When I was a child, I wondered what it must have been like to see passenger pigeons fly overhead in flocks so large they darkened the sky for days at a time. I wondered what went through people’s hearts and minds as they saw the flocks weaken, thin, disappear under the weight of commercial exploitation. What impulse stirred as they watched the last passenger pigeon, Martha, pace alone in her cage at the Cincinnati Zoo? Did they ask themselves, I wondered, why they hadn’t risen up to stop the slaughter?
I don’t wonder that any more.
When I was a child, I wondered what it must have been like to be in nazi Germany, surrounded by institutionalized death and watching cattle cars glide by on their way to concentration camps. Did people believe the newspaper propaganda, or did they know in their hearts that the destruction they witnessed was evil, and that to not resist is to participate? Did they ask themselves later, I once again wondered, why they hadn’t risen up to stop the slaughter?
I don’t wonder that any more.
From the inside, it’s possible to rationalize any horror. They weren’t exterminating passenger pigeons; they were making a buck selling carcasses. They weren’t killing Jews; they were using “scientific treatments” to improve the health and vitality of the German nation. We’ve never killed Indians, it’s our Manifest Destiny to “overspread the continent.”
We’re on the inside, witnessing and rationalizing the killing of the planet. According to leading conservation biologists, industrial civilization has brought vertebrate evolution to an end. Coral reef ecosystems, amphibians, migratory songbirds (Have you noticed there are fewer swallows, goldfinches, hummingbirds. . . .), fish, large mammals, all are disappearing. Here in the Inland Northwest we’re watching the end of the Columbia River salmon, of the great native Ponderosa and White Pine forests. Yet I don’t see anyone, myself included, taking to the streets. Why not? What will our children and grandchildren think of our acquiescence? Will they curse us as I curse those who killed the passenger pigeons, as I curse the quiet Germans who minded their own business? Will they ask, as much in bewilderment as in horror, why we didn’t rise up to stop the slaughter?
I know people are worried. When I asked students at Eastern Washington University if the world would be a better place in ten years, twenty, thirty, nearly all said, “Much worse.” But they didn’t know what to do.
So I began to ask, “What will it take for us to survive?” I ask activists, writers, indigenous peoples, and others who devote their lives to exploring this question, and I ask politicians, who ought to.
Pain, loss, activism. In the face of unrelentingly destructive forces, these words are inextricably linked. People say to me, “I’d do the work, but I’m afraid it would hurt too much.” I’ve never had a response for this, so I’ve begun to ask this as well.
What will it take for us to survive?
Slade Gorton and George Nethercutt, Senator and Representative from Washington: Their response to my query was the same as their response to the destruction: they ignored it.
Frederick Turner, author of Beyond Geography, and other books: There are still reasons for optimism, and to be truly American we must be optimists. I don’t mean the bogus optimism of Reagan; or the shrill, exclusionary optimism of Pat Buchanan and the rest of the extreme right. I mean the optimism of Jefferson, Franklin, Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Woody Guthrie, Muir, Pete Seeger, Terry Tempest Williams, etc. We’re positively REQUIRED to voice this optimism and struggle to enact it versus the forces of greed, cynicism, and negativism. The destruction of the environment is an admission by the destroyers they’ve given up on America and now seek merely to grab what’s left. Destruction being, as someone well said, the final despair.
The environmental wars west of the Mississippi are nothing less than a struggle for the soul of the republic. I believe what happens here will have a great deal to do with what happens to the rest of the planet. Our mission is to represent ourselves as standing for the best, truest ideals of the republic, and not let the despoilers, bigots, and greedheads wrap themselves in colors that don’t belong to them.
