We Have Met The Enemy ... and He is Us

By Dan Lennon
April 13, 2020

Part of a message from American naval officer Oliver Hazard Perry in 1813 after defeating and capturing Royal Navy ships in the Battle of Lake Erie reads: “We have met the enemy and they are ours.” One hundred and forty years later, Pogo creator Walt Kelly parodied Perry’s quote: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

He is indeed us. In the struggle against climate change, we aren’t battling nature, we are battling human nature. The evidence has been available for the past 30 years that continuing to burn fossil fuels would put us in grave danger. But greed by the fossil fuel industry, corruption by politicians, and indifference by the public that doesn’t want to be inconvenienced by restrictions on their free and immoderate use of energy have seen to it that very little has been done.

And now we are in a struggle for our very survival. The deniers continue to deny. The great middle is concerned but confused. The propaganda of the fossil fuel industry has sown doubt, and the science is bewilderingly complex. What to believe? It’s bad, but how bad? If you want me to give up my SUV, it had better be really bad.

This is an ill-starred matchup. Nature works slowly but inexorably while man is an impatient and lurching creature who looks for disasters now, not in the future, to justify action. This means that conditions must get worse than they already are for the public to really become concerned. (Note: half of the Great Barrier Reef died in the past four years.)  It must be a crisis like the Coronavirus. We can all get behind doing something radical about that. That’s because it’s right here and right now.

Not so with climate change. Science predicts a future catastrophe. There is no uncertainty about that. But there is some uncertainty about how fast it is going to get worse. It isn’t a wholesale uncertainty, though.  The margin of error is on the order of a few decades.  But the uncertainty about when particular events will happen – like an ice-free summer Arctic Ocean – has enabled the fossil fuel industry and its fellow-travelers to impugn the credibility of the whole enterprise.  “You’re not certain about some things so how can we believe you about anything!” This is a false notion, of course, but it gets traction with  people (most of us) who don’t understand that uncertainty is always the companion of science while certainty is the claim of the demagogue.

Every day I watch people in large trucks and SUVs casually driving around, waiting in line at Starbucks or McDonalds with their engines running, never for a moment giving a thought to the CO2 they are emitting into the air and how, in a few decades, it is going to cause suffering for their children or grandchildren. Connecting these dots requires being conscious of what you are doing, and most of us, most of the time, are on automatic pilot.

This is the inevitable denouement of a “me”- driven society. In the balance between self-interest and concern for others that is the sine qua non of a stable society, the weight seems to have all collected on the self-interest side.

When there is no common set of values that binds the members of a society together, no common purpose, then interest focuses on the banal – the next meal, the next movie, the next ball-game, the next vacation, the next raise, the new car. All these things serve as distractions from the essential hollowness of life without the social solidarity of commonly held values. It is a sign of a decadent society. Decadence need not imply immorality or debauchery.  It is simply a description of a culture that has lost its way. At its core, it is spent, empty, and tired.

Donald Trump is not the cause of these things, he is simply the exclamation point at the end of a long period of political and social decay. A hallmark of this degeneration is the fact that the truth is no longer a real thing; instead it is whatever utterance is convenient for the moment. A government and a society that trades so ostentatiously in lies cannot last.

This malaise is not limited to the U.S. It is, in its own way, a world-wide pandemic. The old order no longer works; a new order must be found. The transition is often ugly. Add to this social and political upheaval the fruits of our florid use of fossil fuels – the end of the benign Holocene Epoch which made civilization possible, and the beginning of the harsh and ever-changing Anthropocene Epoch which is being ushered in by the sixth mass extinction in the history of life on Earth – and we are in for one hell of a ride.

An ancient Chinese curse goes like this: “May you live in interesting times.” It was a curse because interesting times are tumultuous times. We are living in interesting times.


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