Last night, January 19th, 2017, I wondered this as I walked through western Cambridge, Massachusetts, near Memorial Drive, in a neighborhood where somewhat posh residential houses open up into some sudden strips of concrete retail, the filthy river and the glittering Boston skyline just in view. It is not a beautiful place. It is also only ugly to the extent that most architectural products of this age are ugly: morally, even if not aesthetically. Not that I always separate the two. In any case, I wondered how long all the human-made structures that I saw would stay. The electronics store, the gas station, the stoplight, the skyscraper.
One answer is, “It will stay until somebody tears it down and builds something else.” The more geological, morbid option, which I intend to reflect upon today, assumes the likelihood of non-interference by humans, meaning that the human species would be extinct by the time that these stone, metal, and other components began to naturally erode and collapse into nothingness.
I am not asking this question because I expect people will read and take action. As it happens, I am only a fledgling in the countless sums of voices who, possessing some vital belief, have tried to be heard by more than their immediate circle; I am even only a fledgling in the countless sums of voices whose vital beliefs constitute a truth, a prophecy, a desperate plea. Instead, I am writing this because it is the stupid, ridiculous human instinct to record, whether some extraterrestrial archaeologist should ever stumble upon the (digital) evidence and be capable of decoding it, or whether we say only to the absolute, perfect void that we were here. Not many will see what I say here right now. It does not matter. My words are meant for anyone, everyone, but equally for no one— the prospect of no one.
In light of such, I will not worry about whether my words are pretentious. I often find that when I write for an audience, I try to mitigate my mind’s natural gravitas with lighter-hearted phrasing, witticisms, self-deprecation, and so forth. The pretentious quality that I discern or fear others discerning— this arises when I have retreated far into my own stream of consciousness, thinking only of the thing I’m trying to say, relying on a lexicon and psychological environment that derived from reading old literature when I was quite young. But this is what I must rely upon now. I need this writing to be as authentic as possible, not because it ought to be my last, but because it is the first thing I have written in full acknowledgment of what I largely expect constitutes the final descent of my species.
How long will it stay?
. . . .
In my childhood, I remember learning about some grotesque crimes against humanity. They were explained in books and television programs and statements by adults, usually quite sanitized. It was at least enough for me to grasp the simplest facts of what happened, why things were so terrible. Chief examples would be the history of African slavery in the United States, or the Holocaust. At the time I didn’t think either of these things had much to do with me. For a long time I didn’t understand that I had an ongoing role to play as a person with pale skin, European ancestry, and a background of what could be called cultural whiteness. I also didn’t understand that I would come to belong to several demographics targeted in the Holocaust itself, even though I was not Jewish; nor did I know that a slim branch of never-met family members had been, in fact, German Jews. Even in my ignorance, I still knew such past events, and the people who perpetuated them, merited my horror. I had no trouble summoning empathy. No, the real trouble lay in how I imagined some curtain to have been drawn between the events of my own time and the events of people older than me, elderly people, dead people, forgotten people. I lived in a world where certain US residents were called ornery for having human needs now that they weren’t literal plantation slaves anymore (contemporary observation: for the most part). I lived in a world where Nazis were cartoonish, silly men who got outwitted by clever GIs and punched by dashing archaeologists. I don’t miss that time of my development.
What I do miss was the mood surrounding another thing I kept learning about, which was the natural world. My planet, the Earth. I attended preschool, kindergarten, and primary school from about 1990 to 1998, and in this time the capitalist “green revolution” had not yet superseded a different sort of environmentalism. Many of the ideas were the same, of course. Reduce, reuse, recycle. Save the rainforest. Protect endangered species. Don’t waste water. Don’t create pollution. Don’t harm the ozone layer. Don’t contribute to the greenhouse effect, the source of global warming. In the early 1990s, however, this felt different in the sense that, at least in my own education, we were taught these principles to contribute to a glorious, wonderful cause that would help preserve life on this planet— a cause that was winning. We weren’t past any climate tipping points. We hadn’t caused as much damage as we eventually would. We needed to worry, but we also needed to hope and celebrate. It was going to be all right.
That sentiment could have distorted the truth, or it could have been tragically misplaced optimism. I still long for that sense of heroism. It is very gone now. It has been replaced by a sunkenness in my guts, a tightness in my throat. A hollowness, a sorrow, floating on top of a simmering fear that has also dwelt with me since I was extremely young. I speak of the fear of apocalypse.
Raised with an atheist outlook, which I preserve in a highly augmented and problematized form today, I dreaded no Day of Judgment or various equivalents. Briefly, when I learned about the very idea of Hell, I had some nightmare about it, but this didn’t concern me. The most religious fear I felt was when I first read about Ragnarök, when the Fenris wolf is prophesied to eat the Sun. That story, though in truth more complicated than a pure, final, “everything dies” tale, hit closest to the fears that did consume me. Each time that I learned of various Earth-destroying cosmic events that could or would eventually occur, I went paralytic with terror. Asteroid or comet impacts; the planet being consumed by the expanding Sun; the universe as we know it ending with heat death, collapse, or who knows what. I couldn’t bear to think about black holes, even though the Earth is not likely to ever fall into one. The mere prospect of such annihilation petrified me. I felt keenly betrayed by the notion that life should come into existence, that sentient forms of it should evolve, only to have no ultimate chance. We would have billions and billions of years, alone or not alone, but we were slated to perish by the laws of physics.
It did not seem fair at all. It seemed as appallingly unfair as the idea that I could be born, enjoy living, accomplish things, collect spectacular memories, and yet ultimately die with no hereafter to welcome me. On long car rides with my family, when night fell I would stare out the window at the stars, and I would cry childishly but in silence at this impossible, absurd tragedy. The stars were the symbol of things enduring despite all odds, and yet even they would have to lose their fire.
. . . .
Here are some of my vital beliefs.
That humans are relatively hairless chimpanzees that have evolved a general tendency toward an erect bipedal gait, opposable thumbs, and fully developed linguistic faculties, although there are variations across the gene pool.
That we chimpanzees occupy some temperament midway between the common chimp and the bonobo, between the warring killers and the fucking hedonists.
That it is against universal wisdom and morals for humans to detach ourselves from the Earth by pretending we are better than other animals, or pretending we are not tool users, or pretending we are not omnivores, or pretending we are not naturally and inextricably violent.
That it is also against such wisdom and morals for us to detach ourselves from the Earth by pretending our absolute self-interest will have no consequence for life as we know it, or pretending that satisfying instrumentality requires engaging in exploitation, or pretending we need no standards for how to behave toward one another and the rest of life, or pretending we are not also naturally and inextricably peaceful.
That extinctions must happen if a species has lost its place in the cycle of things.
That extinctions must be fought if such a loss is due to a wider imbalance that threatens the whole ecosystem, particularly if the species’ absence would cause further destabilization.
That life in its broadest sense is good, and should be preserved, even while preserving so many evils within it. Even while preserving the more intrinsic forms of death and violence.
That a socioeconomic order predicated upon eternal expansion and profit will always serve as a destabilizing force, threatening all ecosystems, threatening all participants, threatening itself, making itself the greatest and worst joke that our witty species has ever played.
That there are few things humans have ever built which could be called unnatural, but that in terms of causing non-intrinsic forms of death and violence, capitalism might be called the greatest unnaturalism, the greatest virus, the meta-virus, the meta-death that is far worse than ordinary death.
That we are exquisitely close to running out of time.
. . . .
I am an emotional writer. When I write something that has hurt inside me for a long while, I weep as I scrawl or type. Somehow, I have not wept yet today. Today I am sad but also perplexed, puzzling. Weighing. Fighting the last vestiges of denial. I do not know if my tears belong with denial or with acceptance. When I know, maybe they will spill.
. . . .
By this point, anyone reading this when it’s published or with the relevant background knowledge could see that I have written this on the day that a particular man was officially inaugurated as the President of the United States. He is a despicable, infuriating, repugnant wretch.
But I am not writing simply because I had such boundless hope before he achieved his power and now, only now, is it dashed. For me it is not like that. That would be pathetically, embarrassingly naïve. Over the past several years of shared political struggle and my own private struggles, following various news stories about the latest undesired climate change milestone, the latest labor abuse, and so forth, I have already grown fairly convinced that the species is digging its own grave, and possibly the graves of everything else on this spinning rock.
I will provide two long quotes from a very important essay that I first read some day not long after it was published. One:
We are living in a mass extinction event. This is not a theory. Over half the species on earth will be extinct by 2050. Let me repeat that fact: over half the species on earth will be extinct by 2050. We are on track to kill off 75% of life in no longer than 300 years, assuming we make it that far. This is the fastest and largest extinction event in history, including that of the dinosaurs. If we understand the example of the wolves, we can see that these are not discrete losses, they represent the unravelling of the entire warp and weft of life. In The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert, she reports the extinction rate in the tropics is now 10,000 times the background rate.
… Seawater so acidic that the shells of molluscs are dissolving. Oceans overfished to the extent that they resemble deserts, seabeds ploughed to destruction, micro-particles of indigestible plastic poisioning bird life and turtles, reefs bleached, plankton populations which are the building blocks of all ocean life disappearing. Ocean acidification is predicted to double by 2050. Ocean acidification triples by 2100. The death of the seas is inevitable. Of freshwater I will say that the draining of aquifers is ongoing, that fracking threatens the water table and that wars over water are going to rage in the coming years.
