Opinion: Deep Ecology Doesn’t Care about Divestment

Hello again. I write in often to discuss the social ecology of our shared home, but few of you know that I am, in a practical sense, a nature writer. I was drawn to Reed by the effervescent legacy of alum Gary Snyder and the heady influence of his writing (please read Turtle Island). Gary is regarded as the poet laureate of “Deep Ecology.” I find that his interpretation of the world, of humans as members of the natural world, of the natural world as something that ought to be perceived on a timespan far beyond our current perceptions, of Zen, to be not only highly beneficial but the only an artistic perspective through which the modern world can meaningfully be intuited. On the night of Ginsberg’s famous reading of “Howl” a far better (and dramatically less problematic) young Gary Snyder presented what many describe as the first deep ecological poem, “A Berry Feast.” This is an op-ed, but it is also a nature essay, and the form follows the motive, which is that you become morally engaged and grounded in the non-human. We cannot be unbigoted against fellow humans and bigoted against brother mouse and sister fox; we must respect the nonhuman as our equal in the grand scheme of things. 

I have many arguments here, some of them more prescient than others, but the crux is that all we are is dust, and to dust, mercifully, we shall soon return. I do not meaningfully perceive the Anthropocene as “bad” (what is bad anyway), I do not advocate (as ‘environmentalist’ stars like Greta Thunberg and Jane Goodall do) for neo-Malthusian measures against “populations that are too large,” and I am a deep ecologist in the communist sense, not that silly “third way graft” that pollutes environmentalism and will grow to own it as the neoliberal age declines. Malthusianism here refers to the teachings of Thomas Malthus, who wrote in 1798 that the world could never produce enough to feed the constantly breeding Papist hordes, and soon the whole world would be brought to ruin by what he perceived as perfidious poors rutting constantly. He felt that because humans used surplus to grow their population and not increase the standard of living, they were ruining themselves and the world at large. This is also where modern conceptions of “overpopulation” come from, the belief that a growing population increases immiseration and poverty. I do not like the culture here that stands against everything and for nothing; I know what I stand for, and I am glad to speak on it; I hope you can have that for yourself too.

Re-examine all you have been told in school or church or in any book, and dismiss whatever insults your own soul; and your very flesh shall be a great poem.
— Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

A prolonged battle on this campus has taken place over the terms and borders of “divestment” with concerned student groups on one side and the ever elusive “Reed Admin” or worse, “Reed Trustees” on the other. Let me head y’all off at the pass and say the vast majority of students working toward divestment, whatever that actually means, and the Trustees operate on precisely the same side. And I stand on the other side; here’s my ecological, ethical, and logical case against divestment presented as a nature essay. How do I know that they all stand on the same side? Well, you are perceiving an ethic, a value judgment, to the consumption that you do. And for liberals, that makes a lot of sense. The obvious claim is that just as you do not shop at Amazon for fear of embiggening the Bezos machine, you don’t want to be shopping for oil and natural gas (two resources in shrinking supply) because there is a preponderance of the evidence that their abuse globally contributes to rising CO2 levels and other causes of Climate Change. But carbon is carbon. It cannot be merely offset, despite what business degreed numbnuts at the biggest corpos in town will tell you, it cannot be paid away like indulgences using California based green manufacturing credits produced in a Tesla factory that ships heavy metals mined by children around the earth, it cannot be just shoved away. On paper, yes, obviously it can be. But what is paper but a scale weighed in the users’ favour? 

