by Derrick Jensen
A few months ago at a gathering of activist friends someone asked, If our world is really looking down the barrel of environmental catastrophe, how do I live my life right now?
The question stuck with me for a few reasons. The first is that its the world, not our world. The notion that the world belongs to usinstead of us belonging to the worldis a good part of the problem.
The second is that this is pretty much the only question thats asked in mainstream media (and even among some environmentalists) about the state of the world and our response to it. The phrase green living brings up 7,250,000 Google hits, or more than Mick Jagger and Keith Richards combined (or, to look at it another way, more than a thousand times more than the crucial environmental philosophers John A. Livingston and Neil Evernden combined). If you click on the websites that come up, you find just what youd expect, stuff like The Green Guide: Shop, Save, Conserve, Personal Solutions for All of Us, and Tissue Paper Guide for Consumers.
The third and most important reason the question stuck with me is that its precisely the wrong question. By looking at how its the wrong question, we can start looking for some of the right questions. This is terribly important, because coming up with right answers to wrong questions isnt particularly helpful.
So, part of the problem is that looking down the barrel of environmental catastrophe makes it seem as though environmental catastrophe is the problem. But its not. Its a symptoman effect, not a cause. Think about global warming and attempts to solve or stop or mitigate it. Global warming (or global climate catastrophe, as some rightly call it), as terrifying as it is, isnt first and foremost a threat. Its a consequence. Im not saying pikas arent going extinct, or the ice caps arent melting, or weather patterns arent changing, but to blame global warming for those disasters is like blaming the lead projectile for the death of someone who got shot. Im also not saying we shouldnt work to solve, stop, or mitigate global climate catastrophe; Im merely saying well have a better chance of succeeding if we recognize it as a predictable (at this point) result of burning oil and gas, of deforestation, of dam construction, of industrial agriculture, and so on. The real threat is all of these.
The same is true of worldwide ecological collapse. Extractive forestry destroys forests. Whats the surprise when extractive forestry causes forest communitiesplants and animals and mushrooms and rivers and soil and so onto collapse? Weve seen it once or twice before. When you think of Iraq, is the first image that comes to mind cedar forests so thick the sunlight never reaches the ground? Thats how it was prior to the beginnings of this extractive culture; one of the first written myths of this culture is of Gilgamesh deforesting the plains and hillsides of Iraq to build cities. Greece was also heavily forested; Plato complained that deforestation harmed water quality (and Im sure Athenian water quality boards said the same thing those boards say today: we need to study the question more to make sure theres really a correlation). Its magical thinking to believe a culture can effectively deforest and yet expect forest communities to sustain.
Its the same with rivers. There are 2 million dams just in the United States, with 70,000 dams over six feet tall and 60,000 dams over thirteen feet tall. And we wonder at the collapse of native fish communities? We can repeat this exercise for grasslands, even more hammered by agriculture than forests are by forestry; for oceans, where plastic outweighs phytoplankton ten to one (for forests to be equivalently plasticized, theyd be covered in Styrofoam ninety feet deep); for migratory songbirds, plagued by everything from pesticides to skyscrapers; and so on.
The point is that worldwide ecological collapse is not some external and unpredictable threator gun barreldown which we face. Thats not to say we arent staring down the barrel of a gun; it would just be nice if we identified it properly. If we means the salmon, the sturgeon, the Columbia River, the migratory songbirds, the amphibians, then the gun is industrial civilization.
A second part of the problem is that the question presumes were facing a future threatthat the gun has yet to go off. But the Dreadful has already begun. Ask passenger pigeons. Ask Eskimo curlews. Ask great auks. Ask traditional indigenous peoples almost anywhere. This is not a potential threat, but rather one that long-since commenced.
The larger problem with the metaphor, and the reason for this new column in Orion, is the question at the end: how shall I live my life right now? Lets take this step by step. Weve figured out what the gun is: this entire extractive culture that has been deforesting, defishing, dewatering, desoiling, despoiling, destroying since its beginnings. We know this gun has been fired before and has killed many of those we love, from chestnut ermine moths to Carolina parakeets. Its now aimed (and firing) at even more of those we love, from Siberian tigers to Indian gavials to entire oceans to, in fact, the entire world, which includes you and me. If we make this metaphor real, we might understand why the questionasked more often than almost any otheris so wrong. If someone were rampaging through your home, killing those you love one by one (and, for that matter, en masse), would the question burning a hole in your heart be: how should I live my life right now? I cant speak for you, but the question Id be asking is this: how do I disarm or dispatch these psychopaths? How do I stop them using any means necessary?
Finally we get to the point. Those who come after, who inherit whatevers left of the world once this culture has been stoppedwhether through peak oil, economic collapse, ecological collapse, or the efforts of brave women and men fighting in alliance with the natural worldare not going to care how you or I lived our lives. Theyre not going to care how hard we tried. Theyre not going to care whether we were nice people. Theyre not going to care whether we were nonviolent or violent. Theyre not going to care whether we grieved the murder of the planet. Theyre not going to care whether we were enlightened or not enlightened. Theyre not going to care what sorts of excuses we had to not act (e.g., Im too stressed to think about it or Its too big and scary or Im too busy or any of the thousand other excuses weve all heard too many times). Theyre not going to care how simply we lived. Theyre not going to care how pure we were in thought or action. Theyre not going to care if we became the change we wished to see.
Theyre not going to care whether we voted Democrat, Republican, Green, Libertarian, or not at all. Theyre not going to care if we wrote really big books about it. Theyre not going to care whether we had compassion for the CEOs and politicians running this deathly economy. Theyre going to care whether they can breathe the air and drink the water. Theyre going to care whether the land is healthy enough to support them.
We can fantasize all we want about some great turning, and if the people (including the nonhuman people) cant breathe, it doesnt matter. Nothing matters but that we stop this culture from killing the planet. Its embarrassing even to have to say this. The land is the source of everything. If you have no planet, you have no economic system, you have no spirituality, you cant even ask this question. If you have no planet, nobody can ask questions.
What question would I ask instead? What if, instead of asking How shall I live my life? people were to ask the land where they live, the land that supports them, What can and must I do to become your ally, to help protect you from this culture? What can we do together to stop this culture from killing you? If you ask that question, and you listen, the land will tell you what it needs. And then the only real question is: are you willing to do it?
Published in the May/June issue of Orion magazine http://www.orionmagazine.org/index.php/articles/article/4697/