Monday, September 29, 2014

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Reflections and Review

July 4, 2012

Like the shock wave of an explosion, the coming catastrophes of global climate change empty the current world of meaning, of purpose, of poetry. Standing in Columbus circle in Manhattan after seeing this visionary film at the Lincoln Cinema, surrounded by the metropolitan beacons of this global ecocide, there is no air to breathe; it has been forced out by the shock wave of the coming storms. What light can we find for anything in the shadow of the end of everything we know? Perhaps Nero was right to play the fiddle; the most conscientious and skillful statesman could not have prevented the fall of Rome.

What is to be done before everything is undone?

The prevention of catastrophic climate change would require the most industrialized nations in the world to immediately reduce their economies, as measured in GDP, by 80 to 90%, within the next three years. This is the price for achieving a carbon emissions peak in 2015, which is the minimum necessary to prevent a catastrophic 4 to 7 degree Celsius warming by the end of the century.

This accomplished, Mother Nature would not put on a spectacular show and say thank you. People would have to simply accept and adapt to the dire necessity that the capitalist industrial system and all its amenities can never ever return again.

What possible scenario could result in this miraculous feat; the greatest collective action, in quantity and quality, ever conceived in human history? By definition none of the existing political structures could accommodate this scale of transformation. A priori it would have to be a people's revolution.

But will they do it? Will the self defined First Worlders collectively struggle and sacrifice in order to ration, to collectivize, to transform (and by their definition “reduce”) their cherished “standard of living” to one in balance with all their fellow beings, human and non human? Will they do it in the next three to five years? Will they overthrow not only their nationalist, classist, racist and sexist attitudes and institutions, but also their anthropocentric hubris? Will they turn off the coal plants (for a start) and start to ration electricity in the cities? Will they shut down factory farms and agribusiness? Moreover, will the workers in polluting industries lead the struggles to end these industries, and make the necessary sacrifices?

Alas, it would be foolish to assess it as anything other than extremely unlikely. The revolutionary political groups of the USA in particular are immature, scattered and confused, not to mention severely lacking in ecological consciousness. Perhaps they have a chance in the long term, but certainly not within the next three to five years. The picture is better in Europe, but not by much! The movements are not to be disparaged, of course they must be encouraged and supported wholeheartedly! But also assessed. And it's not looking good. We have barely begun to understand the corrupting and and corrosive force of capitalism on consciousness and so-called subjective conditions, which has saturated the so-called advanced and developed world for centuries.

So here we are in the shock wave of apocalypse. We cannot solve the current crisis by avoiding looking at it in the face, as so many do, learning the awful facts only to hide them away in an unused corner of their minds, together with guilty fantasies and advertising jingles. We must be ruthlessly honest in preparation for ruthless conditions. We must recognize the central organizing force of this apocalypse as capitalism, and understand the holistic immensity of its deadliness. We also cannot avoid looking ourselves in the face, and assess the extent to which we are unprepared and uncommitted to the necessary revolutionary transformation. (The extreme degree of our collective lack of preparation is evidenced by the fact that not a single one of the raving reviews of this film in popular media organs even mention climate change!)

With apocalypse comes revelation. They are the same word in Greek. Yet in the so-called First World we are far more familiar and comfortable with apocalypse than with revelation. It is easier to close our eyes and cry in the smoke than to summon the vision to see through it.

Like Marx said of revolution in North America, awareness of this apocalypse and revelation “appear only as vanishing moments,” in films like this one, easily enough forgotten and buried by the culture industry, lost in the raucous rush of cosmopolitan consumption, or simply immobilized in the shock wave of its own story.

What room is there for politics in this shock wave? Perhaps even more than politics, what is needed is prophecy. To see beyond the event horizon of the shock wave, into and through the coming explosion, and beyond... to speak to the future, to prepare the ground for its transformation. This seems at the moment more important and lasting than debating the sand castles of party lines while the waters rise.

This vision is not hopeful or optimistic, but it has the virtue of being at least honest. And in honesty there is meaning. It is this honesty that gives the fictional characters and plot of this film more meaning than the prevarication that is 99% of the culture industry, it is this meaning which forces this industry to acknowledge this film's high quality (even as they ignore and deny its implications), and it is this honesty alone which can give our lives meaning in this grotesquely unique period of planetary history.

