Let’s Stop Trying to Save Industrial Civilisation
Excerpts from Bright Green Lies: How the Environmental Movement Lost Its Way and What We Can Do About It by Derrick Jensen, Lierre Keith and Max Wilbert.
Reading the book Bright Green Lies had a profound impact on me. It changed my perspective on industrial civilisation, the living world, the various deliberately inadequate interpretations of the term ‘sustainability’ and most of the climate movement. Here, with the authors’ permission, I share some excerpts from the book that I found particularly powerful, in most cases because we hear these kinds of statements very little, and the ‘bright green lies’ the authors make a case against, much more frequently. These excerpts are in full, with the only alteration being the endnote references, to keep them in numerical order. A word of warning: some people may find these excerpts confronting and/or upsetting.
Bright Green Lies decentres industry, which is so often at the heart of climate ‘solutions’ and asks “what is best for the planet and ALL its inhabitants? What is true sustainability?” What becomes clear is that we cannot simply continue with business as usual. We must degrow our energy use and start defining “the good life” by less material and consumerist wants and more by connection, nature, joy, culture, art, music and conviviality.
While I am a huge proponent of Degrowth taking us to a steady state economy, such as that proposed by Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics, even this is a very human-centric approach, with the planetary boundaries that we must operate within implying there is an acceptable level of biodiversity (that is, entire species) we can lose, oceans we can acidify and warming of the climate we can tolerate in the name of maintaining some of the luxuries of industrialisation. This steady state economy also relies on finite materials, so while we may be able to sustain a degrown, steady state economy for longer than the current growth-based economy, it is, by definition, not sustainable. Far from being the most we can do, Degrowth is the bare minimum we must do to avoid an unplanned and harmful collapse of civilisation. True sustainability will require even more change.
Bright Green Lies is nearly 500 pages long, and so these few excerpts do not do justice to the huge amount of work and information the authors, Derrick Jensen, Lierre Keith and Max Wilbert, have brilliantly pulled together to make the case that industrial civilisation is the root cause of our ecological crises and therefore the solution lies in its dissolution, and not in technologies that attempt to continue it for as long as possible, causing more harm along the way. Nevertheless, I hope you find these excerpts as thought-provoking and as galvanising as I did, and that we can focus our energies on working towards what comes next, so that the inevitable transition causes the least amount of harm and protects as many human and nonhuman lives as possible.
– Erin Remblance, Sydney-based writer and activist.
The Spectrum of Environmentalism (p. xi):
The living planet and nonhumans both have the right to exist. Human flourishing depends on healthy ecology. To save the planet, humans must live within the limits of the natural world; therefore, drastic transformations need to occur at social, cultural, economic, political, and personal levels.
Environmental problems exist and are serious, but green technology and design, along with ethical consumerism, will allow a modern, high-energy lifestyle to continue indefinitely. The bright greens’ attitude amounts to: “It’s less about nature, and more about us.”
Chapter 1: The Problem
We have a lot of numbers. They keep us sane, providing a kind of gallows’ comfort against the intransigent sadism of power: We know the world is being murdered, despite the mass denial. The
numbers are real. The numbers don’t lie. The species shrink, their extinctions swell, and all their names are other words for kin: bison, wolves, black-footed ferrets.
Before me (Lierre) is the text of a talk I’ve given. The original version contains this sentence: “Another 120 species went extinct today.” The 120 is crossed clean through, with 150 written above it. But the 150 is also struck out, with 180 written above. The 180 in its turn has given way to 200. I stare at this progression with a sick sort of awe. How does my small, neat handwriting hold this horror? The numbers keep stacking up, I’m out of space in the margin, and life is running out of time.
This way of living cannot last. And when it is over it would be far better that there be more of the world left rather than less. This is why our actions now are so important. What we do now determines what life is like—or, indeed, whether it exists at all—for those humans and nonhumans who come after us.
