Walking Away From Empire

Guy McPherson believes opting out is the first step toward dismantling American Empire

You probably recognize this symbol, though you might have forgotten its name: √

When I write the symbol on the whiteboard in a class, and ask what it is, the response is invariable: “The square root.”

I respond, “Yes, its function is to take the root, including the square root or any other root. But what is it called?”

Extended silence ensues, followed by, “The square-root symbol.”

I lead the abundant laughter.

Long pause before I give the answer: “It’s called a radical.” Another long pause before I reveal the point of this exercise. “It’s called a radical because it gets at the root. That, by the way, is the definition of radical: of or going to the root or origin.”

I use this anecdote to introduce myself to the class. I’m a radical, I point out. And, whereas this culture has convinced most people that a radical is a bad thing, similarly to anarchy, it’s actually not a bad thing, and it’s different than most people believe.

On this topic, the words of H. L. Mencken resonate with me: “The notion that a radical is one who hates his country is naive and usually idiotic. He is, more likely, one who likes his country more than the rest of us, and is thus more disturbed than the rest of us when he sees it debauched. He is not a bad citizen turning to crime; he is a good citizen driven to despair.”

Why Radicalism?

More than half a century after Mencken’s death, I am a global citizen afflicted with radicalism. I am ignored or disparaged when I point out the obvious signs of human-population overshoot and the likely near-term results, as well as the root causes of overshoot. The calls increase in number and tenacity when I point out the seemingly obvious need to dismantle industrial civilization, the system that is driving to extinction several hundred species each day while making us sick, driving us to insanity, and killing us while we further human-population overshoot and the despoiling of our only home.

Imagine this scenario: You walk past a house every day. In the house, an old man kills 200 human babies as you stroll by. What shall you do? The response to which I’ve become accustomed: You walk past the house, plugging your ears to the screams and closing your eyes to the sights.

It’s not a hypothetical scenario, and it’s far worse than I’ve indicated thus far. It’s not merely 200 human babies this old civilization is killing every day. It’s 200 species. In other words, it’s genocide. The majority responds by wishing the omnicidal system known as industrial civilization will continue forever. A slim minority wish it will end, thereby leaving habitat for humans for another few years.

Vanishingly few people are motivated to the type of action that might preserve life, including habitat for humans.

 My Story

I had the brass ring. And I let it go. I had reached the pinnacle of the educational world: I was a tenured full professor by the age of 40. I walked away from that life, which I loved, an act that made most people think I’d lost my mind. I’ll not rule that out, but in this essay I share my side of the story.

After trying to change the morally bankrupt system in which we are immersed, I realized the system was changing me, and not for the better. So I let go when I realized the first step I can take toward destroying this irredeemably corrupt system is to leave it. I invite you to join me.

Born into captivity and assimilated into the normalcy bias of a historically abnormal period in world history, I did all the things this culture expected from me. For example, I began my career in the expected manner: I was a classroom conservative. I even taught my dog to whistle. As you might expect, I received accolades and numerous awards for teaching, advising, and scholarship. Early on, I realized students don’t care what you know until they know you care—about them. And I did, in ways that made my colleagues question whose side I was on even while I was pointing out that, in educating ourselves and others, we’re all on the same side.

Even though I taught, and taught, and taught, my dog never did learn to whistle, which illustrates something important: Even earnest, caring teaching doesn’t necessarily lead to learning. The approach of “Sage on the Stage” is dead. So, too, is the model of student as customer. So I switched my approach to one based on a “Corps of Discovery” in which every participant is expected to contribute to the learning of every other participant. We practiced anarchism, in our own classroom-centered way, taking responsibility for ourselves and our neighbors. This radical approach to teaching puts it all on the line: Everything I know, and everything I am, is exposed during every meeting of every class. How can we evaluate our knowledge, our wisdom, and own personal growth without exposing our assumptions at every turn? This, of course, requires us to let go: to let go of our hubris, and replace it with humility. To let go of our egos, and instead seek compassion and perhaps even empathy.

We’re all on the same side. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for, as the expression goes, but we must let go of a system that is making us sick, making us crazy, and killing us. During my entire life, success has been defined, incorrectly, by the amount of money a person has, rather than the amount of compassion. Similarly, the entire system has been defined in terms that make no sense because the system rewards money over happiness, and death over life. As John Ralston Saul pointed out in his 1992 book Voltaire’s Bastards, “never has failure been so ardently defended as success.”

