The image of foreigners spreading disease is rich terrain for the far right. It’s a version of what the American eugenicist-ecologist Garrett Hardin termed “lifeboat ethics.” An inspiration for the far right, Hardin in the 1970s imagined a zero-sum game for planetary survival, where the world’s mostly black and brown poor would compete with the wealthy for resources, threatening to pollute air, water, and bloodlines alike toward disastrous ends. Keeping people out, Hardin argued, prevents them from being a drain on nature and allows the rest of the population to stay healthier and more genetically pure. In addition to draconian immigration measures, he pushed for population control. “We never really conquer any diseases finally,” Hardin argued in an interview toward the end of his life, “and the bigger the population is, the harder it is to control.”
White supremacy and closed borders are as poor an answer to the coronavirus as they are to the climate crisis and certainly won’t solve either problem, making life far more dangerous for many as the world warms. Like it or not, we’re all in this boat together. As pointed out yesterday even by the thoroughly Republican Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, “We cannot hermetically seal off the United States to a virus.”
There are, in fact, well-known and effective steps an interested government could take to defend against the coronavirus. Yet few places seem as ill-suited for dealing with a pandemic as the U.S. under the current administration. Our patchy, expensive, and inefficient health care system is already charging people thousands of dollars to get tested for the coronavirus, discouraging the kind of early diagnosis necessary for containment. The expense could prevent millions from seeking treatment, spurring the spread and death count alike. Meanwhile, 40-plus years of right-wing attacks on the public sphere have drained capacity and talent from the government, making it harder to take on big problems at scale. And a bipartisan panic about budget deficits has made large-scale spending on anything but wars virtually unthinkable.
“I want to do whatever it takes to make it possible for everyone, around the world, to enjoy a life worth living.” — Who Owns Tomorrow? by Chloe Watlington in Commune
It is May of 2010 and I’m back in California going through a range of emotions; leaving my university life in Oregon, understanding that a short, failed relationship I spent two years desiring was not reciprocated, and the uncertainty of committing to 27 months abroad before I return.
In a Borders Books next to my parents’ house, I play a game; only perusing the Penguin Classics, the spines uniformly with white text on a matte black. Hundreds of them scattered alphabetically over the store. One sticks out with the the title A Little Larger than the Entire Universe. Already deep into vague misreadings of quantum physics and squaring it with Islam, it sounded like something in my wheelhouse. Fernando Pessoa, an unfamiliar name of a famous 20th-century Portuguese poet. The translator and editor of the poetry anthropology in my hands wrote:
Instead of getting down to the practical business of living, he continued to wrestle with theoretical problems and the big questions: the existence of God, the meaning of life and the meaning of death, good vs. evil, reality vs. appearance, the idea (is it just an idea?) of love, the limits of consciousness, and so on. All of which was rich fodder for his poetry, thriving as it did on ideas more than on actual experience.
The intervening years since stumbling on his work have been full of migration, learning, love, faith, and adventure but also of ambiguity, uncertainty and difficulty. But editorial impression, of a life not fully lived but wholly examined and possibly being paralyzed by it, has served as a bizarre measuring stick to my own. I’m infatuated by the written word, of outside perspectives to better understand the world and my place in it. But how far does one accept outside stimuli to live a life?
My active, outside, rural years in Sierra Leone stand in sharp relief to the introspective and inside ones in Mauritania. I’m an extreme person.
I don’t envy Pessoa. He died an alcoholic having rarely left Lisbon after returning from Durban in his teenager years. I left Mauritania to win back my personal relationship with the Divine, away from the legalism and minutiae of a nominally Muslim society. Distance made the heart grow fonder, it seemed. In the wintry Andes and with a few entheogenic plant experiences, I felt reawakened and clear-eyed.
Now it is 2019. Now surrounded by the modern city life, I feel too tuned in to what is happening in the world. And it looks grim.
There are some who say we are doing much better than we ever have in human history. Then why does it feel so shitty?
Climate change, the normalization of racism and xenophobia, rising inequality and our potential responses are our generation’s World Wars or Paris Commune. Just as Rumi’s family anguished and migrated to escape the world-ending devastation of the Mongol invasion, we have our world-ending scenarios that we must face.
