Death Warrant

“When you make the decision that you’ll get rich at the expense of our children, you are signing your own death warrant.”

Newt Gingrich, Aug. 26, 1995

These are facts: our economic activities are causing the greatest mass extinction in the history of the planet; they are causing a significant change in the earth’s climate; they are causing a thinning of the ozone layer, leading to cancer and cataracts in humans and nonhumans and catastrophic declines in sea life and amphibians; they are causing the depletion of nearly all the world’s commercial fisheries; they are causing the death of nearly all the world’s forests..

It is also a fact that being human in no way protects us from the ecological consequences of pushing biological systems past their breaking points.

Given these facts, and a host of others equally dire, do you believe in twenty years the world will be a better place to live? How about forty? What sort of world are we leaving to our children? Finally, do you agree with Newt Gingrich that “when you make the decision that you’ll get rich at the expense of our children, you are signing your own death warrant”?

Salmon: A Regional Case Study

At one time the Columbia River Basin was home to the greatest runs of salmon on earth. In 1839 Elkanah Walker wrote in his diary, “It is astonishing the number of salmon which ascend the Columbia yearly and the quantity taken by the Indians. . . .” He continued, “It is an interesting sight to see them pass a rapid. The number was so great that there were hundreds constantly out of the water.” In 1930, Idaho’s Coeur d’Alene Press wrote, “Millions of chinook salmon today lashed into whiteness the waters of northwest streams as they battled thru the rapids. . . .” The article went on to say that “the scene is the same in every northwest river.” Spokane, Washington’s Spokesman-Review noted that at Kettle Falls, “the silver horde was attacking the falls at a rate of from 400 to 600 an hour.”

Now the salmon are gone. To serve commerce our culture dammed the rivers of the Columbia River Basin. People at the time–beginning in the 1930s–knew dams would destroy salmon. Local groups and individuals–including those who knew salmon most intimately, the Indians–fought against the federal government and the river industries, but dams were built and now the fight is becoming even more desperate, as nine out of ten major salmon species in the Northwest and California are extinct or on the verge.

The response by governmental and industrial leaders has for years been to study the salmon to death, with each study revealing what we already know: dams kill salmon. The Bureau of Reclamation’s Steve Clark gave us the real reason for the studies when he said he wished salmon would go extinct so we could “get on with living.” Washington Senator Slade Gorton has repeatedly commented, “There is a cost beyond which you just have to say very regrettably we have to let species or subspecies go extinct.” Ecological literacy would suggest Senator Gorton has the equation backwards: There is a cost–the extinction of wild salmon, for instance–beyond which we have to cause destructive activities and institutions to go extinct.

Salmon extinction is not what people want: A poll conducted in late 1994 revealed 75% of Northwesterners would reduce their use of electricity or water by 10% to help save salmon, 61% rated salmon’s survival as a critical issue, and 66% would pay $10 extra per month for electricity to help save salmon. If we lived in a democracy this might make a difference.

But we don’t, and so the public pays not to save salmon but to destroy them. As is true for virtually every large business enterprise under our “free market capitalist” system, the dams and the industries that profit from them are heavily subsidized by taxpayers. Although Randy Hardy, head of the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), admits there is a “glut of power on the market at rates lower than” that of the dams, instead of removing dams that kill salmon BPA’s response is to approach state and federal governments to request further subsidies. Institutional interests such as BPA, Kaiser Aluminum (which receives massive subsidies in the form of reduced electricity rates), bargers, and agribusiness obstruct the removal of dams just as dams stand in the way of salmon on their way to the ocean.