Good News

Fortunately, as the world’s industrial economy reaches its overdue terminus, we’re headed to a world where money is irrelevant. Without money, we’ll all be rich in the life-sustaining ways that really matter. We spent the first couple million years of the human experience immersed in a gift economy, and it seems we’ll be there again in the not-too-distant future. I long for the day we see more free-flowing rivers every year, as well as more clean air, more wild places, fewer species driven to extinction, and less soil washed into the world’s oceans, each and every year. The opposite has been the case each of my 52 years on the planet.

Like me, everybody in the industrialized world was born into captivity. A few people seem to be acknowledging the bars imprisoning them. The unseen bars of our prisons are keeping us from becoming fully human, from fully expressing our humanity. As Goethe said some two centuries ago, “None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free.” It’s time for a jailbreak. Better yet, it’s time to heed the words of Joan Baez and raze, raze the prisons to the ground. Even and especially the invisible prisons.

All About Me

In the latter years of my 20-year stint at the University of Arizona, I was doing the best and most important work of my life. Excluded from teaching in my home department, I taught through a program housed at the university called Poetry Inside/Out. “Inside” included the men’s pods of the county jail and the girl’s pods of the county juvenile detention facility; “Out” included an alternative, vocational high school and my college honors course.

We asked each honors student to pay a visit to the juvenile detention facility. I would be hard-pressed to come up with similar-aged people in this country who had more disparate backgrounds than upper-middle-class, Caucasian honors students on the one hand and poor, Latina detainees on the other. The typical detainee is a 15-year-old Hispanic substance abuser who has been subjected to every conceivable kind of abuse, most recently sexual abuse by her mother’s current boyfriend. She’s been knifed and shot at and she’s had a friend die in her arms. Nearly all these events stemmed from factors largely beyond her control.

After an honors student’s first visit to detention, we would ask a single question: “What do you think?” After a minute of reflection, the answer was nearly unanimous among the dozens of honors students: “They’re just like me.”

Finally, my teaching was inclusive and it led to real learning: In my opinion, empathy is the most important thing we can learn. I’d like to think we were promoting and living the class quote from Eugene V. Debs, five-time Socialist Party candidate for president of the U.S.: “While there is a lower class I am in it, while there is a criminal element I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”

Debs knew that rights are not given, they are fought for. Like Thomas Jefferson, Debs knew our rights had to be earned with frequent battles, or they would slip away. Like Jefferson, Debs knew people must be willing to die to secure our rights.

Well before this point, my scholarship had broadened to include the twin sides of the fossil-fuel coin–global climate change and peak oil–and my message increasingly targeted the public paying my salary. Long a conservation biologist, I had become a friend of the Earth as well as a social critic. And I’d come to recognize the costs and consequences of the industrial economy: obedience at home, oppression abroad, and wholesale destruction of the living planet on which we depend for our very lives. We’re on track to cause our own extinction, probably within a few decades, because of ongoing climate change. The only legitimate hope to prevent our extinction, and that of the thousands of species we’re taking with us into the abyss, is completion of the ongoing collapse of the industrial economy. Time is not on our side, and it might be too late already to prevent our own near-term extinction. It’s long past time to let go of a system that enslaves us all while destroying all life and therefore all that matters. And it’s not merely time to let go, but to terminate this increasingly violent system that values the property of the rich more than the lives of the poor.

How Shall We Respond?

As Arundhati Roy wrote in her 2001 book, Power Politics: “The trouble is that once you see it, you can’t unsee it. And once you’ve seen it, keeping quiet, saying nothing, becomes as political an act as speaking out. There’s no innocence. Either way, you’re accountable.”

I saw it, and I recognized my accountability. Even though I was doing exceptional work, and doing it well, I was participating in an immoral system. For me, it was time to let go because I could no longer participate in the system and look at the face in the mirror. I could no longer expose the dark underbelly of civilization and live at the apex of empire. By this time, I had come to recognize that my generation’s legacy–the curse my generation leaves behind–is a world depleted of resources, ruined by Empire, and ruled by fascism masquerading as democracy.

Several years ago I came to a conclusion that echoes that of Arundhati Roy: “Big Energy poisons our water. Big Ag controls our seeds, hence our food. Big Pharm controls, through pharmaceuticals, the behavior of our children. Wall Street controls the flow of money. Big Ad controls the messages we receive every day. The criminally rich get richer through crime: that’s how America works. Through it all, we believe we’re free.”

