Life vs The Machine

Essays Published April 27, 2019 in Orion

I was in the local pub with my friend Mark. We meet every Tuesday night in this tiny village in the west of Ireland to drink Guinness and play chess. I usually lose.

As we played, the oversize TV on the wall began broadcasting the nightly news bulletin. The first item was the death of an Irish gangster in an American prison. The second was a scandal involving government plans to improve national internet access. Due to the possibly illegal behaviour of a government minister, it was reported that Irish people would have to wait longer than planned to access low-cost, high-speed broadband.

It is estimated that the internet will consume a fifth of the world’s electricity by 2025.

The third item on the news was the publication of a report into the state of life on Earth. The report said that humanity had killed off 60% of all mammals, birds, fish and reptiles since I was born in the early 1970s. This unprecedented massacre of non-human life was a result of humans colonising most of the planet’s surface for their own use. The most dramatic decline was found in Central and South America, whose wildlife populations have collapsed by 89% in less than half a century.

‘This is far more than just being about losing the wonders of nature, desperately sad though that is’, said a man from WWF, which produced the report. ‘This is actually now jeopardising the future of people.’

That ‘far more’ was telling, I thought, especially from a wildlife charity.

Since the rise of human civilisation, 83% of all wild mammals have been eliminated by people. Extinction rates are currently up to 1000 times higher than pre-human levels. Even if these rates returned to normal within the next half century, it would still take an estimated 5 to 7 million years for the natural world to recover.

The report about the report lasted for around three minutes.

Brendan the landlord leaned over the bar towards us. ‘Throw some more turf on the fire will you, lads?’ he said. I broke a briquette away from the long, compressed peat log on the hearth, and chucked it onto the stove.

Peat is the world’s most polluting fossil fuel, with an emissions intensity higher than that of coal. Ireland is home to three peat-fired power stations.

99% of Ireland’s original peat bogs have been destroyed for fuel.

The Irish government recently reversed a public commitment to increase its modest carbon tax on peat, coal and oil, for fear of a public backlash. Ireland is currently failing to meet any of its international climate change targets.

After losing at chess I cycled home in the moonlight. I noticed empty plastic fertiliser bags stuffed into hedges and ditches, and wisps of black silage wrap wafting from winter branches like the ghosts of long-dead rooks. I nearly cycled into a large pothole in the dark road, made recently by a tractor. Tractors round our way have now grown so large that they regularly damage the roads, requiring hedges and roadside trees to be radically cut back, sometimes almost to ground level, so that they can pass by.

The biggest tractor currently in use in Ireland is the Case IH Quadtrac. It delivers a peak output of 683 horsepower, and includes Automatic Productivity Management software which can adjust the engine and transmission speeds according to pre-programmed instructions.

Ireland is the least forested country in Europe.

The news about the elimination of most living things by the human species came three weeks after the latest IPCC report on climate change. The issuing, and the subsequent ignoring, of IPCC reports has become an international diplomatic ritual over the last three decades. Like all previous IPPC reports, this one was met with a flurry of headlines and hashtags for a day or two before falling off the news agenda into a pit of forgetting.

The IPCC report warned that to meet the agreed target of preventing global warming of more than1.5 degrees, global greenhouse gas emissions would need to fall to zero within thirty years. This would require ‘rapid and far-reaching’ transformations across the world in the use of land, energy, industry, buildings, transport, cities and virtually everything else.

If every nation in the world met its existing emissions-reductions commitments, which nobody expects to happen, the planet’s temperature would still rise by three degrees: twice the supposedly ‘safe level’ of warming.

The last time the world was three degrees warmer was during the Pliocene epoch, two million years ago.

The likely impacts of three degrees of warming include: the total collapse of the Amazon rainforest; perennial drought in southern Africa; a 50% reduction in rainfall in central America; cascading species loss across all the world’s ecosystems; widespread drought, and thus crop failure, in subtropical regions, leading to the migration of hundreds of millions of refugees; the irreversible melting of the West Antarctic ice sheet, leading to major sea level rises; and the melting of the Himalayan glaciers, resulting in a 90% reduction of water flow in the Indus valley, on which two billion people rely for drinking water.

Much of this could happen within the lifetime of my two young children.

The IPCC report came almost a decade after the 2009 Copenhagen climate change summit. Copenhagen was the last big climate jamboree, widely publicised as the ‘final chance’ to stop any of this happening. Thousands of people flew and drove from all over the world to the summit venue, to take part in it or to protest about it. It was a ritual, in the first decade of the twenty-first century, this flying off to international summits. For a while, back at the end of the liberal age, we thought that international summits could change things.

Hope was the currency in those days. Everybody wanted to be seen to be hoping, especially the corporate sponsors. Coca Cola produced a climate change-themed ad especially for the summit. It was a big picture of a bottle of their brown sugar water, labelled A Bottle Of Hope.

The Copenhagen summit collapsed without agreement. The USA and China, the world’s two biggest emitters of greenhouse gases, refused to sign up to any binding targets.

There is currently more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than at any time since homo sapiens evolved.

