Each year Shell Oil corporation and the magazine The Economist hold an “international writing competition to encourage future thinking.” The banner headline screams: “YOU WRITE A 2,000 WORD ESSAY. WE WRITE A $20,000 CHEQUE.”
This year’s topic: “Do we need nature?”
Before we answer their question, we need to remember the first rule of propaganda: if you can slide your assumptions by people, you’ve got them. Another way to say that—and every good lawyer knows this—is the person who controls the questions controls the answers. How would essays written in response be different if instead The Economist/Shell had asked one of the following: Does nature need us? Does nature need Shell Oil? Do humans need Shell Oil? Does nature need oil extraction? Do humans need oil extraction? Does nature need industrial civilization? Do humans need industrial civilization? Can nature survive industrial civilization? Can humans survive industrial civilization? What can we each do to best serve our landbases? Who is the we in The Economist’s/Shell’s question?
Regarding this essay, here’s probably the most important question of all: if our answers do not jibe with the financial/propaganda interests of Shell Oil and The Economist, do you think they’ll still hand us a cheque for $20,000?
Just in case we’ve forgotten who precisely is cutting the cheque, the sponsors provide several questions to lead us on our—or rather their—way. Their first question is: “How much biodiversity is necessary?”
A reasonable definition of insanity is to have lost one’s connections to physical reality, to consider one’s delusions as being more real than the real world. This is then an insane question, because it does not take physical reality—in this case biodiversity—as a given, but places it secondary to their mental constructs—in this case different people’s opinions of “how much is necessary.” More sane questions, that is, questions more in touch with physical reality, would be “How much oil extraction, if any, is necessary? How many corporations, if any, are necessary? How can we help the landbase, on its own terms?”
The question is also insanely arrogant, because it presumes that we know better than the landbase how much biodiversity it needs. If you want to know how much biodiversity is necessary, don’t ask me, or any other human. Ask the land. And then wait a hundred generations, and your descendants will know the answer for that particular place where they have all this time lived.
And of course their question fails to ask, “How much biodiversity is necessary for what?”
Another of their questions: “Sustainable development sounds so natural and desirable that no one could possibly disagree with it. Yet technological advance makes today’s definition of what is sustainable or unsustainable quickly obsolete. How can a concept purporting to look to the long term have any real meaning if technology keeps changing the parameters in the short and medium term?”
Once again, we must watch out for insane premises leading to meaningless questions. What is their second sentence actually saying? What are its assumptions? A central assumption is that technological change is primary—the independent variable—and definitions of sustainability are secondary, dependent on technological change. Yet I fail to see how technological changes alter the definition of what is sustainable: an activity is sustainable if it does not damage the capacity of the landbase to support its members. Technology does not affect the “parameters” of sustainability or its definitions in the short, medium, or long term. Technologies can hinder or occasionally help one’s ability to live in a place over a long time, but they do not affect what the term means. Of course living in place for a long time is not what this contest is about, nor is it what this question is about. It seems very clear to me that the real purpose of the “question” is to guide writers into calling into question the baseline nature of sustainability, which really is the bottom line of survival. Sustainability is and must be the independent variable, and the proper question to ask—if you’re interested in surviving—is how any given technology helps or hinders your way of living’s sustainability, that is, your survivability, that is, your viability, which means how it helps or hinders the health of the landbase to which you belong.
Another question, more of the same: “If man’s [sic] success [sic] as a species, in terms of population growth and knowledge, is a natural phenomenon, how can man [sic] be said to threaten nature? Is the line between artificial and natural itself artificial?”
