When a white man kills an Indian in a fair fight it is called honorable, but when an Indian kills a white man in a fair fight it is called murder. When a white army battles Indians and wins it is called a great victory, but if they lose it is called a massacre and bigger armies are raised. If the Indian flees before the advance of such armies, when he tries to return he finds that white men are living where he lived. If he tries to fight off such armies, he is killed and the land is taken anyway. When an Indian is killed, it is a great loss which leaves a gap in our people and a sorrow in our heart; when a white is killed three or four others step up to take his place and there is no end to it. The white man seeks to conquer nature, to bend it to his will and to use it wastefully until it is all gone and then he simply moves on, leaving the waste behind him and looking for new places to take. The whole white race is a monster who is always hungry and what he eats is land.
As a longtime grassroots environmental activist, and as a creature living in the thrashing endgame of civilization, I am intimately acquainted with the landscape of loss, and have grown accustomed to carrying the daily weight of despair. I have walked clearcuts that wrap around mountains, drop into valleys, then climb ridges to fragment watershed after watershed, and I’ve sat silent near empty streams that two generations ago were “lashed into whiteness” by uncountable salmon coming home to spawn and die.
A few years ago I began to feel pretty apocalyptic. But I hesitated to use that word, in part because of those drawings I’ve seen of crazy penitents carrying “The End is Near” signs, and in part because of the power of the word itself. Apocalypse. I didn’t want to use it lightly.
But then a friend and fellow activist said, “What will it take for you to finally call it an apocalypse? The death of the salmon? Global warming? The ozone hole? The reduction of krill populations off Antarctica by 90 percent, the turning of the sea off San Diego into a dead zone, the same for the Gulf of Mexico? How about the end of the great coral reefs? The extirpation of two hundred species per day? Four hundred? Six hundred? Give me a specific threshold, Derrick, a specific point at which you’ll finally use that word.”
* * *
Do you believe that our culture will undergo a voluntary transformation to a sane and sustainable way of living?
For the last several years I’ve taken to asking people this question, at talks and rallies, in libraries, on buses, in airplanes, at the grocery store, the hardware store. Everywhere. The answers range from emphatic nos to laughter. No one answers in the affirmative. One fellow at one talk did raise his hand, and when everyone looked at him, he dropped his hand, then said, sheepishly, “Oh, voluntary? No, of course not.” My next question: how will this understanding—that this culture will not voluntarily stop destroying the natural world, eliminating indigenous cultures, exploiting the poor, and killing those who resist—shift our strategy and tactics? The answer? Nobody knows, because we never talk about it: we’re too busy pretending the culture will undergo a magical transformation.
This book is about that shift in strategy, and in tactics.
* * *
I just got home from talking to a new friend, another longtime activist. She told me of a campaign she participated in a few years ago to try to stop the government and transnational timber corporations from spraying Agent Orange, a potent defoliant and teratogen, in the forests of Oregon. Whenever activists learned a hillside was going to be sprayed, they assembled there, hoping their presence would stop the poisoning. But each time, like clockwork, helicopters appeared, and each time, like clockwork, helicopters dumped loads of Agent Orange onto the hillside and onto protesting activists. The campaign did not succeed.
“But,” she said to me, “I’ll tell you what did. A bunch of Vietnam vets lived in those hills, and they sent messages to the Bureau of Land Management and to Weyerhaeuser, Boise Cascade, and the other timber companies saying, ‘We know the names of your helicopter pilots, and we know their addresses.’”
I waited for her to finish.
“You know what happened next?” she asked.
“I think I do,” I responded.
“Exactly,” she said. “The spraying stopped.”