Revelatur Newsletter July 16, 2021
If Not Now, When?
Some scary stuff from Science Magazine: in June, 2021, “Lake Meade (the reservoir that serves Los Angeles and Las Vegas) dropped to its lowest level ever;” “the region (US Southwest) endures its worst dry spell in 1250 years;” in the past two decades Colorado River “flows have been about 19% below the 20th century average, and climate models suggest an additional 30% decline by 2050;” 368 million metric tons of newly made plastics were produced in 2019, with production expected to double by 2040, 15% are recycled;” 79% of all plastics produced have accumulated in landfills or the environment;” “the plastic that has accumulated exceeds human and total animal biomass;” “at least 1565 species are documented ingesting plastic.” (Quotes from Science Magazine, July 2, 2021, articles: “A Voice for the River,” Plastics in the Earth System,” and “A Binding Global Agreement Address the Life Cycle of Plastics”).
What, if anything, do you feel compelled to do upon learning this? Wait, right? Wait for more information, something more compelling, your friends and neighbors to commit to something first so you feel more comfortable doing so? A request to sign a petition, pleading from your children, nieces, nephews or grandchildren? That’s a natural tendency, but it’s maladaptive. (“A maladaptation is a trait that is more harmful than helpful, in contrast with an adaptation, which is more helpful than harmful. All organisms, from bacteria to humans, display maladaptive and adaptive traits. In animals, adaptive behaviors contrast with maladaptive ones,” Wikipedia).
There used to be sufficient time to come to terms with science, and to respond meaningfully to the courageous voices in the wilderness like Rachel Carson, James Baldwin and Noah Chomsky - but now there isn’t. If you don’t feel compelled to do something about the multiple integrated global crises rapidly degrading the environment, our wellbeing and the future’s potential, what will compel you? “The hour is getting late” and “a hard rain’s a-gonna fall” (Bob Dylan: All Along the Watchtower, and A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall). And, as has become almost a byline for Revelatur, there ain’t no cavalry coming – it's just us.
Well why isn’t there sufficient reaction time anymore? Simple: systems effects and multiple integrated vicious cycles are outrunning our learning and response cycles. More and more of our learned tendencies – collectively constituting our culture – are now increasingly maladaptive: the cultural tendency to wait for leaders to provide direction because “they know better;” the tendency to eat sweets and carbohydrates at every opportunity; the tendency to change personal opinions to fit with those of the majority; the tendency to view everything that happens – and will happen – through linear cause and effect terms; and situational ethics. While these tendencies have always characterized human social life, the fact that they impede and delay response to existential crises, and prevent widespread systems thinking, combine with the very problems they need to address into a vicious cycle of delay, denial and systems-level decay.
As regards the earth and environment, the period we live in – named the Anthropocene -- was designated specifically in recognition that since at least the late 18th Century, human activity has been the dominant force effecting the earth. This is not a political judgment, it is objective fact based on empirical evidence.
On the socio-political level, we see pronounced global trends of decreased morality and virtue, a rise of selfishness and cowardness, and a dramatic drop in personal and institutional accountability. Don’t even go there with your BS about the decline in religion being responsible for the latter – the most religious and churchgoing are the worst offenders, and Evangelical Christians are the least “Christ-like” people since the Pharisees.
From the science and technology aspect, we see great goodness resulting in improved lifespan, health, prosperity, the reduction of drudgery and improved safety. But this shining star is unequally felt and drives global inequalities that in turn exacerbate political issues. Technology especially is inadequately controlled and regulated, primarily due to the spread and global dominance of neoliberal values.
What’s the answer? On the individual level, meaningful commitment, dedicated action and perseverance. At this point in our work, we usually list what you can do to get more involved and make a difference. Times have changed (Another Dylan song). Here’s what you need to do if you haven’t already done so: join a progressive organization, donate to them and get involved in their activities; speak to these issues with family, friends and colleagues instead of “putting politics off limits” when you get together; run for office if you are positioned to do so. And read, you need to know more. Start here: https://www.niemanlab.org/2021/07/if-youre-not-a-climate-reporter-yet-you-will-be-covid-19-coverage-offers-lessons-for-reporting-on-the-climate-crisis/. Look, risk and sacrifice are inevitable parts of this. You might lose your job. Some friends too. Get booted from your church. Remember what Joel said in Risky Business: “Every now and then say, 'What the fuck'. It gives you freedom.” There’s a reason you like that line. Re-connect with it.
At the collective societal level, a rapid shift from representative democracy – all too prone to corruption and authoritarianism, to participative democracy, is vital. Progressive organizations pushing Democratic office holders is the best opening to get this going. Get your idea, team, and plan together and approach a politician who will listen.
Why will this work, if things are as bad as we say? Might not. Odds less than 50-50. If we do nothing, 100% probability we lose. So you either get off the couch and join the fight like Rick Blaine in Casablanca, or you build a fallout shelter stocked with guns and food. No other course of action – including the one you’re on now -- makes any sense.
How would it work, from a systems perspective, if the odds are so long? Create virtuous cycles, swarm and surround the bad with the good, plant enough seeds with the young that these trends are sustained well into the future. This has all got to be designed deliberately, and all sentient (Trumpists are probably not, sentience being the capacity to be aware of feelings and sensations. I’m sure they have them, they are insufficiently self-aware to “be aware.” Increasingly, they are also decreasingly empathic – the two combining into their own vicious cycle of behavior) adults need to be part of the solution. I’ll probably catch a bunch of shit for that one! Look, the bad news is that humans and the Anthropocene are the cause of all the bad stuff. The good news is that of all that ever existed, only human beings have figured out how to beat entropy, to strive for something better, to organize for the greater good, so there is hope.
Are there ‘bad guys’ causing this and making it worse? Of course, but we know who the villains are. We’ve been accepting their bullying for so long now we’ve all got Stockholm Syndrome. But they’re not now the direct problem that needs confronting. The flood they unleashed by drilling holes in the dam is what we need to address, because we’re all about to drown – including the whole basket of deplorables. One wants to grab Trump by the labels and scream: ‘you arrogant ass – you've killed us,” like in The Hunt for Red October. Save your breath – he doesn’t care, and he’d just tell you "the thing of it is, I don't give a shit, what's more... I never have,” like his neoliberal analog Rankin Fitch (played deliciously by Gene Hackman) in Runaway Jury. As the military figured out long ago, (and confirmed just recently: https://www.palmcenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/2006_0925-Wong_critique.pdf) people don’t fight for abstract principles or because they hate the enemy. They fight for each other -- as we must.