If someone put a plastic bag over your head, or over the head of someone you love, and said they would give you money if you left it there, would you take the cash? If you said no, what would you do if he insisted at gunpoint? Would you still take the money? Or would you fight back? Before you make up your mind, read the following sentence.
The needs of the natural world are more important than the needs of the economic system. That seems so self-evident I’m embarrassed to write it down, but it’s a notion that entirely escapes our public (and private) discourse. I recently read a tiny article on page seven, I repeat SEVEN, of The San Francisco Chronicle. It stated that every single stream – every single stream – in the US is contaminated with toxic chemicals, and that one fifth of all animals and one sixth of all plants could become extinct within the next 30 years. (Given that every mother’s milk is contaminated with toxic chemicals, why should we expect streams to be less endangered?)
And on page one? A huge article waxing lyrical about Elvis memorabilia. Think about it for a second: what is the real source of life? Of food, air, water? Is it the economic system? Of course not; it’s the landbase. Last week I learned that the air in Los Angeles is so toxic that children born there inhale more carcinogenic pollutants in the first two weeks of their lives than the US’s Environmental Protection Agency (which routinely understates risks so as not to impede economic production) considers safe for a lifetime. In San Francisco it takes three weeks.
We’re poisoning ourselves. Or more accurately, we’re being poisoned by those in power, the people who make the rules, including the people who negotiate among themselves the best ways to remove barriers to their unbridled exploitation of our landbases, people like the delegates who will attend the WTO conference in Cancun. They’re killing us (and the world) as surely as if they put guns to our heads and pulled the triggers.
If I could say one thing to the Cancun delegates, as they hide behind their armoured policemen, it would be this: ‘When he was on trial for his life in Jerusalem, part of Nazi war criminal Adolph Eichmann’s defence was that no one told him what he was doing was wrong. He was merely a bureaucrat implementing policies assigned from on high, making trains run on time, as it were. Of course the courts rejected his arguments, and rightly hanged him. I will not allow you that excuse. Your crime is even worse than Eichmann’s; you’re not merely following destructive policies, you’re helping form them.’
And if I could say one thing to the police aiming their weapons at protesters, at the poor, it would be this: ‘Point your guns in the opposite direction. You have far more in common with us than with those you’re protecting, and you have more to fear from them. Fire your tear gas and rubber bullets at those who partition the planet, who try to tell us that everything can be bought and sold, everything belongs to those who have money, everything belongs to those in power, everything belongs to them. If you value your own life or the lives of your children, fire your bullets not at those who resist the destruction of our communities, of our world, but at those who formulate the rules by which this destruction is carried out.’
The powerful often con the rest of us into being proud of being ‘good’, defined (by them and us) as being subservient to their edicts. They con us into forgetting that the powerful legalise reprehensible activities that increase their power (eg, stealing land from indigenous people, invading countries with desired resources, debasing the landbase), and that they criminalise non-reprehensible activities that undercut their power.
Last month, for instance, I read that people were being arrested in New York City just for pasting up pictures of Iraqi citizens – for humanising the US’s latest targets, and that a law is being considered in Oregon that would mandate 25-year minimum jail terms for anti-war protesting. After the powerful make the rules for maintaining and extending their power they then hire police and military to keep people in line. When you take away the rhetoric of protecting and serving, the job of police and military personnel boils down to being muscle for enforcing the edicts of those in power.
That is what I would say to those police protecting the negotiators. And then I would say: ‘Do not be a collaborator in the destruction of your own community. Join us. Fight for your own life, and for the lives of your loved ones. It’s been done before. Come, join the protests.’ And I would say this: ‘Any economic or social system that does not benefit natural communities is unsustainable, immoral and really stupid. Sustainability, morality, intelligence and justice require the dismantling of any such economic or social system – or, at the very least, disallowing it from damaging your landbase.’
And finally, I would return to this: ‘If someone put a plastic bag over your head, or over the head of someone you love, and said he would give you money if you left it there, would you take it? ‘And if you said no, what would you do if he insisted, even at gunpoint? Would you still take it? Or would you fight back?’
Originally published in The EcologistFiled in Essays