Reviewed by Jeremy Garber
"Industrial civilization is incompatible with life. It is systematically destroying life on this planet, undercutting its very basis. This culture is, to put it bluntly, murdering the earth. Unless it's stopped -- whether we intentionally stop it or the natural world does, through ecological collapse or other means -- it will kill every living being. We need to stop it."
--Derrick Jensen and Aric McBay
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From the first paragraph of the preface through four hundred trenchant pages of well-reasoned and well-researched polemic, What We Leave Behind is a scathing indictment of our culture's wanton disregard for, and destruction of, life on earth. Co-authored by Derrick Jensen (A Language Older Than Words; The Culture of Make Believe; and volumes one and two of Endgame) and Aric McBay (Peak Oil Survival: Preparation for Life after Gridcrash), the book is unwaveringly forthright, urgent and compelling. While there has been no shortage of recent works written about climate change, environmental degradation, dwindling fossil fuel supplies, and impending catastrophe, few are as direct, pragmatic, and compassionate as this one.
With an understanding of waste and its associated cycles (decay and regeneration) as the center from which their premise unfurls, Jensen and McBay assert that the disruption of these processes and the increasing toxicity of our garbage (both organic and industrial) are having devastating consequences on the health of ecosystems worldwide. These disastrous effects, they argue persuasively, are intrinsic to the industrial capitalist system. They see this system, based as it is on centralizing control and externalizing consequences, as impervious to any meaningful systemic change, "Industrial capitalism can never be sustainable. It has always destroyed the land upon which it depends for raw materials, and it always will."
Jensen and McBay employ some sobering statistics to further illustrate how rampant the deleterious effects of our culture have become. In the chapter on plastic they write, "There is at least six times more plastic in the middle of the Pacific Ocean than phytoplankton." Though much of the data cited throughout the book is as bewilderingly unreal, the book concludes with over 30 pages of end notes and bibliographic sources, making a reader or would-be critic hard-pressed to make a case that the authors were hurried in their writing or lacking in research.
Portions of the book confront the notion of sustainability, and the so-called "greenwashing" of industries that are inherently unsustainable. "It's a pretty basic point that's perhaps intentionally missed by almost everyone in this culture who claims to participate in sustainable activities: an action is sustainable if and only if all necessary associated actions are sustainable." The authors, as example, instance the green architecture movement and its most renowned champion William McDonough (dubbed a "Hero for the Planet" by Time magazine in 1999). As stated on McDonough's website, he worked to install a "10-acre (454,000 sq. ft.) 'living' roof" atop the Ford Rouge Dearborn Truck Plant in Dearborn, Michigan, that serves to "retain half the annual rainfall that falls on its surface....provide habitat....[and offer] a glimpse of the transformative possibilities suggested by this new model for sustaining industry." McDonough also developed a new campus for Nike's European headquarters in The Netherlands, described by a Nike executive as "designed to integrate the indoors with the surrounding environment, tapping into local energy flows to create healthy, beneficial relationships between nature and human culture." Jensen and McBay expose the duplicity often underlying what is passed off as sustainable initiative:
Does anyone besides me experience a deep sorrow that someone called a "Hero for the Planet" and a "star of the sustainability movement" is designing truck factories and Nike headquarters? Ninety percent of the large fish in the oceans are gone. Ninety-seven percent of the world's native forests have been cut. There are 2 million dams just in the United States. Once-mighty flocks of passenger pigeons are gone. Islands full of great auks, gone. Rich runs of salmon, gone. Gone. Gone. Gone. The oceans are filled with plastic. Every stream in the United States is contaminated with carcinogens. The world is being killed, and this is the response? Not only am I angry, not only am I disgusted, I am also deeply, deeply sorrowful.
In the chapter that takes aim at McDonough, the authors expound upon the "infighting and petty attacks" that often characterize resistance movements.
