Mike Davis on apocalypse denial in America

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In a Mother Jones magazine essay, “Over a Barrel,” energy expert Paul Roberts, considering the near-impossibility of creating a sustainable-energy world in any reasonable span of time based only on market forces, speaks of an American “wall of energy denial” and of American consumers who “still share the [Bush] administration’s energy obliviousness.” He adds that “U.S. gasoline consumption continues to rise, despite high oil prices.” Well, exactly. And we’re talking about something closer to the Great Wall of China than a picket fence. Those fortifications of denial start with oil and wend their way across a rather impressive terrain of future troubles, well patrolled by an army of Hummers and SUVs. But even those Americans who don’t care to — and still don’t have to — peer over the wall already essentially know what’s on the other side. That’s the nature of denial. After all, you can’t deny what you don’t, at heart, know to be so.

Even those who decry global warming as a “politically correct scientific fable,” for instance, sense that something is rotten in the state of well, Earthmark. And increasingly, as oil grows more costly, as weapons of mass destruction proliferate, as Bush fiddles and in coming summers Rome threatens to burn, as species of animals attempt to migrate north looking for essential air conditioning, and mini-cascades of extinction begin, as glaciers inland and coastal evaporate, as polar sea ice melts at increasingly fantastic speeds, as tribal peoples in the north and on low-lying islands elsewhere lose their ways of life — as all those distant “canaries” in the planetary mines are forced to respond — we remain as a nation in almost full-scale, oil-gulping denial of our own future and, far more important, that of our children and grandchildren.

Imagine if we had been in whatever the opposite of denial might be; if, even a decade ago, we had put Moon-reaching, Iraq war-making levels of money and a little good old American quick-fix know-how into a program to develop sustainable energy resources and another way of life on this planet. But if you spend too much time imagining that sort of thing, especially given the recent election, you’ll just end up behind another kind of wall in another kind of denial of what we know to be so.

I took a different tack and asked Mike Davis to write us all a piece on apocalypse denial. A man who always surprises, Davis, author of among many other books the aptly named Ecology of Fear, sent in the following which you can now enjoy at your peril. Tom

The White House Rodeo
By Mike Davis

Earlier this year, four gaunt horsemen in black shrouds cantered down Pennsylvania Avenue. Since no one complained or even noticed, they grazed their hungry steeds on the White House lawn. They’ve been there ever since and threaten never to leave.

This interview with them is a Tomdispatch exclusive:

“First Horseman, please state your name for our readers.”

“My name is Oil and my price is $50 per barrel and higher yet to come.”

“Fine, and you’re from?”

“Hubbert’s Peak.”

“Is that in Colorado?”

No response.

“Are you in Washington for business or pleasure?”

“Both, actually. While wrecking the American economy, I’m also hoping to bring immense happiness to a handful of giant energy corporations.”

“Well, that’s a popular cause in this town, so please enjoy your stay. Now, Second Horseman, can I have your name for the record.”

“My name is Proliferation, son of Wot and destroyer of worlds.”


“The War on Terrorism. Only the strong and nuclear-armed shall survive, so sayeth Bush.”

“I see, you’re a traveling salesman. Visited any exotic locales lately?”

“Mainly Tehran and Pyongyang with some overnights in Karachi, Delhi, and Brasilia. But I have a heavy travel schedule over the next year.”

“Enjoy your frequent-flyer points. And now, number three, if I could interrupt for a minute?”

“No problem. My name is Global Chaos. I was just sorting through some vacation photos. Take a look.”

“Thanks. Hmm, very National Geographic.”

“Yes, I love the great outdoors. This is a melting glacier in Alaska. Here’s a flood in Bangladesh. Oh, one of my favorites, the epic drought in the American Southwest.”

“Eh, what are those white objects?”

“You mean the bones?”

“Bones? Maybe I’d better move on and meet Horseman Four.”

“I am the pale rider and my name is Plague.”

“I bet your first name is Bubonic?”

“No, that’s my cousin. I’m the avian influenza pandemic.”

“I’m sorry, but have I heard of you?”

“The World Health Organization says I am an unprecedented threat to humanity. The world is utterly unprepared to deal with my arrival.”

“Well, that’s one helluva blurb.”

“Yes, and my grandfather killed 100 million people in 1918-19.”

“No kidding? Well, thanks for sharing. Now, I wonder if I can ask a few questions of the entire group. First, does your posse, band, whatever, have an agent or publicist?”

‘Yes, Saint John.”

“OK, and has he arranged your DC publicity? Have you had much election-year media exposure? You know, O’Reilly, the Washington Post, Meet the Press, the Lehrer News Hour.?”

“Oh, no,” laughed Chaos, “no one has interviewed us.”

“Come on, four big guys in black on horses, here in front of the White House during an election season.”

“No, honest,” Proliferation chipped in, “they don’t want to acknowledge our presence.”

“Well, how about the other side, the opposition party? Surely, they’ve looked to you for a juicy angle. I mean the horse doo-doos all over the White House lawn, not to mention.. Hey are you guys even citizens? Do you have passports?”

“I can assure you,” Proliferation insisted, “none of that matters. No one wants to admit we’re here.”

“But why?”

Plague spoke. “Apocalypse denial. Your whole society is suffering from acute apocalypse denial.”

“That’s preposterous, we’re afraid of all kinds of things these days. We tremble at the very thought of anthrax in the mail, plutonium on the subways, or botulism in our Big Macs. We have regular orange alerts.”

Plague interrupted. “No, that’s the whole point. You’re so terrified of the shadows your rulers project on the wall that you can’t see us standing here, right outside your door.”

“Hmm, so I guess you guys are the real deal?”

“Believe it.”

“So what’s your business plan?”

Chaos cleared his throat. “For generations, the wealthier 40 percent of your population has lived inside an extraordinary bubble of privilege.”

“In addition to enormous security of wealth and status,” Proliferation took over, “your affluent classes have been sheltered from the bitter winds of history.”

“We’re the bitter winds,” added Plague.

“And we’ll burst your bubble,” Oil promised.

A pale horse neighed.

“Unfortunately my recorder has run out of tape. I’m afraid we’ll have to end the interview with that.”

‘No problem,” Oil smiled. “Y’all come back and visit. We’re not going anywhere.”

Mike Davis is the author of Dead Cities: And Other Tales, Ecology of Fear, and co-author of Under the Perfect Sun: The San Diego Tourists Never See, among other books.

Copyright 2004 Mike Davis