The irony of this old New Yorker cartoon by Eric Lewis is so precise I haven’t been able to get it out of my head for two years. The speaker is the planet Saturn, clad in doctor’s garb — a stethoscope circling his forehead — giving the bad news to a sick and miserable-looking Earth:
“I’m afraid you have humans.”
What more can you say? But of course the dystopian irony is intensified by the fact that the artist is human, the reader (me) is human, and the drawing itself portrays Planet Earth with a human face, all of which summons forth a half-century-old quote an oceanographer, a member of President Lyndon Johnson’s science advisory committee, told Bill Moyers when he was a special assistant to LBJ. Moyers recounted his words at a climate conference earlier this year:
Now, he said, humans have begun a ‘vast geophysical experiment.’ We were about to burn, within a few generations, the fossil fuels that had slowly accumulated in the earth over the past 500 million years. Burning so much oil, gas and coal would release massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, where it would trap heat that otherwise would escape into space. Earth’s temperature could rise, causing polar ice to melt and sea levels to rise, flooding the earth’s coastal regions.
Johnson, according to Moyers, took this all seriously until — yeah, the irony gets too hot to handle here — the Vietnam War fully consumed his attention. Now it’s 2019, not 1965, and the “vast geophysical experiment” has continued unabated. So have America’s wars, militarism and global weapons sales. And nationalistic paranoia is spreading across the whole planet.
I’m afraid you have humans, oh Planet Earth. Even the national paranoiacs, with Donald Trump seemingly in the lead, know it. That is to say, they know the planet is in trouble and global chaos is inevitable, but they see only one way to respond: tighten the borders, build walls, protect themselves from refugee invasion, prepare for war.
But something else is also emerging: an alternative to this insanity. Perhaps you could call it awareness.
What is emerging, as exemplified by the looming climate strike that is set to start on Sept. 20, led by young people in some 150 countries — the generation coming of age on this injured planet — who will stage numerous rallies and demonstrations demanding real change (at long last, for God’s sake), is something that can only be called transnational. Climate change is global in nature and the only way to address it is beyond the national borders that cage our thinking and protect the financial beneficiaries of this “vast geophysical experiment” that remains ongoing.
One of these young people is, of course, the internationally known 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, of Sweden, who will be leading a demonstration in New York City on Friday, where the million-plus students in the city’s public school system have been excused if they want to join the strike.
Has sanity — and by sanity, I mean hope — finally emerged as a counterforce to the impenetrable status quo of fossil fuel consumption, capitalism and nationalism?
Here’s how Thunberg put it in a TED Talk she gave last year in Sweden: “The one thing we need more than hope is action. Once we start to act, hope is everywhere. So instead of looking for hope, look for action. Then, and only then, hope will come.”
Has the upcoming generation taken it upon itself to save the planet? Is a transnational human unity beginning to create itself?
Naomi Klein, in an interview with Common Dreams following the release of her new book, On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal, attempting to describe the enormity of the movement, said:
It is a spiritual project. It is a narrative project. It is a movement project. It is a political project. And it is all of those forces coming together. We have a long way to go to build the political power required to turn the vision of the boldest, most justice-based Green New Deal into policy. But it is absolutely extraordinary to think how fast we have moved already.
Indeed, as Klein pointed out, climate change is now on the Democratic political agenda. The party’s candidates for 2020 are addressing it and expressing support for the Green New Deal — “whether they meant it or not,” Klein noted. But even a candidate’s tepid endorsement of climate change action is shocking. Media and political bouncers have kept issues of real significance (e.g., war, demilitarization) out of presidential campaigns since George McGovern was clobbered by Richard Nixon in 1972.
Let hope emerge! I don’t know what it will look like, except that it has to be global. It has to be the size of World War II, which spawned the Manhattan Project and a nuclear-armed planet with the capacity to kill itself in the short term as well as the long term.
And by no means does hope mean ignoring the melting ice, rising oceans, devastating fires and intensifying storms — or the extinction of species — that our century-plus of geophysical experimentation has produced, or the seeming rise of fascist governments around the globe and the “climateapartheid” they are preparing for.
Like it or not, we have humans here on Planet Earth. It’s up to all of us to determine what that means.