We must educate ourselves and others. We must reject false choices and centrism. And then we must organize ourselves accordingly in a way that respects and protects all life from the fevered egos that see the world as a zero-sum game.
I become more class conscious and eco-conscious by the day. I’m an extreme person. No longer does it seem right for me to travel around on planes as often as I did. Or buy everything wrapped in plastic, the micro-remnants of which are now in almost every living being, when a bit of planning and with the abundance of alternatives.
With time comes more understanding and responsibility.
“I take my desires for reality because I believe in the reality of my desires.” — Paris, May 1968
I add the words hope in the late anthropocene to the existing tagline at the top to reflect my desires in this reality. I commit myself to working on solutions and not adding to the despair.
Thanks for reading, seriously.
Fifteen-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg spoke at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Katowice, Poland:
But I’ve learned you are never too small to make a difference. And if a few children can get headlines all over the world just by not going to school, then imagine what we could all do together if we really wanted to. But to do that, we have to speak clearly, no matter how uncomfortable that may be. You only speak of green eternal economic growth because you are too scared of being unpopular. You only talk about moving forward with the same bad ideas that got us into this mess, even when the only sensible thing to do is pull the emergency brake. You are not mature enough to tell it like it is. Even that burden you leave to us children. But I don’t care about being popular. I care about climate justice and the living planet. Our civilization is being sacrificed for the opportunity of a very small number of people to continue making enormous amounts of money. so that rich people in countries like mine can live in luxury. It is the sufferings of the many which pay for the luxuries of the few. The year 2078, I will celebrate my 75th birthday. If I have children, maybe they will spend that day with me. Maybe they will ask me about you. Maybe they will ask why you didn’t do anything while there still was time to act. You say you love your children above all else, and yet you are stealing their future in front of their very eyes. Until you start focusing on what needs to be done rather than what is politically possible, there is no hope. We cannot solve a crisis without treating it as a crisis. We need to keep the fossil fuels in the ground, and we need to focus on equity. And if solutions within the system are so impossible to find, maybe we should change the system itself. We have not come here to beg world leaders to care. You have ignored us in the past and you will ignore us again. We have run out of excuses and we are running out of time. We have come here to let you know that change is coming, whether you like it or not. The real power belongs to the people.
This simultaneously saddens me (since generations to follow have inherited our mess) and gives me hope for us to wake up, see this inexorable catastrophe that we are heading toward, and change our behaviors and politics.
It’s 2018. We’ve seen enough extreme weather in just the last few years. But fundamentally changing the way our economy and society works to facilitate, you know, staying alive isn’t politically convenient. President Trump doesn’t believe the National Climate Assessment, which was released on Black Friday:
DAWSEY: You said yesterday when you were leaving that you were skeptical of a climate change report that the government had done. Can you just explain why you’re skeptical of that report?
TRUMP: One of the problems that a lot of people like myself — we have very high levels of intelligence, but we’re not necessarily such believers. You look at our air and our water, and it’s right now at a record clean. But when you look at China and you look at parts of Asia and when you look at South America, and when you look at many other places in this world, including Russia, including — just many other places — the air is incredibly dirty. And when you’re talking about an atmosphere, oceans are very small. And it blows over and it sails over. I mean, we take thousands of tons of garbage off our beaches all the time that comes over from Asia. It just flows right down the Pacific, it flows, and we say where does this come from. And it takes many people to start off with.
Read that again. Oceans are small? Our air and water at a clean record? Almost 63 million people voted for this kind of nonsense.
Trump’s spokeswoman Sarah Sanders and Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke both said the report was a “worst-case scenario”. One of the authors of the report responded on Twitter. Apparently, sixteen hundred pages of hard science need to be reduced to tweetstorms.
We will not wake up from his nightmare. It is here. Our grandchildren will be dealing with this. We can only keep talking about this. This is an Independence Day-level event, the one where we all need to work together to save the planet. Instead of aliens, it’s the pesky side effects of our globalization.