Chapter 2: Solving for the Wrong Variable
Once upon a time, environmentalism was about saving wild beings and wild places from destruction. “The beauty of the living world I was trying to save has always been uppermost in my mind,” Rachel
Carson wrote to a friend as she finished the manuscript that would become Silent Spring. “That, and anger at the senseless, brutish things that were being done.” She wrote with unapologetic reverence of “the oak and maple and birch” in autumn, the foxes in the morning mist, the cool streams and the shady ponds, and, of course, the birds: “In the mornings, which had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of robins, catbirds, doves, jays, and wrens, and scores of other bird voices, there was now no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marshes.” Her editor noted that Silent Spring required a “sense of almost religious dedication” as well as “extraordinary courage.” Carson knew the chemical industry would come after her, and come it did, in attacks as “bitter and unscrupulous as anything of the sort since the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species a century before.” Seriously ill with the cancer that would kill her, Carson fought back in defense of the living world, testifying with calm fortitude before President John F. Kennedy’s Science Advisory Committee and the U.S. Senate. She did these things because she had to. “There would be no peace for me,” she wrote to a friend, “if I kept silent.”
Carson’s work inspired the grassroots environmental movement; the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); and the passage of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act. Silent Spring was more than a critique of pesticides—it was a clarion call against “the basic irresponsibility of an industrialized, technological society toward the natural world.”
Today’s environmental movement stands upon the shoulders of giants, but something has gone terribly wrong. Carson didn’t save the birds from DDT so that her legatees could blithely offer them up to wind turbines. We are writing this book because we want our environmental movement back.
Mainstream environmentalists now overwhelmingly prioritize saving industrial civilization over saving life on the planet. The how and the why of this institutional capture is the subject for another book, but the capture is near total. For example, Lester Brown, founder of the Worldwatch Institute and Earth Policy Institute—someone who has been labeled as “one of the world’s most influential thinkers” and “the guru of the environmental movement”—routinely makes comments like, “We talk about saving the planet.… But the planet’s going to be around for a while. The question is, can we save civilization? That’s what’s at stake now, and I don’t think we’ve yet realized it.” Brown wrote this in an article entitled “The Race to Save Civilization.”
The world is being killed because of civilization, yet what Brown says is at stake, and what he’s racing to save, is precisely the social structure causing the harm: civilization. Not saving salmon. Not monarch butterflies. Not oceans. Not the planet. Saving civilization.
Brown is not alone. Peter Kareiva, chief scientist for The Nature Conservancy, more or less constantly pushes the line that “Instead of pursuing the protection of biodiversity for biodiversity’s sake, a new conservation should seek to enhance those natural systems that benefit the widest number of people…. Conservation will measure its achievement in large part by its relevance to people.”
Bill McKibben, who works tirelessly and selflessly to raise awareness about global warming, and who has been called “probably America’s most important environmentalist,” constantly stresses his work is about saving civilization, with articles like “Civilization’s Last Chance,” or with quotes like, “We’re losing the fight, badly and quickly—losing it because, most of all, we remain in denial about the peril that human civilization is in.”
We’ll bet you that polar bears, walruses, and glaciers would have preferred that sentence ended a different way.
In 2014 the Environmental Laureates’ Declaration on Climate Change was signed by “160 leading environmentalists from 44 countries” who were “calling on the world’s foundations and philanthropies to take a stand against global warming.” Why did they take this stand? Because global warming “threatens to cause the very fabric of civilization to crash.” The declaration concludes: “We, 160 winners of the world’s environmental prizes, call on foundations and philanthropists everywhere to deploy their endowments urgently in the effort to save civilization.” Coral reefs, emperor penguins, and Joshua trees probably wish that sentence would have ended differently. The entire declaration, signed by “160 winners of the world’s environmental prizes,” never once mentions harm to the natural world. In fact, it never mentions the natural world at all.
We get it. We, too, like hot showers and freezing cold ice cream, and we like them 24/7. We like music at the touch of a button or, now, a verbal command. We like the conveniences this way of life brings us. And it’s more than conveniences. We know that. We three co-authors would be dead without modern medicine. But we all recognize that there is a terrible trade-off for all this: life on the planet. And no individual’s conveniences—or, indeed, life—is worth that price.
The goal has been shifted, slowly and silently, and no one seems to have noticed. Environmentalists tell the world and their organizations that “it’s about us.” But some of us refuse to forget the last spotted owls in the last scrap of forest, the wild beings and wild places. Like Rachel Carson before us, there will be no peace for us if we keep silent while the critters, one by one, are disappeared. Our once and future movement was for them, not us. We refuse to solve for the wrong variable. We are not saving civilization; we are trying to save the world.
