Over a few days in the summer of 2007, I made a leisurely ascent along the side of a Swiss mountain, sleeping in fields under stars. On the way, I rambled through the kind of idyllic villages you imagine in the Swiss Alps: chalet-style buildings, perfectly green pastures billowing, sharp snowy peaks flashing in the background, far blue sky. Though I saw none of them, I shared the mountains with ibex, deer, owls, golden eagles, and possibly a brown bear or two. Then one day I came to a lonely forest. The trail I was following into the green-dappled wood curved abruptly to the left, and just past its elbow, there stood a big black cavern. No road or tracks led to this mouth in the mountainside, and though the cave looked man-made, it had no discernable reason to be there. I felt pulled in.
But before we get to the tunnel, let’s go back a bit. Prior to finding the hole in the mountain, I’d spent the summer working in medieval Europe. Or, at least what I imagine medieval Europe sort of looked and felt like. I lived on a small farm nestled in the mountain chain that was also home to a town where Leonardo da Vinci is rumored to have completed the Mona Lisa. Wild dogs and wild boars haunted the dark forest fringing the farm’s pasturelands. One of the sheep apparently received a mortal bite from a wild dog (I say “apparently” because it happened just before I arrived and I am skeptical of the dodgy farm owners). For a few weeks, I slept out in an idle meadow and was awakened by snorts and grunts of many beasts rooting around my tent. The wild animals’ enigmatic presence lent suspense to my occasional late-night hikes up and down the mountain, which could take hours winding through dark patches of wood. A spooked boar can gore you to death easily. It’s a kind of suspense that seems more at home in the Middle Ages than today.
Materially speaking, this farm probably did look similar to an equivalent farm in medieval Italy. At that time, of course, the farm wouldn’t have been in “Italy,” which didn’t exist yet. Instead it was located in a territory called Liguria, which passed between the rule of various nations, kingdoms, and city-states through the Middle Ages. There would have almost certainly been far more wild animals then, and different crops. But the farmers who lived on that land would likely have had similar livestock, used similar tools, lived in similar (maybe even the very same) stone buildings, spoken a similar language, waking and resting to similar rhythms. The little lightbulbs and the communal flush toilet with dubious plumbing were probably the only major differences between the medieval version of the farm and the modern one I briefly inhabited. It was a very different kind of life from the one I was used to living in the industrialized 21st century United States, with its daily showers, ubiquitous screens, and very different sorts of rhythms, pleasures, and fears. These days, finding ways of life beyond the homogenizing force—or extractive grip—of imperialism is about as rare as stumbling on a brown bear in the Alps. We seem only able to find it in small pockets like that farm, hiding between the borders of today’s massive empires.
Most of us live today as subjects under the rule of a fossil fuel-based liberal empire. The United States and its offspring industries, with some of the richer Group of Twenty countries joining as jolly sidekicks, administers a sprawling hegemony, animated by dead carbon, whose many arms touch both the material and intangible in every country on the planet. These tentacles have the effect of homogenizing and flattening many kinds of otherwise abundant diversity (environmental, cultural, political), like an octopus sweeping away a puffer fish’s intricate designs in underwater sand to leave only a blank beige behind. (Of course this is merely a metaphor; we know the intelligent, socialistic octopus would never do such a thing in real life.)
Just to pick one example on the less tangible side of things, the U.S. entertainment industry rules global media production. As Indrajit Banerjee, Director of Knowledge Societies Division at UNESCO, has written for the International Journal for Communications Studies, the United States “clearly dominates the world’s cultural industries….Whether it be in the remote villages in India or in the Kampongs of Malaysia, American and Western cultural icons and content make their overbearing presence felt.” University of Pennsylvania sociologist Diana Crane pointed out in a study on cultural globalization that the upper echelon of the World Box Office “consists of American films and a few U.S. co-productions,” and nothing else.
