What We Leave Behind by Derrick Jensen and Aric McBay
(Seven Stories Press)
Soil Not Oil: Environmental Justice in an Age of Climate Crisis by Vandana Shiva
(South End Press)
Derrick Jensen and Aric McBay’s What We Leave Behind begins with a story about shit. It sounds snarky and unfair when I describe it that way, but that’s because shit occupies a rather maligned place in Western culture; the story itself is quite lovely. One of the authors (they intentionally avoid saying who writes which chapter, and although it’s often easy to tell, I’ll refrain from naming them individually), reluctant to “flush all those nutrients down the toilet,” goes outside of his house in the woods to contribute to the food chain by depositing his shit on the soil. If waste is something that’s no longer usable by anyone or anything, he explains, then the concept of “waste” doesn’t exist in nature, and sure enough, he soon sees slugs and bacteria breaking the piles down and plants growing in their places. However, he notices that when he’s prescribed antibiotics – which pass through a human’s system more or less intact – his poop starts to kill plants and soil life. “The soil in the two main spots where I relieved myself became bare,” he says. “[They] remained bare for the next two years.”
That casually terrifying observation sets the tone for the rest of the book. True to the title, What We Leave Behind is an exploration of what industrial civilization’s various endeavors – disposable products, plastics, mining, medicine, embalming and burial practices – leave behind, and the effects of capitalist priorities, “green” or otherwise, on the environment. Part I outlines each major form of pollution, from solid waste products to toxic gases, and for the most part, it’s as engrossing as it is important. The facts Jensen and McBay present should horrify you. The “Eastern Garbage Patch,” a floating island of garbage nearly the size of Africa, is only one of six six patches that cover 40% of the world’s oceans. The breast milk of women living across the Arctic, about as far from industrial civilization as one can get, contains levels of toxic chemicals that are “literally off the charts” because of wind and ocean currents. If facts like these don’t spur readers into action, then nothing will.
Despite its many merits, this book is riddled with sexism and racism, empty and often bizarre rhetoric, and sheer White American Dude ego. The hijinks begin in “Garbage,” when one of the authors starts talking about what he gives his friends for Christmas. “A pasta factory bagged the noodles that fell on the floor and sold them for ten cents a pound,” he writes. “I bought them by the hundred-pound bag. Not only did this provide chicken food, but it allowed me to gorge on pasta, and one trip to the factory completed all my Christmas shopping.” I don’t know about you, but if someone gave me an unliftable bag of processed food that was collected off a factory floor, I would consider ending my relationship with that person. The author also mentions dumpster diving for ice cream and feeding it to his dogs, cats, and chickens, seemingly oblivious to the fact that most dogs and cats (and I’m assuming birds) are lactose intolerant.
The book kind of goes off the deep end, though, in Part II, which discusses metaphysical concerns like morality and magical thinking. Most of this section veers sharply away from capitalism’s tangible effects on the environment and deals almost exclusively with what the authors believe are the problems with the Western way of thinking. To be sure, there are lots of problems with the Western way of thinking, but the thrust of the authors’ discussion feels lazy at best. Some of the philosophy is fine, but obvious – in “Morality Revisited,” they explain the difference between internal and external morality – but at other times they enter the realm of stoner logic. In “The Real World,” for example, they assert that the reason we watch TV or have MySpace accounts is because we can’t admit that we should never have been born, and “cannot face the possibility of actually living.” Like many of the doped conversations about, like, God and stuff that some of us stagger through as college freshmen, “The Real World” gives you the sense that Jensen and McBay could have produced something noteworthy if they’d only turned a critical eye to their own ideas. What ice cream and external morality and MySpace are even doing in a book about environmental justice, aside from rehashing the already well-documented need to change the way we think and live, is beyond me.
Except, wait, looks like they’ve got my concerns covered. In “Compartmentalization and its Opposite,” one of the authors brushes off criticism of his writing style by claiming that “my writing is organized along different principles than those that normally guide discourse and thought in this culture. I write this way to undercut or even destroy the monopoly, the stranglehold, that linear thinking has over our discourse, our thinking, our lives.” All right… except the very fact that his writing is comprehensible means that he’s working well within the boundaries of Western discourse. His claim seems to function more as a way to stave off uncomfortable questions than as a genuine exploration of thought. Criticizing consumer culture could have really worked in this book, especially for readers unfamiliar with radicalism or environmental justice movements, but only with a drop or two of humility.