Like most contemporary Americans, I believed I was free far too long. But in fact I was bound by the monkey trap. A monkey trap is a small cage with a piece of fruit inside, anchored to a solid object. The cage has a hole barely large enough for a monkey to insert its empty hand, but too small to extract the hand holding a piece of fruit. The monkey is trapped, unable to let go of the fruit.

I had the low-hanging fruit of American Empire. Finally, I let go.

Letting Go

I left the easy life of the university for four reasons:

(1) There is a moral imperative to the way we conduct our lives and living at the apex of empire doesn’t match that moral imperative for me.

(2) I left as an act of resistance, consistent with my baby-boomer generation of the 1960s and 1970s. Consistent, that is, until we gave up on resistance in 1980 for “a few dollars more.”

(3) Letting go allows me more time to speak and write than I was able when I spent time fending off administrative dragons.

(4) Least importantly, there is potential to add a few years to my life when the world’s industrial economy completes its fall.

I miss many aspects of my former life. I especially miss frequent interaction with inmates and honors students. I miss fingers that open and close on command–my fingers worked swimmingly when all they had to do was corral electrons on a computer monitor–real work, though, induces real, lasting pain. I miss the easy life of civilization, even knowing what it does to the living planet.

The aching in my heart is profound, but it pales in comparison to the heartache I feel when I think about civilization. Industrial civilization forces us to extend human-population overshoot on an overcrowded planet, to the tune of more than 200,000 more people each day. Industrial civilization forces us to overheat our only, already overheated home, setting records every year for greenhouse-gas emissions long after we’ve understood the consequences. Industrial civilization forces us to ratchet up the Sixth Great Extinction as we drive some hundreds of species to extinction each and every life-destroying day. And now, with full knowledge that extinction is forever, we are driving our own species to extinction. No matter how badly I miss my former life, I could never go back. And not just because I’d never be hired into a civilized job, but also because modern civilization has become too insane for me.

Now my wife and I share a small property with a small family of humans, as well as goats, ducks, chickens, bees, worms, and gardens. Living in agrarian anarchy, I’ve taken responsibility for myself and my neighbors, human and otherwise.

Like a Cheyenne dog soldier, I’ve placed my picket-pin in a small valley at the edge of empire. I will protect this valley, even with my life, from further insults of industry, including the dam proposed near my new home. The problem with being a martyr: you have to die for the cause.

Finally, very late in an unexamined life, I came to see the horrors of the way we live, and I let go. I invite you to join me. And I’d like to raise the stakes by pointing out, yet again, the dire straits in which we find ourselves and the attendant necessity to take action. Taking action will almost certainly bring personal hardship. Acting against the industrial economy brands you a terrorist. It might lead to incarceration and torture, and perhaps even early death. A phrase from activist-writer Derrick Jensen comes to mind: We have the best excuse in the world to not act. So we can have the best excuse in the world, or we can have a world.

With that trade-off in mind, we need witnesses and we need warriors on behalf of the living planet. So, I’d like to extend another invitation. Don’t just join me in walking away. Join me as a witness and a warrior, on behalf of life. Ultimately, in other words, on your own behalf.

Part of the Calling All Activists: Submissions Wanted! series.

Photo courtesy of the author

About Guy McPherson

Guy McPherson was born and raised in the heart of the Aryan Nation, small-town northern Idaho. More than ten years into a career in the academic ivory tower, McPherson began focusing his efforts on social criticism. His contemporary presentations stress the importance of individual and societal action in light of ongoing global climate change and energy decline. All events highlight the importance of living sustainably, a necessity driven by completion of the ongoing collapse of the industrial economy and underlain by the absence of cheap oil. McPherson's latest chapter includes abandoning his tenured position as full professor at a major research university for ethical reasons. His story is described in his latest two books, Walking Away from Empire and Going Dark.


  1. QuantumInc says:

    I don’t know whether agrarian anarchy is a practical thing to do. Whether there’s enough farmland for everyone to have that kind of farm, or how it would effect nature. I do know however that as a fully tenured professor you had A LOT MORE chances to change people’s minds that as a member of a self-sustaining commune. There’s a lot of ways Guy could have reduced his ecological foot print while still keeping his job and making real change. The reason the OP did that was because he was disgusted with the way the system works and just couldn’t stand being near it, so he ran away, not because he wanted to help. Now he’s making an effort to do both, but he could do so much better than this if he wasn’t busy scrubbing the hallucinated “industry” out of his pores.