The Larger Story

The tale of the salmon is part of a larger cultural story. For several thousand years, our culture (as is true for some but not all cultures) has overused every regional land base it has touched. As each resource base has become depleted, the movers and shakers of our culture have expanded the area–through exploration and conquest–from which resources are drawn. In other words, our culture has in each region lived beyond what the natural world provides. Or to use the terminology of the corporate culture, we’ve been living off the earth’s capital instead of just its interest. This overuse leads inevitably to increasingly severe ecological destruction. Archaeological studies show that the Tigris-Euphrates region, the cradle of civilization, was once covered with broad, dense forests of cedar, poplar, willow, and hardwoods. Pine forests covered Greece. Ancient accounts reveal lions in what is now Israel, Greece, and Libya. More recent accounts reveal the richness of life which greeted the first European explorers of this continent: “It seemed as if all the Fowles of Air were gathered thereunto. They so bemused the eye with their perpetual comings and goings that their numbers quite defied description. There can be but few places on Earth where is to be seen such a manifestation of the fecundity of His Creation.” Or, “This island is so exceedingly full of birds [Great Auks] that all the ships of France might load a cargo of them without anyone noticing that any had been removed.” Commercial hunters killed the last Great Auk on June 3, 1844. The first Europeans found a continent of “goodly woods, full of Deere, Conies, Hares, and Fowle, even in the middest of Summer, in incredible aboundance,” of sturgeon in streams “lying so thicke with their Heads above the Water,” of flocks of whooping cranes (of which by 1955 less than forty individuals remained alive) so large that when startled they gave out “such a crye redoubled with many Ecchoes, as if an armie of men had showted all together,” of “whole Bancks of Oysters and Scallops, which lye unopened and thicke together.”

What has our culture done to this continent? Beyond destroying or displacing the human communities already here, commercial exploitation has eliminated passenger pigeons, which flew in flocks so immense they darkened the sky for days at a time, eskimo curlews, which numbered almost as many (the flocks were so thick that one shot would bring down thirty birds), wood bison, sea mink, carolina parakeets, and so on, and so on, and so on. The list of extinctions caused by our culture is long enough that a recounting would become tedious were neither the stakes so high nor the denial so deep.

What emerges from even a casual exploration of the ecological history of our civilization is a picture of a culture that grows by consuming the surrounding countryside, then finding new frontiers to exploit. But no further frontiers exist. The world is finite. The damage we cause today will be the direct cause of suffering not only for those whose land bases we have already expropriated, but also for our children, and their children.

The institutions that govern our lives, however, are incapable of effectively responding to these facts. So the cultural story of destruction continues as, to provide just one example, Slade Gorton, Larry Craig, Pete Wilson, Bennet Johnston, and other governmental leaders want to gut the Endangered Species Act, guaranteeing that the protection of the ecological base upon which our own and our children’s lives depend does not stand in the way of corporate moneymaking.

The time has come to ask ourselves how much longer we will allow economic institutions to “get rich at the expense of our children.”


If we are to survive, we must find a way to hold governmental and industrial leaders accountable for their actions. It ought to be reasonable to expect the legal system to protect us. But it is well established that justice does not extend to those who kill or maim in the name of business, nor to those who impoverish the resource bases of our communities. A not-atypical example should make this clear.

In 1884 a rich lead-silver vein was discovered near the town of Wallace, Idaho. In subsequent years other veins were discovered and exploited, until Idaho’s “Silver Valley” became one of the world’s leading producers of precious metals. As tons of tailings in millions of gallons of wastewater flowed downstream onto the farms of the Coeur d’Alene River valley, farmers and ranchers saw their children sicken, their livestock die, and their crops fail. By 1929-1930, the Silver Valley had also become known as the “Valley of Death.” John Knox Coe of the Coeur d’Alene Press wrote, “On every side the once beautiful valley is a picture of desolation. Mile after mile showed the same condition. Banks covered with the mill deposit, thousands of acres of what was some of the most wonderful meadow land in the country now a waste of yellow swamp grasses, covered with muck and slime.” Coe quoted Armand Perrenoud, a long time Coeur d’Alene resident, “Never have I seen anything to equal the Coeur d’Alene river valley before it was ruined by the slimes that came down from the mining properties in the upper country.”

The pollution came not only as slimes. In 1916 the owners of the Bunker Hill mine in Kellogg, Idaho, installed a coal-fired smelter that released into the air 300 pounds of lead per day. The smelter also released enough sulfur dioxide–which on contact with water turns into sulfuric acid–to denude the hillsides for miles in every direction. No one has been held accountable for this destruction.

Through much of this century the mines in the Silver Valley continued to produce silver and lead, and continued to contaminate the region’s water and air. In 1972 the owners of the Bunker Hill mine–Gulf Resources and Chemical Company of Houston, Texas–surreptitiously asked a Silver Valley physician to check the blood lead levels of children in Kellogg; most were high. Gulf responded by beginning to move salaried workers out of the area while simultaneously failing to inform either wage workers or other residents of Kellogg.

