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The Ecology Taboo by Jonathan Mack (2012)

I am not qualified to write this essay.  But I am so upset that a hundred other people haven’t written it already, that there aren’t nine bestsellers on the subject, and that it isn’t the central topic of conversation between both individuals and nations, that I finally had to go ahead and write my own version, no matter how faulty or incomplete..
As I am currently wandering the Earth, I do not even have my library to consult.  I am very grateful to anyone who helps me to revise, expand, improve, or share this essay.
The Ecology Taboo
As a person madly avid for both sex and ecology, I can’t help but notice how, at a pleasant dinner party with thoughtful, educated, open-minded people, it is far more acceptable to mention masturbation than ecology.  Anal sex is a topic more welcome than climate change and you’re better off referencing bondage and discipline than overpopulation.  Cross-dressing will win you more friends than noting the loss of biodiversity, and your sex toys will doubtless prove more popular at the supper table than your concern over the loss of species, freshwater, or rare metals.
I’m a gay sex fiend.  No one minds.  Oh please.  No one notices.  Everyone above the age of eleven has already watched every conceivable sex act on XTube.  Every branch of perversity is now ho-hum – but mention climate change and people shift nervously in their chairs. . .
Ecology is taboo.  That’s my experience.  Most of the time and in most places.  We can’t talk about it, think about it, engage with it.  And I do my level best to not be a battle-axe.  I, too, loathe those people who stand over you as you attempt to eat your Jell-O, and say, “Do you know what’s in that?”
I am not going to dinner with Big Business, Big Oil, or the Christian Right.  Obviously.  I’m dining with the cool people, thank you.  The kind of people who take pride in how sensitive they are.  The kind of people who say, I’m not religious I’m spiritual and you like them so much that you refrain from making barfing noises.
I hope to god that you are having better luck.  In my experience, even the cool people cannot talk and cannot cope.  Real talk about ecology, about climate change, about threats to life on Earth, is taboo.  Quite remarkably taboo, especially for a time in history that seems to pride itself on being self-revelatory and shameless.
Is it any wonder then, that our government gets by with the most superficial, window-dressing types of environmental protection and legislation?  There’s not a politician in office who will go anywhere near proposing the actions necessary for us to have a chance at long-term survival.  How can we expect otherwise?  We are ourselves so desperate to look away that Big Business and Big Government can get away with absolutely anything, no matter how craven, stupid, or destructive.
We can’t talk about ecology — and ecology is getting harder and harder to not talk about.  Discussing the weather is obviously out.  Or the food on the table.  Or most of what’s on the news.  It’s like discussing your best friend’s emphysema as she puffs away and the room fills up with smoke.  Gosh, darling, I don’t know why.  Just bad luck, I guess.
Our lives are in every way interwoven with and dependent on fossil fuels.  We are almost as dependent on oil as lice is on a dog.  Questioning that – well, it’s like lice picketing the dog.  It’s like the heir to Hershey fortune dissing chocolate.  It’s like the Crown Prince saying he’s cutting ties, even if it means he has to work a gig at the temp agency.  Rebelling against our most common sources of energy turns the world upside-down – but our right-side-up world is heading right straight over a cliff. . .
I reckon this essay was born several years ago, when I went to Pella, Iowa to visit my in-laws.  My delightful, kind, and exceedingly conservative in-laws. . .  Actually, they deserve a lot of credit.  I am not the daughter-in-law they were expecting.  Anyway, I was on the road, so I had a crate of books delivered to Iowa.  Standard ecological reading: Joanna Macy, Bill McKibben, Ellen Meloy, David W. Orr, Derek Jensen.
Well, when my in-laws peered into that box – it was like I’d ordered the entire series of Horsehung Hispanics.  It was. . . just too embarrassing to go anywhere near.  I could see they were appalled that hard-core ecology had been delivered to their own home!
Pella, Iowa, is admittedly an extreme example.  Folks I met in Pella thought that getting rid of incandescent bulbs was an assault on the American way of life.  But I’ve found that speaking about ecology doesn’t go over much better anywhere.  I once nearly got assaulted in an airport for openly carrying Rachel Carson.  Two large people saw that I was reading Silent Spring and shouted, “Isn’t that, like, OVER!”
Well, no.  It’s not over.  And – whoa – there seem to be a lot of folks out there with a major aversion to even thinking about ecology.
