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Excerpt from What We Leave Behind

The Damage Isn't Damage (p. 211)

From chapter "Taking it Personally, Volume II"

Now, back to the question, which was: What should, or would—or do—any of us do, living in this culture that is alienated from and destroying the earth, if (or when) we realize that this world would be better off had we never been born, or having been born, if we were to die?

So the first option is to distract ourselves from this realization, try to keep it unconscious.

The next option—allied to that first one—is to attack anyone who reminds us that there is the possibility of another sense of self, who reminds us that it is possible to live another way. That’s one reason—in addition to wanting to steal their land—that members of this culture eradicate all indigenous cultures. It is also one reason they destroy or attempt to domesticate all wild creatures. All that is wild—uncontrollable—must be destroyed so it will never remind us that we were not always slaves.

These attacks can also be much less direct. Just this week The Sun magazine excerpted part of my book Thought to Exist in the Wild: Awakening From the Nightmare of Zoos. They received many positive letters about it, and two negative ones. Neither negative note responded to any of my content. Instead, one writer said he didn’t like my tone and style of writing, and the other said it was “inconsistent” of me to write about zoo animals when I share my home with dogs. If you can’t find ways to discount the message itself, attack the messenger.

When the first two options don’t work—when neither distraction nor destruction suffice to keep the real world from intruding on our fantasy that we are separate from and above the natural world—the next option is to pretend that the damage isn’t really damage. This is done both by those who are overtly anti-environmental, and also by many of those who otherwise seem to, or at the very least pretend to, care about the natural world. An example of the former: in 1972, Chevron offered the Cofan people of Amazonian Ecuador candy and cheese for drilling rights to their land. The Cofan threw away the cheese, but consumed the candy, which led to Chevron claiming the right to drill. Chevron looted the oil and left behind massive oil spills and stinking pits of oil-field residue, all of which have contaminated rivers, aquifers, soils, plants, fungi, animals—both human and nonhuman—and so on. Human health problems include an epidemic of cancer, open pustules on those who contact the water, and bloody vomiting leading to death. The Cofan sued Chevron and its subsidiary, Texaco. A Texaco attorney responded, and his response unintentionally reveals much about the contamination of the entire planet by this culture: “And it’s the only case of cancer in the world? How many cases of children with cancer do you have in the States, in Europe, in Quito? If there is somebody with cancer there, [the Cofan parents] must prove [the deaths were] caused by crude or by [the] petroleum industry. And, second, they have to prove that it is OUR crude, which is absolutely impossible.” He also said, “Scientifically, nobody has proved that crude causes cancer.”

Well, then, I guess it’s all settled.

But maybe not. If fifty different people poison you with the same poison at the same time, could we prove which person killed you? Using this attorney’s logic—which of course is the logic of capitalists everywhere— if we could not prove which person’s poison killed you, then all poisoners go free. Unfortunately it doesn’t go the other way: if you and forty-nine others shot each of these poisoners in the head before they were able to poison you, I fear police, district attorneys, judges, and then later guards and executioners wouldn’t care which of you fired the fatal shots: you’d all share responsibility, and would be executed by the state (by multiple people pushing buttons to start the lethal injection machine—multiple people so nobody knows who is the actual killer).

The illogic hurts my head. And the rest of me.

Or how’s this: Salon.com has an advice column called Since You Asked . . . People write in their concerns or questions, which are answered by someone named Cary Tennis. Tennis has been called “The Walt Whitman of advice columnists,” who “responds to these problems at a deep level” and who “explores the big questions of life thoughtfully and maybe provides a little peace.” I give this preamble so you know the guy has some cultural credibility, and is not, at least from the culture’s perspective, a total wingnut. The question was: “How can I look my daughter, who is the light of my life, in the eye, smile and continue to follow through with the same things I always do, knowing the truth of the terrible world she will soon live within, which will try to crush her future?”

It’s certainly a reasonable question.

The “thoughtful” response by this “Walt Whitman of advice columnists” was: “You are troubled by a vision of planetary death, which stems from fear of personal death. This fear also makes you ache for your daughter, whom you envision being left alone in a dying world. It is not a technical problem. It is a spiritual problem. You seem to find it hard to accept that. Perhaps you can accept this, though: You need a vacation.”

How typical, how manipulative, how nasty, how narcissistic, how useless (to the real world, but extremely useful to the processes of planetary murder): the world is being murdered, and this advice columnist denies the man’s fear and empathy, and suggests a vacation.

How’s this: “My daughter is being murdered. It’s tearing me apart. What should I do?”

