You Can’t Kill a Planet and Live on It, Too
Let’s expose the structure of violence that keeps the world economy running.
With an entire planet being slaughtered before our eyes, it’s terrifying to watch the very culture responsible for this – the culture of industrial civilization, fueled by a finite source of fossil fuels, primarily a dwindling supply of oil – thrust forward wantonly to fuel its insatiable appetite for “growth.”
Deluded by myths of progress and suffering from the psychosis of technomania complicated by addiction to depleting oil reserves, industrial society leaves a crescendo of atrocities in its wake.
A very partial list would include the Bhopal chemical disaster, numerous oil spills, the illegal depleted uranium-spewing occupations of Iraq, Afghanistan, mountaintop removal, the nuclear meltdown of Fukushima, the permanent removal of 95 percent of the large fish from the oceans (not to mention full-on systemic collapse of those oceans), indigenous communities replacement by oil wells, the mining of coltan for cell phones and Playstations along the Democratic Republic of the Congo/Rwanda border – resulting in tribal warfare and the near-extinction of the Eastern Lowland gorilla.
As though 200 species going extinct each day were not enough, climate change, a direct result of burning fossil fuels, has proved not only to be as unpredictable as it is real, but as destructive as it is unpredictable. The erratic and lethal characteristics of a changing planet and its shifting atmosphere are becoming the norm of the 21st century, their impact accelerating at an alarming pace, bringing this planet closer, sooner than later, to a point of uninhabitable ghastliness. And yet, collective apathy, ignorance and self-imposed denial in the face of all this sadistic exploitation and violence marches this culture closer to self-annihilation.
Lost in the eerily comforting fantasy of limitless growth, production and consumption, many people cling to things like Facebook, Twitter, “Jersey Shore” and soulless pop music as if their lives depended on it, identifying with a reality that’s artificial and constructed, that panders to desire rather than necessity, that delicately conceals the violence at the other end of this economy, a violence so widespread that we’re all not only complicit in it to a degree (e.g., if you’re a taxpayer, you help subsidize the manufacturing of weapons of mass destruction), but victims of it as well. As Chris Hedges admonished in his books, “Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy” and the “Triumph of Spectacle,” any culture that cannot distinguish reality from illusion will kill itself.
Moreover, any culture that cannot distinguish reality from illusion will kill everything and everyone else in its path as well as itself.
As the world burns, as species die off, as mothers breastfeed their children with dioxin-tainted breast milk, as nuclear reactors melt down into the Pacific while the aerial deployment of depleted uranium damages innocent lives, it is perplexing that so few people fight back against a system that has horror as a reality for most living on the planet. And those who fight back, who stand in opposition to the culture behind such wholesale abuse and call it what it is – a genocidal mega-state (especially if you believe that the lives of nonhumans are as important to them as yours is to you and mine is to me) – are met with hostility and hatred, scoffed at, harassed, even tortured. With so much at stake, why aren’t more people deafening their ears to the nutcases who preach a future of infinite-growth economies? And why do so many people continue to put “the economy” first, to take industrial capitalism as we know it as a given and not fight back, defend what’s left of the natural world?
“One of the reasons there aren’t more people working to take down the system that’s killing the planet is because their lives depend on the system,” author and environmental activist Derrick Jensen told me from his home in California when I interviewed him on the phone recently. “If your experience is that your food comes from the grocery store and your water comes from the tap, then you are going to defend to the death the system that brings those to you because your life depends on them,” Jensen explained. “If your experience, however, is that your food comes from a land base and that your water comes from a stream, well, then you will defend to the death that land base and that stream. So part of the problem is that we have become so dependent upon this system that is killing and exploiting us, it has become almost impossible for us to imagine living outside of it and it’s very difficult physically for us to live outside of it.
“The other problem is that fear is the belief we have something left to lose. What I mean by this is that I really like my life right now, as do a lot of people. We have a lot to lose if this culture is to go down. A primary reason so many of us do not want to win this war – or even acknowledge that it’s going on – is that we materially benefit from this war’s plunder. I’m really unsure how many of us would be willing to give up our automobiles and cell phones, hot showers and electric lights, our grocery and clothing stores. But the truth is, the system that leads to these things, that leads to technological advancement and our identity as civilized beings, are killing us and, more importantly, killing the planet.”
