Engelhardt, Making War on Planet Earth

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The Enemy Is Us

(And I'm Not Just Thinking About Donald Trump)

Honestly, doesn’t it befuddle you?

I mean, don’t you think we humans are kinda mad? And worse yet, at some deep level, we simply can’t seem to stop. All too often, we just can’t curb our urge to destroy.

Looking back, the desire to make war and obliterate our “enemies” is a deeply ingrained and repetitive pattern in our history. Each individual example can, of course, be explained (away) in its own fashion, but the overall pattern? Hmmm…

I mean, you can certainly “understand” the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Depending on your politics, you can explain it in terms of the threatening expansion of NATO or of a country run by an autocrat willing to see countless numbers of his people die (no, I’m not even thinking about the tens of thousands of dead Ukrainians) in order to take more territory — whether in parts of Georgia (no, not that Georgia!), Ukraine, or god knows where else — and make himself ever more impressively (or do I mean depressively?) imperial. Phew! That was a long one, but explanations about war-making tend to be that way.

And yes, if you want, you also can undoubtedly explain the ongoing nightmare in Gaza, beginning with Hamas’s horrific October 7th attack on Israel and followed by the outrageous urge of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his disturbingly right-wing compatriots to slaughter the population of that strip of land right down to the smallest child. In some grim fashion, given our history, such acts seem all too sadly human.

You could also undoubtedly offer explanations for the endless — yes, that’s a reasonable word to use here! — not to speak of disastrous wars my own country has stomped into since World War II ended, first as the leader of the “free world” and then as the leader of who knows what. Those conflicts ranged from Korea in the 1950s and Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia in the 1960s and 1970s to Afghanistan and Iraq, among other places, in this century. And undoubtedly it’s even possible to explain (away) the nightmarish civil war still devastating Sudan that’s already displaced more than eight million people without being noticed by much of the rest of the world.

Something New in the Planetary Bloodstream

In a sense, war is human history. It’s been the rare moment when we’ve proven capable of not making war on ourselves somewhere on this planet. It seems to be in the bloodstream, so to speak (as in the endless streams, even rivers, of blood eternally being spilled). And in a sense, war, the urge to take someone else’s territory or simply kill endless numbers of… well, us… has certainly been in that very same bloodstream at least since the first great literary work of the Western world, The Iliad, was written. In some sense, you could say that, 3,000 years later, we’re all still in Troy.

Oh, wait, that’s both true and not, because there is indeed something new in the planetary bloodstream. And I’m not even thinking about our endless ability to find ever “better” and more devastating ways to kill one another — from the spear to the AR-15 semi-automatic rifle (reputedly now owned by one of every 20 Americans), the bow and arrow to the AI-driven drone, the hand grenade to atomic weaponry. (And don’t forget that Vladimir Putin is already threatening to use “tactical” nuclear weapons in Ukraine — never mind that some of them are significantly more powerful than the bombs that, in August 1945, obliterated the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.)

No, what I have in mind is that other way we humans have found to potentially devastate our world: the burning of fossil fuels. Yes, it started with the massive consumption of coal during the early stages of the Industrial Revolution in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and it’s simply never ended. (China, in fact, now uses more coal than the rest of the world combined and continues to build coal power plants.) By now, with oil and natural gas added to the mix in staggering quantities, records are being set monthly as ever greater heat waves, increasingly violent storms, startling flooding, and devastating fires are becoming part of our everyday lives. Typical was Miami’s May heat index that recently hit an unheard-of 112 degrees Fahrenheit, 11 degrees higher than at any past date in May ever. That should hardly shock us, however, since, as that superb environmentalist Bill McKibben reports, “A new study out today shows that heat waves have tripled since the 1960s in this country, and that deaths from those hot spells are up 800%.” And, of course, far worse is predicted for the decades to come, as those burning fossil fuels continue to pour greenhouse gases into the atmosphere at record rates.

Forget what we officially call wars (anything but easy to do these days if you happen to be Gazan, Sudanese, or Ukrainian) and consider this the increasingly devastating new way we have of warring on ourselves and our planet. While there’s still a lot to learn about global warming, also known as climate change (terms far too mild for what’s actually happening), we already know far too much not to consider it the ultimate danger — other than nuclear war, of course. In fact, the difference between nuclear war and global warming could be that, since August 1945 (except for nuclear tests), such weaponry has never been used again, while the distinctly apocalyptic “weaponry” of climate change is still ratcheting up in a staggering fashion.

A War Against the World as We’ve Known It

Climate change is certainly something Americans should know about. After all, only the other week, Donald (“drill, baby, drill“) Trump sat down with a group of fossil-fuel CEOs and reportedly suggested that, for a billion dollars in campaign financing, a bribe of the first order, he would toss out all of Joe Biden’s attempts to rein in the oil, natural gas, and coal industries and encourage them instead to make further fortunes by turning this planet into a cinder. (In truth, that wasn’t really much of an offer, since he had already made it clear that he was planning to do just that anyway, starting on “day one” of his next term in office.)