… The Earth itself is exhausted, soil degradation endemic, washed with its nitrogen fertilisers into our already poisoned seas. The living Earth is fragile, it takes a hundred years to form a centimetre of topsoil. Farmland is a limited resource and eroding fast. Industrial pollution has destroyed 20% of the farmland in China – I am not sure that you, or I, can grasp quite how much land that is. Globally 38% of farmland is now classified as degraded. Human population continues to grow, as our ability to feed it, and our infrastructures, buckle. Insect populations will soon not be able to pollinate the crops. It is not just the bees, with climate change animals and insects are being born out of sync with their food sources. As I have said before, the wheel of the year has been broken.
… The air and fire are perhaps what should give us most concern. We thought we had more time. That man-made climate change would be tackled. It has not, and it will not be, as Government and Corporate interests are one and the same, namely infinite growth. This is where you should feel the knot of fear in your stomach. The CO2 emissions that are wreaking havoc now are the result of what we burned forty years ago. Since then we have engaged in an orgy of denial and consumption. There is no tech-fix in the Anthropocene, the age of manmade climate change. Nothing has been done.
What mainstream scientists are not telling you is that the impact we are having is creating self-reinforcing feedback loops. Essentially they focus on a single domino when we have an entire array triggered and falling. Methane release from thawing Arctic Tundra is particularly worrying. We are facing NTE: Near Term Extinction.
… Estimates for the time that this process will take, the process of extinction, range from fifty to three hundred years.
If you prefer reassurances you can ask the New Agers about their ‘global awakening product’ or believe the green wash of the venture capitalists who will seek to cash-in on the death of the biosphere with equally implausible schemes and vapourware tech-fixes. The governments and scientists will continue to lie to you to prevent the panic that disrupts shopping as usual; however, the cracks in the official narrative are beginning to show. Most will choose to keep mainlining what Dmitri Orlov calls hopium from the sock puppets squawking out of the idiot box. However, I predict the next generation are going to be angrier and their witchcraft more radical than you or I could dream. They will realise that there is nothing to lose, rather than this generation which seems concerned only about the size of their pension pots – not the fact that they have cost us all the earth.
… Extinction is a difficult realisation. After you have worked through the denial, you are going to need to cry in order that you can offer up the sacred lament. The five steps of the grieving process are well known, delineated by psychiatrist Kübler-Ross; they are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, finally, acceptance. Everyone here will be somewhere on this scale and it is important for you to understanding this process as you come to terms with these facts.
The essay is entitled “Rewilding Witchcraft”, by Peter Grey, and if you are able to still view that link and read it, I hope that you will, whoever you are. It means more to those of us who are witches, myself included, and I do not agree with every single sentence; it almost feels worth remarking here that Kübler-Ross’ theory has been fairly questioned and reconfigured these days. But I read these words in 2014 or 2015 and I knew they were bitterly correct, for the most part.
No matter who is in charge of the United States’ government or any government, so long as we remain committed to the intertwined monstrosity that is Capital & State, the environmental movement will not succeed. Nor shall basic human rights struggles succeed. Although it is a fallacy to speak of animal rights in the same way one speaks of human rights, it is folly to place a division between environmental and socioeconomic revolution. The same forces that destroy human lives are the forces that destroy ecosystems and the very planet’s habitability for life. It is imperative, it is utterly— utterly, utterly, UTTERLY FUCKING UTTERLY— imperative that a critical mass of individuals turn away from Capital (or State) and stop hoping State (or Capital) will save them. They cycle together. Each forms the other. They are a twin ouroboros, without being the beautiful kind.
But I did think for a time that while the result of revolutionary struggle would be the toss of a coin, a chance that in those fifty to three hundred years from now— let’s put a clear date upon that, let’s look ahead to 2317— something momentous would have happened that began to save us. Until recently I thought that while we were already tipping down some horrible slope into the abyss, we might have the resources and tools to find our way to the other side and climb up the slender ladder.
When the presidential election took place two months ago, some of those resources began to slip out of our hands, and the ladder began to splinter and crack. It does not feel like the toss of a coin. Now it is the roll of a die, and the die is weighted, and our odds are no better than one in six. We can perhaps survive, still, and the rest of life with us, but we now must recognize the strong, severe probability that nothing will endure, and after the last life has been extinguished in a few centuries or millennia, the Earth will exist as a quiet lump of carbon with a poisonous atmosphere and some strange, gradually disintegrating artifacts from its multi-million year experiment with self-replicating entities. The best case scenario, so-called, might be that we meet no such fate, but only after enduring unfathomable tolls to human life and the extinction of at least as many species as predicted. There are a range of outcomes in between.
If such an outlook seems needlessly fatalistic— Trump, it’s only a name, I can say his name— my counterargument is that it probably isn’t fatalistic enough. If it were, I would have given into my socioeconomically cultivated suicidal impulses today, or well before today.
