The Bookworm: What We Leave Behind

What We Leave Behind, by Derrick Jensen and Aric McBay. 453 pages. Seven Stories Press. 2009.

By now plastic is almost everywhere. By everywhere I mean in a huge portion of consumer products, in food and packaging, in liquid containers and the liquids they contain. By everywhere I mean in the oceans and in the air and on the land. By everywhere I mean on Mount Everest and in the Marianas Trench and in remote forests. By everywhere I mean inside every mother’s breast milk, inside polar bear fat, inside every fish, inside every monkey, inside every songbird, inside every frog. And rest assured, it’s inside of you, too. (p. 108)

The first line of What We Leave Behind puts it bluntly: “Industrial civilization is incompatible with life.”

What We Leave Behind is about exactly that: what our industrialized culture leaves behind and the effects that it has on our environment, ourselves, and the future of the human race and planet. Co-author’s Derrick Jensen and Aric McBay make the case that unless we change our way of living, unless we learn to change our behavior and perception of the world, “recognize that there exists something larger than ourselves…recognize that we have obligations — joyous obligations, terrifying obligations, deep and meaningful obligations — to this land” (p. 278), the probable fate of our species is extermination by poisoning. According to the back cover, “life — human and nonhuman — will not go on unless we do everything we can to facilitate the most basic process on earth, the root of sustainability: one being’s waste must always become another being’s food.”

This is the first time I have read Jensen, who, according to his author bio, is an “[a]ctivist, philosopher, teacher, and leading voice of uncompromising dissent.” Jensen, who is highly recommended by Zee German, is a prolific writer. Having written 13 massive books, the guy just cannot stop writing. Of course, how could he given his passion toward the floral and fauna of Earth and industrial capitalism’s wastefulness and voracious appetite for finite resources? Aric McBay, who according to his bio “works to share information about community sufficiency and off-the-grid skills,” is the author of Peak Oil Survival: Preparation for Life after Gridcrash. Needless to say, What We Leave Behind is a fitting addition to both of their bibliographies.

Jensen and McBay do not make clear who wrote what, explaining that they did not want to “promote the pseudo-objectivity and phony distance-masquerading-as-perspective so standard among so much formal (academic, philosophical, and journalistic) discourse by writing only in the third person” (p. ix). Instead, they decided that “the only appropriate action would be for us to leave each I as I and let readers use context or sleuthing (admittedly the sleuthing won’t be too tough) to figure out who this or that I is, presuming it really matters” (p. xi). I do not think it really does matter, but I was curious to know who wrote what. After a certain point I was able to differentiate between the two authors — or at least I was when they referenced their personal lives and experiences. McBay lives in Ontario and is (or was) a paramedic. Jensen lives somewhere among the redwoods of Northern California and talks extensively about shitting outside.

That’s right: Jensen admits that “[a] few years ago I started shitting outside” (p. 5). This practice is a recurring theme of the book, one that serves as a symbol for the root of sustainability mentioned on the back cover: “one being’s waste must always become another being’s food.” Jensen explains that he started shitting outside “in part because I’m in love with the frogs where I live” (p. 6).

Frogs eat slugs, among many other creatures. I noticed that slugs love to eat dog shit, and I presumed (correctly, it ends up) that they would like mine just as much. I figured that feeding slugs would in turn feed frogs, so instead of flushing all these nutrients down the toilet I decided to let them enter the forest’s food stream. (pp. 5–6)

Jensen’s shitting outside represents the natural cycle of sustainability that our industrialized culture, with its plethora of synthetic chemicals and convenience-based wastefulness, is completely incompatible with. What we leave behind is not beneficial to the environment. Instead, it poisons the land, sea, air, and all the creatures that call them home; it has “broken the essential cycle of decay and regeneration” (back cover).

What We Leave Behind is an amusing, thought-provoking, insightful, interesting, and at times funny and unbelievably depressing book. It is also very well written. (Jensen’s writing was, I thought, much more lyrical and passionate than McBay’s, which was another way I could differentiate between the two. However, I was sometimes fooled.) It provides a very informative history of waste. At the turn of the twentieth century, there was no such thing as garbage as we know today and there were no municipal waste removal systems in the United States. Everything was either repaired, repurposed, or recycled within individual households or each community. Organic waste was collected and fed to animals; “piggeries” were basically hog lots were a large number of pigs were fed raw or cooked food. Over time, the refuse stream began to include “many different kinds of metal and alloys, toxic byproducts of manufacturing, radioactive waste, and thousands of different kinds of plastics and polymers” (p. 26). Unable to cope with such complex waste, nor increasing amounts of it, at the community or household level, communities relinquished control of their refuse. Plus, waste eventually became a marker for progress. “More production means more garbage, and more profit and power. More technology means more things to make and sell, and that means more profit and power” (p. 27). The result is the growing mountains of garbage we have today. (In 2005, the municipal and industrial waste production in the United States totaled 7.8 billion tons — the equivalent of 8,211 World Trade Center towers filled lobby to observation deck with garbage.) The book goes into much more detail, and I am doing a very poor job of paraphrasing, but you get the idea.