And you can be sure the U.S. entertainment industry isn’t just benevolently handing out nice movies. What the United States exports to screens across the world is more than just programming: it’s also modes of programming. With entertainment infrastructure like Netflix, news show formats, storyline formulas, franchise characters, and remarkably consistent rules for what nonfiction documentaries will cover, the United States shapes and confines the world’s cultural production with an eye toward dominating the market and maximizing profit. It may be the Golden Age of television, in that the only color is gold.
Beyond narrowing content and structural expectations, the dominating impact of U.S. entertainment on ideology can hardly be overstated. Glenn Greenwald has made the point in The Guardian, arguing that one movie in particular (Zero Dark Thirty) illustrates the bigger pattern of propaganda packaged as entertainment, condemning the fact that “Liberal Hollywood has produced the ultimate hagiography of the most secretive arm of America’s National Security State, while liberal film critics lead the parade of praise and line up to bestow it with every imaginable accolade.” It certainly isn’t the only movie selling slick entertainment wrapped around a nougaty center of martial propaganda. Consider Jack Ryan, Black Hawk Down, Sicario 2, American Sniper, the Avengers franchise, Act of Valor, Top Gun, 12 Strong, Green Zone, and countless indistinguishable cop shows starring heavily armed and outrageously sympathetic police officers.
In addition to the ubiquity of American propaganda pumped into screens in virtually every country on the planet to do the dirty, tedious job of manufacturing support for rapacious foreign policy and bootstraps economics, it’s also just dull as shit. The result of all this—the remakes, the franchises, the narrow boundaries of acceptable stories—is to produce a painful sameness. A uniformity of thought, ideology, and ideas. All this sameness conspires to flatten mass media, and with it the world that it depicts. The sameness limits what sorts of tales get told, what kind of acts are depicted as justified and what ones are not, and compresses how viewers see the world and their place in it.
But entertainment isn’t the only, or even the most damaging, realm of sameness that imperial tedium has imposed on the world. There’s an ever-growing list of areas in which uniformity ensnares our lives.
- Beyond confining the shape of media, the publishing and entertainment industries and many others have helped to homogenize language use, too. English makes up by far the world’s largest second language. With 753 million English-as-a-second-language speakers, the next largest second language, Hindi, has barely a third as many (and in many cases is only a second language because, thanks to colonialism, it was displaced by English as the first!) Language loss is very real. According to UNESCO, today languages are lost at a rate of roughly one every two weeks; 600 have disappeared in the last century, while up to 90 percent are unlikely to survive this century at current rates of decline. Without overstating the role of language in shaping reality, we can at least acknowledge that the conventions of a language help to shape the contours of thought, impact the concepts that we draw on day to day, and create frames through which to understand reality.
- The European academy has shaped the standard of what universities should look like and how they operate all over the world. The corporatization of university management in the Global North has accompanied the neoliberalization of business, government, and civil society everywhere else. Some of the world’s most elite universities have seen their endowments balloon into the tens of billions of dollars under sprawling teams of professional portfolio managers. Administrative bloat has resulted in an explosion of superfluous, high-paid, and powerful management positions, with at least fifteen university presidents taking million-dollar salaries in 2019. To pay for it, tuition fees have skyrocketed with universities repositioning themselves from accessible places of learning for students to degree factories for indebted customers. Many researchers, too, have internalized such neoliberal ethics, openly taking money from large corporations like the fossil fuel industry, while tenured faculty often fail to show solidarity with striking colleagues.
- American-style intensive agriculture has standardized food production globally, with a narrow set of practices, chemicals, species, and supply chains squeezing much of the world’s productive arable land through a bottleneck that constrains the ways in which farmers interact with the land and the kinds of food they produce, and even impacts how and where we eat the food that’s grown. American fast-food chains are ubiquitous globally.
- A few fast fashion brands have consolidated the clothing industry, which means that a handful of companies have a huge impact on how millions of people present themselves in the world, homogenizing how people physically look. Zara has 1,600 stores in 58 countries. And this is not to mention the harmful impact this industry has on both workers and ecologies.
