All a person really has to do is to listen closely to the lyrics to America the Beautiful, as my i-Pod lets me do here, to sense how very far we have come in just the last month or two. As I write, perhaps three, perhaps more (who knows?) nuclear reactors may be going totally out of control in northern Japan, a virtual mirror-image of where I live, here at the south end of the Willamette Valley in Oregon; vacant lots-full of rebels and their families look about to be butchered in Libya by a classic north-African dictator unless others can be butchered first . . . The latest news from Yahoo.com says that radiation from Japan will be so broadly dispersed by the time on reaches mainland American beaches that it will pose no threat, yet somehow, the looming clouds off to the west look different, are different. In any case, who knows? The very latest word has NATO fighter-jets bombing and strafing targets in Libya complemented by cruise missles into Tripoli from ships in the Mediterranean.
Remaining an optimist becomes an ever-steeper hill. Speaking our special and particular versions of the truth, each of us is driven to justify our unique and special take on the world. And so, more-and-more people seem content to live their lives in constant outrage, offended to their core at every nuance of act or of statement on the part of folks on the other side of whatever divide is erected. Even imagination will easily serve. The Other. Nobody’s talking, not any more. Verily, trying to follow it all is something like trying to herd red and black ants together across that weedy patch down there would be for anyone dumb enough to try it.
Palpably, there is a good deal in all this for lefties to feel self-righteous about. The twin catastrophes of the BP blowout in the Gulf of Mexico and the out-of-control nuclear plants in Japan are each textbook examples of scenarios that knowledgeable people have been warning about for decades. On top of this, of course, are the apocalyptic threats of rapid climate change and the consuming, ongoing denial of the motoring public that they need to become some other sort of public now. Everywhere. In terms of practicalities, the lumbering apparatus of modern politics seems nowhere up to the challenge: worldwide, there is little evidence that much of anything needful is happening, occasional headlines not to the contrary. On the whole, relations between countries look pretty medieval, only with much improved weapons and levels of media coverage that at present approach total saturation.
All these musings, of course, appear in even starker relief against America’s eternal optimism and the evident need to happy-face everything. Looking down from my second-floor windows onto Eugene’s 13th Avenue, even the Northwest’s most congenital pessimist would be hard-pressed to produce a shred of evidence for anything not somehow foreshadowing an even happier and more fulfilling tomorrow. Forty-six thousand recently attended a practice football game at the nearby university stadium. Thirteenth Avenue is by no means filled with cars, but the traffic is steady until nearly midnight, every night. And a good deal of the traffic consists of new and preternaturally shiny machines, most of them, incidentally, bled of all color. The meaning of this last is unclear, but it seems somehow oddly portentous and possibly dire. I’m not sure I’ve seen what I would call a beater since I got here, but occasionally a Mercedes or a Porsche of some variety I’ve never seen before cruises past in silent and silky arrogance.
In the end, biology and its ineluctable limits looks to be what will probably get us. Somehow — and, presumably, for some inescapable reason — we humans seem to have been wired-up in such a way that care for the future seems always undoable; at least, it has seldom been in evidence, even theoretically, and even after the fact. And, for the most part, most humans seem utterly unconcerned with the fate of anything dwelling on earth besides their own benighted selves. Just ask any muskrat, or ant, or codfish, any mountain or field of blowing dust and rusted cars. What good are any of them to us? How ‘bout those enormous cooling towers or the square miles under asphalt?
There was a brief period, from the time of Obama’s election until shortly after his inauguration, when, for most, a particular kind of giddiness reigned, at least in America. Finally, wars would be ended and justice would change every aspect of the landscape; through our aspirations and through the choices we as a people would make, glorious America would begin to regain its self-respect. Luck and good fortune had brought me to Washington at the time of Obama’s inauguration, and most were so ecstatically happy to see Dubya slink off the stage that a few nagging problems could be ignored for a while: the smirking chiseler from Texas would not be prosecuted, nor would his followers and handlers; the robed and bearded shadows in Afghanistan were singularly uncooperative, but the military could doubtless handle them; we would drill assertively; closing Guantanamo was much more complicated than it appeared at first.
Contrary to a few of my friends, even today I do not feel that Obama is an especially ‘bad’ or evil person: I do not picture a barrel of half-eaten babies by his parlor door. Clearly and unambiguously, he has accomplished some tough and important things. Gays — especially gays in the military — have gained by his election, as have most with college loans, and people with disabilities; roads and bridges everywhere are better-maintained than they have been in years; arguably, he has averted major worldwide depression, at least for the present; bin Laden is finally dead, although the extent to which this may have lessened the danger remains to be seen.
