A conversation with Derrick Jensen

MZ: Although I feel there’s way too much hand-holding in the realm of activism and far too many progressives sitting idle as they wait for a leader to give them direction, I must ask you this: What types of immediate direct action might you suggest to those reading this interview, in the name of stopping this culture before it kills the planet?

DJ: I think the important thing is that they start doing some form of activism. I can’t tell people what to do, because I don’t know what is important to them and I don’t know what their gifts are. But the important thing is that they start. Now. Today.

So how do you start? The problems are so huge! Well, the way I started as an activist was the result of the smartest thing I ever did. When I was in my mid-20s I realized I wasn’t paying enough for gasoline (in terms of including any of the ecological costs, etc), so for every dollar I spent on gas I would donate a dollar to an environmental organization (never a national or international organization, but rather local grassroots organizations), but since I didn’t have any money I would instead pay myself $5/hour to do activist work, whether it is writing letters to the editor or participating in demonstrations. My first demos were anti-fur demos and anti-circus demos. And don’t let your perceived ignorance stop you: I had no idea what exactly was wrong with circuses, but I knew they were exploitative of nonhuman animals and so I showed up, and other people handed me signs. If anyone asked me, What’s wrong with circuses? I just pointed them to the person standing next to me. I went from there to other forms of activism, including filing timber sale appeals, and so on. The point is that I started. At the time it cost $10 to fill my tank with gas, and if I filled it once a week, that meant two hours per week. And I started having so much fun with the activism that I stopped keeping track of how many hours I was doing activism, and just did it. But the important thing is that I got off my butt and started doing something.

It’s also important that when people do activism, that it not simply be personal stuff: environmentalism especially has gone down the dead end of lifestylism, where people think that changing their own life is sufficient. Just today I read an article that said, about water, “First of all, turn off the water when you don’t need it. It’s that simple. I don’t want to sound too preachy, but, according to UNICEF and the World Health Organization, lack of access to clean drinking water kills about 4,500 children per day. The water won’t magically travel from our taps to someone in need, but creating a mind-set of conservation will certainly help. There is absolutely no purpose served by letting water you are not using run down the drain.” This is just absurd. Yes, lack of access to clean water kills 4500 children per day, but it’s not because of my own water usage. 90 percent of the water used by humans is used by agriculture and industry. So all these environmental pleas for simple living are tremendous misdirection: these children (and what about the salmon children, and the sturgeon children, and so on) aren’t dying because I brushed my teeth: they’re dying because agriculture and industry are stealing the water. Just yesterday I read that Turkey is sacrificing all nature reserves to put in dams. This is not so people can have showers. It’s for agriculture and industry.

I live pretty simply, but that’s because I’m a cheapskate. I turn off the water while I brush my teeth, too. Big fucking deal. That is not a political act. There are no personal solutions to social problems. None.

So when I say that people should do some activism, I mean do something good for your landbase. Stop destructive activities. Do rehabilitation. Or if your primary emergency is violence against women, then do work against domestic violence, or against pornography, or against the trafficking in women. Get started.

Like Joe Hill said, “Don’t mourn, organize.”

MZ: I like to tell people that we live in the best time ever to be an activist. We’re on the brink of economic, social, and environmental collapse. What a time to be alive. We can take part in the most important work humans have ever undertaken. How lucky are we? In this era of “hope and change,” I say action is always better than hope. Or, as Rita Mae Brown said, “Never hope more than you work.”

DJ: Yes, I get so tired of people saying they hope salmon survive, or hope this or hope that. But what is hope? Hope is a longing for a future condition over which we have no agency. That’s how we use the word in everyday language. I don’t say, “Gosh, I hope I put my shoes on before I go outside.” I just do it. On the other hand, the next time I get on a plane I hope it doesn’t crash. After I get on the plane I have no agency. Think of this: if a parent says to an eight-year-old child, “Please clean your room,” and the child says, “I hope it gets done,” we all know that’s ridiculous. I asked an eight-year-old what would happen if she said that to her parents, and she said, “Someone has to clean the room!”

That kid is smarter than a lot of environmentalists. It’s ridiculous to say we hope global warming doesn’t kill the planet when we can stop the oil economy that is causing global warming. I’m not interested in hope. I’m interested in agency, and I’m interested in people no longer waiting for some miracle to solve their problems. We need to do what is necessary.

MZ: When you first began writing and speaking about civilization and the eventual collapse, did you ever truly imagine that you’d be around to see things as bad as they are right now?

