A conversation with Derrick Jensen
As you begin reading this interview, take a look at the nearest clock. Now, dig this: Since yesterday at the same exact time, 200,000 acres of rainforest have been destroyed, over 100 plant and animal species have gone extinct, 13 million tons of toxic chemicals were released across the globe, and 29,158 children under the age of five died from preventable causes.
Worst of all, there’s nothing unique about the past 24 hours. It’s business as usual, a daily reality—and no amount of CFL bulbs, recycled toilet paper, or Sierra Club donations will change it even a tiny bit.
As you do your best to convince yourself of the vast chasm between the two wings of America’s single corporate party, I suggest you listen carefully to hear if even one of the politicians mentions any of the following:
- Every square mile of ocean hosts 46,000 pieces of floating plastic
- Eighty-one tons of mercury is emitted into the atmosphere each year as a result of electric power generation
- Every second, 10,000 gallons of gasoline are burned in the US
- Each year, Americans use 2.2 billion pounds of pesticides
- Ninety percent of the large fish in the ocean and 80 percent of the world’s forests are gone
- Every two seconds, a human being starves to death
This is just a minute sampling, folks, and sorry, but your hybrid ain’t helping. That reusable shopping bag you bring to the market has zero impact. Your home composting kit is not gonna start a revolution.
In fact, even if every single person in the US made every single change suggested in the movie An Inconvenient Truth, carbon emissions would fall by only 21%—in contrast to the 75% emissions decrease that scientific consensus believes must happen…now.
None of this, of course, is news to Derrick Jensen. He is the author of essential works such as A Language Older Than Words and Endgame. His worldview has nothing to do with party politics, incremental reform, leftist in-fighting, corporate compromise, or anything that seeks to tweak but ultimately maintain the ongoing global crime we call civilization.
“My loyalty,” he told me, “is with the nonhuman and human victims (or targets) of this culture, and my work is toward stopping this culture’s assaults on nonhumans, on the land, on the planet itself, on women, on indigenous peoples, on the poor.”
If you’ve grown weary (and wary) of the entrenched Left and all the words left unspoken, you owe it yourself to read the rest of our conversation below. Afterwards, you just might start realizing that you also owe to the planet to get busy.
Our exchange took place during the week of January 17 and went a little something like this…
Mickey Z.: We’re starting this conversation as another MLK Day is observed. Not much of a chance that we’ll hear this Dr. King quote—”The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be”—mentioned much by the corporate media, huh?
Derrick Jensen: Just today I read an article stating that, no surprise, industrial-induced global warming will be far worse than estimated, and if carbon emissions continue as expected, could render much of the planet uninhabitable within 100 years. Even now, 150-200 species are driven extinct every day. This culture extirpates indigenous peoples. The oceans are being murdered. And today I saw a study of rates of fire retardant in every fetus. And on and on. And yet those of us who are working to stop this planetary murder are sometimes characterized as extremists.
I think the real extremists are the people who value capitalism over life, the people who value civilization over life. I cannot think of any more extreme position than valuing this insane culture over life.
MZ: Not surprisingly, another major African-American figure from the 1960s—Malcolm X—had some positive words for extremism in the name of toppling that insane culture. Using Hamlet as a springboard, Malcolm wrote:
“(Hamlet) was in doubt about something—whether it was nobler in the mind of man to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune—moderation—or to take up arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them. And I go for that. If you take up arms, you’ll end it, but if you sit around and wait for the one who’s in power to make up his mind that he should end it, you’ll be waiting a long time. And in my opinion, the young generation of whites, blacks, browns, whatever else there is, you’re living at a time of extremism, a time of revolution, a time when there’s got to be a change. People in power have misused it and now there has to be a change and a better world has to be built and the only way it’s going to be built with—is with extreme methods. And I, for one, will join in with anyone—I don’t care what color you are—as long as you want to change this miserable condition that exists on this earth.”
DJ: I think the key has to do with wanting to change this miserable condition.
I try to be fairly inclusive of the people I would work with, but I’ve realized over the past many years that I’m not working toward the same goals as many of the environmentalists who are explicitly working to save capitalism or to save civilization, rather than the real world. In talks and interviews I often ask what all of the so-called solutions to global warming or the murder of the oceans, or biodiversity crash, etc, all have in common. And what they all have in common is that they all take industrial capitalism as a given, and the natural world as that which must conform to industrial capitalism. That is literally insane, in terms of being out of touch with physical reality. I mean, look at Lester Brown’s Plan B 4.0 to Save Civilization. What does he want to save? Could he be any more explicit? He wants to save civilization. But civilization is killing the planet. It’s like writing a book about how to save a serial killer who is murdering so many people he’s running out of victims. We see this attitude all the time. When people, for example, ask how we can stop global warming, they’re not asking how we can stop global warming; they’re asking how we can stop global warming without changing the physical conditions (burning oil and gas, deforestation, industrial agriculture, and so on) that lead to global warming. And the answer to that question is that you can’t. Likewise, when they ask how we can save salmon, they aren’t really asking how we can save salmon, they’re asking how we can save salmon without removing dams, stopping industrial logging, stopping industrial agriculture, stopping industrial fishing, stopping the murder of the oceans, stopping global warming, and so on.
A question I keep asking is: with whom (or what) do you identify? Where is your loyalty? Whom, or what do you want to save? And if what you really want to save is this “miserable condition”—capitalism, civilization, what have you—at the expense of the planet, then we’re not really working toward the same goal, are we? My loyalty is with the nonhuman and human victims (or targets) of this culture, and my work is toward stopping this culture’s assaults on nonhumans, on the land, on the planet itself, on women, on indigenous peoples, on the poor.
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.
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.