By Rachel Ivey / Deep Green Resistance Florida
Industrial civilization is systematically destroying everything on the planet that life requires in order to exist. Since civilization demands infinitely increasing resources on a finite planet, its eventual end is unavoidable. It follows that the faster it can be brought down, the more likely it is that any chance at survival will remain for those who inhabit the Earth after the crash.
My friend listens attentively as I speak the words, but she’s smiling the way she always smiles when she thinks I’m at the end of my rhetorical rope. It’s lucky for our friendship that we like to argue on certain subjects, since our views don’t tend to overlap. Our favorite topics of discussion are the ones we’re pretty sure we’ll never agree on. We lived together for a year and never fought once over who last took the trash out, the setting of the thermostat, or the dishes left in the sink. We saved our fighting spirit for health care reform (I wanted a single-payer system, she thought any regulation was obstructing the free market), the relative merits of capitalism (the only fair system said she, the root of all evil said I), and the relationship of religion to morality (inseparable if you asked her, at odds if you asked me).
Our intense discussions at the kitchen table generally lasted long enough to bore our other friends to tears and often got loud enough to wake our other roommates from deep slumber, but today amidst the lunch rush of our favorite restaurant, no one is bothered by our fervor. She and I have prodded each other’s political sensibilities from so many angles that few of her arguments can surprise me anymore, but this time I’m leaning forward across the table in anticipation of her point.
In some ways, it would be a relief to be proven wrong this time. See, new information has been leading me to some unsettling conclusions as of late. Being right about them means that the world I’m used to cannot continue, will not continue, on its current trajectory. Being right means that the situation is a lot more urgent and intractable than I’ve previously been able to appreciate. Being right means that we have a lot of work to do, and not much time in which to do it. Today at lunch I tell some of these conclusions to my friend, more than half hoping that she can talk me back over to the more familiar side of the line.
“Doesn’t that sound a little extreme, and kind of alarmist, Rach?” she asks. If you’d asked me that as recently as two years ago when I first became heavily involved in activism of any sort, I probably would have told you it sounded both alarmist and extreme. I would have argued then, just like my friend proceeds to argue now, that civilization doesn’t destroy the things we need, it provides them for us. It’s a word to describe the highly advanced state of human society that we’ve achieved.
Civilization means progress through scientific prowess, global connection and trade, a longer lifespan through modern medicine, more comfort and leisure time due to mechanization, and a million thoughtless comforts and distractions to improve our lives. The main problem with these definitions is the fact that they are written by the civilized, for the civilized. For me, the word civilization used to connote an almost holy weight, and to bring civilization to a place was synonymous with bringing hope, progress, and power. Here’s a more accurate definition:
Civilization is the phenomenon of people living in cities, more or less permanently at a high enough density to require the routine importation of resources into the city center; the culture of institutions, stories, and artifacts that arises from such an arrangement.
On its face, that definition sounded pretty innocuous to me on a first reading. More than just innocuous, to me that definition sounded absurd. Of course people live in cities, I thought, where else? People have always lived in close proximity to each other because we’re social animals desirous of community and relationship. Of course, I thought, people in cities need to import food and other essentials, but what’s wrong with that? Importation is necessary because without industrial production and agriculture, we couldn’t make enough food and other necessities for everyone, and industrial agriculture needs the empty space outside the city to grow our food. What else would our culture and mythology arise from, if not civilization? How could anyone want anything different?
To even approach beginning to answer these questions, it was necessary to gain a basic understanding of how privilege works within individuals and institutions. When you are the one being privileged, that privilege is usually invisible to you. Most men do not consciously acknowledge that the dominant construction of masculinity is based on hatred and erasure of women, and even fewer can address the ways that hating and erasing women grants them privilege within the system of patriarchy.
During a speech at Occupy Oakland, activist Lierre Keith articulated patriarchy, capitalism, and civilization as the three main frameworks that direct our culture’s interactions with power and oppression. Just like the violence of patriarchy is invisible to those it benefits, the violence of capitalism is either rationalized or outright denied by those middle to upper class individuals that are benefitting from legions of wage slaves below them.
You’ve heard them do it, maybe you’ve even engaged in some rationalization yourself. It sounds like, “anyone can get above their circumstances if they work hard,” or “people get what they deserve.” In a perfect world, that may be true, but in a capitalist world, people get whatever those with more power deign to give them. A privilege can be the power to oppress or use others, or it can be insulation from the violence that permeates and enforces the system. I’ve been sensing the blinders of privilege in my periphery, like a dog senses a cone around its neck. The occasional glimpse of the outside world is illuminating, but there’s no getting the cone off, and so the scene will always be incomplete.
