Is Civilization Worth Saving?

The Priest and the Prophet
Can industrial civilization really become sustainable? Should it?
By Charles Shaw
For Grist.org
15 Aug 2006

To be, or not to be—that is the age-old question, and civilization today faces its own dire version of it. As the negative social and ecological effects of 150 years of industrialization are becoming impossible to ignore, people are asking whether we can maintain our standards of living. But very few are asking if we should.

There are, however, two contemporary thinkers for whom this question is primal: William McDonough, green architect and designer, and Derrick Jensen, neo-tribal environmentalist and philosopher. They epitomize the vanguard of the new green zeitgeist. They are the elemental planners of a future sustainable society.

Both visionaries are mythically Shakespearean in the quirk, richness, and lyrical beauty of their respective evangelizing characters. But one is Establishment, the other Counterculture. One wears a bow tie, the other wears beads. One comes from the corporate aristocracy, educated at Dartmouth and Yale; the other from working-class Spokane and the Colorado School of Mines. One founded three revolutionary companies; the other keeps the company of revolutionaries.

One was named Time Magazine’s “Hero of the Planet” and is the only recipient of the Presidential Award for Sustainable Development. The other lists more modest encomiums, but to many in the movement, he is every bit as much a hero.

Though these two men share a common belief—that industrial civilization, with its outrageous fortune, is killing the planet, plunging all life into a veritable sea of troubles—they represent two sides of the most important question of our age: Is civilization worth saving?

McDonough says “yes,” and is prepared to suffer the slings and arrows required to make it work. Jensen says “no,” and is prepared, in a manner of speaking, to take up arms and end the whole experiment.

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Charles Shaw is a green activist and a regular contributor to Alternet, Guerrilla News Network, Scoop, In These Times, and The Next American City. He is editor in chief of Conscious Choice.