In the beginning, there was American isolationism. And we saw that it was good. Let the empires of Europe and, while we’re at it, all the caliphates and imperial dynasties of the East with their inscrutable grievances, do their worst to one another. Meanwhile, we Americans would take the advice offered at the end of Voltaire’s classic comedy of errors, Candide, and tend our garden. From the Monroe Doctrine of 1823: “In the wars of European powers, in matters relating to themselves, we have never taken part, nor does it comport with our policy, so to do.”
It’s one thing to practice noninterference (which too often keeps company with nonfeasance) concerning the actions of foreign governments against one another or their own people. They aren’t coming for us, after all, at least not here where they have no jurisdiction. Whatever the cultural, ideological and economic reasons fueling animosities between foreign entities, we take refuge in the more-or-less wise counsel that they’re none of our business.
But brushing off brow-raising natural events in foreign lands is different. There are times when ignorance is just ignorance. Given that we humans are for the most part biologically homogenous regardless of where on the globe we reside, events with the potential to impact human mortality, living conditions and the supply lines on which our species depends are certainly our business, regardless of the advantages we believe American citizenship and residency confer upon us. Nature’s jurisdiction is universal.
In late 2019 Covid-19 forcibly occupied the Chinese city of Wuhan. The U.S.’s initial response was something like our answer to “ethnic skirmishes” in places we can’t pronounce: let them sort it out. Our national plan: to meme-ishly keep calm and carry on. In June of 2020 the Siberian town of Verkhoyansk reached 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit, the highest ever historical reading north of the Arctic Circle, another screaming sign of changing climatological times, Earth with a fever. Our “response” can be captured in a riff on the flippant immunity wish of the Sin City vacationer: what happens in Verkhoyansk stays in Verkhoyansk.
Regarding hyper-object sized, slow-moving ecological events such as pandemics and climate change, what allows us to look the other way is that their warning signals fail to trip our proximity sensors. Conveniently forgetting that nature is contiguous, we treat her like an itinerant foreign power whose quarrel is always in some vaguely-conceived, remote realm like Kamchatka, Scandinavia or Amazonia. However far away she makes mischief, we convince ourselves that it’s far enough away. We are like the tenement dweller hearing gunfire in the night. Reasoning that it’s coming from some other neighborhood, we go back to sleep.
“Oh Sleep! It is a gentle thing,” writes the poet Coleridge, “Beloved from pole to pole.” While Planet of the Apes’ astronaut George Taylor was out cold, we may remember, a lot happened on Earth, a lot happened to America. He woke from cryosleep in the year 3978 to find that we no longer ran the place. Waking up in the summer of 2020, we found the same thing.
While we were lost in American dreams, a beast, like a thing foretold in Yate’s The Second Coming, stirred, shrugged, and bristled, its “gaze blank and pitiless as the sun.” It wasn’t the Russian bear those of us over a certain age had been taught to fear. And it wasn’t the Chinese dragon for which Russky medved has been swapped out in this century. We’re talking about a behemoth far more primal and massive, an entity so hulking and ungraspable that we might, without intending to be nebulous, refer to it as being everywhere and nowhere: nature. It’s the rock surface on which we’ve drawn the words The United States in vanishing ink, it’s the blue-brown marble Earth, the solar system that set it spinning, and the universe that makes it look like child’s play. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. It would be enough for now if we could take even the marble in hand.
On coming fully to our senses we are shocked to learn that our species is attached to the offending monster, a badly-positioned limb in deep paresthesia. Where its present distemper leads, we go too. Like a Lovecraftian deity with a trillion limbs, some of which it’s always sloughing off, nature is one paroxysm away from seeing to our dismemberment. As we read in Mathew 5:29, “It is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.”
Even when nature is smaller than us she’s still bigger. In War of the Worlds, sci-fi pioneer H.G. Wells’s Martian invading force was stymied not by the impotent forces of collective humankind but rather by microscopic agents (a virus) whose mere dumb existence turned an unvaccinated technological juggernaut to extraterrestrial blood pudding. Wells’s Martians, enamored with their own technological superiority, were too cocksure for helmets. Used to staging our world wars, holy wars and political tugs-of-war beneath a 62 mile-high habitat dome, 2020 suddenly cast us in the role of space aliens newly landed, the mothership cautioning us not to lift our helmets in the miasmatic air, many of us breaking rank anyway.
By the time 2020 was in mid-career nature had unequivocally crossed the line drawn by the short-lived America First Committee in 1940: “We will fight anybody and everybody who attempts to interfere with our hemisphere.” Though not the first trespassers, Covid-19 and climate change are surely not the sort of anybody and everybody founding member Charles Lindberg had in mind when he issued that warning amid the standard World War II-era non-interventionist rhetoric.
While Covid-19 has accounted for over 350,000 American casualties, placing every neighborhood in the country on high alert, it may ultimately be recognized for having played the part of what swordsmen and military tacticians refer to as a feint, drawing our focus away from a second and, in the long-run, more devastating blow: climate change. Regarding climate change, while we’ve been poking nature for two centuries, this past year she mounted an assault on America’s West Coast that left dozens dead, the skies a Martian ochre and a Rhode Island’s worth of timber and structures incinerated. If we decode the communiques correctly, this was only a foray: additional forces are scheduled to land in the summer of 2021 and every foreseeable summer thereafter, making ever deeper inroads into ecosystems and economies already teetering.
