August 18, 2016 § 9 Comments
She bends low in the dark. Her index finger and thumb clumsy as they meet, she pulls from the waist and the stalk she holds rises out of the hummus eagerly, offering no resistance. Her hand is dwarfed by the firm yet undulating orange blossom. The sun’s remaining light barely penetrates the gauntlet of trees that stand sentry across the rise and fall of the ridge line. Tangerine daubs speckle through the here and there breaks in the thick ceiling of maple and oak leaves.
“Say, ‘thank you, Chanterelle.’ ”
“Thank you, Chanterelle.”
Her small voice is sincere because I am sincere. She watches her feet as she steps high over sticks and briars heading back towards the trail where her mother stands smiling.
“Remember to shake it.”
She passes the mushroom side to side, moving it from her shoulder instead of her wrist. I follow behind her with long slow steps, my hat in my hand, it is full of chanterelles. Holding the bill like the handle of a small skillet, I gently bounce the mushrooms to release their spores. The rains have finally passed and the trail is soft beneath our feet.
Summer is an incredibly busy time on the homestead, which usually means I put away the effort of writing in favor of merely ruminating as I attend to the constancy of the tasks before me. This has been our most productive year yet insofar as providing our food is concerned, which is encouraging as we have accomplished this yield while living off site until our septic system installation is completed. The abundance of foods like tomatoes and green beans has been overwhelming, and the high heat has made the effort of canning very unappealing. Fortunately, we have friends willing to can for us if we are willing to share the end product, and there are even local restaurants eager to buy our produce.
Squash bugs infested my yellow crook necks and zucchini, and they killed off my Crenshaw and cucumber vines. I collected a satisfying quantity of fruit from all of these plants over the past couple of months so it is with even temper that I yank them by the root, shake them, and place them in a compost pile. When the space is clear I walk over to a wooden gate and lift the chain that holds it closed. As I pull it open a single file line of Rouen ducks comes marching out, quaking proudly as they all make their way to the now bare space before lowering their beaks and feasting on the slow moving squash bugs. I lift my feet high to avoid stepping on the kudzu like sprawl of sweet potato vines and make my way to the garden gate where I pause to wipe the sweat from my forehead. It’s hot. Humid and hot at four in the afternoon. I think on what else I can get accomplished today. We will be moving back into our home soon and there are still jobs to finish up before doing so, mainly rigging the cistern to the gutters, and installing a hand pump in the kitchen to draw from the cistern. That and cutting another few ricks of firewood. And slapping walls on the barn. And laying the flooring in my daughter’s bedroom. And planting the winter garden.
I could “and” for days. Instead I take a breath and look back at my little girl as she giggles watching the ducks. Its hard to not feel rushed and I make a conscious effort to be present, to be content with the work already done instead of always existing in the stress of that yet to do. The moist air is stagnant, and as I take a moment to scan the spaces around me, noting the tasks big and small that require attention, my mind wanders a bit, and I feel like we are on the edge of something.
This July was globally the warmest month in human memory. Such headlines are almost blase these days as warming trends continually break records. Thousands of people in Louisiana have lost their homes in what FEMA has dubbed the worst natural disaster in the United States since hurricane Sandy. Fires rage in the drought stricken American west from southern California to Glacier National Park in Montana. Social tensions continue to flare too, as the National Guard was called in to subdue rioters in Milwaukee, and random acts of violence seem to break loose from the percolating underworld of racist authoritarians emboldened by Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Venezuela’s economic collapse continues apace, various African nations are succumbing to famine, the war in Syria is drawing larger battle lines between major powers, and despite the best efforts of central banks across the globe, major financial institutions just cannot turn a profit in a world of net energy decline.
For years I have watched the world through a particular lens, and that is the lens of peak oil. Despite the failures of particular peak oil advocates to predict the future, and despite the inability of even larger numbers of critics to actually understand the peak oil concept before engaging in attacking it and its proponents, I still feel that this is a particularly useful lens for viewing the macro picture of human industrial civilization. Of late, I have admittedly felt that I am without a map, and I have found myself in my quiet moments attempting to piece one together. Of course, drawing a map begins with placing a center pin where you currently stand. So where am I? Or if I may be so bold, where are we?
I first became aware of the peak oil concept in 2004 when I was twenty-three years old. After reading the various assessments of the issue that were available on the internet at the time, and of course, being young and impressionable, I took to some of the worst case scenarios presented by outlying bloggers. By and large, these were not the better experts to trust, and I was convinced that ten years out we would be living in a very different world. The economic crash of 2008 felt validating in a sense, but the divergence from prediction that followed forced me to begin rethinking how the decline of industrial civilization would play out. Eight years of very, let us say, creative economics have prevented the full on breakdown of the growth based financial paradigm. I do not believe I am alone in wondering exactly how long such creative policies can sustain the physical world of the production and distribution of material goods.
To be perfectly clear, I am no fan of the civilized model of human organization, and I have repeatedly stated this in my writing. But I do my best to be aware of its functionality so I can properly place myself and my family to best buffer ourselves from the swings of forces beyond our control. The internet is rife with commenters who are eager to bargain with Moloch, hoping to right what they perceive to be the ills of state and capital so that some form of industrial civilization can carry them into the future. These commenters have altars to different demigods. Some light a candle to technology while others burn incense for invisible hands and supposedly free markets. I look out and see dying ash trees and the onslaught of invasive stilt grass and I know in the core of my being that there is no bargaining with civilization. No vertical farm, no vegan diet, no gold-backed currency, no handing over of the means of production to the proletariat will stop what’s coming.
But it is equally true that it is next to impossible to know exactly what is coming, or when it will get here. That is why we try to draw maps. And if we want our maps to be of any use, they should probably start with what we know about the past and the present, so maybe, the best of our efforts can draw lines between the two that give some clue as to the trajectory and direction of the future.
Over the years as I have written on these topics I have been careful to avoid prediction, simply because most people who in engage in it are so often wrong. What’s worse, is that so many people who make names for themselves as so called “trends analysts” and such, not only are often wrong, but they refuse to acknowledge when they are so, and they just continue with the business of making predictions. I would rather make a map, a sketch of the terrain we have covered and of that which I can see through the fog in front of me. As this is a map of the industrial civilization in which we live, there are two compass points which are of extreme importance.
First, is net energy. All work done requires energy to make it happen. The primary energy source for this civilization is oil. This is what makes an understanding of peak oil concepts so valuable. Oil is the foundation of the lion’s share of the work done in this civilization, even being the foundational energy source behind the manufacture of items like solar panels. The diesel trucks that mine for metals or that grow the crops that feed workers are all run with oil. The economic and social architecture of this society requires a growth in the net energy available with which to do work. This is not necessarily a growth in the amount of barrels of oil available at any given time. If those specific barrels of oil utilized more energy in their acquisition than usual, we may be in a situation where we have more quantity of oil available yet less total energy. This will hamper growth, which while good for the ecology of the planet, is a death sentence to financial paradigms where debt is the basis of currency and investment.
The second compass point of importance is the ecological material available to support society. Drinkable water, healthy soil, viable biomes thrush with life, a stable climate; all are necessary to maintain human life and activity. Unfortunately, this point is lost on the so-called educated class who think only in terms of capital. I stress this point because even in the event that a miracle occurs and our energy woes vanish, there is still the issue of our destabilizing climate and over burdened ecosystems. We need bees and butterflies and ants to pollinate crops. We need amphibians to keep insect populations in balance. We need birds to spread seeds. We need fungus and soil life to make plants viable at all. Human activity threatens all of these beings and their habitats.
So as I sketch my map I note the peak of conventional oil production that occurred in the 2005-2008 timeframe. I note the bankruptcies that are tearing through the US unconventional oil industry. I note the banks across Europe that are on the verge of insolvency. I definitely note the trillions of dollars worth of debt monetization across the global financial sector which have been an attempt to cover the spread of missing growth that is required to make good on previous loans and outstanding interest. I also note the shortfalls in needed rain in the American west, the predicted water shortage in Lake Mead, the rising seas and the unprecedented storms. When I step back at my scrawled lines, I see images reminiscent of times past. Politically there are movements that seem to rhyme with what came out of the depression era, and economically there are movements that very much remind me of the warnings that began flashing in 2007 as the mortgage industry began to implode. The page, too, is dotted with the unpredictable lines of natural disaster and ecological calamity.
