There’s nothing in a man’s plight that his vision, if he cared to cultivate it, could not alleviate. The challenge is to see what could be done, and then to have the heart and the resolution to attempt it.
George F. Kennan
If you’ve gotten this far in this book—or if you’re simply anything other than entirely insensate—we probably agree that civilization is going to crash, whether or not we help bring this about. If you don’t agree with this, we probably have nothing to say to each other (How ’bout them Cubbies!). We probably also agree that this crash will be messy. We agree further that since industrial civilization is systematically dismantling the ecological infrastructure of the planet, the sooner civilization comes down (whether or not we help it crash) the more life will remain afterwards to support both humans and nonhumans.
If you agree with all this, and if you don’t want to dirty your spirituality and conscience with the physical work of helping to bring down civilization, and if your primary concern really is for the well-being of those (humans) who will be alive during and immediately after the crash (as opposed to simply raising this issue because you’re too scared to talk about the crash or to allow anyone else to do so either), then, given (and I repeat this point to emphasize it) that civilization is going to come down anyway, you need to start preparing people for the crash. Instead of attacking me for stating the obvious, go rip up asphalt in vacant parking lots to convert them to neighborhood gardens, go teach people how to identify local edible plants, even in the city (especially in the city) so these people won’t starve when the proverbial shit hits the fan and they can no longer head off to Albertson’s for groceries. Set up committees to eliminate or, if appropriate, channel the (additional) violence that might break out.
We need it all. We need people to take out dams and we need people to knock out electrical infrastructures. We need people to protest and to chain themselves to trees. We also need people working to ensure that as many people as possible are equipped to deal with the fallout when the collapse comes. We need people working to teach others what wild plants to eat, what plants are natural antibiotics. We need people teaching others how to purify water, how to build shelters. All of this can look like supporting traditional, local knowledge, it can look like starting rooftop gardens, it can look like planting local varieties of medicinal herbs, and it can look like teaching people how to sing.
The truth is that although I do not believe that designing groovy eco-villages will help bring down civilization, when the crash comes, I’m sure to be first in line knocking on their doors asking for food.
People taking out dams do not have a responsibility to ensure that people in homes previously powered by hydro know how to cook over a fire. They do however have a responsibility to support the people doing that work.
Similarly, those people growing medicinal plants (in preparation for the end of civilization) do not have a responsibility to take out dams. They do however have a responsibility at the very least to not condemn those people who have chosen that work. In fact they have a responsibility to support them. They especially have a responsibility to not report them to the cops.
It’s the same old story: the good thing about everything being so fucked up is that no matter where you look, there is great work to be done. Do what you love. Do what you can. Do what best serves your landbase. We need it all.
This doesn’t mean that everyone taking out dams and everyone working to cultivate medicinal plants are working toward the same goals. It does mean that if they are, each should see the importance of the other’s work.
Further, resistance needs to be global. Acts of resistance are more effective when they’re large-scale and coordinated. The infrastructure is monolithic and centralized, so common tools and techniques can be used to dismantle it in many different places, simultaneously if possible.
By contrast, the work of renewal must be local. To be truly effective (and to avoid reproducing the industrial infrastructure) acts of survival and livelihood need to grow from particular landbases where they will thrive. People need to enter into conversation with each piece of earth and all its human and nonhuman inhabitants. This doesn’t mean of course that we can’t share ideas, or that one water purification technique won’t be useful in many different locations. It does mean that people in those places need to decide for themselves what will work. Most important of all, the water in each place needs to be asked and allowed to decide for itself.
I’ve been thinking a lot again about the cell phone tower behind Safeway, and I see now how these different approaches manifest themselves in this one small place. The cell phone tower needs to come down. It is contiguous on two sides with abandoned parking lots. Those lots need to come up. Gardens can bloom in their place. We can even do our work side by side.
* * *
When at talks I’ve mentioned the three premises above—that civilization will crash, that the crash will be messy, and that the crash will be messier the longer we wait—nearly everyone who has thought about these issues at all agrees with the premises immediately. But at a talk I gave yesterday, one man was looking at me dubiously and shaking his head. I asked him what was up.
“I don’t think we’re going to crash,” he said.
Oh Lord, I thought, a cornucopian.
But he surprised me. “It’s not future tense,” he said. “We’re already in it.”
I told him I agreed.
* * *
The next of Dear Abby’s warnings about abusive relationships was that you should be very wary if the abuser uses threats of violence to control you. A batterer may attempt to convince you that all men threaten partners, but this isn’t true. He may also attempt to convince you that you’re responsible for his threats: he wouldn’t threaten you if you didn’t make him do it.
These are actually three related warnings. As far as relating the first—the use of violence to control—to the larger social level, after my most recent show a man said, “You talk a lot about the violence of this culture. I don’t feel I’m particularly violent. Where is the violence in my life?”
I asked him where his shirt was made. He said Bangladesh. I told him that wages in clothing factories in Bangladesh start at seven to eight cents per hour, and max out at about eighteen cents per hour. Now, I know we hear all the time from politicians, capitalist journalists, and other apologists for sweatshops that these wages are good because otherwise these people would simply starve to death. But that’s only true if you accept the framing conditions that lead to those wages: Once people have been forced off their land—the source of their food, clothing, and shelter—and the land given to transnational corporations, once people have been made dependent on the corporations that are killing them, sure, it might be better not to starve immediately but to slave for seven cents per hour, starving a tad more slowly.
