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.
January 12, 2015 § 31 Comments
When I was a younger man, I very much wanted to be taken seriously. To be taken seriously was to be asked your opinion. It was to be allowed a seat at the grown-up’s table in politics, economy, and all other matters that intelligent individuals busied themselves with. I wanted to be considered smart by other people who were considered smart. This meant that I had to be skeptical of any claims not supported by the dominant culture, shucking anything deemed mystical or superstitious. To be considered smart meant carrying an attitude of superiority, even open hostility towards anyone who claimed any truth not stamped with approval by the science of the dominant culture. Now I talk to trees.
My younger self would ridicule my present self, haughtily proclaiming the superiority of his well founded, reasonable ideologies. My present self would pity my younger self, and exit the conversation, too tired to expend what little communicative energy I have on someone so seemingly bereft of the ability to even momentarily entertain an idea that ran contrary to their set of inherited cultural dogma.
It is easy now to see that I was in a trap back then. As most young people are, I was attempting to make my way in a culture of accumulation, and thus I had to look and sound the part if I wanted to be accepted into the fold of “productive society.” Since abandoning any ambitions for career I have taken on various forms of employment to get by, and this has meant a lot of work in bars and restaurants. Briefly, I worked in a breakfast cafe in a college town that was home to a popular business school. Working there I would see students, mostly young white men, sitting at tables wearing ties and speaking in the language they were being conditioned to speak. It was strange to witness. I would wonder exactly where the break happened when these young men decided that they wanted to be just like their fathers. They probably wanted to be called “successful” by other people. They probably wanted to be considered smart. This would mean dressing, speaking, acting, thinking and even at their very core believing as their predecessors had initiated them to. They wanted to be taken seriously.
The year two thousand and fourteen was the hottest year ever recorded on planet Earth. Over the course of the year we were bombarded with statistics highlighting the peril of our time: Fifty percent of animal life has been killed over the last forty years, the Antarctic ice sheet melt has passed the point of no return, and coal use is still on the rise globally. Even the timid, watered down, almost entirely feckless mainstream US environmental movement is starting to make a tiny bit of sense, in noting that capitalism has got to go if we are to survive. Of course, much of what these liberal environmentalists are seeking is capitalist reform, but I digress.
The truth of the matter is that of course capitalism has to go in order to preserve the habitability of the planet. That’s just the beginning. All of industrial civilization must go, but because this is a forbidden concept amongst the serious folk who attend conferences, do media junkets, or – I don’t know – hold a senate seat, it will never even reach the table to be laughed at. The maintenance of the dominant culture requires that certain ideas are forbidden. Such restriction of thought is achieved in a myriad of ways, including by what Noam Chomsky termed, the “manufacturing of consent.” By and large, forbidden ideas are boxed out of public discourse by professionals who frame debate very narrowly, permitting only officially acceptable viewpoints, which then filter down to the masses.
We saw this recently with the uprisings in Ferguson, Missouri. The people of that city fought the police, and many of them had no problem declaring complete and utter disdain for the police as an institution. Despite the nearly five hundred Americans killed by police every year, and the untold number of assaults, robberies, frame ups, false arrests, and rapes committed by uniformed police officers, the dialog of so-called serious people is forbidden to ever move to a discussion of self defense against these villains, let alone abolishing them from civic life. Peter Gelderloos mentions this in his quinessential three part essay, Learning from Ferguson.
To allow people to fight back against the police, or to allow discussion of eliminating the police is forbidden because the police are a necessary component of a society of haves and have nots. In fact, I would be willing to bet there is a strong correlation between people who adamantly and unquestioningly support the police, and personal wealth, for the obvious reason that the more you have the more you have to lose. That means being happy that the taxpayers subsidize the jackboots who prevent even a public forum that might hint at discussing a redistribution of wealth.
After the Vietnam War, the propaganda ministers in the state realized that showing dead bodies on TV and in magazines had a demoralizing effect on the general public. Apparently the American population had some level of functioning empathy for other human beings, so broadcasting the corpses of dead US servicemen and even half burnt Vietnamese children soured their taste for carnage. Since realizing this, the US has locked out media that isn’t “embedded” from war zones, and despite the over a million dead in Iraq and Afghanistan, ten years of war haven’t found themselves plastered on the nightly news in any unbecoming fashion, despite the plentiful material. The children born deformed due to depleted uranium poisoning caused by US munitions should have been enough to wrench even the blood thirstiest of hawk bellies in the US, but their visages were never given a chance.
Forbidding an image and forbidding an idea are both attempted for the same reason; control. If you control what people think, you can control how they act. Even the most ardent critics of US policy will proclaim up and down their patriotism, lest they be banished from serious forums. Sit and think for a few moments and I imagine you could come up with your own short list of forbidden ideas, never to be discussed, not by serious people. Civilization and its dominant culture have been practicing this tactic of control since inception, and there is an idea that has been so terrifying to the rulers of the civilized world that stamping it out has been an ongoing and bloody task for over ten thousand years. The most forbidden of ideas, is that the Earth is alive.
Serious people are concerned with objectivity. They perceive the universe to be a clockwork machine governed by laws and made of various inert bric-a-brac that can be manipulated to serve their purposes. Whether this manifests as a logging company cutting down a forest for timber, a meat packing concern quickening the rate at which they slaughter cows, or bulldozers scraping away layers of Earth in order to access the bitumen deposits beneath, the source of the thinking is the same. The land is dead. It is raw material waiting to be put to purpose by human hands. Further, knowledge and understanding of the universe and its lifeless bodies is to be achieved only through the application of western scientific principles. Anything that cannot be observed and quantified with the five human senses does not exist.
