rights or the sanctity of life. They are determined to be the last predator standing. And then they too will be snuffed out. Unrestrained hubris always leads to self-immolation.