Why is ecology so difficult to talk about?  When you try to talk about the state of the planet, what happens?  In my experience, no matter how carefully I try to speak – no doubt you see already that I am a master of good taste, tact, and subtlety – someone will try to shut the discussion down.  The most common way they do it is by saying, Oh that’s just a theory.
The first reason people feel they can ignore ecology and the prevailing conditions of life on Earth is that all of it is supposedly based on some theory and that theory might or might not be true.  It’s all very complicated, isn’t it?
Let’s consider that.  Certainly there are many hypotheses, charts, and equations which attempt to show and predict the effects of human activity on the Earth.  These are indeed extremely complicated.  There is also an avalanche  of evidence that shows we are indeed facing an immense crisis.  A crisis that is happening right now. Not five years from now, or in 2050, not just for the grandchildren, or a century down the line.  Now.
Turned on the news lately?  Famines, floods, food shortages, unrest, poverty, economic crises. . .  Aside from the Kardashians, most of the trouble you see on TV has links to climate change.
But — let’s assume you don’t believe any of that.  This whole environmental crisis thingy has been dreamed up by pot-smoking Communist hippies from Portland.  Immensely powerful hippies, it turns out.
Just the same, it turns out that there is only one theory you need in order to understand the imminent danger to life on Earth.  I’d like to present that theory now, followed by a practical example.
The theory is: Once you use all there is of something, it’s gone.
Let’s have an example.  Let’s say you lose your job and you have no money, and your Mom, because she loves you and is forever self-sacrificing, gives you a thousand bucks to tide you over.
OK, the first week, because you also had a huge fight with your boyfriend, you spend drinking Jim Beam, driving around in your car, and eating high ticket items out of the frozen food aisle.  Oh yeah, and there are a couple of perfectly justifiable lines of coke in there as well.
So, by the end of the first week, you have a headache and nosebleeds and you’ve spent 600 bucks.  If you keep going at this rate, you’ve got only a few days left.  You might try to slow down.  Or you might hit up Mom for more cash.  She has fallen arches, she’s working the night shift but – whatever.  Of course she might say, No.  Or, even if she never said, No — sooner or later, she’ll be broke too.
Another possibility is that you could say, Fuck.  I’ve already blown more than half of my wad.  And I’ve got some seriously bad habits.  I need a whole new plan.
That would be extremely uncomfortable — psychologically for sure, and likely physically as well.  But, if you came up with a new plan, you’d survive and you’d eventually feel better.  Your mother, too, would really appreciate it.
Here is the situation of life on Earth: we’ve already spent more than half our resources.  What we have left is going to have to last as long as we want to survive on Earth.
This theory says: the earth is finite.  The Earth has limits.  Thus, our current economic system, which is dependent on everything always getting bigger, cannot work.  The profits are not worth the damage.  We are faced with the necessity of making an immediate and painful shift – or else face a crash that could cost billions of human lives, as well as much or all of human culture and society.
It’s like an aquarium.  Naturally you want your piranha to be the biggest piranha in town.  Still, one day you look at the tank and you look at the fish and say, “OK, Chopper.  That’s enough.”
Of course that’s not necessary.  Chopper regulates his own size very sensibly.  He’s got built-in common sense – which is not something that can be said about human beings, or their economic systems.
Once you use all there is something, it’s gone.
Now let’s look at the opposing, and dominant, theory.  This is the theory in charge of the world.  The official and accepted theory, which guides economic and political policy around the world.
This theory says that the world is a magic picnic box which can and should give us whatever we want forever.
A magic picnic box, as found in fairy tales.  Just a small wicker box but, if the king claps his hands and says, Roast Pig on a Spit! out comes a roast pig, impaled on a spear with an apple in its mouth.
Freshwater!  Giant Tuna!  Oil and oil and oil!  We clap our hands and, because we are the king, we are sure our magic picnic basket will keep working its magic forever and ever and always.
If you say, That’s ridiculous, I must ask that you show more respect.  The Magic Picnic Box Theory is at the core of economic and environmental policy around the world.  Even our religions proclaim it: God will provide.  Both presidential candidates subscribe to it.  China, India, Japan, Europe. . .  The Magic Picnic Box Theory wins near 100% adherence.
Nowadays of course, it’s fashionable to slap a couple of solar panels on the picnic box — but that’s just for decoration.  It also helps to shut down the discussion which, thankfully for the picnic box theorists, no one wants to have anyway.
