Transcript of footage shot by Ingrid Severson for David Sheen’s First Earth – Uncompromising Ecological Architecture
View the video at: This Means War, or read the transcript below.
I hate to be a contrarian, but I don’t think our primary culpability for the destruction of the natural world comes through what we consume. I think our primary culpability comes by not destroying the system that’s destroying the planet. And there’s a few directions I can go with that.
One of them is, people sometimes talk about voting with your dollars. And A, that’s an extraordinary statement about how bankrupt the so-called democracy that we live in is, when people recognize that the elections themselves are shams, and so they talk about, Well, you can vote with your dollars. But that’s just as much a sham for a bunch of reasons. One of them is that those of us who are not attempting to destroy things will always be at a severe disadvantage when it comes to money. And I can show that in a couple ways.
One is, first off, what is production within this culture? Production is the turning of the living into the dead. It’s the turning of living force into 2 X 4’s. It’s the turning of rivers into hydroelectricity, which is then used to convert living mountains into bauxite into beer cans. And that’s what production is.
Okay, now, back to those of us who would wish to spend with our dollars being at a disadvantage. What happens if I make lots of money? And how do I accumulate a lot of money in a way that’s not environmentally destructive? Because if I actually go out and build something within this culture, I’m harming the natural world. If I write books, well, where’s the paper come from? Even if it’s purely recycled post-consumer, it still involves a lot of electricity, a lot of water, and all those processes are within the industrial system. The whole system is incredibly destructive.
So, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t write books, or do films, or do whatever it is we’re doing! I’m just saying that — okay, so let’s say that I go steal a bunch of money, because that would be a way that’s not environmentally destructive. You know, I sneak into Wal-Mart, it’s great, you know, it’s always great to take money from Wal-Mart! I sneak into Wal-Mart in the middle of the night — I go in, I somehow nab some money from Wal-Mart. Anyway, so let’s say I get a million dollars, and I buy a bunch of land, and I set it aside. Well, I just basically lost my whole pile. And I’ve got to go back to Wal-Mart and take a bunch more money in order to get another million dollars to protect more land.
But let’s say instead, somebody accumulates a million dollars somehow, and they buy a bunch of land because they want to deforest it. And they now can cut down all the trees, and they’ve made five million dollars! And now they can buy five million dollars worth of land, and then they can do it again and again and again. The point is, if you’ve attempting to use money in a good direction, it ends up being a hole. I’m not saying we shouldn’t. I’m just saying that we will always be at a disadvantage that way. That’s one reason we can’t vote with our dollars.
Another reason is, I was doing they math a couple of years ago — I actually fly a lot, because I do a lot of talks. And so somebody could say, Well, you know, you’re responsible for United Airlines staying in business. So I actually did the math and figured out how much I spent. Remember, once again, I fly quite a bit. And compare that to their total revenues, and my total input was like — I don’t remember what it was, it was like one nine-billionth. So, yeah, I’m responsible for 1/9,000,000,000-th of United staying in business. And that’s not a lot of leverage.
When I think and I talk about stopping the destructiveness, I want to try to find ways that have the most leverage possible. I want to leverage my power. Because we who are opposing empire, we who are opposing the destruction of the natural world don’t, at this point, have the luxury of just using naked force. The federal government has enough resources at its disposal that it can just have people go in with guns everywhere, and use overwhelming force. I just read the other day that the United States military is outspending the insurgents, or the resistance, in Iraq by, I think it’s 128,000 to 1! For every dollar that the insurgents/resistance spend, the United States government spends 128,000. Which is a very, very short lever, from their perspective.
How can we find ways to leverage our power, leverage our efforts? And I think that minimizing one’s expenditures is a good thing to do on its own, but that’s not the biggest lever I can think of. And it’s like Ward Churchill says, we also have to remember that personal change doesn’t equal social change. All of us who care could become vegans, and this culture would still be destroying the planet.
And I got in a big argument with some guy a few years ago, because he was saying that because I use toilet paper, I’m just as responsible for deforestation as the CEO of Warehauser. And that seemed nonsensical to me. But that’s something that so many of us do all the time, is we take responsibility for actions that are not our own. And he was saying, You know, go ask a tree this.
