From Spark to Flare to Wildfire: Lierre Keith's Ode to Vermont Independence

I bring greetings from Cascadia. They’re watching on the livestream. This I know: the day will come when the whole world will be watching you, Vermont.

It’s a tremendous honor to be here. When you had your first convention in 2005, I came up from Massachusetts to attend. I had to. It wasn’t just intellectual curiosity—though it was that. And it wasn’t just to lend moral support, though it was that, too. And it wasn’t that fine and righteous feeling of incipient rebellion. It was those three words: Second Vermont Republic. Those three words are a spark that could set history on fire.

We need you, Vermont. What’s burning right now is the whole continent. This July was the hottest on record. Two million acres burned. And it wasn’t just the US. Siberia is going up in smoke, too. And it’s not just the forests and grasslands. It’s the tundra and peatlands. They hold enough carbon—and this is a quote—“to render most of the planet uninhabitable if they burn.”
A hotter climate means more fires which release more carbon which makes a hotter climate. Rinse and repeat, at ever higher temperatures. Scientists call that a feedback loop. I think the planet might call it a noose, and life itself is about to hang.

We need you, Vermont. We need you to tell the truth. I know the facts are unbearable. Reality is an avalanche of grief right now. Maybe we could call it Peak Grief. Currently, scientists are debating whether a quarter, a third, or fully half of all mammals will be extinct by 2050. What’s not up for debate—not ever—is a culture that devours with an entitlement so profound that it is turning the planet to dust.

I know it’s unbearable. But I’m asking each of you to take your heart out of cold storage. I know you put it there for safe keeping. I know. But there is no safety on a planet being murdered. In French, the word for heart is coeur. Coeur is the root of our word “courage.” To face the facts, you will need your hearts. And to face down power—which is what you are proposing, and a modest proposal it is not—you will need all the courage of which your hearts are capable.

Because that power is huge. There are three vast and brutal systems that have gone rabid with destruction. The first is called civilization.

Civilization means people living in cities. What that means is that they need more than the land can give. Food, water, and energy have to come from somewhere else. From that point forward, it doesn’t matter what lovely, peaceful, nonviolent values people hold in their hearts. The society is dependent on imperialism and genocide. Because no one willingly gives up their land, their water, their trees. But since the city has used up its own, it has to go out and get those from somewhere else. That’s the last 10,000 years in two sentences.
The central concept here is drawdown. This isn’t tough. If you use more wood than a forest can grow, eventually the forest will be gone. If you take fish faster than they can reproduce, one day the river will be nothing but water and sorrow.

And then there are things that don’t replicate. Things like oil. Things like coal. Using them at all means using them up. For nonreplicating resources, it can only be drawdown. There is no way to make more oil or coal. You can blow up mountains to get to the last of it, but now you’re drawing down mountains as well as coal, and at the end of the day it’s still gone.

This isn’t a differential equation. It’s not even algebra. It’s basic arithmetic. If you have one planet, one blanket of air, one cradle of soil, one place called home, and you destroy it: one minus one. That’s drawdown.
It’s other things, too. Stupid comes to mind. So does sociopathic. So does insane. And then I’m out of words. Words are supposed to make meaning of experience. All I have are fragments with too many sharp edges. Power, hubris, sadism, necrophilia, narcissism—can any of them hold the horror? I’ve been trying to figure this out since I was four years old. I still can’t find the words. Maybe in the end the numbers work better: one minus one.

Vermont, we need you to do the math. No one else in the industrialized world is willing. They can put a man on the moon but they can’t do one minus one. We need you to be, in the words of the inimitable James Howard Kunstler, “reality-based adults.” That one minus one isn’t a surprise. It didn’t sneak up on us. It’s been going on for ten thousand years. It’s the longest war ever. It’s the pattern of civilization, over and over and over. There’s a bloated power center surrounded by conquered colonies, from which the center extracts what it wants. Until eventually it collapses.

