By Elliot Sperber
On the anniversary of the Japanese attack on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor, with typhoon Bopha having just spread vast carnage throughout the South China Sea, it is interesting to consider the parallels that exist between the Japanese attack and such global warming-caused weather events. Among their other similarities, both the attack on Pearl Harbor and global warming-caused disasters result from the industrial, imperialistic scramble for, and exploitation of natural resources. And though the Japanese bombardment surprised many, but was not unanticipated, likewise the typhoons, hurricanes, and other disasters increasing in intensity and frequency throughout the world might come as something of a surprise, but are not unanticipated in light of what we know about climate change. Furthermore, if the Japanese attack led to an alteration in the world social order, the ravages attending global warming-caused events threaten a change of an even more radical magnitude.
Remarkable for striking a region that does not usually suffer from such storms, Typhoon Bopha is in this respect similar to Hurricane Sandy – whose destruction has yet to be corrected. Indeed, though it’s been nearly six weeks since Superstorm Sandy’s landing, and one might think that the situation is returning to normal (whatever ‘normal’ means these days), in actuality the weather-caused displacements have yet to subside. For the tens of thousands of people who have lost their homes, or are still living without electricity or heat in these days of advancing winter, not only do these conditions persist, recovery may still be months away; there is not even any certainty that former conditions will ever be recovered.
While it may be attributable to the neo-liberal program that neglects collectively owned resources in order to induce their privatization, it is nevertheless a fact that the State these days is hardly able to maintain even its more mundane infrastructures (like bridges, roads, sewage and public transportation systems, and nuclear power plants) without the additional stresses wrought by “extreme weather” events. As such, it doesn’t seem too contentious to suggest that, as these hurricanes and typhoons (as well as tornadoes, floods, fires, droughts, and other harms) deliver their unrelenting combination blows in the months and years ahead, the State’s already limited capacities to prepare and respond will become only more circumscribed. Inadequately attended to, the wreckages wreathing Staten Island, Queens, and the Jersey shore, among the other places hit by Sandy – not to mention the places struck by Bopha – will not only fester, but will degenerate further, adding inexorably to the planet’s growing slum population.
Though some will no doubt attribute such a conjecture to the unreasonably fearful, or to the unreasonably hopeful (eager for the collapse of the usurious system), the recognition of the advancement of catastrophic environmental conditions by the infamously conservative insurance industry, and the World Bank, ought to do much to deflect charges of well-intentioned, but ultimately misled, alarm. The World Bank’s November, 2012 report, Turn Down the Heat, for instance, warns that rising temperatures pose an imminent peril to not only its investments, but to civilization itself. Current trends, their conservative report warns, will likely lead to a temperature increase of four degrees centigrade “as early as the 2060s.” Such a rise in temperature would be nothing short of cataclysmic for all but jellyfish. To be sure, most climate scientists maintain that temperature increases above 3°C would precipitate mass die-offs.
In some senses, then, the coming “unprecedented heat waves, severe droughts, and major floods” warned of in the World Bank’s report, along with their attendant famines and epidemics, may be likened to some sort of armada of hostile ships approaching the planet. Landing singly for now, dispersed in time as well as space, if drastic action is not taken it won’t be long before their masses land constantly, overwhelming efforts to resist. And while the approach of such an armada, or any such assembly of threats, would elicit alarm in any reasonable person, or government, the US government, and the business powers it overwhelmingly represents, repeatedly demonstrate their utter lack of ‘reasonableness’ by continuing to practice their particularly venal brand of denialism. And though some in power – like the World Bank, and various congresspersons – at least recognize that there is a serious problem, aside from conceding that “serious policy changes” need to be implemented, and that harms indeed need to be “mitigated,” such phrasing implies that they don’t think their economic system needs to be extirpated. Yet, it does; for capitalist forms of economic and social organization not only obstruct efforts to correct harmful conditions (of all sorts, including global warming), but their normal functioning creates these very conditions in the first place. That is, the armada of hostile ships referred to above is not simply coming to attack us; its materials were mined, and refined, and their parts were designed and built and launched by us as well, in order to reap profits. And though many of these “ships” have already been launched, stopping not only production, but changing the system that compels people to produce unnecessary, harmful things in order to simply survive, would not only limit the multiplication of such disasters, and reduce the severity of those already on their way, it would be a step in the direction of a just world as well.
While in general public opinion is largely supportive of economic models that halve – or even quarter – the length of the workweek, resistance to the notion of abandoning cars, among other things that give rise to ecocide, often elicit apoplectic reactions. Related to outbursts such as these, it deserves mention that while they’re predictably quiet regarding his Disposition Matrix, and other actual abuses, the sensationalistic denunciations of Republicans regarding Barack Obama’s economic measures (in spite of the latter’s deep conservatism) veer into just this type of reaction. Indeed, it is so vitriolic – insisting, among other things, that his tepid health care reform would initiate so-called ‘death panels’ – that in denouncing him in such a manner one would think that Republicans would have used up their biggest rhetorical weapons. By painting Obama not merely as a wild extremist, but as the Antichrist himself, it is difficult to imagine what they could come up with that’s any worse. And should an actual radical political organization come along at some point – with a truly radical platform – it leads one to wonder what Republicans could offer in terms of denunciations that they haven’t already.
Beyond mirroring ‘the boy who cried wolf’, by pursuing such an extreme type of rhetoric, it seems the Republicans may have created a type of drama around ‘No Drama Obama’ which has induced a type of Aristotelian catharsis among its audience. By allowing audiences to purge their fears and passions in the safe and abstract realm of fantasy, Aristotle maintained that drama prepared audiences for an encounter with comparable events in reality. As such, by way of just such a cathartic process, the Republicans may have, ironically, to some degree, come to terms with the future arrival of a radical, socialist government.
