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The Browning of the World

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There are a lot of seemingly disparate things happening at various levels of scale in the world outside my window these days. But there is one color that describes them more than any other.

My world is browning. As deserts grow and forests shrink, as smog, soot and dust clouds fill the skies horizon to horizon, as average heat levels (represented by yellows, oranges and browns on maps where they are most intense) increase, you start to see that color everywhere, eating away at the greens and blues of our old picture of the planet. What is the color of drought, which has struck the place where I live with an intensity not seen for 500 years? Brown. What is the color of oil slicks on oceans and chemical spills in rivers and mudslides on denuded hills? Brown. What is the color from space of barren ranges that were once clothed in glaciers and yearlong snows? Of flooded rivers filled with the irreplaceable topsoil, thousands of years old, which washes into them every year from giant monoculture farms? Brown. Our gentle euphemism for the toxic waste dumps that fester at the edges of cities and towns is "brownfields."

The world's human population is browning too. Northern European and European American populations, never a majority in the world, are losing even the percentage share they once had, while overall their proportion of the world's income and consumption of its resources remains grossly, disproportionately large. But the ranks of global billionaires are browning as well, for whatever you think that's worth (it's currently worth about as much for the 2100 of them as what 2 billion of the rest of us possess). And the mostly white middle class, shrinking in my country, is growing in many others, like India, China, and Brazil, while desperate poverty there is shrinking - for the time being.

There was a bumper sticker I saw once: The Meek Will Inherit the Earth  When It Is No Longer of Any Value. The background was a cratered moonscape, from which a rocket was taking off.

I read a lot about decline in environmentalist quarters these days, but I feel what is meant in some of them is not just the decline of biodiversity, forest ecosystems, coral reefs or arctic ice but some kind of generalized Spenglerian societal decline - and this makes me suspicious. Spengler and Malthus, European misanthropists who hated the mob and feared the poor, haunt the writings of the mostly middle class white men who today write eco-survivalist and Peak Oil blogs, even if they dare not speak their names. They haunt the cheerful doomsaying of James Lovelock, who has conveniently decided that world will inevitably descend into barbarism by the end of this century, primarily because the world's peoples are not smart enough to do what he says they should, and throw up nuclear reactors in every backyard. I must wonder what he means by barbarism, when I look at everything from consumerism to mass incarceration to constant war - things which are fundamental to the civilization he thinks we should preserve.

James Howard Kunstler, nowhere near as bright as Lovelock, is our American equivalent; he likewise keeps predicting imminent, terminal societal collapse (which he often muddles with economic collapse, when example after example - Russia, Thailand, Mexico, Argentina, even the US - shows they are not the same). He also fears the mob and has an old school nativist's hyperventilated picture of dark-skinned peoples' innate barbarity.    


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