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Excerpt from Endgame

Unsustainable Culture (p. 409)

From chapter "Spending Our Way to Sustainability"

There are other problems with attempting to spend or boycott our way to sustainability. The first is that it simply won’t work. Spending won’t work because within an industrial economy nearly all economic transactions are destructive. Because the industrial economy—indeed a civilized economy—is systematically, inherently, functionally, and inescapably destructive, even buying “good things” isn’t really doing something good for the planet so much as it is doing something not quite so bad. Let’s say I purchase organic lettuce at the grocery store. That’s a good thing, right? Well, not particularly. The problem is that the mass cultivation of lettuce—organic or not—still destroys soils, and its transportation to market still requires the use of oil. I suppose if I purchased lettuce grown in small-scale permaculture beds from my next door neighbor, I’d be doing something even less bad, but this is rare enough to be the exception that makes the rule crystal clear.For an act to be sustainable, it must benefit the landbase, which means the soil, the critters who live in the soil, the plants who live on the soil, the animals who eat the plants, the animals who eat the animals, the insects and others who turn the dead back into soil. Producing, marketing, or purchasing organic lettuce doesn’t do that. Rare indeed within our culture is the economic activity that improves the landbase (and that doesn’t pay taxes, to boot, since more than 50 percent of the discretionary federal budget goes to pay for war). And don’t throw up your hands in despair and give me the old saw about how all human activities damage landbases: noncivilized people have lived on landbases for a very long time without destroying them, in fact enhancing their landbases according to the needs of the landbases.

The problem is not our humanity. The problem is this culture—this entire culture—and slight changes in spending habits won’t significantly stop the destruction.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t enact whatever changes we can to make whatever difference we can—remember, we do need it all—and buying organic lettuce is better than buying pesticide lettuce, on any number of levels. It’s just to say that when I spoke earlier of this culture being a culture of occupation, of the government being a government of occupation, of the economy being an economy of occupation, I wasn’t speaking metaphorically or hyperbolically. I was speaking sincerely, literally, physically, in all seriousness and truth. If we were Russians living under the German occupation in 1943, would we believe we could stop the Nazis by buying products made by German companies we like a little more and not buying them from I.G. Farben and other companies we don’t like?

The same is true for boycotts. We can’t boycott our way to sustainability any more than we can spend our way to it. The industrial economy, as is true for any economy of occupation (which means any civilized economy), is fundamentally a command economy (defined as “an economy that is planned and controlled by a central administration”). I know, I know, we’ve all been fed the line that “our” economy is based on some mythical thing called the free market, and that whatever it produces is by definition what we want. But I don’t want depleted uranium any more than I want depleted oceans. Do you? So how did we get them? If the economy really were free, why are armed military and police necessary to secure producers’ access to resources? And even if it were a “free market,” that wouldn’t help our landbases, since these markets do not value those parts of our landbases not perceived as productive (in other words, not obviously amenable to exploitation). And as mentioned before, in a global economy, free market or not, any wild thing that is vulnerable to exploitation (in other words, is valuable) will either be domesticated—enslaved—or exploited to extinction. But it’s worse than this. It’s not a free market anyway. Remember the words of Dwayne Andreas: “There’s not one grain of anything in the world that is sold in the free market. The only place you see a free market is in the speeches of politicians.”Economist Brad DeLong puts this another way: “As producers and employees many of us live in an economy that is better thought of as a corporate economy: an economy in which patterns of economic activity are organized by the hands of bosses and managers, rather than one in which the pattern of activity emerges unplanned by any other than the market’s invisible hand.”Yet another way to say all this is to note that, as alluded to above, all sectors of the economy, in fact the economy as a whole, would collapse almost immediately without huge subsidies. If every person in the country suddenly decided to somehow boycott, for example, the oil industry—which of course won’t happen, for any number of obvious reasons—the U.S. and other governments would merely increase the subsidies to that sector of the economy, and probably for good measure arrest the boycott organizers on racketeering charges.

