I watched my father die because there was no money in our village to buy him medicine for his stomach. That’s why I went with the Zapatistas….I decided to fight because if we’re all going to die it might as well be for something.”
Raul Hernandez, seventeen-year-old Zapatista prisoner of the Mexican state
I don’t like to kill. it’s really difficult for me. No, I mean really difficult. I usually catch mosquitoes and carry them outside, which is extreme even among my animal rights friends. I’m a terrible gardener because I hate killing weeds, and when the time comes I hate killing the vegetables themselves. I eat the pods of radishes so I don’t have to kill the plant (but the pods taste just as good, and actually provide more food than the roots anyway). When I used to go fishing I was glad my fishing partner didn’t mind killing.
That said, I will kill when I have to, and it doesn’t scar me at all. I just don’t like doing it. I’ve killed a lot. Of course we all kill, whether or not we choose to acknowledge it.
We don’t need a philosopher to tell us that life feeds off life. It only takes a quick walk outside, or even a walk to the refrigerator. This failure or refusal or even inability to acknowledge the necessity of killing is a luxury born of our separation from life. It’s a cliché by now to note that many of the civilized believe food comes from the grocery store, not from the flesh of living breathing plants and animals.
* * *
This disconnection from killing is related to a disbelief in our own deaths, and even moreso to a disbelief in the rightness of our own deaths and a belief on the other hand that death is an enemy. As such it ties back to premise four of this book. Death is violence and violence cannot happen to us. We cannot die. We will not die. We are immortal. This delusion is based on the linear/historical view of the world we discussed so very long ago in this book, where life is not a circle where I feed off you who feeds off someone else who feeds off someone else who feeds off someone else who feeds off me (or put another way, where I feed someone else who feeds someone else who feeds someone else who feeds someone else who feeds me). Rather we are exempt from this cycle. We are at the top of a pyramid. We are consumers. I feed off you and I feed off someone else and I feed off someone else and I feed off someone else and I feed off someone else. No one feeds off me. I will never die.
* * *
Have you ever eaten smoked salmon? I hadn’t until a couple of years ago, but when I did I suddenly understood how the Indians of the Northwest (and earlier the Indians of the Northeast, and much earlier the indigenous of Europe) could eat salmon every day. It’s some of the best-tasting food I’ve ever eaten. Every summer now I buy as much as I can afford, then ration it to make it last all year. The food is also about as politically correct as you can get: wild salmon caught on the Klamath River by a Yurok man, after which it is smoked by one of his tribal elders.Maybe the PC quotient of the salmon partially expiates the definitely un-PC time I’ve spent playing Doom 2 on the computer.
I get up from in front of the computer, where I’m writing about taking down dams. I walk to the refrigerator, open the door, reach inside to pull a strip of salmon out of a bag. I peel some meat away from the skin. The salmon flesh speaks to me. It says, “Remember the bargain.”
I eat the meat. I close the refrigerator door. I don’t really want to think about it. I just want to eat.
I get back to work. But I want some more. It tastes so good. I return to the refrigerator, open it, pull out more salmon. It says the same thing: “Remember the bargain.” I eat the food. Close the door. Try not to think about it.
I go back again. I remember the predator-prey bargain: If you consume the flesh of another, you take responsibility for the continuation of its community. I open the refrigerator. Eat more.
This time the salmon says something else to me: “I know you don’t like killing. If you help take out the dams that will help us survive. Then you can kill and eat all the salmon you’d like. We will even jump out of the water and right to where you are waiting. You won’t feel bad about killing us, because you have helped our community. We will gladly do this for you, if you will help us survive.”
* * *
Now, I know what you dogmatic humanists are thinking: This guy is crazy. He thinks salmon meat talks to him. You know, many cult leaders believe that animals speak to them. And some psychopaths say figures in their dreams tell them what to do!
I have a couple of responses. The first is that for the vast majority of human existence on this planet, humans have listened to what their nonhuman neighbors have had to say. That is the fundamental difference between civilized and indigenous peoples (well, apart from that little thing about the civilized killing the planet). We’ve been over this and over it, and I know I still can’t convince you. But that’s okay, because my second response is that in this case it doesn’t matter in the slightest whether or not the flesh of the salmon spoke to me—the reality remains that if you want to eat salmonyou’re going to have to remove dams.
Somebody has to take on this responsibility and help the salmon.
* * *
In related news, the California Department of Fish and Game today released a report revealing that the fish kill on the Klamath River that I wrote about early in this book, that took place two years ago, was probably twice as bad as previously suspected. If you recall, this was the one where the federal government decided that fish don’t need water and gave the water instead to a few heavily subsidized farmers in the Klamath Basin in southern Oregon. Fish and Game placed blame for the kill on low river flows, caused by dams on the Klamath. Studies by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Yurok tribe have reached the same conclusion.
