The Age of Mammals
Looking Back on the First Quarter of the Twenty-First Century
By Rebecca Solnit
[For Solomon Solnit (b. Oct. 18, 2006)]
The View from the Grass
I've been writing the year-end other-news summary for Tomdispatch since 2004; somewhere around 2017, however, the formula of digging up overlooked stories and grounds for hope grew weary. So for this year, we've decided instead to look back on the last 25 years of the twenty-first century -- but it was creatures from sixty million years ago who reminded me how to do it.
The other day, I borrowed some kids to go gawk with me at the one thing that we can always count on in an ever-more unstable world: age-of-dinosaur dioramas in science museums. This one had the usual dramatic clash between a tyrannosaurus and a triceratops; pterodactyls soaring through the air, one with a small reptile in its toothy maw; and some oblivious grazing by what, when I was young in another millennium, we would have called a brontosaurus. Easy to overlook in all that drama was the shrew-like mammal perched on a reed or thick blade of grass, too small to serve even as an enticing pterodactyl snack. The next thing coming down the line always looks like that mammal at the beginning -- that's what I told the kids -- inconsequential, beside the point; the official point usually being the clash of the titans.
That's exactly why mainstream journalists spent the first decade of this century debating the meaning of the obvious binaries -- the Democrats versus the Republicans, McWorld versus Global Jihad -- much as political debate of the early 1770s might have focused on whether the French or English monarch would have supremacy in North America, not long before the former was be beheaded and the latter evicted. The monarchs in all their splashy scale were the dinosaurs of their day, and the eighteenth-century mammal no one noticed at first was named "revolution"; the early twenty-first century version might have been called "localism" or maybe "anarchism," or even "civil society regnant." In some strange way, it turned out that windmill-builders were more important than the U.S. Senate. They were certainly better at preparing for the future anyway.
That mammal clinging to the stalk had crawled up from the grassroots where the choices were so much more basic and significant than, for instance, the one between fundamentalism and consumerism that was on everyone's lips in the years of the Younger George Bush. If the twentieth century was the age of dinosaurs -- of General Motors and the Soviet Union, of McDonald's, globalized entertainment networks, and information superhighways -- the twenty-first has increasingly turned out to be the age of the small.
You can see it in the countless local-economy projects -- wind-power stations, farmer's markets, local enviro organizations, food coops -- that were already proliferating, hardly noticed, by the time the Saudi Oil Wars swept the whole Middle East, damaging major oil fields, and bringing on the Great Gasoline Crisis of 2009. That was the one that didn't just send prices skyrocketing, but actually becalmed the globe-roaming container ships with their great steel-box-loads of bottled water, sweatshop garments, and other gratuitous commodities.
The resulting food crisis of the early years of the second decade of the century, which laid big-petroleum-style farming low, suddenly elevated the status of peasant immigrants from what was then called "the undeveloped world," particularly Mexico and Southeast Asia. They taught the less agriculturally skilled, in suddenly greening North American cities, to cultivate the victory gardens that mitigated the widespread famines then beginning to sweep the planet. (It also turned out that the unwieldy and decadent SUVs of the millennium made great ecological sense, but only if you parked them facing south, put in sunroofs and used the high-windowed structures as seed-starter greenhouses.) The crisis spelled an end to the epidemic of American obesity, both by cutting calories and obliging so many Americans to actually move around on foot and bike and work with their hands.
Bush, the Accidental Empire Slayer
For a brief period, in the early years of that second decade of this chaotic century, a whole school of conspiracy theorists gained popularity by suggesting that Bush the Younger was actually the puppet of a left-wing plot to dismantle the global "hyperpower" of that moment. They pointed to the Trotskyite origins of the "neoconservatives," whose mad dreams had so clearly sunk the American empire in Iraq and Afghanistan, as part of their proof. They claimed that Bush's advisors consciously plotted to devastate the most powerful military on the planet, near collapse even before it was torn apart by the unexpected Officer Defection Movement, which burst into existence in 2009, followed by the next year's anti-draft riots in New York and elsewhere.