  2. I find this article both refreshing and useful. The video at 1 hour and 30 minutes is well worth spending the time over – including the Q&A session, but for most ( say 99.9% of folks ) it would be too much of a chore because their minds are made up – and they can’t imagine anything other than Status Quo as they experience it…. and it would just deprive them of twitter time.

    For many what it raises and talks about is just too scary to consider – and so the phrase “Crack Pot” comes out as a label. For me it’s easy – I’m single – gay – no kids/dependents – and of an age where I can look at the future and see things that are coming but I will have bowed out and gone to where ever before it arrives. I’m a dead end in the gene pool, so I can look at survival of humans as a species in a more dispassionate way than many others.

    I don’t agree with all views and interpretations that come from the video and Guy McPherson’s, and not being from the US or inculcated with US style Patriotism I don’t have the same knee jerks that others have. With the full scope of what is discussed from Hard Science to Soft Science to Economics and Sociology and even Political Science …. well, I simply don’t have the time to study the background and basic materials to check validity of EVERYTHING. But when so many areas of human knowledge are all pointing to a very negative area on the outcome map, it’s only a fool who turns their back on it and goes shopping to alleviate boredom or cheer themselves up.

    I still find it fascinating how many of the folks with economic freedom are still buying real estate globally, but it’s not office blocks or shopping malls or even big glitzey Hollywood Homes – it’s islands and locations that are forecast to be at lower risk from both Climate Change and Economic Collapse and even warfare. New Zealand anyone – or how about Tasmania?

    Giving thanks is going to be very different in the years to come, and a great many people will be doing it in places that are far from the shores where that idea started – they are more likely to be thankful for having escaped and survived … and they are less likely to having Turkey – or even a main course.

  3. Yes, and modern science and our industrial society created the Internet and the computer you use to write your rambling navel-gazing articles.

    So you have the time and money to move out to the country and pretend you are no longer connected to modern civilization. Congratulations.

  4. cool story bro, too bad the planet DEFINTELY can’t the support 7 billion people returning to ruralism. glad modern science was able to keep you alive long enough for you think your crackpot theories through

    • Conspiracy2Riot says:

      Allow me to point out that 7 billion people aren’t living like we are in the industrialized world. WE are the ones that are going to experience a massive change. Billions of people already KNOW how to live off the land, but they’ve been pushed off their property with the systemic violence our global economic system caused.

      A quick study of what the IMF/World Bank and WTO have done to the citizens of the countries that take those loans will teach you a great deal.

      And there is a kinder, gentler way to reduce numbers quickly without engaging in wars or starving people to death. Or even sterilizing them. Education and giving women access to birth control and autonomy over their reproductive systems would result in far fewer pregnancies and births.

      I see nothing ‘crackpot’ about what McPherson is suggesting because it’s simple math. And math is not political. We have a finite planet, finite resources and we’re gobbling up and trashing what’s left of what makes your man made construct, the economy, possible.

      • only a handful of people live rurally, the vast majority live in cities. you want to talk about math? try spreading 7 billion people evenly across the surface of the globe and see how many “wild places” are left, not to mention how much lower yields from intensive agriculture are without modern technology (yes, we would have to continue the strategy of intensive agriculture because all other subsistence strategies need space to move around, space we don’t have). and that’s just the beginning, see how quickly disease begins to sweep through populations again without modern sanitation, environmental control methods, and medicine.

        given the fact that you seem in favor of abolishing modern civilization, I find your suggestion for population control hilarious since all modern family planning techniques rely on MODERN SCIENCE AND INDUSTRY, which require division of labor, which in turn requires currency and markets. I’m so sick of hippie extremists suggesting that ALL we need to do to save the planet and humanity is give up everything that we owe our longer and healthier lives to, as opposed to just wasting less. his suggestion is even less likely to happen than the latter, would mostly not stop climate change, and as I’ve explained above, would definitely lead to even greater ecological destruction and human mortality.

  5. That’s an awful lot of thoroughly self-indulgent waffling. You could simplify it by eliminating all the headings except for “All About Me”, and moving that one to the top.

    There are real issues, undeniably. Writing long diatribes like this one is not the answer. I suspect that most folks who will actually bother to read it all already agree with you. They’re not the people you need to convince.

  6. John Pratt says:

    Great article Guy, I know the frustration of living in a society that seems to be blindly marching over a cliff. I think people need to work together for change. Have you heard Of the #GlobalCitizen project or the Global Poverty Program @GPP on twitter? Like minds coming together for global change.


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