Then in September 1973 the primary pollution control device at the Bunker Hill smelter burned. Gulf’s directors faced a decision: If they continued to operate the damaged smelter, bypassing the filter system, they would vent even more lead-contaminated smoke directly into the surrounding communities, further poisoning people–including children, who are especially vulnerable to lead–and the landscape. But the price of lead was rising steadily and Gulf stood to make tens of millions of dollars if the company continued to operate its smelter. The directors’ calculated how much each leaded child might cost the corporation in liability lawsuits. For this they used detailed information from an El Paso, Texas, legal case where an Asarco Inc., smelter had already leaded children, causing health problems ranging from anemia and mental retardation to stomach aches and hyperactivity. Notes hand written by vice president Frank Woodruff show the calculations made during a 1974 Gulf board of directors meeting: “El Paso–200 children–$5 to $10,000 per kid.” The directors estimated the liability at “6-7 million” for poisoning the 500 children of Kellogg and decided to continue operating the damaged smelter.

During the first three months of 1974 the communities of Kellogg and Smelterville suffered as much lead contamination as would have occurred in 20 years of Bunker Hill’s usual smelter operations. Lead accumulated in the soil at rates of two-and-one-half tons per square mile every month. By August of that year the highest levels of lead ever recorded in human beings were discovered in Kellogg. Bunker Hill operations produced record profits of $25.9 million for Gulf that year.

The damage has not, of course, been made right. It can never be made right. To this day lead levels in Silver Valley children run nearly twice the national average, and a plume of lead, cadmium, zinc, and other heavy metals extends 200 miles downstream past Lake Coeur d’Alene and past Spokane to the misnamed Lake Roosevelt (it is a reservoir, not a lake) behind the Grand Coulee Dam. Each year lead kills between 20 and 200 tundra swans as they feed in contaminated wetlands during their spring migration. Seventy-five million tons of contaminated sediment line the bottom of Lake Coeur d’Alene, turning it into what a scientist for the United States Geologic Survey has called a “dead zone.”

The residents of the Silver Valley were not the primary recipients of the economic profits from mining. The managers of Gulf Resources deposited the assets of the corporation in overseas banks, went on a multimillion dollar spending spree, buying Scottish castles and investing in sunken treasure, and then declared bankruptcy, leaving economic costs for a literally impossible cleanup–estimates for even partial cleanup run to a billion dollars–to the residents of the Silver Valley, the Coeur d’Alene Indians, the citizens of the state of Idaho, and the American public. None of the directors, and this is really the point of this story, has been held criminally liable for the damage they have done.

As was true for the tale of the salmon, this example is not unique. It is part of a consistent pattern of people and institutions “getting rich at the expense of our children” while entirely escaping responsibility. In 1984, for another example, Union Carbide killed 8000 – 15000 people and injured another 500,000 when its pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, leaked. Warren Anderson, then-CEO of Union Carbide, is wanted for murder by citizens of Bhopal. But the United States steadfastly refuses to extradite him. To convince yourself of the ubiquity of this pattern, ask yourself: When was the last time you saw tobacco company executives stand trial for murder? Did the executives of Nestle stand trial for unsafely marketing their infant formula to non-industrialized nations, thereby killing millions of infants worldwide? Were the executives of Hooker Chemical imprisoned when they dumped 20,000 tons of toxic chemicals in Love Canal, then deeded the land to the city of Niagara Falls for use as an elementary school?

Nor are corporations themselves held liable for their actions. If the children and the landscape of the Silver Valley had been poisoned by one person, justice and common sense would demand that person be removed from society to prevent further destructive behavior. If one person killed 8,000 – 15,000 in Bhopal the demands of justice and common sense would be the same. Neither Gulf nor Union Carbide, however, has been removed from society. Between 1987 and mid-1994, in fact, Union Carbide reported more than 500 toxic spills from its United States operations alone, more than one per week. Neither Phillip Morris, Nestle, nor Occidental Petroleum has been removed from society, or otherwise prevented from “getting rich at the expense of our children.” Examples of corporations that have killed or that have destroyed the land base of communities can be provided ad nauseam.

