The Problem of Civilization

A black tern weighs barely two ounces. On energy reserves less than a small bag of M&M's and wings that stretch to cover twelve inches, she flies thousands of miles, searching for the wetlands that will harbor her young. Every year the journey gets longer as the wetlands are desiccated for human demands. Every year the tern, desperate and hungry, loses, while civilization, endless and sanguineous, wins.

A polar bear should weigh 650 pounds. Her energy reserves are meant to see her through nine long months of dark, denned gestation, and then lactation, when she will give up her dwindling stores to the needy mouths of her species' future. But in some areas, the female's weight before hibernation has already dropped from 650 to 507 pounds.[1] Meanwhile, the ice has evaporated like the wetlands. When she wakes, the waters will stretch impassably open, and there is no Abrahamic god of bears to part them for her.

The Aldabra snail should weigh something, but all that's left to weigh are skeletons, bits of orange and indigo shells. The snail has been declared not just extinct[10], but the first casualty of global warming. In dry periods, the snail hibernated. The young of any species are always more vulnerable, as they have no reserves from which to draw. In this case, the adults' "reproductive success" was a "complete failure.'"[2] In plain terms, the babies died and kept dying, and a species millions of years old is now a pile of shell fragments.

Extinctions Since 1800

What is your personal carrying capacity for grief, rage, despair? We are living in a period of mass extinction. The numbers stand at 200 species a day.[3] That's 73,000 a year. This culture is oblivious to their passing, feels entitled to their every last niche, and there is no roll call on the nightly news.

There is a name for the tsunami wave of extermination: the Holocene extinction event. There's no asteroid this time, only human behavior, behavior that we could choose to stop. Adolph Eichman'sexcuse was that no one told him that the concentration camps were wrong. We've all seen the pictures of the drowning polar bears. Are we so ethically numb that we need to be told this is wrong?

There are voices raised in concern, even anguish, at the plight of the earth, the rending of its species. "Only zero emissions can prevent a warmer planet," one pair of climatologists declare.[4] James Lovelock, originator of the Gaia hypothesis, states bluntly that global warming has passed the tipping point, carbon offsetting is a joke, and "individual lifestyle adjustments" are "a deluded fantasy."[5] It's all true, and self-evi­dent. "Simple living" should start with simple observation: if burning fossil fuels will kill the planet, then stop burning them.

But that conclusion, in all its stark clarity, is not the popular one to draw. The moment policy makers and environmental groups start offering solutions is the exact moment when they stop telling the truth, inconvenient or otherwise. Google "global warming solutions." The first paid sponsor [in 2010], Campaign Earth, urges "No doom and gloom!! When was the last time depression got you really motivated? We're here to inspire realistic action steps and stories of success." By "realistic" they don't mean solutions that actually match the scale of the problem. They mean the usual consumer choices–cloth shopping bags, travel mugs, and misguided dietary advice–which will do exactly nothing to disrupt the troika of industrialization, capitalism, and patriarchy that is skin­ning the planet alive. As Derrick has pointed out elsewhere, even if every American took every single action suggested by Al Gore it would only reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 21 percent.[6] Similarly, even if through simple living and rigorous recycling you stopped your own average American's annual three quarters of a ton of garbage production, your per capita share of the industrial waste produced in the US is still about twenty-five tons. That's thirty-three times as much waste as you were able to save by eliminating a full 100 percent of your personal waste.[7]

Industrialism itself is what has to stop. There is no kinder, greener version that will do the trick of leaving us a living planet. In blunt terms, industrialization is a process of taking entire communities of living beings and turning them into commodities and dead zones. Could it be done more "efficiently"? Sure, we could use a little less fossil fuels, but it still ends in the same wastelands of land, water, and sky. We could stretch this endgame out another twenty years, but the planet still dies. Trace every industrial artifact back to its source­–which isn't hard, as they all leave trails of blood–and you find the same devastation: mining, clear-cuts, dams, agriculture. And now tar sands, mountaintop removal, wind farms (which might better be called dead bird and bat farms). No amount of renewables is going to make up for the fossil fuels or change the nature of the extraction, both of which are prerequisites for this way of life. Neither fossil fuels nor extracted substances will ever be sustainable; by definition, they will run out. Bringing a cloth shopping bag to the store, even if you walk there in your Global Warming Flip-Flops, will not stop the tar sands. But since these actions also won't disrupt anyone's life, they're declared both real­istic and successful.