Welcome to the real which is not yet a desert or under water. As Werner Herzog in his most recent film The Cave of Forgotten Dreams compared humanity in our current planetary moment to mutant albino crocodiles, in Beasts of the Southern Wild we are compared and contrasted to the Aurochs, driven to extinction by climate change. Whatever our long-term future, the whole species is at stake, and our path and choice are clear enough: apocalypse and revelation; prophecy or prevarication. 


Thursday, September 18, 2014

Like a Dull Knife: The People's Climate Farce

by Quincy Saul

(This article first appeared on Truthout on September 16, 2014)

On the eve of what is being advertised as "the biggest climate march in history," we might reflect on Malcolm X's experience of the March on Washington, as recounted in the Autobiography of Malcolm X:
"'Farce in Washington', I call it. . . . It was like a movie. . . . For the status-seeker, it was a status symbol. "Were you there?". . . . It had become an outing, a picnic. . . . What originally was planned to be an angry riptide, one English newspaper aptly described now as "the gentle flood". . . . there wasn't a single logistics aspect uncontrolled. . . . They had been told how to arrive, when, where to arrive, where to assemble, when to start marching, the route to march. . . . Yes, I was there. I observed that circus."
Of course, not everyone present concurred with Malcolm X about the March on Washington - and even in a top-down format, one hopes the upcoming march could draw much-needed attention to the climate movement. The question is: At what cost? In this vein, what follows are a few reflections on the buildup to the September 21 People's Climate March in New York City, to provide some concrete analysis of concrete conditions, and propose some solutions.


The climate justice movement has an expiration date. If the tipping points in the earth system are passed, and the feedback loops begin their vicious cycle, human attempts at mitigation will be futile, and climate justice will become an anachronism - or at worst a slogan for geo-engineering lobbies. Thousands of scientists have come to consensus on this point, and many years ago gave us a deadline: A carbon emissions peak in 2015 followed by rapid and permanent decline.

In other words, we have roughly four months to work for climate justice. The world is literally at stake; all life on earth is at risk. Never has there been a more urgent or comprehensive mandate.

Even the guardians and gatekeepers of the ruling class, from politicians to scientists, are forthcoming on this point. Listen to Al Gore: "I can't understand why there aren't rings of young people blocking bulldozers, and preventing them from constructing coal-fired power plants." He said that in 2007. It is in this context that we must seek to better understand and analyze the People's Climate March.

"An Invitation to Change Everything"

The People's Climate March has a powerful slogan. It has world-class publicity. But the desire to bring the biggest possible number of people to the march has trumped all other considerations. The results are devastating:

No Target: The march is a U-turn through Times Square, beginning at a monument to genocide (Columbus Circle) and ending . . . in the middle of nowhere. Here in New York City where the ruling class of the whole world has made their diverse headquarters, the march will target none of them. The march will not even go near the United Nations, its ostensible symbolic target.

No Timing: The United Nations will convene leading figures from all over the world - several days after the march. The march does not coincide with anything, contemporary or historic.

No Demands: Again, to attract the largest number of people, the march has rallied around the lowest common denominator - in this case, nothing. Not only are there no demands, but there is in fact no content at all to the politics of the march, other than vague concern and nebulous urgency about "the climate," which is itself undefined.

No Unity: While a large number of people are sure to converge on Columbus Circle on September 21, the only thing they will have in common is the same street. The revolutionary communists will link arms with the Green Zionist Alliance and the Democratic Party, and compete with Times Square billboards for the attention of tourists and the corporate media.What is the binding agent for this sudden and unprecedented unity? Fifty-one years later, the words of Malcolm X still ring true: "the white man's money."

No History: Instead of building on the momentum of a decades-old climate justice movement, this march appears to be taking us backwards. Here's what Ricken Patel of Avaaz, one of the main funders of the march, said to The Guardian: "We in the movement, activists, have failed up until this point to put up a banner and say if you care about this, now is the time, here is the place, let's come together, to show politicians the political power that is out there on there."
It is as if the massive mobilizations outside the United Nations meeting in Copenhagen (2009), Cancun (2010) and Durban (2011) never took place, let alone the literally thousands of smaller, more localized actions and gatherings for climate justice. At all of these gatherings, activists convoked the world to demonstrate the power of the people, under banners which were far more radical and transformative than anything we have seen so far for this march.

