Good music!

As I get older, I’m less and less aware of new music. In addition to my increasingly rapid transformation into a grumpy old person that dislikes new things, I heavily blame podcasts. I listen to way more podcasts than music and it’s kinda sad.

Anyways, here are my favorite 10 albums of 2016 in no particular order:

  • The death albums: Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker; David Bowie – Blackstar; Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree. I wasn’t too familiar with Cohen, and to a lesser extent Bowie, before the releases of their final albums, something I eagerly rectified. Nick Cave, on the other hand is one of my favorite artists. During the recording of Skeleton Tree, his son died in an accident. While the album was mostly written by this point, parts of it were amended and the result is one of the saddest things I’ve ever heard.

  • Darkthrone – Arctic Thunder. A welcome return to their iconic black metal sound

  • Anohni – Hopelessness. I don’t think I like this as much as the Antony and the Johnsons material but this is still really good shit.

  • Mizmor (מזמור) – Yodh. This is what I was listening to, entirely coincidentally, as Milwaukee burned 6 blocks away from our house this past summer. Gorgeous album cover.

  • Charles Bradley – Changes. Charles Bradley covering Black Sabbath? Yes plz!

  • Angel Olsen – My Girl. Awesome music from someone under 30!

  • G.L.O.S.S. – Trans Day of Revenge. More people under 30! It’s nice to be reminded that punk’s not dead, even though the band, sadly, is.

  • Ghost – Popestar. This EP has my favorite song of 2016. It’s a cover of a song by the Swedish band Imperiet, better known as their earlier punk incarnation Ebba Grön. I nominate this as the song that plays if and when our glorious empire burns.

Man and woman learned how to make fire
And the kingdom’s walls were extended
By the fourth day the walls were reaching so far
No one knew where they ended

Now no one heard that voice anymore
And metal cities came to ascend
On the fifth day spring turned into fall
And a rain fell over the land

But no walls can stop such a rain
That keeps on falling forevermore
I was told that by the sixth day
The world was like an open sore

Now who will pray for Babylon
Sing a song to Babylon
On your knees before Babylon
Beat that drum because Babylon is falling

*****

Other shit that is good, but slightly less good than the aforementioned:

  • Sumac – What One Becomes
  • World Be Free – The Anti-Circle
  • Childish Gambino – “Awaken, My Love!”
  • Alcest – Kodama
  • Direct Hit! – Wasted Mind
  • Open Mike Eagle & Paul White – Hella Personal Film Festival
  • Dinosaur Jr. – Give A Glimpse of What You’re Not
  • Bob Mould – Patch The Sky
  • A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service
  • Brujeria – Pocho Aztlan
  • Panopticon – Revisions of the Past
  • Death Grips – Bottomless Pit

Police officer indicted in the shooting of Sylville Smith

Against all odds, Dominique Heaggan-Brown will be charged with first-degree reckless homicide in the shooting of Sylville Smith on August 13th. In the immediate aftermath, the police and mayor claimed there was unequivocal video evidence that Sylville was armed and pointing a gun at the officer. Later, once the unrest had died down, it was admitted that the footage wouldn’t “answer every question.” And now, Heaggan-Brown is charged, which is in addition to the unrelated charges of 2nd Degree Sexual Assault and Solicitation. It’s impossible to know how much the latter charges factored in the decision to indict on the murder charges. A cynic might wonder if the authorities decided he was an acceptable sacrificial lamb due to his other alleged transgressions. A different police shooting, that of Jay Anderson, with questionable video evidence resulted in no charges, and for some reason, far less notoriety. I’d be remiss if I didn’t also include another local story from last week about an officer involved death in which there’s clear video evidence of federal agents hitting a man with a car, and the agency in question claiming the man shot himself.

As welcome of a development as this Heaggan-Brown’s indictment is, it’s almost impossible to be optimistic for a conviction. If Michael Slager, who clearly murdered Walter Scott, can get away with it, what hope is there?

