Derrick Jensen’s environmental writing argues compellingly that we need to seriously address the destruction of the environment. Jensen differs from many writers in that he traces the origins of contemporary environmental problems to the rise of industrial civilization, which he argues is inherently unsustainable. In As the World Burns: 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Stay in Denial, Jensen–along with cartoonist Stephanie McMillan–takes on the idea that many of the “simple” steps frequently cited to “save” the Earth will work. Jensen’s characters–an optimistic girl who believes that the Earth can be “saved,” a cynical girl who sees through smokescreen offered by these “solutions,” environmentalists who do everything they can to avoid naming the problem (civilization), and animals that know the price of the Earth’s destruction–offer a powerful critique of this idea. Even if everyone–which is incredibly unlikely–took all of the steps commonly outlined on the lists, from properly inflating their car tires to changing their light bulbs, carbon emissions would only be reduced by 1.5 billion tons out of a total of 7.1 billion per year.
The book centers on the aforementioned two girls who are struggling with what is necessary to address the devastation of the Earth. At the same time, aliens arrive on Earth and are set on reproducing and consuming all of the Earth’s resources. The president sees no problem with this, gladly giving the aliens permission to destroy the Earth in exchange for gold. At the same time, a clever former politician–named Ed but basically interchangeable for Al Gore–is colluding with corporate CEOs to direct people towards individual solutions to environmental problems as a means of distracting them from seeking systemic change. The two girls eventually ask a bird–who tells them that they must realize that the natural world is not there enemy and recognize the real enemies, the system that requires constant expansion, the people in power who keep it running–what they should do. This eventually leads them to be arrested by the government who is seeking “terrorists” that rescued animals from a laboratory. The natural world eventually “revolts,” breaking out the “bunny terrorists–and the girls–from prison, killing the aliens, and ending with them moving towards the politicians and those in power.
Scattered throughout the story are commentaries on what Jensen believes is necessary to confront environmental problems, with the characters arguing that a variety of tactics–from arson to violence–might be useful in addressing the destruction of the Earth. Similarly, while making it clear that we all are living in a manner that will guarantee the destruction of the Earth, some people–such as corporate CEOs and politicians–bear more responsibility for the current situation. Characters also argue that humans lived in harmony with nature for thousands of years and that they should not be afraid of the fall of civilization, as they can learn how to live in harmony with nature again if they are willing.
While having a somewhat fantastical plot, As the World Burns raises an important question that runs through all of Derrick Jensen’s books–what is it going to take for us to stop ecocide? If the destruction of Earth by aliens is unacceptable, what about its destruction by those in power? It’s a provocative question that is addressed in As the World Burns in a humorous way that leads people towards–ideally–very serious conclusions about what must be done to stop the devastation of the Earth.
Derrick Jensen and Stephanie McMillan, As the World Burns: 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Stay in Denial, (Seven Stories Press, 2007).