A Reality Check From the Brink of Extinction
We can join Bill McKibben on Oct. 24 in nationwide protests over rising carbon emissions. We can cut our consumption of fossil fuels. We can use less water. We can banish plastic bags. We can install compact fluorescent light bulbs. We can compost in our backyard. But unless we dismantle the corporate state, all those actions will be just as ineffective as the Ghost Dance shirts donned by native American warriors to protect themselves from the bullets of white soldiers at Wounded Knee.
“If we all wait for the great, glorious revolution there won’t be anything left,” author and environmental activist Derrick Jensen told me when I interviewed him in a phone call to his home in California. “If all we do is reform work, this culture will grind away. This work is necessary, but not sufficient. We need to use whatever means are necessary to stop this culture from killing the planet. We need to target and take down the industrial infrastructure that is systematically dismembering the planet. Industrial civilization is functionally incompatible with life on the planet, and is murdering the planet. We need to do whatever is necessary to stop this.”
The oil and natural gas industry, the coal industry, arms and weapons manufacturers, industrial farms, deforestation industries, the automotive industry and chemical plants will not willingly accept their own extinction. They are indifferent to the looming human catastrophe. We will not significantly reduce carbon emissions by drying our laundry in the backyard and naively trusting the power elite. The corporations will continue to cannibalize the planet for the sake of money. They must be halted by organized and militant forms of resistance. The crisis of global heating is a social problem. It requires a social response.
The United States, after rejecting the Kyoto Protocol, went on to increase its carbon emissions by 20 percent from 1990 levels. The European Union countries during the same period reduced their emissions by 2 percent. But the recent climate negotiations in Bangkok, designed to lead to a deal in Copenhagen in December, have scuttled even the tepid response of Kyoto. Kyoto is dead. The EU, like the United States, will no longer abide by binding targets for emission reductions. Countries will unilaterally decide how much to cut. They will submit their plans to international monitoring. And while Kyoto put the burden of responsibility on the industrialized nations that created the climate crisis, the new plan treats all countries the same. It is a huge step backward.
“All of the so-called solutions to global warming take industrial capitalism as a given,” said Jensen, who wrote “Endgame: The Problem of Civilization” and “The Culture of Make Believe.” “The natural world is supposed to conform to industrial capitalism. This is insane. It is out of touch with physical reality. What’s real is real. Any social system—it does not matter if we are talking about industrial capitalism or an indigenous Tolowa people—their way of life, is dependent upon a real, physical world. Without a real, physical world you don’t have anything. When you separate yourself from the real world you start to hallucinate. You believe the machines are more real than real life. How many machines are within 10 feet of you and how many wild animals are within a hundred yards? How many machines do you have a daily relationship with? We have forgotten what is real.”
The latest studies show polar ice caps are melting at a record rate and that within a decade the Arctic will be an open sea during summers. This does not give us much time. White ice and snow reflect 80 percent of sunlight back to space, while dark water reflects only 20 percent, absorbing a much larger heat load. Scientists warn that the loss of the ice will dramatically change winds and sea currents around the world. And the rapidly melting permafrost is unleashing methane chimneys from the ocean floor along the Russian coastline. Methane is a greenhouse gas 25 times more toxic than carbon dioxide, and some scientists have speculated that the release of huge quantities of methane into the atmosphere could asphyxiate the human species. The rising sea levels, which will swallow countries such as Bangladesh and the Marshall Islands and turn cities like New Orleans into a new Atlantis, will combine with severe droughts, horrific storms and flooding to eventually dislocate over a billion people. The effects will be suffering, disease and death on a scale unseen in human history.
We can save groves of trees, protect endangered species and clean up rivers, all of which is good, but to leave the corporations unchallenged would mean our efforts would be wasted. These personal adjustments and environmental crusades can too easily become a badge of moral purity, an excuse for inaction. They can absolve us from the harder task of confronting the power of corporations.
The damage to the environment by human households is minuscule next to the damage done by corporations. Municipalities and individuals use 10 percent of the nation’s water while the other 90 percent is consumed by agriculture and industry. Individual consumption of energy accounts for about a quarter of all energy consumption; the other 75 percent is consumed by corporations. Municipal waste accounts for only 3 percent of total waste production in the United States. We can, and should, live more simply, but it will not be enough if we do not radically transform the economic structure of the industrial world.
“If your food comes from the grocery store and your water from a tap you will defend to the death the system that brings these to you because your life depends on it,” said Jensen, who is holding workshops around the country called Deep Green Resistance [click here and here] to build a militant resistance movement. “If your food comes from a land base and if your water comes from a river you will defend to the death these systems. In any abusive system, whether we are talking about an abusive man against his partner or the larger abusive system, you force your victims to become dependent upon you. We believe that industrial capitalism is more important than life.”
Those who run our corporate state have fought environmental regulation as tenaciously as they have fought financial regulation. They are responsible for our personal impoverishment as well as the impoverishment of our ecosystem. We remain addicted, courtesy of the oil, gas and automobile industries and a corporate-controlled government, to fossil fuels. Species are vanishing. Fish stocks are depleted. The great human migration from coastlines and deserts has begun. And as temperatures continue to rise, huge parts of the globe will become uninhabitable. NASA climate scientist James Hansen has demonstrated that any concentration of carbon dioxide greater than 350 parts per million in the atmosphere is not compatible with maintenance of the biosphere on the “planet on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted.” He has determined that the world must stop burning coal by 2030—and the industrialized world well before that—if we are to have any hope of ever getting the planet back down below that 350 number. Coal supplies half of our electricity in the United States.
“We need to separate ourselves from the corporate government that is killing the planet,” Jensen said. “We need to get really serious. We are talking about life on the planet. We need to shut down the oil infrastructure. I don’t care, and the trees don’t care, if we do this through lawsuits, mass boycotts or sabotage. I asked Dahr Jamail how long a bridge would last in Iraq that was not defended. He said probably six to 12 hours. We need to make the economic system, which is the engine for so much destruction, unmanageable. The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta has been able to reduce Nigerian oil output by 20 percent. We need to stop the oil economy.”
The reason the ecosystem is dying is not because we still have a dryer in our basement. It is because corporations look at everything, from human beings to the natural environment, as exploitable commodities. It is because consumption is the engine of corporate profits. We have allowed the corporate state to sell the environmental crisis as a matter of personal choice when actually there is a need for profound social and economic reform. We are left powerless.
Alexander Herzen, speaking a century ago to a group of Russian anarchists working to topple the czar, reminded his followers that they were not there to rescue the system.
“We think we are the doctors,” Herzen said. “We are the disease.”
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