This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.
For Isaac Francisco Solnit, born December 17, 2009
It’s clear now that, from her immoveable titanium bangs to her chaotic approximation of human speech, Sarah Palin is a Terminator cyborg sent from the future to destroy something—but what? It could be the Republican Party she’ll ravage by herding the fundamentalists and extremists into a place where sane fiscal conservatives and swing voters can’t follow. Or maybe she was sent to destroy civilization at this crucial moment by preaching the gospel of climate-change denial, abetted by tools like the Washington Post, which ran a factually outrageous editorial by her on the subject earlier this month. No one (even her, undoubtedly) knows, but we do know that this month we all hover on the brink.
I’ve had the great Hollywood epic Terminator 2: Judgment Day on my mind ever since I watched it in a hotel room in New Orleans a few weeks ago with the Superdome visible out the window. In 1991, at the time of its release, T2 was supposedly about a terrible future; now, it seems situated in an oddly comfortable past.
What apocalypses are you nostalgic for? The premise of the movie was that the machines we needed to worry about had not yet been invented, no less put to use: intelligent machines that would rebel against their human masters in 1997, setting off an all-out nuclear war that would get rid of the first three billion of us and lead to a campaign of extermination against the remnant of the human race scrabbling in the rubble of what had once been civilization.
By the time the film was released, the news of climate change was already filtering out. Reports like Bill McKibben’s 1989 book The End of Nature had told us that the machines that could destroy us and our world had, in fact, been invented—a long, long time ago. Almost all of us had been using them almost all the time, from the era of the steam engine and the rise of the British coal economy through the age of railroads and the dawn of petroleum extraction to the birth of the internal-combustion engine and the spread of industrial civilization across the planet. They weren’t “intelligent” and they weren’t in revolt, nor were they led by any one super-machine. It was the cumulative effect of all those devices pumping back into the atmosphere the carbon that plants had so kindly buried in the Earth over the last few hundred million years.
The Superdome is, of course, where thousands of New Orleanians were stranded when Katrina, the hurricane that hit the Gulf Coast on August 29, 2005, broke the city’s levees and flooded the place. A maelstrom of institutional failures left people trapped in the scalding cauldron of a drowned city for five days while the world looked on aghast. It was a disaster that had been long foretold, and no one had done much to forestall it. No one had repaired those crummy levees or bothered to create a real evacuation plan for the city—and, unlike the revolt of the machines in T2, the future actually arrived. Like climate change.
For many, it was a foretaste of our new era. It may not be clear what role, if any, climate change played in the generation of that particular hurricane, but it is clear that, in this era, there will be, and indeed already have been, many more such calamities: the deadly freak rainstorms in Sicily, Britain, and the Philippines this fall, the increase in the number and intensity of hurricanes in the North Atlantic in recent years, as well as in the intensity of droughts, floods, heat waves, crop failures, and the displacement of populations, as well as the massive melting of glaciers and sea ice in the cold places, rising waters in the coastal ones, and oceans going acidic with devastating effects on marine life.
This is the actual nightmarish “movie” of our times. This is what our less-than-intelligent machines have actually wrought. The World Health Organization estimates that climate change is already responsible for 150,000 deaths annually. Unchecked it will kill far more, and no one’s measuring the despair in the island nations that may disappear and among those who live in, and off of, the melting arctic. Looking at the Superdome during the commercial breaks in T2, I wondered about the apocalypses already under our belts and the bumpy road ahead.
The Governor of the State with the Uncertain Shoreline
The plot of the movie, as most of you undoubtedly recall, is that the Terminator, also played by Arnold Schwarzenegger in the low-budget 1984 original, shows up again, sent back from the future 10 years after in the first epic. This time around, he’s not action-heroine Sarah Connor’s nemesis; he’s on the side of humanity, specifically of her son John Connor, the boy with the unambiguous initials who will grow up to lead the resistance to our extermination by machines.
Another more advanced Terminator is, in the meantime, also sent back from the future to destroy the messianic boy and his foulmouthed commando mom. The rest of the movie is a feast of shootouts, chases, explosions, and brilliantly plotted action. It was all surpassingly strange and compelling when I watched it, while wiped out with what was probably swine flu, a fever dream of the past’s nightmares that somehow didn’t manage to anticipate our waking hells.
Now, of course, the movie’s cyborg star is a major force in the real world. He’s my governor, more powerful but less charismatic than in his Terminator incarnation. Recently, he traveled to Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay to release the state’s 2009 Climate Adaptation Strategy, a 200-page document about the array of devastations the state faces and what countermeasures we can take. Early on, that document states:
“Climate change is already affecting California. Sea levels have risen by as much as seven inches along the California coast over the last century, increasing erosion and pressure on the state’s infrastructure, water supplies, and natural resources. The state has also seen increased average temperatures, more extreme hot days, fewer cold nights, a lengthening of the growing season, shifts in the water cycle with less winter precipitation falling as snow, and both snowmelt and rainwater running off sooner in the year.”
Looking to the future, the report predicted that there would be more fires, less water, loss of coastal lands, and up to $2.5 trillion of real estate put at risk by global warming. The Terminator, or governor, was on the island because, with even modest further rises in sea-level, it will disappear entirely. Hasta la vista, baby.