- Monopolized retail markets determine what products are available. The four largest retailers in the world are U.S. companies, and they have tremendous power in deciding what kinds of products get sold, and therefore, what products get made in the first place. They are shapers of demand every bit as much as they are suppliers of demand.
- Silicon Valley moulds the Internet in its cornflower-blue-hoodie-grey-cargo-shorts-clad image. Two computer giants, Microsoft and Apple, dominate global market share, meaning those two companies determine the contours of hardware, software, and the basic philosophy of how computers are used in the first place. Meanwhile, a handful of companies, mostly U.S.-based, dominate global web traffic. Alphabet, Inc, parent company of Google and YouTube, alone nets 85 billion visits per month. The next highest visited is Facebook with a mere (mere) 19.9 billion visits per month. Google manipulates search results with a right-wing and big business bias; YouTube, inadvertently or otherwise, funnels viewers to extreme right-wing propaganda; while Facebook decides who or what to censor based on seventh-richest-person-in-the-world Mark Zuckerberg’s whim. If you’re keeping track, that means the three most visited websites in the world, with over 100 billion monthly views, are controlled by two (2!!) extremely rich men.
- Speaking of rich people making decisions: concentrated American venture capital decides which start-up ventures launch and which don’t. In the United States, 77 percent of capital that goes to starting new companies is concentrated in ten cities from a handful of funders. Such highly-concentrated venture capital is a big part of why so many new companies are developing useless smartphone apps, dystopian AI, and ever-more addictive videogames that can net a quick return on investment with low upfront capital, instead of creating actually useful technology such as innovative renewable energy.
Even the structures by which we measure things to be morally good or bad have been streamlined and boxed in by the fossil fuel-based liberal empire. The trans-Atlantic revival of laissez-faire liberalism intensified in the 1970s, while Reagan and Thatcher delivered the neoliberal consensus from right-wing think tanks into the mainstream, carrying with it very specific moral tenets. The doctrine that came out of the Mont Pelerin Society and Heritage Foundation, and then the wrinkly mouths of the Gipper and Iron Lady, made very clear what they considered virtues, and what were vices:
Virtues: corporate management hierarchies, privatization, marketization, monopoly, atomizing competitive individuals, concentrating wealth, the nuclear family.
Vices: unions, economic equality, commons, welfare states, democracy, wealth taxes, distributing value, “society.”
I saw this simple set of values personally on vivid display when I visited a friend in Sweden. Two of my friend’s university buddies, one from India, the other from Singapore, joined us for a night of cards. As the evening wore on the cards slipped to the side as an argument about politics erupted. In aggressive declaratives, the two international students reminded us that only people who are successful in the free market deserve life and prosperity; that only economic freedom matters and government intrusion is the highest form of tyranny; that only markets can efficiently allocate resources; that people are inherently selfish and should be treated as such. Despite these students’ culturally and geographically disparate backgrounds, they used identical language pulled straight from Road to Serfdom or Atlas Shrugged or the American Enterprise Institute. The fact that the two of them were living in a democratic socialist country, enjoying its free healthcare, cheap or free higher education, subsidized housing, and many other perks of a partially socialized economy, did not appear to register.
The homogeneity of these values is remarkable. Any evangelical religion would be proud of their uniform spread through virtually every culture in the world. They have been violently institutionalized not only by imperial powers like the United States, but also by global NGOs such as the World Bank, World Trade Organization, and International Monetary Fund. These values are also baked into programming in the increasingly consolidated media. Six companies control 90 percent of U.S. media, and have global reach. One company, Sinclair Broadcast Group, owns 191 television stations that reach 40 percent of Americans. AT&T owns CNN, Warner Bros., HBO and many others. Comcast owns MSNBC, NBC, Telemundo, and many others. Fox Corporation owns Fox Broadcasting Company and many others. Owned by billionaires or run by multi-millionaires, these companies maintain a rigid conformity, promoting the virtues of economic liberalism and condemning what it considers vices, spreading ever more right-wing bias. The praise for “globalization” hides the darker flattening of life and possibility that comes with it. Global trade and cultural exchange aren’t, of course, inherently bad. But this globalized system often looks less like “exchange” and more like a classical empire imposing a narrow set of norms and rules onto other cultures, standardizing acceptable ways of living, and extracting resources and labor from that regimented sameness. To draw from a pop culture example currently controlled by Disney, whose products accounted for nearly 40 percent of the 2019 U.S. box office: it looks like rows of white-armored Stormtroopers patrolling and subjugating the diverse life of the universe by order of imperial bureaucrats. The result is one style of life, one way of being and thinking, that dominates expansive areas of land, swallowing peoples of many backgrounds, and imposing stale blandness across a global empire of sameness.