The primary activity of civilization is agriculture. In very brute terms, you take a piece of land, you clear every living thing off it, and I mean down the bacteria, and then you plant it to human use. So it’s biotic cleansing.
It’s also not a plan with a future because it’s drawdown. And what you’re drawing down is fossil soil. To give you a number, one season of planting your basic grain crop– wheat, corn, soy, whatever – one season of producing these can destroy two thousand years of soil. Make no mistake, the planet has been skinned alive. And what should be habitat for millions of creatures turns into salt and dust. Agriculture is carnivorous – what it eats is entire ecosystems. And that’s what it’s done across the globe.

Civilization has destroyed human cultures as well. It’s the beginning of militarism, and the beginning of slavery. Civilizations end up militarized—and they always do–for three reasons. One. Agriculture creates a surplus, and if it can be stored, it can be stolen. So the surplus needs to be protected. Two. Imperialism. Agriculture is essentially a war against the natural world. Eventually the agriculturalists need more land, more topsoil, more resources. So there’s an entire class of people whose job is war, whose job is taking land and resources by force—agriculture makes that possible and it also makes it inevitable.

And number three, slavery.
Agriculture is also backbreaking labor. For anyone to have leisure, they need slaves. By the year 1800, when the fossil fuel age began, ¾ of the people on this planet were living in conditions of slavery, indenture, or serfdom. The only reason that we’ve forgotten this is because we’re using machines now to do that work.
And of course once you have huge numbers of the population in slavery, you need someone to keep them there. Hence, soldiers. This is a cycle we’ve been on for ten thousand years.

I want to make sure to say this. This disaster is not a function of human nature. It’s a function of human choices. We lived on this planet for two and a half million years without destroying it. Two and a half million years. Not that everything we did was perfect. There are plenty of mistakes in the archaeological record. But the cultures that survived did so because they learned. They learned to be humble participants in the processes of life. They learned to make their biotic communities stronger, denser, richer.

That’s what everyone else does, from bacteria to black bears. So when beavers make dams, they create wetlands, which are the most species-dense habitats on earth. They feed and shelter their families but in doing so they make the world more alive.

Or redwoods. Redwoods have needles that are exquisitely shaped to turn fog into water. But the trees themselves only use a third of the water they collect. The other two-thirds is a gift to their neighbors on the forest floor, a gift that makes the forest itself possible.
Humans are no different. And for most of our time on earth we were participants, not destroyers.

The powerful always want the dispossessed to believe that their system is natural, inevitable, created by God and brought down from the mountain on stone tablets. So we are told that destroying our only home is curled around our DNA or the tragedy of our big brains or the fault of our opposable thumbs. Don’t believe it. None of this is inevitable. Your DNA builds a soft, social, bipedal mammal that needs a home like every other animal. If we have an instinct, it’s to protect our young, not to destroy their future. I think every parent on the planet would agree with me. And for 2.5 million years, that was what we did: protected our young by increasing the living abundance of the world.

Cvilization is a very specific social arrangement—a material culture that requires drawdown. Like any human arrangement it can be questioned and like any human arrangement it can be stopped.

There have been accelerants to the process of drawdown. The two biggest accelerants are industrialism and capitalism. Just like civilization depends on agriculture, industrialism depends on fossil fuel.
Industrialism also requires a social system that values speed, efficiency, production, consumption, endless growth, and power. Those values are not inevitable. Actually, they’re brand new. Maybe 200 years old. But those values surround us. In fact, they besiege us. We breathe them in like air—what choice have we got—but they’re more like water, and we are drowning. To quote Kirkpatrick Sale, “Industrial societies are shot through with inequality, injustice, instability, and incivility.” All of which erode not just human society but the human soul. Half of all Americans have been on anti-depressants. Killing each other and the planet hasn’t actually made us happy. I guess that’s the good news.

It’s not just history that gets written by the victors. It’s the present and the future, too. We have to believe their story, that this is the best of all possible worlds and it’s only getting better. In fact, we have to embrace their story, despite the fact that it goes against our interests as soft, social mammals: certainly it’s against our economic interests and our emotional interests, but also our interests as parents who love our young, our interests as animals who need a community, our interests as living creatures who need a home.

