Interview by Tim Ream for the Litha 2002 issue of The Earth First! Journal
Republished at Sacred Lands
Derrick Jensen is a writer after the hearts of EF!ers and radicals of all stripes. His books include “A Language Older Than Words” and “Railroads and Clearcuts”. His critique is broad and personal, intellectual and down to Earth.
The title of Jensen’s new book, The Culture of Make Believe, suggests the revelation of some pretty big blind spots. How does one find a legitimate entry into discussing the very context of all discussion: culture? How does one attempt to look past or even at the “code” that has governed all that our society has built? Where might one find a mirror that reflects across continents, history and into the abstract world? Jensen begins with hate.
A large part of the book is given to listening to the victims and survivors of hate. Jensen’s case is well-built. Bearing witness in words to the acts of our ancestors is almost unbearable, but bear it we must, for through these stories we begin to understand some of the texture and complexity of hate.
Jensen insists we open our eyes to a few aspects of our culture: the history of lynching in the US, genocidal acts and corporate disregard for life in the search for profit. One might resign oneself, in the face of such atrocities, to simply declare such behavior “human nature” and thus not worthy of attention. Jensen won’t let go so easily.
Few writers today are able to bring history, politics and the Earth together without blinking in the face of the planetary crisis. In May, while Jensen was in-between book tours, I had the opportunity to speak with him about our civilization, its mistakes and our collective liberal dream.
Tim Ream: What has the reception been out there in the “War on Terror” America? What’s it like being a radical speaker, and how do you assess the mood of the country as far as your audiences are concerned?
Derrick Jensen: Well, I’ve just gotten back from one tour. I’m leaving on another one in a couple of days, and I’m pretty much speaking to standing-room-only crowds in venues that are both big and small.
One of the things I say that has been very well-received is that the most common words spoken by any environmentalist I know are, “We’re fucked.” People will say, “Well if that’s the case then why don’t you just kill yourself,” and the answer to that is that “life is good.” There are so many people out there who refuse to acknowledge how terrible things are because they think that means that their own life is going to be bad because life is going to hell on the planet. Those are the people who are at the periphery. The people who are actually working on these things say, “Well, of course, that just makes us work all the harder.”
The other thing that is being received very well, that I’m actually a little surprised about, is that the next-to-last chapter in my book is called “Holocausts,” and that arose because my publisher said that if you are going to write about hate you need to write about “The Holocaust.” I objected to that very strongly for two reasons. One because there has been so much good stuff written about it, that I’m not sure what I could write about it.
The second is that I objected to the word “The” because at the same time Nazis were killing six million Jews, they were killing Romani, Slavs, homosexuals, intellectuals and Russians. At the same time, Japanese were killing Chinese. Twenty years before that the Turks were killing Armenians, and 20 years later the Americans were killing the Vietnamese. It’s all kind of exemplified by a friend of mine who is a great activist, a Jewish woman who was down in Florida when Schindler’s List came out. She went to it, and she said as she walked out that there were all these elderly Jewish women shaking their fists and saying “never again.” What my friend said is that these women have never heard of the U’wa. I mean they’ve never heard of the Seminole, and they are living on Seminole land.
So I’ve been saying this, and I sort of expected that there would be some sort of a backlash for going after that sacred cow — capital “The” capital “H” — Holocaust and saying that this is the endpoint of civilization: assembly line mass murder. Instead, at one place the audience interrupted me with applause — everyone is generally nodding in total agreement. This is one of those things we don’t talk about.
So to finish this story about the way I tried to write about the Holocaust… I remembered something a friend of mine said about 10 years ago, which was that Hitler’s big mistake was that he was about 100 years ahead of his time. The endpoint of a utilitarian worldview is what we see around us: the final turning of the living into the dead. Hitler didn’t have a national identity card system like social security cards, he didn’t have facial recognition software, he didn’t even have fingerprints for the most part.
TR: Let me ask a couple of questions from what I would consider a more mainstream audience’s point of view. They would be something like, “Well, you are only looking at the bad stuff, and gosh there has been so much amazing stuff from civilization. What about all the great art and miracle cures and so on? Why is it that you only want to focus on the bad?”
