I had the brass ring. And I let it go. I had reached the pinnacle of the educational world: I was a tenured full professor by the age of 40. I walked away from that life, which I loved, an act that made most people think I’d lost my mind. I’ll not rule that out, but I want to tell you my side of the story anyway.
After trying to change the morally bankrupt system in which we are immersed, I realized the system was changing me, and not for the better. So I let go when I realized the first step I can take toward destroying this irredeemably corrupt system is to leave it. I hope you come to understand some of the disadvantages of industrial civilization. If you do, I invite you to join me in letting go.
The beginning of the story is an important part, so I’ll start much earlier than you’ll appreciate — with my birth, in fact, though I won’t get into the bloody details.
Born into captivity
Born into captivity and assimilated into the normalcy bias of a historically abnormal period in world history, I did all the things this culture expected from me. For example, I began my career in the expected manner: I was a classroom conservative. I even taught my dog to whistle. As you might expect, I received accolades and numerous awards for teaching, advising, and scholarship. Early on, I realized students don’t care what you know until they know you care — about them. And I did, in ways that made my colleagues question whose side I was on even while I was pointing out that, in educating ourselves and others, we’re all on the same side.
Even though I taught, and taught, and taught, my dog never did learn to whistle, which showed me something important: Even earnest, caring teaching doesn’t necessarily lead to learning. The Sage on the Stage approach is dead. So, too, is the model of student as customer. So I switched my approach to one based on a “Corps of Discovery” in which every participant is expected to contribute to the learning of every other participant. We practiced anarchism, in our own classroom-centered way, taking responsibility for ourselves and our neighbors. This radical approach to teaching puts it all on the line: Everything I know, and everything I am, is exposed during every meeting of every class. How can we evaluate our knowledge, our wisdom, and own personal growth without exposing our assumptions at every turn? This, of course, requires us to let go: to let go of our hubris, and replace it with humility. To let go of our egos, and instead seek compassion and perhaps even empathy.
We’re all on the same side. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for, as the saying goes, but we must let go of a system that is making us sick, making us crazy, and killing us. During my entire life, success has been defined, incorrectly, by the amount of money a person has, rather than the amount of compassion. Similarly, the entire system has been defined in terms that make no sense because the system rewards money over happiness, and death over life. As John Ralston Saul pointed out in his 1992 book Voltaire’s Bastards, “never has failure been so ardently defended as success.”
Alas, there’s good news, too
Fortunately, we’re headed to a world where money doesn’t matter. And without money, we’ll all be rich in the life-sustaining ways that really matter. We spent the first couple million years of the human experience immersed in gift economy, and it seems we’ll be there again in the not-too-distant future. I long for the day we see more free-flowing rivers every year, as well as more clean air, more wild places, fewer species driven to extinction, and less soil washed into the world’s oceans, each and every year.
Like me, everybody in the industrialized world was born into captivity. A few people seem to be acknowledging the bars imprisoning them. The unseen bars of our prisons are keeping us from becoming fully human, from fully expressing our humanity. As Goethe said some two centuries ago, “None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free.” It’s time for a jailbreak. Better yet, it’s time to heed the words of Joan Baez and raze, raze the prisons to the ground. Even and especially the invisible prisons.
In the latter years of my 20-year stint at the University of Arizona, I was doing the best and most important work of my life. Excluded from teaching in my home department, I taught through a program housed at the university called Poetry Inside/Out. “Inside” included the men’s pods of the county jail and the girl’s pods of the county juvenile detention facility; “Out” included an alternative, vocational high school and my college honors course.
We asked each honors student to pay a visit to the juvenile detention facility. You would be hard-pressed to come up with similar-aged people in this country who had more disparate backgrounds than upper-middle-class, white honors students on the one hand and poor, Latina detainees on the other. The typical detainee is a 15-year-old Hispanic substance abuser who has been subjected to every conceivable kind of abuse, most recently sexual abuse by her mother’s current boyfriend. She’s been knifed and shot at and she’s had a friend die in her arms. Nearly all these events, of course, stemmed from factors largely beyond her control.
After an honors student’s first visit to detention, we would ask a single question: “What do you think?” After a minute of reflection, the answer was nearly unanimous among the dozens of honors students: “They’re just like me.”
Finally, my teaching was inclusive and it led to real learning: empathy is the most important thing we can learn. I’d like to think we were — collectively and individually — living this line from Eugene V. Debs, five-time Socialist Party candidate for president of the U.S.: “While there is a lower class I am in it, while there is a criminal element I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” Debs knew that rights are not given, they are fought for; like Thomas Jefferson, Debs knew our rights had to be earned with frequent battles, or they would slip away. Like Jefferson, Debs knew people must be willing to die to secure our rights.
