It is day 32 of my 365 Days of Living Deliberately blog, and I just read a transcript of a speech given by Chris Hedges titled: “The Myth of Human Progress and the Collapse of Complex Societies.” The speech was printed in the online newspaper Truthdig, and it is hard-hitting, depressing, and terribly compelling.

Hedges maintains that author Melville is “our foremost oracle” and uses the literary analogy of Captain Ahab in Moby Dick to America’s  “self-destructive fury.”

I am including some of the quotes from this long speech which is worth reading in its entirety.

 

“The most prescient portrait of the American character and our ultimate fate as a species is found in Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.” Melville makes our murderous obsessions, our hubris, violent impulses, moral weakness and inevitable self-destruction visible in his chronicle of a whaling voyage. He is our foremost oracle. He is to us what William Shakespeare was to Elizabethan England or Fyodor Dostoyevsky to czarist Russia.”

 

“The object of the hunt is a massive white whale, Moby Dick, which in a previous encounter maimed the ship’s captain, Ahab, by dismembering one of his legs. The self-destructive fury of the quest, much like that of the one we are on, assures the Pequod’s destruction. And those on the ship, on some level, know they are doomed—just as many of us know that a consumer culture based on corporate profit, limitless exploitation and the continued extraction of fossil fuels is doomed.

“If I had been downright honest with myself,” Ishmael admits, “I would have seen very plainly in my heart that I did but half fancy being committed this way to so long a voyage, without once laying my eyes on the man who was to be the absolute dictator of it, so soon as the ship sailed out upon the open sea. But when a man suspects any wrong, it sometimes happens that if he be already involved in the matter, he insensibly strives to cover up his suspicions even from himself. And much this way it was with me. I said nothing, and tried to think nothing.”

 

“Our financial system—like our participatory democracy—is a mirage. The Federal Reserve purchases $85 billion in U.S. Treasury bonds—much of it worthless subprime mortgages—each month. It has been artificially propping up the government and Wall Street like this for five years. It has loaned trillions of dollars at virtually no interest to banks and firms that make money—because wages are kept low—by lending it to us at staggering interest rates that can climb to as high as 30 percent. … Or our corporate oligarchs hoard the money or gamble with it in an overinflated stock market. Estimates put the looting by banks and investment firms of the U.S. Treasury at between $15 trillion and $20 trillion. But none of us know. The figures are not public. And the reason this systematic looting will continue until collapse is that our economy [would] go into a tailspin without this giddy infusion of free cash.”

 

“The ecosystem is at the same time disintegrating. Scientists from the International Programme on the State of the Ocean, a few days ago, issued a new report that warned that the oceans are changing faster than anticipated and increasingly becoming inhospitable to life. The oceans, of course, have absorbed much of the excess CO2 and heat from the atmosphere. This absorption is rapidly warming and acidifying ocean waters. This is compounded, the report noted, by increased levels of deoxygenation from nutrient runoffs from farming and climate change. The scientists called these effects a “deadly trio” that when combined is creating changes in the seas that are unprecedented in the planet’s history. This is their language, not mine. The scientists wrote that each of the earth’s five known mass extinctions was preceded by at least one [part] of the “deadly trio”—acidification, warming and deoxygenation. They warned that “the next mass extinction” of sea life is already under way, the first in some 55 million years. Or look at the recent research from the University of Hawaii that says global warming is now inevitable, it cannot be stopped but at best slowed, and that over the next 50 years the earth will heat up to levels that will make whole parts of the planet uninhabitable. Tens of millions of people will be displaced and millions of species will be threatened with extinction. The report casts doubt that [cities on or near a coast] such as New York or London will endure.”

 

“Yet we, like Ahab and his crew, rationalize our collective madness. All calls for prudence, for halting the march toward economic, political and environmental catastrophe, for sane limits on carbon emissions, are ignored or ridiculed. Even with the flashing red lights before us, the increased droughts, rapid melting of glaciers and Arctic ice, monster tornadoes, vast hurricanes, crop failures, floods, raging wildfires and soaring temperatures, we bow slavishly before hedonism and greed and the enticing illusion of limitless power, intelligence and prowess.”

 

“That pattern holds good for a lot of societies, among them the ancient Maya and the Sumerians of what is now southern Iraq. There are many other examples, including smaller-scale societies such as Easter Island. The very things that cause societies to prosper in the short run, especially new ways to exploit the environment such as the invention of irrigation, lead to disaster in the long run because of unforeseen complications. This is what Ronald Wright in “A Short History of Progress” calls the “progress trap.” We have set in motion an industrial machine of such complexity and such dependence on expansion, Wright notes, that we do not know how to make do with less or move to a steady state in terms of our demands on nature.”

