“… and behold, a white horse, and he who sat on it had a bow;
and a crown was given to him, and he went out conquering and to conquer.”
Masked people fleeing infernos in front of orange skies; charred koala bears and dead livestock; masked people reporting deaths from a new virus; locusts consuming whole countries; blockades shutting down trains; these are the images that have ushered us, stumbling and dazed from 2019 into 2020, the year of clear vision.
Whether religious or secular, left or right, it is difficult to ignore the apocalyptic mood of these images. There is a gravity to them that compels us to ask ourselves, “are we living in the end times?”Here, in the question at least, there seems to be unanimity.
But the shared anxiety about our situation masks just how little agreement there is, even on the question of how to interpret the images being streamed at us. Are the devastating fires in Australia fuelled by record heat and a record drought, or are they the work of arsonists, attempting to gain support for political action on climate change? Likewise, we question whether the reports coming out of China are trustworthy, whether the virus really came from a market in Wuhan, or whether it was manufactured in a laboratory; we wonder, “is the Chinese response of locking down tens of millions of people appropriate or is it draconian?”Do we blame the Chinese, or do we thank them?
There is not even unanimity amongst those who appear to agree. If climate change is causing more frequent and extreme disasters, what do we do about it? Does the solution come through personal responsibility: lowering our own footprint by going vegan or no longer flying on airplanes? Does it come through technology (and if so, what technology)? Does it come through a new spirituality preaching balance with Mother Earth? Do we blame capitalism or consumerism, or do we blame population growth? Is the situation hopeless, or is now exactly the time for hope?
Sometimes we don’t even agree with ourselves. Our positions change from day to day, conversation to conversation, social media post to social media post, or else we believe things that contradict each other. We’re not sure where exactly to stand.
We repeat to ourselves the question: “Are we living in the end times? And if so, we wonder, “what exactly is coming to an end?” To this, we at least have a partial answer: what is coming to an end is not so much our ability to speak univocally, with a single unified, global voice, but to believe that such univocality is even possible. We begin to doubt whether we can tell a unified, global story at all.
Globalism has always had its discontent. There have always been those who have rejected the unity presumed by globalism; those who have said “not us! We want no part.”These voices came from different groups and for different reasons. Some were concerned about the loss of jobs, others about the loss of local autonomy, and others still about consequences for their environment. But for a long time, those voices were marginal, they belonged mostly to people living in poorer countries —what we call the Global South — or else to those without much political power in the countries of the richer Global North.
So, for some time it was possible to believe that we were all headed to a common destination: cruising on the waters of progress, even if there were some disagreements over how fast we should go. There seemed to be general agreement that we would all be connected by technology, trade, and the free movement of labour, and that we would all benefit from this greater interconnectedness. While inequality existed, we believed that the rising tide of economic growth would eventually float all boats.
And for a while globalism did bring about tremendous advances in the quality of life. Infant mortality dropped; the green revolution in agriculture reduced the percentage of the world suffering from periodic famine; new technology allowed us to visit exotic places, and even to meet new people without leaving our computers. We could fly to Mexico or Florida to escape winter. We could buy our favourite products grown or manufactured thousands of kilometres away. The rich could grow richer and that was okay because the poor would get richer too.
But these activities, it turns out, were slowly modifying the earth’s critical zone, the thin region between the sky and just below the earth’s surface, where all planetary life exists. This zone has been constructed over billions of years by the interactions between plants, animals, microbes, and elements. We were modifying it by releasing tiny, invisible molecules to the atmosphere — our planet’s soft but protective shell — and these molecules went about their business of trapping heat and slowly warming the critical zone.
At the same time, our agricultural practices were changing our lakes, our oceans, and our soils. While we increased yields by targeting pests with insecticides we were also killing insects that provided valuable services to us, in turn leading to the dramatic decline in many species of birds. We were told that as much as half of plant and animal species could go extinct within 50 years. The edges were fraying. Our efforts to make everyone rich started to show indications that they were not only making some of us immediately poorer, but they were also threatening to make us all poorer over the long term.
In response, we did make efforts to figure out how to govern the commons of the critical zone, such as our oceans and our atmosphere, and a few of those efforts were even successful. But mostly it has proven very difficult. The ocean has been overfished, the atmosphere treated like an open sewer. Many in the Global North have been eager to do our part, but we don’t know how, and worry that we have just as much interest in what other nations are doing, and yet very little to no power over them. And if other people and countries are cheating, how can we keep up in the global race unless we cheat too? So we all race towards the bottom.
What has gone wrong? Globalism, in spite of its name, did not begin with an interest in collectively governing the commons that are essential to the functioning of the critical zone, such as the atmosphere and ocean. Globalism began with an interest in trade and economic growth, and nearly all of the most effective international agreements are trade deals (or else they are for security, which is largely about protecting trade routes).
It’s true, trade is a powerful binding force; who amongst us doesn’t regularly buy products from countries halfway around the world? But the dream of one earth united by the flow of capital, while we all strive to live the American Dream (or some version of it) has, it turns out, always been not only the wrong dream but an impossible one. There was no place for seven or eight or ten billion people to get their promised piece of the pie. Some told us technology could change or solve this problem while ignoring the material basis for our civilization. Sometimes you can replace a scarce material with another more abundant one, but on a finite material body (the earth) there is a limited amount of material, and also a limited amount of space.
Did we ever really believe the story we told ourselves that everyone in the world would be able to live as the average person now lives in the Global North? It doesn’t really matter; what’s rapidly coming to an end is our ability to tell ourselves or each other that we do.
But something else is very wrong. The people fleeing from fires in Fort McMurray, California and now Australia are not people from the Global South. The people killed in terrorist attacks in Paris, Madrid and New York were not people from the Global South, nor are the people dying on our streets from opioids. They are citizens of the Global North, where everyone is supposed to be safe; the first-class section of our great spaceship earth. And yet it appears that even we are not safe, not from ecological catastrophe, nor from a global pandemic. We are not free from terrorism, nor the consequences of growing inequality between rich and poor; those fleeing the boats that the rising tide has dashed against the rocks also end up on our shores. Nor, it turns out, are we free from the ghosts of our past.
The medicine wheel used by the Anishinaabe as well as other indigenous peoples of Turtle Island is comprised of four colours. White, red, black and yellow. Among other things, white represents the North and the European people. For a while, the Global North went forth on its white horse and conquered, granted victory after victory. These victories brought tremendous prosperity, but also deep inequalities; they brought us all together, and in doing so showed how far apart we still were.
Against the backdrop of orange skies and other smoke signals wafting from the bushfires into our metropolises, disrupting tennis matches and other parts of our normal life, our eyes begin to see more clearly. We begin to see others who were always already there, but who were not included in our premature declaration of unity: peoples, molecules, plants, animals, and the rest of the inhabitants of the critical zone. We see how the logic of capital moves jobs to other countries, sacrificing whole communities. We see how large, centralized bureaucracies smother us with rules and regulations, threatening our autonomy. We see other eyes staring back at us.
In the gathering smoke, our breath catches in our throat, and our heart rate rises with the temperature.
This then, is the first movement of our apocalypse: we become aware that we’ve lost our common destination. We have lost the illusion that the earth has been won through our conquest. We have lost the illusion that unity has already been reached, and that progress was leading us all forwards and upwards together. We have lost the ability to tell ourselves we believe in these illusions. Our destination, which turned out to be a mirage, is now transformed into an abyss at our feet. Nihilism grabs us by the collar.
Traumatized, seeing no destination in front, and no way forward, we turn around to look back in the direction from where we came.
Behold, a second horse appears.