It’s been about 40 years since my first environmental activism, fighting against the Churchill River hydroelectric diversion in Northern Manitoba and the Mackenzie Valley Oil & Gas Pipelines through the pristine and fragile Canadian arctic to US markets.
We lost the Churchill River fight — in 1976 the so-called socialist provincial government flooded 850 square kilometres to divert 80% of the water from one huge river to another — because it was cheaper to dam one than two. All told, 2600 sq. km. were flooded, 25,000 First Nations people were either driven off their land or had their way of life irrevocably altered, and the ecosystems of the northern half of the province were desolated in ways we’re only now beginning to realize.
We stalled off development of the Mackenzie Valley pipelines then, but they are now being fast-tracked by the current corporate-owned ultra-conservative Canadian government in order to provide cheap energy to power the eco-holocaust called the Alberta Tar Sands. Big Oil wasn’t in much of a hurry back in the 1960s — they knew the value of the oil reserves they “owned” would only go up.
In the intervening 40 years, from the heady counter-culture days of the late 1960s, the human species has done more damage to this planet than we did in the previous 30,000 years, i.e. since the inception of human civilization, by almost every possible measure: loss of biodiversity on land, in the seas and in the air, loss of natural habitat capable of supporting any creature sustainably, pollution of land, air and sea, non-renewable resources extracted and non-biodegradable wastes produced. So much for the idealism of the boomer generation. And if current trends continue we will easily top all these disastrous records in the next 20 years.
So now we are fighting a whole series of new pipelines proposed to carry the dirty Tar Sands bitumen sludge from a ruined Northern Alberta to insatiable markets in the US and China. Big Oil has bought and paid for governments in all three countries, as well as all the so-called “regulatory” agencies that purportedly ensure these projects are in the “public interest” — processes that in all three countries are a pathetic joke.
I have volunteered to, and been asked to, become more active in my opposition to these pipelines, and the Tar Sands development that co-depends on their construction. But I keep hesitating because something is holding me back, something telling me (i) it’s a losing cause, (ii) I can’t face another losing cause, (iii) even if we win, here and now, the developers will pop up like Hydras again and keep fighting until they eventually win, and (iv) in the meantime, other eco-atrocities will fill the void in demand, where there is less organized opposition or even knowledge of their existence.
I am internalizing the realization of the effects of the Jevons Paradox, which observes that technological improvements that improve efficiency lead to increases, not decreases, in the use of related resources. People who drive hybrid vehicles tend to drive considerably more than those who drive SUVs. As more people drive more fuel-efficient vehicles, demand is suppressed to the point that price falls or levels off, making the driving of SUVs more economically viable.
Essentially, efficiency reduces cost, which encourages greater, not less, consumption. The more energy we can affordably produce, the more we will consume, one way or another. And once we’re used to (and even addicted to) that level of consumption, we will demand it be maintained, whether that means burning shale oil, Tar Sands sludge, fracking gas, the remaining wood in the rainforests, or deep-sea and arctic reserves. No matter the cost or the risk. Until we run out of everything. Then our energy-based civilization will go over Hubbert’s Peak and crash.
A similar paradox has been observed to drive human population numbers. You would think that providing healthy food to the poor would increase health and overall well-being, which would allow people to live longer and become more educated, and hence curtail family size and reduce overpopulation in their own self-interest. What is observed is the opposite. As Daniel Quinn’s books have explained, it is the absolute amount of affordable food available that determines population — the more food available, the more children will be born. As long as our technology finds ways to produce ever more food, human populations will rise until that food is consumed. Then it will crash.
The Canadian Government and its Big Oil sponsors aren’t terribly worried about losing the fight to build another Tar Sands pipeline overland to the US. They prefer that route because its political and ecological consequences are less treacherous than the alternatives. But there are two alternatives that they will take if necessary. The first is to build a new pipeline across central British Columbia to ship the bitumen sludge to China instead of the US. That option is unanimously opposed by the landholders, the First Nations of BC, except for a handful in the fraudulent colonialist “tribal councils” that have been bought off by the Big Oil consortium or its government friends.
