On Bridges and Trains, or Legitimate Anxiety in the Anthropocene

There’s a bridge out on a train-track over a ravine hundreds of feet deep. It collapsed from a deluge of rain dropped on the mountain looming over the gully over which spanned the bridge. The mountain itself happened to have been charred on all sides the year before after a record-setting fire destroyed every living thing in every fold of the mountain, everything in its every burrow and every cave. The rains triggered a flash flood, sweeping debris downhill and then several feet of surface soil followed in a muddy slush that tore down the mountainside and through the ravine, taking out the bridge with it. I’ll add that this bridge itself was in disrepair, having faced the neglect typical of most infrastructure in the United States. A multidisciplinary task force of engineers, geologists and other scientists convened a decade prior to locate infrastructure areas across the country that required immediate repair cross-listed with infrastructure requiring immediate retrofits to endure the elevated threats posed by industrial-capitalist-induced climate change (those anyway that we were capable of predicting at the time). The task force in fact named this particular bridge as needing extensive repair immediately and significant retrofitting, particularly against the kind of fire-and-flood mudslide that in fact tore the bridge off its foundations and left mangled bits of railroad-bridge scattered along the floor of the ravine.

Now a few months later there’s a train headed along those tracks. It’s been known for a while that this train would take this route, but it’s also been claimed (by people without any knowledge or expertise who were all refuted immediately by respectable experts) that this bridge that was in fact out may possibly potentially not be out at all—or at least maybe it was only “problematic” to cross, but still “feasibly crossable” and those on the train, who had purchased their tickets for so many different reasons up to a year in advance but at least six months earlier, all hoped that the not-experts were actually right and boarded that train anyway.

But we know, you and I, as we watch the train approach this ravine on the scheduled day at the appointed time, that the bridge is gone, because we can see it on all our screens thanks to a helicopter overhead. The train operators know it too, because they’ve already seen from their vantage point that there was in fact no bridge in the distance as they rounded a bend after which they expected to see the bridge they usually saw, and within a couple hundred yards of the ravine most everyone on the train suddenly starts to realize that the bridge is really out. But it’s too late to avert the worst of the disaster.

There’s panic on the train, within both the classy and the commoner cars, but finally all agree to trigger the emergency brake. But emergency brakes don’t stop a train immediately, only over time. Many resolve themselves to the fact that at least some of the cars are going to slip over the edge of the ravine; but their one last hope is that the train is stopped quickly enough to slow the train enough that more cars end up on the ground than dangling off the edge into the ravine. ‘It’ll be difficult even still,’ someone proclaimed onboard the train toward the back, in one of the most refined cabins, in a bid to marshal the others, ‘and likely all the cars will derail at some point if they don’t all slip right down the ravine. But that’s our hope: that the train derails as it goes down and more of us end up on our sides against solid ground than those of us dangling off the edge, and we’ll just have to hope that the gear holding those dangling cars together holds long enough for everyone from the front to get to the back!’

‘Shouldn’t we just invite those up front back here now?’ Someone hearing this rousing pre-battle speech asked skeptically.

‘And risk ourselves in that panic? And deal with them in here? Probably looting the place meanwhile!’ The first speaker scoffed with a decisive tone in his voice.

The interrupting second speaker said nothing more, yet it seemed obvious to them that they all faced as great a risk in either case, but at least by getting everyone from the front to the back now they wouldn’t risk the connecting gear coming loose as those up front attempted to climb straight up through who even knows how many cars to get to the back—assuming the whole train wouldn’t just plunge straight into the ravine.

Physicists were able to calculate it fairly quickly, as they do, and their calculations were broadcast live in a split-screen alongside the view from the helicopter flying above the train: no, the train would not stop in time, the science professors brought on air said, ‘No chance; it’s too late for a train that size to stop itself in time. I’m afraid it’s certain that the whole train is going to fall into the ravine.’

And now we’re all just watching, holding our breath, tremendously anxious for the fate of that train that we all realize is doomed. But neither can we look away from it until we’ve seen it either fall totally into the ravine or stop or whatever will happen ends up happening. We watch transfixed by hope, even as so many of us know already what we’re about to see live in front of our eyes is the stuff of our worst night-terrors.

