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Excerpt from Songs of the Dead

I Don't Understand (p. 136)

From chapter "Confusion"

What are we going to do about the fact that civilization—the dominant culture, the cannibals, the wétikos, whatever—is killing the planet? I’ve written book after book describing this culture’s destructiveness—and certainly I’ve read hundreds more—and I still don’t understand it. I don’t understand the motivations for the destruction—as we already talked about, what’s the use of retiring rich on a planet being murdered, or more to the point, being rendered uninhabitable?—and I don’t understand its wantonness. I don’t understand the hatefulness on any level, from the most personal to the most global.

Today I learned that a friend of a friend was recently raped by an acquaintance of hers, in the presence of others of their social group. Although she actively tried to fight the man off, other members of this group later tried to convince her she had brought it on, and she had enjoyed it. She told them she was going to press charges, and every one of these people suddenly changed stories: far from her precipitating the rape, it never happened at all. One called her home and left a message threatening her with (more) physical harm if she pursued this case. The man’s girlfriend has threatened her. Most of her friends are telling her not to ruin this man’s life. Her bosses—a couple who live next door to the rapist’s girlfriend—told her that if she pressed charges they would fire her.

I don’t understand.

Salmon, bison, ivory-billed woodpeckers, Eskimo curlews, Carolina parakeets, Siberian tigers, Javan rhinos, swordfish, great white sharks, blue whales, gray whales, Steller’s sea cows. Every stream in the continental United States is contaminated with carcinogens. There’s dioxin and flame retardant in every mother’s breast milk. There are more than 2 million dams just in the United States. It is entirely possible that global warming could enter a runaway phase that could effectively end life on this planet. We are told we must balance the “needs” of the economic system against the needs of “the environment.” And did I mention that deforestation of the Amazon is accelerating?

I don’t understand.

The good news, I suppose, is that the point is not and has never been simply to understand the hatefulness, the destructiveness, as though describing it well enough, writing enough books about it, will somehow make the hatefulness go away and the destruction stop. The point is to stop the destructiveness, stop this malignant form of hatred. Ultimately our attempts at understanding the destructiveness are only helpful insofar as they help to stop that destructiveness. Otherwise they’re a waste of time.

If the destructiveness is caused by some cultural sickness or by some hitchhiker, then the magical hope of many mainstream activists for some spiritual transformation leading to peace, justice, and sustainability becomes even more absurd than it already is. Sure, we’ve all heard of people facing death from some horrible disease who undergo a miraculous spiritual rebirth that leads to remission of the disease and a long healthy life for the initiate, but we’ve also heard of those who undergo this rebirth and then die anyway. Sometimes diseases might be teachers for us, but sometimes cancer, Crohn’s, diabetes, leprosy, AIDS, tuberculosis, Ebola, smallpox, and polio aren’t teachers so much as they’re simply diseases that kill us. Similarly, how many psychopaths have suddenly become warm and loving individuals? I know that the recidivism rate among perpetrators of domestic violence approaches 100 percent. To be clear: could words stop a rabid dog? Could waves of loving kindness stop an infected cricket from reaching water? Could impassioned pleas and precise articulations stop a spider from spinning her own scaffold for the wasp who will soon kill her? Will entreaties and moral pronouncements stop the wétikos from turning this entire planet into a death camp—which of course from the perspective of the indigenous and of nonhumans they already have—and even worse, from killing the whole planet?

These are questions with answers I understand.