Species tend to survive plagues. Feint. Whole families of species go extinct when the Earth’s climate changes significantly. Mortal thrust.
When we close the book on the Covid-19 pandemic and its after-effects (whenever that is), the climate change threat will have advanced several more years, barely slowed by lockdown-related decreases in carbon output. The thing about an invisible—to say nothing of mindless—enemy, is that it makes no formal declaration of war. This allows political figures, to whom such technicalities matter, to take credit for having kept us out of military conflicts in recent years. But to think we are in the midst of a new Pax Americana is to think in narrow and outmoded terms about what constitutes war.
Albert Einstein said, “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” In 2020 we glimpsed the weaponry with which we are already fighting World War III: N95 masks, fire hoses, dikes and climate accords. If I read human nature aright, World War IV will take place between factions blaming each other for the mess. (If we must save Roman numerals for wars with fellow men, I submit that, furthering the tradition of wars named for temperature ranges (e.g., the Cold War), we call the present war the Hot War. Let’s call it something, anyway.)
There’s something about this war that’s different from the numbered world wars. It’s an internecine war. I don’t mean like the American Civil War. That man-versus-man conflict was ended with English words spoken in a courthouse in Appomattox. Even if the Hot War could be cooled with words, we haven’t the right sort of words with which to do it. For that, we’d need to have the right sort of thoughts about it in the first place. It’s obviously not a man-versus-man war. And it’s not a man-versus-nature war. It’s a man-nature war. Just talking about it requires neologisms based on a shifted paradigm. I’ll let the thinker Alan Watts explain: “In the science of ecology one learns that a human being is not an organism in an environment, but is an organism hyphen environment (organism-environment), that is to say a unified field of behavior.”
How can our thinking about this relationship be constructive when American folklorists have led us to believe that nature was a thing that, on this continent at least, Yankee ingenuity brought to heel in the Nineteenth Century? Increasingly we have come to think of Earth as merely the stage upon which tribes of men wage their wars. Voltaire, writing in 1752, summed it up like this: “At this very moment, there are 100,000 madmen of our species wearing hats, killing 100,000 other animals wearing turbans, or being massacred by them, and we have used the surface of the Earth for this purpose since time immemorial.” When did we ever consider that our species shared a fragile armistice with the Earth itself, one whose terms we have, in the past two centuries, hazardously flouted?
The notion that humankind is something apart from nature was wrongheaded from the start. In Genesis 1:28, of the most read book of all time, we are instructed to, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the Earth and subdue it,” as if we were space travelers arrived on this planet with directions to overrun and dominate it. In his Essay on Man, published in 1734, poet Alexander Pope writes, “My footstool Earth, my canopy the skies,” invoking Isaiah 66: “The heaven is my throne, and the Earth is my footstool.” When we connect the dots, a blueprint for an Earth/man schism and the rank subjugation of the former by the latter begins to take shape. From the Bronze Age, through the Enlightenment, and on to the Anthropocene, we have been building a massive civilization up to this flawed code.
It’s time we sat for a talk: woolly mammoth to elephant (and donkeys too). Nature is bigger than American politics. How much bigger? We can think of no turn of phrase too hyperbolic to express the fact. “On a geological time scale, we’re just another rock,” author Roy Scranton writes in 2018, asserting that, in spite of our conceits—and maybe hastened by them—the Lilliputian human race is ever as fated to be reabsorbed into nature as those tractor-sized dinosaurs and burly Pleistocene megafauna who lumbered into the planet’s boneyard before us, their story now written in the stone of fossilized vertebrae and femurs, itself destined to be subducted into Earth’s magma in the unremitting taffy-pull of plate tectonics. This eons-long cycle too is scheduled for demolition as the planet is torched to a cinder in the sun’s bloated red death. It is a point worth making that our fossilized remains, for most of the geological minute they exist, will not be found wearing red hats or masks (or whatever quickly disintegrating scrap comes to symbolize our ideological divisiveness in the future).
Nature is inside us, outside us, and passing through us (as cosmic rays permeating us as if we were mere energy fields, which we are). We can’t get outside of nature to fight her; we can only bring down the temperature of the friction that builds along the fault lines of her colliding patterns. The past 200 years of Earth’s history represents a locus of inflammation in nature’s tissue, a growing red spot not to be outdone (to keep analogies in the sidereal neighborhood) by the Earth-sized crimson anticyclone observed for the past several centuries displacing Jupiter’s orderly bands.
Finding Earth bobbing in the limitless cold black sea, an alien exobiologist might at first be impressed by its prominent atmospheric technosignature, written boldly enough for anyone (anything?) with a spectrometer to spy from trillions of miles away, evidence of an intelligence ready for interstellar fraternization. But if this extraterrestrial scientist will only go to the trouble of analyzing our handwriting, it may, in those carbon-heavy strokes, recognize its own species’ neurotic and self-harming developmental phase. Will it cordon off our corner of space, festooning it with a stellar cartographer’s equivalent of biohazard tape? Will it take its own counsel not to interfere in a foreign war? Or will it find the prospect of a spreading inflammation too alarming to let pass? It will have to ask itself, How far away is far enough away?
This post is republished on Medium.
If you believe in the work we are doing here at The Good Men Project and want a deeper connection with our community, please join us as a Premium Member today.
Premium Members get to view The Good Men Project with NO ADS. Need more info? A complete list of benefits is here.
Photo credit: iStock