Along with garbage, Jensen and McBay write about plastics, chemicals, the mining industry, medical waste, and outline three different scenarios for the future: business as usual, an unattainable technotopia, and “collapse,” where the industrial system based on dwindling oil resources collapses and our culture is forced to return to the way things were. That begs the question: Do we want to wait for that to happen and be completely unprepared for the painful consequences, or should we begin changing our way of life now?

Basically, the message of What We Leave Behind is that a culture predicated on a system of rampant manufacturing and thoughtless disposal of toxic waste is unsustainable. So-called “green” technology, alternative fuel sources, energy efficient buildings, and growing wild grasses on the roofs of truck manufacturing factories (Jensen practically dedicates a whole chapter on that) represent a kind of magical thinking that will do nothing to solve the problem. The problem is our culture of industrial civilization itself.

Of course, many will scoff at Jensen and McBay’s perspective and the message of What We Leave Behind, dismissing it as out-of-touch, hippy dippy, acid-induced nonsense. I will admit that this book openly challenges the status quo and the economic system and way of life those of us in the Western world have enjoyed for decades. However, Jensen and McBay warn that we should not equate industrial capitalism with life and what is best for ourselves and the environment. Humans lived sustainably without it for millennia. Instead of being synonymous with life, industrialized civilization is in fact the opposite: death. “This culture is, to put it bluntly, murdering the earth. Unless it’s stopped — whether we intentionally stop it or the natural world does, through ecological collapse or other means — it will kill every living being” (p. vii).

There were a couple things that annoyed me about this book. First and foremost was Jensen’s lengthy tangents and extended comments in the endnotes. I’m talking 200–300-word endnotes here. If the author is going to be thorough enough to provide endnotes, I feel like I should be obligingly thorough enough to read them. I did, but after a certain point I started wondering, “Why didn’t he just write this in the main text?” At least then I would not have had to endure the torture of reading his thoughts in four-point font. Jesus. Also, at certain points I felt I was reading the same thing over and over. There is quite a bit of repetition in regard to the message. Though they tried their best to mix things up, there were just so many ways Jensen and McBay could reiterate that industrial civilization is incompatible with life. In that sense, they really drove the point home, and I suppose they were tying it to whatever they had been writing about. But I got. Thanks, guys!

In a certain way, I could not help feeling a little bit teased. There are allusions to solutions and ways to make our life much more sustainable, but in the end Jensen and McBay do not “offer a plethora of different vicarious solutions involving various ways to try to persuade large, entrenched institutions to act against their underlying drives” (p. 379). I guess I was kind of hoping for that. Instead, Jensen and McBay ask readers to question their identity.

Is your identity that of a consumer or a person? When you say “the real world” are you talking about wage slave capitalism, or are you talking about a living breathing world of trees and rivers and lakes and deserts and forest and mountains and seas? And if you identify as a living member of that much larger community, a community that is being systematically destroyed by a toxic mimic of the real world, what are you going to do about it? How are you going to defend your community? (p. 380)

McBay (I think) emphasizes the cultivation of a successful resistance movement and culture of resistance, providing five key elements to “fighting back.” Jensen drums the need for persistence, to keep fighting the powers that be for for sustainable living, using his personal experience fighting a development near his house as an analogy. Though they say minimizing personal waste is a good thing:

Removing an extra few dump-truck loads from those seventy-three Grand Canyons [full of predicted yearly US waste by 2050] is good, but it’s a drop in the plastic-suffocated ocean in terms of real change. We don’t have the time or patience to immerse ourselves in a fantasy world where corporations and governments act in ways that contradict their own fundamental imperatives and immediate self-interest because we send them politely worded and well-researched letters. (p. 380)

The ultimate goal, they believe, is to change the system and, as Howard Zinn writes on the back cover, “return to that natural world we have forsaken.”

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