Interview by Claudette Vaughan / Abolitionist-Online
Derrick Jensen is a rare voice of sanity in the world. As author, teacher, activist, small farmer and leading voice of uncompromising dissent his voice rises far above the mundane to insist that western culture, as we now know it, must be stopped. His latest work, Endgame, is his most mature to date, although everything Jensen writes is relevant and timely to people who are serious about their activism. Here he speaks to the Abolitionist-Online about his current work and ideas.
Abolitionist: You want to bring down civilization. How and why?
Derrick Jensen: Because it’s been killing the planet for the last 6000 years and destroying every land base that it can plus it’s committed genocide against every indigenous culture that it can. It’s based on destroying its land base, it’s based on taking everyone else’s land, it’s based on taking their bodies, and it’s based on consuming. 90% of the large fish in the oceans are gone, passenger pigeons have been destroyed, the salmon are in the process of being destroyed, the prairie dogs are destroyed, the bison are destroyed, the Great auks have been destroyed, the whales have been destroyed, the cod have been destroyed, the sharks have been destroyed –stop me at any time you want. People are dying of cancer, there’s dioxin in every mother’s breast milk. However, we do get to watch television. We can import fruits from the tropics and we can have coffee and we can have cars so that makes it all okay I guess. Just forget everything I said.
Abolitionist: What’s a working definition of resistance in Derrick Jensen’s world?
DJ: Resistance means to me to effectively oppose those activities, to effectively stop those activities, that you wish to stop. So much of our activism is so incredibly ineffective in terms of actually stopping the destruction. We can hold our signs, we file our lawsuits and the world is still being killed. I want to be really clear. I’m not opposed to people filing lawsuits or holding up signs. You’ll probably never find anybody who is more inclusive in their belief in a wide variety of tactics than I. Therefore using all of those tactics and many more are just not sufficient because they aren’t doing anything. We have done our protests against circuses and circuses obviously still exist. Vivisection is still continuing, and frankly, as horrible, horrible, horrible as vivisection is, it’s small potatoes to the planet being killed. I am more interested in the whole question of what is effective.
What being effective means is if you are interested in stopping vivisection then effective means you stop vivisection. Or it could mean that you rescue one puppy which is a wonderful, wonderful thing to do.
Yesterday I got a request for funds through some junk mail and it said, “You can stop global warming. All you have to do is sign our petition to support the McLean/Lieberman Bill in the US” and it also said send us $25. Okay so let’s ask ourselves what are we are about to accomplish if we give $25 to the Environment Defense Fund. If that’s what you want to do, then you have accomplished that but will this do the tiniest little thing to stop global warming – of course not!
Abolitionist: How can the eco and animal liberation movement move away from the odd individual act of vandalism to become a fully-fledged and functioning effective movement?
Derrick Jensen: I think one of the things we need to do first off is to decide that’s what we want to do. That’s part of the problem. Our seriousness has not been called into question. I think we need to become much, much more serious. We need to say, “This is where I live and this is where I’m going to die and this is what I want”. We have to figure out what we want and why. The hard part is in the determining. What I want is to live in a world with salmon. What I want is to live in a world where no vivisection exists. What I want is for there to be no rape. And once you make those decisions it then becomes technical and we can begin to start talking about how to achieve it. If you want to live in a world with salmon then what that means is you need to get rid of the dams. There are two million dams in the United States so then the technical question is how do you get rid of dams?
In the United States there are two million dams total, 60,000 dams over 13 feet tall and 70,000 dams over 6 ½ feet tall. Some of those dams in the US are tiny and illegal. All it would take is a sledgehammer. Some of the dams are big and it may take law suits or it may take explosives or it may take petitions.
