Tom Engelhardt – Informed Comment Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion Mon, 01 Jul 2024 04:25:08 +0000 en-US hourly 1 “Some Say the World will End in Fire:” Nukes and Carbon, Carbon and Nukes Mon, 01 Jul 2024 04:02:05 +0000 ( ) – I’ve been writing about climate change for so many years now but, in truth, it was always something I read about and took in globally. It was happening out there, often in horrific ways, but not what I felt I was living through myself. (It’s true that, in past winters, Manhattan’s Central Park went 653 days without producing an inch of snow, almost double any previous record, but if you’re not a kid with a sled in the closet, that’s the sort of thing you don’t really feel.)

However, that’s begun to change. As it happens, like so many other New Yorkers, I only recently experienced a June heat dome over my city. Here in Manhattan, where I walk many miles daily for exercise, it was simply brutal. The sort of thing you might expect in a truly bad week in August.

This June, though, it was hot nationally almost beyond imagining. As I began this piece, it was estimated that more than 270 million Americans, 80% of us, were experiencing a heatwave of a potentially unprecedented sort extending over significant parts of the country. There were devastating early wildfires in the Southwest and West (not to speak of the ones burning long-term in Canada). Ruidoso, a small mountain town in New Mexico that my wife, who grew up in El Paso, Texas, once loved, had at least 1,400 of its structures damaged or destroyed by fire and two people killed.

Meanwhile, as I began writing this, the first tropical storm of this overheated season was already forming in the Gulf of Mexico and heading for Texas, not to speak of those record rainstorms that only recently flooded the Ft. Lauderdale and Miami areas in a distinctly unsettling fashion. And then, of course, there was the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s prediction that, given how hot the tropical waters of the Atlantic Ocean had become, this year’s hurricane season could prove to be an all-too-literal hell on Earth. There might possibly be 25 named storms (itself a record prediction). And I was thinking about all of this as I sat at my desk in New York City, stripped to my undershirt in the rising heat of a June day from hell. 

Honestly, it’s not that complicated. In fact, we should give ourselves credit. We humans have certainly proved to be remarkable — or at least remarkably destructive. Yes, we’ve long been that way, but the levels of that destructiveness have, in recent history, grown in a striking fashion. If you feel in a negative enough mood, humanity’s time on this planet can be seen as a history of ever more horrific wars that, in the last century, became global. And, of course, the second of those world wars ended in an historically unprecedented fashion with the destruction of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by a new weapon, the atom bomb, that all too soon proved capable not just of devastating urban areas but of possibly wiping out civilization itself. And that, in a sense, couldn’t be more deeply us. (There are, of course, other histories that could also be written that would be far more encouraging, including a history of literature and of healing, but at least for now let’s leave them aside.)

I mean, give us full credit. In these decades, we’ve discovered — once by the deepest sort of planning and experimentation (think “Trinity,” the code name for the first nuclear test in the desert of Los Alamos, New Mexico, that Robert J. Oppenheimer became so famous for) and then by the inadvertent, if deeply profitable use of fossil fuels — two ways of potentially destroying Earth, at least as a livable place for you-know-who. I’m talking, of course, about the very planet that nurtured humanity for endless millennia.

Nuclear war between great (or even lesser) powers could, of course, quickly produce an apocalyptic scenario that might kill millions of human beings and create a nuclear winter on planet Earth capable of starving most of the rest of us. Climate change, while potentially no less destructive, offers us that apocalypse in slow motion. And that’s obviously why it’s taken me so long, despite all that I’ve written on the subject, to truly feel it myself in broiling Manhattan.

Death by Heat

Oh, and as I sat there sweating profusely in front of my computer on that overheated day, I was struck by a little cheery news when it comes to doing in the planet. As the Guardian recently reported, nuclear spending actually rose globally by 13% in 2023. How farsighted of us!

Congratulations are certainly in order, don’t you think? And to give credit where it’s due, among the nine nuclear powers on this planet, my own country leads the list in increased spending, pouring more billions of dollars into such weaponry than the next eight nuclear powers combined. And mind you, at this very second, two of the planet’s nine nuclear powers, Russia and Israel, are actually at war. While one, Israel, doesn’t mention its nuclear arsenal, the other has repeatedly threatened to use “tactical” nuclear weapons (some more powerful than the ones that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki) in Ukraine or even assumedly elsewhere in Europe.

A third nuclear power, North Korea, has been implicitly threatening to atomize its southern neighbor and foe. Oh, and just for a little even cheerier news, Russian President Vladimir Putin now needs North Korean weaponry so badly to fight his war in Ukraine that he may be willing to aid Kim Jong-un’s scientists in designing “a warhead that could survive re-entry into the atmosphere and threaten its many adversaries, starting with the United States.” So, at the moment, if anything, the possibilities of future nuclear war seem to be on the rise.

Meanwhile, in this planet’s slow-motion version of Armageddon, while we Americans have been experiencing our own extreme weather events from coast to coast, so have other countries, sometimes in an even more devastating fashion. Take Greece, part of a Europe that experienced extreme heat last summer. Only recently, it’s had an early heatwave that scientists say could “go down in history” (at least until next year!) in which at least five tourists have died. And that, in truth, was nothing, not if you shift your focus to Saudi Arabia. There, during this year’s Hajj religious pilgrimage in which 1.8 million well-robed visitors took part, more than 1,300 pilgrims died of heat exposure as the temperature hit 125 degrees Fahrenheit. Meanwhile, South Asia has been broiling, with temperatures there all too literally going sky high — up to 127 degrees Fahrenheit in India and Pakistan — and resulting in increasing numbers of deaths. In India, only perhaps 12% of the population even has air conditioning (which, in any case, simply puts more fossil fuels into the atmosphere). Scores of people have died there from extreme temperatures, including dozens of poll workers during India’s recent election.

Such extremes are becoming a global phenomenon, as is ever wilder weather. Take, for instance, recent record temperatures and a grim drought across significant parts of northern China along with record flooding in the southern part of that country. And mind you, China has done more than any other nation to switch to non-fossil-fuel-producing renewable forms of energy and yet, in 2023, it was also continuing to build new coal-powered plants at a rate of two per week.

Whether cheaper solar and wind energy, which are indeed growing faster than any energy source ever, will leave oil, coal, and natural gas in a historic ditch remains to be seen. In the meantime, our planet is a growing climate mess, with (let’s not forget) us humans continuing to make war on each other in Ukraine and Gaza, efforts that only pour yet more fossil fuels into the atmosphere.   

A Slow-Motion Conflagration

This is just the start of a process of climate devastation that, barring surprises, is scheduled to grow ever more severe in the years to come. And if you want to look for a moment at causation (as with nuclear spending), rather than the death-dealing results of it all, consider my country. It’s still setting startling records when it comes to the production of fossil fuels. In fact, in 2023, for the sixth year in a row, the United States set a global record for oil production (an average of 12.9 million barrels a day) and it’s also now the largest exporter of natural gas on the planet.

Meanwhile, the major fossil-fuel companies and their CEOs continue to make absolute fortunes. As the CEO of Chevron put it last year: “In 2023, we returned more cash to shareholders and produced more oil and natural gas than any year in the company’s history.” Hooray! And think of all of that as possibly the ultimate form of warfare on planet Earth. Consider it, in fact, a slo-mo version of atomic war, even if no one normally talks about fossil-fuelized war or anything of the sort.

Those mind-boggling American records took place under a president who has at least attempted to curb climate change. And yet, keep in mind that my fellow citizens, sweating across the country right now, could elect a man in 2024 who has sworn to wipe out our modest steps towards a greener future on the very first day he gets back into the Oval Office (and essentially ignored a question about climate change during the debate Thursday without being seriously challenged for doing so). He’s proudly met with just about every fossil fuel CEO in sight, promising to “end a freeze on permits for new liquefied natural gas,” reverse any steps President Biden took to limit fossil-fuel usage, and is even more proudly ready, as he’s bragged more than once, to “drill, baby, drill” from his first day in office. Meanwhile, of course, many of the countries of Europe, which until now have moved more decisively against the use of fossil fuels, just elected all too many far-right representatives to the European Parliament and may do the same thing in state-by-state elections, and so, as in this country, could reverse course on climate change.

Imagine this then: next June, if I’m still writing TomDispatch pieces, it may be without even that undershirt on. (Excuse me for a moment, while I wipe the sweat from my face.)

The future, as they say, is now and, believe me, I feel it. Right now! (And I don’t often use exclamation points.) And yet, in the slow-motion apocalypse that climate change represents, the one that’s already starting to slaughter human beings before it even truly hits its stride, this is clearly just the beginning, perhaps — though we don’t yet know — just the beginning of the beginning.

It saddens me beyond words to imagine the future world my grandchildren might find themselves in. It’s true that we should never underestimate ourselves — and not just when it comes to destruction. The switch to non-fossil-fuel forms of energy is distinctly on the rise and they are indeed becoming ever less expensive to install and use. And you never know — you truly don’t — what else the human brain can come up with. Nor, of course, do we know whether, in the grimmest fashion imaginable, we could end all this slow-motion suffering on planet Earth in a nuclear conflagration.

Given our history, who knows what we could do? And I haven’t even mentioned artificial intelligence, have I? I fear I may simply be too old to take all of this in or the ways in which we humans could still prove destructive beyond compare.


The Enemy is Us: (And I’m not just thinking about Donald Trump) Thu, 06 Jun 2024 04:06:37 +0000 ( – 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.

Image by Patou Ricard from Pixabay

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?