We need to remember that the specific function of for-profit corporations is to make money. The function is not to guarantee that children are raised in environments free of toxic chemicals, nor to protect forests, salmon, or other living things, nor to serve communities. Surely after Ford’s Pinto (for which Ford decided on the basis of cost-benefit analysis it would be cheaper to settle lawsuits by the relatives of burn victims than to install an $11 part that would keep the vehicle from catching fire on impact), the Dalkon Shield, meat industry lobbying to reduce meat safety regulations, ongoing atrocities of the maquiladora industries, corporate-requested and U.S.-backed coups in Guatemala, Iran, Zaire, Chile and many other countries, and additional horrors too numerous to name, it has become almost a cliche to note that corporations are willing to get rich at the expense of our homes, our communities, our land base, and our own and our children’s lives. The troubling ease with which we have learned to accept the reality behind this cliche almost makes sense; since the function of corporations is to make money, it’s not realistic to expect them to act differently than they do.

What We Can Do

If we are to survive, we must find a way to force accountability onto the economic institutions that dominate our lives. The legal system can’t do it. It would be incorrect to say, for example, that Union Carbide “got away” with the killings at Bhopal and other places simply because of the failure of legal systems, or that Gulf Resources similarly “got away” with poisoning the people and landscape of the Silver Valley, or that Weyerhaeuser is “getting away” with deforesting the Northwest; these attributions imply, against overwhelming precedent, that courts, and more broadly the government, can be expected to hold corporations accountable. It implies, once again against overwhelming evidence, that there is a real difference between government and business. But no scheming cabal of judges could by itself give Union Carbide the ability to poison people all over the world or give Gulf Resources, BPA, or Weyerhaeuser the ability to destroy the land base of the Northwest; technology, capital, and a whole economic and social way of life have combined to make that possible. And this combination has taken place slowly, over time (alchemically, in a crucible of consciousness and action) in a way that makes Bhopal, the Silver Valley, the death of the salmon, the death of this continent’s forests, and tens of thousands of other tragedies as inevitable as was the destruction of the passenger pigeon.

Since the legal system won’t hold destructive institutions accountable, nor will the rest of the government, the responsibility falls on each of us. We are the governors as well as the governed; it is only when we daily allow our servants–our elected representatives’–to act outside our behalf that they can actually do so. This means that all of us who care about salmon, for example, need to force accountability onto those causing their extinction; we must learn to be accountable to salmon rather than loyal to political and economic institutions that do not serve us well. If salmon are to be saved, we must give BPA and Kaiser Aluminum a reason to save them. We must tell these institutions that if they cause salmon to go extinct, we will cause these institutions to go extinct. If they insist on getting rich at the expense of our children, we must say, they–the institutions–are signing their own death warrants. And we must mean it. We must then say the same to every other destructive institution, and we must act on our words; we must do whatever is necessary to protect our homes and our land bases from those who would destroy them. Only then will salmon be saved, and forests. Only then will toxic dumping be stopped.

We must also tell the government that if it will not help us in this, if it will not back up our resolve to save salmon, to stop the poisoning of children, to save our communities, then it too must go extinct. Again, we must mean it.

For the truth of the matter is that Newt Gingrich’s phrase, made as a threat to drug smugglers, is in a larger context not a threat at all, but a simple statement of fact. All of us who participate in a system that “makes” money at the expense of our ecological base–upon which not only our economics but our lives depend–are signing our own death warrants. Allowing destructive economic entities to destroy our land base is not merely unethical and unwise but suicidal.

The Declaration of Independence states, “That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends [Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness], it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it. . . .” It would be more precise, however, to say that it is not the Right of the People, nor even their responsibility, but instead something more like breathing–something that if we fail to do we die. If we as a People fail to rid our community of destructive institutions, those institutions will destroy our community. And if we as a community cannot provide meaningful and nondestructive ways for people to gain food, clothing, and shelter then we must recognize it’s not just destructive institutions but our entire economics that’s pushing biological systems past breaking points. Once we’ve recognized the destructiveness of our economic system we’ve no choice, unless we wish to sign our own and our children’s death warrants, but to fight for all we’re worth and in every way we can to change it. There is nothing else to do.

What We Can Really Do

A few days after I sent this essay to Forest Voice, Victor Rozek called with the reasonable advice that I add suggestions for concrete actions readers can perform in response to the horrors I report.

The problem is that I have no solutions, at least in terms of concrete actions. The best I can hope for is that readers begin to fully accept the gravity of our current predicament. As Robert Jay Lifton pointed out in my book Listening to the Land, “There is hardly a place in our minds for human life being threatened because of nuclear holocaust, or because of the various other means we have of destroying the environment. If [even Auschwitz survivors can say, “There still isn’t quite a place in my mind for the kind of event that I actually witnessed”], think of the difficulty for the rest of us, from the president to the environmental activist. That in itself is a major stumbling block, a major difficulty with coping with nuclear weapons, environmental destruction, and genocide.” What I would like is for the reader of this essay to begin deeply internalizing the implications of the horrors I have described. Perhaps that internalization will allow readers to become open to “solutions” that present themselves.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about false and real hopes–about the whole notion of facing unvarnished truth, even when we are frightened of it–about the possibility or impossibility of solutions, and about lessons I can learn from the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in World War II. Out of the tens of thousands of Ghetto residents, how many of them held out the ultimately false hope that the nazi genocide would stop before it reached them? How many of them ever fully internalized their predicament? Most of the people went peacefully along to the firing squads or cattle cars, even though by that time many knew precisely what awaited them. Why is that? I recently asked my students at Eastern Washington University, and one of them gave an extremely insightful answer, “Undoubtedly some were in denial until the end, but I’m sure others realized that even when your external choices have been limited or removed, you at least still have the option to act with dignity.” So the mother facing the machine gun holds tight to her child’s shoulder, feels one last time the texture of his skin, and in that moment attempts to convey to him an entire lifetime’s worth of love. . . . And likewise another yong woman, one of only several hundred who actively resists, picks up a pistol and a Molotov cocktail and vows to kill as many of her nazi oppressors as she can before she dies. Are these solutions? Not in the larger sense of stopping the nazis–the nazis were stopped not specifically by the actions of those in the Ghetto but by outside forces–but they are solutions in terms of concrete actions arising directly out of the circumstances these particular people faced.

Likewise, I can’t solve the problems created by our cultural and economic systems. To believe I can “manage” the problems is to manifest the same megalomania that underlies the arrogant belief that we can “manage” the forests. What I can and must do, however, is act in ways that respect life and that protect the land upon which my own and other lives depend. And I can surrender, not to the destructive forces that are guiding our culture toward its own collapse, nor even to the despair caused by seeing the death of so many peoples and so many species and biomes, so much beauty, but instead I can surrender to the land itself, and I can immerse myself in the implications of the natural and social circumstances in which I find myself. If I do not allow myself to attend to my surroundings and what is happening to them, to feel the implications deep in my bones, how can I respond appropriately and deeply to the situation?

None of this is esoteric in any way. The Okanagan author and philosopher Jeannette Armstrong told me that the primary difference between western and indigenous peoples is that indigenous peoples listen–metaphorically and literally– to the land. It is perhaps significant that indigenous cultures did not drive the passenger pigeon to extinction, nor the salmon, the wood bison, the sea mink, the Labrador heath hen, the eskimo curlew. They did not deforest the continent. Would that we could say the same. It is perhaps significant that these cultures were able to do what we can only dream of, which is to live in dynamic equilibrium with the rest of the world. To meet human needs and to not imperil life on the planet.

What are the dying salmon telling you, and the dying forests? What lessons are whispered to you by the ghosts of the passenger pigeons, or the ghostly roll of thunder of a mammoth herd of bison? Allow these voices to inform your actions.

There are some lines from the Tao Te Ching that I dearly love. They are: “Do you have the patience to wait until your mud settles and the water is clear? Can you remain unmoving until the right action arises by itself?”

None of this is to say that we shouldn’t work to revoke corporate charters, revest corporate-claimed lands, file timber sale appeals, vote, write, work at battered women’s shelters, blow up dams, or even write letters to Helen Chenoweth and Larry Craig. All of those actions are necessary to the degree that they arise organically from the situation. If we listen carefully enough I believe our bodies, the land, and circumstance will tell us what to do. So if someone were to ask me what to do about the problems we face in the world today, I would say, “Listen.” If you listen carefully enough you will in time know exactly what to do.

Originally published in the October 1995 issue of “The Pacific Northwest Inlander”
Republished in the October/November 1995 issue of “Wild Forest Review” as “Visualize Corporate Extinction”

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