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Excerpt from Endgame

If Someone Had Brought Civilization Down (p. 91)

From chapter "Listening to the Land"

Several years ago the environmentalist and physician John Osborn pointed out to me that many environmentalists begin by wanting to protect a piece of ground and end up questioning the foundations of Western civilization. I agree, obviously, but would emend his comment in two ways. The first is that it’s not only environmentalists whose involvement in their particular struggle leads them to question the basis of this whole way of living. Feminists, conservation biologists, anthropologists, historians, economists, anti-imperialists, anti-colonialists, prison activists, American Indian activists (obviously), other people of color, those who simply hate the wage economy: I’ve spoken with people who are each of these, and they’ve reached the same conclusions. Why? Because once the questioning begins the search for root causes leads you back to the primary problem: the culture itself. And why is the problem the culture itself? Because this way of life is based on exploitation, domination, theft, and murder. And why is this culture based on exploitation, domination, theft, and murder? Because it’s based on the perceived right of the powerful to take whatever resources they want. If you perceive yourself as entitled to some resource—and if you’re unwilling or incapable of perceiving this other as a being with whom you can and should enter into a relationship—it doesn’t much matter whether the resource is land, gold, oil, fur, labor, or a warm, wet place to put your penis, nor does it matter who this other is, you’re going to take the resource.

The second way I would emend his comment is by adding the words in private. This questioning—and in fact rejection—of civilization happens almost exclusively in private, because a lot of these activists are afraid that if they spoke this in public, people would laugh at them, and they would lose whatever credibility they have—or feel they have. It’s always a difficult question. Do I stop this clearcut now, even knowing that without a fundamental change in the culture (see Premise Six) I’m merely putting off the date of execution till the next corporate Congressman figures out the next way to make sure the timber companies get out the cut? Or do I tell the truth, stand by, and watch the trees fall? The environmentalists I know are hanging on by our fingernails, praying that salmon, grizzlies, lynx, bobcat, Port Orford cedars survive ’till civilization comes down. If they survive, they’ll have a chance. If they don’t, they’re gone forever.

I’m sick of these options. I want to stop the destruction. I want to stop it now. I’m not satisfied to wait for civilization to exhaust its physical and metaphorical soil, then collapse. In the meantime it’s killing too many humans, too many nonhumans; it’s making too much of a shambles of the world.

The seventh premise of this book is: The longer we wait for civilization to crash—or before we ourselves bring it down—the messier will be the crash, and the worse things will be for those humans and nonhumans who live during it, and for those who come after.

Had somebody snuffed civilization in its multiple cradles, the Middle East would probably still be forested, as would Greece, Italy, and North Africa. Lions would probably still patrol southern Europe. The peoples of the region would quite possibly still live in traditional communal ways, and thus would be capable of feeding themselves in a still-fecund landscape.

Fast forward a few hundred years and we can say the same in Europe. Somehow stop the Greeks and Romans, and the indigenous people of Gaul, Spain, Germany probably still survive. Wolves might howl in England. Great auks might nest in France, providing year-round food for the humans who live there. Salmon might run in more than token numbers up the Seine. The Rhine would be almost undoubtedly clean. The continent would be forested. Many of the cultures would be matrifocal. Many would be peaceful.

Had someone brought down civilization before 1492, the Arawaks would probably still live peacefully in the Caribbean. Indians would live in ancient forests all along the Eastern seaboard, along with bison, marten, fisher. North, Central, and South America would be ecologically and culturally intact. The people would probably have, as always, plenty to eat.

Had someone brought down civilization before the slave trade took hold, 100 million Africans would not have been sacrificed on that particular altar of economic production. Native cultures might still live untraumatized on their own land all across that continent. There probably would be, as there always was, plenty to eat.

If someone had brought down civilization one hundred and fifty years ago, those who came after probably could still eat passenger pigeons and Eskimo curlews. They could surely eat bison and pronghorn antelope. They could undoubtedly eat salmon, cod, lobster. The people who came after would not have to worry about dioxin, radiation poisoning, organochloride carcinogens, or the extreme weather and ecological flux that characterize global warming. They would not have to worry about escaped genetically engineered plants and animals. There probably would have been, as almost always, plenty to eat.

If civilization lasts another one or two hundred years, will the people then say of us, “Why did they not take it down?” Will they be as furious with us as I am with those who came before and stood by? I could very well hear those people who come after saying, “If they had taken it down, we would still have earthworms to feed the soil. We would have redwoods, and we would have oaks in California. We would still have frogs. We would still have other amphibians. I am starving because there are no salmon in the river, and you allowed the salmon to be killed so rich people could have cheap electricity for aluminum smelters. God damn you. God damn you all.”