The violence of patriarchy and capitalism did not become visible to me overnight – I’m a white, middle class American, a social position that carries enough privilege to blind most to the inherent flaws in these two systems, which means that even once the basic systems are visible to me, most of the effects of those systems are still invisible to me. Still, these systems were relatively easier to identify as oppressive than the third system, civilization.
The first person to suggest to me that civilization itself is inherently destructive and unsustainable was my roommate, Sam, shortly after she moved in with me. The first time she mentioned it, I rejected the idea out of hand. Humans have always lived in close-knit communities, I said, and our need for community is one of the most intrinsic attributes of humanity. To reject civilization seemed equivalent to rejecting the whole spectrum of human social behavior as inherently destructive. I recognized much of human activity as destructive, but labeling our every activity as inherently destructive seemed a bit like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. If humans themselves are irredeemable, then what can we possibly be working toward?
My understanding changed when I read a different definition of civilization – people living in cities. To me, cities once seemed eternal and inevitable. As a young child, I learned that the first cities appeared less than ten millennia ago in the Middle East. On the same day, I learned that humans are evidenced in the fossil record for two hundred thousand years.
For the bulk of human existence, we lived outside the bounds of civilization, and without the framework of privilege and oppression that civilization necessitates and enforces through violence. At the time, my still-developing brain had no conception of the width of one year, much less the scope of change that stretches between ten and two hundred millennia. To my child’s perception, that day’s history lesson were not facts, they were a familiar story. We each know the trope by heart: regardless of whether they exist by design or by chance, humans gained intelligence surpassing that of all other species. Over time, we used our superior faculties to improve life for ourselves. The changes we have created are inherently good as well as ultimately inevitable, and working toward the spread and advancement of these changes is both noble and necessary.
We all know this story, and to call it a story gets much closer to the point than calling it history. Someone wrote down the facts in our history, if they are indeed facts at all, and that person or group of people had to decide what to include or omit, which words to use, and how to arrange those words. There is no objective account, no hard historical fact. Even when solid empirical evidence can be produced for a historical “fact,” each kernel of physical reality comes to us swaddled in a story, a fabric of accrued belief to which is added a final and significant layer – the gloss of supposed objectivity is a tool of erasure based on privilege. Those who benefit from a system are likely to protect it and speak well of it. Those who have to live the violent cost of our culture don’t tend to get jobs writing curricula.
What cost? Well, I’m glad you asked, but I probably would have told you even if you hadn’t. I’ve observed fear and violence from the security of a suburban bubble, seen the desperation of lack and then returned home to stocked shelves, and glimpsed the reality of civilization’s true nature only from the window of a moving car. If, as I hope, I’ve managed to learn anything about how the real world works, I need to acknowledge that my charmed life has afforded me an education from a safe distance.
More each day, I know that the comfort and safety I call home are wrung from the pain and violation of others, and if the guilt you feel at this knowledge doesn’t tear at the pit of your gut, you may as well be a fucking corpse. The nagging suspicion that the certainty and urgency I feel in this moment will subside with my youth and naiveté offers little relief. The picture of reality that’s taking shape behind my eyes doesn’t fit with the story I once knew best, and there isn’t room for them to coexist. Increasingly, I’ll relay the conflict to anyone who’ll listen, as though my frenetic speech was an incantation to exorcise the myth from my mind.
I still haven’t answered the question – what cost? The answer can and does fill volumes, and this paragraph should be proof enough for no one, but here is what I’ve been coming to understand. Today, let’s take only our source of food as an example. A given ecosystem can only support a certain number of organisms living on it at one time. If the population surpasses its carrying capacity of organisms, members of the species consume too much of whatever it is they need to eat, and the population’s numbers plummet as resources inevitably become scarce.
Not only do members of the species die, but the carrying capacity of that land is lowered lastingly. If there are too many deer on an island, the deer food on the island is unable to replenish itself fast enough to support them. The upward motion on the population graph comes down hard, and can never rise as high again. That island will likely never hold as many deer as it once did.
Now, when humans began living in high concentrations in cities, these physical laws were an immediate obstacle. If a square mile of land can only produce enough resources for one person to survive, placing fifty people in that square mile means that the resources need to come from somewhere else. Every industrialized city in existence exceeds the carrying capacity of the land its built on, so where does the sustenance come from?
In the case of food, the answer is agriculture. We grow food outside of the bounds of the city and ship it in to the people living in the center – these people could not grow enough food for themselves if they wanted to, because in most cases, the environment that yields nutrients has been replaced by concrete. Are we on the same page so far? Good. Here’s where things get dicey. This arrangement appears to work well to the people in the city, since the food (usually) arrives consistently from beyond its borders, but the less copasetic effects of agriculture are two pronged.