But, tragically, the list of things undone and promises unkept is much, much longer and dramatically more consequential than this. Ironically, the sum of all his other failings turns out to be of relatively minuscule importance in the face of Obama’s catastrophic dereliction of anything remotely like leadership on the subject of what might yet be done about accelerating climate change, which I will take to mark the end of the current list. If the science is accurate here, what we so bravely know as ‘civilization’ is likely to end within the lifetimes of the youngest now alive. Surely, this is larger news than the latest adventures of some politician’s penis. It is a good deal larger than who is to ‘lead’ us after Obama’s gone. It is larger than financial and nuclear meltdown or endless war or the latest outrage of the press. It is enough to conjure images of raiding parties and clubs and fire pits in spare desert light. And walking and hiding. A lot of walking and hiding.
To see this plain future no one needs special powers nor even a special ring. All the information is in print or cyberspace, as knowable as what appear to be the laws of causation or that hard little lump under your right nipple, right there. In the face of what is already, and inexorably, happening, to imagine that somehow that half-hour drive to work will make any sort of sense — or even remain possible — a mere decade or so from now seems the sheerest nonsense, and yet, there it is.
The range, depth, and sheer franticness of this refusal to deal usefully with what is clearly taking place provides a loose measure of the extent to which, not merely Americans, but most ‘civilized’ people anywhere, will apparently do anything to avoid honestly confronting the looming future. Folks continue to line up for thirty-year mortgages. For nearly everyone, the extinction of the passenger pigeon has not led to any sort of moderation: far from it, in fact. The shrinking of the ice caps has not done it; the extinction of much life at sea has not done it; mass starvation, mostly of little brown people (so far), has not done it; tornadoes and fires and hurricanes and floods have not done it; peak oil has not done it; five-dollar-per-gallon gasoline has not done it; thousands of animal and plant extinctions have not done it. In fact (and by any meaningful measure), it is hard to make a case that we, as ‘civilization’ have accomplished anything much in this regard at all. As ever, even folks who know better hop in the Nissan to get some bread, some brie, then pick up the girls at soccer, grab a movie for later. This seems unlikely to stop until it is no longer possible.
A few would have it, of course, that none of the dire predictions is true, and if some briefly appear to a few to be a little bit true, well then, it is doubtless of little matter; there are, of course, abstract theological, even political, reasons for all of this. The remnants of the so-called Left, from which so much is needed, continually re-establishes its futility, apparently being willing to settle for a sustained posture of increasing outrage — outrage! — in exchange for not being expected to accomplish much of anything worthwhile anywhere ever beyond granting a few hordes fleeting orgasms of self-righteousness and providing occasional picturesque backgrounds for news photographs as well as a good deal of ironic humor. In America, the crazy wing of the Republican Party and most ‘important’ business leaders should fairly be tried for crimes against humanity because of their misrepresentations. Leadership? Pollyanna herself becomes ever more cynical. Put mildly, we are in for a hell of a ride.
Like the man said, it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.
The screeching dissonance here would be a good deal more manageable if no children were in the picture; as luck would have it, though, not only are there children, but there are by now also grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Looking out through the spring leaves of the trees lining Thirteenth Street here in Eugene, an old man wants to be optimistic, wants to believe that for all these wonderful young people he has had a hand (so to speak) in bringing onto this planet, there will be a future, and that future will likely be as pleasing as his has so far been. The problem, of course, is that in order to believe this, the scientists, the folks who by any rational measure know the most about what’s beginning to happen, the glaciologists and atmospheric physicists, the geologists and botanists, the ichthyologists and evolutionary biologists, the specialists in deep-ocean sediments and coral reefs: pretty much all of these people need to be wrong, and the people with the half-hour commutes and the jet-skis and the mortgages and the trips to the soccer field and to the mall: all those people need to be correct in assuming somehow that tomorrow will continue to look pretty much just like today, only longer. Maybe I have somehow become a raving old man whose interests have narrowed to a single, foolish point, perhaps merely a colorful eccentric, but I just can’t make that picture work any longer.
Trying desperately to turn his long alcoholic breakdown into currency, Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that a ‘first-rate intelligence’ (whatever that might be) could continue to function even while knowing that its actions are useless. This seems as good a statement as any of how to spend this end time here in this much-abused place. Most younger people, and most who presume to run the place, seem likely to continue their costly habits of denial, at least until external conditions empty the tilt-up stores of their stuff and turn much of the Interstate Highway System into tough, empty spaces. The rest of us will continue to try, with little real hope, to adjust our lives in rational ways to these strange new realities, these unprecedented rhythms.