From my work you know I often I bash ‘hope’ a lot. Hope is a really horrible thing because the definition of hope is a longing for a future condition over which you have no agency. I don’t say, “I hope I eat something later today”. I’m just going to do it because I have agency. On the other hand the next time I get on a plane I hope it doesn’t crash in the air. I say ‘hope’ because I have no agency. When somebody says I hope the salmon survive what they are saying is they have no agency. When somebody says I hope vivisection ends then they are saying that they have no agency over it. On the other hand you can say I will stop vivisection. I will stop the destruction of salmon. That’s acknowledging your own agency.
At one of my talks a few months ago a philosophy professor came up to me and said, “Oh you said a few good things but it doesn’t work here like that”. This is a standard line that every philosophy professor you’ve ever met says. One of the things he said was all you can do is do what you can and then you have to hope that things work out after that. We were talking about some huge development going in and it’s being run by the one person. “Yeah!” he said, “That’s exactly right. You can take your appeal to the city council and then if they turn you down you can take it to the State, and then take it to the Feds.” He was saying that on one level you have to hope that the government will do the right thing. I said I am not specifically advocating this but the other option is you could always target the developer. He said, “No, no, no, no. You couldn’t do that”. Okay wait a second, I’m not saying the option is moral or immoral. . I’m not saying you would do that option. I’m just saying that you don’t simply have to hope that the government does the right thing. There are always other options you can choose. But he was choosing to not look at those options (and pretending the whole time that he didn’t have a choice to make). The point is that we are always choosing. There are things we can do. We may not do some things for reasons of morality or for any other reason, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t choosing. We say we’ve got to save the salmon but we won’t take out dams. Well, hey that’s like saying we’ve got to save the Jews but we can’t kill the Nazis.
Abolitionist: What are some important lessons that can be learnt about “The Green Scare”?
DJ: Once again we really need to have our seriousness called into question. Some of the defendants are standing strong which is really incredibly important. I can’t tell you how much that moves me. I think it’s possible that some of the others might not have understood what they were getting into when they started.
In any movement there will be people who will roll over. It was done with the Russian resistance, it happened with the German resistance. One of the things that is really unwise about this is there were too many people doing too many things. What I am really interested in is what are the lessons that we can learn from this so we can move forward.
One of the problems was there were too many people talking about too many things. Another problem is before you embark upon these actions, this is not a game, you basically have to recognise that your life is over and if you continue to live after that, then that’s good. You have to recognise what the State can do. It’s not a game and another thing is one should be really careful about doing actions with people who use drugs. Obviously this whole thing started to unravel when the junkie started talking. I was going to say there has been no retribution to Jake for what he’s done but that’s not entirely true. They kicked him out of a radio station when he came in to play his guitar the other day.
Abolitionist: What do you put the inaction of the West down to?
DJ: It’s a lack of seriousness. What would have happened if somebody rolled over and was a member of the IRA? For crying out loud. What would the Feds do, for that matter, if one of their own did this? Another lesson from this is people really need to watch out because from my understanding of the ‘Green Scare’ the Feds were able to exploit a lot of sexual relationships between the people doing these actions. It’s really dangerous and volatile for people who are doing actions to be also sleeping together. I’m not saying a couple shouldn’t ever do actions together but in this case that was exploited as well. Another lesson is reduce the amount of information that is known. Another is to recognise is that once you embark on that direction that there’s no going back and that working alone would make it a lot harder for someone to roll over. People have said to me that of course they are facing life in prison so they are going to roll over but I have seen so many examples of people who didn’t do that. There were people from the German resistance in WW2 against Hitler. There was one guy who was tortured and tortured and tortured until finally he broke but when he broke he implicated only himself and an already dead person. I’m just really sad about how the whole thing has played out and I would hope that it would act as a call to increase seriousness. It has in some ways. I’ve noticed that there’s a lot of different actions happening around the States and in Canada so it hasn’t worked in that way for the Feds.