And so I did, I asked a tree. You know, am I as culpable? And the tree said, Look, you are an animal, you consume things, get over it. And then I realized, Yes, I am actually culpable for deforestation, but not because I use toilet paper. I’m culpable for deforestation because I consume the flesh of a tree, but I don’t fulfill my end of the bargain by stopping Warehauser. So what I need to do is, I need to stop Warehauser.
One of the things that abused children often do is, because they’re in an entirely uncontrollable situation, they will attempt to control whatever they can. And so if I can merely make it so that the dishes are absolutely spotless, I won’t be beaten. And so they may obsessively clean the dishes. If I can make sure that I am perfect, then the dreadful won’t happen.
I perceive a lot of over-emphasis on personal lifestyle stuff to be the same response. Because, I mean, I’ve heard so many people say, you know, when I think about deforestation, I have to look myself in the face, because I’m just as guilty. Well, no, actually, you’re not. Charles Hurwitz is a lot more guilty. So’s the CEO of Warehauser. So’s the CEO of what used to be Georgia-Pacific. So’s the CEO of Sierra Pacific. So is Larry Krag, Senator from Idaho. So are the Forest Service employees.
And so I think we need to not take responsibility for the things that aren’t our responsibility. And yeah, I can cut back on my consumption, but if I take that to its end, I should just go and off myself right now! And that’s not how I can best serve. I can best serve by stopping Warehauser.
I think it’s really important that we don’t identify with the system, and that we don’t identify with those running the system. Would Tecumseh, the Shaunee Indian, would he have said, We’re deforesting? I don’t think so, because he was opposing the forces that were killing his people. And would members of the French or Russian or Danish or Norwegian or Yugoslavian resistance have said in World War II, Gosh, you know, We’re killing the Jews, We’re conquering Europe! No, they knew who their enemies were! And I think, a lot of people say, Gosh, Derrick, you’re so divisive! But the truth is that the division’s already there, and the planet’s being killed, and are you for it or are you against it?
And so I think it’s really important to say, I am not the US government. I am not the corporations. I am not the CEOs of the corporations. So, I am opposed to them. And does this mean that you don’t consume anything, once again, I try to enter into that relationship. I take responsibility for what I can. I didn’t create car culture. I didn’t create the oil economy. It’s my job to try to shut both of them down. And sure, I can drive as little as possible, but I can look for other levers, too.
It’s often said that the ability to recognize patterns is one of the signs of intelligence. So, I’m going to list a pattern here, and let’s see if we can recognize it in less than five or six thousand years. When you think of the plains and hillsides of Iraq, is the first thing that you think of normally cedar forests so thick that sunlight never touches the ground? That’s how they were.
The first written myth of this culture is Gilgamesh going in and deforesting those hills to make cities. When you think of the Arabian peninsula, is the first thing that you think of oak forest? That’s what it used to be. Let’s move a little bit west, and you get the cedars of Lebanon. They still have one on their flag.
Plato was commenting on how deforestation was destroying the springs and rivers in Greece. And I’m sure that those in power said, Well, we need to study it a little bit longer first, to make sure there’s a connection. Greece was heavily forested, Italy was heavily forested, North Africa was heavily forested.
Any way of life that’s based on the use non-renewable resources and based on the hyper-exploitation of (so-called) renewable resources… Any way of life that perceives the world around them as consisting of resources and not beings and communities to enter into these reciprocal relationships with, is going to destroy its land base. This culture has been destroying its land base for the last 6000 years. That’s not very smart on a finite planet.
And once again, we can pick whatever measure you’d like, whether it’s migratory songbirds, sturgeons, deforestation… pick a measure. We’re really fucked.
There’s a guy at one of my talks, he says, “You know, you talk about this culture being based on violence, but I don’t see it. I don’t see violence in my own life.” And I said, “Well, first off, where’s your shirt made?” And he looked, and it was made in Bangladesh. And it was like, do we even need to talk about that?
And the next thing I said is,
And he got it.
And then I said, “Okay, what would happen if you were really hungry, and you go to the grocery store — there’s a lot of food there, you know — and you just start eating? What would happen?” He said, “Well, probably they would call the cops and some guy would come with a gun.” And I said, “Yeah, that same guy’s a real asshole, isn’t he?”
And the point is, it’s a really strange system when you have to pay in order to sleep. And you have to pay in order to eat. We’re not talking about luxuries. You have to pay to exist. That forces us into the system.
I was talking to an Indian friend of mine about 10 or 12 years ago about how it works on their reserve up in Canada, that, basically, any of the members of their community can build a house, basically wherever they want, but they can’t sell it. So, you can build something to use, but you can’t build something to sell, it makes a lot more sense to me.
You know, of course, that the bison were wiped out to bring the Plains Indians to terms, and that’s one reason that the salmon were killed, is to break the cultural back of the Northwestern Indians. And it’s really clear to me that no wild community of foodstuffs can survive the logic of capitalism. Because if I can go down to Elk Creek, and if I can catch salmon, why would I go to Safeway and buy it? You know, why would people eat at MacDonald’s, if you have passenger pigeon flocks so large that they’re darkening the sky for days at a time? That’s how it used to be.
And here’s one more part of this: a great letter by a Southern pro-slavery philosopher, about 1830’s, was written to a capitalist abolitionist Northern philosopher. And the pro-slavery owner said,
Look, we would be very happy to give up all our slaves if we had the same conditions you have up there. Because slave ownership is only the optimal economic choice under very specific land-ownership conditions.If you have not very many people on a lot of land, the only way you can get them to work for you is at the point of a gun. Because access to land means self-sufficiency. If, on the other hand, you have a lot of people, and you’ve got land title all tied up, they have no choice but to work for you for whatever pittance. So, frankly, I’d rather have it like you do, because you don’t have to pay for them when they get sick. You don’t have to pay for their food when they’re infants. You don’t have to pay for them in their old age. So, frankly, you can offer them whatever pittance you want, and if they don’t take it, you’ll hire somebody else.
It made a lot of sense to me. Access to land is everything.
And, by the way, land ownership doesn’t exist. I don’t own this land here. What actually happens is, my mom owns a piece of paper that we all agree means that she owns this land. But she doesn’t own any land, Warehauser doesn’t any land. Sierra Pacific doesn’t own any land, the US government doesn’t own any land. They have pieces of paper that we all agree mean that they own the land. But what there is, is there’s land, and there’s starving people, and there’s people who are paying money to live on land that other people have pieces of paper that say that they own, but it’s all a shared hallucination.
I don’t give a shit about writing books. I mean, I love writing, but that’s not the point. There is only one measure, and it’s the same with making an eco-village, or driving a bio-diesel car, or making a film, or whatever. There is one measure by which we will be judged by the people who come after: and that is the health of the land base. That’s the only thing that matters. The only thing!
They’re not going to care if we’re nice people, they’re not going to care if we wrote really good books, they’re not going to care if we drove a bio-diesel car… They will care that they have water to drink and that they have food to eat, and that they’re not being poisoned, and that the planet hasn’t gone to runaway global warming. That is what matters.
This seems so obvious to me, but a lot of people have argued against it, and it makes no sense to me. You can have this wonderful, groovy eco-socialist utopia, and if you’re living on a poisoned planet, you don’t have anything.
That said, so far as tactics:
People ask me a lot if I advocate violence. And I always say, No, nor do I advocate non-violence. I advocate being present to your circumstances, and being present to your own gifts, and using those gifts in the service of your land base. My gifts happen to be for writing. My only D in college was organic chemistry lab — you probably don’t want me fabricating explosives. I’m a mechanical klutz. And I’m also tremendously absent-minded.
But I can write. And that’s not to say I would never use other [tactics]… I’ve done all sorts of other stuff that I wasn’t very good at, and if appropriate, I will do whatever’s necessary. Whatever the land base requires of me.
