By Max Wilbert
In medicine, shock refers to an extremely serious condition of inadequate blood perfusion. Shock is most often caused by heart problems, severe infections, allergic reaction, massive blood loss, overdose, or spinal cord injury.
Of the 1.2 million people who show up to U.S. emergency rooms with signs and symptoms of shock each year, between 20% and 50% of them die.
Shock can be understood to progress through two broad phases: compensatory (phase 1) and de-compensatory (phase 2). In compensatory shock, the body can “compensate” for the emergency by adjusting blood pressure, diverting resources from the extremities, and using other internal mechanisms.
Victims in compensatory shock may seem, at first glance, to be doing relatively well. They may be lucid and able to talk clearly. But medical professionals know that this is an illusion. Without treatment, they are likely to worsen quickly. Careful assessment of vital signs and mechanism of injury/history of present illness (MOI/HPI) will show that this person is in an extremely perilous situation.
If left untreated or if their injury is series, they will soon enter the second phase of shock: de-compensatory. In this stage, the body can no longer compensate for the underlying issue. As blood and oxygen circulation collapses, cellular metabolism begins to fail. Our bodies begin to die, cell by cell. Vital organs fail one after another. The damage becomes irreversible. Death is nearly certain.
Planetary Ecology and Shock
Like our own lives, life on this planet depends on a precarious balance: the stability of climate, oceanic pH, nitrogen cycles, soil erosion and formation, and populations of beings at the basis of the tropic cascade such as bacteria, plankton and other photosynthesizers, and insects provides the foundation on which the entire biosphere rests.
These major life-support systems of the biosphere function similarly to human organs, each fulfilling a different need for life to continue as we know it. Due to the predations of industrial civilization, these “planetary organs” are in a dire state.
Insect populations are collapsing. Plankton populations are collapsing. Bird populations are collapsing. Coral reefs are collapsing. Fish populations are collapsing. Most native forests have been destroyed and those who remain are at risk of dying due to drought and heat stress over the next 50 years.
Soil erosion due to agriculture and overgrazing has decimated carbon storage across large portions of the earth’s surface and released this to the atmosphere. The cryosphere (the portion of our planet’s water frozen in ice) is rapidly melting. Thawing permafrost in the far north is releasing methane emissions to the atmosphere. The assaults go on and on.
When a human being goes into shock, the body compensates by shunting blood from the extremities towards the more vital internal organs. The same process is playing out across this planet. Like a human being, the natural world attempts to maintain its own stability. As carbon pollution chokes the atmosphere, for example, plants increase their growth rate, which should capture carbon from the atmosphere and store it in soils and trees trunks, maintaining homeostasis. This is the delicate balance of geological and biological feedbacks that has made Earth an Eden for millions of species over millions of years.
That balance has been shattered by the explosion in agriculture, logging, and fossil fuel burning. Plants can no longer compensate, and “global greening” has been overwhelmed. Instead, we are entering a period of “global browning” as vast areas of vegetation begin to die from sustained drought and climatic changes.
The ecology of this planet is entering a state of de-compensatory shock.
Abundant Cheap Energy Allows Us To Ignore Reality
People living in wealthy nations are largely insulated from ecological collapse because of the availability of cheap energy.
They can ignore the collapse of fish populations since corporations send vast trawlers to remote oceans to vacuum up the last remaining reserves of wild fish. They can ignore the collapse of forests because energy-intensive industrial logging brings wood products from Oregon and Alaska and Indonesia to the world market. They can ignore water shortages because vast amounts of energy are used to pump entire rivers dry to feed growing cities.
Our ability to lie to ourselves, and to each other, is one of our society’s defining features. The urge to deny that anything is wrong is overwhelming. The scale of the immanent catastrophe, which has truly already arrived, is unthinkable. As with a patient in compensatory shock, so with the planet. Ignorance is bliss.
