Originally published in TomDispatch.
I didn’t vote in the pivotal American election of 2016. Thirty-five years ago, in that unseasonably warm month of November, I was in Antarctica’s Allan Hills taking ice core samples with a hand augur. The pictures I have from that time show my team drilling deep into the blue ice, but what we were actually doing was digging a million years into the planetary past to gaze upon the panorama of climate change. The election was a bad soap opera playing out far beyond my field of vision.
At the time, I lived in Washington, D.C. So my vote, I told myself for years afterward, wouldn’t have made any difference in that overwhelmingly Democratic city. And of course, I never had a doubt about the result, nor did my family and friends, nor did the pollsters, the media, and the entertainment industry, nor the members of the political and economic elite of both major parties. Ours was a confidence composed in equal parts of ignorance and arrogance. We underestimated the legitimate anger and despair of large sections of the country — as well as the other darker motivations much discussed in the years since.
“Remember, Rachel,” my ex-husband used to say, “Homo homini lupus: man is wolf to man.” I criticized him for slandering the poor wolf, but he was right. Beastliness has always lain just beneath the surface of our world.
My ex-husband, the author Julian West, is a man who cared little about ice or nature. We couldn’t have been more ill-suited in that regard. He was always focused on politics. At that moment, he was less worried about Donald Trump winning the presidency than a far slicker populist coming along to galvanize the same anti-establishment constituency four years after a Trump defeat. In 2016, Julian was still a relatively conventional political scientist. The election would change all that, setting in motion the events that ultimately inspired his seminal bestseller, Splinterlands, which, as you no doubt remember, was published in 2020 and predicted — with considerable accuracy — the broke-down, shattered world all of us now live in.
I used to think geologically, which transformed the grand sweep of human history into a mere sliver in the planet’s 4.6-billion-year timeline. The Earth had repeatedly warmed and cooled in a set of protracted mood swings that encompassed the epochs. Don’t imagine, though, that just because I thought in million-year intervals I was entirely above the fray. By examining those columns of ice we were extracting from Antarctica, I hoped to understand far more about our own era of global warming.
What I’d learned by 2016 was not encouraging.
In every previous cycle, the Earth had regulated itself. Then we humans came along and started fiddling with the global thermostat. The era of climate change that began in the nineteenth century with our concerted use of fossil fuels would prove unprecedented. Scientists began to speak of our 11,700-year epoch, the Holocene, as the Anthropocene, the first period in which the actions of a particular species, our very own anthropos, changed the planet. (I used to half-jokingly call our era the Anthro-obscene.)
Already by 2016, we were experiencing “the hottest summer on record” year after dismal year. By then, we’d raised the global temperature by one degree, and that fall the Arctic was an astonishing 36 degrees warmer than normal. In Antarctica, where our 12-person team was using a Badger-Eclipse drill and hand augurs to collect samples, the ground seemed to be turning liquid beneath us as we worked.
At that point, of course, the looming reality of global warming should have been obvious to everyone, not just scientists. But in that era of fake news and rampant conspiracy theories, climate change proved to be just one more “debatable” topic. In the past, at comparable moments, wisdom had eventually won out over wrongheadedness, whether the shape of the world or the position of Earth in the universe was in question. Alas, in the most important debate of them all, the one on which the very existence of human life on this planet depended, calmer heads did not prevail — not in time anyway.
As time itself began to telescope, many of us, in the United States in particular, simply closed our eyes and pretended that species death was not staring humanity (and many other species) in the face. Geologic time would, of course, go marching on, just not for us.
The four-year term of Donald Trump proved such a disaster that a chastened nation, instead of christening public buildings after the disgraced president, bestowed his name on the devastating, climate-change-energized hurricane that struck the country’s East Coast in 2022. Like its namesake, Hurricane Donald began as a squall, only later to develop into the destructive force that ruined the national capital and caused billions of dollars of damage.
Julian and I lost our home in Hurricane Donald. Having never liked Washington, I was, in the end, happy enough to leave the city to the floodwaters. I divorced my husband (no need to go into that story here), reverted to Rachel Leopold, the name I’d previously used only for my scientific publications, and retreated to Vermont. There, in our community of Arcadia, I’ve cultivated my garden and watched the inexorable rise of the global thermometer ever since.
The good news: our citrus crop was excellent this year. The bad news: a significant coastal chunk of what was once the habitable world is now underwater.
How much of that is the responsibility of President Trump, how much his shortsighted predecessors’ and his blinkered successors’, I leave to scholars like my ex-husband to mull over. I can tell you only what I saw with my own eyes. I was pretty good with an augur back in the day, so let me drill down one last time through the crust of history.
The Trump Years
Since I take the long view, I know that time can march backward. Just ask the graptolites. Oh, sorry, actually you can’t.
Graptolites were tiny sea creatures that once lived in colonies huddled at the bottom of oceans or floating like ribbons of seaweed on the water’s surface. For nearly 200 million years, they prospered in their aquatic world. They probably thought — if they thought at all — that such longevity guaranteed them eternal life on this planet. Then came the Carboniferous Period and a brief but severe ice age. Poof, the graptolites were gone, along with 86% of all other species.
