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Philip Mead: Fear and hope on the road to ecocide



For the Monitor
Thursday, December 06, 2018

I stopped killing deer when I was 19. The last buck I shot was a spike horn, and he died bleating at my feet. The look of terror in his eyes haunts me to this day. I stepped into his world, he didn’t come into mine.

I liked hunting. I like hunters – they tend to be good conservationists. Teddy Roosevelt was a hunter, but as he got older he preferred conservation. Rumor has it he cried when he shot his last bear. That was “Teddy’s bear,” the one that gave rise to our children’s fuzzy nighttime companions.

I grew up clinging to my Teddy when dreams of nuclear war sprang from the CONELRAD alerts, duck and cover drills and the Cuban Missile Crisis. By the time I married and made it to graduate school, Jonathan Schell had written The Fate of the Earth, and my fears were rekindled and magnified by the presence of our two young children. We became active, joined Beyond War, wrote letters, protested. So did a lot of other folks, thank goodness. It helped. Politicians listened, the nuclear arsenals shrank, the Cold War ended. It turned out building A-bombs wasn’t all that profitable. Conventional arms were more lucrative. They got used up and had to be replaced.

I knew the environment was taking a beating, but Congress seemed half-way responsible. The Superfund legislation passed and corporations had to clean up their biggest messes. Rivers stopped catching fire. Habitat loss continued to be a problem, but at least Greenpeace was giving the whaling industry what for, and making progress. Then, James Hansen submitted his report to Congress. The planet was warming at an alarming rate, and we were the cause. Hansen wasn’t blaming anyone, and he had a plan. A hopeful plan. Tax carbon production and emissions.

Congress actually thought the tax was reasonable. The oil and coal companies thought otherwise. They got scared (profits were threatened), then they got angry. Finally, they got even. The science was challenged, millions were spent on lobbying efforts. In the early 1990s, a clear majority of Americans supported the science. After the turn of the century, that majority became a minority. The fear the public had that might have led to earlier action was lowered by the petroleum industry’s denials and obfuscations.

Hansen soldiered on, joined by many others: Bill McKibben, author and co-founder of 350.org; Naomi Klein, author of This Changes Everything; and Paul Kingsnorth, author and co-founder of the Dark Mountain project, to name but a few. McKibben and Klein are still fighting, but Kingsnorth has dropped out. He no longer hopes for a reversal of greenhouse gases, and believes it’s time to teach children how to survive in a radically altered environment. For Kingsnorth and others in his coalition, the crux of the problem does not lie solely with the petroleum industry. He believes it has to do with the stories we tell ourselves to ease our fears and bolster our hopes; stories that serve to propagate the myth of ever-advancing human endeavor; stories that ignore history’s lessons of past societal collapse. (Look at us, we’re going to Mars!) Kingsnorth feels the ecocide we head toward will be like nothing humankind has ever experienced in the past. The 22nd century is an unknown, but he fears it will bear little resemblance to the 21st.

I choose to cling to hope. I have to. My own grandchildren demand it of me. I will retire soon and devote most of my time trying to make a difference. I owe it to them and to that deer.

(Philip Mead lives in Concord.)