For me, I think this question really started with transportation. Sitting in traffic seemed like one of the most miserable and inhuman activities possible. This was pretty basic; it was a few more years before I fully realized all of the other things wrong with cars, and right with walking and bicycling. Once you smash a few of your assumptions and values, you question the rest of them, too.
Michael Pollan really opened my eyes to how far off the path of right we have gone with food. (1) What’s next, breathing? Yeah, even that one is fucked up. You can’t even walk in front of your house, let alone go for a run in your neighborhood or a bike ride to a friend’s house without having to inhale car exhaust. And, a lot of children with asthma in much worse neighborhoods have a much better case than I do on this one.
Why stop there? How about another basic human function: sleep. Americans don’t get enough of it, nor do we get nearly enough exercise, nor enough time in nature. Every fundamental thing – and we’re talking about basic components of being a human animal – about the average American’s life is fundamentally wrong.
After I realized a few of these things, my skepticism of conventional wisdom grew. I assumed that the truth would continue to enlighten me on an increasing number of subjects. When I stepped back for a second to look at the big picture, I realized that the entire framework that encompasses all of these practices, habits, beliefs, traditions, and ways of life — the definition of culture — was itself fundamentally flawed. These fundamental flaws manifest themselves in our culture the way symptoms of illness present themselves in a sick person. Our culture suffers from a terrible disease.
All of the above are only the symptoms that we can attribute to our personal lives. Unfortunately the symptoms are much more serious than that. Deeper down, the disease corrupts our entire system of power, expressed in the form of ubiquitous unjustified use of authority. The disease makes our entire economic system into one that allows private ownership of land, slavery, and wage slavery. The disease has even attacked the very climate of our planet, with global climate change that continues to be ignored, resulting in deaths of millions of humans, the deaths of thousands of species, and with the threat of being one of the largest die-offs our planet has ever known. Certainly not last nor least, the disease has spawned countless and endless wars resulting in the deaths of millions of innocent people.
These are all symptoms of a culture that has been diseased. I do not only say this to show off my bitterness (although I am horribly bitter from time to time). I say that this culture is diseased so that we can analyze what this means and have some insight as to possible solutions, in relation to how one might treat a more familiar disease. Because, it is clear that we need fresh perspectives and tactics to tackle all of the problems before us. What we are doing now is not working.
Before we attempt to treat this disease, might we want to explore further its nature? I have already described some of the symptoms, but there is a reason these symptoms develop; anyone that truly tries to do something about any of the symptoms is futile in their attempts through hitting countless roadblocks, or society attacks them so thoroughly along the way that they either give up out of fear, their own government kills them, or they must choose between giving up and surviving. Just as diseases that affect our bodies can attack the very immune system that is treating the disease, our culture attacks the activists who treat our culture’s many ills. This is the true evil of this disease that infects the dominant culture, AKA Dominant Culture Disease (DCD).
I speak as an experienced activist myself. I have supported an actual sane presidential candidate, and been mocked for it. I have reached out to my fellow citizens, and been summarily ignored. I have shut down access to a BP gas station. For that, the cops threw me in jail for sixteen hours, surrounded by shit, vomit, and horribly bright lights. I have even tried to get cars off of our sidewalks and run into roadblocks every step of the way. So, sure, there are many activists who are more experienced than me, but I do write from a position of experience.
Having these experiences has shown me that Dominant Culture Disease mirrors Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). Just as AIDS sabotages the body’s white blood cells that fight off disease, so does DCD sabotage the activists that treat our culture’s ills. (DCD and AIDS both make secondary diseases more likely, allows them to more easily take root.) Seeing these connections informs us as to how we will approach DCD.
AIDS is treated differently based on how far the disease has progressed. Battling AIDS includes things like condom use to prevent getting it in the first place. If caught early, a person may live for many decades with expensive antiretroviral drugs. If the patient discovers AIDS infection later, more experimental and less effective medication can be used, with worse side effects. If the prognosis is bad enough, one may even choose the option of hospice. That is, the patient has given up on treating the disease and focuses on simply maximizing the quality of her life in her remaining time alive.
The most notable fact about the treatment of AIDS is that there is still no cure. The only way to prevent oneself from dying of AIDS is to not become infected to begin with.
