Terrain.org recently asked a number of writers what the “apocalypse” means to them, how the idea of impending global disaster factors into their work, what weight the impending end-of-life-as-we-know-it adds to their daily lives. We asked for a comment on the situation, for reactions, suggestions, and artistic engagements. How should we respond to the fact that today we’re confronted with the very possible demise not just of our culture, but our world? Where can we go from here? How should we proceed? Are we hopeful—or are we just waiting for the other shoe to drop? What happens when it does?
A rallying cry for our dying planet.
The dominant culture is murdering the planet, and there really isn’t a prayer of stopping this murder so long as so many people continue to value this culture over life on this planet, the life it is murdering. This valuing is almost universal in this culture. Even most mainstream environmentalists say explicitly that they’re attempting to save civilization, not the real world. For example, even someone as dedicated as Bill McKibben regularly states he wants to stop global warming to save civilization, and even someone equally dedicated like Peter Montague— who puts out the invaluable Rachel newsletter on toxics—said that pumping carbon underground for storage is a bad idea because if it leaked out all at once it could, to use his words, “disrupt civilization as we know it.” No, Peter, it could end life on earth. Here’s another example of this valuing: what do most mainstream “solutions” to global warming have in common? They all take industrial civilization as a given, and the natural world as that which (never who) must conform to industrial civilization. That is literally insane, in terms of being out of touch with physical reality. And it will never work.
This valuing of this culture over life is even inherent in the way Terrain.org’s request for this essay was phrased: “By apocalypse, of course, I mean simply the end of life as we know it—be it the result of nuclear war, the long-term result of climate change, a post-oil world, etc.”
This definition of apocalypse makes me incredibly sad. Especially the words “of course.” When I talk about the apocalypse I don’t mean “simply the end of life as we know it,” by which was clearly meant the end of this culture (because the causes included a “post-oil world” (by which was meant a post-oil culture)). What I mean when I talk about the apocalypse is the death of the planet. I mean the death of the salmon. I mean the death of the oceans. I mean the extirpation of 200 species per day. I mean 99 percent of native forests already having been murdered, and 99 percent of native grasslands, and so on. I mean one-quarter of all rivers no longer reaching the ocean. I mean oysters experiencing reproductive failure—which is science-speak for their babies all dying—in the ocean off the Pacific Northwest. I mean dead zones all through the oceans. I mean the collapse of migratory songbird populations. I mean the collapse of insect populations. I mean the collapse of bat populations. I mean the death of the real world.
Even when “life as we know it” is what’s killing the planet, far too many people, including far too many mainstream environmentalists, perceive the end of this culture as the real apocalypse. The real world doesn’t even enter the picture. So it’s no wonder the real world continues to be killed: it’s not nearly so important to most of the beneficiaries of this way of life as those benefits they gain from planetary murder.
How do we avoid seeing what is right in front of our eyes? Well, that’s dead easy: we simply spend more of our energy attempting to avoid facing the severity of the problems this culture is causing, than actually solving these problems.
One of the ways we avoid looking at the problems is by pretending those we are killing don’t really exist. For example, when I say this culture is killing the planet, I don’t mean it is causing, as too many people put it, the “irreparable breakdown of the Earth’s systems.” This is because I don’t believe the earth has systems. That is machine language. I believe the earth has communities. The world consists of subjects whose lives are as beautiful and precious to them as your own life is to you and mine is to me. And these subjects live in communities as complex and vibrant as those communities with which you and I are surrounded. This understanding is crucial, because the language we use not only reflects but influences how we perceive and experience the world—and how we perceive and experience the world influences how we behave in the world. And our current behavior is abysmal, and is killing the planet.
Another way we avoid looking at the severity of the problems is by pretending that the murder of the planet isn’t really the murder of the planet, but just “the death of the planet as we know it.” That language only serves to abstract us from the horrors. Ninety percent of the large fish in the oceans are gone. There is more plastic in the oceans than phytoplankton. Reflect on this: the oceans are being killed. The oceans.
Look at it this way: if a person you really love is dying from being poisoned (like rivers and oceans and soil), or from being skinned alive (prairies), or if someone you love is being tortured to death—and picture your parent, your child, your lover, your sibling, your best friend—would you say this person is dying “as we know it”? Of course not. Yet when it comes to the real world—the world that is the source of all life—this is precisely the attitude taken by even too many environmentalists.
Picture this: You’re sitting somewhere with a friend and suddenly you hear screaming and realize your lover is being tortured in the next room. You leap up, say to your friend, “My lover is being tortured and killed. We need to stop this!” Your friend sits on his chair, puffing contemplatively on his pipe, and responds, “Does this mean the death of your lover, or just the death of your lover as we know your lover?” So you sit right back down and say, “Damn good point, Charlie. I can always count on you to help me stay rational.” A philosophical conversation ensues, one that is so interesting that after a while you no longer hear the screams.
Sometimes at talks people say to me, “Oh, the world isn’t being killed. It’s just being transformed.” That’s merely another bullshit lie people tell themselves to maintain their distance, merely another way people can justify their lack of sufficient action in the face of planetary murder. Whenever people say this I always ask if they have a knife I can borrow. Someone in the audience gives me a knife. I walk up to the questioner and ask him (it’s almost always a male) to extend his hand. He doesn’t want to. I insist. I take his hand in mine. I hold the knife over the base of his finger. I don’t cut him, or even make the remotest gesture to, but I say, “Let’s pretend I’m going to start cutting you. I’m not going to kill you. I’m just going to transform you. I’m going to cut off this finger, and then this finger, and then this thumb, and then I’ll start on your toes, and then I’ll move to your hands, feet, arms, and your legs. But don’t worry, I won’t kill you. At some point your heart will stop beating, but that’s not a big deal: it’s not like I’m going to torture you to death or anything: it will merely be the end of your life as we know it, a transformation.”
Most people get the point.
If things are so bad, people sometimes ask, what drives your work? That’s really simple. What keeps me working is love. I love the salmon, and the lampreys, and the forest where I live, and I love the oceans, and I love the bears and slender salamanders and banana slugs. If you’re in love, you act to defend your beloved. If your beloved is threatened and you don’t do whatever it takes to defend your beloved, then what you’re feeling isn’t love.
Or sometimes I’m asked what gives me hope. The answer is that I don’t believe in hope. Hope is a longing for a future condition over which we have no agency. That’s how we use the word in everyday life: I don’t hope I eat something in a few moments—I’m just going to do it. On the other hand, the next time I get on a plane I hope it doesn’t crash: once it’s in the air I have no agency. So when people say they hope coho salmon survive, they’re saying they have no agency. I’m not interested in hope: I’m interested in doing what needs to be done. What salmon need to survive is five things: they need for dams to be removed, for industrial logging to stop, for industrial fishing to stop, for global warming to stop (which means for the oil economy to stop), and for the oceans to not be murdered. These are daunting but doable tasks. If those things happen salmon will survive. If they don’t, they won’t.
Someone once asked me, “Do you mean I can’t hope that my brother, who has cancer, survives?” I said, “Of course you can hope your brother survives: some of that is out of your control. But if he needs to go to the hospital, you can’t stand there with car keys in your hand and say, ‘I hope you make it to the hospital.’” You just do it.
The world is being murdered. Industrial civilization is causing this murder. This is not cognitively challenging. We need to stop this culture from killing the planet. The planet is more important than this culture. It’s more important than any culture. This is by definition, because without a planet you don’t have any culture at all. We need to fight for what we love, fight harder than we have ever thought we could fight.