climate crisis Tom Engelhardt

Tom Engelhardt: An Obituary for Our World

Give Vladimir Putin full credit. His invasion of Ukraine helped take our minds off climate change at the worst possible moment (so far), even as his war only increases the level of greenhouse gases heading into the atmosphere.
The 2021 Shell Fire in in southern Kern County, California. [Russ Allison Loar / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 ]

By Tom Engelhardt | TomDispatch

Oddly enough, I’ve read obituaries with fascination from the time I was quite young. And yet, in all these years, I’ve never really reflected on that fact. I don’t know whether it was out of some indirect fascination with death and the end of it all or curiosity about the wholeness (or half-ness or brokenness) of an individual life in full. But here’s the odd thing: in all that time — put it down to the charm of youth or, later, perhaps a lingering sense of youthfulness or, at least, agelessness — I never really thought about my own obituary. Like so many of us when younger, I simply couldn’t imagine my own death. Against all reason, it seemed strangely inconceivable.

Now, at 78, I find that obituaries are again on my mind — and not just because people I knew are being featured in them all too often these days or for that other all-too-obvious reason, which I hardly need to spell out here. As a matter of fact, if you put my last name or yours into a search engine, you may be surprised at how many obituaries come up. It turns out, in fact, that Engelhardts have been dying for centuries now.

After all, the one obituary you can’t really have is your own; at least, not unless you decide to write it yourself or you’re so well known that a newspaper obit writer interviews you as one of the “pre-dead” while you’re still kicking. Of course, for the best known among us, such pieces, as at the New York Times, are prepared and written well in advance because the one thing we do know, whether we think about it or not, accept it or not, is that we all will indeed die.

Nuclear Winter or a Climate-Change-Induced Nuclear Summer?

Let’s not be shy. If there’s one word that comes to mind (mine anyway) at the moment, it’s madness. And no, believe it or not, I’m not even thinking about Donald Trump or the crazed crew of election deniers, QAnon conspiracy believers, and white nationalists who have become the essence of the Republican Party and may sweep to victory, at least in the House of Representatives, only days from now. And no, neither am I thinking about the Trumpist-leaning Supreme Court that might single-handedly (or perhaps hand in hand with all too many voters on November 8th) send us even further down the road to autocracy or at least to an eternally Republican-controlled mania-ocracy.

From the time we left our Neanderthal cousins in the dust, the story of humanity is tens of thousands of years old; and our history — you know, since we first began herding other creatures, raising crops, and arming ourselves to the teeth — is thousands of years old. In all those eons, we discovered so many things, both uplifting and down-thrusting. But perhaps, looking back (if, given our present circumstances, anyone’s even bothering), the most remarkable thing may be that we discovered — once quite purposely and once without at first even noticing that we’d done so — two different ways to do ourselves in. And, believe me, I’m using that word advisedly, given the Elizabethan moment that passed only recently, leaving so many of us watching a “news” spectacle that was her obituary and nothing else but that for what seemed like ever and a day. Now, of course, the former British queen is gone not just from our world but from that news cycle, too. Not a trace of her remains. Nothing, it seems, lasts long these days, Donald Trump aside. And if things continue to go ever wronger on this planet of ours — and I wouldn’t Truss (joke, joke) that they won’t — it’s possible that she could indeed prove to be the last queen.

As I’m sure you already know, those two discoveries I’m thinking about are nuclear weapons and climate change. Each of them should be on all our minds right now for reasons almost too obvious to enumerate. Our own president recently chatted privately with Democratic Party donors about the possibility that we might indeed face “Armageddon” (his word, not mine) for the first time since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. That would be thanks to Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and the Russian president’s threat (“this is not a bluff“) to use nuclear weapons for, as he himself pointed out, the first time since the United States ended World War II by obliterating the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In a sense, however, whether Putin ever uses those “tactical” nuclear weapons or not, he has, in his own uniquely deplorable fashion, already nuked this planet. His decision to invade Ukraine and, after an eight-month disaster (including the especially dangerous occupation of a Ukrainian nuclear power plant), only increase the level of destruction, while evidently looking for no off-ramp whatsoever, has sent energy politics in the worst possible direction. Some desperate European countries have already turned back to coal power; militaries are burning ever more fossil fuels; gas prices have been soaring globally; and what modest attention was focused on the broiling of this planet and the very idea of the major powers cooperating to do anything about it now seems like a fantasy from some past universe.