DJ: You know, I love Beethoven. I love baseball, except for the designated hitter and the New York Yankees. However, as much as I like the Seattle Mariners and Beethoven, they are not worth killing the planet. At the very least, I think we can be honest about the fact that our way of life from the very beginning has been unsustainable. I asked a friend of mine years ago, “If you could live at any level of technology that you wanted, what would it be?” He said, “That’s a really stupid question, Derrick. We can fantasize about whatever we want but the only level of technology that is sustainable is the Stone Age. And the only question there is, really, is: What will be left when we get there?”
Any way of living that is based on non-renewable resources and — as you know from my work — any way of living that is based on the perception of the world as resources is by definition unsustainable. The central question of my work from the beginning has been, “If the destruction of the natural world isn’t making us happy, then why are we doing it?” All these things are not really making us happy. We can go with whatever statistics you want on suicide, valium use or anything else.
TR: What about the argument that would say, “Can’t we find a way to keep some of the good aspects of civilization without returning all the way to the Stone Age?”
DJ: Well I have two things to say. The first one is that if your way of living is based upon non-renewable resources, it’s not sustainable by definition. What this means is that if you are going to have solar photovoltaics you’ve got to have copper wire, which means you’ve got to have mining which means you’ve got to have the infrastructure. You can’t separate one piece of technology and hope that things are going to work.
I ask people all over the country — and I think this a really important thing — if they think we are going to undergo a voluntary transition to a sustainable way of living, and everybody laughs. I had one person raise his hand and say “yes” and everybody looked at him, and he said, “Oh, voluntary? Of course not.”
It would be so wonderful if we weren’t crazy and if we could actually try for some sort of soft crash. Yes, we’ll be at the Stone Age, but we could sort of throttle down and come for a soft landing where we do things smart.
That’s one of the things that’s really central to my work. Most of the individuals in our culture are crazy, and the culture as a whole is certainly crazy.
One of the theses of A Language Older Than Words is that we have an entire culture suffering from complex post-traumatic stress disorder. We’re incapable of forming relationships on both personal and social levels. If you’ve been traumatized, you come to believe that you’ve got to control your surroundings. You come to believe that all relationships are based on power, based on atomized individuals acting selfishly, as our economics would have us believe. Our culture has a fundamental death urge, and unless it’s stopped its going to kill everything on the planet.
It would be wonderful if everyone was acting reasonably. If suddenly everyone woke up, we could throttle down and realize that instead of giving money to timber companies to cut down forests, we could give money to timber companies to reforest. Sure, but it ain’t gonna happen.
I certainly fantasize about a soft landing, but I think we need to face what’s going on. We need to look at history. What happens to communities that live sustainably? They get destroyed every single time by the dominant culture.
TR: With such a huge concept to relate to people, what advice do you have about how we can articulate this and bring it home to the much wider audience that needs to hear it?
DJ: I don’t believe in arguing with people. If somebody says, “You know what? You are full of shit.” Then I say, “OK, talk to you later.” There is not enough time for me to waste. I’ll present my position, and if they don’t agree then that’s fine.
One thing that I feel very strongly about is to approach people where they are. You can always find an angle. It’s like a friend of mine says, “A lot of environmentalists begin by wanting to protect a piece of ground, and they end up questioning the foundations of Western civilization.” But it’s not true that that is the only place you can start. You end up at the same place by asking the questions deeper and deeper. If you start questioning race issues you come down to the same place.
One of the reasons I ended up questioning the foundations of Western civilization was my father&emdash;if his violent behavior wasn’t making him happy, why was he doing it? But another part of it was that I didn’t want to enter the wage economy. I would go to a job I hated every day, and I would see my dogs lying on the grass. I’d come home from a job I hated, and they were still lying on the grass. I realized then that the entire reason for evolution was collies. They’re the apex. I recognize that evolution is not hierarchical, but that’s the apex. We all think that we’re the top, but we’re miserable. Ninety percent of the people I ask say they hate their jobs. That’s a perfectly appropriate way to dive in, to say, “OK, so why do we have to have jobs? Why do we have to have a situation where so few people control so much land?” You find out where people’s concerns are, and then you see if you can relate the question of civilization to their concerns.