Of course, who needs Donald Trump when, as the New York Times reported recently, despite President Biden’s distinct attempts to limit the use of fossil fuels during his tenure in the White House, “oil and gas production have set records under the Biden administration and the United States is the world’s leading exporter of liquefied natural gas. Even with the [administration’s] pause on permits for new [natural gas] export terminals, the United States is still on track to nearly double its export capacity by 2027 because of projects already permitted and under construction.” And mind you, we’re talking about the country that, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, “produced more crude oil than any nation at any time… for the past six years in a row,” reaching — yes, indeed! — a new record in 2023.

And despite all of what I’ve just described, consider it an irony that the only true world war of the moment (think of it, in fact, as a slow-motion World War III) doesn’t normally get enough headlines (though there are, of course, exceptions) or the attention in the mainstream media that the wars in Gaza and Ukraine so regularly have. No matter that last year was the hottest in human history and that each of the last 11 months was the warmest of its kind on record. Still, if you want to follow what’s functionally our only true world war in the mainstream world, there’s one obvious place to go, the British Guardian, which regularly highlights reporting on the subject and even has an online “climate-crisis” section.

Here, for instance, are just a few of the things you could have learned from that paper’s reporting in the last month or so and tell me they shouldn’t have been headline news everywhere. Take the Guardian‘s Oliver Milman recently writing that “the largest ever recorded leap in the amount of carbon dioxide laden in the world’s atmosphere has just occurred… The global average concentration of carbon dioxide in March this year was 4.7 parts per million (or ppm) higher than it was in March last year, which is a record-breaking increase in CO2 levels over a 12-month period.” Or the staggering heat waves that struck across Asia this spring “causing deaths, water shortages, crop losses and widespread school closures,” as Damian Carrington, that paper’s environment editor, reported. And mind you, such searing temperatures were “made 45 times more likely in India” by the climate crisis.

Do you even remember when not passing 1.5 degrees Centigrade was the goal of the countries that put together the 2015 Paris climate accord? Well, if you don’t, no problem, since, as Carrington also recently reported, thanks to an exclusive Guardian survey, “Hundreds of the world’s leading climate scientists expect global temperatures to rise to at least 2.5C (4.5F) above preindustrial levels this century, blasting past internationally agreed targets and causing catastrophic consequences for humanity and the planet.” And almost half of them expect it to hit 3C! Now, try to imagine that future planet of, well, I’m not sure you can say “ours” anymore, or better yet, check out another recent Carrington piece on the kinds of horrors — and they would be horrors of an unprecedented sort — such scientists now think a 3C world might hold for us.

Oh, and as Milman wrote recently, a new report suggests that “the economic damage wrought by climate change is six times worse than previously thought.” That’s already! And we’ve also already crept close to that 1.5C mark. But let me not go on. You get the idea. And each of those stories should have been a blazing headline across a planet that’s already feeling the heat in every sense imaginable, even if, in our normal reckoning, what’s happening doesn’t yet count as a world war (or at least a war on the world as we’ve known it).

Don’t you find all of that breathtaking (given the nature of heat)? And isn’t it amazing that, despite what it means for our future, it’s so often hardly considered headline-making news?

And mind you, there’s so much we don’t yet even know: Is the fierce tornado season that’s recently stretched from Texas through Iowa and beyond another climate-change-induced phenomenon? It’s certainly possible. Will the coming hurricane season set a series of records from hell, as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is now warning us, thanks in part to the fact that the tropical waters of the Atlantic Ocean have heated to all-time-record levels? Again, we’ll have to wait (but not for long) to see what happens. And is that record rise in U.S. billion-dollar — yes, billion-dollar! — weather disasters recorded by NOAA in 2023, another climate-change-induced horror? It certainly seems likely.

We are, in other words, already in a mad new world of “war” (as well as the mad old version of the same). And given how possible it is that Donald Trump will become President Fossil Fuel again, we may be left to face an all too literally mad future (along with staggering new profits for the big fossil-fuel companies) in what, until recently, still passed, despite endless disastrous wars, for the greatest power on the face of the Earth. And in retrospect, in climate terms, I suspect that even Joe Biden will seem distinctly lacking and congressional Republicans mad beyond words.

Take, for instance, President Biden’s actions in relation to this planet’s other greenhouse-gas burning monster, China. (While the U.S. has historically been the greatest greenhouse gas emitter, China now tops the list.) Unlike Donald Trump, Joe Biden does indeed take climate change seriously, but he’s also supported Israel in a war from hell that’s throwing vast amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and, when it comes to China, his urge hasn’t truly been to cooperate. Instead, his focus has been on expanding the U.S. military presence throughout Asia, including putting Green Berets on an island just 10 kilometers off China’s coast. (Imagine how this country would react if — and it would hardly be comparable — China were to assign its version of special forces troops to Cuba!)  In other words, he’s been at work creating the conditions for a new, if not hot, then certainly all-too-warm war between the two greatest greenhouse-gas polluters on this ever-warming planet. 

Brilliant! And the Chinese response? To pal it up with Vladimir Putin! (Equally brilliant!)

As mid-2024 approaches, the question remains: Can we humans stop making war on each other or preparing for yet more of the same and begin dealing with a planet heading to hell in a proverbial handbasket? Can we face the fact that the enemy is indeed us?

Featured image: Castle Rock wildfire by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters is licensed under CC BY 2.0 / Flickr

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