Before we see how these treatments of AIDS translate to treating DCD, we must identify the cause of DCD. As discussed in A Language Older Than Words by Derrick Jensen, we can trace all of the most serious problems of our culture to objectivity. We normally associate the word “objectivity” with fairness in observation, but in this case I use it to simply mean treating something like an object, rather than like a living being that deserves respect. (In any case, even with the positive version of “objectivity,” it still means that we remove all emotion from our observations. I do not think we should strive towards this too enthusiastically.) And how do we know that this culture does not respect life on Earth, but instead values the dollars and comforts that those living things provide?
Because if we respected the Earth and its species as living, we wouldn’t bleed her for oil. We wouldn’t burn this oil at the rates we do, under the premise that running our gadgets is more important than the existence of thousands of species and the lives of billions of humans who will either starve or have to relocate (2). The amount of rape in our society wouldn’t be so high if many more of us respected women and children as individuals rather than seeing them as resources to exploit.
Everyone reading this essay should already be aware of how much human and nonhuman suffering goes into all of our gadgets, like the ones I am using right now. If you’re not aware of these things, I’d recommend you stop reading right now and do a bit of research before picking this essay back up.
Now, if you didn’t just leave me one sentence ago, then join me in a short thought experiment.
Imagine that aunt made your iPod and thousands of iPods just like it by slaving away for fourteen hours per day, getting cancer as a result, or perhaps killing herself to escape from her hopeless situation (3). Imagine further that your malnourished and uneducated little brother worked the mines (5) in your mother’s back yard for the rare earth materials needed to assemble your personal entertainment device, poisoning her water supply (4).
Would you buy an iPod in that situation? What would you say or do to a friend who used one?
One can do this thought experiment with any of our major problems. If you respected the human and nonhuman lives that were diminished or sacrificed for the furtherance of your lifestyle, you would do things to protect those lives rather than carrying on like your lifestyle was a human right.
Almost all of us are guilty of this exploitation to some degree. Some of us try harder than others to be decent people, but the very participation in our culture is to be guilty of the suffering that results from it. There are several reasons why this guilt is inescapable, but the main one is that we live within a curious human invention called civilization. Civilization makes it impossible to know all that touches your life. As defined (in a rather lengthy way, as he is wont to do) by Derrick Jensen:
[Civilization is] a culture—that is, a complex of stories, institutions, and artifacts— that both leads to and emerges from the growth of cities (civilization, see civil: from civis, meaning citizen, from Latin civitatis, meaning city-state), with cities being defined—so as to distinguish them from camps, villages, and so on—as people living more or less permanently in one place in densities high enough to require the routine importation of food and other necessities of life (6).
So, at its most basic level, civilization results in objectivity because you, by definition, don’t know and respect all that is in your life and therefore see the things in your life as things, rather than living beings. Requiring the importation of resources means that if the people who live on the land on which the resources are located will not give or trade these resources willingly, which they often will not, and for good reasons, civilization will take the resources regardless. Civilization will take these resources from the Earth, and from human and non-human populations alike, against their will in every case, and at extremely grave costs. In civilization, this is unavoidable, especially in our modern version of civilization where avoiding its evils is a full-time job and virtually impossible to achieve. We now have a clear link from civilization to objectivity to exploitation and destruction of life.
With all of this in mind, we may now begin to tackle the potential treatments of Dominant Culture Disease.
As discussed earlier, the first step to combating AIDS is prevention: don’t get the disease in the first place. Our particular culture, the dominant culture, is so clearly diseased that prevention will not work with us. But prevention is still important, because there are still a very few cultures which civilization has not infected yet, and we must take care to protect these cultures. Unfortunately, the main vector of infection of another culture is via rape, which is the hardest to protect against, just as the same is true of AIDS. Once civilization has completed the exploitation of another culture for their natural and human resources, another diseased culture will result. For examples, see almost every indigenous culture in the history of the world, which after being forcefully brought into the culture of civilization does not respect life in the same ways in which it had, if it is allowed to exist at all.
Where prevention wasn’t attempted in time, we must try to administer medication. Medication for Dominant Culture Disease is information and symbolic civil disobedience. We have to make sure the information is accurate and not stroking the egos and lifestyles of those in power. We must be brutally honest with our fellow humans. To do otherwise is to actually hinder our progress. Thus, we cannot let people think that all they need to do is change their light bulbs and use $15 laundry detergent. We must tell them: Oil extraction cannot work; it must end. Genetically-modified crops are a crime against nature. Women and children must be treated with respect. Your freeways are a monstrosity. Working in an office for forty hours per week is an insult to your own humanity.