Another reason we can’t spend our way to sustainability is that we will always be outspent by those who are actively destroying the world. Destroying the world is how they make their money. It is always how they have made their money: through production, through the conversion of the living to the dead, through forcing others (the natural world, human communities) to pay the price for their activities. If you don’t produce—that is, destroy—you won’t make money. That still isn’t to say that there aren’t degrees of destructiveness: the damage caused by a permaculture farmer hand-delivering his lettuce leaves to his neighbors would be trivial compared to the damage caused by a full-on industrio-chemical lettuce agricorporation, but, and this is the point, so would his profits. That’s why those who profit from this destructiveness will always have more money than we do, and will always be able to outspend us. An example should make this clear. Let’s say I make a boatload of money writing and selling books. Oops, scratch that, since the manufacture of books—even on recycled paper using soy-based inks—requires lots of water, energy (ghost slaves), and raw materials. In other words, it’s very destructive. Okay, so let’s say instead I make a boatload of money making a boatload of money (in other words, I haul out my trusty printing press, and I just make the damn stuff). Oops, I can’t do that, since the counterfeiting of money requires high-quality papers and lots of presumably toxic inks, lots of energy, and so forth. In other words, that’s very destructive too. So okay, darnitall, let’s say instead I just walk to a bank (wearing only used clothing taken from the dumpster behind Goodwill), and I take a boatload of money. I do this at night, because I don’t want to threaten or scare any of the tellers, or perform any other action that might be construed as violent. Even better, I don’t go to a bank, but go at night to Wal-Mart, and sneak in through an open door. I don’t want to break a window, because there are those who would consider this an act of violence. I don’t blow the safe because there are those who would consider this an act of violence. But let’s say the safe is open. I take a boatload of money. Or if the safe isn’t open, I take a bunch of consumer items, fabricate some receipts (okay, so this takes paper, but we’ll just ignore that) and return them over the next days and weeks and months for a boatload of money. Wal-Mart, with its $258.6 billion in revenues, isn’t going to miss it.The point is that I somehow find a way to acquire a boatload of money that a) didn’t cause me to “produce”—in other words, destroy—anything, and b) didn’t cause me to pay taxes—in other words, to pay the government so it can destroy things. The question becomes, what am I going to do with this cash? Let’s say I do what I actually would do if I acquired a boatload of cash: I buy some land and set it aside. Let’s ignore the fact that in so doing I’m reinforcing the extremely damaging idea that land can be bought and sold. I buy an entire small creek drainage, and I set to work to improve habitat in that drainage for salmon, Port Orford cedars, mountain lions, Pacific lampreys, red-legged frogs, and so on. I create a sanctuary, a place where salamanders, newts, tree frogs, towhees, phoebes, and spotted owls can thrive and live as they did before the arrival of our awful culture. I’ve done a good and great thing, maybe even as good and great as what Elser tried to do. But now I find I want to protect more land, because these creatures need more habitat. What do I have to do? Because I pulled this land out of production, and thus am not “making any money” off of it, I have to write more books, print more money, make more trips to Wal-Mart, and unless I’ve figured out non-destructive ways to acquire cash—like the nocturnal trips to Wal-Mart—then I’m basically creating sacrifice zones elsewhere that I do not see so that the land I do see can be protected. I have to do this every time I want to protect more land.

Now, let’s contrast that with someone who purchases this entire watershed not to create a sanctuary but to cut the trees. That person will “make money” off the land by harming it, and can use that money to purchase more land, where that person can cut more trees and make more money, and use that money to buy more land, and so on until there’s nothing left. See, for example, Weyerhaeuser, or any other timber (or other) corporation.

Because the civilized economy is extractive, because it rewards those who exploit humans and nonhumans, that is, because it rewards those who do not give back to the landbase what it needs, that is, because it rewards people for disconnecting themselves from the reciprocal relationships that characterize (human or nonhuman) sustainable economies (and relationships), those who value the accumulation of money or power over life will always have more money or power than those who value life over money or power.