We are all on that train, not only our own species but all others alive currently, and that train is our planet, and those tracks over that ravine are the atmospheric, terrestrial, and oceanic systems that have enabled all of our species to thrive on that Noah’s Ark that is our train. The systems are breaking down, we know this now because we can observe it statistically, scientifically, and now increasingly with our own eyes. We know now beyond any doubt whatsoever that our bridge on to any viable future for all of us on that train has broken down, but we have still loaded ourselves onto that train, and we are already so close to the ravine that even the most radical emergency measures taken immediately cannot stop what is about to happen to the world we love, this beloved cradle of life that once offered an endless stability but is now beginning to reveal what happens when that stability is undermined. Those of us at the front of the train are akin obviously to those of us who were the first to experience climate-change fueled disasters and general instability, especially in the tropics and equatorial regions around the world. But the countries that harbor those responsible for this destabilization, those occupying the back of our exemplary train, they are only beginning to experience their share, and much worse will be coming soon. Because this train will not mercifully spare those responsible for what is happening, nor will it only shake up those later cars a bit by derailing but planting them firmly in the earth above the ravine: just as the earth and all life within it form one coherent system, so too will the fate doled out to the front cars be visited upon the rear: as soon as the first engine car clears the track, the entire train is going to follow that car down, thrust out into open air only to crash forcefully against the opposite wall of the ravine, driven into the rock-wall by the thudding of each car against the one in front of it, like a giant hammer, and then once the back half of the train has slammed into the ravine wall like a limp chain, the entire train will fall rear-end first to the floor of the ravine many hundreds of feet down.

As a viewer of this horrendous spectacle, aren’t you terrified for that train, for yourself and your family on that train? We must all of us say enough is enough and do even more than pull an emergency brake: we must all be innovators now and rig up new ways to stop our train from inside it. Let us only hope that our combined efforts to innovate and add to our drawdown will prove sufficient to stop this train-wreck that we all know is moments from happening before our eyes and to us all. But we must all of us act together as one, just as all of us will suffer as one if each of us does not now do their part and more. We must have emergency measures* and we must have additional innovation alongside them, this requires us to turn into activists and call for emergency action.

But how likely is it that what ought to happen will? This is the anxiety of our time and as recent history demonstrates again and again, there is every reason for anxiety. Welcome to the Anthropocene, the planetary era defined by the fact that humans have irrevocably altered the systems of the planet itself, those very systems by which we once enjoyed the environmental stability of generations’ past.

This anxiety, the despair and grief that come with it: do not ever let anyone tell you any bit of it is illegitimate. It cannot be medicated away because your depression is not unreasoned: it is not the result of a chemical imbalance inside yourself; it is your natural and legitimate response to the world in which we live, both the psychical world of the earth as it breaks down and the social worlds we have been raised to believe were natural and permanent. Only so long as we continue to seek the source of our pain within ourselves and therefore to distract ourselves from the actual source—the exploitive and extractive systems that are in truth easily changed so long as we have the reason and will to change them—these very systems extracting all the value possible from the 99% of us, so long as they remain unchanged will continue to destroy our one and only planet. Let us turn our anxiety into action: Embrace your anxiety and let it lend you passion on your way. Embrace your grief and use it to light the path for you and your loved ones as a beacon of love against an enshrouding darkness. Embrace your despair, but follow up with the honest truth that urgent action in any forward direction will not only bring you purpose and restore your sense of hope, it will also bring us all that much closer to saving everything any of us have ever loved.

Get active. Even if, assuming this is your thing,** you just went out and marched around your downtown… I bet you’d be joined in your awareness-bringing by at least one other concerned person like yourself, or at the least you’ll meet other concerned people like yourself. Build communities among other activists. Reach out even to the aunts and uncles who’ve been persuaded by the oligarchs: offer them kindness even as you bring them blunt honesty. Do this again and again and again. If a lie can become like truth by being repeated, then the truth can be accepted as the truth if it is repeated often enough by enough people. It is up to you and me, so let’s you and me do what we can while we can do it and pull this train off its course before we all crash to the floor of that ravine.

*. Cf. this article published recently in The New York Times.

**. Stay tuned for posts on the many other forms of change-making aside from agitating in the street.

ps. I’m aware that this is an entirely surreal situation I’ve laid out; it’s like a bad hollywood movie, but yet… how much coal are we burning? How much gasoline are we extracting, refining, and then burning? I’d say the most surreal thing of all is that we have continued to rely on extractive means when viable alternatives could have already been developed.

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