Let me put it this way.
Yes, Trump is a single, disgusting vermin. Yes, his regime is only so many vermin. Yes, contrary to the narcissism of many who live in this country, what happens here does not always have an overwhelming effect on what happens beyond our borders. And yes, the historical record indicates that all fascists lose power eventually (usually, and very importantly, by violence, not by nonviolence). I agree with these statements so heartily that I wish very much as if I could have gone through this Friday as if it were any other day— one more day of the Earth’s riches growing stained and toxic. A calamitous event, the inauguration, but only a drop in the poisoned pool of many other calamities. This thought has its appeal not only when thinking in geological terms but also in revolutionary terms, for we should not require the existence of an immensely powerful fascist leader in order for us to take action against Capital & State. And a fragment of my mind continues to think this way. It is an important fragment, well worth heeding in other respects.
Unfortunately, we must also consider certain pragmatic issues beyond how a Trump-like figure in any country would produce a serious existential threat to marginalized members of its populace, even with people like me included. Even if we are witnessing the endgame of the US Empire, this collapse comes when the specific footholds of the empire remain exceptionally capable of influencing the fate of the environment and the fate of homo sapiens. Compared to some people, I am not tremendously concerned about nuclear warfare. If anything, Trump’s purported coziness with Putin would be a boon in avoiding nuclear war unless various other aspects of societal collapse tipped some dominoes that we have not yet foreseen losing balance. (I also could not give a single shit-smeared damn about how much Putin influenced this election, but that is a topic for another day, except to add that I find Putin about as odious as Trump on the whole.) Rather, my already mentioned ecological concerns drive the sense of meta-death today.
This craven scum and his nauseating alliance of capitalists, military officers, Bible-thumpers, and Randians— they do not only seek to kill art and beauty, they do not only seek to exterminate those of us on the margins as if we were so many freaks crawling in the way of their vision (we are, O let us continue to be, O please). The United States’ industry, both internally and in its trade dealings, has a disproportionately large impact on the planet’s climate, the quality of the planet’s resources, and the necessary species diversity both within and beyond our borders. The darkest seat of Capital sits here, whatever may happen with State, for at least a few more decades, by my reckoning. And the newly inaugurated scum are actively working to ruin our final, desperate chance to make the national changes that we so badly need in order to still enter the abyss and climb back out when the centuries have passed.
I do not really think they see it that way. It is fatal stupidity of the highest, most cataclysmic order, nothing more.
If enough other countries besides this one can do double, triple the work that they already ought to be doing, perhaps this country’s failure to cooperate will not matter. But I doubt this.
. . . .
I know that others besides me have written essays on this same subject. Not only the one that I mentioned, either. There are a great deal. I do notice, however, a tendency in other essays to either close with sudden strange platitudes about what we can still accomplish, how we can take solace, etc., or close with no propositions for any solutions. Neither variety is guaranteed to carry a liberal slant, but sometimes that element shines through, malignantly twee. “We still have each other.” “Love is the only thing that will see us through.” “As awful as this is, I don’t know what to do about it.” “I’m just done. If you have any suggestions, let me know.”
I would like to not close any such fashion. First, I would like to quote two individuals who, though white and male, sometimes said some good things.
… it will be the silence, where I am, I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.
— Samuel Beckett
In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing.
About the dark times.
— Bertolt Brecht
I cannot presume who has or does not have anybody. I cannot presume anything about love, a construct as much as a fool’s hope, a destroyer as much as a creator. Instead, it is extremely likely that we will perish, we as ourselves now or we as our species later, and those who perish may perish quite alone and without any love left.
If we do wish for any solace, any solution, these things will come only from reflecting, often, upon exactly how much we stand to lose, and the increasingly inevitable fact that we will lose every single part of it. Certain natural, logical conclusions from directing one’s thought to such ozymandian waste, and those conclusions will form a large portion of my future writing, here and elsewhere.
What I will say in short form just now is that continued collaboration with Capital & State will drive all the nails in our coffin; it will be the end, the absolute and total end. The last shred of a future can only be seized by divesting ourselves, carefully yet efficiently, of that ouroboros. You— you, if you did read all of this— must inoculate yourself against that virus. You must acquaint yourself with revolutionary thought. I must further acquaint myself with it, and I must make plans to do more than I have done, and I must follow through. If you continue to collaborate with the thing destroying us, I have nothing else that I can say except that you are part of the problem.
You, personally, are helping to select us for extinction. I, personally, may not be doing enough. No; I am not, not yet, perhaps ever. It is terrifying to consider that even with the most obvious choice before us, not enough of us will make it, or make it to the extent that it must be made.
How long will it stay?
D. Llywelyn Jones