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Bron Taylor is an Environmental Studies scholar at the University of Florida with whom I once worked to develop an Environmental Studies program when we were both at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh. Among other things, his scholarly work has paid close attention to environmental movements around the world, from radical to mainstream manifestations, with special attention to their ethical, spiritual, and political dimensions.

After hearing about the incident in Maryland yesterday where a protester was shot and killed by police after threatening employees at the Discovery Channel's headquarters claiming the channel was not doing enough to save the planet, I thought of Taylor as someone who might help us make sense of the situation. My hunch was quickly confirmed when I learned that Lee had been influenced by the novels written by Daniel Quinn, for I knew Taylor had written about Quinn's influence on environmentalists in his new book, Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future. (More about his book and writings can be found on his website.)

I'm pleased to be able to share Bron Taylor's first writing on the tragedy and hope that his thoughts help us better understand this terrible event.

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The Roots of James Lee's Rage against Civilization

By Bron Taylor


Yesterday in Silver Spring, Maryland, a bullet from a police sniper ended the life of James Lee. Claiming to be wrapped in explosives and armed with a handgun, Lee had taken hostages in his final stand against what he charged was Discovery Communication's failure to rally humanity to save the planet. Since early 2008, if not before, he sought to force Discovery to teach people that human civilization, with its inexorable impulse to increase human numbers and economic growth, was leading directly to the extermination of the planet's diverse life forms. Lee demanded, as well, that Discovery promote the radical solutions that he thought were necessary to halt the destruction.

We may never know whether personal troubles, isolation, or mental illness, contributed to his fatal strategy; it is too early to speculate. His writings do, however, illuminate the perceptions that were the primary drivers to his fatal, final choices. Foremost among these were the novels of Daniel Quinn. Of these novels, Ishmael (1992) and its sequel, The Story of B (1996), were especially influential. Indeed, I know from decades of fieldwork, that Quinn's novels have moved many to environmental activists, even an online community at Ishmael.org.

Together, the novels traced the beginning of an intensifying, global devastation of nature to the domestication of plants and animals in the Middle East some 10,000 years ago. From there, according to Quinn, "totalitarian agricultures" arose and spread, destroying biologically diverse ecosystems and animistic foraging cultures everywhere they went.

This tragic story has strong religious dimensions, according to Quinn. The religions that buttressed these imperial agricultures all promised a divine rescue from this world. For Quinn, this was the case whether the agricultures were Abrahamic (the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions originating in the West) or Vedic (the Buddhist, Hindu, and Confucian traditions originating in Asia). The common original sin of all agricultures, according to Quinn, was that they destroy indigenous cultures, with their animistic religions. (Animistic religions involve beliefs that all living things have soul, or some kind of spiritual intelligence, and even that trans-species communication, if not communion, is possible.) In the place of small-scale animistic societies, agricultures grow massive human populations. They also install religions in which the sacred is understood as residing above and beyond the world somehow (the Abrahamic versions), or they spread a view that the natural world is illusory and of little importance (the Vedic ones).

Given this history, Quinn contended, the way to save the planet is to rekindle the animistic perceptions once common to humanity. Since such perceptions and spiritualities are still present among the most intact of the world's indigenous peoples, especially those still practicing foraging lifeways and livelihoods (living by hunting and gathering), protecting those societies and learning from them is critically important. So Quinn's solution was that we should recognize where we went wrong and then, as rapidly as possible, reverse direction, returning to foraging lifeways and animistic spiritualities. On the practical side, while some green technological innovations would be acceptable, first and foremost, we must dramatically reduce our own numbers. Only then would we be able to reharmonize life on earth and re-learn how to live and let live.

Something in Quinn's teachings moved and made sense to Lee. On the one hand, he felt empathy toward non-human organisms and wished for them to survive and flourish. On the other hand, he became angry at members of his own species, viewing them as destructive, desecrating agents. At some point, Lee concluded that human beings did not deserve the compassion he held for other living beings. This was ironic, of course, since in finding empathy for other species, he apparently lost empathy for his own kind. It was equally ironic that his empathy for non-human beings led him to lose his own life.

Many will dismiss Lee with metaphors of the asylum. He must have been crazy; a nut case.

But it was by anthropologists, historians, and environmental studies scholars from wildly diverse specialties, not Daniel Quinn, who first told the story of our last 10,000 years on earth. They produced strong evidence that, as human beings domesticated plant and animal species and replaced foraging lifeways with agricultures, biological and cultural simplification followed. Meanwhile, some of the world's most astute religion scholars noted that, at least until recently, the world's predominant religious traditions have been, to put it charitably, indifferent if not directly complicit in the erosion of the earth's biological and cultural diversity.

Not incidentally, these religions have been agriculture-based.

It is, moreover, increasingly recognized that many indigenous societies developed cultural mores and spiritualities in which both human and non-human lives flourished.

Anyone who studies carefully the evidence upon which such views are based would be hard pressed to label these views crazy. So it will not do to dismiss the ideas Lee championed as delusional, even if we conclude that in important ways, he must or might have been. A wiser response would be to wonder if this troubled man might, despite his desperation and hostility, have had something worth considering. Perhaps he was trying to point our attention to a history that, if properly understood, might well help us envision a better future for life on earth. Perhaps if he felt more people were listening, and cared, he could have found a non-violent way to express his deepest passions.

Our first reaction to terrorist violence is, of course, visceral. We feel revulsion and condemn the perpetrators. This is understandable but it can keep us from understanding. It may be too early, for some, to read my exposition about the ideas underlying Lee's rage. Some will want only to hear condemnation of the man, and do not think the ideas that might have influenced him should be expressed in public. But these ideas already have cultural currency. The battle against terrorism requires that we understand its ideational roots, not all of which are intrinsically evil or irrational.

 
 
 

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