planetary alienation

Though I have used a shovel more than once, I am neither a shovelist nor a ditchdigger. I have the same relationship to Marx – the man himself would recognize me, right away, as a liberal humanist (I’m amused by how that word, bandied about on Marxist leaning sites, always calls out the Raid. As if Liberal humanists were looming on the horizon like so many godzillas, trampling through the bidonvilles!). However, I find Marx infinitely useable, even when, as in The German Ideology, I also find him infinitely boring. (I sometimes fear that much of Derrida’s work, a hundred years hence, will read like the German Ideology – heavy irony in pursuit of long forgotten targets, and all that rich wordplay turned as incomprehensible as the dog latin Rabelais puts in the mouth of the students he mocks in Gargantua). The section on Feuerbach there, as we all know, is extremely pretty and eloquent and just. From it, these two grafs jump out at me this morning:

“Men can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion or anything else you like. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical organisation. By producing their means of subsistence men are indirectly producing their actual material life.

The way in which men produce their means of subsistence depends first of all on the nature of the actual means of subsistence they find in existence and have to reproduce. This mode of production must not be considered simply as being the production of the physical existence of the individuals. Rather it is a definite form of activity of these individuals, a definite form of expressing their life, a definite mode of life on their part. As individuals express their life, so they are. What they are, therefore, coincides with their production, both with what they produce and with how they produce.”

How individuals “express” – aussern – their lives is, at the moment, melting the permafrost. That is one of the many dire facts that strewed Elizabeth Kolbert’s three part series (first part here) (second part here) in the New Yorker last year. Now that series has grown a book, which I noticed, with a bit of a sinking heart, is being reviewed in tandem with Timothy Flannery’s book. The sinking heart comes from the fact that no author likes to be lassoed all over the place with another author’s work. But apparently, if we are going to have book reviews touching on the topic of the ecological crisis we are diligently preparing for ourselves, we are going to have to have them do two for the price of one. Humankind cannot bear very much reality, or very many books about global warming, especially when humankind has to get out there and buy those SUVs.
Back to the permafrost. In one of those scary passages that gives us facts that we have to immediately forget, Kolbert – in the first article of her New Yorker series – writes:

“When you walk around in the Arctic, you are stepping not on permafrost but on something called the "active layer." The active layer, which can be anywhere from a few inches to a few feet deep, freezes in the winter but thaws over the summer, and it is what supports the growth of plants - large spruce trees in places where conditions are favorable enough and, where they aren't, shrubs and, finally, just lichen. Life in the active layer proceeds much as it does in more temperate regions, with one critical difference. Temperatures are so low that when trees and grasses die they do not fully decompose. New plants grow out of the half-rotted old ones, and when these plants die the same thing happens all over again. Eventually, through a process known as cryoturbation, organic matter is pushed down beneath the active layer into the permafrost, where it can sit for thousands of years in a botanical version of suspended animation. (In Fairbanks, grass that is still green has been found in permafrost dating back to the middle of the last ice age.) In this way, much like a peat bog or, for that matter, a coal deposit, permafrost acts as a storage unit for accumulated carbon.

One of the risks of rising temperatures is that this storage process can start to run in reverse. Under the right conditions, organic material that has been frozen for millennia will break down, giving off carbon dioxide or methane, which is an even more powerful greenhouse gas. In parts of the Arctic, this is already happening. Researchers in Sweden, for example, have been measuring the methane output of a bog known as the Stordalen mire, near the town of Abisko, for almost thirty-five years. As the permafrost in the area has warmed, methane releases have increased, in some spots by up to sixty per cent. Thawing permafrost could make the active layer more hospitable to plants, which are a sink for carbon. Even this, though, probably wouldn't offset the release of greenhouse gases. No one knows exactly how much carbon is stored in the world's permafrost, but estimates run as high as four hundred and fifty billion metric tons.

