I’VE ALWAYS kind of hated that quote by Edward Abbey about being a half-hearted fanatic (“Be as I am — a reluctant enthusiast . . . a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic”). Not so much because of the racism and misogyny that characterized some of his work. And not even because of the quote itself. But rather because of how that quote has been too often misused by people who put too much emphasis on the half-hearted, and not nearly enough emphasis on the fanatic.
The fundamental truth of our time is that this culture is killing the planet. We can quibble all we want — and quibble too many do — about whether it is killing the planet or merely causing one of the six or seven greatest mass extinctions in the past several billion years, but no reasonable person can argue that industrial civilization is not grievously injuring life on Earth.
Given that fact, you’d think most people would be doing everything they can to protect life on this planet — the only life, to our knowledge, in the universe. Sadly, you’d be wrong.
I think often of a line by the psychiatrist R. D. Laing, “Few books today are forgivable.” He wrote this, I believe, because we have become so very alienated from our own experience, from who we are, and this alienation is so destructive to others and to ourselves that if a book does not take this alienation as its starting point and work toward rectifying it, we’d all be better off looking at blank pieces of paper. Or better, actually experiencing something (or someone). Or even better, entering, as Martin Buber might have written, into a relationship with something or someone.
I agree with Laing that few books today are forgivable (and the same is true for films, paintings, songs, relationships, lives, and so on), and I agree for the reasons I believe he was giving. But there’s another reason I think few books (films, paintings, songs, relationships, lives, and so on) are forgivable. There’s that little nagging fact that this culture is murdering the planet. Any book (film, painting, song, relationship, life, and so on) that doesn’t begin with this basic understanding — that the culture is murdering the planet (in part because of this alienation; and of course this murder then in turn fuels further alienation) — and doesn’t work toward rectifying it is not forgivable, for an infinitude of reasons, one of which is that without a living planet there can be no books. There can be no paintings, songs, relationships, lives, and so on. There can be nothing.
The conservation biologist Reed Noss has called his field a “combat discipline”: we are in a crisis, and our attitudes and actions need to reflect this. And so I sometimes try to apply the Ed Abbey quote to the work of a firefighter. If you were trapped in a burning building, would you want the firefighters to be reluctant enthusiasts, part-time crusaders, half-hearted fanatics? Should the mother of a very sick child be reluctant or half-hearted in defense of that child?
I’m not saying we don’t need recreation. I’m not saying we don’t need amusement. Hell, I have three mystery novels in my backpack right now. I’m not saying a firefighter doesn’t need to rest — having hauled seven unconscious people out of the burning building, we could hardly blame the firefighter for grabbing a quick drink of water or sometimes taking a day off; and I’m not saying the mother doesn’t need to sleep or take some time away from the stress of caring and advocating for her child. We all need the occasional escape, or even indulgence. But we must be able to pursue those escapes and indulgences with the knowledge that others are rushing into the burning building, that others have taken over the job of advocating for whatever is necessary to heal that child.
And that, frankly, is part of the problem: there aren’t nearly enough of us working anywhere near hard enough to stop this culture from killing the planet. Obviously, or the world would be getting healthier, instead of being desecrated with ever increasing speed. If there were more of us trying to stop this culture from killing the planet, then those who are working themselves to death could afford to take a little time off and not feel as if things would fall apart while they climbed the mountains or ran the rivers.
“It is not enough to fight for the land,” Abbey continued; “it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it is still there.” But this part of the quote might actually bother me more, in part because of its fatalism and in part because we — humans — are not the point. Yes, absolutely we should enjoy and commune with and make love with and touch and be with and absorb and be absorbed by the land. Yes, absolutely we should sit in the sun and feel it warm our bones, and we should listen to the whispering voices of trees, and we should open our ears and our hearts to the voices of frogs. But when the forests are being flattened and the frogs are being extirpated, enjoying them isn’t enough. So long as there’s still something we can do to protect them, shouldn’t protecting them be far more important than enjoying them? Because, once again, we are not the point. The trees, the frogs, do not exist for us. It is our culture that is killing them, and it is up to us to stop it.
Have you ever had anyone you love die or come to grievous harm needlessly, from some unnecessary act of stupidity or violence? I have. And in the aftermath I have never wished I had spent more time enjoying this other, but rather wishing I had acted differently such that I was able to prevent the unnecessary losses.
As my artist and writer friend Stephanie McMillan wrote in her essay “Artists: Raise Your Weapons”: “If we lived in a time of peace and harmony, then creating escapist, serotonin-boosting hits of mild amusement wouldn’t be a crime. If all was well, such art might enhance our happy existence. There’s nothing wrong with pleasure or decorative art. But in times like these, for an artist not to devote her/his talents and energies to creating cultural weapons of resistance is a betrayal of the worst magnitude, a gesture of contempt against life itself. It is unforgivable.”
I would extend her comments beyond art: in times like these, for anyone not to devote her/his talents and energies to defending the planet is a betrayal of the worst magnitude, a gesture of contempt against life itself. It is unforgivable.
The questions I keep coming back to are these: in this time, as countless multitudes of humans and nonhumans suffer for the profits and luxuries of a few, and as species go extinct at rates greater than any in the last scores of millions of years — as large-vertebrate evolution itself is being halted — what does the world need? What does the world need from me?
I want to be very clear: I don’t mean to imply that we shouldn’t love the world or each other (human or nonhuman). Or that we shouldn’t play games or have fun. I’m not saying we shouldn’t rest or go hiking or read good books (and Desert Solitaire is a great book). I’m not even saying I have a problem with Abbey’s quote as such; my main problem with the quote is the many would-be activists who use it as an excuse for inaction.
We are in a crisis, and we need to act as such. We need to rescue people from the burning building. We need everybody’s help.