Bringing Down Civiliation
An Interview with Derrick Jensen
from No Compromise Issue 26
Derrick Jensen is a prolific writer, speaker and activist. He is the author of Listening to the Land, A Language Older Than Words, The Culture of Make Believe, Strangely Like War: The Global Assault on Forests, and Welcome to the Machine: Science, Surveillance, and the Culture of Control among others
NC: What do you hope to achieve through your writing?
DJ: I want to bring down civilization. I’m interested in living in a world that has more wild salmon every year than the year before. A world that has more migratory songbirds every year than the year before; a world that has less dioxins and flame retardants in mothers’ breast milk; a world that is not being destroyed; a world where krill populations aren’t collapsing; a world where there aren’t dead zones in the oceans; a world not being systematically dismantled. I want to live in a world that is not being killed, and I will do whatever it takes to get there. It is really clear that for the past 6000 years, civilization has been killing the planet. I’m on the planet’s side.
NC: You speak a lot about hope. Do you think there is power in hopelessness?
DJ: I think hope is really harmful for several reasons. False hopes bind us to unlivable situations, and they blind us to real possibilities. Does anybody really think that Weyerhaeuser is going to stop deforesting because we ask nicely? Does anybody really think that if a democrat would have gotten into the White House that things would be ok? Does anybody think that vivisectors will stop torturing animals just because we stand outside with a sign?
That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t stand out there with that sign. What it means is, do we really believe that they will stop because we do that? And if you don’t believe that, what does that mean? The book I have just recently completed is really centered around this question. Do you believe that the culture will undergo a voluntary transformation to obtain a sustainable way of living? If you don’t, what does that mean for our strategy and for our tactics? We don’t know. The reason we don’t know is that we don’t ask that question. The reason we don’t ask that question is that we’re so busy pretending that we have hope.
One of the smartest things the Nazis did was to co-opt rationality and to co-opt hope. The way they did that was by making it so that at every step of the way it was in the Jews’ rational, best interest not to resist.
Would you rather get an ID card or would you rather resist and possibly get killed? Do you want to go to a ghetto or do you want to resist and possibly get killed? Do you want to get on a cattle car or do you want to resist and possibly get killed? Do you want to take a shower or do you want to resist and possibly get killed?
Every step of the way, it was in their rational best interest to not resist. But I’ll tell you something really interesting: The Jews who participated in the Warsaw ghetto uprising had a much higher rate of survival than those who went along. We need to keep that in mind over the next ten years.
NC: How can civilization be brought down?
DJ: I’ve done benefits for earth liberation prisoners and fully support the actions of the E.L.F. and the A.L.F. That said, I do have a criticism, which is that I wish they would move up the infrastructure. I think what we need to do is start looking for bottlenecks. For example, one man acting all by himself almost stopped World War II. (Before I talk about this, I need to say that I am not talking about assassinating George Bush.)
George Elser was a guy who decided to kill Hitler. Anybody who talks about the German resistance in World War II is very clear that killing Hitler was crucial to stopping the war.
It was late 1939. The war had just started and it could have been brought to a stop. Elser was able to fabricate a bomb, put it in a place where Hitler was going to give a speech and set the timer. Hitler, instead of giving his speech at the normal time, moved it up by a half hour. Instead of finishing up at 9:30 as he always did, he finished at 9:00. He was out of the building at 9:10 and the bomb went off at 9:20. So it was 10 minutes that would have stopped World War II.
The specific reasons I’m saying that I’m not applying this to George Bush is that Bush doesn’t wield the sort of power that Hitler did. If Bush were to choke on a pretzel, Cheney would take over. In that particular case assassination would not do as much good as it would have done with Hitler. But my point is that the Elser situation is an example of leveraging power. Leveraging power does not have to be violent. I’m leveraging my voice when I write a book as opposed to standing on a street corner.
When individuals liberate animals I think that what they are trying to do is to save those particular animals. It would be the same taking out a dam. The primary reason would be to liberate that stretch of river. But I think, for example, if somebody torches an SUV, that’s not a lot of leverage. That’s a huge risk for not very much return. In no way am I saying anything negative about any of the people who have had the outrageous courage to do those actions, but if you are going to get popped for 20 years for burning a couple SUVs, there are other things that I would rather do.
That’s actually my biggest criticism of the E.L.F. and A.L.F., and it’s not even a criticism, because I would like to see them continue to do what they do. In addition, however, I would like to see others move up the infrastructure. I’ve spoken with hackers who have said things that suggest to me that hacking holds great promise.
NC: How do you maintain a positive outlook and keep yourself motivated and focused on the fight at hand?
There seems to be this idea that if you understand how bad things are, you have to be miserable all the time. But the truth is that I’m both really happy and really sad. I’m full of rage, I’m full of hate, and I’m full of love. People expend all this energy fighting the despair. Well, despair is an appropriate response to a desperate situation. It takes a tremendous amount of energy to attempt to not feel those “negative feelings.” Sorrow is just sorrow, and pain is just pain. It’s not so much the sorrow and the pain that hurts as it is the resistance to it. I’m going to quote from my new book because I address this issue there:
Most of our actions are frighteningly ineffective. If that weren’t the case we would not be witnessing the dismantling of the world. Yet we keep on doing the same old symbolic actions and keep on calling the making of this or that statement a great victory.
Now don’t get me wrong, symbolic victories can provide great morale boosts, which can be crucial. But we make a fatal and frankly pathetic error when we presume that our symbolic victories, our recruiting and our morale boosting, by themselves make tangible differences on the ground, and we should never forget that what happens on the ground is the only thing that matters.
There comes a time in the lives of many long-term activists when symbolic victories, rare even as these can be sometimes, are no longer enough. There comes a time when many of these activists get burned out, discouraged and demoralized. Many fight despair. I think fighting against this despair is a mistake. I think this despair is often an unacknowledged, embodied, understanding that the tactics they’ve been using aren’t accomplishing what they want and the goals they’ve been seeking are insufficient to the crisis we face.
These activists get burned out and frustrated because they’re trying to achieve sustainability within a system that is inherently unsustainable. They can never win. No wonder they get discouraged. But instead of really listening to these feelings, they so often take a couple of weeks off and then dive back into trying to put the same old square pegs into the same old round holes. The result: more burnout, more frustration, more discouragement, and the salmon keep dying.
What would happen if we listened to these feelings of being burnt out, discouraged, demoralized, and frustrated? What would those feelings tell us? Is it possible they could tell us that what we’re doing isn’t working, and so we should try something else? Perhaps they’re telling us to switch metaphors. That we should stop trying to save scraps of soap in a concentration camp and try to bust out of the whole camp.