A planet spoiled by the human species (Ursula K. Le Guin)

My world, my Earth, is a ruin. A planet spoiled by the human species. We multiplied and gobbled and fought until there was nothing left, and then we died. We controlled neither appetite nor violence; we did not adapt. We destroyed ourselves. But we destroyed the world first. There are no forests left on my Earth. The air is grey, the sky is grey, it is always hot. It is habitable, it is still habitable, but not as this world is. This is a living world, a harmony. Mine is a discord. You Odonians chose a desert; we Terrans made a desert. . . . We survive there as you do. People are tough! There are nearly a half billion of us now. Once there were nine billion. You can see the old cities still everywhere. The bones and bricks go to dust, but the little pieces of plastic never do—they never adapt either. We failed as a species, as a social species. We are here now, dealing as equals with other human societies on other worlds, only because of the charity of the Hainish. They came; they brought us help. They built ships and gave them to us, so we could leave our ruined world. They treat us gently, charitably, as the strong man treats the sick one. They are a very strange people, the Hainish; older than any of us; infinitely generous. They are altruists. They are moved by a guilt we don’t even understand, despite all our crimes. They are moved in all they do, I think, by the past, their endless past. Well, we had saved what could be saved, and made a kind of life in the ruins, on Terra, in the only way it could be done: by total centralization. Total control over the use of every acre of land, every scrap of metal, every ounce of fuel. Total rationing, birth control, euthanasia, universal conscription into the labor force. The absolute regimentation of each life toward the goal of racial survival. We had achieved that much, when the Hainish came. They brought us . . . a little more hope. Not very much. We have outlived it. . . . We can only look at this splendid world, this vital society, this Urras, this Paradise, from the outside. We are capable only of admiring it, and maybe envying it a little. Not very much.

From Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1974 novel The Dispossessed.

Wendell Berry on Mephistophilis, Limitless Animals, and the End of Cheap Oil

Yesterday, the discussion on my post last week on the rhetoric of environmentalism got a little heated. I was accused in the comments thread of proposing two conflicting ideas. I don’t think that’s true, and I’m not going to go back to the post and nitpick over my own rhetoric; I’ll let it stand on its own. Oddly enough though, last night I read novelist Wendell Berry’s essay “Faustian Economics” in the latest issue of Harper’s. Berry’s piece is simply beautiful and beautifully simple, and certainly the best essay I’ve read in a number of years. He discusses our propensity toward the illusion that we are “limitless animals,” reveals the etymological connection between free and friend, points out that we are in an “economy of community destruction” (not all of us unwittingly), and proposes that, “in confronting the phenomenon of “peak oil,” we are really confronting the end of our customary delusion of “more.”” For Berry, this is a good thing. Again, the essay is awfully compelling, and he makes a much more solid case for what I was trying to say in my previous post: existence costs.

Berry’s introduction:

The general reaction to the apparent end of the era of cheap fossil fuel, as to other readily forseeable curtailments, has been to delay any sort of reckoning. The strategies of delay have been a sort of willed oblivion, or visions of large profits to the manufacturers of such “biofuels” as ethanol from corn or switchgrass, or the familiar unscientific faith that “science will find an answer.” The dominant response, in short, is a dogged belief that what we call the American Way of Life will prove somehow indestructible. We will keep on consuming, spending, wasting, and driving, as before, at any cost to anything and everybody but ourselves.

This belief was always indefensible–the real names of global warming are Waste and Greed–and by now it is manifestly foolish. But foolishness on this scale looks disturbingly like a sort of national insanity. We seem to have come to a collective delusion of grandeur, insisting that all of us are “free” to be as conspicuously greedy and wasteful as the most corrupt of kings and queens. (Perhaps by devoting more and more of our already abused cropland to fuel production we will at last cure ourselves of obesity and become fashionably skeletal, hungry, but–thank God!–still driving.

Earth Day 2008: “Going Green” and the Rhetoric of Mainstream Environmentalism

Today is the thirty-eighth Earth Day and, at least from my perspective, it remains unclear what positive impact, if any, this “celebration” has had on long-term ecological/agricultural sustainability. In fact, I am going to argue that Earth Day and other instantiations of mainstream environmentalism serve to obfuscate the very problems that they intend to address. People buy into (both figuratively and literally) the rhetoric of mainstream environmentalism as a defense mechanism. The seduction of the phrase “going green” proposes a fashionable, celebrity-endorsed lifestyle that enables a person to resist, deny, or otherwise marginalize the fact that their continued existence on the planet costs–that they will always exist at the cost of something or someone else.

