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Excerpt from A Language Older Than Words

Deforestation (p. 84)

From chapter "Claims to Virtue"

It’s not unheard of for old trees—big pines, firs, and cedars a thousand years old—to scream audibly when they’re cut down. I’ve heard from loggers that the screams are disturbing at first, but as with anything else, you get used to it.

We’ve had a long time to get used to the screams. Just as our civilization’s expansion is marked by a widening circle of genocide, so too forests and all of their inhabitants precede us. Deserts dog our heels.

The need to deforest started in what used to be the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, Mesopotamia. The land was fecund, as land so often is before we get our hands on it. Cedar forests stretched so far that no one knew their true size, and sunlight never penetrated far enough to touch the humus that has long since baked, crumbled, and blown away. Forty-seven hundred years ago Gilgamish, ruler of Uruk, a city near the Euphrates River, decided to make a name for himself by building a great city Armed with “mighty adzes” and more importantly with a justification—the promise of “a name that endures”—that would allow him and his cronies to deafen themselves to “the sad song of the cedars” as they cut them down, Gilgamish entered the forest, briefly reflected on its beauty, vanquished its protector, and took what he needed.

There goes the neighborhood! It’s not unlike the times my father found fault with one of us— he was right, end of conversation. So too the transformation of wild nature to usable resource marked the end of our conversation with wild nature. The rest has been a steady journey to an all-too-familiar destination, one devoid of life.

The story of this journey is as monotonous in its own terrible way as the story of our culture’s genocidal practices, which is not surprising, considering, as we shall eventually see, that they spring from the same hollow impulses. Soon after Gilgamish was history (i.e.. dead), the ruler Gudea of the nearby city of Lagash took up the mantle, and built his own city, cutting trees to build temples, and once again, to build a name. Name after name rulers are recorded, building up like silt in streams from the eroded hillsides they left in their paths. And nations, too, rise with the fall of forests and fall when they are gone. Troy, Greece, Lebanon, Rome, Sicily, the trees were cut for the greater good, for ships, for commerce, for this reason or that. Always a reason, always deforestation. France, Germany, Britain, the United States, a sandy thread of dead and dying forests that leads to South America, Siberia, Southeast Asia, and now back to my own home, where the last of the American forests fall.

It is not possible to commit deforestation, or any other mass atrocity—mass murder, genocide, mass rape, the pervasive abuse of women or children, institutionalized animal abuse, imprisonment, wage slavery, systematic impoverishment, ecocide—without first convincing yourself and others that what you’re doing is beneficial. You must have, as Dr. Robert Jay Lifton has put it, a “claim to virtue.” You must be convinced—as the Nazis were convinced that the elimination of the Jews would allow the Aryan race to thrive; as the founders of Judeo-Christianity were convinced their misogynist laws were handed down not from their own collective unconscious but from the God they could not admit they created; as my father was convinced he was not beating his son but teaching him diligence, respect, or even spelling, as politicians, scientists, and business leaders today are convinced they’re not destroying life on earth but “developing natural resources”—that you are performing a servicefor humankind.

Forests have fallen as surely to these claims to virtue as they have to axes, saws, and fellerbunchers. By looking at the successive claims used to rationalize the deforestation of this continent, perhaps we can begin to see not only the transparent stupidity of them but further still to the motives that underlie the destruction.

The early Europeans faced much the same problem we face today: their lofty goals required the destruction of these forests and all life in them, but they couldn’t do it without at least some justification. The first two claims to virtue were the intertwining goals of Christianizing the natives and making a profit. These embodied a bizarre yet efficient exchange in which, as Captain John Chester succinctly put it, the natives gained “the knowledge of our faith” while the Europeans acquired “such riches as the country hath.” Both the natives and the “ritches”—including the forests of New England—were quickly cut down.

Soon the claim to Christianization was dropped, and the rationalization became “Manifest Destiny,” the tenet that the territorial expansion of the United States was not only inevitable, but divinely ordained. Thus it was God and not man who ordered the land’s original inhabitants be removed, who ordered the destruction of hundreds of human cultures and the killing or dispossession of tens of millions of human beings, who ordered the slaughter of 60 million buffalo and 20 million pronghorn antelope to make life tougher. Thus it was God and not man who ordered that the native forests of the Midwest be felled by the ax.

Manifest Destiny as a claim to virtue soon evolved back into the ideal of making money. An enterprise was deemed as good as it was profitable, while domination and control remained safely unspoken. The forests of the Northwest were described by a corporate spokesperson as “a rich heiress waiting to be appropriated and enjoyed.” To be honest, not even this claim was new in any meaningful sense, but a mere recycling of the words of our JudeoChristian fathers—”And seest among the captives a beautiful woman, and hast a desire unto her, then thou shalt bring her home to thine house”—with a substitution of trees for women, whipsaws for penises, and the immutable laws of economia fur the immutable laws of God.

That brings us to today. As the effects of industrial forestry on this continent become increasingly clear—fisheries vanish, biodiversity goes monotone, communities fall apart, and rich biomes become tree farms—corporate profitability loses its effectiveness as a claim to virtue. Another claim—jobs—has arisen, but this has no ring of truth in an era of automation, downsizing, and the Asian lumber mill. The search for a different justification begins anew.

Recognizing that the forests of this country are in a state of ecological collapse, the timber industry and the politicians and the governmental agencies that serve it have begun to claim the way to improve the health of these massively over cut forests is, unsurprisingly enough, to cut them down. The government has provided, in the words of one of the industry’s Senators, “exemptions from environmental laws for logging needed to improve forest health.” The Forest Service has disallowed citizens from purchasing federal timber sales to leave the trees standing, because “then the trees won’t get cut down.” A clearcut is then rationalized by declaring that “while insect and disease populations are currently at endemic levels, there is a potential for spruce bark beetle populations to reach epidemic proportions.” In other words, we must cut these admittedly healthy trees because they might get sick someday. The timber transnational corporation Boise Cascade has run advertisements likening clearcuts to smallpox vaccinations.

It’s all insane. It doesn’t take a cognitive giant to see that if logging were “needed to improve forest health” there’d be no need to exempt it from environmental laws. The most difficult and disturbing task is to understand how and why, after millenia of deforestation, the destroyers and defenders alike accept each new, ephemeral, transparently false claim to virtue at face value. One reason, of course, is that the pattern itself is horrifying, too terrible to think about A second reason is that if we allow ourselves to recognize the pattern and fully internalize its implications we would have to change it. And so we propagate, or at least permit the myths. It’s called passing the buck.