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Excerpt from What We Leave Behind

Childish Things (p. 270)

From chapter "Part III"

The Apostle Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians, “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

If we’re going to grow up enough to stop this culture from killing the planet, we’re going to have to put away many childish things.

We must first and foremost put away the childish, narcissistic notion that the world exists for our use. It doesn’t. And it doesn’t matter whether God told us we have dominion over the earth; or whether, equally plausibly, Elvis came to us in a dream and told us the same thing; or whether capitalists tell us that land is “unused” just because no human is using it for fiscal purposes. All the pretending in the world ain’t gonna make it so.

Contrast the Christian/Capitalist/Civilized ethic that God gave man dominion over the earth with what Vine Deloria said to me about the point of life from the perspective of a native North American: “In this moral universe, all activities, events, and entities are related, and so it doesn’t matter what kind of existence an entity enjoys—whether it is human or otter or star or rock—because the responsibility is always there for it to participate in the continuing creation of reality. Life is not a predatory jungle, ‘red in tooth and claw,’ as Westerners like to pretend, but is better understood as a symphony of mutual respect in which each player has a specific part to play. We must be in our proper place and we must play our role at the proper moment. So far as humans are concerned, because we came last, we are the ‘younger brothers’ of the other life-forms, and therefore have to learn everything from these other creatures. The real interest of old Indians would then be not to discover the abstract structure of physical reality, but rather to find the proper road down which, for the duration of a person’s life, that person is supposed to walk.”

So, on one hand we have an infantile notion that everything in the world belongs to me, me, precious little me, and if it’s not used by me it’s wasted, and on the other we have the attitude that we are the younger siblings of our earthly neighbors and must learn from them how to play our proper role in a grand symphony of mutual respect. Gosh, I wonder which of these two perspectives will more likely lead to the murder of the planet, and which will more likely lead to sustainable cultures?

If we wish to live sustainably, which at this point means to continue to live at all, we must put away the childish notion that we have the right to take whatever we want from nonhumans.

We must also put away the childish notion that humans are particularly special, or any more special than flying squirrels, sockeye salmon, red cedar, solitary bees, Steller’s jays, or oyster mushrooms. Once again, it doesn’t matter whether Christianity teaches us the flattering notion that humans are the only ones with souls, or whether science tells us (again and again, ever more frantically) the equally flattering notion (indeed the same notion) that humans are the most intelligent species on earth. Pretending ain’t gonna make this so either.

So many indigenous people have said to me that the fundamental difference between western and indigenous ways of being is that even the most open-minded westerners generally view listening to the natural world as a metaphor, as opposed to the way the world really is. Trees and rocks and rivers really do have things to say to us.

Today I received this note from an activist in Australia: “Just back to work after a two-month reprieve from wage slavery (enjoyed river restoration and littoral rainforest replanting in Northern New South Wales—penance for working for a TV station). The ocean spoke to me when I was there. She told me she was sick and she needed me to help stop them killing her. While I was foraging for mussels she told me that she wanted her babies back, and that I should only take them if I really needed them, if I was really hungry. I’ve long known that indigenous peoples talk of listening to the world speak, but I’ve always felt there must be something wrong with me because I haven’t been able to hear or speak to my nonhuman neighbours: I’ve thought perhaps I’d lost that sensitivity or something. But hearing the ocean speak when I was out there made the answer obvious: it’s very difficult, almost impossible, to be a wage slave, work in a fluorescent tomb for eight hours a day, live in a concrete bunker, and then expect to have a relationship with living beings. The question remains: what took me so long to realise that? As you’d say: duh.”

Another way to say all this is that we must put away the childish notion that the world consists of resources (“a natural source of wealth or revenue”) rather than other beings with lives and concerns as important to them as ours are to us.

We must put away the childish notion that humans are exempt from ecological principles. Most of us understand that if rabbits overshoot carrying capacity, they will destroy their surroundings and undergo a population crash. But humans have clearly overshot carrying capacity, and are clearly destroying their surroundings, yet they continue to breed like, well, like they say that rabbits do. They seem to consider themselves the smartest creatures around, and they incessantly claim they care about human life and that human life is amazingly wondrously sacred and special, yet they are making no reasonable effort to avert or alleviate this crash (which will be the result not merely of overpopulation but the culture as a whole, of which overpopulation is merely one symptom among far too many). In fact, anyone observing this from outside would probably come to the conclusion that these human creatures are doing everything in their power to make this crash as painful and deadly as they can.