The Decline and Fall of the American Empire Mon, 22 Apr 2024 04:02:34 +0000 ( – Let one old man deal with two others.

I turn 80 in July, which makes me just over a year-and-a-half younger than Joe Biden and almost two years older than Donald Trump. And, honestly, I know my limits. Yes, I still walk — no small thing — six miles a day. And I work constantly. But I’m also aware that, on my second walk of the day and then as night approaches, I feel significantly more tired than I once did. I’m also aware that my brain, still active indeed, does forget more than it once did. And all of this is painfully normal. Nothing to be ashamed of, nothing whatsoever.

I also know from older friends that we humans can still be distinctly functional, thoughtful, and capable at age 82 (when Donald Trump would leave his second term in office) or even 86 (when Joe Biden would do the same). But honestly, what are the odds? I’ll tell you one thing that couldn’t be more obvious — not as good as for someone who’s, say, 55 or 60 years old, that’s for sure. Yes, there’s also the reputed wisdom of old age — and it might indeed make Joe Biden a more thoughtful president, were he to get a second term; Donald Trump, of course, would be Donald Trump, at 60 or 82.

[Note for TomDispatch Readers: Yes, I invariably bother you for $$$ in these notes above my own TD pieces. And in all these years, I’ve been amazed at how the readers of this site have helped keep it going. But it’s gotten harder. Not to put too fine a point on it, but it’s a tough time for independent journalism. Some of TD‘s outside support is simply gone, which means I rely on you readers to do everything you can and, over the years, you certainly have. Still, this is a moment when it would be wonderful if you visited the TomDispatch donation page and contributed something. I’d be deeply appreciative. I always see the names of those of you who do so and say a silent thank you. (I wish I could thank you personally, but no such luck.). Anyway, my deepest appreciation for anything you now do to keep this site and me going a little longer on an increasingly unnerving planet. Tom]

And I have little doubt that, whatever age you are, you’ve been thinking somewhat similar thoughts. I mean, doesn’t the very possibility of watching a televised debate between the two of them make you anxious? After all, the oldest president to previously leave office was Ronald Reagan at 77 (and by then he may have had dementia). Before him, the oldest was Dwight D. Eisenhower who ended his second term in 1961 at 70 years old, having had a heart attack while in office. Third comes William Henry Harrison, who entered the White House in 1841 at age 68 and died, possibly of pneumonia, 32 days later.  Now, it’s also a fact that we Americans are generally lasting longer than once upon a time. But is that really where you want to put your political money? I doubt it.

Still, all of the above is too obvious to belabor, so here’s a question: Are there any other implications we can draw from the upcoming battle between those two old men that’s going to grab our attention and steal the headlines for all too many months to come? The answer, I suspect, is yes. Sometimes in our world, the symbolic is all too subtle, but every now and then it impolitely smacks you in the face. And at least as far as I’m concerned, the second Biden-Trump election campaign should more than qualify in that regard.

I mean, the country that still passes for the greatest power on Planet Earth is going to set a limping age record for president, no matter who wins, leaving China’s Xi Jinping, now 70, and Russia’s Vladmir Putin, now 71, as relative youths in an all-American world of absolute ancientness. And that should certainly tell you something about the state of our country and this planet, too.

To be a little clearer about just what, let me add one more factor to the equation. Joe Biden and Donald Trump are preparing a fight to the wire to lead an America that, not so many decades ago, in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, was considered the “sole superpower” on planet Earth. Doesn’t that tell you something?

I think it does. I think, quite bluntly (though I’ve seen no one discussing this amid the endless media headlines and chatter about Trump and Biden), that those two old codgers offer a stunning image of the all-too-literal decline and fall of — yes! — the United States. They should make us consider where the country that still likes to think of itself as the singularly most powerful and influential one on this planet is really heading.

A World Without Peace Dividends

As you might imagine, there’s a prehistory to all of this. George H. W. Bush, president at the moment when the Soviet Union went down in 1991, had that very year ordered the U.S. military to launch Operation Desert Storm, which drove Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein’s troops out of Kuwait. In its own fashion, it also launched what would, in the century that followed, become a set of American military operations around the globe. At the same time, with Russia in tatters and China still a modestly rising power — with, that is, no true great-power enemies left on Planet Earth — that sole superpower would do something rather surprising. It would continue to pour ever more taxpayer dollars into the U.S. military-industrial complex. Yes, there was talk then about a “peace dividend” for this country and its people, but none ever arrived.

Thirty-two years later, the Pentagon budget has almost hit the trillion-dollar mark annually, while the overall national “security” (yes, it’s still called that!) budget long ago soared well above the trillion-dollar mark. Meanwhile, in this century, George H. W. Bush’s son, elected president in November 2000, would the following September respond to the 9/11 attacks, planned and carried out by Osama bin Laden and his small terror group, al-Qaeda, by launching what quickly came to be known as “the Global War on Terror.” And all too global it would be with the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. It would also prove a disaster of the first order for the last superpower, whose military would leave literally millions dead across the planet, destroy countries, decimate economies, and create tens of millions of refugees, while costing this country a staggering $8 trillion and counting as, over more than 20 years, the U.S. military lost wars, while terrorism as a phenomenon only grew.

Yes, in May 2011, Osama bin Laden would be killed in Pakistan by a team of U.S. Navy Seals. Still, were he alive today, I suspect he would be pleased indeed. With next to nothing other than his personal wealth, a small crew of followers, and some hijacked airplanes, he managed to outmaneuver and outplay what was then the greatest power on Planet Earth. Thanks to the slaughter of several thousand Americans in New York and Washington, he also managed to draw this country into an endless war against “terrorism” and, in the process, turn it into an increasingly terrorized country, whose inhabitants are now, however symbolically (and, in the future, possibly far more literally), at each other’s throats.

In some eerie fashion, both former President Trump and President Biden might be considered creations of al-Qaeda. And so might the country itself today. I mean, could an American of 1991 ever have imagined that, in 2024, polls would show the urge for violence against fellow Americans reaching eerie highs here? Meanwhile, approximately one in 20 of us is now armed with a military-style AR-15 semi-automatic rifle. Even young people can now possess a JR-15 (for “junior”) child’s version of such weaponry that’s all too deadly.

Perhaps not surprisingly, AR-15s have proven the weapon of choice in the worst of the mass killings that have become commonplace in this country and, in recent years, have been distinctly on the rise. They could indeed be considered “terrorist” activities, involving as they do the repeated deaths of startling numbers of us. And all of this is happening without an American-style al-Qaeda yet truly in sight. Mind you, there are now an estimated almost 400 million weapons of various kinds in the possession of American civilians, a stunning arsenal for any country, no less one increasingly divided against itself. Meanwhile, according to a recent NPR/News Hour/Marist poll, 3 in 10 Republicans (or 20 million of us) claim that “Americans may have to resort to violence to set things straight” in this country, while, on the right, militarized terror-style groups are ever more the order of the day.

Consider that a brief summary of the increasingly divided and divisive American society over which those two old men are now fighting, a domestic world that could, in the end, rip apart whatever fantasies our leaders may still have about American power on this planet.

Coming Apart at the Seams?

As was true of the Soviet Union until almost the moment it collapsed in a heap, the U.S. still appears to be an imperial power of the first order. It has perhaps 750 military bases scattered around the globe and continues to act like a power of one on a planet that itself seems distinctly in crisis. It also continues to organize for a new Cold (verging on Hot) War with China in the Pacific. That explains President Biden’s recent highly publicized “summit” in Washington with the prime minister of Japan and the president of the Philippines, just as it explains the way U.S. special operations forces have only recently been “permanently” assigned to an island only a few kilometers off China’s coast. Yes, as that recent meeting with the Japanese and Filipino leaders and those commandos suggest, the Biden administration is still dealing with China in particular as if this were indeed a Cold War moment, and the sort of “containment” of a communist country the president grew up with was still the order of the day for the globe’s greatest power.

Unfortunately, that’s truly an old man’s version of the world we now live in. I’m thinking about the planet which, each month, sets a new heat record and where, despite much talk about cutting fossil fuels, the U.S. in 2023 produced more oil (13.5 million barrels a day) than at any time in its history, while China’s coal-power capacity grew more rapidly than ever. And that’s just to start down a list of fossil-fuelized bad news. On a planet that itself looks as if it might be going to hell, amid record heat, fires, storms, and the like, the urge to put such effort into organizing alliances of nations in the Pacific (led by Washington, of course) to “contain” China in an ever more warlike fashion represents, it seems to me, folly of the first order.

It’s increasingly an illusion (or do I mean delusion?) that this country has any sort of genuine control over the rest of the planet (no less itself). And today — with those two old men, one of whom is also bizarre beyond compare, wrestling each other for the presidency — this country is threatening in its own odd fashion, like the USSR in 1991, to come apart at the seams.

It’s strange to think about just how distant the America I grew up in — the one that emerged from World War II as the global powerhouse — now seems. If you had told anyone then that more than three-quarters of a century later, there would be well-armed private militias forming in a country armed to the teeth with military-style weaponry or that one presidential candidate would already be hinting at calling out the military to subdue his opponents if he ends up back in the White House, who would have believed you? It wouldn’t have even seemed like convincing science fiction.

And yet today, the greatest country on Earth (or so its leaders still like to believe), the one that continues to pour taxpayer dollars into a military funded like no other, or even combination of others, the one that has been unable to win any war of significance since 1945, seems to be threatening to come apart at the seams. Yes, this presidential campaign could turn out to be about the decline and fall of it all — and, of course, if Donald Trump (“drill, drill, drill“) ends up back in the White House that decline and fall could happen in a fashion almost beyond imagining.