There’s a famous scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail that’s relevant here. King Arthur of the Britons approaches a local filth-hauling peasant, asking him who owns a nearby castle. The peasant, whose name is Dennis, objects to what he considers the King’s disrespectful treatment of him. When Arthur asserts his kingly authority, Dennis replies, “And how d’you get that, eh? By exploiting the workers! By ‘anging on to outdated imperialist dogma which perpetuates the economic and social differences in our society.”
When Arthur reaffirms that he is in fact “King of the Britons,” a nearby peasant woman replies, “King of the who?…I didn’t know we had a king. I thought we were an autonomous collective.”
Confused, Arthur continues his attempt to learn which lord resides in the nearby castle. The woman informs him that no one lives there. “We don’t ‘ave a lord,” she says. Dennis interjects: “We’re an anarcho-syndicalist commune. We take it in turns to act as a sort of executive officer for the week.” It’s a really funny scene: the very idea of a filth-hauling cockney peasant named Dennis in Arthurian Britain using 20th century political terminology to describe his leftist commune! But, as it happens, an anarchic commune in post-imperial Roman Britain is not that far-fetched.
In 117 C.E., the Roman Empire reached its height, covering much of continental Europe, Britain, and stretching even into North Africa and Southwest Asia. For some of its history, the Roman Empire’s cultural imperialism may have been in some ways even less “overbearing” than American fossil fueled-liberalism today, regularly allowing subjects and migrants to continue practicing their own traditions and religions, and to speak local languages outside the official Latin and Greek. But it still imposed a certain sameness on its territories, whether through currencies, engineering technology, architecture, urban planning, intensive agriculture, laws and customs, or military structure. (Not to mention often enslaving and conscripting local populations.)
This Roman hegemony persisted for several hundred years before the empire fractured in two and the Western half began its long plunge. The fall of Roman rule in the West opened the door for alternative kinds of government and economy. In the power vacuum left by a deteriorating Roman state, literal space was opened for new settlements to form, while new governments arose in existing cities. Some of those post-Roman settlements remained under control of the Roman elite who managed to hold onto their wealth and power in the region. But others enabled people to build their own governments and elect their own leaders. In Britain, where Caledonians, Picts, and Britons had resisted Roman rule for centuries, the locals certainly took the opportunity to resume or expand more egalitarian ways of life. Someone like “Dennis” and his crew starting up something resembling an autonomous collective anarchic commune in the countryside certainly would not have been impossible. Although Anglo-Saxon invaders likely brought their hierarchical system with them, there were many years before they established a strong state in southern England, and centuries before Normans and Vikings would conquer much of the rest of the island.
Many communities, some mutualistic and variably egalitarian, grew out of post-Roman Europe across the continent, and not just in the countryside but even in cities. Free cities in Germany stood outside the feudal control of lords, while Flanders, Italy, and France enjoyed urban communes. Peter Kropotkin pointed to such medieval communes as examples of collective self-defense sharing features with modern communism and socialism. This diversity of governments only became broadly possible when the threat and presence of a huge, organized empire was removed. In addition to the greater variety of governments, “Dennis” and his crew may have even lived longer and enjoyed more leisure time after the Roman collapse. Some research has suggested that life expectancy increased by a couple of years when the empire stopped extracting surplus food from Britain.
