Bifröst to Nowhere

When we think of “irreversibility,” we think of ecosystems. But climate change could also foreclose social possibilities—freedom and fairness—forever.

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Martin Scorsese’s mafia classic GoodFellas was made almost thirty years ago, in 1990. The film’s story starts twenty years prior, in 1970—almost half a century ago, and two years before The Godfather came out. Right on cue, we have a new Italian gangster movie this year. Today’s is Gotti, dramatizing the crime family whose denouement arrived around the time GoodFellas came out. With its 0% Rotten Tomatoes rating, it’s not faring as well as Scorsese’s or Coppola’s. Maybe it should have been called Soprano, based on the show that first aired about twenty years ago, in 1999. A rebooted Italian gangster film about a fictional mob family from a twenty-year-old HBO show would surely make lots of money in the absurd, self-referential entertainment prism that is 2018.

This constant present—recycling, recurring, regurgitating—is increasingly difficult to contextualize. In our 24/7 capitalism, we’ve lost the timeline. With the AR-15-bump-stock pace of news cycles and the daily stress of increasingly precarious labor, our connection to even the immediate past grows murky, marked primarily by Hollywood reboots. The obscuring fog of history creeps ever closer to the present. The US invaded Afghanistan seventeen years ago. The country’s longest war has been raging for the entire lifetime of kids with driver’s licenses. The fog of war—that other figurative mist—seems like its own perennial present, further locking our experience of events into a decontextualized stream of notifications, atrocities, and updates. There are airstrikes in Libya. Yemen. Pakistan. Syria. Ground forces in East Africa. In the post-9/11 world, it’s always September 11th somewhere. We’re lost without a reference point, lacking a sense of place in, well, anywhere or any time. There’s a meme—maybe already dated—about today’s events unfurling in “the darkest timeline,” suggesting we reside in one of many.  

Over this temporal whirlpool, both transcending it and caught within it, climate change casts a vast asteroid’s shadow. Every news piece is somehow touched by this looming cataclysm, whether it’s about commodity prices, the Syrian civil war, oil futures, or a hurricane. All news is climate news now. Simultaneously, the US seems about as far as imaginably possible from addressing the problem. With every branch of the federal government and most state governments under the rule of a political party that denies the problem exists—while actively undermining the people trying to solve it—climate change today seems eternally mired in partisan controversy. The climate change timeline is just as warped and amorphous as any other. For example, we’ve known about the greenhouse effect for almost two hundred years. Meanwhile, An Inconvenient Truth came out in 2006. As recently as 2008, Democrats and Republicans agreed, to some extent, on the urgent need to confront climate change. But, well, is that still recent? Climate change has now been stuck in partisan stalemate for a decade.

The pace of change seems somehow to have simultaneously accelerated and slowed. Everyday is the same, while the planet is vastly changed. Fundamental planetary shifts, like an ice-free north pole that a few years ago were expectedly still decades away, may arrive this summer or next, along with another Hollywood reboot from 1977. Maryland has had two “1,000-year floods” over the past two years. But all this feels prosaic, like more static in the daily noise. An entirely different future rushes at us while we’re  stuck in this endless moment.

But this moment, with its oil binging and Netflix binging, a rising China and rising sea levels—regardless of how it may seem—is thoroughly wedged in a timeline. This perpetual present is a thin strip of time produced by coal and oil ripped from deep geological history and is now shaping our future, both immediate and infinite.

To understand the immense, dire stakes local to this sliver of history, we have to confront the past that created it and imagine the possible futures that may branch from it. We have to see the timeline in full. Most of the world is unconcerned with the looming threat that ecological collapse poses. Most people do not care much about our perilously near doomsday course, or deny that we’re on one. This is at least in part because most are disconnected from their history and their future. And they will continue to not care about it—continue to refuse to make real sacrifices to stop it—unless they understand what is at stake. And maybe they’ll still not care. But understanding the immense consequences of our actions today, in concrete terms, is important regardless of whether it motivates change. Understanding the immensity of our peril can at least grant dignity, and may fuel the agency to act. Understanding our place in the timeline, understanding the consequences of the trajectory we’re on, could be necessary to care enough to make the immense sacrifices necessary for mitigating climate change.  There are a few tragic, long-term consequences of climate change that have gone under-explored. It’s time we talk about them.