Abolitionist: Do you think there exists a grand plan in the United States today to assassinate directly or indirectly the eco and the animal liberation movement? I was struck recently to see in a doco that back in the early nineties bulk methamphetimines appeared out-of-the-blue and saturated one State only, Oregon. Oregon, as we all know, is a place where a large number of eco and animal activists reside.
DJ: I keep thinking about a question that someone once asked John Stockton, the former CIA person who decided he couldn’t do that any more and decided to come out and speak out against it. At one of his talks somebody asked him: Why are you still alive? And he said, “Because they are winning”. That has always stuck with me. I think that one of the reasons that the government is getting more overt in its hostility and rage with the environmental movement is not because the environmental movement is winning but because it’s becoming increasingly obvious that this lifestyle cannot be maintained. In my book, “The Culture Of Make Believe” I ask why it was that there were more lynchings after the Civil War than before the Civil War. I kept trying to figure out what the deal was with that. Finally the answer finally came to me through this line by Nietzsche. He said, “One does not hate when one can despise”. E.g., as long as slave owners can maintain their exploitation of the slaves through a philosophy, though a whole way of life, there is no reason for them to manifest rage but once that their perceived entitlement is threatened, once they can no longer exploit at will, they are going to become really, really angry and they are going to lash out.
Put yourself in this position for a minute. Pretend you were raised in a slave owning family and pretend that everything about your religion, your culture, the economic system tells you that to own a Black person is just the way life is. It would be the same as right now how we unquestioningly own cars or clothes. They are a tool. If somebody came up to you and said, “You can’t use that shovel because the shovel has feelings”. As long as you can maintain a “What the fuck are you talking about? You’re insane!” attitude and as long as you can maintain that, there’s no reason for you to get upset but if somebody comes up to you and says, “Look! You can’t use that shovel anymore and they start saying you’re exploitative, you’re a bad person because you’ve been using this shovel”, you are going to start to get pissed off with them and if they take that shovel away from you – if they liberate the shovel – you are going to get really pissed. So within that slave/owner perspective a slave is a tool. You can be contemptuous of them but once you start to see that that perceived entitlement to exploit is starting to get overturned then you’re going to get really pissed. And if you think that somebody is pissed when they say you can’t own a slave what about if somebody starts saying you can’t own a cow or you can’t own a monkey for your research. You can’t use everything on the planet. You can’t cut down those trees. Once again, it’s not so much environmentalists or animal rights activists being so effective, it’s because the other side is over-running the limits of the planet. 90% of the large fish are gone. Who’s fault is that? It’s those mother-fucking environmentalists’ fault!
One of the reasons that those in power must, absolutely must, squash serious environmental dissent is because their way of life based on exploiting everything is coming to an end and even though they can’t articulate it they know in their bones that it’s coming to an end and they are going to fight like hell to stop us from telling anybody that it’s coming to an end.
That’s what the whole Green Scare is about. It’s a theatre of terror. All they are doing is attempting to dissuade others by putting on these multiple life term sentences for people who have been captured. There is a guy that lives in the city where I live who beat his 5-week-old infant, broke all her ribs, punctured the lung, punctured the spleen and there were other broken bones as well. The guy got 8 years. On the other hand of course, if you burn down a corral that’s being used to keep wild horses waiting for the slaughterhouse then of course you have to be sentenced to a bazillion years in prison. I think that these long draconian sentences are going to backfire on the Feds. I think it’s a stupid, stupid move on their part. The reason I think it’s really stupid has to do with something that my students at a SuperMax prison I used to teach at told me. A lot of them said, “I’m in here for murder because I car-jacked somebody”. If you car-jack someone then you get a life sentence for car jacking. I would say that there’s nothing extra in killing the guy that you car jacked from essentially. So if it had been that you were given 5 years for car jacking! Do I let the guy live? Of course I do because I don’t want to do a life term. If somebody gets 3000 years in prison for burning down an empty corral then you might as well do something that’s worth doing 3000 years for.
