Derrick Jensen interviewed on Flashpoints
September 15, 2008
94.1FM, KPFA, Berkeley, California
Today on Flashpoints, we spend the entire hour with author and environmental activist Derrick Jensen, who talks about the collapse of industrial capitalism and the peak oil economy and what it will take for people to resist the destructive urges of civilization and replace it with a culture of resistance.
As deadly hurricanes, exploding cancer and asthma epidemics, endangered and decimated plant and animal species, global hunger and poverty, wars and occupations, grab the news headlines each day, many people would not thread them together. And the question of why this is happening does not get asked by the collective populace, nor answered by those so-called few in power. In his riveting and uncompromising two-volume book, Endgame, award-winning author and environmental philosopher Derrick Jensen carefully examines the global ecological catastrophe from the ground up, implicating not only the greedy corporations that leach off the earth and, in turn, toxify it, but our lack of resistance to the system in general, that keeps this paradigm of destruction in place and well fed.
Derrick Jensen is one of the boldest voices in our country. Speaking out against the toxic system that is rapidly destroying the planet and changing the lives of all humans and non-humans alike, Jensen unflinchingly confronts the most urgent issues of our times: climate change, the end of the oil economy, and the decimation of essential biodiversity with his renowned, lucid, stirring prose that has been described as both breaking and mending the reader’s heart. He is the recipient of many awards, including the 2008 Hoffler award and the 2006 Press Action Person of the Year award. I was privileged to be invited to spend some time with Derrick Jensen, along with Flashpoints special correspondent and independent journalist Dahr Jamail last month in Jensen’s home in Northern California.
Today on Flashpoints, we present this interview with Derrick Jensen as he describes the state of emergency that this planet is facing as corporations, capitalism, and Western culture, urged to suppress life and destroy freedom for all its beings, brings this planet to the breaking point of sustainability and viability.
I began by asking Jensen to describe and define where and who we are as a culture, what’s happening to our land basis, and how we got to this point.
Derrick Jensen: We’re living in the endgame of civilization. We are living in the midst of the apocalypse. People go, “Oh, my gosh! That sounds so extreme.” But 90 % of the large fish in the oceans are gone. There is six to ten times as much plastic as phytoplankton in the oceans. That would be the equivalent in temperate forests for there being 90 feet thick of Styrofoam everywhere. There were once runs of salmon so thick that people were afraid to put their boats in the water for fear that they would capsize. There were, in the Eastern United States, flocks of passenger pigeons so large that they darkened the skies for days at a time. There were six times as many passenger pigeons as all of the birds in North America combined. There were flocks of Eskimo curlews that were so thick that if you closed your eyes, pointed a gun up in the air and shoot, you’d kill 10, 15, 20 birds. And they were so fat, they’d explode when they hit the ground. And they’re all gone.
Do you know why there aren’t any penguins in the Northern hemisphere? There used to be, but they were exterminated. They were called Great Auks. And there were so many that one of the great French explorers said that on just one island, you could load every ship in France and it wouldn’t make a dent. Well, they did and it did. And the last Great Auk was killed in the 19th century.
This culture has been destroying every land base everywhere for the last several thousand years. I mean, this culture began in what is now Iraq, and when you think of Iraq, is the first thing that you think of cedar forests so thick that sunlight never touches the ground? That’s what Iraq was. Or what is now Iraq. And one of the first written myths in this culture is Gilgamesh deforesting the plains and the hillsides of Iraq to make the great cities. The Arabian peninsula was Oaks of Anna. The Near East was heavily forested. You know, we’ve all heard of the cedars of Lebanon. And they still have one on their flag, you know.
Greece was heavily forested. There were lions in Greece. And it was one of those dead Greek guys, I don’t remember who – Aristotle or Plato or somebody – was complaining that deforestation was harming water quality. And I’m reasonably certain that those, whatever the Greek equivalent of the EPA at the time, told him that they needed to study it for a few years to make sure that there was a connection. North Africa was heavily forested. Those forests went down for the Phoenician and Egyptian navies.
This culture is killing the planet. And we walk through our days as if it is all a big video game, and we can stop and go back to the last time that we saved. And this time, we’ll do it right. And that’s not a possibility. This is real life we’re talking about. You know, Dick Cheney says that the American way of life is non-negotiable. Well, I have news for him. Real life is non-negotiable. There’s this fundamental inversion of reality that people somehow think that the real world is industrial capitalism. Well, the real world is the real world.
