01: Vessel   02: Burning   03: Foil
The Ouroboros, Stephen Mercer
December 2023

The New York skyline a week or so after, a day the smoke came back, just not as bad. Courtesy the author 

In June, smoke from the fires in Quebec had made its way down to Manhattan and blanketed the financial district in a brown haze. My co-workers and I checked periodically as the air quality index went from a moderate yellow to a very unhealthy purple. I braved the streets around noon and I could barely see the end of the block. Cars were caked in dust and everyone was looking around as if the source of the ash was close by, not 500 miles away. I decided to walk the two blocks to the 9/11 memorial.

When the twin towers fell, the sentiment from the western world was along the lines of ‘an attack on one of us is an attack on all of us.’ The United States was going to war, time to get behind it. I lived in Texas at the time—had my brother not been a musical theater fanatic, I would have never heard a nice thing about New York. As we would come to be told, however, this tragedy served as a threat to our freedom. Since the 1950s, rapid expansion of the United States’ economy and purchasing power had ushered in a new era, capable of upending global threats to its continual growth.1 This great capitalist power had beaten the Nazis, toppled the USSR, and had grown the middle class in the meantime. Now we were being attacked for it?

The rallying cry was electric and familiar for those who grew up during the Cold War—meet the enemy with proof that we, as an empire, are resilient: consumerism. The amorphous threat of terrorism had just demolished the world’s tallest structure with planes from domestic airlines and we were told to go to Disney World. Do not question why we were attacked—why a group of people would end their lives and the lives of others to strike a blow on the empire—all that mattered was that America was still ‘open for business.’2 Economic growth continued unabated as the middle-class US household was able to afford newer and bigger homes, cars and electronics.3

War was declared on the perpetrators of the attack. Then war was declared on those who had nothing to do with it, just to keep the machine of petro-capital churning. The American people realized that the task handed to them from above was the ultimate salve and the US had reached the pinnacle of its promise, adapting to answer tragedy with consumption. This was American freedom.

Fast forward and I’m wearing an N95 mask as I walk past an Eataly, H&M, Westfield mall, and the second Starbucks in as many blocks. Who would have thought that the prosperity that united a nation would be a direct cause of a world on fire? Twenty-two years after the planes hit the towers, I stood at the corner of the 9/11 memorial as smoke filled the plaza. Two months later, a fire would engulf the Hawaiian town of Lahaina. A month after that, Brooklyn would be under water. What kind of response does this merit?


Last year the International Panel on Climate Change published a report stating that greenhouse gas emissions must peak before 2025 at the latest and decline 43% by 2030 in order to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels—the ideal target set out in the Paris Climate Agreement.4 Crossing this threshold, the report warns, will unleash far more severe effects of climate change, from unprecedented droughts and heatwaves to immense rainfall and floods. While the Biden administration recognizes the science and threat associated with this warming, it would appear that the leader of the free world is stuck playing the same war games that defined the nation in the second half of the 20th century. The national security policy coming from the executive branch states their goal for global cooperation “to address shared challenges in an era of competition.”5 This dual proposal seeks to advance economic opposition between nations while seeking agreement on climate mitigation—a real have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too kind of situation which speaks to the delusion at the top of the power structure.

Spencer Ackerman points out in The Nation that US-foreign policy is operating as if it “has better things to do than mitigate the advance of global devastation,” instead focusing on how many cold wars to wage in a strategy known as “great power competition”—antagonism between the US, China, and Russia in order to shore-up America’s spot at the top of the geo-political pecking order.6 This is the “Extinction Agenda,” as Ackerman puts it, which believes that economic supremacy can be prioritized before global decarbonization.

Even as global protests take place in support of a free Palestine and against genocide at the hands of Israel, the United States seems intent on making the same mistakes from over two decades ago. The majority of our congressional leaders proclaim Israel’s right to defend itself, even as it has systematically subjugated, displaced, and murdered a population for more than half a century.7 Mainstream media sources regurgitate state sponsored lies as Gaza is reduced to rubble.8 Biden gets on TV to deny Israel’s war crimes and seek a military aid package of over $100 billion to be split between Israel and Ukraine.9 An officials’ exodus from the State Department over this decision suggests that even those in positions to make policy are surprised by this backwards thinking.10 Someone has to ask, what is the point of propping up an apartheid state in the Middle East when the oil that we’ve historically sought from the region needs to be phased out if we want to inhabit a livable world? At the time of writing, we are at 1.2°C of global warming, with 13 months left to reach the IPCC’s peak goal.