The question becomes, how much violence did it take to force these people off their land? It is violence or the threat of violence that keeps them working for these low wages.
Cheap consumer goods are not the only place the threat of violence controls our lives. I asked the man if he pays rent.
“Why do you do that?”
“Because I don’t own my home.”
“What would happen if you didn’t pay rent?”
“I would be evicted.”
“And what if you refused to leave? What if you invited the sheriff in for dinner? And then after dinner you said, ‘I’ve enjoyed your company, but I haven’t enjoyed it all that much, and this is my home, so I would like you to leave now.’ What would happen then?”
“If I refused to leave, the sheriff would evict me.”
“By force, if necessary.”
I nodded. So did he.
Then I said, “And what if you were really hungry, and so you went to the grocery store. They’ve got a lot of food there, you know. And if you just started eating food there, and you didn’t pay anything, what would happen?”
“They’d call the sheriff.”
“It would probably be the same guy. He’s a real asshole, isn’t he? He’d come with a gun and take you away. Those in power have made it so we have to pay simply to exist on the planet. We have to pay for a place to sleep, and we have to pay for food. If we don’t, people with guns come and force us to pay. That’s violent.”
The reason (part two of Abby’s warning) that batterers may attempt to convince victims that all men threaten partners of course is that if you can get victims to disbelieve in the possibility of alternatives—if you can make your violence seem natural and inevitable—there will be no real reason for them to resist. You will, like the owners of sweatshops, have them exactly where you want them: under your control, with no need to even bother beating them anymore. The larger social equivalent is our culture’s frantic insistence that all cultures are based on violence, that all cultures destroy their landbase, that men of all cultures rape women, that children of all cultures are beaten, that the poor of all cultures are forced to pay rent to the rich (or even that all cultures have rich and poor!). Perhaps the best example of this culture trying to naturalize its violence is the belief that natural selection is based on competition, that all survival is a violent struggle where only the meanest, most exploitative survive. The fact that this belief is nearly ubiquitous in this culture despite it being demonstrably untrue, logically untenable (recall the one-sentence disproof from early in this book: those creatures who have survived in the long run have survived in the long run, and if you hyperexploit your surroundings you will deplete them and die; the only way to survive in the long run is to give back more than you take), and a complete distortion of Darwin’s elegant ideas, to which it is wrongly attributed, reveals the degree to which we have internalized the perspective of the abusers, and done so against the combined weight of history and common sense.
The third part of Abby’s warning was that abusers attempt to convince their victims that the victims are responsible for the abusers’ threats: the abuser wouldn’t threaten you if you didn’t make him do it. This has huge implications for activists. I cannot tell you how many activists have insisted to me that we must never use sabotage, violent rhetoric, and certainly never violence, because to do so will call up a strong backlash by those in power.
This insistence reveals an absolute lack of understanding of how repression works. Abusers will use any excuse to ratchet up repression, and if no excuses are forthcoming, excuses will be fabricated. Recall my discussion of the planned “outbursts” of CIA agents. Recall the Japanese knot-tying art of hojojutsu,where every movement tightens the ropes around your throat. Those in power will repress us no matter what we do or don’t do. And if we do anything they will ratchet it up.
What is our solution? Probably the most commonly chosen solution, which is no solution at all, is to never upset those in power, that is, to use only tactics deemed acceptable to those in power. The main advantage of pursuing this non-option is that you get to feel good about yourself for “fighting the good fight” against the system of exploitation while not actually putting at risk the benefits you gain from this same system. (Have you ever wondered, by the way, why so many more people in the United States support third world rebel groups than participate in similarly open revolt here?)
Well, let’s try this on for a solution. What if we prepare ourselves so that each time they ratchet up their repression towards us, we ratchet up our response? If they make us afraid of acting decisively to stop them from exploiting and destroying us and those we love—to stop them from killing (what remains of) the oceans, (what remains of ) the forests, (what remains of ) the soil—what would it take for us to make them fear to continue this exploitation, this destruction?
Everyone who has ever in any way been associated with perpetrators of abuse will probably agree with this analysis by psychologist and writer Arno Gruen of why abusers must continue to ratchet up their exploitation: “[C]atharsis does not work for those people whose anger and rage are fueled by self-hatred, for if it is projected onto an external object, self-hatred is only intensified and is aggravated by actions that are unconsciously perceived deep within as further forms of self-betrayal. Thus, with every additional act of destruction, destructive rage raises its stakes.”
The Oglala man Red Cloud spoke of this insatiability of abusers another way: “They made us many promises, more than I can remember. But they only kept but one. They promised to take our land and they took it.”
And George Orwell described it again: “It is intolerable to us that an erroneous thought should exist anywhere in the world, however secret and powerless it may be. Even in the instant of death we cannot permit any deviation.”
Abusers, and abusive cultures, are insatiable. They can ultimately brook no impediment to their control, to their destructiveness. Harry Merlo, former CEO of the Louisiana-Pacific timber corporation, articulated this mania as well as possible. After logging, he said, “There shouldn’t be anything left on the ground. We need everything that’s out there. We don’t log to a ten-inch top or an eight-inch top or even a six-inch top. We log to infinity. Because it’s out there and we need it all, now.”
The question becomes, do we have the guts—and the heart—to stop them? Do we care enough about our landbases and the lives of those we love? Do we dare to act?
Continue reading: Part 2