The third option is to massively widen the existing Tar Sands pipeline through Vancouver BC, and ship it from there both down the coast to US markets and overseas to China. This is opposed by NIMBYs of all political stripes in the city, and the governments and Big Oil interests would prefer to deal with small numbers of poor, scattered citizens than the large, easily organized numbers in the cities. Besides, when the inevitable spills occur, they will be less newsworthy when they occur off Haida Gwaii or on some farm in the US heartland than when they occur on the shores and into the drinking water of a city of three million.
But Big Oil, leaving nothing to chance to protect the interests of its executives and shareholders, is proposing to complete all three pipeline routes, and warning US politicians that they don’t care whether America or China buys the stuff. China will take all we can produce, any time, regardless of environmental impact. The Chinese government is not known for its moral queasiness.
I’ve been at this on and off for forty years. In that time, massive government subsidies have allowed Big Oil to improve the “efficiency” of Tar Sands production from an EROI of less than 1 (totally economically unfeasible) to an EROI that, with the help of additional subsidies, tax breaks, non-enforcement of regulations, and support for the routing of the Mackenzie Valley pipelines to the Tar Sands mining sites and the construction of taxpayer-financed nuclear power plants on the sites, will be sufficiently large to generously reward the patience of the corporations’ executives and shareholders.
And it may stall off the End of Oil for a few more years.
So what should we do now? We can get out in the streets and protest the Tar Sands and its pipelines. We can lie down in front of bulldozers the size of factories. We can risk arrest, injury and death. We can go on hunger strikes, or set ourselves afire (perhaps with bitumen sludge as the fuel).
We might in the process slow the development down for a few days, maybe even a few years. In the meantime the people of the US, China and Canada will get their insatiable energy fix somewhere else — burning more coal, or converting more grainlands to (heavily subsidized) fuel oil production. Or more fracking and offshore drilling. We will ensure that the ever-accelerating demand for energy is fed, one way or another, until it can no longer be.
So, for me, there is no more point in us struggling for control of the driver’s seat in a car that is already careening off the edge of a cliff. It’s time for me to give up on environmentalism. That doesn’t mean I’m saying that you should, too, or that I believe your activism is foolish or valueless. It’s just what I’ve decided to do. Without attempting to justify or defend or argue for my personal decision, I just want to tell my story of how I came to this decision, this perspective, perhaps as much for my own peace of mind as to respond to those who think my decision is wrong-headed, or even immoral.
I share this perspective, it seems, with very few. The person who explains it more eloquently that I will ever be able to is Dark Mountain co-founder Paul Kingsnorth. In my January Links of the Month I urged readers to look at his brilliant essay in Orion magazine Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist in which Paul tells the story of his journey from activism and his reasons for “walking away” from environmentalism.
The author of the Thoreau Farm blog Wen Stephenson wrote a letter to Paul’s responding to his essay, taking issue with Paul’s belief that striving to “sustain” our current way of living is wrong-headed and his (Paul’s) decision to “withdraw” from environmental activism. Wen wrote:
Withdraw? Are you kidding? That Kingsnorth’s piece appeared in the same issue as Terry Tempest Williams’ long, morally bracing interview with Tim DeChristopher, “What Love Looks Like,” only made it harder to take. This, I felt, is what giving up looks like.
