A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
Life in a Wounded and Wounding Land
Here’s one of the things I now do every morning. I go to the online Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center and check out the figures there — global coronavirus cases and deaths, U.S. coronavirus cases and deaths. And I do so the way that, not so long ago, I would have opened the sports pages and checked out the latest scores of whatever New York team I was rooting for.
Where it was once a matter of the Knicks winning 109-92 or the Mets losing 4-2, it’s now those other, always rising, ever grimmer figures — say, 29,607,486 and 538,087. Those are the ever-updated numbers of reported American cases and deaths in what, until the arrival of the Biden administration, was a pathetically chaotic, horrifically mismanaged, and politically depth-charged struggle with Covid-19. In certain Republican-run states now rushing to unmask and open anything and everything to the limit, in places where crowds gather as if nothing had truly happened in the past year (as at Florida beaches this spring), we may face yet another future “wave” of disease — the fourth wave, if it happens — in a country at least parts of which seem eternally eager to teeter at the edge of a health cliff. That it wouldn’t have had to be this way we know from the success of the city of Seattle, which faced the first major coronavirus outbreak in this country a year ago and now has, as the New York Timesreports, “the lowest death rate of the 20 largest metropolitan regions in the country.”
Think of Covid-19-watching as the sport from hell. And when you look at those ever-changing figures — even knowing that vaccinations are now swiftly on the rise in this country (but not everywhere on this beleaguered planet of ours) — they should remind you daily that we live in a deeply wounded land on a deeply wounded planet and that, no matter the fate of Covid-19, it’s only likely to get worse.
Here, for instance, is another figure to attend to, even though there’s no equivalent to that Johns Hopkins page when it comes to this subject: 40%. That’s the percentage of the human population living in tropical lands where, as this planet continues to heat toward or even past the 1.5-degree Fahrenheit mark set by the Paris climate accord, temperatures are going to soar beyond the limits of what a body (not carefully ensconced in air-conditioned surroundings) can actually tolerate. Climate change will, in other words, prove to be another kind of pandemic, even if, unlike Covid-19, it’s not potentially traceable to bats or pangolins, but to us humans and specifically to the oil, gas, and coal companies that have over all these years powered what still passes for civilization.
In other words, just to take the American version of climate change, from raging wildfires to mega-droughts, increasing numbers of ever-more-powerful hurricanes to greater flooding, rising sea levels (and disappearing coastlines) to devastating heat waves (and even, as in Texas recently, climate-influenced freezes), not to speak of future migration surges guaranteed to make border crossing an even more fraught political issue, ahead lies a world that could someday make our present pandemic planet seem like a dreamscape. And here’s the problem: at least with Covid-19, in a miracle of modern scientific research, vaccines galore have been developed to deal with that devastating virus, but sadly there will be no vaccines for climate change.
The Wounding of Planet Earth
Keep in mind as well that our country, the United States, is not only an especially wounded one when it comes to the pandemic; it’s also a wounding one, both at home and abroad. The sports pages of death could easily be extended, for instance, to this country’s distant wars, something Brown University’s Costs of War Project has long tried to do. (That site is, in a sense, the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center for America’s grim, never-ending conflicts of the twenty-first century.)
Choose whatever post-9/11 figures you care to when it comes to our forever wars and they’re all staggering: invasions and occupations of distant lands; global drone assassination campaigns; or the release of American air power across the Greater Middle East and parts of Africa (most recently, the strike President Biden ordered in Syria that killed a mere “handful” of militia men — 22, claim some sources — a supposedly “proportionate” number that did not include any women or children, though it was a close call until the president cancelled a second strike). And don’t forget Washington’s endless arming of, and support for, countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates engaged in their own orgies of death and destruction in Yemen. Pick whatever figures you want, but the wounding of this planet in this century by this country has been all too real and ongoing.
The numbers, in fact, remain staggering. As has been pointed out many times at TomDispatch, the money this country puts into its “defense” budget tops that of the next 10 countries (China, India, Russia, Saudi Arabia, France, Germany, United Kingdom, Japan, South Korea, and Brazil) combined. And when it comes to selling weaponry of the most advanced and destructive kind globally, the U.S. leaves every other country in the dust. It’s the arms dealer of all arms dealers on Planet Earth.
And if you happen to be in the mood to count up U.S. military bases, which are on every continent except Antarctica, this country garrisons the planet in a way no previous power, not even imperial Britain, did. It has an estimated 800 such bases, while, just for the sake of comparison, China, that other fearsome rising power the U.S. military is now so focused on, has… hmmm, at least one such base, in Djibouti, Africa (remarkably close — you won’t be surprised to learn — to an American military base there). None of this really has much of anything to do with “national security,” but it certainly adds up to a global geography of wounding in a rather literal fashion. In this sense, on this planet in this century, the United States has truly — to use a word American politicians have long loved to apply to this country — proven “exceptional.”
At home, too, until recently, American political leadership has been wounding indeed. Keep in mind that this was in a country in which one political party is now a vortex of conspiracy theories, bizarre beliefs, wild convictions, and truths that are obvious lies, a party nearly a third of whose members view the QAnon conspiracy theory favorably, 75% of whose members believe that Joe Biden lost the 2020 election, and 49% of whose male members have no intention of being vaccinated for Covid-19 (potentially denying the country “herd immunity”).
