Kevin Hester is an environmental and anti-imperialist activist living in New Zealand who is raising the alarm about the dramatic, planetary-scale changes that are underway. He is expecting “the imminent collapse of the biosphere from the perfect storm of runaway abrupt climate change and indifferent human hubris.”He regularly publicizes the latest pertinent stories and data on his website, kevinhester.live, and on his interview show, Nature Bats Last, on the Progressive Radio Network (which he took over from Guy McPherson, the well-known proponent of Near Term Human Extinction theory). This is not Hester’s first appearance on Counterpunch; in 2016 he was interviewed by Eric Draitser for Counterpunch Radio.
In January of this year, I spoke with Hester over Skype, as part of researching an upcoming (and nearly finished) new book. What follows is an abridged transcript of the conversation, edited for clarity. The full transcript (which is over twice as long) is posted to my blog. Here, we begin in media res, after he described the global environment as “hitting the wall.”
Sonnenblume: When you say “hit the wall,” I think I know what you mean from having read things you’ve put out there, but could you say what you mean about that, in a real basic way?
Hester: Yeah sure. I believe that collapse of the biosphere is underway. It’s not going to happen sometime in the future. It’s already underway. I interviewed Professor Paul Ehrlich for my radio show Nature Bats Last on the Progressive Radio Network and one of the papers that Paul and his colleagues have just released was called “The Unfolding Sixth Great Extinction and Biological Annihilation on the Planet.” …What it stemmed from was that just recently they discovered in Germany that they’ve lost 80% of the flying insect population in the last 17 years. That’s in a reserve system in the normal countryside, not where agriculture is bathing the land in herbicides and pesticides. This is in the national parks [where] they’ve had this collapse. It’s mimicked the collapse of the phytoplankton and krill species which are keystone members of the marine food web. So it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to look around and see that collapse is unfolding.
Sonnenblume: Yeah, the insects; that story was released this last year, I remember, by those German scientists and I think there’s been some supposition that part of that was due to the use of agricultural chemicals and conventional farming. But it’s beyond just that I think.
Hester: Undoubtedly. It’s habitat loss. Habitat is collapsing on the planet. It’s collapsing for these keystone species. People just don’t understand how important these minor – physically minor or small insects and organisms have toward being key links in the chain of the biosphere. We’ve been chipping away, chipping away, chipping away and it’s incredible what we don’t know. Most of the species on this planet have yet to be identified. We’ve finally just barely had a quick look at the bottom of the oceans, which is where we all come from. We’re losing keystone species that we know of. But we’re also losing keystone species that we didn’t know existed. It’s the perfect storm.
Sonnenblume: Right. The phytoplankton in the ocean, that’s considered a keystone species because they’re at the, quote, “the bottom” of the food chain.
Hester: Yes and they do multiple roles. They metabolize [carbon]. Most of the carbon that we emit goes into the oceans, not the atmosphere, and until recently a lot of that carbon has been metabolized by the different species like the phytoplankton. And the carbon has been stored at the bottom of the ocean and oxygen has been released. But what we’re finding is that we’re now getting a situation where the oceans, which effectively are like a battery, are overcharged and acidifying and there’s evidence that the ocean is out-gassing carbon now. So we’re losing our sinks, our sinks that have buffered us from the worst of the damage. Those sinks are now falling over. Last year we lost more forests globally than the physical size of the country that I live in…
Sonnenblume: And the forests are being cut down in large part for farming, it’s my understanding, for raising cattle, for raising feed for cattle, and also for… palm oils.
Hester: Yeah, all those things are happening, everywhere you look. It’s extraordinary. And of course as our atmosphere heats up, trees stop sequestering carbon, somewhere around 35 or 37 degrees [Celsius, which is 95-98.6ºF]. Once they get into drought and heat stress they become carbon emitters. We had a situation a few years ago where they had thousands of fires burning in Indonesia and for a brief period of time, for a few weeks, Indonesia was the second largest emitter of carbon on the planet.
Sonnenblume: Just because they were having fires?