It happens enough to have a name: horizontal hostility. It has destroyed many movements for resistance against this culture, and driven people away from these movements in hordes. It's much easier to attack our allies for their minor failings rather than take on Monsanto, Wal-Mart, Ford, Nike, Weyerhauser, and so on.
By admission, there was reluctance to pen the section criticizing McDonough, as the authors explain, "He is, after all, at least heading in the right direction." Correspondence with Lierre Keith, an activist peer, would quell this hesitation, as Keith wrote in her response:
But in the end, McDonough isn't heading in the right direction. He's heading in the same direction -- complete drawdown of planetary reserves of metal, oil, water, whatever -- but we'll get there a bit slower on his plan. Industrialization is still industrialization....So I think their project is corrupt and it's only prolonging the inevitable. They're still fighting for a way of life that necessitates destroying the planet.
Perhaps the most powerful and unflinching parts of What We Leave Behind are the sections where the authors describe, rather acutely, the cognitive dissonance required to go on countenancing the damage our culture has done, and continues to do, while arguing for implementing change that is in contrast to the very culture itself. Jensen and McBay argue that any effort, however small, towards the end of halting the omnicide that our culture perpetuates is worthy and much needed. They refuse, however, to accept the feel-good idealism that these actions by themselves will produce any meaningful change.
How do you stop or at least curb global warming? Easy. Stop pumping carbon dioxide, methane, and so on into the atmosphere. How do you do that? Easy. Stop burning oil, natural gas, coal, and so on. How do you do that? Easy. Stop industrial capitalism.
When most people in this culture ask, "How can we stop global warming?" that's not really what they're asking. They're asking, "How can we stop global warming, without significantly changing this lifestyle that is causing global warming in the first place?"
The answer is you can't.
It's a stupid, absurd, and insane question.
To ask how we can stop global warming while still allowing that which structurally, necessarily causes global warming -- industrial civilization -- to continue in its functioning is like asking how we can stop mass deaths at Auschwitz while allowing it to continue as a death camp. Destroying the world is what this culture does. It's what it has done from the beginning.
Jensen and McBay spend the final third of their book imagining the future. They refute many of the oft-heard claims that the very technologies that are responsible for so much of the planetary degradation will somehow save us from the consequences we've set an inevitable course for. They consider what possible futures would look like if we continue on and implement no systemic changes, or if we rely too heavily on a future we envision as "technotopia." Also, they imagine what is becoming an increasingly plausible, if not downright likely, scenario: collapse.
An overarching condemnation of like-minded works is that they too seldom offer practical suggestions for ways the common person can make a difference. Reducing waste, reducing consumption, recycling, donating to local non-profits: the authors concede these are important tasks that do have some effect. "What we are saying is this: we aren't going to insult your intelligence by asserting that such solutions are even remotely sufficient to address the problem." A brief exploration of resistance movements provides for some salient observations, as examples of individuals and groups fighting back against the dominant power structure abound throughout history. A quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who was put to death for resisting the Nazis, precedes the chapter entitled "Fighting Back" and reflects the authors' clearly articulated ideas on the matter. While in prison, awaiting execution, Bonhoeffer wrote:
We have spent too much time in thinking, supposing that if we weigh in advance the possibilities of any action, it will happen automatically. We have learnt, rather too late, that action comes, not from thought, but from a readiness for responsibility. For you, thought and action will enter on a new relationship; your thinking will be confined to your responsibilities in action.
What We Leave Behind is an important contribution to the increasing body of literature devoted to effecting actual and lasting change. Loathe to offer mere rhetoric, a diluted portrait of how precarious things actually are, or unrealistic promises of technological salvation, the book is unabashedly vehement. It may unsettle the unwitting reader, but for those with even the faintest hint of the trouble we are facing, it will provide fertile ground from which to grow a greater understanding. Derrick Jensen and Aric McBay have crafted a remarkably well-written, crucial work. Like the peril they so ably convey therein, it is one to be ignored only at great expense.
Books mentioned in this post