Derrick Jensen on coming to grips with this destructive culture
Deep ecology author Derrick Jensen won fame and notoriety with heavy works of non-fiction like Endgame, which compares western civilization to an abusive family where violence is a constant threat. He argues that we must bring down this culture by any means necessary. Since then, Jensen has published a searing exposé about zoos and captive animals with Karen Tweedy-Holmes called Thought to Exist in the Wild; Resistance to Empire, a collection of incendiary interviews with other activists; and What We Leave Behind, co-authored with Aric McBay – a heartbreaking polemic on the concepts of waste, life, and death.
More recently, Jensen delved into fiction, delivering While the Planet Burns, a satirical sci-fi graphic novel in collaboration with Stephanie McMillan; Songs of the Dead, a metaphysical thriller; Lives Less Valuable, a novel about revenge; and Mischief in the Forest, a children’s book illustrated by Stephanie McMillan.
The last is a charming story for young children about a grandmother who lives “alone in the forest, without any neighbours.” Later, with her grandchildren, she discovers she’s not alone in the forest, and she finally gets to know her neighbours – all the forest creatures.
I reached Jensen by phone at his mother’s home in Crescent City, California.
Blunt: Why is this book important for children growing up in this culture?
Jensen: I saw a study earlier this year that says the average child in the US spends eight minutes a day outside. So it makes me think of something John Livingston wrote – that cities on the one hand seem like sensory overload but actually, he talked about them as places of sensory deprivation. The reason is because in cities, all of the sensory perception is created by or mediated by humans. But that’s not how we evolved – we evolved in much larger communities of living beings, all our neighbors. If you’re living in such a way that everything you can sense is created by, or mediated by, humans, as Livingston says, you start to hallucinate. Not hallucinating in the sense of taking LSD and peeing strawberries, but you start to think that humans are the only ones who matter – the only ones who exist. The only ones who can speak.
All these ideologies are hallucinations: like, the stock market is more important than living beings. The economy is more important than a living planet. There’s a distant sky god. All these are hallucinations. Unfortunately, people are acting on these hallucinations.
Mischief in the Forest is about reconnecting, remembering that we have neighbors. It’s a nice story, it’s based on my mom.
At some point, you realized that western civilization is a regime of violence that can’t be reformed or redeemed. What led you to that point?
I think there’s a bunch of levels to that – it wasn’t a one-stage realization that, “Oh, I get this.” There was my father’s violence. In terms of reforming him or redeeming him, I realized he was not reachable on that level early on. I found that the church and judicial system were geared toward those with money. There was the experience of the judge siding with my father, because they were buddies. That gave me a sense of how the judicial system works.
I realized in second grade – I was what, seven years old? – you can’t have infinite growth on a finite planet. I realized this because I lived out in the country, where they turned this big series of open fields, a hundred acres or something, into a subdivision. And so over the course of a year or so, all this habitat — I didn’t know the word then, I said “all these homes” – for toads and garter snakes and meadowlarks and owls and anthills and crawdads – all these homes, were turned into human houses. And I remember thinking at the time, I remember knowing, “This can’t go on, because its so obvious – if it’s happening here, and it’s happening over there, then it’s happening all over, and it can’t continue. All the animals going to run out of homes.” But it’s a profoundly disturbed hallucination that this could go on indefinitely. What I saw was this inexorability about this culture’s expansion.
This inexorability – it happens, once a culture develops industrial agriculture, they can overshoot the planet’s carrying capacity. And once you overshoot your carrying capacity, you can’t stop, you have to go on with more and more intensive industrial agriculture, and more overshoot, until you’re stopped. That’s the path of every civilization – they overshoot carrying capacity but they can’t go back, they keep on the same trajectory until they collapse.
What would you say to others who are grappling now with the horror of realizing that civilization must collapse to save the planet?
The first thing is, you’re not crazy and it’s not your fault. You didn’t ask to be born into this awful, destructive culture.
I don’t like to be prescriptive, but if people are asking what to do, go find an organization that does good work, and join them, or start your own organization. The big difference is not between people who act militant and those who don’t; it’s between people who do something and people who do nothing.
You’re not crazy, this culture is crazy. It’s not your fault. One way this culture gets people is with the delusion – “if I just consume less and less, I won’t be contributing to the death of the planet. If I wear out my recycled shoes and skip showers, then I won’t be part of this destruction.” But the salmon don’t care about your purity and your lifestyle choices, they care if there are dams and fish farms. Conservation is a big scam – a lot of people have bought into it. The problem is, 90% of our water is used by industry and agriculture. Municipal human beings use the same amount of water for personal use as is used for municipal golf courses alone.
So when they tell you to take a shorter shower, its prestidigitation. It’s a magic trick – sleight of hand. They’re trying to make you think, “If I take a shorter shower I can make things OK.” Same with waste – the average person produces 2500 lbs of waste. You could reduce it to zero, but the average per capita waste is 26 tons! Because 97% of it is produced by agriculture and industry. So if you reduce your waste to nothing, and if you end up on “Mr. Green,” big whoop-de-doo.