During the years the Bush Administration refused to do anything at all about climate change, Schwarzenegger arrived at the helm of a state that had already developed major innovations in energy efficiency and in creative price-structuring that took away power-company motives to push higher energy consumption. California had also sought to set new standards for carbon-dioxide emissions from vehicles. The bill to do the last of these was crafted in 2002 by Fran Pavley, a newly elected state assemblywoman from Ventura County. When Obama came into office, the roadblocks were finally removed and the bill became the basis for national regulations that will make vehicles 40% more fuel-efficient by 2016. Pavley and Schwarzenegger were there at the Rose Garden signing of the regulations last May.
As Ronald Brownstein reported in the Atlantic this October:
“Ambitious new initiatives have cascaded out of Schwarzenegger’s office—including the two measures raising the renewable-power requirement on utilities, a state subsidy program to encourage the installation of electricity-generating solar panels on 1 million California roofs, and in January 2007, an executive order establishing the nation’s first ‘low-carbon fuel standard,’ which requires a reduction of at least 10 percent in the carbon emissions from transportation fuels by 2020. Schwarzenegger signed a Pavley-sponsored bill imposing the nation’s first mandatory statewide reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions. The bill required the state by 2020 to roll back its emissions to the 1990 level—a reduction of about 15 percent from the current level. (By separate executive order, Schwarzenegger also committed the state to an 80 percent reduction by 2050.)”
It’d be easy to go with the Atlantic and frame the governor as a hero, but he landed in office by promising to cut vehicle taxes and has been in bed ever since with the state’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter and the world’s fifth biggest corporation, Chevron. Even the organization that sent him to Copenhagen, Climate Action Reserve, is backed by Chevron and Shell—and the oil and coal industries have been the biggest domestic roadblocks to real climate-change measures. Nonetheless, at the Copenhagen climate conference he talked about R20, the alliance of states and provinces he’s co-founded to implement climate change measures at sub-national levels. And he has suggested that climate-change deniers like Palin are “still living in the Stone Age.”
A Magnitude Shy of What Physics Demands
Think of Schwarzenegger as the hinge between the fantasy of Terminator 2 and the reality of our predicament. Think of Obama…
Well, in T2, there’s Miles Dyson, a slender, well-spoken African-American family man who will engineer the computer technology that will create the intelligent machines that will annihilate practically everything. Sarah—Connor, not Palin—sets out to kill him, but her son shows up with his Terminator-Schwarzenegger sidekick, and they instead convince the not-so-mad scientist he’s about to do something terribly, terribly wrong. He then leads them to his workplace to destroy everything he’s ever done. When their violent erasure program sets off alarms that bring in squadrons of cops, Dyson ends up gravely wounded and holding the trigger to set off the explosion that will wipe out the technologies endangering future humanity—and himself.
Seeing this movie with its acts of self-sacrifice, now offers an occasion to ask: when’s the last time you’ve even seen a major politician who’ll put his finger to that trigger with humanity in mind, no less simply do anything that’s bad for reelection?
What if Obama would say what he has to know, what they all have to know, that saving the planet from our slo-mo, unevenly distributed version of Judgment Day requires destroying the status quo and maybe changing everything? What if he’d just learn from Schwarzenegger that you can do quite a lot and still survive politically?
As a disgusted Bill McKibben recently put it, “Obama will propose 4% reductions in [U.S. greenhouse gas] emissions by 2020, compared with 20% for the Europeans (a number the EU said they’d raise to 30% if the U.S. would go along). Scientists, meanwhile, have made it clear that a serious offer would mean about 40% cuts by 2020. So—we’re exactly an order of magnitude shy of what the physics demands.”
Bill, a normally mild-mannered guy who was overjoyed at Obama’s election, called the president’s position “a lie inside a fib coated with spin.”
Thanks to a sudden decision earlier this month by the Environmental Protection Agency allowing the executive branch to address the issue of climate-change gases under the Clean Air Act, Obama has apparently been given superpowers to act without being completely hamstrung by a reluctant Congress. Or as the Center for Biological Diversity put it, “President Obama can lead, rather than follow, by using his power under the Clean Air Act and other laws to achieve deep and rapid greenhouse emissions reductions from major polluters.”
Will he? Probably not. After all, he’s the man who stood up in Prague last April and said: “I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” For a moment, it almost sounded as if he was going to be the action hero of our antinuclear dreams, wiping out one apocalypse that has hung over us for sixty years. And then he added that he didn’t actually expect to see the abolition of such weaponry in his lifetime, though he didn’t say why.
Now, we’re in an action movie in which the fate of the Earth is truly at stake, and the most powerful man on the planet has allowed himself to be hedged in by timidities, compromises, refusals, denials, and the murderous pressure of corporations. Those too-big-to-die corporations are the reason why the Senate is unlikely to ratify any climate-change treaty that threatens to do much of anything. Really, corporations—half-fictitious, semi-immortal behemoths endowed with human rights in the U.S. and possessed of corrosive global power—already are the ruthless cyborgs of our time. They are, after all, actively seeking a world in which they imagine that, somehow, they will survive, even if many of us and much that we love does not. Sorry poor people, young people, Africa, sorry Arctic summer ice, you’re not too big to fail.
