Category: Resource Wars

Note: This is the REVISED version  (June 23, 2020) of an essay written for an international cyber-conference on the COVID-19 global pandemic. 

How To Destroy Civilization: COVID-19 and the Exploitation of Animals and the Earth

Steve Best

“Imagine the amazing good fortune of the generation that gets to see the end of the world. This is as marvelous as being there in the beginning.”  ― Jean Baudrillard

  1. Apocalypse

Many past cultures have thought that they lived in apocalyptic times and expressed a foreboding sense of doom and ending. From the Book of Revelations to cyberpunk, apocalyptic visions have been a mainstay of human culture. In contemporary 21st century conditions, the signs of apocalypse are everywhere, from collapsing ice shelves in the Arctic to wildfires raging in California, Australia, and Brazil; from superstorms pummeling coastal towns and island communities to millions of refugees fleeing the ravages of drought, poverty, famine, and conflict; from lingering specters of nuclear annihilation and (bio)terrorist attacks to species extinction and runaway climate change. And now, on the heels of numerous recent viral outbreaks, we are witness to the scourge of a global pandemic inflicting suffering and death around the globe, a massive economic meltdown, and cities turned into ghost towns or petri dishes when not in flames over systemic racism and police brutality. All the while, authoritarianism rises, democracy wanes, and power concentrates into ever fewer hands, as promising signs of resistance emerge.

Whereas all past apocalyptic visions were rooted in fear, paranoia, fantasy, and superstition, visions of chaos and collapse today find grounding in mathematical projections and scientific facts. In our current era, apocalypse is an immanently unfolding objective reality that we are accelerating toward at breakneck speed. For the last 50 years or so, postmodern forms of culture and theory have articulated pronounced feelings of exhaustion and endings. We have heard much about the death of metanarratives; the end of history; the disappearance of the social; the demise of truth, reality, and the subject; and of course, the passing of postmodernism itself.[1] Postmodernism arises amidst paradigm shifts that register across the disciplines. but these changes barely scratched the surface of seismic changes unfolding in society and the objective world that had allegedly disappeared into the text or impenetrable fog of hyperreality. For what we are witnessing is not the end of modernism or modernity, but rather the immanent collapse of the expansionistic, growth-oriented enterprise we call civilization — the dominant institutional structures and ideologies that human beings have built over the last 10,000 years during the Holocene epoch.

Our present moment is so radically novel and extreme we have to think of it in geological, not merely historical terms, for we have created a new geological epoch — we are transitioning from the Holocene to the Anthropocene.[2] Humans have expanded their technological and world-altering prowess to such an extent they have disrupted every living system on the planet – most evidently in the emergence of a sixth (human-caused) mass extinction (right now, 150 species go extinct every day) and with the rise of fossil capitalism and its causal effect in global warming and climate change, thus creating  a radical break in the history of humanity and the earth itself. Since the 1970s, in just the last half-century, humans have reduced wild animal populations 60%, and within the next few decades we will obliterate an additional million plant and animal species.[3] To indicate the extent to which one species has usurped the planet on its unending path of destruction, humans have hitherto destroyed 83% of all wild animals and half of all plant species, such that 96% of all mammals on earth are now humans and their cattle.[4] Only 15% of the planet’s forests remain intact, the rest have been cut down, fragmented, and degraded, as grasslands and wetlands suffer a similar fate. Continue reading

Attached is the complete manuscript to the groundbreaking anthology I co-edited and introduced, Igniting a Revolution: Voices in Defense of the Earth (AK Press: 2006). Read and disseminate widely. Hardcopies are available here.


 Steven Best

(This piece was originally written for my good friend Adam, and earlier published on his blog, OccupyEssays)

“I’d like to share with you a revelation I’ve had, during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species and I realized that you aren’t actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with its surrounding environment, but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply, and multiply until every natural resource is consumed. The only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You are a plague.” Agent Smith, The Matrix (1999)

This essay tells a story. It is more than a little story, it is one of the biggest stories of all — the story of how humans evolved from one of the weakest to the most dangerous animal on the planet, from hunted to hunter, from vulnerable prey to top predator. This is the amazing saga of how one species became the first and only global species and in a very short time built a vast empire that has colonized the planet for need and greed, has created a new geological epoch – the human-dominated Anthropocene Era — and is threatening to bring down the planetary house.

Like all empires, the human empire rose, had glorious triumphs, but ultimately was a decadent and unsustainable colossus; and thus it also dies, ebbs, declines, and falls like the rest. But much more is at stake in this drama than an imperialist state and its colonies, for here we are talking about the entire species of Homo sapiens and its impact on biodiversity and the ecological dynamics of the planet as a whole.

 There is no scientific consensus to this story; there are, rather, a thousand narratives of the origins of Homo sapiens and the proper taxonomical tables and nomenclature. The prevailing cacophony of dispute arises partly for the empirical reasons (the science is uncertain and always changing), and also for political reasons (scientists, researchers, and historians have vested interests in challenging competing narratives and validating their own discoveries and narratives). Uncertainties aside, grasping the outlines of the human past are critical for understanding what kind of animal we are, illuminating the causes of current social and ecological crises, and creating viable future societies — if indeed such a project is still possible in a significant sense.

