Friday, July 19, 2013

Blog Wisely. Go Forth and Blog Wisely.

My friend Dr. Paul Puri, a sometime classmate of mine at the New Center for Psychoanalysis, has just begun a blog of his own at His opening post--"Yes, Your Doctor Should Be Blogging"-- addresses an issue I've wondered about for a while, and his conclusions are similar to my own, so I am cross-posting his piece, along with this, my brief exploration of the issues he raises.

Like so many people (both in and outside of the field) I've been a writer, teacher, political activist, and even amateur musician for decades, during most of which I was trying to garner as much notice as I could. If I don't blog, out of a prudent desire to keep a low profile with my opinions and interests, I will be represented on the web exclusively by things I said, did, and created in my 20's and 30's, when I had no notion of joining the helping professions. If instead I blog about psychotherapy, psychoanalysis, literature, current affairs, culture, and philosophy--as I've done intermittently since 2008--then I present myself to the google-using public as the person I've become in the long meantime, the person they will actually be dealing with if and when they meet me.

Those are the choices: let my output from the 1990's to 2008 represent me in the public arena, or use whatever growth and learning I have since acquired to develop an online presence that represents my current sensibility, concerns, and ideas.

In working with a client, a clinician's self-disclosure makes sense only when it is done in the interest of the client--building rapport, normalizing, and not much else. Self-disclosure in a blog makes sense along similar lines; it should be context-appropriate, arising in the natural course of the expression of defensible opinion (which is what I believe "blogging" to be). If I publish a post about the legal and ethical status of animals--condemning the 2008 Austrian decision that chimpanzees are not persons, and celebrating India's 2013 ruling that dolphins are--then everyone will know that in general, I support animal rights. That's good. Other posts demonstrate or suggest other values with which I am proud to identify. Let me spell out seven of them:

1. feminism, the belief that people deserve equal respect whatever their gender identity;
2. respect for the scientific consensus (see, e.g., Oishi and Kesebir, 2011; Picket and Wilkinson, 2011) that shows extreme income inequality to be detrimental to the mental health and well-being of all members of a society, whatever their income;
3. the view that the arts help people live their lives;
4. connection to the past, especially through the Humanities; 
5. a positive valuation of the role of healthy sexuality in a fulfilling adult life;
6. awareness that infinite growth on a finite planet is not possible, and that the limits of nature affect the human prospect individually and collectively;
7. the belief that empathy and debate, rather than affiliation and violence, should drive policy.

Values like these are explicitly avowed in the mission statements of many mental health organizations, including The Relational Center (where I am currently a Marriage and Family Therapy Intern), The Wright Institute, and Division 27 of the American Psychological Association

Someday soon, I think I'll change the name of this blog to include PSYCHOTHERAPY. Meantime, please enjoy POETRY, POLITICS, COLLAPSE.

Jamey Hecht, Ph.D. (English and American Literature, Brandeis University, 1995), M.A., (Clinical Psychology, Antioch University 2012), M.F.T.i. (California Marriage and Family Therapy Intern # 73628).

Here's Dr. Puri:

Yes, Your Doctor Should Be Blogging
18 JUL 2013
And so it begins…
A new blog. Another among thousands. Is there particular utility or reason to follow this one? I’d like to imagine that this will have usefulness to your life. This is more than just thoughts on psychiatry, but really the thoughts of a psychiatrist who is both enamored with and annoyed by his own field. And with modern culture. So everything.

Which raises the question – should a doctor really be blogging? Within medicine there’s a culture of secrecy. We protect our own, not letting on about our problems. Our venues of criticism fall into “peer reviewed journals,” which itself is prone to problems like publication bias. Those in charge perpetuate thinking in line with their own. Which reflects how medicine functions – by majority opinion. We are expected to practice within the “standard of care,” which is the normal practices of other doctors in our area. Practicing medicine is after all a privilege, granted by the state medical board. Best to not ruffle feathers.

But doctors are not robots. We are people. People who think for ourselves. We’ve gone through four years of medical school and further years of specialty training, and during that we’ve seen through the fallacy of the omniscient physician. We don’t know everything. You can drive a bus through what we don’t know.

And that raises a different responsibility. With all that training comes the ability [probably] to study science critically, to be literate in science and read between the lines. Medicine is not science. It is a craft, or at best an art informed by science. Doctors have the responsibility to use that science as best they can to help others. That may be in a clinical setting, but can also be in public opinion. It’s a social responsibility for doctors to speak up. Pharmaceutical companies and others have their pulpits, funded by much more money than I do. The internet is a venue for others to express their opinions, and it seems a doctor should share his thoughts as much as anyone else.

Now, I know my patients might read this. And showing actual opinions might shatter the neutrality that some choose to believe is necessary in treatment, especially in psychotherapy. Patch Adams challenged that, amidst its flaws. I don’t particularly buy in that neutrality. In medical circles it’s talked about as “professionalism” to present a specific image of the profession. That’s fine, but the illusion of neutrality should be shattered. At least a little.

