A few years ago, I read this cool report out of Northwestern University about an old, hidden, forgotten cemetery near downtown Chicago, underneath some of the most expensive and tony property in the city. This boneyard was the final resting spot of thousands, maybe tens of thousands, before it was forgotten, paved over, and built upon. Skyscrapers and artisanal donut shops linger with a sneering assumption of permanence over a Potter’s Field.
It’s weird, the things our civilization leaves behind. The past, when it burbles up like poltergeists, give us this disconcerting shudder, a weird hollow dread mingled with our awe. I think that comes from twin recognitions: the first is the Ozymandias-like knowledge that we’re all going to be just dirt in the ground one day, and our buildings won’t last forever. The bodies in the ground remind us of that.
But they also remind us that we leave traces. We have an impact not just on our lives, but on the future. And as a species, we have an impact on an entire planet, in sometimes positive but mostly weird and disturbing ways. We’re changing the ecology of our home in a grand experiment to which no one really consented, but in which we’re all both participants and experimenters.
Harvey is a sign of this. Fish on anti-depressants is a far weirder, but no less profound one. In fact, it might be the most damning and on-the-nose verdict on our society I can think of. Let me explain.
Where We End Up
Phys.org ran an article yesterday about a study out of the University of Buffalo which looked into the brains of fish and found some weird, but not unexpected results.
Human antidepressants are building up in the brains of bass, walleye and several other fish common to the Great Lakes region, scientists say.
The problem is that wastewater treatment plants, which are really what undergird our entire society and keep it functioning, can only scan for and treat so much stuff. Plants remove excrement, of course, as well as dangerous and deadly chemicals that end up in the sewers. But for the most part they ignore urine, which is sterile, and which is where antidepressants end up.
So what happens to the fish? Are they ok? Are they able to handle the life of a fish better? Not really. Lead scientist Diane Aga:
“These drugs could affect fish behavior. We didn’t look at behavior in our study, but other research teams have shown that antidepressants can affect the feeding behavior of fish or their survival instincts. Some fish won’t acknowledge the presence of predators as much.”
That could be ruinous for these species. Not eating, not caring whether they live or die, general mopery (even relative to fish, which are already honestly pretty mopey): it’s bad. And it isn’t just their species. The whole ecological system can get thrown out of whack when one cog decides to just stop cogging. Our antidepressants make fish avoid the one thing they are supposed to do, i.e. keep on being fish.
And there are a lot more antidepressants. Over the last 20 years, the usage of anti-depressants among adults has shot up 400%, to the point where 8-10% of US adults are taking them (or up to 13%). Some blame modern society, with its relentless, alienating, and atomizing pace, whereas others think the problem is over-diagnosis, perhaps spurred on by pharm salespeople and a culture of easy outs.
I personally and entirely-unexaminedly think the truth leans toward the former with a healthy dose of greedy capitalism giving the latter a lot of weight. But ultimately it doesn’t matter, and ultimately, those explanations are the same. There is is something deeply wrong here. Our society drives people to medications, which can do good or ill, and the waste of our addictions and needs ultimately ends up pissing itself into the water, where it infects other species and drives them toward involuntary suicide.
Like I said, the symbolism is pretty on-the-nose.
Changing Our Planet
Among climate change deniers, there is a strain of thought (though that might be generous; let’s call it a species of rhetoric) that says it is arrogant of humans to think we can change the environment, which God has created. They can even make that a secular argument: the world is too big for us little humans to alter.
They say this, of course, while standing on endless miles of pavement that alter the ancient water cycle, in cities that demand diversions of water from hundreds of miles away or miles underground, before leaving by taking advantage of our ability to transform ancient organic remains into energy.
It’s a phony argument, of course, and is ultimately a dodge to avoid facing the hard questions that come with a disaster like Harvey. There might be some doubt if this particular tropical storm was a direct result of climate change, but there is no doubt that it was made worse by the simple fact that we have completely altered the way water drains itself, which is to say: it no longer does. It relies on our pavement floodplains, our sewers, our channels. And when those aren’t enough, as we know, water never slinks off.
There’s also no doubt that the chemical disasters, which are the next-level horror, have their proximate cause in Houston’s (and Texas more broadly) loathing of any kind of regulatory regimes, of being open for business. This is proximate, but it is just a symptom of the ultimate cause, the nature of our capitalist society, which demands these chemicals for our tools and toys and our way of life. We dig up the earth for deadly materials, we create synthetic horrors, and hope that the impact of doing so only affects the wretched near the mines or the poor in the chemical zones. Until it bursts, and spreads everywhere, thanks to yet another 500-yr storm.
And the truth is, it is getting harder and harder to do the “we don’t know for sure that climate change is to blame, stop politicizing this!” dodge (though ok, it is still easy for professional liars and unpaid cranks). In an incredible article published yesterday in The Atlantic, Peter Brannen explains how a warming climate leads to more water in the atmosphere, which means more water cascading down during storms.
That’s not the only thing Brannen’s article is about. Called “The Strange Future Hurricane Harvey Portends”, he goes into how climate changes is going to lead to both wetter storms and arid inlands. He really nails the scope of the problem, and what it truly is.
Humans have begun an international project to move water around the world, far more ambitious than any network of aqueducts or hydroelectric dams ever constructed or conceived. The drivers of this global system are billowing vapors, which trap heat and propel the world’s water faster and farther around the globe. The first results of this project may already be seen in the outrageous rainfall totals of storms like Hurricane Harvey, or in landslides on remote mountain hillsides, and even in the changing saltiness of the oceans.
The Earth system is getting warmer. Water is evaporating faster. There’s more of it in the air. It’s moving through the system faster. As a result, the coming centuries will play out under a new atmospheric regime, one with more extreme rain, falling in patterns unfamiliar to those around which civilization has grown.
An “international project” is a perfect way to put it. This is the results of thousands of years of human civilization, concentrated and accelerated since the dawn of the industrial revolution. We had a climate that was largely perfect for civilization, even though floods and droughts and tornados and locusts reminded us that it was always fragile, and instead of doing everything we could to maintain that delicate balance, we ruined it.
It’s impossible to deny. Think of the fish example, where they did the research. In the Niagara River, where the massive Great Lakes system leads to the ocean, running over the enormous inhuman power of the Falls. For thousands of years, that stood as an impenetrable barrier to the north. But of course, we harness power from the falls to generate cities like Buffalo (great job!). We have gone around the Falls, opening the entire continent to invasive species. We even changed the flow of water from the Lakes toward the Mississippi, via the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, reversing and altering the ancient flow of the continent to get rid of our waste. To say we can’t change the planet is arrogant and ignorant madness.
We’re pushing the world in strange directions, and the ghosts of our past, like bodies underneath Michigan Avenue, reach up to grab us. What we’re doing now is cursing the world and damning our species. The results of us, as one species on this planet, are catastrophic and poisonous. That we’re going to bear the brunt of it isn’t quite justice, since, after all, we have plenty of drugs to get us through the hard times.
At least, I guess, we’re learning to share.