And just as when a patient who is destructive to himself and others won’t accept treatment to get better and you must force him to accept his treatment, so must we force this culture to hear our message. If they won’t pick up one of the thousands of revolutionary books that are available for free at their library, we must liberate their billboards. If they won’t take one of our fliers asking them to please, please mister, don’t patronize BP which has defiled the Gulf of Mexico, then we must block their access to the gas station.
In an unfortunate twist for your conscience and personal life, just as surgery is often the most effective treatment in late-stage illness, so does our best hope in curing DCD lie in radical militant action. It is crucial that we are honest with ourselves here; what we have done so far has not worked. My best personal experience that can illustrate this is a protest I attended a couple years ago at the Chevron refinery in Richmond, California. The protest had been planned for months and included a diverse combination of groups, including anti-war, global warming, and local environmental justice groups. We marched from the train station to the refinery. There was a lot of energy in the crowd. We got to the refinery, and were confronted with about a hundred cops in full riot gear. We stood, chanting at them for a good half hour. One small group slipped past the police line, engaged in some “street theater” and were voluntarily arrested. Another man actually negotiated for the police to arrest him. After that, the crowd simply dispersed. Guess who was on his way into the refinery the second we left? A goddamned oil tanker. We accomplished exactly nothing.
We really have to stop fooling ourselves into thinking that we are going to change the mind of anyone that matters with our letter writing, sign holding, and “online activism.” We live in reality, and we must start acting as such. This madness must end, and we must make it end. The amount of work in front of us is immense. We need to disassemble oil refineries, blow up dams, destroy freeways, and close down factory farms. Those currently in power aren’t going to do it for us, unless we make them. When we hold up our signs, they’ll look the other way. When we tie up their phone lines, they’ll ignore us until we stop calling two hours later. If we don’t get serious about the need for and morality of radical militant actions, we’re all fucked.
Even if a lot more of us get serious about what needs to be done to cure Dominant Culture Disease, our efforts will still probably fail. The capability of those currently in power to inflict violence and lock up those that challenge their power is simply massive. Therefore, we have to think of what must be done to prepare for the eventual hard collapse of civilization.
When a person has no hope of survival, we do things like reduce their pain, make arrangements for their death and funeral, and come together with our friends and families to bring ourselves comfort. This stage of care is generally called hospice, and it can and must be applied to this culture as well. Given that the chances of bringing this culture down smoothly are very low, we have to prepare for what comes after. The crash will likely be very messy. As the world runs out of natural resources, as species die off more and more quickly, and as we are unable to grow food in the ways we are used to due to man-made climate change, the current power structures and economies will become impossible and collapse. It won’t be pretty.
When the culture collapses and people have a lack of food and survival skills, we must already have viable institutions in place for people to plug into. We need things like permaculture, loving, established communities that provide for their own needs, knowledge of our land bases, and the ability to teach about all of these things.
This might seem simple at this point. I am saying what needs to be done, and now we just have to do it. Of course, it is not that easy. For any of the methods, an activist will face resistance from society at large. The resistance will increase exponentially as the work becomes more important and effective. If you only choose to make individual changes, which are important but also basically the least you can do, you’ll still face resistance in the form of disapproval and uncomfortable questioning from those you work with, your friends, and your family.
A doctor usually does not face this kind of resistance to healing their patient. We do, and I want to talk more about how to fight back against this resistance.
Going now all the way to the most effective and important form of activism, the militant action mentioned above, the activist will face the full force of violence from the state, and even from random strangers. Let’s explore how this works with a quick thought experiment. Imagine trying to take out a particularly bad roadway in the middle of the night. If discovered, people will come out of their houses and physically remove you from the roadway if possible. More likely, they will call the police who will arrive with their guns, which they will use if you try to get them to stay away from you. It is really as simple as that. We know the bad roads need to be taken out. Those in power won’t do it when we ask them nicely, and when we try to do their work for them, we get removed from the scene with violence.
A way of blunting this resistance to your activism is to be part of a community. The need for and complexity of this community grows in proportion to both the effectiveness of one’s activism as well as in proportion to the resistance to one’s activism.
To blunt the resistance against individual change, one would be wise to become a part of a community of others who are making similar change. You feel empowered when you find sympathetic people who support you. This community takes different forms. If you primarily travel by bicycle, for instance, you could do simple things like take routes other cyclists frequently use, even if it is out of your way. Even better, you could join group rides like Critical Mass where you can celebrate your lifestyle.
