No, We Can't Have It All
An Excerpt from 'Endgame, Vol. 1: The Problem of Civilization'
By Derrick Jensen
25 April, 2010
We all face choices. We can have ice caps and polar bears, or we can have automobiles. We can have dams or we can have salmon. We can have irrigated wine from Mendocino and Sonoma counties, or we can have the Russian and Eel Rivers. We can have oil from beneath the oceans, or we can have whales. We can have cardboard boxes or we can have living forests. We can have computers and cancer clusters from the manufacture of those computers, or we can have neither. We can have electricity and a world devastated by mining, or we can have neither (and don't give me any nonsense about solar: you'll need copper for wiring, silicon for photovoltaics, metals and plastics for appliances, which need to be manufactured and then transported to your home, and so on. Even solar electrical energy can never be sustainable because electricity and all its accoutrements require an industrial infrastructure). We can have fruits, vegetables, and coffee brought to the U.S. from Latin America, or we can have at least somewhat intact human and nonhuman communities throughout that region. (I don't think I need to remind readers that, to take one not atypical example among far too many, the democratically elected Arbenz government in Guatemala was overthrown by the United States to support the United Fruit Company, now Chiquita, leading to thirty years of U.S.-backed dictatorships and death squads. Also, a few years ago I asked a member of the revolutionary tupacamaristas what they wanted for the people of Peru, and he said something that cuts to the heart of the current discussion [and to the heart of every struggle that has ever taken place against civilization]: "We need to produce and distribute our own food. We already know how to do that. We merely need to be allowed to do so.") We can have international trade, inevitably and by definition as well as by function dominated by distant and huge economic/governmental entities which do not (and cannot) act in the best interest of communities, or we can have local control of local economies, which cannot happen so long as cities require the importation (read: theft) of resources from ever-greater distances. We can have civilization -- too often called the highest form of social organization -- that spreads (I would say metastasizes) to all parts of the globe, or we can have a multiplicity of autonomous cultures each uniquely adapted to the land from which it springs. We can have cities and all they imply, or we can have a livable planet. We can have "progress" and history, or we can have sustainability. We can have civilization, or we can have at least the possibility of a way of life not based on the violent theft of resources.
This is in no way abstract. It is physical. In a finite world, the forced and routine importation of resources is unsustainable. Duh.
Show me how car culture can coexist with wild nature, and more specifically, show me how anthropogenic global warming can coexist with ice caps and polar bears. And any fixes such as solar electric cars would present problems at least equally severe. For example, the electricity still needs to be generated, batteries are extraordinarily toxic, and in any case, driving is not the main way a car pollutes: far more pollution is emitted through its manufacture than through its exhaust pipe. We can perform the same exercise for any product of industrial civilization.
We can't have it all. The belief that we can is one of the things that has driven us to this awful place. If insanity could be defined as having lost functional connection with physical reality, to believe we can have it all -- to believe we can simultaneously dismantle a world and live on it; to believe we can perpetually use more energy than arrives from the sun; to believe we can take more than the world gives willingly; to believe a finite world can support infinite growth,much less infinite economic growth, where economic growth consists of converting ever larger numbers of living beings to dead objects (industrial production, at core, is the conversion of the living -- trees or mountains -- into the dead -- two-by-fours and beer cans) -- is grotesquely insane. This insanity manifests partly as a potent disrespect for limits and for justice. It manifests in the pretension that neither limits nor justice exist. To pretend that civilization can exist without destroying its own landbase and the landbases and cultures of others is to be entirely ignorant of history, biology, thermodynamics, morality, and self-preservation. And it is to have paid absolutely no attention to the past six thousand years.
One of the reasons we fail to perceive all of this is that we -- the civilized -- have been inculcated to believe that belongings are more important than belonging, and that relationships are based on dominance -- violence and exploitation. Having come to believe that, and having come to believe the acquisition of material possessions is good (or even more abstractly, that the accumulation of money is good) and in fact the primary goal of life, we then have come to perceive ourselves as the primary beneficiaries of all of this insanity and injustice.
Right now I'm sitting in front of a space heater, and all other things being equal, I'd rather my toes were toasty than otherwise. But all other things aren't equal, and destroying runs of salmon by constructing dams for hydropower is a really stupid (and immoral) way to warm my feet. It's an extraordinarily bad trade.
And it's not just space heaters. No amount of comforts or elegancies, what that nineteenth-century slave owner called the characteristics of civilization, are worth killing the planet. What's more, even if we do perceive it in our best interest to take these comforts or elegancies at the expense of the enslavement, impoverishment, or murder of others and their landbases, we have no right to do so. And no amount of rationalization nor overwhelming force -- not even "full-spectrum domination" -- will suffice to give us that right.
Yet we have been systematically taught to ignore these trade-offs, to pretend if we don't see them (even when they're right in front of our faces) they do not exist. Yesterday, I received this email: "We all face the future unsure if our own grandchildren will know what a tree is or ever taste salmon or even know what a clean glass of water tastes like. It is crucial, especially for those of us who see the world as a living being, to remember. I've realized that outside of radical activist circles and certain indigenous peoples, the majority has completely forgotten about the passenger pigeon, completely forgotten about salmon so abundant you could fish with baskets. I've met many people who think if we could just stop destroying the planet right now, that we'll be left with a beautiful world. It makes me wonder if the same type of people would say the same thing in the future even if they had to put on a protective suit in order to go outside and see the one tree left standing in their town. Would they also have forgotten? Would it still be a part of mainstream consciousness that there used to be whole forests teeming with life? I think you and I agree that as long as this culture continues with its preferred methods of perception, then it would not be widely known to the majority. I used to think environmental activists would at least get to say, ‘I told you so' to everyone else once civilization finally succeeded in creating a wasteland, but now I'm not convinced that anyone will even remember. Perhaps the worst nightmare visions of activists a few hundred years ago match exactly the world we have outside our windows today, yet nobody is saying, ‘I told you so.'"
I think he's right. I've long had a nightmare/fantasy of standing on a desolate plain with a CEO or politician or capitalist journalist, shaking him by the shoulders and shouting, "Don't you see? Don't you see it was all a waste?" But after ruminating on this fellow's email, the nightmare has gotten even worse. Now I no longer have even the extraordinarily hollow satisfaction of seeing recognition of a massive mistake on this other's face. Now he merely looks at me, his eyes flashing a combination of arrogance, hatred, and willful incomprehension, and says, "I have no idea what you're talking about."
And he isn't even entirely lying.
Except of course to himself.
Derrick Jensen is the acclaimed author of thirteen books, including A Language Older Than Words, The Culture of Make Believe, and Endgame. Author, teacher, activist, small farmer, and leading voice of uncompromising dissent, he has been hailed as the philosopher poet of the environmental movement.
© 2010 Derrick Jensen