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Excerpt from Endgame

Defensive Rights (p. 123)

From chapter "The Needs of the Natural World"

A couple of months ago I gave a talk exploring some of the things in this book, and afterwards someone said, “I think what you’re saying is pretty heartless. What are you going to say to people with diabetes, cancer, or leukemia who need medicines made by the pharmaceutical industry?”

I said, “I’d tell them the same thing I’d tell myself—I have Crohn’s disease— which is, ‘Stock up.’”

I could tell he didn’t like my answer.

I didn’t like it either. I continued, “There’s a deeper point here, which has to do with our attempts to separate ourselves from the rest of the world, to pretend we’re not natural, to consider ourselves exempt from the ways the world works. Consider our utter disregard for overshooting carrying capacity—our belief that somehow these ecological principles don’t apply to us. Consider also our denial of death and our deification of humans, especially civilized humans, most especially rich white civilized humans. All of this has to stop. The truth is that I’m going to die someday, whether or not I stock up on pills. That’s life. And if I die in the population reduction that takes place as a corrective to our having overshot carrying capacity, well, that’s life, too. Finally, if my death comes as part of something that serves the larger community, that helps stabilize and enrich the landbase of which I’m a part, so much the better.”

“By what right,” asked someone in the audience, “can you make that decision for others? Don’t they have the right to extend their life by any means possible?”

A third person raised her hand, then said in response to the original question, “Every disease mentioned here is a disease of civilization. Civilization causes those diseases. The questioner seems to be implying that to talk about taking down civilization is to somehow not care about sick people. But to want to get rid of the thing that’s making them sick—civilization—seems far more compassionate than to allow civilization to continue, and then to try to palliate.”

That reminded me of a question my friend Carolyn Raffensperger, co-founder of the Science and Environmental Health Network, likes to pose, not necessarily about civilization but more specifically about the medical industry: “What are we going to do with the irony that industrial health care is one of the most toxic industries on earth? We produce PVC medical devices to treat someone’s cancer, then put them in the hospital incinerator to send back out and give someone else cancer. Or we use mercury in our thermometers in the hospital, and then send that up the incinerator to be deposited in fish and to eventually give more children—human and nonhuman—brain damage. Where does any of this make sense?”

Yet another person pointed out that when we talk about the wonders of modern medicine, we need to remember that on the main it is the rich who receive these ecologically and economically expensive treatments: “Modern industrial medicine cures the cancer of some rich American who became sick because of the toxification of the total environment, and these processes lead to even more toxification, causing yet more poor people—and nonhumans—to die. The real wonder of modern medicine is that the poor buy into this at all.”

The room was abuzz. Someone else stated, “You’ve talked a lot about the power of unstated premises, and this is a great example. No one in here has mentioned two of the most important premises behind the belief that taking down civilization will harm the sick. The first is that the western industrial model of medicine does in fact save people. Sure, industrial medicine saved my life, but only after nearly killing me several times through misdiagnoses and the toxicity of the whole process. And industrial medicine never made me well: what accomplished that were so-called alternative medical treatments such as herbs, energetic work, and changing the emotional, relational, and physical circumstances of my life. That leads to the second premise, which is that if we don’t have industrial medicine we don’t have anything. People talk about how advances in western medicine have decreased morbidity, and on some levels that’s clearly true, but they’re only comparing a more refined version of the same model to a less refined version of it. There have been plenty of studies showing that traditional hunter-gatherers were extremely healthy, with long life spans. There were often high rates of infant mortality, as is true for many creatures, but once you got past that, you could plan on living a long healthy life. And that wasn’t just because they hadn’t f***ed up their world. They knew the healing properties of plants that lived in their neighborhoods. And they understood the spiritual bases for many of their illnesses. Although much of this knowledge is fast disappearing, and although many of the plants on which these medicines are based are being extirpated, these other models still exist. Getting rid of industrial civilization means getting rid of industrial medicine. It doesn’t mean getting rid of medicine, and the possibility of healing the sick.”