I ran into a patient at the gym the other day. He didn’t know I saw him. But if he did it shouldn’t matter. I have to hope he’ll respect my expertise even if he saw me on a weight machine. Then maybe we can all start having more real conversations.

I’ll be writing about my thoughts on the field of psychiatry, on medicine, and on challenging the idea that any one view is the most valid. Hence the quote and title of the blog, which is as applicable to medicine as it is to religion, or anything else.

“There are [at least] 21 paths to the top of the mountain. If anyone says he is on THE path, he isn’t even on the mountain.”
Stay tuned.
Paul R. Puri, MD

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Our Man in Mexico: Winston Scott and the Hidden History of the CIAOur Man in Mexico: Winston Scott and the Hidden History of the CIA by Jefferson Morley

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It seems to have been very important to the author of Our Man In Mexico and his editors not to alienate "mainstream" readers and reviewers, in the hope (I suppose) that the book might gain more notice than a more frankly anti-Warren Commission text could hope to garner. James W. Douglass' magnificent JFK and the Unspeakable, for instance, has received no mainstream media attention whatsoever, despite its considerable impact on the reading public and the passionate acclaim it has garnered from so many.

Though the projected 50 years have elapsed, the promised full release of files has not happened. We therefore live an an era in which the government persists in lying, misleading, and withholding information about the 35th President's murder despite the appearance of thousands of files, articles, and works of scholarship that make it unmistakably clear: Oswald did not shoot JFK, and the murder and the coverup were both perpetrated by a coalition of persons from CIA (e.g., David Atlee Phillips), organized crime (e.g., Carlos Marcello), Cuban exiles (e.g., David Morales), and LBJ's organization (e.g., LBJ), with assistance from the Dallas Police, the FBI (e.g., Hoover), and key individuals in the Secret Service (e.g., Emory Roberts).

Morley's reluctance to come out against the Warren Commission's "conclusion" (the lone gunman story they were handed as their raison d'etre from the beginning) is understandable. But it hobbles his book, because important and suggestive information is left hanging without an explanatory framework. Yes, this allows the reader to draw his or her own conclusions, but a wider study that acknowledged more of the existing work in the field might have provided much more insight (I am thinking of Peter Dale Scott's work on the Mexico City material in Deep Politics and the Death of JFK, and later, Deep Politics II and Deep Politics III).

Morley repeatedly refers to Oswald as having shot the President. This is false, and it makes for a bulky but transparent artifice, dragged around through the whole book, whereby author and reader are expected to pretend that all this stuff about Oswald in Mexico City two months before the assassination is of interest because it suggests he might have been encouraged by foreign contacts in Cuba and/or the USSR to murder the President. He did not murder the President; he was a patsy; the CIA people who helped frame him were involved in an impersonation that deliberately and falsely linked LHO with those foreign contacts. The initial purpose of that frame in Mexico City was to prepare a trap so that the assassination would trigger a U.S. war against Cuba. The second purpose, after that route had been rejected by LBJ and others (e.g., Richard Helms), was to provide a tool to force reluctant figures in the establishment (e.g., Earl Warren) to participate in the lone nut coverup (since now the only alternative, as LBJ told Warren, would be an internationally backed patsy and a consequent "nuclear war").

Morley writes (page 282), "Angleton had files on the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy, including autopsy pictures of the remains of RFK, who had been slain by a Palestinian waiter in a Los Angeles hotel in June 1968." This has long been known to be simply false. Robert Kennedy died of wounds inflicted on the back of his head at point blank range; Sirhan was firing--probably blanks--from the front at a distance of several feet; there were far more bullet holes in the victims, the ceiling, and the doorframe than Sirhan's gun could hold.

In Our Man In Mexico, the murder of President Kennedy is repeatedly referred to as an "intelligence failure," a common locution in establishment discourse on which I have called bullshit in the contexts of both 11/22 and 9/11. See my essay "Failure and Crime Are Not the Same: 9/11's Limited Hangouts," published 11/22/03 on Michael Ruppert's website,

I respect Jefferson Morley for his labor, his intelligence, his clear prose, and his interest in the period. I respect him also for his FOIA lawsuit regarding the activities of CIA employee George Joannides, which may prove very important. Our Man In Mexico is well worth reading. But I regard it as a good book that traded an unrealized excellence in exchange for a readership that might be wider, if more complacent and intellectually timid, than it might otherwise have been.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

An Historical Sequence of European Aphorisms, with Comments

Dante, in Inferno:
Lasciate ogni ‘speranza, voi ch’entrate: abandon all hope, you who enter.”

