“In German, Erlebnis … can also refer to an intense disruptive episode, one that makes an indelible impression, changing a life course, the kind of experience not so much integrated into a life but which relegates the old life to the past and inaugurates a new sensibility…”
(From Defiant Earth, Clive Hamilton, 2017 p. ix)
“The problem is that the problem is us.”
(From Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, Roy Scranton, 2015 p. 68)
“…this other Great War about which we are learning, stunned, that it has already taken place – and that we have probably lost it…”
(From Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime, Bruno Latour, 2017 p. 10)
On the evening of Friday January 18th a massive fireball killed scores of people as they sought to fill makeshift containers from a leaking oil pipeline in Tlahuelilpan, in the state of Hidalgo in Mexico. Incinerated corpses littered the fields around the place where the leak was being exploited. On the webpage of the news article (Guardian 19/1/19) you can watch video footage from earlier in the afternoon as people gather eagerly and purposefully around the fuel fountain, covered in petrol as they jostle for position to fill their containers. The news article goes on to report that “screams could be heard later as a fireball shot into the sky. ‘Hit the ground,’ one person yelled at those fleeing.”
Such pipelines are notoriously and dangerously vulnerable to leakage but in parts of Mexico there is also an established practice of intentionally rupturing pipelines in order to steal the fuel – those who lead such practices are known as huachicoleros. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador leads a governmental initiative to eliminate fuel theft, deploying the army to guard Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex, the State-owned oil company) installations and to lead the fight against the gangs that have developed to exploit the availability of stolen fuel. Pemex reported 42 ruptures of pipelines daily through 2018.
It is perhaps quite tricky to ascertain whose goods have been stolen; who here is the ‘joker’, or who the ‘thief’. Does the oil belong to the Earth; to Gaia? To humankind? To the Mexican Government? To Pemex? To the Mexican people? Is the thief in the story the impoverished peasant risking his life to fill his jerrycan? The gang member profiting from the trade in fuel? The oil company executive (and/or shareholder) profiting from the trade in fuel? The government guarding its supply lines in order to ensure its own income streams? Or perhaps your correspondent, the horrified petrol consumer across the Atlantic Ocean, reading the news on his multi-plastic laptop in his centrally heated but indifferently insulated London flat…?
On January 29th (to arrive at my second story) it was announced that a consortium of carbon speculators (Total (French), Edison (Italian) and CNOOC (Chinese)) had identified a new gas field under the North Sea with potential for the extraction of the energy equivalent of 250 million barrels of oil (both these stories, by the way, prompted me to ponder the potential bathos inherent in writing this blog under the name ‘Barrelman’). The Glengorm field is the eleventh largest find in the UK in the last thirty years. The article reports that the gas is in a reservoir with high pressure and high temperatures, meaning it will be more costly to produce than other gasfields (this rather glibly glosses the escalating ecological costs of extraction in hard to access fields).
A spokesperson for Total Oil said the find was evidence of the company’s “capacity to create value in a mature environment” (make pretty much whatever you will, of the use of the words ‘value’ and ‘mature’ in this phrase). Then a Mr Andy Samuel, the chief executive of the UK’s statutory regulator, the Oil and Gas Authority (OGA), said that this was “very exciting news” and added that since the UK continental shelf is still estimated to hold a further 10bn-20bn barrels of oil and gas, there is therefore “every chance of yet more significant finds”.
You can check out the OGA here: https://www.ogauthority.co.uk/. You may even wish to drop them a line…You will find that the statutory task of the OGA is “to regulate, influence and promote the UK oil and gas industry … The development of a series of strategies represents a key step in setting the strategic direction of how the OGA and industry will work together to maximise economic recovery (MER) from the United Kingdom Continental Shelf (UKCS)”. (Observe, if you will, that capital letter ‘M’, for ‘Maximise’, in the rather conveniently euphemised acronym ‘MER’ – in case you were wondering, it doesn’t stand for ‘Minimise, in line with the Government’s obligations drastically to reduce emissions, as signatory to the 2016 Paris Agreement’…)
Those OGA people sure do have themselves a strategy, folks, and it has to do with something they like to think of as ‘asset stewardship’: “The MER UK Strategy underpins our work and came into force in March 2016. It describes how MER should operate in practice, setting out a legally binding central obligation to take the steps necessary to secure the maximum value of economically recoverable hydrocarbons.” You may possibly be more alarmed than chuffed to hear that the OGA professes to have “strict controls in place to ensure that operators manage the risk of induced seismicity from such operations” (high pressure, high temperature reservoirs, anyone?).