It evidently doesn’t matter that a combination of fearsome monsoons and growing glacial melt flooded one-third of Pakistan in an unparalleled fashion; that record heat and drought was last summer’s reality across much of the northern hemisphere; that Hurricane Ian only recently leveled parts of Florida in what should have been, but given where we’re heading, won’t be a once-in-500-year fashion; that a mainstream website like Politico can now refer to our country as “the United States of Megadrought“; or that rivers from the Yangtze to the Mississippi are drying up in a historic manner. Worse yet, that’s just to start down a far longer list of climate horrors. And I almost forgot to mention that the giant fossil-fuel companies continue to live on another planet from the rest of us. Call it profit heaven.

Returning to the subject of obituaries, you could, of course, have written a group one for the approximately one billion sea creatures that died last summer, thanks to a record heat wave on Canada’s Pacific coast, or another based on the recent report that, since 1970, the population of fresh-water species on this planet has fallen by a startling 83%. In fact, if you’re in an obituary-writing mood and thinking of the pre-dead, don’t forget the emperor penguin. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, that classic creature is threatened with extinction by the end of this century thanks to the increasing loss of the sea ice it needs to exist on a fast-warming planet.

So, give the Vlad full credit. His invasion of Ukraine refocused the attention of the world on that other way we’ve come up with to do ourselves in, those nuclear weapons. In short, he’s helped take our minds off climate change at the worst possible moment (so far), even as his war only increases the level of greenhouse gases heading into the atmosphere. Well done, Mr. President!

I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn then that, according to a recent United Nations report, of the 193 nations which, in 2021, agreed to step up their efforts to fight climate change, only 26 have followed through so far (and even some of those in an anything but impressive fashion). In other words, our future — should we ever get there — will be blistering. The Earth is now on track to warm not by the 1.5 degrees Celsius the 2015 Paris climate accord made its ultimate temperature, but a potentially broiling 2.1 to 2.9 degrees Celsius by century’s end.

Even before the Ukraine war began, the powers that be were paying all too little attention to how we could do ourselves (and so many other species) in by overheating the planet. Worse yet, the major powers of the old Cold War were already “modernizing” their nuclear arsenals — in the case of the United States, to the tune of more than a trillion dollars over the coming decades. That will include a mere $100 billion to create a “next generation” intercontinental ballistic missile dubbed the LGM-35A Sentinel, undoubtedly because it’s meant to stand guard over hell on earth. Meanwhile, the rising power on the planet, China, is rushing to catch up. And now, with a war underway in Europe, “dirty bombs” and far worse are seemingly back on the playing fields of history.

Here, I suspect, is the strangest thing of all. We now know that we’re quite capable of doing something humanity once left to the gods — creating a genuinely apocalyptic future on this planet. With our weaponry, we already have the ability to induce a “nuclear winter” (in which up to five billion of us could starve to death) or, with greenhouse gases, to fry this planet in a long term way via, to coin a new phrase, a climate-change-induced nuclear summer.

And that — don’t you think? — should already have been game-changing information.

And yet, despite the Greta Thunbergs of this world when it comes to climate change, these days there are no significant equivalents to her or, say, 350.org or the Sunrise Movement when it comes to nukes. Worse yet, despite the growing green movement, the fact that we’re already in the process of making Earth an increasingly unlivable place seems not to have fazed so many of those in a position to run things, whether nationally or corporately. And that should stun us all.

An Ultimate Obit?

Give humanity credit. When it comes to our urge to destroy, we seem to see no limits, not even those of our own existence. I mean, if you really had the desire to write a communal obituary for us, one logical place to start might indeed be with the invasion of Ukraine at a time when the planet was already beginning to broil. Honestly, doesn’t it make you want to start writing obituaries not just for our individual selves, but for all of the pre-dead on a planet where the very idea of mass killings could, in our future, gain a new meaning?

And in that context, if you want to measure the madness of the moment, just imagine this: It’s quite possible that a political party largely taken over by that supreme narcissist, Donald Trump, the Me-Man of history, could win one or both houses of Congress in this country’s coming midterm elections and even the presidency again in 2024. Given that the U.S. is one of the planet’s two leading greenhouse gas emitters, that would, of course, help ensure a fossil-fuelized future hell. The Donald — like his authoritarian cohorts elsewhere — could be the ultimate god when it comes to our future destruction, not to speak of the future of so many other beings on this planet. Think of him and his crew as potentially the all-too-literal ultimate in (un)civilization.

