In other words, blind to our future fate and that of our children and grandchildren, humanity has been installing in power leaders who are the literal raw material for ensuring that the collective asteroid of human history will indeed be delivered. In an ongoing gesture of self-destruction, humanity has been tapping what might be thought of as Pyromaniacs, Incorporated, to run the world.
The Greatest Crime of All
All that may be changing, however, for an obvious reason -- even if the first sign of that change couldn't have been more modest or less Trumpian: a 15-year-old Swedish girl who, in 2018, began skipping school, Friday after Friday, to perch on the steps of the Swedish parliament building, holding a handmade banner ("school strike for climate"). Not even her parents initially encouraged her "Fridays for Future" protest against what this planet's adults were visibly doing: stealing her generation's future. In the end, Greta Thunberg would unexpectedly spark a movement of the young, increasingly aware that their future was in peril, that, in various forms, spread (and is still spreading) across the planet. It may prove to be the most hopeful movement of our times.
As it happened, Thunberg began that strike of hers at a crucial juncture, just at the edge of the moment when climate change would start to enter human time as a crisis in everyday life. In retrospect, we may come to see the summer of 2019 as a turning point in the reaction to that phenomenon. This summer, almost anywhere you lived, climate change seemed to be in view. The Brazilian Amazon was burning (as were similar rain forests in Africa and Indonesia); Alaska, too, was burning, its sea ice gone for the first time in history, its fire season extended by two months. Burning as well in record fashion were areas across much of the rest of the Far North, especially Siberia, where forests and peatlands sent vast plumes of smoke into space (while releasing startling amounts of carbon into the atmosphere); flooding hit the American Midwest in an unparalleled fashion, while record summer heat, drought, and an early fire season clobbered Australia; water scarcity struck areas of the planet in new ways, including Chennai, an Indian city of nine million that practically lost its water supply to drought; and Europe experienced three unprecedented heat waves, with temperatures soaring across the continent. Much of this seemed to be happening at a pace that exceeded the predictions of climate scientists. The government of Iceland held a "funeral" for the first glacier lost to global warming, while Greenland's ice sheet experienced what may prove to be a record melt and sea ice continued to disappear at a startling clip in both the Arctic and Antarctic. The Arctic was already heating at double the rate of the rest of the planet, as was Canada. And don't forget that, as the globe's oceans continued to warm in a striking fashion, storms like Dorian were intensifying (and the numbers of weather-displaced people hitting record levels globally).
And so it went. We humans were no longer simply living with predictions about what might happen in 2030, 2050, 2100, or thereafter, about possibilities that, while grim, seemed far away when the endless crises of everyday life beckoned. We were suddenly in an increasingly overheated present, one visibly changing, visibly intensifying in ways we hadn't previously experienced.
In the summer of 2019, from the tropics to the poles, we found ourselves, in short, on an already burning, melting planet and it showed, even in opinion polls in this country. An acceptance that climate change was actually happening and mattered was clearly growing. It would prove increasingly visible in the Democratic rollout for the 2020 election and even, as the New York Times reported, in the secret worries of Republican strategists that younger conservative voters, "who in their lifetimes haven't seen a single month of colder-than-average temperatures globally, and who call climate change a top priority," might in the future be alienated from the party.
In a remarkable recent article, Stephen Pyne, historian of fire, offered a vision of what's happening as humans, a "keystone species for fire," essentially toast the planet. Historically speaking, as he points out, the crucial development was that, with the industrial revolution, humans turned
"from burning living landscapes to burning lithic ones in the form of fossil fuels. That is the Big Burn of today, acting as a performance enhancer on all aspects of fire's global presence. So vast is the magnitude of these changes that we might rightly speak of a coming Fire Age equivalent in stature to the Ice Ages of the Pleistocene. Call it the Pyrocene."
And if, from Paradise, California, to Great Abaco Island in the Bahamas, we have indeed already entered the Pyrocene Age, expect the pyres only to grow. After all, the government of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is almost literally setting fire to the Amazon rain forest (a job that human arsonists may have started, but that those forests could self-destructively end all on their own). Similarly, in the U.S., the Trump administration has been reversing climate-change-related rules or regulations of every sort, trying to open ever more American landscapes to oil and natural gas drilling, and working to ensure that yet more methane, a particularly powerful greenhouse gas, will be released into the atmosphere. And that's just to begin a list of such horrors.
Keep in mind as well that the brutal summer of 2019 is guaranteed to prove anything but "the new normal." In fact, there can be no new normal as long as those greenhouse gases continue to pour into the atmosphere. Admittedly, we humans are a notoriously clever species. Who could doubt that, if we ever truly mobilized, launching the equivalent of World War II's Manhattan Project that produced the first atomic bomb -- the other way we've found to asteroid ourselves to death -- something might indeed happen? Various methods might be found to deal with or sequester carbon emissions, while far more effort might be put into developing non-carbon-emitting forms of energy.
In the meantime, from Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro to the CEOs of all those fossil-fuel companies, we're still left with the pyromaniacs largely in charge. If they have their way, they will undoubtedly take their pleasures and profits and not give a damn about turning much of this world into an oven for the Greta Thunbergs of the future.
Think of this as a planet on the precipice. If Pyromaniacs, Inc., succeeds, if the arsonists are truly able to persevere, there will have been no crime like this in history, none at all.
Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He runs TomDispatch.com and is a fellow of the Type Media Center. His sixth and latest book is A Nation Unmade by War (Dispatch Books).
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.
Copyright 2019 Tom Engelhardt