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Planet of the Surreal
Turning 75 in the Age of Trump
By Tom Engelhardt
As I turn 75, there’s no simpler way to put it than this: I’m an old man on a new planet — and, in case it isn’t instantly obvious, that’s not good news on either score.
I still have a memory of being a camp counselor in upstate New York more than half a century ago. I was perhaps 20 years old and in charge of a cabin of — if I remember rightly — nine-year-old campers. In other words, young as they were, they were barely less than half my age. And here’s what I remember most vividly: when asked how old they thought I was, they guessed anything from 30 to 60 or beyond. I found it amusing largely because, I suspect, I couldn’t faintly imagine being 60 years old myself. (My grandmother was then in her late sixties.) My present age would have been off the charts not just for those nine year olds, but for me, too. At that point, I doubt I even knew anyone as old as I am now.
Yet here I am, so many decades later, with grandchildren of my own. And I find myself looking at a world that, had you described it to me in the worst moments of the Vietnam War years when I was regularly in the streets protesting, I would never have believed possible. I probably would have thought you stark raving mad. Here I am in an America not just with all the weirdness of Donald Trump, but with a media that feeds on his every bizarre word, tweet, and act as if nothing else were happening on the face of the Earth. If only.
A Demobilizing World
In those Vietnam years, when a remarkable range of people (even inside the military) were involved in antiwar protests, if you had told me that, in the next century, we would be fighting unending wars from Afghanistan to Somalia and beyond I would have been shocked. If you had added that, though even veterans of those wars largely believe they shouldn’t have been fought, just about no one would be out in the streets protesting, I would have thought you were nuts. Post-Vietnam, how was such a thing possible?
If you had told me that, in those years to come, the American military would be an “all-volunteer” one, essentially a kind of foreign legion, and that those who chose not to be part of it would endlessly “thank” the volunteers for their service while otherwise continuing their lives as if nothing were going on, I wouldn’t have believed you. If you had also pointed out that economic inequality in America would reach levels that might have staggered denizens of the Gilded Age, that three Americans would possess the same wealth as the bottom half of society, that a CEO would, on average, make at least 361 times the income of a worker, and that for years there would be no genuine protest around any of this, I would have considered it un-American.
If, in those same years, you had assured me that, in our future, thanks to a crucial Supreme Court decision, so much of the money that had gushed up to the wealthiest 1%, or even .01%, of Americans would be funneled back, big time, into what still passed for American democracy, I would have been stunned. That a 1% version of politics would essentially pave the way for a billionaire to enter the White House, and that, until the arrival of Bernie Sanders in 2016, protest over all this would barely be discernable, I certainly wouldn’t have believed you.
In sum, I would have been amazed at the way, whatever the subject, Americans had essentially been demobilized (or perhaps demobilized themselves) in the twenty-first century, somehow convinced that there was nothing to be done that would change anything. There was no antiwar movement in the streets, unions had been largely defanged, and even the supposed “fascist” in the White House would have no interest in launching a true movement of his own. If anything, his much-discussed “base” would actually be a set of “fans” wearing red MAGA hats and waiting to fill stadiums for the Trump Show, the same way you’d wait for a program to come on TV.
And none of this would have staggered me faintly as much as one thing I haven’t even mentioned yet. Had I been told then that, by this century, there would be a striking scientific consensus on how the burning of fossil fuels was heating and changing the planet, almost certainly creating the basis for a future civilizational crisis, what would I have expected? Had I been told that I lived in the country historically most responsible for putting those carbon emissions into the atmosphere and warming the planet egregiously, how would I have reacted? Had I been informed that, facing a crisis of an order never before imagined (except perhaps in religious apocalyptic thinking), humanity would largely demobilize itself, what would I have said? Had I learned then that, in response to this looming crisis, Americans would elect as president a man who denied that global warming was even occurring, a man who was, if anything, focused on increasing its future intensity, what in the world would I have thought? Or how would I have reacted if you had told me that from Brazil to Poland, the Philippines to England, people across the planet were choosing their own Donald Trumps to lead them into that world in crisis?
Where’s the Manhattan Project for Climate Change?
