Essay: Douglas Kahnon ecopaths

What is an Ecopath?

We all have our favorite psychopaths. I am not alone in being entranced by Anton Chigurh, Javier Bardem’s character in the Coen Brothers’ adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel No Country for Old Men. Set in the expanse of Texas along the Mexican border, the film has a Western feel. Chigurh might then correspond to an outlaw gunslinger within genre fictions of law and order, but you can tell he is more than that. He is an enforcer in an efficient system of slaughter. His weapon of choice – a tank of compressed air that drives a stun gun – is a device normally used to render livestock compliantly unconscious, or inflict enough damage to kill in the first place. In an old Western, imagine a pistol twirled around and returned to its holster. Here the bolt is immediately retractable, a bullet returning to its jacket as though nothing has happened.

Chigurh’s psychopathological streak reveals itself in the way he interrogates victims on existential matters before flipping a coin to determine their fate. The cold application of his lethal moral code is almost god-like, if gods did not also have a measure of benevolence. For victims in such a situation there is a brief paralysis while waiting for the coin to land. Some of us fill these moments with hope. Chigurh successfully eludes capture and gets away with murder. All of them. The sheriff pursuing him admits defeat and goes into retirement while Chigurh, the person and the code, continues down the road. There is no resolution through violence, no ending or end in sight, only more violence.

Outside the cinema, or the pages of a novel, we are unlikely to run into a wayward psychopath like Chigurh. Or so it would seem. In reality, we routinely encounter antagonists even more ruthless. They are the villains in No Country for Bangladeshis, No Islands for Islanders, No Crops for Hunger, their prequels, sequels, and trailers in the fossil-fueled climate horror/mass extinction genre. Only a few short decades ago, we may have only intuited their stealth or thought of them as understudies to real villainy. With bodies littering roads around the world now and no end in sight, their presence is unavoidable. Yet the existential questions they pose are real. It has been a blockbuster season in Australia.

Psychopath doesn’t capture the epic scale at which they work; their terror encompasses the space of the entire earth and  a timespan of multiple generations: an intergenerational injustice. Nor does sociopath fit the bill, if at this level war crimes and genocide come into play. During an interview on the BBC last year, veteran actor and activist Jane Fonda became lost for words, or at least one word that might make sense of this new order. She was adamant that the Exxons of the world be held to account in front of Nuremberg-like trials. The company already knew in the 1970s of the consequences of their actions, and chose instead to wage a propaganda campaign in the name of business as usual. ‘I think when a company is told by the scientists that it has hired, that what they are doing can cause irreversible, irreparable damage to the globe and to many parts of humanity, and the executives who hear that continue what they are doing anyway…. um, I don’t know the names you want to call that but I think it’s criminal.’

The BBC host pressed further, doing her job being incredulous. ‘You think this is Nuremberg? …Nuremberg was about holocaust, about willful genocide. Is that what you’re accusing companies of now? … Criminal is not the same as genocide.’ How could Fonda have anticipated such a debate? It is awkward to be thrown into a numbers game of –cides. How can anyone start at the number one with homicide or suicide, let alone where millions compete? Is there an Archimedean point from which to compare the deaths of 11 million in the Nazi Holocaust, or 50 million Indigenous people in the Americas due to European colonisation, the so-called Orbis Spike in the cold, calculated deracinations of geology?

Eloquence and a sense of urgency overrode Fonda’s obvious impatience. ‘I think it’s worse … Hundreds of millions of people are going to be made into climate refugees. And we don’t know what’s going to happen to them. Many of them will die. A lot of them come from the Global South. Call it what you will.’ Genocide seems somehow inadequate, if not in quantity then in quality. What do we call the people culpable for unleashing this magnitude of misery?

Let’s call them ecopaths. The term completes the set of an unholy trinity: psychopath, sociopath, ecopath. A cruel logic emerges that denotes the scale at which they work – individual, societal, planetary. So too do species of -cides align, with ecopaths taking their rightful place at the end of the slaughter spectrum: homicide, genocide, omnicide.