Abolitionist: If we look at who bombed Judi Bari it’s the first time the Feds had to pay out an enormous amount of money to radial environmentalists. They were trying to say that Judi and Darryl (see our interview) were terrorists who on the way to an action, accidentally blew themselves up but they neglected to produce any evidence. Judi and Darryl were non-violent activists and non-violent activists are being slaughtered. What price do pacifists pay Derrick?
DJ: Pacifism has been a tremendous success for those in power. The reviews for my latest book, Endgame are starting to fall into two categories. One category is non-pacifists who are loving the book and the other are pacifists who are utterly hating the book. I’ve thought about writing another book like Endgame and calling it, “Endgame for Pacifists”. This would consist of about 1000 blank pages and one page in the middle which says, “Sometimes it’s okay to fight back”. I’d do that because that’s all the pacifists are hearing. Out of the whole 1000 pages they read they only see it’s okay to fight back so they say, “ oh this is terrible, he’s saying it’s okay to fight back”. That’s all they can ever talk about.
Abolitionist: Isn’t it a privilege of being able to discourse on whether or not to fight back?
DJ: Exactly. Why I wrote Endgame was because when I would talk about fighting back the response from the audience was absolutely predictable. Mainstream activists, mainstream peace and social justice activists and mainstream environmentalists would put up what I have taken to call a “Gandhi shield”. By that I mean they would say “Martin Luther King, Dalai Lama, Gandhi,” over really, really fast, to keep evil thoughts at bay. Pacifism is really a cult. It’s really a fundamentalist religion that cannot allow anybody else to fight back either. I have no problem with non-violence because I am non-violent myself but the pacifists would say, “Hey I am not going to participate. I am going to stand here and hold this banner.” That’s great if you want to do that. That’s a wonderful thing. I am so glad you are doing that but don’t prevent somebody else from doing something more radical than you.
Grassroots environmental activists a lot of the times would do the same, but then would come around after my talk and in hushed breath say, “Thank you for bringing this up”. The third types are the most interesting. If I talk about fighting back with American Indians or survivors of domestic violence or with people of colour or prisoners or radical environmentalists they always say, “Tell us something we don’t know”. I’ve realised with these latter groups that violence is not something abstract or a philosophical question to be puzzled through. Instead it’s simply a part of life. Violence doesn’t have a capital V. That doesn’t mean you participate in it. It means you deal with it. That’s one of the reasons pacifists are not even interesting to me. Pacifism is all theoretical and it’s all based on human exclusivism.
I remember once I was doing a talk and sharing the stage with a pacifist. At one point he said, “Violence, Smiolence” which was his level of his discourse. Then he said he wouldn’t harm a single human in order to save an entire run of salmon. What I said at the time which wasn’t very helpful was “I would” but what I really wished I would have said was, “Thank you very much for precisely articulating exactly why the world is being killed and it’s the belief that any human life, including my own, is more important than the landbase”. That right there is the problem.
Another reason I wrote Endgame was because pacifists throw the same arguments out and the arguments are just stupid. I’m thinking of making up a little pamphlet so when the next person says to me, “You can’t use the Master’s tools to dismantle the Master’s house”, I’d say “Here take a pamphlet, now shut up”. Audre Lourde said that but she didn’t say it about pacifism, it was about something entirely different. Another thing about Audre Lourde – she’s never worked in construction because it’s a terrible metaphor. It doesn’t matter whose fucking tools you use. I can use the Master’s tools to dismantle the Master’s house. Have you got some tools? I’ll use them. Those in power talk as if they own the land, they tell us they own the water, they tell us they own the trees, they tell us they own genetic materials. And then they try to tell us they own violence as well. I don’t think they own violence, and I think mother grizzly bears will back me up on this one.
When the entire system is based upon systematic violence against the planet, against nonhumans, against women and against the poor you really don’t have any right to complain when somebody fights back against the oppressors. Just because you’re not doing it yourself doesn’t mean it’s not being done in your name.