I want to tell you a quick story about a terrible interview I did. It was this guy down in Santa Barbara. He’s a right-wing, anti-environmental, property rights uber-alles Bible thumper, who evidently wanted to yell at an environmentalist. So he had me on his show by phone. And it was pretty stunning, because I kept talking about the things I’m mentioning here – 90 % of the large fish in the oceans are gone, the salmon getting hammered, all this stuff. He kept saying, “That’s all fine, Derrick, but let’s get back into the real world.” I was really confused because I thought I was talking about the real world. And then I realized that for him, the real world is industrial capitalism. And that’s actually how a lot of people use it. When you talk to college kids, a lot of them will say to each other, “So, what are you going to do when you get out into the real world?” What they really mean, is “What are you going to do when you have to get a job?” But that’s not the real world. What am I going to do? When I get out in the real world, I’m going to roll around in the dirt; that’s the real world. So there’s this fundamental inversion of reality that so many people perceive and have been taught to perceive, that the real world is industrial capitalism, that the real world is not forests, is not soil, is not clean water.
I’ve got news for everybody. The people who come after -- presuming that people do come after at this point -- the people who come after are not going to care about what economic system we currently have. They’re not going to care about whether we do really great radio programs or whether we write really great books. They’re not going to care about whether we were pacifists or not pacifists. They’re not going to care about whether we recycled. They’re not going to care about whether we were spiritually pure. They’re not going to care about whether we meditated. What they’re going to care about is whether they can breathe the air and drink the water. That’s the bottom line. And, as things are going, they won’t be able to.
You can’t have a linear culture, a progressive culture, on a finite planet. I mean, I was saying earlier that the culture has been destroying its land base for several thousand years. That’s because there was always one more river to dam. There was always one more hill you could go over and deforest on the other side. There was one more lake you could de-fish. And it’s not true. It was never a viable option, and at this point, it’s certainly not a viable option. I don’t remember who it is that said this, but somebody said that anyone who believes that you can have infinite growth on a finite planet is either a madman or an economist. And that’s really true.
And that’s where we are. On one level, we’re living at the end of the world. And on another level, it’s a really great time to be alive because the system is so monolithic and so dependent upon one source of energy, that it is very vulnerable. And it is more vulnerable than it has ever been. And it is our responsibility, and our duty, and our joy, to bring down this culture before it kills everything there is. So that’s where we are.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: You say that we’re vulnerable, but if you just take a look outside, you see the massive skyscrapers, you see the military industrial complex at its most powerful that it’s probably ever been in the history of the so-called civilized world. You see multiple wars taking place, all to feed the system. From all aspects, from all perspectives, it looks like it can’t possibly be vulnerable. So, how is it vulnerable?
Derrick Jensen: It takes ten calories of prehistoric energy, oil and natural gas, to make one calorie of food. The food that we eat is not locally produced. Produced - what a wonderful word! The food that we eat is not grown or harvested locally. It travels great distances. And that right there is a tremendous vulnerability. Also, why are there so many wars? One of the reasons that there are so many wars is because of the dependence of this economic system on that oil. And that right there creates any number of vulnerabilities. When I look around, I see one of the reasons that those in power don’t have to worry about the vulnerabilities is because we in this country are so fully pacified and so fully metabolized into the system that we don’t resist. And for the most part, we don’t even think about resisting. And when we do actually resist, it’s usually in ways that are almost entirely, and probably intentionally, ineffective.
One of my heroes is Tecumseh. There are many things I love about him. One of them is that he was willing to fight, and kill, and die, and live, for the land where his people lived. One of the things I really like about him, is he’d say, “Way upon the living, war upon the dead. We should throw their bones into the ocean.” And it’s great because after reading somebody like him, then me talking about fighting back seems a little less radical than when we compare me to people who want to do candlelight vigils and sign petitions. But one of the advantages that he had over us is – I remember in one of his speeches, he was talking about, he was exhorting people to fight back against the dominant culture and saying, “Look at these trees that you slept under as a baby, and that you played under as a child, and you’ve sported under as a youth” – whatever sported means – “and that you rest after you hunt. These trees will be cut down to make fences.” And an advantage that he had was that his people lived in healthy forests. And I was not raised under trees. And I have not ever had a longterm relationship with a healthy forest. And really frankly, at this point, no one living has, because there is no such thing as a healthy forest any more. It’s much easier to fight for something that you have and is being taken from you than to fight for something you’ve never know. And it’s much easier to get free people to fight for their freedom than it is to get slaves to fight for a freedom they’ve never know.
Whether we recognize it or not, we are slaves to this system. Have you ever thought about the phrase, “Thank God it’s Friday!”? What a horrible, horrible, insane phrase: “Thank God that another week of my so-short life is gone!” We don’t question working at jobs that we don’t love. Based on this habit of asking people if they like their jobs, and about 90 % say, “No.” And what does it mean when the vast majority of the people spend the vast majority of their waking hours doing things they don’t want to do? It’s absolutely insane. That’s not merely just a drag; that’s really very political.
