Book Review: As The World Burns: 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Stay in Denial by Derrick Jensen & Stephanie McMillan
The day doesn't go by anymore without there being at least one story in the news that concerns the environment. From either business denials of the Kyoto accord, arguments for and against the validity of global warming, to a story about the latest change in conditions around the world. Today was no exception as American Marine Biologists have moved the polar bear onto the endangered species list primarily due to loss of habitat.
While many animals have been forced into near extinction by our physical encroachment into their natural territories denying them the ability to sustain themselves, the polar bear is the first creature to feel the affects of our indirect influence on an area. The polar ice cap is melting and depriving them of their habitat and hunting grounds. Normally the pack ice would have no trouble supporting the weight of even the largest adult bear allowing it to roam at will hunting for the seal meat it needs to sustain itself. As the ice thins due to rising temperatures they are either drowning or starving to death.
The plague of global warming has extended the reach of our death grip over the planet until now we no longer even need to live in a place in order to kill off its native species. While reports like the one issued by scientists concerning the North may be finally convincing people that global warming is a danger to our planet and life itself, the means to combat it are still being contested by those whose interests demand that the conditions causing global warming continue unabated.
As the danger has increased to the point where it has become an accepted fact by a good percentage of society, there has been a corresponding increase in corporate and political makeovers utilizing code words for environmental friendliness like "Green" and "Natural". If nothing else global warming has been responsible for the development of intensive advertising campaigns as everybody from governments to the oil and gas industry rushes to convince the public that they are doing their bit to save life.
In response to these campaigns, and the various band-aid solutions offered by folk such as Al Gore, author Derrick Jensen and cartoonist Stephanie McMillan have created the new graphic novel As The World Burns: 50 Simple Things You Can Do To Stay In Denial. Published by Seven Stories Press and distributed in Canada by Publishers Group Canadait will hit the shelves of bookstores in January offering truths that make Al Gore's inconveniences pale in comparison.
It's a retelling of the classic "Rome burning while Nero fiddles" story, except now it's the earth that's burning while the human race fiddles. In this case our fiddling consists of all the great ideas and plans that have been proposed as the means to save the planet from our destructive behaviour, and the burning is the death of the planet. While it may sound good in theory to change all your light-bulbs, recycle aluminum and tin cans, walk more and drive less, and buy goods with less packaging, the truth is the actual impact is so negligible that you may as well not bother. The only people benefiting are the manufactures of the light bulbs, and the owners of recycling plants.
The two young girls who are As The World Burns' protagonists are discussing "the list" of things that individuals can do in order to prevent global warming that appeared at the end of an unnamed movie about climate change. While one waxes enthusiastic about it, the other makes increasingly biting, and sarcastic comments. ("You're going like this one - you won't even have to change your lifestyle"... "Well thank goodness for that!!")
But when they sit down and do the math, figuring out how much the actual reduction in carbon dioxide emissions would be, the list just doesn't seem as thrilling as it once was. Even if every single person in the United States were to change all their light-bulbs to fluorescent, cut the amount they drive in half, recycle half of their household waste, inflate their tire pressure to increase gas milage, use low flow shower heads and wash clothes in lower temperature water, adjusts their thermostats two degrees up or down depending on the season, and plants a tree it would result in a one time, twenty-one percent reduction in carbon emissions.
Even if by some miracle you were able to get every single person in America to actually do all that, there's a problem. America's current emission level is 7.1 billion tons of carbon dioxide every year and increases at a rate of 2 percent per annum. That means, for those with weak math skills, that after ten years levels would be right back where they started from.
At that point in the story the question is asked, why is it individuals are being asked to do all the work when the biggest culprits are industry? If America, and the rest of the world, (Acid rain in Germany is so bad that huge chunks of the Black Forest has been defoliated; Siberia, eastern Germany, and other remnants of the Soviet Union are industrial wastelands; and nobody knows what the environmental cost of the Chinese and Indian economic miracles is going to be) aren't willing or able to change the demands put upon the manufacturing sector for material wealth and mass production, any efforts made by individuals will be in vain.
In our story, As The World Burns, things come to a head when aliens strike a deal with a President of the United States (looking a lot like Ronnie Reagan) that in exchange for lots of gold they get ot eat the planet. The Aliens had been expecting resistance, and were happy to find that humans were only to willing to destroy their own world in order to make a quick profit. Of course this upsets corporate America; weren't they supposed to be allowed to eat the world in exchange for letting the President be President? Something has to be done!
It turns out that the Aliens are afraid of the wild, ("You know Mr. President, the wild, it's kind of like what you see on eco-tours. Trees, bushes, plants, and animals."), but how do you use the wild to fight Aliens? It turns out you don't, but the wild can fight back on it's own, especially if humans are willing to help them. With the survival of earth at stake the animals, trees, and elements feel like they have nothing to lose and throw themselves into the fight no matter what the cost is in life. If they lose this battle, they won't survive much longer anyway.
There's nothing subtle about the message As The World Burns delivers and the majority are going to dismiss it as radical nonsense. As a society we are still too much enamoured of the things that are produced by industry and enthralled by the convenience of our amenities. It's far easier to dismiss the message that our lifestyle is responsible for destroying the planet than it is to even contemplate changing it. Anyway, doesn't everybody say our way of life is the best in the world?
Only dangerous radicals or the very naive would suggest otherwise and recommend governments enact, or even enforce existing environmental regulations, that make a difference in the fight against global warming. Anyway all that would happen is companies would close here and open factories in other countries where the laws aren't as strict and the people are desperate. Of course if all the countries in the world were to prevent a unified front against polluters, they'd have nowhere to run and would have to change their ways if they wanted to stay in business.
It comes down to how much of the planet are we willing to lose? If we don't care about preserving a natural existence at all and seeing how far we can survive artificially without the wildlife that we were entrusted with as caretakers, than the course we are currently following is not a problem. But if we are to have any hope of preserving what's left, and maybe even reversing what's been done, we need to rethink our whole way of being.
As The World Burns: 50 Simple Things You Can Do To Stay In Denial is unabashedly radical in it's call for change, and provides convincing arguments that we aren't doing enough to prevent the destruction of the natural world. The decision is ours - trust the politicians and the leaders of industry who tell us that everything will be fine, or trust our senses; sight, smell, sound, touch, and taste, that tell us the world has changed irrevocably for the worse and that we need to do something about it.
This is definitely not a graphic novel for those looking to escape the troubles of the world, or for those unwilling to accept that we've been wrong all along. Unfortunately it's speaking the truth, and unless more of us are able to realize that fact, the world as we know it will succumb to the rapacious greed of a few and it's very possible that polar bears will be a thing of the past by the time our grandchildren inherit the earth. That's not a legacy I want to leave behind - how about you?
(Originally posted December 2007)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.