by Lierre Keith
You cannot live a political life, you cannot live a moral life if you’re not willing to open your eyes and see the world more clearly. See some of the injustice that’s going on. Try to make yourself aware of what’s happening in the world. And when you are aware, you have a responsibility to act.
—Bill Ayers, cofounder of the Weather Underground
A black tern weighs barely two ounces. On energy reserves less than a small bag of M&M’s and wings that stretch to cover twelve inches, she flies thousands of miles, searching for the wetlands that will harbor her young. Every year the journey gets longer as the wetlands are desiccated for human demands. Every year the tern, desperate and hungry, loses, while civilization, endless and sanguineous, wins.
A polar bear should weigh 650 pounds. Her energy reserves are meant to see her through nine long months of dark, denned gestation, and then lactation, when she will give up her dwindling stores to the needy mouths of her species’ future. But in some areas, the female’s weight before hibernation has already dropped from 650 to 507 pounds.1 Meanwhile, the ice has evaporated like the wetlands. When she wakes, the waters will stretch impassably open, and there is no Abrahamic god of bears to part them for her.
The Aldabra snail should weigh something, but all that’s left to weigh are skeletons, bits of orange and indigo shells. The snail has been declared not just extinct10, but the first casualty of global warming. In dry periods, the snail hibernated. The young of any species are always more vulnerable, as they have no reserves from which to draw. In this case, the adults’ “reproductive success” was a “complete failure.”2 In plain terms, the babies died and kept dying, and a species millions of years old is now a pile of shell fragments.
What is your personal carrying capacity for grief, rage, despair? We are living in a period of mass extinction. The numbers stand at 200 species a day.3 That’s 73,000 a year. This culture is oblivious to their passing, feels entitled to their every last niche, and there is no roll call on the nightly news.
There is a name for the tsunami wave of extermination: the Holocene extinction event. There’s no asteroid this time, only human behavior, behavior that we could choose to stop. Adolph Eichman’s excuse was that no one told him that the concentration camps were wrong. We’ve all seen the pictures of the drowning polar bears. Are we so ethically numb that we need to be told this is wrong?
There are voices raised in concern, even anguish, at the plight of the earth, the rending of its species. “Only zero emissions can prevent a warmer planet,” one pair of climatologists declare.4 James Lovelock, originator of the Gaia hypothesis, states bluntly that global warming has passed the tipping point, carbon offsetting is a joke, and “individual lifestyle adjustments” are “a deluded fantasy.”5 It’s all true, and self-evident. “Simple living” should start with simple observation: if burning fossil fuels will kill the planet, then stop burning them.
But that conclusion, in all its stark clarity, is not the popular one to draw. The moment policy makers and environmental groups start offering solutions is the exact moment when they stop telling the truth, inconvenient or otherwise. Google “global warming solutions.” The first paid sponsor, Campaign Earth, urges “No doom and gloom!! When was the last time depression got you really motivated? We’re here to inspire realistic action steps and stories of success.” By “realistic” they don’t mean solutions that actually match the scale of the problem. They mean the usual consumer choices—cloth shopping bags, travel mugs, and misguided dietary advice—which will do exactly nothing to disrupt the troika of industrialization, capitalism, and patriarchy that is skinning the planet alive. As Derrick has pointed out elsewhere, even if every American took every single action suggested by Al Gore it would only reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 21 percent.6 Aric tells a stark truth: even if through simple living and rigorous recycling you stopped your own average American’s annual one ton of garbage production, “your per capita share of the industrial waste produced in the US is still almost twenty-six tons. That’s thirty-seven times as much waste as you were able to save by eliminating a full 100 percent of your personal waste.”7 Industrialism itself is what has to stop. There is no kinder, greener version that will do the trick of leaving us a living planet. In blunt terms, industrialization is a process of taking entire communities of living beings and turning them into commodities and dead zones. Could it be done more “efficiently”? Sure, we could use a little less fossil fuels, but it still ends in the same wastelands of land, water, and sky. We could stretch this endgame out another twenty years, but the planet still dies. Trace every industrial artifact back to its source—which isn’t hard, as they all leave trails of blood—and you find the same devastation: mining, clear-cuts, dams, agriculture. And now tar sands, mountaintop removal, wind farms (which might better be called dead bird and bat farms). No amount of renewables is going to make up for the fossil fuels or change the nature of the extraction, both of which are prerequisites for this way of life. Neither fossil fuels nor extracted substances will ever be sustainable; by definition, they will run out. Bringing a cloth shopping bag to the store, even if you walk there in your Global Warming Flip-Flops, will not stop the tar sands. But since these actions also won’t disrupt anyone’s life, they’re declared both realistic and successful.
The next site’s Take Action page includes the usual: buying light bulbs, inflating tires, filling dishwashers, shortening showers, and rearranging the deck chairs. It also offers the ever-crucial Global Warming Bracelets and, more importantly, Flip-Flops. Polar bears everywhere are weeping with relief.
The first noncommercial site is the Union of Concerned Scientists. As one might expect, there are no exclamation points, but instead a statement that “[t]he burning of fossil fuel (oil, coal, and natural gas) alone counts for about 75 percent of annual CO2 emissions.” This is followed by a list of Five Sensible Steps. Step One? No, not stop burning fossil fuels—“Make Better Cars and SUVs.” Never mind that the automobile itself is the pollution, with its demands—for space, for speed, for fuel—in complete opposition to the needs of both a viable human community and a living planet. Like all the others, the scientists refuse to call industrial civilization into question. We can have a living planet and the consumption that’s killing the planet, can’t we?
The principle here is very simple. As Derrick has written, “[A]ny social system based on the use of nonrenewable resources is by definition unsustainable.”8 Just to be clear, nonrenewable means it will eventually run out. Once you’ve grasped that intellectual complexity, you can move on to the next level. “Any culture based on the nonrenewable use of renewable resources is just as unsustainable.” Trees are renewable. But if we use them faster than they can grow, the forest will turn to desert. Which is precisely what civilization has been doing for its 10,000 year campaign, running through soil, rivers, and forests as well as metal, coal, and oil. Now the oceans are almost dead and their plankton populations are collapsing, populations that both feed the life of the oceans and create oxygen for the planet. What will we fill our lungs with when they are gone? The plastics with which industrial civilization is replacing them? In parts of the Pacific, plastic outweighs plankton 48 to 1.9 Imagine if it were your blood, your heart, crammed with toxic materials—not just chemicals, but physical gunk—until there was ten times more of it than you. What metaphor is adequate for the dying plankton? Cancer? Suffocation? Crucifixion?
But the oceans don’t need our metaphors. They need action. They need industrial civilization to stop destroying and devouring. In other words, they need us to make it stop.
Which is why we are writing this book.
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.