“Your daughter’s murder bothers you because it reminds you of your own mortality. You need a vacation.”

It’s simply true that right now, living in and with a world being killed, we all have knives in our chests. The world is being murdered, and so are we. This man is saying that there is a knife in his chest, and one in his daughter’s chest, too, and the response of this insane—I mean this literally—columnist is to suggest a vacation.

Those who at least purport to care about the natural world are sneakier—though no less headache-inducing—in their dismissal of the damage. Just two days ago I was talking to a group of students, and at one point I said that this culture is killing the planet (Oh, okay, you got me: I said it at many points). An activist about my age said, “But this culture can’t kill the planet. Algae or something will be left, and then in millions of years evolution will move in another direction. The Earth won’t die. It will just change.”

I asked if any of the students there happened to have a knife, and if so, could I borrow it. The woman sitting next to me began to dig one out of her pack. I asked if it was sharp. She said yes, then gave it to me. I stood, opened it, walked to the activist, and asked, “Can I have your hand?”

He said no.

I said, “I’m not going to kill you. I’m just going to cut off your little finger at the base of the fingernail. Then I’ll move up a knuckle. Then another. Then I’ll start on another finger. Then I’ll let you think about it for a while. Then I’ll cut off another. And another. I’ll move up your arms, and then I’ll start on your feet, and move up your legs. You’re not going to die. At least not for a while. You’re just going to change.”

He got the point.

The very next night I got an email from a thirty-something man from New York who had seen one of my talks on YouTube, and who said much the same thing. I cannot believe how many people claim this perspective. Nor can I believe how many variants there are. One variant is that the damage done to the planet right now isn’t a big deal, because someday the sun will expand and kill the planet anyway. I always respond, “Someday you’re going to die, so how if I torture and kill you right now?” Usually they understand. Another variant is, “The earth is very resilient, and to think that the culture can kill the planet is to manifest the same arrogance as those who are actually killing it.” Not only does this perspective ignore the very real possibility that industrial-civilization-induced global warming could turn this planet into one like Venus, but more immediately it ignores the salmon, sturgeon, delta smelt, spotted owl, marbled murrelets, and so many others already being driven extinct. Further, it incorrectly, insanely, and absurdly conflates a fear and hatred of this culture’s arrogance and destructiveness, with the arrogance and destructiveness itself.

Because I get so many emails expressing variants of this perspective— and because I see this perspective so often in print—I include a portion of this recent email, with a portion of my admittedly tired-of-this-bullshit response:

He wrote: “You’ve said that this culture will quite possibly kill the planet. How? This culture may be insane enough to kill all life on the planet or change our genetic structuring beyond all imagination, but I don’t give humanity’s insanity power over the planet. This planet could end up like Venus or any other planet with no detectable life left on it. . . . Or we could be allowing the evolution of super bacterium to thrive. But I’m confident the planet will remain, whether in a steady state with little life on it or in a state of recovery or exhaustion with no hope for reconstituting itself remotely close to what it is now. The planet will be as good as dead with no biota but it will physically remain. Humans will suffer and perhaps even go extinct real soon but the planet is set. Various life forms have come and gone on this planet for billions of years. So I’m not sure it’s about who needs ‘saving’ anymore.”

I responded: “Okay, so someone breaks into your home, and begins to torture your son: are you going to stand back and say, ‘Various life forms have come and gone for billions of years. So I’m not sure it’s about who needs “saving” anymore.’ No, you save your son. If we see an injustice we work to stop it. End of story. I’ve seen this sort of ‘analysis’ so many times and it’s all rationalization for inaction. I’m not interested in inaction. I love the salmon. I love the sturgeon. I love the redwoods. I am fighting for them. This is my life. I am giving my life for these others. It’s what we all should do.

“Let’s try this again. You’re tied up and being tortured. I have the opportunity to save you, and instead I choose to say, ‘Various life forms have come and gone for billions of years. So I’m not sure it’s about who needs “saving” anymore.’ Your response would rightly be, ‘Fuck you. You’re no friend of mine.’ Friends act to defend their friends.”

He continued, “I think the planet has the capability to withstand much. At this point I’m concerned with what is being done to humans more than the destruction of the planet.”

Of course he would be more concerned about what is being done to humans than the destruction of the planet. This value structure is central to this culture. It is a requirement of this culture. It is this culture. Those who wish to be fully-vested members of this culture must accept, live by, and proselytize this value system. In fact for most people in this culture, humans are not only the sole beings worthy of concern, humans are the sole beings who even really exist.