The shooting occurred four blocks from our house. The burned down gas station was seven blocks away. The trashed liquor store is two blocks away. During this, well-meaning but patronizing friends and relatives offered for my wife and I to retreat to the safety of the suburbs. How privileged we were to have even had that option.

Below is what I posted to Facebook the day after the shooting (and only lightly edited). The intended audience was those who were surprised or confused by the events, and any closet bigots I had on my friends list. It was my way of putting into words everything I wanted to express about the situation.


I post so rarely, but I thought an incident like last night warrants something, seeing as we live a mere six blocks from the events. That’s pretty close! We didn’t really notice anything amiss until around 9pm, when we saw redirected city buses on our street. Even then, it didn’t really register aside from absentmindedly noticing sirens, which isn’t uncommon on a Saturday night. At about 9:30pm our local neighborhood app alleged that the gas station was on fire. Standing on the balcony, we couldn’t hear anything. Right before going back in, I heard gunshots and later found out it was from someone firing into the air. Aside from that, and more sirens than usual, our immediate neighborhood was quiet. As a true testament to the, in my mind surreal sense of normalcy of our block, white women were walking their dogs early this morning as if there weren’t riots the previous night. I mowed my lawn in peace listening to a Neil deGrasse Tyson podcast as our cats relaxed contentedly in their catio. So we’re fine, and thanks for your concern.

But none of the above is really the purpose of my first FB post in, I dunno 2 years? I just want people to understand that this did not happen in a vacuum. It’s ridiculously easy for people (some, but not all closet or openly racist) to shake their heads at their perceived social inferiors and lament something to the effect of this not being what MLK wanted (I’ve seen white people say this (please note you shouldn’t say this)).

Did you know that Milwaukee is the most segregated city in the country? (https://www.thestar.com/news/world/2016/01/25/back-in-time-60-years-americas-most-segregated-city.html).

And that this segregation isn’t entirely accidental – and in addition to its historical legacy is still something that is happening? (http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/10/remember-redlining-its-alive-and-evolving/433065/)

It’s damn near impossible to convince some people that systemic racism is an actual thing, despite the wealth of scholarly research that emphatically confirms how persistent and insidious it is. Moreover, an understanding of this is tied to the founding of America and its abhorrent treatment of black people (among other classes of people, obviously). This isn’t ancient history – the end of the civil rights era didn’t magically usher in an era of pure equality and such thoughts are almost childishly simplistic.

This brings me back to my initial point about how the events of last night did not happen in a vacuum. Solely focusing on specific, discrete situations neglects the overarching systemic issues of historical institutionalized racism and the concomitant associated traumas (i.e. poverty; child abuse & neglect; substance abuse; transient living situations; familial incarceration; domestic violence; nonexistent access to effective schools, etc.). Dealing with any one of them is enough to shatter the hope of any child. Moreover, the aforementioned traumas are additive in nature and largely temporally ongoing events. I hope it sounds like these are exceedingly difficult things to overcome because they really are. Anyone invoking the “bootstraps” myth, or thinking how they’d totally turn out fine growing up poor and black is full of rancid shit. Even being able to move out of the hood to leave such problems behind is exceedingly difficult. I implore everyone who has any connection to Milwaukee to read the profound, heartbreaking book “Evicted” by Matthew Desmond, a Harvard sociologist who did the field work for the book in Milwaukee.

(As a brief side-note, I’ve chosen not to bog down this already overlong post with sources, but these are easily found – one can certainly find counter-arguments, but I’d be stunned if they were backed by anything remotely considered peer-reviewed research (Breitbart, Fox News, memes, and your feelings don’t count).

