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Excerpt from What We Leave Behind

Compartmentalization (p. 81)

From chapter "Compartmentalization and its Opposite"

This culture specializes in compartmentalization. If people didn’t blind themselves (and allow this culture to blind them) to the effects of their actions—in other words, if they didn’t put their actions into one compartment and the harmful effects of these actions into another compartment that must never be examined—this culture and its members would not be able to continue a lifestyle based on systematic exploitation and theft. So walls must be erected and maintained. People must be trained to be selectively deaf and blind, sensate only when necessary to perform the task at hand. Do you want to design a “sustainable” truck factory? No problem. Throw some plants on the roof, then just ignore the effects of car culture. Do you want to design an eco-groovy Nike headquarters? No problem. Just make sure you ignore the slave labor. Do you want to manifest your destiny? Great! Just make sure you eliminate everyone who already lives on the continent. Do you want to run an industrial economy? Wonderful! Just make sure you pay little or no heed to the fact that you’re killing the planet you live on.

More or less all of us in this culture—and I am explicitly including myself—are adept at this sort of compartmentalization. It’s what we do.

The training starts early. If familial abuse hasn’t shattered our psyches— forcing us to compartmentalize our experiences, storing trauma in a compartment we will never allow ourselves to look into, and keeping happy feelings and memories where we can hold on to them—then school will surely teach us to compartmentalize. It does this by separating subjects, and even moreso by separating school from home (and school from landbase) and schooltime from playtime. School is school, and play is play, and never the twain shall meet.

The same is true philosophically. Science is science, ethics is ethics, and these two, also, shall never have more than a passing and uncomfortable acquaintance. We can say the same for politics and ethics, and we can say the same for economics and ethics. (Of course politics and economics, handily for those in power, share no such separation from each other, and in fact politics, economics, and science are all united by their mutual raison d’être, which is the raison d’être of this culture: the drive to accumulate and use power over others.)

Compartments. Men and women in different boxes. Humans and nonhumans in different boxes (except when it comes to vivisection: evidently we have enough in common for nonhumans to be models for how toxins will affect us, yet we have little enough in common that nonhumans can’t feel the agony, frustration, despair, sorrow, rage, and helplessness that we would feel were we similarly tormented). Thought goes in one box. Emotion goes in another. One’s job goes in one box. One’s life goes in another.

In The Nazi Doctors Lifton describes what he calls “doubling,” where guards in concentration camps would have one moral code at home, where they might be good parents, and so on; and another at work, where they might torture and murder inmates. In another book he described a similar doubling—which, in some ways, is just another word for compartmentalization—among scientists and technicians working on nuclear weapons. The same applies to all of us, really. We try to be good people while participating in this inherently destructive death-camp culture.

People like [Bill] McDonough claim that actions like putting plants on truck factories—truck factories!—are significant steps toward sustainability, and it should come as no surprise that others in this culture laud this disturbing compartmentalized thinking. So long as you ignore everything but your own particular little action, so long as you ignore every preceding step and every inevitable consequence, that is, so long as you think in a linear, compartmentalized, rationalized way, you, too, can proclaim every one of your actions to be sustainable. You, too, can be praised by Presidents and CEOs alike. You, too, can with a clear conscience continue to assist in this culture’s ultimate consumption of the planet.