Environmental Catastrophe and Revolution with Chris Hedges

Portland activist Alon Raab summarizes the recent talk delivered by former New York Times reporter Chris Hedges, at Powell’s Books in June 2015.

Photo by obsidiannoise.com/

Chris Hedges, Photo by obsidiannoise.com

Lambasting the rapid march towards ecological catastrophe, endless wars for oil and empire, and wealth concentration, author and activist Christopher Hedges offered inspiring examples of contemporary and historic individuals and movements working for a world rooted in peace and justice to a large Portland audience. Linking the many environmental and social crises with colonialism, imperialism and capitalism, he urged his listeners to get to the root of the malaise and expressed certainty that popular uprisings are inevitable, in the United States and globally.

Hedges’ work includes War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning; The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle; Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt and the recently published Wages of Rebellion: The Moral Imperative of Revolt. He has been arrested while protesting the war machine and the rule of Wall Street, and co-filed a suit against the US government’s National Defense Authorization Act that currently allows the military to detain foreign nationals as well as citizens indefinitely without trial or due process. (The Supreme Court sided with the government in April, 2014.)

During a talk at Powell’s Books, Hedges addressed climate and the environment, viewing their alarming states as a logical result of the actions of nation-states, those with money and guns, and with a worldview which has replaced reverence of life with that of profit. He devoted little time to listing the latest alarming environmental news, probably assuming that the audience was well aware of them. He decried those who believe that things are fixable within the existing system, placing their faith in the election of Democratic Party leaders. A socialist, Hedges sees no difference between these politicians and their Republican Party brothers and sisters, and insists that the same earth-killing policies instituted by the Bush regime have been followed and even expanded since 2008.

“In fact, Obama’s assault has been worse” Hedges emphasized, listing such actions as Obama’s appointment of the same men and women who wrecked the economy to the highest economic government positions, the employment of corporate lobbyists to write legislation, and the persecution of government whistleblowers. The president who promised that his victory, “was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal” has, according to Hedges, done tremendous damage to the environment.  “In return for financial support from these ‘kingpins of carbon,’ Obama has cynically undermined international climate treaties.”

Other anti-environmental actions Hedges mentioned include: spying on those in climate negotiations to thwart caps on carbon emissions and push through useless agreements; massively expanding fracking; approving oil drilling in the Arctic; pushing trade agreements such as the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) that will almost surely demolish labor and environmental protections, increase fracking, and expand coal, oil and gas exports; authorizing the excavation of tar sands in Utah and Alabama; approving the southern half of the Keystone pipeline; permitting seismic testing for offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, the East Coast and Alaska; and authorizing drilling within four miles of the Florida coastline. What’s more, sections of the TPP, and other trade arrangements in the works, have been made public only thanks to WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden.

Hedges predicted that once they vacate the White House Barack and Michelle Obama, following in the Clintons’ footsteps, will accumulate millions of dollars thanks to huge speaking fees paid by earth-destroying corporations, and that many of our elected representative in Congress will be rewarded for their tireless work on behalf of industry with seats on corporate boards or jobs as lobbyists. “We do not live in a democracy. We live in a political system that has legalized bribery, exclusively serves corporate power and is awash in propaganda and lies,” exclaimed the [former] reporter.

Hedges described the USA as a “Potemkin America” (named for fake village fronts that Russian general Grigory Potemkin created along the Dnieper River in order to convince Catherine the Second of her empire’s prosperity) as we, too, have all the window-dressing of well-being, democracy and freedom. The reality, however, is that in this wealthy nation there is widespread poverty, homelessness, food insecurity, no privacy due to constant spying and recording of every phone call and e-mail we send, and the ever-expanding military presence at home and abroad.

For Hedges, the electoral process is a charade. “There has been a corporate coup d’état in slow motion, and we are now ruled by a system where democratic features such as a free press and elections are praised, but corporations have taken control of all levers of power… In the coming year we will be bombarded with propaganda, largely centered on the manufactured personalities of candidates.”

Hedges added that the marginalized and poor will not be heard nor their concerns addressed. “Any further energy invested in these elections, including supporting Bernie Sanders, is a waste of time,” he emphasized, which drew the evening’s sole audible disagreement, from some of the Vermont Senator’s supporters in the audience.

Hedges does not isolate the state of the environment from society’s dominant values. “Our corporate masters have built a mass culture centered on the cult of the self, unchecked hedonism and spectacle. Neoliberal ideology infects every institution and belief system: Those who suffer deserve to suffer. Victims are responsible for their victimhood. We can all achieve wealth and prosperity with hard work. This mantra permits us to be cruel and heartless to the weak and the vulnerable, especially the poor as well as women and children, whom we discard as human refuse.”

While the situation is grave, Hedges sees a new consciousness emerging that ismanifested in individuals and movements. It is still not that of the majority of the population, “but it has reached enough of the minority to make resistance possible. It knows that, as the ecosystem unravels and the most terrifying security and surveillance apparatus in human history holds us hostage, revolt has become a moral imperative. The state, too, is ready. It has its spectacles, including its political theater, and it has its goons. It will use whatever tools work to maintain power. Asleep or awake, we will all pay a heavy price.”

