Morality of Imperialism

SUBHEAD: You don’t want to destroy the living planet so a few humans can continue to live comfortably at the expense of every other culture and species on the planet. Do you? Image above: Illustration for PlayStation3 game titled "Greed Corp" From By Guy McPherson on 20 December 2009 in Nature Bats Last (

My latest post stirred considerable interest, as indicated by my email in-box as well as several thoughtful comments online. Although I tried to be clear about my position, questions continue to flow in, suggesting my no-holds-barred approach lacked clarity. I’ll try again in this post, recognizing that my position is so nuanced it is likely to remain unclear, especially for readers seeking the black and white, line-in-the-sand approach to which we’ve become accustomed from media and politicians alike. In addition, my position is likely to offend every reader. Nothing new there, of course. But you’ve been warned, for a change.

I recall the period in my life during which I gave up the idea of an omniscient universal designer (i.e., god). The discomfort was palpable and foreign. After all, I was relinquishing the certainty of eternal life with a loving god for a brief life filled with existential angst in a horrible place (or so I was led to believe by religious leaders). But, for me, reason prevailed. Once I saw the universe through a certain lens, there was no going back. Furthermore, the absurdity of my former life was — and is — a constant source of personal amusement.

In many ways, it’s easier the second time around. I’ve given up on fantasy and committed myself to a life based on reason. But the pain is no less torturous and I feel even emptier this time around. There is simply no feeding the hollow spot in my gut and my psyche, as there was when I replaced my invisible, omnipotent friend in the sky with reason. Instead of abandoning the mirage of eternal life, I’m abandoning the mirage of globalization. Instead of giving up an ever-loving god, I’m giving up a comfortable life spent with my best friend. I’m taking yet another step in the path from make-believe to reality. And, as we all know, reality is a harsh, dispassionate mistress who doesn’t give a damn about the emptiness in my fragile little psyche. Fortunately, I still have the amusing memories of the absurdity of my former life, in which I believed I was saving the world by conducting and publishing mundane research and teaching irrelevant concepts to a largely disinterested audience.

I found the first step to be the most difficult. Simply recognizing the industrial economy as an omnicidal imperial beast forced me to cross a threshold most people find far too formidable to attempt. We’ve never been here as a species, much less as individuals. And every cultural message tells us we’re wrong, that the industrial age will last forever, that justice and goodness will prevail over every enemy (i.e., terrorist), that progress is a one-way street to industrial nirvana, that the harbinger of hope will keep the oil coming and the cars running and the planes flying so we can all soak up the sun on a sandy beach any time we need a break from our tumultuous lives in the cube farms of empire.

The angst really started when I crossed the Rubicon of Denial. Now I know what it means to have a non-negotiable way of life. It means we need to kill every non-industrial culture and every non-human species to keep the current game going. It means we need to live as a collective, the modern-day Borg, never questioning culture’s intent, or ours.

But there’s no going back. Once you recognize the industrial economy is omnicidal, once your recognize the United States as the most evil empire in the history of the world, once you recognize Barack Obama is merely one more imperial tool in the Goldman Sachs administration, there’s simply no closing your eyes to the culture of death. As Arundhati Roy writes in The God of Small Things, “The trouble is that once you see it, you can’t unsee it. And once you’ve seen it, keeping quiet, saying nothing, becomes as political an act as speaking out. There’s no innocence. Either way, you’re accountable.”

So, I’m accountable. I don’t want to bring torture and suffering to humans and other animals. I don’t want to destroy the living planet so a few humans can continue to live comfortably at the expense of every other culture and species on the planet. I don’t want to be responsible for extinguishing habitat for humans on Earth.

Do you?

After taking the first step — stepping away from industrial culture — the steps don’t get any easier. If the culture is killing us, other species, and future prospects of human life on Earth, do we have an obligation to terminate the industrial economy? If so, what does that mean? Do we risk imprisonment, torture, and early death to save the living planet for future generations of humans?

Parents obviously cannot risk imprisonment. Familial morality conflicts with planetary morality. But what if the living planet is your family? What if the longevity of your children depends completely on terminating the industrial economy? Both are undoubtedly certain: the living planet is your family, though you likely do not recognize it as such, and the longevity of your children depends upon terminating the industrial economy in the very near future.

How will your children remember you? As an incarcerated terrorist (aka freedom fighter)? As an indifferent imperialist, ready to sacrifice the living planet for your 401(k)? How will we face our children after we’ve destroyed all habitat for humans on this planet? Or, to take a very short step, how will we face our children after we’ve failed to defend the living planet?

We can extend the parental excuse to every human on the planet. We all have people we love, and who love us. There are few people who live like hermits, and I don’t think we can count on them to save us from the industrial economy.

Imagine the world without Patrick Henry and a few other freedom fighters ready to give up their lives in the name of a brighter future. Imagine if they’d have been pacifists, willing only to sign petitions and carry out boycotts. Give peace a chance? That’s exactly what the industrialists want from us: a passive populace, addicted to television and politics as usual, so they can fleece us while destroying the living planet on which we all depend. We’re Winnie the Pooh, in this old joke:

The Knight: How would you like to be my lackey? Pooh: What’s a lackey? The Knight: That’s someone who does what he’s told, without question, and for NO pay. Pooh: What’s the catch?

Many people argue that the industrial age is coming to a close, so no further action is needed on our part. These people are seriously outnumbered by those who think the industrial age will never end. Both groups are imperial lackeys, unwilling to ensure a better future for humanity by taking courageous action.

Ultimately, all I’m asking is that you do something. It’s the same question Derrick Jensen is asking in this week’s essay in Orion magazine.

For those who take comfort in cessation of the industrial age, recent events offer a mix of good news and bad news, along with a small dose of obvious irony.

First,the good news:

Our increasingly desperate Liar-in-Chief claims the country will be bankrupt unless we pass an utterly unconscionable medical-care bill (memo to Obama: we’re already bankrupt), China faces a full-scale collapse and, because we’re locked in economic Mutually Assured Destruction with China, the industrial age could end soon, and quickly. One of two scenarios seems likely at The Automatic Earth — deflationary depression or hyperinflation — and both lead to societal disaster. Moody’s warns of ’social unrest’ as sovereign debt spirals, abject poverty seems overwhelmingly likely in the face of our unrepentant lack of self-reliance, claims for Emergency Unemployment Compensation surged to an all-time high even as state unemployment compensation funds are drying up, our financial system is a fragile disaster perched on the brink of catastrophic failure, the Wall Street Journal is questioning whether treasury bonds are safe (uh, no), massive bailouts of the last year delayed but did not solve any structural problems, ratcheting up the war in Afghanistan is producing the expected economic (and human) disaster, and the critical unraveling of American society is becoming evident even to those swimming in the Ocean of Denial.

The bad news is really, really bad:

At the most important event in the history of humanity, Barack Obama took the political way out, claiming victory at Copenhagen even as the world recognized his horrific failure and almost certainly committing us to runaway climate change. His response reminds me of the John Ralston Saul quote with which I commenced one of my recent books: “Never has failure been so ardently defended as though it were success.”

The irony appeared in the form of dueling headlines on MSNBC late last week. One headline has the Feds accusing Intel of stifling competition via unfair practices. The other reveals a huge tax break for Citigroup. So Intel can’t play favorites, but the IRS can, even though the former costs us pennies (or, more likely, nothing) and the latter costs the taxpayers billions of dollars. And, in the really big news of the week, we found another planet to rape. So, when we’re done with this one, we’ll simply move on to the next one for our much-needed resources.

See what I mean about absurdity and amusement?

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