Loaded Words

Art: Raechel Running
Art: Raechel Running

RECENTLY, I’VE BEEN THINKING about something I wrote fourteen years ago, which has become one of my most quoted passages: “Every morning when I wake up I ask myself whether I should write, or blow up a dam.” Despite having faith in my work as a writer, I knew that it wasn’t a lack of words that was killing salmon in the Northwest. It was the presence of dams.

Since that time, things have gotten much worse for salmon, and for almost everything on the earth. By now we all know the numbers, or we should. Two hundred species per day driven extinct, 90 percent of the large fish in the oceans extirpated, more than 98 percent of native forests destroyed, 99 percent of prairies, and on and on. Virtually every biological indicator is pointing the wrong direction. Native communities — human and nonhuman — are under assault. Where I live, frog populations have collapsed, as have newt populations, butterfly populations, crane fly populations, dragonfly populations, banana slug populations, songbird populations. Crow populations have collapsed. Bat populations. Woolly bear populations. Moth populations. Bumblebee and solitary bee populations. And these are just some of the absences I’ve noticed. Salmon of course have continued to collapse. At this point I give salmon fifteen years. If we can bring down industrialized civilization in the next fifteen years, I think salmon, in time, will be fine. Much longer and they will not survive.

So where does writing fit in? Far too many of us have forgotten, or never knew, that words can be used as weapons in service of our communities. Far too many of us have forgotten, or never knew, that words should be used as weapons in service of our communities. For far too long, too many critics and teachers have told us that literature should be apolitical (as though this were possible), and that even nonfiction and journalism should be “neutral” or “objective” (as though this, too, were possible). If you want to send a message, they told us, use Western Union. I once spoke with a nature writer who refused to lend his name to a campaign to protect a species about whom he had written, giving as his reason, “I’m a writer. I have to remain neutral.”

When the world is being murdered, such a position is inexcusable. It is immoral. And it reveals a great ignorance for what it means to be a writer. Have these people never heard of Steinbeck, Dickens, Crane, Hugo? Charlotte Perkins Gilman? Rachel Carson? Frederick Douglass? Harriet Beecher Stowe? Alexandra Kollontai? George Eliot? Katharine Burdekin? Zora Neale Hurston? Andrea Dworkin? B. Traven? Upton Sinclair? A little Tolstoy, anyone?

I would not be who I am and I would not write what I write without having learned from some of my elders who refused to believe that writers should or can be apolitical or neutral or objective. The truth is most important, they said. It is more important than money. It is more important than fame. It is more important than your career. It’s more important than your preconceptions. Follow the truth — follow the words and ideas — wherever they lead. Words matter, they said. Art matters. Literature matters. Words and art and literature can change lives, and can change history. Make sure that your words and your art and your literature move people individually and collectively in the direction of justice and sustainability. They said literature that supports capitalism is immoral. A literature that supports patriarchy is immoral. A literature that does not resist oppression is immoral. But you can help to create a literature of morality and resistance, as each new generation must create this literature, with the help of all those generations who came before, holding their hands for support, just as those who come after will need to hold yours.

I was also taught that art can be and is and, to be moral, must be a combat discipline.

Recognizing that art can be a combat discipline is part of a process necessary for social change, but it’s not all of it. If too few of us remember that words can be weapons, even fewer of us remember that, as weapons, words cannot fight alone. Words themselves do not topple dictators, they do not stop capitalism, they do not stop oppression, they do not halt species extinction, they do not stop global warming, they do not remove dams. At some point someone actually has to do something. At some point someone needs to physically dismantle the infrastructures that allow capitalism to metastasize, oppression to continue, species extinction and global warming to accelerate, dictators and dams to stand.

That job is up to all of us.

A friend and mentor once asked me, “What are the largest, most pressing problems you can help to solve using the gifts that are unique to you in all the universe?” That question shows precisely where I have succeeded as a writer and human being, and precisely where I have failed.

There are many ways my writing life could so far be considered a success far beyond anything I daydreamed about when I was younger. I have twenty books out. People seem to enjoy reading them and coming to my talks, both of which honor me beyond belief. Despite the truth of the old cliché about writing, that it is a terrible way to make a living and a great way to make a life, for at least the last few years I’ve been able to financially support myself through writing. More important than all of these, however, is that I have been true to my muse, and have at least attempted to tell the truth as I have come to understand it. And I have sometimes succeeded in articulating some of those things I know in my heart to be true, and in so doing have, I hope, helped some others to articulate some of those things they may know in their hearts to be true.

This is all to the good. But the fact remains that if we judge my work, or anyone’s work, by the most important standard of all, and in fact the only standard that really matters, which is the health of the planet, my work (and everyone else’s) is a complete failure. Because my work hasn’t stopped the murder of the planet. Nor has anyone else’s. We haven’t even slowed it down. It’s embarrassing to have to explain why this is the only standard that really matters, but at this point embarrassment is the least of our problems. The health of the planet is the only standard that really matters because without a living planet nothing else is important, because nothing else exists. Compared to this, the number of books one has published doesn’t matter. How beautifully or poorly they are written doesn’t matter. Financially supporting oneself doesn’t matter. Life itself is more important than what we create.

These days when I wake up, I’m even less certain that my decision to write is the right one. I know that a culture of resistance needs every form of action, from writing to legal work to mass protests in the streets to physically dismantling destructive infrastructures. And that too few people are calling for actions that are commensurate with the threats to the planet. And so, for better or worse, most mornings, articulating the truth and defending it and rallying others to defend it in whatever ways they know how is the method of combat I choose.

The time for waiting is long gone. It is time to stop this culture from destroying life on earth. So take my hand. Take the hands of all those who came before us. But keep your other hand free, to make a fist or to pick up a pen. The health of the oceans, the forests, the rivers, the salmon, the sturgeon, the migratory songbirds, are all more important than you or I individually, and they are more important than your or my accomplishments. Their health will be the measure of our success.

Derrick Jensen is the author of Thought to Exist in the Wild, Songs of the Dead, Endgame, Dreams, and other books. In 2008, he was named one of Utne Reader’s “50 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World.” His Orion column is called “Upping the Stakes.”


  1. Derrick.
    Dear, passionate Derrick.
    It’s not either/or.
    Either to write, or to do.
    Either to use words, or to use hands.
    It’s both/and.

  2. Nobody who regularly posts and reads here probably has any doubts about how I would respond to this essay…which makes many valid observations of the state we are in currently. But here it is anyway…..

    The world’s current state of overshoot, and all the observable results that go with that, have all been made possible only by the availability of cheap energy, namely fossil fuels. Those days are dwindling fast. Your agreement with this new paradigm is not necessary or required. No organism in the biological history of this planet has ever voluntarily imposed limits on its population growth and resource consumption. Limitations on growth are always imposed on populations from without, involuntarily. We have a zero percent probability of being the first organism to ever achieve something different. It is either going to be a short, sharp shock, or a long descent, take your pick. Either way, the reality we’ve come to rely on is going away. That is going to be extremely good news for the billions of other organisms on this planet, and the biosphere in general.

  3. As far as I can see, oil has been a disaster for us and for the planet. I understand peak oil as welcome news. Be careful what you wish for, you might get it… humans wished for vast abundance… and it’s doing us in. Go figure. Old Spain wished for tons of gold… did them in too. Funny how that works…

  4. Vera, I think that as a species we are exceptionally deficient when it comes to managing abundance. Individually, it is the rare person who can cope with it in any kind of healthy way. Fear excess, in all forms, I say!

  5. Hear hear!

    It’s always a fine day when I run into you, Wade. :-)

    And where the heck is everybody?

  6. I like Vera’s first entry here…makes tons of sense, because fundamentally, I don’t agree with Jensen. He HAS made a difference. Maybe it’s just a defect of the writer-reader-doer relationship that he cannot see this or doesn’t know. To know would probably mean to be overwhelmed with feedback from all those whose awareness has been expanded thanks to his writing. Many of his interviews in “Listening to the Land” made me tear up in 1994/1995 with knowing and it’s not just anyone who can do that. No one singlehandedly stops the murder of anyone or anything, much less anything (or -one) as large and magnificent a Being as Earth. So, I don’t know whether Jensen is incredibly insecure or incredibly arrogant to think that he could, with his words, stop it. All I know is that his words, intertwined with those of others (Lopez, Orr, Holdredge, Mann, Hanson, Griffifths, Carson, Thoreau, the Berrys—Thomas and Wendell, Dillard, Jackson) have prompted me to create a lot of incremental change in my own life, have made the ground fertile for the suggestions of others with whom I’ve become acquainted or have befriended. All of this incremental change adds up. In fact, incremental change is what drives wholesale change. How long did it take us to come to this place, where we see ourselves as separate from all others? Jensen somewhat perpetuates this separation when he seemingly takes on his not having done enough to stop the wholesale slaughter of the planet…which we ALL have a hand in. Which brings up abundance and Wade’s comments. We’re so far mentally and emotionally from experiencing abundance that, who’s to say how we would react? In this, I think the only way is through: Create a sense of abundance in our lives. Actually, we needn’t do much to create it; Earth every day creates the guideposts to lead us there. I’m reminded of a late-January sunset that my boyfriend and I partook of. Indescribable. Soul-drenching and -quenching…this as we sat in our car in a parking lot in front of a small grocery store near our local mall. And I don’t honestly think it will take much change for us to open to the abundance that’s all around us. We yearn for it and through it, we will stop raising our daggers at Gaia, who is murdered through our constant obsession with scarcity.

