A couple of weeks ago as wildfires ripped through California, my sister Joyce called me from Arkansas. I had told her not to worry about my wife and me when she heard news of fires out here because we live in a perfectly safe neighborhood in the flatlands of L.A. far from the brushy hillsides where we might be endangered, but, as sisters will, she was checking up on us anyway. Turns out she was not wrong to worry. North of us in wine country in the middle of the night, embers from a wildfire that started in the hills were blown miles by near-hurricane-force winds to shower orangely down on the dark houses and the sleeping people of Santa Rosa. Ever seen pictures of Hiroshima after we dropped the A-bomb? There are neighborhoods in Santa Rosa now that look a lot like that. Dozens of people were killed, and dozens more are still missing.
It could have been Culver City. I can’t help but imagine Stefani and me fleeing half-dressed through the blazing, wind-howling night with our cats in their carriers and our dog on his leash. Chaos, people hollering, horns honking. We see our neighbors’ houses burning, we see our neighbors burning. Is there a more terrible death than that?
All this fire on the heels of all that water. There were so many monster hurricanes in so short a time it’s hard to keep them straight. Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, and drowned tens of thousands of homes. Hurricane Irma ravaged once-paradisal Caribbean islands and then smacked into Florida (though happily Hemingway’s polydactyl cats on Key West made it through fine). Hurricane Maria has sent Puerto Rico back to the Stone Age, with the multitudinous bodies of pigs, goats, cows, dogs, and cats rotting in the sun and poisoning the water.
Catastrophic climate change no longer is just some faintly disturbing theoretical possibility, something that might happen someday to our unlucky progeny when we ourselves have been safely tucked away in the earth or turned into ash and stored in an urn. Nor is it just something affecting impoverished, dark-skinned people on the other side of the world who are always having horrible stuff happen to them anyway. It’s here and it’s now. You may drown or burn tonight.
Aren't we being a bit alarmist? you might say. No, I don't think so. But alarming? I certainly hope so. We’re a civilization of sleepwalkers, of wheezing, overweight consumers, of zombies enslaved by our iPhones. We’re not equipped to handle what is coming our way. We’re not self-reliant and hearty like our can-do ancestors. Our young people are such delicate flowers they cannot bear to talk to one another face to face or even over their phones but must use their flashing thumbs to tap out texts. When the power goes out, they will die like flies.
If destruction awaits us, we ourselves will be its agents. It doesn’t matter whether you think we are beings with divinity in us who have somehow gone devilishly wrong, or we are just members of an out-of-control species of highly intelligent apes, the fact is that our presence on this planet is wrecking it. We’re cutting down all its forests, we’re polluting all its seas, we’re driving all its beautiful creatures into extinction, and we’re heating up the atmosphere to a calamitous degree.
If there’s a seed of hope in all this, it’s that if the mess is all on us then maybe we can fix it. Maybe it’s not too late to turn things around. But it won’t do simply to drive a hybrid and blacken our roofs with solar panels and troop to the polls every two years and dutifully vote for the Democrats. So what will do? The answer of course will be different for each of us. Each of us must ask of ourselves how far are we willing to go, how much will we give up, what will we risk? Our jobs? Our liberty? Our lives? Or maybe considerably less than that? Here’s something to chew over. Most of my friends are two things, environmentalists and meat eaters, and since industrial meat production accounts for about 15% of the greenhouse gases we put in the air, those two things don’t go together. So how about it? Will you do that? To save the planet? Will you give up eating meat?
As you read this, nature’s setting the stage for the next megafires and megastorms. She has a voice, if you will listen for it. She is always speaking to us of this or that, telling us tales about the rivers and the birds, the clouds and the mountains. Usually it’s a quiet voice, but sometimes it must be louder to be heard over the fiery roaring wind, over the crashing black waves…
Oh, you complacent ones, open your eyes! Behold the Apocalypse!
And be afraid, as Jeff Goldblum said in The Fly. Be very afraid.
In What Happened, Hillary Clinton’s new book about the societal disaster that was the 2016 presidential campaign, she says being president “was a chance to do the most good I would ever be able to do.” Well, you can’t find fault with that. She wanted to become president to do good. But for millennia philosophers have been posing the question: “What is the nature of the good?” and they always seem to come up with different answers. So what was Hillary’s answer? What were the good things in particular she wanted to do? “I started calling policy experts,” she writes, “reading thick binders of memos, and making lists of problems that needed more thought.”
The admission is stunning. A 69-year-old woman who has devoted her life to both public service and the pursuit of power and who a year ago seemed poised to claim the presidency and at long last put all her ideas into action, realizes she’s not sure what her ideas actually are, and so feels the need to call experts, read memos, and make lists. Nothing could indicate better the dreary, dispiriting nature of her campaign. One would have thought an articulation of her vision for America would be the first thing out of her mouth. The people want their leaders to lift them, to excite them, to use words that paint pictures they can see in their mind’s eye so their souls might be bestirred and changed. But instead Hillary bored us, and we elected a malignant bellicose billionaire instead.
