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If we thought there was any value in rating films on a scale of zero to five interstellar balls of plasma, we would have to give END:CIV five solar system-engulfing blue supergiants for its analysis and lucid presentation of some of the major issues we face today as they relate to the “problem” of civilization: climate change and global warming, mass annihilation of the planet’s non-human species and the ecosystems they (and we) depend on, the ongoing colonization of indigenous peoples and their land, co-opted environmental movements, the depravity of “green” consumption, and the coercive system of violence that enables it all to march blithely on.
END:CIV is a new documentary from director Franklin López (a compañero in the VMC), based on “philosopher poet of the ecological movement” Derrick Jensen’s two-volume Endgame series, which places responsibility for the sorry state of the world on the shoulders of industrial civilization, thus justifying its complete dismantling.
As Jensen defines it, civilization is a “way of life characterized by the growth of cities.” He explains that since building a city means clearing out the existing landbase and replacing the trees and plants and streams and animals that lived there with homes and offices and streets, that means that a city can’t grow its own food, or even produce most of the goods it needs to be built in the first place. Like, say, the steel and drywall and concrete needed to create all those beautiful 80-story skyscrapers that block your view of the mountains (but hey, at least we get to live just like those tasty beakless chickens stacked on top of each other at KFC farms!). So cities need to import goods. No way around it.
Big deal, right? So just get some trucks and build an airport and bring in whatever the city needs. No need to whine about it!
Well, there’s more. The way that cities work mean that someone, somewhere, has to produce all the energy and food and consumer and industrial goods required to build, maintain and expand civilization. That’s where the continued exploitation of human labour, non-human life, land and communities on the periphery of a city enter into the picture. At the same time, the amount of resources required to feed industrial production, transportation, heating and the like, and the things that have to be done to get those resources out of the Earth and into the city (see: oil) means that, as it is, our dear industrial civilization is impossibly unsustainable, is suicidal in that it destroys exactly what life requires to live (the land, sea and air and all the intimately interconnected life therein) and contains the seeds of our and its destruction in its very nature.
See the problem?
López continues to explain the thesis by covering four of the twenty theoretical premises that Jensen discusses in Endgame, and fleshes them out with a number of real-life “figures” that effectively describe how it’s all playing out right before our eyes, if we so choose to look. Briefly, the premises are: industrial civilization is not sustainable; traditional communities are forced to constantly resist attempts by others to take their resources; the workings of our entire society are enabled by a broad system of violence; and that the culture of industrial civilization is insane and driven by a death urge to destroy all life.
The first premise hopefully requires no explanation; once non-renewable resources like oil and natural gas and metals are depleted, they’re gone, and along with them cars, plastic, medicines, computers - damn near everything. Poof. See ya.
The second is a nasty little fact that gets too little attention, especially in Canada. As a number of indigenous activists like Gord Hill and Waziyatawin point out in the film, that’s probably because Canada was built as a colonial settler society, on the backs of countless slaughtered, infected, expelled, assimilated and marginalized indigenous peoples. In other words, Canada (and the U.S.) was founded on the mass genocide and exploitation of indigenous peoples. Today, the settler population continues to unjustly reap the lion’s share of the benefits while systemic poverty, disease and theft of traditional lands continue unabated in most indigenous communities.
One of the highlights of the film follows when a number of indigenous people speak about different ways of living, their traditional ways: living in harmony with the land and all of nature, never taking more than what’s needed, recognizing the spirit present in all things. These are all incredibly powerful ideas and experiences that we should all be drawing from, and that deserve many books and films of their own.
Premise three, the underlying system of violence, is probably the biggest mind-fuck segment of the film for those as of yet unaware of how everything actually works around here, from paying rent to buying clothes to why our friends the police are always around.
López juxtaposes a skyshot of Las Vegas next to the bombing of Baghdad while audio from a shopping network plays in (“This platinum chain has FORTY-SIX diamonds!”), murderous chicken factories next to a KFC commercial of a family tucking in to a tub of ol’ fashioned, sweatshop workers slaving away beside glamour shots of name-brand jeans and clothing.
Then Jensen is back with a series of questions and answers, “Where is your t-shirt from?” “Why do you pay rent? If you don’t, some guy with a gun will come and take you away.” “What happens if you’re hungry and you go into a store and start eating? The same guy comes and takes you away again.” The point is twofold: one, most violence is exported, like to the country where your t-shirt was made, so we don’t often see it; and two, that “we’ve bought into the idea that we have to pay to exist on the planet, and if we don’t someone with a gun will come and bad things will happen to us.” Nearly everything we consume, and most of our behaviour, is created or driven by violence or the underlying threat of it.