A couple of days after the talk I got an email from someone else weighing in on this whole question: “I didn’t have the wherewithal to speak up at the time, but I’d offer the following counter-question: ‘What would a diabetic or heart patient do if the drugs she needed to stay alive were integral to an economic system that exploited workers, degraded the environment, and increased the suffering of indigenous peoples?’ To answer that she still wanted the drugs would expose the narcissism—the extreme emphasis on the individual, even at the expense of the larger community—that so dominates Western Culture. That’s the root of much of our trouble.”


What do we do with this information: Phoenix, Arizona, could sustain a human population of maybe one hundred and fifty. What about the rest of them, living right now on stolen resources? The land under New York City could probably sustain several thousand, or at least it could have if there were still passenger pigeons, bison, salmon, eel, and Eskimo curlews. What happens to the rest? I’m a bit luckier here in Tu’nes. The population might be remotely sustainable at a hunter-gatherer level, if salmon, steelhead, elk, and lamprey were still here in significant numbers.

To reverse the effects of civilization would destroy the dreams of a lot of people. There’s no way around it. We can talk all we want about sustainability, but there’s a sense in which it doesn’t matter that these people’s dreams are based on, embedded in, intertwined with, and formed by an inherently destructive economic and social system. Their dreams are still their dreams. What right do I—or does anyone else—have to destroy them?

At the same time, what right do they have to destroy the world?


I’ve been thinking more about rights, and I’ve come to the conclusion that defensive rights always take precedence over offensive rights. To take an example close to the heart of especially many women, given the high regard sexual coercion is evidently given within this culture, one person’s defensive right to bodily integrity always trumps—or rather would always trump, within a workable morality—another’s perceived right to sexual access.

In my life I’ve been in a couple of romantic relationships I would define as emotionally abusive. The women would call me names, and harangue me for days about this or that characteristic of mine they didn’t like. When I asked (begged, pleaded with) them to stop, they became all the more angry, and of course refused. When I told them to stop, they exploded, and let me know in no uncertain terms that I had no right to censor them. “Don’t you think it’s ironic,” they’d say, “that you, a writer who rails at the emptiness of this culture’s discourse, are trying to limit mine?”

This clash of my defensive right to not be mistreated with the other’s perceived right to shower displaced rage upon me has never been a problem in normal relationships, where the right to say no—to whatever action, for whatever reason— trumps all others. This doesn’t mean there are no consequences for saying no. To go back to the sexual example, if one person wants to be sexual and another person does not, there is no sex. That cannot be in question. But within the context of a sexual relationship, if one person consistently doesn’t want to be sexual, the two involved may wish to re-examine the form of their relationship. Similarly, I’m certainly not going to force anyone to talk about what’s wrong with civilization and what we’re going to do about it, but a consistent refusal will probably limit our friendship: I’m not going to fight six thousand years of history, the full might of the state, and my friends as well (another way to say this is that I’m not going to revisit Civilization is Destructive 101 every time I open my mouth).

To hear and respect another’s no is to accept that the other has an existence independent of you. People generally refuse to hear another’s no—and this is certainly true of the entire culture’s refusal to enter into relationship with the natural world—when the possibility of intimate and genuine interactions with the other is too frightening to allow. Or when acculturation and personal history combine to make someone believe the other doesn’t even exist for its own sake.


Two weeks ago, the Klamath River, just south of here, was full of the biggest runs of salmon and steelhead (ocean-going rainbow trout) in years. “You could have walked across on their backs,” someone said to me. I talked to a Yurok Indian, whose culture is based on the salmon, who said the runs made him imagine what it must have been like to see the real runs before the white men arrived. It made me happy. I was going to go see them.

But I got another call. The fish were dying, piling up in mounds on the shore or floating bloated and bleeding from their vents. “Don’t come,” the caller said. “You don’t want to see this.”

Walt Lara, the Requa representative to the Yurok Tribal Council, said in a local newspaper interview, “The whole chinook run will be impacted, probably by 85 to 95 percent. And the fish are dying as we speak. They’re swimming around in circles. They bump up against your legs when you’re standing in the water. These are beautiful, chrome-bright fish that are dying, not fish that are already spawned out.” There are probably, he said, a thousand dead fish per mile of river.

Last summer the federal government decided there was no evidence that fish need water, and instead redirected the water to (a few heavily subsidized) farmers in the Klamath Basin in southern Oregon. The water in the Klamath is now too warm for the salmon.

This is the story of civilization. This culture is killing the planet.