We must give up on wishful thinking. I wish the US would stop invading other countries (but I’m not going to stop it). I wish I had a pony (and maybe I’ll get one for Christmas). I wish the industrial economy would stop killing the planet (but I’m not going to dismantle it). I wish I had a bicycle (and I’ve been so very, very good this year). I wish dams would stop killing salmon (but I’m not going to remove any myself). I wish we would end up at a sustainable population without anyone dying. I wish we would be able to stop those who are killing the planet without harming (or inconveniencing) anyone. I wish we could consume the entire planet without killing it. I wish. I wish. I wish.

Some children can be notorious for short attention spans (some are not). This culture has enshrined short attention spans in its economic system, which is as shortsighted as it is possible to be: would you rather have a living planet forever, or cheap consumables now? We needn’t speak our answer out loud: it’s already manifest in our actions, and inactions.

Years ago I knew a woman with several children who briefly dated a man who lived in the country. Their relationship ended when one day he showed her children a bird’s nest in a tree near his home. He told them of the fragility of the baby birds, and told them to observe the nest only at a distance. The woman’s oldest son, who was six at the time, waited till the man’s back was turned, climbed the tree, and intentionally threw the nest to the ground. The man realized he did not want to be in a relationship with such a horrid child (this action was in no way out of character for this child), nor with a parent who would countenance such behavior. The planet will soon say the same to us. We need to grow up such that when the Earth tells us, increasingly sternly, to clean up the messes we’ve created; to metaphorically and physically stop wantonly throwing birds’ nests to the ground; to not ignore (or more to the point, abuse, torture, suffocate, cut, rape, murder) the Earth; to not smirk that horrid smirk we’ve seen on the faces of so many ill-behaved, aggressive, spoiled-brat children as we continue to destroy anything we feel like destroying for whatever stupid reasons we manufacture; to not destroy the planet; to not continue to create whatever messes we feel like (once again for whatever stupid reasons we manufacture) and to only slightly mitigate those messes (perhaps by putting plants on truck factories), then look around proudly as though everyone else is supposed to somehow approve of us being only slightly— and I mean slightly—less destructive, yet still dreadfully ill-behaved, aggressive, spoiled, and indeed sociopathic. It’s all bulls**t. People sometimes speak of the Earth as our mother, yet any good mother would see through all this in a heartbeat. And the earth does. As the wonderful philosopher Kathleen Dean Moore wrote to the CEO of an oil company, in response to an ad stating that “Mother Earth is a tough old gal”: “If the Earth really were your mother, she would grab you with one rocky hand and hold you under water until you no longer bubbled.”

Here’s something else we must give up. Have you ever interacted with a child who pretends that covering his or her face conveys invisibility? More or less all of us do this on at least two levels. One is that we pretend that just because we’ve have chosen not to look at the problems we’re facing they must not exist. If we switch senses, this is all the equivalent of plugging our ears and singing “La la la la,” behavior that describes the bulk of this culture’s discourse, politics, “resistance,” and philosophy. The second is that many of us seem to believe that if we perform slight actions to make ourselves inconspicuous, the attentions of those in power will never fall on us. So we resist less and less, in less and less effective ways (“free speech zones” anyone?), and still the glaring light of the Panopticon keeps us in view.

Related to this is another childish behavior we must put away. One of the central means by which abused children maintain the pretense of control in uncontrollable, abusive situations, is to pretend—and of course you’ll see the similarities here to simple living “activists”—that the problems are caused by them, and not by their beyond-their-control abusers. They pretend that if they can only be good enough children, can only clean the dishes well enough (or on the larger cultural scale, perhaps not drive a car), can be quiet enough (become vegetarian or vegan), and so on, that the Dreadful will not happen. But the Dreadful has already happened, and continues to happen, and will continue to happen again and again, incessantly, until this culture has crashed (or been crashed) or killed the planet, no matter what good and pure children we are.

But that’s only if we are children, and understand as children, think as children, are powerless and dependent as children. Adults have other options. Grow up, find these options, and follow them.

We must put away the childish notion that the health of our communities is not our responsibility. Children need not take responsibility for the health of their families, and their larger communities. Adults must.

We must put away the child-like passivity manifested by so many activists toward those in power. So many of us seem to think that those in charge are (emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually) adults, and that they have our best interests at heart. We seem to think that the Great White Father will handle everything for us. So many of us seem to believe we are too small to do anything ourselves. We believe the fate of the salmon, or polar bears, or life on earth, are all out of our hands. All of this is false.

We need to grow up enough to recognize that others exist.

We need to grow up. We need to take responsibility for ourselves, and we need to manifest responsibility to our communities.

And that growing up can require a death and rebirth. And this death and rebirth can be painful, and full of despair. Yet some people do it. Some people do it.