As we might expect, this theory doesn’t only guide nations and corporations, it guides individuals as well.  In the lives of ordinary people, the Magic Picnic Box theory takes the form of the assumption that life will somehow always manage to go on the same way it does now.
There is no evidence to support this belief.  Still, it’s hugely popular.  Perhaps you, too, have a father-in-law who hopes you’ll save money and toe the line, so that you can live, in forty years, in the world he lives in now.
You might as well put on your spacesuit and wait on the hillside for the aliens to pick you up.
The world is not the same.  We have changed it.  Moreover, those changes are increasing, and compounding each other, and may soon make our planet a place where our survival is no longer possible.  There are plenty of moderate, middle-of-the-road, desperately optimistic scientists who nonetheless predict extreme conditions and a real possibility of population collapse by 2050.
But, more about 2050 later.
If I mention ecology at the dinner table, the first thing I hear is, Oh, that’s just a theory.  Most commonly, the next thing I hear is: Science will save us.  Those plucky scientists will find a way to solve everything.  Of course they will!  Just think of the advances!  Forty years ago, VCRs didn’t even exist!  Now we all have little cameras in our phones!
Science is going to find a perfectly clean and infinite source of energy, fix the climate, clean the air and water, erase every form of waste, bring the extinct species back and we’ll all do whatever we like in an engineered world.  Aging will also be halted.  Hopefully extremely soon.
How would we feel about these statements if, instead of Science, we substituted the words Jesus or Allah or Dolly Parton or Yo’ Daddy?
We would recognize at once that these beliefs belonged to the category of superstition and magical thinking.  Substituting the word Science does not make these beliefs any less prehistoric.
Scientists are indeed working hard to find solutions which will enable us to survive.  We, in turn, are fiendishly determined to shut out everything they observe, predict and suggest.  We might hope that, even though we go on disregarding them – they will still swoop in at the last moment to save us.  Unfortunately, that only works for Batman.
Human beings are wired for distraction.  No doubt overmuch concentration makes one easy prey for large carnivores.  This distractible nature has led us to being enthralled with devices to a degree which I feel can now fairly be categorized as spooky, spooky, spooky.
As the world around us becomes more frightening and uncertain, we retreat even more to our electronic worlds.  It is extraordinary, the degree to which people have become enthralled, as if they were the perfect devotees of a little idol which they must carry around with them everywhere.  They are so proud of what their device can do — they are sure that soon it will be able to do everything.
Many people, it seems to me, are waiting for an application on their phone which will save the Earth in just one click.
If I mention ecology at the dinner table, I hear Oh that’s just a theory and Science will save us.  The third thing I hear is It’s too late anyway.
Here I often falter.  Because, frankly, it often seems that way to me, too.  After all, we have done so much harm already.  Not only are we not making the enormous fundamental changes necessary for our survival, we rarely even manage small steps.  We still can hardly speak of the threats to our survival — even as tens of thousands of lives are lost every year due to the effects of climate change.
Goddamn.  Yes, I sympathize with the people who say, it’s too late.  Our situation now feels to me like one of those nightmares when you see danger coming — but you can’t move an inch, as if your legs had turned to sand.
Maybe it is too late.  Anyway, I’m a selfish, sensualist, live-for-the-day kind of guy.  Gay sex fiends are hardly the persons one looks to for responsible civic behavior.  I’m 39 already – maybe I can eke out a few more years of good times before the whole thing goes off the cliff?  As far as 2050 goes, well, statistically, I guess I could be alive then, but the chance of me getting laid then is nil.  So I’m not much interested.
I was planning to devote myself to leathersex — it’s the middle-aged middle-class white queer thing to do – and maybe write a few heartfelt elegiac poems about the end of the world.
Then my nieces got pregnant.  Two of them.  Within weeks of each other.  Obviously without consulting me.  Clearly I’d been lax about sending along packets of suggested reading: 17,504 Reasons to Definitely Not Have Children Now.  (Of course, my nieces ordinarily do exactly what I tell them to do.  Because I am a tremendously terrifying patriarchal type of guy.  As you can imagine.)
Here I find myself in an awful bind.  Because — speaking purely objectively — my nieces are completely spectacular.  Even their husbands are remarkably good.  Loving and esteeming them as I do, I cannot believe that, when I finally get to meet their new babies, I will be able to look at them and say, These two are dispensable.
