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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?

As part of our “Thoughts on the Apocalypse” series, over the next few months writers’ responses to our inquiry will be posted here, on Terrain.org’s blog.

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.

Decaying corpse of duck at the Midway atoll, stomach full of intgested plastic

Photo by Chris Jordan

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.

Decaying corpse of duck at the Midway atoll, stomach full of intgested plastic

Photo by Chris Jordan

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.

Decaying corpse of duck at the Midway atoll

Photo by Chris Jordan

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.

 

Derrick Jensen is the author of many books, including Endgame, The Culture of Make Believe, A Language Older than Words, and Deep Green Resistance: Strategy to Save the Planet. He was named one of Utne Reader’s “50 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World” and won the Eric Hoffer Award in 2008. He writes for Orion, Audubon, and The Sun Magazine, among many others.

Dead salmon photo credit: Keith “Captain Photo” Cuddeback via photopin cc

16 Responses

  1. Robert Atack

    Hi Derrick
    We are at 400ppm CO2 now and growing, this equals a minimum of 6 degrees above pre industrial, which gives us about 6% oxygen (currently 21%). The oceans are guaranteed to be so toxic that no Salmon would survive, regardless of how many dams they need to get past. There are 440 nuclear power plants that are more or less guaranteed to crap out ala Fukushima, all with spent fuel pools mostly suspended in (if judged over time) mid air.
    It wouldn’t make any difference if we all morphed into you over night, even 7 billion Derricks couldnt alter the next 1,000 plus years with CO2 at and over 400ppm
    If you had been saying this sort of stuff 150 – 200 years ago, AND you had been listened to … AND if the population had stayed at around 1 billion, with a conscious effort to reduce it down to 300 million or so, then maybe humans and all the species we have made extinct, and all the ones about to go extinct, could have got along well for another 10,000 years or so years (ignoring the Ice age we would all have to survive)
    We are @ 0.8 degrees above now, and if the planes fell out of the sky and if coal fired power plants stopped belching tons of particulates into the air, (also cars etc), then we would be a bit (who knows??) above 0.8.
    We are locked into extinction, the only way to reduce human suffering is to die soon (not the most pleasant idea) or to not have been born.
    As much as I enjoy your stuff it lacks the message that having that next child is equel to a death wish.
    Apologies for being blunt.

    Regards
    Robert Thankyoufornotbreeding Atack

    • Colin

      “We are at 400ppm CO2 now and growing, this equals a minimum of 6 degrees above pre industrial, which gives us about 6% oxygen (currently 21%).”

      Not a single thing in that sentence is remotely credible. 6% oxygen? Where do you get this nonsense?

      • Colin

        Pointing to Guy McPherson’s blog does nothing to make your claims more credible. The idea that 400ppm or even 6 degrees of warming somehow leads to 6% oxygen is preposterous — can you cite a single scientific source that supports such a claim?

      • Colin

        Thank you for the article link below — it confirms that there is no scientific evidence for your preposterous claim that 400ppm somehow leads to 6% oxygen.

        Did you even read the article, or the references it cited?

        First of all, that article is a vacuous piece of pop journalism, not a scientific work, and it barely even mentions global warming — it’s almost entirely speculation about how supervolcanos and meteor impacts may have caused oxygen levels to plummet in the distant past (and could possibly do so in the future).

        The only oblique reference to global warming is a reference to Keeling and this breathless — and completely false — bit of scary verbiage: “Professor Ralph Keeling of Scripps Institute is worried. In fact, he’s very worried. According to the data Keeling has meticulously collected since 1989 the world is running out of breathable air…”

        But if you follow the citation the author apparently bases his claim on, you find Dr. Keeling saying almost the complete opposite: ‘Dr. Keeling agreed that carbon sequestration would do nothing to stop oxygen depletion but reassured me that “… the O2 loss is too small to be much of a concern.”‘

        So, as evidence for your patently unbelievable claim that somehow 400ppm CO2 is going to lead to an atmosphere with 6% oxygen, you’ve linked to one completely unscientific, willfully false, stupidly alarmist blog post. That’s not good enough.

        The claim you have made is frankly ridiculous. My recommendation is that you should stop believing ridiculous things. (But that’s only a recommendation.)

      • Robert Atack

        We are/were burning 3 cubic kilometers of oil per year, supposedly = to 500 years worth of growth/sunlight/CO2 storage, we have put the equivalent of every plant, animal, insect, human, etc since Christ through our exhaust pipes in just the past 4-5 years, and we have burnt mega tons of coal and natural gas, plus helping speed up methane leaching.
        WE are about 30 years behind the level of climate change/global warming that we have created.
        Once the positive feedback’s kick in we will be left at something like 500 – 550 ppm minimum and will stay at that level for around 1,000 years. All this will happen over the next 100 years, so we are like several volcanoes or meteors.
        I wouldn’t like to bet my child’s life on me being wrong.

