Interview by Michael Mountain, originally published at Earth In Transition
Derrick Jensen is one of the few people you’ll come across who are passionate about both the “environment” and all the living creatures.
(Climate change activists barely ever mention our fellow animals, and most of the humane organizations, including the “no-kill movement”, seem blissfully unaware that the entire planet is being killed, not just homeless pets.)
With 20 books behind him – including Deep Green Resistance, a strategy to save the planet before it’s altogether too late; and Endgame, which explains why no human civilization can ever be sustainable and that therefore “Love does not imply pacifism” – Jensen is one of the leaders (some say the philosopher-poet) of a growing movement to take action on behalf of all living beings on this planet before there’s literally nothing and no one left alive.
When it comes to taking action to save whatever we can of the planet and those who live on it, Jensen is not a pacifist. In talks and interviews, he often starts by asking: “Do you believe that this culture is going to undergo a voluntary transformation to a sane and sustainable way of living?” (Check out one of his talks on the subject here.)
I talked with him about Endgame, about why we humans are systematically destroying the only home we have, along with all our fellow animals, and what, if anything, some of us can do about it. (There’s much else to talk about, too, and we’ll cover some of that in a future discussion.)
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Michael Mountain: There’s a new poll out this week saying that only half of all Americans think that what’s happening to the Earth is likely to pose a serious threat to their way of life. And there was another last week saying we’ll cross the threshold in about 20 years, and lots more saying we’re already over the edge. What do you say?
Derrick Jensen: For me the question of when is it “too late” isn’t really the right question. Certainly, every biological indicator is going in the wrong direction, but I mean, for the passenger pigeon it’s already too late. And it’s too late for the great auk, and 200 species went extinct today. For all of them it’s too late.
And unless the whole [industrial, commercial] culture is brought down, the salmon up here in the Northwest will be gone within 15 to 20 years. Just as in 1860, passenger pigeons had about 30 to 40 years left for people to do something. I mean, if you knew your neighbor was being tortured next door and you could hear the screams, would you be asking “Well, how long does she have before it’s too late?”
M.M.: Speaking of the passenger pigeons, I’ve heard that when the Europeans first arrived, there were up to five billion of the pigeons in North America. Huge clouds of them in the skies.
D.J.: And 90 percent of all the fish in the oceans are now gone. If you’d weighed all the fish in the oceans 140 years ago and you weighed them all again now, you’d find that there’s about 10 percent now of what there was then.
Or we can talk about migratory song birds – I saw a study saying their populations in the Northeast states has gone down about 70 to 80 percent in the last 40 years. That’s horrifying enough. But then you have to realize that 40 years ago they’d already collapsed 80 percent, and now they’ve collapsed 80 percent again. And before all of that they’d probably collapsed another 80 percent during the deforestation of the Northeast.
At one time there were so many whales off the coast of New England, they were a hazard to shipping. And when people would look out into the ocean, it would look like it was foggy because there were so many whales spouting. And the schools of cod were so large that they would slow down the ships that were trying to go through them. There were whales in the Mediterranean, too. And when people wanted to fish in the Hudson River they would simply lower a basket and when they raised it up it would be full of fish. And I’ve seen pictures of salmon where you can’t even see the bottom of the river because the fish are so thick.
When you think of Iraq, do you think of cedar forests so thick that sunlight never touches the ground? That’s what it was like before the beginning of our culture. In fact, the first written myth of our culture is the story of Gilgamesh deforesting the region. The Middle East was heavily forested. Greece was heavily forested. And North Africa. The forests there were cut down to build the Phoenician and North African navies.
So I don’t think about things like “How long do we have before we have to act?”
M.M.: It can all seem very overwhelming, and people don’t really know how to act and what to do.
D.J.: I’ve been living here [in the Northwest] for 14 years, and the sound of frogs just outside my window has gotten much quieter in the past 10 years. In this case, there’s at least something in particular I can do because the Pacific tree frogs are getting hammered by a mold called saprolegnia. Normally, its job in the natural community is to “clean up” weakened eggs and egg sacs by eating them. But lately, with the weakening of the ozone layer, the mold has been causing 90 to 99 percent mortality in eggs. And I see the egg sacs with this fuzzy white mold inside.
So once a week, all through the season, I go out to the pond and bring in some egg sacs to raise in my kitchen because ultra violet B rays don’t reach through glass. Was it already too late when I started? I don’t know. I just know that I’m doing what I can for these particular eggs and these particular frogs, and I think I’ve been noticing a bit of a difference. It’s a very small pond, so if I bring in 3,000 eggs in all and maybe one percent of the tadpoles who are born survive, [which is what you’d expect], that’s 30 extra frogs out in the pond.
M.M.: All the same, there are projections that regardless of what we do, we’re over the edge, and the planet as we know it is going down.
D.J.: Well, we all know that industrial civilization is not sustainable, and it will crash. So the only question is: What will be left of the world when it does crash? And do you want a more fecund and resilient world when that happens?
