Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Next Extinction

Sigmund Freud, in his highly influential 1930 work, Civilization and its Discontents, posited the existence in humans of a subconscious, self-destructive impulse--a sort of "death wish." This "death drive" impulse or thanatos is the psychical counterpart to Eros or man's subconscious desire for love and sex. The death drive, according to Freud, reveals itself in characteristics of sadism, aggressiveness, narcissism, and self-destruction. Thanatos, then, becomes another psychological constraint in the tension between civilized man and his primal, baser instincts.

This "inclination to aggression," Freud wrote, "is an original, self-subsisting instinctual disposition in man...that...constitutes the greatest impediment to civilization."

Civilization marked a significant turning point in Freud's work. Published in the wake of the unprecedented devastation of the first World War--and the subsequent emergence of the consumer culture industry--the book found Freud profoundly shaken in his view of human nature. His overall outlook for the future of human civilization was, to put it mildly, not encouraging.

Freud's theory of the death drive (which he first introduced years earlier in 1920's Beyond the Pleasure Principle) gained little support in the psychological community at the time. Some 85 years later, with the earth on the brink of incalculable ecological destruction from climate change, it seems Freud may have been on to something.

Last week, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) released a bleak and dire report on the potential impacts of global warming titled "What We Know." The authors state in the report's introduction,

[W]e consider it to be our responsibility to ensure, to the best of our ability, that people understand what we know: human-caused climate change is happening, we face risks of abrupt, unpredictable and potentially irreversible changes and responding now will lower the risk and cost of taking action.

Attempting to put to rest, once and for all, the mind-numbing anti-science dismissals of right-wing climate change skeptics, and the campaign of deliberate misinformation funded by the fossil fuel industry, the report's authors state clearly and plainly:

[L]evels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are rising. Temperatures are going up. Springs are arriving earlier. Ice sheets are melting. Sea level is rising. The patterns of rainfall and drought are changing. Heat waves are getting worse as is extreme precipitation. The oceans are acidifying.

And yet our elected leaders in government seem incapable of taking any meaningful action to curb greenhouse gas emissions. (By imposing, for instance, a gas tax.) The best measure the Democratic-controlled Senate can produce is a tepid, market-oriented cap-and-trade bill--and it could not even get that through.

And let's be clear about who bears the most blame for the climate crisis: The corporate state.

Could you and I drive less and take greater steps to reduce our individual carbon footprints? Certainly. (Though this is difficult when you live, as I do, in a state that lacks a major public transportation system.) Yet our individual contributions to climate change, while not, in of themselves insignificant, pale in comparison to those of the fossil fuel industry. According to an article in The Guardian last fall (11/20/2013), just 90 corporations have been responsible for two-thirds of CO2 emissions since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Of those 90 companies, 83 are coal, oil, and gas producers like Exxon-Mobil, Chevron, and BP.

It is as if we, as a species, are locked in an insane collective suicide pact. We march, like lemmings, toward the edge of the precipice, unable to stop ourselves. We delude ourselves with the childish fiction we can have an economy of infinite, unregulated growth on a planet of finite resources. This sort of thinking is not only illogical, it borders on the psychotic. It is a symptom of the disease that is capitalism.

Karl Marx understood that capitalism is a revolutionary force because it turns everything--including the environment, human lives, and ultimately, the ecosystem that supports all planetary life--into a commodity. Marx saw capitalism--whether we are talking about the "free-market," "laissez-faire," or "trickle-down" sort, or the more contemporary brand of "corporate capitalism"--as having an inherently self-destructive quality, which makes it ultimately unsustainable.

As Marx observed in Volume I of his three-part economic treatise, Capital, the entire concept of using money to generate more money (which he represents as the formula of "Money-Commodity-Money," an inversion of the traditional, "C-M-C") represented a fundamental shift in the structure of society.

"By virtue of being value, it [capital] has acquired the occult ability to add value to itself," Marx wrote. "It brings forth living offspring, or at least lays golden eggs" (p. 255).

Using money to generate more money becomes, for the capitalist anyway, the gift that quite literally keeps on giving. That is, until it consumes itself.

Perhaps it is not so much a death-wish we suffer from, as a case of collective denial.

Clive Hamilton, in his sobering book, Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth About Climate Change (Earthscan, 2010), argues anthropogenic or man-induced global warming represents such a fundamental existential crisis for humankind, we simply cannot accept the reality emotionally. Even those of us, Hamilton argues, that understand and accept the science of climate change intellectually, still have difficulty coming to terms with the worst case predictions emotionally. We simply do not want to accept that our planet could, in essence, become uninhabitable for us as a species. And this sort of emotional denial has prevented even the more rational, scientifically-literate among us from taking meaningful action to halt ecological destruction.

Like the Greek god, Icarus, mankind has flown too close to the sun on wings made of wax. In our hubristic attempts to conquer and control the natural world we underestimated the fragility of the Earth's natural homeostasis. The centuries-long crusade of human "progress"--in which the exalted Industrial Revolution and the corporate state's successful supplantation of democracy may well have been the final, terminal stages--has sowed the seeds of our own destruction.

Hugo Weaving's Agent Smith in The Matrix is correct about mankind: We are a virus.

As Freud wrote in Civilization and its Discontents:

Man has, as it were, become a kind of prosthetic God. When he puts on all his auxiliary organs he is truly magnificent; but those organs... still give him much trouble at times. Future ages will bring with them new and possibly unimaginably great advances in this field of civilization and will increase man's likeness to God still more. But... we will not forget that present-day man does not feel happy in his God-like character. 

Help keep Guerrilla Press running by making a donation via the "Donate" button on the right. Any amount is greatly appreciated. Adam Marletta can be contacted at adamd.marletta@gmail.com.

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