Even things that are alive, like trees and animals can be reduced with a trick of thinking into nothing but their component pieces. Trees don’t have brains, so they cannot think or feel or experience, so they are worthless except as corpses. Animals may have brains, but those brains lack significant cortex or numbers of neurons, and so they cannot think or feel or experience, so they are worthless except as corpses. Throughout the history of civilization this rationale has been applied to humans as well. Whenever anyone is in the way of some expectation of power or wealth, they are reduced to nothingness, just a fleshy sum of their cells with a measly few watts of current surging through them. Not sophisticated, not refined; much like animals really, and animals are worthless except as corpses, so let the homicide begin. This mental twisting is the death rite of civilization. It is the lullaby people in business suits sing so they can stay focused on the cash while they order another chimpanzee vivisected, purchase a new gas lease, or sign off on limited airstrikes over a civilian population.
In my life I have walked through forests clear cut for oil pipelines. I have driven through the shale plays of West Texas. I have seen copper mines, and coal mines, and all sorts of other massive holes blasted and scraped into the face of the planet. Many people have seen these things. Of course, many people work in these places and on these projects. The difference is that upon the witnessing I feel something very somber that nags at me from the inside. It is the feeling that gripped you as a child when you saw someone joyfully inflict pain upon someone helpless or weak while you were powerless to interfere. Because of this feeling I could never participate in ecologically destructive activities. It would feel wrong, like treachery, like stabbing my mother in the gut for a paycheck.
And I think this feeling matters. This feeling is part of the foundation of my personal ethos from which my principles blossom. In short, my feelings of connectivity with the living world create in me a sense of responsibility to protect her, and a refusal to accept harming her for personal gain. Often I wonder why so few people feel this particular empathy, but then I know the answer. People have been trained by the dominant culture to think of all of these environmentally degrading activities as harmless. They have been raised since childhood by people themselves raised since childhood to believe that the Earth is dead. They have been told by respectable people to believe that forests are not alive and that plants do not feel and that at the end of the day, everything is arbitrary and meaningless. There is an undercoat of nihilism which makes progress possible.
For generations people have been bullied into believing that the nagging in their conscience is an illusion caused by the brain. When a forest makes you feel good, it is you fooling yourself. When you feel deep love for a place or for other living beings, it is an illusion, merely a sudden influx of serotonin in some receptor in your gray matter. And who are you anyway? Just some cells, some neurons, some electricity. What is your love? Your desire? Your fear? They are nothing. Reflexes. Chemicals. The aimless, endless spinning of molecules through space and time. Reduce it all down, break it into pieces. Scatter them until you feel nothing at all. Now go make some money. Be productive. For Christ’s sake, be serious.
My friend is indigenous to the land now called Canada. I ask him what it means to be a warrior, to have as a component of one’s culture a warrior society. He points me to talks given by other first nations people which elucidate that in various indigenous languages the word “warrior” is understood differently than it is in English. It isn’t aggressive, on the offense, macho, seeking to conquer. To be a warrior is to be a shield bearer, a person who takes very seriously their sacred obligation to maintain the health of the land so that it can be passed on for many generations to come. The ethos of such people forms their worldview, and this worldview informs their actions. The end result is a relationship with one’s home that is not about domination and taking, but acting with reciprocity. Such a mindset is a barrier against excess and greed and wanton destruction of the land.
Under the dominant culture, there are no sacred obligations. We are told from birth that work, production, and the pursuit of material wealth is the path taken by serious people. Those who rebuff their instruction to accumulate for the sake of accumulation are losers and bums. If one wants to defend their home, such intuitions are bent to the cause of imperial full spectrum dominance. Home is converted to country, and the battlefield is determined by a board of directors. This is not an ethos with a future. It is a toxic set of ideas and myths that will guide human minds to the edge of the world and then over. This idea is a parasite, and its hosts are pushing the ecosystems of the Earth to the brink.
My friend tells me about the deal the wolf made with mother Earth:
“The wolf signed a contract with Mother Earth. The contract is this. The wolf may compete with all other life for survival. The wolf may not force other life into extinction for the purpose of eliminating competition. The wolf may not damage habitat to eliminate competition. The wolf may not wage war to prevent other life from feeding on the wolf. If the wolf abides by these laws and is able to compete, the wolf will survive in brotherhood with all other life. All life signs this contract, except for a group of humans. Until those people sign on the dotted line they will be doomed. They may already be doomed.”
What strikes me about this is that to make a contract with another is to stand as equals. Speaking of other beings or of the living planet herself as even able to enter into a contract is to grant to them the deference that they exist as you do; alive, dignified, valuable.
The dominant culture never seeks to stand equal with anything. It seeks only to dominate. It never presents obligations to its acolytes to defend other beings or the land. It makes demands of the land. The stark differences between these two perspectives is striking. One asks you to be a warrior and to take up a shield in defense of your mother. The other commands you to take up a sword – or a plow, or an axe, or a bulldozer – and to plunge it into her breast.
I am not in any way suggesting that non-native people need to appropriate native culture. What I am suggesting is that if the ethos of civilization goes unchallenged, then no matter how much awareness is raised and no matter how much people try to convert modern industrial society into a sustainable twin of itself, they will find only failure. After all, as Terrence McKenna said and I have oft quoted, culture is our operating system, and the dominant culture has a starting point where the land is already dead, so how then can it take us anywhere but to a future where this founding principle is materialized? Garbage in, garbage out.
How we go about changing the ethics, myths, and founding truths of people trapped in the cage of industrial civilization is not something I have a prescription for. In “The Road” Cormac McCarthy wrote:
“Where you’ve nothing else construct ceremonies out of the air and breathe upon them.”
So I walk my land and I talk to the trees. Maybe they can hear me and maybe they can’t. All of the serious people will laugh at my wasted breath. Smart people will try to convince me that I am only talking to myself. And maybe they are right. Maybe I am a madman babbling over hill and holler. But I can tell you this much for certain; I will never cut these trees down, and neither will my daughter. So in the end, who gives a damn?
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.