A spokesperson for the Bureau of Reclamation, in charge of the dams, denies the new estimates, saying,“We’re two years later. How do we know that?” He also denies that the Bureau favors irrigators over fish, and denies that the dams create, in the words of the regional director of a commercial fishing organization, “a perpetual drought on the lower river.” He further denies that the massive kill of salmon coming up to spawn two years ago will cause their offspring to return in record low numbers, saying,“I guess we just need to wait until next year and see what Mother Nature [sic] does.”
This is the spokesperson for the organization that is killing the fish.
I, too, am part of “Mother Nature,” and so are you. What are you going to do about it? What are you going to do about the dams?
* * *
We need to bring down civilization now. We need not hesitate any longer. The planet is collapsing before our eyes, and we do nothing. We hold our little protests, we make our little signs, we write our little letters and our big books, and the world burns.
Here is an article in a British newspaper, today’s k, entitled “Disaster at sea: global warming hits UK birds.” It reads, “Hundreds of thousands of Scottish seabirds have failed to breed this summer in a wildlife catastrophe which is being linked by scientists directly to global warming.
“The massive unprecedented collapse of nesting attempts by several seabird species in Orkney and Shetland is likely to prove the first major impact of cli-mate change on Britain.
“In what could be a sub-plot from the recent disaster movie, The Day After Tomorrow, a rise in sea temperature is believed to have led to the mysterious disappearance of a key part of the marine food chain—the sand eel, the small fish whose great teeming shoals have hitherto sustained larger fish, marine mammals and seabirds in their millions.
“In Orkney and Shetland, the sand eel stocks have been shrinking for several years, and this summer they have disappeared: the result for seabirds has been mass starvation. The figures for breeding failure, for Shetland in particular, almost defy belief.
“More than 172,000 breeding pairs of guillemots were recorded in the islands in the last national census, Seabird 2000, whose results were published this year; this summer the birds have produced almost no young, according to Peter Ellis, Shetland area manager for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).
“Martin Heubeck of Aberdeen University, who has monitored Shetland seabirds for 30 years,said: ‘The breeding failure of the guillemots is unprecedented in Europe.’ More than 6,800 pairs of great skuas were recorded in Shetland in the same census; this year they have produced a handful of chicks—perhaps fewer than 10—while the arctic skuas (1,120 pairs in the census) have failed to produce any surviving young.
“The 24,000 pairs of arctic terns, and the 16,700 pairs of Shetland kittiwakes—small gulls—have ‘probably suffered complete failure,’ said Mr. Ellis.
“In Orkney the picture is very similar, although detailed figures are not yet available. ‘It looks very bad,’ said the RSPB’s warden on Orkney mainland, Andy Knight. ‘Very few of the birds have raised any chicks at all.’
“The counting and monitoring is still going on and the figures are by no means complete: it is likely that puffins, for example, will also have suffered massive breeding failure but because they nest deep in burrows, this is not immediately obvious.
“But the astonishing scale of what has taken place is already clear—and the link to climate change is being openly made by scientists. It is believed that the microscopic plankton on which tiny sand eel larvae feed are moving north-wards as the sea water warms, leaving the baby fish with nothing to feed on.
“This is being seen in the North Sea in particular, where the water temperature has risen by 2C in the past 20 years, and where the whole ecosystem is thought to be undergoing a ‘regime shift,’ or a fundamental alteration in the interaction of its component species. ‘Think of the North Sea as an engine, and plankton as the fuel driving it,’ said Euan Dunn of the RSPB, one of the world’s leading experts on the interaction of fish and seabirds. ‘The fuel mix has changed so radically in the past 20 years, as a result of climate change, that the whole engine is now spluttering and starting to malfunction. All of the animals in the food web above the plankton, first the sand eels, then the larger fish like cod, and ultimately the seabirds, are starting to be affected.’
“Research last year clearly showed that the higher the temperature, the less sand eels could maintain their population level, said Dr. Dunn. ‘The young sand eels are simply not surviving.’
“Although over-fishing of sand eels has caused breeding failures in the past, the present situation could not be blamed on fishing, he said. The Shetland sand eel fishery was catching so few fish that it was closed as a precautionary measure earlier this year. ‘Climate change is a far more likely explanation.’
“The spectacular seabird populations of the Northern Isles have a double importance. They are of great value scientifically, holding, for example, the world’s biggest populations of great skuas. And they are of enormous value to Orkney and Shetland tourism, being the principal draw for many visitors. The national and international significance of what has happened is only just beginning to dawn on the wider political and scientific community, but some leading figures are already taking it on board.
“‘This is an incredible event,’ said Tony Juniper, director of Friends of the Earth. ‘The catastrophe [of these] seabirds is just a foretaste of what lies ahead.
“‘It shows that climate change is happening now, [with] devastating consequences here in Britain, and it shows that reducing the pollution causing changes to the earth’s climate should now be the global number one political priority.’”
Remind me again, what are we waiting for?
* * *
In other news of the day, the U.S. stock market rose slightly in heavy trading.
