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On Being A Radical

By Guy McPherson

26 June, 2012

You probably recognize this symbol, though you might have forgotten its name: √

When I write the symbol on the whiteboard in a class, and ask what it is, the response is invariable: “The square root.”

I respond, “Yes, its function is to take the root, including the square root or any other root. But what is it called?”

Extended silence ensues, followed by, “The square-root symbol.”

I lead the abundant laughter.

“Really? Nobody took math in junior high?”

Nervous laughter.

“I’ve insulted everybody here within the first minute of our meeting,” I say. “Now that that’s out of the way, we can proceed.”

Long pause before I give away the answer: “It’s called a radical.” Another long pause before I reveal the point of this exercise. “It’s called a radical because it gets at the root. That, by the way, is the definition of radical: of or going to the root or origin.”

I use this anecdote to introduce myself to the class. I’m a radical, I point out. And, whereas this culture has convinced most people that a radical is a bad thing, similarly to anarchy, it’s actually not a bad thing, and it’s different than most people believe.

On this topic, the words of H. L. Mencken resonate with me: “The notion that a radical is one who hates his country is naive and usually idiotic. He is, more likely, one who likes his country more than the rest of us, and is thus more disturbed than the rest of us when he sees it debauched. He is not a bad citizen turning to crime; he is a good citizen driven to despair.”

A good citizen driven to despair. That sounds about right. A few excerpts demonstrate the point:

The perfect parrot was the perfect pupil …. As students in grammar school or in high school we seldom question the truth of any statement. Instead, our concern was to get each phrase exactly as the teacher or textbook stated it …. Imagine the effect of years of such training on the developing mind. The habit of mental conformity becomes almost ineradicable. I was merely one of generations of victims. How many teachers suggested to us that the established order was not all that it might be? Even the possibility of change was hinted at only vaguely. We were not rebels. We were not pioneers. We were not even enthusiastic or devout copyists. We were mere discs on which the language of our generation was cut. At certain intervals, called examination periods, we were expected to reproduce this language, word by word and paragraph by paragraph.

The American Way was not based on “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” but upon the determination of business men to hold down wages and push up profits. The American Way was designed to make the rich richer while it kept the poor in their places.

Meanwhile the war makers, whose profession is wholesale destruction and mass murder, had taken over control of the United States and its policies, were writing the words, calling the tune …. The United States of my youth was slipping from under my feet and vanishing from my sight. The Mayflower Covenant, William Penn’s charter of love and good human relations, Thomas Jefferson’s Bill of Rights, the Constitution of 1789 which as a schoolboy I had learned word for word, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural had become obsolete scraps paper …. We had begun beating our plowshares into swords and our pruning hooks into spears, transforming tools into weapons and techniques of destruction and murder.

Where did I belong? How could I classify myself? Was I a Don Quixote, tilting ineffectually at windmills? Was I crazy and were my stand-pat conservative fellow citizens sane? Was I alone sane and they all off the track?

This world I saw was not at all to my liking. It was a world in which the destructive forces clearly had the upper hand. I had been taught to believe in the possibilities of well-being for every individual and the probability of social improvement. I found myself in a world hell-bent on its own destruction.

I live in the United States only because my post of duty is there …. I am ashamed of any connection with the oligarchy which presently misgoverns, exploits, plunders, and corrupts the United States and the world.

As an individual, I continue to do what I can. I go about, talk, and write in the face of ignorance, inertia, escapism. I believe there is a growing awareness of the crisis and the gravity of the menace hanging over humanity. There is also a growing awareness that the crucial decision has been made and that the process of vaporizing western civilization is well under way …. My personal contribution is increasingly a form of foreign aid — a contribution to fellow citizens whom I seem not to know. They are a people without history, misled, deluded, inexperienced, baffled. They are people who are turning more and more away from reason and foresight to instinct, emotion, and pathetically desperate efforts to escape a fate that is closing in around them as a fog envelops a ship at sea.

With increasing awareness of the real situation there has grown up in me a conviction that I should do something about it. I have tried talking, writing, speaking, lecturing, and have been bypassed and ignored by my fellow Americans. I continue to do what I can, at every opportunity. I have spoken my lines as I have thought them out and learned them. I continue to offer my help to my fellow Americans as one would offer help to a drowning man who every moment is being carried farther away by an irresistible current. I offer this aid gladly, hopefully, anxiously.

Like the Ancient Mariner, I am saying to preoccupied passersby: you have chosen and are following a path that leads to your destruction and probably to the destruction of hundreds of millions of your fellows. I have advised, opposed, warned, decried, denounced. You continue on your way to perdition. You rush on, unheeding. I continue to warn. You do not look and do not listen. You do not see the infinitely rich possibilities of life, lying unused at your feet. You go your own way — the way that millions of humans have gone before you, lured and corrupted by the glass beads and printed calicos which civilized societies offers to its devotees.

I have turned my back on the American Oligarchy, the American Way of Life, and American Century, the American Empire, western civilization. The entire chain of civilizations have brought a little light, learning, joy, and hope to a very few human beings while multitudes lived and died in darkness, ignorance, misery, despair. I have turned my back on this short-sighted, opportunistic acceptance of that which is, because I am convinced that we could reach out, create, touch, and grasp a better life and make it ours, if only we would put forth the effort.