Chapter 3: The Solar Lie: Part I
The global economy is a sticky web. My (Derrick’s) niece and her family recently visited. My niece’s
husband is from China. He’s in his mid-thirties. During the visit he complained to me about Walmart: “All these Americans buy all these cheap consumer goods made in China, and that has been good for the Chinese economy, but not good for the air. In my lifetime I have seen the sky in China go from blue to gray to black. All so Americans and others can have cheap goods. I understand this is the price we have to pay so a country can develop its economy, but I don’t like it.”
He also said he has old friends who’ve been forced by the economy to become de facto slaves in these factories, to work standing for 12 hours at a time without breaks. He told me of friends who work in high-rise factories with nets around the buildings to prevent workers from jumping to their deaths, and friends whose coworkers have joined together anyway to kill themselves, anything to end the ceaseless torment of their slave labor.
China is by far the world’s biggest user of coal, both extracting and using almost 50 percent of all coal consumed. The U.S. and other countries get cheap consumer goods; and the Chinese get black skies, emissions, slave labor, a completely devastated natural world, and a financial surplus. It works for governments in all these countries. For the real world, not so well.
Chapter 4: The Solar Lie: Part 2
Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) systems normally take one of two forms. In parabolic trough systems, a series of curved mirrors concentrate sunlight on a small tube containing a “working fluid”— often synthetic oil—heated to temperatures above 750°F. The other major type of CSP system is a solar power tower, in which a field of mirrors uses motorized mounts to track the sun from dawn to dusk and reflect light onto the apex of a tall central tower, heating a fluid inside of the tower to 1000 to 2000°F.
An example of the latter type is Ivanpah, a 377 MW solar energy harvesting facility built in southeastern California and financed by BrightSource Energy, Bechtel, NRG Energy, the federal government (of course), and Google.
Before the project was installed, this 3,500-acre swathe of federal land was described by Mojave advocate Shaun Gonzales as “pristine desert.” It’s no longer pristine. Instead, it effectively no longer exists. The Ivanpah facility is so large it can be seen from space, and each of the three fields of mirrors surrounding each tower is more than a mile across.
Construction of the Ivanpah facility killed rare plants and destroyed habitat for threatened desert tortoises. The federal government claimed about 30 desert tortoises lived in the area, but eventually more than 170 tortoises were forcibly removed from their homes and relocated. It is believed that dozens more were killed during construction when underground burrows collapsed under the heavy equipment. Many of the relocated tortoises tried to go home, but found their way blocked by a chain-link fence. Outside this fence they paced back and forth, back and forth, until they died of heatstroke.
The Ivanpah project was originally set to destroy 4,000 acres (more than six square miles), but after environmentalists challenged the plan because of harm to wildlife, the site was reduced by about 13 percent. Joshua Basofin, an activist with Defenders of Wildlife, responded, “This reconfiguration is pretty minimal. It hasn’t really addressed the core issues on the impact on desert tortoise and rare plants.”
Ivanpah also kills insects and birds. Insects seem to be attracted to light from the mirrors. Birds follow the insects, and predatory birds follow the insectivores. The concentrated sunlight burns and melts every creature who flies over. MacGillivray’s warblers, bluegray gnatcatchers, peregrine falcons, Wilson’s warblers, mourning doves, yellow-rumped warblers, verdins, house finches, and others have been immolated, their wings burned off.
Chapter 5: The Wind Lie
Iron ore is the main raw precursor to steel and is mined around the world. Five of the 10 largest iron ore mines are in Brazil. Because iron ore mining is big business, worth hundreds of billions of dollars annually just in Brazil, the government does all it can to streamline mining permits, sidestep environmental regulations, and mute community opposition.
The world’s largest iron-ore mine is the Carajás mine, located in the Amazon rainforest in Brazil. More accurately, the mine is located in what used to be the Amazon rainforest. Now, it’s located in the center of a wasteland, a clearcut, an industrial chasm. Every year, more than 2,400 square miles of forest around Carajás are cut down, mostly to make charcoal used for smelting iron ore. Yes, you read that number correctly. And yes, that’s annually. The latest $17 billion mine expansion project has already destroyed mile after mile of rainforest, and threatens a unique part of the Amazon, a savanna around two lakes, home to more than 40 endemic plant species found nowhere else on earth.
Toxic “tailings” sludge from these mining operations is impounded behind huge earthen dams, two of which have failed in recent years. A 2015 collapse near Mariana, Brazil destroyed two villages, killed 19 people, polluted water supplies for 400,000, and released more than 43 million cubic meters of toxic waste into 400 miles of rivers of streams and the Atlantic Ocean. According to a United Nations report, “Entire fish populations—at least 11 tons— were killed immediately when the slurry buried them or clogged their gills.” The same report describes that “the force of the mudflow destroyed 1,469 hectares (3,630 acres) of riparian forest.”
