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Excerpt from Endgame

Isolation and Blame (p. 168)

From chapter "Abuse"

Which brings us to the next category: abusers isolate their victims from other resources. I’m typing these words sitting in a manufactured chair staring at a manufactured computer screen, listening to the hum of a manufactured computer fan. To my left are manufactured shelves of manufactured books, written by human beings. Civilized, literate human beings who write in English (languages, many of them indigenous, are being destroyed as quickly as all other forms of diversity, and to as disastrous an effect: the language you speak influences what you can say, which influences what you can think, which influences what you can perceive, which influences what you can experience, which influences how you act, which influences who you are, which influences what you can say, and so on). To my right a window leads to the darkened outside and reflects back to me my uncombed dark hair surrounding the blur of my own face. I’m wearing mass-produced clothes, and mass-produced slippers. I do, however, have a cat on my lap. All sensory inputs save the cat originate in civilized humans, and even the cat is domesticated.

Stop. Think about it. Every sensation I have comes from one source: civilization. When you finish this paragraph, put down the book for a few moments, and check out your own surroundings. What can you see, hear, smell, feel, taste that does not originate in or is mediated by civilized human beings? Singing frogs on a Sounds of Nature CD don’t count.

This is all very strange. Stranger still—and extraordinarily revealing of the degree to which we’ve not only accepted but reified this artificially imposed isolation, turned our insanity into a perceived good—is the way we’ve made a fetish and religion (and science, for that matter, as well as business) of attempting to define ourselves as separate from—different from, isolated from, in opposition to—the rest of nature. Abusers merely isolate victims from other resources. Far moreso even than this, civilization isolates all of us—ideologically and physically—from the source of all life.

We do not believe trees have anything to say to us (nor even that they can speak at all), nor stars, nor coyotes, nor even our dreams. We have been convinced— and this is the primary difference between western and indigenous philoso-phies—that the world is silent save civilized humans.

One of the most common and necessary steps taken by an abuser in order to control a victim is to monopolize the victim’s perception. That is one reason abusers cut off victims from family and friends: so that in time victims will have no standard other than the abusers’ by which to judge the abusers’ worldviews and behavior. Abusive behavior—behavior that would otherwise seem extraordinarily bizarre (how crazy is it to rape one’s own child? How crazy is it to toxify the air you breathe?)—can then become in the victim’s mind (and even more sadly, heart) normalized. No outside influence must be allowed to break the spell. There can be only one way to perceive and to be in the world, and that is the abuser’s way. If the abuser is able to mediate all information that reaches the victim, the victim will no longer be able to conceptualize that there is any other way to be. At this point the abuser will have achieved more or less total control.

This is, of course, the point we have reached as a culture. Civilization has achieved a completely unprecedented and nearly perfect monopolization of our perception, at least for those of us in the industrialized world. Fortunately, however, there do still exist people—mainly the poor, people from nonindustrialized nations, and the indigenous—who still have primary connections to the physical world. And fortunately, also, the physical world still exists, and all of us can at the very least reach out to touch trees still standing in steel and concrete cages. And we can see plants poking up through sidewalks, breaking cement barriers that keep them from feeling the sun. I would hope we can learn from these plants and break through these concrete and perceptual barriers.

The sixth characteristic is that abusers blame others for their problems. To make the jump to the cultural level it would be easy to simply list the ways our culture does this, and leave it at that. The capitalist media blames spotted owls and humans who love them for job losses in the timber industry, yet (surprise, surprise) ignores the greater number of jobs lost in the same industry to automation and raw log exports (as well as the cut-and-run nature of the industry). Politicians and other timber industry propagandists blame natural forests and environmentalists for fires, yet ignore the fact that logging is a significant cause of fires, and further, that fires burn hotter and more destructively in cutover forests and tree plantations than they do in natural forests. They ignore further the regenerative role fire plays in forests. We who care about the planet would be wise to not ignore this lesson about the destructive/regenerative powers of fire but learn it, and apply it when appropriate to the perceptual and physical barriers that monopolize our perception and that are killing the planet.