The final topic I’ll address is the relationship between the police and the poor black community mere blocks from my house. It’s unfortunate (aside from the loss of life) that the proximate cause is going to be used by those who think that cops can do no wrong to disparage and dismiss legitimate social concerns. This too is connected to the historical relationship between black communities and police (again events like this don’t happen in a vacuum, yada yada). It turns out police have been pretty rough on black communities since its inception (http://plsonline.eku.edu/insidelook/brief-history-slavery-and-origins-american-policing). Certainly their relationship can best be described as abysmal up until the civil rights era. Important steps have been made since, but it’s nowhere near sufficient to repair generations of perfectly valid distrust. It’s long been thought that police kill a disproportionate amount of black people, but until recently nothing close to a comprehensive accounting existed. The Ferguson events changed that and its since been definitively confirmed thanks to the monitoring of nongovernmental entities, the ubiquity of social media and cell phone camera technology. The minuscule percentage of police that will even have to go to trial is something also not to be discounted. (https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/dec/31/the-counted-police-killings-2015-young-black-men).

Police killings have long been overdue for their spotlight in the national consciousness and it is no longer ignored. Combined with prominent national killings, Milwaukee has had, among others Dontre Hamilton and Jay Anderson, that for whatever reasons didn’t achieve the same level of notoriety. The community that participated in the unrest yesterday is undoubtedly not unaware.

But, but police kill much more white people, you say! This is actually true. I view this primarily as an argument used by those who posit an unearned sense of white stoicism to police violence (“Hey we don’t get mad when they kill us!”). But it’s misleading and reductive to merely state that there are more incidents of police violence against whites than blacks, which is what one should obviously expect with whites comprising 64% of the population, while blacks comprise only 13%. In other words, a blanket statement of the gross amount tells us nothing statistically significant. As the aforementioned Guardian article states: “young black men were nine times more likely than other Americans to be killed by police officers in 2015.”

I prefer not to wade into how often police violence is justified and how that can be determined. To my eyes, it’s philosophically murky. I will say I don’t have too much of an issue with an officer whose life is actually in danger using murder as a last resort. This undoubtedly happens. As for last night, the police claim and the media are reporting that the young man was shot while fleeing and armed – these are the only concrete details known. It hasn’t been disclosed whether or not the police knew who he was beforehand; why he was pulled over; if they knew or had reason to believe he was armed; where on the body he was shot (it’s going to look bad if it’s in the back) and if he pointed a gun at the officers. Hopefully the body cameras can clear this up. If not, there are many reasons for the police to obfuscate what really happened.

So as a thought experiment, and to conclude this long-winded (and no doubt little read) essay, I’m going to attempt to tie everything together. You have a community that’s been historically kept from achieving the American Dream that is sold ubiquitously in our entertainment and media. In Milwaukee, affluent communities are mere minutes away with a level of comfort, safety and material possessions the adjacent poor can only dream of. They are people who have experienced punishing traumas. They, or someone close to them, have experienced police abuse and misconduct that never involves the offending officers receiving consequences. This feeling is reinforced with events from around the country. A young man is shot by police on a hot summer Saturday afternoon in August. A crowd gathers. Friends and family of the victim come and are overwhelmed with emotion. Rumors spread about the manner of death. The veracity of the rumors (which may or may not be true) are irrelevant, as anger spreads through the crowd. The face of the state, the police, are standing right there. Maybe your anger and pain gets the best of you and you throw a brick through a cop car’s window. With that, the fuse is lit and the combination of everything I’ve written about comes to a head, and explodes. This doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

Or, hey, maybe black people are just inherently violent and destructive and stupid. That’s pretty easy to wrap your head around since it involves little to no thought and a complete lack of empathy.

I’m neither intelligent nor arrogant enough to claim I have answers. I don’t. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little worried – I’m not that naive. But overall, I guess we’re okay.

Obama was a cockeyed optimist

Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote an extensive account of the Obama presidency I didn’t know I needed. It is well worth your time, even if, like me, you weren’t a big fan. He paints Obama as being, what i would regard as, naively optimistic vis-à-vis the inherent goodness of white people, and provides insight as to why this is. Some, me for example, might even say he was (and still is) a cockeyed optimist, who got caught up in the dirty game of world diplomacy and international intrigue.