After all these thousands of years — a long, long time for us but not for planet Earth — the question is: Should we aging types begin thinking not just about our own obituaries (“He was born on July 20, 1944, in New York City, on a planet engulfed in war….”) but humanity’s? (“Born in a cave with their Neanderthal and Denisovan cousins…”)

Everything, of course, ends, but it doesn’t have to end this way.  Yes, my obituary is a given, but humanity’s should be so much less so. Whether that proves true or not is up to us. When it comes to all of this, the question is: Who will have the last word?

Copyright 2022 Tom Engelhardt


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Tom Engelhardt created and runs the website TomDispatch.com. He is also a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of a highly praised history of American triumphalism in the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture.  A fellow of the Type Media Center, his sixth and latest book is A Nation Unmade by War.

17 comments

  1. What would US commentators do if Russia wasn’t around to blame everything on??
    Did the US play any part at all in this ongoing climate catastrophe that started well before
    Ukraine.

  2. All the talk about Putin and his invasion with no mention of the US coup in Ukraine in 2014 is so
    like the US corporate newsmedia and the usual Russiagate garbage kind of story. You might think
    for a moment that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was “unprovoked” in reading this.

  3. Although Putin was wrong to attack Ukraine, you seem to be placing much of the problems on him. How about mentioning the expansion of NATO starting in the early 90’s after promising that we wouldn’t do this. How about the US support of a 2014 coup in Ukraine which escalated tensions. Do you think backing Putin into a corner might have anything to do with his responses? How about the US stoping negations between Ukraine and Russia? What about the US wanting to prolong this war to “weaken Russia?” The US is the country with over 800 military bases throughout the globe, not Russia. We see ever problem as a nail and our ONLY tool is a hammer. Russia has many issues but the tone of your column makes it sound like they are responsible for almost every problem. Very possibly the whole Ukraine war could have been avoided if the US had not broken its promises about NATO expansion or backed a coup (one of many) in 2014.

  4. All evil Putin. As though the despicable engineering by the USA to use NATO to encroach on Russia’s borders nulling the USA’s agreement with Russia that NATO would not. And the same despicable engineering (a la Nuland et al) behind the 2014 removal of the Ukrainian democratically elected president and installation of a pro West – non-democratically elected – president. I’m a little surprised at Engelhardt’s omissions of this very important context. Isn’t truth served by understanding context and history? I was in my 20’s when Kennedy dealt with the Russian missiles on Cuba. The parallel is inescapable. Yes – Putin is a bad man. Is ex George W Bush a bad man for being the decider for the unilateral Iraq War using a lie for pretext? What was the total death count from that war? . As for Putin’s influence in our elections; how many times has the USA engineered coups around the world? how many countries does the USA have sanctions against? Who do these sanctions hurt the most- the elite or the people? I am neither a Putin babe nor a Biden babe. If you label me so, then you have zero understanding of the necessity of free speech (1st Amendment to the US Constitution) to a vibrant democracy. Authoritarians and oligarchs crush independent thought.Engelhardt’s serious omission of historical context leads readers to the easy projection of all evil on the “other” side. A notable aspect of the USA that is fed by this projection is that it never accepts responsibility for the acts of its shadow nor does it exact due justice from the corporate and Wall Street fraternity’s criminality – witness: Iraq War; Afghanistan War; Vietnam War; 2008 destructive crash with Wall St criminals given immunity and bonuses; to ……slavery; the almost annihilation of the indigenous peoples; ….

  5. Putin, ” evidently looking for no off-ramp whatsoever, has sent energy politics in the worst possible direction?”

    The author of this article’s source of information — disinformation actually — seems to be U.S. propaganda.

    I find this fascinating given that his article is posted on SheerPost, which, if he read it or followed any of the investigative journalists, historians, or retired intelligence or military analysts who publish here, would disabuse him of these silly beliefs with actual, factual information.

    1. The author seems also to leave indigenous people — the only people on this planet who know how to live on it — out of “humanity.”

