This Time We’re Taking the Whole Planet With Us.


by Chris Hedges

Truthdig (March 07 2011)

I have walked through the barren remains of Babylon in Iraq and the
ancient Roman city of Antioch, the capital of Roman Syria, which now lies
buried in silt deposits. I have visited the marble ruins of Leptis Magna,
once one of the most important agricultural centers in the Roman Empire,
now isolated in the desolate drifts of sand southeast of Tripoli. I have
climbed at dawn up the ancient temples in Tikal, while flocks of brightly
colored toucans leapt through the jungle foliage below. I have stood amid
the remains of the ancient Egyptian city of Luxor along the Nile, looking
at the statue of the great Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II lying broken on
the ground, with Percy Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias” running through my head:

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.

Civilizations rise, decay and die. Time, as the ancient Greeks argued, for
individuals and for states is cyclical. As societies become more complex
they become inevitably more precarious. They become increasingly
vulnerable. And as they begin to break down there is a strange retreat by
a terrified and confused population from reality, an inability to
acknowledge the self-evident fragility and impending collapse. The elites
at the end speak in phrases and jargon that do not correlate to reality.
They retreat into isolated compounds, whether at the court at Versailles,
the Forbidden City or modern palatial estates. The elites indulge in
unchecked hedonism, the accumulation of vaster wealth and extravagant
consumption. They are deaf to the suffering of the masses who are
repressed with greater and greater ferocity. Resources are more ruthlessly
depleted until they are exhausted. And then the hollowed-out edifice
collapses. The Roman and Sumerian empires fell this way. The Mayan elites,
after clearing their forests and polluting their streams with silt and
acids, retreated backward into primitivism.

As food and water shortages expand across the globe, as mounting poverty
and misery trigger street protests in the Middle East, Africa and Europe,
the elites do what all elites do. They launch more wars, build grander
monuments to themselves, plunge their nations deeper into debt, and as it
all unravels they take it out on the backs of workers and the poor. The
collapse of the global economy, which wiped out a staggering $40 trillion
in wealth, was caused when our elites, after destroying our manufacturing
base, sold massive quantities of fraudulent mortgage-backed securities to
pension funds, small investors, banks, universities, state and foreign
governments and shareholders. The elites, to cover the losses, then looted
the public treasury to begin the speculation over again. They also, in the
name of austerity, began dismantling basic social services, set out to
break the last vestiges of unions, slashed jobs, froze wages, threw
millions of people out of their homes, and stood by idly as we created a
permanent underclass of unemployed and underemployed.

The Mayan elite became, at the end, as the anthropologist Ronald Wright
notes in A Short History of Progress (2004), “… extremists, or
ultra-conservatives, squeezing the last drops of profit from nature and
humanity”. This is how all civilizations, including our own, ossify and
die. The signs of imminent death may be undeniable. Common sense may cry
out for a radical new response. But the race toward self-immolation only
accelerates because of intellectual and moral paralysis. As Sigmund Freud
grasped in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920) and Civilization and Its
Discontents (1930), human societies are as intoxicated and blinded by
their own headlong rush toward death and destruction as they are by the
search for erotic fulfillment.

The unrest in the Middle East, the implosion of national economies such as
those of Ireland and Greece, the increasing anger of a beleaguered working
class at home and abroad, the growing desperate human migrations and the
refusal to halt our relentless destruction of the ecosystem on which life
depends are the harbingers of our own collapse and the consequences of the
idiocy of our elite and the folly of globalization. Protests that are not
built around a complete reconfiguration of American society, including a
rapid dismantling of empire and the corporate state, can only forestall
the inevitable. We will be saved only with the birth of a new and militant
radicalism which seeks to dethrone our corrupt elite from power, not
negotiate for better terms.

