A man looks for food and salvageable items of use
in a massive dumping ground called Troutie,
just outside Cite Soleil, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, April 16, 2008.
(Photo: Tyler Hicks / The New
I have walked through the barren remains of Babylon in Iraq and the ancient Roman city of Antioch, the capital of Roman Syria, which now lies buried in silt deposits.
I have visited the marble ruins of Leptis Magna, once one of the most important agricultural centers in the Roman Empire, now isolated in the desolate drifts of sand southeast of Tripoli.
I have climbed at dawn up the ancient temples in Tikal, while flocks of brightly colored toucans leapt through the jungle foliage below.
I have stood amid the remains of the
Egyptian city of Luxor along the Nile, looking at the statue of
the great Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II lying broken on the ground, with
Percy Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias” running through my head:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Civilizations rise, decay and die.
Time, as the ancient Greeks argued, for individuals and for states is cyclical. As societies become more complex they become inevitably more precarious. They become increasingly vulnerable. And as they begin to break down there is a strange retreat by a terrified and confused population from reality, an inability to acknowledge the self-evident fragility and impending collapse.
The elites at the end speak in phrases and jargon that do not correlate to reality.
They retreat into isolated compounds, whether at the court at Versailles, the Forbidden City or modern palatial estates.
The elites indulge in unchecked hedonism, the accumulation of vaster wealth and extravagant consumption. They are deaf to the suffering of the masses who are repressed with greater and greater ferocity.
Resources are more ruthlessly depleted until
they are exhausted. And then the hollowed-out edifice collapses. The Roman
and Sumerian empires fell this way. The Mayan elites, after clearing their
forests and polluting their streams with silt and acids, retreated backward
They launch more wars, build grander monuments to themselves, plunge their nations deeper into debt, and as it all unravels they take it out on the backs of workers and the poor.
The collapse of the global economy, which wiped out a staggering $40 trillion in wealth, was caused when our elites, after destroying our manufacturing base, sold massive quantities of fraudulent mortgage-backed securities to pension funds, small investors, banks, universities, state and foreign governments and shareholders.
The elites, to cover the losses, then looted the public treasury to begin the speculation over again.
They also, in the name of austerity,
began dismantling basic social services, set out to break the last vestiges
of unions, slashed jobs, froze wages, threw millions of people out of their
homes, and stood by idly as we created a permanent underclass of unemployed
This is how all civilizations, including our own, ossify and die.
The signs of imminent death may be undeniable. Common sense may cry out for a radical new response. But the race toward self-immolation only accelerates because of intellectual and moral paralysis.
As Sigmund Freud grasped in “Beyond the Pleasure
Principle” and “Civilization and Its Discontents,” human societies are as
intoxicated and blinded by their own headlong rush toward death and
destruction as they are by the search for erotic fulfillment.
Protests that are not built around a complete reconfiguration of American society, including a rapid dismantling of empire and the corporate state, can only forestall the inevitable.
We will be saved only with the birth of a new
and militant radicalism which seeks to dethrone our corrupt elite from power,
not negotiate for better terms.
Globalism works under the assumption that the ecosystem can continue to be battered by massive carbon emissions without major consequences. And the engine of global economic expansion is based on the assurance that there will always be plentiful and cheap oil. The inability to confront simple truths about human nature and the natural world leaves the elites unable to articulate new social, economic and political paradigms. They look only for ways to perpetuate a dying system.
Thomas Friedman and the array of other
propagandists for globalization make as much sense as Charlie Sheen.
The march toward self-annihilation has already obliterated 90 percent of the large fish in the oceans and wiped out half of the mature tropical forests, the lungs of the planet. At this rate by 2030 only 10 percent of the Earth’s tropical forests will remain.
Contaminated water kills 25,000 people every day around the globe, and each year some 20 million children are impaired by malnourishment.
Greenhouse gases in the atmosphere now are at 329 parts per million and climbing, with most climate scientists warning that the level must remain below 350 ppm to sustain life as we know it. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that the measurement could reach 541 to 970 ppm by 2100.
At that point huge parts of the planet, beset
with overpopulation, droughts, soil erosion, freak storms, massive crop
failures and rising sea levels, will be unfit for human existence.
It was no different on Easter Island.
The inhabitants, when they first settled the 64-square-mile island during the fifth century, found abundant fresh water and woods filled with the Chilean wine palm, a tree that can reach the size of an oak. Seafood, including fish, seals, porpoises and turtles, and nesting seabirds were plentiful.
Easter Island’s society, which split into an elaborate caste system of nobles, priests and commoners, had within five or six centuries swelled to some 10,000 people.
The natural resources were devoured and began to disappear.
Clans, in the later period of the Easter Island civilization, competed to honor their ancestors by constructing larger and larger hewn stone images, which demanded the last remnants of the timber, rope and manpower on the island.
By the year 1400 the woods were gone. The soil
had eroded and washed into the sea. The islanders began to fight over old
timbers and were reduced to eating their dogs and soon all the nesting
This desperate retreat into magic led to,
Civilizations in the last moments embrace a
total severance from reality, a reality that becomes too bleak to be
The faith that science and technology, which are
morally neutral and serve human ambitions, will make the world whole again
is no less delusional. We offer up our magical thinking in secular as well
as religious form.
We in the United States, only 5 percent of the world’s population, are outraged if anyone tries to tell us we don’t have a divine right to levels of consumption that squander 25 percent of the world’s energy.
President Jimmy Carter, when he suggested that such consumption was probably not beneficial, became a figure of national ridicule. The worse it gets the more we demand illusionary Ronald Reagan happy talk. Those willing to cater to fantasy and self-delusion are, because they make us politically passive, lavishly funded and promoted by corporate and oligarchic forces.
And by the very end we are joyfully led over the cliff by simpletons and lunatics, many of whom appear to be lining up for the Republican presidential nomination.
Human beings seem cursed to repeat these cycles of exploitation and collapse.
And the greater the extent of the deterioration the less they are able to comprehend what is happening around them. The Earth is littered with the physical remains of human folly and human hubris. We seem condemned as a species to drive ourselves and our societies toward extinction, although this moment appears be the denouement to the whole sad show of settled, civilized life that began some 5,000 years ago.
There is nothing left on the planet to seize.
We are now spending down the last remnants of
our natural capital, including our forests, fossil fuel, air and water.
The fate of Easter Island will be writ large across the broad expanse of planet Earth.