Checkmate

May 2, 2016 § 20 Comments

Streams of sunlight find every break in the tree canopy and beam downward, electrifying the dry leaf litter that covers the ground. Our steps are slow. My daughter is twenty five pounds and the hiking pack I carry her in is probably another five which makes the up and down slopes a significant physical endeavor. Staring always at the ground near my feet, the grays and browns flecked with green and lavender make a Renoir of the forest floor, and somewhere in that morass of color there are morel mushrooms. There must be.

We take a break on a shady hillside and my daughter walks about learning the world with her mother close behind. Bear cone sprouts in abundance from nearby oak roots tricking my eye for a quick moment, making me think I have stumbled onto a mushroom bonanza. Early settlers called it Squaw Root due to the fact that the native women used it medicinally for various menopausal or hemorhagic reasons. I prefer its other name. Bear cone doesn’t care what we call it. Every four years it rises to seed itself before continuing its parasitic relationship with whichever oak tree’s root system it has settled on. Maybe we should call it “Election Cone,” or “Democracy Root.” There are no more bears here to eat it, after all.

Warm days came too fast. The ticks have been worse than I have ever known them. I already have melons and summer squash planted in the garden. The climate will continue to erase established patterns, and we will continue to take mental notes on the small details of our surroundings hoping to figure out just where it is taking us. Not until a few days ago did enough rain come to cool our temperatures back to something close to normal, and the land seems grateful, lush, green.

There is a question I have wrestled with for years, and which I have at times presented in my writings here. That question is essentially this: How do we dismantle a thing on which we are reliant? Industrial civilization will destroy the ability of the planet to harbor life. Whether we look at climate change, topsoil loss, biodiversity loss, mass extinction, oceanic acidification and oxygen depletion, toxification of landbases, etc. we see an accelerating trend by which human industrial civilization is rendering the planet inhospitable to life, all in an attempt to boost the carrying capacity of the planet in regards only to homo sapien life. Some of these crises are so firmly established that there is seemingly no way to now cease them or to reverse the damage done. Others seem to still present a window of opportunity in which to intervene for the protection of viable habitat. Such interventions seem as though they must come in a form that accomplishes the near immediate halting of many if not all industrial processes, but also a dramatic alteration in the standing mythology people have concerning themselves, their societies, and where they as a species are to exist within the greater context of the living world. That is a tall order indeed.

Meanwhile, billions of human beings now rely on industrial systems to provide them with every single thing they require for survival, from basic water and sanitation to food, shelter, and medical care. How does one begin to convince these billions of people to destroy the systems they rely on?  How does one begin to convince these billions of people that it is, in fact, in their best interests to see that the permanence of the long term damage being wrought by these systems is not nearly worth the short term gains achieved by employing them?  If the billions of people were even thusly convinced, could they even do anything about it?  At what level are these billions thoroughly captive to the handfuls of humans who hold political and economic power? After all, knowing is nothing if cannot be followed by some level of doing. Is it fair to say that we are living in checkmate?  Have the powers that be already won the game? Is there any move left that the populace or even some subset could make that doesn’t already have a preset counter-move lying in wait that the powerful can successfully respond with?

At times it feels as if this is the case.

I have heard people question whether or not the rich and the powerful understand that the fate of the Earth includes them and their children as well. How is it that in boardrooms and government buildings the people who have various levels of control over the systems of capital and state do not find satisfaction with their wealth and power, and then having driven us so close to the brink take contentedness with their status and finally declare, “Enough!” Why do they not look at the faces of their grandchildren and finally push the big red button that grinds the assembly line to a halt and opens up that bit of space we need to remake the world in a way that doesn’t base itself on ecocide?

And then I think, perhaps we are not living in checkmate, but a stalemate. We are in a condition in which there is no plausible move for either side. This happens in chess when a player cannot make any move because each available option opens them up to certain loss. Looking on the human subplots that round the globe it often looks like this is our condition. The populace can make no move against the state or capital without opening themselves up to certain destruction by those forces. State and capital cannot unmake their machinations without opening themselves up to certain destruction by either the masses, or more likely, by those other members of the ruling cabals. Too many contingencies have been built into the system. Too many continuity of government plans.

Imagine an M.C. Escher sketch of a Mexican stand off with apocalyptic implications.

It is in this spirit that I suggest we are post ideological fidelity. Or more simply put, we must embrace the contradiction. In the broadest of terms, we must bite the hand that feeds, taking swings and jabs at the mechanics and infrastructure of industrial civilization even as we need it and liberally make use of it. We must ignore all wails and shrieks of “hypocrisy!” as purity has become impossible, and the commandments of logic and reason that were carved into stone during an age of expanding excess are turned on their head. The actions and behaviors that such times demand are not ever going to be palatable to a crowd whose notions of sensibility or righteousness were forged during an expanse of time when an increase in access to material goods was axiomatic.

To be blunt, what we need is for someone to shut this motherfucker down and to let the chips fall where they may no matter what that might mean, as long as it opens up some small possibility of a future in which the Earth can heal and the survivors, human and non, can establish themselves anew. This is the dark, adult truth as best as I can surmise it, and it is no less terrifying for me than for anyone else. My world orbits around a two year old girl. But all of my desire to see her grow into a happy and healthy women cannot convince me to look away from the abyss. I clutch her smallness and hold her deeply, knowing that the love that overflows from me for this small person is no different, no greater, no more important than the love that every parent has ever felt for their children. We walk hand in hand through the forest, and I wonder which is worse, industrial civilization collapsing tomorrow, or industrial civilization continuing unabated, thrashing and writhing as it burns up the last of the coal and the oil bringing us an ice free Arctic, drought, dust bowls, burned forests, dead oceans. What is my responsibility to her?