Another thing with pacifists is they say, “Oh gosh Derrick! You talk about fighting back and you talk about how much you hate those in power. You’re really divisive Derrick. You talk about us and them but that’s just maintaining the same old dualisms and we want to get rid of all those dualisms”. So what they are saying is Dualisms are bad and non-dualism is good? That’s a fucking dualism in itself.
Abolitionist: What’s missed is the other side is already brutal and has already changed the balances between right and wrong. Look at Iraq. There is no right or wrong if you want to pre-empt somebody. There’s no right or wrong if you want to come in and destroy a whole culture so why are we talking pacifism when we should be talking pathology.
DJ: Yeah it’s a total pathology.
Abolitionist: What is your view on the war on Iraq?
DJ: Well I think George Bush is bringing freedom and democracy to the world and if you speak out against that then you obviously are a terrorist. Obviously it’s a war of aggression and were they faced with a Nuremberg type trial. Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld – all of them would met the same fate as the major war criminals in Nazi Germany. Clearly it’s a war crime.
Abolitionist: Your book Endgame is predicated on the death cult which is western civilization. Western civilization has it’s own religion with it’s own sacred commodities, it’s own dogmas, rituals, sacrifices. Any expression of dissent is tantamount to blasphemy in their world. How does one go about even destroying the more subtle images that are ingrained in the western psyche on what constitutes real/unreal/animated, right/wrong?
DJ: All of my indigenous friends say to me the first thing we need to do is de-colonise our minds, to recognise that civilization is not good. Another friend of mine asked me what I wanted to accomplish with my work. I said the first part of what I want to make it so that bringing down civilisation passes the laugh test. People need to recognise that pathological “progress’ is killing us and is killing the planet. Get people to recognise that unfettered exploitation isn’t a good thing and it needs to be stopped. We need to fight back. It’s an absolute necessity. The planet is being killed.
Of course what I really want is to bring down this civilization that is killing the planet.
Abolitionist: It’s been said that the culture re-creates the kind of people it needs. What does that tell us about western civilization Derrick?
DJ: People are systematically being taught not to think. That why I wrote ‘Walking On Water”. One of the premises of school is to make a nation of slaves. R.D.Laing said, that what you want to do with children to maintain the system is turn them into imbeciles like ourselves preferably with high IQ’s. Of course this is what’s going on. To destroy people’s ability to think, to empathize.
At my talks I ask people: How many of you have lost someone that you love to cancer. 80% of them say Yes. I say if you aren’t going to fight back while this culture is killing the people you love, when are you going to fight back? This isn’t just about some little spider out there, wonderful though they are, or the Columbia Basin Pygmy Rabbit. I believe the last male just died. This is not just about them. This is about people getting diseases in their own body. It’s probably that they are so fucking selfish they don’t care about the natural world. Still, this is your grandfather. This is my grandfather who died of pancreatic cancer. This is me who has Crohn’s Disease. This is not just about swordfish and marlin even though they are being hammered as well.
Abolitionist: Still talking about infiltrating children. What’s happening in Australia is the government is throwing hundreds of thousands of dollars into elite private schools and starving out the public schooling system. The old term for it was “improving the herd”(also by genetic engineering) by first separating the herd to bring through an elite class specializing in business practices. The rest who don’t fall by the way side will work for this elite. We see this through the break down of the new Work Place Relations in Australia which has just done away with workers full time entitlements to garner a more movable disposable worker working under the elite and on their terms. Do you see this happening in the US?
DJ: I think it’s the same thing that’s been happening since the beginning of this culture. Ask yourself, who makes these laws? It’s something that was written up by a rich person, a powerful person. They are not going to write stuff that is not to their benefit. They are doing it to further their economic ends. That’s one of the premises of Endgame is that decisions are made in this culture based on how they increase the power of the already powerful.Filed in Interviews of Derrick Jensen