As the World Burns: A book review
// Luke Warkentin

As the World Burns: 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Stay in Denial is a darkly comical, satirical, and simply illustrated graphic novel that critiques “eco-friendly” consumerism, the environmental movement, governments, corporations, and the systems in place in our society that, as the book argues, are destroying life on earth. Author Derrick Jensen and illustrator Stephanie McMillan use plenty of humour and cynicism to carry their story, which helps ease the intensity and heaviness of the material.

Central to the novel is the rejection of the idea that consuming differently and making other personal changes are all that we need to do to halt the environmental degradation and inevitable destruction of the planet. The book draws attention to direct exploitation of organisms, such as factory farming and logging, habitat loss, pollution, and global warming. Conversely, actions such as recycling, buying fluorescent lightbulbs, carpooling, keeping your tire pressure up, buying low-flow shower heads, planting a tree, adjusting your thermostat, eating fewer french fries, and using concentrated laundry detergent, are critiqued by the book as insufficient efforts.

The narrative centres around two girls: Bananabelle, who is convinced that these simple things will solve the environmental and social problems humanity faces, and Kranti, who is passionate about the health of the earth, and believes that Bananabelle is being simple-minded. More drastic action, Kranti feels, is necessary to make real, meaningful change. Eventually, Bananabelle realizes this to be true, and their conflict and its resolution is central to the story. Here's a conversation between Bananabelle and Kranti, regarding a list of things to do to save the earth:

Kranti: I don't like these lists. They're worse than useless …
Bananabelle: But if we all did everything on the list …
Kranti: It wouldn't be enough. And that's why the lists are harmful. They give people the illusion that the problems we face are easily solvable … Fifty simple things … The book should be called 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Stay in Denial While the World is Destroyed. It's not that simple.

The main antagonists in As the World Burns are a pair of alien robots that descend to Earth in order to consume it. Their guidebook says that humans will do anything for gold, and since gold is what these robots excrete, they have an endless supply. The robots eventually bribe the president of the United States and obtain permits to eat the whole earth, and consequentially start eating and copulating as fast as possible. Soon, the earth fills up with baby robots and the consumption of rocks, trees, and animals alike, skyrockets. As robots continue to consume valuable resources, the corporate big-wig finds himself at a loss. He thus sends his hired politician to the president, to deliver the message that “aliens aren't supposed to eat the planet, Mr. President. Corporations are. … You've got to get those permits back.”

The alien robots are a metaphor for the seemingly unstoppable bureaucracies, governments, corporations, and armies that are complicit in the destruction of natural systems. These are comparably complex and have procedures in place that put their own survival above all other matters. The book illustrates that the system must go on: perpetual growth is essential because the economy and the bottom line are at stake.

Our freedom, security, and control are at stake. The suffering of any living thing, human or nonhuman, is deemed as justified for it is of little concern; it is only an externalized cost.

One does not have to do much digging to find that Canada is not an exception, but in fact a prime example of collusion between government and the corporate sector. Hydraulic fracturing is a process in which pressurized fluid is directed at underground rock formations, often shale, fracturing the rock, and releasing natural gas, petroleum, and other fossil fuels such as methane.

This can occur naturally in the form of dikes, or via industrial machinery, in which case it is referred to as “fracking”, a process carried out in BC, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and in the United States. On April 18, 2011, the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce released a report listing 750 chemicals and components present in the fluids, used by 14 oil and gas companies from 2005 to 2009.

Two of these companies, Calfrac Well Services and Sanjel Corporation, are based in Calgary. Among these, there were “29 chemicals that are (1) known or possible human carcinogens, (2) regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act for their risks to human health, or (3) listed as hazardous air pollutants under the Clean Air Act”. Benzene, a known carcinogen, and other toxic substances such as methanol and lead, were all present in the report results. These chemicals are mixed with massive amounts of fresh water, averaging 3 million gallons per well, and a large percentage of the fluids remain underground where “their migration is not entirely predictable,” according to the 2011 report.

Ironically, there are cases in Alberta where water from wells located near drilling operations become flammable from contamination. In 2010, Alberta Health and Wellness refused to release well water data to the public, many of whom were at risk of having contaminated drinking water, and wanted to investigate the issue further. The Canadian National Energy Board released a document entitled “Understanding Canadian Shale Gas” that stated, “It is very early to make any conclusions about how developing this resource will impact the environment.” What one must understand when considering environmental crises is that the earth is a closed system, meaning that what is released inside, stays within. Radioactive particles released by a nuclear plant do not only stay in that vicinity, they migrate freely within the Earth's ozone layer, along with greenhouse gases. Pollution runs down streams and into the ocean; rain and soil acidification spread from their source and into large areas of land, destroying soil and flora.

As the World Burns urges that one cannot simply view these issues as existing in another place and time, unseen and unworried about, and also, that one cannot remain blissfully ignorant of these realities. The book paints the picture that eventually, if there is no halt to our market economy and its commodification of natural resources, this system will continue to abuse and destroy the ecological diversity and functions that our lives, and the lives of all things, depend on.

The ending of As the World Burns leaves the reader impassioned, but struggling to find meaningful action. The risk is to become pessimistic and disillusioned; however, a part of what the writer is urging us to do is to educate ourselves concerning the systemic problems that are contributing to the destruction of the planet, instead of believing in the mainstream media and advertisements that offer only feel-good solutions. The book argues that the first step towards a sustainable world is to understand the systems that are in place, and that buying a Prius will not stop them.

As the World Burns portrays characters making violent acts against property and robots, such as Bunnista the one-eyed bunny, who blows up a dam and an animal testing lab (no humans are injured). The animal characters see that destroying the robots is necessary for long-term survival, and the animals are willing to sacrifice their lives doing it. Few of the human characters feel the same, but the novel supports the belief that civil disobedience, and actually impeding or disrupting the procedures that are currently degrading the planet, is essential to making meaningful change. As the World Burns suggests that the current systems are by definition exploitative, and thus change must come from outside them.

In parallel, Canada's Office of Energy Efficiency's latest report in 2008 showed that just under 35 per cent of greenhouse emissions at that time came from residential and passenger transportation. Approximately 64 per cent came from commercial/institutional, industrial, freight, and agricultural sources. It may then seem unlikely that individuals alone can solve this disparity by only making conscious consumer choices.

Essentially, what Jensen and McMillan are calling out for is an end to idleness and apathy, and for a new culture of direct action that is to take place outside of the population's comfort zone, the shopping isle, and the internet petition. This may, however, appear as a tough sell to a society so accustomed to comfort, convenience, and instant gratification.

//Luke Warkentin, writer
//Illustration by Samantha Smith

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© 2011 The Capilano Courier. phone: 604.984.4949 fax: 604.984.1787 email: editor@capilanocourier.com