I think Obama’s status among the Left roughly parallels what Bush Jr. was to the Right in the 2000’s. They were candidates whose respective constituents wanted to have a beer with, though obviously for far different reasons. Is it a sign of progress that we’ve moved on from such puerile tendencies and instead select candidates who we fucking hate, and would never under any circumstances want to spend any time with? Yeah, probably not.

The most illuminating insights, to me, were those that touched on subjects tangentially related to Obama, and expounded on by Coates’ incisive prose. Some highlights:

Pointing to citizens who voted for both Obama and Trump does not disprove racism; it evinces it. To secure the White House, Obama needed to be a Harvard-trained lawyer with a decade of political experience and an incredible gift for speaking to cross sections of the country; Donald Trump needed only money and white bluster.

And [emphasis added]:

Much ink has been spilled in an attempt to understand the Tea Party protests, and the 2016 presidential candidacy of Donald Trump, which ultimately emerged out of them. One theory popular among (primarily) white intellectuals of varying political persuasions held that this response was largely the discontented rumblings of a white working class threatened by the menace of globalization and crony capitalism. Dismissing these rumblings as racism was said to condescend to this proletariat, which had long suffered the slings and arrows of coastal elites, heartless technocrats, and reformist snobs. Racism was not something to be coolly and empirically assessed but a slander upon the working man. Deindustrialization, globalization, and broad income inequality are real. And they have landed with at least as great a force upon black and Latino people in our country as upon white people. And yet these groups were strangely unrepresented in this new populism.

Christopher S. Parker and Matt A. Barreto, political scientists at the University of Washington and UCLA, respectively, have found a relatively strong relationship between racism and Tea Party membership. “Whites are less likely to be drawn to the Tea Party for material reasons, suggesting that, relative to other groups, it’s really more about social prestige,” they say. The notion that the Tea Party represented the righteous, if unfocused, anger of an aggrieved class allowed everyone from leftists to neoliberals to white nationalists to avoid a horrifying and simple reality: A significant swath of this country did not like the fact that their president was black, and that swath was not composed of those most damaged by an unquestioned faith in the markets. Far better to imagine the grievance put upon the president as the ghost of shambling factories and defunct union halls, as opposed to what it really was—a movement inaugurated by ardent and frightened white capitalists, raging from the commodities-trading floor of one of the great financial centers of the world.

And finally [again, emphasis added]:

“We simply don’t yet know how much racism or misogyny motivated Trump voters,” David Brooks would write in The New York Times. “If you were stuck in a jobless town, watching your friends OD on opiates, scrambling every month to pay the electric bill, and then along came a guy who seemed able to fix your problems and hear your voice, maybe you would stomach some ugliness, too.” This strikes me as perfectly logical. Indeed, it could apply just as well to Louis Farrakhan’s appeal to the black poor and working class. But whereas the followers of an Islamophobic white nationalist enjoy the sympathy that must always greet the salt of the earth, the followers of an anti-Semitic black nationalist endure the scorn that must ever greet the children of the enslaved.

So maybe read it, or don’t. But fair warning: it’s really fucking long.

 

 

The American dream is becoming an American nightmare

I’m very proud of this blog title. Until now, surely no one has used such a way to describe the fabled American Dream. There’s really no need to confirm this via Google.

Stunning new research by very smart people finds that income inequality in America is not only bad, but getting much much worse. From The Atlantic (“Severe Inequality Is Incompatible With the American Dream“):

The idea that an unequal society allows the wealthy to dictate policies that help themselves has very troubling implications in a country that just elected a president who seems focused on putting the wealthy in charge. The wealthy have benefited from the system that has helped create their wealth: the private schools, the elite colleges, and the growing salaries for those at the top. And they have little incentive to change it.

I chuckled reading the phrase “putting the wealthy in charge” as if this is something new. But I admit the incoming presidential administration will, in addition to countless other vile aspects, likely have the look of a kleptocracy, the likes of which haven’t been seen in recent memory. I’m only referring to America, of course. Silvio Berlusconi in Italy and Petro “The Chocolate King” Poroshenko in Ukraine are only two of many contemporary examples. At any rate, the notion that Trump will do anything substantive for the poor white dipshits who worship him is and always has been laughable.