Well: frack me sideways!…I hope that my own weatherworn old barrel can survive a spot of drilling-induced seismicity – and yours too, dear Reader – but no doubt we are in capable hands…all those earthquakes we in the UK have recently been having are no doubt nothing much to fret about… (see the ‘fracking’ references below, including OGA gloss on the possible harm, and also Naomi Klein’s extensive analysis in This Changes Everything, eg pp. 213-17).
Sadly, there’s no shortage of news items touching on ideas about climate change and the ways in which carbon-fuelled capitalism and its projected consequences damage or threaten to destroy the biosphere. So why these two particular stories, Barrelman, I hear you ask? I have two responses; one is to say that in a moment I have a story of my own that I want to add to the picture.
I want first of all to observe that both these news stories subliminally proclaim the inexhaustibility of those resources in pursuit of the plunder of which we organise ourselves: either societally, in corporations, or in other kinds of sociopathic gangs.
It’s often suggested or assumed (or maybe that’s just Donald Trump I’m thinking of here) that there is something peculiarly American about the American Dream and the American idea or ideology of ‘Manifest Destiny’ that emerged into public discourse in the mid-nineteenth century. The journalist John L. O’Sullivan coined the term in an article published in 1845 in which he was arguing for the annexation of Texas to the Union, in pursuit of “the fulfillment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions” (see my 2014 essay on the ‘Evangeline Oak’). Much later on, in 1992, President Bush proclaimed in similarly emphatic and entitled tones that “the American way of life is not negotiable” (cited in Latour 2017).
The westwards expansion towards the Pacific of the nation State that emerged out of the war of independence of the New England colonies of the eastern seaboard – and the genocide of the indigenous peoples encountered along the way – can be understood not only in the particular historical, geographical, socio-political, technological, ethnic and demographic context of the wagons rolling west (the American population nearly doubled in the two decades from 1840 at the same time as the printing presses and the railroad tracks multiplied). O’Sullivan’s words and the ideology they articulate also stand for an imaginary manifesto of imperialism generally and of Western imperialism and carbon-fuelled capitalism in particular (and it is but a very thin veneer that separates his portentous phrase from the speeches of Hitler on the rightful claim of the German people to its lebensraum, only ninety years or so later).
In the age of Trump, Bolsonaro, Putin, Orbán, Erdoğan, Assad and Brexit – of neoliberalism run rampant and off the rails – it is still the imperialist ideology of manifest destiny that drives the impulse to drill in Alaska or to frack in the great National Parks of the Western United States or derogate from the Paris Agreement – or has the Canadian government calling in the Mounties to disperse First Nation protests against the systematic desecration that is the exploitation of the Alberta tar sands – or that opens up the Glengorm field or the Cuadrilla site at Preston New Road near Blackpool for exploitation, or causes us to export our used rubber tyres to India for burning (Guardian 30 January 2019) – or (a quarter of a century ago, but nothing much has changed…) that saw Ken Saro-Wiwa and his eight colleagues hung in 1995 by the Nigerian government, at the behest of or with the connivance of Big Oil, for their activism protesting Shell Oil’s pollution of his homeland of Ogoniland in the Niger Delta – or that (at the time of writing) drives Theresa May and her Churchill-worshipping cohort-in-cahoots to believe God is on the side of a no-deal Brexit that will restore Britain’s imperial ‘glories’ [sic] (see also my barrelblog last month on this theme).
One thing we can learn from this overview is that the Western, whether in film or in literature or song, may be a significant genre for understanding the relationship between capitalism and the Earth System. John Wayne riding shotgun for the stagecoach (or for his platoon in the south-east Asian jungle in The Green Berets) embodies manifest destiny and slaughter in the service of capital, be it buffalo or Native Americans – whereas the revisionist Western, from Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs Miller onwards, tends to be suffused with melancholy – what Renee Lertzman calls ‘environmental melancholia’ – for the loss (the destruction, in fact) of that sense of clear limitless immensity you might yet perceive a vestigial trace of in Monument Valley at sunset or along the high passes into Yellowstone or Yosemite. Henry Fonda’s enforcer in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West is the amoral gun for hire for what Bruno Latour calls ‘globalization minus’ or Pope Francis called ‘the globalization of indifference’ – we’re pushing the railroad through and we recognise no boundaries and know no limits and no suffering shall deflect us from our purpose – whereas Clint Eastwood’s rebel drifter in The Outlaw Josey Wales, gathering about him his motley ragtag multicultural crew of fellow wanderers, respecting the land and the land’s custodians, represents ‘globalisation plus’ in all its creative potential.