The report uses the term “eliminating all aquatic life” to describe what has happened to more than 400 miles of river. The Mariana tailings dam failure has been called the worst environmental disaster in Brazil’s history.
The second major failure at a Vale iron-ore mine hit Brumadinho, Brazil, in January 2019. This time, the mudflow killed 270 people and released 12 million cubic meters of toxic sludge—destroying all life in another river, the Paraopeba. In the aftermath, Vale safety inspectors “failed to guarantee the safety” of 18 other Vale dams and dikes in Brazil. As one researcher put it in the aftermath, “In Brazil and [the state of] Minas, it is the ore above everything and everyone.”
Iron ore mines in the Amazon basin have displaced tens of thousands of indigenous people, decimated newly contacted tribes through the spread of infectious diseases, and flooded remote areas with thousands of workers. A 2011 report from the International Federation for Human Rights attributes “incessant air pollution” to the iron ore mines. Forced labor and child slavery have been documented by the Brazilian government. Mines become the locus of networks of roads that cut into the jungle, leading to poaching and illegal logging in protected areas.
People in the region contend with cancers, birth defects, and lung diseases caused by pollution from processing facilities, factories, and constant traffic of industrial trucks and trains. In some towns, a fully loaded train passes every 20 minutes, day and night. “[The town of Piquiá de Baixo is] a place where practically the whole population is likely to get health problems and lung diseases,” says local teacher Joselma Alves de Oliveira.
Resistance has been widespread, with tribal people, students, and forest lovers blockading railways and holding public protests, but with little success. Local business elites and politicians, many of whom have been powerful since the days of Brazil’s military dictatorship, protect the mining operations with the help of police and paramilitary forces.
“In thirty years, iron exploitation [has left] deforested areas, slave labor, migration, and has torn apart the identification of the communities with their territories,” says community organizer Padre Dario Bossi, who has been fighting iron ore mines for decades. “It has also left land conflicts, pollution, urban disorganization, and violence due to the intense exodus of people in search of work, the most affected being indigenous or African.”
Chapter 6: The Lie of Green Energy Storage
The major form of lithium extraction, a process called “brining,” involves leaching lithium salts into water, then evaporating the water to concentrate the salts. In dry climates where salt flats are found, water use is one of the major harms. Understand the scale of this: 500,000 gallons of water are needed to produce one ton of lithium. Another major harm is direct land destruction. For example, in the salt flats of the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia and Chile, a great wilderness—more than 5,000 square miles of salt flats and isolated “islands” of raised land with unique cacti and other plant and animal species—is under threat from lithium mining.
This account, from the U.K.’s Daily Mail, of a visit to a lithium mine in the Atacama Desert in Chile is worth quoting at length: “In the parched hills of Chile’s northern region the damage caused by lithium mining is immediately clear. As you approach one of the country’s largest lithium mines the white landscape gives way to what appears to be an endless ploughed field. Huge mountains of discarded bright white salt rise out of the plain. The cracked brown earth of the site crumbles in your hands. There is no sign of animal life anywhere. The scarce water has all been poisoned by chemicals leaked from the mine. Huge channels and tracts have been cut into the desert, each running with heavily polluted water. The blue glow of chlorine makes the water look almost magical, but these glistening pools are highly toxic. The chlorine [is] used to water down the potentially carcinogenic lithium and magnesium compounds that are commonly found in the water table around lithium deposits. A Chilean delegation recently visited Salar De Uyuni [in Bolivia] to warn locals of the problems of lithium mining. According to the delegation’s leader, Guillen Mo Gonzalez, the unique landscape of the salt plateau would be destroyed within two decades. The increasing water scarcity around the Chilean mines has also accelerated the decline of the region’s subsistence agriculture. An entire way of life is disappearing as families leave their near impossible existence in the mountains and head for the cities.”
Gonzalez goes on: “Like any mining process it is invasive, it scars the landscape, it destroys the water table and it pollutes the earth and the local wells. This isn’t a green solution—it’s not a solution at all.”
Chapter 11: The Hydropower Lie
Once upon a time, dams were recognized for the environmental atrocities they are. Human beings understood that dams kill rivers, from source to sea. They understood that dams kill forests, marshlands, grasslands.