More blame: the bigot blames poor Mexicans when his employer’s plant closes and moves to Mexico. The owner blames market conditions or damn unions for leaving him no choice but to move the plant. Go back in time and we have Israel’s rulers, speaking through their God, blaming Canaanites because Israelites didn’t want to follow “God’s” (wink, wink) rules. Move forward and we have Crusaders blaming women for lack of success on the battlefield (sex, especially with an infidel, evidently displeases “God”). Then we have settlers blaming Indians for not giving up their land without a fight (as John Wayne later said, “I don’t feel we did wrong in taking this great country away from them. There were great numbers of people who needed new land, and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves”). Hitler and the Nazis blamed Communists and Jews for everything from world wars to defective dentures. Americans agreed at least so far as the Communists. Now it’s terrorists who keep us from the Promised Land of Perpetual Peace and Prosperity™ (brought to you by ExxonMobil). There is always someone (else) to blame.

Something interesting happens when you combine an abuser’s propensity to blame with the monopolization of the victim’s perception: the victim comes to agree with the abuser, that all problems are actually the victim’s fault. The wife tries tirelessly to make the perfect meal and if she’s beaten it’s because she’s not a good enough cook, which means not a good enough wife, which means not a good enough person. Of course it’s not because her husband is violent, abusive, insane. The child tries to perfectly clean the dishes, and violence comes to her because she is too sloppy. The teen tries to park the car in the right place— or rather not in the ever-shifting wrong place—so as to not be beaten. In an attempt to maintain control in a situation that is grievously out of control and that can never be in control so long as victims stay within the perceptual box created for them by their abuser, victims conspire with their abusers to focus on alterations of their own behavior in futile attempts to placate the abuser or at least delay or mitigate the inevitable violence, or at the very least shift this violence to another victim. Even worse than this self-focus being a mere tactic, it becomes a way of being (or rather non-being) in the world, such that victims come to know the fault is their own. Instead of stopping the abuse by any means necessary, they join with the abuser in doing violence to themselves.

They forget that assigning “blame” in this sense is a toxic mimic of the necessary task of assigning appropriate and accurate responsibility for the violence done to them, and doing something about it.

These same patterns are replicated on the larger social scale, at least among those who have been sufficiently enculturated. This is probably not the case among the primary victims of our culture, of course: those who remain free of civilization’s perceptual box. I’m reasonably certain salmon, swordfish, and hammerhead sharks do not find themselves paralyzed by spasms of self-blame for their plight—What could I do differently to placate these people? If only I were a better fish they would not hate me—but instead know precisely who is killing them. The same can be said for the indigenous. You can’t get much clearer than Sitting Bull, who said, when forced to speak at a celebration of the completion of a railroad through what had been his people’s land: “I hate you. I hate you. I hate all the white people. You are thieves and liars. You have taken away our land and made us outcasts, so I hate you.” It’s important to note, by the way, that the white translator did not speak these words, but instead the “friendly, courteous speech he had prepared.”

And that’s the problem.

Those of us whose vision has been defined by civilization, whose personalities have been formed and deformed in this particular crucible of violence, sometimes, like victims of childhood abuse, fail to adequately and accurately assign responsibility for the violence we suffer or witness, instead transforming raw impulses to assign responsibility—“You have taken our land and made us outcasts, so I hate you”—into friendly, courteous speech: some environmentalists even give training in “verbal nonviolence” so activists will be certain to not say “Fuck you” to police putting them, in copspeak, into “pain compliance holds,” that is, torturing them. Abused children—and I know this from experience—generally are unable to face the fact that they have almost no power to stop the violence done to them and to those they love. As a consequence of this—and this dovetails nicely, or more accurately horrifically, with abusers blaming others for their own problems as well as abusers monopolizing victims’ perceptions—victims often internalize too much responsibility, which in this case means any responsibility at all, for the violence they suffer or see. I must have done something wrong, or my father would not hit me. I must be a slut or a temptress, and I must want him to do this to me—I know this because he tells me all of this—or he would not visit me at night. This allows these children to pretend they have at least some power to halt or slow violence done to them, however illusory all evidence shows this power to be. That illusion can in fact be crucial to emotional survival. Of course when they’re no longer children, the illusion becomes absurd and harmful.