January 5, 2014 § 1 Comment
Solving a problem relies first upon a trustworthy identification of the problem. This can be easy with simple problems, like a flat tire. It can be extremely difficult with complex problems such as climate change or the social ills of poverty and exploitation. It should be a no brainer that complex societies create complex problems with not one but various strands of the root establishing any particular issue. Most analysis that gets peddled by the architects and shills of the dominant culture is usually lacking in comprehensive diagnosis. This was summed up famously by H.L Menken when he said, “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”
In our culture, it is not uncommon for positive outcomes of a system or arrangement to be credited widely to the culture as a whole. This is evident for me any time I try to have a discussion about the destruction wrought by a culture dependent upon industrialism and technology. Those who have never questioned the society in which they live immediately point out medical advances, knowledge of the cosmos, communications technology, etc. as these pinnacles of human development and existence, as if these inventions and discoveries are the new floor for human existence which we can never again sink beneath. These advances are attributed to democracy and capitalism, and the theme becomes, “Industrial capitalism may not be perfect, but it has given us a standard of living once unfathomable, and there is no conceivable reason to not only retain these developments, but to continually expand upon them.” This is bundled in a word; “progress.”
There is a very intentional paradox that comes into play if the problems created by industrial civilization’s “progress” are trotted out. Poverty for instance, is often blamed on the individual who struggles with it. Staunch defenders of capitalism will nit pick the minutiae of decisions and habits of each individual poor person who ever dares associate their condition with overall social or cultural architecture. The resounding lie is that anyone can rise on the economic ladder should only they work for it. This lie is successful because on it’s face, it appears true. Anyone could become rich. But not everyone could become rich. Not everyone could be middle class. Capitalism requires a struggling underclass that can be forced through social conditions and laws into taking low wage work. Low wage work is the majority of the work available within a capitalist paradigm, and thus it requires a majority of people to be trapped in a social condition which will leave them no option but to undertake this work.
Arthur Young, an English writer and pamphleteer of the mid and late eighteenth century wrote, “Everyone but an idiot knows that the lower classes must be kept poor, or they will never be industrious.”
Poverty is a necessary condition of capitalism. How an individual navigates this poverty is in part up to them, but they do not create the condition, and they do not create the other social parameters which stem from it.
Social conditions from access to education, housing, and food, quality of medical care, level of policing in one’s neighborhood, race, perceived gender or sexual orientation, access to a clean environment, etc. will all play a role in the development of the individual from the time they are a newborn, or even in utero. Black children raised in a poor urban community with a high crime rate, lack of grocery stores, and lower quality education will clearly have a disadvantage economically relative to upper middle class white children who attend higher quality schools and eat a more balanced diet. This should be obvious. When the disadvantages manifest as individual inability to escape poverty, or as criminal behavior or drug addiction, the blame is always place squarely and solely on the individual.
In Dr. Bruce K. Alexander’s paper, “The Roots of Addiction in a Free Market Society” it is argued that the dislocation caused by capitalist society is a major factor causing addictive behavior. He writes:
“[D]islocation is the necessary precursor of addiction. … [F]ree markets inevitably produce widespread dislocation among the poor and the rich. As free market globalization speeds up, so does the spread of dislocation and addiction. In order for ‘free markets’ to be ‘free,’ the exchange of labour, land, currency, and consumer goods must not be encumbered by elements of psychosocial integration such as clan loyalties, village responsibilities, guild or union rights, charity, family obligations, social roles, or religious values. Cultural traditions ‘distort’ the free play of the laws of supply and demand, and thus must be suppressed. In free market economies, for example, people are expected to move to where jobs can be found, and to adjust their work lives and cultural tastes to the demands of a global market.”
Alexander goes on to reference specific native tribes in North America removed from their lands and stripped of their cultures and he directly links their high incidences of addiction to this dislocation. What his paper clearly lays out, is that social problems have social causes.
Whenever a person in the US snaps and goes on a rampage with a firearm, the society that created that individual is rarely implicated, and never implicated with any level of seriousness. Such implication would have serious ramifications for the ego and identities of those who support the dominant culture. It would also create a condition of responsibility society would then be compelled to address through altering it’s internal parameters. To ignore the culture that creates the psychosis, nihilism, and other mental and emotional disfunction prerequisite to waltzing into an elementary school with a rifle and murderous intent is to essentially declare that the occasional massacre of children or movie patrons is OK, a necessary evil of our otherwise high and glorious “way of life.” Instead of the culture taking responsibility for the monsters it creates, guns are blamed, whether an abundance or a lack.
The scope with which most social critique is attended is variable depending on the desired outcome. A macro view is applied to hide the blood in the cracks, a micro view zoomed in on the individual whenever the culmination of a sociopathic culture of death results in an individual acting out this cultural psychosis in a socially “unproductive” way. Should Adam Lanza or James Holmes had joined the Marines and manifested their violent sociopathy in an Afghan village or from behind the controls of a CIA drone attacking weddings in Pakistan or Yemen, we would likely never have known their names. People would clap for them as they walked through an airport in their fatigues.
No doubt, the prescription psychotropic drugs both Lanza and Holmes were taking affected their behavior. I do not think this is contrary to the thinking that the dominant culture generated their psychosis. In fact, I think it proves the point. More and more people in the US are taking prescribed anti-depressants and anti-psychotics. The numbers are one in five men, and one in four women are taking these mind altering drugs. If industrial civilization and capitalism provide such a wonderful “standard of living;” if this way of life is the pinnacle of human existence, why does almost a quarter of the population require a drug to make them feel better about it? Add in the number of people who drink alcohol or smoke marijuana, and it’s likely that a large majority of the population needs to achieve an altered state of consciousness on a regular basis merely to cope with the daily requirements leveled on their shoulders by this society.
But if we zoom out, we see happy shoppers and smiling twenty somethings taking “selfies” by the thousands.