In the 12th century, Richard the Lionhearted (King Richard I of England) put in place a law forbidding dams from preventing salmon passage. In the 14th century, Robert the Bruce did something similar for Scotland. His descendant Robert the III went even further, declaring that three convictions for killing salmon out of season would be a capital offense.
Fast-forward to today, when dams are claimed to provide “clean” and “green” energy.
Where’s Robert the III when you need him?
As recently as three decades ago, at least environmentalists still consistently opposed dams. But the coup that turned so much environmentalism away from protecting the real world and into a lobbying arm of favored sectors of the industrial economy has rhetorically turned dams into environmental saviors. And climate change activists are among the most relentless missionaries for the gospel of the green dam.
This issue is urgent. While here in the United States, no new large dams have been built in many years (although many shovel-ready proposals are waiting for public funding), large hydropower dams are being built around the world as quickly as (in)humanly possible.
Chapter 13: More Solutions That Won’t Work
Led by 350.org, the Fossil Free campaign aims to remove financial support for the coal, oil, and gas industries by pressuring institutions such as churches, cities, and universities to divest. It’s modeled on the three-pronged boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) resistance to South African apartheid (a model used today against Israel). The Fossil Free campaign has thus far pressured 800 institutions and 58,000 individuals to divest $6 trillion. Some of these are partial divestments, such as withdrawing from tar sands but continuing to fund fracking.
Still, sounds great, right? Anyone fighting to stop coal, oil, and gas is doing a very good thing.
But given how little time we have, and how badly we’re losing the fight for the planet, we have to ask if divestment is an effective strategy.
The answer, unfortunately, is not really. Jay Taber of Intercontinental Cry points out that “All this divestment does is make once publicly held shares available on Wall Street, which allows trading houses like Goldman Sachs to further consolidate their control of the industry. BDS, when applied against apartheid states by other states and international institutions, includes cutting off access to finance, as well as penalties for crimes against humanity.” He states quite bluntly that divestment acts to “redirect activism away from effective work.”
Bill Gates—not usually someone we’d listen to—seems to agree. “If you think divestment alone is a solution,” Gates writes, “I worry you’re taking whatever desire people have to solve this problem and kind of using up their idealism and energy on something that won’t emit less carbon—because only a few people in society are the owners of the equity of coal or oil companies.”
If it occurs on a wide enough scale, divestment makes previously held stocks, bonds, and other investment products available for purchase. This glut drops prices, making it easier for less ethical investors to buy. This not only consolidates the industry, but it also makes fossil fuel stocks more profitable for those who snatch them up. As journalist Christian Parenti writes, “So how will dumping Exxon stock hurt its income, that is, its bottom line? It might, in fact, improve the company’s price to earnings ratio thus making the stock more attractive to immoral buyers. Or it could allow the firm to more easily buy back stock (which it has been doing at a massive scale for the last five years) and thus retain more of its earnings for use to develop more oil fields.”
It’s unlikely any divestment campaigner believes divestment alone will stop global warming. The Fossil Free website recognizes this, writing: “The campaign began in an effort to stigmatize the Fossil Fuel industry—the financial impact was secondary to the socio-political impact.” But as the amount of money being divested continues to grow, reinvestment is becoming a more central part of the fossil fuel divestment campaign. The website continues: “We have a responsibility and an opportunity to ask ourselves how moving the money itself ... can help us usher forth our vision.”
Great! So, they’re suggesting these organizations take their money out of oil industry stocks, and use that money to set aside land as wilderness, for wild nature, right?
Well, no. They want the money to be used to fund “renewable energy.” And they’ve slipped a premise past us: the idea that divestment and reinvestment can work to create a better world. It’s an extraordinary claim, and not supported by evidence. As Anne Petermann of the Global Justice Ecology Project writes, “Can the very markets that have led us to the brink of the abyss now provide our parachute? … Under this system, those with the money have all the power. Then why are we trying to reform this system? Why are we not transforming it?”
Activist Keith Brunner writes, “Yes, the fossil fuel corporations are the big bad wolf, but just as problematic is the system of investment and returns which necessitates a growth economy (it’s called capitalism).” His conclusion: “We aren’t going to invest our way to a livable planet.”