Things, deeds, persons, states of affairs (even places!) have their good or evil inherent in them, like an essence. The Damned in the Inferno can no more look on the bright side of things, than the Blessed in the Paradiso can wake up one day in a foul mood. Things on Earth work this way too, and we can read the value of this or that just by looking at it: the lion, the leopard, and the she-wolf of Canto I are inherently terrifying. They can stand as allegories for particular evils like Pride, Covetousness, and Gluttony quite easily, because of the resemblances between those animals and those concepts. None of this is considered an interpretive act. An evil possibility either repulses us, or tempts us, or overcomes our resistance by force or by seduction; but in each of these cases we know that it is evil we’re dealing with. Should we later find that we mistook good for evil, or vice versa, we can attribute this to the Devil, or to an allegorical figure like Wrath, without making any extra (interpretive) work for ourselves. This resembles childhood prior to puberty: good and evil already exist, having been put there for us by a loving but mostly unknowable parent.

Luther, in The Freedom of a Christian:
“No matter the work, it was good if done in faith, wicked if done in unbelief.”

The first vertiginous, heady tremors of adolescence. This position seems like independence from Mother Church, seems like an achieved relativism, because there are no absolute values (good or evil) attached to particular deeds anymore. But the criterion of this new, apparently more relative value is⎯degree of belief in a set of specific doctrinal propositions that are revealed and do not change. In its early, insurgent phase, Protestantism throws off the yoke of Roman Catholic ecclesiastical authority. But this makes it utterly dependent on the Bible for the intelligibility of the world. The next phase is characterized by the appalling discovery that texts require interpretation⎯not only while they are in the extraordinarily sensitive state of being translated from one tongue to another⎯but always! And this is like a young adult who begets a child and is amazed that the required care is not intermittent but constant and endless.

Marlowe, in Doctor Faustus:
"Why this is Hell, nor am I out of it.
Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscrib'd
In one self-place; but where we are is hell,
And where hell is, there must we ever be"

The badness of the bad place has been relocated inside the person, as Luther relocated the criterion for Salvation-or-Damnation, away from the outer world of deeds and other people, into the “inner man” of beliefs and thoughts. Orwell’s perfect totalitarian state does the same thing when it invents “crimethink,” “thoughtcrime,” and “crimestop” as political events that occur inside people.

Shakespeare, in Hamlet, Prince of Denmark:
“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

Relativism. “The human being is the measure,” said the ancients, and here the human being becomes aware of this. Very good. But look at the mood of the one who says it, and the scene: two false friends confront a miserable prince; he calls their country a prison; they disagree; and he responds: “Why, then, ‘tis none to you: for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so: to me it is a prison.” This is a paradox. It declares that the values of things are not in the things themselves (whereas with Dante, they are); nor in their degree of apparent conformity with a set of doctrinal propositions (the Inquisition); nor in the degree of someone’s (e.g., an agent’s, or an observer’s) belief in such a set of propositions (Luther). If the value of things is instead legislated by our thinking⎯if we have such power⎯why should Hamlet be having such trouble rousing his own aggression, or even simply cheering up? Because the "thinking" that gives things their various values "good or bad" is itself captive to feeling, which is far less volitional. In the same scene, Hamlet says, "I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams."

Milton, in Paradise Lost:
"The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven."

If this were really true, or if Milton’s Satan really believed it, then damnation would be no problem at all, and God’s aggression would be laughable. The promise of emotional relativity on this scale is a promise of omnipotence that, if fulfilled, would make the actually omnipotent Father impotent. It’s as if the subtext of these lines were, “you can’t hurt me anymore.” But it isn’t true, and Satan seems to suspect as much. There is weather to contend with outside and inside. The prisoner in a cell must contend with torments outside the body, and with the rigors of his or her inner experience of the ordeal.

Milton’s character Satan is vividly aware—even as Milton the poet cannot afford to become aware—that the crime for which the protagonist of Paradise Lost has been eternally damned was at its inception an act of defense, not attack--though it was rapidly followed by withdrawal to "the North" of Heaven and then by rebellious aggression. The occasion for the war is the refusal to serve the Son, who appears to have been hidden until his debut--so that Lucifer's reluctance to worship him is not so strange. Far from being repellent to the reader, seems quite reasonable (or if not, emotionally understandable) where God seems tyrannical and abusive.

The trouble is, the criteria themselves—the norms that define crime and damnation, piety and salvation—turn out to be no more fixed or eternal than the recently discredited Medieval cosmology into which they had been all-too-well integrated by Aquinas and Dante. Hell is no longer a place at the center of the Earth, partly because Earth is no longer at the Center of everything. That might not be too damaging if we could keep clear about what it is that God wants from us, where He is, how He rules, and so on. Paradise Lost is supposed to help stave off a crisis of culture which it instead exacerbates. It leaves God’s severity standing, while failing to produce or shore up the old certainty of his justice ("justify the ways of God to man"). Satan has to fear that he may be wrong, and God right, in which case he has grounds to feel guilty. But he must also fear that he is right, and God really wrong, in which case he has to fear permanent victimhood in an unjust cosmos ruled by a petty but invincible tyrant. He must also fear the endless anxiety of not knowing which of these is ultimately the case, if indeed either is.

