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Empire of the Ape

This morning, I turned on the radio to be greeted with the news that 60% of the species in my country are in decline. A number of the UK’s nature conservation organisations have joined forces to conduct a major study of the state of the health of the natural world in Britain. I would encourage you to read the whole report, if you can stand it: it is fiendishly depressing stuff, but necessary to come to terms with.

There was a five-minute discussion about this on the news programme before the agenda moved on to more important topics. The next 10 minutes or so was taken up with an interview with the Prime Minister which obsessed in some detail over his recent disagreements with some of his backbenchers.

This seemed to me to be pretty symbolic of the priorities of the culture we live in. Mass death of nonhuman life: 5 minutes. Arguments within the ranks of the governing party of the day about something or other: 10 minutes. It’s a nice little metaphor, and it makes me unspeakably angry.

In fact, I’ve been pretty angry all morning. Angry and despairing: I’ve been stomping around the house like a bear with a sore head. I feel a kind of rising inner rage which makes me want to tear something down, and I don’t know what to do with it. For me, and I’m sure for many other people, the bald and miserable facts in this report simply confirm what I’ve been seeing with my own eyes for years. I know from my own experience that there are far fewer butterflies and birds around than when I was a child, or even a younger man. I know there are fewer flowers growing by the streams and fewer fish in those streams. When I walk in the hills I hear fewer skylarks. This great dying is unfolding all around me: all around all of us.

This inner rage comes at least partly from knowing that most other people simply don’t seem bothered. It comes also from a strong sense of frustration: that I don’t quite know what to do with it. Sure, there are lots of things I can and do do: I can try and reduce my lifestyle impact, I can visit nature reserves and join nature charities, I can teach my children about it, I can join campaigns, I can rage and write, I can even chain myself to bulldozers to try and protect some of the last wild places in this country. I’ve done all of this and will continue to. But I know, we all know, that it is a drop in the ocean: that I am a drop in the ocean and that whatever I do it will never be enough.

I have wrestled with this rage and frustration for years. It was one of the impulses that powered the writing of our manifesto, and it was at the heart of my recent essay, Dark Ecology, which was a personal quest for a philosophy that still makes sense to me. It is the big question at the heart of this Project: what still makes sense, what can we do when the old answers don’t work but when some response is still needed: more urgently needed, in fact, than ever before?

But I wonder now whether the deepest vein of frustration and anger, in me at least, comes from the knowledge of my complicity in all of this. The best way I have found to understand what the species I am part of is doing to all other forms of life on Earth is to think of it as an empire. The human species, after all, specialises in empires. Throughout history, or at least throughout the history of civilisations, any number of cultures have been busy enslaving others and creating agglomerations of power on the back of that slavery. It has happened on every continent at every period in civilised history, and virtually every culture on Earth has engaged in it at sometime or other. From the Aztecs to the British, via the Mughals and the Mongols, empire is one of our primary achievement as a species, though it’s not the one we most like talking about.

At its root, an empire is about power. One group of humans asserts power over another and very quickly comes to abuse that power. The creation of an empire, like the dismantling of an empire, is a power struggle: a struggle for land, resources and cultural hegemony.

I see our war against the rest of nature in the same terms. It is another empire, only this time the imperialists are the human species as a whole and the colonised are the other forms of life we euphemise as ‘nature’ or ‘wildlife.’ Like all imperialists, we dress up our naked greed and violence in arguments designed to present our actions to others and to ourselves in the best possible light. And so, as we march about slashing and burning all nonhuman life that lies in the way of our lusts, we talk to ourselves about development, growth, progress, enlightenment, the alleviation of poverty and kingdoms in the stars. These, we believe, are our noble goals, our true goals: just as the Victorian British believed, or claimed to believe, that their true reasons for enslaving half the world were the spreading of enlightened Christian values to savages who lived in darkness.

But if this is an empire, what part do I play in it? Because the fact is, I am a beneficiary. So are you, probably. The majority of humanity is. And what can be done about it? The simple act of being born into a particular culture makes us complicit in its spread. There is no point in feeling guilty about it: it’s not anybody’s individual fault. And yet here we are. Why is 60% of our wildlife in the UK being pushed to the edge? The answer is pretty simple: there are too many humans living in this country, and we are living in it on a scale that is simply destructive. Too many roads, too many houses, too many superstores, too much intensive farming, too much global trade and an apparently unstoppable lust for cheaper petrol and nice holidays to sunny countries. All of this is powered by the pursuit of what our political classes increasingly call ‘the global race’ for apparently limitless economic growth. What do they – we – care if the price of that is a few less sparrows on the guttering?

The fact is, we are all in denial about the impact of this and the part we play in it. We all have our own species of denial: I have one, and you probably do as well. A lot of people, most famously, deny the existence of climate change because of the implications for their worldview if it turns out to be true. Other people deny that human population numbers are a problem, for much the same reason. Others may deny that spending much of their time on aeroplanes really matters, others might want not to think about the connection between the rate of economic growth and the destruction of nature.

Perhaps you know all this already. I think most of us do. But the question becomes: how can those of us who are footsoldiers of this empire contribute to its dismantling? The question puts me in mind of some of George Orwell’s essays about his role in perpetuating the British Empire in Burma, where he was an imperial policeman before he resigned in disgust. Orwell was always an honest writer, and he was particularly good at acknowledging the mixed feelings about empire which its beneficiaries have, even those who want to bring it down:

With one part of my mind I thought of the British Raj as an unbreakable tyranny, as something clamped down, in saecula saeculorum, upon the will of prostrate peoples; with another part I thought that the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest’s guts. Feelings like these are the normal by-products of imperialism; ask any Anglo-Indian official, if you can catch him off duty.

This is a variation on what some of us probably feel today when we catch a plane or drive a car or go to the supermarket. Mostly, we can’t avoid these things: there is no escaping the Machine, though we can work hard to minimise our connection to it. But knowing what that Machine is: perhaps that’s half the battle, or the first part of it at least.

What we then do with that knowledge: that’s up to us. I know people, and they are probably growing in numbers, who are attracted to Deep Green Resistance-style activism: an attempt to pull up civilisation by its roots, using force if necessary. I understand the impulse: I share it some of the time, and I prefer it to the comfortable status-quoism of the green NGOs. But it bothers me too, and I can’t commit myself to it. There are various reasons for this, one of them being that I have little faith in humanity these days. Once you unleash violent, righteous anger, you’re soon going to lose control over what happens to it. Or, as Ezra Pound succinctly put it: ‘the problem after any revolution is what to do with your gunmen.’

Personally, I increasingly see this as a spiritual crisis. I think that the Empire of the Ape is a creation primarily of a culture which has no values at its core beyond the pursuit of material wealth, and a culture which cannot see nonhuman life in anything other than utilitarian terms. I wonder if there has been a culture in history before whose institutions and worldview and morality and ethics was so thoroughly, deeply impregnated with the values of commerce. It seems to me that if we have no language to speak in other than the language of money and the language of ‘objective’, morality-free science, then the destruction of nonhuman nature in pursuit of our own interests is almost an inevitable result.

Developing a new language, or rediscovering old ones, seems an urgent task. So does protecting what is left of nature, and working to provide spaces for nature to return, where we can. So does resisting the spread of the Machine, in thought and in deed. So does living as simply as we possibly can. I try to do all of these things, but I think I need to try harder, and on a day like this I promise myself that I will.

In the last Dark Mountain book, we published an interview I did with conservationists and activists Doug and Kris Tompkins, who are responsible for preserving and re-wilding vast areas of land in Latin America. When I talked to Doug about this dilemma, he gave a simple and powerful response:

… find an issue you are close to and which matters to you and you take a position there, on that broad front. Do what you can do. And people have different skills and different capacities and different resources. Some people are good at thinking, some people are good at running a website, some people are good at political action, some people have wealth they can use, some people have leadership capabilities, some people are writers, and they find their place along this long front, where their skills lie and where they can best contribute. Everybody finds a place and they take up their spot. You’ve got to figure out what you can do – but you’ve got get your ass in gear and do something!

I’ll drink to that. Then I’ll get on with it.

Sparrow image by Alvesgaspar (Own work) GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Editorial Notes: Originally published at Dark Mountain Project May 22nd.

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