The Bush administration's mismanagement of the U.S. economy, while debt piled up, so obviously spelled the end of the era of American prosperity and power that some explanation, no matter how absurd, was called for -- and for a while embraced. The long view from our own moment makes it clearer that Bush was simply one of the last dinosaurs of that imperial era, doing a remarkably efficient job of dragging down what was already doomed. If you're like most historians of our quarter-century moment, then you're less interested in the obvious -- why it all fell -- than in discovering the earliest hints of the mammalian alternatives springing up so vigorously with so little attention in those years.
Without benefit of conspiracy, what Bush the Younger really prompted (however blindly) was the beginning of a decentralization policy in the North American states. During the eight years of his tenure, dissident locales started to develop what later would become full-fledged independent policies on everything from queer rights and the environment to foreign relations and the notorious USA-Patriot Act. For example, as early as 2004-2007, several states, led by California, began setting their own automobile emissions standards in an attempt to address the already evident effects of climate change so studiously ignored in Washington.
In June of 2005, mayors from cities across the nation unanimously agreed to join the Kyoto Protocol limiting climate-changing emissions -- a direct rejection of national policy -- at a national meeting in Seattle. Librarians across the country publicly refused to comply with the USA-Patriot Act, and small towns nationwide condemned the measure in the years before many of those towns also condemned what historians now call the U.S.-Iraq Quagmire.
It was the bullying of the Bush administration that pushed these small entities to fight back, to form local administrations and set local regulations -- to leave the Republic behind as they joined the journey to a viable future. And when their withdrawal was finished, so was the Republic.
Now, the thousands of tons of high-level radioactive waste that pro-nuclear-reactor Washington policies had brought into being are buried in the granitic bedrock underlying the former capital -- known as the Nuclear Arlington in contrast with the Human Arlington to the south, which will receive the remains of a few more nostalgic officers from the Gulf Wars, then close for good. The whole history of armament, radioactive contamination, disarmament, and alternative energy research is on display in the museum housed in the former Supreme Court Building, though many avoid the area for fear of radiation contamination.
In hindsight, we all see that the left-right divide so harped upon in that era was but another dinosaur binary. After all, small government had long been (at least theoretically) a conservative mantra as was (at least theoretically) left-wing support for the most localized forms of "people power" -- and yet neither group ever pictured government or people power truly getting small enough to exist as it does today, at its most gigantic in bioregional groups about the size of the former states of Oregon or Georgia -- but, of course, deeply enmeshed in complex global webs of alliances. All this was unimagined in, for instance, the dismal year of 2006.
By the time the Republican Party itself split in 2012 into two adversarial wings dubbed the Fundament party and the Conservatives, the American Empire was dismantling itself. Of course, the United States still nominally exists -- we'll pay a bow to it this year at the Decolonization Day fireworks on July 4 -- but it is a largely symbolic entity, like the British Royal Family was for a century before its dissolution in 2020.
A similar death-of-the-dinosaurs moment was at work in the mainstream media -- the big newspapers and television networks of that era. During the early years of the century, as Bush the Younger dragged the country deeper into the mire of unwinnable wars and countless lies, most of the big newspapers and television news programs lost their nerve, their edge, or even their eyesight, and failed dismally to report the stories that mattered. Some fell to scandal -- the New York Times was never the same after the Judith Miller crisis of 2005. Some were sabotaged from without, like the Los Angeles Times, undercut by its parent corporation's "cost-cutting" programs. Some withered away as younger readers fled paper pages for the Internet. But behind them, below them, in their shadow, regarded as puny and insignificant back then -- even though their scoops kept upstaging and prodding the print media -- were bloggers, alternative media such as small magazines and websites, the glorious Indymedia movement, progressive radio, even the text-messaging that had helped organize the first great Latino march of the immigrant rights movement at its beginnings in April 2006.
The Latin American Renaissance
The Latino-ization of the United States had brought some long missing civic engagement and pleasure back into public life and tied the country (and Canada) to the splendid insurgencies of the southern hemisphere. The era of post-communist revolution that would explode from Tierra del Fuego to Tijuana in the second decade of the century is usually traced back to the entrance of Mexico's indigenous Zapatistas onto the world stage on January 1, 1994.
