Imagine a wood sprite appeared before you while hiking and, assuming you loved nature and possessed a heroic character, it informed you that if you sacrificed your life forthwith you would save an entire species of indigenous plant.
Explaining, the sprite told you that if you took another step in any direction, you’d permanently disrupt the delicate balance comprising the habitat of the final patch of blackjack trillium anywhere.
If you relented, the wood spirit would have simply made you disappear, ending your physical existence in this realm, or transformed your mode of energy—whatever it was you chose to believe in at the time.
What would you have done, assuming you had had faith that the offer had been genuine? Just how important did you think you were? Where did your sentiments and sympathies lie, and why? Were true heroes self-indulgent? Did they believe in the superiority of their kind, or did they serve a higher purpose than their own self-interest, expanding their identity to include everything they related to with love and reason?
These questions seemed preposterous to many, and were perhaps as unnerving as asking a chemical corporation’s spokesperson whether or not that company’s product—Tupperware—was worth endangering the life and health of the surrounding community, which shared in the risk of [but not the profit from] its production.
Yet, the very reason it was impolite was the very reason it was so important. Who we thought we were dictated our behavior and defined the choices we made. That behavior and those choices, psychologically motivated, had profound material effects on the ecosystem that maintained us, and the story that defined and conceptualized our sense of self, which allowed us to function.
My guess was that such questions pricked us with profound discomfort because they pointed out the degree to which each of us in some way had sold out to the amoral philosophy of the free market system, and then rationalized that corrupted sense of self with an incoherent, toxic form of sky god monotheism validated by space age military technology. In other words, we were as moody and agitated as any heavily armed addict whose supply was threatened.
The fact was that each of us was who we were, and did what we did, because of America’s superpower status. Each and every human being in America had materially benefited from the nation’s military budget in some way, either directly or indirectly, and the price paid for this was made painfully aware to everyone but Americans themselves—at least until the end—in the form of the primacy of American national interests, politically and economically defined, around the globe.
The fact was the prices we paid for goods were artificially low across the board, as the true costs of their marketing; production and distribution were externalized or socialized. American politicians of both parties, to remain in power, necessarily ensured that this continued for the duration of their terms in office. Any deviation from that unfair advantage would’ve landed them in hot water with workers and investors alike, and most likely would have cost them their prestigious livelihoods.
In other words, Americans didn’t realize that they paid less for things at the store than people in other countries did, but would end up paying more in the long run for a suite of problems associated with that imbalanced cost-benefit formula. American military might perpetuated our advantage, allowing us to go to Wal-Mart or have a pizza delivered to our door in 30 minutes. It allowed us to go anywhere in the world and feel at home with the golden arches just down the road and the latest products from Hollywood and New York filling the airwaves and movie screens. It was an advantage we took at gunpoint. Did that make those who supported such a political economic system guilty of armed robbery, even if we were merely unwitting accessories after the fact? Was ignorance of a law an excuse for avoiding the consequences of violating it? That may have been so in cases of human jurisprudence, where sympathy might be taken, but was certainly not a valid excuse in wild nature, which operated by the immutable laws of physics and raw transfers of data.
One of the things I was required to do to get my dolphins when I was on a nuclear powered ballistic missile submarine during Reagan’s first term, was to trace the path of a water molecule in the ocean through the submarine, which was to be viewed as a living organism, the chemical changes that water molecule went through, and how it was dispersed back into the environment and in what forms. From there it was only a matter of reading a few ecology books to realize how the sub’s poop ended up back in its mouth again. It was the way an ecosystem worked. Ironic I’d learn about that, or begin learning about it, in the place I did.
Another, perhaps deeper irony, was that one wasn’t recognized as a citizen on the boat until one recognized how the air one breathed was made and where the water that one drank came from, and who and what was responsible for the whole process. The submarine was a mini-ecosystem. Sailors had virtually no rights or no means of escape until they recognized their function in that system, which could not be fully understood until recognizing the functions of all the other ingredients that made the organism tick. This level of enlightenment was attained because everyone recognized that education, training and awareness were literally a matter of life and death. The true freedom to act in one’s enlightened self-interest was an absolute necessity within the authoritarian program that operated the boat’s life support systems. Poseidon was unforgiving when it came to submariner error.
