“A tree is best measured when it is down,” the poet Carl Sandburg once observed, “and so it is with people.” The recent death of Harry Belafonte at the age of 96 has prompted many assessments of what this pioneering singer-actor-activist accomplished in a long and fruitful life.
Belafonte’s career as a ground-breaking entertainer brought him substantial wealth and fame; according to Playbill magazine, “By 1959, he was the highest paid Black entertainer in the industry, appearing in raucously successful engagements in Las Vegas, New York, and Los Angeles.” He scored on Broadway, winning a 1954 Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Musical – John Murray Anderson's Almanac. Belafonte was the first Black person to win the prestigious award. A 1960 television special, “Tonight with Belafonte,” brought him an Emmy for Outstanding Performance in a Variety or Musical Program or Series, making him the first Black person to win that award. He found equal success in the recording studio, bringing Calypso music to the masses via such hits as “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” and “Jamaica Farewell.”
Harry Belafonte - Day-O (The Banana Boat Song) (Live)www.youtube.com
Belafonte’s blockbuster stardom is all the more remarkable for happening in a world plagued by virulent systemic racism. Though he never stopped performing, by the early 1960s he’d shifted his energies to the nascent Civil Right movement. He was a friend and adviser to the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. and, as the New York Times stated, Belafonte “put up much of the seed money to help start the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and was one of the principal fund-raisers for that organization and Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center notes that “he helped launch one of Mississippi’s first voter registration drives and provided funding for the Freedom Riders. His activism extended beyond the U.S. as he fought against apartheid alongside Nelson Mandela and Miriam Makeba, campaigned for Mandela’s release from prison, and advocated for famine relief in Africa.” And in 1987, he received an appointment to UNICEF as a goodwill ambassador.
Over a career spanning more than seventy years, Belafonte brought joy to millions of people. He also did something that is, perhaps, even greater: he fostered the hope that a better world for all could be created. And, by his example, demonstrated how we might go about bringing that world into existence.
Climate Change and the Death of Hope in 2020
What does hope look like if our society is incapable of facing reality?
A 2020 study published in the journal Nature Climate Change shows that polar ice sheets are melting in line with "worst-case scenario" climate models.
In Antarctica and Greenland, melting ice sheets have been dumping hundreds of billions of tons of fresh water into the ocean each year, at a rate up to three times as fast as in recent decades.
This process not only raises water levels—causing dramatic increases in catastrophic storm surges—it alters the salinity, current dynamics, and acidity of the oceans in ways that have dire ecological and meteorological impacts. It is guaranteed to produce both predictable crises and unforeseen catastrophes. And nobody cares.
Why would they? We're in the midst of a global pandemic that is triggering an unprecedented economic crisis. It has caused food insecurity to affect millions more families than were already struggling, and may soon result in tens of millions of Americans losing their homes.
On top of that, California has faced another devastating wildfire season (including another "gender-reveal" gone wrong) amid a record-breaking heatwave and the now-familiar drought conditions, all while a tumultuous hurricane season in the Atlantic is producing powerful storms at a faster rate than in any year since we started keeping track.
The world—and the US in particular—has more pressing concerns than melting ice in 2020, don't we? Well, considering the fact that the "worst-case scenario" for climate change could bring about the collapse of civilization within 30 years, no we really don't.
We can't make the changes to avoid that scenario overnight. It will take years of change that will need to be done sooner, rather than later. Oh, and now scientists are advising the need for a new model of a worse worst-case scenario...
The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked unforeseen havoc on our society, but it's really just a snapshot of the kind of devastation that climate change will inevitably bring about without the kind of transformational action that is beginning to seem impossible.
Congress can't agree to help people keep their homes during an unprecedented unemployment crisis. What chance do we have that they will stand up to lobbyists and big-business donors to restructure our economy into a sustainable model? Does it even matter how big the threat is? Does it matter that everything we're facing is only going to get worse?
Because not only will hurricanes, droughts, floods, heat waves, food shortages, wildfires, gradually get worse and worse as a result of climate change—until the crises of 2020 become a fond memory—but infectious diseases are likely to reach epidemic and pandemic levels more frequently.
With traditional food sources destroyed by weather events and the changing oceans—along with animals migrating due to deforestation—people will be exposed to more exotic animals, and non-human viruses will have more opportunity to make the leap.
With more and more heat waves reaching and exceeding body temperature for days at a time, microbes that can't currently survive inside our bodies will begin adapting into dangerous pathogens.
And with tens of millions of people being displaced by catastrophic weather events and conflicts arising from scarce resources—most of them forced into crowded conditions—infectious diseases new and old will spread more rapidly.