I have burned the last bridge which connected me with the American Way of Life because I am convinced that the ideas, devices, techniques, and institutions of civilization have been tried time after time and found wanting. They are superfluous and obsolete because better ways are already in being, available to any who will turn their backs on the past and face the future hopefully, confidently, creatively, and conscious of the need for concerted, radical action.

I say farewell to western civilization. With no shadow of regret I try to dismiss it from my life as I try to dismiss any other unsavory, painful memory.

My separation from western civilization and its ways is almost as complete as my separation from the civilizations of Rome and Egypt. I continue to live in the United States, the power center of western civilization because this is part of my assignment, but I have no more sympathy with it or concern for it than an emissary of the United States has in a precapitalist areas of equatorial Africa or South America. The emissary lives in the midst of backwardness, but is not of it. This is exactly my feeling about my relations with the United States, in which perforce I must live.

Who could have imagined in the early part of the century that after a brief foreign sojourn I would return to these shores and find large sections of Los Angeles, Detroit, and Washington smoking ruins, sacked, and looted? Who could have foreseen the mounting drug addiction among the population, the vicious crime waves, the riots, the police ferocity? Each time I asked myself, incredulously, can this be home?

The affluent, drugged, debauched, corrupted, polluted, deluded nation is a country I never envisioned in my youth. It is an alien and hostile land. When I return to it I cannot say happily, “I am going home.” Instead, I must gird myself and prepare to return to a foreign and none too pleasant habitat.

No thoughtful person can face the facts of present-day life without realizing the terrible urgency of the situation. It is the dawning of this realization that is largely responsible for the tidal wave of protest, disruption, and destruction that is presently sweeping over the planet. The reaction is more evident among young people. They have their lives ahead of them. The parents, members of the previous generation, are more inured to the situation. Most of them never had it so good.

Man disturbs and upsets the balance of nature. Nature retorts by restoring the balance. From childhood to man’s estate we construct dams and dykes. Before we turn our backs nature is undermining and breaching. Water is again running downhill. Nature is tireless, persistent, implacable.

Teaching is my job. Teaching, in its largest sense means searching out the truth, telling it to all who are willing to learn, and building it into the life of the community. Truth is often unpleasant, annoying, and unpalatable to those who hold a disproportionate amount of worldly goods, who are power hungry, and who are pushing a cause to the detriment of the many. So they try to avoid truth, to cover it up, to forget it. It is the job of the teaching profession, of which I have been a lifetime member, to keep on uncovering the truth, reminding the rich and powerful of its character and its significance, bringing it to public attention, and arguing that it be made the cornerstone of local, regional, national and planet-wide public life.

I have had the rare privilege of being present, and of assisting slightly, at the death process of one social system and through the early stages of the development of an alternative pattern of human society. If this were all that life had granted me it would be a lifetime well spent. I am grateful for the opportunity and hopeful that my fellowmen will carry on to victory in the perilous fight, taking fuller and fuller advantage of the infinite possibilities for creative experiment and persistent improvement.

The preceding words, like those of Mencken, resonant with me. They were written by Scott Nearing and published in 1972 in his autobiography, The Making of a Radical. He was 89 years old at the time. References to his youth and to the early part of the century offer his perspective from the early 1900s.

A full century later, I am afflicted with a form of radicalism similar to that which plagued Nearing. I am ignored or disparaged when I point out the actions taken to prop up an empire in decline, including unprecedented military actions in the Middle East and northern Africa.

Too, I am ignored or disparaged when I point out the obvious signs of human-population overshoot and the likely near-term results, as well as the root causes of overshoot. The calls increase in number and tenacity when I point out the seemingly obvious need to destroy industrial civilization, the system that is driving to extinction several hundred species each day while making us sick, driving us to insanity, and killing us while we further human-population overshoot and the despoiling of our only home.

Imagine this scenario: You walk past a house every day. In the house, an old man kills 200 human babies as you stroll by. What shall you do? The response to which I’ve become accustomed: You walk past the house, plugging your ears to the screams and closing your eyes to the sights.

It’s not a hypothetical scenario, and it’s far worse than I’ve indicated. It’s not merely 200 human babies this old civilization is killing every day. It’s 200 species. In other words, it’s genocide. The majority responds by wishing this omnicidal system will continue forever. A slim minority wish it will end, thereby leaving habitat for humans for another few years. Vanishingly few people are motivated to the type of action that might preserve life, including habitat for humans.

How radical are you? Do you love life? Are you willing to fight for it?

Guy McPherson is professor emeritus of natural resources and the environment at the University of Arizona, where he taught and conducted research for 20 years. He's written well over 100 articles, ten books, the most recent of which is Walking Away From Empire, and has focused for many years on conservation of biological diversity. He lives in an off-grid, straw-bale house where he practices durable living via organic gardening, raising small animals for eggs and milk, and working with members of his rural community. Learn more at guymcpherson.com or email Guy at grm@ag.arizona.edu


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