Upping the Stakes
To Live or Not to Live
The danger of the tragic hero mindset
by Derrick Jensen
HAVE YOU EVER NOTICED how many excuses we all find to not act in defense of the planet? Sure, we all have errands to run and e-mails to answer and we all need down time and the problems are so big and [INSERT YOUR BEST EXCUSE HERE]. But lately I’ve been encountering a particularly frustrating excuse that a lot of people seem to be giving for not acting: they say it’s too late, that various tipping points have been reached in terms of runaway global warming, and that especially because of the lag time between carbon emissions and increased temperature, we’re already doomed, so what’s the point of fighting back?
This faux-tragedian posturing infuriates me. What infuriates me even more is that this reasoning has become so familiar. I encounter it all the time. Literally the moment I finished typing the above—and I’m not making this up—I received an e-mail that said, “Solutions are inadequate, futile, and too late. I wish people would admit this, rather than scramble for last ditch efforts. . . . Just as people speak of peak oil and peak civilization, we’re peak life. Three billion years of cyanobacteria, 500 million years of increasingly complex life forms, and a cherry topping of too-intelligent human beings. Humans are demonstrating that intelligent life is unsustainable, perhaps triggering the downward slope of life complexity and returning the planet to its microbial past.” And as I finished pasting that quote into this column I received yet another such e-mail.
The notion that humans are the peak form of life (and everyone else is just background) leads to a sense of entitlement, which leads to atrocities against those who (or, in this formulation, that) are seen as less-than-peak forms of life. And anyway, what kind of peak life form would knowingly degrade its landbase and then throw up its hands when action is most needed to counteract the destruction?
I’m not convinced that humans are particularly more intelligent than parrots, octopi, salmon, trees, rivers, stones, and so on, but even if you did believe that humans were more intelligent, it wouldn’t alter the fact that the Tolowa Indians lived where I live for 12,500 years and did so without destroying the place. I’d hate to try to make the argument that the Tolowa didn’t destroy the land because they weren’t intelligent enough to do so.
But there’s another point I want to make here, which has to do with the tragic posturing. In his book The Comedy of Survival, Joseph Meeker points out that human cultures through the ages have created comedies, but only civilization has created the genre of the tragedy. In fact, you could easily say that tragedy is this culture’s tragic flaw. A tragic flaw, you probably recall, is a flaw in the protagonist’s character that brings him or her to ruin. The flaw could be indecision, hubris, jealousy, etc. The point is that the character is unable or unwilling to examine and overcome this flaw, and, in my perspective at least, it is this, and not the flaw itself, that leads to the downfall. Tragedies presume inevitability, which presumes an inability to choose. As one definition puts it, “Tragic behavior assumes change is not possible and will defend this assumption to the death.”
I’ve always found classic tragedies such as Hamlet or Othello to be more frustrating than cathartic. I mean, if your behavior is leading you and those around you to ruin, why not just change your behavior? Why hold tight to a character flaw that’s killing you and those you love? The tragic “hero” only becomes aware of his or her fatal flaw once it is too late. I’m far more interested in stopping the tragedy before it’s too late than I am in feeling sorrow or empathy for those who cannot or will not change their destructive behavior. What’s worse is that in this human-culture-as-tragic-hero narrative, the flaw is nothing so ignoble as greed, lust, jealousy, or even indecision. Rather, the tragic flaw this culture ascribes to itself is intelligence. We’re simply too smart to allow life on the planet to continue. And of course we are unable to change, so there is nothing to be done. Cue the tears, drop the curtain.
I’m not interested.
First, the premise that intelligence is behind the murder of the planet is both inaccurate and absurd. Second, the murder of the planet is the result of behaviors—which can be changed—and infrastructures—which can be destroyed. There’s nothing inevitable about it. Nor do I believe that global warming has reached a final tipping point. There are plenty of options to try first, like deindustrializing. People like James Lovelock (who predicts that by the end of the twenty-first century, “billions of us will die and the few breeding pairs of people that [who] survive will be in the Arctic where the climate remains tolerable”) are already acknowledging that this culture, if left unchecked, will essentially kill the planet. Well, if this culture will kill the planet, then it looks like it’s time to roll up our sleeves and do what’s necessary—not stick our heads in the sand. The best way to guarantee that it is too late is by saying it is too late and not acting to help the world as we know it survive, a world with goblin sharks and pencil fish, where bats flutter by at night and butterflies and bumblebees light up the days.
My friend the great Dakota activist Waziyatawin once said, “That defeatist attitude makes me want to scream. The battles we’re fighting are overwhelming, but we know things won’t get better if we do nothing. Our only hope is enough people intervening and taking action, people willing to risk something now so we all don’t lose everything later. The only sense of empowerment I feel is by taking some kind of action, whether it’s writing, working to undermine the existing structures, or sitting on the open prairie in December with a Dakota man trying to save our landbase.” She went on: “If our actions will do nothing, why would anyone even want to live anymore? That kind of hopelessness, in the defeatist sense, means an embracing of victimage and complete powerlessness. Here the salmon have much to teach: either they make it upriver to spawn, or they die trying.”
If our actions make it so there is even a one-thousandth of 1 percent chance that things will work out better for ourselves and the planet, then it is our moral duty to act and act and act. Before it’s too late.
Am I optimistic? Not in the slightest. Am I going to quit? Not on your fucking life.