Author and activist Derrick Jensen would consider the label “uncivilized” a compliment. But then, he’s not your garden-variety white California environmentalist. He’s an outspoken anti-authoritarian and vehement anti-capitalist, yet he refuses to be categorized as either an anarchist or a socialist. Instead of controlling the means of production, Jensen calls on workers to destroy the means of production in order to save the planet. “Luddite” fits, but it doesn’t go far enough.
In an interview earlier this year, Jensen said he rejects the term “primitivist” because it’s a “racist way to describe indigenous peoples.” He prefers “indigenist” or “ally to the indigenous,” because “indigenous peoples have had the only sustainable human social organizations, and … we need to recognize that we [colonizers] are all living on stolen land.”
Jensen has fifteen books in print, including Listening to the Land (1995), A Language Older Than Words (2000), As the World Burns (2007), and Lives Less Valuable (2010). His most influential work, the 2006 best-seller Endgame: The Problem of Civilization, is the subject of the 2010 indie film END:CIV.
In Endgame, Jensen defines civilization as “a society characterized by the growth of cities.” The introduction states that civilization can never be sustainable, because all cities rely on resources imported from outside their boundaries. As Jensen recounts: “I realized in second grade – I was what, seven years old? – that you can’t have infinite growth on a finite planet.”
To take the most obvious example: city-dwellers rely on ever-increasing doses of petroleum to produce and ship food to urban markets – and the world’s cheap oil is running out. It’s wishful thinking to pretend that corporations will voluntarily forgo profits to shift to sustainable energy, or that solar and wind technology (which require oil to build and install) will save us. Backyard gardens can’t feed us all. Once a population overshoots the planet’s carrying capacity, there’s no way back from the brink.
Endgame declares, “The longer we wait for civilization to crash, or the longer we wait before we ourselves bring it down, the messier will be the crash, and the worse things will be for humans who live during it and for those who come after.” Jensen urges us to bring down this culture by any means necessary. “Lifestyle activism” and forms of protest permitted by the state won’t be enough.
Jensen insists that we fully confront the destruction of the natural world. He demands that we consider what kind of inner strength we will need to take action for the future of the planet. Apathy is not an option. “Give me a threshold,” Jensen pleads, “give me a specific point at which you’ll finally take a stand. If you can’t or won’t give me that threshold, why not?”
What happens if we don’t take a stand? “If civilization lasts another one or two hundred years, will the people then say of us, ‘Why did they not take it down?'” Jensen asks. “Will they be as furious with us as I am with those who came before and stood by? I could very well hear those people who come after saying, ‘If they had taken it down, we would still have earthworms to feed the soil. We would have redwoods, and we would have oaks in California. We would still have frogs. We would still have other amphibians. I am starving because there are no salmon in the river, and you allowed the salmon to be killed so rich people could have cheap electricity for aluminum smelters. God damn you. God damn you all.'”
Problems and solutions
It should be obvious to any thinking person that the “solutions” offered by mainstream enviros are ludicrously out of scale with the problems we face. Does anyone honestly believe that flourescent light bulbs will offset the vast carbon output of the tar sands project? Or that smart cars can outweigh the fuel burned by thousands of military helicopters overseas?
“If you look at all the ‘solutions’ proposed for global warming – anywhere, all of them – what do they take as a given?” Jensen asks. “They take as a given industrial capitalism. That’s the baseline. The baseline is not the real world, the physical world, which must be the baseline for all of our decisions because without a world, we don’t have anything.”
When people ask, “How do we save the salmon?” what they mean is, “How do we save the salmon, given that industry will keep on destroying their habitat?” Saving wild salmon stocks is straightforward enough: what we need to do is protect and restore salmon habitat. But we’re all tiptoeing around the elephant in the room: industrial capitalism and its environmental impacts from logging, chemicals, mining, and global warming.
Former US Senator Slade Gorton (R-WA) summarized the bottom line on behalf of corporate lobbyists: “There is a cost beyond which you just have to say, very regrettably, we have to let species or subspecies go extinct.”
Jensen retorts: “Ecological literacy would suggest Senator Gorton had the equation backwards: There is a cost — the extinction of wild salmon, for instance — beyond which we have to cause destructive activities and institutions to go extinct.”
Hope, despair, and agency
Meanwhile, where is the environmental resistance? Largely coopted, it seems. Many mainstream groups have taken up the business of manufacturing false hope. They urge us to sign petitions, in the hope that our government will someday succumb to reason. They encourage us to change what we consume, in the hope that everyone will adopt the same green habits. They tell us to take shorter showers, or install a rainwater barrel and a green roof. But does anyone really believe that personal consumer choices will make the difference, when industry and agriculture are responsible for 97% of the waste and 90% of the water use? Or that letter-writing is useful against battalions of well-armed corporate lobbyists?
In his essay “Beyond Hope,” Jensen defines hope as “a longing for a future condition over which we have no control.” He writes: “Hope is what keeps us chained to the system, the conglomerate of people and ideas and ideals that is causing the destruction of the Earth.”
Jensen observed the tragic effects of false hope first-hand as a young boy with a sadistic father. One reason his mother stayed with her husband, he says, “was her false hope that he would change. False hopes bind us to unlivable situations, and blind us to real possibilities.” His father raped Jensen, his mother, and his sister. His brother was left with epilepsy from blows to the head.
“In terms of reforming him or redeeming him, I realized he was not reachable on that level early on,” Jensen says in a phone interview. “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.”