And as we have seen, it’s even worse than this, as for most people in this culture, not even humans are as worthy of concern as industrial civilization itself. As Frederick Winslow Taylor, founder of scientific management, put it, “In the past the man has been first; in the future the System must be first.” It’s bad enough that the vast majority of people in this culture are so narcissistic they think that “the man” must be first— more important than everyone else, including woman, land, air, water, frog, tree, barnacle, life itself—but it’s even worse that people are stupid enough to put “the System” above even “the man,” and therefore above everyone else, including all life on the planet. At least the man who wrote this note did not do that.

And of course valuing “the System” over human life is a toxic mimic of a sustainable value system where humans are seen as dependent upon and therefore by definition less valuable than the larger living community of which they are one member. Also of course an increase in perceiving that “the System” must come first is a direct and inevitable consequence of an increase in “the System” being forcefully inserted between us and these larger living communities, which leads (and this is both necessary and intentional) to an increase in forced human dependence upon “the System.” In other words, those whose food comes directly from the land and whose water comes from, for example, a river, and who therefore are not dependent upon “the System” for food, clothing, shelter, and waste disposal, in other words, for their very lives, will rightly perceive the notion that “the System” should come first as insane, intrusive, and irrelevant; while those whose food comes from the grocery store, whose water comes from the tap, and who sit on a toilet which magically whirls away their shit, and who therefore are dependent upon “the System” for food, clothing, shelter, and waste disposal, in other words, for their very lives, will then be put in a position of almost undoubtedly perceiving that “the System” should come first. Never mind that “the System” is exploiting them, and never mind further that “the System” is dependent upon the larger living communities it is murdering.

He continued, “I have faith in the planet’s capabilities and its ability to care for itself far better than we have been able to let it be. Why can’t the Earth be listened to, really felt, as if feeling a pulse, and letting her speak.”

He went on to say what this listening means to her: “Listening means just sitting there and hearing and feeling and sympathizing perhaps.”

If before, my response was sharp, now it became downright rude. I wrote, “NO! NO! NO! Goddamnit NO! Your son is tied up and being tortured, and he is begging and screaming for your help, and your response is going to be ‘just sitting there and hearing and feeling and sympathizing perhaps’? That’s really fucked up. The appropriate response is to fight like hell, to kill the motherfuckers harming your son, to untie him, and to get him the hell out of there. Listening means fighting like hell to protect those you love.”

He sent another note, which reads in its entirety: “I want to ask you not to use my son in your analogies. What you said has to be cancelled from the universe so no harm comes his way. It’s existentially bad for him (and it’s taunting me) and I ask that you bring that back in and eliminate it. I don’t want any such thoughts being associated to him (or me) in any way. Especially since I speak and envision the complete opposite for him and his testimony to date has nothing remotely close to that experience. I don’t want it about him hypothetically, imagined, or otherwise, now or in the future, so I surround ourselves with better fortune, foresight, vision, imagination. Not that I’m in denial of what is out there I’m just practicing spiritual power and taking really good care.”

What strikes me about this email exchange is that the man described the killing of all “biota” on the planet in terms that could be described, all things considered, as bland, blithe, blasé, academic, emotionless, and abstract, yet when I, instead of talking about the destruction of something “out there,” made it about his son, made it personal, he strongly objected. As I read his reply to my note, I kept thinking, this is why we must personalize it. We must feel the murder of the planet as deeply as, if not more than, we do the murder of our families. And that’s the point, isn’t it? Most of us don’t love the land, don’t love the salmon, redwoods, prairie dogs, rivers, rocks, Joshua trees, tortoises, whippoorwills, chickadees, hammerhead sharks, and so on. Hell, for most of us these others don’t exist, unless there’s a way we can make money off of them. If we loved these others, we would stop this culture in a heartbeat.

We keep the real world from intruding on our fantasy that we are independent from it, that we don’t need to love it, by convincing ourselves that the damage isn’t really damage, either because nobody can prove that the damage we caused was really caused by us; or because the earth is someday going to die anyway and so killing it now doesn’t matter; or because the earth is so strong it can deal with whatever damage industrial civilization (never called industrial civilization, by the way, but rather “humans,” since “humans” and “industrial civilization” are and must be the very same) does to it; or maybe because the earth doesn’t really exist but is the movement of God’s eyebrows; or maybe because Jesus is going to come and take all the Christians to a better place (and if that’s the case I wish He’d hurry the fuck up and get them the Hell out of here before they destroy everything that’s left); and so on, with each frantic rationalization more absurd than the one before.