Even in the absence of global warming, this culture would still be murdering the planet, bumping off pods of whales and flocks of birds; detonating mountaintops to access strata of coal and bauxite, eliminating entire ecosystems. All this violence inflicted upon an entire planet to run an economy based on the foolish and immoral notion that we can sustain industrial societies, all while trashing the planet’s land bases, ecosystems and life. And the fantastic rhetoric those who insist on adapting to these changes promulgate – that technology will find a fix, that we can adapt, that the planet can and will conform to fixes in the market – is dangerous.
“Another part of the problem,” Jensen told me, “is the narratives behind this culture’s way of living. The premises of these narratives grant us the exclusive rights and privileges of dominion over this planet. Whether you subscribe to the religion of Science or of Christianity, these narratives tell us that our intelligence and abilities permit us exclusive rights and privileges to work our will on the world that is here for us to use. The problem with these stories, whether you believe in them or not, is that they have real effects on the physical world. The stories we’re told about the world shape the way we perceive the world and the way we perceive the world shapes the way we behave in the world. The stories of industrial capitalism – that we can sustain infinite-growth economies – shapes the way this culture behaves in the world. And this behavior is killing the planet. Whether the stories we are told are fantasies or not doesn’t matter, what matters is that these narratives are physical: the stories of Christianity may be fantasy – let’s pretend for a moment that God doesn’t exist – well, the Crusades still happened; the notion of race or gender may be up for debate, but obviously, race and gender does matter and this postmodern attitude drives me crazy because, yeah, race and gender is not an actual thing, but it all has real-world effects – African Americans comprise 58 percent of the prison population and one-third of all black men between the ages of twenty and twenty-nine are under some sort of criminal justice supervision; as for gender, well real males rape females.
“Another example [of how things that truly aren’t real still have real-world effects],” Jensen continued, “is there was this serial killer a while back who was killing women in Santa Cruz. Voices in his head were telling him that if he didn’t kill these women, then California would slide off into the ocean. It’s apparent this guy was delusional, a total nut job and sick in the head, but his delusions still resulted in real-world effects. Hitler too had the delusion that Jews were poisoning the race. That delusion had real-world effects. And we can sit around and discuss whether Weyerhaeuser truly exists, but forests still get deforested. Or better yet, it’s pretty clear that it’s silly to really believe that the world won’t run out of oil … and then it’s suddenly clear that it’s not so silly – there is a physical reality. In the real world, you can’t have a nature/culture split, but in this culture you do and it has real effects on the physical world. You can’t live on a planet and kill it at the same time.”
You find the problem with an industrial production economy when you unpack the word “production.” As Jensen makes clear in his book “The Culture of Make Believe,” production is essentially the conversion of the living to the dead: animals into cold cuts, mountains and rivers into aluminum beer cans, trees into toilet paper, oil into plastics and computers (one computer uses ten times its own mass in fossil fuels). To go paperless is not to go green, or maybe it is, depending on what shade of Green we’re talking about here. Basically, every commodity one comes in contact with is soaked in oil, made from resources, marked by, as Jensen puts it, the turning of the living to the dead: Industrial production.
And with conflicts and wars that are waged or instigated by this culture to access (steal) the resources needed to fuel this economy’s colossal machines, this culture winds up butchering entire non-industrialized communities of people … the elderly, children who cling to their mothers as drones hawk over staggered onlookers … the innocent and vulnerable written off as “collateral damage.” Himmler used a similar epithet for Jews, Gypsies, Poles, Serbs, Belarusians, and other Slavic peoples in a pamphlet he edited and had distributed by the SS Race and Settlement Head Office: “Untermenschen.”
This is an acceptable price we must pay it, so we are told.
In the US, more lives are lost weekly from preventable cancers and other illnesses than are lost in ten years from terrorist attacks. And the corporations this culture fights for overseas are the very organizations culpable for these domestic deaths every week.
The list of victims whose lives are subject to violent assault and extinction to feed this culture’s “production” is as long and as diverse as you want to make it.
“An infinite-growth economy is not only insane and impossible,” remarked Jensen, “it’s also abusive, by which I mean that it’s based on the same conceit as more personal forms of abuse. It is, in fact, the macroeconomic enshrinement of abusive behavior. The guiding principle of abusive behavior is that the abuser refuses to respect or abide by limits or boundaries put up by the victim. Growth economies are essentially unchecked and will push past any boundaries set up by anyone other than the perpetrators. And a successful abuser will always ensure that there are some ‘benefits’ for the victim, in this case, e.g., we can watch TV, we can have computer access and play games online – we get ‘benefits’ that essentially keep us in line.
