Editor’s Note: The following is a testimony that Will Falk gave at Truth, Reckoning and Right Relationship with the Great Lakes on October 16 at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on the shore of Lake Erie, Cleveland. Here, Will relates Robert J. Lifton’s concept of claims to virtue to the destruction of the natural world. No matter how many stories we build to justify our destruction, at the end, the destruction of the natural world is never going to be ethical, and is going to destroy all life on Earth – including humans.
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The Great Lakes saved my life.
By Will Falk
On April 17, 2013, while living in Milwaukee, WI and working as a public defender, I tried to kill myself in my apartment a few blocks from the shore of Lake Michigan. After I was released from the hospital – and while I was recovering, trying to understand what led me to the decision to try to take my own life – I spent every morning that spring and summer on a big red granite boulder listening to and watching Lake Michigan.
I heard her gentle freshwater waves breaking on sand. I heard the cries of sea gulls. I heard soft summer rains fall on the lake with the joyful song of water completing the long journey from the Earth’s surface to the clouds, across oceans and continents, to fall into the welcoming arms of more freshwater. I saw great blue herons stalking bluegill fish in the shallows. I watched bugs, butterflies, and songbirds crisscrossing the breeze, their flight patterns sewing stitches of color in the air. I smiled while children, celebrating their summer freedom, swam, played, and learned what it means to be human in a classroom far older than school.
Listening and watching like this pulled me from the despair that caused me to attempt suicide. Lake Michigan gave me the medicine I needed to recover. Lake Michigan truly saved my life. And, through my memories of that beautiful time, Lake Michigan continues to save my life.
Of course, the natural world also gives us life. All life depends on clean water, healthy soil, a habitable climate, and complex relationships formed by living creatures in natural communities. The Great Lakes are some of these natural communities. Because so much life depends on the Great Lakes, the needs of the Great Lakes are primary. Social morality must emerge from a humble understanding of this reality. Law is integral to any society’s morality, so law must emerge from this understanding, too.
One breezy June day in 2013, filled with gratitude because the natural world saved, gave, and continues to give me my life, I vowed to spend the rest of my life trying to save the natural world’s life. I am a lawyer. Law is one tool we have in the fight to protect the natural world. One of the first problems anyone who tries to use law to protect the natural world encounters is that our legal system is rooted in an assumption that the natural world is mere property for humans to use, exploit, and destroy. This is one of the main reasons we’re living in a time of intensifying ecological collapse – a time when humans may, in fact, be capable of destroying Earth’s life support systems.
I do not believe it is human nature to destroy the natural world. I believe it is human nature to recognize our kinship with the natural world, to recognize that the natural processes giving us life are sacred. I believe that it is human nature to insist that all of our relatives in the natural world, all of the processes giving us life, must be protected. My beliefs are supported by the reality that our ancestors lived for hundreds of thousands of years in traditional cultures that did not push the planet to the brink of total ecological collapse. All of those traditional cultures taught that nature is sacred and that we have a responsibility to protect our other-than-human kin.
So, what happened? If it is human nature to treat the natural world as sacred, why does our legal system currently objectify the natural world?
The simple truth is that people who are willing to exploit the natural world will, in the short term, always have more power than those who respect the boundaries of nature. Human cultures that are willing to take more from the land than the land freely gives eventually exhaust their land. When this happens, these cultures are confronted with a choice: either they look for new lands to take what they need or they collapse. Either they impose boundaries on themselves or they find new boundaries to break. When these exploitative cultures conquer new peoples and lands, their exploitative ideologies replace life-centered, traditional ideologies.
The history of the colonization of this continent is a crystal clear example of how this process has played out in history. Europeans exceeded the carrying capacity of their homelands and began establishing colonies around the world to funnel resources back to Europe. This process, which is ongoing, is genocidal and ecocidal. Traditional communities are massacred for defending the land. Traditional cultures are destroyed or driven underground because their teachings question whether all of this is inevitable. And, all of this is done, ultimately, to control the land and resources.
The psychologist, Robert Jay Lifton, who devoted his career to understanding the psychological justifications that made the Holocaust possible wrote in a 2014 New York Times opinion piece, “Over the course of my work, I have come to the realization that it is very difficult to endanger or kill large numbers of people except with a claim to virtue.” Lifton explained that the Nazis didn’t characterize their actions as mass murder, they were “purifying the Aryan race” and “creating more living space for Germans.” Here, Americans have made and use similar claims to virtue to justify atrocities. As Americans pushed Native peoples onto reservations and stole their land, they weren’t engaged in genocide against Native peoples, they were manifesting their destiny.
We can extend Lifton’s idea to the natural world. It is very difficult to destroy the natural world and kill large numbers of other-than-humans except with a claim to virtue. At the heart of one of the most dominant European mythologies – Judeo-Christianity – are claims to virtues like the one found in the Bible’s Book of Genesis where people were taught that they “have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on earth.” Armed with that justification, and the technologies made possible by that justification, Europeans have come to dominate this land and her indigenous peoples.
Western legal systems, heavily influenced by Christianity, provide more of these claims to virtue. Humans are not destroying whole natural communities with mines, pipelines, crops, and clearcuts, they are simply exercising their property rights. Corporations that pump toxins into lakes and rivers are not polluting, they are complying with democratically-enacted regulations. Conversely, humans trying to pass rights of nature laws are not protecting their kin, they are depriving corporations of due process and equal protection.
I hate to reduce the Great Lakes – beings so ancient and so powerful – to an argument based in human self-interest. Regardless, know this: Human bodies are mostly water. If you’re one of the estimated 35 million people in the United States and Canada who depend on Great Lakes watersheds and you’re hydrated right now, the Great Lakes are literally part of you. If carcinogens continue to be pumped into the Great Lakes, if climate change burns more of the Great Lakes away and causes algal blooms to become worse and more frequent, if oceangoing, industrial vessels continue to drag species that push native species to the brink of extinction into the Great Lakes, you will be harmed. No claim to virtue can protect you from that. This is, unfortunately, ecological reality.
If we’re truly going to stop the destruction and return human cultures to right relationship with the natural world, we must change our legal system from one that objectifies nature to one that recognizes that the needs of the natural world are primary, that the health of the Great Lakes is more important than the health of the economy, and that in killing our relatives in the natural world, we are killing ourselves.
We must insist that our legal system becomes biophilic or biocentric as opposed to anthropocentric. Biophilia means the love of life – of all life. Law must protect sea gulls and summer rain; blue herons and bluegill; bugs, butterflies, and songbirds; rivers, forests, grasslands, the Great Lakes, and all the human children who depend on them.
Anything less is simply suicidal.
Will Falk is an attorney, writer, poet, activist, and organizer with Protect Thacker Pass. Protect Thacker Pass is an “independent, grassroots collective of people” protecting the land and all life from a proposed lithium mine in the Central Basin, Nevada. For Thacker Pass Facebook click here.
DGR conducted its annual fundraiser on Ecology of Spirit. If you have missed it, you can view it here. You can also visit our auction for paintings, books, brownies and conversations. The auction will remain open till October 31.