Derrick Jensen and Charles Eisenstein Fistfight in Heaven

I have just read Charles Eisenstein’s freshly published essay, Standing Rock: A Change of Heart. This is fortuitous, since I’d been wanting to write about how it feels to be immersed in Derrick Jensen’s perspective versus how it feels to be immersed in Charles Eisenstein’s.

Reading A Language Older Than Words a few weeks ago (followed by What We Leave Behind), I noticed ghosts rising up, between the lines – whose voice does this voice remind me of? Oh yes, I realized – Jensen’s writing style echoes Eisenstein’s. Both take a measured approach to potentially inflammatory material; both logically, methodically build a fully furnished conceptual structure in which a reader could choose to live. Both marry clarity with eloquence; both work (I am guessing) extremely hard to avoid being misunderstood.

Yet the results – the conceptual houses, and how it feels to inhabit them – could not be more different.

Since early 2012, I have dwelt, on and off, in versions of Eisenstein’s house. Here, miracles happen (miracles meaning phenomena not possible from within my current story); here, the world can be healed by webs of relationships and spirals of gifts. This house is a live-in cathedral; it has high ceilings, and tall windows admitting floods of light. It invites me to gaze up, and out, in wonder.

Before the 2008 election (and its predecessor, the bailout) I paid a visit to Jensen’s house; after the 2016 election, I paid another. Here, miracles as Eisenstein defines them are magical thinking; here, wildness alone can renew us, and to preserve what little is left we must fight. This house is a hovel. A shack with sooty panes and splintered siding, a wood stove warming a tiny radius. It warns me to hunker down and huddle; the wind outside is worse.

Why is there a question, regarding which house I would choose? Because cathedrals are just as likely as hovels to collapse, in earthquakes, and cathedrals have farther to fall.

Meaning, what if the hovel is real, the cathedral a fantasy? Given a choice between prolonging a dream, and letting truth shatter it, I’ll take the latter.

Then again, there must be a third way. There always is. Maybe I don’t choose one house over the other; maybe I wander from one to the next, then elsewhere, then beyond the reach of my map. Maybe I track joy deep into the woods, whether or not I believe I can find my way back.

I Heart “the Environment”

The phrase “the environment” makes me gag. Why?

Here’s a puppet example: “Let’s cover a million square miles of desert with solar panels! It’ll help the environment.” What’s wrong with this picture?

First, the picture frames “the environment” as optional. We can “help” it or not – we choose. And “helping” doesn’t involve radical rediscovery of who we are, or deep reassessment of how we live – it means (can mean) implementing yet another industrial megaproject that fits in with business (monetization of the commons) as usual.

Second, the picture depicts “the environment” as separate from humans (those deigning to do the “helping”). Would you like to support the environment? Gun control? Abortion rights? You choose! Pick any dish on the menu!

Then there’s the term “ecocide.” It’s not widely used – and it too sets humans (those using the word) apart from that which is being killed. It allows us to gloss over the fact that this “eco” we are “ciding” is our home.

May I suggest a replacement? Home-icide.

Which raises the question: Why is it obviously repugnant to, say, shit on the living room floor, but completely acceptable to fence off a great swath of living room (room where beings live) and pile it with our trash? Imagine paying a first visit to the apartment of someone you’re dating. Imagine he treats his home the way industrially civilized humans treat ours. Would you even consider another date?

Maybe what’s most sinister about the words “the environment,” and the way they’re used, is that they evoke scenery. A backdrop. Look: In the foreground, there’s (industrially civilized) human life. There are people going to work, going to school. Consuming media. Shopping at supermarkets. Communing with smartphones. In the background, there’s a pleasant vista – grass, trees, sky, clouds, maybe some hills or a mountain range. The job of that vista – “the environment” – is to sit still and look pretty. To provide a matrix for our actions, without complaint. To give, and give, and give, and not get in the way.

In reality, industrially civilized humans play but a bit part in this scene; in reality, most of the action – most of the living – is happening in that backdrop.

Options for referring to the entity formerly known as “the environment” with greater accuracy: Home. The web of life.

