It would seem that the fevered Earth in her delirium has generated antibodies in the form of a crowned virus to cure herself of the cancer that humankind has become upon her body. Forest fires rage on the Amazon, in Australia, in Siberia, in California, everywhere. More frequent and ever more disastrous hurricanes and floods wreak death in all the continents. The poles warm and glaciers melt. The oceans rise. Each day more and more of our relations the other animals, the plants become extinct. Humankind’s hubris has created the tragedy of the Anthropocene.
The Anthropocene is the Age of Man (humanity) the current geological age “viewed as the period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment.” It is a young age by any measure given that the Earth is about 5 billion years old. Shall it be measured from the time of the first appearance of Homo Sapiens in Africa 300,000 years ago? Or from the rise of agriculture and the Neolithic Revolution some 12,000 to 15,000 years ago? Or since 3100 BCE with the institution of the patriarchy in the ancient Near East? Or since patriarchal monotheism with the Babylonian captivity of the Jews in the 6th century BCE? Some argue much more recent dates such as the industrial revolution about 1780, or even closer and more exactly, July 16, 1945, seventy-five years ago with the first test of the atomic bomb when I was ten years old. There is no consensus as to the beginning of the Anthropocene.
I would date the Anthropocene precisely: October 12, 1492, almost five hundred twenty eight years ago when the Europeans who looking for a short route to the wealth of India stumbled upon a portion of the Earth unknown to them.
Thinking they had reached India, they called the native people they encountered “Indians” and called the western hemisphere a “new” world, a virgin land, and immediately set out to possess it in every sense of the word, to steal, violate and rape it, to enslave and kill its people, the “Indians” they called savages. The Europeans came with two ideas quite strange to this “new” world, Abya Yala, Turtle Island, later called “America:” 1) that they held the one and single truth of divinity and 2) that the Earth belonged to humankind — and so they took the land with sword and cross forcing the native people they did not kill to convert to Christianity, most ironically in the name of the invaders’ one, abstract god’s avatar, a young revolutionary rabbi, Yeshua (from whose birth they reckoned time,) who had taught love and compassion, justice and peace.
The European invaders took the land, murdering “Indians” with the gun and the horse but mostly decimating them through the great pandemics the Europeans unwittingly brought with them killing between 10 million and 100 million people, up to 95% of the indigenous population of Abya Yala, the Americas.
Very soon following the invasion of Abya Yala and coinciding with colonization, the economics of Europe was mercantilism that held that wealth was in profitable trade regulated by the crown. With most of the native population decimated by disease and murder, the need for labor in mining, clearing forests, and large-scale farming was needed. Much of the wealth of the Americas was in labor-intensive crops: sugar cane, coffee, cocoa, hemp, tobacco, cotton and the need for cheap labor was met by the importation of slaves from Africa in the beginning of the 17th century. African people, traded for or captured by slave traders, were brought to the Americas and slave trade, its greatest cost being the intense suffering and great death toll of the enslaved Africans, arguably became the most profitable trade of the time.
Two fundamental premises of European belief were 1) that mankind was created in the image of their one patriarchal god and 2) that their god had given mankind mastery over the other creatures (including woman) and had charged him to subdue the Earth. For the European to justify the enslavement of other humans and treat them as cattle, as a commodity, they had to be made “other,” closer to the other animals decreed by their god to be mastered. So subsequently with the growth of capitalism, and especially the Atlantic slave trade, the concept of racism (the belief that some groups of humans are superior to others, that the fair-skinned are superior to the dark-skinned group) arose in the late 18th century.
Mercantilism morphed into capitalism, private ownership of production and trade independent from control by the crown. In practical terms, it means private ownership and unbridled rape of the Earth as merely a source of raw material to be extracted and made into consumable products by cheap labor, slavery in whatever form, for the profit of the capitalist (the owner.) It is the economics of empire. Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations was published in 1776. Thirteen of Britain’s wealthiest colonies in North America declared independence from Britain and the crown that same year claiming Enlightenment ideals of liberty undermined by private greed and the possession of slaves as if of cattle. The reasons for breaking from Britain were more economic than moral.