The once-lone superpower, and now perhaps the loneliest power of all, could even be heading for previously unimaginable autocratic waters or who knows what else? If only it were otherwise, but unfortunately, in the months to come, we’ll be watching as an all-American world possibly spins slowly out of control, while the leftovers of the American Century fight it out in a country where all too many of us seem focused on anything but what matters.

As one old man to two others, if only you could stand down, we could face the world we’re actually in before it becomes too late.


A Slow-Motion World War III? Imperial decline in the Age of Climate Change Mon, 25 Mar 2024 04:02:12 +0000 ( ) – I’ve been describing this world of ours, such as it is, for almost 23 years at TomDispatch. I’ve written my way through three-and-a-half presidencies — god save us, it could be four in November! I’ve viewed from a grave (and I mean that word!) distance America’s endlessly disastrous wars of this century. I’ve watched the latest military budget hit almost $900 billion, undoubtedly on its way toward a cool trillion in the years to come, while years ago the whole “national security” budget (though “insecurity” would be a better word) soared to well over the trillion-dollar mark.

I’ve lived my whole life in an imperial power. Once, in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, it was even “the lone superpower,” the last great power on planet Earth, or so its leaders believed. I then watched how, in a world without great-power dangers, it continued to invest ever more of our tax dollars in our military. A “peace dividend“? Who needed that? And yet, in the decades that followed, by far the most expensive military on planet Earth couldn’t manage to win a single war, no less its Global War on Terror. In fact, in this century, while fighting vain or losing conflicts across significant parts of the planet, it slowly but all too obviously began to go down the tubes, or perhaps I mean (if you don’t mind a few mixed metaphors) come apart at the seams?

And it never seems to end, does it? Imagine that 32 years after the U.S. became the last superpower on Planet Earth, in a devastating kind of political chaos, this country might indeed reelect a man who imagines himself running a future American “dictatorship” — his very word for it! — even if, publicly at least, just for a single day.

And yes, in 2024, as chaos blooms on the American political scene, the world itself continues to be remarkably at war — think of “war,” in fact, as humanity’s middle name — in both Ukraine and Gaza (with offshoots in Lebanon and Yemen). Meanwhile, this country’s now 22-year-old war on terror straggles on in its own devastating fashion, with threats of worse to come in plain sight.

After all, 88 years after two atomic bombs were dropped on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end World War II, nukes seem to be making a comeback (not that they were ever truly gone, of course). Thank you, Kim and Vlad! I’m thinking of how North Korean leader Kim Jong-un implicitly threatened to nuke his nonnuclear southern neighbor recently. But also, far more significantly how, in his own version of a State of the Union address to his people, Russian President Vladimir Putin very publicly threatened to employ nukes from his country’s vast arsenal (assumedly “tactical” ones, some of which are more powerful than the atomic bombs that ended World War II), should any European countries — think France — send their troops into Ukraine.

And don’t forget that, amid all of this, my own country’s military, eternally hiking its “defense” budget, continues to prepare in a big-time fashion for a future war with — yes — China! Of course, that country is, in turn, rushing to upgrade its own nuclear arsenal and the rest of its military machine as well. Only recently, for instance, the U.S. and Japan held joint military maneuvers that, as they openly indicated for the first time, were aimed at preparing for just such a future conflict with China and you can’t get much more obvious than that.

Another World War?

Oh, and when it comes to war, I haven’t even mentioned, for instance, the devastating civil war in Sudan that has nothing to do with any of the major powers. Yes, we humans just can’t seem to stop making war while, to the tune of untold trillions of dollars globally, preparing for ever more of it. And the truly strange thing is this: it seems to matter not at all that the very world on which humanity has done so forever and a day is now itself being unsettled in a devastating way that no military of any sort, armed in any fashion, will ever be able to deal with.

Let’s admit it: we humans have always had a deep urge to make war. Of course, logically speaking, we shouldn’t continue to do so, and not just for all the obvious reasons but because we’re on a planet that can’t take it anymore. (Yes, making war or simply preparing for it means putting staggering amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and so, quite literally, making war on the planet itself.) But — as both history and the present moment seem to indicate all too decisively — we just can’t stop ourselves.

In the process, while hardly noticing, it seems as if we’ve become ever more intent on conducting a global war on this planet itself. Our weapons in that war — and in their own long-term fashion, they’re likely to prove no less devastating than nuclear arms — have been fossil fuels. I’m thinking, of course, of coal, oil, and natural gas and the greenhouse gases that drilling for them and the use of them emit in staggering quantities even in what passes for peacetime.

In the previous century, of course, there were two devastating “world” wars, World War I and World War II. They were global events that, in total, killed more than a hundred million of us and devastated parts of the planet. But here’s the truly strange thing: while local and regional wars continue in this century in a striking fashion, few consider the way we’re loading the atmosphere with carbon dioxide and methane while, in the process, heating this planet disastrously as a new kind of world war. Think of climate change, in fact, as a kind of slow-motion World War III. After all, it couldn’t be more global or, in the end, more destructive than a world war of the worst sort.

And unlike the present wars in Gaza and Ukraine, which, even thousands of miles away, continue to be headline-making events, the war on this planet normally gets surprisingly little attention in much of the media. In fact, in 2023, a year that set striking global heat records month by month from June to December and was also the hottest year ever recorded, the major TV news programs of ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox actually cut their coverage of global warming significantly, according to Media Matters for America.

If I Don’t Get Elected, It’s Going to Be a Blood Bath”

I live in New York City which, like much of the rest of the planet, set a heat record for 2023. In addition, the winter we just passed through was a record one for warmth. And I began writing this piece on a set of days in early March when the temperature in my city also hit records in the mid-60s, and when, on March 14th (not April 14th, May 14th, or even June 14th), it clocked 70-plus degrees. I was walking outside that afternoon with my shirtsleeves rolled up, my sweater in my backpack, and my spring jacket tied around my waist, feeling uncomfortably hot in my blue jeans even on the shadier side of the street.

And yes, if, as my wife and I did recently, you were to walk down to the park near where we live, you’d see that the daffodils are already blooming wildly as are other flowers, while the first trees are budding, including a fantastic all-purple one that’s burst out fully, all of this in a fashion that might once have seemed normal sometime in April. And yes, some of what I’m describing is certainly quite beautiful in the short run, but under it lies an increasingly grim reality when it comes to extreme (and extremely hot) weather.

While I was working on this piece, the largest Texas fires ever (yes, ever!), continued to burn, evidently barely contained, with far more than a million acres of that state’s panhandle already fried to a crisp. Oh, and those record-setting Canadian forest fires that scorched tens of millions of acres of that country, while turning distant U.S. cities like New York into smoke hells last June have, it turns out, festered underground all winter as “zombie fires.” And they may burst out again in an even more devastating fashion this spring or summer. In fact, in 2023, from Hawaii to Chile to Europe, there were record wildfires of all sorts on our increasingly over-heated planet. And far worse is yet to come, something you could undoubtedly say as well about more intense flooding, more violent storms, and so on.

We are, in other words, increasingly on a different planet, though you would hardly know it amid the madness of our moment. I mean, imagine this: Russia, whose leader, Vladimir Putin, clearly doesn’t consider climate change a significant issue, is on pace to achieve an oil-drilling record for the second year in a row. China, despite installing far more green power than any other country, has also been using more coal than all other nations combined, and set global records for building new coal-fired power plants.

Meanwhile, the third “great” power on this planet, despite having a president dedicated to doing something about climate change, is still the largest exporter of natural gas around and continues to produce oil at a distinctly record pace.

And don’t forget the five giant fossil-fuel companies, BP, Shell, Chevron, ExxonMobil, and TotalEnergies, which in 2023 produced oil, made profits, and rewarded shareholders at — yes, you guessed it! — a record pace, while the major petrostates of our world are still, according to the Guardian, “planning expansions that would blow the planet’s carbon budget twice over.”

In sum, then, this world of ours only grows more dangerous by the year. And I haven’t even mentioned artificial intelligence, have I? As Michael Klare has written in an analysis for the Arms Control Association, the dangers of AI and other emerging military technologies are likely to “expand into the nuclear realm by running up the escalation ladder or by blurring the distinction between a conventional and nuclear attack.”

In other words, human war-making could become both more inhuman and worse at the same time. Now, add just one more factor into the global equation. America’s European and Asian allies see U.S. leadership, dominant since 1945, experiencing a potentially epoch-ending, terminal failure, as the global Pax Americana (that had all too little to do with “peace”) is crumbling — or do I mean overheating?

What they see, in fact, is two elderly men locked in an ever more destructive, inward-looking electoral knife fight, with one of them warning ominously that “if I don’t get elected, it’s going to be a blood bath… for the country.” And if he isn’t victorious, here’s his further prediction: “I don’t think you’re going to have another election, or certainly not an election that’s meaningful.” Of course, were he to be victorious the same could be true, especially since he’s promised from his first day in office to “drill, drill, drill,” which, at this point in our history, is, by definition, to declare war on this planet!

Unfortunately, Donald Trump isn’t alone. All too sadly, we humans clearly have trouble focusing on the world we actually inhabit. We’d prefer to fight wars instead. Consider that the definition not just of imperial decline, but of decline period in the age of climate change.

And yet, it’s barely news.


Living on the Wrong World: A Planetary Cease Fire is Desperately Needed Wed, 06 Mar 2024 05:02:00 +0000 ( ) – On this planet of ours, it almost doesn’t matter who’s right and who’s wrong when it comes to our wars.