When they finally get the big picture, that the Stone Age is the only sustainable endpoint, the implications seem so overwhelming to most people that they seem to have a hard time coping. They just want to shut that off right away as some sort of wild-eyed, ridiculous fantasy. It’s not that they don’t agree with the logic that got them there, it’s just that they can’t handle the implications.
Well it’s really hard to take in. I certainly sympathize with that position. The implications are huge. It’s 6,000 years of history. It’s big.
We’re painted into a hell of a corner, and I don’t see any good options. If I saw good options, I would take them. That’s what a lot of the Europeans that came over here did. They saw the good option and became “Indians.” That’s really not an option anymore.
It takes big people to admit that we made big, big mistakes and to try to set them right.
TR: One of the high points of the book seems to be the realization that our collective liberal dream — that we would be able to make some adjustments here, better laws there, enforce them differently, and all of a sudden we have a healthy, happy, sustainable Earth free from genocide, slavery and rape&emdash;is completely ridiculous. Trying to work with that point and with the paradox that life is still good, how do we begin to take on dealing with things as particulars? What’s the direction or the process that allows us to actually start bringing this down?
DJ: When I ask how many people believe we are going to undergo a voluntary transformation and nobody ever answers yes, the next question should be, “What does that mean for our tactics?” The truth is we don’t know because we don’t talk about it. That’s one of the things I want to do. We need to ask, “What do we want?” Do you want simply a place with fewer clearcuts, a place where the grizzly bears last another three generations before they go extinct? Do you want salmon to last another 20 years? Do you want to have three square feet of glaciers on the planet? What is it that you want? So one of the things I want to do is shift discourse.
The second thing of course is that I want to bring everything down. One of the things I think we need to realize is that the whole government-corporate entity, the whole culture, has been a culture of occupation. The first thing we need to do is to recognize and fully internalize the seriousness of the situation. Then we need to talk about it.
I think we need to talk our way through accepting that it needs to come down, and then we need to start making it happen. How do you do that? I don’t know. I need to write my next book. I do know that I have a friend whose brother demolishes buildings. One of the things he says is that when you take down a building you try to put the charges in just the right place to avoid taking down the surroundings. I think that’s a wonderful metaphor. I’ve got three metaphors for you here. That’s the first one. We need to figure out where the charges go to take down a place.
Another one is Albert Speer, the armaments minister for the Third Reich, who said that the US carpet-bombing program of Germany in World War II was not as effective as it could have been because they didn’t look for bottlenecks. The example he gave is that they would blow up a tractor factory, which meant that they couldn’t build tank engines. However, they didn’t hit ball bearing plants, which would have meant that they couldn’t have rebuilt the tractor factory. So I think we need to look for where the bottlenecks are in our culture, and we need to try and hit them.
The third thing is that every morning I wake up, and I ask myself whether I should write or blow up a dam. So in the next book I’m going to write about how to take out a dam or even whether it’s a good idea. There have been some salmon activists who don’t encourage anybody to do that, because there’s so much silt behind that it will destroy the river below, scour it out. I was saying this on a radio program, and some guy called in. He said that the Toutle River near Mount St. Helens was not only scoured by silt, it boiled, but in 10 years it came back. I need to write about that.
It’s a really important metaphor because no matter how you look at the future, it looks really bad. The options are that we continue with this destruction of the planet and the destruction of individual liberties, peoples and everything else. The people 50 years from now will say, “Where the hell are the salmon. I’m starving to death because you wanted cheap electricity for aluminum cans.”
Another possibility is that we effect some sort of a breakdown which is going to be really nasty. There’s no denying the fact that a breakdown of the US infrastructure will be unpleasant for many.
I used to have this metaphor: We’re locked in a room with this psychopath, and what are we going to do? But I don’t think that’s accurate. I think it’s much more accurate to say there are five or six of us locked in this room with about 15 psychopaths who have guns, and there are about 150 people who are asleep. What are you going to do? I don’t know what to do, but that’s the question.Filed in Interviews of Derrick Jensen