100,000 in the Streets Vs. Three Degrees of Heat
I wish life on this planet really were like an action movie. I wish that a handful of heroic individuals could do battle with the mightiest of forces and decisively alter the fate of the world—and then we could all go home to a planet that’s safe. As we know, however, it’s going to be a lot more intricate and complicated than that. There are millions, maybe billions, of players in this one, and its running time is a lot longer than the two weeks of Copenhagen or the two hours of a movie. For our heroines, we get not the commando-siren Sarah Connor, but the sturdy, ex-middle-school American government teacher and now California state senator Fran Pavley, 61.
Really, though, if there’s going to be a superhero in our world, a friendly Terminator to go up against the villains in suits and ties, it will be civil society. Even for the betterment of humankind, civil society won’t get to shoot anyone or drive a truck through a wall. Instead, it’ll organize, educate, build, and pressure, while working to create models and alternatives. It’ll reelect Pavley and shut down Chevron.
There have already been some moments of great drama with this superhero leading the way—the civil disobedience of the Climate Ground Zero mountaintop coal campaign in Appalachia, the Climate Camps in Britain, the Kingsnorth Six climbers who blocked a coal-power-plant’s smokestack in England last October (and were exonerated by a British jury), the underwater cabinet meeting held in the Maldives this October to protest that low-lying island nation’s possible fate. All this was done in part to get people to take an interest in the fate of their planet, which is not so readily reducible to a blockbuster’s plot as we might like.
The pivotal moment just came—and went. This week in Copenhagen, the Bella Center conference, in which a new climate treaty was supposed to be negotiated, stagnated while repression around it grew furiously. It stagnated because the rich countries were unwilling to either reduce their own emissions significantly or pledge meaningful funding to help poor nations transition to greener economies. Or it stagnated because the poor countries didn’t consent to be crucified for crumbs. The United States, which just spent nearly a trillion dollars bailing out its floundering financial corporations and spends about $700 billion annually on the military, offered an obscenely inadequate $1.2 billion in aid. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pledged $100 billion way down the road, but only if an unlikely quantity of factors and conditions were to align beforehand.
Outside the center, the Danish police became increasingly brutal as activists from everywhere, representing the poor, developing, and most affected nations, the Arctic, small farmers, indigenous nations, and the environment demonstrated. Inside nongovernmental groups were increasingly excluded from the discussions and then from the actual space itself. None of this prevented the conference from stalling.
On Monday, negotiators from the African nations shut down the climate talks in fury at attempts to undermine the Kyoto accords—a move designed to make the global situation worse at a meeting that was supposed to make it better. On Wednesday, hundreds of delegates inside the Bella Center protested, walking out to join the thousands already in the streets. By all reports the atmosphere was increasingly tense and repressive.
Everyone whose opinion I respect deplores what just went down in Copenhagen. There’s an agreement of sorts, but it was achieved by Obama and a few powerful nations over the objections of the rest in violation of the way the process should have unfolded. Worse, it contains no binding agreements to limit climate change. The so-called agreement acknowledges that we should limit warming to two degrees Celsius, but the actual commitments, if honored, would bring the world to 3.9 degrees Celsius (seven degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100. Even two degrees, African negotiator Lumumba Stanislaus Di-Aping had said, “would condemn Africa to death.” Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed pointed out that three degrees would “spell death for the Maldives and a billion people in low-lying areas.” Three degrees, said Joss Garman of the British branch of Greenpeace, “would lead to the collapse of the Amazon rainforest, droughts across South America and Australia, and the depletion of ocean habitats.”
All that was achieved was consensus that there’s a problem and clarity about what that problem is: the refusal of the wealthy corporations and nations to do what benefits humanity and all other species. Money won. Life lost. Copenhagen is over, a battle lost despite valiant efforts, but the war continues.
The crazy thing about this moment in history is that it isn’t at all like Terminator 2, except that the Earth and our species are in terrible danger, and ruthless superhuman forces push us toward our doom. In the movie, Sarah Connor is the only human being who knows what’s coming, and she’s in an Abu Ghraib-like mental hospital for saying and doing something about it. In our reality, anyone who cares to know what the dangers are should have no problem finding out. Most of us have known, or should have known, for quite a long time. Because we’ve done so little, what a decade ago was imagined as the terrible future has actually, like the Terminator, made it here ahead of time.
The learning curve for so many of us, for so many people and even nations, has been speeding up impressively. If we had 40 years to figure it all out, we might be headed toward just the sort of victory that civil society has, in fact, achieved on so many other environmental and human-rights ideas. But there aren’t decades to spare. It needs to happen now. It should have happened even before the last century ended.
Even in my fever dream, with the Superdome just out the window, I couldn’t help noting the key axiom repeated in Terminator 2: “The future is not set. There is no fate but what we make for ourselves.”
So here’s the lesson: there are no superheroes but us.
And here’s the question: what are you going to do about it?