Hedges emphasized that every action we take “must be directed at ripping down the structures of the corporate state. This means refusing to co-operate. It means joining or building radical mass movements. It means carrying out sustained acts of civil disobedience… in large and small ways, acts of open rebellion. It means always having as the primary objective the disrupting and overthrowing of corporate power. It means not playing the game.”

The abolition of corporate power must, according to Hedges, involve breaking up and nationalizing every corporation, including banks, energy companies, the health care sector and defense contractors. Other measures must include slashing the obscene military budget ($610 billion a year, more than four times the outlay of the second-largest military spender, China), establishing a nationwide public works program to create conditions for full employment, raising the minimum wage to $15 per , rebuilding infrastructure including mass transit, roads, bridges, schools, libraries and public housing, and turning to alternative energy. He called for placing heavy taxes on the rich, including a special tax on Wall Street speculators that would be used to wipe out the $1.3 trillion in student debt and ensure that education at all levels, along with health care, is a free right of all Americans.  Finally, the end of wars must also be a goal.

In his new book, Wages of Rebellion: The Moral Imperative of Revolt Hedges examines factors that encourage resistance and revolution. The book presents radicals from many lands and times. These include South African activists who risked their lives to end Apartheid, “Kayaktivists” in Seattle and the Alaskan fishing communities of Kodiak, Cordova and Homer; Alaska Indigenous activists physically stopping  oil and natural gas extraction, as well as U.S. Navy war exercises in the Arctic; the Occupy movement; workers striking for a $15 minimum wage; and communities blockading streets to protest the widespread use of lethal force by the increasingly militarized police. Abroad, the uprisings of the Arab Spring and such movements as Podemos in Spain were also praised.

“Only by building militant mass movements that are unrelentingly hostile to the system of corporate capitalism, imperialism, militarism and globalization can we wrest back our democracy…We have to organize around a series of non-negotiable demands. We have to dismantle the array of mechanisms the rich use to control power. We have to destroy the ideological and legal system cemented into place to justify corporate plunder. This is called revolution. It is about ripping power away from a cabal of corporate oligarchs and returning it to the citizenry. This will happen not by appealing to corporate power but by terrifying it. And power, as we saw in Baltimore, will be terrified only when we take to the streets. There is no other way.”

Hedges does not expect those in power to willingly let real change happen,  “But no matter what happens, the chain reaction that leads to revolt has begun. Most people realize that our expectations for a better future have been obliterated, not only those for ourselves but also for our children. This realization has lit the fuse. There is a widespread loss of faith in established systems of power.”

Hedges described seeing first hand, in Eastern Europe and the Arab world, how despotic regimes collapse internally, as those making the status-quo possible (the police, army, the courts, the civil servants, the press, intellectuals) no longer have the will to defend the regime. When they refuse to follow orders, the old regime crumbles. “The veneer of power appears untouched before a revolution, but the internal rot, unseen by the outside world, steadily hollows out the state edifice. And when dying regimes collapse, they do so with dizzying speed. Upheaval is coming. The people must be prepared. If we are, we will have a chance.”

While praising mass movements Hedges also places great importance on individual consciousness. The potential for change of each one of us was exemplified when, in some of the evening’s most moving moments, Hedges described his decade of teaching writing to New Jersey prisoners. He expressed to the audience the inspiration he draws from the individuals in his classes–many of whom are sentenced to life–men who even in the midst of Hell find the courage to look honestly at their situation and change.

Unlike some writers on the environmental catastrophe and on empire, for Hedges, one’s politics must be rooted in our daily life and actions. This means also being a vegan, since–besides concerns about animal suffering and human health– animal agriculture is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than all worldwide transportation combined, 80% of the world’s soy crop is fed to animals, and massive clear-cutting of forests, especially in the Amazon, to make land for the animal agriculture industry, are a death sentence for the planet. “A person who is vegan will save 1,100 gallons of water, 20 pounds CO2 equivalent, 30 square feet of forested land, 45 pounds of grain, and one sentient animal’s life every day. We do not, given what lies ahead of us, have any other option.”

The process of liberation must involve freeing our minds and souls from the voices of the masters and their helpers. Hedges references revolutionaries such as the anarchist Alexander Berkman who,over a hundred years ago, urged the public to abandon the vocabulary of the “rational” technocrats and masters, and create our own words and ideas through which to perceive and explain reality, as well as create our own cultures of resistance.

In Portland, a city where the words “awesome” and “it’s all good” are the daily mantra of many, Hedges refused to endorse, “the mania for hope that is an essential part of corporate indoctrination. The ridiculous positivism, the belief that we are headed toward some glorious future, defies reality. Hope, in this sense, is a form of disempowerment.” Hedges stressed that one must not judge actions for change based on how fast goals are achieved but rather by what we may become.

Christopher Hedges’s words and actions are a challenge to complacency and to patient reform. His analysis of the current march towards planetary destruction refuses to succumb to cheery optimism, yet his call to connect our daily way of life with our political aspirations and join with others in mass movements of resistance are a necessary reminder of the high stakes involved and the enormous task ahead.