Thomas Jefferson, writer of the Declaration of Independence, son of the Enlightenment, exemplifies the conflicted consciousness of many a European-American. In Jefferson’s “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” there is an echo of John Locke’s, one of the chief thinkers behind what was to be called capitalism, “life, liberty, and property.” But Jefferson did felicitously write “happiness,” a state not necessarily dependent on property and wealth. And in his original draft, he accused the British king of waging “cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisp[h]ere.” A colleague, Benjamin Franklin, so as not to alienate the slave-holding colonies, struck it from the declaration.
Jefferson owned slaves all his life, and slavery remained intact. The liberty lauded in the Declaration of Independence was limited to white males of certain wealth, not for women, nor “colored” men, nor the poor, and certainly not for the slave. From its beginning, the United States of America was patriarchal, imperialist, racist, capitalist, and governed by a plutocracy. The conflict between human and property rights plagues us to this day.
The Industrial Revolution, begun in England about 1760 with the mechanization of production and intensified with the invention of the cotton gin and the development of the steam engine and then the internal combustion engine for use in mining, the manufacture of cloth and other products, and transportation, and with slavery in the southern U.S. and labor at slave wages in England created great wealth for the owners of land and means of production who would pool their resources in corporations to maximize their wealth and their power — and went about ravaging of the Earth, clearing forests, damming rivers, leveling mountains for minerals, plundering prehistoric forests in the form of coal and oil harbored in Earth’s bowels to fuel wars and more plundering. The burning of the remains of the primeval forests blackened the cities like Manchester and London combining its famous fog with its infamous smoke into smog poisoning the air and warming the atmosphere. And lung diseases and others ran rampant. This they called “Progress.”
Eighty-eight years after the Declaration of Independence, the conflicted consciousness of the young country came to a head with a bloody civil war over the issue of slavery that threatened to sunder the union. The northern states won the war over the slave-owning southern states, the union was preserved, and the slaves were freed (though their citizenship and civil rights were mostly nominal.)
I have spoken of the U.S. and England only because they epitomize the modern empire. But other European nations powered by the industrial revolution also invaded, conquered, plundered, and colonized the Americas, Africa, Asia, Polynesia, Australia. It is a history of the murder and displacement of indigenous peoples and the taking of their lands, of war, and the degradation of the Earth.
Much has been made of the “American Dream” popularly understood as the dream that anyone in the U.S. could achieve, especially by working hard and becoming successful (attained wealth) thereby, it was assumed, attaining happiness. Ironically, the term (by which he meant something very different) was coined by an American historian in 1931 at the height of the Great Depression, product of the “Robber Baron” era of the late 1800s, the reckless speculation of capitalists, and the degradation of the mid-west prairies by mechanized agribusiness creating the “dust bowl” making great poverty and waves of migration of workers. The depression was dealt with aptly by one of the most sagacious presidents of the U.S., Franklin D. Roosevelt, with radical policies that remedied the excesses of capitalism and ended with a disastrous Second World War marked by a policy of genocide of the Jewish population by Nazi Germany and the criminal act of unnecessarily dropping two atomic bombs by the U.S. on Japan seventy-five years ago.
The world war that followed was called “The Cold War” because U.S. wars were not officially declared though wars continued. The need of industry to produce for war had created a powerful economic and political interest group, Military-Industrial Complex, which the Republican Pres. Eisenhower, a general and hero, warned was detrimental to democracy. Since the beginning of the nation, capitalism had been conflated with democracy and dissidents who questioned it were called treasonous, repressed and persecuted. One U.S. undeclared war was on a little south Asian country, Viet-Nam whose people were killed, forests were defoliated, rivers poisoned by bombs and chemicals. So unjustified, wasteful, and cruel was the hopeless U.S. war that a great majority of U.S. citizens rose in opposition and the war came to an end. There was hope of change but the reactionary element of the country came to power. The U.S. intervened in other countries, notably in Central and South America, subverted democratically elected governments that questioned predatory capitalism, and propped bloody dictatorships that in the name of fighting communism jailed, tortured, killed their people, and some, as in Guatemala, committed genocide of our indigenous people. Wars, for fossil oil, all justified as “self defense,” were waged in the Middle East destroying people and degrading the environment greatly increasing pollution and heating the atmosphere.