Simply stated, this is what I see: A period of economic depression is on the wind. My gut says we see an undeniable beginning of this period before winter. Where it all leads is too far out to say. I think it is simplistic when people draw a timeline of the future that consists merely of one trend-line pointing downward. There are hundreds if not thousands of trend-lines that together combine to graph the arch of a particular civilization, and some will yet be on the rise. It is when a majority of the significant trend-lines slump downward that we can say with certainty a society is in decline. It is my humble position that what we have on the horizon is a period of greater unemployment and struggle on a family by family level here in the “first world west.” There will be a shake out of never-to-be-solvent again institutions, and a generalized acknowledgement of a paradigm of “hard times” being upon us. Natural disasters will be harder and harder to recover from as they will strike more often in regions where status quo thinking believes them too unlikely or impossible and this will combine with a financial inability to afford repair. Politically, people will seek easy and incorrect answers, so on that front we will have nothing new in thinking modality, but we will see new lows in practical application.
Of course, this is a map I am trying to draw for myself so that I can better prepare for the terrain before me and mine. And I’m just some guy who likes homegrown beets and wild mushrooms, so take anything I have to say with that in mind. But at least I’m not trying to sell you a pamphlet about gold coins, and you’ll notice there are no ads for gas masks or survival seeds on my web page (unless word press puts them there.)
My personal activity includes shoring up on the basics. Preventative car maintenance on both of our four wheel drive Jeeps, which each contain tools and flashlights, so that floods and storms are more navigable. Selling off unneeded items to pay for home improvements as well as a bit more archery gear as I want to take a deer by bow this fall and to make as much jerky as possible. Buying all of my spring seeds now, and making sure we have plenty of simple things like candles and lighters, lard and honey. This is all stuff that gets regular use, so there are no regrettable wastes of money.
My index finger presses into the soft soil with ease. A dried pea falls silently into the hole and I sweep lose earth with the blade of my hand to cover it. Four inches to the left, I repeat the process, and then again, and then again, all the way down the fence line. The red cabbage have only just broken through the surface of the dirt in their seed trays, so it’ll be a week or so yet before I move them into the field where right now potatoes are living their final days before harvest. Parsnip greens are tall, and I mentally make note of which ones I want to leave to winter over before checking on the newly planted kale. Everbearing strawberries are still putting on fruit, and my daughter is occupied now lifting their leaves and excitedly yanking the plump red berries.
Cicada chatter rises and falls in the nearby tree canopy and again I stand to survey the land. Tent worms are killing an apple tree. Sunflowers stand tall in the afternoon heat. I see dead trees that need felling, weeds that need mowing, fence posts that need straightening, and job after job after job that lay before me. I have a plenty of time to ruminate, observe, and ruminate again, and will revisit writing again when cold winds blow. Maybe I will think back to this piece and feel foolish, but I will not be afraid to say I was wrong. My immediate terrain is so more much knowable, even if it is pocked with struggle and strain. To my left our gravel drive stretches off into the woods, and as I look off to the cool forest there is a flash in my mind of a hunter walking with his bow, and in this moment, I envy him.
November 9, 2015 § 8 Comments
Deep in the hardwood forest I watch the first orange light crest over the eastern ridge as dawn unfolds casting its warmth on the surface of the yawning Earth. Poplar trunks stand firm above the gold and brown leaf cover that now mulches the hopeful seedlings while granting the white tail deer an auditory advantage over those who would stalk them through the hollers. At this time of year the forest exhales and retreats from the above ground toil of photosynthesis to a season of focus within the dense and teeming skin of the planet. Without the brush and laden bough, one can see for miles across the waves of ridge and ravine. Sound is without obstacle, and seems almost propelled by the chill wind when it punctures the otherwise heavy silence. The feeling is one of calm, of that restfulness that comes when one crawls into bed and their leg muscles finally release the day’s tension. Autumn contains a library of lessons, none of which can be learned until one is still, patient, and not fucking talking.
My year was not what I had planned for it to be. Many tasks remain undone. Our family was interfered with by a local government body, and we are now in the process of installing an overpriced septic system for our cabin. It is a headache, to be sure, dealing with puffed up bureaucrats and their ad hoc adherence to antiquated and at times contradictory laws. As is often the case in this society, compliance is cheaper and faster than justice. Proving to a judge my case that I should not be required to acquire such a system would find me spending more money, time, and personal energy than just going along with the racket that the good old boys and connected families have established in these parts. I have made my peace with the conflict, and am calmly dancing through the hoops laid out for me. When all is said and done, the cabin I built with my two hands will be a legal residence in the event that we ever decide to move and to sell our land. Property value and all that, right?
Here we are again, dear readers, staring down another winter in which we can together reflect on the state of the world, both the portion that modern humans point their attention at, as well as to the far larger portion where, as Cormac McCarthy wrote, “Storms blow and trees twist in the wind, and all of the animals that God has made go to and fro.” Despite a massive downturn in the global economy, money moves and the smokestacks belch their poison. To be sure, man’s world of markets and digital notations percolates. An event is brewing that portends itself in plummeting rig counts and commodity prices. What grand show this event will perform for people rich enough to have a stake in it is to be seen. The rest of us will scrape by like the peasants that we are until even scraping fails, and only bloodletting remains.
Superstorms and hurricanes ravage from Texas to Yemen. Starved and hopeless human beings are playing the only card they have and abandoning the sure death that awaits their children in the war ravaged and drought plagued middle eastern and north African regions. Rich white people who are to blame for such wars, droughts, and famines are bellowing from the America’s, clear across Europe, and down to Australia about the brown victims of centuries of Anglo-capitalism and how they are not supposed to do anything but suffer their circumstances in place. Where these white adherents to national boundary and culture were as the US, UK, and other global powers were setting about to wage war and destabilize governments in these now uninhabitable places, I’m not exactly sure.
This is the crisis unfolding. This is what it looks like. Real life plays out a lot more slowly than the Hollywood scripts that have to crunch collapse adventures into one hundred and twenty minute films complete with explosions, comeuppance, and a love story for the girls. Tracking the decline of global industrial civilization is seemingly gaining in popularity, and it is all too common for those new to such a curiosity to expect an impending grand finale in which all bets are off; the power grid fails, store shelves empty, gas pumps get bagged, and all hell breaks loose in suburban cul-de-sacs where soccer moms in body armor pump 7.62 into hordes of urbanites (read: blacks and latinos…OK, and maybe a few white guys with neck tattoos get plugged for good measure) who are scouring the once idyllic portions of America in search of condensed soup and cheerleaders for their rape rooms.
Instead another year grinds by in which forest fires destroyed more than they ever had in North america, heat waves killed thousands in Pakistan, sea levels continued their upward march, and political institutions seemed ever more and more inept in the face of all the compounding emergencies that industrial civilization faces. Even my own humble region was affected by unseasonable levels of rain this July which were punctuated by a night of flash flooding that tested my mettle and resolve as I spent hours trying to find an unblocked path home.
Of course, we know that there are no solutions, not for the major crises. There is no putting back what is broken, and limits to growth are not optional. They are not suggested daily values. Sustainability isn’t a lifestyle choice. That which cannot be sustained will not be. For us as individuals, families, tribes, and communities, there is only endurance. How do we get by, and not just with the calories in our gut to labor forth, but with the joy in our hearts to make us want to carry on? Times of decline are times of darkening in the human heart and soul. Atrocity follows shortage. A world of hunger, hate, and blood is a world in which human conscience is called upon to rise, to shield, to burn brightly, despite less and less obvious motivation to do so.
The year draws down and grants us all yet another season to breathe. Let us use the time wisely.
March 15, 2015 § 21 Comments
“Protect your spirit, for we are in the place where spirits get eaten.”
– John Trudell
Spring is moving in quickly, more quickly than I might necessarily want. My arms are worn enough to keep me from complaining about the break from hauling and splitting firewood, and sleeping the night through instead of waking up at three a.m. to stoke the embers and add more fuel to the stove is a welcome respite. I am quite concerned however, that the season for collecting maple sap may be cut abruptly short. For the best syrup season, night time temperatures need to drop below freezing, and day time temperatures need to rise to just shy of forty degrees Fahrenheit. A week ago, nights were just above zero and days didn’t creep past twenty. This week, nighttime lows hover in the high thirties and the days are approaching sixty. Of course, this could be a fluke, and I don’t want to scream “climate change” with every strange localized weather event, but the songbirds seem to be dropping anchor for the season, and I am recording the details of this winter’s drastic waning in the ledger book of such things in my mind.