If we cannot identify the cause of a problem, we will not likely solve the problem. If depression, addiction, and poverty, or even cancer, pollution, and climate change are viewed with the improper lens, these problems with social and cultural roots will always be attacked at the individual level. Individuals are blamed for their addictions. Individuals are blamed for their poverty. Individuals are even blamed for their cancer, and treatment is always about the individual, never prevention of the spread of toxins which cause it. This blame will not always sound like condemnation, harsh and critical as the blame attached to poverty, because cancer crosses class and race demographics. White grandmas get cancer, so we won’t be mean about it. But illness prevention is offered through individual diet, individual exercise, never through a social change that bans coal fired power plants, the creation and ultimate incineration of plastic, or the use of sodium nitrite in meat. Of course individuals can do their best to maintain their health and fitness. But we cannot not breathe in the dioxin or glyphosate in the air.
Even in the case of climate change and ecosystem collapse, what are the solutions proffered by capitalists and purveyors of the dominant culture? Individual reduction in consumption. Individual bicycling. With this focus on the individual behavior, corporate profits are safe and anyone who raises the alarm about ecological destruction and climate change can be attacked for their lifestyle impurity while the message itself drowns under screams and howls decrying the use of a car or computer by she who raised the alarm. I suffer this madness regularly both as a writer who publishes my work online, and as a direct action activist who has used a pick up truck to transport the materials and people into forests where tree sit campaigns blockaded the construction of tar sands infrastructure. Never mind the basic equation that I’d be willing to burn one million barrels of oil if it were able to prevent the shipment and ultimate burning of several hundred thousand barrels of oil per day for the next decade or two. Never mind Jevon’s paradox and the fact that conservation of oil by one individual only results in extra consumption by another who takes advantage of increased supply. The idea that the solution to a problem with global reach and social, economic, and cultural underpinnings rests entirely on the individual is patently absurd and intellectually lazy.
Striking one’s gaze in an intentionally overly broad or overly minute direction is an obfuscation employed regularly by the media, politicians, and others who have a vested interest not in solving problems, but in perpetuating them and profiting off of false solutions. A recent study demonstrated that two thirds of the emissions responsible for climate change are generated by ninety companies globally. According to the author of the study:
“There are thousands of oil, gas, and coal producers in the world, but the decision makers, the CEOs, or the ministers of coal and oil if you narrow it down to just one person, they could all fit on a Greyhound bus or two.”
The implications of the study are fascinating and grabbing headlines, but I fear there is a reductionism in the reactions to the study, as a complex and global problem which has not one taproot but many roots that stretch and meander in various directions, is being described as something that can be halted by focusing on a busload of individuals. To be sure, the power of these individuals is great, and I in no way want to diminish the negative impact of the decisions these people daily make. Financing climate change skepticism, altering media coverage through advertising and influence, and regularly seeking investment for new coal, oil, gas, bitumen, and kerogen projects is absolutely disdainful behavior with globally deleterious ramifications. These individuals and these companies should be pressured and punished respectively. But lacking a cultural and social shift away from capitalism and antiquated profit and domination based definitions of “progress,” such pressure and punishment will ultimately prove ineffective at solving our penultimate problem.
We look at our bodies and we see flesh. If we look at them under a microscope, we can see our tissues are comprised of cells. A little more zoom and we can see the organelles within the cell. Building those organelles are compounds comprised of molecules which are in turn built of atoms which consist of variously charged particles, themselves containing quarks and on and on possibly to infinity. If we turn the device around and look outward we see that our planet exists within a solar system, spiraling around a galaxy, itself but one small galaxy housed within a universe of billions of galaxies which itself may be housed within a larger super universe that might be nothing but a quark within God’s cat’s butt. This is all to demonstrate that scale and scope offer perspective, but the perspective is meaningless without context of where it resides within the whole.
Mechanistic thinking and reductionism was a product of the enlightenment period In this time, the conceptualization of the Earth as a living entity was diminished. It is commonly known that indigenous cultures looked to the Earth as a living entity with spirit and flesh and consciousness. Even the ancient Greeks and Renaissance Europeans held such views, surprising as this may seem. Of course, cultures varied in their interpretations of how this was to play into their behavior, but the predominant response was that as a living Mother, the Earth must be respected, and her resources must be harvested and utilized consciously and with care.
This view of a living universe, with even stars and planets as living and conscious entities was stripped away during the so called “enlightenment” period. Carolyn Merchant writes eloquently on this transformation in cultural concept and it’s disastrous results for ecology:
“Whereas the medieval economy had been based on organic and renewable energy sources–wood, water, wind, and animal muscle–the emerging capitalist economy was based on nonrenewable energy–coal–and the inorganic metals–iron, copper, silver, gold, tin, and mercury–the refining and processing of which ultimately depended on and further depleted the forests. Over the course of the sixteenth century, mining operations quadrupled as the trading of metals expanded, taking immense toll as forests were cut for charcoal and the cleared lands turned into sheep pastures for the textile industry. Shipbuilding, essential to capitalist trade and national supremacy, along with glass and soap making, also contributed to the denudation of the ancient forest cover. The new activities directly altered the earth. Not only were its forests cut down, but swamps were drained, and mine shafts were sunk.”
The rise of Francis Bacon’s scientific method came hand in hand with new cultural understanding. The Earth was dead, inert, without life or feeling. The Earth and nature were impediments to an increase in human “standard of living.” Belief systems which held the Earth to be a living and sacred mother to be tread upon delicately and with care were obstructions to progress and wealth accumulation.
“The removal of animistic, organic assumptions about the cosmos constituted the death of nature–the most far-reaching effect of the scientific revolution. Because nature was now viewed as a system of dead, inert particles moved by external rather than inherent forces, the mechanical framework itself could legitimate the manipulation of nature. Moreover, as a conceptual framework, the mechanical order had associated with it a framework of values based on power, fully compatible with the directions taken by commercial capitalism.”