  7. Unless a sufficient number of people on earth make serious spiritual progress we are headed for extinction, or worse. The ease with which modern folks scoff at this reality is an index of how low our spiritual state has become. The one thing adequate to resolve all our problems is “off the table” in most discussions of how to address our burgeoning dilemmas. The various main stream and alternative versions known to most people are hopelessly inadequate and deeply flawed, and thus no match for our very real problems. A crucial step in awakening to the potentials of real spirituality is to deconstruct and discard the vast majority of so called spiritualities. Pursuing and developing the real thing takes time and effort, but it is entirely possible. Will we invest in this fundamental strategy in time to head off the inevitable karmic result of our madness? Impossible to predict. Certainly present indications are not good, but a turn in that direction could uncover unexpected resources for a major shift in our present tragically flawed consciousness.

  8. Dear Mike K,
    Good to “see” you here. Although I agree with much of what you say about spiritual progress, I don’t know how, other than by continuing to evolve our own awareness/consciousness—and, frankly, evolving sometimes happen unconsciously, but not accidentally—how we’ll be able to help anyone else. It feels like our times have been about a mass dream state, not necessarily a healthy one. But people everywhere who have been disconnected from Earth and Earth’s gifts are waking up. How they deal with the reality they experience upon awakening mostly remains to be seen. Some will dig in, no doubt, while others will “visit” realms they didn’t previously know to exist. These realms could be a greater sense of self—a realization that they may always have holes to fill and being okay with that…stopping the “buck” by just allowing themselves to be. They could be the realm of kindness and love. Peace. Deep connections between inner and outer ecologies. Others use the wake-up as a jumping-off point into activism. A woman I met recently put it this way: We all do the best we can with the awareness we have at the time. So, no blame is needed. Not that I read “blaming” into what you write. But more worry along the lines of, “I’m awake. These bad things are happening. Wake up, everybody! Time to act!” And the worry comes from realizing that not everyone is…waking up. I think we just have to allow these feelings to arise. And acknowledge them. They have value. I’m scared, too, at times. The fear passes. I also grow tired of feeling I have to “improve” all the time. To the extent that Gaia wants to experience life through each one of us, then probably everything goes. We really need to be kinder to ourselves. Gentler, too.

  9. Leigh — Thanks for your wise sharing. The nature of the challenges we face today is deep and complex. We yearn for simple answers, but they are inadequate and unfulfilling. We need to give full attention to our own growth in spiritual awakening, but at the same time, in the words of Hafiz, I cannot turn away when my people are in chains. Or Bonhoeffer, the only thing necessary to insure the triumph of evil is for good men and women to remain silent.

    Maybe our efforts to help others are part of our spiritual growth, regardless of immediate results, as karma yoga counsels. What if the frustration and pain of seeing our best efforts to help others seem to fail and accomplish nothing are a necessary sacrifice to values greater than our individual lives?

    Does Chris Hedges, along with many others, have moments when he questions the value of his efforts to awaken a sleeping population? I am sure he does, but yet he continues to work in these difficult vineyards none the less. I in no way would compare my own feeble and sporadic gestures with his total dedication, and yet I gather inspiration when discouraged from such as him.

    My wife is calling me to lunch, so I will cut this short. But thanks again for your sensitive and thoughtful sharing.

  10. Leigh — PS– The several years my wife and I studied with a Sufi teacher showed me that there is a rhythm between the inner work and the outer that can be consciously appreciated and skillfully used to enhance one’s growth. Do I always use this in the best way? No, but I tend to come back to it when the scale stays too long on one side or the other. Ideally at some advanced stage of this work the distinction between inner and outer blurs, and finally disappears….along with the distinction between self and others, and between that Great Reality which includes all within its cosmic grasp and our own seemingly insignificant selves.

  11. Hi, Mike.

    I have not studied Sufism, so cannot speak specifically to the blurring of inner/outer work, though I do wonder at times, Are these not the same things? My concern is getting too attached to an identity that seeks only to work in quiet, behind the scenes, in small ways. Small and big ways both are needed and I see what you say as more along the lines of the “both/and” as opposed to privileging one above the other.

    As for the fruits of that work, I believe those who are living now probably will not live to see all of the results…and maybe that’s the way it’s always been. Apparent lack of results does frustrate, and that is, I guess, where faith enters the picture. This is maybe the essence of “holding space” as I see it. See here http://www.alternativesmagazine.com/13/marshall1.html.

    Here’s a quotation from the author: “Certainly we extend a compassionate presence. Even if guests are having a hard time, we do not take it personally—for we know that healing happens when the shadow material is allowed to come up and be expressed. We are committed to our own personal growth for, to be able to be a container for others’ growth and transformation, and to offer clear reflection, we have first to come into comfortable relationship with our own.”

    She’s speaking about a specific circumstance here, a specific setting, but it’s a process that we can apply to the world at large, to our communities, our families, even ourselves. I for one don’t believe we as a species have completed our “shadow” work, but it does feel that the processing of “shadow” is speeding up. And for that kind of work, we can only extend compassion and love, whether to ourselves or others. Oh, and I don’t necessarily see this as “self-improvement” the way the self-help sections of bookstores generally treat that subject. It isn’t about being the “best” I can be—or best compared to someone else…it’s just about being.

  12. Five words: enforceable global population control measures. All other talk is just hot air. Mystical consciousness or spirituality will not solve the problem. Less people consuming less resources will.

  13. Kevin Bush:

    It’s not “hot air” to me, and if you stop to consider why people over-populate and why they overconsume, you often come around to the “holes” inside that they are seeking to fill. Having a child to fill a hole (or to live vicariously through) or buying/hoarding things points to, at root, spiritual illness. So, until the issues surrounding that sort of illness are resolved, we are not going to get anywhere. How’s China’s “enforceable” policy working? People need to consciously choose NOT to consume things they do not need or will not really appreciate just as they need to choose to limit reproduction. Having some outside force impose this is not going to work and will probably even make the situation worse.

  14. Leigh:

    You could say that anyone doing anything you don’t personally like, or that you view as harming the greater good, has a “spiritual illness.” That is simply an arbitrary label, not an explanation or solution. What is your plan to expedite the healing of all this “spiritual illness” you see in the world today?

    How would I enforce population control? Educate and empower the women of the world who are trapped in patriarchal societies, do this by force if necessary. Cultural suppression of women is a hate crime. Studies show this has and will reduce population growth.

  15. Hi, Kevin.

    I could say it’s arbitrary, but why? It’s borne out by people’s experiences, including mine. That said, it is more of an explanation than anything else (maybe my mistake is believing we need to understand something first before we take measures to “fix” it, but not understanding has led to more problems). It could be a solution, depending on the individual, but it’s not the sort of solution that can be expedited or enforced or done en masse. One cannot simply flick a switch and enlighten oneself, much less anyone else. Epiphanies come, but slowly. The best thing we can do is live well…act with compassion, integrity and kindness, live in relationship and understanding of how it is we are here and deeply appreciate those things upon which our lives depend, and hope that we, by our presence, can influence others to do the same.

    Although I agree that education and empowerment of women is helpful—on its own and also toward curbing population growth—it seems contradictory to do this “by force if necessary” as you advocate.

    That said, things won’t be all one way or the other, but probably as they usually are—some combination of quiet presence and active force, yin and yang, if you will.

  16. Leigh:

    Forgive me for being a bit patronizing here (but this is the internet.)

    I find your assumptions a bit naive. Specifically your assumption that being kind around assholes, megalomaniacs, hoarders, and all the other folks involved in gross exploitation will somehow catalyze an epiphany for them; and bring them around to living in your image.

    Being kind is great, and I try my best to be kind as well, when I’m not debating on the interwebs; but really, kindness is not activism.

  17. It all comes down to too many people. Expecting a change in human behavior sufficient to compensate for the ever increasing numbers of people will probably result in disappointment. And how many cultures embrace China’s dictated practice of limiting child birth?

    As to the thought that the reality which has supported the current trend is going away, the unfortunate is how much variety in life will necessarily be lost which brings about this changed reality? As a species, we understand so much and yet collectively are embracing so little.

  18. After six decades of observing human behavior, I agree with Plowboy’s assessment. Change will come only because it imposed on us by natural limits, and not because we (and yes, I mean all of us…) voluntarily decide to forego the options available to a culture of abundance. The old saying holds true: “People don’t change because they see the light; they change because they feel the heat.”

  19. Kevin — “Five words: enforceable global population control measures”. I really hate to point out that getting your five words enacted has about zero chance of happening. The irony is that a widespread spiritual awakening movement has a much better chance of success.

  20. William — “People don’t change because they see the light; they change because they feel the heat.” This is probably a favorite jingle among those who think force is the only answer to all problems, and inner change in a more loving direction is totally ineffective. Reminds me of the ditty, “those persuaded against their will remain of their opinion still.” Those enamored of force would do well to step back and survey what it has accomplished so far to give us the world we have now.

