Read Part 1
It’s tricky, though. Not many people take responsibility for their actions. Instead of recognizing that the framing conditions constrain their options and choosing from there, many instead blame the framing conditions for their choices. To take a patriarchal cliché of an unhappy family the miserable husband does not choose to have an affair, but is forced to by his wife’s recalcitrance around sex: I don’t want to leave the marriage, nor do I want to lead a sexless life, so what am I going to do? The miserable wife does not choose to live a sexless life, but is forced to by her husband’s unwillingness or inability to communicate on any but a physical level: I do not want to leave the marriage, nor do I want sex without intimacy, so what am I going to do?
Similarly, I’ve never heard of an abuser saying, “I hit you because I wanted to terrorize you into submission.” Instead he might say,“I wouldn’t have hit you if you wouldn’t have kept yelling and yelling and yelling at me about coming in so late.” The framing conditions caused his violence. If we move this to a larger scale, how often have we heard politicians speak of the necessity of preemptive attacks on other countries (which just happen to sit atop coveted resources)? They rarely say,“I choose to invade this country.” Instead they say they’ve been forced into this regrettable action by those they are about to subjugate, er, liberate. The Nazis played this same card—everybody plays this same card—they only invaded Poland because they had no choice; they only invaded the Soviet Union because they had no choice; they only killed untermenschen because they had no choice. Sigh. It’s a terribly dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it.
CEOs follow the same logic. If it were up to them, they would keep factories open (not that this is a good thing from the perspective of the planet, but within the confines of this culture most people consider it good), pay workers livable wages, maintain solid retirement programs, and so on. But you know how things are. They have no choice but to lay off workers and move the factories to Bangladesh, where they have no choice but to pay Bangladeshis eight cents per hour (as they themselves pull down a cool million per year, which converts to about five hundred dollars per hour, or more in one minute than they pay a Bangladeshi for a hundred hours). And if the Bangladeshis complain, the CEOs will have no choice but to move the factory on to Vietnam. Market pressures, you know. And these same market pressures force them to pollute, to clearcut, to overfish.
I’m sorry, each and every one of us can say, we have no choice but to destroy the planet. It’s really not our fault.
We may as well acknowledge that our entire culture—from top to bottom, inside out, personally and socially—is founded on, motivated by, and requires a systematic and absolute avoidance of responsibility. This is true both for our actions and our failures to act. What, ultimately, is environmental degradation? Any and all environmental degradation is a manifestation and a consequence of avoidance of responsibility. What is pollution? It is a manifestation and a consequence of avoidance of responsibility. What is overfishing? Deforestation? They are manifestations and consequences of avoidance of responsibility.
And what is our failure to stop each of these things? It’s just as much an avoidance of responsibility.
* * *
We must, we are told, visualize world peace. My first thought on hearing this is always that the abused spouse is so often told that if she can just love her husband enough, he might change. Meanwhile her daughter may very well be wishing she gets a pony for Christmas, but that isn’t going to happen either. My second thought on hearing this is always that visualizing world peace is essentially the semi-secular new age equivalent of praying.
All that said, I have to admit that I actually am a huge fan of visualization. I just normally call it daydreaming. When I was a high jumper in college, I used to more or less constantly picture myself floating over the bar. I’d do this in the shower, driving, walking to classes, certainly all through my classes. Later when I coached high jumping I used to guide my students through visualizations as a routine part of our practice. Now I constantly daydream about my writing. And more importantly I visualize people fighting back. I visualize people knocking down dams. I visualize them taking down the oil and electrical infrastructures. I visualize wild salmon returning in greater numbers every year. I visualize migratory songbirds coming back. I even visualize passenger pigeons returning. So I guess I don’t have a problem with visualizing world peace, so long as people are also working for it. Except that as I made clear early on, civilization requires the importation of resources, which means it requires the use of force to maintain itself. This means that if these folks who are visualizing world peace really are interested in actualizing world peace, they should also be visualizing industrial collapse. And bringing it about.
But I don’t think most of the people with “Visualize World Peace” bumper stickers on their old Saabs are interested in doing the work to take down civilization. It’s too messy. I keep thinking about that line by Gandhi, “We want freedom for our country, but not at the expense or exploitation of others.” I’ve also had this line crammed down my throat more times than I want to consider—often phrased as “You keep saying that in this struggle for the planet that you want to win, but if someone wins, doesn’t that mean someone has to lose, and isn’t that just perpetuating the same old dominator mindset?”—and I’ve always found it both intellectually dishonest and poorly thought-out.
A man tries to rape a woman. She runs away. Her freedom from being raped just came at his expense: he wasn’t able to rape her. Does this mean she exploited him? Of course not. Now let’s do this again. He tries to rape her. She can’t get away. She tries to stop him nonviolently. It doesn’t work. She pulls a gun and shoots him in the head. Obviously her freedom from being raped came at the expense of his life. Did she exploit him? Of course not. It all comes back to what I wrote earlier in this book: defensive rights always trump offensive rights. My right to freedom always trumps your right to exploit me, and if you do try to exploit me, I have the right to stop you, even at some expense to you.
All of this leads us to the fuzzy thinking. Anybody’s freedom from being exploited will always come at the expense of the oppressor’s ability to exploit. The freedom of salmon (and rivers) to survive will come at the expense of those who profit from dams. The freedom of ancient redwood forests to survive will come at the expense of Charles Hurwitz’s bank account. The freedom of the world to survive global warming will come at the expense of those whose lifestyles are based on the burning of oil. It is magical thinking to pretend otherwise.
* * *
Every choice carries with it costs. If you want air conditioning, you (and many others) are going to have to pay for it. If you want automobiles, you (and many others) are going to have to pay for them. If you want industrial civilization, you (and many others) are going to have to pay for it.
If you want freedom, you will have to fight for it and those who are exploiting you are going to have to pay for it. If you want a livable planet, at this point you will have to fight for it and those who are killing the planet are going to have to pay for it.
* * *
Schiller’s line, too, that “Peace is rarely denied to the peaceful,” is more magical thinking, and the people who spout it really should be ashamed of themselves. What about the Arawaks, Semay, Mbuti, Hopi? Peace has been denied them. What about the peaceful women who are raped? What about the peaceful children who are abused? What about salmon? What about rivers? What about redwood trees? What about bison? What about prairie dogs? What about passenger pigeons? I hate to steal a line from someone so odious as John Stossel, but give me a break.
* * *
Sometimes this book scares me. I’m calling for people to bring down civilization. This will not be bloodless. This will not be welcomed by most of the civilized. But I do not see any other realistic options. I cannot stand by while the world is destroyed. And I see no hope for reform. This is true whether we talk about the lack of realistic possibility of psychological or social reform, or whether we talk about the structural impossibilities of civilization (which requires the importation of resources) ever being sustainable. And really, think about it for a moment: this culture is changing the climate—changing the climate—and those in power are doing nothing to stop it. In fact they’re burning more oil each year than the year before. If changing the earth’s climate is not enough to make them change their ways, nothing will. Nothing. Not petitions, not letters, not votes, not the purchase of hemp hackysacks. Not visualizations. Not sending them love. Nothing. They will not change. They must be stopped. Through any means necessary. We are talking about the life of the planet. They must be stopped.
This scares me.
I sent a note saying all this to my publisher, who wrote me back, “Nothing could be scarier than this culture. I dare you to scare me.”
Back to work.
Continue reading: Part 3