“The emerging mechanical worldview was based on assumptions about nature consistent with the certainty of physical laws and the symbolic power of machines. Although many alternative philosophies were available (Aristotelian, Stoic, gnostic, Hermetic, magic, naturalist, and animist), the dominant European ideology came to be governed by the characteristics and experiential power of the machine. Social values and realities subtly guided the choices and paths to truth and certainty taken by European philosophers. Clocks and other early modern machines in the seventeenth century became underlying models for western philosophy and science.”
While civilizations based upon exploitation and expansion predate the thinking of Bacon, Decartes, and their contemporaries, these “enlightenment” thinkers founded a nihilism which became the cultural basis for an exponential increase in the rapacious destruction of the living Earth as well as the destruction of people’s and cultures which refused to adopt such methods of thinking and behaving.
This mechanistic view, this selective lensing of poverty, addiction, disease, and psychosis has the elites of money and privilege singing the praises of the dominant culture and maneuvering the levers of power for ever more of the behaviors and policies that are bringing about these maladies while never solving them. Viewed as merely cogs in a grand social machine, individuals suffering poverty and addiction are told to shape up or be removed into a cage where defective cogs are isolated.
Humans globally now stand on the precipice of catastrophe. Mechanistic approaches to food production have boosted short term yields at the expense of long term soil health and fertility. Despite water now tainted with glyphosate and phosphorous and soil stripped of the organic material which provides fertility, scientists are genetically modifying plants and trees to continue raising production yields despite common sense screaming that dominating nature is shortsighted and priming society for an agricultural collapse. Human attempts to manipulate nature under the mechanistic view that one part can be destroyed without affecting the whole continue to fuel climate change even as storms of record size and ferocity make landfall across the globe and as the jet stream is skewed bringing extremes of cold and hot into regions both south and north of their usual boundaries.
The ability to view the world holistically is not merely the ability of the grand scientist or mathematician who can compile and compute all of the variables in a system and spit out an accurate prognosis of a given issue or problem. As our ecological and social problems beg for holistic approaches, society instead seeks more and more compartmentalized “experts” who have spelunked into the deep caverns of their niche specialties. Hence the economists who don’t understand peak oil, the business people who don’t understand climate change, and the doctors who treat the symptoms, never once seeking the causes of various diseases and conditions.
The holistic ability this era craves is wisdom, itself the product of patient and caring people, listeners and observers who understand where the value of science and logic both begin and end. Wisdom is rare, it is quiet, it is humble, and thus is almost never even requested let alone respected by the dominant culture.
“Progress” is the grand value of the day. It is to be unquestioned. No endangered species or human culture is allowed to stand in the way of progress — not even if that endangered species is the human animal herself. It was a demented and flat thinking culture that wrote the definition of progress which is now vaunted, and if there is any hope for humanity I don’t think it’s hyperbole to suggest that this hope at least partially resides in a redefining of “progress.” New widgets, wealth accumulation, and the bending of nature to the whims of the capitalist should not by default be considered progress. More often than not these contrivances do not advance the comfort or position of but a minority of the human population, and they do so on the backs of the poor majority. More often still, such “progress” is so destructive ecologically that were it not for mechanistic reduction hiding the costs from view, one would have to be a dedicated and shareholding huckster to call it “progress” at all.
If the survival of our species and the living web we depend on is a concern at all, we must begin to understand progress as peace, not production. Progress must mean equality, not subjugation. Progress must mean sustainable stewardship, not domination and control. Most of all, we must foster the wisdom that we are all linked with each other and with the living world, and that we cannot manipulate each other or the world for a benefit in one capacity without likely causing a deficiency in another. We need to praise the slow and thoughtful analysis which attempts to understand all parts of an issue. Where the living planet is concerned, we must understand that our meddling has consequences that multiply themselves in seen and unseen ways, thus meddling should be kept to a minimum and undertaken with grave attention.
The scale of human industrial activity is so large and it’s rate of process so fast, that such a revolution in consciousness seems unlikely absent some cataclysm which halts the furious pace of capital flow. To be sure, the cataclysm is waiting in the wings. Whether or not the challenges it brings are met with true progress of the mind and being is to be seen.
December 10, 2013 § 4 Comments
Human civilization is making a desert of the planet. As the population grows and the western “standard of living” itself balloons while also spreading to more people around the world, the ecology of the planet is being devastated. From mountain top removal coal mining, to deforestation, tar sands extraction, mega dam projects all the way down to suburban sprawl, lawn after lawn of Kentucky Blue Grass, and your local strip of parking lots and big box stores, the natural world is being killed. It is being ripped up, burned, and paved over. Scientists are declaring that right now, life on Earth is undergoing a period of mass extinction unlike anything seen since the Permian-Triassic mass extinction which killed upwards of ninety-five percent of all life.
Any sane, rational culture, would upon coming to a realization such as this – that their mode of being is self destructive – decide that their activities should be halted and rethought immediately. Of course, the dominant culture under which we are subjugated is neither sane nor rational. The dominant culture barely acknowledges the horrors it is leveling on the living beings of this world, and when it does acknowledge them, it both minimizes them and declares the solution to be more of its methodologies applied, not less. Examples of this are claims that “green capitalism” or technology or geo-engineering will save us. Somehow, more extraction, more consumption, and more domination are supposed to undo the damage done by extraction, consumption, and domination.
I agree with the thinkers who have laid the blame for this rapacious omnicide beyond the feet of capitalism, calling out the organizing structure of civilization itself which begat capitalism. I agree also with those who indict the modes of thinking and views of the human self that begat civilization. While these modes of thinking, which become cultures, and ultimately became the dominant culture have led to much to be woeful about, including patriarchy and racism, they also have manifested as a social, economic, and legal framework that is institutionalizing the desertification of the planet.
One of the manifestations of this flawed way of thinking and flawed understanding of ourselves, is the concept of private property. Private property is the idea that one human can deprive all other humans of access to a particular tract of the Earth, that this human can enforce this deprivation with lethal force — whether self applied or called down from the hierarchy in the form of police and courts — and that this particular human not only has sole access to this tract of land and what it contains, but that the land and all that lives upon it can be destroyed at the whim of this person.