  2. Carolyn

    Dead on right Robert. I appreciate Jansens essays, but his blinders are no less real.

    • Ted Parvu

      Hi Robert,

      If this is really how you feel then why don’t you kill as many humans as possible and then yourself?

      “Apologies for being blunt.”

      –Ted

      • Ted Parvu

        It occurred to me this morning that my comment was not very constructive. I should have said it differently. Aldo Leopold once wrote, “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.”

        The Earth will heal. Humans are such a tiny blip in the life of our planet. But while we are here, I hope that we can appreciate what a beautiful world this is.

      • Robert Atack

        Killing humans?
        You missed my point, I’m just saying nothing we can do will reduce human suffering EXCEPT not making more humans, going on a killing spree – like they do in the USA, will not change what is unfolding, weather I’m alive or not will change nothing.
        BUT if I convince someone not to have that next child it will reduce suffering by 1 …. and I’m sure that is more than most are doing.
        And it is bloody hard to kill masses of humans IE Hitler, Starlin, Polpot George W = about 100 million ….. we replace that many people in about 18 months at the moment.

  3. devin

    Where is the proof that the world is above it’s carrying capacities for humans? Without a doubt, as the culture operates it is well above its limits. I sense more nihilism from Robert and Carolyn than I have ever heard out of derrick. Cynicism will paralyze you. Don’t have hope, have a vision for creating the world you would like to see. Maybe it is humans maturation process and lessons to learn. But if you really think it is fucked and not worth fighting for I think you missed the point of the essay. Love for place is all we have left that is standing infront of the dismantling of this culture. Find your gift.

  4. Carolyn

    Devin– thanks for the concern but reality often gets confused with cynicism when the reality is so bleak. I was an environmental scientist for a number of years and my knowledge is a bit more in depth than the average bear. I can see you’re one of the biosphere experiment enviro types as I call them. That experiment failed miserably several times over on the small scale but feel free and good luck with that experiment on a planetary scale. However, I will not lift one little pinky finger to aid you and the rest of the anthropocentric environmental movement in the final wave of destruction of this current incarnation of the biosphere.
    I am not happy about what is going on but i recognize the nature of my opponent. Do you? If you would like to understand my comments better, i suggest reading a bit of Paul kingsnorth. His essay ‘Confessions of a recovering environmentalist’ is a good start.
    Now you may now return back to your original programming….peace, Carolyn

    • devin

      Carolyn….please please please do not construe my first comment about the worlds carrying capacities as anthropocentric….I am just trying to point out that there are deeper layers to all of this. Guess I will have to read what a biosphere enviro is….I personally consider myself a bioregionalist. I will admit that many of my concerns about people being cynical come from a esoteric and very optimistic view, one where humans just like every other aspect of nature have a role and a gift to contribute to this place we call home. It has nothing to do egocentric understanding based on a story of separation, which is what i would label anthropocentric as.

      I will look in to your recommendation however. If anything, recovering environmentalists would be the only folks that have a clue about their own jobs and privilege being a contributing factor to the destruction. Them and rural folks who actually understand the value of living as a part of a land base…whether or not they have been forced into resource extraction just to survive is besides the point…that is EVERYONE.
      So i would say I understand my enemy very well. And the “reality” is that I believe world views create worlds. To me that means a lot more than just thinking positively and everything will be ok. Peace to you.

  5. Joe Harris

    GREAT, GREAT article!!!! I dig the sh*t out of Jensen. I became introduced to Derrick Jensen through some of John Trudell’s works. It was an interview or writing I can’t remember. I have never met Derrick but it was like my entire world view was handed to me by Derrick neatly written in articles, books, websites, etc. That was a few years back. I’m American NDN and petrified for my children and grandchildren. I studied Sociology at the U of Oklahoma and turned down an offer to pursue a PHD in Austin, TX Man I cringe at what civilization has done, not only to the planet, but tribalism everywhere. I wish all of Derrick’s solutions could happen. I can only hope and pray. But I’m no raving loon either. I say get your spirit in order. Protect your spirit at all costs. The day is coming when life will be no more. And I’m not worried about me because I’m 55 have a terminal illness. I’m worried about the generation(s) behind me/us. They are the ones who will see the full effects….maybe…..the end.