The arrival of spring brings for me a surge of energy as I feel life return to the above ground world from the root-balls and burrows where it slumbered during the frigid and dark portion of the year. Spring also brings with it a workload beyond what I ever have time for, so the energy I feel running through my limbs as the sun shines down on my jacketless body is quite a gift. I mention such things because as the days lengthen and grow warmer, I have commitments in the garden and about the homestead that keep me from writing, so this will likely be my last piece for a good while. Such a hiatus comes none to soon, as I feel I am running short on things to say for the present time.
Why do we seek such writing anyway? If you’re like me, you are reading this very piece as you drink your morning coffee or tea. You are mustering the wakefulness required to go about your daily activity, but before you do, you are washing your mind in a bit of confirmation bias concerning the state of the world. Everything is going to hell, and on a daily basis you check in with the news feeds and blogger community to peruse the latest data points that confirm what you already know: climate change is accelerating as superstorms and droughts increase in ferocity. The people in power are still maniacs insistent on walling themselves off from the public with cordons of brutish and overly armed police. People without power are still being brutalized when they stand up for their dignity or merely exist between a capitalist and a resource. Some species went extinct. Some rainforest was clear-cut. Some stretch of ocean was overfished, or used as a radioactive dump-site, or both.
Rise and shine, the world is right where you left it when you went to sleep last night. Now go to work.
A few days ago I asked a young man I know who works as a dishwasher in a deli, “Why do you get up and go to work every day?” He answered, “To pay the bills.” I then asked, “What would happen if you didn’t pay your bills?” “I would be evicted eventually,” he replied. It quickly became evident that I was engaging in an exercise more than I was asking sincere questions, and he quite happily humored me as we ran through the entire sequence of events that would follow his not paying his bills. There are the police who would serve his eviction and the consequences they would face if they refused to do so, the police chief who would fire them, the mayor that would fire him if he didn’t terminate non-compliant police, and on, and on down the line. It wasn’t a new line of thought for him, and after playing the game of hypotheticals, I asked him what was behind this whole machination of human dominoes that forces people to work doing things they hate, like washing dishes in a deli.
He said, “Money. Greed.”
I offered a different possibility. “There is a demon behind all of this, manipulating us. It is an invisible and nameless demon that is trying to eat our souls.”
He laughed. I told him I was serious.
Perhaps you don’t believe in demons. It doesn’t really matter. The point is that no matter how much we know, individually and collectively, no matter how much anger we harbor, no matter how much we hate what it is our bodies and minds are engaged in for hours at a stretch every single day, we still go and do it. Minute by minute, hour by hour, no one is standing there making us do anything. It is all internalized. We are obedient. We are docile. We are domesticated.
Here is where you jump in and interject that bosses and landlords and police and judges all are waiting in the wings to punish disobedience. Of course they are. I don’t disagree. But remember, there are more bosses and landlords and police and judges all waiting behind the first set to make sure they keep to the rules and continue the game of civilization uninterrupted. Though this is obvious I point it out for a reason: there is no one to kill. There is no one person who if eliminated would provide for us the opening we need to stop the insanity of industrial civilization and to build something new, something sane, something with the potential for longevity.
Thinking of such things reminds me of “The Grapes of Wrath.” In the story, Steinbeck writes a scene in which the agents of the landowners come to tell the tenant farming families that they have to leave.
“Sure, cried the tenant men, but it’s our land. We measured it and broke it up. We were born on it, and we got killed on it, died on it. Even if it’s no good, it’s still ours. That’s what makes it ours – being born on it, working it, dying on it. That makes ownership, not a paper with numbers on it.
We’re sorry. It’s not us. It’s the monster. The bank isn’t like a man.
Yes, but the bank is only made of men.
No, you’re wrong there-quite wrong there. The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it.”
The tenant farmers are pushed to anger at the blamelessness and absurdity of their situation.
“We’ll get our guns, like Grampa when the Indians came. What then?
Well-first the sheriff, and then the troops. You’ll be stealing if you try to stay, you’ll be murderers if you kill to stay. The monster isn’t men, but it can make men do what it wants.”
Steinbeck does a masterful job outlining the maddening and perplexing nature of our conundrum; people comprise the system, people act out their roles within the system, but people are not the system. So what the hell is the system? It seems so innocuous. It is rules. It is expectations. It is a series of triggers by which one human action results in an automatic response by another human who is just doing their job, and if they weren’t doing it, someone else would be. Of course, I am not trying to absolve any single person of the responsibility they bear for the actions that they individually engage in. I am however, interested in exploring the construction of the invisible forces that keep all of us participating in a system that we know is toxic to us physically and spiritually, as well as to the living planet at large.
It is so easy to blame the system. It’s just a word, and it is a stand in for the pieces and the whole of everything we see that is wrong with the way human society is behaving. Poverty? Blame the system. War? The system. Racism? The system. But what is the system? If it is just rules, expectations, and essentially stories that we tell each other, then why is the system so hard to change? Why is it so seemingly immutable? Why are we so damn helpless and ineffective at altering something so fragile, so simple, so made up? Could all of us really be so captured by something invented, something spoken into being and jotted down on flimsy pieces of paper? It’s as though we all began playing a game, only to realize that the game was playing us, and once begun there was no way to stop playing, even as we watched our movements destroy the world.
Maybe there is a demon after all. Maybe ignoring the demon, pretending it is not there endangers us further. Maybe the demon is an eater of souls, and its strategy is to diminish our power and our will through mindless labor, through a dulled existence of symbols and static, flashing lights and loud noises, addiction and poisonous food. Maybe for millennia, this demon has been slowly at work, gaining strength and refining its strategy, inserting its desires and ploys into our lives as politics, as capitalism, as war, as revolution, as status, as sex, as culture, as normal, as human nature.
Is it so hard to believe? Look around. Walk through a gas station. Look at the racks full of five hour energy bottles, E Cigarettes, scratch and win lottery tickets, chili cheese flavored corn chips, male enhancement pills, and thirty two ounce aluminum cans full of Monster and malt liquor. Step outside and see the fifty-foot glowing signs advertising Arby’s, Taco Bell, and some nameless pornography and sex toy megastore. Each establishment is serving up a small slice of death, of exploitation, of misery. Each storefront and corporate logo is masking a sweatshop, a slaughterhouse, a slave, an oil spill, another species gone from the Earth forever.
But we don’t believe in demons. We are too rational for that, too objective, too advanced. At least, that is the story we tell ourselves. But then I look around at the tortured landscape and the careless people moving through it who don’t seem to notice that they are traversing a spiritual wasteland, and I have to wonder.
Maybe when we go to the internet in the morning and look for the daily headlines and editorials, we are really looking for a friend, someone of like mind to join us in our knowledge and our fear of the events taking shape all around us that individually we are just too damn small to do anything about. Like office workers who jumped from the upper floors of the burning World Trade Center, we want someone with whom we can hold hands as we take the plunge into a future that has no good outcomes.
Or maybe, we are looking for hope, logging on and scrolling past link, after, link, after link until we find what we have been waiting for; a set of instructions. No more data points, no more statistics and measurements confirming what we already know, but a plan. For God’s sake, the catastrophe is spelled out in neon lights and it howls from a megaphone all day, every day. I have more awareness than my mind can bear, but what the hell am I, are you, supposed to do about it? We are so small. We are just one person. We are already late for work.
Step one: Protect your spirit, for you are in a place where spirits get eaten.
February 11, 2015 § 32 Comments
“He said that men believe the blood of the slain to be of no consequence but that the wolf knows better. He said that the wolf is a being of great order and that it knows what men do not: that there is no order in this world save that which death has put there.”
― Cormac McCarthy, The Crossing
In Theodore Kacynski’s manifesto, “Industrial Society and Its Future,” he lays out many premises concerning the existence of man in relation to technology and technological societies. One of these premises is that modern people in technological societies are afraid of death because they have never lived. They have not used their bodies, minds, and souls to their full potential, and thus even in old age, feel like they are yet to begin. Kacynski writes about the primitive man who in his sixties, having seen the successful life of his child and feeling the weariness in his muscles and bones, does not fear, but welcomes his turn to sleep. Where these intuitions were passed on, cultures of indigenous peoples were able to form warrior societies whose success rested on the fact that individual braves had no fear of death. They viewed themselves as one with their people and their land, both of which were timeless, granting them strength of conviction when the situation called for it.