There are no limits to private property accumulation under the dominant culture. The logic behind private property is merely that land can be purchased from a previous title holder with currency. Thus, a person’s “holdings” are limited only by their accumulated wealth, and desire to own. According to this logic, should one person accumulate enough currency to purchase all of the land everywhere, they would not be forbidden from doing so. While this seems unlikely due to the cost in currency involved in this example, it is still within the logical framework of private property, acceptable. Perhaps we’ll never see one person owning all of the land everywhere, but with a population of seven billion people on the Earth, would it be acceptable to have even one million people, or one billion people owning “everywhere?” Do we find it ethically acceptable that a minority of the human population should have a protected right to deprive the majority of access to land, as well as a protected right to destroy living ecosystems? Is it ethical — or sane — to allow the minority of the population this protected right because they have been skilled at playing the game of capitalism (or are the offspring of people who were?)
Land is often dubbed by those utilizing academic language as “natural capital,” as opposed to manufactured or physical capital (e.g. a factory or a tool.) Land is obviously the most important form of “capital,” as it is the source of all raw materials, and is the source of all things necessary for life. By allowing land to be owned, the culture allows owners to have controlling access to the resources all people and non-humans need to survive. This subjugates all non-owners into a state of dependence upon the owners. This dependence is then channeled into wage labor, rent, and other methods by which owners exploit non-owners, siphoning away any meager wealth the non-owner class ever comes to possess. Of course, this only further enriches the owner class, who then can acquire further land holdings, and escalate the rate at which they can exploit non-owners to create for themselves a comfortable life devoid of labor.
Again, land is the source of all the necessities of life, so further and further accumulation of land is in reality, an increasing rate at which the culture says one person has a right to deprive others of life. An “owner” holding claim to hundreds or thousands of acres of land while multitudes of people live in crowded slums who must labor for pittance, only to turn this pittance over to landlords and those who control the food supply, is a form of violence. It’s a hostage situation. Work for us, or starve. Work for us, or take your chances on the streets with the police. For surely, without the violence of the police or the owner, these huddled masses living in the mega slums of the world would span outwards. More accurately, many of these people wouldn’t be living in slums to begin with, as large portions of the global poor were subsistence farmers before their traditional lands were seized by transnational corporations and state governments.
Essentially, this all boils down to the rarely uttered truth that the rich are allowed to make a claim the poor or not. This makes the rich richer, and the poor poorer.
Of course, like any discussion of the need to radically adjust our social organizations, discussions about the exploitative nature of private property often cause “first world” people who have — or are working towards — meager holdings of property themselves to seize up. Cries — often contradictory — of fascism and communism quickly ring forth. People are so terrified that what’s being referenced is their property. They fear that what little they have worked hard for while “playing by the rules” will be sliced and diced and handed to five different families comprised of lazy people who want a handout. This generally renders the petty-owner rarely willing to explore the notion of private property and it’s global ramifications.
Part of the wall that gets thrown up by petty-owners and other defenders of private property is the false claim that private property leads to stewardship, where commonly held land leads to overuse and degradation. Of course, examples of both could be bandied about. Someone will scream, “tragedy of the commons,” despite that old myth having not only been thoroughly debunked, and even despite it being a complete fabrication. Then we’ll hear about starving pilgrims who didn’t put any effort into farming until they had their own land, or about the lot down the street that is full of trash and old tires. What is lost in the fray is the total calculation of what is lost and what is gained by society as a whole with either private land ownership, or communal access. Rarely acknowledged is the entire enforcement arm of the state that is necessary to make a system of private property even possible to being with, or the poverty generated by depriving people of access to land, or economic advantages gained by those to elect to strip mine their land as opposed to preserving it.
Let’s here acknowledge a basic truth; property is a convention. It’s an imagined status subject to the humans perceiving it. Property is a social agreement, and social agreements are tools, nothing more. They are designed to make life easier for humans within the society in which they live. Stop signs are a social agreement. Lines painted on parking lots, or the maze of nylon straps herding people like mice at airport security screening stations are social agreements, likewise. All of these are tools to make existing in large groups flow with a bit of organization, to prevent quarrels and gridlock. However, all of these are discarded at will when the situation calls for it. In the middle of the night, when there is no traffic and you can clearly see in all directions that you are the only person at an intersection, rolling through a stop sign — while still making you a target of the asinine police — has no social consequence. Parking in the middle of two spaces in an empty Post Office parking lot on Sunday when you quickly run in to drop a letter in the box has no social consequence. Neither does ducking beneath the nylon straps at the near vacant airport. The point, is that social arrangements are tools to be picked up and put down again as the situation dictates. Thoreau once wrote, “Men have become the tools of their tools.” I think it’s apt to meditate on this sentiment in this regard.
Private property is an agreement with your community, at least, on the surface. Ideally, private property demarcates which land is lived upon by which family, and who can decide how best to maintain that property or attain sustenance from it’s resources. This can work out for a small community, allowing various families a bit of privacy, and the ability to undertake labor efforts that produce results in the long term. People who plant fruit trees as seedlings, of course want to eat the fruit years down the line.
When does this tool, this social arrangement, lose efficacy? If a tool is designed to improve the lives of the people within a society, should it not be abandoned if it is no longer meeting those ends? If a tool is being used to exploit one group of people for the benefit of another group, what good reason does the exploited group have to respect the tool or its implications? Why should the poor respect the property of the rich?
We should also consider what role consent plays in the application of any social agreement. After all, if consent is not the binding factor in a social arrangement, then only force remains. If your society is bound by force, then your society is not only unethical, it is also doomed. The more people who come to find themselves on the losing end of a social arrangement, the more force it will take to keep them from overwhelming the social order through disobedience to its tenets. The more people a social arrangement impoverishes and starves, the more police it will take to keep these people from seizing private property and from stealing the necessities of life from the owner class. Is this not evident now even in the “wealthy” west? The police are more militarized more violent, and petty “crime” is on the rise. The Occupy Wall Street movement demonstrated this perfectly when participants were assaulted by law enforcers for acts which included attempts to exist in public space, attempts to occupy abandoned “private” space, attempts to prevent evictions of renters from homes, attempts to grow food in both public and private space, etc. Why should anyone respect their society if that society values property more than it does people? With twenty four empty houses for every homeless person in the United States, it is undeniable the rulers of this society are far more concerned with the sanctity of private property than the health and dignity of human beings.