Then again, maybe the way to add accuracy to straw statements like the one above about solar panels is to make plain what the speaker really means. As in, “Let’s cover a million square miles of desert with solar panels! It’ll prolong the death march of industrial civilization – while assuring us, for a few more years, that there’s really nothing wrong.”

 

“Development” as Home-icide: Cover Your Eyes

I’ve been reading Derrick Jensen’s semi-memoir, A Language Older Than Words. In a chapter called “Seeking a Third Way,” he describes making a comment at a public meeting that breaks “the basic commandment of our culture: Thou shalt pretend there is nothing wrong.” Later, in “The Goal Is the Process,” he ponders what to name the people responsible for destroying the forest near his home, so they can build houses. His dictionary, he says, “defines develop as to cause to become gradually fuller, larger, better” – which is not what happens when a thriving – albeit non-human – community is replaced with a monocrop of petro-cement apartment blocks. I too have struggled with this question; when I dare, I replace “develop” with “monetize” – knowing I’m breaking the social consensus, yet loath to let the easier, falser word constrict my throat.

Jensen ventures a step further: “Killers is probably the best name for them,” he says, “because that’s what they do.”

Right now, in Beacon, in the “linkage zone” between the train station and Main Street, carnage erupts behind a gesture of a fence. Apartments are slated to be built there; the trees have been bulldozed in preparation – along, I presume, with countless creatures who once made that place their home.

I think now of a friend’s comment that white people like to wax eloquent about their precious environment, while ignoring the violence we perpetrate on black and brown people, in collusion with our culture of white supremacy, every day. What is true here? What is true about that?

In the case of this particular stretch of land, there’s a connection between violence done on behalf of white supremacy and violence done to trees. The urban removal project executed in that area decades ago destroyed a black community. And the common thread, as Jensen points out time and again, may be the silencing – the pretense of no pain felt, no pain that matters – preceding the forced uprooting of our fellowbeings.

The “linkage zone” is on my mind because I attended a meeting the other night on Beacon’s comprehensive plan. I believe the planner at the podium was speaking of the MTA when he said, of a particular parcel, something like, “That’s their property. They can do whatever they want with it.” For some reason – maybe because I was in the midst of the Jensen book – I heard the word “property,” and the sentence surrounding it, in a new and sinister way. I heard it echoing back to the days of slavery, and wives as wards of their husbands. I flashed on a man flinging a woman across a room, not caring if she cracked a bone as she smashed against the wall – she’s his property; he can do what he wants with her. Thou shalt pretend there is nothing wrong.

Should the verb “develop” ever take a living object? Perhaps it can only respectfully be transitive when what’s being developed is a story, an understanding, an idea. Then again, maybe not even stories can be developed – maybe they are received, through listening. Maybe when the writer, or teller, listens well enough, the story develops itself.

It Takes a Village to Raise a Dictator

I am hearing fears of fascism, in relation to the election of Tronald Dump. (Don’t you love a good spoonerism? Me, too!) Some seem to believe that he can destroy (what’s left of) our liberty all by himself. But: Fascism requires foot soldiers. Like, lots of them. Where will they come from? Will President Dump hire Russian mercenaries? Start a cloning program (as the South does in The Fifth Sacred Thing) to produce androids without family or empathy? Not likely. Chances are, if he wants to assume dictatorial powers, he’ll need to rely on millions of reg’lar ’muricans. People just like – I mean, not at all like – you and me.

In The Dandelion Insurrection (which I’ve mentioned before), a network of Oath Guardians emerges, in opposition to a government that is obviously rotting from the inside. “An Oath Guardian,” one character explains to the hero and heroine, “is a soldier, a cop, or any other security officer who refuses to enforce unconstitutional laws. They took an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States and they aren’t about to let scumbag politicians use them as pawns in their power games. Not against their own people.” And so, when the frackers come to town, some of those deployed to protect them secretly side with the locals who want the extractors gone. Plus, the locals temporarily close their businesses, so the frackers and their ilk will have nowhere to lodge, buy food, get gas. The moral of the story? It takes a village to raise a dictator. Fascism can only take hold if we the people choose to collaborate.