We will perpetually be dealing with some new epidemic. Some urgent disaster is always going to occupy our attention and energy while we continue to ignore the underlying, apocalyptic cause. And all of these problems will only make it easier for the rising strain of global fascism to demonize outsiders, and further isolate nations from the kind of international cooperation we so desperately need.
At what point are we expecting to have fewer "pressing concerns" than we have right now? In what idyllic future will we have the peace and security to start focusing on addressing the hazy, foundational threat that is likely to destabilize everything we know?
As a pandemic rages, America's two-parties continue to be incapable of cooperating to help the American people—of making the other side look good. Our aging, wealthy ruling class doesn't take threats facing younger generations and the working class seriously. And this familiar rot of a two-party stalemate is even more evident in the challenge of forming a consensus behind pragmatic, necessary action like Alexandria Ocasio Cortez's Green New Deal.
Instead of backing it, and favoring the long-term habitability of our only planet, people prefer to scoff at an imagined plan to steal their hamburgers. And corporate-owned media empires are happy to serve up the team-sports drama of it all while the end of everything we know rushes toward us. Meanwhile, the Pentagon is preparing for global societal destabilization.
The dynamics of American "democracy" under capitalism seem to be wholly incapable of saving us, and the structure of the military industrial complex will no doubt view the crises that arise from displaced people and global unrest as a series of nails to be handled by their ever-more-sophisticated hammers.
There is a famous quote of uncertain attribution that says that, within our system, "it is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism." It's becoming increasingly easy to see that end to the world looming, while the armor protecting the forces of for-profit ecological ruination show no signs of weakening.
In astrophysics there is a concept known as the Fermi Paradox that questions why—if the conditions for producing intelligent life are not exceedingly rare—we do not see any evidence of other civilizations spread across the vastness of space.
The Fermi Paradox II — Solutions and Ideas – Where Are All The Aliens?www.youtube.com
There are various responses that may explain that observation, but among the most popular is the idea that civilizations just don't last. The forces of progress that allow creatures to develop technology like radio transmitters and spacecraft may lead inevitably to world-ending weapons or climate collapse.
Whether that's true throughout the universe, it seems increasingly to be the case for the only confirmed civilization in the Milky Way. For all our amazing advances, we remain stupid apes,—incapable of planning beyond next month, and constantly discovering new and clever ways to kill ourselves.
It's customary—in an article this dark—to end on a hopeful note. That makes sense. It's generally considered rude to actively ruin a stranger's day. But isn't it also rude to lie? Because I'm not convinced that there is any real hope for our civilization—not in the long run.
Sure, we can find some ways to delay and mitigate the damage. Pointing to 2050 as the likely end is probably overly pessimistic. If we do a surprisingly good job of adapting, legislating, and cooperating—and also get very lucky—we may have a couple good generations left.
In that case, most of the people reading this are likely to be dead of all the familiar causes before the total collapse of world order. Only our children or grandchildren—and however many generations after—will be forced to face the immense suffering of a new dark age.
That is the sad shade of fate that we should all be fighting for with desperate passion—because it's a hair shy of pure black void. Better than that, at this point, seems to be in the realm of fantasy.
We've already done so much irreversible harm. And the path we're on is so resistant to change. It would be wonderful—joyous—to be proven wrong, but the society and the way of life we know can't last. And there's no indication we'll be able to replace it in time.
Maybe our only realistic hope is to drastically lower our expectations. Short of saving the world as we know it, maybe we can keep portions of the planet habitable—maybe an enclave in the region around Colorado and another in the Mongolian steppe will hang onto less-than-hellish conditions. Maybe we need to start planning for the post-apocalypse.
With preparation, little pockets around the world could maintain a lifestyle that's worth living for some sizable remainder of humankind—even if they have to do without most of the luxuries afforded by global stability—the electronics, transportation, medicines, supply chains, entertainment, and communication we take for granted.
A return to something closer to pre-industrial conditions is likely for survivors of the collapse, but maybe—for some fraction of the population—life won't become a living hell.
And maybe, somewhere out in the universe, there is an some alien species that has managed to survive the pitfalls of progress and achieve a sustainable, equitable, idyllic life. Maybe they're watching us, waiting to see how we handle ourselves—to see if we learn our lesson from this impending apocalypse—before they swoop in and share their utopia.
If we peer far enough into distant uncertainty, it's possible to conceive of something better after the end of Western Civilization—after likely billions of deaths and immeasurable suffering.
Does that count as hope? Is that enough to spit up the black pill of despair?