Chapter 14: Real Solutions
Industrial civilization is incompatible with life on the planet. That makes the solution to our systematic planetary murder obvious, but let’s say it anyway: Stop industrial civilization. Stop our way of life, which is based on extraction. No, that doesn’t mean killing all humans. That means changing our lifestyle dramatically. The Tolowa lived just fine in Northern California, just south of the Oregon border, where Derrick and Lierre live now, and they did so without destroying the place. Industrial civilization has been here less than 200 years, and the place is trashed. So, yes, stop civilization.
You could argue that you don’t want to give up on the luxuries our way of life brings you, but we would respond that we don’t want to give up on life on this planet. Life is more important. Sure, we love our luxuries as much as the next person, but there are far greater things at stake than laptops and hot showers.
The first real solution, then, is to lay down our denial and face reality full-on. Facing reality requires an avalanche of grief right now: We know what we are asking. But if you love this planet, it has to be done.
The rest of what we should do is straightforward. First, we need to stop the ongoing destruction being caused by so-called green energy projects, by oil and gas extraction, by coal mining and ore mining, by urban sprawl, by industrial agriculture, and by all the other million assaults on this planet that are perpetrated by industrial civilization.
And second, we need to help the land heal.
In terms of stopping the destruction of our planet, or at least stopping global warming, all the mainstream solutions are, at best, distractions. They’re really responses to the recognition that a)
world oil supply is finite; b) industrial energy demand will continue to rise; and c) the demands of the economy are not negotiable; which means d) these mainstream solutions are really about getting subsidies for new forms of industrial energy. None of them help the earth.
Stopping deforestation and restoring logged areas would remove more carbon dioxide from the air each year than is generated by all the cars on the planet. A 2019 study found that, as a headline in The Independent put it, “Massive restoration of world’s forests would cancel out a decade of CO2 emissions.” Compared to solar, wind, and so on, with their net zero carbon reduction per dollar, any investment in protecting forests actually works.
Not only terrestrial plants are fighting for a livable planet. Per acre, salt marshes, mangroves, and seagrasses absorb and store 10 times more carbon dioxide than do many forests. It is estimated that a 150-acre salt marsh restoration project in the inland Salish Sea, encompassing Seattle and Vancouver, will store between 6,000 and 14,000 tons of carbon dioxide over the next 75 to 100 years. Likewise, the annual global destruction of 2 million acres of coastal wetlands for “development” releases some 550 million tons of carbon dioxide per year. Coastal seaweed has also recently been found to sequester huge amounts of carbon, at least 190 million tons per year. We need to protect such places for their own sake, for the sake of biodiversity, and for their ability to save the climate from what this culture has done to it.
Grasslands are doing their part, too. One study in West Virginia revealed that grasslands store four tons of atmospheric carbon per acre per year. In 1990, when the Soviet Union collapsed, 49 million acres of agricultural land were abandoned. Almost immediately, the land began to recover. Forests and grasslands began to return. Over the next 10 years, that land captured 63 million tons of carbon—a globally significant amount.
Again, the most important, and simplest, solution to the destruction of the planet is to stop the destruction of the planet.
Forests can regrow. Grasslands can reclaim vast portions of the planet. Oceanic dead zones can shrink rapidly, and ocean populations can rebound. There is still hope, but everything depends on our will to resist.
Restoration is essential, but on its own, it’s not enough to save the planet. There’s simply too much ancient carbon being released by the burning of coal, oil, and gas. And besides, this culture is still destroying forests, prairies, peat bogs, wetlands, salt marshes, mangrove swamps, seagrass beds—the world.
So, what do we need to do? We need to stop the burning of coal, oil, and gas. And we can’t forget monocrop agriculture, which has released as much greenhouse gases through destroying soil over the past 6,000 years as has been released from burning coal, oil, and gas during the industrial era. This has to stop, too. So, too, does logging, urban expansion, road building, mining, nuclear power and weapons production, and all the other major industrial activities that are shredding the living flesh of our planet.
These industries won’t voluntarily stop. They can’t. In most countries, it’s illegal for publicly held corporations to act against the profit motive, which means they’re legally obligated to grow, which means they’re legally obligated to destroy the planet. These industries are no longer meaningfully controlled by human beings. They have a momentum and logic all of their own. The planet will not survive as long as corporate personhood still stands. So, there’s another task for your list.
