Take a moment out of the beautiful fall day to mourn the passing of the biosphere. It seems to have barely registered on the global hive mind that the Arctic sea ice melted this year to an extent never seen before. In a matter of years, not decades, there will be no ice in the Arctic in summer. A world without a North Pole. A biosphere that no longer plays out according to its own rhythm and time but has become a by-product of the capitalist profit/loss cycle.
People often say this is too depressing to think about because it’s so overwhelming. Let’s try and come at it through a single detail. And get angry, not sad.
A scientist from the National Snow and Ice Data Center tried to document the change in the Arctic by measuring ice floes, pieces of ice floating in the sea.
She was unable to find one sufficiently dense to support her weight. In the nineteenth century, when British whaling ships went to exactly the same region of the Arctic, near Spitsbergen (Svalbard in Norwegian, as in the map), the ice was so dense and heavy that they moored their ships on ice floes. They would then use chains to lift whales out of the water to strip their blubber, while counterbalanced with the ice.
Visually, in a century we have gone from here, a whaling ship trapped in the ice with other ships operating nearby:
to here, a former whaling site in the summer of 2012, the whaling season:
This isn’t long in human time. In what used to be geological time, it’s too short to measure. Capitalist time has now eliminated geological time, it’s extinct. This wasn’t supposed to happen until 2050 or later, according to projections made only five years ago.
The cause is the same as that which led the whalers to the Arctic in the first place: the relentless autoimmune destructive force of capitalism’s need for energy. Whalers first hunted commercially in the Bay of Biscay in the sixteenth century. Soon, the animals were extinct there. They turned to walruses and eliminated them. By the late eighteenth century an Arctic whaling boom was in full swing, as whale oil could be used in the textile and lighting industries. So the whales died to keep factories open after dark, as the oil produced by Arctic whales was low quality compared to sperm whale oil. The shift, the working day and the concept of separating time into “work” time and “leisure” time are by-products of the human conquest of diurnal time and space.
By the late nineteenth century, Arctic whales had disappeared in turn and the British industry went fallow for a few decades. Another time we’ll think about whaling as the first paradigm for globalization. The remnant of all this destruction is the continuing Norwegian insistence on hunting whales, despite their extensive oil reserves.
The message of the open Arctic is clear. Capitalism is constitutively incapable of restraining itself. It cannot be reformed or regulated in its quest for energy, as indicated by the insane efforts of governments and corporations to use the melting in the Arctic to drill for more oil. Its only measure of time is the profit cycle, which must always move forward and always creates “externalities,” such as the death of the biosphere.
So don’t mourn the biosphere: organize. It’s time.