This scenario takes us far beyond a family and their half acre lot in the suburbs, or their ten acre homestead in the country. As land is the source of all wealth and survival, the massive application of force to maintain private property as it is currently understood and distributed, is tantamount an attempt to either snuff out or enslave the poor and the middle class by the wealthy. They hold privileged access to the source of all wealth and life, they claim the right to destroy what they hold at will for short sighted gains, and they claim the right to destroy the life giving ecological systems of the planet. This is a mode of thinking that needs vast reworking now.
Fears of redistribution often find the petty bourgeoise allying themselves with the owner class. The holder of a small farm, fearing for their years of labor, sides with the corporation that claims ownership and control over hundreds of thousands if not millions of acres, and that predominantly uses that claim to destroy the land for profit. This odd pairing — the small scale permaculture farmer siding ideologically with the mountain top removing coal extraction corporation — needs severing. To accomplish this, I think we need to examine two prongs of the property concept; the chain of ownership and the responsibility of ownership.
How does one come to “own” land? They buy it. As their labor afforded them the currency to do so, owners cling to their private property claim as a direct result of that toil. This is not unreasonable. But as to the logic of purchasing land, it must be asked, where does the seller get the right to sell it? Of course, usually the seller bought the land themselves from a previous seller, but extend this as far backwards as the chain of ownership goes. Who was the first owner? If ownership is valid today because current owners purchased from previous owners, then their ownership is an extension of the first claim to ownership, and is thus, only as valid. This takes us to primitive accumulation, on which Marx states:
“The whole purpose of primitive accumulation is to privatize the means of production, so that the exploiting owners can make money from the surplus labour of those who, lacking other means, must work for them.”
Essentially, primitive accumulation is the first taking of land from common accessibility and enclosing it in private hands. The application of this process in England from the mid seventeenth century up through the nineteenth is referred to as the “enclosure movement.” On this, George Orwell wrote:
“If giving the land of England back to the people of England is theft, I am quite happy to call it theft. In his zeal to defend private property, my correspondent does not stop to consider how the so-called owners of the land got hold of it. They simply seized it by force, afterwards hiring lawyers to provide them with title-deeds. In the case of the enclosure of the common lands, which was going on from about 1600 to 1850, the landgrabbers did not even have the excuse of being foreign conquerors; they were quite frankly taking the heritage of their own countrymen, upon no sort of pretext except that they had the power to do so.”
On the notion of private property, Orwell also once wrote that:
“In the stage of industrial development which we have now reached, the right to private property means the right to exploit and torture millions of one’s fellow creatures. The Socialist would argue, therefore, that one can only defend property if one is more or less indifferent to economic justice.”
Of course, we know all of this. We know that in the western hemisphere, claims to own the land go back only a few hundred years at most, and that this claim as a legal construct backed by the force of the state is founded upon the genocide of the natives of this continent. We know that the people who lived here were cheated, raped, and killed so that the value of the resources here could be appropriated by a handful of private individuals, whether monarchs or mercantilists. This process has not been limited to Europe or North America, but has fully spawned itself across the globe (and is in fact, still unfolding.) The titles the middle class hold in their hands are an extension of that ongoing genocide against the indigenous, as well as a founding plank in the genocide of the global poor and the web of non-human species who are driven to extinction daily.
Our titles and deeds are in reality, a bit of magic; they are pomp and circumstance designed to make the abominable respectable. They are, we can clearly elucidate, an invented justification of a historic and ongoing atrocity and also a contemporaneous deprivation of the masses of their birthright to survive on what the planet willingly gives. To be sure, inventing a social arrangement for the purpose of improving the quality of life for those who consensually enter into the arrangement, is acceptable. To uphold the arrangement with force and violence as a method of exploiting other humans for their labor as well as the natural world for it’s bounty, is disgraceful.
It is also stupid. It cannot last. The non-owners who are exploited by this social arrangement will grow in number, as not only is the population growing while available land is not, the price of land is increasing due to this supply versus demand equation while the value of an individual’s labor is shrinking for the same reason. This in effect, prices out more and more people from becoming even a petty part of the owning class. Inversely, it enriches the owning class, whose wealthiest members can acquire more and more private property. This self reinforcing loop portends the greater and greater impoverishment of the masses. The non-owner class will only grow as the owner class entrenches itself and hides behind an ever more militant and violent police force. The only apt description for such a scenario is a “powder keg.” The only outcomes before us are either a violent social upheaval, or massive repression of the poor the likes of which hasn’t been witnessed in the “first world” west in a century.
Within the dominant culture, the common understanding of ownership is that an owner has a right to dispense with whatever it is they own in whatever manner they see fit. This view clearly creates a hierarchy of owner over owned. When slavery was legal (NOTE: Slavery is technically still legal, as far as prisoners are concerned) slave owners were seen as having the right to dispense with their slaves as they desired, whether this meant raping them, beating them, killing them, or merely working them to the bone. Slaves ceased to be people with a sentience and will all their own, but instead were reduced to being “property.” Of course, many people saw this arrangement as repugnant, and worked tirelessly to see it done away with. But always there were “owners” claiming their “rights” to the “property” they had “purchased.”
This reasoning is applied to land and all that lives upon land as well. Owners believe they have a right to dispense with their land as they so desire, whether that involves something positive like clearing invasive plants and seeding native flora, or something negative like clear cutting all of the trees present and bulldozing the top soil in an effort to strip mine for bitumen. When the right of the benevolent owner is defended, so is the right of the malevolent owner.