They are at the end of the scale because they kill the conditions for life itself, and by they I mean individuals. Fonda and the BBC host happened to frame their discussion around corporations, but there are other institutions responsible as well, and none of them are faceless. It is, after all, actual people who make decisions, pull triggers, and flip coins. Although these individuals may be playing roles in an ensemble cast, their responsibility is no less clear.

Along the slaughter spectrum, the weapons of choice scale up accordingly. Psychopaths have an intimacy with friends and strangers who they kill with their bare hands, knives, guns, and other implements. While their crimes may grow to paralyze a community, they rarely reach over the horizon. Sociopaths are incapable of unleashing widespread misery single-handedly, and instead rely upon the assistance of others: the proxies under their command or sway. Their violence extends over multiple horizons using offshore tax havens, financial algorithms, and military juntas, just as long as they avoid that dock in The Hague.

Ecopaths build upon a sociopath’s mobility and managerial savvy. But it is wrong to call the space they traverse global, if by that we mean exchanges among nations and multinationals. They have lifted their game to transform the entire solar-terrestrial environment into a slow, overheated killing field. Their achievement lies in triggering millions of years of fossilized Sun to accumulate in the glare of the Sun’s present life. They weaponise the troposphere, that thin film of planetary possibility, in order to murder the conditions for life. Slayers as a species will also become extinct.

Unlike their psychopathic and sociopathic peers who have humans in their sights, ecopaths are equal opportunity destroyers, omnicidal maniacs. Omnicide may be unfamiliar to some. Danielle Celermajer reinvigorated the term during the first days of 2020 when bushfires demonstrated to the entire world that Australia was the continental canary in its own coalmine. ‘We are unlikely to identify anyone actively scheming the death of the five-hundred million wild animals whom we believe to have died in the first month’, Celermajer wrote in the peak of the summer. Before the month was out that number was confirmed at one billion. ‘True, in recent years, environmentalists have coined the term ecocide, the killing of ecosystems — but this is something more. This is the killing of everything. Omnicide.’ Celermajer goes on to categorically identify many of those responsible. This is what the auditioning process looks like for court dramas.

Bushfire is a misleading term to the extent that these were coal fires. I was in a narrow corridor in the Blue Mountains that was not overtaken by them. The serpent nearly swallowed its tail when coal mines and power stations were threatened. State governments in Australia placed a ban on anyone lighting fires, but have so far refused to ban coal-fired power plants, even though they’ve known for decades that they’re at the root of the disaster. Metropolitan areas choked on weeks of smoke, unaware the particulates they were inhaling were more than plant-based. They were also more than coal-fired. Lungs filtered, as Celermajer described, charismatic and uncharismatic species. Hectares of endangerment were inhaled. Extinctions tightened in the chest.

The only objection might be that petroleum too fueled the flames that ferociously rose above the canopy of the eucalypts and burnt to new depths underground. Haven’t Saudi Arabian ecopaths also killed koalas, then? Aren’t petrocultural bandits an uncharismatic species invasive to every locale? In balancing this gruesome speadsheet for who is accountable, yes, and thus, so too do Queensland coal cohorts and magnates bask in African droughts.

The notion of omnicide was rehearsed decades ago in response to the Cold War. The bombs that the United States dropped upon the citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were, only a decade later, considered to be tactical. With thermonuclear devices, the geopolitical sense of strategic superseded tactical, but also introduced for the first time existential at earth magnitude. The idea of an object changed objectives. Responsively triggered delivery systems rendered devices (things) omnicidal, and first strikes suicidal.

‘It is feared that if many H-bombs are used there will be universal death, sudden only for a minority, but for the majority a slow torture of disease and disintegration’, stated the 1955 Russell-Einstein Manifesto. The signatories, mostly physicists, spoke as ‘members of the species Man’, although Woman was excluded and no other species signed. They asked that the politics of communism and anti-communism be set aside, and that citizens of the world ‘…consider yourselves only as members of a biological species which has had a remarkable history, and whose disappearance none of us can desire.’