Copenhagen, in retrospect, represented Peak Hope. It has been downhill ever since. The recent IPCC report was not accompanied by any declarations of hope. The atmosphere had changed irrevocably in that short decade. Nobody is hoping now. Now, we are all digging in.

‘Hope’, writes Derrick Jensen, ‘is what keeps us chained to the system … hope is a longing for a future condition over which you have no agency; it means you are essentially powerless.’

Recently, a post-hope campaign sprang up in Britain. It’s called the Extinction Rebellion. It declares that we are now living through a ‘planetary emergency’, and that the time for marching, petitioning and hanging banners symbolically from chimneys is past. Extinction Rebellion organises mass civil disobedience in public places to highlight the ongoing collapse of life on Earth.

In November 2018, Extinction Rebellion organised an act of mass civil disobedience in London, shutting down five of the city’s bridges. 6000 people took part, and over fifty were arrested. This, said the organisers, was just the beginning. Their ultimate aim is to ’cause economic disruption which brings the authorities to the negotiating table,’ forcing the government to take radical action to protect the Earth.

On the same day, another act of mass civil disobedience took place in France. 280,000 people took part, in more than 2000 different locations across the country. More than 400 people were injured, and one woman was killed. It was all part of a nationwide protest against a rise in fuel prises. The government had raised diesel taxes in an attempt to wean France off fossil fuels.

While both these protests were going on, the most destructive wildfires in Californian history were raging across the west coast of the USA. Fuelled by strong winds and exacerbated by record droughts, they have so far killed nearly 100 people, destroyed over 18,000 human structures and razed 150,000 hectares of land. Ten days in, nearly 1000 people are missing as a result of the biggest of these fires, which is estimated to be only 65% contained.

Future atmospheric conditions across California, created by human-induced climate change, are expected to favour more regular and destructive fires, according to research published two months before the latest fires began.

The wildfire plumes are visible from space.

The American President responded to the fires on his Twitter account, suggesting that bad forest management, rather than climate change, was to blame for their unprecedented ferocity and range. He said he would withhold federal funds from California unless they did things differently.

Thousands of people who disliked The American President responded on their own Twitter accounts, explaining how wrong he was, what a disgusting human being he is, how catastrophic climate change is, and how something should be done about it urgently.

Microsoft computer scientist and author Jarod Lanier has estimated that if everyone in the world deleted all their social media accounts, it would make a major contribution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Internet data storage facilities currently emit roughly the same amount as the entire global aviation industry.

The conservationist Aldo Leopold died in 1948 while battling a forest fire on a neighbour’s property in Wisconsin. His book A Sand County Almanac,  a collection of essays about conservation which now seem innocent enough to bring the reader to tears, was published posthumously the next year, and has since become a ecological classic.

Leopold is perhaps most famous for what he called his ‘Land Ethic’: a call for a sane and moral relationship between human civilisation and the rest of life on Earth, written at a time when the consumer society was just out of the gates and picking up speed.

A thing is right, runs Leopold’s Land Ethic, when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.

The impetus behind this deceptively simple statement, explained Leopold, was the need to extend the moral community beyond the human. ‘The land ethic,’ he explained, ‘simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land . . . [A] land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.’

Since Leopold’s death, his land ethic has become famous, much-quoted, admired, imitated and, in practical terms, almost entirely ignored.

‘Wild things were taken for granted until progress began to do away with them’, wrote Leopold in the same book. ‘Now we face the question whether a still higher “standard of living” is worth its cost in things natural, wild, and free. For us of the minority, the opportunity to see wild geese is more important than television, and the chance to find a pasque-flower is a right as inalienable as free speech.”

Neither pasque-flowers nor free speech seem very inalienable any more. Television is not doing so well either. There are, however, expected to be over 5 billion smartphone users by 2019.

The effects of regular smartphone use on the human brain include the triggering of physiological stress and fear responses originally designed to help us evade predators; dopamine addiction; depression; a reduction in analytical thinking capacity; and the malfunctioning of the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which can lead to unpredictable and sometimes dangerous behaviour.

When I was young, I thought that the world was divided into good and bad people, and that I was one of the good ones. Later, slightly older, I thought it was divided into informed and ignorant people, and that I was one of the informed ones. Older still, though still not nearly old enough, I thought it was divided into Bad Elites and Good Masses, and that since I had no money or power, I must belong to the second category.

For a number of years I believed that this second category was made up of people who, if they knew the truth about the human massacre of non-human life, would demand significant changes to society, and be prepared to make sacrifices accordingly.

I was an idiot.

Now I think that humans like ease, material comfort, entertainment and conformity, and they do not like anyone who threatens to take these things away. I think that even the people who say these things should be taken away in order to prevent the collapse of life on Earth do not really mean it.

I live on a smallholding and grow my own food. I plant a lot of trees. I own a compost toilet. I also own a car, a camper van, a laptop computer, a stereo system, hundreds of books made of wood pulp and three shelves of compact discs made of oil.

‘You’re on Earth’, advised Samuel Beckett. ‘There’s no cure for that.’

96% of Earth’s mammals, by biomass, are humans and livestock. The remaining 4% are wild creatures.

