The question was asked at the Barbastro Peak Oil Conference.
If we are justified in poisoning people in order to produce combustible liquids and gas, why don’t we jump to the ultimate consequence and turn human corpses into oil?
Swift’s Modest Proposal returns, with increased poignancy.
Clifford Dean Scholz comments (at Energy Bulletin):
I’m drinking a cup of coffee right now, having boiled the water with natural gas. I’m not exactly sure where the fuel I used comes from, but my guess is that natural gas from various sources gets marketed and distributed together. Therefore as I enjoy my coffee this morning, people in shale gas states now may have combustible household tap water and carcinogenic bathroom showers as a thank you for my convenience.
One of the hazards of environmental inquiry is to see horrors like this hiding behind pretty much everything I do and much of what I own, right down to the cotton socks on my feet. My question today is: How did I get to be so callous about it? And what should be done?
This is a question that has been haunting me for years — no, decades now. We can roll along in a state of “normal” consciousness for days or months, comfortable with the cultural standards, rituals, and semiotics with which we were raised. Like fish in water. But when we apply even a half-hearted (let alone rigorous) ethical curiosity to the material conditions of our lives — even well-meaning lives, full of good intentions — we find that layer upon layer of exploitation and misery underlie the apparently innocent surface of our days. In a fairly real, not entirely metaphorical sense, we are living well on the backs of slaves; we are turning human corpses into oil and burning them… not to mention the corpses of other critters, entire species. How can we live with it? How does this knowledge not drive us mad?
One of the mysteries of the human condition is this ability of ours (as a species) to switch off our empathy, to sip tea in comfort on the verandah while slaves are whipped in the back yard; to go out and wallow in cheap imports from China even though we know, on some intellectual level, that they are being produced by sweatshop labour; to buy and eat species that we know are endangered; to ask for that plastic bag at the checkout counter even though we know the ocean food chain is perverted and poisoned by accumulating plastics. I could go on, but I suspect that Gentle Readers know exactly what I mean. Business as usual is so… usual. So easy. So convincing. Everything seems as it should be.
Moreover, we have little choice about supping with the devil. As Scholz remarks, most everything we buy, do, and own comes with a price tag measured in cruelty and destruction. It seems impossible to have clean hands. We live — the vast majority of us on this planet — on land that has been taken and retaken by brute armed force. We are mostly forced to work for someone in the totalising money nexus. Seldom can we find work that can be called clean. Often the only job standing between us and homelessness is one contributing to harm: the prison, the weapons plant, the tar sands, lumbering, manufacturing, selling junk food, fixing cars… How many “jobs” are there that we could genuinely call harmless?
Is there any artifact in your home, or mine, that we can truly call innocent? Even my watercolour paints contain toxic heavy metal dyes; what do I really know about the factory where they were produced or the mines where the ores were extracted? Who and what has died to make my paints? Is there a stream somewhere that will never support life again because of the mining of cadmium that ended up in *my* tube of cadmium yellow? If so, I share the guilt for the death of that stream with many, many people. But the tiny shares add up. A tiny share of a stream here, a tiny share of the misery of Nigeria there, a tiny share of a lost species, a tiny share of the Americans’ imperial wars, a tiny share of all the crimes done by all the finance capital vultures who “manage” the funds packaged into my pension plan, a tiny share of the topsoil we’ve lost to chemical/mechanised agriculture. All those tiny shares of malfeasance and crime, they do add up. Every artifact in my home is a Marley’s ghost, trailing a long or shorter, heavier or lighter, chain of misery and crime.