Such is the history that brought us to now and Globalization, the development of an increasingly integrated global economy marked especially by free trade, free flow of capital, and the tapping of cheaper foreign labor markets. There is where we are and the ultimate result is slavery in its modern form and the devastation of the Earth. Even a profoundly ignorant man, one who does not believe in science or even truth, one who cannot speak without lying will sometimes tell a truth. Trump, the fascistic 45th President of the United States, celebrating the 241st anniversary of U.S. Independence Day, said that “. . . we will protect and preserve [the] American way of life, which began in 1492 when Columbus discovered America.”
That date, I maintain, marks the beginning of the Anthropocene. It is the beginning of the imposition globally of the metaphysical myth of a patriarchal monotheism that posits humankind’s mastery of the Earth, its obligation to populate it, subdue it, master all other of its living creatures.
When the Europeans conquered us of Abya Yala, the Americas, our conquerors were not only the soldiers but also the missionaries. We were forced to convert to their beliefs, our cultures, our traditions were denigrated and the new cosmology so strange to us was imposed upon us. Our myths and ideas of the divine were male and female, our cosmologies did not reduce the Earth and its creatures to mere commodities for the use of us humans. Many of our creator deities were female, most of them if not all, personifications of the Earth. We recognized our relationship to the other animals, and to the plants, and to inanimate beings, as our kindred and helpers, our teachers. Mountains and lakes and springs were holy. The Earth was sacred, our Mother, Pachamama, Tonantzin. As one of our elders, Chief Seattle, told the invaders, “The Earth does not belong to man; man belongs to the Earth.”
Many of our indigenous cultures were destroyed, our languages lost, our wisdom denied or unheard. Our indigenous peoples have lived for millenniums in harmony with the Earth, with our fellow creatures, our relations, the other animals and plants, and we disturbed little the natural order of things. There is much that they have to teach us. And we must learn to listen.
Myths are important; our myths set the metaphysics by which we relate to the Earth and one another. They form our reality. Even if we do not know our myths, even if we may repudiate them, they still have formed the matrix of our culture and our society and they form more-often-than-not the unconscious premises of our values and institutions that determine how we live our lives, relate to one another, to the Earth.
The greatest power of conquest of the new world may not have been the soldier but the missionary who replaced our myths, our beliefs, with those of Europe, telling us that what mattered was an imagined existence beyond death. The Earth was but a valley of tears through which we passed on our way to the beyond. And, as a friend who was related to the royal family of Hawai’i said to me of the missionaries: “They said, these wooden figures are not gods, pointed up to the sky and said, there is your god, we fools looked up, and they took all our land.”
Since the middle of the last century, the term “decolonization” has gained much currency. What it refers to is the breaking away of the colonies of the empires and the forming of independent states. But as it is being used more and more, it refers to the “decolonization” of the mind, liberation of our indigenous minds from the brain-washing of colonialism. I, of both Mexican Indian and Spanish blood (and for all I know, African) born into a traditional Mexican Catholic family, can attest to the difficulty of the task. But be assured that the conquest of Abya Yala has by no means been completed; the five hundred twenty eight years of conquest has also been five hundred twenty eight years of resistance. We have not gone away. By the same token, in this United States, the war to abolish slavery has not yet been completely won either. Our brothers and sisters of African ancestry to this day are discriminated against and murdered at the hands of the police. The virulence of racism is much ingrained in the culture of the nation, inherited from colonialism and the economics of empire. It is a sickness that, like patriarchy, must be overcome.