Lewis Mumford called it a “magnificent bribe.” Once every possibility for truly sustaining cultures has been destroyed—pulled down with the forest, sliced up with the prairie, dammed and drained away with the rivers—most people take the bribe. As if a desiccated echo chamber of techno-toys could ever substitute for our connection to a living cosmos. But that’s the bargain. And even the memory of another way is gone, metaphrastic now, something between prehistory and a fairy tale.

So we believe that industrial civilization provides the only life worth living. It’s all been for this. Everything. Sentience crawled its way out of the primal sea so we could watch youtube. Before this, life was nasty, brutish, and short in mud huts or caves or something. Never mind the long, strong bones and perfect dentition of our ancestors. Never mind the egalitarian grave goods. Never mind that those caves contain some of the most wondrous art ever made. Pablo Picasso went to Lascaux to view the paintings and you know what he said when he emerged from the cave? “We have invented nothing,” He saw it.

Our first art was the megafauna and the megafemales who gave us life. Our first art was a prayer of participation and thanksgiving That’s our true history: participation and thanksgiving.

And if the culture on offer leaves us with a nameless, empty hunger, well, there’s always further immersion in the spectacle to feel something. The spectacle is where social life is commodified into an image. To quote Guy Debord, “All that once was directly lived has become mere representation.” So it’s “the decline of being into having, and having into merely appearing.”

You know there are teenagers getting plastic surgery in order to look better on facebook? And if we are not horrified by that, then as a species we should simply stop having children. We owe the young an apology for the unbearable emptiness of it all: a human culture that is no culture. It’s an anti-culture, designed not to connect but to destroy. Speech has been reduced to string of consonants on a screen. Food, in the words of Jim Kunstler, “has lost its ceremonial trappings of communion with other people and become a furtive, solitary pursuit, a sugar addiction with overtones of nutritional masturbation.” Parenting has been reduced to simply stuffing children with corporate products, body and soul. By the time she’s 17, the average American child has spent 2,000 hours with her parents, 11,000 hours in school, and 40,000 hours with the mass media. And sex has been reduced to the rancid pleasures of sadism.

Our global masters prefer us stupid, ugly, and cruel, and they are winning. Meanwhile, the approved response of most of our public intellectuals is a smug stance of useless irony.

Then there’s the other emptiness, the bleeding out of life itself: Appalachia without mountains, skies without birds, oceans without mammals or crustaceans or fish. The plankton are going down as well. They are the bottom of the food chain and a major source of our oxygen. The only things increasing are the carbon and the heat, the desperation and devastation.

And of course the profits of the 1 percent. Which brings us to capitalism. Capitalism has been another accelerant to extraction and drawdown. Capitalism takes living creatures and their homes, it declares them private property, it turns them into dead commodities and then accumulates those commodities into wealth. It’s a pyramid scheme of death. The Occupy Movement has staked a claim on being the 99%. I think that’s self-evident. Capitalism is the 1% taking from the 99%. Now add this. 98% of the world’s old growth forests are gone. 99% of the prairies are gone. That means 99% of the pasque flowers, 99% of the prairie dogs, 99% of the bison. The wealth is created from their dead bodies. The point isn’t to distribute that wealth—the point is to stop the death.

What drives a capitalist economy is a ceaseless quest for investment opportunities by those who have capital. So they make profits, their capital grows, and they want to invest the new capital to make more profits. But the only way to have more investment opportunities is if more producing and more consuming take place. In fact if the economy doesn’t grow by about 3 percent a year, the economy will collapse.

What that means is that total consumption of goods and services has to double every 20 years.
The last time I looked, the planet had 197 million square miles, and not one inch more. You cannot have infinite growth on a finite planet. So capitalism is literally insane. And it’s consuming the planet to death.