Well before this point, my scholarship had broadened to include the twin sides of the fossil-fuel coin — global climate change and peak oil — and my message increasingly targeted the public paying my salary. Long a conservation biologist, I had become a friend of the Earth as well as a social critic. And I’d come to recognize the costs and consequences of the industrial economy: obedience at home, oppression abroad, and wholesale destruction of the living planet on which we depend for our very lives. We’re on track to cause our own extinction, probably within a few decades, because of ongoing climate change. The only legitimate hope to prevent our extinction, and that of the thousands of species we’re taking with us into the abyss, is completion of the ongoing collapse of the industrial economy. The omnicidal culture we know as western civilization is about to reach its overdue end — although not as soon as I’d wish. Time is not on our side. It’s long past time to let go of a system that enslaves us all while destroying all life and therefore all that matters. And it’s not merely time to let go, but to terminate this increasingly violent system that values the property of the rich more than the lives of the poor.
How do we respond?
As Arundhati Roy wrote in her 2001 book, Power Politics: “Trouble is that once you see it, you can’t unsee it. And once you’ve seen it, keeping quiet, saying nothing, becomes as political an act as speaking out. There’s no innocence. Either way, you’re accountable.”
I saw it, and I recognized my accountability. Even though I was doing exceptional work, and doing it well, I was participating in an immoral system. For me, it was time to let go because I could no longer participate in the system and look at the face in the mirror. I could no longer expose the dark underbelly of civilization and live at the apex of empire. By this time, I had come to recognize that my generation’s legacy — the curse my generation leaves behind — is a world depleted of resources, ruined by Empire, and ruled by fascism masquerading as democracy.
Earlier in this space I put my own spin on Arundhati Roy’s conclusion: “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 we receive every day. The criminally rich get richer through crime: that’s how America works. Through it all, we believe we’re free.”
Like most contemporary Americans, I believed I was free far too long. But in fact I was bound by the monkey trap. A monkey trap is a small cage with a piece of fruit inside, anchored to a solid object. The cage has a hold barely large enough for a monkey to insert its empty hand, but too small to extract the hand holding a piece of fruit. The monkey is trapped, unable to let go of the fruit.
I had the low-hanging fruit of American Empire. Finally, I let go.
I left the easy life of the university for four reasons:
- There is a moral imperative to the way we conduct our lives and living at the apex of empire doesn’t match that moral imperative;
- I left as an act of resistance, consistent with my baby-boomer generation of the 1960s and 1970s. Consistent, that is, until we gave up on resistance in 1980 for “a few dollars more”;
- Letting go allows me more time to speak and write than I was able when I spent time fending off administrative dragons;
- Least importantly, there is potential to add a few years to my life when the world’s industrial economy completes its fall.
I miss many aspects of my former life. I miss daily interactions with my wife and best friend of three decades, who stayed on a more conventional path. Similarly, I miss frequent interaction with inmates and honors students. I miss fingers that open and close on command — my fingers worked fine when all they had to do was corral electrons on a computer monitor — real work, though, induces real, lasting pain. I miss the easy life of civilization, even knowing what it does to the living planet.
The aching in my heart is profound, but it pales in comparison to the heartache I feel when I think about civilization. Industrial civilization forces us to extend human-population overshoot on an overcrowded planet, to the tune of more than 200,000 more people each day. Industrial civilization forces us to overheat our only, already overheated home, setting records every year for greenhouse-gas emissions long after we’ve understood the consequences. Industrial civilization forces us to ratchet up the Sixth Great Extinction as we drive some 200 species to extinction each and every life-destroying day. And now, with full knowledge that extinction is forever, we are driving our own species to extinction. No matter how badly I miss my former life, I could never go back. And not just because I’d never be hired into a civilized job. But also because modern civilization has just become too insane for me to take.
Now I share a small property with a small family of humans, as well as goats, ducks, chickens and gardens. Living in agrarian anarchy, I’ve taken responsibility for myself and my neighbors, human and otherwise.
Like a Cheyenne dog soldier, I’ve placed my picket-pin in a small valley at the edge of empire. I will protect this valley, even with my life, from further insults of industry, including the dam proposed near my new home. The problem with being a martyr: you have to die for the cause.
Finally, very late in an unexamined life, I came to see the horrors of the way we live, and I let go. I invite you to join me. And I’d like to raise the stakes by pointing out, yet again, the dire straits in which we find ourselves and the attendant necessity to take action. Taking action will almost certainly bring personal hardship. Acting against the industrial economy brands you a terrorist. It might lead to incarceration and torture, and perhaps even early death. A phrase from activist-writer Derrick Jensen comes to mind: We have the best excuse in the world to not act. So we can have the best excuse in the world, or we can have a world.
With that trade-off in mind, we need witnesses and we need warriors on behalf of the living planet. So, I’d like to extend another invitation. Don’t just join me in walking away. Join me as a witness and a warrior, on behalf of life. Ultimately, in other words, on your own behalf.
I adapted this essay from a regional TED talk I presented in Tempe, Arizona in January 2012.