by Derrick Jensen
Had somebody snuffed civilization in its multiple cradles, the Middle East would probably still be forested, as would Greece, Italy, and North Africa. Lions would probably still patrol southern Europe. The peoples of the region would quite possibly still live in traditional communal ways, and thus would be capable of feeding themselves in a still-fecund landscape.
Fast forward a few hundred years and we can say the same in Europe. Somehow stop the Greeks and Romans, and the indigenous people of Gaul, Spain, Germany probably still survive. Wolves might howl in England. Great auks might nest in France, providing year-round food for the humans who live there.
Salmon might run in more than token numbers up the Seine. The Rhine is almost undoubtedly clean. The continent is forested. Many of the cultures are matrifocal. Many are peaceful.
Had someone brought down civilization before 1492, the Arawaks would probably still live peacefully in the Caribbean. Indians would live in ancient forests all along the Eastern seaboard, along with bison, marten, fisher. North, Central, and South America would be ecologically and culturally intact. The people would probably have, as always, plenty to eat.
Had someone brought down civilization before the slave trade took hold, 100 million Africans would not have been sacrificed on that particular altar of economic production. Native cultures might still live untraumatized on their own land all across that continent. There probably would be, as there always was, plenty to eat.
If someone had brought down civilization one hundred and fifty years ago, those who came after probably could still eat passenger pigeons and Eskimo curlews. They could surely eat bison and pronghorn antelope. They could undoubtedly eat salmon, cod, lobster. The people who came after would not have had to worry about dioxin, radiation poisoning, organochloride carcinogens, or the extreme weather and ecological flux that characterize global warming. They would not have had to worry about escaped genetically-engineered plants and animals. There probably would have been, as almost always, plenty to eat.
If civilization lasts another one or two hundred years, will the people then say of us, “Why did they not take it down?” Will they be as furious with us as I am with those who came before and stood by? I could very well hear those people who come after saying, “If they had taken it down, we would still have earthworms to feed the soil. We would have redwoods, and we would have oaks in California. We would still have frogs. We would still have other amphibians. I am starving because there are no salmon in the river, and you allowed the salmon to be killed so rich people could have cheap electricity for aluminum smelters. God damn you. God damn you all.”
I know someone whose brother demolishes buildings. The trick, he says, is to position the charges precisely so the building collapses in place, and doesn’t take out the surroundings. It seems to me that this is what we must do: position the charges so that civilization collapses in on itself, and takes out as little life as possible on its way down.
Part of the task of the rest of this exploration is to discover what form those charges will take, and where to put them.
The past few weeks I’ve been in crisis. I’m scared. Scared of the implications of this work. Scared to articulate what I know in my heart is necessary, and even more scared to help bring it about. I mean, we’re talking about taking down civilization here.
Last night I was at my mom’s eating dinner and watching a little March Madness—the NCAA basketball tournament—and I kept thinking, as I watched UNC-Wilmington hold off USC in overtime after blowing a nineteen-point lead, a variant of the question my friend asked about what right I have to not let people live in cities. There are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people having fun watching these games. They’re not trying to exploit anyone. They’re not trying to kill the planet. What right do I have to so alter their lives?
I’m not saying there would never be games again, because the lives of traditional indigenous peoples the world over are far more full of leisure and play than ours. I’m just saying that bringing down civilization would cause substantive changes in the way these people spend their time. And they may not—evidently they do not—want to change.
The answer came to me today. It’s the same answer I gave my friend, which is that I think it’s the wrong question. The question is: what right do all of these people have to destroy the lives of others by their very lifestyle?