Celermajer’s description of omnicide in the recent bushfires stressed widespread species destruction, whereas the only mention of another species in the Russell-Einstein Manifesto was a nod to tuna. This makes the first antagonist in omnicidal cinema a mutant species. In 1954, a United States nuclear test in the Pacific drifted outside its anticipated impact zone and rained down radioactive fallout upon the fishing boat Lucky Dragon (Daigo Fukuryū Maru). As the philosopher-physicist Manifesto said, it ‘infected the Japanese fishermen and their catch of fish’. Many in Japan considered it the third nuclear attack on their nation, as the voices of fish market traders were laced with the clicking sounds of Geiger counters. At the beginning of Ishirō Honda’s film, Godzilla (1954), the Lucky Dragon fishermen witness a blast of light from which a monster arises from the ocean and attacks Japan. Exxon Godzilla may be too low a bar for the Coens, but there are other options.

In 1974 the French philosopher Michel Serres described the death drive that produced this tangible capability for global self-annihilation as thanatocracy. In 1980 the British historian and Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament activist, E. P. Thompson, sought to describe the imperialist tendencies which saw their elaboration through massively destructive infrastructures as exterminism. Thompson never adapted exterminism to a second, fossil-fueled iteration of omnicide, whereas Serres did do so in The Natural Contract (1990). Serres also discussed the common spatial domain of nuclear armaments and global warming in terms of world objects: objects we inhabit at a planetary scale rather than possess or grasp personally, similar to what Timothy Morton would eventually call hyperobjects in a more metaphysical frame. Omnicide, therefore, has had two main energetic expressions: instant incineration and slow burn. Not so slow anymore.

One ecopath determines our fate more than a plague of Chigurhs, and in our species they are quite plentiful. So why have they proven so elusive to identify, while psychopaths and sociopaths overpopulate our imaginations? An amateur gumshoe could track them down. Any bloodhound possesses more than a nose for their emissions. One problem is that they distribute their victims, dumping them at great distances and in different global jurisdictions. Those at the helm of tar sands plants in Alberta or a coal-fired power station in Australia claim no responsibility for what’s left in the wake of hurricanes in the Caribbean.

Hiding out in their own homes does not always work. Their homes are not ‘safe houses’. With over 100 people dead and $125 billion in damages, Hurricane Harvey welcomed home the climate change legacy of Texas oil fields, forcing barons to seek shelter in their exclusive Houston postcodes. A script is starting to develop. In a familiar cliché of breaking news, crews of reporters and cameras crowd onto the block a few doors down from the scene of a horrible crime. Perhaps a chopper’s aerial shots of detectives digging in the backyard, pitching tents so others are spared the trauma and evidence is protected?

Cut back to the studio. The station’s meteorologist breaks down climate data with graphs and photographs of boards of directors. A neighbor then speaks with the reporter: ‘They never bothered anyone. They seemed like nice philanthropists with perfectly deductible charities. We had no idea they stockpiled killer companies. How do we keep these predators away from our adult grandkids?’

An ecopath’s best hiding place is in time, not space. Psychopaths, sociopaths, and ecopaths all commit their crimes in the present. Ecopaths are the only ones to postpone the deaths of their victims. They roam free in the lag between the triggers they pull today and the corpses that pile up in the future. Crops too, forests, sea life, and wildlife, all are weakened, awaiting the coup de grâce of exceeded ‘tipping points’ to be wiped out for good. Victims’ bodies are cremated by the carbon that already hangs in the sky.

Justice requires pursuit at the moment of the crime, not in waiting for other inevitabilities. Please do not confuse this with Minority Report. In Phillip K. Dick’s short story, mutant ‘precogs’ envision crimes before they happen, whereas ecopaths have not only already committed their crimes, they continue to do so, their crimes accumulating over time. Although they are already responsible for massive destruction, the strategic toll that truly elevates them to the top of the slaughter scale is yet to come.

In Dick’s short story the crimes are one or two weeks into the future, that is, the crimes have not yet been committed. In the movie adaptation, lead-time is reduced to four days, even shorter for the crime of passion. In the opening scene ‘Precrime’ team members have only 24 minutes and 13 seconds to intervene, SWAT squad style. Ecopaths don’t operate within these stunted timeframes; there are no crimes of passion, only profitable crimes of dispassion, coldly executed in a futures market in which invisible strangers will die. Ecopaths are too busy maintaining and enjoying their wealth to provide the personal, customized attention that would be common courtesy for a psychopath or other grade of murderer.

