I’m currently reading A Language Older Than Words by environmental activist Derrick Jensen. Among many passages on the eradication of the natural world, this paragraph on the lost bountifulness of the North American continent stood out. The words describe an annihilated place, an almost Eden. A cornucopia of life that does not exist anymore after industrial civilization touched the land.
Early European accounts of this continent’s opulence border on the unbelievable. Time and again we read of “goodly woods, full of Deere, Conies, Hares, and Fowle, even in the middest of Summer, in incredible aboundance,” of islands “as completely covered with birds, which nest there, as a field is covered with grass,” of rivers so full of salmon that “at night one is unable to sleep, so great is the noise they make,” of lobsters “in such plenty that they are used for bait to catch the Codd fish.” Early Europeans describe towering forests of cedars, with an understory of grapes and berries that stained the legs and bellies of their horses. They describe rivers so thick with fish that they “could be taken not only with a net but in baskets let down [and weighted with] a stone.” They describe birds in flocks so large they darkened the sky for days at a time and so dense that “a single shot from an old muzzle loader into a flock of these curlews [Eskimo curlews, made extinct by our culture] brought down 28 birds.
Except we didn’t lose this paradise by eating an apple like the biblical fable. If we were to retell the fall from paradise for our era, I imagine Adam slurping on a fountain of oil and enriched uranium, built from the bones of expendable underclasses. I imagine a pyramid where the only way to climb to the top is by way of ropes made from the entrails of the sons and daughters of war. I imagine a monster so greedy and gluttonous it eats and extorts even the small ledge suspending it from falling into oblivion.
Industrial civilization is in the process of causing a mass extinction on this planet. In the past, it took cataclysms like enormous meteors crashing into the earth or super volcanoes spewing tons of ash into the atmosphere to cause such extinction events. The toxic, destructive nature of industrial empire is now accomplishing the same as these cosmic collisions and super volcanic pyrotechnics. Think a moment and let that sink in.
2012 had the superstitious fretting the apocalypse over dubious interpretations of the Mayan calendar. Everything from sudden magnetic pole shifts to brown dwarf stars beyond Pluto on rogue, erratic orbits around the sun were postulated as harbingers of the end.
I found it ironic that in the middle of these apocalyptic fantasies, several real catastrophes on earth were ignored. Real catastrophes that could have serious consequences. Maybe even up to the level of extinction. The earth survived 2012 almost in spite of our best efforts to pulverize it. From the tar sands oil extraction, to nuclear meltdowns poised to unleash swarms of the most toxic substances ever known into the water and air, to nearly all of the Greenland ice sheet melting due to global warming, to the collapse of biodiversity as nearly 200 species go extinct a day thanks to human destruction of habitat, human mauling of the earth is endless in scope.
I think its safe to say the industrial empire that now spans the globe, swallowing numerous cultures into one grand monotony of death, is a cancer on this planet. The empire even spreads much like a cancer, cell to cell, community to community. Perverting them from their original purpose, slowly creeping from organ to organ, until the whole body is sick. The whole body, the whole earth, will eventually go to the grave if the tumors cannot be halted.
Essentially, the problem is that technology has exponentially outgrown morality. Science, knowledge of how things work, has vastly outpaced the wisdom required to harness that knowledge responsibly. It is almost as if a child found himself operating a bike. But in the time it took the bike to go down a hill, the bike had morphed into a car with exponentially more complicated controls. Then by the time the car had gotten down it the next hill, it had morphed two more times. First into a plane, then into space craft, each time the controls becoming exponentially more complicated. Yet the child is still a child, and the machine he was driving evolved too quickly for him to possibly learn how to control it. What outcome is there other than a crash?
I see that parable as reflective of human technological progress and the lack of wisdom necessary to utilize it responsibly. What technological marvels exist in the modern age! I can post this very message on a medium of communication that spans the entire world. Modern medicine has significantly extended the lifetime of the average human in places where it is available. A tool of war exists in a silo that can wipe out and irradiate a 500 mile radius in million degree nuclear fire.
We could list on and on the technological wonders that saturate our lives and surround us at every turn. Yet are we, as a culture, ready for these wonders? Do we have the wisdom to harness them responsibly? The suicidal drive to make the one earth we have uninhabitable would suggest not. The soil becoming ever unusable, the air becoming ever more unbreathable, the water becoming ever more undrinkable, shows perhaps we are not ready. The deregulated nuclear industries, the petty bloody power struggles for resources, the societies structured by greed, all suggest a long way to go. Surrounded by all these technological marvels, humankind is still just a child in the driver seat of a space craft. We might be able to smash particles in the Large Hadron Collider, but morally, we have not evolved too far beyond throwing spears at each other over clannish, selfish squabbles.
Some dissenters from industrial empire saw this collapse coming from the beginning. Luther Standing Bear, a Lakota man alive near the turn of the twentieth century, once noted a connection between a hardness of heart and a distancing from nature: “But the old Lakota was wise. He knew that man’s heart, away from nature, becomes hard; he knew that lack of respect for growing, living things soon led to lack of respect for humans too.” Standing Bear derived this insight from millenia of Lakota philosophy. The Lakota saw callousness in industrial civilization. The Lakota saw its dehumanizing tendency. The authorities of industrial empire used to think we Native Americans were stupid for believing this way. Now with holes in the ozone, mass extinctions of creatures in ocean and on land, a world sized ruin in the wake of industrial empire, it seems that harmony the old Lakotas strove for with nature was not so foolish after all.
The horrific thing yet to dawn on this culture is that in all this destruction of the natural world, we ultimately hurt ourselves most of all. Humankind has been manically slashing for some time, kicking creature, flora, and fauna over the cliff of extinction. It will be horror to finally realize we don’t exist apart from all these things. But instead are tied, blood by blood, sinew by sinew, to the fate of every other living thing on earth. If the creatures and plants are going over the cliff into oblivion, we will inevitably be dragged into nothingness with them.
Is there much hope that wisdom to utilize knowledge responsibly will catch up with scientific technological progress? I’m not optimistic about the chances, but it has to be tried. The cancer is spreading rapidly, and the earth is in desperate need of antibodies. I hope from the ashes of this failing system, something better can grow. I hope out of the carcass of the industrial empire, a new way, a wiser way, can come forth.