When we hear of people dying in our culture, such news is often quickly followed with statements about the unfairness of one dying so young. Even a fifty-year-old heart attack victim will generally be granted laments and declarations that their passing was too early. While of course the loss of a loved one is saddening, there does appear to be a trend throughout this culture that seems to speak of death as if it is not the ultimate outcome of every life. Death, like the environment, is but another inconvenience to be conquered by our cleverness.
In this culture, there is language of “rights” concerning life. It is said that individuals have a “right” to life, meaning then that death is some violation against the individual. There are even those who would like to extend such rights to animals. No one, according to modern people enculturated by the dominant dogmas, is supposed to die. Ever.
Of course, every living being is only so for a limited time. Death and birth are two phases in the same biological process, and where there is the latter, inevitably we will come to the former. What I find so maddening, is that this culture, so lacking in its ability to confront death, let alone to create and support the psychological and emotional infrastructure to deal with death, is such an efficient bringer of death. How a people so vocally dedicated to peace and the preservation of life can then unflinchingly create nuclear and biological weapons, institute economic castes which immiserate the majority to establish the privilege of the minority, and daily exterminate upwards of two hundred species is possibly the grand irony of our time.
The mind reels.
When just last month, the study “Planetary Boundaries: Guiding Human Development on a Changing Planet,” was released, it got a lot of traction across the internet. The study, prepared by eighteen scientists from various international universities, grabbed headlines by claiming that human civilization had crossed four of nine environmental boundaries.
Of course such studies digitally shared from hard drive, to hard drive, to hard drive have never served to accomplish much in the way of real world action towards deindustrialization, and likely this one was and will remain no different. The trend seems to be that alarming data confirming that human industrial civilization is driving the global ecology to ruin, likely even to the near term detriment of this very civilization, only ends up spurring on those who believe that human industrial civilization can be done in a less harmful way, perhaps with the addition of more solar panels or the subtraction of capitalist motives.
Those who dare argue that civilization, and industrial civilization in particular, is the root cause of the destructive habits which are bringing all living beings to a point of potential collapse or extinction, are routinely dismissed as extreme. Such critics, before dismissal, are reminded of the dominant culture’s primary directive; “We cannot go backwards.” Suggestions that we must, in order to maintain a survivable habitat, drastically reduce reliance on industrial methods, products, and infrastructure are waved off as impossible, insane, or even genocidal. Defenders of the dominant culture and systems of industrial civilization claim that such reductions in technological application will axiomatically mean reductions in human population, and thus are off the table. These claimants are either oblivious to the fact that “going forward” with the methods and practices of the dominant culture would be at least equally genocidal, if not more so, or they harbor a quasi religious belief that human invention will save us from every single problem caused by previous scores of human invention. Always ignored is the clear fact that so called “going forward” will mean an increase in human population before the ecosystems which support them collapse, meaning there will be more humans to die when drought, famine, sea level rise, resource scarcity, and every other calamity currently rising to crescendo ultimately manifest in a symphony of systemic failures that existing political, technological, and economic structures are incapable of mitigating
And then there are the non-human genotypes that most defenders of the dominant culture refuse to ever enter into their calculations.
When someone refuses to acknowledge a solution to a problem because it will indirectly involve death – even when the solution in question is attempting to select fewer deaths sooner as opposed to a great many more deaths later – this person is inserting hidden premises into the discussion, the most obvious of which is that people alive now have the right to exhaust the health of the land which people not yet born will need to rely on in the future. If upon the suggestion that we must globally act to deindustrialize in order to prevent overwhelming climate catastrophe, a person floats the counter argument that such deindustrialization will result in a reduction of currently available medical technologies, and is therefore an unacceptable proposition, this person is inserting into the discussion a premise that the lives of those who would no longer have access to the medical technologies they require are more valuable – this is to say, they have more of a right to survival – than the lives that will be lost – human and non – when industrial civilization fails and brings down with it the functioning ecology of the planet.
Such premises, to me, seem insane. A patent refusal to acknowledge the bare reality that all life, including human life, requires as a foundation a healthy and viable habitat is either obstinacy or a shameful level of ignorance. Claiming that one group of humans has more of a right to survival than others, or that humans have more of a right to survival than the rest of the web of life, is doubly insane.
At the end of it all, defenders of the status quo are not defending life, they are defending lifestyle. Proponents of the dominant culture and its myths of progress are really arguing for their own comfort, of both body and mind. Changing nothing presents no difficult ethical questions or messy physical conflicts. Going forward is the easy choice. This fact alone should ring alarm bells.
Why is death so unacceptable? If we cannot come to grips with death, then we will find ourselves collectively at an impasse where no necessary action will be taken, and industrial civilization will continue unimpeded on its course devouring forests, wiping out species after species, washing away topsoil, and rendering the oceans a lifeless acidic soup of plastics in various stages of photo decay. Somewhere buried in all of this is yet another premise; that to elect the death of even one is unacceptable, but to remain passive while existing systems dole out death to many is forgivable. Human agency seems to be the determining factor. The people who own and operate chemical plants that cause regional cancer clusters in children are forgiven. A death by one million pinpricks is too diffuse to assign blame. On the other hand, to intentionally kill the CEO of such a chemical company would be an outrage. It would be a tragedy. People on TV would say he died too young.
The dominant culture not only protects those high on its hierarchy, blurring lines of responsibility for the actions they take in the name of progress, but it also blinds every day people from the realities of just how it is they come to have the things that they do. Major systems of production and distribution that segregate individuals from the sources of their food, their clothing, the materials that built their homes, the fuels that power their cars and gadgets, create an illusory sense of existence. If a person perceives that food comes from a grocery store, gasoline from a pump, shoes from an online retailer, it is reasonable to believe then that this person’s perceptions have been skewed into believing that nothing must ever die for us to consume whatever we want in whatever quantities we desire. As long as the blood is on someone else’s hands in some other land far from sight, then there is no blood at all. It is this willful blindness to the day to day functioning of industrial civilization on the part of the world’s wealthier populations that allows a people draped in slave made textiles who are kept fed by the mechanistic rape of stolen land powered by stolen oil to stare up with their doe eyes and without a hint of irony ask, “But why do they hate us?”
So it is that so often we hear the claims of “green” capitalists who declare we can have our planet and kill it too. We are to shut our eyes and believe that solar panels, electric cars, fair trade mocha lattes, soy burgers, iPads, internet service, and all of the pills and processes in a modern hospital all just manifest from the ether. The rainforests clear cut, the oceanic dead zones caused by agricultural run off, the open pit mines, the oil spills, the nitro-tri-fluoride and other greenhouse gasses, and all of the whips and prods physical and not that herd about the masses of humans who do all the lifting, stitching, assembling, dismembering, and dying to bring such wonders to our shopping carts just don’t add up to dry shit.
That is how the dominant culture deals with death. It hides it. And when it can’t hide it any longer, it calls it “business.”
Various indigenous tribes have been able to maintain steady populations. In fact, for millennia, a handful of commonplace practices aided in keeping a tribe or band’s numbers in check. Breastfeeding infants until they were four years old helped prevent mother’s menstrual cycles from resurging, thereby keeping birth numbers down. The use of abortifactant herbs also helped women in the event of untimely pregnancies. When a group’s population was at a point where another child would bring great hardship, some tribal people would turn to infanticide. Picture the heartbreaking scene, as a mother lays a newborn infant on a cold hillside to freeze as the sun sets on a winter day. On the other end, tribes would at times decide not to work to heal ailing elderly members, and instead would begin ceremonial death rites when an older person fell ill.
This is the cultural imperative I am interested in. The ability of a people to confront the hard reality of their lives, and to make the soul wrenching choices that they must make in order to survive is not present in the civilized paradigm, not when it comes to allowing death. This is a delicate topic, to be sure, but one of necessary import as the world now hosts almost eight billion people, while conversely non-renewable resources are consumed at increasing rates, and the ecology is pushed beyond the breaking point.
Cultures that accept the inevitability of death create ceremonies and social forms for processing death. This is not to suggest that these people do not feel the pain of loss when a loved one passes, but rather to highlight that they develop a maturity surrounding death. They can talk about it. They can incorporate it into their survival strategies. They do not treat it as a cosmic betrayal of the individual’s right to exist for seventy-five years before a midnight expiration in a beach condo in Florida. Most importantly, cultures that make room for death do not become locked into a suicidal social paradigm, refusing to veer in their direction because doing so would result in the death of some, even when going forward would result in the death of all.