Christopher Manes, author of Green Rage: Radical Environmentalism and the Unmaking of Civilization: My mind keeps going back to a simple principle: being kind to one’s neighbor. We’ve defined the term neighbor’ too parsimoniously, limiting it to physical proximity, to those who look like us, to Homo sapiens. We’re good at pouring concrete, constructing houses and streets, but we must learn to build a spiritual neighborhood, one that includes not only the family next door, but the bluejay in the sycamore tree, the child abandoned in a faraway city, the lizard sunning itself on a garden wall. Normal individuals take pleasure in helping their neighbors; even uncouth people don’t burglarize their neighbor’s home, or refuse to call the hospital when an accident happens. If our culture can take to heart the neighborliness of the world around us, we might rein in our worse instincts–selfishness, indifference, violence–becoming smaller egos but larger, richer human beings.
Barry Rosenberg, forest activist: Until we put hubris aside and start recognizing our place in the scheme of things, I don’t see much hope of us surviving. Instead of using the earth for our advantage, we must use our energies for the earth’s advantage. Whether it’s Forest Service employees sacrificing a piece of the planet to keep their jobs, or millworkers and loggers who have to put food on the table, most people probably realize what we’re doing is wrong. Of course it’s not just timber workers: they, like all of us, are victims of an absurd system that forces people to destroy the planet to earn money to buy the necessities of life.
Linda Hogan, author of Solar Storm, and other books: We need to end our current economic system(s), make great changes in the ways we live, eat, think, believe. We must have a new kind of education. A new spiritual movement might help.
Writing, loving, and nature help me deal with the pain. I relieve my heart by working in all my writing, teaching, etc toward change. Maybe it’s futile, but putting energy there helps me feel I’m not sitting back in despair, just watching.
George Draffan, activist and author of Railroads and Clearcuts: For us to survive, ecosystems must survive. As ecosystems fall, we fall. It’s already happening. Some of us have died, or are dying (toxics, war, thirty-two children die each minute from starvation or preventable diseases). The “survivors” are no more intact than the ecosystems they’re part of. That’s why we’re so stupid, literally. Hundreds of thousands of Americans dead, and two whole generations of Americans stupid from being heavily leaded by gasoline, paint, etc.
Another way to look at this is to forget the “environment,” whatever that is, and look just at humans. What it will take for us to survive is democracy. People, who by definition are the only sovereigns, have abandoned their power, their responsibility. For the last hundred years, since corporations were declared to be people (actually, since the beginning of civilization 10,000 years ago), people have been powerless. Not because it’s been seized, but because we’ve abandoned our power. Naturally, the bullies, those unafraid to throw their power about, have taken over. But we can and must take it back, or we won’t survive as people, as sovereigns needing to exercise our heritage. We may not even survive as animals needing habitat, food, and shelter.
How do I deal with the pain? Usually I ignore it so I can conduct a daily and personal life. So I can get some sleep. So I can shop for groceries even though it requires a car. So I can have a little entertainment to take my mind off work.
When I can’t ignore it, I listen to it and try to discover where it comes from, so I can stop it at its source (almost always ignorance, greed, and/or hate, either mine or others, no difference).
When all else fails, I let myself feel it, because it’s natural, and because I can’t escape it anyway. I try to open to it, and when I really am open, it’s just pain.
Aziz Choudry, corporate watchdog and labor advocate: The complete market model of development and capitalism needs to be thrown out. Until communities take control over their lives and environments–unless there is absolute self-determination at the grassroots–I only see things getting worse. There’s no way current patterns of consumption and the growth and increasing power of transnational corporations can lead to anything but a lifeless and barren earth. The top-down models of development being imposed on us can only be effectively controlled by popular movements built on participatory democracy, self-determination. This all presupposes a radical shift in people’s thinking. People need to think about where they came from, where they are going, and how they fit into the landscape.
An anonymous activist: Malcolm X had the answer: by any means necessary. I won’t allow my own and my family’s future to be destroyed by corporate greed. I’m prepared to fight, and am certain it will come to that. It already has.
John Osborn, forest activist: Decisions about the future of humankind and the rest of the natural world require our active involvement. Life isn’t a spectator sport: individuals, communites, and future generations are directly affected by decisions made today. For us to survive we must fully use our capabilities of critical thought, with complete recognition of our ethical responsibilities to each other, generations unborn, and other species with which we share the planet.