Medieval Europe, for all of its many flaws and undesirable qualities, offers one opening for thinking about how many possibilities exist that we don’t get to experience: different ways of living, of relating to one another, of understanding our place in the cosmos, discovering meaning in the world, of hauling filth, of doing music and arts. The collapse of omnipotent imperial systems may not necessarily open the door for glorious utopias, given the already-existing confines of history, psychology, and geography, but it does offer the hope of building something else in the expanses opened up. And although we are always confined by such material realities, the exciting thing about the wake of a fallen empire or a collapsed order is that collective and individual human choices suddenly become vital: whether building a future of violent tyrants, or one of solidarity and mutual aid, becomes a matter of our decisions.
I entered the cavern, shining a small headlamp whose light soon flashed onto spindly white fingers of a dead branch, sending a shiver through my body. Standing at the edge of the sunlight and the darkness ahead, buzzing, I looked into the perfect void beyond the thin fingers of the branch and slowly backed away, into the forest. Consulting my map, I saw that there was a small village nearby. I had no idea what this cavern was or where it went, so I decided I would do the prudent thing and ask a villager about this mystery before plunging in.
The “village” turned out to be little more than a single tavern. I entered the darkened pub to find what I assumed was the entire population of the town seated around a long table. A man got up to see what I wanted. When he found I spoke little German he beckoned another townsperson over who generously attempted to communicate with me in halting English. I pulled out the map showing her the path I was following and where I wished to go. I asked her if the cave was a tunnel that would provide a short-cut, which seemed the only reasonable, “productive,” explanation for my desire to go through it. As I had been taking my time on my journey, spending hours beside rivers washing my clothes and generally enjoying the sun, my food was dwindling, and I wanted to make it to the next sizable town, preferably before dark. It wasn’t clear she understood my question. Finally, after miming a big tunnel the best I could, she said, “Ah yes. Don’t go in without light…”
Pirates of the Caribbean 3: At World’s End, disregarded by critics while simultaneously shoveling in nearly $1 billion internationally, was created and financed by Disney—and yet, despite that, the writers managed to sneak in a subversive plot. While the movie may seem like nothing more than popcorn pablum, complete with a tentacle-faced Bill Nighy and millions of magical crabs, the story is about a monopolistic corporation attempting to impose the uniformity of empire on the high seas by co-opting the mythological forces of the last “free” way of life—piracy—and turning them to business ends. Essentially, it’s a story about the villainy of Disney, a fact which appears to have passed unnoticed by the company’s executives. The movie presents the specter of a world disenchanted and monetized by large companies, retaining no dark corners and no wild spaces, as something hideous and tragic. In a quiet, critical, and easily overlooked scene, Captains Jack Sparrow and Hector Barbossa are standing off to the side on a beach together, and Barbossa, lamenting the dwindling space for the pirate in the new world, says to Sparrow, “The world used to be a bigger place.”
Sparrow replies morosely: “World’s still the same, there’s just…less in it.”
The wilderness of the oceans, forests, and deserts is the last free space, and the modern fossil fuel empire imposes sameness even there. When it comes to wilderness and wildlife today, there’s just less of it. Much, much less. Perhaps the most vivid example of this is the replacement of lush, biodiverse rainforests with straight rows of uniform oil palm plantations. These plantations are essentially dead chemical deserts. Aside from the species Elaeis guineensis, virtually nothing else can live there. The plantations are constantly sprayed with intense herbicide and pesticide poisons, and protected from animals that may try to inhabit the area.
This kind of sameness is not exactly new. All intensive agriculture, even the kind that predates potent pesticides, seeks to exclude wildlife from an area of domesticated food production, whether grazing lands or croplands. The very definition of intensive agriculture entails taking a piece of land in which many different species thrive and fencing it off, removing the many species of non-useful plant and animal there, and allowing only a few profitable species to live on it. My whole job on the medieval Italian farm, after all, was to keep the wild dogs and boars away from the sheep and gardens. And this was an organic farm that relied little on modern synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. The ancient Roman farms, too, would have plowed over wild areas and displaced much or all of the wildlife inhabiting them.