Those familiar with the Marvel Cinematic Universe—capital’s myth assembly line—or Nordic sagas compiled around 800 years ago, or a small Icelandic university in the middle of a volcano field (see figure 1), will have heard of Bifröst (pronounced bee-froost, the ‘oo’ like in ‘book’). For those who haven’t, it’s the shimmering rainbow bridge of Nordic myth, spanning the gap between Midgard—the middle earth inhabited by humans—and Asgard, land of gods. These are two of several worlds suspended in the Tree of Life called Yggdrasil. The bridge is perilous, allowing free passage to gods like Thor and Odin, but burning the feet of giants who seek to cross. During the end-times battle, Ragnarök, giants from Muspelheim—a land of fire—will try to cross and the bridge will collapse. Some scholars of Nordic myth believe the image of Bifröst was inspired by the expansive views of the Milky Way in Scandinavia’s pre-electric civilization.

Figure One - Bifröst University

Figure One - Bifröst University

When, today, we escape the light pollution of our cities and get that increasingly rare glimpse of the Milky Way, we may be struck with wonder at the vastness of it. We might dream of the myriad worlds tumbling impossible distances away, any one of which may house creatures or civilizations beyond our imagining, a trillion trillion dramas unfolding at once. Few today can look at it and believe in a tangible reality in which this splash of speckled light serves as a concourse for literally existing immortal gods with names and temperaments, who preside in some way over human affairs. Not only does anyone with an elementary understanding of the cosmos fail to see Bifröst in the stars, but these days it is difficult to even know what it would feel like to perceive that.

It’s just as difficult to imagine the rest of life in medieval Scandinavia. A few years ago, I went back to Iceland, where I’d studied for a winter during college. There I visited the house of Erik the Red. The ruddy-bearded marauder is best known for colonizing Greenland. Brutal even by Viking standards, he was banished from Iceland for murder and cast westward. In a deliberate act of Fake News, he gave glacier-covered Greenland its deceptive name to lure more colonists into his icy dominion. His son, Leif Eriksson, is most famous for continuing his father’s westward voyages and settling a short-lived colony in North America—what Vikings called Vinland—near modern Newfoundland. American indigenous people, whom the Norse called Skræling, or “skin wearers” according to some translations, eventually kicked the Europeans out, becoming some of the only people to repel Viking conquests permanently. Icelandic Sagas tell tales of Leif’s brother, Thorvald Eriksson. A bloody marauder like his father, Thorvald attacked the Inuit tribe there, sparking a war between the two peoples. An Inuit arrow made its way through the Norse barricade, piercing Thorvald’s ribs and killing him. Thorvald, as he lay dying, probably believed like other Vikings that he would soon be carried by winged women called Valkyries to a great hall, Valhalla, where he would feast with other warriors who died in battle. There, they would await the final cosmic war between good and evil, to fight alongside those gods who traverse Bifröst. He had a sense of his place in the deep past and future, temporally and spatially. Residing in Midgard of Yggdrasil, between the flowering of the Tree of Life and the apocalyptic wars to come, he lived and died in a cosmic context. This firm sense of one’s place in history would also feel alien to most today.

Erik the Red’s longhouse, or the replica built with materials true to its history in the narrow valley where it had been, was small (see figure 2). It was a short, turf-covered hill erected from the wet, grassy ground. When you enter, you first smell dank earth and note the dark sod walls absorbing light and sound. A cook fire burns in the center, issuing smoke through a small hole in the roof, the only source of sunlight in a single-room dwelling, pitch black even at midday. Erik and his wife would sleep upright on a short, stiff bed, partly to deal with the indoor air pollution that prematurely deteriorated their lungs, but also for alertness. You see, their slaves—called thralls, likely abducted from Ireland or Britain—lived in the small house with them. Erik and his family had to stay on guard of frequent slave mutinies, keeping an axe or sword propped against their stout bed.

Figure 2 - The author beside Erik the Red’s former house.

Figure 2 - The author beside Erik the Red’s former house.

The life of a Viking’s thrall is as alien to the experience of most today as the life of a mind who looks at the Milky Way and sees Bifröst. As inhuman as wage labor can be today—and I’ve toiled in my fair share—the lifestyle is qualitatively distinct from the character of labor that entails sharing a small dark hut with a stinking, murdering gangster, attending his every whim, stuck on a cold, wet island far from one’s home. The most adamant socialist today could reasonably agree that even the non-unionized wage slavery of sweatshops is materially distinct from a life rinsing some warrior’s blood out of a Norseman’s scarlet beard, or, for that matter, from being shipped from Africa to Alabama, having your name and language stolen, and then being whipped to death. Forced wage labor, while no more morally tolerable, is more physically bearable than chattel enslavement.    

