Last year I read an Op-Ed in the New York Times entitled ‘Building an Ark for the Sociopocene’. No, I lied. It was entitled ‘Building an Ark for the Anthropocene‘.
But can’t you imagine how the article might have read were it accurately titled to reflect the sociopathic nature of the world we have created?
The article begins,
“We are barreling into the Anthropocene, the sixth mass extinction in the history of the planet. A recent study published in the journal Science concluded that the world’s species are disappearing as much as 1,000 times faster than the rate at which species naturally go extinct.
“It’s a one-two punch on top of the ecosystems we’ve broken, extreme weather from a changing climate causes even more damage. By 2100, researchers say, one-third to one-half of all Earth’s species could be wiped out. As a result, efforts to protect species are ramping up as governments, scientists and nonprofit organizations try to build a modern version of Noah’s Ark.
“The new ark certainly won’t come in the form of a large boat, or even always a place set aside. Instead it is a patchwork quilt of approaches, including assisted migration, seed banks and new preserves and travel corridors based on where species are likely to migrate as seas rise or food sources die out.
“The questions are complex. What species do you save? The ones most at risk? Charismatic animals, such as lions or bears or elephants? The ones most likely to survive? The species that hold the most value for us?”
Finding time to mention the destruction of our planet. That’s something …
The article goes on to describe some of the efforts, which are of course desperately important, and some of the ways different people and organizations can make these difficult decisions. There’s a part of me that is happy the corporate news is taking time out of its busy schedule to mention the murder of the planet.
After all, these 1,200 words could have been used to cover other topics, like someone’s folksy reminiscences of gummi bears, or someone else’s analysis of how “Ladyfag is the rave of the future” or the extremely important information that the stock market dropped sharply today over fears that the economy isn’t growing fast enough. And yes, these are all real articles in The New York Times.
Such is the poverty of our discourse that mere mention of the biggest problem the world has ever faced can be enough to make us, well, happy isn’t the right word … Perhaps grateful, like a starving dog thrown the tiniest crust of bread.
Not surprisingly, though, my response is mixed. My first problem is that this is precisely where this culture has been headed since its beginnings: it has always wanted to play God and decide who lives and who dies. That’s a central point of the human supremacism that underlies and motivates this culture’s destruction of the natural world.
How do we know we’re superior? Because we’re the ones who are deciding. We’re the ones who do to, as opposed to everyone else, to whom it is done. We’re the subjects. They’re the objects. From the beginning members of this culture have wanted to be God.
That is, they’ve wanted to be the God they created in their own image. That is, the God created in the image of how they wanted to be-omnipotent and omniscient-and in the image of how they themselves actually were: jealous, angry, abusive, vengeful, patriarchal.
It pleases the supremacists no end to pick up the civilized man’s burden and pretend they’re being merciful in deciding which of their lessers to exterminate, and which to save. For now.
What’s not on the chopping block – our frivolous consumption!
But there’s a much bigger problem than this. Did you notice who is on the chopping block, and what is not. Did you see it? What is missing is any mention of technologies, luxuries, comforts, elegancies.
Sure, we’re supposed to choose whether to extirpate or save Bulmer’s fruit bats or Sumatran Rhinos, wild yams or hula painted frogs (with the default always being extirpate, of course); and we’re supposed to make careful delineations of how we choose who is exterminated, and who lives (at least until tomorrow, when we all know there’ll be another round of exterminations, complete with another round of wringing our hands over how difficult these decisions are, and another round of heartbreak; and then another round, and another, until there is nothing and no one left).
But just as after Fukushima a Japanese energy minister said that nuclear energy must continue to be produced because no one “could imagine life without electricity”, so, too, entirely disallowed is any discussion of what technologies should be kept and what should be caused to go extinct.
There’s no discussion of extirpating iPads, iPhones, computer technologies, retractable stadium roofs, insecticides, GMOs, the Internet (hell, Internet pornography), off-road vehicles, nuclear weapons, predator drones, industrial agriculture, industrial electricity, industrial production, the benefits of imperialism (human, American, or otherwise).
Not one of them is mentioned. Never. Not once.
Why? Because we are God and God never relinquishes power. We are omniscient and omnipotent, and we are the top of the pyramid. We are the champions, and we can and will do whatever the fuck we want.
None of these are mentioned because none of the benefits of our dismantling of the planet can be seriously questioned.
Saving species? Or killing them?
Anti-imperialist discourse provides a great example of this lack of serious questioning. Of course anti-imperialists rail against imperialism-that’s what anti-imperialists do -but so many of them don’t seem to understand that you can’t have the benefits of imperialism without having the imperialism itself.
So they will argue against imperialism at the same time that they argue in favor of, for example, high speed rail or groovy solar panels. But you can’t have high speed rail and groovy solar panels without mining and transportation and energy infrastructures, and you can’t have those infrastructures without the military and police to control them.
And in terms of the planet, you can’t have any of those infrastructures without the harm those infrastructures and their related activities cause. And since almost none of the anti-imperialists will question those basic infrastructures, that means most of them aren’t in all truth questioning the imperialism.
Here’s how it works regarding this Ark for the Sociopocene: we gain the benefits, and now we’re pretending that we face this terrible dilemma as to which of our victims we’re going to save (for now). But that’s not really a dilemma. Let’s pretend I’m going to kill either you or your best friend.
And no matter whom I kill I’m going to take everything you both own and everything you hold dear. I gain and both of you lose, including for one of you your life. I choose which one dies. That’s not a dilemma for me. To qualify as a dilemma I have to have something at stake. Instead of a dilemma it’s murder and theft.