In my last essay I spoke of needing a new cultural ethos in order to prevent the wanton annihilation of the Earth’s life giving systems. This psychological and spiritual evolution must include maturity in the matters of death. Culturally, we must not shun death from our view, for when we do, we push his presence beyond sight, but not beyond efficiency. Beyond the hedge where death lurks ignored by modern man, he does his work still, and he plots against those who believe they have banished him with their cleverness. He plans a great party indeed.
My daughter is nearly a year old. She is my connection to the future, as my parents and ancestors are my connection to the past. I love her to my core, each cell in my body resonating with an urge to guard her, protect her, and to see to her survival. I think about the emptiness that would devour me if she were to die, so I do have a sense of the gravity concerning that which I have written. I look at my little girl, and the truth of life comes to me plain as the new day: we cannot banish sorrow. Heartache is the handmaiden of joy. The history of our species is the history of finding the strength to endure when it seems that all is lost, and when we see no reason to go on, feeling that the ground holds us still.
The complex problems we face require sober, adult analysis, but here and now we lack the methods and ceremonies necessary to act as a mature culture. Our unwillingness at all levels to confront uncomfortable realities has made dangerous adolescents of us, as our orgy of consumption and self aggrandizement has pushed the planet to the brink. There are tasks which demand our collective attention, and undertaking them, while necessary, will not be without consequence. There are few good options on the table before us. Meeting such difficult questions head on, with humility and grace, is the mark of greatness.
It is time to ask, “who are we?” and “who do we want to be?” As we stand right now, we are a belligerent cult of ego, drunk on the self, screaming our greatness as we charge forth trampling everything underfoot. We have a lot of work to do, and not nearly enough time to do it. Death rides whether we call to him or not.
December 22, 2014 § 26 Comments
One of the great dangers of the life indoors, is the anesthetizing effect it has on a person. When we aren’t out in the world, we aren’t present to watch the dying. Attempting to talk about this via an electronic medium, even via the written word at all, is near futile because it requires the symbolic recreation of the tragedy unfolding around us, and the recreation will never carry the weight or the pain of the real thing.
So it comes down to data points. In essays past and in daily editorials available across the electronic press, we are fed the data points. Topsoil loss, species die off, the toxicity of the oceans, the acceleration of climate change; I can rattle off the data, but who cares? We are inside. Climate controlled. Masters of hundreds of energy slaves all whipped up to provide us with on demand entertainment, comfort, and snack food. We think we are safe inside our house, but the house is an illusion. There is no indoor, outdoor dichotomy. There is a temporary delusion blinding us to the reality of the storm bearing down.
In my previous essay I wrote that we must burn down the collective house that is civilization. We must demolish it thoroughly before the floors buckle and the roof caves in, despite the very real dependence we have developed upon this edifice. A conundrum indeed, but this conundrum is itself the question of our time, and it calls to all of us whether we are ready to square off with its implications or not.
Industrial civilization is destroying the living skin of the planet. Industrial civilization is rendering life on Earth impossible. This is inarguable. The only question then, is what to do. Where do our responsibilities lie, and how can we meet them with dignity, grace, and courage?
What do you value? What do you value the most in this world as you experience it? I think it is imperative that we start with this question because the answer will determine how we perceive our responsibilities as living beings. I refer to this as finding one’s polestar; their true north. Finding our pole star is essential because it is very easy to get entangled in the complexity of our culture, our socialization, our class status, and all of the other baggage we carry from lifetime after lifetime of trauma inflicted by the dominant culture. When we need reorientation, we come about to our true north, and keep from running wayward into the noise and distraction intentionally laid to ensnare the passionate.
My pole star is the healthy, fecund forest. I live in a wooded region, and when I look out my front door I see tree covered ravines. Beech, hickory, oak, maple, all stand stoically about me, their leaves blanketing and feeding the soil. I never feel so honest, so at home, so centered as when I stand in the deep blue dark of night, jacketed in the electric stillness of winter, staring up to the stars that peek through the tangled black fingers of the naked tree boughs. In those moments I feel whole, because I feel like part of a whole. My ancestors call to me from the past as they most certainly stood in the same pose of supplication, lost in wonder, and gratitude, and mystery.
This is where I go when I seek an ethical thread to follow through the spiritual and psychological quagmire of modern industrial civilization. When I look at the activities of humans, I ask what they mean for the forests. Not just my forest home, but for the forest homes of people and beings across the Earth. I ask if new technologies, or policies, or commercial activities will benefit these havens of life and solitude, or if they threaten them. I imagine the creeks and rivers that run through this region like blood in my veins, and usually the answer comes back to me that, no, the grand schemes of civilized man offer nothing good. They seek only to take, never to give back. They promise to dominate and ruin, and that is what they do.
When concrete is laid over what was once a field so that suburbanites can park their vehicles at a new strip of retail stores, the deep roots of plants do not surrender. Look to any patch of asphalt and you will find the rebellion under way. Grass, dock, wild onion, dandelion; they slowly crack and push through the rubble and road surface above them until they find their place in the sunlight once again. When under attack, these plants merely do what they must do to go about the business of living.
What fascinates me is that when hundreds or thousands of enraged people burn down the corporate chain stores that encircle them like army wagons on the frontier, these rioters are condemned. Spokespeople for the status quo feign innocent stupidity and ask, “Why are they burning down their own communities?” as if the concrete that is laid over the poor and working class is somehow their kin. Setting police cruisers and corporate chain stores alight is merely what these people must do to go about the business of living, whether this is consciously perceived or not.
The hierarchy of power that exists in this social paradigm attempts to mystify the public with language of togetherness when it suits them. They speak down to the lower orders as if we are one unit, one family, one tribe, each of us working together for the equal betterment of all. The actions of the powerful betray the truth, that those lower on the social hierarchy will labor, toil, suffer, and die for the comfort, power, and privilege of those at the top.
This is the framework by which responsibility is discussed within our society. If a man robs a store and is sent to prison for it, it is said that he is there to “pay his debt to society.” There are several implications in this statement surrounding the notion that this man was ever part of society to begin with, or that he desires to remain so. Of course, if he was robbing a store to pay his rent, keep the heat on, or feed his family, there will never be statements from the powerful to the effect that society failed this man, this valuable member of our collective, and forced him through circumstance to his act. Society will never pay its debt to this man, or to any man of his social rank. The idea that we are all daily electing to be in one cooperative social structure together is a pure fabrication.
As so often happens, officers of the state apparatus commit egregious violence, whether as police or soldiers, and their personal responsibility is almost never called into question. The only time an individual police officer or soldier is made to fall on their sword, is when their crime is so blatant, so heinous, and so public, that to not punish them would crack the façade of the entire control apparatus. By and large, these officers of the state do violence as a mode of day to day operations, all for the acquisition and maintenance of wealth and power as it exists and is distributed.
However, any actions deemed antagonistic to the structure of power and wealth will be vociferously condemned, and the perpetrators will be held liable for all knock on effects of these actions. For instance, if in an attempt to preserve the health and sanctity of one’s home, a person destroys the power sub station that operates the pumps for a tar sand pipeline that runs under their land, and this outage causes a cascade black out to follow suit, the state will likely hold responsible this person for any deaths or injuries that occur due to the lack of electricity that has resulted. If an old woman on a hospital respirator dies, the person who knocked out the sub station will likely be charged with manslaughter, if not murder. They will be called a terrorist. Anyone whose ideologies are even remotely similar to this person’s will also be labeled a terrorist, worthy of suspicion.
In short, this is the Law. People speak of the Law in moralistic terms, as if the volumes of clumsy codes and commands cobbled together by and for the wealthy were gifted to us by a choir of angels designed on building for us a just and balanced world. Of course, the Law is nothing of the sort. The Law has nothing to do with morals or ethics, as the bulk of the weight of the laws as they exist purpose to extort and exploit the poor for the powerful. Leaning on the law as an ethical or moral litmus is such a high form of laziness and ignorance as to be shameful.
This is the wall that encircles those of us who wish to see an end to the current order of power. We will be held to the highest account for the slightest ill that comes from any of our deeds, and the Law will be invoked in punishing even the most tepid of social activists. Meanwhile, an Airforce technician in a bunker will kill families thousands of miles away with hellfire missiles, and we will never know this person’s name. They will never be condemned for the deaths they directly and intentionally cause. In fact, they will be heralded and rewarded. Their efforts furthered the efforts of the machine of industrial civilization. They are on the team. Doctors designed torture programs for the CIA. Scientists design weaponized viruses. Capitalists pour heavy metals into rivers and continue cutting boreal forest to extract tar sand despite the globally acknowledged threat of climate catastrophe.