And here’s FiveThirtyEight (“Inequality Is Killing The American Dream“):

‘There really is a dramatic change in what’s going on in the income distribution in the U.S.,’ said Nathaniel Hendren, an economist at Harvard and another of the latest paper’s authors. ‘The rungs of the ladder are growing further apart, so the difference in outcomes in being born to a rich family versus being born to a poor family is getting greater.’

Both articles discuss new research by, among others, Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman. Their forthcoming paper can be found here. It’s nice that there is such robust analysis being performed, but it should be intuitive that governments of capitalist societies need to control for systemic inequalities. That is, if one idealizes egalitarianism rather than a cut-throat society based primarily on competition. For proponents of the latter, the Horatio Algers myth continues to reign supreme as the primary means of moving up the economic ladder. It’s basically a lottery the poor are forced to play, but with horrible consequences for the many who don’t win.

On a personal note, I am at best semi-literate economically. I’ve read Piketty’s The Economics of Inequality and while I understood the general message, there were large parts I could only barely comprehend (one day i hope to read his allegedly magisterial Capital). So, hat in hand, I’m asking for suggestions on fundamental books on economics for dummies like me. Thanks in advance!

Getting the most bang for your charity buck

The Life You Can Save and GiveWell recently released their lists of the most effective charities for 2016/2017. Both organizations use different methodologies to evaluate which charities do the best work.

TLYCS was founded by Peter Singer and revolves around the idea that

if we can provide immense benefit to someone at minimal cost to ourselves, we should do so. And since there are charities that dramatically improve, or even save, the lives of people living in extreme poverty (i.e. living on less than $1.90 USD/day) for relatively little cost, we should support those highly effective charities.

There’s a decent amount of information to wade through in regards to how TLYCS selects it’s charities, but the gist of it is:

The Life You Can Save’s charity recommendations are based on robust research on effectiveness. We use three criteria, which we call “the three E’s:”

  • Evidence: Why do we believe the charity produces good outcomes? We consider the size, quality, and relevance of the evidence base for the charity.
  • Efficiency: How cost-effective are the charity’s programs? We want to find charities offering the most “bang for the buck.”
  • Execution: Do we believe the charity can translate marginal donations into good outcomes? We consider whether the charity has good programs in need of funding and the capability to execute those programs.

GiveWell evaluates charities using four criteria: effectiveness, cost-effectiveness, transparency, and room for more funding. Their mission is to

find outstanding charities and to publish the full details of our analysis to help donors decide where to give. Our focus is on finding the most outstanding charities possible rather than completing an in-depth investigation for each organization we consider. In addition, we’re interested in identifying and supporting the study or growth of potential future top charities and programs.

There is also an organization that evaluates animal charities for effectiveness, Animal Charity Evaluators, and they too have released an end of the year list.


In light of the incoming Trump regime Charlie Bresler, the Executive Director of TLYCS, released a statement with regards to the idea of giving to causes that are in peril:

The election of Donald Trump has had a chilling effect on many of our subscribers, our recommended charities, our Team at The Life You Can Save, and people throughout the United States and the World. There is an understandable desire to do something to mitigate the damage that a Trump presidency can do to the environment, the social safety net, and to civil liberties. At a time when many people wanted to advance in these areas beyond what the Obama administration has done, there is concern that we are about to take a dramatic step backwards. How does this impact effective giving?

I have heard many people say things like, “I want to give to the American Civil Liberties Union, or another domestic activist organization.” This is completely understandable, but if it means money will be diverted from the most effective organizations this movement of charitable donations could be very bad for the global poor…

I would suggest that we continue to support the recommended charities on our new list at the same level we have in the past, or even at an increased level. The value of $1 given to a recommended charity still trumps (forgive the pun) the value of a dollar given domestically — even under the current political environment. However, as citizens I urge everyone to get involved in social movements to which they resonate whether the movement targets the environment, civil rights, or protecting our social safety net. If one feels the understandable urge to give to political movements or organizations fighting the Trump agenda then please consider giving more money over the next four years so that you don’t diminish your gifts to fight global poverty.