It is hard to understand the desire to build a finite empire; to know that you are the cause of others’ destruction, all for your temporary gains to be engulfed just the same. Like a snake eating its own tail, getting fatter as it goes, once you’ve gone one lap around the body and you’re looking to start the second, you’ve got to know it’s going to kill you. This is the ouroboros of capitalism. Incessant growth in a world of limited resources will eventually result in catastrophe. The United States empire is built on the ideal of absolution through consumption—the American people have incorporated it into every one of our social and political causes. When it comes to the threats that we face today, from a moral corruption in defense of genocide, to the existential threat of climate change, it must be made clear that the institutions have provided the tools, not for your safety, not for ‘peace in the middle east,’ not for the good of humankind, but to fuel an empire intent on extinction. The question now is how do you break the cycle?

Photo from a recent pro-Palestine demonstration. Courtesy the author


In April 2020, a few months into the Covid-19 pandemic and one month after the global lockdown response, academics in the Netherlands penned a manifesto for “post-corona recovery based on degrowth principles.” The five key proposals include:

  1. a move away from development focused on aggregate GDP growth to differentiate among sectors that can grow and need investment (the so-called critical public sectors, and clean energy, education, health and more) and sectors that need to radically degrow due to their fundamental unsustainability or their role in driving continuous and excessive consumption (especially private sector oil, gas, mining, advertising, and so forth);
  2. an economic framework focused on redistribution, which establishes a universal basic income rooted in a universal social policy system, a strong progressive taxation of income, profits and wealth, reduced working hours and job sharing, and recognizes care work and essential public services such as health and education for their intrinsic value;
  3. agricultural transformation towards regenerative agriculture based on biodiversity conservation, sustainable and mostly local and vegetarian food production, as well as fair agricultural employment conditions and wages;
  4. reduction of consumption and travel, with a drastic shift from luxury and wasteful consumption and travel to basic, necessary, sustainable and satisfying consumption and travel;
  5. debt cancellation, especially for workers and small business owners and for countries in the global south (both from richer countries and international financial institutions).11

Each of the proposals laid out seem almost antithetical to American life and can make the overall degrowth movement seem impossible, which is in large part the criticism of it—‘sure, maybe it could work, but how do you sell it?’ Stauncher critics assert that degrowth is tantamount to austerity—‘austerity ecology’—which intends to take away the hard earned gains of the working class in the name of ecological well being.12 As a form of leftist critique, this argument appears strangely insincere. Austerity, for one, is generally understood as the reduction of public expenditure in the interest of economic growth, an imperative that sits squarely opposed to degrowth principles, which seek to restructure the aims of society away from economic growth and towards public good. Secondly, in this critique it is asserted that degrowth puts blame on the working class of the Global North for over-consumption and seeks stagnation or reduction of income for Western workers. This ignores what that consumption is and misallocates blame unfairly. Degrowth is about private sufficiency and public abundance.13

Is an abundance of cars, smart phones, and processed foods essential to a fulfilling life, even if the consumption of these goods is directly linked to the ecological destruction of the world and subjugation of the world’s peoples? Such a belief aligns firmly with that from the right, which takes its form as someone like United States senator Ted Cruz declaring that the liberals are trying to take your hamburgers and steaks away from you, just as they will take your guns and oversized pickup trucks. I don’t think they’re wrong—to me, this is part of degrowth, but it is not the fault of workers of the West that the goods made available to them offer satiation of the individual to the detriment of the whole. It is necessary, however, that we all recognize the difference.

Beyond these points, one truth undergirds the argument and that is that a major change to the Western way of life is inevitable, regardless of whether degrowth ideology is pursued or not. As we have seen in the past year, global temperature rise has resulted in major heat waves and floods, global stock yields plummeting, rivers drying up, and trade routes being disrupted. These are the effects of climate change at 1.2°C of warming. This is the fact of global warming and the havoc it will have on the ways the western world lives. It will be harder to source your bananas and coffee. Cars will be harder to acquire materials for and ship around the world due to environmental degradation of trade routes. Air conditioning will be in greater demand and the energy grid will struggle to meet this. Many material goods and quality of life expectancies that the Global North has become used to will be taken away. Mass emigration and displacement will chip at the cracks of an already dysfunctional global order.

Screencap from YouTube video: Ouroboros Snake eating its own tail HD


While stuck on the idea of the ouroboros, I searched online for examples of snakes eating their own tales. As it turns out, this doesn’t happen very often. Only in captivity has it been documented as occurring in any way similar to that of fables. The main cause for a snake to consume itself is overheating. A mixture of confusion, hunger, and the desire to cool off, causes the snake to swallow its other end and continue until there is nothing left. One solution, as I’ve read, is to lower the temperature of the enclosure and spritz the snake with cool water. This might help the snake remove itself from its mouth. If not, you may need some veterinarian intervention.14

So what’s the spritz? Put the world that you want to see into your practice. Local and community oriented environmental infrastructure projects. Mutual aid and a realigning of labor priorities. Buy less, fix things, grow food, meet your neighbors. These are steps that we can all take, but the ouroboros, the world serpent, is bigger than we can imagine—more sinister and more devouring. We must also look for our veterinarian: direct action to induce degrowth policies—industrial action, strikes, divestments, and sabotage. Brave action is required.