First, the only way that monocrop agriculture (the most controllable method in the short term and, predictably, far and away the most profitable for some) can successfully produce food is by waging a war against all other parts of nature. A monocrop means killing everything on a piece of land, all the way down to the bacteria in the soul, so that nothing interferes with the growth on the desired plant. The clearing of the land is only the first wave of death that agriculture sets in motion.
There are reasons that monocrops don’t exist in nature. The only way to maintain the biotically sterile environment necessary to grow anything with a monocrop is the use of pesticides, and the gut-wrenching realities of even the most mild of these are demonstrated best by the scars they’ve left on our land, lives, and limbs. In addition, plants overshoot the carrying capacity of soil just as organisms do their habitats – too many in one place, and the necessary nutrients run out. Soil takes thousands of years to regenerate, and we don’t have thousands of years – most of the soil on the planet is already dust. If you’ve followed my explanation, which I hope you have, you can guess what happens next.
Here’s a hint: the exact same thing that would happen to any other species. The human population graph stays steady until the start of civilized societies with agriculture, and then the line climbs straight for the heavens. It hasn’t been stopped yet, but it will be. What will be left when we get there? Agriculture also necessitates backbreaking labor to actively maintain its war against biodiversity. We commonly refer to technologies as “labor saving,” but in most cases, we just saving the labor for someone else. More specifically, we’re saving it for someone who we can justify exploiting.
Fewer people buy their slaves nowadays, but renting them is all the rage. When wringing labor value from someone else’s body and time doesn’t work, we wring it from the Earth itself. All the unpaid labor in the world cannot change what monocrops do to soil, but fossil fuels are buying us time. The fertilizer used in industrial agriculture is derived from oil. When we inevitable use up this nonrenewable resource, we won’t be able to ask any more of our dead and desiccated soil – it will have blown away for good. We’ve only looked at food in the last couple paragraphs, but different examples yield similar results. The basic organization and priorities of our society as it exists are fundamentally dissociated from the reality of how life works on this planet. If we want to live, it all has to stop, and soon.
To put it simply, circumstances are a lot more dire than I previously realized. When two conflicting ideas coexist in the same brain, the result is cognitive dissonance. She who experiences the conflict can choose to preserve her existing framework by ignoring or rationalizing one idea at the expense of the other. Alternatively, she can choose to critically examine both in light of the available evidence and hopefully construct a more realistic and effective framework for action. The framework of industrial civilization is not redeemable, because it conflict on the most basic levels with the continuation of life on the planet.
When the first bit of doubt lodged itself between the lines of the familiar story, I ignored it. When it grew, distorting the consistency of the only plot I could follow, I rationalized it. I’m not going to do either one anymore. Some things are obvious – we need food, water, and air, and we need them without poison, thank you very much. The fundamental illogic and insanity of our current system, the need to dismantle it without delay – when food, water, and air are our priorities, these facts become obvious too.
At lunch with my friend, I finish the last sentence of this argument, and we’re both silent for a moment. I gulp some water, and she picks at the remnants of her food and bites her lip contemplatively. For a moment, perhaps a longer moment than I’d like to admit, I hope that she can talk me out of this. If any of what I’ve just said is true, then the future will look very different than what I’ve expected. If it’s true, my very existence within this system is predicated on the exploitation of other life, including other humans. If it’s true, then my actions need to reflect the urgency of the situation, and we’re out of time for vacillation.
“You make some good points,” she says. “Well, if it’s true, what do we do about it?” Now it’s my turn to contemplate silently, because the truth is that I’m not sure. These problems span the planet, and even if my answer wasn’t stunted by the lies that insulate my privileges, it can’t be universally true. Resistance needs to look different in different places, act different according to context, and I definitely don’t have very much of that answer yet. Luckily, I’m not asking the question in a vacuum. There are others, here and across the world, asking the same questions right now and throughout history. Resistance to hierarchy and the abuse that comes with it has a story as long and diverse as the story of humans themselves. Knowing the story is the only way to change the ending in a meaningful way, and I have a lot of work to do toward both those ends.
A specific analysis has lately been guiding my actions and explorations, called Deep Green Resistance. The book by that name was written by Lierre Keith, Aric McBay, and Derrick Jensen (authors whose work informed much of this article), and since its release last year, actions groups have sprung up across the country and internationally in accordance with the strategy the book lays out. A detailed description of the group’s basic premises, organization, and methods will have to be saved for a later article, but we are hardly the first to point out the depravity of the current arrangement of power. The soil, air, and water are running out, and so is our time. Whatever happens next, we cannot afford the luxury of relying on symbolic action alone. Whatever happens next, the death knell for real change is compromise with a system that “creates value” from death, destruction, and misery. Whatever happens next, I’m siding with the real world. How about you?