When the will of the people spells demise for the planet
By Derrick Jensen / Deep Green Resistance
The United States is not a democracy. It is more accurate to say we live in a plutocracy — a government of, by, and for the wealthy — or more accurate still, a kleptocracy — a government that has as its primary organizing principle theft, from the poor, from the land, from the future. Yet somehow we still often publicly speak and act as though we do live in a democracy.
But there exists a deeper problem than us not living in a democracy, an even deeper problem than our inability to acknowledge that we don’t live in a democracy, which is that there’s a very real way in which we do live in a democracy. And the implications of this are very bad news for the planet. The reason has to do not so much with how we are governed as with what we want, and what we do. If it’s true that, as someone said long ago, by their fruits ye shall know them, it quickly becomes clear that, to use my mother’s phrase, the majority of people in this country don’t give two hoots in a rain barrel about the health of the planet. Some examples should make this clear.
Let’s start with tigers. Not real tigers, not flesh-and-blood tigers, not tigers who are being driven extinct in the wild. But rather the Louisiana State University Tigers football team, currently ranked number one in the country. Last January, when LSU played Alabama for the college football championship, more than 78,000 people attended. The median ticket price was $1,565, and some seats were reported to have gone for as much as $10,000. The region was so excited about this football game that a number of schools closed in celebration. And of course the television audience was well over 24 million people. It was the second most watched program in cable television history.
All of which leads me to conclude that more people in this country care about the Tigers football team than living, breathing tigers. Obviously, you could make the same argument about the Detroit Tigers, Miami Marlins, Carolina Panthers, Jacksonville Jaguars, and on and on.
Now don’t get me wrong: I like sports. But ultimately what we’re talking about here is a game. Do you think we could have gotten schools to close or 70,000 people to gather to help clean up Louisiana’s beaches from the Gulf oil spill (and do it week after week, as they do for LSU football games, for New Orleans Saints football games — as they do almost daily in every city across the country for football, baseball, basketball, and on and on)? Or hell, do you think we could get schools to close or more than 70,000 people to gather week after week to try to do something about that same region’s Cancer Alley?
Another example: For one brief night a couple of years ago the northern California county where I live — Del Norte — became a vibrant and shining example of participatory democracy in action. But it wasn’t saving the redwoods or the die-off of amphibians or dam removal that got people to turn out en masse. It was a particularly controversial domesticated plant. You probably know that through popular vote the state of California legalized cannabis for medicinal use, and now the number of allowable plants is determined county by county. So when the Del Norte County supervisors were considering dropping that number from ninety-nine to six, people flooded the public input meeting and prevented it from happening. This is how participatory democracy is supposed to work: public “representatives” are supposed to carry out the will of The People, and those who try to do otherwise get voted out of office.
The point here is not whether marijuana should be legal, any more than it is whether Alabama beats LSU. The point is that I wish people cared as much about salmon as they do about marijuana, or football. But they don’t. If people collectively had to make a choice between living rivers and electricity from dams (and recreation on reservoirs, and the value of some people’s vacation homes), we can guess what they’d choose. In fact, we know what they already chose. The answer is evident in the 2 million dams in this country; in the 60,000 dams over thirteen feet tall; in the 70,000 dams over six and a half feet tall; and in collapsing mollusk populations, collapsing fish populations, and dying rivers and flood plains. If people collectively had to choose between iPods and mountain gorillas, we know which they would (and do) choose. If they collectively had to choose between laptops in their laps and human rights in the Democratic Republic of Congo, we know that answer too.
You could say I’m comparing apples and oranges, but I’m really just talking about people’s priorities in action. By their fruits ye shall know them.
But it gets worse, because most people won’t acknowledge even to themselves that they’re making these choices. Any choices made long enough over time (on personal and especially social scales) stop feeling like choices and start feeling like economic imperatives or political inevitabilities or just the way things are. Too many people argue — or rather don’t argue but just blithely assume — that we don’t have to choose between living rivers and dams, that we don’t have to choose between a living planet and the industrial economy. But I’m not talking about wishful thinking here. I’m talking about reality, where, as Bill McKibben so frequently and eloquently points out, you can’t argue with physics. Millions of dams and hundreds of thousands of ruined rivers and streams later, we should all know this. Just as we should know that burning carbon-based substances releases carbon into the air; and just as we should know that items that require mined materials — iPods, laptops, windmills, solar photovoltaic cells, electrical grids, and on and on — require mines, which means they destroy landbases.
The notion that we needn’t choose, that we can have the “comforts or elegancies,” as one antebellum proslavery philosopher put it, of this way of life without the consequences of it, that we can have the goodies of empire (for us) without the horrors of empire (for the victims), that we can have an industrial economy without killing the planet is completely counterfactual. This notion can only be put forward by those who are either beneficiaries of, or identify with the beneficiaries of, these choices, which is to say those who do not primarily care for or identify with victims of these choices. This notion can only be put forward by those who have made themselves — consciously or not — oblivious to the suffering and indeed the actual existence of these victims. Which brings us back to how we really do live in a democracy. This failure of imagination — this failure to care — is one of the things that keep our incredibly destructive brand of democracy functioning. Without question, most people in this culture prefer their “comforts or elegancies” to a living planet, and so theft and rape and pillage are allowed to rule the day.
Upton Sinclair famously said that it’s hard to make a man understand something when his job depends on him not understanding it. I’d say here that it’s hard to make people care about something they receive tangible benefits from not caring about. This destructive democracy we share is a democracy where most people vote — through their actions and inactions, through their enacted passions, through what they care and don’t care about — with and for entitlements. Which is why, if we’re being honest with ourselves, we should go ahead and call it a kleptocracy. It is a democracy of, by, and for those who benefit from the wholescale destruction of the planet.
Derrick Jensen is the author of more than twenty books on the dominant culture and the environmental crisis. His latest book is The Myth of Human Supremacy.
Originally published in the May/June 2012 issue of Orion. Published online for the first time here.