Barack Obama was different. That man could paint us pictures, yes! Who doesn’t remember that chilly November night in 2008 when he and his gorgeous family walked out on that stage in Grant Park in Chicago in front of that immensity of people so he could give his victory speech? The eight-year nightmare of the doltish George Bush and all those awful Republicans was over, and a noble young prince was about to become president. My wife and I were hosting a gathering of our liberal friends to eat pizza, drink liquor, and watch the election returns, and several of them were crying actual tears of joy, something you just don’t see very often. My eyes remained dry, because I’m congenitally skeptical of politicians, and yet when Obama said that someday we’d be able to tell our children that “this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal,” even I felt a tentative movement of hope in my heart.
Cut to a mild spring day in 2012, when now President Obama walked into the Rose Garden of the White House to deliver another speech. “Under my administration, America is producing more oil than at any time in the past eight years. We’ve opened up new areas for exploration. We’ve quadrupled the number of operating rigs to a record high,” and then he crowed: “We’ve added enough new oil and gas pipelines to circle the earth and then some!” Not the kind of speech likely to have given you chills, unless maybe you were an executive at Chevron or ExxonMobile.
The Democrats and Republicans are different. As I’m writing this, a bat-shit crazy old white man has driven in off the desert with 17 rifles in his car and has murdered 58 people in Las Vegas. Democrats are crying out once more for gun laws to be passed, while Republicans are shaking their heads and tsk-tsking that this isn’t the time to talk about that, and the bellicose billionaire is saying the massacre’s easy to explain as “an act of pure evil” and is urging us all to pray. And the Democrats and Republicans are different on issue after issue: health care, police misconduct, voting rights, immigration, education, the minimum wage, tax reform, Social Security, transgender bathrooms— But wait a minute. This is starting to sound like one of Hillary’s lists!
So here’s the deal. There’s not a dime’s worth of difference between the Republicans and Democrats on the two things that matter the most: the American empire and capitalism.
Obama was given the Nobel Peace Prize for, well, being Obama, and then promptly escalated America’s war in Afghanistan. Didn’t matter that he’d campaigned on the promise of getting us out of our savage, counterproductive Middle East wars. The generals got to him. They always get to them. (Think they haven’t got to the malignant billionaire, who also once talked of exiting Afghanistan?)
Both the major parties are in thrall to the mad dream of American exceptionalism, which holds that we’re so wonderful and unique that we have a duty to spread our way of life to every corner of the earth, and if any country objects well then by God they’re just a rogue nation and we reserve the right to wipe them out. Both the parties love our young men and women in uniform who march forth from out shores to defend our freedoms in the farthest reaches of the American empire, they adore the obscenity of hundreds of billions of dollars spent on weapons of war to be used abroad while at home our roads crumble and our bridges fall down and our citizens poison themselves with opioids because their lives are so miserable, they revel in the way foreigners kowtow to them on their overseas trips since they represent the country with the guns and the loot.
Democrats are as ardent in their support of capitalism as Republicans are. They just believe in smoothing out some of its rough edges: no children in coal mines and that sort of icky thing. Capitalism is as much an ideology as it is an economic system. Its central tenant is that if everybody is allowed to pursue his or her own selfish interests without the government getting in the way, then somehow, in some magical fashion, the best of all possible worlds will be realized. It sounds like nonsense, and it is. You can look around you and see that.
A handful of billionaires control most of the wealth of the world while 70% of its people live on less than 10 bucks a day and the world itself, the real, the natural world, the only world we’ve ever had or ever will have, is swiftly being destroyed. The Democrats talk a good game on things like climate change, but theirs is a delusional have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too approach. Sure we’re going to have to switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy but that’s a good thing! Jobs will be created! The economy won’t miss a beat! They don’t realize that it’s the economy, it’s their beloved free markets, it’s capitalism itself that is the problem. Unless we jam on the brakes and bring a screeching halt to so-called “growth” or “development,” Homo sapiens (and countless other species) are finished on this earth.
We see only the trees, not the forest in which we’re wandering lost. Our leaders cannot help us. Though blind and deaf to the reality of things, unfortunately they’re not also mute. They babble untruths incessantly in their speeches and interviews and memoirs and tweets, they scream at us to follow them, but we’re already drifting away. We know there are no shortcuts, that the only way out is through. Among the shadows, we discern glimmers of meaning. We are struggling to see. There is a vision being born. It has to do with compassion for one another, with respect and reverence for all forms of life, with humility and not arrogance and modesty and not pride, with seeing ourselves as a part of life on this wondrous earth and not as superior beings apart from it. This vision is as necessary to us now as oxygen or food, for as it says in the Book of Proverbs: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”