To be granted a claim over a parcel of land meaning that one has a right to destroy it, is an absurd social construct. If land is the source of all that we need to live, does it not make more sense for societies to not grant “rights” of disposal, but rather responsibilities of upkeep? Would this not be a great leap towards achieving a social arrangement that is acceptable to the benevolent owner (now more of a steward) while preventing the malevolent owner from destroying what all of us needs, and what all future generations will rely upon?
If the people who comprise a clan, tribe, commune, what-have-you, decide that they would like to subdivide their landbase amongst themselves for the betterment of all their members, would it not make the most sense for these people — whom we assume have come to a consensus on this particular proposal — to enter into an agreement concerning responsibility for the tract on which they live so that the quality of the landbase isn’t degraded? Assuming that agreements such as these are not permanently fixed, and that as conditions change, be they due to increasing or decreasing population, alteration in climate patterns, etc, how these people utilize their land and live together upon it has the potential to vastly change over the years. Why then would anyone in such a community want to grant people a “right” to destroy a parcel that may not be stewarded by that same person years on?
One of the great tragedies of civilization’s forceful domination of the North American continent (among others) is that many of the peoples already inhabiting what is now the U.S. and Canada had very wise and astute philosophies and practices concerning respect for the land, and how to live with each other and nature harmoniously. The Constitution of the Iroquois Nations contained this language:
“In all of your deliberations in the Confederate Council, in your efforts at law making, in all your official acts, self-interest shall be cast into oblivion. Cast not over your shoulder behind you the warnings of the nephews and nieces should they chide you for any error or wrong you may do, but return to the way of the Great Law which is just and right. Look and listen for the welfare of the whole people and have always in view not only the present but also the coming generations, even those whose faces are yet beneath the surface of the ground – the unborn of the future Nation.”
We commonly understand this thinking today as “seventh generation sustainability,” which is a reference to the insistence that many indigenous peoples had that their ways and deeds must not negatively affect their children to come seven generations out. It’s no wonder then, that the natives of North America did not believe in land ownership. Of course, they had homes, they had tribal territories, but they did not believe that the land that gave them life was owed by them, or even, ownable. It takes a particular cultural way of thinking to believe that owning land is an objective reality. The dominant culture is striving to allow the private ownership of more and more, from public space, to public utilities, to ideas, to computer data, to DNA, to genes, and now even sunlight and rainfall. All of this is part of a cultural drive to dominate. The more that can be “owned” the more that the population can be controlled, as they will be dependent upon the owners for not only a place to sleep at night or food to eat, but water to drink and air to breath.
Defenders of private property who admit that yes, private ownership can go too far in cases like the state claiming to own the rain or the sunshine, will still defend (their) ownership of land by claiming that the best way to encourage stewardship, is to allot parcels to private individuals. Their thinking is that a person will have no interest in bettering a place if they will not be able to claim the spoils of that betterment at some future time. While this is a reasonable perspective, it is presumptuous to assume that the only incentive to improve land is to own it. Plenty of people clean and improve their public parks because it’s a space they enjoy spending time. Others clean the sides of highways of litter merely because it’s unsightly on their commute. More significantly, is it not ownership of land that drives stewardship, but dependence upon land? This is key.
How many homeowners in the US have a deed or title to a parcel of land in a suburb, small town, or city? How many of these people actually derive their sustenance from this land? What does their stewardship look like? I think it is fair to say that in the overwhelming majority of these cases, people preserve the look of the property, especially of the dwelling that sits upon it, so they can preserve its economic value. This means that people plant non-native lawn grass, they coat it in chemicals to keep it green, they kill weeds with glyphosate, they destroy the insect and bird population through the elimination of wild local plants, they cut down trees for sunlight, they build constructions out of non-natural and often toxic materials, etc, ad nauseam. Even negating corporate holdings, ownership is not bringing us mass stewardship, it is bringing us a desert of lawns.
The current paradigm has the necessities of life coming from vast private land holdings globally which are then then shipped into population centers. Meanwhile the majority of petty-land owners are actually rendering their land sterile, which in turn keeps them dependent upon those who comprise the wealthy owner class. What we should strive for is a paradigm in which people depend upon their land, and come up with consensual social arrangements within their small societies as to how they feel best suited to live upon it..
This may only be possible with a cultural shift that first, or possibly simultaneously, reawakens people to the notion that humans cannot own the Earth because they are of the Earth. Humans are born of the Earth and sustained by the Earth’s systems. We owe the Earth deference and respect. How we perceive the land under our feet, the beings who coexist here with us, the water that is the essence of life, will affect our actions. Modes of thinking that lead to destruction, exploitation, domination, and ecocide are flawed at the core. If your ideas and constructs have the potential to bring about mass extinction and desertification, then what possible sane explanation could you give for clinging to those ideas?
Whether we believe we can buy and sell and dispose of land as we please, or believe that we are a part of a living and sentient world with which we can enter into mutually beneficial relationships, these beliefs are not objective realities. What is objective, are the results of the actions we take. If our beliefs are rapidly disposing of other life forms into the dust bin of extinction, while bringing us ever closer to our own apocalypse, then our beliefs are psychopathic and suicidal. If our beliefs have us concerned for the least among us, concerned for the unborn and the non-human, and ultimately result in our being able to live on this planet for generation upon generation to come, then there is no reason to abandon them for modernity, productivity, visions of accumulation, or myths of progress.
The cascading collapse of both civilization and the ecology of the planet are not likely to be stopped. As conditions worsen and become more stressful, there will be no shortage of false answers, again, usually claiming that we haven’t dominated enough, or controlled enough. What survival looks like will depend on our ability to adapt, and our ability to adapt will depend on our ability to shed vestigial ideas and modes of organization that have long grown malignant in our minds. I don’t expect this process to be anything other than horrifying, but if there is any hope it starts with us realizing which tools we need to put down.