There’s a third accelerant. It’s the ruling religion of the planet, and it’s called patriarchy. It produces a psychology of profound entitlement, based on a masculine violation imperative. That imperative includes breaking the sexual boundaries of women and children, the cultural and political boundaries of indigenous people (the word is genocide), the biological boundaries of rivers and forests, the genetic boundaries of other species, and the physical boundaries of the atom itself.
We will not save life on earth unless we dismantle patriarchy. You will be punished for saying that out loud. But gather up your courage because we have got to do it anyway.

Put it all together, and the entire culture is sociopathic. The entitlement, the sadism, that bottomless hunger to conquer, you’ll never reach the end of it. What we are reaching is complete biotic collapse.
The very creation myth of western civilization tells men to dominate, to conquer, to go forth and multiply. No hunter-gatherer is told by god to willfully overshoot the land’s carrying capacity, and no marginally rational person would listen to such a god. To repeat the words of your very own Dennis Steele: the gods of empire are not the gods of Vermont. I’m praying that’s true, Vermont. The gods of empire have had a ten thousand year reign and they’ve laid waste to the world. I’m going to quote the main character from a really popular book, “Subdue the earth and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the air and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” Everything has been subdued, everything, the mountains, the oceans, the polar ice caps, nothing is off limits and nowhere is safe. And most of us are just holding our breath and hoping that somewhere, somehow, some bacteria survive.

And then there’s Vermont. That’s that little state up near Canada somewhere, with a lot of cows or something? No one’s paying attention, not yet. But you’re kindling a spark between Canada and those cows. It’s going to serve as a signal flare to the ready and the weary both: here, now, finally. Feed that spark with equal measures of hope and courage and it will be a blaze of rebellion. And when rebellion turns to real resistance, with discipline and determined strategy, you’ll have a wildfire that could light up the world.

My first hope is in your name–you named yourselves after your mountains. I’m going to quote John Muir, speaking of another mountain range:
“It is by far the grandest of all the special temples of Nature I was ever permitted to enter… Full of God’s thoughts, a place of peace and safety amid the most exalted grandeur and eager enthusiastic action, a new song, a place of beginnings abounding in first lessons on life, mountain building, eternal, invincible, unbreakable order; with sermons in stones, storms, trees, flowers, and animals brimful with humanity.”

I hope you know your mountains as temples. I hope you hear sermons in stones and storms. I hope you see animals brimful with humanity. I also hope you have a plainsong for the disappeared and I hope it doesn’t break your hearts.

This is who has been taken from you: eastern elk, caribou and catamounts, wolverines and wolves. There were trees six feet in diameter and 13 stories tall. That’s what trees are supposed to look like. There were shy spring flowers whose names we will never know. And all of them have been gone so long we don’t even miss them, but they should ache like a phantom limb.

And then there’s your river, full of ghosts. The first main stem dam went up in 1798, and by 1808 the Connecticut River strain of the Atlantic salmon were gone forever. Shad and Blueblack herring were once uncountable, their rivers called “black and boiling” there were so many fish. I have never in my life seen a river black and boiling with fish. That’s what rivers are supposed to look like. At last count, there were 39 herring in the Connecticut. 39. That has to be the saddest number ever.

Let me tell you who else may be taken forever. The Flowering Dogwood and the Fairy Slipper. The Great Laurel and the Wild Plum. The Harsh Sunflower and the Sweet Coltsfoot. The Green Mountain Maidenhair Fern. There are 157 plants on the list of the damned. Our planet has been gutted and Vermont is not spared.
You will need your hearts to face this. I know what I’m asking but better a broken heart than no heart at all. Because even a broken heart is still made of love.

So my first hope is that you love your mountains. My second hope is that you love each other. Vermont, you have a noble history. You weren’t just the first state to outlaw slavery. You were the first sovereign nation to do so. Even after you joined the US, your legislature, your courts, and your citizens made it as difficult as humanly possible for slave owners to capture fugitives. You gave people shelter from one of the most vicious institutions ever created, and you refused to give them up. Build on that legacy, Vermont. The world needs you.