  21. Part of me is inclined to agree with Plowboy and William McGuire that change won’t come until limits are imposed on us by the world. However, if we wait for that, it will be too late for most species, including humans. In short, that fatalistic attitude will be fatal. No matter how impossible it seems, we have to act. There is no other choice. Fatalism gets us nowhere.

  22. First I disagree with Mr. Jensen that he has made no difference. The following quote is a touchstone to me. It is from Ghandi:

    “Everything you do will be insignificant and it is very important you do it.”

    Let me put it another way, drawing upon the Grand Old Game as a metaphor:

    It is the seventh and final game of the World Series. We are on the Team of Hope, but things are not looking so good. We are up to bat in the bottom of the ninth, trailing eight to nothing, playing the Juggernauts, the best team money can buy, facing their most menacing, overpowering pitcher, a bionic man, strapping build, six foot-eleven, with pinpoint control, glaring down at us, then unloading a sizzling one hundred mile per hour fast ball, a snappy, eye-popping curve ball, or an exploding slider. Meanwhile our fans are drifting away, rooting for the other side, or too drunk to care. The left field stands are on fire. So is the upper deck But it is not as bad as it seems. We remember what Yogi Berra, no doom-monger, once said, “The game ain’t over, well…until it’s over.”

    So, to all you fence-sitters, would-be writers, and anyone else out there who is maybe wondering what the Hell this is all about and what we should be doing with our lives, I say: Cheer up! Grab a bat. Step up to the plate. It’s now or never.

  23. And at the end of the piece, the mandate: “Purchase at Amazon.” Without the old Indie-bound store finder or even “or where ever fine books are sold.”

    Maybe somebody should dismantle that infrastructure.

  24. @mike k

    The chances of either happening is near zilch. Change will inevitably come as fossil fuels become more and more scarce. There have been many mass extinctions in the past, and there will be more in the future. Earth will recover either way… until the sun expands and swallows it. Cultural pressure to have say only one child, would certainly help ease human suffering as energy resources become more scarce.

  25. @Kevin Bush
    Go ahead and “patronize,” Kevin. No skin off my nose.

    Kindness is its own form of activism, even though it seems passive. And I have to say: The kinder I am—the kinder the influence I exert—the more those old megalomaniacs, controllers, hoarders (especially those who hoard others’ personal energy) go running, so I don’t have to deal with them. Besides, they’re not the target audience anyway. It’s the people who are on the fence—they’re the target.

    @William McGuire
    What do you mean by “culture of abundance”? Our ability to continuing buying often useless, crappily made junk that serves no end other than momentary distraction while shopping and at payment time? We have not yet truly created a culture of abundance. We live in a culture of scarcity, created out of money serving two masters (store of value and medium of exchange) and the monetization of the commons, and the obsession with the growth-is-good paradigm, which necessitates, in many people’s perception and as long as we cling to it, the notion that we have to keep growing and keep taking more and more of the biosphere to keep the game going.

    @Alpha Griz
    I’m not a big baseball fan, but what a great metaphor!!! Very grabbing and spot-on. Please keep it up!

    Everyone: Because there seems to be a debate about force versus non-force, let me say, I do not believe force works unless the would-be home invader/rapist/whatever is breaking down the door. We have a right to defend ourselves in such situations, even if that means killing the other. But does that metaphor translate to the world at large? Yes and no. If you view the entire world as your home—many of us who feel/believe we are all interconnected do—then perhaps. But does that mean you take the war to your perceived human enemies? I don’t think so. You have to weigh where and how you will be most effective. The way I see for me to be most effective is by participating as infrequently as possible in acts of consumption; to develop relationships with more plants and be able to hone my listening skills (and heart perception skills) when it comes to the natural world, which includes me and my ability to listen to myself(!); to serve as a resource in my community for others about how to make do; and a whole lot of other seemingly little things that may not amount to much to others, but over time, dissolves the power of those who would keep up the ideal of growth-at-all-costs.

    Here’s something to gnosh on: http://www.fragmentsweb.org/TXT2/p_srevtx.html
    I could not find what I was looking for, a recent study that compared the successful results of violent versus nonviolent action, but this is actually better. So, enjoy!

  26. Hello Griz, good to hear from you again. Your fable exactly fits our present situation. Let’s give this game of Life our best shot, win lose or draw!

  27. I find it odd that nature writers seem (from my limited vantage) to be fairly uninterested in brain biology and insist on plowing ahead with polarizing rhetoric despite many decades of gridlock that could have been eased far more productively by mutual aid than by the dialectical approach of overthrowing one’s enemies. If Maclean’s triune brain theory is correct, then we’re going to need a whole lot more neocortex and a whole lot less limbic brain and reptilian complex to turn things around. Those three parts of the brain are one of the most tangible illustrations we have of how human nature intersects with the rest of life on earth, but we still seem ignorant of how easily reptilian instincts of hierarchy, polarization, and aggression can hijack our more sophisticated faculties. Good piece in The New Yorker recently about E.O. Wilson’s latest work on altruism and human nature, and his sense is that we’ll never be wholly altruistic, like ants, nor wholly self-serving – it’s our nature, now, to be torn between the two instincts. And it could be our actual biology that is as unsustainable as anything. Because however universal an imperative conservation or preservation might be, the message is inevitably politicized – careers are built on it or in opposition to it (Jensen’s included). We haven’t lost our obsession with the Romantic notion of the ego in isolation, a la Thoreau or Muir, or of possessing a place and defending it against human enemies. Something as simple as the strident or sarcastic tone of an editorial, which I might find endearing and incisive, could make someone else’s skin crawl, and then it’s not about saving the planet or humanity, it’s about tuning out the smug, irritating voice of someone who might be misheard as railing against the oil wells in North Dakota that seem like your family’s best chance at solvency and a little dignity and maybe sending your kids to college, where they’ll have the privilege of bemoaning the state we’re in. I wonder if this is why the only thing that really gets our attention is disaster – but even that can trigger either extreme of human nature. I wonder what nature writing and our environmental discourse would look like if we actually took a hard look at how our brains work and sought to adjust our strategies accordingly, rather than trying to position ourselves as martyrs or messiahs.

  28. Josh — Maybe your environmental reading is too limited, or perhaps you are reading a lot into what you do peruse. I find very little I would characterize as ‘messianic’ or martyr-like in the pages of Orion, for instance. Have you considered that the problem in getting the environmental message out might be more about a population incapable of thinking clearly and creatively, a population drowned in corporate/empire sophistic spin? And what do you propose we do to change things, if we were using the most sophisticated brain science, given that our corporate/fascist government is in a position to ignore or frustrate any positive environmental intention? Maybe we should be forgiving of the environmental activists for not converting the masses and revolutionizing environmental policy. Its not all in how you deliver the message; its also dependent on having a public who can understand the urgency of the message, and who are prepared to do something about it.

  29. Josh — The more I think about it, your remarks are not designed to be helpful to environmentalists at all. Your comments betray your general irritation with environmentalists. Your quaint little story about folks in North Dakota who can’t send their kids to college because of the grinch-like environmentalists who took away their only source of income, a single oil well, could easily have been written by a corporate PR flack. Frankly, I find that kind of BS really irritating.

  30. Mike: I don’t profess much optimism for transforming human behavior overnight. I do believe that Peter Singer’s Toward a Darwinian Left is a useful guide to more constructive activism, as well as Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid. Both are more hopeful about altruism prevailing over self-interest in human nature than E.O. Wilson seems to be, but they offer an alternative to the notion of words as weapons. Like it or not, we’re all in this together, our flawed governments and corporations included. As long as we’re pitted against each other rather than unified against the threat of extinction, the land ethic doesn’t have a real chance. I prefer to think of words as bridges, not weapons. And if there is hope for us, it lies in finding common ground. I’m with those who are thinking about this in evolutionary terms: see Jonah Lehrer’s “Kin and Kind” in The New Yorker, March 5, 2012.

  31. “Mike: I don’t profess much optimism for transforming human
    behavior overnight.”

    Josh — You seem to imply that I or anyone in their right mind
    would assert the above. Is this some kind of invisible straw man you are gesturing towards?

    “Like it or not, we’re all in this together, our flawed governments and corporations included. As long as we’re pitted against each other rather than unified against the threat of extinction, the land ethic doesn’t have a real chance. I prefer to think of words as bridges, not weapons. And if there is hope for us, it lies in finding common ground. I’m with those who are thinking about this in evolutionary terms: see Jonah Lehrer’s “Kin and Kind” in The New Yorker”

    Do you really believe that a kinder gentler approach to our corporate friends and world destructive government would be fruitful? That reminds me of Chamberlin’s attempts to “work with” Hitler. Come into my parlor said the spider to the fly. Let’s make a deal eh? Get real, these ideas do not fly in the real world.
    The truth is that the corporate complex is the dedicated enemy of not only our environment (they would claim it really belongs to them) but of the freedom and wellbeing of every person on earth outside of their elite circle. Anyone who does not understand this is simply deluded and doomed to ineffectiveness. Let’s just forget this charming seduction of sleeping with the enemy. I believe it is going to take a lot more than simply kiss and make up for the one percent and the 99% to live in cooperative relations together. There is a little matter of the gross inequality of their possessions and power to be settled. And then there is the matter of the elite’s corruption of the rule of law and fair government, and the killing of millions of persons and living beings around the world. With friends like these who needs enemies?