Nietzsche, in The Gay Science, Section 110 in its entirety, including this:
“Such erroneous articles of faith, which were continually inherited, until they became almost part of the basic endowment of the species, include the following: that there are enduring things; that there are equal things; that there are things, substances, bodies; that a thing is what it appears to be; that our will is free; that what is good for me is also good in itself. It was only very late that such propositions were denied and doubted; it was only very late that truth emerged⎯as the weakest form of knowledge. It seemed that one was unable to live with it: our organism was prepared for the opposite; all its higher functions, sense perception and every kind of sensation worked with those basic errors which had been incorporated since time immemorial. Indeed, even in the realm of knowledge these propositions became the norms according to which “true” and “untrue” were determined⎯down to the most remote regions of logic.”

Here “good” occurs only once, as one among a long list of deeply erroneous but adaptive anthropomorphisms and defenses. The paragraph does not say whether it hopes to transcend this ubiquity of error by pointing it out⎯if everything we think is error, but we somehow achieve the insight to perceive this, then have we item number one in a potentially long list of non-erroneous assertions? Nope.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Collapse Awareness and the Tragic Consciousness

[This post is also cross-posted, and was originally published, at Guy McPherson's blog, NATURE BATS LAST.]

Infinite growth on a finite planet is suicide. Industrialization is destroying the world. Resource depletion, pollution, and climate change will make industrial civilization impossible much sooner than is generally admitted.

It is traumatic to realize this, and the process involves an intense need to discuss the issue. But the predicament of everyone, the squirrels, the trees, the elephants, all of humankind, the acid oceans caked with plastic—how to discuss all that with oneself or anyone else? Daily there are more people consciously concerned with it, yet most of the discussion happens online, not face to face; in person, with a few exceptions, one simply does not discuss it. To do so reminds people of the terrible danger in which they are already living their everyday lives; it also delivers them over to difficult feelings of helplessness (they cannot stop climate change), humiliation (the “legal person” called Exxon-Mobil is more powerful than mortals can imagine), and anomie (what matters on a doomed world?). Activating those difficult feelings is, at the very least, rude—even if the values of both parties to the conversation are largely in accord. So it costs something to go ahead and disrupt the game and hold forth about the state of our world, so people generally don’t do it.

The phenomenon of collapse is so frightening that the trauma of realizing it has to be mastered in a way that derives meaning, or deposits meaning, or configures meaning, or some basket of verbs that will comprise the spectrum of how this stuff called meaning comes to be, in and through the pain of awareness. Meaning is the redeemer which leads people to hope—and when hope is shattered, it is meaning that sweeps up the fragments and sculpts them into monuments and tombstones. Success of body is survival; success of soul is making sense of loss in a mortal world. Sometimes both of these successes are available, sometimes one or the other, or at the worst, neither.
I believe a real physical metamorphosis of civilization into a harm-reducing culture was still possible until just a few years ago. Most people continue to believe it possible still; they haven’t changed their minds about that yet. Possible or not, it is vanishingly improbable—not as a lottery win or a bet at a roulette wheel is unlikely, where the problem-space happens to include a large number of equally unlikely outcomes, but as victory is unlikely in a war between equal armies after one side is decimated while the other is unscathed. Maybe the last ten green-shirted soldiers will somehow slaughter their remaining thousand black-shirted opponents—it is philosophically “possible”—but everything speaks against its occurrence.

The infinite growth paradigm is held in place by huge structural forces and institutions that militate with overwhelming effectiveness against any change to the omnicidal practice of industrial civilization. As Wittgenstein observed, only a philosopher could doubt that the Sun will rise in the morning. When the facts have driven from the field all other kinds of doubt, philosophical doubt remains, an exotic hothouse flower with no application in the real world. So it is with hope, after material conditions have so deteriorated that more data can only darken the prospects. One’s hope for the world contracts, shifting from a region of defensible truth-claims to a region of adaptive illusion, an illusion which keeps on shrinking as the data win through the defenses erected against them.

One strategy for preserving hope in the face of this process is to recalibrate one’s hopes, scaling them down so that the smallest of victories will count as a great “yes” from the universe. Even if only a few thousand people survive on some high ground in the Arctic temperate zone, goes this notion, that will be a seed from which culture can one day rise again. “Maybe 200 million people will migrate close to the Arctic and survive this,” writes James Lovelock in The Revenge of Gaia: Earth's Climate Crisis & The Fate of Humanity (2007). This meme may be true (I tend to believe it, myself); but true or not, it is a useful one if it can supply enough meaning to help people through the task of living out the decades of the crisis (say, until the bottleneck is over, the 6.8 billion are dead, and the survivors are busy nibbling acorns in Siberia). But there are negations of it, including both a contrary and a contradiction. The contrary is that there may be no saving remnant; the contradiction is a rejection of the implicit premise that survival in such a world is a good thing.