      Eurasian humans, whom people indigenous to the Americans, Australia, and the Pacific undoubtedly fled tens of thousands of years ago, are a poor measure of humanity, as are Eurasian humans’ settler-colonial descendants who found them 700 years ago and almost wiped them out.

    2. When you listen to Bob Scheer, do you listen carefully with reasonable skepticism you’d have if he were not The Mighty Bob Scheer? Mark Twain noted, “If you give a man a reputation as an early riser he can sleep til noon.”

      This may be the case with Scheer, as I not only find consistently that he gives a platform to tired parrots of the status quo who kinda get it right but then get it wrong, but that in interviews he does the “old man ramble” off into the apocalyptic crap that people invoke when they don’t want to put their arguments in more realistic & reasonable terms, because; well you know, nothing is more important that you know the sky is falling.

      My point is that after a while, you’ll expect this out of Scheerpost, rather than be surprised.

  6. Blaming only Putin for the environmental impact of the war in Ukraine is utter bollocks. The US, the West more generally, and Ukraine bear significant responsibility for provoking the ground war in Ukraine. The energy sanctions on Russian oil and gas that are driving a significant return in the short term to coal in Europe were imposed by the West.

    Blowing up the Nord Stream 2 pipeline releasing ridiculous amounts of greenhouse gases directly into the atmosphere was almost certainly the result of Western sabotage. This will also have longer term environmental consequences in terms of substituting LNG from North America for cheaper, less costly to transport, Russian energy.

    As for the potential for “Armageddon”, Russia has a well defined military doctrine on the use of nuclear weapons. They will not use them unless someone else uses them first or the existence of Russia itself is in question. Contrast that with the American nuclear doctrine (recently revised) that allows for first use of nuclear weapons more or less at will.

    All in all, Englehardt’s “obituary” is a one-sided diatribe, lacking both the insight and the perspective one might hope a 78 year old could attain.

  7. It would be so nice when authors write about “Putin’s War” would be truthful about the American wars as well. Your wars are disgusting and there are never enough according to your politicians – so much money wasted instead of feeding/housing/educating citizens go into supporting your armaments industries and so many lives wasted throughout the world at the hands of American soldiers. But no. It’s always Putin this, Putin that – the man must be a hundred feet tall and breathes fire to be so all powerful. Whatever Putin and Russia or China, or Iran or whatever enemy du jour, it’s never look in the mirror, it’s always look elsewhere and make sure the global west never ever gets blamed. Yes, all our western based countries are more to blame than all the rest of the world’s peoples – for everything from wars to pollution. Let’s start being more honest.

  8. Joe Biden thanks Englehardt for his service. As Biden works hard to provoke both Russia and China, senselessly, insanely, setting the stage for nuclear world war, I wonder if it will have a negative impact on the environment…

  9. Tommy englehard upset that that the american war in ukraine has been terminated by Russia—that he sides w nazis is no surprise

  10. The somewhat delusional mental wanderings of an admittedly old man, who can’t write a lick and thus thinks that he has to use the T word six times in an essay not about that man. All this foisted on us because we tend to respect Bob Scheer.

    This is not right, it’s abuse of the viewer base. I’m moved in response to this abuse to invoke Caitlin Johnstone on John McCain and offer Tom Engelhardt this advice: “Just fucking die already.” And add, “Because you’re killing me.”

  11. Give Englehart a break, his worldview is crumbling. He’s not an empire propagandist but propagandized along with everyone else. Even Bob Scheer and his team, apparently. The Putin thing is so predictable, but taking the focus from climate remediation is silly. My favorite passage is the madness that may sweep Trump and his flying monkeys into power. Could it be declining material conditions regardless of which right wing donor beholden war party is or has been at the helm? Sheldon Wolin wrote about inverted totalitarianism. Hedges writes about it now. It is bad, Tom, but it’s not a mystery.

  12. excellent article!!!!!
    I immediately thought of Richard Dawkins book “The Extended Phenotype” where species have genetic behaviors, like beavers build dams. People have had a fascination with things that go “bang” since the beginning. and seem to be fanatic about building things ( like 200 story buildings ). Could these be basically in our genes?
    Also, I thought about the book By Profs Ehrlich , “The Population Explosion” in which they warned us about the dangers of overpopulating the planet. I bet you 99% of the people don’t know about these books. I even sent copies of the Ehrlichs’ book to Congressmen. They warn of the dire things that are happening now, with hardly anybody paying attention
    Excellent article
    Al Wilson
    Florence AZ

  13. Anna Wiener (Uncanny Valley: A Memoir): “Certain unflattering truths: I had felt unassailable behind the walls of power. Society was shifting, and I felt safer inside the empire, inside the machine. It was preferable to be on the side that did the watching than the side being watched.”