It’s definitely something to consider.

There is truly no shortage of worthy causes one can support with their time and money, and figuring out which ones do the best work is pretty overwhelming . By selecting one or several, you’re neglecting thousands of others, some of whom do good and important work. Any organization can make claims about the good they do without providing evidence and I think it’s good that there are independent evaluators that attempt to provide independent verification.

Make humanity great again

I’ve long been uncomfortable with the high level of arrogance inherent in Western Civilization. Through the ages, humans have been inexorably downgraded in terms of cosmic importance, but it’s done little to stem our collective hubris. Every religion that’s ever existed provides no empirical reasons to believe in any of their metaphysical tenets, many of which place humans above the rest of Creation. Divorced from a providential sense of importance we are only special from a global perspective due to our canny abilities to take massive quantities of raw materials and turn them into massive amounts of manufactured eventual garbage, as well as the creation of technology that is capable of destroying tremendous amounts of human and nonhuman life.

This is admittedly a bleak and pessimistic overview. I would be remiss if I didn’t note that some of the “manufactured eventual garbage” has enabled us to, among other things, transport our bodies at fast speeds to faraway places; systematically investigate and understand the cosmos at the largest and smallest scales; share, store and transmit vast amounts of information; diagnose and treat diseases; and travel beyond our planetary confines. Not to mention other fun and awesome things like literature, music, the arts, and skateboards. More seriously, some of us have developed empathy and compassion for unrelated humans, and perhaps more notably nonhuman animals, which I think is one of our more admirable traits. [1] Unfortunately, empathy and compassion are often reactions to monstrosities perpetrated by other humans. On the whole, any and all positive characteristics need to be considered in light of our 8-12,000 year onslaught against each other and the rest of the biosphere.

We are destroying ecosystems and extirpating entire species and only recently beginning to grasp the true extent. [2] The only other biological comparison on par with our illustrious death march is Proterozoic oceanic cyanobacteria, which produced enough oxygen to wipe out much of earth’s anaerobic biota eons ago. The obvious difference is we are aware, though, I’m not sure that’s an entirely accurate way to phrase it. One can’t be certain to what extent the individual humans (not to mention humans in charge of other humans) participating in direct and indirect ecosystem disruptions are aware of the harm they are doing spatiotemporally. Did a Canadian fisherman trawling in the North Atlantic in the 1950’s necessarily know they were destroying the local cod population? Did a mining company CEO in the 1990’s know on some level the devastation that mountaintop removals cause, the cessation of which would hurt their company’s bottom line? Did they just not care?

Certainly there is a large difference between a working class fisherman in an industrialized nation and a CEO of a transnational mining company. The former does such work as part of their livelihood and likely noticed diminishing returns but still continued fishing, with the hope that the cod would return. The latter is, in my mind, more grotesque with regards to power and responsibility. They largely don’t give a shit, their transparently disingenuous corporate website environmental propaganda sections notwithstanding. The point is, in an age where information is widely available some of these individuals must know or have been made aware of the idea that their actions in some capacity have negative impacts. Those negative impacts aside, it’s patently obvious that extractive industries will eventually run out of things to extract in a discrete area, which necessitates the movement to a new area, be it fish or coal. On a finite planet with finite resources, eventually we’ll run out nonrenewable resources and are largely reliant on the ecological resilience of harvested wild animal and plant communities (not to mention the vagaries of agricultural systems and its associated environmental factors). [3]

Overall, those who derive the most profit off of organic life and abiotic phenomena care about the aforementioned in terms of how to best utilize it for their own narrow-minded ends. [4] We are a culture that richly rewards this type of behavior. If the Bramble cay melomys in Australasia goes extinct due to ecosystem mismanagement so fucking what? If there’s no monetary or utilitarian value for humanity, or something we don’t find to be cute or iconic, the vast majority of people won’t give it a passing thought in the unlikely event they are even made aware of it. This is summed up well by Paul Kingsnorth:

Today’s environmentalism is as much a victim of the contemporary cult of utility as every other aspect of our lives, from science to education. We are not environmentalists now because we have an emotional reaction to the wild world. Most of us wouldn’t even know where to find it. We are environmentalists now in order to promote something called “sustainability.” What does this curious, plastic word mean? It does not mean defending the nonhuman world from the ever-expanding empire of Homo sapiens sapiens [Latin: ‘wise man’], though some of its adherents like to pretend it does, even to themselves. It means sustaining human civilization at the comfort level that the world’s rich people — us — feel is their right, without destroying the ‘natural capital’ or the ‘resource base’ that is needed to do so.

“It is, in other words, an entirely human-centered piece of politicking, disguised as concern for ‘the planet.’ In a very short time — just over a decade — this worldview has become all-pervasive. It is voiced by the president of the USA and the president of Anglo-Dutch Shell and many people in between. The success of environmentalism has been total — at the price of its soul.”

Anthropogenic climate change has finally been accepted on a large-scale, resulting in paltry global attempts at mitigating its effects. However, despite this newfound acceptance we have yet to collectively take meaningful actions to lessen our consumptive lifestyles. Fossil fuel extractions continue apace with no end in sight. The prospect of the imminent accessibility of the Arctic’s seabed has wealthy, powerful humans falling all over themselves for the privilege of plundering, environmental concerns be damned. There doesn’t appear to be much standing between them and their greed.

I often wonder how such blatantly harmful actions can be curtailed. As long as there’s money to be made, nonexistent or hard to enforce laws, and a dearth of options for a percentage of the world’s population to survive in a global economy, it’s hard to see things improving [5]. This is not to entirely disparage incremental progress, but in terms of environmental destruction and ongoing human caused extinctions, it’s fair to ponder the futility of conventional environmentalist tactics in the face of continuing and irreversible damage. [6]

But I’d be remiss if I didn’t express a sense of admiration of those fighting the good fight against the ongoing assault against nature, even if their methods haven’t had a lot of success historically. However, the power disparities appear insurmountable. No one, for the most part, is getting rich off of doing the dirty work of fighting the dominant culture, and many are content to blog, retweet and argue online as part of their armchair activism (like me!). It’s easy and requires little time, little effort and little danger to oneself. I am certainly not exempt from this criticism. On the other hand, there is a mass of humanity that couldn’t care less – they can be seen in shopping malls, on TV, in sports arenas, and soon, at rallies for the U.S.’s president-elect.

*****

Many nature/environmental/conservation writers spend the bulk of their writing describing the enormous problems we face and shoehorn a few reasons for hope into the conclusion. It’s hard not to perceive this as blatant wishful thinking, often in the form of “if we do x, y and z, with those variables being improbable pipe dreams, then maybe things won’t be so fucked up.” [7] The only solution my dumb brain can comprehend is a totalitarian world government that violently controls the world’s resources and severely punishes any opposition in the name of sustainability. In other words, we need to be stopped at gunpoint. Such a government would be highly repressive, and regardless of ideology breed a class of elites dominating the rest of society. This would obviously be a nightmare scenario. But as utterly ineffective as the UN is at preventing atrocities and the manifold failures of US hegemony, it’s hard to see the New World Order prophesied by conspiracy theorists coming to pass anytime soon. Perhaps, though, localized authoritarian regimes will materialize, as the depletion of nonrenewable resources continues. Or, I could be very wrong about all of this. I’m wrong a lot.

I think the hope that most have is for Science to generate magical solutions to wean us off fossil fuels while allowing the maintenance or slight decrease of our hyper-consumptive lifestyles (and just maybe, in the spirit of egalitarianism, allowing for the developing world to attain the Western standard of living). It would also be nice to develop technology to better recycle discarded metals and minerals. These solutions should be clean, cheap, safe, renewable and widely available to all. If Science isn’t able to do that, and if humans aren’t willing to stop destroying the environment, it’s hard for me to be optimistic about what the future brings.

