Back to Edenby Erica Wetter
Derrick Jensen & Stephanie McMillan, As the World Burns: 50 Simple Things You can Do to Stay in Denial (Seven Stories Press, 2007)
“Hope is a curse, a bane,” radical environmentalist Derrick Jensen has written. Why the pessimism? Because hope—defined by Jensen (author of lengthy environmental and cultural treatises including Endgame and A Language Older Than Words) as “a longing for a future condition over which you have no agency”—“keeps us chained to the system … that is causing the destruction of the Earth.” In short, hope holds us back from attempting to change things, which explains Jensen’s belief that “when hope dies, action begins.”
It is this notion about hope that drives Jensen’s newest project—a graphic novel written in collaboration with bitingly funny political cartoonist Stephanie McMillan. Relying upon a cast of characters that includes talking animals, ruthless corporate bigwigs, smarmy politicians, and tree-hugging eco do-gooders, As the World Burns seeks both to dismantle readers’ naïve beliefs about green consumerism’s power to save the Earth and to replace these misguided ideas with true activism. As the book’s subtitle—50 Simple Things You Can Do to Stay in Denial—ironically underscores, even if everyone in the world purchased energy-efficient light bulbs, water-saving shower heads, and hybrid vehicles, the planet’s headlong dive into environmental wreckage wouldn’t be avoided. Rather, these minor gestures do little more than act as distractions from the real source of our problems—a culture that is increasingly and dangerously detached from the natural world.
As the World Burns is a tale of eco-sabotage and planetary salvation. In brief: when robots from outer space persuade the president of the United States to give them permits for the consumption of all Earth’s resources in exchange for gold (which they literally shit), two pig-tailed girls, a one-eyed bunny, and an army of critters come together to fight back against both the robots and the corporate/political culture that values money above all else. Discussions about environmental issues between the two girls (one a pessimistic activist, the other a mainstream environmentalist on the cusp of becoming a revolutionary) provide the book’s intellectual fodder, while interludes of monkey-wrenching propel the story forward toward its violent, radical, and idealistic conclusion. Spelled out, the book’s premise sounds slightly juvenile, but the brevity of its plot and graphic format belies the seriousness of what Jensen and McMillan are trying to communicate.
“We can talk about all the statistics you want […] The way this culture is just isn’t working, and if we’re killing the planet, we need to stop that,” commented Jensen by phone.
With two oil spills in the last few weeks, rivers in China turning red, and a changing global thermostat that’s reshaping ecosystems worldwide, it would be difficult to argue the point.
“If you think of all the solutions to global warming that are presented, what do they all have in common? What they all have in common is that they take industrial capitalism as a given, and the natural world as secondary,” said Jensen. “I was doing this radio interview with this right wing, anti-environmental Bible-thumper, and the guy kept saying, ‘Derrick, get back in the real world,’ and what he meant by that was get back to industrial capitalism—that’s his real world. When people in college ask, ‘What are you going to do when you get out into the real world?’ what they mean is ‘What are you going to do when you get into the wage economy?’ But the real world, what am I going to do in the real world? I'm going to roll around in the dirt—that’s the real world.”
This shifting of priorities from culture back to nature is at the heart of As the World Burns, which attempts to reshuffle readers’ assumptions about civilization, humans, and nature, and to invert typical notions of good and bad, valuable and worthless. The inversions begin at the level of McMillan’s drawings—the “eco-terrorists” include a bunny and little girls in dresses with matching shoes, while the elected officials and business leaders have big heads, beady eyes, and toothy grins—and continue when the two girls ask not the culture but rather the animals what they should do to save the planet. The animals’ answer—the drastic rejection of contemporary civilization—suggests a further reshuffling of values, eliciting shock from the girls, whose alarm is likely to match the reader’s. “But … if we get rid of all that’s been built up, the cities, grocery stores, giant farms, highways and trucks, gas stations and cars and planes, medicines, water treatment plants, hair and nail salons, computers and televisions, CDs of Beethoven and The Clash, baseball games, great books and paintings, fine food, air conditioning and central heating, then how will we live?” cries one of the girls. Nature’s uncompromising grim response—“How can you even call it living, when you’re murdering yourselves and every other living being around you?”—acts as the final push in the girls’ ecological enlightenment, and the two promptly renounce their “destructive culture” so that they can live with the wildlife and “be happy.”
It’s an Edenic resolution to the nature/human divide, but one that’s unlikely to be accepted as a real possibility by most readers—which raises the question of what Jensen’s really asking of his readers. Even if you can make the mental leap of envisioning life without the trappings of civilization, imagining such a world is more likely to plunge you into a post-apocalyptic void than As the World Burns’s Disney-fied future where humans walk in solidarity with snakes who live in harmony with polar bears, and so on. Unfortunately, though the latter idealistic simplification of matters adds entertainment value to the book, it also makes it easy to brush off the book as mere tree-hugger hyperbole. And yet, even if the book’s conclusion is deliberately unrealistic, the case that something needs to be changed in the human/nature equation still stands. The perpetual question is, what?
In the end the solution, according to Jensen, is quite obvious: do anything and everything possible to ameliorate the impacts of our destructive culture.
“One of the great things about everything being so messed up is that no matter where you look, there’s great work that needs to be done,” Jensen later commented, referencing his previous two-volume book, Endgame. “If what you really care about is kittens, then work with feral cats, or if what you really care about is rape, then work a rape crisis hotline, or if what you care about is salmon, then do something for the salmon.”
It remains to be seen whether As the World Burns will succeed in pushing readers beyond hope and toward actions like those cited by Jensen. Regardless, the book—with its mixture of satire and sincere concern for the biosphere—is a worthy, entertaining, and thought-provoking place to start contemplating and effecting the shifting of environmental values.
Erica Wetter is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.