Rivers of Blood

by Antonio Dias

Listening to much of the conversation between Paul Kingsnorth, Leire Keith, and David Abram in this podcast from Orion Magazine, I am left with a snippet, I’ve used as a title for this post.

Rivers of Blood.

I must admit, I can only intuit the context. After listening to most of the first half, I was sampling my way through the second. I was chaffing at the “journalistic” quality of the interview, so unlike the dialogue between Dougald Hine and David Abram I wrote about last winter.

The phrase had something to do with the Eco-warrior stance, and Abram was voicing his concerns in this regard – concerns shared by Kingsnorth.

In a tweet, I can’t remember right now from who, this same phrase, rivers of blood, came up in relation to industrial hog farms. An actual river turned red by blood run-off from a slaughter-house.

Rivers of Blood! As Apocalyptic a phrase as any! Once used as a rally-call for racial hatred, it holds the outrage and righteousness called up whenever any perceived injustice registers as supreme violence perpetrated by some other. Curious how this rhetoric is never neutral. It always refers both to the cause of outrage and its hoped for result, an eye for an eye….

We are surrounded by travesty, by monumental acts of enormity. Our very existence has become an enormity in and of itself. Remember this word has a specific meaning and it ain’t just something large. It is a predicament unraveling at a horrible level that unleashes a cascading avalanche of destruction. Antarctica is enormous. The loss of ice on a massive scale due to our releases of carbon dioxide is an enormity.

There is a particular outrage expressed by those swept up in urgency at the enormity of our predicaments – and by “our” I do mean the predicaments affecting the world entire. By “The world,” I mean it in the way David Abram uses the term, as encompassing all that enters our awareness through perception. This outrage is accompanied by incredulity that their reaction is not shared by everyone. In response, it is considered proper form to shake our heads and blame ourselves, and human frailty, for the lack of a universal uprising against what is righteously proclaimed beyond intolerable. “This must not stand!”

I don’t argue with the conclusion that such enormity is horrible. My disagreement comes with the reaction. Once this line is presented the conversation – not just this one, any conversation along these lines – shades off into the rhetoric of solidarity, of movements. There is a sickening compulsion to draw us all into a narrative of struggle. There is no appreciation that this removes any difference between this stance and the nihilism of those who fuel their outrage.

One of the advantages, maybe the only advantage of having no faction of my own to defend or extend by political response, is that I feel no need to accept this coercion. I’m not looking for allies. Not striving after generating any movement….

Let’s follow a few potential scenarios. Let’s start with one of the favorites of the Eco-warriors, blowing up dams.

I should think that the aftermath of the Japanese tsunami would have brought some pause to this rhetoric. I haven’t detected a single hint of awareness of the lessons to be found in this incident. Let’s imagine that instead of an earthquake and tsunami bringing down the hegemony of modern civilization over a densely packed corner of the first world, let’s imagine it was a series of Eco-warrior attacks. The system brought to a grinding halt. The infrastructure destroyed. “Peace at last!”

Well, no, not exactly. What we did get was a nuclear disaster rivaling Chernobyl and a plume of debris now beginning to reach the far side of the Pacific, even as it swells the gyre of plastics in the quiet center of this largest ocean.

The effect on the hegemonic culture? None of any lasting consequence outside the affected area. Some electronic trinkets were delayed in arrival to meet “demand.”

The myth of restoration and continued growth marches on. How would that have changed had this been a righteous campaign? All of what did result would still be true. On top of that, anyone – most probably including this writer and any of my readers – simply by broad association with any resistance to the status quo, would have been rounded up and disappeared into the maw of a revitalized and rabid authoritarian backlash.

What would that have accomplished? What would have been left undone?

Martyrdom is an extreme Narcissism expressed in a dark and total nihilism. This would be one result. What else?

There’s a hint in Paul Kingsnorth’s earlier remark,

“If we haven’t stopped believing in it, we will try and build it up again.”

He is referring to the juggernaut of civilization, its destructive capacity. In the outcome of every violent defeat of a pathological power we have seen a similar outcome. Those humiliated – the word shares letters with humility, but it has no actual relation! – Those humiliated and brought down do not “learn a lesson.” They are bonded even more fully to their delusions. “The South will rise again!” “We were betrayed!” and many other examples exits through history, some too fresh and divisive today to even mention. This response is not remedied by achieving “total victory” over such opponents. It thrives in abject, unconsidered defeat.

These examples show us that we cannot coerce anyone into a change of heart. But we can destroy our own hearts by taking up any means to strive after our goal, however righteous.

Rivers of blood.

Let’s go back to the literal version. Pigs raised in such densities and slaughtered so efficiently that their blood colors rivers. This too is an act demonstrating enormity.