In 2050, my nieces’ children will be almost exactly the age which I am now.  I cannot imagine their world but, as we all have human bodies, it is possible that they will be complaining about crow’s feet, or needing their vision corrected.  I think it is very likely, too, that they will be as adamant about loving and desiring life as I am now.  They may well feel, as I do, “I am not nearly finished yet!”
According to even conservative forecasts, 2050 may be a very difficult time to survive.  Indeed, we may not get that far at all.
This is a profoundly terrible situation.  All I wanted was to find a pair of leather chaps that would make my ass look hot.  Or even just OK.  Now I am concerned about ensuring that the Earth is inhabitable.
We are addicts and the proof of our addiction is in the desperation with which we look away.  Day after day, trouble arrives, and day after day we insist it has nothing to do with our habits.
Our dependence on fossil fuels is the very substance of our lives and our society.  We go on, drinking from the bottle marked poison, ignoring the evidence all around us, acting like we can go on as we do because we still make it to work in the morning.
Only an addict, in an addicted culture, could do such a spectacular job of ignoring what is obvious and all around us.  It matters little whether Dhaka or Cedar Rapids is the city underwater.  We ignore it all.
How lovely it would be if we’d sobered up sooner.  If we’d heeded the wake-up call in, say, 1971.  As it is, the things we will need to do to ensure that people will be able to live ordinary human lives in 2050 are extremely difficult.  I’d like to say impossible.  If I could say impossible, I could just put on an armband and a leather vest and head to the Eagle for Beer Blast.  But I cannot say impossible.
I remember what it was like to be a gay guy 20 years ago.  Sometimes it was dangerous,  People freaked out, stormed out of the room, called me names, threw bottles.  Now, most of the time, no one could care less.
To my surprise however, I discover that I am still facing the exact same problems.  It’s the same story: I claim to love in ways that many people find difficult to imagine or uncomfortable to think about.
How is it possible to love an element, or an ecosystem, a distant species, or a body of water, a potential, or a spirit, or a time I will not live to see?  I must be some kind of freak!  I’ve got to be joking.  I must have had a screwed-up childhood.  I must be some kind of depraved spaced-out hippie weirdo!
Ah, yes.  I am familiar with all of this.  No problem at all.  I’ve seen all this before.
My nieces, whom I adore, are having children.  If I wish to retain the right to refer to myself as a human being, I must do all I can to work for the survival of life on Earth, for the chance that life might go on in all its complexity, beauty, and wonder.  In all its possibility and challenge.
Our chance of survival begins with the end of the ecology taboo.  There are more kinds of love than we know.  We are going to need them all.
Practical Appendix
Creating a sustainable human society will be the biggest job our species has ever taken on.  Just like when I’m job hunting, I research as much as I can, and talk to people, and then try to figure out what the hell I can do.
As the above essay no doubt makes clear, I am only a beginner.  I would deeply appreciate your suggestions, corrections, and advice.
I wish I was a climatologist or a water engineer, an economist or a CEO.  As it is, I am only a reader.  An avid, endless and obsessive reader.  Therefore, the most useful thing I can do is direct you to the three books that have been, for me, the most clear and useful sources of information regarding the threats to the survival of life on Earth.  Any one of these three books will bring you up to speed about our planet’s condition in a hurry.
In my opinion, Hengeveld’s patient and wide-ranging book is the very best – but any of the three is guaranteed to give a very sizable jolt to your worldview and mind!
Please – don’t take my word for it.  After all, I am just a beginner.  See for yourself.  I dare you.  Make yourself a good strong cup of coffee.  Sit and read.
Rob Hengeveld, Wasted World: How Our Consumption Challenges the Planet
University of Chicago Press, 2012
David W. Orr, Down tothe Wire: Confronting Climate Collapse
Oxford University Press, 2011
Bill McKibben, EAARTH:Making a Life on a Tough New Planet
St Martin’s Griffin, 2010
The ecology taboo retains its force because thinking about the threats to life on Earth is often intensely uncomfortable and overwhelming.  For this reason, I strongly recommend that any of the books above be read in tandem with the following:
Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone, Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in Without Going Crazy
New World Library, 2012

by Jonathan Mack
Varkala, India, 9 October 2012

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