Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Aesthetics of Ecocide

[From TAGMAG 05 (March 2008), a publication of <>TAG in The Hague. Cross posted here and here.]
For most of the past 200,000 years, since Homo sapiens sapiens evolved in Africa, all humans lived in sustainable relationships with their landbase. They fed and were fed by the organisms with which they shared diverse environments and prospered as a species, eventually inhabiting many regions of the world. They brought with them their capacity for language, tool-making, complex organization, aesthetics.

Around 13,000 years ago some human populations began to develop the earliest attributes of civilization. A very few notable river cultures in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia (and later in North and South America) established year-round human settlements, later to evolve into cities, city-states, and empires. Instead of moving to sources of food, water, and shelter, they brought these things to single locations, sparking the first large-scale, human-instigated deforestations, desertifications, water pollution, and disease, as well as early instances of animal extinctions, genetic engineering, genocide.

These settled cultures were the exception to the overwhelming majority of other human cultures, spread out around the globe, which remained in states of sustainable interdependence with the natural world. Wherever these non-civilized cultures have been met by the civilized, they have either been absorbed or eradicated. I am not romanticizing. This is historical fact. There are very few non-civilized human cultures left. Present-day hunter-gatherers are the only examples of humanity not serving a death sentence to its own ecology.

Fact: civilization is on a mass-murderous rampage that is destroying its home and everything in it. It’s called ecocide, from the Greek oikos, meaning ‘house’, and the Latin cidium, meaning ‘to kill’. Civilized humanity is killing its own house. Your house. My house. Everybody’s house. Or if you prefer: your mother, my mother, everybody’s mother.

Those of us concerned about global environmental collapse wonder if there is any meaningful thing that the civilized can do to prevent the destruction of our species and most other species. Some people have dedicated their lives to issues such as wildlife and rainforest preservation. Others, for a variety of reasons, have come onboard recently with technological innovations. One American politician made a highly popular powerpoint presentation.

But is any of this effective? Is it meaningful? Can civilized humanity do anything more effective to stop environmental meltdown than cease to exist? Not humanity, but civilized humanity. Sorry if you’ve grown attached to civilization, but if we want to stop being ecocidal we are going to have to give up either civilization or our lives. If we hang on to civilization for as long as we can (perhaps a few more decades, perhaps, before it collapses under its own weight), we not only guarantee our own destruction, but the destruction of everyone and everything we love.

The good news is that the only thing you have to do to save your home, save your mother, save everything you love, is give up civilization. And that’s how it goes. While this is not particularly controversial if one looks at the environmental indicators, my guess is that many readers will resist agreeing. The inability many of us have imagining life without civilization is a sad comment on how attached we are to our mass-murderous ways. The violence has become more important than life itself. We identify more with consuming the planet than being an animal in it. Crazy, huh?

Take an hour or two and think deeply about this. Appraise civilization, as one of many distinct human cultures. Can we really be so deluded by our own participation in the killing as to think that what civilization is doing to the planet can continue without leading to utter disaster?

And let’s be clear: civilization is not some benign cultural phenomenon that makes art, trades corn for wool and builds cities, with millenia of ecocide and genocide an inadvertant and regretted side effect of its otherwise good works to prolong life expectancies, invent haute cuisine and turn out mind-numbingly stupid sitcoms. Civilization thrives on the subjegation of everything around it. It is insatiable. History tells us that its appetite is infinite. Common sense tells us that our world is not.

British physicist Stephen Hawking apparently agrees with me. In April 2007 he stated that, due to the threats of “global warming, nuclear war, a genetically engineered virus, or other dangers...the human race has no future if it doesn’t go into space”, essentially claiming that humanity’s only chance for continued survival is to leave this planet. Hawking then got in a jet and floated around in zero gravity for a few seconds. A leading thinker of our civilization considers our home to be like so many mass-produced, excrement-smeared baby diapers in a landfill: disposable.

Heartbreaking, especially if you love this planet.

Is Hawking right? Consider what our species requires to survive: clean air and clean water, to begin with. An atmosphere that neither chokes nor cooks nor freezes us. We need to interact with other species—those we eat, those that eat us and help dispose of our waste, those that shelter us. We need diversity, the diversity of our genes and that of the things we eat. But do we need better, cleverer products? Do we need monumental architecture?

Our water is utterly poisoned. National Geographic has recently reported that on this planet, 71 percent of which is covered with water, none of it is pristine. None of it is untouched by civilization. There are growing dead zones—massive areas where no marine life can exist—in the oceans. Civilization is killing rivers daily: dumping toxins into them, damming them (yes, and even for ‘clean’ hydro-electric power), eradicating the forests that once lined them and brought precious nutrients to them. Whole lakes have caught fire or disappeared. Rains have been composed of acid. Glaciers are melting because it is the right of the civilized to eat beef and drive an automobile.

Civilization has succeeded in killing water. And even where there is clean drinking water, the civilized increasingly prefer the bottled variety, the production of which does violence against our planet in its water- and oil-guzzling production, bottling, transportation, and disposal. (We can leave aside, for now, the violence that marketing it does to our intellect.)

And our air is filthy. Conduct a little experiment: go into the woods, or the mountains, somewhere far away. Take a deep breath. The degree to which you enjoy taking that breath and it makes you feel good is the clearest possible indication of how unclean the air is that you breath every day. The air that you breathe is the air of the civilized. It is filthy, filled with poison, and it makes you sick and unhappy. This is an objective fact: refer to your experiment in the woods for proof.

Humans are a hardy and adaptable species. Although civilized humans have almost completed the elimination of all non-civilized human cultures (those still living in balance with their ecosystems), the rest of us will outlast many other species. But our survival depends on our interaction with other species. While in our civilized wisdom we turn our back on these interactions, our actions continue to raise the planet’s temperature and cook vital amphibian, bird, insect, and plant species. Our own demise is thereby precipitated.

What will happen if we fail to respect the integrity of genes, when some inevitable disease strikes a staple in our monocrop agriculture? It is happening now with bananas and with bees. Yes, and what will fish-lovers do when, as is widely and uncontroversially predicted, edible fish species disappear altogether within the next few decades?

May I vent? I am bored to tears by the faulty and false solutions parading as the new hope for our civilization. While I respect recent efforts to alleviate the most obvious hurts of ecocide, I sometimes wonder if failing to recognize and name the real problem isn’t making it worse. Civilization will not fix civilization. A brilliant scientist is telling you to fly into outer space if you want your children to survive. One assumes that only the civilized get a ticket on the Great Airlift of the Future, and hunter-gatherers be damned. Hello?

Listen: there is no hope for civilization. Civilization is not redeemable. Civilization will not be reformed. It—we—will continue to consume what we can, and destroy what we cannot, until there is nothing left. Unless, of course, it is stopped, it is ended, it itself is subjected to the same sort of violent and systematic program of eradication that it has subjected everything in its path to for the last several millenia. Or, more likely, it collapses under its own weight. Either way, as it has hurt for millenia, it will hurt when it goes, kicking and screaming. Feel it now?

Yes, yes, there is no hope. And that may well be a good thing. Without relying on hope, that is, without externalizing the problem, our problem, we have nothing to wait for but our own good actions. What would it take for us to demolish all of our reasons for not acting against ecocide? How can we smash our false hopes for the baby steps we occassionally take against the juggernaut of civilization? We will all feel stronger when we stop playing victims to our own crimes.

The excellent and uncompromising radical environmentalist Derrick Jensen, whose flawlessly argued and highly recommended work Endgame inspired much of this article, often asks his readers to consider what they love and what they are capable and willing to do to protect and preserve it. He writes:

“One of the good things about everything being so fucked up—about the culture being so ubiquitously destructive—is that no matter where you look—no matter what your gifts, no matter where your heart lies—there’s good and desperately important work to be done.”

So do it. Figure it out and do it. It is beyond the scope of this article to instruct anyone as to how, just to recommend we all take our minds out of the gutter of civilization and find a way. Not just this year, while it is fashionable. (Jensen has noted that for the last few decades environmental issues have returned to the headlines approximately every seven years. But the rainforests still get eaten up.) Not just until all of our automobiles run on pseudo-solutions like bio-fuel. But as a matter of course and a way of life.

Yes, and I’m typing all of this into my laptop, produced by one of the most environmentally offensive and aggressively marketed corporations in the industry. And yes, I type at 35,000 feet, as I cross the Atlantic Ocean. And yes, it is the eighth time I have crossed it in the last six months. We can discuss carbon footprints, alternative energy sources, the phoney greening of polluting industries. Or we can be honest.

Or we can talk aesthetics. Lost as I am myself in the delusions of civilization, I came up one afternoon with the name of the <>TAG exhibition, ecoAesthetics, as though the aesthetics of ecology ought to be of concern. Aesthetics? I live in The Netherlands, a country where the utterly arrogant concept of eco-aesthetics has been writ large on the landscape, even by the idea of ‘landscape’: there is hardly any ‘eco’ left here, just aesthetics, the entirety of the envirnment controlled—‘stewarded’, the policy writers of George W. Bush’s government would say—for centuries by the civilized, presumably because the civilized think they know better. I find it hard to do better than 200,000 years of survival through ice ages, floods, and volcanoes, but what do I know?

Here I sit in an airplane, cooking the atmosphere around me and strangling the environment below, playing the good soldier in civilization’s war against the planet Earth. And reformulating what has been said about the mass-murderous culture that prosecuted a more commonly agreed ‘war of aggression’ in the last century: at least the planes run on time.