When was the last time you questioned the very foundation of our culture and society? Trapped inside, repainting parts of my house, I’ve been listening to a lot of Derrick Jensen in lieu of music. If you don’t know who he is, you should: author of Listening to the Land, The Culture of Make Believe, Strangely Like War: The Global Assault on Forests, and several more titles, Jensen is part scientist, part psychoanalyst, all activist. In his writing he asks the questions that many of us have asked ourselves a million times, and left unanswered: Why are so many people unhappy and trapped in lives that are unhealthy? Why are we destroying the natural world? Why don’t we care that we are killing animals, the planet, and other people? What happened to our connections with the non-human? Why do we, as individuals and societies, do so much that is harmful and so little that is helpful?
The answers he gives are not happy ones. He talks a good deal about waiting for the end of civilization, of various factions of environmentalists working desperately to shepherd particular species, like salmon or grizzly bears, through the final days of human civilization, which he gives only a few more generations before it collapses. He discusses the present state of “civilization” and points out that, contrary to what we are taught and told every day, we DO have a choice: to perpetuate the present mess or choose a new (or old), better way. And he describes very plausibly the idea of incremental encroachment, the idea that nonsensical destructive modes of being are introduced in steps, and each step is small enough that it doesn’t justify protest.
About a month ago, trucks showed up on my block and started cutting back the trees, clearing out lower branches. When I went to talk to the “arborists” they told me they were preparing the trees for the arrival of repaving equipment — they were actually “saving” the trees from the possibility of damage. Then the repavers arrived, many feet lower than most of the branches that were removed. The street was repaved, with much noise and a fantastic outlay of chemicals and petroleum products. Relatively young and healthy, I had a violent reaction to the stink of the tar and the plumes of pollution from the machines. Coughing, sneezing, and asthmatic for days, I worried about the children and old people on the block. And I wondered what purpose the entire exercise had served. The street, a residential side street, was smoother, sure, but it hadn’t ever been that bumpy. To “fix” a non-problem, we had just endured days of deafening noise (tree cutting, tree chipping, grinding pavement up, then laying pavement down), days of pollution, a massive outlay of materials, and what must have been hundreds of thousands of dollars of expense to the city.
But where was one to turn to appeal to logic, to common sense? The tree people were “just doing their job,” and made the situation sound much more dramatic than it was. The paving people were also “just doing their job” — by the time the folly of the whole endeavor became apparent, it was finished. And who do you call when your own street is making you sick? 311? I don’t think so. Imagine what could be done with that same amount of money, of manpower, of materials. How many trees could have been planted? How many square feet of park
It’s time to start questioning everything we’re doing and why we’re doing it. It’s time to say enough, and draw the line in the sand — we are killing ourselves, and hundreds of thousands of other species, for bigger cars, more plastic toys, more wars, smoother roads. We need to change our priorities or we’re not going to survive. When Derrick Jensen is asked why he works so hard to save endangered species, when he is asked “What good are they?” he replies, “Well, what good are YOU?” I think it’s a good question.