Here, let me leap the almost half-century from that younger self to the aging creature that’s me today and point out that you don’t have to be a scientist anymore to grasp the nature of the new planet we’re on. Here, for instance, is just part of what I — no scientist at all — noticed in the news in the last few weeks. The planet experienced its hottest June on record. The temperature in Anchorage, Alaska, hit 90 degrees for the first time in history, mimicking Miami, Florida, which was itself experiencing record highs. (Consider this a footnote, but in March, Alaska had, on average, temperatures 20 degrees warmer than usual.) According to figures compiled by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), not just that state but every state in the union has been steadily warming, compared to twentieth-century averages, with Rhode Island leading the way. Europe also just experienced a fierce heat wave — they’re coming ever more often — in which one town in southern France hit a record 115 degrees. India’s sixth-largest city, under its own heat emergency, essentially ran out of water. The sea ice in Antarctica has experienced a “precipitous” fall in recent years that shocked scientists, while a glacier the size of Florida there seems to be destabilizing (bad news for the future rise of global sea levels). As a NOAA study showed, thanks to sea-level rise, flooding in coastal American cities like Charleston, South Carolina, is happening ever more often, even on perfectly sunny days. Meanwhile, the intensity of the rainfall in storms is increasing like the one that dumped a month’s worth of water on Washington, D.C., one recent Monday morning. That one turned “streets into rivers and basements into wading pools,” even dampening the basement of the White House — and such storms are growing more frequent. Oh yes, and the world’s five hottest years on record have all occurred since 2014, with 2019 more or less a surefire add-on to that list on a planet on which the last 406 consecutive months have been warmer than the twentieth-century average. (By the end of the month of January 2019, that same planet in only 31 days had already set 35 records for heat and only two for cold.) And that’s just to start down a longer list of news about climate change or global warming or, as the Guardian has taken to calling it recently, the “climate emergency” or “climate breakdown.”
In response to such a world, sometimes — an exaggeration but not too much of one — it seems as if only the children, mainly high-school students inspired by a remarkable 16-year-old Swedish girl with Asperger syndrome, have truly been mobilizing. With their Friday school strikes, they are at least trying to face the oncoming crisis that is increasingly our world. In a way the adults of that same world generally don’t, they seem to grasp that, by not mobilizing to deal with climate change, we are potentially robbing them of their future.
In that sense, of course, I have no future, which is just the normal way of things. Our lives all end and, at 75, I (kind of) understand that I’m ever closer to stepping off this planet of ours. The question for me is what kind of a planet I’ll be leaving behind for those very children (and their future children). I understand, too, that when it comes to climate change, we face the wealthiest, most powerful industry on the planet, the fossil-fuel giants whose CEOs, in their urge to keep the oil, coal, and natural gas flowing forever and a day, will assuredly prove to be the greatest criminals and arsonists in a history that doesn’t lack for great crimes — and that’s no small thing. (In those never-ending wars of ours, of course, we Americans face some of the next most powerful corporate entities on the planet and the money and 1% politics that go with them.)
Still, I can’t help but wonder: Was the Paris climate accord really the best the planet could do (even before Donald Trump announced that the U.S. would pull out of it)? I mean, at 75, I think to myself: Where, when it comes to climate change, is an updated version of the Manhattan Project, the massive government research effort that produced (god save us) the atomic bomb? Or the Cold War version of the same that so effectively got Americans onto the moon and back? It was possible to mobilize at a massive level then, why not now? Imagine what might be done in terms of renewable energy or global projects to mitigate climate change if the governments of Planet Earth were somehow to truly face the greatest crisis ever to hit human life?
Imagine being the Chinese government and knowing that, by 2100, parts of one of your most populous regions, the North China Plain, will likely be too hot to be habitable. Grasping that, wouldn’t you start to mobilize your resources in a new way to save your own people’s future rather than building yet more coal-fired power plants and exporting hundreds of them abroad as well? Honestly, from Washington to Beijing, New Delhi to London, the efforts — even the best of them — couldn’t be more pathetic given what’s at stake.
The children are right. We’re effectively robbing them of their future. It’s a shame and a crime. It’s what no parents or grandparents should ever do to their progeny. We know that, as in World War II, mobilization on a grand scale is possible. The United States proved that in 1941 and thereafter.
Perhaps, like most war mobilizations, that worked so effectively because it had a tribal component to it, being against other human beings. We have little enough experience mobilizing not against but with other human beings to face a danger that threatens us all. And yet, in a sense, doesn’t climate change represent another kind of “world war” situation, though it’s not yet thought of that way?
So why, I continue to wonder, in such a moment of true crisis are we still largely living on such a demobilized world? Why is it increasingly a Trumpian planet of the surreal, not a planet of the all-too-real?
Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He runs TomDispatch.com and is a fellow of the Type Media Center. His sixth and latest book is A Nation Unmade by War (Dispatch Books).
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.
Copyright 2019 Tom Engelhardt