But while intensive agriculture itself is not new, what is new is the scope and intensity of this kind of imperial agrarian sameness imposed on the world’s ecologies. The kind of homogenizing flatness we see with cultural imperialism happens at the cellular level with agrarian imperialism. DNA diversity gets hewn down to a narrow range of life, and then those few profitable species see their numbers explode in vast, unbalanced quantities. A huge Marvel Cinematic Universe of shitty tomatoes, flavorless apples, 72 billion land animals slaughtered per year, and a staggering 1 trillion or more sea creatures killed for food annually.
Agrarian empires of the past were limited regionally and temporally; they conquered a small patch of the world’s land, and only a (relatively) brief period of time. Even the Mongolian Empire, the largest land empire in history, covered only about 16 percent of the earth’s land mass and only lasted about 160 years. Such empires always burst into flame and fizzled out within a few centuries or millennia, with an average lifespan of just under 300 years. Today’s fossil-augmented empire threatens to cover every inch of the globe before it burns itself (and everything else) out. In the sense that it is contained in the carbon dioxide particles in the atmosphere, or the microplastics in the ocean, it already has covered every inch of the globe.
The efficiency with which empire is able to transform biodiverse life into homogenous rows of economically productive life has never been matched. The supercharging of agriculture and development with fossil fueled-machines allows a few people to grind whole forests into sawdust in a few days, strip the ground, artificially re-fertilize it, and plant it while barely lifting a hand. Through its millennia of rulership by intensive agrarian empires, Italy has retained some admirable biodiversity with such ecologically important megafauna as wolves, bears, lynx, ibex, and many raptors still roaming tiny pockets of the peninsula, if in severely diminished numbers and, again, typically in the alpine regions that are difficult to bring under the rule of imperial uniformity or productive mass agriculture. Whether such creatures will survive the fossil fuel empire remains to be seen, but given the critically endangered status of most of Italy’s megafauna, it’s not looking good.
When it comes to agriculture, there are present-day alternatives practiced by small pockets of (often indigenous) people, such as agroecological food production in which domesticated crops are interspersed with wild endemic plants, and pests are kept at bay through natural predation or by including species that pest insects find distasteful. These tactics, alongside indigenous foraging land and other areas not totally fenced off to wildlife and phytodiversity, rely far less on injections of fertilizers and pesticides, and frequently none at all. But they still only inhabit narrow strips between big industrial farms and it’s hard to imagine, short of a total imperial collapse, how they could compete in productive capacity without a complete dismantling and replacement of global supply chains and government incentives.
We can find hints of what may come after agrarian empires by glimpsing what came before. A couple years ago, The Atlantic reported on an exciting geological find in New Mexico from a time long before empire: the fossilized footprints of a giant ground sloth. These creatures were less like the ridiculous, adorable tree hobbits most contemporary sloths bring to mind and more like huge woolly bears, some even growing to the size of modern elephants. What was so interesting about these particular fossils was that nestled inside the twenty-inch pawprints were little human footprints. This means some people were following this sloth around, leaping from print to print. Why? The researchers couldn’t be sure, but their theories ranged from hunting or stalking practice to a band of teenagers just harassing the local sloth.
What this find vividly illustrates is the close proximity that prehistoric people had with all kinds of fantastical beasts we can barely imagine, all over the world. Today when we think of megafauna, we typically think of sub-Saharan varieties like giraffes, hippos, lions, Indian tigers, or Indonesian orangutans. The world’s largest nonhuman animals have been crushed into the tropics, areas historically difficult to reach by ruthless saws and handaxes, and thereby escaping many of the most anthropocentric ambitions of historic empires. Britain, too, was once covered in forests, filled with lynx, bears, wolves, beavers, polecats, wolverines, wooly rhinoceros, wooly mammoths, elk, wild boar, reindeer, and many others. Almost all these species are now extinct or extirpated. But with fossil fuels and extractive imperial economies, the tropics are newly accessible, which is why they’re being destroyed so intensely today, and why without immense, immediate change, they’ll soon look like the deadlands of Europe.
