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Excerpt from What We Leave Behind

Compartmentalized Thinking (p. 88)

From chapter "Compartmentalization and its Opposite"

Just today I did a radio interview that manifested compartmentalized thinking. The interviewer, named Andy, was a Bible-quoting, property-rights-über-alles antienvironmentalist. I don’t know if he requested an interview with me because he wanted to bash an environmentalist, because he didn’t like the sound of my name, because God told him to, or because environmentalism is, according to many Bible-quoting, property-rights-über-alles antienvironmentalists, a religion that must be stamped out using any means necessary. Most likely he requested an interview for reasons I’ll never know and wouldn’t understand anyway. I know it wasn’t because he’s read any of my work; he said so on air when I challenged him about the abysmal quality of the interview.

Normally people who interview me—and there’ve been hundreds of them, ranging from national radio interviewers to major print journalists to enthusiastic (and nervous) teenagers interviewing me for their photocopied zines—do so because they’re concerned about the murder of the planet, and they want to explore with me the deep underlying reasons for this culture’s ubiquitous destructiveness, and far more importantly, how to stop it. This interviewer cared about none of this, and in fact did not seem to consider environmental problems “real”: whenever I gave any—and I mean any—specifics about planetary collapse he said as much. I said that 90 percent of the large fish in the oceans are gone, and he interrupted me to say, “Let’s keep this interview about the real world.” I talked about dioxin in every mother’s breastmilk, and he cut me off to insist once again I talk about what he called “the real world,” which evidently does not include the real world. Salmon are being exterminated, I said, but before I finished he cut me off with the same refrain. I told him that there’s no world more real than the physical world of soil and trees and birds and insects. But he, like so many members of this delusional culture, believes that the real physical world is secondary, peripheral, and that industrial capitalism is primary— in his words, “the real world.” If insanity can be defined as being out of touch with physical reality, this man is insane. Literally.

He was also extraordinarily hostile. His hostility made no sense to me. Why would he invite someone onto his radio program, then cut the person off, talk over the person, chide the person, ignore everything the person said except for one or two key words he would then use to launch an attack? What’s the point? If he’s not going to listen anyway, he should just get a recording he can turn off and on: the interview equivalent of masturbating to porn (as opposed to actually engaging another human being).

Early in the interview I spoke about dams killing rivers. The interviewer said that we need dams for electricity: “Some environmentalists, especially radical environmentalists, say that air conditioners aren’t sustainable. They say that dams aren’t sustainable. They seem to say that everything isn’t sustainable.”

“I wouldn’t call air conditioning and dams everything, but those two things aren’t sustainable. Dams kill rivers by forcing—”

He cut me off: “Oh, come on. Get back in the real world. We need air conditioning. We need dams. We need all those things.”

I said, “I live on Tolowa land. The Tolowa lived here for at least 12,500 years, and did so without air conditioning, and without dams. They lived here without materially harming the landb—”

“You’re doing it again,” he said. “Get back in the real world. I don’t care about history.

Which means, I thought, that you’ll never learn anything from it.

He continued, “I want you to stop being so ethereal.”

He actually used the word ethereal (definition: characterized by lightness and insubstantiality; intangible; not of this world) to describe my reference to a culture that has lived on and with this same land for at least six hundred human generations. Six hundred generations of eating what the land gives willingly; six hundred generations of living, dying, being eaten by the soil, bones becoming food for trees, food for forbs eaten by elk then eaten by the human children of those whose bones fed the soil. Six hundred human generations is even long enough to witness several generations of redwoods. He called my reference to humans living in an intact native redwood forest filled with salmon, grizzly bears, and lamprey ethereal.

He continued, “I’m talking about people right now whose property would be destroyed by floods if it weren’t for dams. What would you tell these people who’ve built their homes—their dream homes—right next to a river?”

“I would tell them that—”

This time he made no pretense of listening, but started up again, “And what about all the cropland that’s near rivers, the cropland that would get flooded?”

