From chapter "Facing Reality"
I’m known for saying that civilization is killing the planet, and that it needs to be stopped before it kills what or who is left. I don’t say this because I hate hot showers or Beethoven’s Ninth. I say this because I’ve long been capable of doing simple math.
I can do subtraction. I know if there are six billion passenger pigeons, and you subtract a billion, and then another billion, and you keep subtracting them faster than they can add to their own population (and faster than they can feed all those others in their biotic communities who eat them), then eventually there will be none. I know if there are uncountable salmon, and you reduce their numbers to where you can count them, and then you keep subtracting, eventually there will be none. I know if you estimate the weight of all the fish in the oceans in 1870, and you call that 100 percent, and then you keep subtracting fish until by 2010 you get it down to 10 percent, then there’s something deeply wrong with what you’re doing. I know the same is true for native forests reduced from 100 percent to 2 percent, native grasslands and wetlands reduced the same.
And I want to bring down civilization because I know how to add. I know that if you take a number, say, 315 (as in parts per million), and keep adding to it, eventually you’ll get to 350. And if you keep adding to that you’ll get to 400. And if you keep adding to that you’ll get to hell.
I don’t understand why so many of us don’t seem to know how to subtract or to add. Oh, sure, I understand that people come up with lots of rationalizations for avoiding the simple math, and they come up with lots of fancy names and algorithms to attempt to convince themselves that 100 minus 90 doesn’t equal 10, or that 315 plus 85 doesn’t equal 400 or that somehow hot showers, Beethoven’s Ninth, and high-speed internet access for some of us all add up to more than life on earth, but whether you call it “managing forests,” “generating hydroelectric power,” “developing natural resources,” “sustainable development,” “green energy,” “agriculture,” “running the whole Earth,” or any of a thousand other names, the subtraction and the addition continue.
What makes the whole thing even more insane is that the economic system requires constant addition, and this addition requires and creates subtraction, by which I mean capitalism (and before it, civilization) requires that production grow—add 2 or 3 percent each year—and production is a measure of the subtraction, that is, of the conversion of the living into the dead: forests into 2x4s, schools of fish into fish sticks or sushi or fertilizer.
The math is both simple and tragic.
I think that for some people—especially those in power—the only math that matters is constant addition into their bank accounts.
But I think that so many of the rest of us do what we can to avoid this math because if we do the subtraction, do the addition, our own personal sum will be unbearable sorrow, terror, and a feeling of being entirely out of control. I think many of us do what we can to avoid this math because we know that if we do the subtraction, do the addition, our psyches and our consciences and our lives will forever be changed; and we know that no matter how fierce the momentum that leads to this subtraction and addition, no matter our fears that we may be crushed (or perhaps more fearsome, ridiculed), that we will be led in some way to oppose the subtraction of life and the addition of toxics to this planet that is our only home.