The global economy is built on the erroneous belief that the marketplace –
read human greed – should dictate human behavior and that economies can
expand eternally. Globalism works under the assumption that the ecosystem
can continue to be battered by massive carbon emissions without major
consequences. And the engine of global economic expansion is based on the
assurance that there will always be plentiful and cheap oil. The inability
to confront simple truths about human nature and the natural world leaves
the elites unable to articulate new social, economic and political
paradigms. They look only for ways to perpetuate a dying system. Thomas
Friedman and the array of other propagandists for globalization make as
much sense as Charlie Sheen.

Globalization is the modern articulation of the ancient ideology used by
past elites to turn citizens into serfs and the natural world into a
wasteland for profit. Nothing to these elites is sacred. Human beings and
the natural world are exploited until exhaustion or collapse. The elites
make no pretense of defending the common good. It is, in short, the defeat
of rational thought and the death of humanism. The march toward
self-annihilation has already obliterated ninety percent of the large fish
in the oceans and wiped out half of the mature tropical forests, the lungs
of the planet. At this rate by 2030 only ten percent of the Earth’s
tropical forests will remain. Contaminated water kills 25,000 people every
day around the globe, and each year some twenty million children are
impaired by malnourishment. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is now above
the 350 parts per million that most climate scientists warn is the maximum
level for sustaining life as we know it. [Editor’s note: The preceding
sentence has been revised since this article was first published here.]
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that the
measurement could reach 541 to 970 parts per million by 2100. At that
point huge parts of the planet, beset with overpopulation, droughts, soil
erosion, freak storms, massive crop failures and rising sea levels, will
be unfit for human existence.

Jared Diamond in his essay “The Last Americans” notes that by the time
Hernan Cortes reached the Yucatan, millions of Mayan subjects had vanished.

“Why”, Diamond writes, “did the kings and nobles not recognize and solve
these problems? A major reason was that their attention was evidently
focused on the short-term concerns of enriching themselves, waging wars,
erecting monuments, competing with one another, and extracting enough food
from the peasants to support all these activities.”

“Pumping that oil, cutting down those trees, and catching those fish may
benefit the elite by bringing them money or prestige and yet be bad for
society as a whole (including the children of the elite) in the long run”,
Diamond went on.

Maya kings were consumed by immediate concerns for their prestige
(requiring more and bigger temples) and their success in the next war
(requiring more followers), rather than for the happiness of commoners or
of the next generation. Those people with the greatest power to make
decisions in our own society today regularly make money from activities
that may be bad for society as a whole and for their own children; those
decision-makers include Enron executives, many land developers, and
advocates of tax cuts for the rich.

It was no different on Easter Island. The inhabitants, when they first
settled the 64-square-mile island during the fifth century, found abundant
fresh water and woods filled with the Chilean wine palm, a tree that can
reach the size of an oak. Seafood, including fish, seals, porpoises and
turtles, and nesting seabirds were plentiful. Easter Island’s society,
which split into an elaborate caste system of nobles, priests and
commoners, had within five or six centuries swelled to some 10,000 people.
The natural resources were devoured and began to disappear.

“Forest clearance for the growing of crops would have led to population
increase, but also to soil erosion and decline of soil fertility”, Paul
Bahn and John Flenley write in Easter Island, Earth Island (1992).

Progressively more land would have had to be cleared. Trees and shrubs
would also be cut down for canoe building, firewood, house construction,
and for the timbers and ropes needed in the movement and erection of
statues. Palm fruits would be eaten, thus reducing regeneration of the
palm. Rats, introduced for food, could have fed on the palm fruits,
multiplied rapidly and completely prevented palm regeneration. The over
exploitation of prolific sea bird resources would have eliminated these
for all but the offshore islets. Rats could have helped in this process by
eating eggs. The abundant food provided by fishing, sea birds and rats
would have encouraged rapid initial human population growth. Unrestrained
human population increase would later put pressure on availability of
land, leading to disputes and eventually warfare. Non-availability of
timber and rope would make it pointless to carve further statues. A
disillusionment with the efficacy of the statue religion in providing the
wants of the people could lead to the abandonment of this cult. Inadequate
canoes would restrict fishing to the inshore waters, leading to further
decline in protein supplies. The result could have been general famine,
warfare and the collapse of the whole economy, leading to a marked
population decline.

