The Four Occupations of Planet Earth
The First Occupation: In the 1990s, the financial types of our world set out to “occupy the wealth,” planetarily speaking. These were, of course, the globalists, now better known as the neoliberals, and they were determined to “open” markets everywhere. They were out, as Thomas Friedman put it (though he hardly meant it quite this way), to flatten the Earth, which turned out to be a violent proposition.
The neoliberals were let loose to do their damnedest in the good times of the post-Cold-War Clinton years. They wanted to apply a kind of American economic clout that they thought would never end to the organization of the planet. They believed the United States to be the economic superpower of the ages and they had their own dreamy version of what an economic Pax Americana would be like. Privatization was the name of the game and their version of shock-and-awe tactics involved calling in institutions like the International Monetary Fund to “discipline” developing countries into a profitable kind of poverty and misery.
In the end, gleefully slicing and dicing subprime mortgages, they financialized the world and so drove a hole through it. They were our economic jihadis and, in the great meltdown of 2008, they deep-sixed the world economy they had helped “unify.” In the process, by increasing the gap between the super-rich and everyone else, they helped create the 1 percent and the 99 percent in the United States and globally, preparing the ground for the protests to follow.
The Second Occupation: If the first occupation drove an economic stake through the heart of the planet, the second did a similar thing militarily. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the “unilateralists” of the Bush administration staked their own claim to a global occupation at the point of a cruise missile. Romantics all when it came to the US military and what it could do, they invaded Iraq, determined to garrison the oil heartlands of the planet. It was going to be “shock and awe” and “mission accomplished” all the way. What they had in mind was a militarized version of an “occupy the wealth” scheme. Their urge to privatize even extended to the military itself and, when they invaded, in their baggage train came crony corporations ready to feast.
Once upon a time, Americans knew that only the monstrous enemy—most recently that "evil empire,” the Soviet Union—could dream of world conquest and occupation. That was, by nature, what evil monsters did. Until 2001, when it turned out to be quite okay for the good guys of planet Earth to think along exactly the same lines.
The invasion of Iraq, that “cakewalk,” was meant to establish a multigenerational foothold in the Greater Middle East, including permanent bases garrisoned with 30,000 to 40,000 American troops, and that was to be just the beginning of a chain reaction. Soon enough Syria and Iran would bow down before US power or, if they refused, would go down anyway thanks to American techno-might. In the end, the lands of the Greater Middle East would fall into line (with the help of Washington’s proxy in the region, Israel).
And since there was no other nation or bloc of nations with anything like such military power, nor would any be allowed to arise, the result—and they weren’t shy about this—would be a global Pax Americana and a domestic Pax Republicana more or less till the end of time. As the “sole superpower” or even “hyperpower,” Washington would, in other words, occupy the planet.
Of course, Iraq and Afghanistan were also more traditional occupations. In Baghdad, for instance, American consul L. Paul Bremer III issued “Order 17,” which essentially granted to every foreigner connected with the occupation enterprise the full freedom of the land, not to be interfered with in any way by Iraqis or any Iraqi political or legal institutions. This included "freedom of movement without delay throughout Iraq," and neither their vessels, vehicles, nor aircraft were to be "subject to registration, licensing, or inspection by the [Iraqi] Government." Nor in traveling would any foreign diplomat, soldier, consultant, or security guard, or any of their vehicles, vessels, or planes be subject to "dues, tolls, or charges, including landing and parking fees." And that was only the beginning.
Order 17, which read like an edict plucked directly from a nineteenth century colonial setting, caught the local hubris of those privatizing occupiers.
All of this proved to be fantasy bordering on delusion, and it didn’t take long for that to become apparent. In fact, the utter failure of the unilateralists came home to roost in the form of a SOFA agreement with Iraqi authorities that promised to end the US garrisoning of the country not in 2030 or 2050 but in 2011. And the Bush administration felt forced to agree to it in 2008, the same year that the economic unilateralists were facing the endgame of their dreams of global domination.
In that year, the neoliberal effort to privatize the planet went down in flames, along with Lehman Brothers, all those subprime mortgages and derivatives, and a whole host of banks and financial outfits rescued from the trash bin of history by the US Treasury. Talk about giving the phrase “creative destruction” the darkest meaning possible: the two waves of American unilateralists nearly took down the planet.
They let loose demons of every sort, even as they ensured that the world’s first experience of a “sole superpower” would prove short indeed. Heap onto the rubble they left behind the global disaster of rising prices for the basics—food and fuel—and you have a situation so combustible that no one should have been surprised when a single Tunisian match set it aflame.
The first two failed occupations plunged the planet into chaos and misery, even as they paved the way, in a thoroughly unintended fashion, for an Arab Spring ready to take on the Middle East’s 1 percent.
Note as well that, as their policies went to hell in a hand basket, the first and second set of occupiers walked off with their treasure and their selves intact. Neither the bankers nor the militarists went to jail, not a one of them. They had made out like bandits and continue to do so. They took home their multimillion-dollar bonuses. They kept their yachts, mansions, and (untaxed) private jets. They took with them the ability to sign million-dollar contracts for bestselling memoirs and to go on the lecture circuit at $100,000–$150,000 a pop. They had, in the case of the second occupation, quite literally, gotten away with murder (and torture and kidnapping etc.). In the process, the misery of the 99 percent had been immeasurably increased.
The Third Occupation: The most significant and surprising thing the first two globalizing occupations did, however, was to globalize protest. Together they created the basis, in pure iniquity and inequity, in dead bodies and bruised lives, for Tahrir Square and Occupy Wall Street. Their failures set the stage for something new in the world.
The result was a Chalmers Johnson–style case of blowback, the spirit of which was caught in the protesters’ appropriation of the very word “occupy.” There was a sense out there that they had occupied us long and disastrously enough. It was time for us to occupy them, and so our own parks, squares, streets, towns, cities and countries.
The urge to right things is, in fact, a powerful one. Gene Turitz, a friend of mine who took part in the demonstrations that briefly shut down the port of Oakland, California, recently wrote me the following about the experience. It catches something of the mood of this moment:
“The mayor of Oakland, a former progressive, blasted the economic violence that was being perpetrated by the Occupy movement shutting down the port. No word about the economic violence of banks stealing people's homes through foreclosures, or the economic violence of [sports] team owners demanding the city build new stadiums for their teams or they will move to another city, or of corporations threatening to move if this or that is not done for them. That’s just the way things are done. You do not want the ‘violence’ of thousands of people peacefully showing that things must change to make their lives better.”
Or in two words: we exist! And possibly in the nick of time.
The Fourth Occupation: This is both the newest and oldest of occupations. I’m speaking about humanity’s occupation of Earth. In recent centuries, can there be any question that we’ve been hard on this planet, exploiting it for everything it’s worth? Our excuse was that we genuinely didn’t know better, at least when it came to climate change, that we just didn't understand what kind of long-term harm the burning of fossil fuels could do. Now, of course, we know. Those who don’t are either in denial or simply couldn’t care less.
And here’s just a taste of what we do know about how the fourth occupation is affecting the planet: thirteen of the warmest years since record-keeping began have occurred in the last fifteen years. In 2010, historically staggering amounts of carbon dioxide were sent into the atmosphere (“the biggest jump ever seen in global warming gases”); extreme weather was, well, remarkably extreme in 2011—torrid droughts, massive fires, vast floods—and in the Arctic, ice is now melting at unprecedented rates, which will mean future sea-level rises that will threaten low-lying areas of the planet. And as for that temperature, well, it’s going to keep going up, uncomfortably so.
Potentially, this is the monster blowback story of all time.
And here’s just a taste of what we know about business as usual on this planet: if we rely on the previous occupiers and their ilk to save us, then it’s going to be a long, dismal wait. Don’t count on energy giants like Exxon or BP or their lobbyists and the politicians they influence to stop climate change. After all, none of them are going to be alive to see a far less habitable planet, so what do they care? Torrid zones are so then, profit sheets and bonuses are so now, which means: don’t count on the 1 percent to give a damn.
If it were up to them—a few outliers among them excepted—we could probably simply write the Earth off as a future friendly place for us. And the planet wouldn’t care. Give it 100,000, 10 million, 100 million years, and it’ll get itself back in shape, with plenty of life forms to go around.
We’re such ephemeral creatures with such brief life spans, it’s hard for us to think even in the sort of modestly long-range way that climate change demands. So thank your lucky stars that the first- and second-wave occupiers created a third payback occupation they never imagined possible. And thank your lucky stars that movements to occupy our planet in a new way and turn back the global warmers are slowly rising as well.
Like the attempted occupations of the global economy and the Greater Middle East, each spurred by a sense of greed that went beyond all bounds, the occupation of our planet is guaranteed to create its own oppositional forces, and not just in the natural world either. They are perhaps already emerging along with the Arab spring, the European summer and the American fall, not to speak of the Russian winter. And when they’re here—as the fifth occupation of planet Earth—when they stand their ground and chant “We exist!” in anger, strength and wonder, maybe then we can really tackle climate change and hope it isn’t too late.
Maybe the fifth occupation is the one we’re waiting for—and don't for a second doubt that it will come. It’s already on its way.