A few years ago, when I was writing my book The Culture of Make Believe, I read this extraordinary book that was a collection of the arguments of pro-slavery philosophers in the 1830’s in the United States. And a lot of them were what you’d expect, the biblical support, and the scientific support. One of the articles was really getting to the point, which is how could we have our comforts and elegancies without slavery, which of course, is the same thing today. But the one I really want to focus on for a second is there was this one Southern pro-slavery philosopher who’s writing to a Northern, abolitionist, capitalist buddy and saying, “You know, if we could arrange land ownership conditions like you have up North, we’d give up our slaves in a second, because it’s economically a much better idea to not own slaves.” But it’s all dependent upon land ownership conditions. And it’s all going to have a point, which is that what he said is that if you have a lot of land and not many people, that means that people have access to land, which means that they have access to food, clothing, and shelter. Which means they have access to self-sufficiency, which means that the only way you can get them to work for you is at the point of a gun. Which means that the way you get them to work for you is by making them chattel slaves. If, on the other hand, you have a lot of people and not much land, or if you can convince people that you “own” the land – little asterisk here – people like to laugh at the so-called banana republics and say that the wealth disparity is really horrible in those countries and that just a few people own all the land. Well, I’ve got news for them, which is that the land ownership conditions in the United States are worse than in the so-called banana republics, by which I mean the land ownership is more concentrated in the United States. And these huge landowners are not even people, for the most part, it is Sierra Pacific, it’s Weyerhauser, it’s big corporations, which don’t even exist, actually. But anyway, back to the original point. If you can convince people that land ownership is tied up, or if you’ve got a lot of people and not much land, what that means is they don’t have a lot of access to land, which means they don’t have access to food, clothing, and shelter, which means they don’t have access to self sufficiency, which means they are dependent upon you, which means that you can offer them whatever pittance you want and they have to go to work for you because otherwise they won’t survive.
So the listeners to this can look around and ask, “What happens if you don’t pay rent?” We’re so metabolized into the system that we think that somehow it makes sense to pay somebody to actually exist on the planet. So, we’re talking about it being vulnerable. One of the things that the system can’t stand is people who think and feel for themselves, and act upon that. There was a great line by a former head of South African security – that’s a nice euphemism, isn’t it? -- a former head of South African security during the apartheid regime. Afterwards, he said, “You know, the thing we were most afraid of from the ANC was not the sabotage and the violence, as it was the possibility that they would convince the masses of South Africans to not have respect for law and order. Because there is no security force in the world that can stand up to a population that does not respect law and order as such.”
And one of the reasons that I want to mention all this in terms of vulnerability is that – I just gave a talk a couple of days ago, and one of the things I asked the audience is, “How many people here believe that we live in a democracy?” Not a single person raised their hand. And I said, “How many people believe that the government cares more for the rights of corporations or for human beings?” And everybody thought corporations. I mean, admittedly, that’s a self-selected group because they were at one of my talks. But I used to teach at a conservative school. And I used to ask my students there, Eastern Washington University, “So do you believe in democracy?” And they would laugh at me. “Of course not. Everyone knows that we don’t live in a democracy.” And I would say, “Do you believe that the government cares more for the rights of individuals or corporations?” And they would laugh again. “It’s a stupid question. Everybody knows that the government is by and for the corporations.” So we’re one step of the way toward that recognition that the South African head of security was seeing, that we recognize that the government is not legitimate.
I mean, somebody at some point (I can’t remember who) was talking about something about taxation without representation, and I don’t remember what they were saying that you should do when you are taxed but not represented. I think it was somebody named George. And there was also somebody named Tom, and he was saying something about how if you have a government that is destructive of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, then it’s the right, I believe, of the people to alter or abolish it. And when you have an entire economic system that is destroying life on the planet, I think that pretty much by definition, it is destructive of life. And I think if it is destroying the planet, by definition once again, it is destructive of the pursuit of happiness. Insofar as liberty, do you want to talk about the one-third of all African-American males in this country who are under so-called criminal justice supervision?
Or maybe we should cut to the chase and talk about this one guy in 1940 or so, who was this Senator or Representative (I don’t remember which) who was saying sarcastically, “Maybe we should just pass a law making it so that nobody with more than a million dollars can ever be prosecuted for a crime.” And, of course, we all know that that’s how the whole “just us” (as my friends say), how the whole judicial system works is that there is one system for the rich and one system for the poor. And of course, there is one system for all the whites and one for all the people of color, etc.
Let me say one more thing about that, which is (I know we’re really rambling but you asked me to be on the air) I got this note from a cop after he read my book Endgame. He said that he really liked the book and there was a lot that he agreed with, but one thing he didn’t like is that he felt I was sort of scapegoating cops. I mean, cops aren’t the real problem. I didn’t really attack cops all that much in the book. But anyway, he said that cops aren’t really the problem, that cops are just doing their job. And, of course, we could say the same thing about lots of others, historically. And at the Nuremburg trials, it was specifically established that doing your job is not a good enough excuse, but leave that aside. And, also one of the things they are doing is protecting people from sociopaths. And I agree. Cops provide a very important role. My mom’s house got burgled, and we called the cops. That’s all fine, great; I’ve got no problem with that. But I wrote back to him, and I said, “That’s great. But if we’re going to have any dialogue, I’ve got to ask you a question, which is why is it that whenever there’s a strike, the cops always come in to force the strikers to terms? They never come in to force the capitalists to terms.”