Individual change is the most ineffective action that is needed, and therefore it meets the least resistance. Moving all the way to the other end of the effectiveness spectrum, when engaging in militant action, the need for community grows exponentially. You need a place where you can find support for things that you do. You need a group of people that will protect you with their lives. You need a focused family structure with a central tenant of radical activism and radical change. And it really needs to be a family in all ways except blood relations, although if these exist, too, then all the better.
These need to be people whom you live with or near. They need to be people with whom you raise each other’s children. They need to be people whom you care for in old age. You need to be able to trust them with your life.
The most important work one can do if not engaging in militant action yourself is to support those who are engaging in militant action.
Quick, why aren’t you engaging in militant action? I’ll bet your first concern is something like, “Who will be there for my children if I get thrown in jail for ten years?” It can also look like, “How will my family have enough money to survive?” and “Who will provide loving support to my spouse?” Care for those you are responsible for is the number one thing stopping activists from engaging in surgery. So let’s admit that and then do something about it, hence forming an activist family. Thankfully, the activist family quells concern about one’s individual well-being, too. A family will support you when you lose your income because of activism, and will fight for you with their lives when the pigs beat you and throw you in jail.
I readily admit that the above concerns are not entirely eliminated by the existence of activist families. The love and presence of a spouse, child, parent, and friend cannot be entirely replaced. Even when lessened, the fear for personal well-being is still there. But an activist family can lessen all of these factors to the extent that the probability a particular person will decide to engage in important activist work is increased.
Derrick Jensen has greatly influenced this essay and my thinking at large, specifically his books A Language Older Than Words and Endgame. One of the things he asks is “what do you want?” You need to know what you want to create your strategy. So, here it is; here is what I want:
I want folks to regain their sanity. I want them to regain their humanity. I want them to regain their spiritual connection with the Earth. All of this is to say, of course, that I want us to cure Dominant Culture Disease.
I want folks to value the smell of the dirt and the moss on the trees during a nice morning rain. I want them to value the cold air hitting their skin and lungs in the morning, with the patience and knowledge that the rising sun will gently warm them up. I want them to engage with their neighbors, their community, and their land, and for that engagement to give their lives meaning.
I want people to regain the sanity to reject disease at its first appearance rather than adapting to it and giving up more and more of their lives. In regaining their sanity they would have a visceral reaction to many things we take for granted today. I want to not have to argue basic ideas of humanity, human rights, and the rights of the Earth at large. I want live my life, and I want others to be able to live their lives, without constant fight and argument. I want to love, be happy, be whimsical, and have cares and worries that are much less epic than the things we struggle with today.
I want to be animal again. I want to be able to fully express my full range of individuality, emotions, desires, and needs without being judged.
I want to be surrounded by people that are more sane than I am; people that can be living, breathing examples of who I should aspire to be.
I want to be proud of my people. I want to engage in proud traditions that go back thousands of years. I want to engage in oral traditions. I want to be intimately involved with my community. I want to have a spiritual connection with my natural surroundings. I want to shed a tear for the animal that I kill for my food. I want to vow to protect with my life the population that she came from, and the river that she swam in. I also want to live in a world in which such a vow never needs to be fully realized.
Notes: I am aware of my reliance on white, male authors. I would like to, and intend to, become more versed in the writings and thoughts of non-males, people of color, and especially indigenous authors and thinkers.
1: Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food
2: Peter Gelderloos, Video on Global Warming: http://www.mefeedia.com/watch/32053132
6: Derrick Jensen, Endgame
GOOD VERB LIST
(What does an undiseased/healthy culture look like? What are examples? What is healthy about the society?)
Statistic about breathing. Fact about sleep. Fact about food. What corrupts these vital operations?
(Paragraph about “Don’t believe me?” Where to fit this in?)
(state things as and use the words “assumptions” and “values” more below)
(talk about causes of disease earlier)
(what is a disease?)
(name the disease earlier)
Our culture and its corollaries, civilization and globalization, also cause disease. (put this somewhere else)
(Will a comparison with cancer be useful?)
(Add links for prior knowledge)
(add to paragraph about “because if we respected the Earth”)
(at beginning of wants, do I want to cure DCD or for this culture to be replaced)
(Is doing anything but Hospice simply prolonging the diseased culture? Is there any hope for a cure? At what point can the culture be considered to be cured? At what point can the culture be considered to have died, and replaced by a different culture? Is any of this useful?)
(Addiction, and how to break it. why addiction creates needs that weren’t there before, and how this affects things)
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There are no differences between the 25 May, 2011 @ 15:52 revision and the current revision. (Maybe only post meta information was changed.)