Actually, let me correct that thought slightly: it certainly does matter, but what matters so much more is that we humans simply can’t stop fighting them. That is (or at least should be) a stunning and deeply saddening reality. What obvious lessons we seem congenitally incapable of learning! In the previous century, after all, there were two truly global wars, World War I and World War II, that were estimated to have left significantly more than 100 million military personnel and civilians dead, while decimating parts of the planet. The second of those conflicts ended with the obliteration of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6th and 9th, 1945, with the loss of possibly 200,000 dead, and the arrival in our world of a shattering new weapon, the atomic bomb. After so many centuries of endless warfare, it finally brought humanity to the edge of future annihilation.

And since those fateful August days so long ago, ever more nations — with the addition of North Korea early in this century, the number has risen to nine — have acquired nuclear weapons, while the nations that had them only continue to “improve” and expand their arsenals. My own country, in fact, is planning to spend something like $1.5 trillion (yes, trillion!) “modernizing” its already vast arsenal of nukes deliverable from the land, the sea, or the air, and undoubtedly, in the years to come, from space. Russia is doing the same and the Chinese are hustling to “catch up” in their ability to take down this planet in a big-time fashion.

It is — or at least should be — incredible to think that today, 78 years after the first test atomic bomb was exploded in New Mexico, even a relatively modest nuclear war between two countries like India and Pakistan (as opposed to powers like the United States and Russia with monster nuclear arsenals) could induce a global nuclear winter that would be likely to starve to death most of humanity. Worse yet, at this point, that’s undoubtedly not even the worst nuclear scenario imaginable.

The Most Remarkable Accomplishment

Not so very many years ago, in the period after the Cold War officially ended in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union, I would have found it strange to be writing a piece about nuclear weapons. I mean, yes, they were still obviously around in Russia, and in the U.S. But after the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, those two powers had at least started signing nuclear pacts, including the START agreement in 1991 to reduce the American and Soviet nuclear arsenals significantly. And that seemed so hopeful then.

Given who we are, I’ve always found it somewhat miraculous that, since those atomic bombs were dropped on two Japanese cities, even as nuclear weapons spread and grew ever more powerful, another never was used (unless you count the above-ground nuclear tests of the 1950s that did indeed harm small numbers of human beings). Now, however, the great powers on the planet are once again in a global nuclear arms race; key arms treaties have been left in the dust of history; rumors are rife about such weaponry spreading into space; and two nuclear powers — Russia and Israel — are at war at this very moment (even if not with each other). The Russian leadership has indeed threatened to use what are now called “tactical” nuclear weapons in its conflict with Ukraine, though most of them are significantly more powerful than the bombs that took out Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Only recently, in fact, Russian President Vladimir Putin similarly threatened to use nuclear weaponry against European countries and the possible “destruction of civilization.”

And yes, a mildly antinuclear movie, a biopic of Robert Oppenheimer, the man who first developed such weaponry, did come out in this country and was a massive hit (right up there with a nuclear movie of another sort, Barbie). In a sense, someday, if there are any of us left to look back on this past we’re now living through, the greatest “achievement” of humanity might be viewed as our ever more stunning ability to nuke ourselves and everything else in sight, the works, the whole shebang. Honestly, that might be the most remarkable accomplishment of our species, if, of course, we don’t use them again.

Oh, wait, I almost forgot! In our strange brilliance, we humans came up with not one but two ways to utterly devastate humanity and the planet we live on. While the first, atomic weaponry, remains an ongoing threat of instantaneous destruction and horror, the second, a slow-motion version of ultimate destruction, the literal broiling of this planet over decades rather than minutes or hours, was launched almost two centuries ago. It was then that we humans began burning fossil fuels — coal, oil, and later natural gas — to power our industrialization and then our world. Today, the heating of this planet continues to accelerate day by day, month by month, year by year, decade by decade. Heat records of a surprising sort are now regularly being set locally and globally, while storms are becoming more devastating, droughts ever more “mega,” and forest fires fiercer, longer-lived, and more destructive.

And remind me, what have we learned from such a world? Well, the United States certainly learned that it needed a military beyond compare and began pouring what would, in the end, be untold trillions of dollars into it. (As of 2023, our yearly “defense” spending would add up to more than that of the next 10 countries combined.) Between the end of World War II and this moment, my country would also fight wars in Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Grenada, Panama, Afghanistan, Iraq (twice), and on a smaller (or do I mean larger?) scale its so-called war on terror stretching from Pakistan across South Asia to the Middle East (where only lately the Biden administration has been launching multiple air strikes in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen), and deep into Africa. Today, in the wake of all that and having assumedly learned something from more than a century of war-making, death, and destruction (and since the end of World War II, not a significant victory anywhere on the planet), my country has — yep, you guessed it! — been upping its “defense” budget in a big-time fashion, heading for the trillion-dollar mark annually.

It all makes perfect sense, right?

Meanwhile, having discovered that nukes were capable of obliterating life as we knew it on Planet Earth, we also came to realize that, by mining for, drilling for, producing, and then burning fossil fuels — coal, oil, and natural gas — in a distinctly unprecedented fashion, we were, in fact, engaging in a war not on, but of terror against this planet and every living thing, us included. The casualties from climate change (and it is indeed changing this planet in an all too disastrous fashion) are growing more numerous, as are the refugees from places that are already becoming too uncomfortably hot to handle. And yet, with that now common knowledge and the last 10 months — month by sweltering month of record heat globally, the hottest months, one after another, in human history, a leading candidate for president of the United States is running on a platform of, as he puts it, “drill, drill, drill,” ensuring that, should he win, the country that’s already the largest producer of oil and natural gas on Planet Earth will be leading us all ever more directly into hell in a proverbial handbasket.

A Planetary War of Terror

Mind you, given that, in some fashion, we’re all involved in what can only be thought of as a war of terror aimed at this planet, it’s not just the Trumpists who are all too ready to ignore the reality of what we’re actually doing in the twenty-first century. After all, with the planet on edge and war itself an all-too-obvious contributor to global warming, Russia, Ukraine, Hamas, and Israel are all now engaged in conflicts without any obvious end in sight that won’t just ensure the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of people but help heat the Earth to the boiling point. And let me add that my own president, Joe Biden, has put significant energy into feeding the Gazan war (including hundreds of millions of dollars of arms shipments to Israel), no matter that doing so might help turn our part of the planet over to President Drill, Drill, Drill!

And lest I sell humanity short by focusing too much on my own country, let’s not forget the devastating internal conflicts in lands ranging from Pakistan to Sudan to Ethiopia, where yet more of us are being slaughtered every day. And who knows where war will break out next? Venezuela and Guyana? North and South Korea (after all, the leader of North Korea only recently threatened the South with an atomic fate)? Or perhaps the South China Sea or Taiwan? The Biden administration, for instance, only recently deployed five of this country’s 11 aircraft carriers to the Pacific in a clear challenge to China, just in case major wars in Europe and the Middle East weren’t enough for us. No one knows, but given our history, one thing seems painfully certain — war will undoubtedly break out again and again and again.

And of course, war can now erupt in new ways, not just the old-fashioned ones. After all, though it’s never thought of in this fashion, the United States is indeed at war right now. And no, I’m not thinking about the vast quantities of weaponry that we’re delivering to Israel (or not at the moment delivering to Ukraine). I’m thinking instead about the fact that my country produced record levels of oil in 2023 and has become the world’s largest supplier of natural gas (and, mind you, that’s with a president who has taken crucial steps to whittle down our use of such fuels).

And yes, significant moves are being made in Europe and elsewhere (though not in major fossil-fuel producer Russia) to repower humanity in a fashion that will indeed cut fossil-fuel use in a major way, but it’s simply not enough. China, for instance, is moving faster than any other country when it comes to installing renewable energy and so changing its energy landscape. Unfortunately, it still uses more coal and continues to build far more new coal power plants than all the other countries on this planet combined. And consider it anything but strange that the major private fossil-fuel companies are still making absolute fortunes producing products that might as well be slow-motion versions of atomic weaponry and, unbelievably enough, some of them are still expanding their search for more of the same.

So, both apocalyptic war and war on the planet itself are now, sadly enough, ever more deeply woven into the human constellation. Meanwhile, it seems all too obvious that we can’t stop fighting older-style wars either, killing staggering numbers of people, destroying lands, and devastating parts of this world and those living on it.

Isn’t it strange that, after all these millennia, we humans just keep on keeping on, that we can’t seem to truly face, no less truly deal with, who and what we are and what we repeatedly do to ourselves, not to speak of the rest of this planet? The logic of what should be done and how we should live with one another seems all too obvious in a world that today finds itself entering an ever more hellish state. It’s time not just for a “cease fire” in Gaza, but for the declaration of some kind of planetary cease fire.

But can we truly imagine such a thing?  Who knows?

A Trumpian Bacchanalia in 2024? Thu, 08 Feb 2024 05:02:27 +0000 ( ) – I was born on July 20, 1944, almost two years after Joe Biden arrived on this planet and almost a year before You Know Who, like me, landed in New York City. The United States was then nearing the end of the second global war of that century and things were about to look up. My dad had been the operations officer for the 1st Air Commandos fighting the Japanese in Burma and, by that July, the tide had distinctly turned. The era that Joe Biden, Donald Trump, and I would enter feet first and naked would quickly become an upbeat one for so many Americans — or at least so many white Americans in the midst of a war economy that would, in some sense, carry over into a growing peacetime economy. Of course, World War II would end dramatically with the dropping of two new weapons, atomic bombs, on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, signaling, though few fully grasped it at the time, that we humans would soon be capable not just of making war in a big-time fashion, but of all too literally destroying humanity.