Similarly, many of us trying to stop the destructiveness of this culture— and I know this not only from my own experience but from having worked with and talked to hundreds or even thousands of other activists—are routinely struck by the near-complete ineffectiveness of our work on any but the most symbolic levels. By almost any measure, our work especially as environmental activists is an appalling failure. Just today I spoke with a friend who for the past ten months has been sitting in an ancient redwood in Humboldt County, just south of here, in an attempt to keep the tree and the forest of which it is a part from being cut. Pacific Lumber is deforesting that watershed, as it is deforesting much of the state, and will eventually get to the tree in which she now lives. Previous cutting by this corporation has caused such severe flooding that local residents’ homes have been destroyed. Some have put their homes on stilts. Once-pristine water supplies now resemble chocolate milk garnished with sticks, spiked with herbicides and diesel fuel. Years ago, in response to citizen outrage, the state’s North Coast Region Water Quality Control Board—appointed by the governor, who is deeply beholden to big timber corporations—put together a scientific panel to study the problem, which is nearly always a good way to delay action while allowing primary destruction to continue. But the panel surprised the Board by unanimously declaring that cutting needs to be drastically reduced now, not only to protect local human residents, but for critically imperiled coho salmon and many other species. The Board’s decision? You guessed it: ignore the citizens it purports to serve, ignore the scientific team it assembled, ignore everything but the “needs” of this grossly destructive corporation. This is democracy in action. This is the severing of reality from politics (or really, there’s nothing to sever, since they’ve always been separated). This is the dismemberment of the planet. This is breathtakingly and obscenely routine.

The best and most courageous and most sincere of our efforts are never sufficient to the task of stopping those who would destroy.

Years ago, I wrote, “Every morning when I wake up I ask myself whether I should write or blow up a dam.” I wrote this because no matter how hard activists work, no matter how hard I work, no matter how much scientists study, none of it really seems to help. Politicians and businesspeople lie, delay, and simply continue their destructive behavior, backed by the full power of the state. And the salmon die. I said back then, and I say now, that it’s a cozy relationship for all of us but the salmon. Every morning I still make the decision to write, and every morning I think more and more I’m making the wrong damn decision. The salmon are in far worse shape now than when I first wrote that line.

I am ashamed of that.

We are watching their extinction.

I am ashamed of that as well.

To mask our powerlessness in the face of this destruction, many of us fall into the same pattern as those abused children, and for much the same reason. We internalize too much responsibility. This allows us activists to pretend we have at least some power to halt or slow violence done to us and to those we love, however illusory, once again, all evidence inevitably shows this power to be. And don’t give me a lecture about how if we weren’t doing this work the destruction would proceed even more quickly: of course that’s the case, and of course we need to keep fighting these rearguard actions—I would never suggest other-wise—but do you realize how pathetic it is that all of our “victories” are temporary and defensive, and all of our losses permanent and offensive? I can’t speak for you, but I want more than to simply stave off destruction of this or that wild place for a year or two: I want to take the offensive, to beat back those who would destroy, to reclaim what is wild and free and natural, to let it recover on its own: I want to stop in their tracks the destroyers, and I want to make them incapable of inflicting further damage. To want any less is to countenance the ultimate destruction of the planet.

But we all settle for less, and to make ourselves feel the tiniest bit less impotent we turn the focus inward. We are the problem. I use toilet paper, so I am responsible for deforestation. I drive a car, so I am responsible for global warming. Never mind that I did not create the systems that cause these. I did not create industrial forestry. I did not create an oil economy. Civilization was destroying life on this planet before I was born, and will do the same—unless I and others, including the natural world, stop it—after I die.

If I were to die tomorrow, deforestation would continue unabated. In fact, as I’ve shown in another book, demand does not even drive the timber industry: overcapacity of very expensive pulp and paper mills (as well as, of course, this culture’s death urge) determines in great measure how many trees are cut. Similarly, if I were to die, car culture would not slow in the slightest.

Yes, it’s vital to make lifestyle choices to mitigate damage caused by being a member of industrial civilization, but to assign primary responsibility to oneself, and to focus primarily on making oneself better, is an immense copout, an abrogation of responsibility. With all the world at stake, it is self-indulgent, self-righteous, and self-important. It is also nearly ubiquitous. And it serves the interests of those in power by keeping our focus off them.

