A conversation with Derrick Jensen

MZ: It’s a testament to the power of propaganda how even well-meaning folks will choose the options—both public and private—that work against their own interests. Gay rights activists are currently applauding the alleged repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” In the name of promoting diversity and inclusion, they are celebrating the ability to volunteer for an institution that exists to violently crush all diversity and inclusion.

The conditioning is so interwoven throughout every aspect of our culture that even respected Leftist thinkers simply cannot comprehend your comment, “civilization is killing the planet” and resort to retorts about “misanthropy.”

So, the question must asked, Derrick: Can these people be reached with the message that we can’t have industrial capitalism as a given without all the murderous side effects?

DJ: There’s a great line by Upton Sinclair about how it’s hard to make a man [sic] understand something when his [sic] job depends on him not understanding it. I think that’s true even more for entitlement. It’s hard to make someone understand something when their entitlement, their privilege, their comforts and elegancies, their perceived ability to control and manage, depends on it.

So much nature writing, social change theory, and environmental philosophy are at best irrelevant, and more often harmful in that they do not question human supremacism (or for that matter white supremacism, or male supremacism). They often do not question imperialism, including ecological imperialism. So often I feel like so many of them still want the goodies that come from imperialism (including ecological imperialism and sexual imperialism) far more than they want for these forms of imperialism to stop. And since the violence of imperialism is structural—inherent to the process—you can’t realistically expect imperialism to stop being violent just because you call it “green” or just because you wish with all your might.

Here’s another way to say this: as I say in Endgame, any way of life that requires the importation of resources will a) never be sustainable and b) always be based on violence, because a) requiring importation of resources means you are using more of that resource than the landbase can provide, which is by definition not sustainable (and as your city grows you’ll need an ever larger area to harm); and b) trade will never be sufficiently reliable, because if you require some resource (e.g., oil) and the people who live with or control that resource won’t trade you for it, you will take it, because you need it. It’s inherent. One of the many implications of this is that if you don’t question imperialism itself, the solutions you present will be absurd, and either irrelevant or harmful.

Here’s a story. A couple of weeks ago a tree fell down in a storm and knocked down an electric wire in this neighborhood. My neighbor told me about it, and when I saw the downed tree I looked and looked and looked for the stump, to see where the tree came from. I couldn’t find it. I’ve looked again every time I’ve gone by that place. Well, today I was walking and I saw where it came from. The top of a big tree had broken off. It was really obvious when I looked up instead of down. Point being (instant aphorism): You can search as thoroughly as is possible, but you’ll never find what you’re looking for if you’re looking in the wrong place.

This applies to everything from personal happiness to solutions to global warming.

But the problem is worse than mere entitlement. RD Laing came up with the three rules of a dysfunctional family:

Rule A is don’t.

Rule A.1 is Rule A does not exist

Rule A.2 is Never discuss the existence or nonexistence of Rules A, A.1, A.2

This is as true of dysfunctional cultures as dysfunctional families. So we cannot talk, for example, about the fact that this culture is only one way of living among many, that this way of living is based on conquest and the acquisition of power, that this way of life systematically destroys landbases, other cultures, and on and on. Systematically, functionally.

But it’s worse than this. In the 1960s, a researcher attached electrodes to people’s eyeballs to track where they looked, and then showed them pictures. What the researcher found is that if the photo contained something that threatened the person’s worldview, the person’s eyes would not even track to it once: they would evidently see it out of the corners of their eyes, and know where not to look. So far too often you can make the point as reasonably as you can, and the person will have no idea what you are talking about.

MZ: Considering the glacial rate by which most humans – myself very much included – recognize and address destructive or self-destructive patterns in their personal life, it’s difficult to imagine a lot more humans allowing their eyeballs to focus in on global crises and their obscured causes. High Noon is approaching and it seems most of us don’t even know how to tell time.

Speaking of High Noon, I recently watched the classic 1952 film and found myself focused on the moment when Amy (Grace Kelly), the pacifist wife of Marshal Kane (Gary Cooper), shoots and kills a man to save her husband’s life. Earlier in the film, Amy had declared: “My father and my brother were killed by guns. They were on the right side but that didn’t help them any when the shooting started. My brother was nineteen. I watched him die. That’s when I became a Quaker. I don’t care who’s right or who’s wrong. There’s got to be some better way for people to live.”

However, she not only ends up shooting a man, she also fights off the main villain, which allows Marshal Kane to finish him. Now, before some readers run and tell Gandhi on me, what I’m proposing as the lesson is that when faced with the clarity a crisis can sometimes inspire, we can recognize that those clock hands are inching towards noon and surprise ourselves (as Grace Kelly’s character did) with our ability to take things to a new level.

If not, what chance do we (the animals, the trees, the eco-system, etc.) have?

DJ: Very little chance. Even if people don’t care about nonhumans, recent estimates are that billions, literally billions, of humans will die in what is beginning to be called a climate holocaust. This is if the temperature rises 4 degree Celsius.

And the most recent estimates are revealing that global warming is far worse than previously believed (have you ever noticed how the previous estimates were always low?), and could go up 16 degrees C within 90 years, rendering much of the planet uninhabitable (“Science stunner: On our current emissions path, CO2 levels in 2100 will hit levels last seen when the Earth was 29°F (16°C) hotter—Paleoclimate data suggests CO2 ‘may have at least twice the effect on global temperatures than currently projected by computer models'”). This means that there are young people now who will die in this climate holocaust. And there are too many people who prefer this wretched, destructive way of life over life on the planet, and literally over their own children. We need to stop this culture before it kills the planet.