Which brings me to the commons. Why might we choose collaboration? What is the most common excuse ever for doing shitty, abusive things? “Just doin’ my job, ma’am.” “I gotta make a living.”

Okay, and why do we need jobs? Why do we make this thing called a “living”? Because air, water, soil, food, fun, learning, shelter, travel, etc., have all been monetized. You wanna eat? You need money. You want a roof over your head? You need money. You want to get from A to B? You need money. And so, I would say, if you want to head off fascism, shrink the reach of money. De-monetize. You cannot use money to coerce the service of a human who does not need money to survive.

The First Step Is Admitting Civilization Is the Problem

It’s Wednesday morning – our first in our new apartment. I’ve found the morning sunshine; it’s right where I’d been planning – am still planning – to put my desk. I am grateful for this sunshine. It is simple, it is sweet. It’s a thing I discount, when I stare at my screen and plot how I’ll make it in industrial civilization.

Reading liberal responses to Trump’s election, I keep feeling this visceral no. No, you’re not going deep enough. No, I won’t help you cling to your delusions. No, the carnage did not abate under Obama, and would proceed apace even if millions of petition signers were to get the electoral college to break rank for Hillary.

What, then, do I say yes to? What news, if I heard it, would make my heart thrill?

News of industrial collapse. News of mass defection. News of efforts to replenish the nutrients offered by a limited land base. (Do we really think we can keep sewering our poop forever?)

What is the opposite of extraction? Replenishment. Regeneration.

Pretend our culture is a Rubik’s Cube. You have eight of nine blue squares on one facet; you desperately want to complete the grid with that ninth blue square. Yet you refuse to make any turns, because you’re loathe to disrupt the near perfection of your favored facet. So you peel the blue sticker off that elusive ninth square, and re-affix it where you want it. Look! You’ve forced your picture to please you. But you haven’t solved the puzzle.

The movement to get electors to go rogue, and dump Donald for Hillary, strikes me as similar in spirit to peeling off and re-applying that ninth blue stickeer. It would perfect one facet of the cube (the one the viewer chooses to look at); it would eliminate a disturbing element that surely (in the viewer’s opinion) does not belong. Yet the other five sides of the cube would still be a royal mess, and the fix would have been accomplished without having engaged, or even acknowledged, them.

I appreciate the desire to incrementally gentle industrial civilization; I am heavily invested in aspects of it myself. (How would my book achieve wide distribution without industrial publishing machinery? Maybe wide distribution is not what books are for; maybe it is more beautiful for stories to be passed, in precious volumes, from hand to hand, by those who adore them.) However, I do have access to another story, in which the cracks Trump’s election has exposed widen to engulf our faith in monetization, the military, plutocracy, punishment, captivity, debt, jobs, clocks, hospitals, drugs, paperwork, success, celebrities – all underpinned by the everyday brutality of treating our fellowbeings as “resources.”

In the story that flows beneath the brittle city of life as I know it, I am welcomed, with fire and warmth, back into the wild.

A Killer Career

Last Thursday evening, I attended a Veterans’ Day event at the Harvard Club in New York City. It started with renditions of “The Star-Spangled Banner” (for which I remained seated, heart racing, in defiance of the moderator’s request that we stand, figuring that now is as good a time as any to practice resisting repulsive commands), “’Tis the Gift to Be Simple” (did the singer know that Quakers are pacifists?), and “Someone to Watch Over Me” (whether you take it as a woman’s paean to her future husband, or a nation’s wish for a killer dictator, cf. some lyrics I wrote in the run-up to the 2008 election – “Life’s so much better here behind the wire/I didn’t mind riding in the cattle car/Food is cheap and gas is free/And you are watching over me” – this song is creepy); the main attraction was a speech by a brigadier general in the U.S. Army who’s done multiple tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan, followed by a Q&A.