Paul responded to Wen’s letter. Here are some excerpts from that response (italics mine):
I have spent twenty years and more as an environmental campaigner… My worldview has always been, for want of a less clunky word, ecocentric. What I care passionately about is nature in the round: all living things, life as a phenomenon… My view is that humans are no more or less important than anything else that lives. We certainly have no right to denude the Earth of life for our own ends…
I do think that climate change campaigners… should be more upfront about what you’re trying to ‘save.’ It’s not the world. It’s not humanity either, which I’d bet will survive whatever comes in some form or another, though perhaps with drastically reduced numbers and no broadband connection. No, what you’re trying to save, it seems to me, is the world you have grown used to… a civilisation so extensive and powerful that it [has] energetically wiped out much non-human life in order to feed its ever-advancing appetites…‘Sustainability’ is, as far as I can see, a project designed to keep this culture — this lifestyle — afloat…
Of course, I am conflicted about this. I live at the heart of this machine; like you, I am a beneficiary of it. If it falls apart, I will probably suffer, and I don’t want to… I am trying to ‘walk away” from dishonesty, my own included. Much environmental campaigning, and thinking, is dishonest. It has to be, to keep going… Do you imagine that Thoreau would have looked out of that window at this Machine and determined to put all his efforts into marching about trying to keep it afloat? I think he would have kept on growing beans. His retreat from activism, after all, produced the words which now inspire yours…
‘Are you suggesting that art and storytelling can help spur the transformation of our energy systems?’ you ask. ‘ The answer to [this] question is, of course, no, and the Dark Mountain Project has no such end in mind. Art and storytelling are worthy in their own right, and we need a cultural response to the collapse of our world, if for no other reason than my personal desire to have an honest story to tell my children about how we destroyed beauty for money and called it ‘development’.
As for the climate movement which you believe is necessary to prevent this: well … I know I am beginning to sound cynical, but it’s not exactly cynicism, it’s a raw realism born of 20 years of wanting to believe in such movements and not seeing them… I don’t think any ‘climate movement’ is going to reverse the tide of history, for one reason: we are all climate change. It is not the evil ’1%’ destroying the planet. We are all of us part of that destruction. This is the great, conflicted, complex situation we find ourselves in…
I’m afraid my current beliefs are going to seem to you rather bleak. I believe that our civilisation is hitting a wall, as all civilisations eventually do. I believe that the climate will continue to change as long as we are able to pump fossil fuels into the atmosphere, because I believe that most human beings want the fruits of that burning more than they want to save the natural world which is destroyed by it. I think we have created an industrial techno-bubble which has cut us off from the rest of nature so effectively that we cannot see, and do not much care about, its ongoing death. I think that until that death starts to impact us personally we will take very little interest. I think we are committed to much more of it over the next century. I fear for what my children will experience and sometimes I wish I was not here to experience it either…
How do we live with this reality? Politics is not going to do anything about it… because politics is the process of keeping this Machine moving. What do we do? I don’t know. The reality is that we have used the short-term boost of fossil fuels to give us a 200 year party, which is now coming to an end in a haze of broken bottles, hangovers and recrimination. We have built a hugely complex society which now can’t be fuelled and is, in any case, responsible for a global ecocide. Living with this reality — living in it, facing it, being honest about it and not having to pretend we can ‘solve’ it as if it were a giant jigsaw puzzle — seems to me to be a necessary prerequisite for living through it. I realise that to some people it looks like giving up. But to me it looks like just getting started with a view of the world based on reality rather than wishful thinking…
There are a lot of useful things that we can do at this stage in history. Protecting biodiversity seems the crucial one… Standing up in whatever small way we can to protect beauty and wildness from our appetites is … probably the most vital cause right now. I’m all for fighting winnable battles. But we need to do so in the context of a wider, bigger picture: the end of the Holocene, the end of the world we were taught to believe was eternal; and, perhaps, the slow end of our belief that humans are in control of nature, can be or should be. There is much that is noble about being human, but we have a big debt to pay back, and debts, in the end, always have to be paid.
. . . . .