The founding documents of your new republic are luminous with words like solidarity, equality, mutuality. Those are not the commands of the gods of empire. They’re words that speak to that soft, social mammal. They’re all synonyms for love. They’re a new liturgy, a promise and a prayer to each other. What is town meeting but a covenant of neighbors? A covenant born in both the recognition that we need each other and in the trust that we can direct our common affairs–that we can be a polity–wisely and well. The recognition and the trust are both forms of love. And I think everyone here is old enough to know that you don’t have to like everyone that you love.

Solidarity has to be a covenant with your mountains, too: not one more species. Not one. And here is where you must be those reality-based adults. You have to be willing to face the facts. Industrial civilization was a one-time blowout. In the words of Richard Heinberg, “the party’s over.” Maybe five generations got to experience the cheap fossil-fueled thrills of consumerism. Maybe five generations. And it was only a small slice of those generations, only the very top of the global heap. The rest of humanity was emiserated. It was all based on a vast planet-wide extraction of non-replicating resources. The oil, the coal, the metals, and now the rare earths. They have to be ripped from the land. Which means people have to be ripped off their land. Which means those people have to be ripped in half. And let’s be very clear—the only reason we don’t know this is because we live behind a military barricade and inside a media-modulated bubble.

Step out from that barricade, Vermont. Pop the bubble. One of the horrors of our situation is that not even environmentalists are telling the truth. Vermont, I’m begging. Face the truth. This way of life is immoral and insane. It’s also over. The energy to fuel it is running out. And there is no combination of wind, solar, corn, and fairy dust that can keep it going.

Even if there was fairy dust aplenty, it’s just more of the same. The wind turbines, the solar panels, the Prius batteries all rest on the same industrial platform. They’re dependent on extraction for their materials and they’re dependent on cheap fossil fuel for their manufacture,. That’s a nice way to say poison and slavery. They’re dependent on the same soldiers and guns because no one willingly gives up their land, their water, their culture, or their future. They’re dependent on the exact same arrangement we have now.

Rare earths are necessary for all the techno-gadgets that are supposed to lead us to the clean, green promised land. The battery in a Toyota Prius uses up to 33 pounds. The magnets that make a wind turbine spin can use two tons. Compact fluorescent light bulbs wouldn’t light without them. They’re also responsible for the dubious joys of computers, cell phones, and guided missiles.

Rare earth minerals don’t collect in veins like copper or gold. So they’re difficult to dig, separate, and process. “Difficult” is a euphemism. Rare earths mean toxic gas, acid water, and radioactive wastes. And they require huge amounts of energy—there’s that cheap fossil fuel again.

At this point, most of the privileged run for cover in what Kunstler calls “techno-narcisssim: the belief that technology is going to save our ass.” I call it technological fundamentalism. It’s a religion of the worst kind, demanding faith despite all evidence to the contrary.

You can’t mine without ripping the world to pieces. Here’s a quote from a farmer near a rare earth mine. “The crops stopped growing after being watered.” Here’s another: “Fruit trees don’t bear fruit any more. Fish die in the river. Even the weeds died.” Historically, slavery was required for mining. To this day, Mercury is traded in 76 pound flasks because that was the load that slaves in the cinnabar mines of Rome could carry. That 76 pound weight is still with us only now it’s Chinese peasants carrying the burden of our great, glorious, low-carbon future.
And the Chinese environmentalists who have protested all of this have been tortured by their government. Tortured.

Solidarity, equality, mutuality. As a sovereign nation, you stood against slavery once. You have to take that stand again. Otherwise you’ve got beautiful words written in blood. And make no mistake, there is no way to produce a wind turbine without blood.

I think you can do this, Vermont, for three reasons. First is that at the heart of your new republic there is a pulse of resistance against industrial technology and its authoritarian requirements. You’ve got theorists like Kirkpatrick Sale and Thomas Naylor. And I can’t tell you the delight it gives me to know that Thomas Naylor doesn’t do email. The one that got away!

Second is your national character. You have an ethic of common sense, plain dealing, hard work, and Yankee know-how. You don’t suffer fools gladly, which means if there’s a people on earth who can say no to fairy dust, it’s you.