* * *
A couple of days after the above article appeared in the Independent, a far shorter version of it—three column inches—appeared on page D10 (the bottom back of the sports section) of the San Francisco Chronicle. The front page contained, among many other things, a four column inch teaser to a full-page article celebrating the life and mourning the death of funk legend and violent misogynist Rick James.
* * *
I hate this culture.
* * *
I drive through the small town where I live. I get stuck behind a van at a stoplight. The van has four bumper stickers. The first states: “I got a gun for my wife: it was the best trade I ever made.” The second: “I miss my ex, but my aim is getting better.” The third: “My ideal girlfriend is a nympho liquor store owner.” Above the others, pretty much summing them up, is a bumper sticker with an American flag and the caption: “God Bless America.”
* * *
I really do hate this culture.
* * *
For the past several months, ever since I started speaking to the fisheries biologists, I’ve been haunted by a specific phrase used by more than one of them: Catastrophic dam failure always involves short term habitat loss and long term habitat gain.
Short term habitat loss, long term habitat gain. Short term loss, long term gain. What was a primary reason my mother stayed so long with my father? The fear of short term loss outweighed the prospect of long term gain. Why does anyone stay in any abusive relationship? Chances are good it comes down to a fear of the short term loss being greater than the perceived possibility of long term gain. Why do people stay in any self-destructive relationships? Why do people stay at jobs they hate? Why do addicts stay addicted? Why don’t people take out dams? Why don’t people get rid of civilization? Short term loss, long term gain.
Why is it, as Zygmund Bauman wrote, that “rational people will go quietly, meekly, joyously into a gas chamber, if only they are allowed to believe it is a bath-room”?Why is it that so many of us today do not resist?
I think the fisheries biologists gave us part of the answer.
We will accept short term loss—even murder, both personal and planetary— rather than take the risks that would lead to long term gain.
* * *
Of course it’s not quite so simple. Is not Christianity based on teaching us to give up the ever-so-small short term loss of being in our bodies on a beautiful planet in exchange for the long term gain of heaven? Is not technological civilization based on teaching us to give up the short term loss of the natural world in exchange for the technotopia that awaits us around the corner? Isn’t capitalism based on teaching us to give up the short term loss of our daily happiness to work jobs we hate so we can eventually retire rich (on a dying planet)?
What’s the difference?
That last question stumped me for a couple of days, till I took a long walk in the forest and suddenly got the answer. Domination. The important question is not whether someone is more repelled by the short term losses than attracted by the long term gains, but rather who gains by this stasis. Who gains by a woman staying with her abuser? Who is exploiting whom? Who gains by some-one staying in a job he hates? Who is exploiting whom? Who gains as we give our lives away here in hopes of a better life in heaven? Who is exploiting whom?
* * *
Just ten seconds ago I received the following note from a fishing guide on the Klamath River, forwarded to concerned parties: “I was fishing down near Blue Creek a couple days ago and found this fish dying in the water. I netted it so I could look at it. The water temp. right below Blue Creek was 74 degrees. The steel-head are stacking up in the cooler water along the edge of the river. (Just like a couple years ago.) Is there any way to get some more water? Please do something.”
* * *
Pretend you are not civilized. Pretend you love the land where you live. Pretend you were never taught to value economic production over life, or pretend you unlearned this. Pretend you were never taught that everyone else is here for you to use, or pretend you unlearned this. Pretend you do not feel entitled to take from those around you. Pretend you know that someday you will die. Pretend you are not separate from your landbase, but a part of it, as it is a part of you. Pretend you were taught to take care of your landbase as though your life depends on it. Pretend that’s what you do.
* * *
Those who hold others captive are captives themselves. Freedom feeds freedom, and captive keeps captive. This is true of those who hold humans captive. This is true of those who hold the world captive. It is true of those who hold rivers captive. Not only the wild water on one side of a dam is held captive, but entire communities on all sides of every dam. Freedom feeds freedom, and a river no longer captive feeds the freedom it finds to everyone and everything downstream which was once held captive by the captivity of the river.
Have you ever listened to a plant as it drinks up water? You can hear the water drawing up its roots, moving through stems, moistening (ever so slightly) the surfaces of leaves. When a dam breaks it is not only water but freedom that is absorbed and expired, exuded and extended, because much of the community downstream from a dam is, in a very real sense, locked up or extremely limited in terms of its proper movement until the medium of motion—wild water— is restored.
I want to be there when river after river finds freedom and feeds it to every-one else. This will be the most beautiful and appropriate kind of feeding frenzy.
Those who really know freedom will not and cannot want to keep this freedom from others anymore than they can want to lose it themselves. Only terrified, helpless, stupid slaves—including the civilized—could and would protect their own prisons, be their own bars.
* * *
Pretend you are not civilized. Pretend you are not a slave. Pretend you are a free human being. Pretend you were taught to value freedom, your own and others, enough that you will fight for it. Pretend that is what you do.