I opened my last Empire and Inequality Report (Issue # 5, titled "Missions Accomplished") by questioning liberal New York Times columnist Frank Rich’s claim that the war in/on Iraq is the “greatest tragedy of our age.” Operation Iraqi Liberation (O.I.L.) is best understood, I argued, not as a “tragedy” or (to use some of the related words that show up in the thesaurus) “calamity” or “misfortune” but rather as a terrible transgression – a great imperial crime that has had tragic yet thoroughly predictable consequences for millions of Iraqis and hundreds of thousands of Americans.
At the same time, it is not in fact the leading crime or (if you prefer) tragedy of our age. The occupation of Iraq is not a bigger sin than the persistent and deepening concentration of wealth within and between nations in a world where more than two billion people live on less than a dollar a day even while a tiny “elite” enjoy lives of unimaginable and ever-escalating hyper-opulence.
It’s not a bigger offense than the persistence at home and abroad of a deep, hidden, stealth racism – an increasingly covert and therefore all the more insidious white supremacy that is intimately bound up with the evils of ecocide and class injustice.
And it’s not a bigger crime than crime/tragedy than the ongoing and related petro-capitalist destruction of the planet’s capacity to serve as a viable habitat for all but a small and privileged slice of currently existing humanity. We are learning that Al Gore’s ironically chilling “An Inconvenient Truth” understated the pace at which the United States-led melting of the earth is unfolding, with disastrous consequences evident every passing day.
It’s interesting to see how dominant media covers this little story. Today on the evening NBC News I was watching lovely substitute anchorwoman Campbell Brown talk about the apparently imminent execution of former U.S.-supported strongman Saddam Hussein. Before going to commercial, Brown quickly noted a purportedly “unrelated matter”: George and Laura Bush had to hide out today in (get this) an armored vehicle from severe weather (capable of generating tornados or perhaps actually generating tornados… I’m not sure which) on their ranch in West Texas. The vehicle was designed no doubt to shield the Decider from Islamo-fascist meteorological formations that hate freedom.
Tornados (real or potential) in December? Well, of course. There was a tornado in – get this – London earlier this month. The weather is becoming ever more insane, as some climatologists begin predicting decades ago. I’ve got an old Barry Commoner book from 1965 (Science and Survival) in which that wonderful left biologist is talking about federal research into the greenhouse effect pointing to near-future climate bake and related weather chaos and ecological crisis in the 21st century.
After the first batch of carbon-generating corporate commercials, Brown reported some Bob Woodward interview material showing that the late Gerald R. Ford saw the Reagan and post-Reagan Republicans as arrogant and dangerous. The second batch of commercials was followed by a report on our crazy weather: we are in the middle of one of the warmest Decembers ever. Big surprise. A reporter stood in front of blooming flowers in Washington D.C….on December 29th.
Somewhere on the Internet today I saw that a chunk of the Canadian Arctic ice cover just broke and floated into the sea. The chunk was bigger than Manhattan. And somewhere else on the Internet yesterday I saw that we are getting ready to declare Polar Bears an Endangered Species because of the rapid melting of the planet’s northern ice shelves.
About midway through the NBC News I switched stations to the Nightly News Hour on PBS. I saw two science experts being interviewed. One of them noted in a rather banal sort of way that we are going to have a “blue water” North Pole in 2040 if current trends continue. He said this would be a “momentous development.” He did not add that it will be a disastrous moment or that we can must act now to avert it. He is the lead science writer at the New York Times.
The other expert was the editor of Scientific American. He observed that the scientific profession now has a full consensus that human-generated carbon emissions are by far and away the leading causes of dramatic increases in the global temperature. He related this to the escalation of the disappearance of species. He didn’t seem all that upset about it all. The PBS interviewer stayed cheery throughout, like she wouldn’t want to seem overly negative (or offensive to leading petro-corporate PBS sponsors) about the relatively imminent (historically speaking) collapse of a livable (for humans and other species) ecology.
On a purely anecdotal level, I recall being a kid at the old sunken fields of the Midway on the South Side of Chicago (between 59th and 61st Streets) in the mid-late 1960s. The city would flood the fields with water and provide us with a giant ice-skating and hockey rink that often lasted through February. That’s completely unimaginable today. As a longtime Midwesterner, I’ve heard thunder and seen lightning in December for the first time in my life only during the last five years or so.
I notice that my local television weather broadcasters habitually refer to 50 degree days in late December as a welcome and happy occurrence. The corporate news and entertainment culture is trying to turn us into practically literal embodiments of the proverb about the frog who ends up getting boiled alive in a pot over a flame that is turned up gradually. One of the differences in our case is that we’re letting ourselves be killed by other members of our own species.
The climate crisis isn’t some sort of future problem that only concerns crazy habitual Cassandra types; it’s actually unfolding right now before our very eyes, a bit more quickly than predicted. It appears to be approaching some sort of qualitative take-off point. My sense (and I’ll be writing more on it in 2007) is that it is unambiguously the greatest single human-generated crime and tragedy of our time.
Corporate media masters seem to want us to see the problem as beyond our control…as outside meaningful human agency. They are encouraging us to approach the corporate-state-industrial-petro assault on our environment as lifeless spectators and as tragic victims. The deeper hidden truth (inconvenient for some) is that there are a whole slew of things we can do to cut carbon emissions drastically in coming years and decades. The problem is about policy, not fate. What was made through human agency can be undone through human agency. We are not slaves to ecocidal levels of carbon emission.
For what it’s worth, I disagree with NBC and Campbell Brown: Bush’s fiasco in Iraq is strongly related to his hiding from potential twisters in December. Both news items are very much about corporate-state control and exploitation of petroleum. I do not want to set up an overly strong dichotomy between structures and events. The occupation of Iraq (O.I.L). is intimately related to deeper and more structurally entrenched, “systemic” crimes.
Turning to an actually unrelated matter, an "anonymous" poster recently claimed that I could have only have criticized some bad trends in academic work (specifically in the field of history) because my own past historical research had been rejected by an “academic hiring committee.” To my knowledge, my academic historical research has never been examined by a "hiring committee" of any kind, academic or otherwise. My historical research is an open book and can be readily examined after consulting my vita, which is available to anyone who writes me. For my own semi-autobiographical and candid reflections on my experience in and around educational institutions from K through graduate school and teaching at the college level, one can read my ZNet interview piece “The Whole World is Watching," which appeared earlier this month. I’ve got nothing to hide really in relation to academic experience.