Those of us who care about life have to be the resistance. We start by rejecting false solutions. We have to coalesce around goals that will save the planet. We need massive movements to relentlessly impede the functioning of industrial civilization, using every tactic: political pressure, legal challenges, economic boycotts, civil disobedience, and whatever else becomes necessary. Standards of living will have to decrease in rich nations, but with the weight of global capitalism lifted, they will rise dramatically for the global poor. Areas of India that now export dog food and tulips to Europe, like areas of Tanzania that now export lima beans, could return to their former role of supporting local populations.
And never forget that full human rights for women and girls is both ecologically necessary as well as the right thing to do.
Whatever happens is likely to be chaotic. We’re already seeing food scarcity, extreme weather, climate refugees, increased and open violence (including sexual), rising surveillance, and a global pivot toward open fascism. One friend who comes from Pakistan often says that collapse is not a future state there (or in much of the world); it’s an ongoing process. Collapse is not a fear but a daily reality in countless parts of the world. Look at Chicago and Flint, Michigan; look at Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Look under the bridges in your town. Collapse is right here, among us.
The best way to prepare for this is also the best way to prepare to bring about just human societies after collapse: not by leaning even more into industry but by building communities based on self-sufficiency, biological integrity, and human rights. This is work anyone can support.
If you want a solution, here it is: Fight for the living. It’s not too late.
Make no mistake, we are up against entrenched and global systems of power that have gone rabid with destruction. Environmental philosopher Kathleen Dean Moore often gets asked, “What can one person do?” Her answer: “Don’t be one person.” And she is exactly right. We need organized political resistance. The only thing that is going to bring those systems down is all of us rising up.
No matter how weary, your heart is still beating. Listen to it. Whatever work it is calling you to do—for democracy, for human rights, for animals and the earth, for the girls and the grasses—it is sacred work. Because life itself now hangs in the balance. When the call of your heart becomes the work of your hands, that may be what tips the balance back toward life. So never give up.
Whatever you love, it is under assault. But love is a verb. May that love call us to action.
Afterword by Derrick Jensen (pp. 472-3)
This way of living will not and cannot last. What we do now determines how much of the planet remains later. We can voluntarily reduce the harm caused by this culture now, and work to create spaces where nature can regenerate, or we can continue to allow—indeed, to subsidize— further destruction of the planet’s ecological infrastructure. And while that may allow the economy to limp along a few more years, I guarantee that none of us—salmon, right whales, piscine life in the oceans, humans—are going to like where that takes us.
Here’s one final image, though, to carry us forward through these difficult times. As I write this, I see, across a small open space in this dense redwood forest, a mother bear lying on her back, head resting comfortably against the base of a tree. The tree—maybe 120 feet tall—is one of many resprouted after an old-growth redwood was cut here about 100 years ago. On the bear’s belly sprawl two cubs, suckling eagerly, stopping now and then, as children are wont to do, to squabble until she calms them with a soft sound. These bears, these trees, the flying squirrels who sometimes descend from the trees to check for scraps of food—and the magnificent dance between all of these beings and the thimbleberries, huckleberries, grasses, arthropods, fungi, and unseen bacteria—are here for now. And it is for them that I work, it is to them and not to the system destroying them that I give my loyalty, it is to them and for them that I dedicate my life.
That is the least I or any of us can do for the planet that—who— gave us our own lives, that—who—feeds us, clothes us, sings us awake in the mornings and to sleep at night—the planet who welcomes us at our beginnings and to whom we all return at our ends. And as Aldo Leopold, the father of wildlife ecology, made clear so many years ago, this is the right—and beautiful—thing to do.
Illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Energy & Sustainability writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.
- Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (Greenwich, CT: Fawcett Publishing, 1962), 9.
- Ibid., 10.
- Ibid., 8.
- Ibid., 8.
- Ibid., 8.
- Ibid., 8.
- “Biography of Lester Brown,” Earth Policy Institute.
- Lester Brown, “The Race to Save Civilization,” Tikkun, September/October 2010, 25(5): 58.
- Peter Kareiva, Michelle Marvier, and Robert Lalasz, “Conservation in the Anthropocene: Beyond Solitude and Fragility,” Breakthrough Journal, Winter 2012.
- Bill McKibben, “Civilization’s Last Chance,” Los Angeles Times, May 11, 2008.
- Bill McKibben, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” Rolling Stone, August 2, 2012.
- “Environmental Laureates’ Declaration on Climate Change,” European Environment Foundation, September 15, 2014. It shouldn’t surprise us that the person behind this declaration is a solar energy entrepreneur. It probably also shouldn’t surprise us that he’s begging for money.