I chose to go because I wasn’t supposed to – meaning, this is not the kind of thing my character would normally do. I figured if I stepped outside my bubble (one aspect of it anyway) I might learn a thing or two.

Did I ever. What stuck with me – what keeps running through my head, at random moments – is part of the general’s answer to the question of why he’d joined the army. He said he’d signed up because he came from a military family; he’d never considered another career. Then, he said he’d always told himself he’d quit the army the day he stopped “having fun.” The implication was that the military provides infusions of excitement and challenge not available elsewhere.

I’m guessing that the basic ingredient of that excitement and challenge is the interplay between killing and the threat of being killed. I must say it was surreal to witness a roomful of people showing the utmost respect for a man who’s made a life out of death. He’d most likely be in prison, or on death row, had he tried that at home.

I got the sense, during the Q&A, that no one was going to talk about killing – the act thereof. That we were going to collectively detach from the fact that the man at the podium had in all likelihood killed many, many humans. So, partly out of true curiosity (roused by a story in Phil Klay’s collection Redeployment in which a band of novice soldiers attempt to discern, after their first remote strike, how many casualties, if any, each is personally responsible for), and partly out of a desire to bring killing into the room, I asked the general, “What’s the difference between the experience of killing a person up close and killing a person from a distance?”

The moderator, retrieving the mic from me, laughed; others in the audience laughed as well. Was it nervous laughter? I don’t know. The general gave a (nervous? bewildered?) chuckle himself, before shrugging and saying he couldn’t say – one’s close, one’s far away. “I can’t really answer that,” he said.

It’s Our Party, We’ll Squawk If We Want To

I’m feeling a lump of opinion rise within me, in relation to the election. Yet I’m not sure if it’s really the election I want to write about. I believe that’s too narrow a frame.

What I want to write about is agency. And looking out, not up.

When I imagine people in relation to president, I see a brood of three hundred million hungry chicks, squawking up at mama-bird on a high branch – mama-bird who builds us shelter, brings us food. Each time we vote, we have the chance to join our squawks in a foghorn roar, too loud for mama-bird to ignore.

What if we quit looking up? What if we looked to each other?

What if mama-bird has long since flown away, leaving an automated birdroid, programmed to pacify but not nourish, in her place?

I have been looking up, in one way or another, for almost forty years. First, from my desk in a grid, I looked up to teachers and principals. Then I moved on to employers and professors. Then I joined Zendik, at the bottom of a pyramid that ascended, through many levels, to Arol. Leaving Zendik taught me to heed the wisdom of the body – and the body knows, it always knows, when the soul is being disparaged. Belittled. Looked down on. Yet I did not receive a visceral experience of a positive alternative until Occupy – which, for all its faults, and, I’m sure, its own subtle hierarchies, made it seem surreal to be in a muted crowd, looking up to a poo-bah (or panel of poo-bahs) commanding a podium. I felt I’d developed a healthy allergy to looking up.

Still, I continue to do it, in other ways (for example, I spent more than ten years looking up to the publishing industry, hoping for someone within it to swoop down and sweep me and my book to the stars). And, always, I feel its toxicity. I feel the impossibility of joining as friends and comrades with those I have to crane my neck to see.

The gift of an election in which both candidates are roundly despised (even by many who voted for them – cf. “Kerry Haters for Kerry”) is, perhaps, release from looking up.

A Clinton win, I suspect, would have perpetuated the story that there’s a benevolent presence above us, at least keeping order and making incremental improvements, if not throwing open the gates to a more beautiful world. This story, in turn, would have kept many of us frogs in the proverbial water pot from realizing it was building towards a boil. With Trump in office, on the other hand, we frogs know the water’s already scorching hot. The blender’s on. Instead of a pledge of a half billion solar panels, veiling an iron commitment to business as usual, we get bald threats to revive Keystone XL and burn more coal.

Mama-birdroid has left the branch. She won’t return (she was feeding us frankenworms anyway). Do we treasure our nest? Our tree? Our fellowbeings? Let’s lower our beaks. Chirp to each other. Squawk if we want to, knowing those we need to reach are all right here.