The “peacetime” that followed the devastation of those two cities and the killing of at least 100,000 Japanese civilians in them would, for the next 46 years, be stoked by what came to be known as the Cold War. In it, a nuclear-armed America and a soon-to-be-nuclear-armed Soviet Union, as well as its “commie” — the term of the time — allies, faced off against each other globally. (Estimates done for the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1961 suggested that a full-scale U.S. nuclear attack on the Soviet Union and Communist China would then have killed between 200 million and 600 million people.) Both sides would rush to create vast nuclear arsenals able not just to obliterate the United States and the Soviet Union, but the planet itself, while, in the course of the next three-quarters of a century, seven other countries would, cheerily enough, join the nuclear “club.”

Two of the countries waging war at this moment, Russia and Israel, are nuclear powers. And today, more than 78 years after those atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with perhaps 1,700 nuclear weapons deployed (most of them staggeringly more powerful than those first atomic bombs), the U.S. is in the midst of a multi-decade “modernization” of its nuclear arsenal to the tune of at least $1.5 trillion and possibly far more.

All in all, consider that quite an inheritance from that childhood of mine.

We kids grew up then amid what I came to call a “victory culture” — and what a potentially devastating culture that proved to be! Doesn’t the very thought of it leave you with the urge to dive under the nearest desk (something that, in my youth, was called “duck and cover” and that we kids practiced at school in case a Russian nuclear bomb were to go off over New York City)? Yes, there would indeed be a certain amount of ducking and covering of all kinds during that 40-odd year-long Cold War with the Soviet Union. After all, for the U.S., it involved a deeply unsatisfying war in Korea in the early 1950s and a bitter disaster of a war in Vietnam in the 1960s and early 1970s, fearsome anti-communist crusades at home, and Washington’s support across the planet not just for democracies but for quite a crew of autocrats (like the Shah of Iran).

Still, domestically the U.S. became a distinctly well-off land. In the 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement grew to challenge the racial hell that was the inheritance of slavery in this country and, by the end of the Cold War, Americans were generally living better than ever before.

Of course, a grotesque version of inequality was already starting to spiral out of control as this country gained ever more billionaires, including a fellow named — yes! — Donald Trump who would be no one’s apprentice. But in all those years, one thing few here would have imagined was that American-style democracy itself might, at some moment, prove increasingly out of fashion for a distinct subset, if not a majority, of Americans.

If I Had Told You…

Now, let’s take a leap from the end of the Cold War in 1991 to the present moment and the question is: What are we headed for? Sadly, the answer (no given, but certainly a possibility) could indeed be an all-American version of fascism, brownshirts included, should Donald Trump be reelected in a chaotic November to come, including — absolutely guaranteed! — a contested election result (and god knows what else) if he isn’t.

Honestly, tell me that you even believe this world we’re supposedly living in exists!

As I approach 80, I find just being in it increasingly unnerving. Wherever I look, nothing seems to be faintly working right. It doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about our secretary of defense disappearing as this year began (yes, at my age I can empathize with an older guy who doesn’t want to share information about his prostate cancer, but still…); the increasingly extreme and disturbingly fascistic — a word I once reserved for Francisco Franco, Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, and the war my father fought in — bent to what’s still called the “Republican” Party; the utter madness of one whale of a guy, Donald Trump, and the possibility that such madness could attract a majority of American voters in 2024; the urge of “my” president, that old Cold Warrior Joe Biden, to bomb his way into a larger, far more disastrous war in the Middle East (and who cares whether that bombing is faintly “working” or not?); oh, and (to make sure this is my longest paragraph ever) when some of that bombing is being done to “protect” American troops in Iraq and Syria (not to speak of those who recently were wounded or died in — yes! — Jordan), who cares why in the world our soldiers are stationed there in the first place; not to speak of the all-too-unstoppable human urge to set parts of our globe aflame with war after war (and don’t forget the way those wars throw staggering amounts of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, so that it isn’t just Afghanistan, or Iraq, or Ukraine, or Gaza burning but, in some sense, our whole planet); and, of course, the fact that we humans seem bent on all too literally heating this world to the boiling point in a fashion that, historically speaking, should (but for all too many of us doesn’t) seem beyond devastating. I mean, give us credit, since 2023 was the hottest year by far in human history and yet, some years down the line, it may seem almost cool in comparison to what’s coming.

And consider that paragraph — possibly the longest I’ve ever written — my welcome mat to the 2024 version of our world. And welcome, as well, to a country whose leaders, in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed, felt distinctly on top of this planet of ours in every imaginable sense. They saw the U.S. then as the ultimate superpower (or perhaps I mean: THE ULTIMATE SUPERPOWER!!!), a power of one and one alone. After some rugged years on the foreign policy front, including that disastrous war in Vietnam that left Americans feeling anything but triumphant, victory culture was back in a big-time fashion. And that, unbelievably enough, was only a little more than three decades ago. Yet today, while the Biden administration pours weaponry into Israel and bombs and missiles into Yemen and elsewhere in the Middle East, who would claim that the United States (or any other country for that matter) was the “lone superpower” on this planet?

In fact, in 2007, with this country’s post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq already dragging on disastrously, I wrote a new introduction to my book on victory culture and it was already clear to me that “perhaps when the history of this era is written, among the more striking developments will have been the inability of a mighty empire to force its will or its way on others in the normal fashion almost anywhere on the planet. Since the Soviet Union evaporated, the fact is that most previously accepted indices of power — military power in particular — have been challenged and, in the process, victory has been denied.”

In historical terms, that should be seen as a remarkably swift fall from grace in a world where this country hasn’t been able to win a war in living memory (despite having something like 750 military bases scattered across the globe and a near-trillion-dollar “defense” budget that leaves the next 10 countries combined in the dust). These days, in fact, the former lone superpower seems in danger of coming apart at the seams domestically, if not in an actual civil war (though there are certainly enough weapons of a devastating kind in civilian hands to launch one), then in some kind of a strange Trumpbacchanalia.

Yes, if we were in 1991 and I told you that, in an election season 32 years later, the very phrase “civil war” would no longer just be a reference to a distant historical memory of the Blue and the Gray, but part of everyday conversation and media reportage, you would have laughed me out of the room. Similarly, if I had told you that a strange yellow-haired man sporting an eerie grimace, a former 14-season TV apprentice (rocked by divorces and bankruptcies), would have won the presidency and then, three years after leaving office, be back at it again, reveling in the mere 91 criminal charges outstanding against him in four cases (not to speak of two civil trials) and campaigning on a promise of a one-day dictatorship on his first day back in office when he would, above all else, just “drill, drill, drill,” you would undoubtedly have thought me mad as a hatter.

If I had told you then that North Korea — yes, North Korea! — might have a missile that could reach the United States with a nuclear weapon and that its ruler (the man President Trump first called “a sick puppy” and later a “great leader”) was threatening his southern neighbor with nuclear war, would you have believed it? If I had told you then that the U.S. was fervently backing its ally Israel, after its own version of 9/11, in a war in Gaza in which staggering amounts of housing, as well as hospitals and schools in that 25-mile strip of land were being destroyed, damaged, or put out of action, more than 27,000 Palestinians (including thousands of children) slaughtered, 85% of the population turned into refugees, and perhaps half of them now in danger of starvation, would you have believed me? I doubt it. If I had told you that, more than 22 years after its own 9/11, my country would still be fighting the “war on terror” it launched then, would you have believed me? I doubt that, too.

If I had told you that, in 2024, the two candidates for president would be 81 and 77 years old (keep in mind that the oldest American president previously, Ronald Reagan, left office at age 77); that one of them would look ancient wherever he went and whatever he did, while the other, on the campaign trail, would begin slurring his words, while mixing up his Republican opponent with the former Democratic House leader, what might you think? (Oh, and don’t forget that the leader of the Senate Republicans, Mitch McConnell, is almost 82 and last year froze twice while speaking with reporters.)

Honestly, could you have ever imagined such an ancient version of an all-American world — the world of a distinctly disintegrating superpower? And yet given how we humans are acting, the U.S. could well prove to be the last superpower ever. Who knows if, in a future that seems to be heading downhill fast in an endless blaze of heat, any country, including China, could become a superpower.

Kissing It All Goodbye?

In all those years past, the one thing few could have imagined was that democracy itself might begin to go out of fashion right here in the U.S. of A.

Of course, the question now is: What are we headed for? And the answer could indeed be an all-American version of fascism, should Donald Trump be reelected this year, or an unimaginably chaotic scene if he isn’t.

And by the way, don’t blame Donald Trump for all of this. Consider him instead the biggest Symptom — and given that giant Wendy’s burger of a man, the word does need to be capitalized — around!

Imagine this: in a mere 30-plus years, we’ve moved from a world with a “lone superpower” to one in which it’s becoming harder to imagine a super anything on a planet that’s threatening to go down in a welter of wars, as well as unprecedented droughts, fires, floods, storms, and heat.

And if Donald Trump were to be elected, we would also find ourselves in an almost unimaginable version of — yes! — defeat culture (and maybe that will have to be the title of the book I’ll undoubtedly never write after I turn 80 and am headed downhill myself).

But don’t make me go on! Honestly, you know just as well as I do that, if the man who only wants to “drill, drill, drill” ends up back in the White House, you can more or less kiss this country (which already happens to be the biggest oil producer and natural gas exporter around) and possibly this planet goodbye. And if he doesn’t… well, you may have to kiss it goodbye anyway.