- Christopher L. Martin and D. Yogi Goswami, Solar Energy Pocket Reference (Abingdon, U.K.: Routledge, 2005).
- Todd Woody, “BrightSource Alters Solar Plant Plan to Address Concerns Over Desert Tortoise,” New York Times, February 11, 2010. The rare plants found in ecological surveys of the site included Mojave milkweed, desert pincushion, Utah vine milkweed, nine-awned pappus grass, Parish’s club-cholla, Utah mortonia, Rusby’s desert mallow, and desert portulaca.
- Shaun Gonzalez, “Waking up to the Solar Power Tower Threat,” Mojave Desert Blog, November 24, 2013.
- Roger LeGuen, “Amazon Mining: Extracting Valuable Minerals and a Pandora’s Box of Problems,” World Wildlife Fund. Note that WWF’s source is from 1997, and deforestation rates have gone up since then. We used that conservative estimate, but estimates run up to 4,000 square miles per year. Please note also that when environmentalists were opposing the mine back in the 1980s, they feared the mine would consume a little over 275 square miles per year. Isn’t that the way it always goes?
- “Mine Tailings Storage: Safety is No Accident,” U.N. Environment, 2015.
- Samantha Pearson and Luciana Magalhaes, “Inspectors Fail to Guarantee Safety of 18 Vale Dams, Dikes in Brazil – 2nd Update,” MarketScreener, April 1, 2019.
- Gabriel De Sá, “Brazil’s deadly dam disaster may have been preventable,” National Geographic, January 29, 2020.
- Fabiola Ortiz, “Brazil—The Polluted Face of Carajás. 1,” Latin America Bureau, September 17, 2014.
- Dom Phillips, “Another huge and open iron mine is carved out of Brazil’s rain forest,” The Washington Post, April 13, 2015.
- Raúl Zibechi, “Mining and Colonialism in Brazil’s Giant Carajás Project,” CIP Americas Program, May 31, 2014.
- Amit Katwala, “The spiraling environmental cost of our lithium battery addiction,” Wired, August 5, 2018.
- Dan McDougall, “In search of Lithium: the battle for the 3rd element,” The Daily Mail, April 5, 2009.
- “Divestment Commitments,” Go Fossil Free, 2017.
- Jay Taber, “Social capitalists: Wall Street’s progressive partners,” Intercontinental Cry, February 24, 2015.
- Emma Howard, “Bill Gates calls fossil fuel divestment a ‘false solution,’” The Guardian, October 14, 2015.
- Christian Parenti, “Problems with the math: is 350’s carbon divestment campaign complete?” Huffington Post, November 29, 2012.
- Cory Morningstar, “McKibben’s divestment tour—brought to you by Wall Street,” Wrong Kind of Green, May 17, 2013.
- Mike Gaworecki, “Here’s a great way to visualize the huge potential of forest conservation and restoration as ‘natural climate solutions,’” Mongabay, December 6, 2017.
- Josh Gabbatiss, “Massive restoration of world’s forests would cancel out a decade of CO2 emissions, analysis suggests,” The Independent, February 18, 2019.
- “Coastal Blue Carbon,” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
- Jeff Tollefson, “Climate scientists unlock secrets of ‘blue carbon,’” Nature, January 9, 2018.
- Dorte Krause-Jensen and Carlos M. Duarte, “Substantial role of macroalgae in marine carbon sequestration,” Nature Geoscience 9 (2016): 737–742.
- Martha Holdridge, “What grass farmers have known all along—research shows grass sequesters carbon,” Soil Carbon Coalition, August 6, 2008.
- Immo Kämpf et al., “Post-Soviet recovery of grassland vegetation on abandoned fields in the forest steppe zone of Western Siberia,” Biodiversity and Conservation 25, no. 12 (November 2016): 2563–2580.
- Tobias Kuemmerle et al., “Post-Soviet farmland abandonment, forest recovery, and carbon sequestration in western Ukraine,” Global Change Biology 17 (2011): 1335–1349.
- Nicolas Vuichard et al., “Carbon sequestration due to the abandonment of agriculture in the former USSR since 1990,” Global Biogeochemical Cycles 22, GB4018 (2008).
About the author
Erin Remblance is a co-founder of (re)Biz, a 31-day online workshop & emergent-creation-lab designed for those who are ready to build a (re)generative & post-growth world. She lives with her family in Sydney, Australia.