Why is there no word for killing the world?
But first you must define what you mean by “the world,” the stickler replies.
Do you mean the planet? someone else inquires. For your information, the planet’s just fine. It’s only us who are in trouble. (Us and how many thousands of non-human species newly extinct or on the verge.)
Aren’t you being overly dramatic? There’ve always been folks who thought the sky was falling.
Think about enslavement.
Picture the Trail of Tears.
The world doesn’t end. Terrible things happen–that’s nothing new. But the world doesn’t end.
I persist in believing–though I’d much rather not–that the world can be killed.
Exemplary world-killing acts may be large or small
Leslie Marmon Silko’s great novel Ceremony provides many examples: for instance, the task of dissecting frogs that is forced on Indian children by a white teacher; for instance, the rituals of contemptuous injury promoted by the soul-deadened Laguna war veteran Emo: both ceremonies designed to reduce a world imagined as fully alive to the status of a dead thing.
“the porous world that breathes, and can be killed” I wrote in a poem somewhere.
“The Beloved Patient,” my fictional Cannibals say, referring to the planet.
There is a paradox here–or is it a paradox? We know that the big threat to humanity’s survival is death by a quadrillion cuts (e.g. industrial activities generating greenhouse gases leading to drastic climate change), but there are many large acts that both graphically dramatize the possibility of world-slaughter and seem to constitute hugely relevant chapters in its unfolding. In other words, they symbolize the capability now possessed by the human species of “killing the world” as though it were possible to achieve this deadly result with a single stroke, the way a murder is usually committed; at the same time, by virtue of their literal impact, they dramatically degrade the systems (social, biological, even technological) that constitute what we call “the world.”
The Things That You Love Cannot be Defended
At the other end of the scale from frog dissection, the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki constitute a paradigmatic world-killing act: massively lethal; instantaneous yet with endless and incompletely unforeseeable lethal effects (the half-life of radiation); unimaginably cruel; and generative of a single iconic image of world-end (the mushroom cloud) that filled the apocalyptic imaginations of several human generations. The Nazis’ death camps constitute another, paradoxically “particular” in that genocide is by definition not omnicide, yet suggestive of a principle capable of unlimited extension (and, as Aimé Césaire noted in Discourse on Colonialism, not original to the experience in Europe–methods were tried out first in the colonies). The U.S.’s vast wars of aggression, particularly in Vietnam and in Iraq, are signal world-killing acts. They were/are gratuitous, not even rationally defensible in very narrow and self-interested terms. (They partake of the local, blindered rationality that on the larger scale becomes blatant irrationality–in a phrase from the Dialectic of Enlightenment, a supposedly rational order mysteriously becomes “radiant with calamity.”) They present a vast spectacle of wanton destruction, by a mighty state actor, of historically disempowered peoples. They graphically suggest: we will stop at nothing (even as the discourse surrounding them is all about good reasons and selfless motives). They call into question any notion that there are reliable boundaries to destruction.
On various occasions (notably but not uniquely that of the Iraq invasion), there are many voices– sometimes many millions of them–counseling another course of action and warning of the world-killing potential of the aggression (or, in the case of projects such as the exploitation of “extreme energy” sources, warning against the heedless rapid deployment of dangerous technology). The implementation of the feared course of action in contempt of those warning voices is a big part of the world-killing effect. The action says to the dissenters: your efforts in defense of the world count for little or nothing. You might as well give up and go with the flow–or obey “common sense,” the common sense of earlier historical eras, which says that as awful as all of this is, perhaps, somehow, someone or something will survive.
“America, great untasting devourer, you’re not the only evil, just the one I know by heart.” Am I relying too heavily on U.S. imperialism for my case studies?
And then to consider historical precedents. How indigenous/aboriginal peoples have faced, and imagined, the deaths of their worlds. The wanton slaughter, or attempted slaughter, of their imaginative systems. For if one mind survives, then something can go on, be reconstituted and transformed. “As long as you remember, then nothing is lost.” (I quote, or paraphrase, Silko.) And yet, those worlds have in some sense “vanished.”
It is not necessarily productive to try to specify exactly how different those historical experiences of colonization are from the varieties of (“post”?-colonial) contemporary experience. One obvious difference, however is that “we” (inhabitants of the “globalized” globe) are doing it to “ourselves.” Who is “we”? It is necessary to reflect on the “wethey” experience–that of simultaneously feeling ourselves to be the object of actions and activities we oppose, but are powerless to stop, and knowing ourselves to be cooperative participants in systems that drive the lethal effects only partially attributable to the choices of identifiable individuals.