  32. Nature and Culture are powerful forces that are incompatible. And what’s worse is that they must inevitably collide. In fact these collisions are happening all the time; a dam is built to get cheap power and then salmon are blocked from their instinctive imperative. A new highway is built through a farmer’s most fertile fields, the farmer can no longer dairy farm because he’s lost his pastures. To be a farmer he will have to do a different style.
    When that collision between Nature and Culture happens, everyone on the planet must redesign their life in three ways.
    First, in the aftermath of the collision people, animals, insects, reptiles, fish etc. must figure out how they can survive. The people (animals,etc.) at the point of contact between Nature and Culture have the biggest and most threatening struggle. The student on the other side of the world has a seemingly less urgent struggle that he probably doesn’t even know about. Nevertheless!
    Second, once survival is assured, relatively. The second required revision is with creativity. What kind of life that will be allowed depends more on creativity than even raw materials. Creativity quickly sorts itself out into broad areas; like music, painting, dance, writing, etc but also just as important are the tools and processes of life. When we study ancient civilizations, primitive or advanced, we always find the same things. Broken jugs that probably carried water or other fluids, tools like axes, knives, hammers, sewage systems that take away human waste, cities designed to do commerce in some areas and industrial operations in another, and education in another, etc. Having an idea, designing and then building a tool, using the tool to do a necessary job, faster and better, is all because of assured survival and creativity.
    Let me put this another way. When we talk, write, protest about vanishing species the single most common denominator is, “loss of adequate habit”.The animas are doing the best they can to cope with the conditions but they might not have the creativity needed to deal with the new living conditions. In this situation its up to us to be creative and discover ways to make permanent survival happen.
    Third, a new or altered sense of spirituality. Having overcome survival and being creative enough to make life relatively safe, relatively pleasant, relatively prosperous, survivors begin to think and feel something going on in the world. They don’t know what it is but they know they need it. An so a search begins; the search is a journey, sometimes actual travel to other parts of the world and always the journey is inside of the person.Questions like “who am I?”, “what am I?”, “Why am I here?” “Where did I come from?” start becoming important once again. There is a feeling and a need for answers to these questions that cannot be found anywhere on the planet. The answers to those questions are built though a construction process that involves mental processes, emotional processes, and physical connections. Pieces of what allowed you to live, and pieces of your creative process, fit together. Sometimes the fit is snug and permanent and sometimes the fit is loose and pieces can even fall out.

    This is an introduction to my Nature Reading and Writing class. We read (nature book and nature writers) We asked questions like, “does this book/author identify or acknowledge a nature-culture collision”. “Is anyone in this book in danger of not surviving?”, “if they do survive what kinds of creativity do they come to depend on,” “how do they deal with the emotional, psychological,and maybe the physical demands of their special situation?”
    With high school kids we had a huge choice of books and writers. Some of my favorites are: “Island of the Blue Dolphins”, “Hatchet”, “My Side of the mountain” . Some bigger and stronger books like”Never Cry Wolf”, “The Land Remembers” (Ben Logan is considered a regional writer but his book is terrific), “Desert Solitaire”, “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek”, “Red”
    With nonfiction books it’s harder to deconstruct to see the nature writing process unfold. Sometimes the whole book is about one issue or the train of thought jumps back and forth. But in the end the analogy holds true.
    Now what does this have to do with Derek’s essay and the conversations cor it. I am and would be on the side of education. If teachers were allowed to have control of education, instead of politicians and economists, it would make a huge difference. There is no way this change can happen by force; you will end up with world wide atrocities.
    I hope this adds to the discussion

  33. very good. I am hoping for a catastophic event to rid the planet of at least 4 billion humans. total extinction would be optimal. It is time for the other species.

  34. Don Hudson — “Nature and Culture are powerful forces that are incompatible. And what’s worse is that they must inevitably collide” It is this flawed human version of culture that is incompatible with nature. Another style of culture might not only avoid “collision”, but succeed in a synergistic and mutually beneficial interweaving of humans with nature.

    Thanks for your interesting sharing, Don.

  35. Don — I completely agree that we need a new version of spirituality. The ones we mostly have now have been in many ways complicit with our general alienation from our roots in nature. Nature based religions were early targeted and demonized by the dominant march towards materialism, human exceptionalism, and so-called rational self interest. All that could not be easily explained and controlled had to be eliminated from the culture of power over and exploitation.

  36. Hi, Mike.

    I think that’s why any work around healthy ecosystem function is so difficult: It’s hard to explain. In fact, I’m not sure words touch it very easily, if at all. So unless people get outside—I mean literally, outside of buildings, and metaphorically outside of themselves—then the gap between those who sense/feel what it is that’s worth experiencing/saving grows ever wider. And when I say “outside,” I don’t mean that nature is only outside and not within us; just being outside helps us to connect with the nature or the wild within…it gives us a medium through which we can better connect to and understand that part of ourselves. I know when I go for periods without contact with plants, I become stressed, angry and depressed. Also, the current culture and the bulk of the Abrahamic-lineage religious thought encourage us to look for help outside of ourselves rather than connecting with Spirit or Great Self, or whatever you like to call it. To put all of our eggs in the offworld-deity basket instead of connecting through ourselves to that which is greater. See, I think I just confirmed my own first line!

  37. Hi Leigh — I think time spent alone deep in Nature will be an important practice for those forming a new spiritual beginning. Also, meeting regularly with a small group of similar intended people to share our inner and outer search will be important. Meditation, serious reading and discussion of those who are advancing our understandings of our profound predicament, and the ways beyond it will also be of great value. The action dimension, which is crucial, will be founded on the basis of these deeper experiences and understandings. Commitment to finding and enacting real lasting solutions will be enriched by sharing our creative quest.

  38. I’d like to see Derrick at more actions. If he were to be arrested with us more often, he’d be able to tell cameras what he would have written that day and reach people he needs to be reaching, like those who watch the local news or watch viral videos.

  39. @g: I’m with you. Most calls to action are a) not possible for me to participate in and b) not likely to make much of a difference. While there is little I can do to change culture, economic systems, corporations, politics, consumerism… one thing I CAN do is to leave this planet and take my genes with me. Live Long and Die Out.

  40. For a limited fellow like me what I need is a simple clear slogan to rally around that provides the direction we need to go. My contribution is MORE TREES, LESS PEOPLE.

    The most powerful and vivid speech I ever heard that provided a positive vision of the future was from Julia Butterfly Hill. And I don’t think it is a coincidence that she engaged in one of the most powerful and vivid actions I can think of.

  41. Hi David M — It’s a great slogan, and would transform our world if acted on by enough people. JB Hill is an inspiration to all of us.

  42. I’m a strong supporter of a healthy environment, but I believe this style of article (coupled with many of these woe-is-me and sometimes misanthropic comments) hurts more than helps both (1) the environmental movement and (2) the quality of life of the individual environmentalists.

    Take a deep breath, relax, and stop freaking out for a minute everyone – you’ll all be happier.

    First off, the combative, militaristic approach is unsavory and counterproductive – recall MLK Jr’s (and the Buddha’s) advice: hatred is never conquered by hatred, only love. The macho, we’re-gonna-fight-you approach is never going to win hearts to the environmental movement.

    Second, comments like MORE TREES, LESS (sic) PEOPLE, or comments talking about how wonderful it would be if 4 billion people died off, are misanthropic and again counterproductive. I love nature, it’s incredible, but equally if not more incredible is the complexity, vulnerability, and beauty of a human being. Overpopulation is indeed an issue that requires discussion and action, but casual comments about how much better the world would be without humans are why many environmentalists are considered fanatics by the general population.

    Here’s a link to a more positve and celebratory approach to environmentalism:


  43. Jensen is always toeing the “solution”. He is forever talking like he’s going to go all out and take direct action, then doesn’t, then criticizes those that do, but then doesn’t, and then feels sorry for himself that all he is DOING is writing.

    Direct action. That’s what he wants; for himself, for us, for the salmon . . . but he writes, and we read.

    The truth is, peak oil will take care of it all and we can only hope to permaculture our way through and hope some dirt-bag doesn’t screw it all up for us.

    Ugh, I was so hopeful when I saw Jensen had an article. Then nothing.

  44. Inevitably you get folks who love to show off their love of people by putting down folks who come to the quite practical conclusion that we are choking environmentally on too many of them, not to mention the extreme suffering that accompanies overpopulation. Apparently “the complexity, vulnerability, and beauty of a human being” can only be appreciated if there are many billions of them around. Any less and you are a misanthrope.

    The price of these disingenuous little love bugs is we probably don’t have a future.


  45. David — I don’t think more trees and less people will solve all our human problems, but it would sure make a good start. How to get our good ideas implemented remains the great difficulty. Even if your message could somehow reach everyone on Earth (extremely improbable in reality) how many would grasp it through all their acculturation and conditioning? And of the few who did understand its value, how many would then take action to help it happen? All too few, I fear…. BTW I have planted several hundred trees, and chosen not to produce offspring for ethical reasons.

  46. Lud — The real answers to our profound problems are going to come (if they do) from thinking about those problems. You see intelligence is a greater and more effective power than random lashing out at supposed enemies. “Direct action” sounds appealing but has little chance of accomplishing anything of lasting value unless it is the result of careful planning and assessments of its probable impacts.