All of these premises are completely rational and are integral to understanding how society really functions. END:CIV does great service to these ideas and its audience with such a clear and careful treatment of them.
When we reach the fourth premise, that the culture of industrial civilization is “insane” and “driven by a death urge” - well, honestly we got a bit lost here. Up to this point, the analysis END:CIV lays out is strictly of civilization rather than of, say, global capitalist economics or top-down political systems or the like, and that’s fine. The points that were made earlier could apply as equally to industrial civilization and they could to capitalist societies, for instance.
How is it that civilization is driven by a death wish, though? Granted, it’s incredibly stupid to live in areas that require exploitation by necessity, but why can’t cities and their supporting infrastructures be sustainable and co-operative? It would require radical shifts in thinking, organization and power structures, learning about nature and our place in it rather than above it, putting technology to use for social good instead of private profit, building a new economy controlled by those who actually do the work so we can make smarter decisions about what and how we produce, and more. It’s a lot of hard work, but surely just as much as dismantling industrial civilization would be!
Ultimately, the problem with the critique of civilization that END:CIV lays out is that it fails to mention other systems at work. So of course one might conclude by looking at the way industrial civilization works, in isolation, that if we stay on this path it’s going to destroy the planet and kill us all. (Actually, that part’s probably right.) Further, if we keep staring at civilization, ignoring all else, one might start to get the impression that everything that’s wrong with society is a product of civilization. One could go even deeper and look at the fall of ancient civilizations like Babylon and Inca and piece together a theory about the inherent evil of all civilizations, and start seeing the relatively innocent-looking lives of non-civilized peoples (which we know little, if nothing, about) as the way to go. Back to the forests, everyone! We’re blowing the dams!
It’s a dangerous thing to forget the fact that every time we talk about an “economy” or “community” or “civilization,” we’re simply describing a small piece of the puzzle that we’ve chosen to abstract from the whole picture of society. So looking at the world in the way END:CIV does is just as fraught with pitfalls as Marxist thinking is in its one-tracked focus on the economy, or as some veins of anarchist thinking are in their singular focus on the state. All monist, or single-focus, theories are apt to fail at some point because they don’t attempt to take the whole picture into account and they privilege the part they’re concerned with above all else. It’s like staring at a point in the background of the Mona Lisa and missing her portrait and the frame and the wall it’s on and the museum it’s in and all the people around you staring at it, too.
So you’re likely to miss things like the greed and competition that dominate society today as somehow being connected to the world’s richest 37 million people owning 40% of global wealth, and those very same people exerting tremendous influence over governments to devise policies in their best interests. Or that it’s mostly rich white men in the most significant positions of power and that it’s predominantly women, non-whites and the poor that get the shit end of the stick. Or that market economies by their very nature fail to account for “externalities” like pollution and soil erosion and the disappearance of 90% of all large fish species - and that all of these things and more are intimately interwoven, co-dependent and co-replicating.
Last gripe, we promise: calling for the end of civilization is some scary shit, in two major dimensions. First, what does that even mean? What would it look like, how would one go about it? Does that mean we need to destroy everything? Is destruction an inspiring vision? How are you going to get the general population to buy into something like that, and if you can’t, then aren’t there some serious concerns about bringing down the walls of the house that most of us live in without our consent?
Which leads to the second scary bit: wouldn’t billions and billions of people face incredible potential harm if civilization and all the benefits of modern technology and industry disappeared?
If the call for civilization to literally end is real and serious, that means vast amounts of food and medicine production and distribution would cease to exist. Sewage treatment plants that often rely on non-renewable sources of energy would stop functioning; infectious diseases would become almost impossible to manage. No more energy to homes means no more heating, which leaves millions at risk of freezing when winter hits. You get the idea.
Unfortunately, END:CIV doesn’t address any of these issues.
At the same time, though, the film is careful not to make explicit calls for anything related to actually ending civilization. That’s probably for the best, since it won’t put López in jail - and more importantly, because he clearly respects his audience enough to believe that anyone that sees END:CIV will take what he’s given them, think about it, and make up their minds for themselves.
That the film doesn’t preach or presume to tell anyone what to do next is just as valuable as its consciousness-raising potential and for making us think about industrial civilization in a whole new light - regardless of how wrong we hope Jensen and others are about needing to tear the whole thing down.
In the second part of this review, we’ll further discuss some of the underlying ideas that seem to drive END:CIV, like primitivist or “return-to-nature” type thinking, including one of these writers’ past experiences with end-civ groups; hope and cynicism; and organizing for a good society, one that doesn’t need to be burned down and built back up again.