I have painted with a broad and select brush a history complex and nuanced. (I will leave it to a Howard Zinn to tell the history that I have not touched upon.) I have focused on the United States of America because that is where I was born and live and because it is the foremost modern empire. I recognize that many of our European brothers and sisters who came to these shores and many of their descendants have been and are of good consciousness and have struggled and do struggle to create a world that is compassionate and just and honors the Earth that holds it. It has always been so since the “discovery of a new World” with such as Fray Bartolomé de las Casas and gains have gradually been made to make democracy in the Americas. In the U.S. in my mother’s lifetime women gained the right to vote. In my lifetime our brothers and sisters of African descent gained their civil rights even in the former “slave states” of the South where racism has been most virulent. The right of labor to organize has been a continual struggle with gains to be counted. Gains, too, have been made by our brothers/sisters who differ from the traditional norms in sexuality and gender. Much of those gains have been at great cost of struggle and pain to be sure and we have our martyrs, foremost among them the great visionary and prophet Martin Luther King Jr. (whose dream, by the way, shares many of the elements of “The American Dream” of the historian who coined the term.) Martin Luther King Jr. was a man of the cloth who understood and followed the teachings of Yeshua of Nazareth. His was very much a theology of liberation.
I write in the isolation forced upon me by the threat of a deadly disease made even more deadly by the policies of a government headed by men who have dropped all pretense of democracy or justice or compassion, indeed of decency — the poisonous bloom of unbridled capitalism, fascists. The policies of capitalist empire have torn the world with continuous war and concentrated the wealth in the hands of a few creating famine and violence for the many. The effects of reckless violation of the Earth has caused her to become feverish and changed her climate. Great numbers of our brothers and sisters are displaced fleeing violence and poverty and homes devastated by the effects of that climate change. They come to seek asylum to the borders of the wealthy nations whose policies are the very cause of their fleeing only to be jailed and their children caged. My heart is often heavy and I struggle with sadness. (Yes, and with rage.)
But also there is great awakening and my brothers and sisters of good heart and consciousness flood the streets at great risk of infection to demand justice for our African American brothers and sisters and for everyone and for protection of the Earth. They are met with violence, guns and tear gas and clubs by the military sent by the fascist POTUS Trump — day after day. And my brothers and sisters protesting make my heart glad and hopeful and proud. And we make our revolution of mind and of heart for justice rooted in compassion, for peace, for the Earth, for life. But the violence directed against them by federal military and by local police promises a repressive police state and makes me sick with fear as POTUS 45 and his party openly undermine the coming elections. We must continue to take to the streets in protest.
On occasion I don my mask and walk in the ‘hood. It makes me sad to see my neighbors masked and careful to keep their distance, see their smiles only in their eyes. To us human mammals accustomed to the pack, for whom the first communication is the touch, to be denied the kiss, the embrace, even the shaking of hands is a violation of our nature. I wonder what effect it will have on those of us who survive, on our children, our species. But it is summer and the sun is bright, the flowers a riot of color and of scent, and the bees go about their business, butterflies flit about, the birds fly and sing. The Earth and the life she bears are beautiful and precious beyond measure — our revolution is of fierce love that must at all costs prevail. Now.
To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places – and there are so many – where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.
~ Howard Zinn
Rafael Jesús González, Prof. Emeritus of literature and creative writing, was born and raised biculturally/bilingually in El Paso, Texas/Cd. Juárez, Chihuahua, and taught at University of Oregon, Western State College of Colorado, Central Washington State University, University of Texas El Paso (Visiting Professor of Philosophy), and Laney College, Oakland, California where he founded the Dept. of Mexican & Latin-American Studies. Also visual artist, he has exhibited in the Oakland Museum of California, the Mexican Museum of San Francisco, and others in the U.S. and Mexico. Nominated thrice for a Pushcart prize, he was honored by the National Council of Teachers of English and Annenberg CPB for his writing in 2003. In 2013 he received a César E. Chávez Lifetime Award and was honored by the City of Berkeley with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 13th Annual Berkeley Poetry Festival 2015. He was named the first Poet Laureate of Berkeley in 2017. Visit <http://rjgonzalez.blogspot.com/>