Before I continue my argument, let me make a couple of things clear. First, the only difference between my mindset and the mindset that I am critiquing here is that I am keenly aware of the cost of my existence. That is to say, I am in no way an ideologue, “environmentalist,” anti-capitalist, or whatever, but I also would never presume to deny that every part of my daily existence involves a Darwinian deflection of costs onto someone or something else. The gas I use in my car is gas that someone else can’t use. The bird I ate for dinner last night must die so that I can eat. The energy that runs my computer to write this post, that keeps this blog existent in cyberland is energy that cannot be reallocated to another purpose. I want to make clear then that I’m advocating nothing here except a resistance to illusion, a resistance to rhetoric that resists the reality of these costs. I’m not indicting people for jumping on the idea of “going green,”nor am I suggesting that their intentions and actions are ignoble or ignorant. I’m simply arguing that the rhetoric of mainstream environmentalism that the boomers and post-boomers are now recapitulating and buying into is part of a corporate shell game that masks the systemic problems of industrialized agribusiness and deflects responsibility away from those corporations and onto individuals.

Let’s now consider the current signal phrase of this mindset: “going green.” I don’t know where this came from, but it’s genius. Americans have been in love with the “gerund + noun” combination for years now (consider: Finding Nemo, Finding Forrester, Teaching Mrs. Tingle, Chasing Amy, Breaking Bad, etc.), and what’s catchier than the optimism of a verb like “go”? It radiates simple but strong action, movement, and also implies a teleological end, a positive destination–here, the mindset/pseudophilosophy “green.” And it’s alliterative to boot. People love to say this phrase, and love to believe that when they buy certified organic foods or remember to bring their own bags to the grocery store or put gas in their Priuses (Prii?) that they’ve somehow done something intrinsically and in and of itself, good. The rhetoric abrogates their culpability in a systemic denaturalization of the human position in the world which they cannot control. The rhetoric buys the lie of control and choice, and resists the truth that to live in our modern world is to live at the cost of someone or something else.

The phrase “Save the Planet” is less insidious by sheer virtue of its exaggerated ludicrousness. As rhetoric, “Save the Planet” is the worst kind of anthropomorphic evil, the hyperbolic illusion of the human as ultimate hero. If one simply considers for a moment the scope of what the slogan commands, one can see the sheer folly of such a mindset. A more appropriate vision would be: “Save Local Food” or “Save Your Money: Do You Really Need That Thing?”

Mainstream, corporate environmentalism reflects the will to god-like mastery over nature in the illusion of stewardship and care over the planet

“Recycle, Reduce, Reuse,” however, is not a bad mantra really–when detached from the rampant materialism it seeks to cover up, that is. In fact, the tenets of recycling and reusing are ancient, simply because before consumer culture, there wasn’t really another option. People had to squeeze the last little bit of use out of anything and everything they consumed.

There is a salient irony then in the boomers buying into these phrases–and I target boomers here, although every generation after the boomers is just as culpable. The boomers, however, are really the first American generation to accelerate the post-WWII homogenization of consumer culture, with all its implications to agribusiness, rampant stripmalling, and the emergence of the “corporate citizen.” The boomers’ massive ideological failure in the 1960s leads directly to the selfish materialism of those “Me” decades, the 70s and 80s (think of the final scenes of Woodstock: the party’s over and the pastoral landscape is now littered with every sort of consumerist debris).

Post-apocalyptic landscape (after peace, love, and understanding)

We are now trying to clean all this up, and the boomers, whose cultural norms still dictate this country, are finally getting on board. But the irony is that environmentalism-as-ideology was never much of an issue before the boomers got a stranglehold on this country, simply because every generation up to and including WWII had to be de facto environmentalists. Consumer society simply didn’t exist. People ate local food, walked most places, built their own houses, etc. (make no mistake–I’m not romanticizing or idealizing this: life was tough). This isn’t to suggest at all that the prescient efforts of John Muir, Teddy Roosevelt, Walt Whitman, Thoreau, Emerson, etc. were not important or meaningful or even necessary during their context, because they were. At this point, however, we are all implicated in a global economy in which an inequitable distribution of the world’s resources, coupled with the rapid emerging industrialization of the world’s two largest nations, India and China, entails an imminent ecological disaster. And appreciating nature in our glorious National Park System is not going to fix that, at least not on its own.

I hate to pose problems without solutions, but my solutions are admittedly vague and general. I return first to my real issue here: rhetoric. Mainstream, corporate environmentalism encourages people to shop their way out of this problem (see: greenwashing). People get to buy into the continued illusion of a cost-free existence, or at least to believe that their actions as consumers neutralize these (ecological, environmental, human, animal) costs. The first step, then, is to recognize that the small individual actions that corporations so readily promote are not enough. What is needed is full-scale, infrastructural changes focusing on local production of foods and usable mass transit systems. I believe that such changes can be more easily accomplished than the (Big Oil sponsored) U.S. government would like the average citizen to believe; currently, however, there are simply too many getting rich off the last few drops of cheap oil to redirect their efforts to such a project. So they distract us with sloganeering and feel-good celebrations as they rob the earth. We can beat this though. Let’s lose the illusion.