The development of the anthropocentric climate will of course irrevocably harm and destroy many of the organisms and species that we currently share the earth with. You can already see the effects in bug populations. Remember bugs? Well, the lightning bugs I grew up with are long gone already, as are many of my favourite other “pests” under the wheel of history. And I mourn them, and I weep for the opossums who feasted upon roast chickens in the dumpster behind Boston Market under the moonlight—struck down in the highlight of their life as twilight dwindled and your car roared over a pathway their four legged people had been taking for millennia. We all fall into patterns; the queer black bank exec uses Dr. Bronners 29-in-1 that connects them to a maligned father to scrub themselves clean and finds, like Lady Macbeth, that they cannot wash away the ink of murder and financial ruin. The termite does something similar when he rubs harsh acid across a keratin carapace to reduce mites, dripping some onto the wall you sleep against, making it soft and gooey. I imagine the global organism weeps not just for rivers dammed so LA can drink, but for the Tom Joads left wandering the harsh foreign wilderness of Portland in winter because the market mammon demanded it. Because they, the insectivores, are next. Not to mention the little ones who cannot manage their temperature by fleeing to air conditioned concrete hovels when summer comes. I also mourn the plants who will find shifting water sources and rising droughts, and occurrences of extreme weather destroying their environs. I also mourn the indignity of forced migration suffered by my people, by the indigenous whose stolen lands we occupy, of forests who have found highways in the way of their perennial shifts across prairies, of populations pushed by war, and of future generations around the equator who will find their homeplaces become uninhabitable in their instability and be driven into the gristmill of vast accumulative markets of incomprehensible size. Brothers, sisters, everything in between, let me be clear, I too am a bug. We are all bugs. Certainly I can see no major separation between me and comrade dragonfly buzzing around the canyon, save that he is there, and I am here.

In bearshit, find it in August
Neat pile on the fragrant trail, in late
August, perhaps by a larch tree,
Bear has been eating the berries.
high meadow, late summer, snow gone
eating berries, married
To a woman whose breasts bleed
From nursing the half human cubs. 
— Gary Snyder, A Berry Feast

Deep Ecology refers to an interpretation of the whole earth as a single organism, but more importantly, it’s a tradition and way of life. The deep ecological mind perceives that as gadflies are to grasshoppers, as rabbits to dogs, as dolphins to horses, so too are humans to trees, our lifespans blinks of eyes. In fact, Deep Ecology attempts to perceive things in geologic or rock time. Whole mountain ranges breathing like the lungs of a great giant are worthy of note. But that’s not what divestment is about. Divestment is simply offloading a perceived debt, in this case, a moral failing, by undertaking a grander enterprise. There is no difference between this and “offsetting supply chain emissions” like many of your least favourite woke brands and the indulgences my Catholic Church once sold. All are weak abstractions, obfuscations of the psychic trauma we perceive but flee from instead of learning the reasons why these things happen. Let me get one thing across; if you believe that Kyoto Protocol carbon credits and Paris Climate Agreement membership are the things that will “Save” this earth, then you are as much a problem for your fellow creatures as a diesel fume belching earth mover eating pits of topsoil across the midwest. This is because you’re confusing consumption for activity, a common trick from capitalist economists. The controversial truth of the matter is that consumption is compelled, not just by material conditions and necessity, though those are radically more important than Tiktokers who cry about the “difficulties” of fast fashion let on, through advertising, through social norms, through the literal shape of highways that cut forests off from their migratory paths and pierce the heart of mountains as though they were Saint George’s dragon. If you are to exist, you are to consume, and this isn’t about things like “waste” and “emissions” because while both are real, they are unfathomably huge; they are unfathomably part of a beast that is fully viral and worse than Covid-19 for human health and dignity, the beast of the market. And when market pressures strike, kings and bankers and poor men alike all jump. The simple issue is that you are required to exist, existing is beneficial, and that the tools adopted by humans to navigate their environment have necessitated changes across the whole globe’s great organism. I obviously don’t think that’s good, but unlike the gentle folks who sign endless petitions for divestment and ask that the school’s endowment, an organism of its own with the function to grow to maintain this place so we can enjoy nice things, to constrain its natural market activity to pay off their personal ill actions while somehow still allowing them to reap the benefits of a marvelous institution, I don’t imagine that changing the name of something changes its function. A market is a manmade horror beyond our comprehension, a wild west of a thing inhabited by sprawling beasts that know no allegiance but themselves and is meant to swell, growl and roar into being and life across figures sheets and acquisition reports, who are we to hold some of these malformed cyborgs accountable and not others? The whole damn thing ought to be unplugged, and failing that, I’d as soon not try to spin it in my mind.

 These gentlemen think that when they have changed the names of things they have changed the things themselves
— Friedrich Engels

If we divested, simply, from oil companies and evil banks and prison companies, what would you rather we invested in? Sephora? Toms shoes? Some other problematic white saviour institute? Every area of the market is built on exploitation, and that’s a terrible thing despite Toms and the IMF partnering to put the local shoemaker out of business in regions across the globe. I cannot fathom, though I’d be happy for you to help me try, a difference between the suffering of an opossum run over on a country road and the suffering of a worker having their labour power exploited. Being alienated. I don’t believe in ethical consumption under capitalism. I am not going to pretend a lion is virtuous for eating impossible burgers (which produce nearly the same amount of carbon to distribute and handle and keep cool as do actual beef products).  

Wherever little children are hungry and cry,
Wherever people ain’t free.
Wherever men are fightin’ for their rights,
That’s where I’m a-gonna be, Ma.
That’s where I’m a-gonna be.
— Woody Guthrie, Tom Joad

But, hark, there is an out. If we radically remade our lives and the economic system under which we live (and I do not mean The Great Reset) and embrace that some over exploited regions need and deserve to use coal and oil power plants to develop regular power supplies for the first time in their history, that the farms subsidized on our taxes will continue to pump out the same ghoulish slop of meat regardless of whether we buy it, that the economic beast acts without regard to the days of our lives, and welcome the quiet luddism of limiting the beast’s expansion into NFTs and Cryptocurrencies (which despite the great fiscal prophets chants, will never be made “green”) then yes, the world can grow better. And let me be clear, we are approaching a hard population bottleneck regardless of our activity or lack thereof. The simple fact of the matter is most populations are approaching a prolonged stage during which deaths outweigh births, and there is no indication that we will supersede a global population of 10-12 billion (and even if we did, by revivifying the great plains of America by bringing back buffalo and native grasses and ceasing hardtop expansion we could absorb far more carbon than we put out, as could many other “developed” nations, and even if we did populations do not account for climate change now nor did they in the bygone days Malthus intuited) Followed by a drastic shrinking to a permanent 5-8 billion of hyper urban people who will see the climate cool, the seas recede, and new species arise in the niches of ecological collapse. 

Ecology says there is always a future; there is always life. Deep ecology says there is only one future, one life. Zen says the river is a river no matter which part you stare at. And a great man once said (in the book far more of you claim to have read than actually have) that there is nothing to lose but our chains. Inhabitants of our little corner of Turtle Island, if you are not asking the raccoons for their opinion, giving the coyotes a bite of your peanut butter sandwich, and sparing the ants infesting Macnaughton, you are not going to help mother earth, no matter how much you shop at Sephora, donate to the poor on Instagram, or divest. Let’s remove Reed’s lawns and replace them with burgeoning masses of native carbon absorbers (Not silly back to the land communal farming [which the hippy and back to the land movement were super reactionary and should be left to the annals of history] but like, native sedges, and maybe some garden plots without pesticides and things), let’s hunt those pesky “wild” horses, let’s give stolen lands back to their rightful owners, and let’s let the forests burn. Ethical consumption under capital and corporate morality are hoaxes and not worthy of attention because any suffering is obviously too much suffering, and the goal should be to overcome such things, not simply offset them. It’s insufficient to be against something and for nothing, which makes you grow to be a reactionary later in life. If one hasn’t studied, one ought not to speak on the topic, I reckon. That’s why I say I’m not just “against divestment,” which is, I guess, really me saying I am against signing a petition for a thing that won’t do anything, but me saying that I am against divestment and for opossums. Have you seen opossums? How could you hate them?

No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.
— Milton, Paradise Lost

Feel free to email me at tlreeder@reed.edu, put in the subject line “I am mad about your op-ed” so I know to read it immediately, put “I enjoyed your op-ed” so I archive it without opening (this spares my ego). I am always happy to struggle on a position and achieve higher understanding.

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