What did you feel when you confronted that reality?
In a couple words: appalled and mystified. So often I think this is really a bad dream I’m going to wake up from. Nobody could be that stupid, I mean 90% of fish in the ocean are already gone. We ‘re facing the death of the planet and nobody’s panicking? And in the US, we got a bunch of teabaggers elected. There’s a line in a book by Eduardo Galeano that, “The legislature voted that reality doesn’t exist.” Congress is debating climate change this year. They’re going to vote that reality doesn’t exist.
The narcissism in this culture kills me. It kills everyone.
On one level, I want to say to people, “Grow the fuck up, get over yourselves.” One thing I realized over the years through my different books, my understanding of the level of insanity has increased. In A Language Older Than Words, I was talking about how everyone in this culture is traumatized by brutal child rearing, etc. No one is able to enter into real relationships anymore. That’s so different from individuals in the past, This culture perceives trees as having nothing to say. They’re just dead matter. I talk about psychological ways this has happened. So there, the idea is they are all poor and sick and wounded. In The Culture of Make Believe, I called tobacco execs “nasty-ass motherfuckers.” Then in Endgame I talked about how they are sociopaths. There’s a big difference between “wounded” and “motherfuckers” and “sociopaths.”
How does this reality affect your day-to-day life?
Every day I’m appalled anew. I don’t know how you can look at a clearcut and feel anything other than horror, rage, sorrow, disbelief and a desire for vengeance, among other things.
Let’s talk about vengeance. You know we need to stop those in power. We need to stop those killing the planet. We not only need to stop them, we need to avenge the salmon. We need to avenge the oaks, we need to avenge the indigenous humans, the passenger pigeons — we could go on and on.
This culture is insane. I got interviewed by this guy, Kevin Kelly [former editor of the Whole Earth Catalog]. He said, “You’re writing about ending this culture, but you don’t write about what people will do when civilization collapses.” I said I don’t have to explain that, because all the models are there from indigenous people . He asked, “What do you want after civilization collapses?” I start listing them: salmon, lamprey, migratory songbirds, breathable air, drinkable water, salamanders, tree frogs. I list all these animals and trees and plants. And then he asks, “What about cardboard?” I said, “Cardboard?” He said, “Yeah, don’t you want cardboard?” And I thought, “Cardboard is more important to him than life?” Then he said, “What about electricity?” Then I said neither the production of cardboard nor electricity is sustainable.
I think a lot of people don’t resist this culture because they are insane. They bought into the value system and they’re insane. Alex Steffen [executive editor of Worldchanging] talks about how you can have 100% metal recycling and it’s perfectly sustainable. Do you know what it takes to recycle metals? You have to heat it up to molten temperatures. A half hour’s research is all it took to find out metal recycling is really really toxic. There’s all these byproducts, whether it’s aluminum or steel, it’s so toxic we send it overseas and let kids do it. It took just a half hour’s research to show that metal recycling is not sustainable.
How have you managed to be so prolific?
I don’t work that hard … I feel like I waste an incredible amount of time. I write every day, and I don’t feel like I work myself that hard, but I never take time off – except for this injury, I’ve never taken more than a couple days off. I guess I do work hard as a writer – 15 books in 10 years, that’s a lot. I set deadlines for myself and I meet them. But every time I start to think I’m working so hard, I think about what it’s like to be a stevedore in Guatemala or a child working in a mine. I think that stops me from feeling sorry for myself. Of course, it would be really hard to work on something that has no meaning.
I’ve been given a gift – I’m a fast writer and good writer. I’m also fortunate to live in a time when we must form cultures of resistance and work to bring down civilization. It would be an unspeakable waste of a life if I didn’t. I’ve been given certain gifts and if I don’t use them in the service of the community, then I’m just shit.
People need to figure out their gifts and use them in service of the community. People tell me, “You should stop writing and start organizing.” But I hate organizing. Except when I’m on stage, I’m very introverted. I have no problem promoting an organization if they want me to write a blurb. But one time this group in California asked me to do a phone tree. I couldn’t call a single number all night. Another night, we did door [leaflet] hanging. I stayed in the street. I couldn’t even go up to the doors. I can’t write press releases — I would spend all day and it would stink. Someone else would sit down and spend thirty minutes and write a great press release. So they figured out quickly that it’s not a job you give to Derrick. I don’t want to get on my high horse and give the idea that I’m some sort of artist.
What keeps you going, in the face of all this insanity?
I know that eventually we’re going to win, and I know this because you can’t fight nature forever. Civilization is going to collapse, and we’re seeing that now. People say, “Don’t take out a dam, they’ll just rebuild it.” Well, that was true for a long time, but now, they don’t have the resources. They just don’t have the money anymore.
Third in a series of discussions with Derrick Jensen. Previously: