People often accuse me of inappropriate behavior because I think terminating the industrial economy is a good idea. Interestingly, few of these people seem concerned about the morality of the big banks as they devise ways to profit from contraction of the industrial economy. Indeed, politicians routinely try to distance themselves from the few informed individuals who have a clue where we’re headed.
But back to me — my favorite subject, after all — and the accusations of inappropriate behavior I attract, like snakes to the eggs of ground-nesting birds.
“People will die,” they cry, while purposely and studiously ignoring the millions of people and other animals killed every day by the industrial economy. They act as if the industrial economy is propped up by a solid foundation of love and world peace. It’s all rainbows and butterflies, that good old industrial economy.
And, as should be obvious to every adult, nobody gets out alive: birth is lethal.
People accuse me of inappropriate behavior because, in this increasingly postmodern world, we don’t talk about right and wrong. Cultural sensitivities, you know. Not to mention cultural relativism.
Call me insensitive — I’ve been called worse, and my skin is thick — but I claim there is right and wrong. I’m way too postmodern to believe there is absolute right and wrong. I gave up that brand of religion years ago. But on specific issues, in particular circumstances, there is little gray to be found. Even in the relatively broad example of industrial culture, there is plenty of black and white.
The definition I’ll use is straight from my buddies Merriam and Webster.
Moral: 1 a: of or relating to principles of right and wrong in behavior: ethical (moral judgments) b: expressing or teaching a conception of right behavior (a moral poem) c: conforming to a standard of right behavior d: sanctioned by or operative on one’s conscience or ethical judgment (a moral obligation) e: capable of right and wrong action (a moral agent)
As I’ve indicated before in this space, there can be little doubt that a system that enslaves, tortures, and kills people is wrong. Industrial culture does all that with stunning efficiency. Big Energy poisons our water. Big Ag controls our seeds, hence our food. Big Pharm controls, through pharmaceuticals, the behavior of our children. Wall Street controls the flow of money. Big Ad controls the messages you receive every day. The criminally rich get richer through crime: that’s how America works.
Through it all, we believe we’re free.
In contrast to western civilization, I think a system is right — and even just — if it treats people alike and liberates them, thus giving them freedom to live unchained from the bonds of culture, politics, and a monetary system developed and implemented by others.
I will not go down the road of oppression at the point of a gun or the blade of a bulldozer, but it’s easy to extend the notion of enslavement-torture-death to entire peoples and the landbase. It’s pretty clear I don’t need to go down that road: We’re so thoroughly disconnected from the land and from our neighbors that we no longer have a clue what happiness looks like, much less how we might bring some home.
What’s wrong: making a list
What, about industrial culture, is wrong? Let’s start with the morality of war criminals such as Barack Obama, who is merely following in the footsteps of civilized people such as Thomas Jefferson and George W. Bush in destroying the living planet and every non-industrial culture.
Consider, for example, Obama’s actions at the world’s climate-change meetings, sandwiched between the handful of overt wars he has initiated: He takes the political way out, claiming victory even as the world recognized his (and therefore our) horrific failures. His actions remind me of the John Ralston Saul quote with which I commenced one of my books:
Never has failure been so ardently defended as though it were success.
In North America, we’ve been quashing terrorism in since 1492, and we just keep at it, pulverizing the planet while imprisoning and torturing anybody who gets in the way of civilization. We have a long and sordid history, and we keep doing it again, and again, and again.
And, in exchange for a comfortably miserable life marked by an equal mix of unhappiness and i-Pods, we tolerate anything to which our hand-picked leaders subject us. This entire, life-draining, life-sucking enterprise requires us to tell increasingly absurd lies and convince ourselves they are the truth. Fortunately, this requires little effort on our part because we are awash in cognitive dissonance as we swim in an ocean of cultural denial.
It’s relatively easy to make a moral case in favor of pulverizing the lands and waters myriad other species — and our own species — need to survive. We merely need to convince ourselves we’re not really part of nature. And, because of the aforementioned ocean, that’s not a problem.
But then there’s the more difficult issue: the future of humanity.
How do we justify the ongoing, ever-increasing destruction of the hanging-on-by-a-thread living planet, when we and future generations need the actual ocean to survive? How do we justify the murderous blob of economic growth in the name of baubles but at the cost of human life? Does that seem right? In destroying the living planet and all hope for future humans to occupy the planet, it hardly seems to me we are “expressing or teaching a conception of right behavior,” while “conforming to a standard of right behavior.”
The choices we face
I’m increasingly convinced that the only moral choice at all is to bring down the industrial economy as quickly as possible, and by any means necessary. If that means destroying property, think about the destruction of lives caused by industrial culture. If the requisite means of halting industrial activity are violent, think about the violence and death caused by every civilized action.
Using a cellular telephone is legal — and even encouraged by industrial culture — yet it kills women and children in the Congo. On the other hand, tearing down a cell-phone tower that kills thousands of birds every year and facilitates the death and torture of Congolese people is a criminal offense punishable by imprisonment. Because tearing down a cell-phone tower almost certainly represents an act of terrorism, it is punishable by suspension of habeas corpus, torture, and life in prison.
Short of violent and illegal acts, we have few options at our disposal. In fact, using all means at our disposal still leaves us a few thousand bricks shy of a full palette. It appears even our most “outrageous” actions pale in comparison to the scale of the problem we face. The bankers are in charge, regardless of the immoral actions they take. The limited power we have is slipping away faster than justice in our courtrooms.
What does all this mean for us, the people with no voice? Does it leave us moral choices? Does it indicate how we ought to live, in a world gone horribly awry while we were ensconced in the freak show?
I have little to offer here, other than boring pragmatic advice about self-reliance and introspection. We should be investing in our neighbors, as has always been true. And those neighbors aren’t just humans. They’re animals and plants, soil and water.
We need to protect and honor them as we do our own children. We need to harbor them from the ravages of war, and also from an economy built on war. We need to live outside the industrial economy and within the real world of honest work, honest play, simple pleasures, and paying the consequences of our daily actions. We need to abandon a political system that takes without giving, long after it abandoned us. At the most fundamental level, we need to re-structure society so that children understand and value the origins of food, and life.
It’s no longer just the living planet we should be concerned about. It’s us. The moral question, then: What are you going to do about it?
But wait, there’s more
As you ponder this question, keep in mind the horrific case of human-population overshoot to which we contribute each day. Keep in mind the non-industrial cultures and their languages we destroy on a regular basis. Keep in mind the tens of thousands of species we drive to extinction each year. Keep in mind that, considering our dependence on a robust biosphere and stable climate, one of those species we’re driving to extinction is Homo sapiens.
If you’ve read this far, and agree with even a small portion of this essay, there’s no going back. Once you recognize the industrial economy is omnicidal, once your recognize the United States as the most life-destroying empire in the history of the world, once you recognize that politicians are simply imperial tools in the ongoing economic mirage, there’s simply no closing your eyes to the culture of death.
I recognize my accountability. I don’t want to bring torture and suffering to humans and other animals. I don’t want to destroy the living planet so a few humans can continue to live comfortably at the expense of every other culture and species on the planet. I don’t want to be responsible for extinguishing habitat for humans on Earth.
After taking the first step — stepping away from industrial culture — the steps don’t get any easier. If the culture is killing us, other species, and future prospects of human life on Earth, do we have an obligation to terminate the industrial economy? If so, what does that mean? Do we risk imprisonment, torture, and early death to save the living planet for future generations of humans?
Parents obviously cannot risk imprisonment. Familial morality conflicts with planetary morality. But what if the living planet is your family? What if the longevity of your children depends completely on terminating the industrial economy? Both are undoubtedly certain: the living planet is your family, though you likely do not recognize it as such, and the longevity of your children depends upon terminating the industrial economy in the very near future.
How will your children remember you? As a terrorist (aka freedom fighter)? As an indifferent imperialist, ready to sacrifice the living planet for your 401(k)? How will we face our children after we’ve destroyed all habitat for humans on this planet? Or, to take a very short step, how will we face our children after we’ve failed to defend the living planet?
We can extend the parental excuse to every human on the planet. We all have people we love, and who love us. There are few people who live like hermits, and I don’t think we can count on them to save us from the industrial economy.
Imagine the world without Patrick Henry and a few other freedom fighters ready to give up their lives in the name of a brighter future. Imagine if they’d have been pacifists, willing only to sign petitions and carry out boycotts. Give peace a chance? That’s exactly what the industrialists want from us: a passive populace, addicted to television and politics as usual, so they can fleece us while destroying the living planet on which we all depend. We’re Winnie the Pooh, in this old joke:
The Knight: How would you like to be my lackey?
Pooh: What’s a lackey?
The Knight: That’s someone who does what he’s told, without question, and for NO pay.
Pooh: What’s the catch?
Many people argue that the industrial age is coming to a close, so no further action is needed on our part. These people are seriously out-numbered by those who think the industrial age will never end. Both groups are imperial lackeys, unwilling to ensure a better future for humanity by taking courageous action.
Ultimately, all I’m asking is whether you will do something. There is plenty to do, and any number can play. Won’t you join me?
–Guy McPherson for Transition Voice
This essay is excerpted and modified from a chapter in Walking Away from Empire.