Every imperial culture has a surface, like a thin layer of ice sparkling all smooth and pretty over murky depths. Nice manners, good food, witty conversation, elegant clothing, sophisticated arts of all kinds glitter on the surface. But somewhere beneath — whether far away or nearby — lurk the exploitation, armed robbery, mass murder which secure the surplus wealth to support the decorous, cosy, elegant lifestyle. The philosphers of Athens mulled over the meaning of democracy, fairness, political ethics, while indentured servants and slaves tilled their fields. The cosy cuppa that pleasant British bourgeois shared with family and friends was made from tea grown on slave-labour plantations. We marvel (and are aghast, and self-righteous) when we consider the “good Germans” who lay in their comfortable beds hearing the East-bound trains roll by at night, working hard on not knowing what (who) was in them, settling deeper into their down pillows. But how different are we? Or to put it the other way, how different were they, from any inhabitant of any imperial culture at any time in history? Surely their behaviour and their predicament were the rule rather than the exception, and our exceptionalisation of their behaviour and predicament is a kind of scapegoating, a distancing, an exorcism that excuses us from taking too long a look into (or do I mean behind) the mirror?
We mourn and agonise over the death of the biosphere and the fraying of our civilisation, while we continue to buy clothes made of plastic, food processed in factories and shipped thousands of miles to reach us. Maybe we ride in airplanes to go to serious conferences about climate destabilisation. We tell ourselves that the planes would be flying anyway, even if we personally refuse to travel on them. We stifle our conscience and go with the cultural flow. We may pick one or two aspects of the “culture of make-believe” to boycott, but in our hearts we know it’s a gesture at best. Every tool we use seems to link us to the evils we wish to eradicate.
Beneath even our “goods” is a story of “bads”. We want to revive a rail system that was built by the brutal exploitation of cheap immigrant labour, at a cost of hundreds of thousands of stifled and suffering lives; from carriages travelling on those rail lines which we want — for such good reasons — to save and restore, the nearly-last buffalo were indiscriminately shot. Even the printing press, that icon of enlightenment, spent its earliest years printing manuals for witch-hunters, abetting persecution and torture. We cannot escape the endless chain of abuse: we can scrub our hands like a legion of Lady Macbeths, and never erase the stains. We can try to repurpose tools and technologies to better use. But the system is totalising. To live within it is to be complicit. To live outside it is to be targeted for elimination or assimilation. Our own complicity sickens us, but we rightly fear the risk and difficulty of trying to step off the conveyor belt. Purity is unattainable. We despair of right livelihood.
Every imperial culture seems to struggle with an ethical consciousness — the “advanced ethical thinking” of its philosophers and theologians — that diverges so far from the culture’s actual conduct and structure, the way things really work, that its logical conclusions cannot be admitted or must be laughed out of court. The life of the “civilised” seems to pose a choice between merry sociopathy and deep cognitive dissonance. We teach our children moral lessons and prescriptions that the very machineries of their own home life violate daily: don’t lie, don’t cheat, don’t steal, don’t hit people, don’t be greedy. We teach them this as we drive them around in SUVs to and from 4,000 square foot homes financed and fuelled by… well, by cheating, lying, stealing, being greedy, killing people.
Somewhere beneath the sparkling skin of civilisation is the reality: if we really obeyed the directives of the Gospel or the Buddha, or the teachings of Confucius or the Tao or the Stoics, if we really walked our cultural talk, our culture (as we know it) would collapse. Business as usual could not continue if we truly renounced force and fraud. Our entire civilisation — the project of civilisation, the business of empire, the empire of business — is based on force and fraud. Crime is business as usual, and business as usual is crime.
When individuals insist on trying to be harmless, renouncing both force and fraud, trying to take the teachings of our ethical traditions seriously, we call them extremists or kooks, dreamers, impractical, naive, fanatical. Or saints — otherworldly “special” creations whom we could not possibly be expected to emulate. We make uneasy fun of them. Or, if they become too strident, too outspoken in their description of the food chain beneath the surface, we lock them up. If some of our compatriots become too insistent in pointing out the suffering slave in the courtyard, the hungry beggar in the market, the butcher’s bill of species, ecosystems, indigenous cultures — well then, we call them sentimental, foolish, impractical, unmanly (if male); and if all else fails we point to their own imbrication in the totalising system and deride them as hypocrites.