Before evolution culminated in its most glorious and destructive creation — and you know just who I mean — the planet experienced five mass extinctions. The most devastating came at the end of the Permian era, around 250 million years ago, when 96% of all species died out because a huge volcano exploding in present-day Siberia set off a chain reaction that raised the temperature of the seas radically. All of those long-gone creatures left behind no more than a few marks on stone or some petro-carbon pools beneath the Earth’s surface.
The essential law of evolution is the survival of the fittest. Many species die out thanks to some spectacular event or other: an asteroid crashing into the Earth, say, or a massive volcanic eruption. But no wrathful god or malevolent alien force proved necessary for human beings: we were quite capable of being our own worst cataclysm. In an instant of geologic time, we heedlessly burned through our natural resources, while creating weapons of mass destruction that could do in the world hundreds of times over. And then, in 2016, roughly half the voting population of the United States walked into the polls and pulled the lever for doomsday.
My ex-husband loved to regale me with comparable stories from history — of empires that rose and fell, great civilizations that left behind not much more than the poor graptolites had. He believed, however, that the Enlightenment had fundamentally changed human consciousness, that history thereafter was slated to move forward, with only a few stutter steps, into a radiant future. The election of 2016 changed him and his thinking on such subjects irrevocably.
Definition of a pessimist: an optimist mugged by current events.
I, too, didn’t quite realize how quickly a country could move backward, dragging the world with it. I watched helplessly as the Trump administration toppled one scientific enterprise after another, like a sullen child kicking over the sand castles of other kids. As soon as he took office, the new president green-lighted every dirty energy project within reach. Over the objections of environmentalists, scientists, and anyone with a modicum of common sense, his administration boosted a dying coal industry, lifted regulations on carbon emissions, opened up federal land to drilling and fracking, and okayed pipelines that pumped out yet more oil and gas to turn into carbon emissions and further heat the planet. It was the equivalent of a second Industrial Revolution in Saudi America, at the very moment when the planet could ill afford another fossil fuel spree.
Worse yet was the new administration’s decidedly lukewarm attitude toward the Paris Accord on climate change. Even as the president revised his earlier contention that global warming was a Chinese hoax, the United States turned its back on its pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in concert with the other industrialized powers. It also stopped all payments to other countries to help them reduce such emissions. In the space of months, years of patient negotiations unraveled.
The Trump energy stimulus — along with tax cuts for the wealthy, military budget increases, and a major, privatizing infrastructure program — provided a short-term boost to the American economy. It was like giving an exhausted worker a hit of meth. Even then, it hardly took an Einstein to know that what goes up must inevitably come down. The new president’s “plan” threw the American economy into even more serious debt, and the initial spike in employment it caused — the new jobs in mining, pumping, fracking, and building — proved unsustainable, even as an already yawning gap between rich and poor continued to widen. The global economy responded by sliding into stagnation (and then worse), while the positive effects of the short-term stimulus in the United States soon evaporated.
Perhaps if there had been more resistance to the Trump juggernaut, we wouldn’t find ourselves in the present situation. Most critics saw the new president as only a variation, however strange, on all-American themes. They acted as if the normal melody of politics was continuing to play. They ignored the growing cacophony in the country and the world. They simply didn’t see the true nature of the threat.
They didn’t understand how fracked we all were.
Of course, we did finally stop fracking — the pumping of high-pressure liquid under the ground to extract otherwise hard-to-get hydrocarbons — once we fully understood more than two decades ago the devastating consequences it had for the environment and for us. But by then it was too late. Donald Trump had already fulfilled his promise to get at those hidden reserves of oil and gas. In doing so, he ensured that yet more rounds of carbon emissions would head into the atmosphere, unleashing a wave of destructive force that widened the existing cracks in American society.
It’s no surprise that the world began to splinter. But I don’t want to cover the ground my ex-husband has already explored. I have my own story to tell.
From Reconstruction to Deconstruction
Here in this Vermont community where I’ve lived for the past quarter century, I’ve had a lot of time to read. I no longer take ice core samples. There isn’t much point (or much ice left either). Instead, we survive as best we can, while bracing for yet another tempo shift that will force us to measure our lives not in decades but in years, or even days.
We have a good library here in Arcadia, assembled from the basements and attics of farmhouses in the area. No one reads books any more, so we had our pick. In addition to taking charge of the greenhouses in our community, I teach science in our school. In the evenings, when I have the time, I also read history. For all those years we were together, I listened to my husband’s take on the world of the past. Now I’ve developed my own interpretation.
From my reading, I think I understand what happened to the United States in the aftermath of Hurricane Donald. I think I know now why the country cracked into so many pieces. At the time, I believed it was because of the political divisions of the day, the disagreements over immigration and guns and trade. I didn’t realize that all of these disputes stemmed from a much older conflict built into the very foundations of this country.
Like most Americans, I assumed that our forefathers beat the British in the Revolutionary War and, in short order, created a new experiment in democracy. I’d forgotten — or never even knew — that a decentralized group of not-so-united states existed for six years between the end of that war and the Constitutional Convention of 1787. In those years, the 13 states that had agreed to the Articles of Confederation were quite interested in forming a more perfect union. They evidently liked their status and felt resistant to replacing an imperial overlord with a federal one. Only through a sleight of hand did the founding fathers conjure up an American federation. It was a brilliant piece of politics, but Washington, Hamilton, Madison, and the others never fully convinced those skeptical of federation.