  47. Mike, I’d be happy at this point to develop some common direction. There are a lot of folks who think the more the merrier and trees are ornamentals in a park, not basic to our lives. If we can’t even decide where we want to go then who cares about the implementation.

    I’m taking it in stages. First:


  48. David M,

    We all don’t want to go to the same place, or create the same world. And “We” never will.


  49. David — Good luck with the first stage of your program.

  50. It’s not so much a matter of “want” but what is a future survival minimum. Sorry Kevin but if you want a more people less trees world then you are wishing to put us on a death march.

    No, I don’t want your world.


  51. Brandon — The kind of positive activities your are suggesting are certainly worthwhile. I hope you also realize that there are essential aspects of the work to turn our world around in a better direction that are not pleasant or fun, but can be painful, difficult, and sometimes dangerous. We can’t make everything about this colossal task easy and immediately rewarding. Unfortunately there are some things that just won’t respond to that approach. I don’t mean to disparage what you are promoting; those activities have definite value, but lets keep in mind that many types of efforts will be needed in this struggle. Some of what we need to do involves sacrifice and a willingness to do things that are necessary but unpleasant.

  52. David — If only you had been around during the last years on Easter Island, you might have saved them!

  53. Along the lines of what Brandon’s saying, check this out:

    http://www.chelseagreen.com/bookstore/item/the_systems_thinking_playbook:hardcover with dvd#

    We played some of these games in our permaculture design course, and even though most of us were already keyed along a systems way of thinking, it was still amazing (AND FUN!) to see how things evolved. With most everything in our perception(s) so disconnected from everything else, it’s no wonder people don’t have a better sense of the effects — especially indirect — of our actions.

    I must be changing because I find myself increasingly of the mind and heart that I cannot behave as a fanatic, cannot tell anyone else what to do or how to live, as I chart my own ways of living as best I can both within and outside of the system. I can only be and behave as I am, with Earth as much in mind and heart as possible, and hope that people will be intrigued enough to talk with me. Aside from weather/climate, Earth’s way is not to bash us over the head, but to draw us in with beauty, so that we come to love, and from love springs the desire to protect in whatever way we can with the gifts we have.

  54. Leigh– if “we” believe in social and economic justice and anthropocentrically place highest value on human life above all other lives, yet still have hate, poverty, starvation, greed (particularly corporate), and geopolitical/ethnocentric bigotry, how can what is going on in my heart and mind do a damned thing for all the “lesser” life forms our species is hell bent to annihilate? There are many life forms I don’t even know exist, much less can I love them, and their “right to life” trumps mine and my (non-existent, fortunately) progeny, because they do no harm to vast ecosystems of others (I do) and they serve a purpose in the ecosystem in which they exist (no human being does).
    I have no fear for this planet; it will rotate and revolve in space long after humans have turned it into a barren rock or a vast toxic sludgepool.

  55. Clovervirus:

    I used to feel the way you feel. It was entirely unproductive for me. But that’s me. Doesn’t mean it can’t or doesn’t move you to action, and I can’t speak to what’s in your heart or mind, either. I don’t have that sort of clearance!

    Humans are just one among many species through which life expresses itself (and life expresses itself through death, too, including die-offs). We are no better and no worse, except “worse” in maybe the way teenagers are often considered immature; doesn’t make them lesser beings, just they’ve got some growin’ up to do. To deny our impact on ecosystems and other species is, well, the height of denial, just as to say humans are responsible for everything that’s going on is the height of arrogance (“their ‘right to life’ trump mine”…WHY? HOW? Is your presence here any less significant than that of any other lifeform?). So, while I recognize everyone may have a different point of view — diversity, after all, is one of the hallmarks of life — I’m not going to remove myself from Earth in order to take away another mouth to feed. But I will try to live as lightly as possible, within the context that I’m familiar with. I believe we underestimate the ability of this place to renew itself. It has been, continues to, and will for eons. And this is not to say that humans don’t behave in destructive ways; we do. The question is, What do we do about that? I would love to see us plant many more trees, to stay out of second- and third-growth forests to let them continue to heal, to avoid taking out any remaining primary (primary relevant to what, though? Asteroid impacts?) forests. But maybe changing behaviors involves getting people to know a specific tree, to have a favorite even as we recognize that all are important to the well-being of this Home.

  56. Monkey Wrench, perhaps some “dirt bag” has already screwed it up–perhaps. At a recent clean energy series, I was advised by recognized people for wiser than me that fracking will enable millions and millions of barrels of new oil production from what has been closed fields, as well as other sources, and the anticipated quantity will have a significant negative effect on sustainable energies just starting to get a foot hold.

    More people are aware, and more people are making better choices. May that continue. Yes, we have a long ways to go. Hmm. While I share much of the same concerns/pessimism (see my comment on page 3), there have been many a time that a comment or thought suggesting a different alternative behavior potentially provides these (fill in the blank) benefits which then later did result in different behavior! Sometimes it shows up years later. How much time do we have? Keep carrying the message.

  57. Leigh– “WHY? HOW?”
    “because they do no harm to vast ecosystems of others (I do) and they serve a purpose in the ecosystem in which they exist (no human being does). ” If my presence here WERE lass significant than theirs, perhaps then our species might have as much “right to life” as they claim.
    I do have favorite trees, critters, mountaintops, seasides. I can in no way delude myself that the “love in my heart” in any way affords them any protection from my species. If I and a dozen or a hundreds or a thousand others gather round to adore it, it may be saved from, say, a paving company (although that is not a given) yet ecosystems at large are in no way safer. You did not employ anthropomorphizing language, but many do. The attitude that “Earth is our mother and she has more power to heal us and herself than we know… ad nauseum” lends just another excuse for “people first” people to maintain their status quo and maybe pray or cast spells or chant for spirits or Jesus or the earth itself to fix things so we don’t have to.
    Humanity is finite. As a species we shall not be eternal. Why not go out in dignity, in full cognizance, and taking all action possible to dismantle what we have wrought? Why do we have to take all other life forms out with us? Why must we first glorify ourselves and wallow in sludge pools, ash heaps, and toxic clouds? Why must we continue to breed more consumers?
    Other populations of organisms see a natural decline in numbers when their numbers outstrip the ability of their habitat to support them. In no population of organisms is every individual meant to reproduce. Every natural control placed before humanity becomes the topic of much “medical research” to defeat it. Never mind that it is not medically necessary to breed. The medical industrial complex can make money from it. Health insurance companies are pressured to pay for it. “Infertility” is labeled a crisis and we go to extremes to enable anyone and everyone to breed just cuz they wanna. This is vile and morally reprehensible in the face of the obvious impacts all around us always. Where I work people think me strange because I’d rather burn a calorie than burn coal to sharpen a pencil, punch a hole, affix a staple. The only recycling that happens is where an individual deals with their own or that of their immediate space. For every tree hugging dirt worshipper like myself there are thousands of Walmart shoppers. Let’s breed! And then go buy plastic things for the baby! And this often from people who cnsider themselves “liberal,” or “aware.” or “conscisous.” My stance against populaiton growth has been challenged on the basis that someone might be breeding, even now, the person who brings abot world peace, the person who solves world hunger, the messiah…. And challenged on the basis that we need more people to support the growing number of old people, which is not a problem if we deliberately phase ourselves out.
    I would be stunned if our species’ were to change en masse for this cause. If we can’t change en masse to do anything about war, hunger, poverty, bigotry amongst ourselves, the others on this planet– our betters– stand no chance. The family unit is the foundation of “us vs. them” and we categorize ourselves into further divisions just to harbor conflict and control power and money. What hope do anaerobic microbes in a lava vent on the sea floor have of humans suddenly considering them “us”? Unless there’s some money in it…. hmmm…..

  58. In response to comments by David M.:

    David, you misunderstand me. I agree there are significant environmental problems in the sense that the earth’s biota is changing quickly and dramatically in the direction of greater homogeneity. And obviously the pressure caused by the sheer number of people is an important part of that equation. That said, so are consumption patterns. I don’t dispute these points.

    However, I take issue with the decades-old, doom-and-gloom, club-over-the-head ideas that thus far have turned more people “off” than “on” to the environmental movement. These ideas are tired and stale.

    I am interested in a world rich in natural beauty and biodiversity, as I know you are too. But we disagree on the best approach. I believe there is some truth in the saying that you can catch more flies with honey than vinegar.

    In response to comments by Mike K.:

    Mike, I’m glad you see the benefits in some of the things I support. You said that some of the work ahead will be unpleasant and will require sacrifice. I don’t know for sure, but I imagine you are right. What I do know is that the work will require long hours and dedication.

    In response to comments by Leigh:

    Leigh, I appreciate your thoughts.

  59. Hello, Brandon.

    Hope you can answer a question for me.

    You said: “I agree there are significant environmental problems in the sense that the earth’s biota is changing quickly and dramatically in the direction of greater homogeneity.”

    In basic genetics, it would seem that once on the path to greater homogeneity, we’ll end up with more of the same. But what would cause this to NOT be true? Does it not depend on other influences (e.g., food, quality of air/water, other stressors) and epigenetics?

    If we all left the planet tomorrow, for example, and stopped trying to disrupt the spread of the species we consider to be invasive, what would happen with them? English or Irish ivy, Japanese knotweed, zebra mussels, large constrictor-type snakes in the Everglades…would these things reach such a level of saturation that they would begin to die off and make way for others?


