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Excerpt from What We Leave Behind

Real World Is Primary (p. 203)

From chapter "The Real World"

Trying to force sustainability onto a functionally unsustainable culture causes severe cognitive dissonance, and makes people suggest absurd solutions. No solution can be too absurd so long as it fulfills its primary purpose of keeping us from seeing that the culture can never be sustainable, and that to attempt to sustain this culture is to harm the world. The real, physical world.

Any solution that springs from the (most often entirely unconscious) belief that the culture is more important than the world (or that the culture is real and the real world exists only as a backdrop and a source of raw materials) will not solve the problem.

One more example. I posted this section of the book to a global warming list serve, and one of the activists there replied (and as with McDonough, I’ve put my responses to some particulars in endnotes), “If you feel civilization is the problem, then you need to have a realistic and practical solution. If your idea of a solution is to have 5 billion peoplebehave as lemmings and jump in the oceanyou could see why most people would respond with a ‘you first.’”

I find his response interesting because it reveals the precise inversion of reality we’ve been talking about. When I suggested that civilization needs to go, he immediately equated that with human suicide. I wasn’t talking about humans being exterminated. I was talking about ending civilization. He and I don’t speak the same language. The same is true for many members of this culture. We do not even agree on the answers to the most basic questions: What is real? What is primary? What we are trying to save? Hell, not only do we not agree on the answers, we don’t even agree on what these questions mean. So I’ve started making a translation dictionary. Here are my first four entries: when I say world many people in this culture hear industrial capitalism; when I say the end of the world they hear the end of industrial capitalism; when I say civilization they hear human existence; and when I say the end of civilization they hear the end of human existence. But those are not at all the same. Worse, as we’ve laid out, within this culture the world is consistently less important than industrial capitalism, the end of the world is less to be feared than the end of industrial capitalism, civilization is more important than human existence, and the end of civilization is more to be feared than the end of human existence.

It’s insane. Literally. I’m sorry to have to be the one to break this news, but the planet is more important than this fucking culture.

And of course these thinkers care more about this culture than the planet: that’s how this culture has taught us to feel (or more accurately to not feel) and to think (or more accurately, to not think). This culture could not have gotten to this point of planetary crisis without inculcating most of its members into this perspective.

And this perspective is really fucking stupid.

And it’s really fucking insane.

And it really doesn’t work. Industrial capitalism can never be sustainable. It has always destroyed the land upon which it depends for raw materials, and it always will. Until there is no land (or water, or air) for it to exploit. Or until, and this is obviously the far better option, there is no industrial capitalism.

Industrial capitalism is a social construct. Civilization is a social construct.

It’s embarrassing to have to write this, but you can’t have a social construct—any social construct—without a real world.

The real world is the independent variable. Our social constructs—any social constructs—must be dependent variables. Our social constructs— any social constructs—must conform to the real world. Our social constructs must make the real world a better place, a more diverse, more resilient place, a healthier place. If they don’t, they will destroy the world— the real physical world. And if we allow social constructs to destroy the real, physical world, well, then once again the world would be better off had we never been born.

We must destroy that which destroys the real physical world.

How do you stop or at least curb global warming? Easy. Stop pumping carbon dioxide, methane, and so on into the atmosphere. How do you do that? Easy. Stop burning oil, natural gas, coal, and so on. How do you do that? Easy. Stop industrial capitalism.

When most people in this culture ask, “How can we stop global warming?” that’s not really what they’re asking. They’re asking, “How can we stop global warming, without significantly changing this lifestyle [or deathstyle, as some call it] that is causing global warming in the first place?”

The answer is that you can’t.

It’s a stupid, absurd, and insane question.

To ask how we can stop global warming while still allowing that which structurally, necessarily causes global warming—industrial civilization— to continue in its functioning is like asking how we can stop mass deaths at Auschwitz while allowing it to continue as a death camp. Destroying the world is what this culture does. It’s what it has done from the beginning.

How can we stop global warming?

You know the answer to that.