One needs something to believe in, something for which one can have whole-hearted enthusiasm. One needs to feel that one’s life has meaning, that one is needed in this world.
During the conversation in which my former agent told me that if I ever wanted to reach an audience, I’d have to tone down my work, she also told me that I was a nihilist.
I felt vaguely insulted. I didn’t know what a nihilist was, but I knew from her tone that it must be a bad thing. I pictured an angry teenager leaning against a building, wearing black slacks, turtleneck, and beret, scowling and chain-smoking.
But that’s not me, so I looked up nihilist in the dictionary.
The first definition—that life is meaningless and that there are no grounds for any moral truths—clearly doesn’t fit me. Nor is it true that I do not believe in truth, beauty, or love. The second definition—that the current social order is so destructive and irredeemable that it needs to be taken down to its core, and to have its core removed—fits me like a glove, I suppose the kind you’d put on to not leave fingerprints.
I’ve had a lot of conversations with Casey about nihilism, and about how the whole black turtleneck thing really doesn’t work for me. And how I rarely scowl. Emma Goldman is famously (and incorrectly) quoted as saying, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” Well, I don’t like to dance, but if I can’t laugh, then you can start the revolution without me.
One day Casey said, “I’ve got you figured out.”
I raised my eyebrows.
“You,” he said, “are a romantic nihilist.” And then he laughed.
So did I. I laughed and laughed. Yes, I thought, a revolution of romantic nihilists. I would be down for that. Count me in.
* * *
I did a talk in Portland the other day. I heard that afterwards something of a firestorm erupted on a local discussion website, as some pacifists attacked me for not adhering to the One True Way of Social Change™, and then non-pacifists responded, pacifists reresponded, and so on. A friend told me not to bother going to read the whole thing (“There’s nothing useful. Lots of heads in the sand.”) but did send me one post that seems to me to capture the essence of what I’m trying to get at (in four short paragraphs instead of hundreds of pages). Here it is:
“Himalayan blackberries are not native to Oregon. Their hideous thorny brambles have taken over huge tracts of land here. They kill native species. They hurt like hell when you step on one or fall into a clump of them. If you try to hack them down they’ll grow back (they are tough suckers). If you try to pull them out by the roots their thorns bury themselves in your thumb and fester. The best thing to do for a big field full of blackberries would be to burn it, then bulldoze the hell out of it. Get them out of there down to every last root.
“The social, political and psychological state that we find ourselves in is the cultural equivalent of blackberries. Our culture is invasive, destructive, painful, and should never have been planted in the first place. We are a part of it (whether we want to be or not).
“Derrick Jensen wants to burn it all down.
“I want to drive the bulldozer.”
A few months ago the editors of The Ecologist started a new feature in their magazine: Each issue they ask an environmentalist or writer a series of questions about the books that have most deeply influenced them, and what books they would like to recommend to others. Many of the books are those we might expect, Small is Beautiful, When Corporations Rule the World, The Lorax. One writer evidently decided to forego modesty, and recommended his own books.
They asked me. I guess I must have been in a black turtleneck mood, because I let fly with a response that could charitably be described as scowling, if such is possible in writing.
Question one: Which book first made you realise that something was wrong (with the planet/political system/economic system, etc)?
My answer: It wasn’t a book. It was the destruction of place after place that I loved. And it was the complete insanity of a culture where so many people work at jobs they hate: What does it mean when the vast majority of people spend the vast majority of their waking hours doing things they’d rather not do? The culture itself convinced me something was wrong, by being so extraordinarily destructive of human happiness and, far more importantly, the world itself.
That said, Neil Evernden’s The Natural Alien was the first book I read that let me know I was not insane: that the culture is insane. It was the first book I read that did not take the dominant culture’s utilitarian worldview as a given.
Question two: Which one book would you give to every politician?
Answer: One that explodes.
Before you freak out, let’s change the question and see what you think: Which one book would you give to Hitler, Goering, Himmler, and Goebbels?
Let’s ask this another way: Would a book have changed Hitler? I don’t think so. Unless it exploded.
And before you freak out at the comparison of modern politicians to Hitler and his gang, try to look at it from the perspective of wild salmon, grizzly bears, bluefin tuna, or any of the (fiscally) poor or indigenous human beings. Those in power now are more destructive than anyone has ever been. And they are for the most part psychologically unreachable. And if someone does reach some politician, that politician will no longer be in power.
I recently shared a stage with Ward Churchill. He said the primary difference between the U.S. and the Nazis is that the U.S. didn’t lose.
I responded with one word: “Yet.”
Question three: What book would you give to every CEO?
Answer: See above.
Question four: What book would you give to every child?
Answer: I wouldn’t give them a book. Books are part of the problem: this strange belief that a tree has nothing to say until it is murdered, its flesh pulped, and then (human) people stain this flesh with words. I would take children outside and put them face to face with chipmunks, dragonflies, tadpoles, hummingbirds, stones, rivers, trees, crawdads.
That said, if you’re going to force me to give them a book, it would be The Wind in the Willows, which I hope would remind them to go outside.
Question five: It’s 2050. The ice caps are melting, sea levels are rising. You’re only allowed one book on the Ark. What is it?
Answer: I wouldn’t take a book, and I wouldn’t get on the ark. I would kill myself (and take a dam out with me). I do not want to live without a living landbase. Without a living landbase I would already be dead. No book would even remotely compensate. Not a million books. Not a million computers. Not a million people would compensate.