Democrats, on the other hand, exposed to an entirely different narrative, see a wholly different picture. According to their story, Obama is a reasonable – even wise – leader whose efforts at establishing “a more perfect union” are repeatedly stymied by obstructionist Republicans – even when Democrats held a supermajority in congress. In addition to overlooking the peculiar fact that the two parties share virtually identical world views, this story also fails to consider that reasonable persons would not only not ignore the cataclysmic ecological exigencies confronting us, but would actively pursue energy and economic policies designed to correct these. Yet Obama, who neglects to pursue such an agenda, and actively abets the business community’s worst practices, somehow continues to present himself as a reasonable person (just as he misrepresented himself as an agent of change) and somehow manages to be taken seriously. Indeed, his (and the Republicans) neglect of advancing ecological catastrophe is of such severity, and such a breach of responsibility, that it ought to be indictable as a crime against humanity. However, Obama and company no doubt sleep well, aware that the International Criminal Court in The Hague, along with the rest of The Netherlands, will most likely be well under water in no time. In spite of all of this, as it is spelled out over much of the mass media, the Democrats’ political fantasy regarding Obama’s reasonableness is not so easily dispelled.
So, though Republicans’ hyperbole couldn’t grow more volatile (what is worse than charges of Hitlerism?), and couldn’t impede Obama more than they already do, it seems the actual obstacle to a more progressive Obama – as has been apparent all along – is not the unreasonableness of the Republicans, but the very unreasonableness of Obama and the Democrats. And though the Democrats would rejoin that they are being entirely reasonable, they seem to be unable to comprehend that their particular variety of reasonableness is itself subordinated to the overarching unreasonableness involved in organizing the world according to the priorities of business interests.
To some degree this dynamic may be elucidated through reference to Freud’s Reality Principle. Unlike thinkers from Spinoza to the Marquis de Sade, and beyond, who maintained that human behavior is motivated by the pursuit of pleasure (what Freud called the Pleasure Principle), and the avoidance of what causes pain, Freud maintained that something else is involved. Like the Old Stoics of the Hellenistic period, who held that people are not motivated so much by pleasure as by the pursuit of a greater harmony, one in which suffering is sometimes necessary, Freud maintained a similar thing (although his notion of harmony is of a particularly bourgeois cast). Because the unrestricted pursuit of pleasure ultimately leads to pain, he argued, it too had to be limited – by what Freud termed the Reality Principle.
Among other stories, Aesop’s fable of the Grasshopper and the Ants illustrates this dynamic. An arguably more sophisticated telling of this, however, is rendered in the story of The Three Little Pigs. Readers may recall that the little pigs who pursued pleasure most – slap-dashedly constructing their homes from straw and sticks – saw their homes destroyed by the predations of the wolf. Meanwhile, the more responsible pig, who had internalized the Reality Principle, who deferred pleasure in order to build a sturdy house of bricks, not only prevailed over, but succeeded in eating the wolf.
While it may be a shortcoming of these stories – which instruct children on the merits of being good ants (workers), and pigs (consumers) – in their ascriptions of reasonableness, or of a Reality Principle, to Obama, his proponents reveal a profound one. For the purported Reality Principle of Obama is in actuality subordinated to the system’s incessant drive for growth and consumption – a drive leading not only to the world-wrecking ravages of global warming, but to epidemics of stress, heart-disease, cancer, famine, war, and other ills. That is, while the moderation, and thrift of the historical middle classes may continue to function ideologically (as internalized domination), these are firmly in the service of what Freud would describe not even as the Pleasure Principle, but what in his later writings he termed the Death Drive.
Opposed to survival, and the other creative drives, according to Freud the Death Drive is “an urge in organic life to restore an earlier [inorganic] stage of things.” In dominating the natural, as well as the social world, deforming the living and natural world into inorganic commodities and waste, rather than exemplifying the Pleasure Principle, or the Reality Principle, contemporary social organization seems to be manifesting the aggressive destructiveness wrapped up in just this urge.
And though Freud held that the aggressive destructiveness of the Death Drive was an innately human phenomenon, he nevertheless contended that it could be overcome by way of a type of social Reality Principle, one rooted not in the destructive power of Thanatos, but in the generative, healing force of Eros. Indeed, it is interesting to point out that in addition to representing Armageddon, or the end times, the notion of apocalypse also means revelation, or unconcealment. As such, one may argue that the revelation, or unconcealment of the actual, ecocidal harms attending the present socioeconomic system (concealed by the culture industry) would instantiate apocalypse not in the sense of ending the world in general so much as contributing to the end of this particular form of social organization.
As this Death Drive hurtles us toward ecological holocaust, it is interesting to consider that rather than by opposing it by force – which only ever enhances its strength – we can deprive this drive of its power not so much by working (like the dead), but, rather, like Eros, by playing dead. For, though the forces of domination are far more dangerous than, say, a bear, or a bee, by playing dead, by refusing to participate – by removing our bodies from the gas pedal, withdrawing not only our ‘moral’ support, but our actual physical energy and labor from its reproduction of harms – by not paying our bills, among other things – like a fire deprived of its fuel, this system of death will soon slow and expire. And the armada of disasters advancing toward us – whose attack should not come as any surprise – will by and by dissipate. What do we have to lose, but our diseases?
Elliot Sperber is a writer, attorney, and contributor to hygiecracy.blogspot.com He lives in New York City, and can be reached at email@example.com