Jensen & McMillan, As The World Burns

I'm thinking that 2010 is going to be a slow reading year for me, but time will tell. This means that I was tempted to call this my first review of the year, to get a jump on things, but no -- it's rightfully the overdue final review of 2009 instead, and that's what I'll call it.

Stephanie McMillan and Derrick Jensen are individually two of the more agitated and agitating of the agitprop folk, so when they came together to write the graphic novel As the World Burns: 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Stay in Denial, you pretty much knew it wasn't going to be sunshine and roses. And it isn't.

The basic story is straightforward: two girls try to figure out how to live sustainably. The one is optimistic, like Al Gore in a dress with little hearts on it, while the other is in a black dress and therefore cynical: Sartre in pigtails, perhaps. By book's end, some animals have been sprung from a vivisection lab, robots have been given a permit by the US government to eat the earth, and there's been violent conflict aimed at overcoming the robots and saving the earth. It's what the converted will want to read, but maybe it'll reach younger audiences than Jensen's work usually does. I've got some issues with Jensen's approach, as I said in past reviews of his work (here, here, and here) and of an appearance in Victoria (here and here), but fundamentally I recognize his despair and his anger.

The core to Jensen's and McMillan's politics is collective action. We need to work together rather than to obsess about individual actions like those recommended at the end of An Inconvenient Truth: lightbulbs won't get us all the way home. The less optimistic girl in the book comments, in response to being asked why she bothers living sustainably when we're doomed: "I never said there's no point to living responsibly. But I don't delude myself into believing that what I have for lunch, mush less what dishwashing soap I use, can stop the system from destroying the planet" (p.37). It's a war for the planet's future, in their view, and we've all got to choose sides.

Of the two sides the authors set up, clearly I'm on theirs -- but honestly, the opposition is impossibly absolute (animals and "wild humans" vs. earth-destroying robots aided by a lunatic US President and troglodytically sociopathic corporate executives). In US presidential elections, blue states stay blue, and red states stay red; these elections are won and lost based on what happens in swing states. This book wants to see blue states and red ones, without swing states, and I'm not sure I know anyone whose perspective is as absolute as either one portrayed in As the World Burns. It's not a real opposition; it's not one that provokes my engagement, because it's too obvious what side to join.

And if the unrepresented is in fact the real world, well, I'm not sure what's gained by the book. It's a good effort, certainly, and I'll have a couple of the pages posted on my office door for the foreseeable future, but I don't know who wants to read it....


Anonymous said…
Happy New Year -- and let's hope that we all find some way to live gently on this worn beautiful earth.
Theresa K.
richard said…
A lovely thought, Theresa -- and happy new year to you, as well. I've got an email to you in my Drafts folder I'll finish one of these days, too!

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