Global capitalism has not changed anything essential about the methods and practises of accumulation and stratification — only their scope, voracity, and velocity. Truly it might better be known as “global cannibalism.” We are willing to sacrifice human lives to augment corporate profits and to maintain our “industrial lifestyle” at whatever level we currently believe is reasonable to demand. That’s the real bottom line. We have become so heavily “invested” in our culture as it is — BAU — that we cannot even imagine any different way of relating, interacting, dealing with each other or the world. (Hence the genuine radicalism of the stubborn assertion that another world is possible — perhaps the essential truth shared by all radical traditions: it doesn’t have to be this way.)
We routinely use technologies that condemn people (sometimes ourselves) to illness and death. We routinely acquiesce to business practises that condemn people (sometimes ourselves) to servitude and unhappiness. Often our complicity is based in ignorance; but even after ignorance is dispelled by research or accidental witnessing, we have few alternatives to continued, uncomfortable, despairing complicity.
Fighting the system can be satisfying, challenging, energising. It can absorb an entire human lifetime with relatively little result to show for it. The scholarly and courageous biologist Alexandra Morton has spent 20 years trying to draw official attention to the devastating impacts of fish CAFO in BC coastal waters. At the end of her personal and financial resources, she is about ready to give up. This is tragic news, but hardly surprising; the opposition owns the media and the politicians, has bottomless pockets to hire lawyers and spread bullshit. You can spend your life tilting at just one windmill (out of the thousands of “satanic mills” churning away at full speed all around us) and still lose.
We don’t know in advance exactly which people will be condemned to death by industrial toxicity, for example — but statistically we can be quite sure that lives will be cut short and quality of life diminished or ruined for someone, somewhere, as a result of… uranium mining, for example. Coal mining. Fracking. The fossil fuel extraction and refinement industry generally. Burning the stuff. Spraying neurotoxins on food crops. Insisting on private automobile transport. Mining vulnerable countries for raw materials. Using depleted uranium munitions. Scattering delayed-action explosives (mines) all over a conflict zone. Every time, there is a justification, an apologia, some jesuitical twist of reasoning that “proves” that (as Madeleine Allbright infamously said) “The cost is worth it.” (In her case, “the cost” was the premature deaths of about half a million Iraqi children due to US sanctions against their nation-state.) Every time, there are indirect beneficiaries of the force and fraud, whose lives are made cosy and comfortable, even elegant, at the cost of human sacrifice: legions of Mama Corleones, trying hard not to know how the bills get paid.
Sometimes we say “it’s the price of progress,” with all the arrogant certainty of Inquisitors who were sure that torturing people to death was an acceptable way of saving their souls. Glorious ends justify foul means. Sometimes we say “there is no alternative,” when we mean that the alternative might mean having to make uncomfortable adjustments in our own lifestyles. Recently, Alternet ran an article on plastics pollution entitled “Plastic May Be Horrible For the Environment, But Could We Survive Without It?” The answer seems absurdly obvious: we (humanity) survived without plastic for about 20,000 years; evidently we can survive without it. What a silly question, eh? But there is something that cannot survive without it: a level of convenience, packaging, centralisation, and corporate profiteering which is now the defining mark of our culture. We cannot imagine this changing without our culture itself disappearing, morphing into something we don’t recognise (and ourselves into people we don’t recognise) — hence we imagine this as “not surviving”.
But let us at least now and then take a direct look at the distribution of costs and benefits, at where “externalised” costs are felt and where “away” (where we throw stuff out of sight and mind) really is. People are being condemned to death and suffering every day to subsidise our luxuries — not necessities, luxuries. So long as we accept this situation as normal, so long as we cannot bear to — or refuse to — look beneath the sparkling thin ice on which the “decencies” of an affluent life precariously rest, we cannot claim any moral high ground over any other civilisation that practised routine human sacrifice or slavery.
We cannot even claim a whole lot of moral high ground over a band of cannibal pirates. Each of us perhaps consumes less than one whole human being each decade (I haven’t done the math) but even a small share of a cannibal feast still makes me a cannibal, doesn’t it?
We live in a society, a system, that has made it ridiculously difficult to abstain from our share of the cannibal feast.
But people have always eaten people!
What else is there to eat?
