What We Leave Behind
by Derrick Jensen and Aric McBay
After Us, the Deluge
A review 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
÷ ÷ ÷
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
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
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
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
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
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.