History—that is, recorded, settled, agrarian history, distinct from the more than ninety-five percent of our species’ history in which we foraged for food—is populated mostly by enslaved people. They are not the protagonists; they are the human backdrop, the dirt trod underfoot or the pools of blood spilled over  history’s planes. There’s a sense in our permanent present that the Euro-American Atlantic slave trade was a brief aberration in history, a moment of great evil that was quickly snuffed out. But in fact it was the rule, a normal part of a long-running economy sustaining a deep lineage of terrors. Forced labor was, for much of agrarian history, the main way in which most people lived. Selling bodies on slave markets was a central part of the world’s economies for millennia, from Rome, to Athens, to Mesopotamia, to Persia, to China, to India, to the Americas, and on. David Wengrow and David Graeber recently pointed out in an essay for Eurozine that agrarian societies did not invariably stratify into strict hierarchies, as they are often depicted in popular histories. Some were more egalitarian; some did not enslave their people or descend into patriarchy. Agrarian modes of production, they argue, don’t inherently result in autocratic patriarchs ruling over enslaved people and oppressed women: “the first cities,” they contend, “were often robustly egalitarian.”

But the undeniable arc of history seems to suggest that rigidly ordered, autocratic hierarchies outcompete the more egalitarian societies. Recorded history has been a process of empires consolidating, conquering more egalitarian peoples, and covering the world in agrarian slave camps. Forced labor and forced conscription simply produced larger, more effective farms and militaries, allowing empires to spread and cover the world by conquest, pulling most people into the inescapable black hole of enslavement. Anthropologist Marvin Harris wrote in his seminal text Cannibals and Kings, “In the 4,000 years between the appearance of the first states and the beginning of the Christian era, world population rose from about 87 million to 225 million. Almost four-fifths of the new total lived under the dominion of the Roman, Chinese Han, and Indian Gupta empires.” Harris goes on to describe these states:

“The ancient empires were warrens full of illiterate peasants toiling from morning to night only to earn protein-deficient vegetarian diets. They were little better off than their oxen and were no less subject to the commands of superior beings who knew how to keep records and who alone had the right to manufacture and use weapons of war and coercion. The fact that societies providing such meager rewards endured thousands of years—longer than any other system of statehood in the history of the world—stands as a grim reminder that there is nothing inherent in human affairs to ensure material and moral progress.”

Contrary to Marx’s opening claim in The Communist Manifesto that history is composed of class struggle between oppressor and oppressed, there was rarely much struggle. The masses ultimately acquiesced to the material necessities—and state administrations—dictated by their mode of production. Variations of slavery dominated labor conditions for millennia. This seems to be a nearly unavoidable story of preindustrial agrarian production. Start with a utopian anarchic commune, sure. But unless it has an airtight internal process preventing an armed gang from taking command of the group’s resources and has high walls with vicious guardians protecting it from larger, better-organized invading forces, it will not long remain utopian. None have.

It was a new mode of production—industrial—that delivered the world’s economy into an era of new labor and lifestyles, fueled by the extremely dense energy of fossilized hydrocarbons: oil, coal, and gas. Today, the human world is petrol. Your clothing is derived from petroleum, the food you ate for breakfast was planted, grown, picked, packed, shipped, and kept fresh by petroleum, your tap water is pumped around by petroleum, your home is made of materials derived from petroleum, built by the muscles of oil-fueled machines, the light you read by shines from petroleum, and your work—whatever it is—exists because of the supply chains in whose veins flow with floods of oil, gas, and coal. We are a great mass, children of oil, weaned on crude, living entirely by its flow. Most of today’s 7.3 billion people can only exist because of the dense energy derived from hydrocarbons. I am nourished by piped rivers of black. My skin is oil and coal.

If not for the spread of oil-fueled industrialization, there is a good chance most of us would either be toiling as saleable objects of commerce or as dirt poor peasants on some spit of feudal land under the panopticon of a gangster’s stone fortress, kissing Marlon Brando’s ring instead of watching Al Pacino do it. We would enjoy little choice in how we spend our time or chance of upward mobility, no chance to participate in politics, and no life-sustaining technologies like good nutrition, antibiotics, or modern healthcare. That is to say, we’d all suffer the brutality inflicted upon pockets of America and the Global South.

