WELCOME TO THE CATASTROPHES ISSUE
You can make a pretty good argument that if you’re an apocalyptic you’re both fucked up and plugged into the zeitgeist. I was an apocalyptic kind of guy before I even understood what the word meant—some of my earliest obsessive interests involved books like All About Volcanoes and All About Earthquakes and movies like A Night to Remember—but that was in the early 60s, and as we all know from our radically abridged cultural histories, the shit didn’t hit the fan, in American terms, until the late 60s. So when I’m feeling good about myself, I can pretend I saw it all coming—I still take secret pride in the precocity of my childhood conviction, in the face of everything I read, that a catastrophic event of some sort had ended the Cretaceous—but when I’m being more honest, I have to ask myself some version of the question my long-suffering wife once asked me: What kind of person takes a history of the guillotine to the beach?
Well, the good news for people like me and the bad news for the rest of the world is that things are getting so fucked up that a worldview that sees disaster around every corner is starting to look a lot like a measured and sober understanding of the facts. Pick your poison—land, sea, or air—and try to think of an arena in which we don’t seem to be accelerating toward some pretty bad news. Accelerating because of our nature as human beings, which is to say in individual terms, the bad decisions we make each and every day, and in collective terms, our decision to have handed over our fate to global capital.
What to do about climate change? The toxification of our food? The death of our oceans? These are all decisions we’ve turned over to ExxonMobil, Monsanto, and BP. And those companies have become as powerful as they are by having figured out how to game the system. Regulatory agencies, national and international, are now controlled by the very companies they’re supposed to be scrutinizing. And each industry, in pursuit of ever-greater profits, has installed as its primary value its definition of greater efficiency, which means ever-narrowing options and greater precariousness. So that now instead of thousands of local slaughterhouses, America has 13 megaplants, the perfect recipe for collecting lethal pathogens and spreading them far and wide. Now instead of shallow offshore drilling, our oil companies are drilling six miles down in water two miles deep, which means the chances of anything going wrong, then going catastrophically wrong, increase geometrically.
And the one agenda on which all of these corporations agree is that of doing away with what used to be known, quaintly, as the public’s right to know: They’ve come to understand that the kind of master-of-the-universe success they’re envisioning is as much about the control of information as it is control of the market. And that’s a nonpartisan agenda, worldwide. In the US, the progressive Obama administration—and you can supply your own air quotes around progressive—has been timid and tentative about everything but going after whistleblowers.
As more and more is systematically hidden from us, there’s less and less chance that we—or anyone—will be able to intervene in time to prevent disasters. If a crucial step involved in growing older is understood to be the recognition that loss is the seminar in which we’re all going to be enrolled, the collective version of that understanding in the 21st century might be that catastrophe is the seminar in which we’re all going to be enrolled. We have a lot of Deepwater Horizons ahead of us.
JIM SHEPARD, Guest Editor