“Welcome to Paradise”, an unpublished essay by Danny Lyon

“Welcome to Paradise”

Nancy and I were in a rented Jeep driving up a road above La Paz, the highest capitol in the world, a road going right up into the Bolivian Alps among the highest mountains in South America. We were hoping to reach Milluni, a mining camp. It’s normal for me to travel with a small spinning rod, so at a meadow on the way up, we stopped so I could cast it into the clear shining lake, the snow capped mountains towering above us, llamas grazing in the fields around. It was 15,000 feet above sea level. The snow covered mountains around us were 18,000 feet high. I caught a small silver trout. Once we were in Milluni, I wandered the narrow streets of the extremely cold town, looking for pictures, when I soon I spotted another man, another European man, in the distance. Like me he was walking around, and like me he was holding a Leica. Tourists do not go to Milluni. And most of them do not carry Leica’s. Who was this guy? and what was he doing there?
“He” it turned out, was Chris Hedges.
“You’re Chris Hedges!” I said. “You write for the ‘New York Times’! I love your writing.”
“Really?” he exclaimed. “I thought only my mother read what I wrote.”
I don’t recall where baby Noah was. I don’t see pictures of him in the Jeep. We probably left him with someone to care for at the Palacio Hotel in La Paz where we were staying. He was four months old. Today Noah is thirty eight years old and the father of two daughters that may live to the end of this century.

I am in Belize now, listening to Mozart on my phone, typing on the porch of a thatched roof house. Yesterday I caught a five pound bone fish on my fly rod and a nine pound Horse Eyed Jack which we ate last night. Nancy and I have been coming here for years. Once when I landed at the Belize City Airport and walked towards customs, an official said to me, “Welcome to Paradise.”

The recent government reports on the expected devastations of Global Warming has hit us all like a gut punch, although I and anyone else that reads the NYRBS has known this was coming since July 13, 2006 when Jim Hansen published “The Threat to the Planet” as the cover story with a drawing of our home Planet Earth on the cover. I kept the issue.

Belize is not what it was twenty five years ago when we lived here with the children. Much of the coral you see beneath the water is broken, often by other snorkelers that step on it. Small piles of bleached white coral lie on the cays, killed by warming water. The small islands that dot the barrier reef used to look like a pirate’s paradise with a sailboat moored here and there among them. Now almost every cay, no matter how small, has a structure on it, a home or a resort. We used to visit by driving down a long thin peninsula with a dirt road down the middle and an air strip made by marijuana dealers. Now the paved road is lined with houses and developments, as the bays are being dredged and filled for more construction. Today our small fishing skiff passed a cruise ship that was nine stories high, a true monstrosity of our so called civilization. Too many people want to live in paradise, so they just buy it. Just as our cities have bloomed with towers of steel and glass pointing to the stars, just as each of us carries a small computer powerful enough to give us Mozart and let us play chess with our friends across the planet, just as the airports are packed with people that can afford to visit anywhere they want, and pile onto cruise ships that move into paradise and throw overboard hundreds of tons of plastic trash that blows across the ocean to land and despoil the once pristine beaches of the Yucatan, we look around and like the last drunk leaving the party, we will be carried out if we are lucky, or just left there to die in our own puke.

The north end of this island is lined with rotting seaweed that floated across from the Saragossa Sea. It smells like shit. Our hotel has posted a sign explaining that in forty years this has never happened, that the floating algae that normally makes a healthy canopy over the Saragossa Sea, where all our American eels come from, has been blown across the Atlantic and landed here because of warming sea temperatures.

We have created the greatest civilization the world has ever known and perhaps the world will ever know, and it is unsustainable. Why is it so hard to wrap our heads around this? We have known this for years. Capitalism, the system that runs our world, is either unable or unwilling to correct itself and protect us from the abyss. We are like Romans in the fifth century, who know the Barbarians are at the gates, and that the walls are about to be breached, the former center of the Empire overrun, burned and looted. We are at the end. We are not the beginning of anything. Worse, this Wagnerian scenario of death and destruction is being actively financed here in our country by “the money interests.” Whether driven by greed or their fear of a change in a system that is the basis of their power, they are reaching into their endless fortunes to support the most regressive forces in our society, including the suppression of the right to vote. Robert O. Paxton pointed out in the Dec 6 issue, that using wealth to suppress people’s rights is one of the definitions of fascism. It is how the world got Adolf Hitler and company. The German money people were afraid of Communism so they financed the Nazis. What are ours so afraid of? They are afraid of an uprising.

Why hasn’t there been one? Chris Hedges, a Presbyterian minister that describes himself as a Christian anarchist, speaks often on public radio. He can be very depressing to listen to. The trouble is most of what he says makes perfect sense, and I agree with most of what he is now saying. Hedges believes that every advance that took place in America after the Revolution was driven by popular movements, or uprisings, and many historians now agree. That would include the end of slavery, the woman’s vote, the advancement of workers’ rights, the end of Jim Crow achieved by the civil rights movement in the deep South in 1962 and 1963, which at twenty one I had a ring side seat to witness and photograph. Every single movement that we now know of, the women’s movement, the age rights movement, the Americans with disabilities act, the gay rights movement, grew out of the southern civil rights movement. Nothing has happened since then because there have been no successful great mass movements .

When Occupy occurred I , like many of us, was thrilled I visited Zocatti Park in Manhattan. I also visited the Occupations in Oakland, Los Angles, Charlotte, Virginia, Tucson and Albuquerque. One third of the people in these camps were homeless people, the kind we see every day and usually avoid or are embarrassed by. The authorities did not know what to do. Then, after weeks of hesitation they struck. First they cleaned them out in Albuquerque and the smaller sites, and when that was done without too many people complaining, they went after the big camps in Oakland, LA and New York. Why did they crush Occupy? What were they afraid of? A .001 tax on stock trades? They were afraid of their entire system of corporate control and power collapsing. As Hedges has pointed out, all we have to do is stop shopping for a week, and they whole mechanism stops. The spending of ordinary people are 70% of the entire economy.

If you study the southern civil rights movement it came about over time in a very simple way. A very small group of African American students, many in Nashville and some in Atlanta and others from Howard University, the names are familiar, John Lewis, Diane Nash, Bernard Lafayette, studied non violence with a minister and teacher, James Lawson. They plotted and started a non-violent movement that spread like wild fire across the South. Why don’t students occupy their administration buildings now? Why don’t they shut down their schools? If one school would do it, others would follow quickly. That is what happened in 1960, and it produced the most successful mass movement in a century. Who is going to save us if we don’t save ourselves? Activists should be prepared to be arrested and jailed and should be proud when they are arrested. There must be non-violence because in America only non-violence will work, and only non-violent protests will attract the masses that are needed to stop this madness. Let the students start it and everyone will join. And if the students don’t start it, and we don’t rebel immediately, it won’t be Welcome to Paradise, it will be Which Way to Hell.

One Response to ““Welcome to Paradise”, an unpublished essay by Danny Lyon”
  1. Cristine says:

    Great essay! It’s well written. Well done!

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