Book Review: As the World Burns

Book Review: As the World Burns

Juracement Cement Factory in Wildegg, Switzerland - author: Stefan Wernli,

As the World Burns: 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Stay in Denial - Derrick Jensen and Stephanie McMillan

Jensen, Derrick and McMillan, Stephanie, As the World Burns: 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Stay in Denial. Seven Stories Press; illustrated edition (November 19, 2007), Pp. xi + 224. ISBN-10 1583227776;

Reviewed by Eric Imhof

I can count on one hand the rare occasions when I read a book from cover to cover in one sitting. All such books have had captivating prose and epic content, and—perhaps more importantly—have seemed to come into my possession at just the right moment in the development of my thinking. Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion jumps to mind (although, in this instance, one “sitting” was actually an entire weekend). I’ve never read a more coldly logical book that somehow also seized my imagination, while codifying all my thoughts on a single subject so precisely and eloquently that I concluded there need not be another book on the subject written again. Other books on this list include works by Marx, Ibsen, and Orwell. (I can’t recall any others.) I only mention these works here to emphasize how short this list of utterly mesmerizing reads is.

However, just this afternoon the list grew one book longer. In only about two hours, I had plunged into the startling realm of As the World Burns: 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Stay in Denial, a graphic novel by Derrick Jensen and Stephanie McMillan, and emerged from it feeling depressed and angry, but still motivated to share the story with as many people as possible.

The novel, which consists of a series of subplots that occasionally intertwine, deals with a theme that Jensen has written about for several years: the destruction of the planet and all human and non-human things on it by civilization’s need to extract resources for unsustainable and less-than-sane ends. Jensen, an anarcho-primitivist (he might object to this classification) and environmental activist, has published several books dealing with civilization’s inherent self-destruction, including Endgame (in two volumes). Stephanie McMillan writes a comic strip called Minimum Security, the first series of which was published as a book in 2005.

In As The World Burns, robotic extraterrestrials exploit human-made bureaucracies for resource extraction. Their goal is simply to kill or eat everything on Earth, living or non-living. From this basic plot, Jensen and McMillan explore possible responses to this disaster from different parties: corporations are upset because the aliens are cutting into their profits (as one CEO reminds the President of the United States, “Aliens aren’t supposed to consume the planet … corporations are.”); the president is concerned that the aliens pay him gold for permits to eat everything in America (permits to eat Mexico are for the Mexican president to figure out); the government and police are busy cracking down on “terrorists” who aided a bunny rabbit in blowing up a dam on behalf of fish and freeing animals from a testing facility; the media narrows the intellectual framework with such shows as Listen to the Experts: They’re Experts and You’re Not; and two friends wrestle with the prospect of using violence as a means to stop those who want to harm the planet from doing so—alien or otherwise.

At first, the plot may seem ridiculous, but the outrageousness of the prospect of aliens from outer space consuming the earth is simply a device used by the authors to point out the absurdity of corporations doing the same, mostly with our implicit support. The novel opens with two friends discussing ways to save the planet. While the more optimistic friend reels off a list of “simple” things we can do to save energy (take shorter showers, drive less, use energy-saving light-bulbs, etc.), the more cynical friend insists not only that these practices are not enough, but that they also delude people into thinking that (1) The problem is theirs alone, not the corporate infrastructure that rapes the planet for resources, and (2) they can save the planet without making any major lifestyle changes (we can still use electric light whenever we want—now just with better bulbs!).

Eventually both friends agree that the only responsible thing to do is to fight the system that cuts down the trees, not simply plant a tree for every tree the logging corporations cut down. When the optimistic friend talks about the joy of planting a tree, pointing out that “a single tree will absorb one ton of carbon dioxide during our lifetime,” the other responds, “How about if we stop someone from cutting down a tree?” The first friend concedes, “I suppose that would work, but wouldn’t it be hard?”

The attitude that the optimistic friend holds at the beginning of the novel is the one that the authors attack most directly. Jensen and McMillan view the supporters of the notion that we can perpetuate our current society, only by making it “greener,” as cowardly, counter-productive, delusional, and altogether illogical. There are several vague references to Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth in the book, mostly criticisms that the movie’s list of things we can all do to use less energy is, in the final analysis, diversionary at best. The cynical character described above points out, “But there was nothing about stopping the governments and corporations that are the main causes of the problems. Did you know that all by itself, ExxonMobil has released 5% of all carbon emissions put out by this culture?” Later in the novel, there is a corollary scene between the “Al Gore” character and a CEO of an electric company in which the CEO congratulates the film-maker for not only giving his company a smokescreen, but for helping him sell light-bulbs.

Other tenets of the “green” movement (and like-minded quasi-leftist “sustainability” movements) are attacked as well, such as the refusal to use violence against corporate property (even if said violence would stop further and greater violence from happening to the environment and the living things in it), the agreement that “growing the economy” is our only and ultimate goal, and the belief that appeasement and reform are effective alternatives to outright revolution or a scrapping of the system entirely.

At one point in the novel a New Age hippie is expressing his displeasure that foxes aren’t vegetarians. He scolds the fox, saying “ is really disrespectful. And it’s cruel. And it’s not sustainable.” The fox responds: “I didn’t create factory farming. I didn’t create vivisection labs. Nobody did but you humans. Instead of getting us to make these little lifestyle changes, why don’t you storm the vivisection labs and release the mousies? Why don’t you burn those places to the ground?” The hippie screams, “That would be violent!” to which the fox replies, “Why do you hate violence that frees the victims of greater violence, even more than you hate the original violence?” This exchange poignantly expresses Jensen and McMillan’s principal argument.

Whether one agrees with the all the arguments put forth by the authors of this book (or even if one is partial to the graphic novel format), As the World Burns (or anything else by Jensen) is a must-read for anyone who wishes to think critically about environmentalism and its role in community organizing and activism. I believe strongly that the connection between human and environmental exploitation is an important one for any thinker on the left to understand.

Despite the claim made by environmentalist Bill McKibben in The End of Nature that (paraphrasing) “Marxists are concerned with who owns the factories … deep ecologists are concerned with whether or not there need to be any factories,” – in other words, that Marxists assume the existence of an industrial State while deep ecologists see any kind of industrial State, collectively-owned or not, as an inherent problem - the common critiques that both leftists and environmentalists make about the corporate domination of the world demonstrate that, in a lot of ways, the goals and strategies of these groups are intertwined.

That is why books like As the World Burns and others should be standard reading material for anti-capitalists. The delusional aspects of denial and appeasement, the refusal to use violence to stop greater violence (even, or in many cases, especially against corporate property), questions about gradual reform versus armed resistance, and other themes examined in the book are important and need to be brought to the forefront of our conversations, whether we’re fighting huge corporations, organizing for more rights, or simply trying to live in the most responsible way possible as individuals. Making small changes in our daily lives is only effective as a good start; merely getting better wattage light-bulbs is not enough by itself to make a real difference.