Ben Tripp on environmental crime and fossil fuel
- Ben's colourful, surreal rants appear from time to time at counterpunch.
This is the first time I can recall him addressing the fossil fuel
issue. I can completely relate to this bit:
What scares me isn't the cold embrace of eternal oblivion,
because then at least I don't have to answer the phone. What
scares me is the part before I die, when I have to come to grips
with the cumulative effects of the last hundred years of human
If Polar Bears Were Sousaphones
Waiter! The Reality Check, Please
By BEN TRIPP
It seems like only yesterday that today was tomorrow. It makes a fellow
think about the future. I think about what kind of future we would have if
there were no short Japanese people, or if everybody woke up one morning
and we were all made of gorgonzola cheese. Would we have to wear shoes?
The future scares me. The future scares a lot of people, especially the
alert ones. For instance, we must all die eventually, some less eventually
than others. I'm not afraid of death, although I'm hoping they find a
vaccine for it. I do worry that if there's an afterlife, the parking will
be like in Boston. The good news about death is it's much less expensive
than life, and you get far more of it.
What scares me isn't the cold embrace of eternal oblivion, because then at
least I don't have to answer the phone. What scares me is the part before I
die, when I have to come to grips with the cumulative effects of the last
hundred years of human activity.
People who feel guilty about historic cruelty need to get over it, if only
because there's hardly anyone left alive to apologize to. The crimes of the
past-we could include genocide, slavery, gender oppression, and Tyrolean
hats-belong to the past. Unless we happen to keep slaves ourselves, for
example. I'm addressing the more progressive-minded reader.
Of course all of these things are still going on to some degree. But when I
say 'crimes of the past', I mean those dreadful institutions that were
generally accepted at one time, such as laying waste to Armenia, but are
now regarded with abhorrence. The oppression of women or fags still goes
on, but normal people, meaning Northerners, believe that it is wrong.
Milty Zimmerman, a contemporary of William Shakespeare, wrote that "the
wrongs of the few cannot cast doubt on the good will of the many". Really I
wrote that and Milty Zimmerman didn't, but I wanted to quote someone so I
didn't sound fatuous. Forgive us the crimes of the past. There are new
crimes of which we are accused, and the bad news is the jury has just
reentered the courtroom and they're not laughing and high-fiving each
other. Our latest victim is not humanity, but nature. And just like slavery
or genocide, we have to figure out new ways of living before mankind will
give it up.
This would be a good time to start thinking about not burning fossil fuels
any more. The kind of scientists who don't make this stuff up for chuckles
have recently announced that one third of all species on Earth will be
extinct in fifty years, no matter what, because we didn't knock it off
during the last fifty years. Our bad.
But wait, maybe you didn't catch that. One third-three of every ten-species
on this planet. Extinct, which means gone for good. Dinosaur time. It was
funny when it was just losers like the dodo or the Tasmanian wolf. But we
can't spare three out of ten species. The destruction won't be
proportional, as in, we lose three marsupials, three reptiles, and three
fish out of every ten. Certain neighborhoods will take the brunt of the
punishment, just like in Chicago.
Do you like songbirds? They're going to get their tiny little clocks
cleaned. Butterflies, frogs, maple trees, and all those cute arctic species
like polar bears are sca-hrood. Already. Irrevocably. Too late. Apologies
to the missus. So what can we do?
A good start, as I mention, is to stop with the oil and coal and other
Cambrian byproducts. If we stop burning fossil fuels next week, not only
will we never have to explain to the deaf man behind the bullet proof glass
that we said pump seven, not pump eight, but we'll save the Earth from
further degradation of its living skin. We still lose a third of all
species, but the rest of them can breathe a sigh of relief. Or at least
But it's unlikely we'll stop with the petrochemicals anytime soon, so maybe
we could just try to taper it off over time. If we taper our fuel usage the
way a pencil point is tapered, as opposed to the way Nelson's Column is
tapered, we could get away with something like forty percent of species on
Earth going extinct. That's not so bad, is it? I mean it's kind of bad,
especially if you happen to be a mongoose or a birch tree and your ticket
gets punched. But at least there will be a few things left around, here and
there, that aren't strictly domesticated.
There have been mass extinctions before, after all, and as in the case of
the thirty-foot-tall carnivorous reptiles, there were upsides. Try having a
barbecue with a gigantosaurus in the neighborhood. But mankind wasn't
responsible for the other mass extinctions. Just the occasional individual
It's bad enough we're in for a third of all species, but what if we just
say to hell with it, let's keep on partying? I'm glad you asked, though I
can't imagine why you would be. We could lose sixty percent of the other
species on Earth. Entire ecological niches would vanish, entire classes of
animals and plants gone for good so we can live in comfort and not learn to
ride horses. Oceans devoid of life. Vast regions scorched into deserts.
Every coastline, every island, every river, lake, and spring drained of
water and life. Silent dawns and wildernesses clad only in stone. It's
enough to make a guy wear Tyrolean hats.
So let's start living a little more responsibly. Let's elect leaders who
don't have people in the oil business. Let's not commodify fresh water,
because then it's worth more if there's less of it. Let's try to stop
logging our forests and paving our soil and generally bashing the hell out
of an already overtaxed biosphere, because it will bash back. We will be
judged not by a jury of our peers but by ourselves, in the future, which is
where we are all inexorably headed. If we accept responsibility for what
has happened in the past and reform our behavior from now on, we will still
have done a terrible thing that will cloud the future, like breaking wind
in a crowded elevator. But we will be like those brave souls who fought
slavery, who defied the slaughter of innocents, who uplifted the oppressed.
We will be remembered not for the destruction we wrought but for the
efforts we made to end it. That's pretty good.
If somebody can be remembered fondly for inventing the sousaphone, surely
it is a far nobler thing to have halted the greatest catastrophe of the
last fifty millennia? Or maybe we should all be inventing new kinds of
brass instruments, what do I know. What matters is this: today is the
yesterday of tomorrow, and what's past is prolapse. If we can just look at
the future as the other end of the present, only sideways, we will know
that now is the time to change our ways. Unless somebody can tell me how to
change our behavior yesterday. On the other hand, maybe we'll all wake up
next week made of gorgonzola cheese, in which case, problem solved.
www.counterpunch.org, weekend edition, Jan 31/Feb 1 2004
:De Clarke, Software Engineer UCO/Lick Observatory, UCSC:
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