Clans, in the later period of the Easter Island civilization, competed to
honor their ancestors by constructing larger and larger hewn stone images,
which demanded the last remnants of the timber, rope and manpower on the
island. By the year 1400 the woods were gone. The soil had eroded and
washed into the sea. The islanders began to fight over old timbers and
were reduced to eating their dogs and soon all the nesting birds.

The desperate islanders developed a belief system that posited that the
erected stone gods, the moai, would come to life and save them from
disaster. This last retreat into magic characterizes all societies that
fall into terminal decline. It is a frantic response to loss of control as
well as despair and powerlessness. This desperate retreat into magic led
to the Cherokee ghost dance, the doomed Taki Onqoy revolt against the
Spanish invaders in Peru, and the Aztec prophecies of the 1530s.
Civilizations in the last moments embrace a total severance from reality,
a reality that becomes too bleak to be absorbed.

The modern belief by evangelical Christians in the rapture, which does not
exist in biblical literature, is no less fantastic, one that at once
allows for the denial of global warming and of evolution and the absurd
idea that the righteous will all be saved – floating naked into heaven at
the end of time. The faith that science and technology, which are morally
neutral and serve human ambitions, will make the world whole again is no
less delusional. We offer up our magical thinking in secular as well as
religious form.

We think we have somehow escaped from the foibles of the past. We are
certain that we are wiser and greater than those who went before us. We
trust naively in the inevitability of our own salvation. And those who
cater to this false hope, especially as things deteriorate, receive our
adulation and praise. We in the United States, only five percent of the
world’s population, are outraged if anyone tries to tell us we don’t have
a divine right to levels of consumption that squander 25 percent of the
world’s energy. President Jimmy Carter, when he suggested that such
consumption was probably not beneficial, became a figure of national
ridicule. The worse it gets the more we demand illusionary Ronald Reagan
happy talk. Those willing to cater to fantasy and self-delusion are,
because they make us politically passive, lavishly funded and promoted by
corporate and oligarchic forces. And by the very end we are joyfully led
over the cliff by simpletons and lunatics, many of whom appear to be
lining up for the Republican presidential nomination.

“Are the events of three hundred years ago on a small remote island of any
significance to the world at large?” Bahn and Flenley ask.

We believe they are. We consider that Easter Island was a microcosm
which provides a model for the whole planet. Like the Earth, Easter Island
was an isolated system. The people there believed that they were the only
survivors on Earth, all other land having sunk beneath the sea. They
carried out for us the experiment of permitting unrestricted population
growth, profligate use of resources, destruction of the environment and
boundless confidence in their religion to take care of the future. The
result was an ecological disaster leading to a population crash … Do we
have to repeat the experiment on this grand scale? Do we have to be as
cynical as Henry Ford and say ‘History is bunk’? Would it not be more
sensible to learn the lesson of Easter Island history, and apply it to the
Earth Island on which we live?

Human beings seem cursed to repeat these cycles of exploitation and
collapse. And the greater the extent of the deterioration the less they
are able to comprehend what is happening around them. The Earth is
littered with the physical remains of human folly and human hubris. We
seem condemned as a species to drive ourselves and our societies toward
extinction, although this moment appears be the denouement to the whole
sad show of settled, civilized life that began some 5,000 years ago. There
is nothing left on the planet to seize. We are now spending down the last
remnants of our natural capital, including our forests, fossil fuel, air
and water.

This time when we go down it will be global. There are no new lands to
pillage, no new peoples to exploit. Technology, which has obliterated the
constraints of time and space, has turned our global village into a global
death trap. The fate of Easter Island will be writ large across the broad
expanse of planet Earth.


Chris Hedges is a weekly Truthdig columnist and a fellow at The Nation
Institute. His newest book is Death of the Liberal Class (2010).

A Progressive Journal of News and Opinion. Editor, Robert Scheer.
Publisher, Zuade Kaufman.

Copyright (c) 2011 Truthdig, LLC. All rights reserved.

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