"As we got further away, the Earth diminished in size,” said astronaut James Irwin. “Finally it shrank to the size of a marble, the most beautiful marble you can imagine… Seeing this has to change a man.” Standing on the moon, Apollo mission astronauts sometimes wept, seeing our planet as a small blue dot easily blotted out by a thumb. After landing, they spoke of planet Earth as a tiny pearl of life engulfed by the vast- ness of space.
Often they repeated that the national borders we killed over could not be seen from that distance. The gods we worshipped, the flags we saluted, the property lines we drew all blurred into meaninglessness. And yet few, if any, of the astronauts tried to replace those totems with a new one. Instead all that false authority was eclipsed by the feeling of aloneness, a sense of the smallness of our lives against the cosmic darkness and the impression that we have nothing but each other in this universe.
It’s been decades since astronauts stood on the moon, and now we are being forced to see from the ground what they saw in space. Climate change is shrinking our measure of the planet as the carbon spew of a few nations causes the tides to rise for dozens of others. We are interconnected against our will. Faced with a question of survival, we have only one answer: a new global humanism.
Paradoxically, one obstacle to that consciousness is the environmental movement itself. Looking to the horizon, it sees disasters. It extrapolates from today’s fossil fuel burning civilization the end times, which is why apocalyptic imagery has become its language. But what if the movement escaped its orbit of panic and saw, from a great distance, a sustainable human society? What vision of tomorrow could it offer, beyond solar panels and wind- mills? We need revolutionaries to present a new idea of Earth, a tiny pearl of life that we wear in solidarity.
Standing on a Long Island Railroad platform, I stared at a billboard that showed a dripping faucet over a plea in large font to conserve water. “You know, at some point,” a woman standing near me said, “they won’t be asking us, they’ll be ordering us.”
Use less water, ride a bike, turn off the lights, carpool, recycle, eat less meat — we are told every day that climate change heralds a world of scarcity. The images we have of the future are ones of farmland cracking under the blazing sun, crowded cities teeming with the poor and whole towns buried by endless rain or giant floods or dust storms. The future is an apocalyptic world held together by a totalitarian state that rations life to the masses.
This vision emanates from every level of society. In the ruling class, peer-reviewed scientific pronouncements of doom circulate. The alarming Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports and the U.S. National Climate Assessment are just two of the innumerable studies pointing to a dead world. When talking of the wildfires that incinerated 400 square miles in Washington, President Obama said, “A lot of it has to do with drought…and a lot of that has to do with climate change."
In mid-brow culture, we’ve been watching cinematic nightmares of the future for decades. In Soylent Green (1973), trucks scooped starving people into pens and the food they ate turned out to be recycled corpses. In Waterworld (1995), Keven Kostner played an anti-hero who sold dirt on an earth where almost all land had been sub- merged by rising oceans. And The Day After Tomorrow (2004) showed with sadistic glee New York’s skyscrapers frozen into gi- ant icicles as climate change wrecked North America. Apocalyptic imagery has saturated our culture and become an ideological background to our politics.
We in the environmental movement are locked within end times imagery, reading the violent weather as warning signs. On the news, we see drought strike California, Hurricane Sandy lash New York City and the planet’s ice shelf break like glass. We see climate refugees emerge from the nightmare future into the present like a film where characters stumble out of the screen into real life.
Burdened with this vision, scientists and activists scream at the masses, who only incrementally accept climate change. A 2014 Gallup poll showed that 39 percent of Americans are “concerned believers” who believe global warming is real and caused by industry. The ranks of “skeptics” who believe it is neither real nor caused by society is 25 percent. In the world, awareness is highest in South America, Europe and Asia but the understanding that it’s man-made and a true threat plummets dramatically in Russia, the Middle East and Africa.
And this is the tragic scene. We see a disaster coming that many don’t believe in or don’t care about. And we are blind to the consequences of our discourse of catastrophe, which falls on the deaf ears of listeners who either don’t “feel” climate change or do but not as a threat. Indeed, the rhetoric has the opposite effect of what is intended: Faced with a future of scarcity, one’s instinct is to cling to what is known. Often that means the very political and economic system creating the disaster.
We aren’t saying a terrifying truth. Our civilization is dying and nothing can stop it, but if it lingers, the earth will die too and with it, the very possibility of life. Our historical role is to kill off capitalism and create a nearly weightless civilization that lies gently on the land. But the new world we want is one that frees the spirit. And that’s why we have to switch from forecasting apocalypse to imagining utopia.
The Giving Tree
Faced with a ruined earth, how can we think of utopia? If we are told the future is one of scarcity, how do we create abundance? The global population is at 7.2 billion now and projected by the U.N. to rise to nearly 10 billion by 2050. And with this swelling of people, we long ago surpassed the earth’s biocapacity, its ability to reproduce arable land, fresh water, fish and animal stocks. We consume an earth and a half’s worth of resources and are gobbling up more because nothing tastes better than extinction.