These people are all protected. Even attempting to slow them down in their work is a crime. The truth laid bare is that they have a sanctioned right to bring death, and you have no right to try to prevent them, whether violently or not.
It’s not about who you kill, it’s about who you kill for.
The police are on standby in any event, ready to gleefully dole out violence to even the most passive demonstrator. Any flinch, parry, or brush of a hand that can be deemed an attack on the police, of course, will result in charges, possibly felonies. The guardians of power too, are a protected class, so much so that in some places even passively ignoring police is classed as a felony.
The message is clear. This world doesn’t belong to us, but to them. We are a society in name only. Language about unity and country are pap for the masses. Those who don’t swallow it down get the club, or the bullet. But don’t worry, the comments section is still open. Feel free to air your frustrations beneath the article. Hashtag, give-up-already.
In the cold night air my breath is visible. Darkness comes early as we approach the solstice. When I scan over the ridge, I feel a peace in the center of my being. There are those who think this is all that is left. They say that we have already lost the big fights, and now all that remains is to hold close to those you love as the dying picks up speed, and the maniacs in power continue throttling forward.
I cannot help but feel that such placid thoughts, wherever they may be rooted, are an appeasement to the powerful. My blog wouldn’t be named “Pray for Calamity” if I didn’t believe that things would get worse before they got better. But I also know that without question I would die for my family and for our home, and thinking this opens me to the idea that there are so many great places and causes to die for on this planet at this time. Perhaps its time to stop seeing this as an age of impending calamity, but instead to see it as an age of opportunity to banish our fears, cage our egos, and to remember that death comes for us all, and that the greatest shame would be to waste our flesh when there are so many perfect targets for our rage. Perhaps we should begin to recognize this as an age of awakening; a time to reignite an internal fire that an oppressive and abusive culture has devoted so much energy to snuffing out.
So I ask, what is your pole star? What is your true north? What do you know in the center of your being to be good, and right, and true? The dominant culture attempts to bend the mind and break the heart, until all that is left is the fetishization of power. Domesticated, isolated, institutionalized, traumatized people begin to believe that their responsibilities are to the dominant system of buying, selling, killing, producing, and ever increasing efficiency at all of them.
I submit that these are not my responsibilities, and they are not yours. I submit that none of the language they weaponize and fire so readily at dissenting voices is applicable. We are not malcontents, radicals, insurgents, or terrorists. We are dandelions who do not wish to bend to the will of the concrete poured over us.
And when we are ready to remember all of this, we are warriors.
December 2, 2014 § 15 Comments
Despite the oddly warm weather that blew in today, we are in the depth of autumn. The days have been full of regular chores. Splitting firewood and stacking it on pallets outside the front door is something I tend to every third day or so, and I try to split in excess so that come the raw cold days of winter, I need not swing the maul. The gardens are almost all covered in a layer of horse manure, and the chicken coop is surrounded with straw bales in the hope that the next round of polar vortecies will not claim the lives of any of our birds. The quiet days spent fleshing deer hides and hauling gravel into the drainage trench around our house arouse my mind to thinking. Furious thinking about the state of the planet, the state of human beings within this culture, and just what the hell any of us should do with our time, our will, and our strength as we collectively are drawn into a decidedly more difficult future.
The bulk of my days this summer past were dedicated to the construction of our house. We have several acres of beautiful land in one of the forested pockets of North America, and through the heat and the rain I swung a framing hammer until at long last I now have a small, mostly finished cabin. It was not once lost on me, that building my house in a rural place as part of an attempt to alleviate myself of the necessity of the industrial capitalist system, I quite often had to lean heavily on that very system. “Using the grid to go off the grid,” my friend said. Despite having no wires or pipes running to my cabin, I know the truth of the matter: there is no escaping civilization. One can scoot to the edges, hang out near the lifeboats if you will, smoking a cigarette and waiting for the moment reality dawns on the crew and they cry “Abandon ship!” But no matter how far one goes, no matter how many comforts they shuck, the chemicals of industry still course through their blood. Catastrophic climate change will wipe out ways of life even in the remote, uncontacted jungles of the world. People who never drove a car or owned a cell phone will be subject to famine and cancer. Ironically, it is the poor who will likely suffer greatest as climatic change spurs droughts, floods, and mega storms. Worse yet, it is the non-human species who are being eradicated daily, never to return, for the hubris of petroleum man.
I hate this civilization, this machine, this juggernaut, this sleepwalking hungry ghost, this pathological ideology, this imaginary cage that we cannot seem to imagine a key for no matter how deeply we come to resent our captivity. But I still wanted a steel roof so that I could collect rainwater. It was July when I screwed the roof down to the purlins, and on that day I asked myself, “What does a person do, when they simultaneously need a thing, and need to destroy it?” Such a double bind cannot possibly have a rational answer, because the rational is captured by society, trademarked and owned by the dominant culture. We can only know in our souls, in the still wild places of our being what must be done, but making the case with the words crafted in the forges of civilization will almost certainly always fail. Words and arguments are Trojan Horses, trap doors to counter arguments, to platitudes, to endless winding hallways of thought not designed to deliver you anywhere, but merely to sap you of your energy in the traveling.
We know what we must do, and we know that we will never be able to rationalize it to the denizens of civilization, because at its very core a rationalization is a request for permission. Those who benefit most from the demise of the natural world and from the agony of the global poor will never permit anyone to cut the lights on this cavalcade of compounding tragedies.
We know what we must do. We must burn down the house we have built, force ourselves back into the wild. And further, we must tell the story to all of our children explaining that the house made us weak, it made us sedentary, it turned us against our land and our kin who dwell on the land, it made us servile to its own needs even as it fell apart around us, off-gassing formaldehyde and leaching fire retardants into our blood. We must explain that the lure the comfort of the house provides is undeniable, and that a long many days from now, the children of our children’s children may forget the perils that the house presents. We must send strong words and songs far into the unseen future, so that those who come after us value the freedom of their life out of doors with only simple shelters, that they understand the impermanence of the tipi or the wigwam is not a failing, but a strength, as the nature of life on this Earth is that of impermanence. We must convey the futility of attempts to forever banish the cold, the rain, or the wind with immovable dwellings, and that such folly will forever chain those who build them to a lifetime of work while making enemies of their surroundings as they till more soil for crops, as they sink more mines for more metal, as they cut trees for more wood, and still lose their great battle against the ravages of weather and time.
It is a great house we have collectively built. Many will say there is no other way of being. They will say that despite the dangers the house presents to body, mind, and soul, that these dangers are nothing when weighed against the impossibility of life outside. There will be those who even acknowledge the limitations of this house, they will nod in agreement when you tell them that the roof is caving and the foundation buckling. They will say, “Yes, yes, I know” when you present the children afflicted with leukemia brought about by the toxicity of the house’s very construction, and they will fight you still when you suggest dismantling this place and creating something new.
The house is a prison, and the people within it have become institutionalized, domesticated. They have been subjugated in spirit and thought to think there is no life outside the walls. If it were possible merely to escape, to dig a mighty tunnel to the far reaches of the mortar and beyond, perhaps that would be the righteous choice. But there is no place left that the ravages cannot reach you. There are no lands across the sea where you will not be subject the dictates of the warden, where the poisons of industry will not claim your health and kill your landbase. The walls must go, by any means necessary, even if in the here and now, we rely upon them.
Sleet is falling now outside of my window. It has been a long season of work, and as my body finds itself resting more, my mind grows agitated. There have been uprisings against police authority across the United States in recent weeks. The petroleum markets are in turmoil as global powers seek domination over their competitors. Experts are advising that the temperature of the planet will necessarily rise to one and a half degrees Celsius above baseline, and still the owner class seeks to exploit tar sand, deep-water oil, and coal.
What is a person to do? It seems that simultaneously, everything and nothing is possible. Action and inaction both appear to be dead ends. There are those who silently hope for a massive solar flare or a great pandemic, assuming the only way to break from this Mobius strip of horrors is if it is severed by some cataclysm delivered from above. This is praying for calamity, it is begging a still listening God for absolution, as if we have done anything to earn such favors.
As the winter sets in, I will be writing about our responsibilities in such times.
April 2, 2014 § 8 Comments
“Any man who afflicts the human race with ideas must be prepared to see them misunderstood.”
