Four centuries ago, somebody starving in the drought afflicted Elbe region in what is today the Czech Republic, anonymously chiseled onto the stone of the receding river bank a warning. Here, along the river where one day American and Soviet troops would meet on their duel approach to Berlin, a graffito made by unknown hand marks 1616 as the oldest year recorded on one particular “Hunger Stone”, and on that surface there is a memento mori which reads “Wenn du mich sicht, dann weine.” This summer, among the hottest recorded, and the Elbe once again receded to the point where observers could read that ominous missive: “If you see me, weep.”
Something to tattoo on the brain with the Monday release of the United Nations Intergovernmental Report on Climate Change. Authored by 91 scientists, representing 40 countries and based on over 6,000 peer-reviewed scientific studies, the conclusions of the commission are horrifying. According to Coral Davenport at the New York Times the climatologists discovered that if “greenhouse gas emissions continue at the current rate, the atmosphere will warm up by as much as 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit” by 2040, radically earlier than had been thought, meaning that most readers of this article will bear witness to “inundating coastlines and intensifying droughts and poverty.”
A child born today will have just turned the drinking age in a world where close to all of the coral reefs will be extinct and where massive storms like Hurricane Florence or Hurricane Maria, which has nearly destroyed a Puerto Rico abandoned by the government of the United States, will be common. Where the social, cultural, and economic affects of climate change will be recorded not on revealed hunger stones, but in pandemics, wars, famines, and genocides exacerbated by the effects of higher temperatures. Brandon Miller and Jay Croft at CNN write that we’ll see in starker detail the horrific results of industrial man-made global warming earlier than in two decades, with the report concluding that humanity has “only till 2030 to stem catastrophic climate change.”
Alterations to human behavior which might hasten the worst effects of climate change are technically possible, though the study’s authors doubt such change is politically feasible, as it would require direct action on the part of the industrial economies of the world, something with “no documented historic precedent.” Myles Allen of Oxford University explained that “we need to reverse emissions trends and turn the world economy on a dime” if we’re to stave off an ecological apocalypse which we now understand isn’t centuries in the future, but rather mere decades, if not years.
We already see the effects in the increasing ferocity of storms, the droughts that mark not just the developing world, but increasingly North America and Europe, and in the wildfires, which have burnt their way across the west. As the world’s temperature rises we see an equivalent political slow burn, nations increasingly moving toward the delusional reactionary nationalisms as a means of punishing refugee populations often affected either directly by climate change or by the civil strife made possible by it, for as Mark Fishcetti describes the Syrian civil war in Scientific American, “Human-induced drying in many societies can push tensions over a threshold that provokes violent conflict” – a reality that if the Trump administration pretends to deny, has long been acknowledged by the Pentagon.
Climate change has resulted in civilizational catastrophe before. Historian John Kelly notes in The Great Mortality, his book on the Black Death of fourteenth-century Europe, that pestilence was furthered by “climactic and ecological instability,” the bubonic plague encouraged by weakened immune systems brought on by drought and famine. Polymathic anthropologist Jared Diamond has considered how climate change brought collapse in cultures as varied as the Anasazi and Maya or the medieval Norse settlements of Greenland, writing that the “collapse of industrial civilization… could assume various forms, such as the worldwide spread of diseases or else of wars, triggered ultimately by scarcity of environmental resources.” Arguably the civilizations of ancient Mesopotamia and the Indus River Valley were felled by climate change, and one wonders if the peasants of Sumer were as despondent as that German speaker on the Elbe who asked future generations to weep, or if they were rather as myopic as we are, saying of such changes that “This too shall pass” while what expires is civilization itself?
Humans are unable to imagine the actual passing of their way of life. A sense that history changes has been novel for most cultures, even apocalyptic minded ones, as medieval paintings which depict Christ as a Flemish peasant or ancient Judeans as Florentine nobleman can attest. The idea that the past was radically different from the present and that tomorrow will be distant from today is an innovation of Renaissance humanism and then modernity. Rather, it’s always been easier to imagine that your world will literally pass into oblivion than that the values your civilization holds dear might disappear (or need to disappear). During those lean times on the Indus River, on the Euphrates, or the Elbe, women and men may have dreamt of the end of days, but they couldn’t have quite dreamt of us. The myths that structured their world precluded it.
Lest we be too arrogant, ours is not so different a perspective, for as the literary theorist Frederic Jameson famously noted, it is “easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.” Similar for the hungry penitent in the temple to all the gods of Sumer, or to the starving medieval pilgrim who could envision the return of Christ, but not that he might look different from those who populated his world. Limited perspective is the wage of any totalizing ideology, and all eras are structured by such paradigms. As a priest in Moloch’s temple or a monk in a medieval monastery had their religions, so have we ours, but the cracked gods of our world differ in one important respect – only capitalism’s Mammon has the capability of bringing about the apocalypse.