But from a supremacist perspective, I’m not a murderer and thief. I’m a savior. I saved one of you from certain death (admittedly at my own hands, but still). And being this savior is more evidence of my superiority. A lesser being might have mindlessly killed you both. Gosh, aren’t I great?
And since I’m so smart, maybe I can come up with all sorts of criteria by which today I’ll make my decision as to which of you I’ll kill. Then tomorrow I’ll make another decision based on these or whatever other criteria I want as to whether to kill the survivor from today or your second best friend. And the day after I’ll make this decision again with someone else you love.
I find it deeply troubling that at least some members of this culture can feel even remotely good about themselves for choosing who lives and who dies, if they don’t also work toward stopping the actual cause of the murders. It’s analogous to a guard at a Nazi death camp feeling like a hero for giving Sophie the choice as to which of her children he won’t murder (tonight).
Ultimately, the choice is ours
The murder of the planet is not some tragedy ordained by fate because we’re too damn smart. It is the result of a series of extremely bad social choices. We could choose differently. But we don’t. And we won’t. Not so long as the same unquestioned beliefs run the culture.
Don’t get me wrong. Anyone who is working to protect wild places or wild beings from this omnicidal culture is in that sense a hero. We need to use every tool possible to save whomever and wherever we can from this culture.
But it’s ridiculous and all-too-expected that while there’s always plenty of money to destroy the Tongass and every other forest, and there’s always plenty of money for various weapons of mass destruction (such as cluster bombs or dams or corporations) somehow when it comes to saving wild places and wild beings, we have to pinch pennies and ‘make difficult decisions’.
Also, I need to say that the whole Ark metaphor doesn’t work. In the original story, God saved two of every species (as He, like the humans who created Him, destroyed the planet). Here, modern humans are going where even God didn’t tread, and explicitly not saving every species, but instead deciding which species to save, and which species to kill off.
This is, of course, both pleasing and flattering to human supremacists: they’re making decisions on questions even God punted. How cool is that?
Civilization is the problem, as it always has been
There’s an even bigger problem than all of these, though, which is that this culture is systematically and functionally killing the planet. All the wonderful and necessary work of every activist who is fighting as hard as she or he can to protect this or that wild place won’t mean a fucking thing so long as this culture stands.
And all this fine work that goes into creating decision-trees as to whom we deem worthy of saving and whom we will drive extinct is meaningless when we completely fail to address the cause of the murders in the first place.
Until civilization collapses the murder of the planet won’t stop.
Picture this. A gang of sadistic, vicious, insane entitled sociopathic murderers has taken over your home, and is holding everyone you love captive. They are systematically pulling your loved ones from the room and torturing them to death.
What do you do? Do you make decision-trees to help you make ‘difficult decisions’ as to which of your loved ones you’ll hand over next? Maybe you do. But I have to tell you I’d be more focused on stopping the murderous motherfuckers in their tracks, stopping the murders at their source.
From the perspective of human supremacists, though, it is easier, more pleasing, and certainly reinforces one’s own identity as superior, to ‘reluctantly’ make ‘difficult decisions’ as to who will be driven extinct. So long as we never, ever, ever question the supremacism and the culture that is driving them extinct.
And so long as we never forget to go along with what Lewis Mumford called the ‘magnificent bribe’: the comforts or elegancies we receive in exchange for not opposing the exploitative system.
We know on which side our bread is buttered.
Let’s drop the rhetoric. The op-ed broke my heart not only because the murder of the planet breaks my heart; and not only because the op-ed discussed which creatures to
let go drive extinct without talking about which technologies to let go get rid of; and not only because of course they mentioned which species are most useful to us.
But entirely absent among their criteria for saving species was that of which beings best serve life on Earth (and of course missing entirely was any discussion of what technologies serve life and what harm life). But even more so because it completely ignored what is in many ways the only thing that matters: stopping the primary damage.
The truth is that these other beings wouldn’t need to be saved if civilization weren’t killing them. The truth is that they can’t be saved so long as civilization is killing the planet. And the truth is that in this culture there are certain topics which must never be discussed, certain self-perceptions and perceived entitlements which are never negotiable.
We would rather kiss ourselves and the entire planet good-bye than to look honestly at what we have done, what we are doing, and what we will, so long as we have this supremacist mindset, continue to do.
They don’t need arks – they need a living planet!
Another big problem with the idea of an ark for the Sociopocene is that it’s based on and promotes this culture’s harmful and inaccurate view of the natural world, that you can take a creature out of its habitat and still have the complete creature, that a prairie dog is just a bundle of DNA in a fur and skin sack, and not part of the larger body of the prairie.
This culture seems to believe – completely anthropomorphically – that the world is like a machine or a chair. Some human artefact. Something where the whole is no more than the sum of the parts. You can take apart a chair and swap out some parts, then put the chair back together, and you still have a chair (except that this culture would steal a bunch of screws, two legs, and the seat, then wonder why they can’t sit in it).
But that’s not how life works, whether we’re talking about a human body or the body of a river or a prairie. The whole is more than the sum of the parts. And if you don’t think so, have a surgeon take you all apart and put you back together. Call me when they’re done. I’ll have my Ouija board set on vibrate.
You can’t remove a wolverine from its habitat and still have a wolverine. You have something that looks and smells like a wolverine. But the wolverine is also the scents it picks up on the breeze and the soil under its feet. Without the weather patterns and everything else about where it lives it would not have become the being it is.
Yes, the Franklins bumblebee must be saved, as must the Hunters hartebeest and the Chinese bahaba and the Galapagos damselfish.
But they don’t need arks. What they need is a living planet. What really need to be protected are the larger bodies who are their homes, the oceans, the forests, the rivers, the lakes, the entire larger communities.
This piece first appeared in The Ecologist.