And that makes me think of one more thing, which is that I was doing a benefit for this community outside of Las Cruces maybe a year or two ago. The community is trying to stop a toxic waste dump from being put in their poor community of people of color. They were pointing out that the cops were not supporting the local community; the cops were supporting the distant corporation. And so we all started talking about what it would be like if cops started to enforce cancer-free zones, or if they were enforcing dam-free zones, or enforcing pro-salmon zones, or what if cops were enforcing free speech? And of course, none of that can ever happen. So we were talking about if the official cops aren’t there, what about if we in our communities decided to take responsibility? We’re not going to allow carcinogens to be manufactured in our community. What would happen if we in our community said that we are going to enforce free speech, that free speech will be allowed? And what if we’re going to enforce rape-free zones? And what if we in our communities are going to – and just go all down the list. And what that would look like, of course, is revolution.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: So what is it about this culture in this country, and specifically that prevents that from happening?
Derrick Jensen: Well, we might lose our access to ice cream 24/7. There’s a character in a novel I have coming out next spring… One of the best lines he has is, ‘Fear is the belief that you have something left to lose.” We are afraid, and we have been bought off. Lewis Mumford wrote, and a lot of other people have written this, but Lewis Mumford -- and I’m going to totally butcher this, and he’d be spinning in his grave if he heard how badly I’m going to quote this – but basically, tyrants long ago learned that overt authoritarianism only goes so far. It’s not a very efficient way to run a system. A much more efficient way, to switch from Mumford to Juvenal, is through bread and circuses, to buy people off.
Right now, we’re all being bought off, which is bad enough when you simply consider oppression. We’re being bought off on our silence about the atrocities in Iraq, our silence about the atrocities in Palestine, our silence about the atrocities in the United States. We’re being bought off, and that’s bad enough, but at this point, we’re talking about life on the planet. And we’re being bought off with computer games, with television, access to ice cream 24/7 like I said, and a very false sense of security. We are standing by watching the end of the world, eating ice cream. I like ice cream, but I don’t like it better than a living world.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: In your book Endgame and in A Language Older Than Words, you talk about what you call the “death urge” of this culture. Can you explain that?
Derrick Jensen: None of the stuff we’re talking about makes any sense. The world’s commercial fishing fleets are subsidized for a greater value than the catch itself. That makes no sense. We’d all be better off if all the world’s commercial fishermen were paid to stay home and sit in their underwear and watch “The Price is Right.” We’d all be better off with that. And the fish would certainly be better off. Even from a purely economic perspective, none of this stuff is making sense.
Before we turned this on, we were talking a little bit about the honeybees and how people at this point know about the collapse of honeybee populations. One of the strong suspects is a certain pesticide made by Bayer. There is an article today in the San Francisco Chronicle, that there is a study done by the federal government, and people are having to sue to get access to the study.
Now, even if we presume that those in power don’t care about honeybees, and don’t care about life in general, which I think is a fairly safe assumption, you would presume that they would care about the industrial agriculture system. And honeybees are central to the entire industrial agriculture system. So you would think that they’d want to maintain them. So that doesn’t make sense. So what’s the use of retiring rich on a dying planet?
I have this new slogan, which is “Protect your land base. You can’t have sex without it.” Because if you don’t have a land base, you don’t have anything. So once again, this isn’t even exploiting others. This makes no sense. None of this makes any sense. So it’s really clear to me that – I’ll wake up and there will be just a few clear moments between waking and sleeping or sleeping and waking, that I just can’t believe that everything that I’m writing about is true, that 90 % of the large fish in the oceans are gone, that global warming is melting the Arctic and the response, the sort of mainstream response, is to get excited about who gets to drill in the Arctic. Or, you know that the methane burps have started, and when the methane burps start, it’s all over. This planet could turn into Venus. And the response in the articles that I’ve read about this has been that this burping methane could be a source of energy.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: Tell us what that is. Maybe people don’t know what you’re talking about.
Derrick Jensen: There are inconceivable amounts of methane, which I believe is sixty times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas, both frozen in tundra and also at the bottom of the ocean. The concern is that as the tundra melts, it will release methane. And it is already doing that in some parts of Siberia where it’s shooting up like geysers. The other fear is that the methane that is frozen at the bottom of the ocean, if it’s warmed up enough, that it will bubble up to the surface and enter the air. That could, once again, turn the planet into Venus. We’re not “just” talking about delta smelt, or not “just” talking about the spotted owls and coho salmon and Kootenay sturgeon; we’re talking about the Big One. The response, once again, even in the very same articles where they will mention the danger of this, is to talk about, “This could be a great new source of energy.” Show me where that makes sense.
