Every morning when I awake I ask myself whether I should write or blow up a dam. I tell myself I should keep writing, though I’m not sure that’s right. I’ve written books and done activism, but it is neither a lack of words nor activism that is killing salmon here in the Northwest. It’s the dams.
Anyone who knows anything about salmon knows the dams must go. Anyone who knows anything about politics knows the dams will stay. Scientists study, politicians and business people lie and delay, bureaucrats hold sham public meetings, activists write letters and press releases, and still the salmon die.
Sadly enough, I’m not alone in my inability or unwillingness to take action. Members of the German resistance to Hitler from 1933 to 1945, for example, exhibited a striking blindness all too familiar: Despite knowing that Hitler had to be removed for a “decent” government to be installed, they spent more time creating paper versions of this theoretical government than attempting to remove him from power. It wasn’t a lack of courage that caused this blindness but rather a misguided sense of morals. Karl Goerdeler, for instance, though tireless in attempting to create this new government, staunchly opposed assassinating Hitler, believing that if only the two could sit face to face Hitler might relent.
We, too, suffer from this blindness and must learn to differentiate between real and false hopes. We must eliminate false hopes, which blind us to real possibilities and unlivable situations. Does anyone really believe our protests will cause Weyerhaeuser or other timber transnationals to stop destroying forests ? Does anyone really believe the same corporate administrators who say they “wish salmon would go extinct so we could just get on with living” (Randy Hardy of BPA) wiill act other than to fulfill their desires? Does anyone really believe a pattern of exploitation old as our civilization can be halted legislatively, judicially or through any means other than an absolute rejection of the mindset that engineers the exploitation, followed by actions based on that rejection? Does anybody really think those who are destroying the world will stop because we ask nicely or because we lock arms peacefully in front of their offices?
Additionally, there can be few who still believe the purpose of government is to protect citizens from the activities of those who would destroy. The opposite is true: Political economist Adam Smith was correct in noting that the primary purpose of government is to protect those who run the economy from the outrage of injured citizens. To expect institutions created by our culture to do other than poison waters, denude hillsides, eliminate alternative ways of living and commit genocide is to engage in na‹ve thinking.
Many German conspirators hesitated to remove Hitler from office because they’d sworn loyalty to him and his government. Their scruples caused more hesitation than their fear. How many of us have yet to root out misguided remnants of a belief in the legitimacy of this government to which, as children, we pledged allegiance? How many of us fail to cross the line into violent resistance because we still believe that, somehow, the system can be reformed? And if we don’t believe that, what are we waiting for? As Shakespeare so accurately put it, “Conscience doth make cowards of us all.”
It could be argued that by comparing our government to Hitler’s I’m overstating my case. I’m not sure salmon would agree, nor lynx, nor the people of Peru, Irian Jaya, Indonesia, or any other place where people pay with their lives for the activities of our culture.
If we’re to survive, we must recognize that we kill by inaction as surely as by action. We must recognize that, as Hermann Hesse wrote, “We kill when we close our eyes to poverty, affliction or infamy. We kill when, because it is easier, we countenance, or pretend to approve of atrophied social, political, educational, and religious institutions, instead of resolutely combating them.”
The central-and in many ways only-question of our time is this: What are sane, appropriate and effective responses to outrageously destructive behavior? So often, those working to slow the destruction can plainly describe the problems. Who couldn’t? The problems are neither subtle nor cognitively challenging. Yet when faced with the emotionally daunting task of fashioning a response to these clearly insoluble problems, we generally suffer a failure of nerve and imagination. Gandhi wrote a letter to Hitler asking him to stop committing atrocities and was mystified that it didn’t work. I continue writing letters to the editor of the local corporate newspaper pointing out mistruths and am continually surprised at the next absurdity.
I’m not suggesting a well-targeted program of assassinations would solve all of our problems. If it were that simple, I wouldn’t be writing this essay. To assassinate Slade Gorton and Larry Craig, for example, two senators from the Northwest whose work may be charitably described as unremittingly ecocidal, would probably slow the destruction not much more than to write them a letter. Neither unique nor alone, Gorton and Craig are merely tools for enacting ecocide, as surely as are dams, corporations, chainsaws, napalm and nuclear weapons. If someone were to kill them, others would take their places. The genocidal and ecocidal programs originating specifically from the damaged psyches of Gorton and Craig would die with them, but the shared nature of the impulses within the culture would continue full-force, making the replacement as easy as buying a new hoe.
Hitler, too, was elected as legally and “democratically” as Craig and Gorton. Hitler, too, manifested his culture’s death urge brilliantly enough to capture the hearts of those who voted him into power and to hold the loyalty of the millions who actively carried out his plans. Hitler, like Craig and Gorton, like George Weyerhaeuser and other CEOs, didn’t act alone. Why, then, do I discern a difference between them?
The current system has already begun to collapse under the weight of its ecological excesses, and here’s where we can help. Having transferred our loyalty away from our culture’s illegitimate economic and governmental entities and to the land, our goal must be to protect, through whatever means possible, the human and nonhuman residents of our homelands. Our goal, like that of a demolition crew on a downtown building, must be to help our culture collapse in place, so that in its fall it takes out as little life as possible.
Discussion presupposes distance, and the fact that we’re talking about whether violence is appropriate tells me we don’t yet care enough. There’s a kind of action that doesn’t emerge from discussion, from theory, but instead from our bodies and from the land. This action is the honeybee stinging to defend her hive; it’s the mother grizzly charging a train to defend her cubs; it’s Zapatista spokesperson Cecelia Rodriguez saying, “I have a question of those men who raped me. Why did you not kill me? It was a mistake to spare my life. I will not shut up… this has not traumatized me to the point of paralysis.” It’s Ogoni activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, murdered by the Nigerian government at the urging of Shell, whose last words were, “Lord, take my soul, but the struggle continues!” It’s those who participated in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. It’s Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull and Geronimo. It’s salmon battering themselves against concrete, using the only thing they have, their flesh, to try to break down that which keeps them from their homes.
I don’t believe the question of whether to use violence is the right one. Instead, the question should be: Do you sufficiently feel the loss? So long as we discuss this in the abstract, we still have much to lose. If we begin to feel in our bodies the immensity and emptiness of what we lose daily-intact natural communities, hours sold for wages, childhoods lost to violence, women’s capacity to walk unafraid-we’ll know precisely what to do.
Originally published in the May/June issue of “Earth First! Journal.”
Republished in the Summer 1998 issue of “Food and Water Journal.”
Included in the book Against Civilization: Readings and Reflections, published in October 1998.
Republished in the Winter 2000/2001 issue of “Disorderly Conduct.”