Only capitalism was able to inaugurate a new geological epoch in the Anthropocene; unique is our dominant ideology’s status in being able to obliterate all of humanity. IPCC Co-Chair Debra Roberts said that the report is a “line in the sand and what it says to our species is that this is the moment and we must act now,” but what should disturb us most is the authors’ accurate alarm at the lack of political will to avert catastrophe. In the United States the coal, oil, and gas industries’ obfuscate, high percentages of Americans believe the lie that climate change is a hoax (while record heat affects the Midwest this October), and the Trump administration trashes the Paris Accords.
Noam Chomsky has said that the Republican “party is dedicated to racing as rapidly as possible to destruction of organized human life. There is no historical precedent for such a stand,” with modern fascism directly correlated to the increasing chaos of climate change itself. Roy Scranton in We’re Doomed. Now What? writes that as the “gap between the future we’re entering and the future we once imagined grows ever wider, nihilism takes root in the shadow of our fear…. [Y]ou can see it in the pull to nationalism, sectarianism, war, and racial hatred. We see it in the election of Donald Trump.”
What must be reckoned with is how this situation was directly engendered by industrial capitalism, and in particular by the partisans of its most extreme ideological manifestations of libertarianism and neoliberalism who have provided cover for policies that have enflamed the crisis. Past centuries were circumscribed by their worldviews, be it medieval Catholicism, or classical Roman Augustan paganism, or the varied gods of Sumer in ancient Mesopotamia. Even the most visionary of individual perspectives must be limited by a culture’s dominant way of thinking, but while our adherence to the market is as all-encompassing as a Babylonian’s loyalty to Marduk, it is only our dark religion which actually threatens Armageddon.
Unfettered, unregulated, capricious, vampiric capitalism has brought us to the brink, and the mass inability to comprehend this fact evidences how ingrained said ideology is. Our blinders are such that human tragedy that is attributable directly to our economic system is often naturalized as simply being “The way that things are,” thus precluding even the possibility of different ways of arranging our world. Deathdue to differing ideologies is always interpreted as conscious and preventable, but capitalist tragedy is simply understood as how life operates.
Consideration of those who have died because of capitalism (and those who will, which may yet include us all) doesn’t require a cover-up. So inured are we to seeing capitalism as its own imposed ideology that we fail to understand its death toll. Franco-Bulgarian philosopher Tzvetan Todorovwrote that “remembrance of our own woes prevents us from seeing the suffering of others,” and while true, the converse is also accurate. While admitting that capitalism provided for unprecedented class mobility and technological innovation, an honest consideration of its death toll in any hypothetical Black Book of Capitalism would have to include not just the obvious fatalities of those who died in industrial accidents or whose lives were shortened by their labor, but indeed the victims of colonialism, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and of fascismo corporativo, which is simply capitalism driven to its horrifying end
Invisibility of such atrocities through normalization is a species of what the philosopher Louis Althusser termed “interpellation,” that is to say that we’re all molded subjects of the ideology that governs our world so that we mostly hold uncritical assumptions about capitalism’s normativity. Writer William T. Vollmann addresses future generations in his new tome on climate change Carbon Ideologies, explaining that “We all lived for money, and that is what we died for.” As 2040 approaches our ignorance is a form of collective suicide.
The Editorial Board of theWashington Post writes that future “Historians will look in absolute astonishment” that not only did our governments and corporate elite fail to halt climate change, but that our policy makers “actually pushed in the wrong direction.” That’s assuming that there will even be any historians left after the climate change horseman of pestilence, famine, war, and death gallop across the scorched and burning world, their riders named “Deregulation,” “Bottom Line,” “Market,” and “Profit.”
An August environmental impact statement prepared by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration concedes that far from being a “Chinese hoax” as Trump has alleged, the average temperature will rise seven degrees by century’s end. Quite a wide gulf between what the Trump administration knows to be true and what his deluded believers will swallow. Juliet Eilperin, Brady Dennis, and Chris Mooney at the Washington Post write that the Trump “administration did not offer this dire forecast … as part of an effort to combat climate change,” for their “analysis assumes the planet’s fate is already sealed.” Why prevent collapse when Trump concludes that there is still so much money to be made in not averting disaster?
This is the nightmare logic of scarcity capitalism, the macabre calculus which is content to let millions of people starve in the third world and that will ultimately exterminate refugees who dare to escape a parched landscape, all so that the economic status quo can be maintained before the process kills us all. The puritanism of corporate eco-individualism which configures environmental protection as simply a matter of driving a Prius or taking short showers is moral contrition or personal branding rather than policy, a quasi-theological sacrifice before the altar of the dying Earth. What’s actually required is a massive, international, eco-socialist mobilization of governments and industries that are responsible for this calamity. Because right now capitalism’s final solution is nothing less than complete ecological collapse. In his 1888 autobiographical Ecce Homo, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche eerily predicted that the 20th century would witness “wars as have never happened on earth.” With chaos brought about by the scarcity resulting from climate change, we may reevaluate how prescient Nietzsche was about the last century, realizing that he was perhaps actually off by a hundred years.
Ed Simon is the Editor-at-Large for “The Marginalia Review of Books,” a channel of the “Los Angeles Review of Books.” A frequent contributor at several sites, his collection America and Other Fictions: On Radical Faith and Post Religion will be released by Zero Books in November of 2018. He can be followed at his website or on Twitter @WithEdSimon.