Most people, or at least most people with a beating heart, have already done the math, added up the arrogance, sadism, stupidity, and denial, and reached the bottom line: a dead planet. Some of us carry that final sum like the weight of a corpse. For others, that conclusion turns the heart to a smoldering coal. But despair and rage have been declared unevolved and unclean, beneath the “spiritual warriors” who insist they will save the planet by “healing” themselves. How this activity will stop the release of carbon and the felling of forests is never actually explained. The answer lies vaguely between being the change we wish to see and a 100th monkey of hope, a monkey that is frankly more Christmas pony than actual possibility.
Given that the culture of America is founded on individualism and awash in privilege, it’s no surprise that narcissism is the end result. The social upheavals of the ’60s split along fault lines of responsibility and hedonism, of justice and selfishness, of sacrifice and entitlement. What we are left with is an alternative culture, a small, separate world of the converted, content to coexist alongside a virulent mainstream. Here, one can find workshops on “scarcity consciousness,” as if poverty were a state of mind and not a structural support of capitalism. This culture leaves us ill-prepared to face the crisis of planetary biocide that greets us daily with its own grim dawn. The facts are not conducive to an open-hearted state of wonder. To confront the truth as adults, not as faux children, requires an adult fortitude and courage, grounded in our adult responsibilities to the world. It requires those things because the situation is horrific and living with that knowledge will hurt. Meanwhile, I have been to workshops where global warming was treated as an opportunity for personal growth, and no one there but me saw a problem with that.
The word sustainable—the “Praise, Jesus!” of the eco-earnest—serves as an example of the worst tendencies of the alternative culture. It’s a word that perfectly meshes corporate marketers’ carefully calculated upswell of green sentiment with the relentless denial of the privileged. It’s a word I can barely stand to use because it has been so exsanguinated by cheerleaders for a technotopic, consumer kingdom come. To doubt the vague promise now firmly embedded in the word—that we can have our cars, our corporations, our consumption, and our planet, too—is both treason and heresy to the emotional well-being of most progressives. But here’s the question: Do we want to feel better or do we want to be effective? Are we sentimentalists or are we warriors?
For “sustainable” to mean anything, we must embrace and then defend the bare truth: the planet is primary. The life-producing work of a million species is literally the earth, air, and water that we depend on. No human activity—not the vacuous, not the sublime—is worth more than that matrix. Neither, in the end, is any human life. If we use the word “sustainable” and don’t mean that, then we are liars of the worst sort: the kind who let atrocities happen while we stand by and do nothing.
Even if it were possible to reach narcissists, we are out of time. Admitting we have to move forward without them, we step away from the cloying childishness and optimistic white-lite denial of so much of the left and embrace our adult knowledge. With all apologies to Yeats, in knowledge begins responsibilities. It’s to you grown-ups, the grieving and the raging, that we address this book.
The vast majority of the population will do nothing unless they are led, cajoled, or forced. If the structural determinants are in place for people to live their lives without doing damage—for example, if they’re hunter-gatherers with respected elders—then that’s what happens. If, on the other hand, the environment has been arranged for cars, industrial schooling is mandatory, resisting war taxes will land you in jail, food is only available through giant corporate enterprises selling giant corporate degradation, and misogynist pornography is only a click away 24/7—well, welcome to the nightmare. This culture is basically conducting a massive Milgram experiment on us, only the electric shocks aren’t fake—they’re killing off the planet, species by species.
But wherever there is oppression there is resistance. That is true everywhere, and has been forever. The resistance is built body by body from a tiny few, from the stalwart, the brave, the determined, who are willing to stand against both power and social censure. It is our prediction that there will be no mass movement, not in time to save this planet, our home. That tiny percent—Margaret Mead’s small group of thoughtful, committed citizens—has been able to shift both the cultural consciousness and the power structures toward justice in times past. It is valid to long for a mass movement, however, no matter how much we rationally know that we’re wishing on a star. Theoretically, the human race as a whole could face our situation and make some decisions—tough decisions, but fair ones, that include an equitable distribution of both resources and justice, that respect and embrace the limits of our planet. But none of the institutions that govern our lives, from the economic to the religious, are on the side of justice or sustainability. Theoretically, these institutions could be forced to change. The history of every human rights struggle bears witness to how courage and sacrifice can dismantle power and injustice. But again, it takes time. If we had a thousand years, even a hundred years, building a movement to transform the dominant institutions around the globe would be the task before us. But the Western black rhinoceros is out of time. So is the golden toad, the pygmy rabbit. No one is going to save this planet except us.
So what are our options? The usual approach of long, slow institutional change has been foreclosed, and many of us know that. The default setting for environmentalists has become personal lifestyle “choices.” This should have been predictable as it merges perfectly into the demands of capitalism, especially the condensed corporate version mediating our every impulse into their profit. But we can’t consume our way out of environmental collapse; consumption is the problem. We might be forgiven for initially accepting an exhortation to “simple living” as a solution to that consumption, especially as the major environmental organizations and the media have declared lifestyle change our First Commandment. Have you accepted compact fluorescents as your personal savior? But lifestyle change is not a solution as it doesn’t address the root of the problem.
We have believed such ridiculous solutions because our perception has been blunted by some portion of denial and despair. And those are legitimate reactions. I’m not persuading anyone out of them. But do we want to develop a strategy to manage our emotional state or to save the planet?
And we’ve believed in these lifestyle solutions because everyone around us insists they’re workable, a collective repeating mantra of “renewables, recycling” that has dulled us into belief. Like Eichmann, no one has told us that it’s wrong.
Until now. So this is the moment when you will have to decide. Do you want to be part of a serious effort to save this planet? Not a serious effort at collective delusion, not a serious effort to feel better, not a serious effort to save you and yours, but an actual strategy to stop the destruction of everything worth loving. If your answer feels as imperative as instinct, read on.