by Derrick Jensen
Originally published in the U.S. in The Sun magazine, June 2000
(Derrick Jensen's most recent book is A Language Older Than Words)
After climbing the business career ladder for most of his twenties, David Edwards left his management-level marketing job to become a writer. He had no idea how he was going to make a living, but the standard version of success had increasingly felt to him like a terrible, deadening failure. "Three things had become obvious to me," the English author says: "the misery of conventional 'success'; the vast and perhaps terminal havoc this 'success' was wreaking on the world; and the fact that no one was talking about either."
Leaving his apartment, his town, his girlfriend, and most of his friends, Edwards wrote until he ran out of money. Then he moved to a small seaside town and supported himself by teaching English as a second language. "Nine months earlier," he says, "I had been head of a marketing department, and now I was teaching the names of fruits to fourteen- and fifteen-year-old Thai kids: I was the happiest man alive!"
The problem in modern Western society, according to Edwards, remains the age-old one of struggling for freedom - but freedom from a very different set of chains. "In the past," he writes in his first book, Burning All Illusions (South End Press), "we have been prisoners of tyrants and dictators, and consequently have needed to win our freedom in very concrete, physical terms. We now need to free ourselves not from a slave ship, a prison, or a concentration camp, but from many of the illusions fostered in our democratic society."
Activist and historian Howard Zinn calls Burning All Illusions "a wise and acute analysis of the way our minds are controlled, not in a totalitarian state, but in a 'democratic' one." Edwards grew up in a little English village called Bearsted in the county of Kent, where he was known as "Eggy Edwards" and was infamous for playing practical jokes. His mother was from Sweden, and he spent summers in the country there, an experience he credits with having introduced him to a natural, uncomplicated alternative to modern living.
A few years after leaving his corporate job, Edwards encountered the Buddhist idea that all personal, social, and even environmental well-being is rooted in the desire to help other living creatures. He was surprised to find that it fit perfectly with his own belief in the murderous effects of the self-serving profit motive. "To see my own vague ideas clarified and confirmed by Buddhist sages writing two thousand years ago changed everything," he says. His second book, The Compassionate Revolution (as yet unpublished in the U.S.), is a plea for readers to confront the underlying horrors of modern Western society with the unconditional compassion of Buddhism.
The boredom and sense of futility and emptiness we feel when working solely for our own benefit, Edwards says, is the first piece in the great puzzle of how best to live our lives. The second piece is the realization that, to escape this sense of futility and find happiness, we have to work to relieve the suffering and increase the happiness of others-not just the poor, or women, or animals, but all living beings. Most people are good, reasonable human beings, Edwards says, but they are prevented from doing good by the delusion that it involves a miserable sacrifice. In fact, he contends, the best way of looking after ourselves is to work for the benefit of everyone else.
Edwards lives in a one-room apartment on a quiet road with lots of trees, birds, and squirrels, just a twenty-minute walk from the English seaside. He works part time for the International Society for Ecology and Culture, writing and doing research on the impact of globalization and the need for localization. He also writes on environmental, political, and human-rights issues for the Big Issue (a British magazine sold by homeless people), the Ecologist, and Z magazine.
Jensen: You've said that there are five things everyone ought to know. What are they?
Edwards: The first is that the planet is dying. One way to chart the damage is to look at insurance figures. Between 1980 and 1989, the insurance industry paid out, on average, less than $2 billion a year for weather-related property damage. From 1990 to 1995, however, hurricanes, cyclones, and floods in Europe, Asia, and North America cost the industry an average of more than $30 billion a year. The Red Cross is warning that climate change is about to precipitate a century of natural disasters. We have already seen a number of "superdisasters" in Honduras, India, Venezuela, and Mozambique, all "clearly tainted by human actions," according to climatologists.
Global warming affects more than the weather. Last year, marine biologists estimated that between 70 and 90 percent of the coral reefs in the Indian Ocean have died due to global warming. Coral-reef ecosystems are home to one-fourth of all fish species. And they're just the first major victims of global warming. Others will soon follow. Scientists now predict that the polar bear will be extinct in the wild within twenty years.
Now, many environmentally conscious people would argue that the scale of the environmental crises threatening us is being communicated. After all, most newspapers these days have environmental correspondents. But the level of coverage in no way matches the severity of the threat. Think for a moment about the media response to the supposed threat of the Soviet Union during the Cold War: Hollywood churned out pro-America films; novelists wrote thrillers pitting the "free world" against the "godless communists"; headlines decried the dangers of communism; and so on. By comparison, there's next to nothing being said or written about the threat of global warming.
Jensen: I know what you mean. I like baseball, but it breaks my heart to see ten pages in the newspaper every day on sports and maybe three column inches a month devoted to the biodiversity crisis.
Edwards: This leads to the second thing that everyone should know, which is that huge numbers of intelligent, motivated people are working all-out to prevent action that could save the planet. No matter how clear the evidence or how stern the scientific warnings, time and again, effective action is obstructed. The Global Climate Coalition, the United States Chamber of Commerce, and the National Association of Manufacturers are all vigorously opposing even the trivial cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions proposed by the Kyoto Climate Treaty. The irresponsibility is breathtaking.
The so-called debate on global warming is a war between the biggest enterprise in human history-the worldwide coal-and-oil industry-and the planet's ability to sustain life. And our hearts and minds are battlefields in that war. The corporate press and corporate-financed politicians keep talking about global warming as if there's significant doubt about it, yet the "debate" pits perhaps half a dozen high-profile skeptics bankrolled by this trillion-dollar industry against the consensus of twenty-five hundred of the world's most qualified climatologists working as part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. How is it that the opinions of these six-whose arguments are often shot full of illogical and absurd statements-carry the same weight as all that scientific evidence?
This brings us to the third thing I believe everyone should know, which is that the death of the planet is symptomatic of a deeper, institutionalized subordination of all life-including human life-to profit. Algeria is a typical example. It's been ruled by a military dictatorship since 1962. Elections were held in 1991, but the government scrapped them when it became clear a militant Islamic party would win, and since that time some eighty thousand people have died. In some cases, armed attackers have descended on defenseless villages at night to cut the throats of women and children. The violence has been characterized by psychotic frenzy, including the dismemberment of infants. It's not exactly clear who is doing all of it, although the government is heavily implicated. But one thing is for sure: the world has done nothing about it.
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