I read this story at the Easter vigil at First Mennonite Church of San Francisco in 2019.
Sitting at my desk. Ergonomic chair, 30” screen. Sunlight and cheerful coworkers all around. We are the winners. The tech-elite. Making the world a better place, raising the standard of living. Eventually we are going to meet everyone’s needs with solar-powered artificially-intelligent everything factories.
But somehow I hear another story. Out there, our empire of civilization reaches its fingers into the last wild places. Its eye falls on an unspoiled steamy jungle, thriving with humans and majestic animal kin. It sees timber, metals, tourism potential, untapped markets, labor pools. Smiling people, sitting on their dirt floors in their dirt huts, eating the bounty of the land. And we call it poverty.
In march the well intentioned, the missionaries, humanitarians, entrepreneurs, peacekeepers. Out go the animals. The human bonds are replaced with money. Plugged in to the empire. A “developing” country. Another billion users. Growth.
Everything is business. War is business. Revolution is business. Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Haiti, Venezuela, the list goes on and on and on. The machine has many faces, the military-industrial-complex, the technological-educational-pharmaceutical-agricultural- industrial complexes. Even the nonprofit-industrial-complex. Most of us keeping the machine running can explain why our part of it is beneficial, and we probably even believe it. Yet despite all our good intentions, the machine grinds away converting life and diversity and beauty into profits.
No one speaks of it like this. Over lunch, I slip in a sad remark about Syria. Awkward pause. The conversation shifts to when will we settle Mars. We are frantic. We don’t have time to see the consequences of what we do. Everything’s too complex, so we must pretend it is simple. We plug in the numbers and poverty goes down. If you don’t like it you’re a luddite.
“You can’t say this all at once,” a well-intentioned colleague tries to talk sense into me. “People will think you are freak and then you won’t be able to change anything.”
Must I really go on pretending like it’s all fine, so I can hold on to the golden handcuffs, the empire’s power, and somehow use it for good? I stare out the window at trees quivering in the spring breeze. I sit in a comfortable chair, I have warm food and health care and barely have to work. I should be grateful. But I do not belong here. It hurts.
Laying on the floor of my tent in the homeless camp. Puddle of water in one corner. Headlights in my eyes at night. Screeching bart train in my ears. I’m free! Sure, I’m still in the empire, but now I’m with the oppressed and not the oppressors.
Marching on the street. “What do we want? Housing. When do we want it? Now.”
We demand the evil empire give us our fair share of this chopped-down paved-over concrete graveyard of a forest. Our fair share of the plastic and minerals dug by slaves from the living earth five thousand miles away. What if it was fair? The seven billionth of us gets a comfortable room, a job, food, maybe an electric car. Clean water, piped from some rare place whose destruction has not yet become an economic necessity. Would the elephants say this is fair? I love the people around me, and it is so complicated. Must it be Team Human against all the rest of life?
Laying under a clump of redwoods in the forest I’ve been with the past year.
My friend on the mountain says thirty years ago she’d get five to ten feet of snow each winter. This winter, six inches. Up the road from me they made new clear-cuts last fall. They cut some special ancient trees in one particular spot leaving a sign saying it was for “fire prevention.” Bullshit. Money. I hear the logging trucks rumbling on the road a mile away. Will we ever stop? We know that the trees bring in and hold the water in the earth. As the trees go, the drought comes. We’re killing them anyway. Money.
Can our human empire just end already? Must all of the salmon and orcas and caribou and wolves die first? The ocean is dying. The forest is dying. Even the insects are dying. God, are you going to turn this around? What should I do? What are you trying to tell me? Why?