The twentieth century turned Western civilization upside down. Wars and upheavals resurrected the dark ages. It was extremely violent, perhaps the most violent era in history.
War was especially virulent and, twice, it wrecked Europe and the world. It took the form of asphyxiating soldiers with neurotoxic agents, incinerating cities by bombing, genocide, destruction of villages and the slaughtering of farm animals, famine, ecocide and blasting two Japanese cities with atomic weapons. This kind of ferocious warfare was probably the result of failing to tame the factory civilization of the nineteenth century.
The two world wars of the twentieth century killed close to 80 million people and left a terrible legacy for the future of humanity.
Mechanical and chemical and pharmaceutical factories were devastating the land and poisoning people on a massive scale. Skies were turning black; rivers were catching fire; pollution from the factories was contaminating lakes and rivers. Birds and fish were dying.
However, the ruling class of factory owners, bankers, mechanized farmers — gulping down the small family farms of their neighbors — thought they lived in a golden age. They cared less about the repetitive work that crippled factory workers or about children working long hours for practically nothing in unsanitary conditions.
Charlie Chaplin, a British comedian who entertained America in the early decades of the twentieth century, caught the reality and spirit of this heartless and barbarous age in his 1936 silent movie masterpiece Modern Times.
Behind the sadness and laughter of depicting the thoughtless and cruel methods of factory work and extremely efficient brutality of police, Chaplin explored political, economic and ecological alternatives. He was a genius who played the role of Aristophanes.
Modern Times still speaks to us, warning about inequality, hunger, using workers like cattle, the dangers of monotonous work and automation, especially now that Artificial Intelligence threatens to destroy all possibilities of workers making a living.
The Russian and Chinese Revolutions
The Russian and Chinese revolutions grew out of that injustice. They started before Chaplin took a picture of the conditions that made them possible.
The Russian Revolution broke out during WWI, in 1917. The Chinese Revolution lasted for several decades, fighting its last battles during WWII. It liberated China in 1949.
The revolutionaries in Russia and China were right in defeating oppression and centuries of humiliation. But in their rush to revenge past wrongs, they adopted Marxism, making it official ideology that resembled religion in its dogmas and application.
Karl Marx was a nineteenth century German Jewish intellectual who found his mission in Greek philosophy. He wrote his doctoral thesis on Epicurus, a Greek philosopher who flourished during late fourth and early third centuries BCE. Epicurus adopted the atomic theory of Democritus and tried to get superstition out of human affairs. He lived simply and communally in his Garden-School in Athens with like-minded people.
Marx translated the ideas of Epicurus for his age. He wrote extensively on how people earn a living under capitalism. In the Communist Manifesto, 1848, and Capital, 1887, and numerous other works, he developed a theory and an insightful and revealing economic history of capitalism. Students of Marx speak of Marxism, which includes the ideas of Marx, his works, and his influence.
Marxism is a Western philosophical and economic critique of capitalism, the prevailing worldwide economic system primarily benefitting the rich and corporations.
However, Russian and Chinese revolutionaries did not have the time or appetite for details. They wanted the capitalists dead and, furthermore, they wanted to convert the world to their newly discovered gospel of Marxism.
They started cleansing their countries of non-Marxist ideas and institutions. They brought utter destruction to everyone and everything that did not fit in the theory, agenda and politics of Marxism.
The Russians renamed their country Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. They attacked Christianity, though unsuccessfully. They tried, but failed, to create an equal society. The Communist Party became the new ruling class. And their Marxist mechanization of the industry included agriculture, which, perversely, copied the capitalist model of creating factories in the field. This proved lethal to traditional peasant culture and wisdom.
The Chinese learned from the Russian Marxists. They, too, attacked peasant traditions, causing considerable damage to ancient Chinese civilization.
Capitalist Europe and America did not like the revolutions in Russia and China. They tried suppressing them. Then World War II happened, destabilizing Europe and pushing it further to a hungry dark killing continent.
America was the only world power that benefitted from WWII. With the exception of the damage from the Japanese air attack on the fleet in Hawaii, the country was invulnerable to foreign invasion.
The war and the rare and happy coincidence of a great man in the presidency, Franklin D. Roosevelt, temporarily brought capitalism under state control, diminishing the greed of corporate capital, directing it in the war effort to defeat Germany and Japan.
Germany posed such a threat that capitalist Europe (imperial England) and America embraced communist Russia. The defeat of Germany cost Russia dearly: about 30 million dead.