We all recognize this culture needs to end, and it will end. It’s in the Bible, it’s everywhere. There’s a beginning, middle, and end. This culture is not cyclical. We all know that this culture will end. And we know that this culture is really wretched. It doesn’t matter; we can choose whatever statistics we want, whether it’s the gold standard study that 25% of all women in this culture are raped in their life and another 19% fend off rape attempts. And all the women I know say that those figures are very low, and the figures are actually far, far higher, approaching unity. That’s just a legal definition of rape; that’s not even including routine sexual harassment or anything like that. It’s on that level, or the level of wage slavery, or the level of fractured communities, any of these levels. We all know that this way of life has to end. And no one understands that this end could have been, at one point, metaphorical and spiritual. And so it’s enacted in physical reality.
And another part of the problem is that this culture inculcates us so much into being afraid. Really, the central thesis of my book, A Language Older than Words, we have an entire culture that is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder because it’s so traumatic, everything from our gender relations to going to school to the wage slavery, everything within this culture is really traumatic. And that’s not the way we’re supposed to live.
Asterisk: I’m going to go in a different direction for a while. We are right now doing this interview on Tallowah land. And the Tallowah lived here for 12,500 years, if you believe the myths of science. And if you believe the myths of the Tallowah, since the beginning of time. And they didn’t trash the place. And they lived here for 12,500 years. If we say 20 years a generation, that’s at least 600 generations. That’s a long time. And when the first Europeans arrived here, it was an absolute paradise with salmon in runs so thick that people were afraid to put their boats in the water. So thick that you couldn’t see the bottom of the river. And this culture has been here for 180 years, and the place is trashed. Everything about this culture is really traumatic.
Judith Herman wrote this great book called Trauma and Recovery. In that book, she talks about PTSD, about complex PTSD. PTSD is what happens if you are traumatized once. If you’re raped in a certain car, then whenever you see that make and model of car again, you might feel really anxious. That’s regular PTSD. But she said what happens if you are actually in captivity, what she calls complex PTSD, which can include domestic violence, can include political prisoners, can include regular prisoners. One of the things that happens if you are traumatized repeatedly over time, especially in childhood, especially from the beginning, you can come to believe that mutually beneficial relationships are not possible, that all relationships are based on power and hierarchy. That’s one of the central ones.
And what is our political economy based on? What is the dominant scientific perspective on natural section? Which is all crap, by the way. I’m not saying that natural selection doesn’t occur; what I’m saying is the notion of “survival of the fittest” is crap. And I can show it in one sentence, which is, “Those creatures who have survived in the long run; you don’t survive in the long run by hyper-exploiting your surroundings; you survive in the long run by actually improving your habitat.” It’s like Dolores LaChappelle taught me, it’s not survival of the fittest, it’s survival of the fit, how you fit into your surroundings.
So this notion that all of life is based on this hierarchy is, I believe, based on a perception of being deeply traumatized. My point in bringing all of this up in having to do with the death urge is that one of the things that happens if you’ve been severely traumatized, is that life is very scary. And what’s the best way not to be scared in a scary situation? To try to control your surroundings. I know that’s what is true for me, that when I’m feeling traumatized, especially around issues that I do have PTSD on, I need to control things around me. Because otherwise, it’s very, very, very scary.
That’s one of the reasons why members of this culture have had to kill every indigenous culture, because they’re not controllable. That’s why they have to kill wild animals, because they’re not controllable. There are other reasons, too. One of the reasons that the Pilgrims had to kill of the Pequots is because there were so many Pilgrims who were defecting. That was first made a crime punishable by torture and death. That didn’t suffice; there were still people running off to join the Indians. What’s the best way? How are you going to get people to stay in your wretched economy? By destroying the alternatives.
Another way to say this is that no wild food stocks can survive the logic of capitalism. Because why would I go to the store to buy some food if I can go outside my back door and catch a meal of salmon? So it cannot survive it. How else am I going to get you to go to work at a job you don’t love? Once again, it’s all the same thing that we’re talking about here. And that’s one of the reasons for the death urge, a very practical reason. How else are you going to get people to stay in your wretched system? It was commonly noted that in prisoner exchanges between the whites and the Indians back in the 1770s, 1780s, that the Indians would run joyously back to their families, and the whites would have to be bound hand and foot to not run back to their Indian captors, which was very, very embarrassing.
But now, we’ve gone back to something else we were talking about earlier. Why don’t people revolt? Because they’ve been convinced that this is the only way to be. This is the real world. This is the “one” system. I mean, this culture is really monotheistic in that it can brook no heresy in that and can allow no alternatives. Because if the alternatives were allowed to be realized, then who would stay here? Who would work jobs they don’t love? And that’s, by the way, I just want to mention that’s standard anthropology, that life among the indigenous was not nasty, brutish, and short. Life was much more full of leisure, and people lived in communities, and they were all sustainable. They lived in place. And who was down in the Bay Area? The Pomo? And how long did they live there? 12,000 years, probably? 10,000 at least? And I’ve read about what it was like when the first whites arrived there, and the same deal. It was an absolute paradise. And, you know, it’s gone.