In the third part of the conversation, Wen suggests that what Paul proposes doing is “not enough”, and asks him what we should do as well and/or instead. Here are some excerpts from Paul’s response to this question (again, italics mine):
I wonder what it is that makes me so ‘ecocentric’, and you such a humanist? I wonder what fuels my sense of resignation, and my occasional sneaking desire for it all to come crashing down, and what fuels your powerful need for this thing called hope… This may sound a strange thing to say, but one of the great achievements for me of the Dark Mountain Project has been to give people permission give up hope… I find that a lot of campaigners are trapped in hope. I used to be. They believe - they feel pressured to believe, from within or without - that they must continue working to achieve goals which are plainly impossible, because not to do so would be to ‘give up hope’. What they are hoping for is never quite defined, but it’s clear that giving it up would lead to a very personal kind of collapse…
Giving up hope, to me, means giving up the illusion of control and accepting that the future is going to be improvised, messy, difficult. None of us knows what will happen, and I’m certainly not making any predictions. But whether or how this civilisation falls apart — and it looks to me like it is already happening — is, to me, less important than whether it takes the rest of nature with it…
One reason I have ‘walked away’ from activism is because I want to concentrate more on my creative work. It’s what fulfils me most and it’s what I think I am best at… The other two reasons, are, firstly, I don’t think what you’re calling for will work… Secondly, I just don’t feel part of the ‘movement’ that is calling for it. I don’t feel part of it because its main concern is keeping humans happy. Everything else comes second. I don’t think we can afford this kind of mediaeval thinking any more…
You ask me: ‘what would you have us do?’ My answer, which sounds a little like the kind of thing Thoreau would have written, is simple: do what you want. Do what you need to, and what you have to, and what you feel is right. I’m not an evangelist; that’s one of the things I have walked away from. I can’t give myself to this supposed movement because it is not sustaining anything that I think is worth keeping. And I don’t think we will stop burning fossil fuels until there are none left. So: I don’t think it will work, and I suspect its motives. But I don’t expect anyone to follow me. I don’t want anyone to follow me. Who wants to be followed when they go out walking?…
We had a very practical obligation, as a species, to maintain the ecosystems we found ourselves part of in some semblance of health and balance. We have spectacularly failed to do that. Now climate change, ocean acidification, mass extinction and, possibly, economic collapse are going to be the result. I don’t welcome any of this as a way to ‘restore balance.’ I’m not that naive. Collapses bring many things, but balance is rarely one of them, at least initially. Still, I think that’s where we are. Covenant broken; consequences upon us. It’s too late to start worrying about the approaching army when it’s already encircled the city.
. . . . .
Paul linked to his conversation with Wen in a comment to the vehement debaters (which included me) on Keith Farnish’s Facebook article disparaging some ‘environmental’ organizations, where a similar discussion was playing out between those who believe in fighting to change the system peacefully from within, and those (like Keith) who think effective activism necessarily involves working to undermine or smash the system. I believe Paul was trying to transcend the debate, but I was apparently the only one to pick up on it.
When Paul says that his answer to ‘what would you have us do?’ is ‘do what you want; do what you need to, and what you have to, and what you feel is right’, the only thing I think he is missing is: We need to be talking with each other (openly, honestly and often) about what each of us has decided is what we want to do, need to do, have to do, and feel is right, and, more importantly, why we have decided this. Not in the effort to self-justify or to recruit followers or criticize others’ choices, but to raise other possibilities, and to show other ways of responding to the crises we are now facing.
I believe many of us are uncertain about what to do, but convinced we should be doing something. I believe that as our economic, energy and ecological crises grow worse and more frequent, and denial of civilization’s impending and unavoidable collapse becomes increasingly impossible, more and more of us will be giving up on our worldviews and looking for a new set of values and priorities that are aligned better with quickly changing reality.
There will be no solace in “I told you so”. But we may take some comfort in having told the stories of our own journeys from one set of now-untenable beliefs to another, in engaging, revelatory and inviting ways that will enable the many looking for new answers to the question ‘what should we do now’, some more compelling possibilities, some better models to consider.
Like Paul, my answer, for now, to the question of ‘what I want, what I need, what I have to do, what I feel is right’, lies in the activities that Dark Mountain embraces: Creative work (which you will see more of on this blog from now on, including music I’m composing) and the continued chronicling of civilization’s collapse. And also learning and practicing some essential capacities of presence and resilience (what our Transition group has dubbed a “Working Towards Resilience” program), and living every day as joyfully and as full of love as I can (and as much as possible in and near wilderness). If this is giving up, then I’m giving up.