The history of the United States remains shrouded in the fog of myth and overlain by the mists of time. Here in the stygian gloom, its founding looms as the triumph of freedom over tyranny; its slaveholding the reasonable exploitation of an inferior race; its civil war the singular triumph of a great president; its period of reconstruction proof that former slaves were not ready to take their place in the country’s democratic institutions; and in Jim Crow a return to the natural order. Here, the great wealth of this country in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century is viewed as the result of American entrepreneurial genius and technical wizardry rather than its founding on the flagellated backs of African slaves.
Out of this venerable gloom, the Roaring Twenties shimmer as the best of times; the Great Depression rises up as a proving ground for the spirit and resourcefulness of the white population in tough times; the New Deal is established as the benevolent assurance of universal welfare; and, after Japan’s dastardly attack on Pearl Harbor, American industrial might and its greatest generation appear as the sole reason for the Allied victory in WWII. Its economic boom after the war is visible as the just fruit of that victory; its wars in Korea and Vietnam limned as vital to maintaining its freedom; its bestowal of Civil Rights upon African Americans faint proof of this country’s generosity and inclusivity.
Even in the obscuring miasma of the fog of (cold) war, the fall of the Soviet Union is seen as the result, once more, of America’s freedom triumphing over tyranny; financial deregulation and globalization (and their corollary of devastating ‘structural adjustments’) appear as a beneficent effort to spread prosperity to all; the vision of the 9/11 attack by the dark forces of Islamic extremism is brightly etched; the nation’s response coruscates as a bloody crusade undertaken across the Middle East, Asia and Africa to rout the terrorists and preserve the sanctity and freedom of our Christian homeland. Now, when myth is hastily promulgated by social and corporate media, we perceive the homeland as threatened by menacing nation states - Russia, China, or Mexico and its neighbors in Central America, selected for demonization according to one’s partisan taste - all gathering at our real or virtual borders threatening our security, our prosperity, our democracy and, once again, our most precious heritage - our freedom.
Our mythic history is thus played out on an epic scale unto the ends of the earth - where the forces of liberty must constantly renew themselves if they are to hold oppression and tyranny at bay within the precious homeland. Yet this is a history that does not yet take account of a new actor raging across the existential battlefields where our holy sacraments (most obviously, the right-to-bear-arms, the Stars and Stripes, the Pledge of Allegiance and the Star-spangled Banner) are the visible, aural and moral evidence of our God-given grace - which we must daily defend against the secular forces of evil. Global Warming is newly arrived on the stage - no longer just a part of the scenery, as Latour has it, or at best a ‘mechanical’ but now with a big speaking part. Strangely, this epochal and newly verbose character has yet to acquire mythic status within our nation’s historical saga.
If the phenomenon of Global Warming were instantiated as ‘The Four Storms of the Apocalypse’, for instance, though already suitably anthropomorphized by The World Meteorological Organization as Katrina, Sandy, Maria and Dorian, might it then mediate the phenomenon’s mythic enshrinement and substantiate its historical gravity? For they are the storms, spread across fourteen years, that have morphed into a tentacular Shiva, the destroyer of all things.
Surely the imagery of a flooded New Orleans and the terrifying swamp of a refugee camp that the Superdome became are seared into the nation’s cerebrum, alongside the inane flippancy of our then president, George W. Bush? Who of us can forget Lower Manhattan, the seat of the global neoliberal order, sinking beneath a full moon and a Frankenstorm surge in 2012? The tragedy of Puerto Rico continues to unfold after Hurricane Maria hit in 2017, and once again an inane President, this time Donald Trump, provided us with a horrifying picture of a lack of governmental gravitas, with his paper towel toss. Now comes Dorian, still marauding along the East coast as I write, having devastated Grand Bahama and the Abaco islands. When will Global Warming and the storms it spawns rise to the mythic level of a 9/11? The combined death toll of just these four storms, all within the American sphere of influence, far exceeds that of the Al Qaeda attack, and the human misery they have caused is incalculable.
A quick Google search for Weather Terrorism reveals two referrals to pieces of mine in Counterpunch, here and here and then to a site that promises to reveal all - “As the CIA pretends to know what is going on, the world is waiting for the real answer to the question: Who is controlling our weather?” Most reputable scientists know the answer in some detail even if our President protests his innocence of it, and even more alarmingly, of the question.
As a nation that professes a profound reverence for the Christian religion, perhaps we should seek mythic resonance in the Bible. Metastasized weather phenomena certainly find a place in Biblical Mythology. I have already referenced the final chapters of the New Testament, the Book of Revelation, wherein the Lamb of God (Jesus) opens a scroll secured by seven seals. Opening the first four seals reveals four riders on, respectively, a white, red, black and pale horse, which are taken to symbolize Conquest, War, Drought induced Famine and Death, each an element of the Christian Apocalypse which presages the Final Judgment. Daunting roles for Katrina, Sandy, Maria and Dorian but not entirely incommensurate with their awesome powers of destruction.
Both Elizabeth Rush in Rising – Dispatches from the American Shore, 2019, and Jeff Goodell, in The Water Will Come – Rising Seas, Sinking Cities and the Remaking of the Civilized World, 2017, reference what Goodell calls ‘the oldest story ever told’ – which he suggests, has its genesis in the breaching of the landmass between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea – what is now the Bosporus Strait. Given the disparity in levels between the higher Mediterranean and the Black Sea, the latter rose by over 300 feet in two years, flooding, by some estimates, 25,000 square miles and giving rise to the flood story in The Epic of Gilgamesh, written some two thousand years before the Bible.
Rush notes that Noah’s flood was initiated by God’s anger at the unprecedented population growth occurring, we can presume, at some point after the invention of agriculture, and in his wrath, he caused it to rain without cease. We now know that a massive increase in the burning of fossil fuels, linked to the industrial revolution in Britain, was initiated some time in the 1840’s and has since resulted in epic population growth and growing prosperity together with extinction levels of carbon in the planet’s atmosphere and oceans.
Since 1880, when the data were first reliably recorded, average global sea level rise is about nine inches. Today, we suffer not the cataclysmic rage of a vengeful god but death by these inches, where small increases in ocean levels are transforming islands, seashores and estuaries across the planet - creating wet slums, homelessness and the loss of livelihoods nurtured over the centuries in what once were relatively stable shoreline ecosystems. Meanwhile, warming seas, where most of the planet’s heat increase resides, are supercharging hurricanes to unprecedented levels of intensity (Dorian recently joined Maria and Katrina as a Category 5 storm) and to unremitting levels of frequency.
This is the environmental epic of our age. It is, as far as we know, of anthropogenic rather than divine origin, yet any effective response must include infrastructural landscapes (either hardening or softening the shore) and the resettling of threatened populations, at Biblical scales. Such heroic strategies can only be made manifest if the phenomenon they attempt to ameliorate is likewise understood at a mythic scale. In this country, Global Warming must now join the pantheon of high dramas that illuminate (even in the twilight of historical memory) this nation’s story.
The alternative is to have The Book of Global Warming, or perhaps The Book of Fossil Capital appended at the very end of our civilizational saga.