These dense energy sources allowed material wealth to flood economies around the world—much more lumber can be harvested with petrol-powered saws, more corn stripped from the earth by gas tractors, more fish scraped from the ocean by diesel trawlers. Fossil fuels also transformed labor from forced work camps to variably coerced wage-paying jobs. It is not capitalism, or socialism, or the enlightenment, or inevitable moral progress, or the printing press that can account for the arc of history toward our current technological and social changes, but rather the means by which we extract resources from the environment. We have computers and air-conditioning because of how industrial modes of production interacted with human systems and human ingenuity. The latter is vital, of course, but is futile without the former. Most people alive today live lifestyles free from the kingdoms of antiquity thanks largely to the mass politics fueled by fossilized energy.

At the same time, these fossil economies have consolidated. Hydrocarbons are easy to concentrate in a few hands. The capital derived from them has created its own oppressive oligarchy, with a handful of men controlling wealth equivalent to half the world’s population and with most states enforcing an extreme hierarchy and power imbalance. Oil did not truly free us; instead, it expanded the material wealth of many more people, but it also sustained extreme inequalities in power and capital.

The general course of human existence has been chaotic, often nonlinear. But regardless of our moral philosophies or social movements, it has been grasping efficiently toward the transformation of the sun’s and planet’s energy into ever-denser populations of human bodies. Humans, with all our psychological complexity, all of our dramas, our emotions and poetry, have seemed to bend to laws of nature. Ultimately, we use our big energy-gulping brains to figure out how to turn solar energy—fossilized or living—into more human cells. A pen pal of mine, a farmer in Canada of North American indigenous heritage wrote to me of this problem. “Maybe the determinists are right? All of this is a thermodynamic fait accompli. We are merely a heat engine,” he mused.

Of course, the biggest problem with this petrol world is that civilization floats precariously on vast pools of oil, gas, and coal that will absolutely kill us all if they’re burned. When volcanoes burned up buried fossil fuels 252 million years ago, it caused the late-Permian extinction event—the world’s worst—called the Great Dying by scientists. Fossilized organic matter—coal, oil, and gas—made huge swaths of the planet as uninhabitable and barren as Mars. It killed nearly every living thing in the oceans and on land. It was a far more disastrous calamity than the famous meteorite that killed the dinosaurs. Today, we are doing the same thing those ancient volcanoes did, but at a much faster pace. If we continue to burn fossil energy unchecked, we will almost certainly kill ourselves and most other living creatures.

In today’s perpetual present, the luxuries those privileged citizens in the wealthy world enjoy—due process, free press, antibiotics, abundant food and clothing, elected representatives, toilets—seem so permanent and limitless. But they are brand new inventions and they are tenuous. If we were to shut off our oil-fueled economic engine today, they would dissipate in a puff of smog. In that case, the only direction we can go is back, back to the servitude and forced labor of agrarian economies. Sure, some communities could build egalitarian utopias in the violent chaos of a global civilizational collapse. But they would eventually be swallowed by more brutal, hierarchical slave economies—a story history tells over and over.

The question before us today is whether humans possess the will necessary to use the energy wealth we enjoy for progress. Are we men and women, or are we heat engines? Do we have the capacity to use the little bit of fossil energy we can continue using, before it burns the world to ash, to build an entirely different—better—way of living on the planet? We need to use fossil fuels if we are going to build a high-energy density economy—some society not beholden to the brutal laws of agrarian servitude and privation—that allows people to live in freedom and prosperity.

Hydrocarbons are the shimmering rainbow bridge capable of connecting us to that paradise realm of egalitarian, sustainable prosperity. This is not to repeat the propaganda proliferated by the fossil fuel industry and neoliberal politicians. Fracked gas is not a “bridge fuel.” It never has been. It was never intended to be. But we do need a petroleum-based industrial mode of production to transform built civilization into non-carbon energy infrastructures. We need oil and gas to manufacture solar panels to the extent necessary to power a complex economy capable of self-sustaining without fossil energy, to mine the metals necessary for renewable energy production, and to ship those panels and turbines around the world. We are squandering this resource to run big cars, manufacture pointless consumer products, generate disposable plastics, and fuel bloated militaries; to satisfy base impulse and psychopathic power.

We have very little time before petroleum makes the earth incapable of hosting civilization; we have potentially a few years before runaway climate change becomes unstoppable, which could make the earth uninhabitable for Homo sapiens. We are already traversing the rainbow bridge Bifröst. We are building it as we travel on it like a manic cartoon coyote sprinting over a void before he looks down. Sadly, we are not building toward the land of gods; we are building in circles, constructing curling ringlets that branch into nothing. Eventually we are going to run out of bridge, or it will kill us, as Bifröst will collapse under the fire giants that we have become.