Hester: Yeah. And a lot of those fires were capitalist fires where industrialists had paid people to go set fire to native forests. Because they were in drought, and it was so hot, they could get them to burn. Because traditionally a lot of these places were rain forests. The rain forest wouldn’t be able to burn because it was green and damp. But when it gets into heat stress, then these lunatics can set fires and burn it and later on they can go back and plant palm forests on them. But another thing that takes place when land is burned off and – this happened in California just recently [when] they had those massive fires – and then afterwards they had deluges and those deluges washed an extraordinary amount of topsoil into the rivers and oceans. Lost! Completely lost…
Sonnenblume: There was a photograph that came out during the Thomas Fire that showed the billowing smoke in the background and then in the foreground there were some agricultural fields and there were some Latino workers who were out there doing the harvesting. And of course it wasn’t white people because its’ much easier to exploit the migrants than the citizens here.
Hester: Yeah, same old story. Disenfranchised. Take advantage of the poor. Classic, quintessential capitalism where they exploit all the resources and they treat the humans as resources, they treat the flora and fauna as resources. Everything is just a resource to be exploited for capitalism.
Sonnenblume: I agree, describing this as capitalism is perfectly accurate. And yet, capitalism itself doesn’t go back six or eight thousand years, during which all of this destruction has been happening. I mean, capitalism ramped it up to a whole ‘nother level. But –
Hester: I think part of it was civilization, where we became civilized and started living in cities. One of the things with cities is that very quickly they over-reach their ability to feed themselves, and their supply chains get longer and longer and longer and longer… With civilization, where you can store grains, you can control people. In the days gone by when people were only hunter-gatherers and tending small plots, everyone in the village had to play their part or they got drop-kicked out of the village, but now it’s different where it’s all about exploiting. Oxfam just released a paper about wealth disparity on the planet. It just goes to show that literally a handful of people own half the planet’s wealth. Wealth disparity is one of the driving issues of the sixth great extinction.
Sonnenblume: It’s amazing to think what a small number of individuals it is. I think I just saw that there are 8 individuals who have as much wealth as the, quote, “bottom” three and a half billion – with a “b” as in “boy” – people in the world.
Hester: Correct. That’s the stat I’ve seen as well.
Sonnenblume: Well that’s insane. Part of me looks at that and is like, how does that keep going? That’s only eight people “with names and addresses,” to quote Utah Phillips. So how does that keep going?
Hester: The theory I believe is that capitalism is a vortex of socio-pathological people at the top. If you look at the people who are running the big corporations, that are grinding the living planet into dust, I believe that the vast majority of those people are suffering from psychological illnesses… You’ll hear people say all the time, “Well how can they sleep?” making those decisions. It’s a mistake to think those people have empathy. They don’t have the same problems that we have. They don’t have sleepless nights worrying about poor people down the road who are exposed to the elements because capitalism has just consumed everything around them and it’s all been vortexed into the hands of the few. Those few don’t lose any sleep over the poor. They don’t lose any sleep over deforestation…
Sonnenblume: …I’ve personally spent more and more of my time in rural areas and camping on our public lands in order to… have some peace of mind and to be able to reflect on the whole situation and understand it better. Because the one thing that’s been holding me in the United States for the moment – because at some point I might want to go some other places – has been the beautiful wilderness that still exists in the United States, especially in the western half. There’s mountains and deserts and forests. And although you can’t go anyplace that’s untouched, you can go to places that have only been lightly touched. You can go to places in the desert where you can actually just be by yourself and not talk to anyone for weeks if you want. The perspective that I’ve been able to get from having time like that has really helped me personally. To be away from it all.
Hester: I think it’s an antidote for despair. For anyone who’s paying any attention to the unraveling of the biosphere, the biggest challenge we’re all going to have going forward is dealing with our grief. I believe that everyone is grieving to some degree or other, whether its consciously or unconsciously, and one of the ways to deal with that is to immerse yourself as much as you can in the natural world. It’s easy for me because I come from an underpopulated, beautiful country surrounded by oceans so the worst horrors of climate change are still delayed here because of the effect of the cooling aspect of, a) the oceans that surround us, and b) we’re quite low in the southern hemisphere. But what I always say, and what I do, is I spend as much time as I can in the natural world while it’s still holding on. I’m bearing witness to the unraveling. It can be very alienating. You know, no one wants to hear me talk about collapse; they think I’m dire and doomy. But this is one of the problems with liberals, with middle class liberals: their lives are so comfortable, they can just ignore the fact that we’re losing 150-200 species every day and the poor everywhere on the planet are just being crushed.
