by Eli Beckerman
"We have since defined Gaia as a complex entity involving the Earth's biosphere, atmosphere, oceans, and soil; the totality constituting a feedback or cybernetic system which seeks an optimal physical and chemical environment for life on this planet."
—James Lovelock, British Scientist (1)
(Swans - December 19, 2005) Holy shit, what a vigorous beating we've been giving this planet the last 200 years! Imagine the whole Earth as a living organism, as in the Gaia philosophy, and the violent extractions of resources and toxic releases of poisons as though they were performed on a living organism. Imagine mining our bones for the materials to build machines on the surface of our skin, fueling those machines by burning the plasma sucked from within us, and spewing harmful waste byproducts directly into our lungs. We wouldn't survive long. Humans, while studying mutually beneficial interrelationships between Earth's creatures, engage in parasitism instead.
To Earth's credit, she might get a little sick from this unsustainable coup that Homo sapiens (particularly the European variety) has attempted, but she will recover. For a justice-minded Gaia, how sweet the crude oil made of our decomposed bodies must taste. And how bitter the bodies of those destroyed in the process of reaction, in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, Thailand, the US Gulf Coast, and Pakistan must be. For the victims of these earthquakes and storms are hardly the ones responsible. Of course, I am skipping the evidence of causality and the rigor of its claim, and opting instead for a philosophical assertion.
2005 started off on grim footing, with the world reacting to the tragedies caused by that massive earthquake in the Indian Ocean which triggered the deadly tsunami. With nearly 300,000 lives lost (2) -- 100 times the loss of life on September 11 and much more devastation -- it was interesting to see Americans genuinely concerned about people with brown and yellow skin in foreign lands. But as the anniversary of the tragedy nears, many victims remain homeless, and the people of the United States have moved on to other more intimate horrors. Indeed, when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, and the US government failed to respond, it became entirely unnecessary to look beyond our shores for others to pity. And when tragedy struck Pakistan in the form of the South Asian earthquake in October, Americans were spent. Our sympathy had run dry.
While it is unlikely, perhaps, that man's foot stomp on this Earth had anything to do with the earthquakes of 2004 and 2005, it is entirely likely that it had a hand in the intensity and impact of catastrophic Katrina. From private development of the wetlands, which provide a natural barrier to storm surges, to greater populations in coastal regions, to warmer oceans and intensifying storms over the past 50 years, it is likely that Katrina is simply heralding a new era of natural disaster tragedy. Studies are finally showing a trend of warming oceans, likely caused by man-made emission of greenhouse gases, and possible correlations with intensified tropical storms. (3) And according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), 2005 has shattered records -- with 26 named storms (21 in 1933), 13 hurricanes (12 in 1969), 4 major hurricanes (3 in 2004), and 3 Category 5 storms (2 in 1960, 1961). (4)
My review of 2004 summed up that year as a big waste, with the qualification inspired by Rodin that nothing is wasted if you can learn from it. And while 2005 has showed some signs of lessons learned, we had better start acting on them fast.
Cindy Sheehan has learned from the anti-war movement's failure in 2004 to create an independent political movement. Her found wisdom is summed up in the following statement: "I will not make the mistake of supporting another pro-war Democrat for president again, as I won't support a pro-war Republican. This country wants this occupation to end. The world wants the occupation to end. People in Iraq want this occupation to end." And on Hillary's message on Iraq: "That sounds like Rush Limbaugh to me. That doesn't sound like an opposition party leader speaking to me. What Sen. Clinton said after our meeting sounds exactly like the Republican Party talking points I heard from Senators Dole and McCain." (5) Sheehan has even inspired an anti-war challenger in Hillary's Senate race, labor activist Jonathan Tasini. But everyone should know that Clinton's seat is secure, unless, of course, there were a national effort to oust her. Why? Because money equals votes.
The anti-war movement, if I may call it one, has also learned another lesson -- that marches and rallies do little to change anything. Even Cindy Sheehan's civil disobedience at the White House gates and her ensuing arrest didn't raise many eyebrows. Putting the movement's energy into new tactics, however, has raised quite a large number of eyebrows. Most prominent among these is the incredible momentum behind a decentralized nationwide counter military-recruitment drive. Presenting the other side to military recruiters' charming lies is nothing new to the American Friends Service Committee or the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors, but what is new is the massive grassroots support for this work, especially among students themselves. While it's hard to pin the US Armed Forces' enlistment woes on anything other than the risk and futility of the Iraq War, it is clear that counter-recruitment organizing is making an impression and making it even harder for the Pentagon to reach its recruitment targets.
The most important lessons, however, were learned by people who were previously blind to the cold indifference of the US government when the poor people of New Orleans were ripped from their city and scattered across the nation. And the television news actually showed some of this. They showed desperate and abandoned people in the Convention Center and Superdome, and then journalists actually expressed outrage at FEMA Director Michael Brown for being ignorant of this. Someone actually lost his job in the Bush Administration for corruption and incompetence, though this was by resignation, of course. Myths and delusions were crushed by Katrina -- that we had increased emergency readiness since September 11th, that we were the best damn nation in the history of the world, that those elected to serve us actually gave two shits about us.
People's perceptions have certainly changed, with majorities disapproving of both the president and the US Congress. But there is still nobody stepping into the vacuum. And that is the lesson we should all learn from 2005 -- that we need to fill the void ourselves. We need to change the ways we live, the ways we learn, and the ways we love. We need leaps forward in our strategies and tactics -- building the economic, social, and political infrastructure to support the likes of Cindy Sheehan, the scattered and disempowered survivors of Katrina, and all the victims of Gaia's retaliations past and future.