The authors also have a habit of tossing out the phrase “This culture is killing the planet,” often several times in one chapter. By the time I reached Part II it had really started to bug me, and at first, I thought my problem was just my own geekery. See, when I hear “killing the planet,” I think Death Star versus Alderaan. But the more times I read it – I, an activist committed to environmental justice – the more irritated I got. I finally realized that it takes a remarkable amount of sloppiness to claim that human beings will destroy every last bit of life on Earth, right down to the tiniest microbe, before we kill ourselves. Again, though, the authors have heard this before. They respond:
Just two days ago I was talking to a group of students, and at one point I said that this culture is killing the planet (Oh, okay, you got me: I said it at many points). An activist about my age said, “But this culture can’t kill the planet. Algae or something will be left, and then in millions of years evolution will move in another direction. The Earth won’t die. It will just change.”
I asked if any of the students there happened to have a knife, and if so, could I borrow it… I stood, opened it, walked to the activist, and asked, “Could I have your hand?”
He said no.
I said, “I’m not going to kill you. I’m just going to cut off your little finger…. Then I’ll cut off another. And another. I’ll move up your arms, and then I’ll start on your feet, and move up your legs. You’re not going to die. At least not for awhile. You’re just going to change.”
Note that his analogy isn’t actually parallel to the situation. Because resources are dwindling and environmental destruction is just as toxic to us as it is to animal, plant, and microbial life, a better analogy would have him chopping off his own limbs simultaneously, with a blunter and blunter blade. But by that point, the question of who will die first doesn’t even matter anymore, and the whole exercise becomes embarrassing. Indeed, that doesn’t even seem to be his point. Don’t listen to what I’m actually saying, he seems to cry throughout the rest of the passage. Listen to the sentiment behind it! I was reminded of Nadia Abou-Karr’s response, on SPEAK!, to the common claim that Israelis are just like Nazis: “I explained [to someone who made the comparison] that this is too important, and the Israelis have committed their own atrocities. What they have done is big enough to stand on its own without the Nazi comparison.”
Exactly. What capitalism and industry are doing to human cultures and the global ecosystem is big enough to stand on its own. With 40% of the world’s oceans covered in garbage and women secreting poison from our breasts, why do the authors feel the need to hyperbolize? It’s precisely this type of frothing that loses audiences. Just as people roll their eyes when someone calls Israelis Nazis and then feigns surprise when the Oppression Olympics begin (well but Israelis don’t have death camps and but well see pogroms etc.), people who aren’t already steeped in environmental justice issues will lose interest when someone makes arguable claims and then threatens to sever the limbs of those who argue with him.
Where the book really gets infuriating, though, is when the authors turn their attention to women and people of color. In “Compartmentalization and its Opposite,” one of the authors waxes eloquent about his desire to understand and communicate with forests, streams… and the ladies. “I want to be able to begin to recognize the organization of a forest, the organization of a stream, the organization of a woman,” he says. “No, I want to be able to understand what a forest, a stream, a woman may wish to communicate to me.”
Oh no you didn’t. You know, fellas, we women actually have quite a long history of being classified alongside nonverbal entities that don’t have brains. If you don’t get why a statement like that is offensive, then take a male privilege 101 class and shut up until you learn. And if you want to understand what I may wish to communicate to you, then ask me.
As if that weren’t enough, the authors go on to criticize the use of birth control, stating that “More than 100 million women around the world use some form of pharmaceutical contraception…. But as liberating and empowering as it may be, when the drugs in contraceptive pills find their way into water they can be very damaging to aquatic communities.” (Emphasis mine.)
This sentence could only be written by a person who has never experienced a pregnancy scare.