"It's like ready-use mix - just a little heat, and it will start cooking," Romanovsky told me. It was the day after we had arrived in Deadhorse, and we were driving through a steady drizzle out to another monitoring site. "I think it's just a time bomb, just waiting for a little warmer conditions." Romanovsky was wearing a rain suit over his canvas work clothes. I put on a rain suit that he had brought along for me. He pulled a tarp out of the back of the truck.”

The refusal to take that kind of planetary wide damage seriously is going to be the real legacy of the Bush administration. The key to this time is the rush to create major policy out of minor opportunities, while major crises are waived away or postponed on the premise that the future takes care of itself. This is a misreading of Bush’s fave book, the New Testament, where we are told that it is the dead who take care of themselves. Treating the future as if we were all dead there is, in fact, the mark of the morally dead, the living dead, or –as we like to call them on this site – the zombies. For a nice review of Kolbert’s book (surprisingly), go to Slate this week. Instead of having their usual infinitely smarmy rightwing economic hacks do a bunch of coughing about that obvious fraud, Global warming, they chose a scholar on Rachel Carson, our hero here, to do the review. Rob Nixon, the scholar, does both books (sigh). Here is how he begins:

“The political climate has shifted, too. Kolbert, a suddenly ubiquitous American science reporter, and Flannery, a prolific Australian evolutionary biologist, are emissaries of sanity from the only two sizable industrialized nations that refused to sign the Kyoto protocol capping carbon emissions. The United States, responsible for 25 percent of the planet's greenhouse gases, and Australia, the world's largest coal exporter, are both ruled by conservative governments with a strong fossil-fuel bias. Indeed, the Bush administration has turned foot-dragging over climate change into a veritable performance art—a bamboozling ballet of dissimulation and denial.”

That the U.S. has appropriated the atmosphere for depositing a hugely disproportionate amount of waste isn’t surprising – one of the keys to understanding pollution in capitalism is that capitalism is not, despite the first grade propaganda, based on private property. It is based, rather, on larger property owners seizing the private property of smaller owners. It is all about social costs, and renting your body for zero cents and zero dollars to lodge their corporate chemicals in. Marx had a shrewd idea that the progress of capitalism was the inverse of what the proponents of capitalism claimed - that captilism progressively abolished private property by concentrating it in fewer and fewer hands. At the end of this process, Marx thought, the bargaining power of the working class would have to be expressed politically, in a revolution that would establish a new order founded on that capitalist accomplishment. As a liberal, I look at that prospect with horror, and would much rather fight to establish a better equilibrium between the concentration of wealth of the owners and the average householder, and the key front is the environment.

Beyond the playground of ideology, the important point here is that the melting of the permafrost is a collective crime against the planet. And that crime shouldn’t be happening. This is planetary alienation of a species extinguishing sort.

“Kolbert and Flannery write with a shared urgency, but they approach their vexing subject in radically different ways. The brilliance of Field Notes From a Catastrophe flows from Kolbert's gift for making the violence of climate change feel vast yet intimate. She clearly intuits that "global," as in "global warming," is a bland, unpeopled, world-weary word. So she shapes her argument around a series of excursions to talk with scientists in the field (often in the Arctic), many of whom become memorable characters. These aren't braying talk-show "experts" but men and women who have spent patient years, decades sometimes, calibrating shrinking sea ice, dwindling glaciers, and permafrost that has started to thaw. Kolbert works alongside them, getting snowmelt in her boots.
Her field-journal format adroitly bridges the gulf between professionals and amateurs, giving the writing a conversational tone without compromising the science. Kolbert grounds her quiet anecdotal advocacy in the sensory world of local inhabitants. She speaks to Inuits, who have many words for ice and must now find one for the robin, a previously unimagined bird driven north by warming. She speaks to a Dutchman who is developing amphibious homes to cope with the anticipated flooding of one-quarter of the Netherlands. She speaks to an Icelandic glaciologist whose models predict an Iceland stripped of ice by the end the next century. ("Glacial" as a metaphor should be retired from the language: When almost every glacier on the planet is beating a hasty retreat, "glacial progress" now means something else entirely.) In parts of Alaska, the average temperatures have risen 6 degrees since the early 1980s.”