In your favor also stand your national heroes. I refer, of course, to Helen and Scott Nearing. They believed in the dignity of labor, the requirement of art and intellect, the necessity of resistance to the moral rot of empire, and that each of these completed the others. They built houses by hand, stone by stone. They dug a pond with a shovel and sweat. They also wrote dozens of books and pamphlets and started a movement of radical, rural populism. Your republic is a direct descendent of their very good lives.

The third thing in your corner is that you don’t actually have any cities. You have three big towns—Brattleboro, Montpelier, and Burlington—and a lot of villages. The template for your built environment was established before the automobile destroyed human-scale communities. We are now under siege. The car has demanded a living arrangement not worth living in.
But the fossil fuel age will come to a halt, and human scale will once more direct human affairs. There will be no other option. And places that were built to provide for human society, to encourage and expedite human interactions, have the best chance of surviving that transition. In the end, those human interactions will be our only hope, and we will need to make those interactions call forth the best in that word “human,” not the worst. Solidarity, equality, mutuality. You see how all this is connected.

Fourth, the land itself has saved you from some of the worst excesses of civilization. Northern New England is not suited to the annual monocrops of agriculture. The terrain is too steep, the soil too thin, and the climate too cold. What you can do here is pastoralism, which is why those cows are iconic. That has every chance of being sustainable, based as it is on a closed loop of ruminants and grass. No oil, no gas, and no fairy dust. Just sun and rain, just what our one bright star and our good, green planet give us.

Don’t let anyone talk you out of the food that grows here. Cattle cultures have produced people of stature, grace, and independent spirit the world over. And in the beginning, the great grazing herds of the African savannah produced us, the genus homo, with our expansive, hungering brains. We were fed and we were grateful and our first art was also our first thanksgiving. It’s 40,000 years later, the planet has been trashed, but the megafauna are still here, waiting to welcome us back.

Vermont, you can do this. I know from all sides we hear the endless complaint that it can’t be done. It’s just factually not true. People start new countries all the time—since 1990, 34 new countries have been created.
Let me speak for reality and tell you what actually can’t be done. You can’t have an extractive economy without imperialism and genocide. You can’t draw down forests and soil and species and evolution itself and have a future. You can’t destroy your planet and live on it, too. That’s what can’t be done.

But you can restore your democracy and repair this place. Vermont, you can do this. Whatever gods you chose as individuals, let these be the gods of Vermont: solidarity, equality, mutuality. That means you have to make that covenant with your mountains and with each other.

Will it provide you with an endless stream of techno-toys and plastic crap? No. But will it provide food, security, community, democracy, and a future? Yes, it is enough. So say these words: and it is good.
With every bite of grass made flesh, say those words. With every decision at every Town Meeting, say those words. With every sighting of your republic’s brave flag, say those words. This I know: wherever there is tyranny, the human spirit will resist. So look around the world: with every voice that speaks up, with every heart that fights on, say those words. And the end of every day is one day closer to victory, to the end of the longest war ever. Say those words: and it is good. A fitting prayer to the gods of Vermont.

You can do this, Vermont. You can break through the passivity of the weary, the denial of the desperate, the accommodation of the broken hearted. You’re standing up to say no, enough, the 1 percent are not taking the last scraps of shelter and food, of human rights and human dignity, of this planet that is our only home. You are confronting a vast machine that is right now grinding up the future itself.

And you can win. You can match their contempt with your courage. You can match their brute power with your fierce and fragile dreams.
The planet is in shreds; the indigenous displaced and disappeared; slavery is a way of life only temporarily veiled by distance and fossil fuel; sexual sadism is a public pastime. Enough. Liberty and a living planet will only be won when the gods of empire are resisted and defeated.

Vermont, you can do this. From spark to flare to wildfire, you can do this because you have to.  The world is waiting. It may not know it, but it is waiting. And someday soon, the world will be watching.

Speech delivered by Lierre Keith at “The Third Statewide Convention on Vermont Self-Determination” at the Vermont State House in Montpelier, VT on September 14, 2012.  Lierre Keith is co-author of Deep Green Resistance and lives in Northern California.