Aside from the fact that scapegoating oppressed groups for environmental damage is a pretty old tactic – notice how he pits women against fish? – by framing the use of birth control in the most frivolous and bourgeois terms possible, he manages to erase the most important, and common, reasons why women use birth control. Gone are the women who literally cannot afford children, or more children. Gone are the women who are raped within or outside of relationships; gone are the men who don’t like condoms but would never dream of supporting a child. Gone are the women who just want to have the type of sex life that Jensen and McBay probably enjoy. I doubt the authors bothered to educate themselves on any of these issues before pooh-poohing women’s frivolous coveting of second-wave buzzwords.
Finally, the entire book exoticizes and idealizes indigenous peoples. In “Technotopia: Industry,” the authors claim that
Some clever and persistent people have already developed a way (many ways, actually, literally thousands of ways) to replace big, industrial infrastructure with knowledge. They’re called indigenous people. Ultimately, hunter-gatherers, with their portable lifestyle, lack of industrial infrastructure, minimal physical goods, and extensive knowledge of the land and its nonhuman inhabitants, have been far more successful at [low-impact lifestyles] than industrial society will ever be. (Emphasis mine.)
If you’re equating “indigenous person” with “nomadic hunter-gatherer” – that is, if you honestly don’t know that indigenous peoples have developed agriculture and permanent settlements right alongside colonizers – then you don’t know much about indigenous peoples. But why should you? You’re probably still working to understand what indigenous people, with their mysterious ways, may wish to communicate to you. Hey, keep fighting the good fight.
All these problems demonstrate why it’s so crucial to integrate feminist and anti-racist work into environmentalism. This is exactly what Vandana Shiva does in Soil Not Oil, a book that, like What We Leave Behind, explores globalization’s disastrous effects on the environment. Shiva doesn’t feel the need to fill her argument with embellishments and defensive posturing, though; she lets the facts speak for themselves. Exploring the root causes of food insecurity, climate change, and peak oil, she explains in meticulous detail what exactly capitalism is doing to Global South peoples and the natural world, covering the bogus system of carbon credit trading, the banning of rickshaws (a healthy and sustainable form of transportation) in Indian cities to make room for cars, violent land-grabs that allow transnational corporations to produce nonrenewable biofuels, privatization of commons like the atmosphere, and the destructive effects of monocultures, among other issues. She explains why each solution to environmental destruction offered by capitalists is doomed to failure (biofuels, for example, require more energy to make than they themselves produce, but are pretty great for short-term profit), and argues that the only way to reverse these destructive trends is for wealthy nations to drastically reduce our consumption of energy. Not the wrong kinds of energy – all energy. Like Jensen and McBay, she even explores some philosophical concepts, but the difference is that when she discusses satvik, rajsik, and taamsik and their relationship to Shakti, she explicitly ties them into hands-on environmental justice work.
In short, activists like Jensen and McBay could learn a lot from activists like Vandana Shiva. When the privileged refuse to loosen their grip on the environmental movement, you get dippy passages about mystical women and wise brown people. When those living on the front lines speak, you get insightful analysis and firsthand knowledge of real movement-making.
Like I said, though, What We Leave Behind still has plenty of merits. One particularly arresting passage is the story of a developer who, after an author’s neighbors pave a road, demands access to the forest behind their homes. What follows is a heartbreaking series of legal battles between the people who live on the land and the people who want to make money off the land. The developers coerce the county into giving them an permit. A biologist is hired to deny that protected species are living there. The developers lie, trespass, threaten, twist words, find loopholes, and generally do all manner of illegal activities to gain access to the forest. The most telling moment in the story is when the judge turns to the residents and assures them that “You have an interest in what happens on this land,” and then turns to the developers and says, “And we can all see that you certainly have an interest in what happens on this land.” For those of you who identify as pro-capitalist feminists – this is an example of what happens when people without much capital do everything right. They worked within the system. They took it to court. They remained steadfastly nonviolent. But when profits are valued over people, people lose.
The penultimate chapter, “Fighting Back,” is also strong, although it’s too vague to be of much immediate practical use. Some examples of successful contemporary movements, or a list of organizations and resources, would have been helpful. Still, like many parts of the book, it does a great job of explaining the problems with industrial civilization and then presenting alternative relationships with nature.
So if you’re interested, by all means, give it a shot. You’ll have to wade through all the pomposity, but it’s comprehensive, and you’ll learn something. When you’re ready to take action, though, you’ll find books like Soil Not Oil to be much more useful.