And that would be defeat culture, big time.


Double Threat: Nukes and Climate Change in 2024 Fri, 05 Jan 2024 05:06:07 +0000 ( ) — Honestly, what strange creatures we are. Nothing stops us when it comes to destruction, does it? (And I’m not even thinking about the utter, ongoing devastation of Gaza.)

I mean, give us credit as the new year begins. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about humanity isn’t our literature, our theater, our movies, the remarkable food we cook, the cities we’ve built, or the endless other things we’ve created. To my mind, it’s the fact that, in our relatively brief time as rulers of this planet, amid a chaos of never-ending wars and conflicts, we’ve come up with not just one but two different ways of doing ourselves (and much of the rest of our world) in.

And that, to my mind, is no small achievement.

Go back a couple of centuries and, even amid humanity’s wars and other conflicts, someone suggesting such a possible future would undoubtedly have been laughed out of the room. It took science fiction — especially H.G. Wells imagining the arrival of murderous Martians — to begin to conceive of such all-too-modern, all-too-apocalyptic world-ending possibilities. 

Now, however, there’s no need for fiction at all. There can be no question that, in its “wisdom” (and yes, that definitely needs to be in quotation marks), humanity has indeed come up with two different ways of utterly destroying this planet as a livable habitat.

And there’s no mystery here, either. One is, of course, atomic weaponry. First tested out in the New Mexican desert in July 1945, atomic bombs were then dropped on two Japanese cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that August with devastating effect. Ever since, such weaponry has been held in what might be thought of as an ultimate reserve of potential total destructiveness. Yes, in its two times in use, such weaponry lit up the skies in a blinding fashion, destroying much of those two Japanese cities and slaughtering hundreds of thousands of human beings, both in the moment and in the years that followed from the long-term effects of radiation.

And yet, to put that in perspective, those A-bombs, “Little Boy” and “Fat Man” as their American creators dubbed them, used on August 6 and 9, 1945, would today be considered the most modest of “tactical” or “low-yield” nuclear weapons. The major weapons now in the American and Russian arsenals, hydrogen bombs, are — perhaps the best word might be — blindingly more powerful. As the Union of Concerned Scientists explains, “The warheads on just one U.S. nuclear-armed submarine have seven times the destructive power of all the bombs dropped during World War II, including the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan. And the United States usually has ten of those submarines at sea.”

And while, in 1945, only the United States had such weapons, that was bound to change all too quickly. Today, nine countries have nuclear arsenals and there are, at present, nearly 13,000 nuclear weapons on this planet. In the years to come, it’s not likely to end there either, though that would be more than enough weaponry to destroy not just the Earth but untold numbers of other planets. And keep in mind that the major nuclear powers, the United States and Russia, are both in the process of “modernizing” their arsenals, while China is visibly rushing to catch up. The U.S. is, in fact, expected to put up to $2 trillion (no, that is not a misprint!) into updating its supply of nukes in the decades to come.

A Nuclear Little Ice Age?

On another cheery note, North Korea, which only joined that crew of nine relatively recently, tested its first intercontinental ballistic missile as 2023 ended. (And don’t think it’s the last country that’s going to go nuclear either.) In addition, what nuclear agreements once existed between the great powers are now largely extinct. Worse yet, with both the major and minor nuclear powers still working hard to build up or “modernize” those arsenals into the distant future, the ability to destroy most life on this planet remains mind-numbingly present and, because we’ve never experienced anything like it, all too hard to grasp.

Among other things, the massive smoke cloud that even a relatively modest — if such a word can be used in this context — nuclear exchange between, say, India and Pakistan would put into the atmosphere could result in a global “nuclear winter” in which billions of people would starve to death. A larger-scale nuclear conflict might even lead to a “nuclear little ice age” that could last thousands — yes, thousands! — of devastating years.

While it’s true that, in the last 78 years, such weaponry has never again been used (except in “peaceful” nuclear tests), it’s hard not to imagine that something suicidal lurks in the make-up of humanity. Otherwise, why would nine countries now possess weapons that could all too literally end it for the rest of us? And sadly, there’s nothing new about any of this. As the superb Jonathan Schell wrote in his classic book The Fate of the Earth in 1982, “Since we have not made a positive decision to exterminate ourselves but instead have chosen to live on the edge of extinction, periodically lunging toward the abyss only to draw back at the last second, our situation is one of uncertainty and nervous insecurity rather than of absolute hopelessness.”

More than 40 years after he wrote that, it remains no less accurate. Somehow, despite our eternal conflicts, not one has ever yet tipped over into a nuclear conflagration, but the danger remains. After all, it seems that, among our other traits, we humans are all too incapable of not making war. At this moment, in fact, one side in each of the two major wars on this planet, in Ukraine and Gaza — Russia and Israel — is nuclear armed. Last July, a senior Russian official, Dmitry Medvedev, fearing a coming Ukrainian “counteroffensive,” said: “Just imagine that the offensive… in tandem with NATO, succeeded and ended up with part of our land being taken away. Then we would have to use nuclear weapons by virtue of the stipulations of the Russian Presidential Decree. There simply wouldn’t be any other solution. Our enemies should pray to our fighters that they do not allow the world to go up in nuclear flames.”

Pray, indeed.

Not Noticing the Ultimate Threat to Humanity?

Nor, in truth, is there anything new about the second way we humans have discovered to turn our world into a burning ember. As Schell also noted in 1982, while describing the nuclear horror that we could visit on ourselves and this planet: “Nuclear explosions are far from being the only perturbations in question; a heating of the global atmosphere through an increased greenhouse effect, which could be caused by the injection of vast amounts of carbon dioxide into the air (for instance, from the increased burning of coal), is another notable peril of this kind.”

Notable indeed! And it’s no less notable, I think, that Schell was aware of such a second human-induced, planet-destroying possibility so long ago, though most of us have only become aware of climate change later. He was early indeed in his recognition of that reality (though the way greenhouse gases could heat our atmosphere had been known to a few of us from the end of the nineteenth century). And sadly, while humanity’s nuclear weapons have been relegated to what might be considered the back burner, that “greenhouse effect” hasn’t. Anything but, in fact.

Unlike those thousands of devastating weapons, the weather bomb that has now visibly burst over this planet was a creation of the nineteenth-century industrial revolution, launched with the burning of coal and then other fossil fuels. Of course, industrial civilization, as it spread across the planet, began to use those slow-motion equivalents of nuclear weapons ever more widely. In the intervening two centuries, greenhouse gases have grown devastatingly abundant in our atmosphere and the planet has heated by nearly 1.5 degrees Centigrade over pre-industrial days. In fact, in November, we even experienced the first (and second) days in our planet’s recorded history when temperatures averaged more than 2 degrees Centigrade and, in that same month, the global average temperature hit 1.75 degrees above pre-industrial times.

Yes, you and I might not be Jonathan Schell, but today, more than four decades after he wrote that side note in his work on the nuclear dangers we then faced, climate change has become an everyday affair. Last year — the hottest in recorded history and possibly in the last 125,000 years — heat records were regularly broken across the planet, month after month, while climate-change-causing greenhouse gases reached record highs in the atmosphere. Meanwhile, record-shattering heatwaves, wildfires, and floods swept across the planet in 2023. My own country had the honor of setting a new single-year record for billion-dollar climate disasters — and that was before the year was even close to over. (It is, by the way, strangely painful to find myself using that word “record” over and over again in this context.)

Last year, during 12 months of — and yes, here I go again! — record heat, each month from June through November set a new average global high. And you know the story all too well (if you’ve been paying any attention at all). Of course, I could go through it all again — the megafires, the droughts, the ever more powerful and devastating storms, those unbelievable 55 days at 110 degrees or above for Phoenix, Arizona — and that’s only to begin down an ever longer list of “records” that, sadly, is unlikely to seem all that long or impressive in the intemperate future we face.

Worse yet, in the wake of the global COP28 climate meeting in the petro-heart of the Middle East, where the delegates couldn’t agree on a goal of “phasing out,” or even “phasing down” fossil fuel use, but only on “transitioning” away from it, my own country, the United States, the planet’s largest oil and natural gas producer, set another record year in 2023 as its oil production hit an all-time high. And as Roishetta Ozane and Bill McKibben pointed out recently at the Guardian, “The U.S. Department of Energy must decide whether to stop rubber-stamping the single biggest fossil-fuel expansion on earth, the buildout of natural gas exports from the Gulf of Mexico. So far they have granted every export license anyone has requested, and as a result the U.S. has become the biggest gas exporter on planet earth.”

And that’s with Joe Biden at the helm in the White House. At least, he’s made an effort to invest real money in climate change and labeled it “the ultimate threat to humanity.” Just imagine for a moment if the victor in this year’s election is the man who recently swore, on his first day as “dictator” in the Oval Office in 2025, that, above all else, he will “drill, drill, drill.” Or the striking numbers of Americans voting for him who refuse to even believe that the obvious is happening to us. And let’s not forget that, though it’s seldom mentioned, Donald Trump would also once again be the man in charge of America’s nuclear arsenal.

The Blistering of This Planet

Consider climate change, then, a slow-motion version of atomic warfare and, unlike those nukes, greenhouse gases haven’t yet faintly been pushed to one side. Yes, there’s no question that ever less expensive renewable forms of energy that don’t use fossil fuels are on the rise — and a quick rise at that! — but sadly, not quick enough it seems, while the giant fossil-fuel companies simply plough on (as do their profits).

