Chapter 1 – Doomed Voyages

By 1JustCity Citizen
February 8, 2016


Chapter 1 – Doomed Voyages

Hedges begins this chapter telling the story of a seventy-six year old women who experienced Hurricane Sandy. For the poor people of the Eastern Seaboard, Hurricane Sandy in October 2012 was the Katrina of the North. It once again exposed the nation’s fragile, dilapidated, and shoddy infrastructure, one that crumbles under minimal stress. The storm highlighted the inability of utility companies as well as state and federal agencies to cope with the looming environmental disasters, that the climate crisis will cause to grow in intensity and frequency. But most important, Sandy illustrated the depraved mentality of the oligarchic and corporate elite that, as conditions worsens, retreats into self-contained gated communities, guts basic services, and abandons the wider population.

Increasingly freakish weather patterns ensure that storms like Sandy – which resulted in some $42 billion in property and infrastructure damage, as well as 147 direct deaths – will become routine.

This is new in America. It is an America where economic and environmental catastrophes will converge to trigger systems breakdown and collapse. It is an America that, as things unravel, will increasingly sacrifice the weak, the poor and the destitute.

Hedges describes peoples experiences dealing with the emotional and physical cost of Hurricane Sandy. Stories of people who experienced devastation show how the state and companies have done little to assist people with the aftermath of the hurricane.

Hedges goes on to say that as we descend into a world where we can depend less and less on those who hold power, movements like Occupy will become vital. These movements might not be called Occupy, and they might not look like Occupy. But whatever the names and forms of the self-help we create, we will have to find ways to fend for ourselves. And we will fend for ourselves only by building communitarian organizations.

We are at point in history where the consequences of climate change, along with stagnant and declining economies, will trigger mass migration, widespread famine, the spread of deadly infectious diseases, and levels of human mortality that will dwarf those of the Black Death. Hedges goes on to describe the potential tragic ramifications that lie before us. He states that no act of rebellion can be effective, much less moral, unless it first takes into account reality, no matter how bleak that reality.

Civilizations have followed a familiar pattern of disintegration. The difference this time is that there will be no new lands to conquer, no new people to subjugate, and no new resources to plunder. When the unraveling begins, it will be global. At first, parts of the world will be safer and more amenable to life. But any sanctuary will be temporary.

One of the most prescient portraits of our ultimate fate as a species is found in Herman Melville’s novel about a doomed whaling voyage, Moby- Dick. Melville paints our murderous obsessions, our hubris, our violent impulses, moral weakness, and inevitable self-destruction in his chronicle of the quest by a demented captain, Ahab, for the white whale. Melville is American’s foremost oracle.

Ahab’s grievances in the novel are real. But his self-destructive fury ensures the Pequod’s fate. And those on the ship, on some level, know they are doomed – just as many of us know that a consumer culture based on corporate profit, limitless exploitation of the earth, and the continued extraction of fossil fuels is doomed.

We too see the danger signed. The ecosystem is visibly disintegrating. Scientists from the International Programme on the State of the Ocean (IPSO) issued a report in 2013 warning that the oceans are changing even faster than anticipated and increasingly becoming inhospitable to life. The oceans have absorbed much of the excess carbon dioxide and heat from the atmosphere, and this absorption is rapidly warming and acidifying ocean waters. This process is compounded, the report notes, by increased levels of deoxygenatation from nutrient runoffs due to farming and climate change.

Speculators have seized control of the global economy and the levers of political power. They do not make money from the means of production. Rather, they ignore or rewrite the law – ostensibly put in place to protect the weak from the powerful – to steal from everyone, including their own shareholders. They produce nothing. They make nothing. They only manipulate money. They are no different from the detested speculators who were hanged in the seventeenth century, when speculation was a capital offense.

The obscenity of their wealth is matched by their utter lack of concern for the growing numbers of the destitute. In early 2014, the world’s 200 richest people made $13.9 billion, in one day, according to Bloomberg’s billionaires index. This hoarding of money by elites, according to the ruling economic model, is supposed to make us all better off, but in fact the opposite happens when wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few individuals and corporations. The rest of us have little or no influence over how we are governed, and our wages stagnate or decline. Underemployment and unemployment become chronic. Social services, from welfare to Social Security, are slashed in the name of austerity.

Our major preoccupation is pleasure. Margaret Atwood, in her novel Oryx and Crake, observes that as a species “we’re doomed by hope.” This mantra to be positive, to be happy. This mania for optimism – for happiness leads to fantasy being mistaken for reality. Reality is dismissed when it is unpleasant.

The portrayal of reality in the state-controlled press and popular entertainment is harmonious and pleasant. Justice, in the narrative approved for public consumption, is always served. Goodness always triumphs. Goals are always attained. This dichotomy, although not on the level of Stalin’s Soviet or Hitler’s Nazi Germany, is nevertheless present in American culture and getting worse. The gap between who we are and who we think we are is steadily expanding.

When societies break down, their words, or at least the words used in everyday discourse, no longer make sense. What is real cannot be spoken about. What is not real is used to define the legal, moral, and linguistic foundations of society.

Back to Moby Dick, Ahab is no simple tyrant. Melville toward the end of the novel gives us two glimpses into Ahab’s internal battle between his maniacal hubris and his humanity. Ahab, like most of us, yearns for love. He harbours regrets over his deformed life. The black cabin boy Pip – who fell overboard during one hunt and subsequently went insane – is the only crew member who evokes any tenderness in the captain. Ahab is aware of his tenderness and fears its power.

It is not accidental that it is love for a child that nearly transforms Ahab and does in the end transform Lear. It is only when the care of another, especially a child, becomes our primary concern that we can finally see and understand why we were created.

For those who have spent years in wars, it is the suffering of children that most haunts us. If, as a society, we see that our principal task is the care of children, of the next generation, then the madness of the moment can be dispelled. But idols have a power over human imagination, as they do over Ahab, that defines reason, over and finally sanity.

One can be brave on a whaling ship or a battlefield, yet a coward when called on to stand up to human evil.

It is the religion of capitalism, the maniacal quest for wealth at the expense of others, that turns human beings into beasts of prey.

This quest creates a culture that is dominated by guilt; a sense of inadequacy, and self-loathing and that enslaves nearly all its adherents through wages.

With every acquisition the starting point for new desires, capitalism leaves human beings with a sense of never being able to achieve equilibrium. Capitalism is probably the first instance of a cult that creates guilt, not atonement.

Communities and communal organizations that manage to break free from the dominant culture will find a correlation between the amount of freedom they enjoy and the amount of independence they attain in a world where access to land, food, and water has become paramount. Such communities that share the burdens of a disintegrating society, such as the ad hoc one formed in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, are our best hope for sustaining the intellectual and artistic traditions that define the heights of human culture and permit the common good. As those who build these communitarian structures discard the religion of capitalism, their acts of charity and resistance will merge – and they will be condemned by the corporate state.

By Katherine Davis

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