Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Too Close To The Sun

Once again, Chris Hedges has returned to the Pequod as a metaphor for North American society. The ship and crew in Melville's Moby Dick are doomed because they willingly supported one man's mad quest. And like them, Hedges writes, we are teetering on the edge of collapse:

Our financial system—like our participatory democracy—is a mirage. The Federal Reserve purchases $85 billion in U.S. Treasury bonds—much of it worthless subprime mortgages—each month. It has been artificially propping up the government and Wall Street like this for five years. It has loaned trillions of dollars at virtually no interest to banks and firms that make money—because wages are kept low—by lending it to us at staggering interest rates that can climb to as high as 30 percent. ... Or our corporate oligarchs hoard the money or gamble with it in an overinflated stock market. Estimates put the looting by banks and investment firms of the U.S. Treasury at between $15 trillion and $20 trillion. But none of us know. The figures are not public. And the reason this systematic looting will continue until collapse is that our economy [would] go into a tailspin without this giddy infusion of free cash.

The ecosystem is at the same time disintegrating. Scientists from the International Programme on the State of the Ocean, a few days ago, issued a new report that warned that the oceans are changing faster than anticipated and increasingly becoming inhospitable to life. The oceans, of course, have absorbed much of the excess CO2 and heat from the atmosphere. This absorption is rapidly warming and acidifying ocean waters. This is compounded, the report noted, by increased levels of deoxygenation from nutrient runoffs from farming and climate change. The scientists called these effects a “deadly trio” that when combined is creating changes in the seas that are unprecedented in the planet’s history. This is their language, not mine. The scientists wrote that each of the earth’s five known mass extinctions was preceded by at least one [part] of the “deadly trio”—acidification, warming and deoxygenation. They warned that “the next mass extinction” of sea life is already under way, the first in some 55 million years. Or look at the recent research from the University of Hawaii that says global warming is now inevitable, it cannot be stopped but at best slowed, and that over the next 50 years the earth will heat up to levels that will make whole parts of the planet uninhabitable. Tens of millions of people will be displaced and millions of species will be threatened with extinction. The report casts doubt that [cities on or near a coast] such as New York or London will endure.

Yet we, like Ahab and his crew, rationalize our collective madness. All calls for prudence, for halting the march toward economic, political and environmental catastrophe, for sane limits on carbon emissions, are ignored or ridiculed. Even with the flashing red lights before us, the increased droughts, rapid melting of glaciers and Arctic ice, monster tornadoes, vast hurricanes, crop failures, floods, raging wildfires and soaring temperatures, we bow slavishly before hedonism and greed and the enticing illusion of limitless power, intelligence and prowess.

Like Starbuck, the Pequod's first mate, Hedges warns that our collective madness is blasphemy. But, like Ahab, our movers and shakers respond, "Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.”

We are too close to the sun.


Lorne said...

As always, Owen, Hedges presents uncompromising truths. He has been compared to the Old Testament prophets, and for good reason; like them, he and his message are often despised and ignored by the powers that be. As well, far too many people, despite mounting evidence to the contrary, prefer sweet lies to bitter truths.

Owen Gray said...

I concur wholeheartedly, Lorne. As Hedges says, we are living in an Empire of Illusion.

Danneau said...

There was also Cassandra, condemned by the Gods to always speak the truth and to be totally ignored. It's strange how many people have developed some understanding of the depth of the problem, but can't mobilize to even the gentlest action. Who knew that the ranters on soap boxes on Market Street were right?

Owen Gray said...

Very few people have the courage to look into the abyss, Danneau. Even fewer people -- having seen the future -- have the courage to act.

Being a prophet is a thankless task -- and it costs too much.

The Mound of Sound said...

These are perverse times, Owen. Hedges' reference to the deadly transformation of our oceans now proceeding ever faster, is masked by a government that responds by shutting down entire sections of Fisheries & Oceans or transfers their responsibilities to the National Energy Board, the NEB for Christ's sake.

My jaw dropped when I read The Guardian article on the Harper government's report to the U.N. in which it was admitted that Canada's GHG emissions would soar by 38% by 2030 even as this same government tells the Canadian people it's on track to meet targeted emissions cuts. That degree of falsehood is pathological.

What do you do when the state becomes the enemy of its own people? How long do you look the other way?

Owen Gray said...

Hedges would say you revolt before you rebel, Mound. But the Harper government is courting revolution.

Anonymous said...

They have found acid in the oceans, right up to the shores of BC. The acid will eat away the shells of crustaceans. If the oceans die, we die.

It is as they say? Man is the most destructive animal on earth, and the most stupid ones at that.

Owen Gray said...

The old saying is still true, Anon. There are none so blind as those who will not see.

The Mound of Sound said...

From paleontologist Peter Ward's "Under a Green Sky"

"First, the world warms over short intervals of time because of a sudden increase of carbon dioxide and methane... The warmer world affects the ocean circulation systems and disrupts the position of the conveyer currents. Bottom waters begin to have warm, low-oxygen water dumped into them. Warming continues, and the decrease of equator-to-pole temperature differences reduces ocean winds and surface currents to a near standstill. Mixing of oxygenated surface waters with the deeper, and volumetrically increasing, low-oxygen bottom waters decreases, causing ever-shallower water to change from oxygenated to anoxic. Finally, the bottom water is at depths were light can penetrate, the combination of low oxygen and light allows green sulfur bacteria to expand in numbers and fill the low-oxygen shallows. They live amid other bacteria that produce toxic amounts of hydrogen sulfide, and the flux of this gas into the atmosphere is as much as 2,000 times what it is today. The gas rises into the high atmosphere, where it breaks down the ozone layer, and the subsequent increase in ultraviolet radi8ation from the sun kills much of the photosynthetic green plant phytoplankton. On its way up into the sky, the hydrogen sulfide also kills some plant and animal life, and the combination of high heat and hydrogen sulfide creates a mass extinction on land. These are the greenhouse extinctions."

Ward's research concludes that all but one (the asteroid strike) mass extinctions were the result of this process.

Owen Gray said...

In other words, Mound, this has happened before. Those who refuse to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

The Mound of Sound said...

I think the point Ward is making, Owen, is that this is something of an automated process that is triggered by a tipping point. Once that point is exceeded, perhaps this time by man-made conditions, physics and chemistry take care of the rest.

You and I won't be around long enough to experience this, Owen. I don't think our children will have to confront it either. Beyond that, who knows?

Owen Gray said...

That's the problem, Mound. We've got used to thinking in quarters -- Wall Street's stand measure of time.

The tipping point is still too far off for a lot of people to give it serious attention -- even if it has happened before.