– Flanders and Swann, “Don’t Eat People”
The history of the world, my sweet –
(oh Mr Todd, yes Mr Todd, what does it tell?)
– is who gets eaten and who gets to eat!
(yes Mr Todd, and Mr Todd, who gets to sell!)
– Stephen Sondheim, “A Little Priest” from ‘Sweeney Todd’
This time, however, the Barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament.
– Alasdair Macintyre, After Virtue
Perhaps I have written this depressing little screed to alleviate some part of our predicament, to acknowledge that we are governed by “barbarians” — not in the sense of “uncivilised,” because civilisation is nothing but barbarism in elegant clothing, but in the sense of the Barbaric Heart:
This is the barbaric calculation: if you can prosper from violence, then you should go ahead and be violent. In short order the Barbaric Heart is led to conclude that in fact prosperity is dependent on violence. Therefore, you should be good at violence, for your own sake and the sake of your country. That was Roman virtue. Which is a way of saying that the barbaric itself is a form of virtue, especially if you think that winning, surviving, triumphing, and accumulating great wealth are virtues, just as, in order, athletes, Darwinians, military commanders, and capitalists do. Ultimately, these types are all the same. The athlete, the soldier, and the businessman all want to “win,” and by whatever means necessary.
We (those of us on the winning side, at the core of Empire) are prospering from violence. We have been prospering from violence all our lives, all our parents’ lives, all our grandparents’ lives and so on back far beyond living memory. “The secret of great fortunes without apparent cause is a crime forgotten, for it was properly done,” per Balzac, and the great fortunes of the industrial nations are attributed to imagined, mythologised causes while properly and thoroughly done crimes are resolutely forgotten — even those within living memory.
But the time of prosperity from violence may be running out. Laying waste to the biosphere, we lay waste to our own posterity. We are now stealing from our own children and grandchildren. There are no vast new “uninhabited” realms to invade and plunder facing little resistance (even the vastly overpowered and outgunned Iraqis can repeatedly embarrass that soi-disant “hyperpower”, the US, as the Afghanis embarrassed the Soviets). Two fairly high ranking military advisors recently authored a report that suggested:
… in an open, non-linear system, attempts to achieve security through control are futile. “Dominance, like fossil fuel, is not a sustainable source of energy,” as the authors put it.
Dominance is an attempt to establish a one-way relationship, a relationship of taking without giving, a relationship of force and fraud. We have been “doing dominance” for at least 5,000 years of civilisation. We have pursued it to its logical conclusions, attempting to dominate everything from time and distance to every phylum and genus around us. We have dominated the flora and fauna, to the point of exterminating them. We have dominated each other, to the point of repeated genocide. We have dominated everything — “ruled the world” as so many dominators of the past dreamed of doing — leveraging a source of energy slaves that is now running out. As our various interlocking predicaments illustrate, dominance is not a sustainable source of energy. The dominance/control/military/factory paradigm simply doesn’t work in any but the short term, kinda like the fossil fuel thing doesn’t work in any but the short term: the thin pretty ice of civilisation cracks in the end and the violence and poverty that enabled idleness and luxury erupt, one way or another. The oil runs out. The complex system goes into catabolic collapse, which is another word for cannibalism, autophagy, eating our young.
We are governed by barbaric hearts. They have invited us to a cannibal feast where “if you aren’t at the table you’re on the menu.” We need to stand down from the table and change the menu. We need to divorce the Don. We need to do it soon.
I have been trying to wrap up this troubling train of thought (one that has been chugging through my head for years now) and I have not found a nice resounding summary statement; my own attempts to divorce the Don have been incomplete and inadequate. I too am imbricated fully in the totalising exterminist system. My cup of tea may be fair trade certified, but nothing I can buy with dollars is, by definition, really clean. I live with this intense moral itch, poison ivy of the soul. Another world is not only possible but urgently needed — and I don’t know how to get there. I try to create a tiny piece of it right here and right now. It’s not a big enough piece, it’s not a good enough piece, but I wish that it may in some way counterbalance at least some of my little nibbles from the global cannibal feast.