In other words, of the two ways humanity has so far discovered to destroy this planet and everything on it, one is now in something like cold storage (though that could change at any moment), while the other — the slow-motion version of ultimate destruction — isn’t faintly so. In a sense, think of us as in a slow-motion process of burning ourselves out of house and home — and, as is already obvious, it’s only going to get worse before it has any chance of getting better.

It would, of course, be a remarkable achievement for us to turn our backs on the possible destruction of this planet. Unfortunately, as we humans continue to fight our wars in a blistering fashion (themselves, by the way, significant contributors to the ongoing blistering of this planet), we seem strangely incapable of facing what we’re doing in an ultimate sense. Yes, our news programs could in recent months make the war in Gaza — distinctly, a nightmare of the first order — the top news story, day after day after day. But somehow, the news about climate change, the slow-motion but devastating blasting of the planet we live on, never seems to get that kind of attention. Even when the top story of the day or week may be record storms, floods, fires, you name it, the link to the heating of this planet is, if made at all, normally only done so in passing.

And yet that should be the story of all times. We’re talking about the end of the world as we’ve known it. And that should be, but isn’t, the news of our time or of any time.

Welcome to 2024.


A Slow-Motion Gaza: Or how to Carbonize the Planet Earth Mon, 27 Nov 2023 05:06:43 +0000 ( – Imagine this: humanity in its time on Earth has already come up with two distinct ways of destroying this planet and everything on it. The first is, of course, nuclear weapons, which once again surfaced in the ongoing nightmare in the Middle East. (An Israeli minister recently threatened to nuke Gaza.) The second, you won’t be surprised to learn, is what we’ve come to call “climate change” or “global warming” — the burning, that is, of fossil fuels to desperately overheat our already flaming world. In its own fashion, that could be considered a slow-motion version of the nuking of the planet.

Put another way, in some grim sense, all of us now live in Gaza. (Most of us just don’t know it yet.)

Yes, if you actually do live in Gaza, your life is now officially a living (or dying) hell on Earth. Your home has been destroyed, your family members wounded or killed, the hospital you fled to decimated. And that story, sadly enough, has been leading the news day after day for weeks now. But in the process, in some sense even more sadly, the deepest hell of our time has largely disappeared from sight.

I’m thinking about the urge to turn our whole planet into a long-term, slow-motion version of Gaza, to almost literally set it ablaze and destroy it as a habitable place for humanity (and so many other species).

Yes, in the midst of the ongoing Middle Eastern catastrophe, the latest study by James Hanson, the scientist who first sounded the climate alarm to Congress back in the 1980s, appeared. In it, he suggested that, in this year of record temperatures, our planet is heating even more rapidly than expected. The key temperature danger mark, set only eight years ago at the Paris climate agreement, 1.5 degrees Centigrade above the pre-industrial level, could easily be reached not in 2050 or 2040, but by (or even before) 2030. Meanwhile, another recent study suggests that humanity’s “carbon budget” — that is, the amount of carbon we can put into the atmosphere while keeping global temperature rise at or under that 1.5-degree mark — is now officially going to hell in a handbasket. In fact, by October, a record one-third of the days in 2023 had broken that 1.5-degree mark in what is undoubtedly going to prove another — and yes, I know how repetitive this is — record year for heat.

Oh, and when it comes to the globe’s two greatest greenhouse gas emitters, China is still opening new coal mines at a remarkably rapid pace, while the U.S., the world’s biggest oil producer, is expected to have “a third of planned oil and gas expansion globally between now and 2050.” And the news isn’t much better for the rest of the planet, which, given the dangers involved, should be headline-making fare. No such luck, of course.

Setting the Planet Afire

In fact, I’ll bet you hardly noticed. And I’m not surprised. After all, the news could hardly be worse these days in a country that, however indirectly, seems distinctly bound for war. There’s Ukraine, turning into ever more of a disaster zone by the week; there’s Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank promising yet more of the same, whether you’re listening to Hamas or Benjamin Netanyahu (with American military activity increasing in the region as well); and then there’s that “cold war” between the U.S. and China — yes, I know, I know, President Biden and China’s President Xi Jinping actually met and chatted recently, including about climate change — but don’t hold your breath when it comes to truly improving relations.

And yet, if you were to look away from Gaza for a moment, you might notice that significant parts of the Middle East have been experiencing an historic megadrought since 1998 (yes, 1998!). The temperatures baking the region are believed to be “16 times as likely in Iran and 25 times as likely in Iraq and Syria” thanks to the warming caused by the burning of fossil fuels. Meanwhile, if you take a skip and a jump from the flaming Middle East to Greenland, you might notice that, in recent years, glaciers there have been melting at — yes, I know this sounds unbearably repetitious — record rates (five times faster, in fact, in the last 20 years), helping add to sea level rise across the planet. And mind you, that rise will only accelerate as the Arctic and Antarctic melt ever more rapidly. And perhaps you won’t be surprised to learn that the Arctic is already warming four times faster than the global average.

If you have the urge to put all of this in context for 2023, you need to remind yourself that we’re now ending November, which means a final accounting of the devastation wrought by climate change this year isn’t quite in. Admittedly, it’s already been one hell of a year of record heat and fires, floods, extreme drought, and so on (and on and on). You’ve probably forgotten by now, but there were those record heat waves and fires — and no, I’m not thinking about the ones that swept across Europe or that broiled parts of Greece amid record flooding. I’m thinking about the ones in Canada that hit so much closer to home for us Americans. The wildfires there began in May and, by late June, had already set a typical seasonal record, only to burn on and on and on (adding up to nine times the normal seasonal total!) deep into October, sending billows of smoke across significant parts of the United States, while setting smoke pollution records.

Nor is the news exactly great when it comes to climate change and this country. Yes, heat records are still being set month by month this year in the U.S., even if the record highs are still to be fully tallied. Just consider those 55 days in which our sixth largest city, Phoenix, suffered temperatures of 110 degrees or more (31 of them in a row), resulting in a heat version of Gazan casualties, a 50% surge in the deaths mostly of seniors and the homeless to almost 600. A recent congressionally mandated report released by the Biden administration on global warming found that this country is actually heating up faster than the global average. “The climate crisis,” it reported, “is causing disruption to all regions of the U.S., from flooding via heavier rainfall in the northeast to prolonged drought in the southwest. A constant is heat — ‘across all regions of the U.S., people are experiencing warming temperatures and longer-lasting heatwaves’ — with nighttime and winter temperatures rising faster than daytime and summer temperatures.”

A Planetary Gaza?

For some global context, just consider that, in 2022, the planet’s greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere were the highest on record, according to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. So were the temperatures of ocean waters, while sea levels rose for the 11th straight year! There were also record-shattering heat waves across the planet and that was the way it all too disastrously went.

And yet none of that will hold water (or do I mean fire?), it seems, when it comes to 2023, which is clearly going to set another heat record. After all, we already know that, month by sweltering month, from November 2022 to the end of October 2023, a major heat record was set that seemingly hadn’t been topped in the last 125,000 years. It’s a near certainty as well that this full year will prove similarly record-breaking. And given the way we humans are still burning fossil fuels, we won’t have to wait another 125,000 years for that to happen again. The odds are, in fact, that 2024 will indeed set another global heat record.

So, tell me, how’s that for a planetary Gaza? And yet, strangely enough, while the nightmare in the Middle East is being covered daily in a dramatic fashion across the mainstream media, often by brave reporters like the PBS NewsHour‘s Leila Molana-Allen, the burning of the planet is, at best, a distinctly secondary, or tertiary, or… well, you can fill in the possible numbers from there… reality.

The sad truth of it is that there aren’t enough reporters spending their time on the front lines of global warming and nowhere do I see the staff members of up to 40 government agencies protesting over the weakness of climate-change policy the way so many of them recently did over the Biden administration’s policies on Israel and Gaza. While every night we venture into the devastated Gaza Strip with reporters like Molana-Allen (not to speak of the 41 journalists who died in the first month of that conflict), rare is the night when we do the same in our overheating world. All too few journalists are focusing on the humans already being driven from their homes, experiencing (and even dying from) unprecedented heat, storms, flooding, and drought.

Nor are there many reporters stepping directly into the flames. I’m thinking, in this case, of the coverage (or lack of it) of the drilling for or mining of fossil fuels, the companies making record profits — absolute ongoing fortunes — off them, while their CEOs are pulling in unbelievable sums yearly, even as the ferocious burning of their products continues to pour carbon into the atmosphere.

And mind you, fossil-fuel emissions are still — a word that once again seems all too appropriate — hellishly high. Yes, the International Energy Agency does expect such emissions to peak before 2030, if not earlier. Still, we humans are going to be burning coal, oil, and natural gas for one hell (that again!) of a long time and those fossil-fuel companies will continue making fortunes while damaging all our lives and those of our children and grandchildren into the distant future.

There’s no question that Gaza has truly been a hell on Earth. Deaths in that small strip of land had already exceeded 11,000 (many of them children) while I was writing this. Meanwhile, from hospitals to homes, Israeli bombs and missiles have turned staggering amounts of its living (or now dying) spaces into rubble. And that is indeed a horror that must be covered (just as the nightmarish initial Hamas attack on Israel was). But in the process of watching Gaza burn, it would be good to remember that we’re also turning the whole planet into a Gazan-style catastrophe. It’s just happening in relative slow motion.

World War II ended in September 1945 and since then — despite endless wars — there hasn’t been another “world” version of one. Gaza and Ukraine remain horrific but relatively localized, just as the Korean and Vietnam conflicts once were.