But there was a time the whole world was covered in such megafauna, and the relationships humans built with these animals were intimate and varied. This fact is captured in the almost universal animism that shaped prehistoric peoples’ conception of divinity, imputing (observing?) gods and goddesses into the many creatures that surrounded them. It can also be found in cave art. As Barbara Ehrenreich observed in The Baffler, prehistoric cave paintings often seem to place humans at the fringes of the animal world, if they include people at all. Instead of the drama’s central protagonists, humans appear to take the role of a rather absurd little jester in the court of the animal kings and queens.
What changed? Part of the answer is the climate. The earth warmed between 12,000 and 13,000 years ago, ushering in the new Holocene epoch, accelerating a major extinction event that was already underway. This Quaternary extinction killed off nearly two hundred species of large mammals, such as woolly mammoths and saber-toothed cats, and of course the giant sloths. Dozens of other species of reptiles and birds also died off. There are many theories behind what caused the extinction, but there can be little doubt that human overhunting and competition played a part, even if by accident. While there is evidence of foraging human groups acting deliberately to avoid overhunting prey, they could have easily misjudged the replacement rate of the species they hunted (this can be difficult to calculate even with sophisticated tools today). The new climate was good for human reproduction; it allowed foragers to more intensely control their ecologies, extract ever more caloric energy from the land, and eventually, over many generations, slowly become intensive farmers and herders, pushing out the wildlife that competed for nutritious biomass.
But even after so many species became extinct, there was still a great abundance of diverse life all over the globe for thousands of years. Some of the steepest declines have only occurred since the beginning of industrialization two hundred years ago. Today’s empire is simply much more effective and efficient when it comes to killing off life and homogenizing ecologies for future use in markets. We are living in the midst of an extinction far greater even than the Quaternary event. It’s hard to imagine, in this dying world, the abundance of life that was with us only a couple centuries ago. These days, outside of the rare seams between empire, like that Italian farm, many of us only ever really get to interact with species that have adapted to urban environments, like pigeons, corvids, and seagulls, and interact is not even close to the right word. If they regard our presence at all, the pigeons seem to consider usan obstacle to their treasured crumbs, the lazy sauntering corvids look petulantly inconvenienced, and the seagulls surly and contemptuous. (Reasonably so!) My last intimate experience with wildlife occurred nearly a year ago tending a sick hedgehog who had likely been poisoned by pesticides put out by suburban slug-phobes. And yet, standing face-to-face with a giraffe (from a platform) in a wildlife park, being charged by a bear in the woods, glimpsing a Canadian lynx by a lonely Ontario highway, or catching the lope of a wild wolverine in northern Michigan, have been some of my life’s most awe-(and fear-)evoking experiences. It’s no wonder that mulleted tiger-ranchers can get by hawking even a sad simulation of contact with wondrous megafauna.
In even the wildest parts of the United States today—itself one of the wilder countries in the Global North—one struggles to imagine the more abundant life of even the recent past. Roy Scranton illustrates this problem in The Baffler:
It’s highly unlikely that more than a few people, for example, are aware in a vivid, day-to-day way that enormous reptilian monsters once roamed the land we inhabit, though every schoolchild has been apprised of this awesome fact. Even fewer people, perhaps no one at all, walk around grieving Ainsworth’s salamander, the Alvord cutthroat trout, the blue pike, the California grizzly bear, the Carolina parakeet, the Cascade Mountain wolf, the deepwater cisco, the dusky seaside sparrow, the Eastern elk, the Eastern cougar, the eelgrass limpet, Goff’s pocket gopher, the green-blossom pearly mussel, the heath hen, the New Mexico sharp-tailed grouse, the Pasadena freshwater shrimp, the passenger pigeon, the Rocky Mountain locust, the silver trout, the Southern California kit fox, the Xerces blue butterfly, or the umbilicate pebblesnail, just a few of the North American species that have gone extinct due to human activity since the late nineteenth century.