To criticize the status quo is to invite volley after volley of personal criticism back in your own direction. I am sure this has likely been the case for a very long time, and I believe this may be partly due to the way in which humans learn through pattern recognition, as well as how the architecture of the human brain physically lays neural pathways to build understanding. Thus when an idea too astray from the usual is presented to the human mind, there is a high chance of a negative reaction because the new pattern is far too asymmetric for the current set of neural pathways to incorporate. That, or the derogator is a bored and obtuse malcontent with nothing better to do than shit all over other people on the internet.
I often write about the exploitation inherent in the model of civilization itself, and how this organizing framework which is dominant on the planet now is entirely unsustainable and will necessarily collapse catastrophically. This is some level nine stuff. By this I mean that if you have not been initiated, if you haven’t read about this topic or all of the feeder topics that lead to this conclusion, it would likely seem extreme. Thorough understanding of an issue requires prerequisite knowledge. We get to where we are by having been where we were, even philosophically and intellectually. Because my topics of critique often surround the civilization paradigm, its parts, and alternatives, I often receive flak from people which either demonstrates that they do not fully understand the gravity of the issues, or which merely indicts me as complicit in civilization’s crimes. The former generally comes in the form of people arguing that technology will remedy all of the converging crises faced and created by civilization. The latter is far more frustrating, as it is usually some pathetic attempt at a “got’chya!” moment where someone tries to defeat my greater thesis by pointing out my use of a computer or some other trapping of civilization. “Hypocrite!” they cry.
The hypocrisy claim is everywhere you find people critiquing any facet of the status quo. Antiwar activists who protested the Iraq war were called hypocrites for using gasoline. Occupy Wall Street participants were called hypocrites for using Apple products. My friends in forest defense have been called hypocrites for using paper. As an anti-civ anarchist I have been called a hypocrite for everything from having moved into a house during the winter, to having gone to the hospital when after forty hours of labor at home with a midwife, my partner was physically exhausted and wanted access to drugs so she could sleep. Every time these criticisms are leveled, it becomes a major energy suck to explain exactly how nonsensical they are. I would like to here dedicate this essay to shredding the “hypocrisy” argument once and for all, so it can forever be linked to by activists and social critics of all platforms and stripes, who neither have the time nor energy to swat at the many zombie hordes who become agitated when new ideas are presented to them which run counter to the comfortable patterns that they are used to, and who then proceed to scream “hypocrite!” in place of an actual counter argument.
Jean-Paul Sartre wrote, “Hell is other people.” Despite my anti-civ analysis, I am no misanthrope. Civilization is a system of organization, a power arrangement in which a small few control the many. Using their power, these few exploit the lands and beings around them so they can grow their power and comfort at the expense of others. Industrial civilization takes this paradigm full tilt and is wiping out habitat and species at a mortifying rate. Understanding this does not cause me to hate my species, but rather to be eager to help them understand why we must pursue new organizational methods. Still, the uphill battle of convincing fellow humans, especially those who are net beneficiaries of this destructive and exploitative set of arrangements, can be at times an infuriating engagement. Of course, this is not because I need people to immediately agree with me, but if they don’t, I do prefer they focus on challenging the content of my statements as opposed to nit picking the content of my life.
In “The Fall,” Albert Camus wrote, “Everyone insists on his innocence, at all costs, even if it means accusing the rest of the human race and heaven itself.” I believe that it may be this personal insistence on one’s innocence which leads people to quickly cry “hypocrite!” at those who critique the status quo. Because we are all mired in this paradigm, when it is critiqued, some individuals feel that the critique is of them individually, likely due to a personal identification with the system. Thus critiques become personal attacks against which they must defend themselves. “If the system is guilty, then I am guilty, and I’m not guilty!”
The need for personal innocence runs deeper. If a critique against an overarching paradigm such as a government, capitalism, or civilization itself seems irrefutable, this can invoke in some a certain need to then utilize this new information as part of their own personal ethos. The problem here, is that this will mean that person will feel compelled to act accordingly with this information, and the actions required may seem difficult, uncomfortable, or frightening. For instance, if you’re told that capitalism is exploitative because employers retain the surplus labor value generated by their employees, and you happen to be a business owner, this new understanding will mean one of two things: either you rearrange the operating model of your business to fairly compensate your employees for their labor, effectively making them cooperative partners, or you change nothing but must go through life recognizing that you profit off of the exploitation of others. Here, your internal need to perceive yourself as innocent, or at least to believe yourself a good person, will run counter with your open acknowledgement that you exploit people for a living. What to do then to keep the ego intact?
If the action required to fall in line with the new ethos created by accepting new information is too hard, too uncomfortable, or you just don’t want to do it, you must justify inaction. Justifying inaction will be achieved possibly by denying the veracity of the new information. Like most capitalists in this scenario, you could convince yourself that your entrepreneurial and risk taking spirit give you the right to take the surplus labor value generated by the people you employ indefinitely. Of course, the justifications are endless.
In some cases though, if the new information received cannot be deflected through argument or justification, and the need to preserve one’s picture of their innocence is too great, then calling into question the character or behavior of the information’s purveyor can also suffice. For instance, if an activist is working to halt fossil fuel extraction for the myriad reasons that such a halting would be beneficial, it can be difficult to disagree with this activist on a purely argumentative level. How could you? Deny climate change? Deny ozone killing trees? Deny the death and destruction from Alberta, to the Gulf of Mexico, to the Niger Delta? On an argumentative level, you’d be wrong every time. However, you could call into question the activist’s use of fossil fuels, thereby deflecting the conversation, and basically insinuating that, as Camus also wrote in The Fall, “We are all in the soup together.” Because hey, if we’re all guilty, then none of us are guilty, am I right?
In the fall of 2012, I was in Texas working with the Tar Sands Blockade using direct action tactics to shut down construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline. On the side of a highway north of Nacogdoches, I sat with some friends as our comrades were perched on platforms fifty feet in the air with their support lines tied to heavy machinery, effectively making the machines unusable lest their operators not mind killing these young people. There were a surprising amount of supporters for rural east Texas, but of course, there were plenty of people who made sure we we aware of their disdain for us. One such person passed by, slowed down, and said “I bet you used a pick up truck to get that stuff out here.” In his mind, this was a real zinger. I replied, “Of course we did. Why wouldn’t we?”
There are a slew of reasons why this man’s comment contained zero validity as a critique of our action. For one, the gasoline we used did not come from that as of yet unfinished pipeline. Also, though I wouldn’t, I could claim to be against tar sands bitumen, but not conventional crude. But really the truth is that anti-extraction activists are making what economists would even defend as an intelligent bargain; using X amount of fossil fuels to prevent the extraction of a million times X. Of course I would use a tank of gasoline to prevent the daily extraction and transportation of hundreds of thousands of barrels of bitumen. Not only am I seeking a massive net gain for the ecology of the planet, I am also not using any more fossil fuels than I would have used had I gone to work that day anyway.
In the same vein, it is not hypocrisy to write a book about the ills of deforestation. Though it may be printed on paper, it has the potential to affect policy which will then lessen the total amount of deforestation. Not to mention, the loggers are going to log and the publishing company is going to publish. Using those resources to ultimately dismantle that destructive activity is actually the best use for them. So no, the person who posts on the internet about the ravages of mountain top removal coal mining or hydraulic fracturing for natural gas isn’t a hypocrite. They are cleverly utilizing the paradigm’s resources to expose its flaws to the light of scrutiny, in the hope that the consciences of people will be stirred to ultimately upend the paradigm itself. This is, in fact, the most ethical use of the resources generated by destructive industrial activity.
Using the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house is to be encouraged.
It feels ridiculous to even have to lay this out, but the “hypocrisy” barb is flung far too often and dismantled far too little. What’s worse, is that hypocrisy in this regard isn’t even being understood correctly. According to wikipedia:
“Hypocrisy is the state of falsely claiming to possess virtuous characteristics that one lacks. Hypocrisy involves the deception of others and is thus a kind of lie. Hypocrisy is not simply failing to practice those virtues that one preaches. Samuel Johnson made this point when he wrote about the misuse of the charge of “hypocrisy” in Rambler No. 14:
Nothing is more unjust, however common, than to charge with hypocrisy him that expresses zeal for those virtues which he neglects to practice; since he may be sincerely convinced of the advantages of conquering his passions, without having yet obtained the victory, as a man may be confident of the advantages of a voyage, or a journey, without having courage or industry to undertake it, and may honestly recommend to others, those attempts which he neglects himself.
Thus, an alcoholic’s advocating temperance, for example, would not be considered an act of hypocrisy as long as the alcoholic made no pretense of sobriety.”