    Homer: “Hateful to me as the gates of Hades is that man who hides one thing in his heart and speaks another.”

    Mr. Engelhardt should know better than to regurgitate CIA talking points. Russia needed to defend their sisters and brothers in Ukraine suffering under ethnic cleansing and artillery genocide. Russians are saving the world once again from goose-stepping morons. Bandera Nazis come complete with their own Einsatzgruppen murdering anyone who doesn’t shout support for Nazi Lebensraum.

    Dr. Hunter S. Thompson: “…nobody now gives the United States any respect, apart from a handful of fascist Brits and that simpering little whore Tony Blair.”

    William Casey (CIA Director 1981 – 1987) “We’ll know our disinformation program is complete when everything the American public believes is false.” Casey uttered this definition of ultimate CIA success at Reagan’s first Cabinet meeting.

    US – NAYOYO deliberately did everything in its power to start this war with the intent of fatally weakening Russia. Every President and Congress has implemented this foreign policy since Carter and Brzezinski. Systematic actions included breaking every statement, assurance, promise and treaty made with Russia. It involves directly threatening legitimate Russian leadership and government. It involved training and arming Banderite Nazis, supporting their genocidal goals against every argument for peaceful settlement, even against their own government, leaders, and ‘democratic system’. US leadership turned their backs on decades of nuclear weapons treaties, putting the world at risk, along with Russia.

    GFW Hegel, The Philosophy of History, “What experience and history teaches us is that people and governments have never learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it.”

    US-NAYOYO wanted this war, wanted these self-defeating sanctions. They embraced both like porn stars, with reason and art appearing as seldom as love. US politicians will demonize Global South leaders for transparently selfish domestic political gain. Then attack their economies: by seizing hard won assets necessary for proper development and functioning of their economies; by excluding them from trade and financial networks; by punishing political, intellectual, business and arts leadership. It doesn’t matter how reasonable, loyal, or generous they have been in the past. Venezuela, Iran, and Mexico supported the Allies trough WWII with cheap, highly profitable crude oil. They received poverty, contempt, and death squads as reward.

    Jackie Robinson, 1972 biography: “I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world…I know that I never had it made.”

    Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, 1033: “We must make our choice. We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated int he hands of a few, but we can’t have both.”

    Eduardo Galeano: “My great fear is that we are all suffering from amnesia. It’s not a person. It’s a system of power that is always deciding in the name of humanity who deserves to be remembered and who deserves to be forgotten.”

    Its’s ironic that the White West has crippled itself by what Medvedev called our ‘cosmic cretinism’.

    Winston Churchill (1944): ”I have left the obvious, essential fact to this point, namely, that it is the Russian Armies who have done the main work in tearing the guts out of the [Nazi] army.”

  14. What a vacuous, one-sided, ill-informed article. About the only thing one can agree on is the dual threat to organized human life on our planet—nuclear war and climate change. To blame Russia and Putin solely for what has been an eight year NATO coup and proxy war against Russia, is to expose the idiocy of this author. In his illustrious 76 year-old wisdom, this man proves that ignorance knows no bounds.

  15. The commentary here is hilarious in a gallows humor sort of way. Upset by the author’s overly credulous take on the Ukrainian conflict, one that echos western characterizations too neatly, they breeze by the larger (and I would argue more important fact) that we’re all double-plus f***ed.

    In the past tense- we have already committed to mass extinction, a process begun with expansionist civilization and hyper accelerated by industrialization. And the commentariat is annoyed about Putin getting raw-dogged unfairly by a septuagenarian rather than focusing on the minor issue of ecological collapse happening around us.

    It’s a rather neat microcosm of the larger human tendency towards navel gazing tribalism while the house burns around us. Were we a sane species (use your imagination), all combatants in all conflicts would lay down their arms and mobilize a global effort to mitigate catastrophe, but no such luck from any side.

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