One bold reflection of a changing continent in those years was the election of progressive leaders -- including leftist Rafael Correa in Ecuador, Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Michele Bachelet in Chile, Luis Inacio Lula da Silva in Brazil, and Evo Morales of Bolivia, all by 2006 -- even eventually Alicia Ponce de Leon in Columbia in 2014, three years after U.S. war funding dried up (along with the America that paid for it). Chavez (president 1998-2013) termed this the Bolivarian Revolution.
As a group, they were not bad as national leaders then went, but one great blow against nationalism proved to be the British seizure of the former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1998 for crimes against humanity and his in-absentia trial in Spain, a saga that dragged on until the blood-drenched dictator's heart failed at the end of 2006. The new world is both more transnational and more local than the one it eclipsed, and nobody will ever be so beyond the reach of justice again. (Africans, for example, recovered from Swiss and offshore bank accounts the hundreds of billions of dollars stolen by their former dictators, which gave a huge boost to the fight against AIDS and desertification.)
Whatever the names of their leaders, the real force in Latin America -- and increasingly elsewhere -- would be in the grassroots activism that the Zapatistas heralded, which, in the view from 2026, clearly signaled the fading relevancy of nation-states. Latin indigenous movements, labor movements, neighborhood groups, worker-takeovers in Argentina's factories from 2001 onward, and the Argentinean ideology of horizontalidad (or horizontalism) that went with it, were just early signs of this development.
Like the regionalist policymaking entities of the United States, these movements undermined even progressive presidents to set more radical policies and grew to include many indigenous autonomous zones across the hemisphere. For example, in late 2006, the 8,000-member Achuar tribe (whose region spans what was once the Peru-Ecuador border) took hostage and defeated Peru's main oil and gas-extraction corporation in a mode of victorious resistance that would become increasingly common. In Mexico, the stolen presidential election of 2006 that resulted in the inauguration of PAN Party candidate Felix Calderon was the straw that broke the camel's back, so to speak. In the years to follow, the Second Mexican Revolution spread from Chiapas, Oaxaca, and Mexico City, slowly dissolving that nation into a network of populist regional strongholds. Seventeen of them reinstated a local indigenous language as their official tongue.
Global Justice and the Drowned Lands
The Latin American Renaissance also created a network of communities strong enough to take in some of the climate-change refugees from Central America and Southern Mexico, who fled both north and south, along with Sunbelt -- and what came to be called Swampbelt -- émigrés from the southern United States. The great population transitions thus went more smoothly in the western hemisphere than across the Atlantic, where Europeans engaged in escalating anti-Muslim confrontations before realizing that only immigration could prop up the economies of nations whose native-born, white-Christian populations were rapidly aging and, thanks to ultra-low birthrates, declining.
The end of those bloody squabbles is generally considered to have been marked by the election in 2020 of Chancellor Amira Goldblatt Al-Hamid by what was then only a loosely federated association of German-speaking bioregional principalities. Similar crises -- and, in some cases, bloody cross-community, cross-religion bloodlettings --took place elsewhere, especially as populations moved away from increasingly desertifying, ever hotter hot zones in Africa and Southern Asia. Some historians have regarded the devastating global bird-flu pandemic of 2013 as fortunate in relieving climate-change population-shift pressures; others -- including the noted historian Martha Moctezuma from the University of San Diego-Tijuana's Davis Center on Public Luxury -- discard that perspective as callous.
Every schoolchild now knows the Old Map/New Map system and can recite the lands that vanished: half the Netherlands, much of Bangladesh, the Amazon Delta, the New Orleans and Shanghai lowlands. And who today can't still sing the popular ditties about those famed "fundamentalists without their fundamentals" -- the senators who lost the state of Florida as it rapidly became a swampy archipelago. Most schoolchildren can also cite the World Court decision of 2016 that gave all shares in the major oil companies to Pacific Islanders, mainly resettled in New Zealand and Australia, whose homes had been lost to rising oceans (a short-lived triumph as the fossil-fuel economy ebbed away).