In John Williams’ (may we say?) ‘revisionist Western’ novel Butcher’s Crossing (spoiler alert!) a young man, Will, quits his studies at Harvard and heads west ‘to see as much of the country as I can’. He bankrolls a party of hunters who head out on a long trek in search of a remote Colorado valley where are reputed to roam a vast herd of buffalo who have avoided the hail of bullets that have decimated their brethren of the open plains. Will’s innocence is washed away in blood as a season of slaughter ensues: the entire herd is massacred and the buffalo hides pile up but the hunters are then snowed in for the winter – as though the mountains protested the carnage and exacted their own tax upon the ‘produce’. The following spring many of their prizes are lost on their arduous journey back to the ‘buffalo town’ of Butcher’s Crossing – whereupon, they discover that the bottom has fallen out of the market in buffalo hide they had been so sure would outlast the animals themselves. It was all just a craze – their wagonloads of animal skins are worthless.
I have yet to see this novel referenced when the literature of climate fiction is being catalogued and yet it vividly and harrowingly captures and illuminates this ‘Western’ dialectic between, on the one hand, the pure jouissance of techno-industrialist capitalism, and what Naomi Klein calls ‘extractivism’ (that which drives the OGA, it would seem) run rampant; and, on the other hand, the melancholy of devastated ecologies left in its wake (for a pellucid exploration of the impact on the Crow Nation of the loss of the buffalo, see Jonathan Lear’s 2008 text on culture collapse and radical hope). By jouissance I here intend to evoke what Žižek elaborates as the Lacanian ‘superego’ injunction which is covertly the very opposite of the Freudian ‘civilizing’ prohibitory force within the psyche. Jouissance has to do with ‘enjoy yourself’; ‘get it while you can’; ‘you can’t take it with you when you go’; ‘the best thing about the Earth is if you poke holes in it oil and gas come out’ (the aptly named Republican Congressman Stockman in 2013, quoted by Klein); or, notoriously, ‘the only good Indian is a dead Indian’. This last quote is apocryphally attributed to General Philip Sheridan, the veteran commander of the American Civil War who instigated ‘scorched earth’ warfare in pursuit of Robert E. Lee. Sheridan later presided over massacres both of the bison and of the Native Americans of the Great Plains – and then only partially redeemed himself, in later life, by defending the lands that would eventually become Yellowstone National Park against the claims of agents of capitalism and extractivism even more rampant than he.
My other reason for picking out those two news stories? My father died in the very early hours of Boxing Day morning, 2018 – just about six weeks ago. He’d had a long illness – he had a degenerative neurological condition and had been first restricted in his movements and then immobilised and then bedbound in a nursing care home while Alzheimer’s Disease had taken his memory of us and, in some sense, our memory of him. In early December he seemed to simply stop eating (did he somehow will this, in some deep internal nook or cranny of remaining consciousness? Did he simply kind of forget? Did he get frightened of being fed? I have no idea…). He contracted pneumonia and (perhaps) this brought a mercifully rapid end to what might have been a very miserable and extended long haul (but who am I to say?). I beg permission to set out a few thoughts about what passed between us, as another way to illuminate my theme.
After about the first twelve years of my life, I was not close to my father – if by ‘close’ is meant, able to manage and savour a mutual sense of intimacy, enjoy each other’s company, pick up where we left off, know each other’s minds. We were close in the sense that he was my father and half of me is him – close in the sense that we couldn’t bear to be ‘close’ with each other. So I don’t want you to think of me as grief-stricken or overwhelmed – not exactly, anyway. It’s been unexpectedly an upheaval – I know this to be an expected thing, in other people’s lives – but not in my own. I find myself not at all knowing what this event is doing, taking place in my life. It’s somehow not supposed to be there, but somehow, precisely because of this illusion, nothing is ever going to be quite the same again, now that it has revealed itself as having been in prospect all along. My Erlebnis, perhaps, to borrow the word from the quote that opens this piece…
In my latency years – from, say, 5 to 11 – I don’t recollect all that much but I do seem to remember that he was pretty much my hero. What he said was right (and what he said was law, even if it might transiently have felt unfair). My Dad was stronger and cleverer and wiser and lovelier than anyone else’s Dad, and that was that. In public – at school, at family gatherings – I modelled myself on him and worked hard at my studies because that was what he expected and I’m sure it never occurred to me that there was any other option. There’s pictures of me in blazer and tie and side parting, aged about eight going on eighty, looking not one little bit like I live in a barrel – a miniature version of him that if anything I believe I was looking to perfect, rather than reject.