And just to put all this in perspective, not a single Republican “statesman” offered a vote of support when Joe Biden’s congressional radicals passed a (temporary) $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief bill, parts of which were aimed at alleviating this country’s historic levels of inequality. After all, in the pandemic moment, while so many Americans found themselves jobless, homeless, and hungry, the country’s billionaires made an extra 1.3 trillion dollars (a figure that should certainly fit somewhere on the sports pages of death). Never, not even in the Gilded Age, has inequality been quite so extreme or wounding in the country that still passes for the greatest on the planet.
For the first time in its history, in 2017, a self-proclaimed billionaire became president of the United States and, with the help of a Republican Congress, passed a tax cut that left the rich and corporations flooded with yet more money. Admittedly, he was a billionaire who had repeatedly bankrupted his own businesses, always jumping ship just in time with other people’s money in hand (exactly as he would do after helping to pandemicize this country, once again with oodles of his followers’ money in his pocket).
As for me, shocking as the assault on the Capitol was on January 6th, I never thought that the Senate should have convicted Donald Trump for that alone. My feeling was that the House should have impeached him and the Senate convicted him for the far more serious and direct crime of murder. After all, he was the one who played a crucial role in turning the pandemic into our very own set of mask wars (even as he called on his followers, long before January 6th, to “liberate” a state capitol building).
The half-baked, dismissive way he would deal with the coronavirus, its importance, and what should be done to protect us from it — even before he got a serious case of it, was hospitalized, and returned to the White House, still infectious, to tear off his mask in full public view — would functionally represent acts of murder. In effect, he unmasked himself as the killer he was. (A study in the International Journal of Health Services suggests that by July 2020 his personal decision to turn masks into a political issue had already resulted in between 4,000 and 12,000 deaths.)
Now, throw in other Republican governors like Greg Abbott of Texas and Tate Reeves of Mississippi, who knowingly refused to declare mask mandates or cancelled them early, and you have a whole crew of murderers to add to those Johns Hopkins figures in a moment when the all-American sport is surely death.
A Genuinely Green Planet?
Admittedly, I don’t myself have any friends who have died of Covid-19, although I have at least two, even more ancient than I am, one 91 in fact, who have been hospitalized for it, devastated by it, and then have slowly and at least partially recovered from it. As for myself, since I had the foresight to be 75 when Covid-19 first hit and am now heading for 77, I’ve had my two vaccine shots in a world in which, thanks again at least in part to Donald Trump and to a social-media universe filled with conspiracy theories and misinformation, far too many Americans — one-third of mostly young military personnel, for instance! — are shying away from or refusing what could save us all.
So, we’ve been plunged into a nightmare comparable to those that have, in the past, been visited on humanity, including the Black Death and the Spanish Flu, made worse by leaders evidently intent on shuffling us directly into the graveyard. And yet, that could, in the end, prove the least of our problems. We could, as Joe Biden has only recently more or less promised, be heading for a future in which Covid-19 will be truly under control or becomes, at worst, the equivalent of the yearly flu.
Let’s hope that’s the case. Now, consider this: the one favor Covid-19 seemed to be doing for humanity by shutting so many of us in, keeping airlines passengers on the ground, taking vehicles off the road and even, for a while, ships off the high seas, was cutting down on the use of oil, coal, and natural gas and so greenhouse gasses released into the atmosphere. In the year of Covid-19, carbon emissions dropped significantly. In December 2020, however, as various global economies like China’s began to rev back up, those emissions were already reportedly a shocking 2% higher than they had been in December 2019 before the pandemic swept across the world.
In short, most of what might make it onto the sports pages of death these days may turn out to be the least of humanity’s problems. After all, according to a new report, thanks in significant part to human activities, even the Amazon rain forest, once one of the great carbon sinks on the planet, is now releasing more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than it’s absorbing. And that should be a shock.
If you want to be further depressed, try this: on our planet, there are now two great greenhouse gas emitters, the United States (historically at the top of the charts) and China (number one at this moment). Given what lies ahead, here’s a simple enough formula: if China and the United States can’t cooperate in a truly meaningful way when it comes to climate change, we’re in trouble deep. And yet the Biden administration, like the Trump administration before it, remains remarkably focused on hostility to China and a military response to that country, an approach that someday is guaranteed to seem so out of touch as to be unbelievable.
Climate change will, over the coming decades, prove increasingly devastating to our lives. It could, in a sense, prove to be the pandemic of all the ages. And yet, here’s the sad and obvious thing: the world doesn’t have to be this way. It’s true that there are no vaccinations against climate change, but we humans already know perfectly well what has to be done. We know that we need to create a genuinely green and green-powered planet to bring this version of a pandemic under control and we know as well that, over the next decades, it’s a perfectly doable task if only humanity truly sets its mind to it.
Otherwise, we’re going to find ourselves on an increasingly extreme planet, while the sports pages of death will only grow. If we’re not careful, human history could, in the end, turn out to be the ultimate ghost story.
Copyright 2021 Tom Engelhardt. First published in TomDispatch. Included in Vox Populi with permission.
Tom Engelhardt created and runs the website TomDispatch.com. He is also a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of a highly praised history of American triumphalism in the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. A fellow of the Type Media Center, his sixth and latest book is A Nation Unmade by War.