I picked up Derrick Jensen's book What We Leave Behind the other day. As always, I find him hard to read. I respect him for what he's saying, and I know he's just being honest and unrelenting in his condemnation of our ravaging civilization, but it's still very gloomy reading. He's definitely a glass-half-empty type of guy:
Back to this morning. I step outside, napkins in hand. I hear the birds singing back and forth, and I'm reminded of the ongoing destruction of the planet.
There's Derrick, being his usual cheerful self. Like I said, hard to read, though he's right on target and has a lot of good info. Especially the first part of the book, much of it about waste, garbage, feces, and so forth. The historical perspective was interesting, about how people viewed garbage (really, they didn't, since garbage was not waste, but a resource, and was utilized). Made me think about my own.
For starters, human waste. The napkins he's holding were for toilet paper, as he now prefers to poop outside in the forest. As I pondered, I remembered something I wrote long ago as a teenager:
I feel so cut off from the jump and flow of life. I am totally disconnected from almost every part of my life. I have never seen the plants or animals that produce my food; I don't usually even know what country they come from, let alone what specific farm or farmer produces them. I do not know where my water comes from, where it has been, or where it goes. I don't know the people who made my tools, furniture, clothes, or electronics, I don't know the trees, plants, and mineral deposits where the materials came from. They show our leaders on the television, but I've never met them. I do not know where my urine or feces goes, or what is done with it. And the heat for my house comes from fossil fuels I've never seen burned in plants I've never seen.
I wrote that when I lived in Michigan, and it still applies today, in Florida. I've looked into some of these things, for this post, and learned about a few of them. For example, I know the water here comes from reverse osmosis plants pumping water from the aquifer under my feet. I could go see the plants if I wanted to, all three are in this very city. My garbage ends up in an incinerator -- pleasantly called "waste to energy" or, even better, "resource recovery" plants -- from which [some of] my electricity also comes. The sewage, hard to figure out, it seems that after treatment, the dried sludge used to go to a landfill, then Cape Coral started turning it into humanure, but something changed this year and I can't find out if they still do that or now send it to a landfill; all the newspaper links are inaccessible, and this article is ambiguous.
So it's not that I can't find these things out, though some are rather more difficult to find than they should be. No, the real problem is that I have to ask at all. Shouldn't it be painfully obvious to an organism where it's shit goes? I mean, it's my shit, I put it where I put it; but we've built a system in which the shit doesn't stay where it's put, it goes somewhere, is acted upon by others. That's weird. Of course, it always was acted on by others, but those others used to be merely soil organisms, or maybe a hungry dog. And to not know where my water comes from? Or my food? This is a matter of grave concern, all of it.
Because (I skipped ahead in the book) Jensen talks about fighting back. But I think he's deluded. On the other hand, this may be why he's so sad. Of course in the end people know the Earth supports them. But our experience (and Jensen even says this himself) is that water comes from a faucet, food from the supermarket, shit goes somewhere else. Everything is abstract. And when it comes down to that, one will fight to the death to defend it; not to overthrow it. No one is going to work to destroy that which supports them. Which is weird to say because that is what modern civilization is actually doing, but it's removed from experience, a mere abstraction. Our immediate reality tells us that to fight back is to fight against getting food, water, sanitation, and all the rest.
Jensen quotes someone saying something like "do not have a revolution until you are prepared to eat rats." And this is the crux. One might fight back against a regime, or even a type of economic system, as they have done for all of history. But even the communists didn't want to destroy civilization, not even industrial civilization. This is a whole other order of problem which we are being asked to fight against. Something right down to the core of our lives. No one knows how to live without civilization, except a few pockets of indigenous peoples around the world. In fact, to overthrow civilization would be to doom billions to starvation and death, because you can't support that many without it.
Which is tragic, because of course this is what the Earth needs most, an overthrow of, at the very least, modern civilization as it works now. I don't know if civilization in any form is sustainable, let alone if a high tech one is, as the techno-futurists fantasize. But we're going to hit limits eventually, probably soon, or maybe already. And that's going to hurt, and things will change as a matter of course. I've read that Native American civilizations like Cahokia, when they got overpopulated and teetered over the unsustainable cliff, just went back to hunting and gathering and small farming, having never lost the skills totally. They were never so many, or so estranged, that this was impossible; this is not true for us.
The other tragedy is, of course, that of human dignity and self-determination. A man used to be his own sanitation engineer, by moving his outhouse now and then (actually, this isn't sustainable either, read this). He didn't have to delegate his power out to specialists and technicians. He grew or hunted his own food, drank from a local stream, which didn't need reverse osmosis plants, made his own clothes, tools and furniture, or knew the men and women who did. His garbage decayed and enriched the soil, and so was not garbage. His body would eventually do the same.
I have to admit, I was especially irritated to not be able to find out where the sludge solids go around here. Here we are, mining the worlds soils of nutrients with our agricultural model, never adding anything back but poisonous fertilizers, converting it into feces, and then, where do those nutrients go? I hate the thought of them being stuck in a landfill, or incinerated (the ashes to go to a landfill), to mix with heavy metals and toxic chemicals (which they've already done in the sewers and incinerators). It's like taking the world's fertility, mixing it with poison, and burying it far from the access or use of any living thing save some extremophile anaerobic bacteria. Same goes for human bodies, for that matter. We're running 200 species extinct daily, stealing the Earth's productivity to make human flesh, then, when they die, soaking them in embalming chemicals for burial in hermetic concrete vaults.
Madness. Madness. How can this go on?