People used to drink from rivers, if you can imagine that. Many years ago, the USGS came out and said that every stream in the United States is contaminated with carcinogens. Which shouldn’t surprise us, since every mother’s breast milk in the world is contaminated with carcinogens. How close does it have to get before we’ll resist, before we’ll fight back, and we’ll fight for our lives? At what point, I mean, how bad does it have to get?
Nora Barrows-Friedman: [a station ID and reintroduction for radio listeners] We continue our conversation with Derrick Jensen as I ask him to explain one of the premises in his book Endgame. Jensen writes that “Civilization is based on clearly defined, yet widely accepted, yet often unarticulated hierarchy. Violence done by those higher on the hierarchy to those lower is nearly always invisible, that is, unnoticed. When it is noticed, it is fully rationalized. Violence done by those lower on the hierarchy to those higher is unthinkable, and when it does occur, it is regarded with shock, horror, and the fetishization of the victims.” I asked him to talk about this premise as it pertains to a reversal of our collective thinking that he says is essential to challenge and eventually overthrow this destructive cultural system.
Derrick Jensen: We can see this everywhere. In my own family, my father is extremely violent. My brother has epilepsy from repeated blows to the head. He broke my sister’s arm, and he raped my mother, my sister, and me. The one time my brother fought back, he was beaten far worse than any other time, because he committed blasphemy. Just one example.
Another example is cops. Every day in the United States, between four and six people die because they encounter police. That’s through beatings, shootings, high speed chases, and medical neglect in prisons and jails. Yet every time a cop dies, there’s this big state funeral, bumper stickers that say, “Some gave all; all gave some.” You know what the most dangerous civil service profession is? Garbage collection. It’s way, way more dangerous because you’re hanging out with these big, big trucks. They get run over. But when was the last time you saw a state funeral for a garbage collector? Or when was the last time you saw a Tom Cruise movie where he was the intrepid garbageman who was cleaning up the mean streets of LA? That ain’t going to happen, because it’s not bowdlerized, because the violence flows down the hierarchy.
Here’s another example. I live in bear territory. I walk through the forest late at night, and people say, “Oh my gosh, aren’t you afraid that bears are going to attack you?” Well, what I know is that there is one person that dies in North America every two years because of bear attacks. On the other hand, there are 42 or 44,000 people die in the United States every year from automobile accidents. So, the truth is we shouldn’t be afraid to walk through the forests, we should be afraid to walk through a parking lot. All these big cars are going to get you.
What’s another one? Jaws. You know, I live near the ocean and I never get in the water. The reason? Because I saw the movie “Jaws” when I was fifteen. I can’t go anywhere near the ocean without starting to hear that theme music. But the ratio of human attacks on sharks to shark attacks on humans is literally 20 million to one. Another example: 9-11. When was the last time you heard a politician’s speech where he didn’t mention 9-11? It was 9-10, frankly. What was it 3,000 people died there? Well, there’s a half million children dying each year as a direct result of so-called debt repayment from the nonindustrialized nations to the industrialized nations. But that doesn’t count. There’s 15,000 Americans that die every two weeks because of preventable cancers. Or if we go with the 4-6 Americans die each day because they encounter police. That means that 365, or let’s say 350 days in the year (we’ll take two weeks off), let’s call it four of them, 714 a year is 2800 every two years. So about every two-and-a-quarter years, there’s a 9-11 from cops. But we don’t hear any of those. It’s so weird. A couple of years ago, some cop shot a motorist, so of course, it was going to be presented on the newspaper as the standard “cop shoots motorist”, so the motorist is down on the hierarchy, so it’s got to be okay. But then, the motorist was actually a African-American, which means that they are even lower on the hierarchy. So it’s really okay, EXCEPT the person who got shot was an Iraqi war veteran. So, beep! Back up the hierarchy. It was really sort of odd to watch the newspapers. They didn’t know what to do, because a normal shooting like that, it’s obviously the person’s fault because they were having an epileptic seizure, for crying out loud. But, in this case, the newspaper was falling all over itself because it didn’t follow the standard plot.
So, the point is we see this all over where it is acceptable for those in power to shoot the violence down, but if anybody even thinks about shooting the violence back up, that’s absolutely unthinkable. It’s blasphemy, and I mean that in the most religious sense in terms of its being absolutely unthinkable. Remember this just a few years ago, it’s probably ten years ago now, where there was some guards in the California Youth Authority, who were actually caught on tape, on videotape, beating up the prisoners. And they were found not guilty. Of course. Because it was a premise for an action. Or we can look at the prison sentences given to men who beat their wives to death versus the women who kill the men who are attempting to beat them to death. I don’t remember the numbers on that, I think the average is like seven years for the men, and twenty years for the women. I’m making those numbers up, but it is disproportionate like that. Or, a great example is that a few years ago there was this guy in Oklahoma who beat his wife to death. And for that, he was sentenced to, I think, seven years in prison. But as he was going through the judicial process, he spat on a cop. And for that, he was sentenced to life in prison. That’s everything you need to know that premise for, right there. But we can throw out another one. Dick Cheney has killed far more people than Charles Manson ever did. And, in fact, we don’t even need to go to a place of Charles Manson killing people directly, because he didn’t. He didn’t actually do the killing. I’m not saying that the guy shouldn’t be put away, I’m just saying that they both basically ordered killings. Dick Cheney is highly rewarded, and Charles Manson is in prison for the rest of his life.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: Dick Cheney also shot somebody in the face.