However, allied victory over the Germans and Italians and Japanese did not eliminate old rivalries, especially the ideological hatred between capitalism and Marxism-Communism. Russia controlled half of Germany, including Eastern Europe. That was unacceptable to America. It declared a cold war against Russia and, by extension, China. But nothing worked. Russia had the nuclear bomb.
The cold war between nuclear-bomb armed states (Russia with Eastern Europe and America with Western Europe) heightened international tensions and brought the world on the verge of annihilation and possible extinction.
Then, in the late 1980s, Mikhail Gorbachev, Secretary General of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Russia), did something never done in international relations. He dissolved the Eastern European and Asian empire of Russia. He even allowed East Germany to join the American-occupied West Germany.
These unprecedented historical changes took place because Gorbachev was committed to Perestroika and Glasnost (reform and transparency). Which is to say, he, like Peter the Great, had a vision for a more prosperous future for Russia. Part of that ideal was catching up with the West, meaning the United States.
Gorbachev started talking to the American president, Ronald Reagan. He proposed the abolition of nuclear weapons. Reagan was receptive to some degree, agreeing to the reduction of the Russian and American arsenal of nuclear weapons. But he rejected the abolition of nuclear bombs. The war party had misled Reagan that America was building a nuclear missile defense shield.
Perestroika meant the democratization of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev guided it to the opening of the doors for a new beginning in domestic and international relations. However, the US war and industry party prevailed. With that rare opportunity for a better and liveable world lost, business as usual triumphed. Russia dumped Gorbachev and returned to its pre-revolutionary times: capitalism and oligarchy.
China merged capitalism and communism. No one knows the long-term consequences of such marriage of convenience. The Communist Party rules a largely capitalist economy that has brought back the billionaire class – exactly like America. In fact, America remains the Westernization and modernization model for China – now that it has become the factory for huge swaths of the world.
Ignoring science, trashing nature
Industrial production harms the health of both people and the natural world. Traditional wisdom and science have perpetually warned humans they cannot survive without clean water, air, land, and wild plants and animals.
The US understood the threat. Since the 1960s and 1970s, it passed a variety of laws and established government regulatory authorities for the protection of human and environmental health. What it has failed to do, however, is to make its chief public health and environmental protector, the EPA, independent enough of political influence.
The result is a gigantic state and federal government bureaucracy armed with the latest tools of science, but thoroughly impotent to stand up to the powerful and well-connected. It’s as if America is adding a green veneer over its machine culture and unethical factories-corporations.
An example of this evolving tragedy comes out from the November 2019 released movie Dark Waters. A DuPont Chemical factory in Parkersburg, West Virginia, has been polluting the Parkersburg watersheds with sludge contaminated with an acutely toxic chemical used in the manufacture of Teflon.
The movie story starts with the poisoning of the cattle of a farmer. The cattle used to wade in a contaminate creek. The farmer convinced a corporate lawyer (portrayed by Mark Ruffalo) to find out the perpetrators of the poisoning of his animals. Ruffalo did a thoroughly believable investigation of DuPont. He revealed the scientific secrets hidden in a flood of DuPont documents: that “DuPont knowingly poisoned about 70,000 local residents.” DuPont kept up polluting the local waters, threatening the health of countless thousands of West Virginia people.
Watching this movie was personal to me. Suddenly, the story brought me back to my desk at EPA: going through pages and pages of scientific studies and testimony, and listening to my colleagues recounting stories that included corruption, misuse of science, and cover up by state and federal officials. But, in a broader context, Dark Waters (2019) was complementary to Modern Times (1936).
They relate the abysmal failure of those in power to learn from the past.
This civilization failure weighs heavily In 2019. Billions of people are reaping the bitter fruits of ignorance and folly. Nature is fighting back.
Climate wrath may be catastrophic, but also presents us with an opportunity for a new beginning, a new global perestroika. Listen to young people speaking about the Earth.
Rose Whipple, an 18-year-old indigenous Dakota woman from Minnesota, said we must listen to Mother Earth. She spoke at the UN Climate Summit in Madrid Spain, December 10, 2019:
“The climate crisis is more than a discussion about a 1.5 degrees Celsius… Indigenous land defenders are being murdered. The climate crisis is a spiritual crisis for our entire world. Our solutions must weave science with spirituality and traditional ecological knowledge with technology. Our movements must be bigger than recycling and braver than holding signs. It is up to each and every one of us to build movements that center the rights of indigenous peoples, healing and justice for the next seven generations. It is time for us all to reconnect with Mother Earth. It is time to remember how to listen to her, to guide our climate solutions.”