More creative responses to climate change included the tree-traveler and polar-bear collectives. These eco-anarchist clans -- now popular contemporary heroes -- first nursed plant populations on their unnatural journeys north by means of extensive rainy-season nursery cultivation and summer planting programs that have since become huge outdoor festivals. Today, many city parks and town squares have statues of Cleo Dorothy Chan, who organized the first small tree-traveler collective in southern Oregon and is now hailed globally as the twenty-first century's Johnny Appleseed. ("You can't choose between grief and exhilaration; they are the left and right foot on which we hike onward," said the t-shirts of the tree-travelers.) As for the polar-bear folks, they were initially a group of zoologists and circus trainers who, inspired by the tree-travelers, mobilized themselves to teach young polar bears to adapt to changed habitat. They are often credited with saving that one charismatic species in the wild, even as thousands of less emblematic ones vanished.
The Principles of Change
A mature oak tree always looks significant; and, when we look at it, we're willing to respect acorns -- but the rest of the time the seeds of the next big thing are just trodden upon and overlooked. The ideas that made our era and pulled us back from the brink, the stakes that went through the hearts of the dinosaurs and the more incremental forces that rendered them extinct were all at work in the 1990s. They just didn't look very impressive yet, and people were intimidated by the heft of those dinosaurs and swayed by their arguments.
The World Court and related human rights, environmental rights, and criminal courts became more powerful presences as the sun set on the era of nation-state. Multiple changes often combined into scenarios impossible to foresee: for example, the belated U.S. recognition in 2011 that the International Criminal Court did indeed have war-crimes jurisdiction over Americans coincided with the worldwide anti-incarceration movement. This explains why, for example, former President Bush the Younger, extradited from Paraguay and found guilty in 2013, was never imprisoned, but sentenced to spend the rest of his life working in a Fallujah diaper laundry. (People who are still bitter about his reign are bitter too that the webcam there suggests, even at his advanced age, he still enjoys this work that accords so well with his skill-set.) His assets -- along with those of his Vice President, and of Halliburton, Bechtel, Exxon, and other war profiteers -- were famously awarded to the Vietnamese Buddhist Commission for the Iraqi Transition. After almost a decade of the bitterest bloodshed, Iraq, too, had broken into five nations, but by this time so many nation-states were being reorganized into more coherent units that the Iraqi transition, led by the Women's Alliance of Islamic Feminists (nicknamed the Islamofeminists), was surprisingly peaceful when it finally came.
"As I've said many times, the future is already here. It's just not very evenly distributed," said the sci-fi novelist William Gibson in 1999. In retrospect, the arrival of the Age of Mammals should have been easy to foresee. On every front -- family structure and marriage, transportation, energy and food economies, localized power structures -- everyday life was being reinvented in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. From India to Indiana an interlocking set of new ideas began to emerge and coalesce, becoming in the end the new common sense that new generations of thinkers and activists were guided by. Who now thinks it's radical to advocate that decentralization is better than consolidated power, that capitalism's worldview is vicious and dishonest, that the public matters as much or more than the private, that enforced homogeneity is not a virtue either on a farm or in a society?
The basic tools were already in place long before our era; here and there, a few at a time, people picked them up and started building a better future. Some new inventions mattered, such as the super-efficient German and Japanese solar collectors and methane generators that revolutionized energy production, but much of the march toward a more environmentally sane future didn't require fancy scientific breakthroughs and technologies, just modesty. We scaled back on consumption and production. For example, the collapse of the U.S. military put an end to the world's single most polluting entity, while the near-end of recreational air travel also made a significant contribution to rolling back greenhouse-gas production.
The law of unintended consequences continued to prevail: When touristic air travel withered, so did Hawaii's tourist economy -- making the retaking of the islands by indigenous Hawaiians via the King Kamehameha Council a piece of cake. Of course sailing ships still travel the triangular trade-winds route between Latin America, Hawaii and the Pacific Northwest.
