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Excerpt from Endgame

Those Who Value Life (p. 417)

From chapter "Empathy and Its Other"

WHY CIVILIZATION IS KILLING THE WORLD, TAKE TWENTY. In the Q&A after a recent talk, a woman said that part of the problem is that most of the people she knows who care about the health and well-being of oppressed humans and salmon and trees and rivers and the earth—life—do so because, by definition, they care about others. They empathize. They feel connections with these others. They identify with these others. Those who don’t care about the health and well-being of oppressed humans and salmon and trees and rivers and the earth—life—don’t care because, also by definition, they don’t care. They don’t empathize. They don’t feel connections with these others. That’s a problem, she said.

She’s right. That’s a big problem. Those of us who value life over things and control value life over things and control. Those who value things and control over life value things and control over life. Sure, many environmentalists are jerks, and I’m sure some CEOs are very nice people. Robert Jay Lifton made the point that many of the Nazi guards at concentration camps and even many of the upper level SS officers were good family men, and many people have pointed out that there are many torturers who “do it for a living,” and who when they go home are not horrid people. Lifton called this split in one’s psyche doubling, which he defines as the formation of a second self-structure morally at odds with one’s prior self-structure. It’s a defense mechanism that allows people to continue to perpetrate violent behavior, he says, whether that behavior is more direct, as in murdering Jews face to face, or less direct, as in designing or building nuclear bombs or running a corporation. I have tremendous respect for Lifton, and have been deeply influenced by his important work, but within this extremely violent culture I’m not sure doubling is quite so prominent as we would normally think.

I would instead see this as a manifestation of typical abusive behavior. Abusers, as is true for most all of us who live in this abusive society, are exquisitely sensitive to power structures, knowing on whom they can project their unmetabolized rage and to whom they must bend their knee. In other words, they are intimately acquainted with Premise Four of this book, and know the precise circumstances under which it will not only be acceptable but fully expected for them to perpetrate violence on those beneath them and suck up to those above: Unfortunately, too few SS guards fragged their officers. Further, Susan Griffin has written extensively about what constituted “normal” family structures within that particular German culture, and the relationship between familial abuse and the larger violence of the Nazis. We could make the same argument today: a normal family within this larger culture is pretty damn violent. This doubling then is not quite so dramatic as it may have seemed.

I’d see the problem instead as the numbing that is a normalized and necessarily chronic state within this culture, an inculcation into the rigid world of Premise Four, where people’s empathies are numbed by the routine violence done to them, then trumped by ideology and what Lifton calls “claims to virtue”—Lifton makes clear that before people can commit any mass atrocity they must have a “claim to virtue,” that is, they must consider what they’re doing not in fact an atrocity but something good—such that they can feel good about themselves (or rather seem to feel good about themselves) as they oppress others to maintain their lifestyle, then go home and dandle their babies on their knees. This is how many Nazis could maintain semblances of lives as they did not kill Jews but rather purified the Aryan race. This is how Americans could maintain façades of happiness as they didn’t kill Indians but fulfilled their Manifest Destiny. This is how the civilized can pretend to be emotionally healthy as they do not commit genocide and destroy landbases, but instead take what they need to develop their “advanced state of human society.” This is how we can all pretend we are sane as no one kills the planet, but as people maximize profits and develop natural resources.

As well as asking myself each day whether I want to write or blow up a dam, each day I ask myself whether all my talk of saving salmon or old growth or migratory songbirds is just another claim to virtue. I mean, don’t those at the center of empire always say they’re only perpetrating (defensive) violence against those who want to destroy their lifestyle? And aren’t I saying that I’m considering (defensive) violence to maintain a lifestyle that I want? One wants consumer goods, the other wants wild salmon. What’s the difference? Maybe my desire to liberate rivers is just a mask to cover an urge to destroy dams, or more broadly just an urge to destroy. I don’t feelI have a generic urge to destroy but presumably neither do CEOs. That’s the wonderful thing about denial: you generally don’t know you’re in it. But that’s one reason I’m trying to lay out my premises so explicitly. I don’t want to lie to myself, and I don’t want to lie to you.

Each day when I ask whether my work is just an elaborate claim to virtue, I keep coming back to the same answer: clean water. We need clean water to survive. We need a living landbase to survive. We do not need cheap consumables. We do not need a “purified Aryan race.” We do not need to fulfill a Manifest Destiny to overflow the continent or world. We do not need an “advanced state of human society” (even if that werean accurate definition of civilization). We do not need to maximize profits or “develop natural resources.” We do not need oil, computers, cell phone towers, dams, automobiles, pavement, industrial farming, industrial education, industrial medicine, industrial production, industry. We do not need civilization. We—human beings, human animals living in healthy, functioning communities—existed perfectly fine without civilization for the overwhelming majority of our existence. However, we do need a living landbase. This is not a claim to virtue. This is just true.