The first piece of the utopian vision to put in place is the material base. The technology has and does exist for a weightless human civilization. A 2008 Worldwatch Institute report showed that the sun-baked Southwest United States, if filled with solar arrays, could churn out seven times more electricity than all other sources combined. Solar heaters can boil half the world’s hot water while spinning wind turbines can generate 20 percent of the globe’s electricity, and geothermal heat and ocean tides could generate even more voltage.
The Scrooge McDuck-like pools of wealth of the 1 percent can pay for it many times over. We can pave roads between villages and cities, install solar panels and illuminate the homes of the poor. And that means they’ll be connected via the Internet to the great storehouses of knowledge as well as popular culture. We can erect wind turbines on blustery hills and create energy for the electric cars in the streets. And eat less meat, lowering the amount of fuel used to produce all those goddamn burgers and make a healthy, high-calorie diet available to everyone. We can build hospitals in every corner of the world and provide health care, specifically free contraception, so that women can choose how many children to have.
If we revolt against the 1 percent, with nonviolent pro- test as well as strategic property destruction, we can create a world of abundance. But wasn’t this always possible? The the earth’s biocapacity and, accordingly, global population growth have finite limits, but they are elastic de- pending on the political economy. Since the Agricultural Revolution, when the first city gave rise to the first ruling class, humanity has recreated a vertical society with a vicious hierarchy, where the wealthy few lord over masses living in artificial scarcity.
Political economy has at least two sides. One is the production, distribution and consumption of material commodities, the physical stuff on store shelves; the other is the immaterial commodity of status. Civilization is an eternal pyramid in which the top spots are rare and expensive, visible and honored. At the base, innumerable people live and die hard, anonymous lives. They suffer from status scarcity.
It’s why even with the massive productive powers of a post-industrial society we still see the poor dying from hunger, dying from dirty water, dying from neglect. This has been the arc of civilization since the ancient Mesopotamian city of Uruk. Economist Thomas Picketty, in his book Capital in the 21st Century, mapped how income equality is built into capitalism and grows into a class chasm during peacetime. A century and a half before him, Karl Marx showed hu- man alienation to be the pivot on which the economy turns.
Today the giant wheel of capital is grinding not just our souls but the earth itself. The only way to avoid “brown economy” end times, in which the ruling elites buy zones safe from nature’s collapse as the rest of us die, is to mobilize a popular movement that speaks to more than people’s fear. If a Green Revolution is to happen, we have to switch from apocalyptic imagery to utopian prophecy, to create a cultural “wilding” that opens horizon- tal spaces into which people can enter and join the carnival.
During the height of the Occupy movement, I was on the subway when two teens of color came in giggling. They were frisky, slapping each other’s butts. She said, “What are you going to occupy to- night?” He smiled, “I’m going to occupy that ass.” I hid my laugh and felt happy, knowing the movement was being taken up by working-class New Yorkers as the language of their desires.
A Green Revolution must do the same; it must be about more than saving the plan- et, more than preserving the conditions of life on earth. It must be an ideological container for the conditions of human freedom. Saving nature has to become a metaphor for saving the natural parts of ourselves.
“Greening” the body must continue the work of older liberation movements. Black Power freed kinky hair into afros and Black desire for self-determination, Surrealism freed the unconscious into art, the Waves of Feminism freed women’s bodies and subjectivities, the Gay Liberation Movement freed gays and lesbians from the closet into Pride Parades. Like these forbears, the Green Revolution must envision a renewable energy infrastructure that lowers the cost of daily life in order to create free time for people to explore their natural creativity.
A weightless civilization means not just reducing the physical weight of resource extraction but the psychological weight of hierarchy. A cultural “wilding” entails a Green global infrastructure that is the base for people’s freedom to explore, love and create, to question and begin again. It spells out a post-capitalist world where the necessities of life are provided for and earning money is replaced with open time. In the New Commons, we can heal our- selves from the nightmare of history by howling together, dancing together and weeping together for the many who died from the artificial scarcity of the vertical world.
The end of the elitist phase of the environmental movement begins with the end of its appeal to billionaires and celebrities and political elites with the imagery of apocalypse. Implicit in that appeal is that we need those in power to save us. The start of the populist phase is invoking the wilding, the utopian tomorrow where the masses are freed and the natural parts of our selves can paint time the color of our passions.
Nicholas Powers is the author of The Ground Below Zero: 9/11 to Burning Man, New Orleans to Darfur, Haiti to Occupy Wall Street (UpSet Press, 2013).