 

“And as the collapse becomes palpable, if human history is any guide, we, like past societies in distress, will retreat into what anthropologists call “crisis cults.” The powerlessness we will feel in the face of ecological and economic chaos will unleash further collective delusions, such as fundamentalist beliefs in a god or gods who will come back to earth and save us. The Christian right provides a haven for this escapism. These cults perform absurd rituals to make it all go away, giving rise to a religiosity that peddles collective self-delusion and magical thinking. Crisis cults spread rapidly among Native American societies in the later part of the 19th century as the buffalo herds and the last remaining tribes were slaughtered. The Ghost Dance held out the hope that all the horrors of white civilization—the railroads, the murderous cavalry units, the timber merchants, the mine speculators, the hated tribal agencies, the barbed wire, the machine guns, even the white man himself—would disappear. And our psychological hard wiring is no different.”

 

“The most important dilemma facing us is not ideological. It is logistical. The security and surveillance state has made its highest priority the breaking of any infrastructure that might spark widespread revolt. The state knows the tinder is there. It knows that the continued unraveling of the economy and the effects of climate change make popular unrest inevitable. It knows that as underemployment and unemployment doom at least a quarter of the U.S. population, perhaps more, to perpetual poverty, and as unemployment benefits are scaled back, as schools close, as the middle class withers away, as pension funds are looted by hedge fund thieves, and as the government continues to let the fossil fuel industry ravage the planet, the future will increasingly be one of open conflict. This battle against the corporate state, right now, is primarily about infrastructure. We need an infrastructure to build revolt. The corporate state is determined to deny us one. primary lust, our highest form of patriotism. We deploy vast resources to hunt down jihadists and terrorists, real and phantom. We destroy our civil society in the name of a war on terror. We persecute those, from Julian Assange to [Chelsea] Manning to Edward Snowden, who expose the dark machinations of power. We believe, because we have externalized evil, that we can purify the earth. And we are blind to the evil within us.”

 

“Melville’s description of Ahab is a description of the bankers, corporate boards, politicians, television personalities and generals who through the power of propaganda fill our heads with seductive images of glory and lust for wealth and power. We are consumed with self-induced obsessions that spur us toward self-annihilation.”

 

“And so we plunge forward in our doomed quest to master the forces that will finally smite us. Those who see where we are going too often lack the fortitude to actually rebel. Mutiny was the only salvation for the Pequod’s crew. It is our only salvation. But moral cowardice turns us into hostages.”

 

“The most important dilemma facing us is not ideological. It is logistical. The security and surveillance state has made its highest priority the breaking of any infrastructure that might spark widespread revolt. The state knows the tinder is there. It knows that the continued unraveling of the economy and the effects of climate change make popular unrest inevitable. It knows that as underemployment and unemployment doom at least a quarter of the U.S. population, perhaps more, to perpetual poverty, and as unemployment benefits are scaled back, as schools close, as the middle class withers away, as pension funds are looted by hedge fund thieves, and as the government continues to let the fossil fuel industry ravage the planet, the future will increasingly be one of open conflict. This battle against the corporate state, right now, is primarily about infrastructure. We need an infrastructure to build revolt. The corporate state is determined to deny us one. primary lust, our highest form of patriotism. We deploy vast resources to hunt down jihadists and terrorists, real and phantom. We destroy our civil society in the name of a war on terror. We persecute those, from Julian Assange to [Chelsea] Manning to Edward Snowden, who expose the dark machinations of power. We believe, because we have externalized evil, that we can purify the earth. And we are blind to the evil within us.”As the planet begins to convulse with fury, as the senseless greed of limitless capitalist expansion implodes the global economy, as our civil liberties are eviscerated in the name of national security, shackling us to an interconnected security and surveillance state that stretches from Moscow to Istanbul to New York, how shall we endure and resist?”

 

“Our hope lies in the human imagination. It was the human imagination that permitted African-Americans during slavery and the Jim Crow era to transcend their physical condition. It was the human imagination that sustained Sitting Bull and Black Elk as their land was seized and their cultures were broken. And it was the human imagination that allowed the survivors in the Nazi death camps to retain the power of the sacred. It is the imagination that makes possible transcendence. Chants, work songs, spirituals, the blues, poetry, dance and art converged under slavery to nourish and sustain this imagination. These were the forces that, as Ralph Ellison wrote, “we had in place of freedom.” The oppressed would be the first—for they know their fate—to admit that on a rational level such a notion is absurd, but they also know that it is only through the imagination that they survive.”

The whole speech is really worth reading!