“Furthermore, according to the stories of industrial capitalism, this economic system must constantly increase production to grow and what, after all, is production? It is indeed the conversion of the living to the dead, the conversion of living forests into two-by-fours, living rivers into stagnant pools for generating hydroelectricity, living fish into fish sticks and ultimately all of these into money. And really, what is gross national product? It’s a measure of this conversion of the living to the dead. The more quickly the living world is converted into dead products, the higher the GNP. And these simple equations are complicated by the fact that when GNP goes down, people often lose jobs. No wonder the world is getting killed.
“And if we take global warming into consideration here – oh and I believe the latest study on global warming mentioned something along the lines of the planet now being on track to heat up by 29 degrees in the next eighty years … if that isn’t curtailed immediately, no one will survive that … And so all the so-called solutions to global warming take industrial capitalism as a given. And here we see the same old abusive behavior: the narratives are not only created around the perceptions of the perpetrators, i.e. those in power, but are forced upon us by them as well, so we come to believe the narratives and accept them as a given. And, essentially, to take industrial capitalism as a given when it comes to solutions to global warming is absolutely absurd and insane. It’s out of touch with physical reality. Yet it has disastrous effects on the real physical world. If you force a planet to conform to ideology you get what you get.
“A while back I had a conversation with an anarchist who was complaining that I was ‘too ideological,’ and that my ideology was ‘the health of the earth.’ Well, actually, the earth is not and cannot ever be an ideology. The earth is physical. It is real. And it is primary. Without soil, you don’t have a healthy land base and without a healthy land base you don’t eat, you die. Without drinkable clean water you die.”
And this is one of the problems with our culture: its lack of ability to separate ideology – the kind that accommodates maximizing pleasure and domination – from the needs of the natural world. And, so, if solutions to global warming do not immediately address the basic needs of the planet, well … we’re fucked.
“One has to ask,” pressed Jensen, “if hammerhead sharks could provide solutions, if the indigenous could give solutions and if we would listen to the solutions they are already giving, would these solutions take industrial capitalism as a given? The bottom line is that capitalist solutions to global warming are coming from the capitalist boosters, from those in power who are responsible for exploiting and destroying us and more importantly, the planet.”
By the 1940s, in Germany, Arthur Nebe’s gassing van was in wide use. Those who drove Nebe’s death vans never thought of themselves as murderers, just as another somebody getting paid to drive a van, to do a job. Today, those who work for Boeing, Raytheon, Weyerhaeuser, Exxon Mobil, BP, the Pentagon … will always see themselves as employees, not murderers. They will always see themselves as working a job that needs to be done.
Those members of this culture who blindly go along without interrogating the culture’s narratives, who identify with the pathology of this culture, will always see themselves as just other members of society. For these people, the murder of a planet feels like economics; it feels normal after having been pushed out of consciousness by careers, styles and fashions; it may not even feel like anything at all after being psychically numbed by pop radio, sitcoms, smart phones, video games … But at the other end of all these glittery distractions is an unremitting array of violence, poverty, extinction, environmental degradation.
“I saw this right-wing bumper sticker the other day that read, ‘You can have my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers,’ but it’s not just guns: we’re going to have to pry rigid claws off steering wheels, cans of hair spray, TV remote controls and two-liter bottles of Jolt Cola,” cautioned Jensen. “Each of these individually and all of these collectively are more important to many people than are lampreys, salmon, spotted owls, sturgeons, tigers, our own lives. And that is a huge part of the problem. So of course we don’t want to win. We’d lose our cable TV. But I want to win. With the world being killed, I want to win and will do whatever it takes to win.”
When Adolph Eichmann stood before the Jerusalem District Court and was asked why he agreed to the task of deporting Jews to the ghettos and concentration camps, his response was, No one ever told me what I was doing was wrong. Today, 200 species have become extinct; another indigenous community will disappear from this planet forever; an entire forest will be removed; and millions of human lives will be forced to endure the agonies of famine, war, disease, thirst, the loss of their land, their community, their way of life. Not enough people have stepped forward to say that what this culture is doing to the planet is wrong.
Well, here it is folks: What this culture is doing to our very selves, what it’s doing to the planet, is wrong. So damn wrong. And the sooner we replace this economy, the sooner we can dissolve these toxic illusions and their formative narratives. Only then, can we begin to live the free lives we were born to live and win the fight.