Derrick Jensen: That’s right. Charles Manson didn’t even do anything like that.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: Derrick Jensen, you talk a little bit about the threshold, like what’s it going to take. So, fine. We have this information. We are outraged beyond repair. We are watching our planet being killed. And even those of us who are on the left or the so-called progressive wing, we feel a sense of urgency. Yet we still organize protests that are sanctioned by the state. We get permits to protest on a Saturday. We tell each other not to antagonize the enemy or else we’ll become just like them.
Derrick Jensen: Enemy? What enemy? You can’t talk about an enemy; that’s divisive. That’s dualistic. I think I need to end this interview right now. Sorry. Go ahead.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: Well, what’s the threshold?
Derrick Jensen: I think that for most people, there isn’t one. It’s very interesting. In Nazi Germany, when members of the middle class were being put into concentration camps, oftentimes even after they themselves were put into the prison camps, or concentration camps, they refused to acknowledge that the entire system was unjust. And they would whine that in their particular case, that a mistake had been made. But they remained identified with the system. And they would grovel to the guards, and they would do anything they could. And they were routinely snitches, which didn’t gain them any benefits, by the way. The Gestapo and the prison guards would love the snitching and hate the snitcher. So the point is that even when they themselves were suffering directly, they refused to question the system.
I think the first thing we need to do is to recognize that the system is not benefiting life on the planet, that the system is systematically exploitative, that it promises pie in the sky when we die. But in the meantime the gap between rich and poor grows wider, and the planet gets murdered. And I think we also need to recognize that ultimately, those in power are not going to give up without a fight which means that any form of “resistance” is going to be ultimately ineffective because they are not going to sanction, they will not allow any form that’s effective. If you begin to do something really effective, as in Black Panthers delivering breakfasts – it doesn’t matter whether it’s violent or nonviolent, if it’s effective, they will shut it down. We can talk about violence and nonviolence, but the point is not violence and nonviolence, the point’s effectiveness and in effectiveness. And if you do something effective, they will stop you. They will. Because they are not going to allow any reduction in their power.
Part of the problem is that – you know the candlelight vigils and all that, that is fine if you want to feel good, but I don’t care about purity, I don’t care about feeling good. What I care about is living in a world that has more wild salmon than the year before. I’ll do whatever it takes to get there. Part of the problem with our resistance is that it is ultimately very infantile in that a lot of it is based on magical thinking, that if we hold a protest, things are going to magically change. If we light candles, things are going to change. But it’s like Ward Churchill says, if you can write the song that is going to change everything, I’ll sing it. If you can find the candle that is going to change something, I’ll light it and I’ll hold it. I’ll hold two of them. But we all know that holding a candle’s not going to do anything. We can see this when it’s applied somewhere else. If you’re a member of the Russian resistance in World War II, is holding a candle, is this what you’re going to do? Or maybe, you’re not going to buy anything from I.G. Farben? What are you going to do to stop the Nazis?
That’s the question. What are you going to do to stop the Nazis? And if you think my comparison is not apt, then think about from the perspective of the indigenous. Think about it from the perspective of the hammerhead sharks. Think about it from the perspective of the coral reefs. There is a mass holocaust going on. There is the greatest holocaust that has every happened, that absolutely dwarfs the capital H Holocaust. This is the endpoint of this culture. And I think that holding a candle or signing a petition is an absolutely pathetic response to the mass injustices that we see. What we need to do is to stop them using whatever means are necessary, because they must be stopped. Frederick Douglas was the one who said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.”
And there’s another part of it, too. A lot of our resistance is based on magical thinking, but another part of it is pretty much infantile also because it’s based on asking, petitioning, on begging those in power to act differently than we know they will. That’s all we do, that’s the best that we do, is beg. We never demand. Oh, okay, we’re going to demand. Demand means that you’re going to back it up with something, so you need to stop committing these atrocities or we’re going to write you a really sharply worded note. We’re going to hold two candles and sing a song. That’s not scary. We don’t demand and we don’t do it ourselves. If we want dams removed because we don’t want dams killing salmon, what we do is to beg those in power to take them out. We don’t demand they take them out, and we don’t simply do it ourselves. And that’s not good enough. I love the word “responsibility” because it means to give in return. And what is it we owe this planet that gave us life? We owe it our lives back. I don’t know why more people don’t resist.