This mental struggle demands repeated recourse to the evidence, with its hierarchical structure ascending from vast domains of raw data, up through peer reviewed articles, then to science journalism, then to popular journalism, and finally to the mainstream media of mass culture. People generally begin at this apex, where it’s all belief and no knowledge. Some then work their way down toward the stark facts (the “desert of the real”), losing their illusions as they go, and stopping at the limits of their tolerance. As the available uncertainty shrinks, it affords less and less skepticism about the severity of our predicament. The more time you spend at the lower levels of the pyramid, the less company you have. Your ugly knowledge eclipses their beautiful beliefs.

These beliefs (which form one composite belief, the normal outlook) are mostly fossils from the 18th Century, including an omnipotent Patriarch in the sky who governs by reward and punishment; an invisible hand tuning a free market in which the necessary non-market institutions (e.g., rule of law) arise spontaneously; and most importantly, infinite economic growth on a finite planet.

A few steps down from that popular Cloud-Cuckooland are the more recent notions of “sustainable growth”; substitution of unspecified new resources for old depleted ones; and the mitigation of endemic pollution by the natural “services” of heroic trees, microbes, and Time that heals all wounds.

Deeper down than this, in turn, is the realization that growth itself is the problem. But every day, the excellent proposals for managed economic contraction, or “powerdown” (Heinberg, 2004), and steady state economics (e.g., Daly, 1991, and Czech, 2013) go unused, while civilization grinds the biosphere to nothing. The necessary actions which these proposals require (things like depaving, or a moratorium on the petrochemical industry, or the Rimini Protocol, which calls for fair distribution of the world’s remaining oil) are unthinkable by public officials and corporate executives. Petrodollar hegemony as U.S. fiat money “buying” free oil is actively defended by the mightiest military, financial, and political forces in the world, backed by the inertia of a billion “first-world” people like us, who apparently cannot stop destroying the Earth unless we somehow acquire a great raft of missing skills and opportunities. That level of awareness is already somewhat traumatic. It can foreclose one’s idea of a human future, if it comes to include enough of the many stressors available to the curious. Climate change, peak oil, potable water scarcity, and the eventual failure of several hundred nuclear reactors (in a world without reliable electricity to cool spent fuel rods) comprise a quartet that will likely devastate all the systems on which our lives depend, most especially agriculture.

Faced with such a mental foreclosure, one has perhaps only three choices: one can go back down into the ever-expanding galaxy of data and search some more—either for hope, or for that dark certainty which makes despair into a solid resting place amid the nauseous vertigo of conflicting arguments and hypotheses, models and calculations. Or one can use one’s remaining uncertainty to trigger a switch in one’s head that will act like the “restore” function in an electronic device, deleting all the painful knowledge and restoring the comfortable illusions to which our minds have been accustomed for so long—this time, haunted by a repressed penumbra of awareness. The remaining alternative is to rest one’s case within the limits of human knowledge. Nobody knows the exact date when the last fish in the ocean will die, the hour when Shakespeare will be forgotten, the moment when the thermohaline current fails, or the instant when methane (CH4) overtakes carbon dioxide (CO2) as the chief driver of global warming. Nobody knows the date of his own death, either, yet we all know we must die someday.

It is well to point out (Greer, 2009) that apocalyptic claims have always proven erroneous in the past, and they may do so again. But the human past never included environmental stressors that were planet-wide, beyond which there can be no appeal. Fossil aquifers and fossil fuels cannot renew, except on a geological timescale irrelevant to human affairs. Radioactive elements (like nuclear waste, nuclear plant leakages, or the depleted uranium the U.S. shot all over Iraq,) have half-lives in the thousands and even millions of years. Four hundred ppm of CO2 makes for a hell of a greenhouse effect, complete with positive feedback loops; the most dangerous of these is the methane cascade problem. There is no remaining “New World” by which to repeat the surprise of 1492—the frontier is closed, and the world is round.

Drop a baseball from the top of the Empire State Building, and there will be many opportunities to point out that it is going down and must hit the ground. Each presents a corresponding opportunity to reply that yes, it may be going down, but it hasn’t hit—and that you pessimists have repeatedly claimed that it’s going to hit the ground, yet it still hasn’t, so maybe it never will. So it is with claims of apocalypse.

Impressed by the magnitude of the converging crises, we become convinced that there is no future for the cultural lifeworld that produced and shaped our minds. Whatever will be in place after our natural lives are over, it will not be an industrialized civilization using fossil fuels to produce goods, send information and tricycles around the world, and sustain seven billion people.