Since we began to measure that mass wipeout of wildlife in 1970, there have only been two occasions when the world’s greenhouse gas emissions have fallen rather than risen. The first was the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990. The second was the near-collapse of the global economy in 2008.

The only thing in my lifetime that has come close to slowing down the ecocidal death machine that we call the ‘global economy’ has been collapse. Accidental collapse.

All of our promises of change have come to nothing. We have only stopped our rampage when things have gone wrong.

From the point of view of Earth as a whole, rather than the parochial point of view of industrialised humans, the conclusion seems as inescapable as it is bleak. The collapse of the industrial economy is, in all likelihood, the only remaining way to prevent the mass destruction of life on Earth.

Hell, we’ve tried everything else.

Inspired by Aldo Leopold, I have been thinking a lot recently about the ethics behind this reality. I’ve been thinking we need a new set of guidelines. Some moral signposts for the age of ecocide. Something that encompasses our own complicity and the global state of emergency. A horrorcene ethic.

Something like this:

A thing is right when it tends to obstruct the progress of the human industrial economy. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.

This has the virtue of simplicity, but it does not, I think, provide enough cover against those who would claim that ends justify means. Blowing up airliners full of people would hinder the progress of the economy after all. We need to be careful. We are dealing with humans here.

A finessing:

Any action which hinders the advance of the human industrial economy is an ethical action, provided it does not harm life.

 Any action which knowingly and needlesslyadvances the human industrial economy is an unethical action.

This is better.

‘Provided it does not harm life’ provides no get-out clause for would-be unabombers. And that ‘knowingly and needlessly’ means we can still eat, and put the fire on in winter. It will keep the moral philosophers of the future busy, too, which is an unfortunate side-effect.

Can anybody live up to this? Probably not. I still love the smell of peat smoke on a winter night. But what else is there? Tell me your better idea, friend. Lay your realistic proposal before me.

I’m all ears.

I would amputate all my fingers if I thought it would save another species from extinction. I would not lift a finger to save this civilisation from collapse. Not now. Not any more.

That’s how I feel today. We’ll see if it changes tomorrow.

It is OK to be confused. It is OK to be small. It is OK not to know what to do. Really, the only thing that is not OK is turning away.

We know what the problem is. The problem is what we are all doing. The humans. Not just the rich, not just the poor, not just the West, not just the East. Not just the bad elites or the bad presidents. Not Them. Us. All of us.

None of this is really anybody’s fault. Still, here we are. Life versus the machine. We always knew it would come to this. We knew it a long time ago.

We are as gods, but we have failed to get good at it, and now we have run out of time. And we are not the gods we thought we would be. We are Loki, killing the beautiful for fun. We are Saturn, devouring our children. We are Moloch: come, feed your newborn into our fires.

How much more will we burn?

Sometimes doing nothing is better than doing something. Sometimes it is the other way around.

Sometimes a spanner must be thrown into the gears with as much accuracy and determination as you can muster, even if it may mean you are thrown out of a moving vehicle.

Root your feet down now, in the earth where you are. Stop talking. You don’t know anything, and none of your words matter.

Pay attention. Give love. Give shelter.

Dig out your spanners.

Do your work.

7 Comments

  • Shannon LeBlanc

    Just a comment on the Gilets Jaunes: The protests were only nominally about diesel prices. That was a corporate news perspective to support the idea that regular people want oil and gas. The protest was really more about how they are screwed over by govt policy that puts all the costs of climate change and economic change on to the working poor. The protests have evolved quite a bit since then to have a real political vision which will not be shared on prime time tv in any pub. As you know the revolution will not be televised.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qGaoXAwl9kw

  • Corin Stuart

    Quite

  • C Schafer

    Prevent the mass destruction of life on Earth! I don’t think we are that powerful – we are not gods. Accept that Extinction events happen and evolution will determine what comes next.

  • mikey

    Amazing! Thank you

  • Mark

    Odin fomented war and mayhem to shore up a corrupt kingdom paid for with the Earth’s flesh. Loki brought the corrupt era of Odin to an end. He deserves our respect.

  • Tom

    Man, I feel I’d have put it all down in this same way with this very slam bam way of injecting salient points had I applied myself to writing as have you. That said, I’ve glimpsed at some of your thoughts about writing… : )

  • Tom Hartland

    I stand at the bus stop in sunny Palm Springs wearing a t-shirt I had made especially for these occasions. In bold black letters across white fabric, it reads “STOP DRIVING.”

    Six asphalted lanes, three of them for the cars coming past me, facilitate the annoyed and boxed-in on their way to somewhere else, missing out on the mesquite pods dropped and ripened around me, the cloying sweetness of alyssum lining the sidewalk outside a strip of shops, perhaps destinations for some of these drivers, many of whom stare for a moment, seemingly riveted by the nonsense of my t-shirt’s directive, and don’t stop, not then and we’d assume, not ever, cars being as necessary to them as mesquite pods were to those who inhabited this desert valley for 5,000 years before us.

    And I think maybe it’s better to know where to find these pods and how to use them than it is to get where these drivers are going in their mobile conveniences and despite the heat of late summer, am glad for the inconvenience of waiting for a bus.

Leave a Reply to Corin Stuart Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

* *