Around the age of thirteen, the Adolescent Spring surged its way along the southern Mediterranean seaboard of my familial bonds. Like many an old school Arab tyrant, my father had not ever heard of such a thing as adolescence among his people; had not prepared for it in his own mind and was therefore utterly ill-equipped and confounded when it exploded into life before him. It’s maybe a measure of just how high were the pedestals on which the statues of the nation’s hero had been placed, in the hierarchical structures of my mind, that their plummet into pieces on the ground was so precipitous. Violent was the revolt, then – and violent, too (but ineffectual), the reciprocal early attempts to quash the uprising.
I repudiated my father – damning was my disdain of him. For a couple of years I could scarcely look at him. I elected to remake myself in my own image – a grandiose project! – or at any rate, to cast myself in the mould of new masters. He never repudiated me, although I’m sure he was less than well pleased with his unexpected usurpation. Later tentative and awkward olive branches from my father-in-exile (to extend the analogy) were, I am ashamed to say, pretty much scornfully rebuffed and rare indeed were my own equivalent moves to make peace – was I not after all the wronged party? I was prodigal and proud – perhaps I should say arrogant, since in retrospect I have no idea what I was so proud of. I strayed far from the pathway that had been set out for me and on occasion, disoriented in the gloom, wandered perilously close to the cliff-edge. From time to time I was not so proud as to rule out coming home to ask for help, which was always made available. But by then there was no longer any shared language with which to process or metabolise any moment of rapprochement.
I know on one level I’m giving myself a hard time here and that we are all allowed life crises in adolescence (and even in adulthood!). I also don’t want to say that this rupture was the ‘end of history’ for the two of us. Conflict drifted into wary circling and then gradually towards a surface geniality that suited us both well enough for our different reasons. At some point along the way I was helped to the realisation that maybe not everything was his fault and he was living by his own lights and steering his own path as best he could; that after all he was my father and half of him was me. Those deeper longings of father and son went largely unavowed and unmet, but diplomatic relations were restored, even if there was no talk of a return to power.
It saddens me to think that by the time things had settled down into this unsatisfactory but mostly peaceful accommodation, the early signs of neurodegenerative illness were already upon him – he knew something of his doom, even if I was unconscious of it. There’s always another time for the Great Conversation, but the seasons flourish and fade and the years fall away and ‘suddenly’ it’s too late and there was my father, first wheelchair- and then bed-bound, incontinent, not knowing who I was or remembering anything much at all about me except a nagging feeling that at some point I had disappointed him. I think he was revealed to me on his deathbed, almost more than he was in life – naked and vulnerable – my father, in his own right – and (selfishly speaking, of course) a unique and irreplaceable resource, exhausted.
You can see where I’m going with this. Many voices have spoken to their own Erlebnis in relation to the climate crisis (one such story that you can find in the public domain is told by Paul Hoggett, right at the start of this clip: https://vimeo.com/tavistockandportman/review/307462685/dc2ea10c46). For is not this new and familiar story of mine the very quintessence of environmental melancholia? Did my practice in relation to my father not in essence embody a kind of grim extractivism in which both the internal and external resources he represented (the father-in-my-mind as well as the father-on-the-end-of-the-phone) were indifferently available to me either to be tapped or to be squandered? Do I not deny both my parentage in Gaia, my Cosmopolitan species-membership (Diogenes would turn in his grave!), and the finite mortality and exhaustibility of those parental resources, every time I turn my key in the ignition of whatever real or metaphorical piece of carbon-fuelled technology most powerfully excites my transient fancy?
Slavoj Žižek, in his own analysis of what he calls the primarily ecologically-driven ‘apocalyptic zero-point’ of the global capitalist system, observes that “the limitation of our freedom that becomes palpable with global warming is the paradoxical outcome of the very exponential growth of our freedom and power, that is, of our growing ability to transform nature around us, up to and including destabilizing the very framework for life” (2011 p. 333). Neil Young (that great if erratic songwriter of Westerns both revisionist and, on occasion, decidedly old school) proclaims that we “got a man of the people/says ‘keep hope alive’/got fuel to burn/got roads to drive”. Do not we as a nation or a species, find ourselves ‘destabilizing the very framework for life’ every time that we plunder a pipeline – or build one? The men in suits celebrating the ‘find’ in Glengorm are more responsible for the plunder of the Earth System than those impoverished desperate people who burned to death at the end of that petroleum-fuelled Bacchanale in Tlahuelilpan, but the ailment is surely the same and I know my own complicity: my own carbon footprint remains indefensibly in the general category of ‘wanton’.