Catalhoyuk is often referred to as the “egalitarian civilization.” A neolithic settlement in what is now Turkey, it was active between 7500 and 5600 BC. The population probably rested around seven thousand people and peaked at perhaps ten thousand. What fascinates most people about Catalhoyuk is that there is no real evidence of a tiered society of classes. The interconnected network of mud brick rooms in which people resided offer no clues to a hierarchy or priestly class. More interestingly, the human remains found buried at Catalhoyuk reveal that women were as well fed as men. Buried remains do see to suggest that perhaps there was some sort of division of labor cut along gender lines, as the men are buried with stone axes and the women buried with spinning whorls.

This small civilization that existed on the boundary of the paleolithic era is the foil of anti-civ suggestion. When anti-civ proponents suggest that city based societies ultimately outstrip their land base with agriculture and inevitably create hierarchies which lead to social stratification, expansion, war, and ecological decimation, there are critics who counter, “But not at Catalhoyuk!”

Catalhoyuk is anthropologically interesting, however it is also not completely understood. Personally, I find this ancient city fascinating because it straddled the line between the inception and outright implementation of the civilized project. Murals uncovered on the walls of Catalhoyuk depict now extinct aurochs. Cattle skulls were mounted on the walls. The population of Catalhoyuk was not completely dependent upon agriculture. They grew wheat and barely and domesticated sheep, but they gathered fruits and nuts from the hills and their meat was primarily attained through hunting.

In a sense, Catalhoyuk is the half step between tribal and civilized living. Thought of in this way, it makes me wonder what such a half step would look like only moving in the opposite direction. If we were somehow able to uncivilize ourselves in a proactive fashion, what would the halfway point between here and there look like? Is such a proposition even remotely feasible? At Catalhoyuk, a thriving and unpoisoned wild still existed on the periphery. Food was still making itself in abundance beyond the city walls. Water wasn’t laden with the heavy metals and carcinogens of industry. The path towards civilization has so many emergency exits, and indeed, peoples around the world chose to walk through them when the efforts required to maintain a massive and dense city life was fully recognized. The Maya, the Hohokam, and the people of Gobekli Tepe are examples of such.

Abandoning civilization offers no easy exits. Indigenous tribes that still exist around the globe are constantly fighting to resist enclosure. Individuals who reside within the wealthy nations are falling ever so gradually under the iron grip of high technology while slowly their bodily integrity is assaulted by increasingly artificial food, man made carcinogens, radiation, and stress. The global poor are not quite so lucky, and suffer a brutal and merciless poverty of overcrowding, lack of sanitation, hunger, and hopelessness.

Optimists continually posit that there is a move we can yet make, something political or revolutionary whereby the ruling class can be ousted, and sane, empathetic and ecologically conscious people can be put in their place. In this, optimists are suggesting that if we can just coordinate and organize all of the human community, perhaps through social media and awareness campaigns, that there is some move left on the field to be played. At best they believe we can break the stalemate. At worst, they fail to realize, we already lost. Either the game is over and our opponents gloat, or we are deadlocked, staring down bewildered by the configuration of pieces while our opponents recognize the peril of our position and make their own plans for when the game board inevitably gets tossed from the table.

And that, my friend, is I believe our conundrum. There is no easy exit, no half way point on the road home to a sustainable and ecologically integrated way of living. There is a grinding and terminal lock which will only be upset by calamity. If this is truly our context, then I forgive now anyone who works to foment that upset. We are left without ethical or even seemingly rationally consistent options. Doing nothing is safe in the individual’s near term, and a death sentence generationally. Doing something means using the master’s tools to destroy the master’s house, and doing so unflinchingly, even if they are slave-made, purchased from Wal-Mart and wrapped in so much plastic. I forgive the gasoline used to sabotage the pipeline. I forgive the miles driven to dismantle the power plant. I forgive the hours spent wearing a suit and tie working for quarterly gains when the income is spent on bolt cutters, angle grinders, sledgehammers, or acetylene torches.

Nothing makes sense. We don’t have the luxury of purity.

Three feet into the wet clay Earth, my shovel is pulled by a suction of water and weight, and I fight it upwards before dumping the saturated brown mud along the fence line. When the shape of the hole matches the shape of the black pond liner, I wipe my brow. It is May first, and the sun is oppressive in the clearing where we have our garden. Soon our baby ducks will live outside and use this pond for water in between running about and clearing my plants of snails and slugs. Usually I would only just be planting tomatoes, if not holding off yet another week, but alas, they have been in the ground for two weeks now.

Apparently methane is bulging up from beneath the sea floor off of the coast of Siberia. The Greenland ice sheet’s summer melt began early and violently this year. Upwards of ninety-three percent of the Great Barrier reef has suffered a bleaching event. A massive drought is devastating India where water is under guard. Venezuela is experiencing a full blown economic and political collapse as power is rationed in part due to the failure of rains leading to a failure of hydroelectric dams. It is hard to not feel that the headlines of global strife are more frequent, more dire.

Night falls and my daughter and I sit in the darkness of our home, staring out at the blackness, watching as flashes of lightning give us glimpses of the forest. Thunder rolls and she smiles at me. I smile back, and we wait.

Where Am I?

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