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It Would Be Nice to Have Some Environmental (and Social) Common Sense

Fred Buell

August 22, 2013

Category: Society > Government and Politics

The class of '64 emerged during a World War, then toddled into consciousness under the shadow of another historical singularity, the prospect of atomic Armageddon. At the same time, it found itself in an unprecedented postwar boom. All measurements of growth spiked, from population to wealth to environmental impacts.

World-end then returned in the early Sixties when Rachel Carson announced a different kind of Armageddon, an environmental one that came from this very growth.

Then doom blended into transformation in the dayglo dawn of the Age of Aquarius and the rainbow dawn of a new civil-rights movement. National cultural identity began a new post-national transformation; then gender did.

But then apocalypse returned as dominant in the 1970s, with national decline, race riots, oil shortage, and analyses of imminent environmental collapse. The Cuyahoga River burned. Lake Erie rotted. Urban smog and heat inversions killed thousands. Oil dried up. America was humbled.

Then suddenly it was Morning in America. Oil flowed, America resurged; the environment's only enemy was the environmental movement and its un-American Chicken-Littles. The Cold War ended. The wall and the empire behind it collapsed. New industries proliferated, each one completely changing life as we had known it. Neo-Darwinian capitalism blossomed, and enthusiasm for growth forgot all the anxieties that had previously surrounded it. A liberatory globalization seemed to complete a transformation of national and global identity. This lasted a little while.

But, then, suddenly, America was attacked, oil ran out, the economy tanked, and major forms of environmental damage and crisis again showed through attempts to deny them — most notably with climate change, but also in a startling new proliferation of social-environmental crises (including toxic chemicals, infectious diseases, accelerated ecosystem destruction, species extinctions, resource wars, environmental refugees, freshwater and ocean depletion, and so on).

Our generation's run, in short, seen in retrospect, has been a stroboscopic light show of exuberant and catastrophic times "when everything changed." Spent paradigms mark our passage, not linearity. But two of the changes marked real global watersheds passed — times when indeed everything changed.

One change was civil and human rights, the mingling of cultural identities as normative, new communications across borders, new hybridities — in short, what has now appeared as globalization.  Humanly, we live in a full world, with no "unknown peoples" left for "us" to colonize.

The other change was the decisive passing over a vast environmental-historical watershed: a time when human beings had acquired the unheard-of power of changing everything everywhere and doing it quickly. No longer did we simply depend on nature; it also depended on us. We entered the Anthropocene — a time when the natural stability that nourished us since the invention of agriculture (the era called the Holocene) gave way to a new normal of tricky instability and rising risk. Megastorms, wildfires, collapses, indeterminable effects for chemicals and biotech, new potential plagues, terrorism, rapidly propagating economic and social crises. In short, ours is a full world in another sense: one with no "unknown spaces" or resiliences left to dissipate the stresses and, even more, the risks "we" create.

Our politics need to catch up to these huge, world-historical changes. Both parties are wanting. But the Republican right is denial incarnate. Its advocacy of anti-science environmental ignorance is appalling. Its infatuation with Ayn Rand's inept writing signals not only a repugnant social vision, but an absence of aesthetic taste. Our society needs to act in the present, not in opportunistic fantasy.