I want to tell you three stories of winning and losing, of selfishness and sacrifice, of this culture.
Story one. Last spring I gave a talk in a small farming community in northwestern Illinois. I drove there from my previous talk in Wisconsin, passing through prime agricultural territory, which is to say cleared and plowed and empty cornfield after cleared and plowed and empty cornfield. When I got to my destination, a delightful retired teacher took me to see the last remaining unplowed prairie in the county. It was more or less downtown, between a busy street and yet another field devoted to agriculture. As he led me across the slender tract, I couldn’t stop weeping at the sight of flowers who were once common and now barely hanging on, butterflies who were once common and now barely hanging on, a mother goose protecting her nest. My (human) host told me that even though this is the last six acres left—just six acres out of 360,000 in the county—the neighboring landowner refuses to stop applying insecticides and herbicides, which of course drift across the fenceline.
That evening, after he introduced me, I took the stage, sat down, and faced a roomful of members of this farming community. I thanked them for their hospitality, told them of my experiences of the previous twenty-four hours, then said, “I think the plow is the most destructive artifact humans have ever created. It destroys every living being on a piece of ground and converts that land to solely human use.”
The members of this farming community looked back at me. One gave a grim smile, then said, “Those plows paid for our houses.”
I nodded, smiled just as grimly, and responded, “That’s precisely the problem, isn’t it?”
Story two begins with me receiving an issue of my alumni magazine from the Colorado School of Mines, which featured an article titled “Hitting Paydirt.” The article tells stories of several “tremendously rewarding” discoveries. There’s a twenty-six-year-old CSM grad who discovered a “virgin deposit” of 2 million ounces of gold. Another grad discovered what became mines in environmentally ravaged Ireland; environmentally ravaged, war-torn, and rape-plagued Somalia; and environmentally ravaged, war-torn, rape-plagued, and slavery- and child-labor-infested Mauritania (the article, of course, only listed the countries, not their misfortunes, many of which are caused or exacerbated by resource extraction). But the story I want to focus on happened in Bolivia, where CSM grad Larry Buchanan, in the employ of a transnational mining corporation (with an address in the Cayman Islands for tax haven purposes, and having 8410since that time gone through bankruptcy and changed its name, emerging as essentially the same company but without the debt), saw what seemed like a promising geological formation. He looked more closely, and found at the center of the deposit a village, complete with ancient stone church.
Buchanan describes it like this: “The silver deposit lay on the surface, mineralized ledges cropped out everywhere around and below a little indigenous village of rock, adobe and grass thatch, called San Cristobal. The cobblestone streets were paved with silver-bearing rock. The rock walls of the houses literally were laced with silver veins. You couldn’t take a step without touching silver. But somehow [sic] it had been overlooked [sic] by everyone [sic].”
He unintentionally answers his own question as to why these indigenous peoples had never put in an open pit mine: “The Quechua culture of southwestern Bolivia is one of multiple gods and spirits, one with a profound respect for the earth in general and curiously [sic], for rocks in particular. They believe rocks are their direct ancestors, living souls that speak, think, feel emotions, and have distinct personalities.”
Buchanan again: “We discovered nearly a half billion tonnes of those silver-plated ancestors of the Quechua. [Yes, he actually said that.] After a year of work, the engineers calculated it contained nearly a billion ounces of silver, enough ore to last seventeen years of intensive mining. The computer models proved it feasible: the profits would be more than enormous and the mine would become a money-machine. [Yes, he actually said that.] It was a company maker, a world-class discovery, a perfect setup.” The only thing in his way was “that poverty-stricken little village right on top of it. If we wanted to make a mine, San Cristobal had to go.”
But the village didn’t go down without a fight—between white people. Buchanan’s wife was against moving the village and forced Buchanan to sleep on the couch, only relenting when Buchanan agreed that they would move to the village for a while to bear witness to the destruction they were causing (or, to use his words, “the opportunities we were offering the people”). This strikes me as a classic example of the conservative/liberal one-two punch of oppression, with the conservative perceiving the oppression as good in itself, while the liberal bears witness to the oppression without doing much of anything to stop it. So Buchanan and his wife watched as people dug up bones from the village’s four-hundred-year-old cemetery to move to their new compound eleven kilometers away. Buchanan joined village elders as they crawled around the cemetery to beg forgiveness for disturbing the dead. He watched as bulldozers leveled the village in just four hours. It was all very difficult for him: “There were times I was literally brought to tears when I would contemplate what the people lost due to my discovery.”
What was once a living village where people resided with their ancestors in the walls, their gods all around them, is now a huge toxic hole in the ground. But it’s all good. Buchanan believes the people now live better lives in the compound; transnational corporations have made 70 billion dollars; and, best of all, Buchanan and his wife wrote a book about it all. “I came to learn life holds so much more of value than just a few billion dollars worth of silver,” he says. Having learned this valuable lesson, Buchanan moved on to other projects, and believes he has just recently discovered another billion-ounce deposit somewhere else.
Story three involves New Zealand tae kwon do athlete Logan Campbell, who funded his dream of reaching the Olympics through being a pimp. He made a lot of money providing women’s bodies for men to use. He even made a video to recruit women into working for him. The advertisement had lots of pretty pictures of women leaping for joy in fields, standing contemplatively on beaches, and sharing warm hugs with happy children. One female voice-over gushed, “When I was a little girl, I used to dream of a life of liberty.” Another asked, “Did you enjoy that? I sure did.” One said, “I’m living the dream.” And another said, “You deserve it.” The ad never did describe precisely what the “it” is that women deserve, but I think most of us would agree that most little girls don’t dream of economically coerced sexual relations with strangers not of their choosing, of years of post-traumatic stress disorder, of broken psyches and broken genitals and broken lives.
The point, really, is that Logan Campbell did get to live his dream. He went to the Olympics on the bodies of women, just like Buchanan’s “tremendously rewarding find” came at the expense of San Cristobal and its deities, and just as plows pay for houses at the expense of everyone else in the biological community. These are all dreams of fame, accomplishment, money, even what we consider necessities, like the way we feed ourselves and the way we financially accumulate. The problem is, all these dreams are someone else’s nightmare.
These stories are not merely what is wrong with this culture, they are the fundamental ethos of this culture: the fulfillment of personal, social, and cultural dreams at the expense of all others. No sane culture would in any way extol any of these stories. So long as these stories are seen as the fulfillment of dreams, where the subjugation of others is not seen as subjugating them but rather as helping them to “live the dream”; so long as this culture considers actions that lead to the destruction of ancient ways of life as “rewarding finds,” where your own murderous behavior is seen as “offering opportunities” for the victims; so long as we find it not only acceptable but right and just to convert the lives of others and the life-support system of the entire planet itself into fodder for us, there is little hope for life on this planet.
Originally published in the January/February 2013 issue of Orion
First published online at the Deep Green Resistance News Service