This won’t last. Ignorance is no protection against a burning planet, only against psychological wounds, and only in the short term. We are children of this living world. Our lungs are the oysters of this atmosphere, filtering out pollutants and capturing them inside our delicate tissues. We are permeable creatures, absorbing each chemical toxin industry produces. Like mites living on the surface of our skin, when the supraorganism begins to die, those who are dependent upon it are not long for this world.
What will a person do when they are confronted with the imminent death of themselves, of a loved one, of their civilization, of their biosphere? Deny that it is happening? Reject the science and the evidence of their own eyes? Lash out angrily against those who speak the truth? Try to bargain with reality? Retreat into depression?
These responses are all familiar to both the E.R. doctor and the Earth defender, and increasingly describe global politics. Denial and anger are the defining characteristics of the rising authoritarian tide. Modi, Putin, Trump, Erdoğan, and Bolsonaro are the figureheads of this death cult; there are hundreds of millions behind them.
Bargaining is the primary strategy of the liberals. As the biosphere bleeds from a million clearcuts and chokes on a toxic mixture of industrial chemicals and greenhouse gases, they promote so-called “solutions” that are no different from the status quo. Their fantasies of green energy, sustainable capitalism, and electric vehicles allow them to justify a lie that will kill the world: that they can have “normality”—modern, high-energy way of life—and a living planet at the same time.
Their plans are not even the equivalent of bandaging a bleeding planet. They are harmful in their own right—the equivalent of stabbing the victim elsewhere and claiming that since the wounds aren’t quite as deep, they are actually helping. This is the good-cop, bad-cop routine of modern politics.
That most people are simply depressed and apathetic, then, is no surprise. The normal functioning of industrial civilization is rapidly murdering life on this planet and destroying the capacity to support future life, and in the process immiserating billions of human beings. Anyone who is carefully watching the vital signs of this planet knows that the prognosis is not good.
Righteous anger is fitting response to this situation, but denial has no place now. Bargaining is worse than useless. And depression is understandable, but when paired with inaction it is not excusable. Only by accepting the reality of the situation can we begin to discuss meaningful action.
The reality is that the life support systems of our home, Earth, are failing. Without intervention, the organs of this planet will falter and die. Industrial civilization has shown itself to be incompatible with life. So the path forward is clear. Like open veins, the world’s pipelines must be closed off. The mining industry, opening great sores on the Earth’s surface, must be stopped and the land allowed to scab over. The abrasion that is industrial agriculture must be halted, and the soil bandaged with ecology’s first responders—those plants derisively called “weeds”—and eventually, replaced with forests and grasslands once again. The cancerous factories and toxic industry belching and circulating poisons around the planet must yield to the scalpel. The destruction must be halted, and the land must be allowed to heal.
And humans must find a way to live within the ecological limits of this planet, rather than constantly finding new ways to transgress them. If all you have ever known is how to live in a culture that is destroying the planet, this will take humility, and sacrifice, and a willingness to learn.
The process of ecological collapse has been accelerating for many years. It will not be reversed easily. Many wonders of the natural world are already gone—the billions of passenger pigeons, and the teeming flocks of Great auks. But there are many who remain: blue whales, redwood forests, loggerhead turtles, coral reefs.
Our task as a generation is to manage the coming collapse by accelerating the dismantling and destruction of the systems that must end (capitalism, industrial civilization, the fossil fuel and mining economy, industrial agriculture, etc.). At the same time, we most slow, halt, and reversing the collapse of forests, grasslands, soils, the carbon cycle, and the rest of the living world. And in the midst of all this, we must do our best to build human communities based in sustainability and human rights. Any of these elements in isolation leads to a bleak future. Only in combination do they represent some hope.
When we accept what is happening, the path forward becomes clear. Now we must gather our will and our community and get to work.
Max Wilbert is a third-generation dissident who came of age in post-WTO Seattle. He has been part of grassroots political work for nearly 20 years. His second book, Bright Green Lies, will be released in early 2021.