But we, who are writing or reading this now, will our natural lives be cut short by the crises? The biblical lifespan of “threescore and ten” still holds in some places, whereas the average life expectancy of Switzerland and Japan is 83 years, and in Sierra Leone, it’s 47 (World Health Organization, 2011). We wonder how many of us will live to be killed “directly” by climate change, or energy scarcity—but the questions don’t make sense, since millions have already been killed in climate-related natural disasters, including agricultural failures. Deforestation is as old as civilization (Gilgamesh and Enkidu kill the forest spirit Humbaba, long before writing is invented). But the real danger is the mechanized version, hooked into an economy of endless debt chasing endless growth through endless extraction and endless consumption. Carbon pollution is as old as Homo erectus burning wood, but it is coal, oil, mine tailings and nuclear radiation that make for a world of toxic filth.

While we urge each other to wear colored ribbons and “search for the cure” for the cancers that killed 7.6 million people worldwide in 2008, we all should know that a high cancer rate is simply the price we pay for living in industrial society—not a personal lifestyle mistake, nor a discrete pathogen that some people happen to catch. As Helen Caldecott famously said, “When you get your cancer, it doesn’t come with a label on it that says, I was made by some Strontium-90 from Three Mile Island in a piece of cheese that you ate ten years ago.” The presence of all this pollution feels like a horrible violation from without, until we remember our own role in the pollution, the depletion, the collapse.

Reading of toxic waste dumping and spills and the evasive, illegal, violent conduct of the corporations responsible, we feel bitter resentment. We also yearn for the impossible return to the pre-pollution Earth; to undo what was done and so restore the world: impossible engineering problem, to “clean up” fourteen decades of industrial poisoning of the entire planet. It’s still happening, every day, with the folks at Monsanto using petroleum byproducts to make toxins for killing plants and animals considered undesirable. The toxins pervade the whole biosphere including the bodies of people, where they do all manner of cytological mischief that tends to cut life short in one way or another. What to do with the rage, the helplessness, the bitterness that this arouses? Try to deflate it with the thought that these are simply the conditions in which we find ourselves, the matter will have to be accepted?

Our cardiovascular system requires both exercise and clean air, and driving to work diminishes both. Why don’t we walk to work? Because the office is 25 miles from any half-pleasant residential area; the company won’t relocate, and jobs are scarce—so while there are jobs to drive to, we drive to them, again and again and again, until the cost of gasoline is more than the job can pay. That’s when we stay home for a desperate and protracted garage sale.

The oxygen added to the atmosphere each year comes from two main sources, half from the Amazon Rainforest, and half from plankton and algae in the oceans. Those living systems are rapidly failing. One need not know the precise rate of oxygen depletion to see that there is a serious problem here. But what exactly am I to do that might slow the destruction of these two biomes? I can stop buying Amazonian hardwood, but I have never bought Amazonian hardwood. Product boycotts against the logging industry can have little influence on the cattlemen and the enslaved (or semi-enslaved) campesinos whose slash-and-burn clear-cutting of the forest continues apace.

A vegetarian diet might help limit the U.S. market for the cattle that graze on lands stolen from the rainforest, and it appears meat consumption in this country is at last beginning to decrease —though world meat consumption is still rising. A recent Brazilian government crackdown on illegal logging and ranching has been remarkably effective; though deforestation keeps on going, it has slowed considerably, dropping roughly 80% since its most recent peak in 2004. Even under the crackdown, abuse continues; now in 2013, Brazil is considering fines for 26 meat companies that illegally bought Amazon-reared cattle. The corporations responsible include giants like Cargill, who grow soy for McDonald’s to feed to chickens and cattle. Many of the stages in the deforestation process are illegal; even Cargill’s physical plant in Santarem was built illegally. So the problem would seem to be a failure of the rule of law, under neoliberal finance and trade arrangements that identify the well-being of nations with the profit levels of their corporate overlords. Says the Woods Hole Research Center, “Simply implementing existing laws and proposed protected areas would spare the Amazon one million square kilometers of deforestation (one fifth of the entire forest area), avoiding 17 billion tonnes of carbon emissions to the atmosphere, the elimination of several forest formations, and the degradation of several major watersheds.” A massive boycott of McDonald’s might help, but the main reason people eat highly processed industrialized food is because subsidies and economies of scale make it far cheaper than eating real food. Legislation is unlikely to change that, because the power of the agribusiness lobby is so formidable. So the oxygen from the Amazon is getting scarce.

What about the oxygen from the oceans? As of 2010, plankton had declined by 40% since 1899, with most of the loss occurring over the past sixty years. Let me quote from a flyer from National Geographic called “10 Things You Can Do to Save the Ocean.” Here is item three:

Use Fewer Plastic Products

Plastics that end up as ocean debris contribute to habitat destruction and entangle and kill tens of thousands of marine animals each year. To limit your impact, carry a reusable water bottle, store food in nondisposable containers, bring your own cloth tote or other reusable bag when shopping, and recycle whenever possible.

Use fewer plastic products, in the hope that this will lower demand and cause industry to produce less plastic. The U.S. Energy Information Administration says: “In the United States, plastics are made from liquid petroleum gases (LPG), natural gas liquids (NGL), and natural gas. LPG are by-products of petroleum refining, and NGL are removed from natural gas before it enters transmission pipelines.” The petroleum gets refined to make liquid fuels, mainly gasoline. The plastics are made from by-products of that refining process, so as long as there is gasoline production there will be the production of liquid petroleum gases (LPG) and the temptation to cook them into plastics for cheap products and applications, destined for the oceans.