No Integrity: The invitation to change everything has been permitted and approved by the New York City Police Department. This permit betrays a lack of respect for the people who will be making sacrifices to come all the way to New York City to change the world, and a lack of integrity among those who want to change everything, but seek permission for this change from one of the more obviously brutal guardians of business as usual. This lack of integrity sets up thousands of earnest souls for an onset of depression and cynicism when this march doesn't change the world. This will in turn be fertile soil for everyone and anyone hawking false solutions.

No target, no demands, no timing, no unity, no history and no integrity amounts to one thing: No politics. The whole will be far less than the sum of its parts. The biggest climate march in history will amount to something less than Al Gore.
In discussions over the past month with a wide range of people - UN diplomats, radical Vermonters, unionists, professors, liberal Democrats, etc. - the same thing has been repeated to me by everyone: "If we get a huge number of people, no one will be able to ignore us." "The mainstream media will be forced to cover it."

So what is being billed and organized as The People's Climate March, and An Invitation to Change Everything, turns out to be a massive photo op. The spectacle of thousands of First World citizens marching for climate justice, while they continue to generate the vast majority of carbon emissions, brings to mind the spectacle of George W. Bush visiting New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

So what are we left with? James Brown knew, when he said:  

"You're like a dull knife; Just ain't cutting. You're just talking loud; And saying nothing. Just saying nothing. Good luck to you; Just allow you're wrong. Then keep on singing that; Same old money song . . . You're phony, you're phony, I said, I said, you're phony!"

So What Are We Going to Do About It?
This is not the place to complain, but to propose solutions. If we are unsatisfied with this march and its leadership, we have to provide an alternative. As James Brown knew, we "have to pay the cost to be the boss." Here are some suggestions for starters:
  1. We are going to stop lying to the people. This is the primary and cardinal rule of revolutionary politics. To invite people to change the world and corral them into cattle pens on a police-escorted parade through the heart of consumer society is astoundingly dishonest. From now on, we will stop lying to people. Climate justice requires nothing less than a global revolution in politics and production; it requires a historic transition to a new model of civilization, which will demand great sacrifice and creativity from everyone.
  2. We are going to stop making demands of anyone or anything but ourselves and each other. The powers that be are deaf, dumb and deadly, and we will waste no further time trying to pressure or persuade them. We are going to stop speaking truth to power and start speaking truth to powerlessness. Either we are going to become the leaders we have been waiting for, starting now, or we are going to resign ourselves to the inevitability of catastrophic climate change and the sixth mass extinction.
  3. We are going to return to the source. This means three things: (A) Return to the common people from the delirious heights of symbolic protest politics, with dedication to concrete local work, to divorce food, water, shelter and energy systems from capital. (B) Return to the livelihood and wisdom of our ancestors, the indigenous peoples of every continent, who have lived for thousands of years in harmony with nature, and who still possess the knowledge and skills to restore balance. (C) Return to the sun - a second Copernican revolution and a heliocentric energy policy. Either we return to a subsistence perspective that has prevailed for the majority of human history, or all future development of productive forces must be based exclusively on solar energy.
  4. We are going to get arrested! The only thing that we can do to meet the deadline for climate justice is to engage in a massive and permanent campaign to shut down the fossil fuel economy. But we have to do this strategically, not in the symbolic cuff-and-stuffs that are a perversion and prostitution of the noble ideals of civil disobedience and revolutionary nonviolence. So we are going to shut down coal plants; we are going to block ports, distribution centers and railway hubs where fossil fuels are transported; whatever it takes to keep the oil in the soil. We're going to put our bodies between the soil and the sky.So let's make sure that the call to "Flood Wall Street" on September 22 is the "angry riptide" it should be, and not "the gentle flood."
  5. We are going to join the rest of the human race. For 200 years too long, citizens of the United States have been parasites and predators on the rest of the world. To prevent climate catastrophe, we are going to leave our imperial hubris behind, and join with the revolutionary ecosocialist uprisings that are sweeping the global South.