  60. It seems to me we are suffering a smart but not wise problem. We live in a holistic reality but approach it from a narrow perception. That means we are going to mostly screw things up.

    Once you digest that, it has certain compelling implications, a kind of philosophy of nonimposition based on a belief that if I over extend myself I’ll probably make things worse due to incomplete understanding.

    Such a philosophy is actually quite familiar. It’s called The Golden Rule, particularly the negative version – “Don’t do unto others ……..”

    But one problem needs to be addressed. How do you deal with the bull in the China shop folks?


  61. David — The fundamental mantra that drives our whole society is MORE! The ultimate heresy is to say less. And yet it is that unassuming counter-mantra that holds the hope of deliverance from the nightmare of human history.

    Paracelsus pointed out that it is the dose that determines the poison. Too much is deadly, whereas a lesser amount can even be life enhancing. The second injunction carved above the entrance to the Delphic oracle was “nothing too much”. Apply these insights to our current situations like population explosion, resource exhaustion, pollution, etc. and the root problem is revealed: greed for MORE. This is the basis of addiction, which is now pandemic. The transcendence and healing of addiction and its mate hubris is through spiritual practice, the reduction of egotism and leading a life based on concern and compassion for all beings. There is no other real deep solution to our illness, our madness. So it is not only people that we need less of on Earth, almost everything we do needs to be minimized in its impacts. Only love and wisdom can be imbibed to one’s heart’s content without limit.

  62. David — I forgot your question: what do we do with the bull who is wrecking the china shop? We tame it. If you are not familiar with them, check out the classic zen ox herding pictures on the web. Tells you just how to do it step by step. Of course you have to tame yourself to succeed at this task.

  63. Hello Leigh.

    Barring extreme occurrences that dramatically change the conditions on earth (e.g., asteroid impacts), life on earth tends toward greater and greater diversity.

    We’re currently undergoing the 6th great extinction event on the planet, which is of course human driven. Earth’s history is one of occasional extinction events followed by new diversification of forms. Therefore, although we’re heading towards greater homogeneity, there is every reason to believe eventually the earth will again be adding rather than losing diversity. Of course, the evolution of new forms takes place over long time periods (maybe thousands or millions of years).

    If all humans disappeared tomorrow, then I imagine many invasive species would continue their spread into and domination of new habitats. But, like all things, this wouldn’t last forever, and I imagine some of these invasive species would undergo adaptive radiations in which they evolved into regionally distinct species, just like Darwin’s original finch in the Galapagos evolved into multiple forms.

    Now, moving on to David’s question about what to do about the bull in the China shop? I wish I knew. The best I can contribute is to share Martin Luther King, Jr.’s advice: “For any movement to succeed it must create a vision of the future that people will want to go to.”

  64. Well the ‘more’ problem is certainly part of it Mike. But I think there is also some Gresham’s Law that messes up the pot. The bad drives out the good.

    Maybe we need a contest to see who can live with the least amount for an extended period of time. The reward would be membership in a community of people who were like minded. Hmmm, kind of sounds like monks.


  65. The problem with humans is not that they are born corrupt but is they are born corruptable. For instance it is hard to count the number of folks I’ve encountered, off and on forums, who fall into paranoid conspiracy theories. It seems to hook them like drugs. Or they believe just about anybody that acts authoritative, even a psychic giving advice over the radio.

    And some of these folks are pretty technically sophisticated. I was posting over at a nuke site recently with some folks who could match wits with Einstein and they not only think that nuclear power would mitigate global warming, which it probably would to a degree, but they appear to believe, many of them, that it is the holy grail that will save human civilization for all time.

    Maybe Will James was right, we were born to believe in something.


  66. This is for everyone who’s been kicking around ideas on here the last week or so. What can I say? These discussions have provided a lot of fodder for writing in another venue.

    Clovervirus seems to think I don’t use anthropomorphic language. Not true. I sometimes do, only maybe I’m more inclined to Sylva-morphize humans, instead of anthropomorphizing trees or other species. At any rate, I somewhat doubt that I will solve the issues surrounding “More Trees, Fewer Humans,” but here’s my take (sure to tick off somebody!):


    To Clovervirus: Just know that I feel your frustration. I am stumped about what to do…but I think the way through is to get people — how, I’m not sure — to spend more time with other species. These others are “sexy” in their own right, but have to compete with distractions of all sorts, even though they’re the real deal. (It is we who have not cultivated sensitivity to their subtle wiles.) I’m not a “breeder”; probably inherited some of that from my father, who actually never intended to have a child, but loves me nonetheless, and who’s forever saying, “We have too many people!!!” But it’s not because of “too many people” that I did not have children; my timing’s always been a little off, not to mention that I’d like to think there are better reasons for having a child than simply to pass on my genes or to have an outlet to manifest all those things that I never was or never accomplished. In other words, to have a child, I’d have to be fully mature, especially emotionally and spiritually; I’m not there yet and I’m old enough to have had 13 children, spaced at a couple years apart.

    To Brandon: Thank you for sharing. I just wonder, with respect to our interventions, what those interventions will amount to. Who’s to say that other species don’t use humans to have better lives elsewhere? Take the escapee python’s point of view: There are few others that pose a threat to a python in the Everglades. This does not mean I’d favor ceasing the hunt for them. But it is not their fault that they ended up there and they will, like any intelligent immigrant, do what they need to survive and eventually to thrive. I often feel chagrined by my own species when we demonize “invasives” as if we, somehow, have not taken over every possible niche offered. As for the plants, I’d rather we left them alone than use Roundup on them.

  67. David — The struggle for MORE is especially intense with regard to POWER. There is an unfortunate side to this much like Gresham’s famous law. Briefly stated: the scum rises to the top. Of course the scum prefer to think of themselves as the cream of mankind, in accordance with the type of psychological maneuvers so well described by Thorstein Veblen in the Theory of the Leisure Class.

  68. Leigh — When you are ahead of most in your culture in your sensitivity to and appreciation of Nature, a gap is created that is hard to bridge. I am not sure there is a really effective way to bring others up to speed on this essential evolutionary growth of consciousness, although some adventure and ecotourism endeavors give it a really good try. I think it takes most of us quite a good stretch of time and a whole lot of other synchronous inner developments to develop a really deep love for Nature in all its confusing and wonderful aspects. But I can’t see the value of any new spirituality that did not do all it could to initiate its followers to the profound beauty and blessings conferred by deep intimacy with our nurturing matrix.

  69. Mike,

    The largest gap is within us; it is the hardest to bridge and it makes us perceive that we are separate from everything else. That, in turn, when we are unaware of the gap, drives destructive behavior on all levels. I have to wonder whether people who actually took true pleasure in destructiveness, what sort of effect that would have not only on themselves, but also on others and Earth. Much destructive behavior is simply mindless, because most people—unless they are sociopaths—would not actively and directly destroy things if they carry the awareness of, at the most basic level, their own dependence upon all the planetary systems that support life. I am part of this mindlessness, too, by the way. It is not every time that I get in a car to go somewhere that I stop to consider the supply line that is fueling the engine. If I do consider it, my mood sours. I do not like to think that the gasoline going into my car is destroying Life/lives in places like Nigeria. Fear (of death by car-bike collision) stops me from getting around on two wheels. There are some trails where I live, but they do not connect with the places I generally go. Nor is the area served by a bus line, despite the fact that there are a few thousand families living here.

    Some bridging of gaps—maybe more than we know—can be done through plants. Personally, I have never done psychedelics or any of the usual kinds of mind alterers (though one could certainly argue that any food that activates opioid receptors by definition alters the mind). The folks who have indicate that doing these kinds of things—ayahuasca would be one example, and I’m referring to the people who have used the plants in context with the people accustomed to using them, say, to effect a better hunt—allows them to close various gaps, especially people-plant-animal gaps. That is, perhaps, one reason why “authorities” are so opposed to use of psychedelics, because the plants can presumably allow people to connect with true authority, which is not that imposed from the outside. Further, these plants are not to be dishonored in the way we have perverted and dishonored tobacco. That said, from what I understand about ayahuasca, it would be hard to create an addiction to it—unless one likes to throw up a lot.

  70. Leigh — You say, “The largest gap is within us; it is the hardest to bridge and it makes us perceive that we are separate from everything else.” Beautiful. Reminds me of Einstein’s comment: “A human being is a part of a whole, called by us _universe_, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest… a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” That development of consciousness is a major goal of Buddhist practice, as well as all true spiritual Paths.

    It is interesting that you mention the use of psychotropic plants to initiate individuals to this larger perspective. I have just finished reading “A Heart Broken Open; The Life and Practice of Zen Master Jun Po Denis Kelly Roshi” Fascinating. The search for the transformative alchemy that could deliver large numbers of us from the prison Einstein (and yourself) allude to is a major theme. I have also been on this quest for many years now.

    Huston Smith and others are seeking to rename what came to be known as psychedelics as entheogens, that is, aids to experiencing the Divine. This does not imply that these substances are the necessary or only way to facilitate higher consciousness. In fact the use of these things without proper auxiliary preparations and spiritual practices could prove ineffective or dangerous. Whether we will discover how to make the use of these plants a helpful adjunct to other traditional spiritual practices remains to be seen.