The process of realizing the awful state of our world has been likened to the famous “five stages of grief” of Elizabeth Kubler Ross, who was describing the changing mentality of a dying person—rather than the transformation of a witness to a dying world (or a species entering a bottleneck, decimation, or even extinction). That model has its merits, and people who find out that their world is ending certainly do deny, get angry, bargain, get depressed, and sometimes (though I have seen very little of this) they accept it. But the model only goes so far, and it says little about how these movements from stage to stage are to be achieved. If not by these fives stages, how else are we to think about the state of things in the world at large?

“The tragic consciousness” is a slippery thing, and I’m not fully sure what it means, nor even where I first heard it. I associate it with Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy, but he doesn’t seem to use it in that text. It’s a phrase literary scholars and critics have invented to describe the paradoxical effect of the tragic drama, where the observer experiences a strangely elevated mood after watching a sympathetic figure get destroyed by the gods, by society, by the entailments of his or her own mistakes. The material is miserable, and yet it elates us. The effect has something to do with what Aristotle called catharsis, where the story purges us of pity (which we feel for the figure on the stage, since he is doomed where we are safe) and terror (which we feel for ourselves, since we identify with him on the basis of a shared humanity and a shared (i.e., mortal) predicament. But catharsis is only a part of it.

The tragic consciousness seems to require that we become witness to the whole story. It is this narrative completeness that grounds a story’s moral complexity, making it a good story for grownups. Children can only tolerate so much moral complexity, so the characters in children’s literature tend to be split-off aspects of the author, all good or all bad. In Shakespeare, by contrast, even the most despicable villains have a back-story that secures some of our sympathy. The horror film and the melodrama do not provide such a back-story; the drama must do so, because it requires conflict, and all parties to the conflict must have at least a modicum of our sympathy or the story will fail us. The worse the character’s behavior (e.g., Macbeth, Richard III, Claudius), the more we require a frame-story that will answer the question of how a reasonable person could possibly come to this.

Interestingly, that is the same question psychotherapists are asked to consider when they get a client who challenges their sense of decency, perhaps a client whose humanity is hard to find (Orange, 2006). Learn the back-story behind the personality (or behind the pathology, or the crime)—usually a traumatic ordeal, acute or chronic or both—and the person appears in a very different light because now the ugliness has a meaning. The branch of psychoanalysis called attachment theory is an ethics in its own right, but not in the sense of providing a prescriptive morality with which to respond to the world. Confronted with destructive traits in a person or persons, attachment theory derives the presenting antisocial behaviors from early experiences of neglect or rejection or abuse. Again and again this recourse to etiology is the prelude to therapeutic connection, and to meaning. How did you become this? Why are you as you are? What happened to you?

In the practice of nonviolence, similarly, we are asked to consider how our opponents got to where they are—how they acquired their racism, or greed, or cruelty, etc.—in order to love the human beings beneath the history. Without knowing what that history is, we have to invent it, because there simply must be some mitigating, explanatory factors which do not excuse, but do make sense of, what we confront across the table or the barricades.

The discipline of history, if it is to be more than a catalogue of facts, requires a streak of ethical reflection (I don’t mean moral judgment, but a search for empathic understanding). When that streak becomes the heart of the project, the result can be called psychohistory; when it fails to appear, the result is propaganda. An account of the past is satisfying only when it includes the past of the past. Within limits, the task is to provide enough moral complexity for the various actors to appear fully human. Nothing can ever begin to excuse the horrific, soul-destroying cruelty of the Nazis. But coping with an awareness of it does seem to require some reflection on its roots in the national German humiliation of the Treaty of Versailles and its aftermath, and more importantly, the disastrous childrearing culture of much of the German speaking world in the relevant period. For them, no excuse; for us, an explanation.

Regard what happened on this planet as a tragic drama played out before the eyes of eternity. A dangerous species got hold of vast amounts of energy, and all hell broke loose—four degrees centigrade average global surface temperature rise. The large scale use of fossil fuels can be seen, with the foreshortening of time, to have been a kind of explosion. It is a slower explosion than the meteor impact that ended the Cretaceous, but it’s still a liberation of fiery energy. We can only stare at the tragic stupidity of it, the iron necessity that the yeast will eat all the sugar in the vat, then die off; so the reindeer and the lichen; so the humans and the world.

Population tracks energy use. That’s another aspect of the explosive nature of the discovery of fossil fuels. Explosive like the fuels themselves, their advent causes population to skyrocket, till it overshoots the available resource base, and begins a crash. Everyone knows this. What may be slightly less familiar is the way meaning can be recovered in the contemplation of that process, perhaps even while it is going on.