Now, let’s return to the original question, but rephrased: Imagine for a minute that you were on a submarine and the captain said you had to go into the torpedo room to battle a fire and fuel leak that you were specifically trained to handle. If you went in there it would be certain suicide, but you might save the boat and your shipmates if you did. If you didn’t, the sub was most likely going down and then you’d all end up dead. What would you have done?
Most of us would have said we’d have gone in there and done our duty, but it wasn’t that simple. Unless one was trained to fight, it was a 50-50 bet whether or not they’d take flight or do so. Of course, training also made one more effective in a crisis. Everything actually depended upon what one’s mind contained and its potential capabilities in the moment before the crisis occurred. Life was, in part, maybe mostly, a preparation for behaving responsibly when one had to behave that way. Those who lacked the discipline perished and failed to reproduce, and their traits were lost to history [like everyone else’s was].
Unfortunately, most people didn’t view their lives on land as being equivalent to life aboard the sub. They failed to see that we basically inhabited a space ship that had evolved its own degree of self-consciousness, an organic self-awareness or nascent sentience in the form of humankind, as opposed to an artificial intelligence, made manifest in holding faith in something that did not exist in and of itself. It was our ecological function, therefore, to be hyper-sensible and responsive to the system’s needs. If an asteroid had been headed for Earth, we could have been the planet’s defense system. If we were causing it to die of fever, we were a virus hoping to communicate its disease elsewhere. Truth was we were both contagion and anti-asteroid defense mechanism. Existence was the friction between chaos and entropy, death and desire, which warmed and lit our universe.
Yet we lived in a society in which hardly anyone would be willing to sacrifice his or her life for an entire species of weed. We instinctively valued our individual lives over that of a complete strand of life’s web because we were human, lord over nature, and deep down believed the world ended when we died. Our lifestyles and standards of living had to be maintained at all costs. We were so perverse that we’d kill and die for the convenience of microwave ovens and the lizard brain pleasure of an SUV in heavy traffic, but not to ensure the healthy future of life on the planet. We committed genocide against dandelions and grubs, poisoned birds and contaminated groundwater, triggered asthma attacks in our neighbors and caused their mother’s breast cancer and child’s leukemia for the sake of a green lawn. And we disenfranchised billions of people worldwide through the international financial system that our nation’s elite private interests clearly dominated.
And now we’re dead, the result of our perverse national belief system. It was probably already too late to save the planet by the time we became aware of it. America, which was seen by its citizens and many around the world as humankind’s best hope, nailed nature to the cross for its own short-term profit. The effects of global warming accelerated beyond scientific predictions. Our sub had sprung too many leaks and too many vital systems were crippled by fire. We were in deep water with no backup, no rescue in sight. It was time for a deathbed conversion before it was even too late for that.
Since humankind was, perhaps, Earth Mother’s ego, it would have been nice if she had had some sort of realization about herself before she lost her mind, her madness, her pathology and healed. Her life and ours might have meant something had we bothered to live by It.
Finally, I was honest in the early version of this piece, in which I confessed I wouldn’t have killed myself to save the last specimen of a species of wildflower. To save the last individual of a great ape might have been another story, but to say the least I would have made a concerted effort to change my lifestyle, which I did and continued doing with varying degrees of success, in an effort to tread as lightly as I could on the Earth…despite my considerable appetites.
The bottom line was if one didn’t strive to function responsibly as an individual human being within the ecosystem and seek to overthrow America’s amoral political-economic dogma, one might as well have done the world a favor and dropped dead [which we did]. The preferred response, of course, would have simply been for one to alter their lifestyle, to decide to curtail their comfortable mode of being in favor of a better, more meaningful one.
But it didn’t happen. It couldn’t have. The fact was, everything alive had been convicted and sentenced to death. Our response to that news dictated what our existence felt like. How did we want to be and what stopped us from being that way?
Those were the questions. Our responses were complicated, but the problem wasn’t. And now we’re dead.
Originally published as “Looking for a Deathbed Conversion” in Dissident Voice, August 2004; anthologized in The Cost of Freedom, Howling Dog Press, 2007.
Climate Change: It’s Even Worse Than We Thought
Telemorphosis: Theory in the Era of Climate Change, Vol. 1, edited by Tom Cohenhttp://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=ohp;idno=10539563.0001.001
Impasses of the Post-Global: Theory in the Era of Climate Change, Vol. 2, edited by Henry Sussman