Have we not all been guilty of prodigally postponing that Great Conversation with our planet-parent that might have offered redemption, back in the day, only to discover (as we did yesterday) that (for example) fully one third of the Hindu Kush-Himalaya icecap, the greatest concentration of ice outside of the two poles, is already lost? Is not climate disaster the very thing that somehow was not supposed to be there, and is it not precisely because of this illusion, that nothing is ever going to be quite the same again, now that it has revealed itself as having been in prospect all along…? The only difference between the personal and the eco-political in this rhetoric is the crucial one: that human beings really are mortal, whereas the human species and the global climate, as two parts of the Earth System whole, are only being destabilized into crisis or collapse, because of the irresponsible abuse of accelerating power by the human species – which is of course why we have now got ourselves a whole geological Age, the Athropocene, named after us…
Žižek arranged the five chapters of Living in the End Times to accord with the five stages of grief set out by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Lertzman (2015 p.6) writes about environmental melancholia as unresolved mourning, “wherein one may be ‘frozen’ or otherwise arrested due to lack of acknowledgement or recognition of what has been lost”. She adds that the sense of loss can be ‘anticipatory’ and that melancholia can then be all the more frozen and disorienting and unresolved. This goes to the question running through all of the stories in this piece, which I think has to do with the varying difficulties in knowing about loss at the emotional-thinking level (rather than in a split off way, either cognitively or affectively) according to whether the loss is foreseen, perceived, experienced or remembered. Severe emotional trauma can cause disruptions in the field of time – perhaps this is somehow true at the species and Earth System level also. Maybe this is how it comes about that, as Latour points out, we can be sleepwalking into a war we’ve already lost.
There are certainly powerful voices now to be heard, mobilising the available empirical evidence in the service of grim analyses and dark forebodings of the possibility or even probability of exhaustion. Hamilton asserts that “we must concede the material possibility of our own extinction, or at least the collapse of civilized ways of life, as a result of our own actions” (2017 p. 37). Jem Bendell’s text on the necessity of ‘deep adaptation’ (2018 p. 11) argues that “the evidence before us suggests that we are set for disruptive and uncontrollable levels of climate change, bringing starvation, destruction, migration, disease and war…When we contemplate this possibility, it can seem abstract…But when I say starvation, destruction, migration, disease and war, I mean in your own life. With the power down, soon you wouldn’t have water running out of your tap. You will depend on your neighbours for food and some warmth. You will become malnourished. You won’t know whether to stay or go.” The full text, available online but not in published print, comes with a health warning just about the consequences of reading it. We are hitting the ground and hitting it hard.
Roy Scranton predicated his book Learning to Die in the Anthropocene upon his own Erlebnis as a soldier in the 2003 Iraq war and his conclusion is succinct: “We’re fucked. The only questions are how soon and how badly” (2015 p. 16).
I think I may be finally starting to have a sense of how badly.
Adlam, J. (2014) ‘The Evangeline Oak: of Lost Loves and Found Objects.’ Free Associations, 66, July 2014.
Bendell, J. (2018) ‘Deep adaptation: a map for navigating climate tragedy.’ http://www.lifeworth.com/deepadaptation.pdf
Francis (2015) Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’ of the Holy Father Francis on Care of our Common Home. https://laudatosi.com/watch
Hamilton, C. (2017) Defiant Earth. Cambridge: Polity.
Klein, N. (2012) This Changes Everything. London: Penguin.
Kübler-Ross, E. (1969) On Death and Dying. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Latour, B. (2017) Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime. Cambridge: Polity.
Latour, B. (2018) Down to Earth – Politics in the New Climatic Regime. Cambridge: Polity.
Lear, J. (2008) Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation. Harvard: Harvard.
Lertzman, R. (2015) Environmental Melancholia. London: Routledge.
O’Sullivan, J.L. (1845) ‘Annexation’, The United States Magazine and Democratic Review 17: 5-10. http://web.grinnell.edu/courses/HIS/f01/HIS202-01/Documents/OSullivan.html.
Scranton, R. (2015) Learning to Die in the Anthropocene. San Francisco: City Lights.
Williams, J. ( 2014) Butcher’s Crossing. London: Vintage.
Žižek, S. (2011) Living in the End Times. London: Verso.