At that same talk that I did a couple of days ago, I asked people how many had had someone they loved die of cancer, and about 80 % said yes. It’s killing those we love. Directly. I have Crohn’s disease, which is an incurable, progressive disease caused by civilization. Civilization is literally eating away at my guts. And other people. Diabetes, we can go down the list. I had a friend who had a shirt that says, “My father dropped Agent Orange on Vietnam and all I got was this lousy leukemia.” You know, it doesn’t matter how close it gets. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve written essays for magazines where I’ll write about the apocalypse, and they’ll say, “Make sure you end on a hopeful note.”
One of the things I say at all of my talks is that hope is really harmful. For a couple of reasons. One is that because I think that false hopes are incredibly, incredibly harmful. One of the smartest things the Nazis did was they made it so that every step of the way, it was in the Jew’s rational, best interest to not resist. So do you want to get an ID card or do you want to resist and possibly get killed? Do you want to move to the ghetto or do you want to resist and possibly get killed? Do you want to get onto 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? At every step of the way, it was in their rational, best interest to not resist because of these false hopes. So one of the things that I think we absolutely must do is eradicate false hope absolutely ruthlessly. The only good news about all that is that the Jews who participated in the Warsaw ghetto uprising had a higher rate of survival than those who went along. I think we all need to keep that in mind over the next ten years.
But the problem isn’t just false hope, but it’s hope itself. I was doing a talk several years ago in Colorado. I’m bashing hope, and someone in the audience shouts out, “What is your definition of hope?” I said, “I don’t know. I’ve been bashing it and I don’t even know what I’m talking about.” And I asked the audience what their definition is, and the people in the audience were able to come up with a really beautiful definition, which is “Hope is a longing for a future condition over which you have no agency.” That’s how we use it in everyday language. I don’t “hope” that I’m going to eat something tomorrow; I just go ahead and do it. On the other hand, the next time I get in a plane, I’m certainly going to hope that it doesn’t crash, because once it’s in the air, I’ve got no agency. Yet we all say, “I hope that the salmon survive.” Or, “I hope that Israel stops putting in new colonies.” Or “I hope that the US stops invading countries.” “I hope that this culture doesn’t kill the planet.” What you’re doing is you’re acknowledging that you have no agency. And this is just absurd. I mean, how old is your kid?
Nora Barrows-Friedman: Almost eight.
Derrick Jensen: Okay, if you asked your child to clean her room, and she said to you, “I hope it gets done,” your response is…?
Nora Barrows-Friedman: You will clean your room now.
Derrick Jensen: Yeah. Exactly. It’s a non-starter. Yet, when it comes to these larger issues, we suddenly get really stupid and start saying, “Oh, we’ve gotta have hope, gotta have hope.” Well, screw hope. I’m not interested in hope. What I’m interested in now is action.
We have a number of advantages that Tecumseh didn’t have. One of them is that the indigenous, even though they had functioning communities, they had warrior societies, they had people with long histories of working communally. How do we know who to trust now? Well, they didn’t have that problem. But we have some advantages. One of them is that they had no way of conceptualizing how horrible this culture is. They had no way to make context for that. We don’t have that excuse. We who know about the Inquisition, we who know about the Great Auks, we who know about the long history of torture, we who know about slavery, we who know about wage slavery, we who know about misogyny, we who know about, once again, that this culture is killing off the salmon, that’s killing off the oceans. All we have to do is to pay attention to see how insatiable this culture is, that it will not stop on its own. We have that advantage.
Another advantage we have is that had Tecumseh tried to walk into a city, he would have been recognized and killed immediately. But we’re already in all those cities. We’re in Memphis, Tennessee, and San Francisco, California, and in Seattle, Washington, and we’re in Mexico City and we’re in Tokyo. We’re already there. And, increasingly, there are people who recognize that the system will not change on its own, and who recognize that those in power will scruple at nothing to increase their power. What are those in power going to do if we make them really mad? They’re going to kill the world twice? Increasingly, there are people who recognize that it is long past time that we begin to make effective resistance against this culture. Increasingly, there are people who are utterly disillusioned. And I mean that in the sense of having lost their illusions about the feasibility of working solely within the system. It‘s very important, I’m not one of those people who believe in the revolution vs. reform dichotomy. Because if we all wait for the great, glorious revolution, and nobody does anything in the meantime, there’s not going to be anything left. But increasingly, there are people who recognize that if all we do is reform work, the system’s going to grind away until there’s nothing left, too. So increasingly, there are people who recognize that the system cannot and will not last. And, increasingly, there are people who are willing to fight for, and with, their lives and the lives of those they love. And, to take us back to near the beginning, increasingly, there are people who recognize that the system is incredibly vulnerable, the blocked blood of the economic system, and who are willing to do whatever it takes to make sure that the dominant culture doesn’t destroy the world that is their only home.
Transcribed by Kendyll Stansbur