No Justice – Or Future – in an Industrial Economy
an open letter to the national Occupy Wall Street movement
Dearest Occupy ::
I write y’all with the greatest admiration, excitement, hope, and humility.
I write with the intention to contribute to the conversations that people are having nationally – and internationally – about what the building of a just and sustainable world would look like.
I know these conversations have been going on for a very long time – longer than I can imagine – and that they did not begin with this movement and will not end with it, either. I know I’m not the only one with the content of this letter on their mind. I write from Austin, Texas, from occupied Tonkawa and Apache territories, and what I know of the other general assemblies and convergences comes through the Internet. I know I’m not privy to the majority of the conversations being had. But while trying to follow what people are calling for in this movement I’ve yet to see stated clearly what I consider to be a very important piece of the puzzle. Please know that I write this from a place of humility and respect, and in the spirit of dialogue for change.
I do not believe that there is hope for justice or a livable planet if the industrial economy continues. I do not believe any reform or technological innovation we have or could think of – even if realized on a massive, global scale – will prevent the destruction of the planet and the communities that are its breath and life. I believe the keys to deep green democracies and to a sustainable and just future are many – but that none of them are possible so long as industrialism continues. In the face of ecological collapse, global warming, and peak oil, any further growth of the global economy – including the U.S. economy – will only worsen the problem.
I believe that our challenge must not be to create more jobs or to grow the economy – but to physically pull apart the infrastructure of the powerful while creating local economies grounded in livelihoods outside the money system, and to redefine growth and economic prosperity altogether.
I know this is an intense thing to say, but please hear me out.
Many folks are and have been raising the crucial point that we can’t have infinite growth on a finite planet. There are many progressives who do not find this too controversial a statement – for many of us, it’s become a kind of common sense. For many of us, this becomes yet another reason among many why capitalism cannot continue. But there is an unspoken sentiment we continue to share, nonetheless, that while we may not want a capitalist economy, we still want to salvage some sort of an industrial way of life for ourselves. As Derrick Jensen has pointed out, when you begin to listen to the solutions to the ecological crisis being offered by folks across the political spectrum – it becomes clear that almost all of them agree on one thing: the industrial economy must be salvaged at any cost. The primary objective becomes the preservation of industrial civilization – not the preservation of a living, healing planet.
But look deeply into any of the processes that make industrialism possible, look deeply into the origins of any of its luxuries and commodities, and you will find – literally – a trail of blood, and a ceaseless taking away from a planet that simply has almost nothing left to give.
We understand that we are in an ecological crisis.
But do we understand just how late the hour is?
97 percent of this planet’s native forests are gone. 98 percent of this planet’s native prairie lands have been destroyed. (1)
Ninety percent of the great ocean fishes are gone. That’s nine out of every ten marlins, tuna and swordfish, to name a few. And industrial fishing practices are not slowing down – they’re accelerating. (2)
We are losing two hundred of the world’s plant and animal communities a day. We are living through the greatest mass extinction this world has ever seen, and it’s being brought about by industrialized human beings. (3)
Our very ability to breathe is made possible by billions upon billions of little organisms – communities of phytoplankton that give this planet, from the depths of its oceans, the oxygen required by so much of life. They’re being wiped out, ruthlessly, by the poisons of our pesticides, by the industrial trawlers that everyday scrape huge swaths of our oceans dead, by the plastics and other pollutants that we dump into the place of our collective birth. Right now, the ratio of plastic to phytoplankton in the world’s oceans is 48 to 1. (4) The creatures that produce the oxygen we breathe are dying, and more quickly than we can account for with statistics.
The climate change that we are currently experiencing is the result of Co2 emissions from decades ago. (5) That means that the Co2 we are releasing into the atmosphere now – in far greater amounts than before – will impact our global climate in ways that we won’t experience fully for at least another decade.
What we do in the next handful of years – I’m talking less than ten – will determine whether or not our grandchildren inherit a livable planet. If we do not reduce our Co2 emissions to zero within that span of time, (6) we will plunge this planet into a process of runaway global warming that could heat this earth as much as 30 degrees within the next century. (7) There literally will be no life as we understand it left.
This is terrifying, and deeply inconvenient, to say the least. But it’s the situation we are facing as living beings.
And how horrible a situation it is, to have so many of our lives dependent on the very system that is poisoning our bodies and destroying our homes. What can we do, when many of us have as our only life support jobs that depend on, and make possible, this destruction?
We say we want jobs. Some of us say we want “green” jobs, jobs that will help us build another infrastructure based on solar panels, wind farms, hydrogen power, and biofuels. At first glance, it seems like this would be the answer for those of us in the United States who want to become independent of oil, who want to leave the destructive path we are on, and who want to provide opportunities for ourselves and for our future generations.
But this is the terrifying and possibly most inconvenient of truths :: there is no sustainable way to continue industrial life, for two major reasons. One is that this planet cannot handle any more extraction and production – what Lierre Keith calls “the conversion of the living to the dead” (8) – and it cannot handle the voracious consumption of products that industrialism requires.
And the other reason is that no amount or combination of alternative sources of energy can run this machine. Wind power could only provide a fraction of the energy currently used by industrialized people. It cannot operate on any meaningful level without fossil fuels. And enormous amounts of land, fossil fuels, and nonrenewable metals are required to build them. The creation of solar panels is very energy intensive, causes great amounts of pollution, requires devastating forms of resource extraction, and they provide very little energy for the amount put into making them. And people living under great lengths of rain and long winter skies (like northern Europe) would need to extract – or steal – sunlight from elsewhere (like parts of Africa). Biofuels require more energy to create than they produce, and the mass production of them will mean, among other things, the theft of land from subsistence farmers in the Global South, the certain destruction of the few remaining stretches of rainforest, and the continued genocide of the indigenous peoples living there. (9)
All the available and conceivable technological solutions are dead ends – just as devastating and unsustainable as fossil fuels and, at this point in the game, impossible to implement on a massive scale.
Especially when we consider how little time we have left to change our ways.
We do not have the time to salvage this machine, even if we could, even if we wanted to, because our window for preventing runaway climate change is rapidly closing, and because we have reached peak oil.
What this means is that all the easily accessible oil reserves are gone (10) and we are nearing a cliff, after which we will enter into an age of energy descent. There is an ever-rising demand for oil that can no longer be met by the amount we can physically extract from the planet. That amount is declining. The amount of energy we have to put in to extract it is becoming greater than the amount of energy we can extract.
This is a situation acknowledged – quietly, though still visibly, if you look close – by people within every level of government, by geologists, by environmentalists, by the oil industry itself. It’s been long predicted, and it’s happening now, and the implications for industrialized humanity are staggering.
The entire industrial infrastructure is based on the use of cheap and abundant fossil fuels. Suburbia itself wouldn’t exist without it. The industrial food system – which uses ten calories of fossil fuel energy for every calorie of food produced (11) – is entirely dependent on it – for its equipment, for its fertilizers, for its pesticides, for its processing, packaging, and distribution. In the industrial world, we need oil to maintain the electrical infrastructures and to deliver fresh water, and we need fossil fuels to heat and cool our homes (and oil to extract those fossil fuels). Further, oil is used in the production of everything from computers to movie film to heart valves to toilet seats to bras to toothpaste, to name only a handful of the over 500,000 different things purchased and consumed daily by industrialized peoples (12).
The implications of this are many. One of them is that industrial civilization is due for inevitable collapse. Those who run this culture might be able to stave off that collapse by a decade or two through pitched battles for the remaining scraps of oil left. In fact, they’re already trying to do this: witness the Alberta Tar Sands, possibly the single most ecologically devastating project on the face of this earth right now, and employing one of the most inefficient methods of energy extraction out there.
But collapse is inevitable. If we were to somehow find a combination of alternative energy sources comparable to fossil fuels in efficiency and scope, we would need a few decades at least to create that kind of infrastructure. In the meantime, we’d need cheap fossil fuels to create it. And the era of cheap fossil fuels is rapidly coming to a close.
We can expect a rise of authoritarianism the world over. We can expect the growth and normalization of labor camps globally – including in the U.S. As industrial agriculture becomes less able to rely on cheap oil to run its massive equipment and supply its depleted soils with chemical fertilizers and pesticides, we can expect forced agricultural labor to become an even greater global reality than it is now. It is likely that people who are in debt with banks or governments – for whatever reasons – will be “employed” to work in these camps. We can expect more wars for dwindling supplies of fossil fuel. We can expect cascades of emigrations from city centers to the countryside as life in the cities, without regular importation of food and other commodities, becomes increasingly unbearable. We can expect technological development to continue briefly for an increasingly narrow and privileged sector of the population. And we can expect that those who run this industrial economy will continue to try and push the envelope – to push for “growth” at all costs, and to fell the very last vestiges of life on this planet in the process. Will we join with them in this when they elicit our help?
Whether we help them or not, eventually, through much suffering, all of this will collapse.
The question is :: how much of a planet will we have left once it does? How many more of our kin will have been driven into extinction? How many more indigenous people will have been taken out by this system’s ceaseless genocide? How worse off will the rural poor – the majority of the world – be once the insatiable consumption of industrialized peoples comes at last to an end? How many people – human, or otherwise – will this planet be able to support once this system collapses? Will it be able to support any at all?
For our children’s children, will there be breathable air, and drinkable water?
And for those of us here already, how will we meet this moment? This truly decisive, and precious, and fragile moment, when the future of all living things is at stake?
I understand :: we live in a world dominated by money. By faith in money, and the physical realities created by – and enforced by – that commonly held faith. It makes sense in this situation to call for more employment opportunities, to want a robust economy, to yearn for growth and possibility for more and more of us within the brutal reality we’ve come to know.
But what has this economy’s growth meant for the indigenous peoples of this world? What has it meant for the rural poor who are this world’s majority? What has it meant for the forests, for the rivers, for the oceans and the prairie lands? What has it meant for the nonhuman peoples that are the forests, that are the rivers, the oceans, and the prairie lands?