The next site's Take Action page includes the usual: buying light bulbs, inflating tires, filling dishwashers, shortening showers, and rearranging the deck chairs. It also offers the ever-crucial GlobalWarming Bracelets and, more importantly, Flip-Flops. Polar bears everywhere are weeping with relief.

The first noncommercial site [in 2010] is the Union of Concerned Scientists. As one might expect, there are no exclamation points, but instead a statement that "[t]he burning of fossil fuel (oil, coal, and natural gas) alone counts for about 75 percent of annual C02 emissions." This is followed by a list of Five Sensible Steps. Step One? No, not stop burning fossil fuels–"Make Better Cars and SUVs." Never mind that the automobile itself is the pollution, with its demands–for space, for speed, for fuel–in complete opposition to the needs of both a viable human community and a living planet. Like all the others, the scien­tists refuse to call industrial civilization into question. We can have a living planet and the consumption that's killing the planet, can't we?

The principle here is very simple. As Derrick has written, "[A]ny social system based on the use of nonrenewable resources is by definition unsustainable."[8] Just to be clear, nonrenewable means it will eventually run out. Once you've grasped that intellectual complexity, you can move on to the next level. "Any culture based on the nonrenewableuse of renewable resources is just as unsustainable." Trees are renew­able. But if we use them faster than they can grow, the forest will turn to desert. Which is precisely what civilization has been doing for its 10,000 year campaign, running through soil, rivers, and forests as well as metal, coal. and oil. Now the oceans are almost dead and their plankton populations are collapsing, populations that both feed the life of the oceans and create oxygen for the planet. What will we fill our lungs with when they are gone? The plastics with which industrial civ­ilization is replacing them? In parts of the Pacific, plastic outweighs plankton 48 to 1.[9] Imagine if it were your blood, your heart, crammed with toxic materials–not just chemicals, but physical gunk–until there was ten times more of it than you. What metaphor is adequate for the dying plankton? Cancer? Suffocation? Crucifixion?

But the oceans don't need our metaphors. They need action. They need industrial civilization to stop destroying and devouring. In other words, they need us to make it stop.

Which is why we are organizing to resist.


[1], "Two·thirds of polar bears at risk"

[2] Butler, "Climate Change."

[3] Wilson, The Future of Life, p. 74. See also Olson, "Species Extinction Rate."

[4] Ravilious, "Only Zero Emissions."

[5] Aitkenhead, "Enjoy Life."

[6] Jensen and McMillan, As the World Burns, p. 15.

[7] Updated version of Aric McBay's analysis in What We Leave Behind, p. 290, based on 2010 EPA estimates of municipal waste and older EPA estimates of industrial waste.

[8] Jensen, Endgame, p. 36.

[9] Leber, "Trash Course," p. 21.

[10] In a small bit of good news, seven individuals were found in 2014. So the Albadra snail is in big trouble, but not yet actually exinct.

FaLang translation system by Faboba

Corporations spend billions on lobbying the US government.

Phytoplankton populations are collapsing.

The oceans are acidifying.

Atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide continue to rise.

Dioxin is found in almost every mother's breast milk.

Formerly healthy land becomes desert at frightening rates

US police regularly misconduct themselves.

More than a dozen highly toxic chemicals are present in our environment in large quantities.

One-half of all species are threatened with extinction, primarily by industrial activity.

Men sexually assault women at horrifying rates.

Corporations dump horrifying amounts of toxins into the oceans.

Slavery is rampant today.

Deforestation continues at incredibly unsustainable levels.

Drug abuse is rampant.

Topsoil is lost far faster than it can be recreated.

The US military enforces a global presence.

Hate crimes in the US are rampant.

Mental disorders are common in the US and internationally.

Civilization is in a constant state of warfare.

US government and corporations are closely interrelated.

Wealth and resources are distributed unequally.

Climate change is affecting us now.

Coastal and low-lying areas will suffer from rising sea levels.

Climate change may reduce crop production.

Climate change will dramatically reduce access to fresh water.

The rate of extinction is increasing.

Methane is escaping from the melting permafrost.

Nuclear weapons threaten all life on the planet.

Global carbon dioxide emissions continue to rise.

Agriculture is the most important cause of deforestation and soil loss.

The US government is mostly composed of the 1%.

The planet has lost 80% of its forest cover to deforestation.

Oceanic dead zones found all over the world are increasing at alarming rates.

Global temperatures are increasing dramatically.

Coral reefs are dying.



"The Jews who participated in the Warsaw ghetto uprising had a much higher rate of survival than those who went along."
-Derrick Jensen

DGR Strategy