I’m sure by now you can parse for yourself the (insane) assumptions of these questions, and where they guide us. For example, they use the word men to encompass all humans, ignoring women (which is, says someone with a penis, how things of course should be). They use the word men—implying by the rest of the question civilized men—to encompass all cultures, ignoring the indigenous (which is, says someone born in a city, how things of course should be). They define success not as living in place over time but as conquering all other cultures and conquering the planet (this misdefinition of success is an old one: I believe the formative command was: “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth [Genesis 1:28]). They use runaway population growth as an example of success, something that seems grotesque in a conversation ostensibly about sustainability. Their use of the word knowledge in this context is as interesting as their word success. By knowledge, do they mean genetic engineering, or do they mean the thousands of languages being driven to extinction by the dominant culture, and along with them the knowledge of how to live in long-term relationships with the places where those languages were born? (I think it’s safe to say the former, because another of their questions is: “How do we balance the distrust of genetic modification with the needs of developing country farmers and people?” implying that genetic modification helps the poor, and not transnational chemical and oil corporations.) Having defined themselves as all of humanity—a fine use of the classic abuser’s trick of monopolizing perception—their use of the phrase “how can man [sic] be said to threaten nature” becomes not only an attempt to naturalize the atrocious (It’s in our nature to terrorize, rape, exploit, and kill you, then steal your resources. We really had no choice.) but worse, an explicit statement that what is happening is not: It is an invitation to write an essay showing that the natural world is not in fact threatened (and don’t give me any shit about that not being the case: if we saw a phrase like this on a high school or college exam, we’d know exactly what we’d need to write if we wanted to get an A: now just multiply that incentive by $20,000). Sure, the logic goes, sharks may be getting hammered, as are marlins, flounders, salmon, whales, black-tailed prairie dogs, tiger salamanders (tiger salamanders, for crying out loud! As recently as during my childhood in the in the sixties tiger salamanders were still as common as, well, as common as the toads that are now just as endangered), spotted owls, marbled murrelets, port orford cedar, tigers, chimpanzees, mountain gorillas, orangutans, but “if man’s success as a species, in terms of population growth and knowledge, is a natural phenomenon, how can man be said to threaten nature?”
If we change this question slightly, even the editors of The Economist and the CEO of Shell can see how absurd it is: If my success as a person, in terms of having the ability to purchase a gun and the knowledge of how to find you, is a natural phenomenon, if guns are natural (having been made by humans), and if death itself is a natural phenomenon, how can I be said to threaten you?
But we still have one more part of this question: “Is the line between artificial and natural itself artificial?” We’ve all heard this argument before, usually put forward by those who wish to further exploitation: humans are natural, therefore everything they create is natural. Chainsaws, nuclear bombs, capitalism, sex slavery, asphalt, cars, polluted streams, a devastated world, devastated psyches, all these are natural.
I have two responses to this. The first I explored already in my book The Culture of Make Believe, where I said, “This is, of course, nonsense. We are embedded in the natural world. We evolved as social creatures in this natural world.We require clean water to drink, or we die. We require clean air to breathe, or we die. We require food, or we die. We require love, affection, social contact in order to become our full selves. It is part of our evolutionary legacy as social creatures. Anything that helps us to understand all of this is natural: any ritual, artifact, process, action is natural to the degree that it reinforces our understanding of our embeddedness in the natural world, and any ritual, artifact, process, action is unnatural to the degree that it does not.”
My second response to their question is: Who cares? I want to live in a world that has wild salmon and tiger salamanders and tigers and healthy forests and vibrant human communities where mothers don’t have dioxin in their breastmilk. If you really want to argue that oil tankers, global warming, DDT, the designated hitter rule, and the rest of the massive deathcamp we call civilization is natural, well, you can just go off in a corner with your $20,000 cheque and your utilitarian-philosopher buddies and play your bullshit linguistic games while the rest of us try to do something about the very real problems caused by civilization. If you want to seriously propose these waste-of-time questions (I was going to call them masturbational, but at least masturbation feels good), I’ve got nothing to say to you. I’ve got work to do. I’ve got a world to help save, from people exactly like you. I’ve got a civilization to help bring down before it does any more damage.
A shorter version was published in the July/August 2003 issue of The EcologistFiled in Essays