Each day I remember that I am not wrong because I come back to understanding that every stream in the United States is now contaminated with carcinogens. I come back to the fact that wild salmon, who survived tens of millions of year of ice ages, volcanoes, the Missoula Flood, for crying out loud, are not surviving one hundred years of this culture. I come back to knowing there is now dioxin in every mother’s breast milk. I come back to the knowledge that tigers, great apes, and amphibians are being exterminated. Now. This is all real. This is the real world.

Each day I understand anew the simplemindedness that would cause someone to think that just because claims to virtue are sometimes used to justify violence that all reasons for violence are artificial justifications. I fall into this trap myself all too often. Too many people within this culture do that. But this trap is just that, a trap: the mother mouse made this clear to me, as have all those mothers and others who care enough for the health and well-being of those they love to fight for them. There are some things worth fighting for, worth dying for, worth killing for.

Now, I understand that inculcation into civilization’s insane ideology has caused many people in this culture to believe that the others whom this culture is killing are not actually alive: after all, a river doesn’t feel, does it? Nor do animals in zoos or in factory farms, nor certainly do plants in factory farms, nor stones in quarries.

But does someone’s prior indoctrination mean they need not be stopped?

This I know: Indigenous peoples have entirely different relationships to each other and to the land, based on perceiving “nature” as consisting of beings (including humans) to enter into relationship with, not objects to be exploited. This I know, too: those working to protect land they love are working to protect land they love, and those destroying the land must not love it, or surely they would not destroy it.

Part of what I’m getting at is that those who value things and control more than life can be more likely to kill to gain things or control than if these values were reversed. Obviously: they value things and control more than they do life. As we see. On the other hand, if we value life over control or things, we’re less likely to kill even to defend life. As we also see. When groups holding these different values come into conflict this functional difference makes for a grotesquely uneven contest, or if you will allow me the language, battle.

This was true of the plots against Hitler. Many plotters argued over whether to kill Hitler as he blithely caused millions to die. Even during the July 20, 1944, coup attempt the plotters merely arrested Hitler’s henchmen. When the coup failed that night these same henchmen didn’t hesitate to kill the plotters, or at least the lucky ones: others they tortured before killing.

We’ve seen this same disparity time and again in interactions between the civilized and the indigenous. We can read account after account of the indigenous welcoming the civilized as guests, showering them with gifts, giving them food, keeping them alive, and we can read account after account of the civilized killing, dispossessing, enslaving the indigenous. Years ago I heard an account of the Indian writer Sherman Alexie saying he wished he would have been alive five hundred years ago to greet Christopher Columbus. Alexie described what he would have done to Columbus with a bow and arrow, or hatchet, or axe, or gun, or chainsaw, then concluded by saying, “No, I wouldn’t have done that. I would have invited him in and fed him dinner, because that’s what my people do.”

This is what many Indians did. Some in time learned that their generosity and kindness was not only misplaced, but in this case suicidal. Some Indians of course have fought back. And when they do? “In war they shall kill some of us; we shall destroy all of them.”

We see this same thing today, every moment of every day. Those who run governments and corporations routinely lie, steal, cheat, murder, imprison, torture, dispossess, cause people to disappear. They make and use no end of weapons. We, on the other hand, make really cool papier-mâché masks and pithy signs. Some of us even write really big books. We try to act honorably.

There is of course nothing wrong with acting honorably, and with having empathy. Those are both good and important things. These qualities are supposed to guide our lives. But what do we do when faced with people who are themselves not honorable, and who lack empathy?

Part of the problem is that in general abusers know what they want and know what they’ll do to get it. They want to control everything they can and destroy what they can’t. They’ll do anythingto achieve that. We, on the other hand, for the most part don’t even know what we really want, and in any case we’re not sure what we’re willing to do to accomplish it.


I know what I want. I want to live in a world with more wild salmon every year than the year before, a world with more migratory songbirds every year than the year before, a world with more ancient forests every year than the year before, a world with less dioxin in each mother’s breast milk every year than the year before, a world with wild tigers and grizzly bears and great apes and marlins and swordfish. I want to live on a livable planet.