Precogs are short for precognitives. Theirs is a task an oracle might have performed in Ancient Greece when not doling out more mundane advice. But precogs don’t see everything, unlike Olympian gods or tech giants. Each precog is only capable of envisioning a blurry and scattered future, where even low production values are capable of motivating action. These visions are technologically monitored and formed as reports upon which the Precrime unit acts, dispatching a team to enforce justice on a yet-to-be-committed crime. Precogs are, in this way, not visionaries. They are simply sensitive to murder, because it tears at the metaphysical fabric of the world, and reverberates back to the present.

Prescience is similar to precognition: to know in advance, a pre-science. Robust climate models rather than frail mutants have been foretelling misfortune for decades, relying upon thousands of scientists as opposed to three precogs. With higher production values, the sophistication of scientific modelling has given rise to climate attribution studies that have, in turn, identified the proportional causality of destructive effects of historical and ongoing greenhouse gas emissions produced by certain industrial sectors and companies. These studies provide evidence in lawsuits by governments, and the basis for class actions against fossil fuel companies and other polluters, seeking reimbursement for damage already done and funds to adapt to worsening, inevitable effects.

Scriptwriters can begin trolling court transcripts in these lawsuits, if they haven’t already. Executive producers pinned in their Malibu beachfront homes between the 2018 Woolsey Fire and the Pacific already swallowing islands have to be open to pitches. Cinematographers are already at work on the establishing shot: planetary modeling zooms into midrange attribution studies that highlight industrial sectors and specific corporations. Tighter focus still and civil suits against CEOs, boards of directors and top-tier personnel purchases among governments and media organisations expose a series of mugshots. Ecopaths are cast as fallen, anachronistic stars, descending from their office suites like Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard down her grand stairway: ‘All right Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.’

But aren’t we all ecopaths? Aren’t we the smoking guns in this emergency? Aren’t we the ones waving away the smoke choking us with the invisible hand of the market that we individually puppet? Doesn’t each torque of our ignition key set another polar bear adrift, with each commute growing skinnier, the ice thinner? Aren’t we our own sinking feeling?

In reality, ecopaths are perfectly happy for their private jets to blend into the rush hours of humanity. Not all commuters look down upon their polar routes for new shipping lanes and oil exploration sites, thanking the thaw. As Timothy Mitchell describes in Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil (2011), fossil fuel companies enforced dependencies against which few have means to counter. Feelings of personal hypocrisy are the masochistic expression of these dependencies.

Can we please assume that climate denialism peaked in 2019? The fires in Australia, and California, along with the dead and displaced here and elsewhere, have pushed past granting denialists any further tolerance. They are but lone dogs abandoned in the drought, stirring up a bit of dust with their barking. The risk now is in the denialism of power. Ignoring specific culpability only hastens destruction. Identifying ecopaths in novels, plays, movie scripts, and everyday language is, in this context, a modest move that brings common sense to a situation in which the science has been settled, but on the slaughter scale, justice has not.

Humanity as a whole has not made extreme weather events more frequent and severe, only certain humans have done so. Psychopath-like gods gave up responsibility for routine natural disasters long ago. A single lightning strike was once thought to be an act of a god, but where a thunderstorm goes, how long it lasts, and under what conditions lightning occurs follows events in the extreme. Not only do bolts now have human content, they have certain human content. In this climate, ecopaths woodburn their signatures with dry lightning falling upon forests they have dessicated. In these flashing moments we find not gods but cowards hiding in time, suiciding their descendants and ours.

Corral Canyon Malibu November 2018. Photo: Lynn Robb

Works Cited

Michel Serres, ‘Trahison: la thanatocratie,’ in Serres, Hermès III: La traduction (Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1974), 73-104; translated by Randolph Burks as ‘Betrayal: The Thanatrocracy Public 24, no. 48 (December 2013): 19–40.

E.P. Thompson, ‘Notes on Exterminism, the Last Stage of Civilization,’ New Left Review I, No. 121 (May-June, 1980): 3-31.