As the natural world unravels, and with it humanity’s future, people have a choice as to whether or not to become actively involved; it’s important for each of us to know that however painful it may be to confront these problems, it’s more painful to not do so. This work brings great peace.
Also, there’s a broad and growing community of shared concern about the destruction. This incredibly rich and diverse community is a source of strength in times of despair.
Moana Sinclair and Cheryl Smith, Maori activists: Survival means producing healthy future generations, not merely staying in survival mode. We must radically change the way we live, think, eat, and must move away from the whole user culture. Control of the land must go back to people who understand the land and their place on it–traditional indigenous people.
We must realize the unseen is as important as the seen. Indigenous people understood this–past tense because for many it’s a relearning process.
A lot of us don’t deal with the pain, which then manifests itself in physical, spiritual, and emotional illness, a repetition of the pattern, and damage to others. If you feel the pain, you may transcend and understand the motivations for the original trauma, which may lead to wisdom and creativity.
Dolores LaChapelle, author of Sacred Land Sacred Sex, and other books:
Ruth Benedict spent twenty years trying to understand what made a “good culture.” She discovered, “Nonaggression is high in societies where the individual by the same act and at the same time serves his own advantage and that of the group.” Wealth is a siphon system so when “a man has meat or garden produce or horses or cattle, these give him no standing except as they pass through his hands to the tribe at large.” These rules lead to “Social-institutional conditions which fuse selfishness and unselfishness, by arranging it so that when I pursue selfish’ gratifications, I automatically help others, and when I try to be altruistic, I automatically reward and gratify myself.”
Of course our stupid culture is the exact opposite. It’s set up so the wealth flows to a few–billionaires and multinational corporations–instead of automatically flowing through the culture. If we gave these people and organizations no standing things would reverse immediately.
Also, humans are fairly helpless–no claws or sharp teeth. If we hadn’t figured out how to get along we’d have been extinct long ago. Indigenous cultures got along through rituals involving chanting, drumming, or trance dancing; that can still be seen in modern Pueblo cultures. Chanting came before talking in human development and bypasses the rational brain. Gregory Bateson said, “The rational hemisphere alone is necessarily pathogenic.” Yet we have stupid meeting after meeting to solve what got us into this mess; all of those meetings are purely rational, hence pathogenic.
Max Oelschlaeger, author of The Idea of Wilderness, and other books: Each of us needs to find community, in the sense of land community (people bonded with place over generations and seasons and seasons), where we dig in and take root.
The world, despite its suffering, is still wonderfully, awesomely, and mysteriously alive and beautiful. We’re the consequence of an ongoing process of evolution that embeds us in the world–interacting, sharing, feeling, being–so I die a little with every hectare of rainforest slaughtered or every ton of CO2 released. But all stimulus (good/evil, beautiful/ugly, healthy/diseased) is a catalyst for action, for affirmation of life and beauty rather than denial of pain.
Lizzie Grossman, literary agent and writer: Humans, in particular Americans, need to change the way we think about being an individual in community. In many ways community is anathema to what it means to be American. We must learn how to share, to no longer cut trees just because they’re in Our Yard; we must think beyond this boundary, to consider the landscape (both literally and metaphorically) as a whole.
I survive by going into the world, relishing it, making it worth living in, sharing joy. Trying to discover something new every day.
Mary Jensen, artist, mother, philosopher: I don’t think humans will survive. I’ve seen a huge change for the worse just in my lifetime. The seven years I’ve lived in Spokane I’ve seen a horrifying reduction in the number of birds. Beautiful songbirds like lazuli bunting. Look at what we’re doing, allow yourself to pay attention to the implications, and you’ll see only one conclusion.
John Livingston, author of The Fallacy of Wildlife Conservation and other books: Since the human project has precedence over all things, we’ll stop at nothing in our fight against extinction, which is the same as our fight against nature. Not pretty, and a great deal less pretty than what we see around us now. I’m glad you and I won’t be around to see it.