Put another way, a question before us is, will this explosion of energy fossil fuels have delivered serve as a bright bridge to a better world, or will they provide merely a brief orgasm of light and color in an obscure history: a quick flash of heat and illumination before we return to the dank darkness of enslavement in a sod hut? Do we have the dignity to act of our own agency, transcend some mammalian impulses and instead act on those instincts of benevolent sacrifice for each other?

That we live in this sliver of history is remarkable. That we are alive in this moment of dire consequence gives each of us breathing today historical significance. If we fail to exercise our agency—individual and collective—we will return to a state in which most live at the whim of nature and men, slaves of history, slaves of geography, and slaves of kings and lords. Climate change is already fueling the rise of strongmen dictators around the world. If we don’t halt climate disruption and stop using fossil fuels, this process will inevitably continue, regardless of the social movements or politics that arise to combat it. This process of returning to pre-industrial modes of production will be horrific. The process by which some are allowed to live, or die, will be determined not by a benevolent end times deity, will not be decided in karmic balance, the good and the wicked will not be parceled out for their deserving judgment. As ever, the wealthiest and most brutal will make those life-and-death decisions.

If we return to that world, we may forever lose the capacity to build a mode of production beyond foraging or agriculture, and therefore lose the capacity to build a complex civilization based on freedom and fairness, forever. We may lose other things of value. Without a dense energy economy, a complex supply chain, without the leisure—paid for by dense energy wealth—to study and write and discover, there can be no further technological progress. If we miss this shot, we may never behold those dramas swirling in the Milky Way, never continue our current line of knowledge, and never witness whatever new discoveries await. Farmers can’t build rockets. Hunter-gatherers can’t build telescopes.

Perhaps most importantly, we will lose the opportunity to protect life on earth. People and livestock account for 96% of mammalian biomass on earth. Of all our unique talents, there is probably only one trait that could morally justify this kind of human exceptionalism and begin to compensate for our transforming so much of the world’s biomass into more humans or human purposes. And that trait is the potential for our technology to prevent a complete doomsday event on the planet. We are the only species that has ever graced the earth to reach a technological capacity able to protect the planet from existential threats. We could stop an asteroid; right now, we are the asteroid. But we’ll only have the technology to save life with an advanced, high-energy economy, and we can only have that with sustainable modes of production. We now have a chance to use the wealth we have bought with the vast organic history locked in black rocks to ensure that other lives—human and otherwise—may survive into the deep future. Whether that agency lies within us is an open question.

Neil Gaiman, in his recent book Norse Mythology, describes Ragnarök, the end times battle that rests ahead of all the lives of those ancient Germanic peoples who believed in Odin and Bifröst, the end that they all knew was coming. “It will happen when the gods all sleep,” he writes, “in the time of men.”

This will be the age of cruel winds, the age of people who become as wolves, who prey upon each other, who are no better than wild beasts…

The mountains will shake and crumble. Trees will fall, and any remaining place where people live will be destroyed…

There will be flooding too, as the seas rise and surge on to the land…

The Midgard serpent…will writhe in its fury…the venom from its fangs will spill into the water, poisoning all the sea life…There will be no more life in the oceans …

The [fire giants] of Muspell will ride down from the heavens…They will ride across the rainbow bridge, across Bifröst, and the rainbow will crumble as they ride, its once-bright colours becoming shades of charcoal and of ash. There will never be another rainbow.

After perpetual winters and bloody wars that decimate the people of Midgard, after tragic battles between gods like Thor, Odin, and Freya and the fire and ice giants and Loki that leaves them all dead, “the worlds will end, in ash and flood, in darkness and in ice.”

But Gaiman points out that, “From grey waters of the ocean, the green earth will arise once more.” Amid this apocalypse, a few gods survive. Two lone humans hide and persist, and from them a new population of people is born. “And the game begins anew,” he ends. Regardless of what we do the green earth will arise, for a time, even if its wounds take millennia to heal. But whether that breeding pair—called Life and Life’s Yearning by the Norse—will survive Ragnarök to rebuild humanity anew, and whether they will deserve to, that’s still for us to decide today.

Samuel Miller McDonald is a writer and geography PhD student at University of Oxford studying the intersection of grassroots movements and energy transition.

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