DJ: No. And even though I wrote in The Culture of Make Believe about the ways in which economic collapse can lead to more and more over brownshirt-ism and fascism, I’m still kind of stunned at the way it is happening here. But more to the point, even though I’ve written something on the order of fifteen books about this culture’s insanity, I still cannot believe this isn’t all a bad dream, with this frenzied maintenance of this culture as the world is murdered. I keep wanting to wake up, but each time I awaken this culture is still killing the planet, and not many people care.

MZ: I’m sure you can’t even calculate how many times you’ve been interviewed but I’m wondering if there’s a question you always wished you’d been asked but so far, no one has done so. If so, by way of wrapping up, please feel free to ask and answer that question.

DJ: Four questions:

Q: You’ve said many times that you don’t believe that humans are particularly more sentient than other animals. Where do you draw the line?

A: I don’t draw the line at all. I don’t see any reason to believe anything other than that the universe is full of a wild symphony of wildly different voices, wildly different intelligences. Humans have human intelligence, which is no greater nor less than octopi intelligence, which is no greater nor less than redwood intelligence, which is no greater nor less than flu virus intelligence, which is no greater nor less than granite intelligence, which is no greater nor less than river intelligence, and so on.

Q: How did the world get to be such a beautiful and wonderful and fecund place in the first place?

A: By everyone making the world a more beautiful and wonderful and fecund place by living and dying. By plants and animals and fungi and viruses and bacteria and rocks and rivers and so on making the world a better place. Salmon makes forests better places because of their existence. The Mississippi River makes that region a better place because of its existence. Bison make the Great Plains a better place because of their existence.

Civilized humans do not make the world a better place because of their existence. They are collectively and individually making the world a less beautiful and wonderful and fecund place. How can you make the world a better place? What can you do to make the landbase where you live more healthy, more beautiful, more fecund? And why aren’t you doing it?

Q: What will it take for the planet to survive?

A: The eradication of industrial civilization. Industrial civilization is functionally, systematically incompatible with life.

The good news is that industrial civilization is in the process of collapsing.

The bad news is that it is taking down too much of the planet with it.

Q: So if industrial civilization is collapsing, why shouldn’t we just hunker down and make our lifeboats and protect our own, and basically take care of our own precious little asses?

A: I would contrast the narcissism and cowardice of this attitude with that expressed by Henning von Tresckow, one of the members of the German resistance to Hitler in World War II. When the Allies invaded France in 1944, anybody paying any attention at all knew that the Nazis were going to lose: it was just a matter of time. So some members of the resistance suggested that they stop working to take down the Nazis, and instead just protect themselves until the war was over, basically hunker down and make their lifeboats and protect their own. Henning von Tresckow responded that every day the Nazis were killing 16,000 innocent civilians, so basically every day sooner they could bring down the Nazis would save 16,000 innocent civilians.

There is more courage and wisdom and integrity in that statement than in all the statements of all the craven lifeboatists put together.

Between 150 and 200 species went extinct today. They were my brothers and sisters. It is not sufficient to merely hunker down and wait for the horrors to stop. Salmon won’t survive that long. Sturgeon won’t survive that long. Delta smelt won’t survive that long.

Here’s another way to say all this. I would contrast the narcissism and cowardice of the lifeboatists with the attitude expressed by my dear friend, and the person who really got me started in environmentalism, John Osborn. He has devoted his life to saving as much of the wild as he can, through organized political resistance. When asked why he does this work, he always says, “We cannot predict the future. But as things become increasingly chaotic, I want to make sure that some doors remain open.” What he means by that is that if grizzly bears are around in 30 years they may be around in fifty. If they are gone in 30 they are gone forever. If he can keep this or that valley of old growth standing, it may be standing in 50 years. If it’s gone now, it will be gone for a long, long time, maybe forever.

As you said, Mickey Z, we are living at a time when we have perhaps more leverage than at many previous times. Any destructive activity we can halt now may protect that area until the collapse: people couldn’t realistically say that in the 1920s. I believe it was David Brower who said that every environmental victory was temporary while every loss was permanent. I think we are quickly reaching the point where every victory can be permanent.

One final thing: the single most effective recruiting tool for the French Resistance in WWII was D-Day, because the French realized once and for all that the Germans weren’t invincible. Knowing that this culture is collapsing should not lead us into narcissism and cowardice, but should give us courage, and should lead us to defend the victims of this culture.

For more about Derrick Jensen and his work, you can find him on the Web here.