This being understood, we can unequivocally state that a forest defense activist who prints pamphlets about saving tracts of woodland is not a hypocrite, unless they also claim to never use any forest products. Sure, there is a reasonable expectation that people who see a social ill will do their best to avoid adding to that ill, but sometimes the requirements of society horseshoe people into activity even they do not appreciate because the alternative options are worse or non-existent. Of course, this is where detractors will still claim that if an activist wants to save the forests, that they should cease using anything made from trees because consumer demand is behind all economic activity. Ignoring the obvious benefits of the trade off between printing five hundred pamphlets to save five hundred acres of woodlands, I think further disemboweling of this notion about consumer choice activism is also necessary.
Derrick Jensen writes about how he got in an argument with a man who accused him of being just as responsible for deforestation as Weyerhaeuser because he used toilet paper:
“Here, once again, is the real story. Our self-assessed culpability for participating in the deathly system called civilization masks (and is a toxic mimic of) our infinitely greater sin. Sure, I use toilet paper. So what? That doesn’t make me as culpable as the CEO of Weyerhaeuser, and to think it does grants a great gift to those in power by getting the focus off them and onto us.
For what, then, are we culpable? Well, for something far greater than one person’s work as a technical writer and another’s as a busboy. Something far greater than my work writing books to be made of the pulped flesh of trees. Something far greater than using toilet paper or driving cars or living in homes made of formaldehyde-laden plywood. For all of those things we can be forgiven, because we did not create the system, and because our choices have been systematically eliminated (those in power kill the great runs of salmon, and then we feel guilty when we buy food at the grocery store? How dumb is that?). But we cannot and will not be forgiven for not breaking down the system that creates these problems, for not driving deforesters out of forests, for not driving polluters away from land and water and air, for not driving moneylenders from the temple that is our only home. We are culpable because we allow those in power to continue to destroy the planet. Yes, I know we are more or less constantly enjoined to use only inclusive rhetoric, but when will we all realize that war has already been declared upon the natural world, and upon all of us, and that this war has been declared by those in power? We must stop them with any means necessary. For not doing that we are infinitely more culpable than most of us—myself definitely included— will ever be able to comprehend.”
“To be clear: I am not culpable for deforestation because I use toilet paper. I am culpable for deforestation because I use toilet paper and I do not keep up my end of the predator-prey bargain. If I consume the flesh of another I am responsible for the continuation of its community. If I use toilet paper, or any other wood or paper products, it is my responsibility to use any means necessary to ensure the continued health of natural forest communities. It is my responsibility to use any means necessary to stop industrial forestry.”
I believe it is dangerous to convince people that their only power is in their purchasing decisions, because this relegates people to being mere consumers, not active citizens, let alone autonomous beings who define their own struggles, explore a diversity of tactics, and experiment to find new and effective measures for countering power. It also reduces all of society to nothing but customer transactions. Doing so ignores the power people have to protest, blockade, persuade, legislate, and sometimes, to overthrow. Would advocates of consumer choice activism stand by the idea that American revolutionaries should merely have boycotted tea, stamps and British products? Would they advocate that these revolutionaries should have instead of smashing windows, burning buildings, and fighting back against the crown have instead started their own competing tea trading companies? How about American slavery? Was the real solution that abolitionists and free blacks should have started competing fiber plantations in the north, hoping to push slave produced cotton out of business? Should we brand Captain John Brown a hypocrite for not wearing fair trade worker owned flax linen pants when he raided Harper’s Ferry seeking weapons with which to start a slave revolt? Preposterous!
Fighting against a behemoth industry that is interwoven into the state apparatus and has insulated itself as a central pillar of day to day operations is not something easily done. For one to claim they know exactly how to win such a fight is audacious. When it comes to the extraction industries, there is a large buffer where no matter how much the public cuts their consumption, the state will offset their financial losses through subsidies and purchases. The US government will happily buy discount oil for the fifth armored division after a civilian boycott lowers the price. Because of this, all forms of resistance are welcome and necessary, and it should be understood that attacking such a monolithic industry requires people hammering away, figuratively and literally, on every possible front. If it takes two million barrels of oil to power the cars and trucks necessary to organize the ten thousand strong blockade that cripples the refinery complex at the Port of Houston, well hell, oil well spent.
Those who demand lifestyle purity of anyone who ever raises a critique of any facet of the status quo are creating a double bind paradigm of hypocrites and extremists so to establish two camps into which they can then package critics in order to isolate and ignore them. The hypocrite camp is obvious. By misdiagnosing via a false definition someone who is against civilization as a hypocrite because they use electricity to write their thoughts online, these detractors can in their own minds, suggest there is no reason to take the critique seriously. But suppose the anti-civ critic did achieve lifestyle purity. Suppose that they lived in a wigwam in the woods that they constructed themselves from branches and deer hides. Imagine that this person walked to the center of town every weekend in haggard clothing they had pulled from thrift store dumpsters and then this person stood on a bench to shout about the ills of industry and hierarchy. Is it likely that this person would be taken seriously? Of course not! They would be labeled an extremist. Passersby would write this person off as insane before listening to argument one. There is no middle ground in this double bind, and that is the point. Those who would cry from the wilderness about the death and the misery that civilization brings will forever be stripping more and more from their lives in a futile effort to gain recognition, to be valid in the eyes of those who called them hypocrites, until one day they are branded as lunatics, if they are not unheard and unseen, exactly as their detractors want them to be.
On this, we should remember too, that there are people who have achieved this lifestyle purity. They are the tribal peoples around the world who never have been drawn into the net of civilization. They are the global poor who do not benefit from the burning of coal or the sinking of copper mines. And their voices consistently go unheard. In fact, their voices are almost ubiquitously silenced. What do the defenders of the status quo say to the Kayapó, Arara, Juruna, Araweté, Xikrin, Asurini and Parakanã peoples who are fighting the construction of the Belo Monte dam which threatens their survival? What do the defenders of the status quo say to the animals and plants who have been nothing but victims in the story of human progress? There is no inconsistency in their lives. No iPhone to scoff at, no power tool, no window fan. What is the excuse for denying their right to live? What is the excuse for exterminating them and pretending it isn’t happening? Why is it OK to deny their pleas?
Analysis and critique precede action. Without first understanding a system and describing its flaws, it will never be repaired or replaced. To assert that one must excise themselves from a system prior to criticizing it is asinine, especially so when the system being criticized is a global power structure with tentacles in almost every geographical region. Such assertions if considered legitimate would render critique impossible. They are also so implausible as to essentially be nothing more than a dismissal of critique, a backhanded way of saying “Shut up!” To be sure, the horrors of the dominant culture always have required a silencing of those it would make victims, so such behaviors amongst the denizens of civilization should come as no surprise, but they have never been and will never be intellectually or academically valid.
If you are in a prison, eating the food from the cafeteria does not mean you accept being a prisoner. Likewise, if you are a prisoner and you detest the prison and the system that put you there with every fiber of your being, you are not a hypocrite for allowing the prison doctor to treat you. Navigating life in a system of dominance, violence, and control is difficult and miserable, and if you have any designs to resist, whether to organize others on the inside with you to demand improvement of conditions, or to dig a tunnel and to escape, staying well fed and healthy in the mean time will be necessary for your success. While you fight, while you resist, use what you must to survive, especially in light of the fact that not doing so will not bring down the walls around you.
With the ever worsening issue of climate change, on top of the issues of political rot, net energy decline, and economic sclerosis, there will be more and more critique and analysis of exactly how societies are breaking down and what people should do in response. With this will come wave after wave of nonsense rebuttal to muddy the waters. At least when the defense of the status quo defers to indicting the behavior of the critics themselves, we can likely presume that their critiques are probably accurate, or at least that the status quo defender has no legitimate argument. For if the detractor had a legitimate counter analysis, they would present it. Attacking the messenger is behavior of the beaten. If I say “we need to abolish fossil fuels because they cause too much ecological damage” and someone responds “but you use gas in your chainsaw,” they have not displayed that my statement is untrue. In fact, there is a tacit admission that what I am saying is true, they just want to drag me down into the muck as if I’m not already standing in it.
Yes, I am knee deep in the shit of global industrial capitalist civilization. Yes, circumstances have me dancing from rock to rock, doing my best to avoid participating in the destructive protocols of the dominant culture and obliging to where it makes strategic sense to do so. Most people understand this. Most people understand the nuance between having and living an ethic in a complex world which leaves little to our individual control. Those who would deny this reality in order to deny your point are a nuisance at most. Hell is not other people, just other people in the comments section on the internet.