Sonnenblume: Yeah. The effects of climate change are being directly felt by other people. I have a friend in Portland who was working with the climate change group, 350, which you’ve probably heard of. The local chapter of 350 in Portland was more radical than the national organization. They had a visitor, a climate change activist from Bangladesh, who came and lived at my friend’s apartment for a few months and who was working with 350 PDX. And in Bangladesh there is no such thing, really, as climate change denial because they’re all experiencing it there. Most of their nation is only a few feet above sea level. And what was happening there, that she reported, is that the freshwater is getting inundated with salt from the ocean and so people are getting sick and dying sooner than they normally would have, so women are now getting married and having children earlier than they used to because they can’t count on being as old as they used to be when they had kids.
Hester: Extraordinary. There’s a parallel with that happening to my Polynesian and Melanesian neighbors. The wells and the aquifers on a lot of the island in the south Pacific are getting more and more brackish. A few millimeters of sea level rise can alter the pH of the land and the wells and aquifers on these islands. Most of the sea level rise so far has come from thermal expansion, where the oceans have expanded, not from melting ice caps and glaciers.
Sonnenblume: Just from the fact that the oceans are warmer?
Hester: There’s a thermal expansion in the ocean. See, you heat water up and it physically expands in size. So that’s where a lot of sea level rise has come from already.
Sonnenblume: So you know people on some of these islands?
Hester: Oh yeah, totally. I’ve got a very dear friend who is a professor at Victoria University, Pala Molisa, who comes from Vanuatu. I attended a conference that Pala organized at Victoria in Wellington, which is the capital… And there were a lot of people speaking there, a lot of indigenous people from around the Pacific. And one criticism of me when I speak, sometimes, is people say, “You’re too emotional,” and I find that hilarious that the only people who’ve ever said I’m too emotional are the Anglo-Saxons. None of the indigenous people have ever said to me, “Oh you’re too emotional,” because they’re going through this emotional roller coaster. They know – they know that their islands are becoming daily more inhospitable to life. And the critical thing for a lot of indigenous people is that they believe that their ancestors walk amongst them. So it’s incredibly important for them to remain in their ancestral homelands because multiple generations walk amongst them. So when you talk to people in Polynesia about having to evacuate from Kiribati or Tuvalu, people don’t understand what a cultural upheaval this is for these people. It’s not just about leaving home. It’s about abandoning your ancestors. This is why the world is dominated by the ex-Anglo-Saxon colonialists. There’s so many of these important things that just go straight over their heads.
Sonnenblume: …We have a responsibility to use our privilege to try to do something good in the world.
Hester: Yeah I hundred percent believe that… I’m fighting for Gaia and I’m fighting for the natural world and I believe the biosphere is in collapse. I believe that it will unravel in an exponential way in the coming months, and years if we’re lucky. If we get years we’ll be lucky. But I still believe what you’ve gotta do is do the right thing until the last moment. I work on a little island where I’ve got a lovely couple of dear friends of mine who have set up a not-for-profit nursery where we’re propagating native trees. We’ve got a rewilding program for our island. So any of the private landowners who come on board, they can buy the native plants from us at cost price, already on the island and acclimatized to the island. We’re trying to rewild and re-vegetate. And I firmly believe that the planet will become uninhabitable and inhospitable for complex life very soon. But I would love to be planting another tree on my last day when the towering inferno sweeps across us…
Sonnenblume: I understand. I feel the same drive.
Hester: It’s the only moral position to take… Some people who believe what I believe – that we’re already in collapse – are choosing to either not do anything or [are] discouraging people from doing anything. And that is completely a misrepresentation of our position. We’re just being honest about the severity of the crisis. I am going to keep doing the right thing until the lights go out. All the really true environmentalists and people with their hearts in the right place will do that no matter what.
But let’s just stop bullshitting our youth. It really pisses me off when I see all this pressure put on young people that “you’ve gotta fix” this complete catastrophe that we have bequeathed them. That is so unfair. It’s wrong to tell the young people that they have to fix the unfixable. All we have to do is be completely honest with them and say we’ve dumped this on you and the place is becoming uninhabitable really quickly. We’re really sorry. You people have got to do the right thing for you. What I would suggest that young people [do] is learn horticulture, agriculture, how to fix things, now to make things. Learn practical skills. Don’t go into law and accounting and IT. All of these things depend on the internet working. The internet ‘s going to go off soon. The more practical skills you have on that day, the better off you will be.
Full transcript is posted here.