    The main point is that we have lost our contact with the deeper dimensions of reality, and our very survival depends on finding our way to them. If we succeed in doing this, then most of our pressing problems will disappear like the mind created illusions they are.
    The underlying project of Esalen at Big Sur was inspired by the teachings of Sri Aurobindo, centering on how to pursue a modern path to make deep spirituality a means to deliver the world from its self destructive path. There are those of us still seeking that pearl of great price for our world and all of its Beings.

  71. Mike,

    Yes…en-theo-gens, a much preferred term to describe the relationship between a person and a particular kind of plant. I often wonder whether we don’t have our own here, beyond psilocybin, to include some commoners such as dandelion, only the challenge is ours, to be sensitive enough to hear them. And this would go beyond dandelion (as just one example) as a liver-gallbladder herb. I get why people speak in such ways–limiting the function of a dandelion to a plant that brings stuff up from down deep or to treat it as a liver-gallbladder assistant; it’s because we really have not developed a verbal language for many of the other kinds of things we need to talk about.

    By no means are en-theo-gens the only way! To believe that they are, that’s a kind of “only one way to truth” idea spouted by fundamentalists of all stripes, whose egos overcome them and they begin to lose the “circle of compassion” they might otherwise develop. The plants have their place and we might grant them a more revered place in our lives, a place of gratitude, when we begin to know all that they do, not just for us, either.

    What would be some correct ways to conduct “proper auxiliary preparations”? I am forever cognizant of this and it’s what probably prevents me from developing my own rituals and ceremonial approaches to various things.

    Thank you for mentioning that book. I read a little of the beginning online and it sounds fascinating. And, yes, I often feel that our mind-problems create a veil beyond which lies, well, everything.

    “What we have here…is a crisis of consciousness.”

  72. Leigh — You might want to google ‘Island(novel)’ and
    ‘set and setting’ (both on wiki) to get some ideas about attempts to guide entheogen encounters in positive directions.

    Given the failure of our more outwardly directed efforts to foster a better world, perhaps these methods of inner transformation deserve our attention. My own extensive experimentation with entheogens ended years ago, although I did experience and learn things that have stayed with me and advanced me on my Path. My quest now proceeds through meditative and other practices. No one should enter into entheogenic use casually or without thorough investigation and responsible helpers.

    Those who seek a better world than this vale of madness will continue to pursue every promising possibility to bring that about.

  73. Mike,

    Sad to say, I was distracted by something that prevented me from reaching the end of the Huxley novel…one of these days, I will finish it. As I recall, though, the structure of the society, esp the education, intrigued me.

    I absolutely agree; I do not believe taking entheogens in order to access other realities can be undertaken safely without intention being brought to bear as well as done in the context in which use the plants originated. That said, I know people who have benefited from doing ayahuasca with curanderos who come north for just that purpose. Still, I know that for me, I need to be more centered/grounded AND, as you said, find someone I can trust before I attempt that path. For now, I am finding EMDR to be of some use, at least in terms of conversing with long-held patterns that, through EMDR, manifest as archetypal voices. We are mostly NOT made up of human DNA, so why should we be surprised that our mentative (and deeper) aspects are also part of others? That probably sounds wacky, but I personally have never felt that the me who speaks when I say “I” is all that is within…and I don’t just mean ancestor remnants, but others I’ve probably forgotten!

  74. Leigh — In the long curve of my own spiritual search I have become more and respectful of the simple practices of working to diminish ego and become a better person. For a long time I was focused on somehow provoking some profound experiences “that would change everything”. When I finally had such an experience, which I still cherish as the absolute peak moments of my life, I told my Sufi Guide about it briefly. He paused for a moment, then said, “It means you need to do more work.” I understood immediately the truth of what he said. This was after several years of intensive work within his group, including two month retreats where we fasted and did intensive exercises including whirling for an hour or more… I have come to understand that the daily practice of trying to be aware of my shortcomings and patiently work on them, and share with others what I can is the foundation and cutting edge of my intention to be a better person for myself and others. I no longer minimize the value of such humble efforts due to an obsession with having momentous experiences that might magically transform me for good. If such should come, so be it. But in the meantime let it be as T.S. Eliot says in the four quartets:

    I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love, For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting. Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought: So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

  75. Mike,

    Thank you again for sharing. I believe this sort of (spiritual) work never ends. The same can apply to the kinds of work people discuss here. As David M. mentioned with respect to the “nuke” folks and nuclear as “Holy Grail.” The only Holy Grail may be our realization that there is no Holy Grail, whether we’re talking about physical solutions to the ecological problems we create or to the spiritual dissonances we maintain. That said, diversity is a wondrous principle and applies to spirituality just as much as to healthy ecology. And having as a life goal to be a good person—I don’t know about “better” because that begs the question, “Better than…?”—is maybe our highest calling. That entails more than just being a good person when it comes to other people. It’s about being a good person…in relation to all other species as well as the elements.

    I am not a big fan of Eliot’s, but I do appreciate this, especially: “…Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought….”

  76. Brandon B
    “David, you misunderstand me. I agree there are significant environmental problems in the sense that the earth’s biota is changing quickly and dramatically in the direction of greater homogeneity. And obviously the pressure caused by the sheer number of people is an important part of that equation. That said, so are consumption patterns. I don’t dispute these points.

    However, I take issue with the decades-old, doom-and-gloom, club-over-the-head ideas that thus far have turned more people “off” than “on” to the environmental movement. These ideas are tired and stale.”

    Brandon we’re all going to die at least to this world. I want to say a few things I think need to be said before that happens. Important as any of them is that there are too many people and there is too much degrading of the biosphere. People who don’t care about these matters don’t care whether I am nice or not nice in my communication. Still I want to get the facts on the record and some of the psychology that accompanies insanity. So I’ll tell the important truths as best I understand them and let the chips fall where they may.

    The fellow or gal that thinks I am too lacking in appealing public relations likely believes in a religion that condemns the unbeliever to damnation and hell. And in addition welcomes the coming Armegeddon of environmental breakdown. Check this out. http://www.alternet.org/belief/155126/Apocalypse_Soon:_Why_Are_Christians_So_Obsessed_With_the_End_Times?/ I’m a pussy cat compared to these folks.


  77. Brandon — You might be interested in John Michael Greer (the Archdruid’s) recent book of falsely predicted apocalypses. The point to keep in mind is that these false prophesies in no way mitigate that this world is in a heap of trouble for real. And that for many folks around the world the maximum disaster is already happening for them, courtesy of our dysfunctional social and spiritual behaviors. No need for a massive asteroid strike, super volcano eruption, etc. — we are doing great at destroying each other without such aids.

  78. Fellow Commenters — Scott Walker has been laid off at Orion. Hence the recent commercial and nonsense spam on our threads. Scott’s job included filtering this garbage out. I am trying to contact Orion about this situation.

  79. I like the fruit tree planting idea, sort of a modern Johnny Apple Seed. Even better I’d like to see a tree planting program that was based on native trees that were self-sustaining after an initial send-off.


  80. Mike, I am sorry to hear about Scott.

    David, my motto is MORE GRASS, LESS PEOPLE! Grasses in well humified soil can sequester more carbon and water than almost anything else… except perhaps for tropical forests.

  81. Vera — Perhaps you have read Lierre Kieth’s book The Vegetarian Myth? The death of humus presaging the demise of all (or most) life above ground. Just another way to exterminate ourselves, eh? One thinks of Easter Island on a planetary scale. Large scale grain based agriculture — doom disguised as a tasty loaf of bread….

  82. Vera, I’ll go with either one. Basically it’s the same message.

    I’m thinking we need to keep it simple. If it doesn’t fit on a bumper it probably won’t take.

    An additional thought, in answer to the question of how far we should scale down? For starters until no one can directly hurt anyone else on the other side of the world.


  83. On review I see the tools part can be shortened up; the shorter the better.


  84. More voices, many more voices are needed.

    A comment for review by the Chapel Hill Planning Board and the Sustainability Committee Meeting,
    June 5, 2012

    One of the most widely appreciated definitions of sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. From my point of view, it is about saving environmental resources, setting limits on economic and population growth, providing good quality of life for all and developing a sustainable economy at the local level.

    Local governments can contribute to sustainability in many different ways. Some of the most popular activities villages, towns and cities can undertake are:
    • developing greenways
    • saving energy and using renewable energy sources
    • providing good public transport
    • recycling waste
    • educating citizens about sustainability
    • supporting diversified, small businesses
    • involving local stakeholders in policy and planning and
    • reducing CO2 emissions.
    These are “popular” activities and readily receive support. I would like to turn your attention to requirements for necessary local change that are decidedly unpopular and related to seemingly endless economic growth and unbridled increases in the human population of Chapel Hill.

    Somehow, we have to master the art of thinking globally and acting locally. If we can do this one thing, “think globally”, it becomes evident that riveting attention on more and more growth could be a grave mistake because we are denying how economic and population growth in the community in which we live cannot continue as it has until now. Each village’s resources are being dissipated, each town’s environment degraded and every city’s fitness as place for our children to inhabit is being threatened. To proclaim, as the CHN does on 5/20/12, that “the meat of Chapel Hill 2020 is, of course, growth” fails to acknowledge that the Town of Chapel Hill is already ‘built out’, and also ‘filled in’ with people. If the quality of life we enjoy now is to be maintained for the children, then limits on economic and population growth will have to be set. By so doing, we choose to “act locally” and sustainably.