Jensen realized, as we all must, that the only way we can save ourselves is by saving ourselves. “When we stop hoping for external assistance,” he says, “when we stop hoping that the awful situation we’re in will somehow resolve itself, when we stop hoping the situation will somehow not get worse, then we are finally free — truly free — to honestly start working to resolve it. I would say that when hope dies, action begins.”
Grassroots environmentalists can relate to this dynamic. In an old-growth forest campaign in British Columbia some years ago, it was obvious to everyone the forest was doomed. Our petitions, letters and pleas for private members’ bills had come to nothing.
But the activists didn’t resign themselves to losing, and they didn’t waste time on more petitions and rallies. Instead, they dedicated themselves to blocking the roads and stopping the machines, even in the face of violent attacks by loggers who destroyed the camp and put three people in the hospital. The environmentalists’ actions stopped the logging and shifted the balance of power. Soon after, First Nations negotiators prevailed in an agreement to permanently protect the forest.
The opposite of hope is not resignation. It’s empowerment and agency.
Giving up hope doesn’t mean succumbing to depression. “Despair is an appropriate response to a desperate situation,” Jensen says. Given that we are all traumatized by this culture – by enforced powerlessness, by poverty, by violence and genocide – then it follows that the path to recovery means giving up false hope, working through our anger and despair, and freeing ourselves from the paralysis that keeps us impotent.
Thanks to centuries of acculturation, many of us are so alienated from the natural world that we believe food comes from the supermarket and water comes from the tap. Jensen turns this civilized worldview on its head. It’s not surprising that his critics lash out in defense of this culture, because they perceive that they depend on the system – not the natural world – to live.
Jensen is dismissed outright by those who believe that our civilization will undergo a miraculous transformation to 100% sustainability and that “green technology” will allow us to go on exceeding the earth’s carrying capacity indefinitely.
This kind of magical thinking is not unique. Surely, the Romans had the same faith that their superior technology – aqueducts, metal-casting, dams – would ensure that their dominion would last forever. No doubt their mighty empire, like ours, was too big to fail.
Rejecting the inevitability of collapse is a bit like challenging the law of gravity or denouncing entropy. Nevertheless, Kevin Kelly, author of What Technology Wants, is betting that some unknown technological solution will render our civilization immune to collapse. For Kelly, sustainable alternatives to industrial technology are literally unthinkable.
“The great difficulty of the anti-civilizationists is that a sustainable desirable alternative to civilization is unimaginable. We cannot picture it. We cannot see how it would be a place we’d like to move to,” Kelly writes on his blog. “And because we cannot imagine it, it will never happen, because nothing has ever been created without being imagined first.”
Of course, Kelly is forgetting indigenous societies, as Jensen helpfully points out:
“The alternatives already exist, and they have existed – and worked – for thousands and tens of thousands of years.”
Thanks to industrial civilization, Earth’s billions are teetering on the brink of ecological catastrophe as water sources dry up, sea levels rise, and the climate shifts. Still, Kelly and his adherents complain that the anti-civilization movement is not sufficiently concerned about the fate of humanity. Kelly compares Jensen with Theodore “the Unabomber” Kaczynski, while others suggest he is advocating mass murder and liken him to Stalin and Pol Pot. This conveniently ignores industrial capitalism’s death toll from poverty, starvation, war, extinction, and genocide. Nor does Kelly explain how he will prop up a dying planet, other than through wishful thinking and his all-powerful imagination.
Barring intervention from a divine force, civilization is going to collapse. It’s a matter of how soon, and what will be left of the natural world by then. Every day we lose more arable land and fresh water. If we’re going to survive in the long run, we need every bit of that land and water.
On the other hand, if this culture continues on its current course, the “technotopians” may live long enough to find out — after the last river is poisoned, the last forest is cut down, and the last farm has turned to dust — that they can’t eat technology.
Violence vs. Non-Violence
Endgame’s introduction states: “Our way of living — industrial civilization — is based on, requires, and would collapse very quickly without persistent and widespread violence.”
Privileged readers may have trouble with this concept. Jensen explains: “Those in power have made it so we have to pay simply to exist on the planet. We have to pay for a place to sleep, and we have to pay for food. If we don’t, people with guns come and force us to pay. That’s violent.”
Ironically, Jensen notes that most of the “hate mail” he gets comes from “pacifists and lifestyle activists.” He jokes, “I should write a version of Endgame called ‘Endgame for Pacifists,’ which would be a thousand blank pages with one in the middle that says ‘sometimes it’s okay to fight back.’ Because it’s the only thing they’re hearing in the entire book.”
Jensen’s prescription includes defending wild places while working to undermine the dominant culture – by any means necessary. Predictably, this triggers dogmatic peaceniks and New Age devotees.
“I get sort of annoyed when people call me the ‘violence guy.’ I’m not the ‘violence guy’ — I’m the ‘we need it all guy.’ We desperately need it all. So what bringing civilization down looks like is people fighting to defend the places they love.”
Jensen confesses his vision of bringing down civilization is rather abstract, but it’s clear we need “to deprive the rich of their ability to steal from the poor, and to deprive the powerful of their ability to destroy the planet,” he says.
So what does that look like on a practical level? “It looks like everything, from writing books to filing timber sale appeals, to fighting like hell against the transnational oil corporations, to using any means necessary to stop them, whether that is courts or public opinion or any other means. It involves people acting individually and in organizations. It involves fighting for your lives, because that’s what we’re talking about at this point.”
A version of this article appeared in the March/April 2011 issue of Canadian Dimension magazine.
Earlier discussions with Derrick Jensen: