The world outside my window looks, smells and sounds apocalyptic. The sound is primarily the sound of silence, since few people want to walk or ride a bike when the air is so thick with haze from out-of-control forest fires burning up and down the western half of the continent. There are few clouds in the sky, but the sky looks a lot like the eclipse did a couple weeks ago, when it was at about 50%. We’re in the midst of another almost-unprecedented heat wave due to climate change, but the haze keeps the temperature a bit lower, makes everything look orange and dusky. As the newsreaders are fond of repeating, the air quality is worse than it is in Beijing.
And of course that’s just outside my window. In other parts of the US, hundreds of thousands of homes and vehicles have been destroyed by flooding, flooding which has also unleashed massive amounts of toxic waste from superfund sites and petrochemical refineries all over the region — as also happened on the Gulf coast in similarly massive environmental catastrophes in 2005 and 2010. Another huge storm is currently bearing down on Puerto Rico and Florida. And what’s happening now on the Gulf coast pales in scale compared to the flooding going on right now in parts of South Asia and Africa.
What strikes me as I navigate my social circles online and in my physical neighborhood in Portland, Oregon is the degree to which shame appears to be so much more pervasive than outrage. I can’t quantify this and I haven’t taken any polls, but the distinct feeling I get from a lot of people out there is they feel responsible for the situation we find ourselves in. There is also a widespread awareness of the shortcomings of our political leadership in dealing with the apocalypse effectively. But many people seem more ready to blame themselves for driving a car, owning a smartphone and using electricity than they are prepared to blame the oil and coal industries for their role in this.
But more insidious than this widespread shame in terms of how we got to where we are now is what I hear around me in terms of how we need to deal with the situation. I hear people talking about individual lifestyle changes they need to make — ride the bike more, use mass transit more often, stop driving a car, use less electricity, become a vegan, don’t have kids, etc.
I imagine some readers asking at this point, but who cares about whether people feel guilty or not? The point is we need to do something about all this. Which of course we do. But in order to understand where we need to go, we need to understand where we’re at and how we got here.
Obviously, any society is made up of individuals. But only in some philosopher’s fantasies does there exist a society that is actually made up of equals, who participate equally in making the decisions that shape a society. Only in some people’s heads does there exist a society where individuals can create their own realities, independent of the societies in which they live.
So, while it is true that individual settlers carried out genocidal policies against Native Americans, it was also true that they were paid very well for every Native scalp that they brought in to the colonial authorities. While it is true that individual farmers in places like Oklahoma planted cotton on their arid farmland in the early twentieth century, it is also true that the only way they could get credit to borrow money to plant crops was if they agreed to plant cotton. While it is true that millions of individuals in the US bought cars when cars started to become more affordable ninety years ago, it is also true that the country’s infrastructure was being consciously designed by those in power to be a car-dependent one, with a rail system that became ever more anemic with each passing decade.
Individuals have choices, of course. Some people have many more choices than others — especially if you have lots of money, citizenship in the right country, an engineering degree, or other such advantages. But for most people now and throughout modern history, in practical terms these choices have been far more limited. For the much-vaunted “pioneers” that they talk about incessantly in the elementary schools of Oregon, their choices were to live and die as tenant farmers, breaking their backs and dying young somewhere out east, or to take the land the government was offering them for free out west. For those Oklahoma farmers I mentioned that were participating in the process that resulted in the Great Dust Storm of that period, their choices were to plant cotton and starve later, or don’t plant cotton and starve now. Or go to the west coast and be a farmworker (which is generally an even worse fate than being a tenant farmer).
And for all the people living in the suburbs and driving into the urban centers to work in cities across the US with traffic-clogged highways every day of the year, they are doing what people have been doing in the US since long before the invention of the suburb or the invention of the automobile: they are buying, building or renting a house or an apartment somewhere that they can afford to live, and they are finding work somewhere where they can find work. By design and/or as a result of market economics, these places are usually not anywhere close to each other.
I’m pretty sure that what I’ve just laid out in the past few paragraphs isn’t news to many of the same people who feel this intense sense of guilt for what is now happening around us. This contradiction between what we know and what we feel should not be surprising. As the father of a sixth-grader I am keenly aware of the messaging that pervades both public and private schools here in Oregon and elsewhere in the country. It’s drilled into the heads of the children in so many ways on a daily basis — we humans are responsible for the situation we’re in, as a species, and we must be more vigilant about recycling, not idling your car engine when you can help it, not wasting paper, not buying too many things made of plastic.
Just as pervasive as these messages of individual responsibility being daily drummed into the heads of children and adults alike is the message that we live in a democracy and we can change the situation we’re in by mobilizing around a political party, by voting for different candidates. While I’d welcome a situation where Bernie Sanders’ wing of the Democratic Party became politically dominant, we’re not anywhere close to being there in reality. Both parties are solidly in the hands of the corporate elite, in ways that are easily measurable in terms of who funds the campaigns of those in office and the bills they propose, the bills they don’t propose, and how they vote on the bills that do get proposed.
And as a student of history I can say definitively that this has always been true in the United States. We have always had a two-party duopoly. The two parties have, throughout much more than 95% of the nation’s history, ruled essentially as one. That is, the policies that have defined our country and gotten us to the point we’re at today — things like genocide, slavery, imperial wars, conquest and annexation of neighboring states, feudal land ownership policies, the abolition of rent control, the building of the interstate highway system, the destruction of the railroad network, zoning laws to encourage suburban sprawl, the wholesale clearcutting of the forests of the west and southeast, to name just a few policies — these policies all enjoyed massive bipartisan support among the leaders and so-called elected representatives of both major parties.
We don’t live in a real democracy. If we did, we would have had choices when it came to all of these policies. And let’s be clear about the historical record in terms of these policies that enjoyed such massive bipartisan support: they were extremely controversial at the time. It’s just that those in opposition to these policies were not the ones making the decisions, and they had no parties or candidates to represent their views — not ones with any chance of getting far within the confines of a completely rigged political system.
There is no such thing as “taking America back” or “restoring American democracy” or any of that nonsense. We’ve never had democracy (at least not since the conquest and annexation of the Iroquois Confederacy). And although individuals carried out all of these policies, their implementation had nothing to do with individual choice, and everything to do with the obscenely dominant position of the rich and their corporate Political Action Committees (which existed in one form or another long before we had the term “PAC,” and long before the Citizens United Supreme Court decision).
As long as the powers-that-be can convince us — in direct and indirect ways — that we are individually to blame for the situation and individually responsible for changing it, then we are a defeated and useless population, just the way those in power want us to be. But your enemy is not yourself or your neighbor or your desire to feed yourself and your family or your desire to live somewhere with hot running water, electricity and a TV.
As a songwriter, I always say that the most powerful way to make a point is to tell a story that illustrates your point, and let the listeners then draw their own conclusions from that story, without summing it up for them. Well, this essay isn’t one of those songs.
Point blank, the problem is not your lifestyle. The problem is monopoly capitalism, and the fact that we do not have any semblance of democratic control over anything of importance, when it comes to the survival of our species. Because the apocalypse is happening by bipartisan consensus — and reversing course, to the extent that that’s even possible at this late stage, will require nothing short of the overthrow of monopoly capitalism and the institution of real democratic control over the things that matter.