Imagine if we all started saying, and actualizing, I will do whatever it takes to stop global warming. Whatever it takes. I will do whatever it takes to stop United States imperialism. I will do whatever it takes to stop Montsanto from polluting the world with genetically-modified organisms. And meaning, Whatever it takes! Not meaning, I will do whatever is comfortable, I will do whatever is legal, I will do whatever is safe, I will do whatever is considered moral by those in power. I’ll do whatever it takes. What happens if we do that?
There’s a great line by Thomas Jefferson. He’s talking about American Indians, he said, “In war, they shall kill some of us, we shall destroy all of them.” It’s a beautiful line. Because it manifest why the dominant culture always wins. Because you know those Iraqi insurgents? They may kill some of us, but we’re gonna kill all of them. You know, a shark bit one of us? It may bite one of us, but we’re gonna kill all of them. That’s how the system operates.
And what would happen if we started saying that back? If we started saying, You know what? You may stop some of us, but we’re going to take out every dam. You know what? You may stop some of us, but we’re going to take out every corporation. you may stop some of us, but we are going to deprive you of the ability to deliver nuclear missiles all over the planet. What would happen if we said that and if we meant it? And if we actualized it?
It’s like a friend of mine said [and I’ve been a forest activist, and the friend who said this is a forest activist]: one of the problems with so many forest activists is we don’t know what we want, and they know what they want. Do we want just fewer clearcuts? Smaller clearcuts? Kinder clearcuts? They want every last tree. They want every last twig. They know what they want. So that’s the first thing, is what do we want? What do you want?
I’m clear on what I want, what I want is 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 doesn’t have dioxin in every mother’s breastmilk. I want a world where there are more large fish in the oceans every year than the year before, where there are more sturgeon every year than the year before, more polar bears every year than the year before. more great apes; where the average age of redwood trees is older every year than the year before. And I’ll do what it takes to get that.
So that’s the first question, before we talk about tactics, I think we need to talk about what we want.
You know, it’s very interesting, this happened a fair amount: people in concentration camps, if one person was going to try to escape, there are other people who would try to stop them from escaping, because that would endanger their own work at saving extra scraps of soap. And once again, I’m not judging the people in the concentration camp — I would rather have more scraps of soap than less.
Similarly, there’s a great book by Robert J. Lifton called The Nazi Doctors, in which he writes about doctors who would work in concentration camps, and they would do the best they could to help the inmates. I’m not talking about Mengele, I’m talking about others. Many of them would do the best they could to help the inmates.
They would do everything except question the concentration camp itself. And they would do everything but question the racism and the whole system that led to the concentration camps. So, they would hand someone an aspirin to lick if they were sick. Or they would hide them from selections for a little while. So, inside the system, they’re doing everything they can; outside the system, of course, they’re perpetuating it.
And I ask the same thing about environmentalists. We do what pathetic little is available to us within the system. But I want to suggest a third alternative, which is: going on the offensive and destroying the system itself.
If we develop in our own little community a sustainable way of living, and those in power find resources on or under our land that they want, we all know what’s going to happen to our community, and to us as individuals if we resist. The Talowa [Indian] lived here for 12,000 years, at least, sustainably. And what happened to them? We don’t need to invent new things. We need to stop those who are destroying the planet.
And that’s not to say that people shouldn’t be developing alternatives, that’s a great thing to do. But we must never, ever forget that right now, the oceans are being vaccuumed, and there are 70,000 dams in this country over 6.5 feet tall. There’s 2,000,000 dams total in this country… And we can come up with whatever alternatives as we want — the dams are still standing.
And so, that’s the question I ask, and it’s a real question: what good will me developing an alternative do for the salmon? It’s a real question, and that’s the question I ask. I’m not in any way saying it’s all or nothing, we have to bring down the system OR we need to develop fair trade alternatives. We need it all!
We desperately need a revolution in the big sense of bringing everything down. And we all know what we need to do, which is, we need to dismantle everything we see around us. But if we simply wait for the great, glorious revolution that’s going to do that, there won’t be anything left. So, in the meantime, we need to do all this incredibly important reform work.Filed in Interviews of Derrick Jensen