Everything was changing then, is changing now, and some years back the Principles of Change were codified. These simply recited the history of popular and nonviolent resistance from slave uprisings (Hochschild '05) and Gandhian tactics (Schell '03) to the principles of direct action (D. Solnit '09) and social change (see Marina Sitrin on horizontalism, '06) and drew the obvious conclusions about how change works, what powers civil society has, how war can be sabotaged from below, and why violence ultimately fails.
Believers in authoritarian power had prophesied a globalized world of corporate nation-states (and indeed the 2012 Olympics featured teams identified by branding rather than nation, such as the Dasani and Nokia track teams and the Ikea Decathaletes); but even as the polar bears survived, a different kind of change in the global climate doomed most of the large corporations. The outlawing of corporate personhood was launched in Porter Township, Pennsylvania, in December of 2002 and gradually became the law of the land.
By 2015, the "human rights" U.S. courts had given to corporations in the 1880s had been globally stripped away from them again. Of course, there were revolts against the new world -- just as the Republican dinosaurs led a long rearguard movement against women's rights, queer rights, the rights of the environment, and science education, so there were corporations that resisted the new order, most spectacularly when Arkansas was taken over wholesale by Wal-Mart for seventeen months in the early teens.
The heavily armed Arkansans rose up, Wal-Mart's private army changed sides, and what was once the world's biggest corporation joined the dung-heap of history along -- most famously -- with Monsanto, derailed by the Schmeiser verdict, the precedent-setting World Court decision to award all assets in the genetic-engineering corporation to small farmers previously terrorized for not paying royalties on crops contaminated by Monsanto's genetically altered strains. Failed presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who had been appointed ambassador to the United States from the Republic of Wal-Mart, was sentenced to three years as a sweeper at an Arkansas farmer's market and became locally beloved in the role.
In the American Middle East (known as the Midwest until modern geographers pointed out that the west starts at the Continental Divide), sectarian feuding, which kept the region in a state of subdued civil war for almost a decade, still flares up occasionally. Periodic sorties by the Fundaments against new programs and lifestyles are considered part of normal life, though Kansas's John Brown Society provides a degree of protection against them.
The Republic of Northern Idaho was another outpost of different-sex-only marriage laws and creationism, but the need to work with downriver communities on salmon restoration and dam removal eventually dissolved the breakaway half-state into the Columbia River Drainage federation. Other historians claim that the tattooed love freaks of the Seattle region, who found common ground with the ex-truckers and elk-hunters of Idaho, dissolved the Idahoan Republic via bicycle races and beer fests. Some also say the same-sex desires of elk hunters were legendary and led to negotiations for a direct rail link to San Francisco and Los Angeles.
In 1996, the Pentagon prepared imaginary scenarios describing five potential futures by 2025. Most of them were based on the belief that a better world was one dominated by American military power -- which is to say, by the threat of state violence. That they came up with five possible futures demonstrated, at least, how wide-open the next two decades seemed, even to a Tyrannosaurus-Rex bureaucracy that thought it was soon to own the planet.
Some of their technological, corporate, and militaristic futures could have come to pass. Had people not come to believe strongly enough in their own power, in a horizontalist society, and in a planet-wide ability to work with the environmental changes the Industrial Age had loosed on us, we might be living in a very different, unimaginably catastrophic world -- one in which the mammals would never have proliferated. They might even have breathed their last without ever emerging from under the fern fronds and out of the grasses.
The future, of course, is not something you predict and wait for. It is something you invent daily through your actions. As Mas Kodani, a Buddhist in Los Angeles, said in the early twenty-first century: "One does not stand still looking for a path. One walks; and as one walks, a path comes into being." We make it up as we go, and we make it up by going, or as the Zapatistas more elegantly put it, "Walking we ask questions." What else can you do?
Perhaps respect the power of the small and the mystery of the future to which we all belong.
Rebecca Solnit lives in and loves the peninsular republic of San Francisco, where she is working on a new book. Her most recent books are still Hope in the Dark and A Field Guide to Getting Lost.
Copyright 2006 Rebecca Solnit