He took a breath, and before he could start up again I said, “Flooding is crucial to the health of the soil. It’s one of the ways that lands near rivers regenerate. That’s one reason the Nile Delta, for example, was so extraordinarily fertile, and—”

“Derrick, Derrick, you’re doing it again.” Yes, he actually was that condescending. “We’re not talking about history. Can you please stay in the real world? I’m not talking about what the soil needs over the long term . . .”

He actually said that.

He continued, “I’m talking about fields and homes getting flooded.”

“Floods are necessary to the health not only of the river but of the whole river plain.”

“You’re avoiding my questions. What are you going to say to the people whose dream homes are next to a river?”

It occurred to me he might be talking about his own home. I said, “I would tell them that to force a river not to flood is to kill the river and to kill the surrounding lands.”

He almost shouted, “Just answer the question!” He’d clearly watched too many bad courtroom dramas. But his demand was as rhetorical as his questions, as he didn’t let me answer anyway. He continued, “And what about the tens of thousands of people in some poor country who just died in a flood? We need dams to protect us from the ravages of nature.”

“How much does deforestation add to catastrophic—as opposed to normal—flooding?”

“Answer the question, Derrick. Floods kill people. Dams are necessary to protect us.”

“It may or may not be the case that dams protect people from flooding, but how many people suffer mercury poisoning because of dams?”

“We’re not talking about mercury, and we’re not talking about deforestation. We’re talking about dams saving people from floods.”

I knew by now of course that he was locked into a compartmentalized way of thinking, and that his compartment was very small indeed. The only thing that mattered to him was the question of whether dams protect people’s dream homes from floods (I knew that his expressed concern about the lives of poor people was purely rhetorical, since he’d already said that the global poor are not that way because of the theft of their resources by the rich, but rather because corruption and local caste systems combine to drag them into poverty; and since he’d already told me to get back into the real world when I’d pointed out that a half a million human children die each year as a direct result of so-called debt repayment by non-industrialized nations to industrialized nations: his real concern was property). I said, “If the relationship between dams and human safety is important to you, then surely you know about endemic onchocerciasis and schistosomiasis.”

For once, he said nothing.

I said, “Do you know what they are?”

He still didn’t say anything.

I said, “I’m surprised you’d talk about dams and safety if you don’t know what endemic onchocerciasis and schistosomiasis are. As a direct result of the Akosombo Dam on the Volta River, in Ghana, which powers huge bauxite smelters (and from which the displaced or otherwise affected people don’t even receive electricity), 100,000 people have contracted endemic onchocerciasis, or river blindness, rendering seventy thousand of them totally sightless; and another 80,000 have been permanently disabled by schistosomiasis.”

I have to admit that this little checkmate wasn’t as satisfying as I’d hoped, because the next thing he said was, “You’re changing the subject. Floods kill people and they destroy property.”

In his compartmentalized mind, the only victims who matter are those killed by floods; the only damage that matters is that caused by floods; the only effects of floods that matter are the ones that harm property (as opposed to those that keep rivers and floodplains alive); the only floods that matter are the ones dams prevent; and the only cause of floods is a lack of dams. Never mind the permanent floods caused by dams that destroy tens of thousands of villages. Never mind the great runs of salmon killed by dams. Never mind the soil exhausted because dams don’t allow flooding. Never mind the “dream homes” that fall off sandy cliffs because dams rob beaches of sediment. Never mind the cataclysmic floods caused by deforestation or climate collapse.

I kept trying to smash the compartment he was building, and he kept trying to reconstruct it and force us both to climb back inside.

If you can make the compartment of discourse (and thought) small enough, you can make sure that all questions you ask lead only to predetermined answers (which takes us right back to the rhetorical equivalent of masturbation). This was clearly his (probably entirely unconscious) intent. This sort of compartmentalized thinking is not thinking at all, and this sort of compartmentalized discourse is not discourse at all. This sort of compartmentalized thinking and discourse is fundamentally a lie. And I was not willing to go along with his lie.