Danger activates our anxiety, because the threat has not yet attacked and there is still time to escape or overcome it with vigilance and action. But the Holocene is over, and now we are staring at a near future of catastrophic warming, no matter what we do. Anxiety still has its place in such a predicament, unless we are indifferent to the welfare of ourselves and those we love—a position only the stoics and sociopaths can fully share. But like depression or self-hate, anxiety is an affliction that can (with sufficient effort and neurological luck) be bounded; it can be managed, delimited, corralled, if we come to realize that, in some domains, anxiety has no benefits, only costs. The fate of the world is such a domain. It might make sense to worry how we and our people will get through it, how we will survive to the age of seventy or eighty years which many of us grew up anticipating, or how we will avoid death as long as we can in a hot, stormy world of droughts, flood, fires, pollution, and failing agriculture. But it will not make much sense—not mean much—to think of the whole story with anxiety. No, the whole story is something weirdly graced with an aesthetic and narrative completeness that we borrow from the future to make sense of the past and present.

In our individual lives we sometimes extrapolate into the imaginary future in order to see the journey from birth to death as a sculpted thing, carved out by the many hands of chance and choice, but ultimately complete and unified. On my deathbed, one says to oneself, I shall say something like this: I was born, I did the following things, I was this sort of person, I strove to behave in these ways when I could, these events then befell me, and ultimately, in circumstances of this kind, I perished. We seek for ourselves (if only for a moment on occasion) the encapsulated meaningfulness of an obituary or a clinical vignette. That is, I suggest, what we find ourselves doing when we contemplate our species’ emergence, rise, and crashing decline.

Unlike those amazingly stable organisms, the shark and the turtle and the clam, that stayed the same for hundreds of millions of years, ours is a young species that changed very quickly. There are several inflection points in the story, like the rise of the late Paleolithic toolkit, or the origin of agriculture in the Neolithic period, that introduce nonlinear explosive change, and the advent of fossil fuels is the biggest of these. One can perhaps imagine a timeline in which fossil fuels are never discovered, or never developed in commercial quantities, but that is not what happened. With the counterfactual in mind, we say it could have been different and so we experience the disaster as a waste, a stupid mistake, a crime. It is all of those things, but when we push the counterfactual away and focus on what did happen, the picture changes. It becomes tragic.

Choose a tragic hero, and you will find that his or her hubris was avoidable—but only in a different world, or with a different inner character. For the protagonist, his past actions were inevitable, and we can tell because the story includes them and not the alternatives. Only from a pragmatist-utilitarian standpoint is the lesson of, say, Moby-Dick that one ought not to pursue revenge at all costs, or that of Oedipus that one ought to avoid fighting older men and coupling with older women. Those are prudent lessons, but they are not the point of the tragedy. When it is too late for prudence or virtue, wisdom loses its ethical character and becomes a mostly aesthetic phenomenon. Young people watch the tragic drama and seize on the pragmatist lessons to be found in it, which they generally find disappointing: don’t act like Creon in Antigone, who insisted he was right. Don’t be like Shylock, whose lack of mercy ultimately destroyed him. Don’t do as Agamemnon did, sacrificing family for ambition. Youth has to be concerned with prudence because it has its whole life ahead of it. The older the audience at the tragic drama, the more they appreciate the heartbreaking symphony of free will, divine command, arbitrary fate, and personal character that comprises the whole story. Tragic heroes do what they do for manifold reasons, the heart of which is human nature: we are the animal that does this. So it is with our destruction of the planet we loved.

All animals in an isolated environment (like a vat, an island, or the Earth) do as we did, when they consume the available resources in a finite system until they overshoot the system’s carrying capacity and begin to die off. If we are unusual in that we became aware of what we were doing (because of our distinctly human intelligence, much of which we turn out to share with several other species, after all), we are also unusual (though again, not alone) in our tendency to ignore warnings when our identity is involved. We did not lower our energy consumption because it would have been a return to weakness, femininity, childhood, helplessness, all the things industrial civilization fears and hates the most. Just as in Greek drama or Shakespearean tragedy, this fear-of-the-wrong-thing determines our fate and defines us in the universe.
For me, these days, and perhaps for you, coping is a two-handed job: one hand holds the despair which must somehow be held (contained, regulated, bounded); the other holds the tools with which we must make our attempts to adapt.

3. Amazon deforestation rate lowest ever recorded. December 5, 2011.
4. Brazil may fine beef producers buying Amazon cattle. April 15, 2013.
5. Greenpeace factsheet, 2006, citing interview with Felecio Pontes Jr., Federal Prosecutor, Belem, Pará State, ‘In the name of Progress’. Greenpeace 2005
6. The Amazon in 2050: Implementing the law could save a million square kilometres of rainforest. Woods Hole Research Center, 22 March 2006
7. The dead sea: global warming blamed for 40% decline in the oceans’ phytoplankton. Steve Connor, The Independent, July 20, 2010.