The absence of such creatures makes their habitation in a place currently occupied by a Denny’s seem unbelievable. But there was a time, before industry, before intensive agriculture, before the Quaternary extinctions, when humans would have lived side by side with abundantly diverse wildlife. I hear crickets now only in 1990s movies.
It wasn’t hard to find the tunnel again. The sun was on its way down, but it didn’t matter. The tunnel was darker than the night. I flicked on the headlamp again and stood staring as the small ray dissolved in the dark. My insides quivered, my fingers trembled, and I had to force myself to walk forward. I was entirely alone in the woods. I hadn’t seen any other hikers in days. No one was watching me. No one knew I was there. I could have turned back in fear, without embarrassment.
As I trudged into the dark the air grew cooler. I stayed to the right-hand side where I could keep the wall within my tiny pool of light. The left wall disappeared. The tunnel curved, and the edge of daylight at the entrance snapped out of view. Only my crunching footsteps broke the hard, close silence. I looked around trying to orient myself to the size of the space or whatever might be in the cave, but my headlamp’s weak diodes didn’t reach far. Every now and again, the wall to my right yawned into open black space that I restrained myself from pointing the light into, letting my imagination invent the terrors that might or might not lurk in the pits. A line of horrific Schrödinger’s hallways.
After a while, something broke the monotony of the flat, gravelly ground. Some object lay directly ahead of my path; I couldn’t make it out in the weak lamplight. It was a pale, flesh-colored lump. A number of possibilities flashed through my mind, each more gruesome than the last: a limb, a head, a corpse. My adrenaline accelerated. I approached the object and caught it with my light.
It was a teddy bear. A little wet, ratty teddy bear. I wondered how long it had lain there, or how or why it ended up in the cave. Since there was no other debris around, I doubted that it had simply washed in from outside with a flood. The boring Occam’s razor answer was that local kids knew the tunnel well and one had once left their teddy bear behind when playing in it, but my mind wasn’t in a state to settle on a reassuring logical conclusion and instead flitted around more sinister explanations. I stepped over the toy and quickened my pace. Again I felt a tingle in my skin and considered turning back. I had no idea how long the tunnel stretched on or where it led, what it was for, whether mineshaft or abandoned road or something else, or what else I’d find. But before I could give in to that more reasonable voice, a light appeared up ahead. I’ve rarely been so relieved. It was not lost on me that characters in movies tend to get caught right before the end of the tunnel. But Hollywood’s hegemony did not reach this place. I stepped into the evening light safely and left the darkness behind me under the clear sky in the gorgeous evening air.
How do we transform it? many are pondering what could come after the global lockdowns and economic shocks of COVID-19, and the widespread protests that have followed in the wake of the latest murders by police in the heart of the empire. These crises are an opportunity—and a necessity—when it comes to imagining new ways of ordering life and governing economies. But there is only likely to be an opening of possibility if this pandemic and these demonstrations totally fracture the global fossil-fueled liberal order, and dismantle the cultural and martial forces that rule the world, which may or may not happen. This empire and its forebears have with-stood far greater shocks than the coronavirus and civil unrest. More human agency will need to be involved in dismantling it today. If anything, far from breaking fossil fueled liberal imperialism, this pandemic and uprising could increase its hold on power, solidify its dominance, or send it into a long, authoritarian death spiral. While it may not follow from our present crises, it is certain that eventually this empire will fall. Every single empire that has existed has crumbled, and this one must, too, if only by destroying itself. Whatever comes after it will necessarily come into a denuded world; “the lone and level sands stretch far away.” As soon as the fossil fuel empire is gone, some wildlife may quickly rebound. Some of the wild and mysterious places may come back, filled this time with real bears and tigers. Much that once thrived will stay dead. But even in a deadened world, with the collapse of this order there will follow more diverse kinds of human life and government. It will be necessary as socialists to hold onto the values that we hold sacred—diversity, egalitarianism, solidarity, and liberty—and we’ll have to keep them at the heart of our project.