Everything that furnishes the lives of industrialized peoples comes from a broken somewhere, including the very computer I write on. While many of us within the United States have come to understand that we are the ninety-nine percent without meaningful political power in this country, we have forgotten that though we are five percent of the world’s people, we have taken more than a fifth of the world’s resources. (13) Our relative wealth has meant the senseless tearing apart of the land. Our relative wealth has meant the calculated tearing apart of people living on that land. Our collective wealth would not exist without that intentionally crafted and violently enforced poverty.
To live in a growth economy is to live in an economy of permanent war and colonization, and to live in an economy of extraction is to live in an economy of ecocide.
Do we have the courage to follow the aluminum cans to the gutted bellies of the mountains? Do we have the courage to witness what this gutting has meant for the people that live there?
So many of us witnessed with horror the destruction wrought by the recent earthquake, and before that, a hurricane, in Haiti. Do we know that so many died because of landslides come from the tops of mountains once covered with forests but now laid bare by the insatiable hunger of a few paper corporations?
To live is to kill and to live is to take, but taking must be matched by giving, and to die is meant to feed life beyond us. This is a basic understanding of the thousands of cultures that have lived with respect for the limitations of our home. Reverence for that basic understanding has allowed people to live for thousands of years in places that industrial culture has destroyed in a few centuries.
It is easy for those of us who’ve grown dependent on this economy to forget that it is the planet that feeds us, that houses us, that clothes us. Not this system. This system mangles the fundamental relationships we’re supposed to have here, relationships of reciprocity, of give and take, relationships that respect the limits of all things.
Remember :: jobs only become necessary at that moment when our ability and our right to directly live off of the land we are on, individually and collectively, are taken away from us.
The history of empires past and present is the story of this stripping away of that ability and that right, this violent mangling of the relationships that different peoples have created over time with the places that they live in.
I’m asking that we consider the limitations, and evils, of jobs within this system. I’m asking that we have the courage to remember that in this system wealth is only possible through the exploitation of others, seen and unseen. I’m asking that we begin to excavate, in detail, with one another, the stories of how all peoples in this world have had, at one time or another, their ability to meet their own needs taken from them by outside forces, and how more often than not many of these peoples have joined those outside forces, and taken from others in turn. Whether we name it empire, colonialism, civilization itself – let’s find what is common here, and let’s imagine again something outside of it.
Let’s rebuild the commons. Let’s defend the commons. Let’s build, as much as possible, the kind of dense fabric of reciprocity and mutual aid we need to become independent of this system that is destroying our communities and destroying our only home.
All across this country there are people already doing this. Whether they’re doing the difficult work of establishing cultures of restorative justice, or learning how to make our communities Safe Outside the System, or teaching people about general assemblies and other forms of direct democracy, or building the capacity of communities to grow their own food, or rewilding and healing devastated ecosystems, people are building everywhere pockets of the worlds we need to usher into being.
Let’s also begin to directly resist the relentless destruction that is this economy – the industrial way of life. Let’s heed the words of folks like Troy Davis and work to physically dismantle this system, locally and globally, this system that may privilege some of us now but will be the death of all things in the end.
It won’t happen overnight – I know. Many of us will still need to keep those jobs to survive in the meantime – I know. But all the while let’s build something different for ourselves, many somethings different for ourselves – local, sustainable, life-renewing, directly democratic – so that we can begin to wrench ourselves free from this system where the success of some is the misery of many, where the ability to eke out a survivable present comes at the expense of a livable future. And all the while, let’s not only tend our gardens and march on our financial sectors, but let’s also push ourselves to confront this infrastructure that allows the powerful to exploit the powerless and to destroy the planet, even if it is also the infrastructure that allows me to write to so many of y’all in this way.
And in these moments when we are facing one another in assembly, in the streets, when we are not simply chanting demands to the powerful, but turning instead to one another for answers, let’s ask each other the difficult question :: Do we want them to give us more jobs in a bureaucratic economy of plunder, or do we want to find ways to give each other livelihoods in a grassroots economy of repair? Do we want a more robust U.S. economy or do we want a just and healing future for all?
I’m not saying I know what this looks like.
There are hundreds of thousands of possibilities.
We need them all. And we need them now.
There is no justice or future in industrialism. Let those of us who are most dependent on it – and privileged by it – begin to finally pull it apart while we continue the difficult work of building something better.
Love :: Aidan Ponyboy Kriese
1) Deep Green Resistance, Lierre Keith, Aric McBay, Derrick Jensen
2) Endgame, Derrick Jensen
3) The Future of Life, Wilson
4) Deep Green Resistance, Lierre Keith, Aric McBay, Derrick Jensen
5) Climate Change 2007
6) Ravilious, “Only Zero Emissions”
7) Deep Green Resistance, Lierre Keith, Aric McBay, Derrick Jensen
8) “The Tyranny of Entitlement,” Derrick Jensen
9) Renewable Energy, Ted Trainer
10) Deep Green Resistance, Lierre Keith, Aric McBay, Derrick Jensen
11) The Oil Age is Over: What to Expect as the World Runs Out of Cheap Oil, 2005-2050, Matt Savinar