Only by overcoming the severe and near innumerable issues we face environmentally, not to mention our vast array social problems, would conceivably make humanity great in my eyes. That is the essence of this overlong essay: we aren’t great, and we never really were [8]. I’d also add that during or after we tackle the aforementioned problems, we should maximize the possibility we can predict and survive cataclysmic events relatively unscathed. [9] Designing the means for enduring a gamma ray blast, impact event, or supervolcano eruption would be pretty damn impressive. We’d finally earn the translation from the Latin of our species name that we so humbly bestowed on ourselves. It’s too bad that, if any of it ever comes to pass, I’ll probably be long dead and unable to let my fellow humans know my very important opinions on the matter.

Like the environmental writers referenced above, I too will attempt to end on a positive note. It’s an appropriate encapsulation of how I mentally confront the enormity of what we face. From Derrick Jensen, who is admittedly a douche:

I am a complex enough being that I can hold in my heart the understanding that we are really, really fucked, and at the same time that life is really, really good. I am full of rage, sorrow, joy, love, hate, despair, happiness, satisfaction, dissatisfaction, and a thousand other feelings. We are really fucked. Life is still really good.” [10]


[1] It’s worth noting that we do not have a monopoly on empathetic and altruistic behavior. For example, humpback whales have been observed rescuing seals from killer whales, thought the degree of intentionality is uncertain. For more: Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals by Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce.

[2] Not that anyone is unaware of this sentiment, but the most illuminating book I’ve read on this from a historical perspective is A Green History of the World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations by Clive Ponting.

[3] The following article on our dwindling resources is behind a paywall at Scientific American but here is a link to that issue as a pdf, pg. 56-63: http://elibrary.bsu.az/jurnallar/Scientific%20American_201009.pdf.

[4] I’m referring more to large corporations, and not the global poor and working class, as the latter groups harm the environment in order to obtain the bare necessities of life. A stark account of how this struggle is manifested can be seen in a recent article in Roads and Kingdoms that describes contemporary fishing villages in South Asia.

[5] And note I wrote the bulk of this BEFORE Trump won the election.

[6] It feels shitty writing things like that. Just to pick one example, there are good, courageous people fighting against DAPL. I really hope they win, but I’m skeptical. Oil and gas companies rarely lose. And even under the Obama administration, the state is decidedly on their side, as it always has been. At best, the pipeline will be moved from Native lands, but it’s still, in all likelihood, getting built.

[7] A brief example from the excellent Song for the Blue Ocean by Carl Safina:

So to embrace a sea ethic we need not idealize or distort the ocean’s creatures. Indeed, up to now our view of the sea’s living inhabitants can hardly be more distorted. Instead, we have the opportunity to see them fully for the first time, as wild animals in their habitats, confronted with needs and dangers, equipped by evolution with the capacity and drive to manage and adapt and survive.

“Such a perspective frees the mind and opens door: to a lifetime of boundless inquiry, to a wealth of enriching insights and reflections, to the chance to be more fully human, to manage and adapt and survive.”

This was after 400 or so pages of some pretty depressing shit. It’s a nice sentiment but frustratingly abstract, though concrete solutions and techniques were dotted throughout the text. That book was written in 1998. Here’s a quote Safina gave to National Geographic this past summer:

Over my lifetime I’ve seen big changes; far fewer fish and terribly deteriorated coral reefs worldwide. More mercury in seafood.”

I should point out that the article does highlight success stories, but the referenced quote speaks volumes, as does another recent article of his with the optimistic title of “As salmon dwindle, whales die.” His comments would obviously be far different if his research and activism resulted in evidence that things have gotten better in the two decades since the publication of the book.

[8] Unless one counts our pre-civilized hunter-gatherer ancestors, whose existence encompassed around 90-99% of our time as a species, and didn’t trash the planet.

[9] It’s possible we’ve already done it once

[10] Endgame, Volume 1:The Problem of Civilization