History has a certain rhyme to it, as Mark Twain once said, never quite repeating exactly, but tending to emerge from particular themes time and time again.
One of those themes that has consistently emerged over time, especially as a result of capitalist focused economies (though certainly not limited to them) is the gradual accumulation and concentration of wealth at the top, exacerbating the disparity between those who have, and those who “have not”.
Despite history’s lessons on how this ultimately ends in collapse for the wealthy and poor alike, our modern civilization seems oblivious to the danger, as those at the top of the economic pyramid continue to accumulate wealth, extract resources unsustainably for profit, commandeer the political process for their own benefit, and externalize all of the negative costs and pollution on to the world’s poorest.
As mankind continues to despoil the planet under the banner of “growth” like a cancer, these converging problems threaten to undo all of the progress made in the last 200 years on human rights, according to a new UN report, with the largest share of the effects of climate change placed on the backs of those with the least. What happens when millions of people have no access to fresh water? What happens when rising sea levels inundate poor countries? More refugees, more xenophobic reactionaries, more destruction, more death, more chaos.
What I think the wealthy few fail to fully realize in this scenario is that the disruption and societal chaos unleashed by their refusal to change their behavior or to take responsibility for it will ultimately destroy them along with everything else. As failures cascade up and down our complex and interconnected systems, there will be no safe haven, even for the rich.
And so we continue our blind march towards extinction.
These days, you don’t have to wander far to trip over yet another story that fills in some of the picture on our pending environmental collapse. Many scientists familiar with the reams of data projecting overshoot in numerous areas (soil erosion, water use, pollution, etc.) have even posited that our prolific tendency for doing things that will eventually kill us may even be an answer to the Fermi Paradox.
In western capitalistic nations, the solutions to some of these problems have focused on the individual. What can “I” do?
Because the narrative of capitalism relies on the idea (or myth, rather) that the individual has the ultimate power to drive the system, for three decades now we have been sold on the idea of “going green”. Driving electric cars, taking public transport, using solar power, giving to environmental groups, and yes… recycling.
While all of these efforts are needed, they are all largely “feel good” initiatives that only make a small dent in the problem without being bolstered by co-operative organized efforts by the world’s governmental bodies.
One aspect of our “feel good” environmentalism that is rarely discussed or even viewed in all of it’s gory details is the recycling business. Fortunately, the excellent journalists over at The Guardian have taken the time to dig in to this story.
In the process of doing my own research recently into the development of sustainable raw materials and plastic replacements, the seriousness of the problem has become more and more apparent. While there are many advocates for switching to bio-plastics, and there are other new technologies being implemented at very small scales, the bigger problem is how to deal with the materials already in the environment, especially for the numerous consumer products that have mixed plastic components. (For example, polyester fabric, which usually includes either PU or PVC backing to strengthen it and to improve water resistance. These materials are used extensively for luggage, backpacks, and other carrying bags.) Mixed plastics are not really recyclable, certainly not at the scale needed to whittle away at the problem.
The more I read about and consider the scope of all of these problems, the need to change our consumerist lifestyle and economic system are clearly the only answers that can address these issues for the long term.
If we don’t, as Christina Lai, a Sungai Petani activist quoted in the Guardian article said: “One day this land will be taken over by rubbish and not humans.”
Lately I find myself confronting the same question over and over:
“What’s the point?”
Having long ago fallen down the existential rabbit-hole in search of the answer, I had come to what I considered a deeply satisfying conclusion – that the question empowers the questioner to make a choice: What should the answer be? Far from being a rationalization for not doing or caring, it becomes a means to inscribe meaning into the answer… to define the point.
Defining the point also defines a purpose and a direction. In its inverse (“there is no point”) it embodies both an acceptance of pointlessness and purposelessness and the liberation that comes from that acceptance.
The question is, why does this no longer feel like a satisfying answer?
Because…. it’s no longer a satisfying answer. Because in 2019 we are all staring into the abyss of extinction… not in some hazy, imagined future, but quite possibly within our lifetimes.
Extinction shouldn’t change the answer. But somehow, it does. Somehow the answer is tainted… it becomes a blade that cuts away all of it’s previous values – beauty, kindness, the pursuit of knowledge… the pursuit of the good. It leaves behind only survival. The animal instinct is once again ascendant. All of evolution’s false promises resolve in the same cold truth.
There is no spaceship waiting to take us to far away stars. There is no post-human consciousness, no technological singularity. Every idea, every thought, every good deed, everything that humans ever did or made is swallowed up in the event horizon of extinction.
I think the answer was always bullshit… a salve for the ego. Having a purpose beyond our needs of consumption, defecation, propagation, death… it was always just a way to feel good about ourselves. To feel important.
But there never was a point. The point is a sharp stick that pokes out your eyes. It is the tip of a parabolic exponentialism of atmospheric components that will choke out our lives in dust and flame. It is death. We confuse ourselves with the idea of progress, of improvement, success, accomplishment. We run a race every day to arrive at the same finish line with no medals waiting for us… just the cold dark empty.
The point is just a point. It’s transgress can be mapped and studied but the observer influences the observation, there is no scientific answer to it.
We can posit an emotional theorem, because it’s our choice to do so. A gift of the patterns marked in the prefrontal cortex that elevate and subjugate. Take care of those you love. Do what fulfills you. Be kind, because the universe will not be.
And maybe we’ll find a way through this, but probably we won’t.
The sun rises in dappled gold, it sets in tangerine and crimson. Due to some happenstance of weather patterns hundreds of thousands of years ago our ancestors charted a new path, created music, made language, science, agriculture, architecture, poetry. It never had to be. You never had to be.
Yet… here we are.