Do we go in and blow up the slaughterhouse? Do we break fences and set pigs free? Do we hide behind a vegan diet supported by similar, if less iconic violence?

If our enormity is to have any meaning, the destruction around us, that already done; that which is already built into dynamics that have been set in motion and cannot be averted by any series of simplistic actions; will continue to unravel. If this destruction can be atoned for, beyond a direct accounting in a complete and utter devastation. It can only be through a lesson thoroughly learned, one as great as the enormity which calls out for it.

We’ve been called by this desire before, repeatedly in the past century, from “The War to End All Wars” to the Holocaust, Shoah. In each case before now what began with great feeling and strong pledges of “Never again!” ended in continued bouts of reflexive tragedy. None of these lessons have been taken to heart.

This time the effects are, or will soon be, universal. This time, the enormity is so all-encompassing its results will reach into every heart. There is no way to maintain these fictions that we may carve out a “good” side and fight for “right” against an outside “evil.” The world is whole. It is broken.

Those who continue to gain at the cost of perpetuating destruction on a universal scale will fall of their own doing. Let that be made plain, not muddied by actions that only provide a scapegoat and an “enemy” for them to blame what happens upon. The world needs no champion. Least of all those willing to be selectively naive and insincere enough to fall back on righteous indignation, whatever the cause.

Only one thing remains undone. That is fleshing out what it might be to do otherwise than to jump back into the same seething pit of rage and outrage that got us here. Nothing is more destructive than the ubiquity, the hegemony – not of any particular faction – but of the language of conflict and opposition itself. Nothing fills me with dread more than hearing that my erstwhile allies hunger for more of the same, only with them on top. Their ends justifying any means. Their outrages fueling our wars.

Kingsnorth, in his critique of environmentalism, has perhaps not gone far enough! It’s not just the business of environmentalism that needs to be denied. It is the entire “War on Everything!” mentality so eagerly accepted when it suits one’s particular outrage, pursued by righteous warriors on all “sides” for their brand of social or environmental or economic “justice.”

Outrage is a cry calling out for violence. The adoption of any means cannot be justified in the name of peace or to carve out space for life. The attempt, no matter who is leading it, is a blow against what is, hurled in the name of some u-topia, a no-where.  These options are truly unavailable to us if we care to learn what needs to be learned.

The world is whole or it is broken. There are no outposts. No bastions to be “successfully” defended. Insistence on the language and mentality of war and struggle is but hubris displaced. It is a sign that our exceptionalism cannot be challenged. It is a rejection of what it is. It is the continuation of our habits of placing our intention in a position of entitled superiority over what is.

Ends do not exist. There are only means.

Is this so hard to see?

Faced with rivers of blood, what do we gain by insisting on generating yet another?

I’ve called before on an image, hard to look at, of whales and dolphins swimming in a sea covered in oil. The life’s blood of earth sent flowing upon the waves by cruel greed.

It hurts us to imagine it! We want to turn our pain into anger. We may even turn some of our anger against its “victims.”

How could they just swim on like that? Or the birds? Landing in an oil slick. Or seals, or turtles, the beaches themselves, their sparkling pristine nature accepting the flow of such pollution, such a defilement? Without protest?

What are they telling us? What is their view?

We cannot know for sure, but could we consider that, as with every raccoon and rabbit flattened on crossing a roadway, that they are standing on the truth?

The world is whole or it is broken.

If we cannot swim here, cross here, fly here, land here; then we will suffer here, die here!

This is not an “act of war!” It’s not defiance.

It is not directed in opposition and, this might be what makes these acts so galling even to those of us who feel their suffering and struggle to clean them up and repair some little bit of the damage.

They ignore the violence done to them. They refuse to accept it as a limitation. They  die rather than be contained in this way, to have their spirits burdened by these evils. In their deaths they affirm life. Not in any abstraction. They don’t die for any ideal. They live. Their world is entire. We destroy the world. They suffer. But they live in the meantime!

The meantime. It’s all there is! For all our striving, for all our talk of “futures,” there is only now.

This equation remains within what is. In it there is no insistence on intentions. There is no running away from being so as to strive to become.

Confronted by the righteous – for the perpetrators of these atrocities claim their fair share of it as well! They refuse to be drawn in.

Swimming in another river of blood these whales gave a response to domination that is not a form of opposition. Theirs is a refusal to accept domination as a condition in any way.

In this there is liberation. They declare,

“Here we swim in a clean and whole sea!”

“Now we swim in poison.”

“We are in pain and difficulty.”

“We expire.”

No energy wasted on hate.

None spent to give attackers any space within their hearts, other than to declare that what was whole is now broken, not for some selfish “I” or clannish “we,” but for us all.