I do this all the time. We’re killing the planet, I say. Well, no, I’m not, but thank you for thinking me so powerful. Because I take hot showers, I’m responsible for drawing down aquifers. Well, no. More than 90 percent of the water used by humans is used by agriculture and industry. The remaining 10 percent is split between municipalities (got to keep those golf courses green) and actual living breathing humans. We’re deforesting 214,000 acres per day, an area larger than New York City. Well, no, I’m not. Sure, I consume some wood and paper, but I didn’t make the system.

Here’s the real story: If I want to stop deforestation, I need to dismantle the system responsible.

Just yesterday I caught myself taking on nonsensical responsibility. I was finishing a book with George Draffan about causes of worldwide deforestation. For one hundred and fifty pages we laid out explicitly and undeniably that this culture has been deforesting every place it touches at an ever-increasing pace for some six thousand years, and that current deforestation is driven by a massively corrupt system of interlocked governments and corporations backed, as always, by plenty of soldiers and cops with guns. (But you knew that already, didn’t you?) Yet at the end, I found myself pleading with readers to drive the deforesters out of our own hearts and minds. I wrote, “We will not stop destroying forests until we have dealt with the urge to destroy and consume that hides in our hearts and minds and bodies.” I cut the line. It’s a fine first step—emphasis on first—because we surely cannot stop the destruction until we perceive it as destruction and not as “progress,” or “developing natural resources,” or even “inevitable,” or “the way things are.” But what about driving deforesters out of forests altogether? That is the real point. Anything less is far worse than just a waste of everyone’s time: it paves the way for further destruction.

I recently saw an excellent articulation of the dangers of identifying with those who are killing the planet. It was in a “Derrick Jensen discussion group” on the internet. When I first heard of the group’s existence, I was of course, flattered. People everywhere discussing me! Every guy’s dream! My head swelled. Before this happened, I wasn’t even convinced I would log on to discuss me. But I did. I followed the posts. My head swelled even more. I thought I’d give them a thrill, and posted something unpublished elsewhere. I considered the excitement they’d surely feel at this honor, and imagined how excited I’d have been when I was younger had the rock groups UFO or Spirit made some song accessible to only a few of us. I probably would have stayed up late that night listening to it over and over, and considering how special I was. Fortunately the response on the discussion group was more sedate. A few people wrote, “Nice essay.” That’s about it. Then they went back to discussing whatever they’d been discussing before. My head returned to normal size.

Now to the articulation I just read. A woman had commented that “We are going to go to war in Iraq.” A man commented on her use of we, not realizing she was being ironic. His misunderstanding doesn’t lessen the importance of his comments: “I find that many people (including myself when I’m not paying attention) slip into using the term ‘we’ when referring to actions of the U.S. government. I agree with Derrick’s assertion that the government (I would say all governments) is a government of occupation, just as this culture is a culture of occupation. Though I’m coerced into participating in the system (by paying taxes, working, spending money in the economy) I do not consider myself one of the decision-makers. My choices are false choices, and my voice is not ‘represented’ by the government. A friend was wearing a great button the other day: ‘U.S. out of North America.’”

He continued, “Those in power want us to associate ourselves with them, make us part of the ‘we’ so we become inseparable from them. This way they cannot be challenged, questioned, or overthrown without attacking ourselves. This is the ultimate goal of nationalism, to fuse an entire nation into agreement with the leaders so no action, no matter how obscene, is questioned. Perhaps this is why when I bring up faults in the government, capitalism, the techno-industrial complex, or the culture as a whole, many people get extremely defensive, as if I’d just insulted their mother. The more we allow those in power to convince us we are to blame for their actions, the more we are unable to separate what we do from what we are forced to do or what rulers do in our name. The more all of this happens, the more power they gain and the more difficult any form of dissent becomes.”

* * *

The phone rings. I answer. It’s a friend. She asks, “How much longer do you think we’re going to be in Afghanistan?”

She can’t see this, but I look around, look outside at the redwood trees. I respond, “We’re in Afghanistan? I thought we were in northern California.”

Silence on the phone. A sigh, and finally she says, “How much longer do you think our troops are going to be in Afghanistan?”

I say, “I’ve got troops? Really? Will they do whatever I tell them? If I tell them to take out the dams on the Columbia River will they do that?”

More silence, until she says, “This is why I only call you every few weeks. I’ll be in touch.”