    More economic and population growth are no longer sustainable in many too many places on the surface of Earth because biological constraints and physical limitations are immutably imposed upon ever increasing human consumption, production and population activities of people in many communities where most people reside worldwide. Inasmuch as the Earth is finite with frangible environs, there comes a point at which more growth is unsustainable. There is much work to done locally. But that effort cannot reasonably begin without sensibly limiting economic and population growth.

    To quote the same edition of the CHN again, “We face a wide-open opportunity to break with the old ways of doing the town’s business…..” That is a true statement. But the necessary “break with the old ways” of continuous economic and population growth is not what is occurring. There is a call for a break with the old ways, but the required changes in behavior are not what are being proposed as we plan for the future. What is being proposed and continues to occur is more of the same, old business-as-usual overconsumption, overproduction and overpopulation activities, the very distinctly human activities that appear to be growing unsustainably. More business-as-usual could soon become patently unsustainable, both locally and globally. A finite planet with the size, composition and environs of the Earth and a community with the boundaries, limited resources and wondrous climate of villages, towns and cities where we live may not be able to sustain much longer the economic and population growth that is occurring on our watch. Perhaps necessary changes away from unsustainable growth and toward sustainable lifestyles and right-sized corporate enterprises are in the offing.

    Think globally while there is still time and act locally before it is too late for human action to make any difference in the clear and presently dangerous course of unfolding human-induced ecological events, both in our planetary home and in our villages, towns and cities.

    Let me close with a comment from a June 3, 2012 CHN letter by a town neighbor, Nancy Elkins, “If ‘the meat of Chapel Hill 2020 is, of course, growth’ then we have wasted our time working on Chapel Hill 2020 during the past months. Chapel Hill 2020 must not go forward on this premise without the necessary restraints that a long-term plan must have.”

    Thank you.

    Steven Earl Salmony
    Chapel Hill (NC)

  85. Steve — The sacred cow that must be questioned is capitalism, which is no more than a fig leaf for unbridled greed and selfish accumulation and squandering of our precious and dwindling resources. There will be no sustainability or social justice until this unholy myth propagated by the wealthy is repudiated, and a fair to all system of distribution of the commonly owned goods of the Earth is established in its place. Capitalism, contrary to its claims has proved to be the worst economic system possible. The fact that most people are blind and deaf to this reality does not alter its absolute reality, or the necessity to dispense with its destructive results as soon as possible.

  86. Derrick,

    I really enjoyed the article. You make a number of excellent points, as do many of those commenting on it.

    I am an artist, and also a scientist. About a year ago, I took a new job working as a biologist in commercial fisheries, collecting data that is used to help in managing the resource. I work in Alaska, which does a pretty good job of this. The fisheries here are sustainable, unlike most of the fisheries on the planet.

    But quite aside from all of this, the experience has transformed me in some unexpected ways. Perhaps the most significant of these has been learning exactly how much – or rather, how little – stuff that I require to meet my needs. In fact, I need no more than I can physically carry with me. And every time I come back up here on contract, I bring a little bit less.

    This has shown me what an incredible lie capitalism has sold to us; the have more/want more culture that exists in the developed world serves no purpose except to encumber us with objects that really, in the end, fail to improve our lives in any way.

    Would that I could encourage everyone to try this for a few months – living with as little stuff as possible, and thinking about which items are truly necessary, which actually improve one’s quality of life, and which can be jettisoned without really losing anything meaningful.

  87. This piece aptly expresses the conflict I feel in my own work as an environmental lawyer. It’s something. I hope it matters. I win sometimes. But truth be told, I have failed, as have my colleagues, to really make any difference. We persist because we must. Maybe others will join us.

  88. Not to be gloomy here, but the revolution we need is one of hearts – and making our minds serve our hearts as opposed to the other way around; giving love precedence over fear. If it feels like we’re getting nowhere – as it sounds like you feel, Jason – then it’s probably because this shift feels insurmountable. I don’t believe it is. But I do believe it comes back to the matters Mike and others here have spoken of, namely that the outer world reflects what’s going on inside us and inside is where our greatest need to work is found. I don’t personally know any environmental lawyers, but I imagine the job is thankless and I imagine, too, that you got into it and you succeed by putting your intellect into service of your heart, which probably desires beauty and health for the present generation and seven generations (or more) hence. Keep at it! Change takes a while to develop and then can happen all at once so that big changes look like miracles.

  89. DJ

    “I know that a culture of resistance needs every form of action, from writing to legal work to mass protests in the streets to physically dismantling destructive infrastructures.”

    Exactly to what purpose? When the principal driver of our problems is a continuing growing population what grand heroic gesture is required other than the rather banal restraint of ending overproduction of children? Add living closer to nature and we’re pretty much home free.

    I’m not arguing against resistance but it needs to be defined within the framework of some clear goal or it becomes mindlessly anarchic, the best environment for generating an imposed fascist order.

    I realize the mindless inertia of civilization and all its destructive silliness is a perhaps insurmountable barrier to overcome but let’s not paint complicated legs on the very simple snake that directs us where we want to go.



  90. Derrick,

    Why do you think truth as you have come to learn it is really truth? You are really talking about values and those are much different than truth. Your article was a little too much about YOU for my taste.

  91. Passionately agree with Vera’s profound initial comment.
    As someone who studied literature, and still loves it, I have noticed that the period of the French Revolution produced some of the shoddiest literature (in France) that the country ever saw.
    Because hammering home a message does not make good art, that touches the soul.
    Words are incredibly powerful. They cement our entire culture. All of our symbolic systems (i.e. money…) are built upon them.
    But… Enlightenment positivism has led us to believe that we control much more than we really do. And… we do NOT control our words. (Writers are perhaps more than others prey to the illusion ? that they control words. This is surely not a coincidence.)
    I believe that the greatest task we have before us is to regain perspective on how little we really do control in our lives, and make our peace with that. To become more creatures and less… creators…
    Opposing words and deeds is a very old parallelism in our civilisation. Homework : Aeschylus, Sophocles, Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” for the insight in the ways in which this opposition structures our modern consciousness.
    No to messages. We are drowning in messages (not to mention the 24h/days publicity edifice). We need… thoughtful, and beautiful art.

  92. Debra,

    What you say about creatures and creators sounds like something Wendell Berry wrote in What Are People For? (in the beginning sections on Damage and Healing). What if a person lives, as best she can, in opposition? Because she just doesn’t go along with the existing System or its influence over systems? Where every mundane decision (Economic and economic) are big, even though in the grand landscape, such decisions on their own have little effect, but the cumulative effect may be great? People who can create art under the present circumstances (and I realize that depends on how one defines “art”) are geniuses and dare I say, there’s a little genius in each of us, we just maybe don’t have the right circumstances/support (or don’t know how to create…that word, again…or foster them) to allow the genius to manifest. I like your homework and will check it out! Kindest!

  93. A PS It is challenging to live within this System and 1. Not be under its influence (not sure that can be done) and 2. to recognize the areas in one’s life that are most under the influence and/or would be most susceptible to change (leverage points).

  94. Hi Leigh — The struggle by evolving intelligence to become wise and in control of its evolution has been and is a long, difficult and uncertain process. Our only worthwhile choice is to continue to work on it in the company of others so motivated, in spite of its sometimes seeming impossibility. Ignoring the odds, we struggle on to create something loving and beautiful for all…

  95. Hi Leigh,
    I believe that, as individuals, we have very great power over what’s going on in the world.
    There are different places of power.
    There are outside, public places, and inside, quiet, private places where people are not looking (we hope…). Our… words are in many places, and they escape physical boundaries. They can go… anywhere, unlike us.
    Much of our collective despondancy, I believe, comes from our refusal to recognize that power in one place is not identical to power in another, and should not be.
    There need to be differences, and not… one size fits all… (think the equality problem here…)
    On the Uncivilization site that is an offshoot of the Dark Project, I have already met three or four people who are moving in the direction that I have been moving since before I was born. It is eery, seeing how we have started doing the same things at the same time.
    Pretty humbling, right ?
    This morning I got an E-Mail inviting me to receive a free bumper sticker that says… “Love is the law.”…
    When love becomes the law, well, lots of unsavory things start happening, in my opinion…
    Jesus would NOT have approved…

  96. mike k,

    So true, so true. It truly is helpful to be in a number of small groups, each member sharing their gifts and gaining support from the whole (and the Whole). With some of these, I am inclined to say we don’t ignore the odds; we are in full awareness that we are swimming upstream, but, as you note, when you have others doing the same, that truly helps.

  97. Hi, Debra.

    That IS interesting, but really, are you surprised? I believe that time/energy/-ies/change(s)…all these give rise to sets of different phenotypes at any given time and I mean, by that, not just people who are physiologically similar, but also psychically similar. And maybe that is what you are finding. I have not thought much about the distinctions between types of power, but I’ll be darned if I ever undercut what power is available to each of us. If anything, we underestimate our own power, including what we can do to change the structure that gives rise to disequal powers, if that makes sense. Love that quotation! I work on trying to manifest that law in my own life. It may be the most difficult thing any of us can do.

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