“I manifestly do believe,” said the late great Mike Davis, “that we have arrived at a ‘final conflict’ that will decide the survival of a large part of poor humanity over the next half century. Against this future we must fight like the Red Army in the rubble of Stalingrad. Fight with hope, fight without hope, but fight absolutely.”15

I am sitting at the head of the snake. I do not know if I have hope any longer in dramatic change occurring, but I believe there is a path in releasing that desire and finding an answer in action.

Stephen Mercer is a writer and designer based in New York City. His work interrogates culture, environmentalism, and futurity through the lens of American empire, with focuses on degrowth, activism, and youth movements. Stephen has collaborated on projects for e-flux journal, The Vespiary, and The Tower. He earned his MFA in Curating at Goldsmiths, University of London.

1. Cohen, Lizabeth. 2004. “A consumers’ republic: The politics of mass consumption in postwar America.” Journal of Consumer Research 31 (1): 236-239. https://dash.harvard.edu/bitstream/handle/1/4699747/cohen_conrepublic.pdf.

2. Stewart, Emily. 2021. “After 9/11, American patriotism meant buying things to support the economy.” Vox. https://www.vox.com/the-goods/22662889/september-11-anniversary-bush-spend-economy.

3. Zuckerman, Sam. 2002. “9-11-01 / Impact on Business / American consumers kept economy going / Consumer spending kept economy going.” SFGATE. https://www.sfgate.com/business/article/9-11-01-Impact-on-Business-American-consumers-2773356.php.

4. IPCC, 2022: Climate Change 2022: Mitigation of Climate Change. Contribution of Working Group III to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [P.R. Shukla, J. Skea, R. Slade, A.] 

5. Al Khourdajie, R. van Diemen, D. McCollum, M. Pathak, S. Some, P. Vyas, R. Fradera, M. Belkacemi, A. Hasija, G. Lisboa, S. Luz, J. Malley, (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK and New York, NY, USA. doi: 10.1017/9781009157926; “The Paris Agreement.” n.d. UNFCCC. Accessed October 1, 2023. https://unfccc.int/process-and-meetings/the-paris-agreement.

6. White House. National Security Strategy of the United States of America. Washington, DC: White House, 2022. https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/Biden-Harris-Administrations-National-Security-Strategy-10.2022.pdf.

7. Ackerman, Spencer. 2023. “US Foreign Policy Has an Extinction Agenda.” The Nation. https://www.thenation.com/article/environment/climate-change-foreign-policy/.

8. Martin, Abby, director. Gaza Fights for Freedom. The Empire Files, 2019. Youtube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HnZSaKYmP2s.

9. Swann, Sara. “How media outlets and politicians amplified uncorroborated reports of beheaded babies in Israel.” Poynter, 24 October 2023, https://www.poynter.org/fact-checking/2023/hamas-behaded-babies-israel-unconfirmed-reports-spread/.

10. Bishara, Marwan. “Biden asks US Congress for $105bn in assistance for Israel and Ukraine.” Al Jazeera, 20 October 2023, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/10/20/biden-asks-us-congress-for-105bn-in-assistance-for-israel-and-ukraine.

11. “State Department official resigns over Biden's handling of Israel-Gaza war.” Al Jazeera, 19 October 2023, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/10/19/state-department-official-resigns-over-bidens-handling-of-israel-gaza-war.

12. Degrowth.info international editorial team, ‘Planning for Post-corona: Five Proposals to Craft a Radically More Sustainable and Equal World’, Degrowth (blog), 11 May 2020, https://degrowth.info/blog/planning-for-post-corona.

13. Phillips, Leigh. 2023. “Degrowth Is Not the Answer to Climate Change.” Jacobin. https://jacobin.com/2023/01/against-degrowth-eco-modernism-socialist-planning-green-economy.; Phillips, Leigh. Austerity Ecology & the Collapse-porn Addicts: A Defence of Growth, Progress, Industry and Stuff. Zero Books, 2015.

14. Schmelzer, Matthias, et al. The Future is Degrowth: A Guide to a World Beyond Capitalism. Verso Books, 2022.

15. White, Caleb. “Why Do Snakes Eat Themselves: 5 Reasons They Do.” Science Times, 15 June 2023, https://www.sciencetimes.com/articles/44325/20230615/why-snakes-eat-themselves-5-reasons.htm.