But while, whatever the horrors and damage done, there hasn’t been another world war, there has been and continues to be a war on the world, a slow-motion global Gaza that will only grow worse unless we put our energy into moving ever faster to transition from coal, natural gas, and oil to alternative energy sources. In truth, that is the war we should all be fighting, not the ones that distract us from the worst dangers we face.

In fact, it’s past time to start talking about World War III, even if this time it’s a war on the planet itself.

How our Petty Wars are Distracting us from the Existential Challenge of Climate Change Fri, 20 Oct 2023 04:02:45 +0000 ( – Let’s admit it: We are indeed mad creatures.

This should truly have been the time of our discontent. The northern hemisphere just experienced the hottest summer in recorded history, including month by month the warmest June, July, August, and (by a country mile) September ever. Staggering heat records were set in place after place globally. Fires from Canada to Hawaii to Europe broke all records. (In fact, those Canadian summer fires are now threatening to burn straight into the winter months for the first time — and I fear this phrase is going to be become all-too-boringly repetitive — in history.) The southern hemisphere had a “winter” from — yes! — hell. In Europe, which was burning up, Greece experienced unprecedented fires and floods as well. Libya had a significant part of a major city washed away. China, too, experienced unprecedented flooding around its capital, where 1.2 million people had to be evacuated, and in Hong Kong, too. The sea ice in the Antarctic fell to the lowest levels (yes again!) in recorded history, as did sea ice in the Arctic, helping to ensure a future in which rising sea levels could flood coastal cities. And Greenland has been lending a hand to that same future, starting 2023 with temperatures unmatched in at least 1,000 years and still setting new temperature records in July. Worse yet, that’s just to begin down a list that increasingly seems unending.

In certain parts of my own country, the United States, this summer was all too literally a hell on Earth and, as a New York Times piece headlined it recently, also “A Summer Preview of the Future; Floods, Fires, and Stifling Heat.” (Its first line: “It felt like the opening minutes of a disaster movie.”) A stunning heat wave, for instance, stretched across a drought-stricken Southwest all the way to California, while Phoenix, Arizona, hit an almost unbelievable temperature record of 54 days of 110-degree heat or higher! (Oh, wait, make that 55!)

And that, of course, was just to begin down a seemingly endless list. I haven’t even mentioned disappearing mountain glaciers or the soaring temperatures of South Asia or the Middle East. (Iran hit a record heat index temperature of 158 degrees in August.) But let me stop there. It isn’t hard to see that, if we humans continue to use staggering amounts of fossil fuels and so pour ever more greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere — and the latest study indicates that they are heading in that direction at record levels — the Earth, or at least life as we humans have known it on this planet, will, in the long run, almost literally go down in… what else?… flames.

No, it’s not that nothing is being done. Non-carbon-producing forms of energy are indeed on the rise globally (even in an oil heartland like Texas). Still, to take one example, China, the country moving most dramatically to create ever more green power, is also burning more coal than the rest of the planet combined and still planning to up its use of that devastating source of energy. And keep in mind that, these days, the two greatest greenhouse-gas-producing nations, China and the United States (which is also cumulatively by far the greatest in history), have in recent years hardly been able to exchange a civil word, no less collaborate to try to make this planet a cooler, better place. At the moment, it seems as if they stand a far greater chance of going to war with each other (while incinerating yet more fossil fuels and so much else in the process) than allying to help save the planet as we know it.

Meanwhile, of course, the giant fossil-fuel companies have been making — I know this sounds like a broken record but what can I do? — record (oops, sorry!) profits. And keep in mind that, in the United States, the leaders of one of the two major political parties are wildly focused on supporting and expanding Big Oil and carbon-producing energy sources of every kind, while denying that much of anything I’ve described above is actually happening. Worse yet, according to the latest polls, their unofficial leader, Donald Trump, stands a rather chilling (or do I mean boiling?) chance of retaking the presidency in 2024 and controlling the government for at least four more wildly unpredictable, possibly ever more authoritarian years of carbon hell. Under the circumstances, you might indeed be able to kiss this planet goodbye.

War Is Us

And worse yet, with our increasingly dire global situation in mind, ask yourself this: How is humanity reacting to the deep dangers we now face? Are we focusing our attention on putting out the flames, so to speak? I’m afraid — despite the heroic efforts of any number of young people — the overall answer would have to be: Not on your life! Sadly enough, instead of facing the crisis of climate change head-on, much of humanity seems all too intent on starting fires of the kind that have defined us since time immemorial. I have in mind, of course, a different kind of planetary destruction entirely: war-making. In fact, sometimes that seems to be by far our greatest, if grimmest, skill and deepest nature.

At a moment when peace couldn’t be more needed so that we could focus on our imperiled future, war (and the threat of ever more of it) seems once again to be what we’re all too willing to put at the very heart of things, including of our news reports.

Consider war, in fact, our other version of burning the planet up. Once upon a time, that would simply have been a metaphor for destructive war after war after war throughout human history, but no longer. After all, as anyone who saw the hit film Oppenheimer knows, back in 1945, this country first figured out how to create a global fire that could, unlike climate change, consume our world in essentially no time flat. I’m thinking, of course, of nuclear weapons, and of the fact that their power to broil us (as well as, all too ironically, drive us into a potentially devastating nuclear winter) has only increased immeasurably with time. The weapons in nuclear arsenals now are generally vastly much more powerful than those two atomic bombs that decimated the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6th and 9th of that year.

Almost 80 years later, nine countries have nuclear weapons and the U.S. is planning, in the decades to come, to put up to $2 trillion into “modernizing” its own nuclear arsenal, with the Russians and Chinese following suit. Worse yet, lurking behind the most recent full-scale war on planet Earth, the one in Ukraine, has been the possibility that such weaponry could actually be used on a battlefield for the first time since 1945. I’m talking, of course, about “tactical nuclear weapons” — some far more powerful than the atomic bombs that took out Hiroshima and Nagasaki — and the Russian president’s implicit threats to use them.

And that bloody disaster of a conflict, launched with Vladimir Putin’s invasion in February 2022, has now become a full-scale, World War I-style trench war (with the addition of course of so many modern advances like drones) that shows no sign of ending in any imaginable future. And if that war — and other conflicts, in places ranging from Sudan to Pakistan — weren’t enough for you, then how about the now-ongoing Hamas-Israeli nightmare in the Middle East?

Yes, in its surprise assault on Israel, Hamas brutally slaughtered young music festival attendees in startling numbers and an unnerving number of children as well, while Israel is now mercilessly battering Gaza with its trapped two million inhabitants (almost half of them children), hitting schools, hospitals, and mosques, while cutting off electricity and food which, as Senator Bernie Sanders noted recently, is a “serious violation of international law.”

No less grimly important, that disastrous struggle has become a focus of almost all the news shows in a way that would be inconceivable for the long-term danger of climate change. And no one yet knows how that conflict might still develop or spread, but consider it symbolic of so much else that, in response to the initial Hamas surprise attacks, the Biden administration’s idea of restoring peace in a wildly conflict-ridden Middle East was to send in an aircraft carrier task force and fighter planes. I mean, what else could we do?

And mind you, even when we’re not at war, the U.S. and other countries remain all too ready to invest so much more of our wealth in our militaries than in tamping down climate change. Yes, give Joe Biden some credit, he did oversee the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, which over time will put several hundred billion dollars into developing a climate-change-ready economy.

Still, that could be his only major climate initiative and investment (thanks significantly to a Republican House) in his four years in office, while every year he’s president the American military has gotten or will get a budget of more than $800 billion (and still rising toward the trillion-dollar mark). Similarly, when aiding allies, as with Ukraine, we’re far more likely to give them billions of dollars for armaments and other kinds of militarized help ($75 billion in the case of Ukraine) than to aid them in battling the growing nightmares of global warming.

Will Humanity Go Asteroidal?

You could say that, historically speaking, as well as in the present moment, war has been both humanity’s foremost talent and our obsession, and that we are, in some basic sense, mad creatures. War still remains a deep and endless part of our world. Making war, in some sense, could be considered our thing. I myself was born in the midst of the second devastating global war of the last century and I’ve lived through American wars in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq (twice), as well as that endless war on terror.

So, this is us. But here’s what’s different in this moment: while we humans prepare for and all too regularly launch wars, this planet is now visibly making war on us. Global warming is, in some fashion, a slow-motion but increasingly horrifying assault on this planet as humanity has known it these last thousands of years.

Or rather, if you want to think of it this way, humanity is now making war on itself, using fossil fuels as its slow-motion weapon of long-term atmospheric devastation, while distracting itself with more localized wars on this planet. And thanks to that, it has no longer become totally absurd to talk about our possible extinction. In a sense, you might say that, with our own special form of brilliance, humanity has managed to create both a devastatingly fast and a spectacularly slow way of doing ourselves (and so much else) in. I’m talking, of course, about those nuclear weapons and climate change. And thanks at least in part to our inability to stop fighting wars among ourselves, we seem to be ensuring that climate change won’t be the full-scale focus of our attention as it should be.

So, think of those nukes and climate change as fast and slow-motion versions of that asteroid that took out the dinosaurs and so much other life on Earth 66 million years ago.

At least, however, T-Rex and its pals weren’t responsible for the force that made them history. If things don’t change on this planet in the decades to come, the same might not be true of humanity. You would, in fact, have to say that we might have created our own asteroid, sent it on a devastating slow-motion path to Earth, and then (to make matters worse) largely ignored its coming and began killing each other first.

Consider all of this, then, the deepest form of human madness and just hope that somehow, from the Middle East to Ukraine, Beijing to Washington, we can wake up to what we’re doing to ourselves before it’s too late.