Just now, though, there are birds at the feeder, and from my library window I often see deer. Soon are the spring songs of frogs, the wildflowers, the migrant birds. That’s all I need. I try to live in the joyous fullness of the present.
Richard Manning, author of Grassland, and other books: Friends of mine just returned from India. They’ve worked there extensively, most recently in the early 1980s, but until December hadn’t been there since. They didn’t recognize the country after only a decade away; in that time the country added 140 million people. My friends were ashen-faced when they told me.
What it will take for us to survive is a catastrophic crash of the human population.
As to how I get through the day, I’ve made a bargain with the problem: If I live reasonably simply and try not to add greatly to the troubles, the world will let me use my privilege and resources to live sufficiently isolated from the worst of it to face each day. I try to make up for this manifest selfishness by protecting bits of life and urging others to do so, by supporting the refugia that will carry seeds of life past the human crash. But in the end I retreat when necessary into solitude, friends, music, sex, and the usual range of diversions. Life is being destroyed, but life will survive. Those things I find most beautiful–evolution’s creativity, emergent order from chaos–will survive any catastrophe we arrange.
Julien Puzey, activist and writer: We must begin to feel the pain. If you block the signals leading to childbirth, both mother and child die. If you feel the signals, a birth takes place. If enough people feel the pain, we can move on.
We need to ask ourselves how we block the pain. Through television, jobs, playing at being nice, playing at social change. How serious are we?
How do I deal with the pain? I don’t deal with it. I feel it.
Sandra Lopez, book artist: The night the US began its Persian Gulf invasion, we had the radio on. We felt a sense of helplessness and failure, the grim inevitability of war, a sickness at the excitement in the reporting voices. I could think of nothing I could do that would have any effect. But I knew I must work. I’d like to say I wept while I worked, but I don’t remember. I found out later almost everyone I know worked that night. We sent up our prayers the best way we knew. This work keeps us steady in the world. Work. Joy. Recognition. Honor. Beauty. Cherish. Hope. Grace. These words are central to our survival.
Sara Folger, forest activist: Humility, which means recognizing we’re not at the top of the heap. And putting that into practice. Recognizing we are dependent on other life forms, rather than dominant over them.
I let my pain translate itself into anger, because my anger is active while my pain is not. And I cry. What do you do when you’re in a constant state of grieving? You either let it kill you, or you fight.
Derrick Jensen: First, we need to face the terrifying fact that cultures have existed without rape, without child abuse, without destroying the world around them. This fact is terrifying because it makes clear that this tremendous destruction of human and nonhuman potential is stupid and unnecessary. The result of bad choices. We don’t need to live this way, and never have; we can choose to live differently.
To survive on a personal level, each of us must extricate ourselves from the wage economy, find time and silence to unlearn everything we were taught through school, newspapers, and television. We must become profound skeptics of the “wisdom” handed down by a culture destroying the world, and remember to trust our own experience. We must remember how to listen, and learn to think and feel for ourselves, and must gain the courage to follow our thoughts and feelings wherever they lead.
We must find supportive friends to help us untangle the lies of politicians, corporate spokespeople, and mainstream media, find friends on whom we can test the soundness of our ideas. We must find our own center, and act from that center.
We must recognize that living a relatively benign life won’t by itself stop the destruction. If we’re to survive we must also stop those who are destroying the planet. This won’t be easy, because those who profit by the impoverishment of present and future generations, by destroying indigenous cultures, by destroying the natural world, won’t stop merely because we ask nicely. We must be prepared to insist, and to follow through on that insistence, no matter the cost. Whatever the cost, it cannot be more than we are already paying.
When dams were erected on the Columbia, salmon battered themselves against the concrete, trying to return home. I expect no less from us. We too must hurl ourselves against and through the concrete (literal and metaphorical) that contains and constrains us, that keeps us from living the way we know we can, that bars us from our home.
Originally published in the April 17, 1996 issue of The Pacific Northwest InlanderFiled in Essays