Indeed, the Constitution papered over the problem by forging compromises between the one government and the many states that would prove increasingly vexing over the ensuing decades. Ultimately, it was brought to a head by the Civil War, thanks to the perennial disagreement about whether new states admitted to the Union would be “slave” or “free.” It wasn’t so much the North as the federal government that emerged victorious from that war and then tried to impose a solution on the rebellious states, which balked at constitutional amendments enfranchising freed slaves as equal citizens and — for the men at least — members of the political community. The post-war Reconstruction project remained unfinished until, a century later, the civil rights movement successfully challenged the refusal of the southern states to abide fully by those amendments.
Still, even that movement could not resolve the fundamental divide. In the 1990s and the first years of the new century, economic globalization took the top spot as the issue that split America into two parts — an A team of the economically successful and a B team of the left behind. At first blush, the election of Donald Trump seemed to represent a victory, at long last, for Team B. Certainly, economics did drive enough voters in the Rust Belt to abandon their traditional allegiance to the Democratic Party to lift him to victory in the electoral college.
As his administration got down to work, it became clear that economics only went so far in explaining his victory. Rather, it was again the old issue of whether the federal government had the mandate to implement policies for the entire nation. Those who supported Trump thought not. They didn’t want comprehensive national health care. They were not happy with the way the federal government permitted abortion and same-sex marriage and yet outlawed prayer in school and kept creationism out of the textbooks. They didn’t like the way the government taxed them, regulated them, and kept their cattle off public lands. They didn’t want the government resettling immigrants in their communities. They cared little for affirmative action, feminism, or transgender activism. And they were leery of any restrictions on their access to guns.
Trump supporters were not against elites, at least not all elites. After all, they’d just elected a celebrity billionaire who promptly filled his administration with his equally wealthy friends and colleagues. No, they were against the elites they associated with the imposition of federal authority.
America B didn’t want to secede territorially from the United States. Rather, it wanted to deconstruct federal power. As a result, the United States pushed the rewind button and, in some sense, went all the way back to 1781. The Trump administration began to undo the ties that bound the country together, and we very quickly became less than the sum of our parts. The so-called red states, unshackled from federal requirements, went their own way. Liberal East Coast and West Coast states, appalled by the hijacking of federal authority for the ultimate purpose of undermining federal authority, tried to hold onto constitutional values as they understood them. It didn’t take long — in fact, the pundits regularly commented on the blinding speed of the process — for the failure of the larger project of integration to become self-evident. By 2022, the United States existed in name only (and an increasingly ironic one at that).
The Age of Diminished Expectations
Imagine that you are a 16-year-old girl, healthy and happy and looking forward to many decades of love and life. And then, one terrible day, you’re blindsided by a Stage Four cancer diagnosis. You had been measuring the future in decades. Suddenly, those decades disappear, leaving you with possibly only a few years to go. Your parents, once skeptical about vaccinating you as a child, now reject conventional cancer treatments. First they deny the diagnosis outright. Then they urge you to eat ground-up apricot pits, drink special teas, and go on a high-fat diet. Nothing works, and the years turn into months, and those months into days, as the world closes in.
Yes, it’s a real tearjerker, but substitute “human race” for “16-year-old girl” and “climate change” for “cancer” and you’ll see how accurate it is. At the time, though, many people just looked away and shrugged. By that pivotal year of 2016, the world had already received a poor diagnosis. The election of Donald Trump was our way, as a country, of first denying that there was even a problem, then refusing medical treatment, and finally embracing one quack remedy after another.
In the aftermath of that election, I struggled with the contraction of time and space, as geologic time shifted into human time, as we all came to terms (or not) with the obvious planetary diagnosis. So, too, did the map of my world shrink. During the first part of my adult life, I imagined myself as part of an international community of scientists. Then I worked at a national level to save my country.
Here in Vermont, I’ve ended up confined to quite a small plot of land: our intentional community of Arcadia, which we’ve walled off from an increasingly dangerous and hostile world. Soon enough, I’ll find myself in an even smaller space: an urn in the community’s mausoleum.
We’re doing fine here in Arcadia. Climate change has turned northern Vermont into a farming paradise. No federal government interferes with our liberal community guidelines. We have enough guns to defend ourselves against outside aggressors. Everything that has killed the larger community beyond our walls has only made us stronger.
Perhaps, like the monasteries of the Middle Ages, communities like ours will preserve knowledge until the distant day when we exit this era of ignorance and pain. Or perhaps, like the graptolites, we’ll fade away and evolution will produce another species without the flawed operating system that doomed us.
The graptolites were mute. We humans can speak and write and film ourselves in glorious 3-D. These skills haven’t saved us, but our ability to document our times will perhaps save someone someday somewhere. Everyone prefers a happy ending to a tearjerker. With these documents, these core samples of our era, perhaps we can still, somehow, save the future.