 Out of Africa and Out of Control

Our earliest ancestors evolved from an independent branch of the primate tree some 5-7 million years ago. Pressured by climate changes, they moved out of the Eastern and Southern forests of Africa and into the savannas where for various reasons they stood up on two legs and evolved into bipedal animals. These Australopithecines were 3 feet tall, hairy, ape-men — like apes in their relatively small brain size, and like humans in walking upright. After 2-3 million years, various australopithecine types evolved into diverse variations of the Homo genus, including species such as Homo habilis, Homo heidelbergensis, Homo erectus, Homo neanderthalensis, and Homo sapiens, and Homo sapiens sapiens (behaviorally modern, language-speaking humans). Along this dynamic, variegated evolutionary path, hominid brains grew increasingly large; their technologies and cultures became ever more sophisticated; and their populations continuously expanded in size and geographical reach as their ecological impact became more and more severe.

 There is no consensus on key questions, such as: What is the proper taxonomical language to characterize humans in relation to other primates? What alleged Homo types were true species rather than sub-species? What Homo species co-existed, and when? Did they evolve as one species in a linear fashion, as the “Out of Africa” thesis argues, or did various Homo types co-evolve and leave Africa at different times and in many migrations, as the “Multiregional” theory claims?[1]

 Whatever the diversity of human types and subsequent migration patterns, about 100,000 years ago (there is no consensus on this date either) Homo sapiens left the African continent to explore a vast, unknown world in which continents were conjoined by ice sheets. They migrated to Europe, Asia, Australia, Siberia, Indonesia, and into the Americas, establishing their empire throughout the globe. All the time multiplying, diversifying, and scattering across the continents, humans wasted no time in colonizing the world from north to south and from east to west.

Just one among tens of millions of existing animal species – many already dispatched to oblivion, thousands currently poised on the end, and thousands yet on the brink of extinction and some yet to be discovered – Homo sapiens has risen from humble mammalian and primate origins to become the most dominant, violent, predatory, and destructive animal on the planet. Nearly everywhere it journeyed and lived, Homo sapiens wrought social and ecological devastation, extinction crises, and chronic warfare.  Continue reading

By Dianey Toomey, Yale Environment 360

“National security expert Michael Klare believes the struggle for the world’s resources will be one of the defining political and environmental realities of the 21st century. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, he discusses the threat this scramble poses to the natural world and what can be done to sustainably meet the resource challenge. His most recent book, The Race for What’s Left: The Global Scramble for the World’s Last Resources, describes how the world economy has entered a period of what he calls “tough” extraction for energy, minerals, and other commodities, meaning that the easy-to-get resources have been exploited and a rapidly growing population is now turning to resources in the planet’s most remote regions — the Arctic, the deep ocean, and war zones like Afghanistan. Klare discussed China’s surging appetite for resources, the growing potential for political and military conflict as commodities become more scarce, and the disturbing trend of the planet’s agricultural land being bought by companies and governments seeking to ensure that their people will have enough food in the future.”

Michael Klare

Yale Environment 360: You make the point that when it comes to the age-old competition for raw materials, we’re in an unprecedented age. How so?

Michael Klare: I do believe that’s the case. Humans have been struggling to gain control of vital resources since the beginning of time, but I think we’re in a new era because we’re running out of places to go. Humans have constantly moved to new areas, to new continents, when they’ve run out of things in their home territory. But there aren’t any more new continents to go to. We’re going now to the last places left on earth that haven’t been exploited: the Arctic, the deep oceans, the inner jungles in Africa, Afghanistan. There are very few places left that haven’t been fully tapped, so this is humanity’s last chance to exploit the earth, and after this there’s nowhere else to go.

e360: Natural resource extraction has never been a pretty business when it comes to the environment, but you write that now that the era of easy oil, easy gas, easy minerals and other resources is basically over, and what’s left is in deep water, remote or inhospitable climates, or in geological formations that require extraordinary means to get at. So paint me a picture of what extracting these tough resources looks like.

Klare: We’re really going to be using very aggressive means of extraction, so the environmental consequences are going to be proportionally greater. For example, to get oil and natural gas out of shale rock, you can’t just drill and expect it to come out. It doesn’t work that way. You have to smash the rock, you have to produce fractures in the rock, and we use a very aggressive technology to do that — hydraulic fracturing — and the water is brought under tremendous pressure and it’s laced with toxic chemicals, and when the water is extracted from these wells it can’t be put back into the environment without risk of poisoning water supplies. So there’s a tremendous problem of storage, of toxic water supplies, and we really haven’t solved that problem.

And that’s just one example. Drilling in the Arctic presents a tremendous problem because the Arctic, by its very nature, is at the edge of survival and all the species there are living at the edge of survival, so any oil spill could push them over the edge into extinction. So [oil companies] must have on hand all kinds of extra capacity to deal with the possibility of spills, and that’s much more difficult to engineer than in the Gulf of Mexico, where there are tens of thousands of boats that you could hire on short notice to bring out skimmers and booms to contain a spill. There’s nothing like that in the Arctic. Moreover, if this were to happen in winter, there would be no way to move equipment up there to build a relief drill. Remember, it was a relief drill that closed the Deepwater Horizon spill, but you can’t do that in the middle of winter when the Arctic [Ocean] is covered with ice.  Continue reading

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