M.M.: Most people can’t fathom the idea that our industrial civilization is unsustainable. The level of denial is extraordinary. I was watching Larry Page, the CEO of Google being interviewed by Charlie Rose at the TED conference, and Charlie Rose says to him “What quality of mind has served you best in thinking about the future while changing the present?”
And Larry Page answers: “I look at lots of companies that don’t succeed over time, and I ask what did they do that was fundamentally wrong? And it’s usually that they missed the future. So I just focus on what is that future going to be and how do we create it?” Now this is a person with global scope and is focused on the future. How can he possibly be missing the most critical aspect of where the future is going? I mean, like the only thing about the future that’s ever going to matter!
D.J.: One of the ways people like Larry Page from Google are so wrong is that when we talk about the future, we have to talk about the fact that the planet is being murdered. The problems we face are not fundamentally logical, so they’re not amenable to rational solutions. What I mean by that is that killing the planet is nuts. It’s insane.
Soon after the Europeans arrived on this continent, they were killing the Indians and they were killing anything they could get their hands on. And there was a bunch of people who were living in what are now the Northeast states who got together to discuss why these white people hated wolves so much – they were slaughtering the wolves indiscriminately. But when they talked about this, all they could come up with was “They’re crazy.” They couldn’t come up with rational reasons. Because there aren’t any.
The things this culture does only make sense when you see that it’s all insane.
M.M.: But were the Native Americans really so different in the way they, too, behaved? You can read about how some of the tribes were driving whole herds of buffalo over cliffs and just leaving them there at the bottom until they were ready to eat them. It was like their version of factory farming. So is it really just a question of changing the kind of culture we have, or is it something more basic in human psychology?
D.J.: I can tell you that the Tolowa people lived where I live now for at least 12,500 years. By any reasonable measure, the Tolowa were living sustainably.
Of course, any civilization – the Maya, the Aztecs, any of them, not just Western civilization – any civilization is unsustainable. Any agricultural system is inherently unsustainable. I just want to be clear on that. I’m not simply talking about the Europeans. There were the mound builders here in North America who harmed their land base. When they switched over into that, no matter who you are, no matter how you’re organized, you’re going to be causing problems.
And sure the Tolowa made mistakes, but you could still see a grizzly bear every 15 minutes, and they could have continued living here for the foreseeable future. They didn’t overpopulate. So we know it’s possible for humans to live in a place without destroying it.
M.M.: You write in “Endgame” that if we can’t heal our fundamental fear of death, and if that’s what’s driving everything else, then everything else we’re doing is not going to work. You write:
Beneath [everything else] is our belief we’re not animals, that we’re separate from the rest of the world, that we’re exempt from the negative consequences of our actions, and that we’re exempt from death. Beneath these beliefs is a fear and loathing of the body, of the wild and uncontrollable nature of existence itself, and ultimately of death.
These fears cause us to convince ourselves not only of the possibility but the desirability of not being animals, of separating ourselves from the world. These fears drive us crazy, and lead us to create and implement insane and destructive economic and social systems.
D.J.: When a culture gets stressed, it starts to act in very dysfunctional ways. And when that happens, it then takes several hundred years to change the culture. We don’t have the kind of time it would take to change the culture that’s in place and our terror of death that’s manifested through all the technology and so on we surround ourselves with.
So yes, this fear of death is really central to many of our problems, but that’s not something we can change in the short amount of time we have left.
But there’s still a really interesting discussion to be had about our attitudes to death. I used to have two dogs and three cats. And one day when I was sitting around the pond with them, we saw a rat coming out of the pond and walking toward us rather unsteadily. The two dogs started after the rat, but I yelled at them and they stopped, and the rat started swimming back across the pond and then limped off.
And then I realized that I had done a terrible thing. When the rat got out of the water, it was walking very poorly. And then it occurred to me: Why would any rat in its right mind walk up to two dogs, three cats and a big primate? And the reason was that it was very sick and it was ready to die, and it probably screwed up its courage – I mean, how much courage would it take to walk right into the teeth of a dog?
And I’m saying this because as soon as the dog started to charge, the rat bolted as best it could. And so it was clear to me that the fact that the animal was ready to die didn’t mean that its courage couldn’t fail, just like anyone else’s would fail. But that doesn’t mean that the rat was in denial of death.
M.M.: It’s a really touching story, and I see what you mean. But there’s still a fundamental difference between the rat and you or me. The rat, and probably most other animals, only contemplate their own death when it’s staring them in the face, but we humans spend our whole lives in a state of anxiety, aware of our own mortality.
D.J.: I would agree with you, and this certainly isn’t going to help stop the killing of the planet in this immediate moment, but I do think it’s entirely possible to have a human set of stories [about our place in the natural world] that would have us not have this human anxiety and for us not to be living with that anxiety at every moment.
It’s possible to have entirely different relationships where you don’t perceive the natural world as a whole series of resources that you’re able to make jump through hoops, but rather as other beings to have conversations with.
And this gets to the heart of how deep our fear of a loss of control is.
M.M.: It’s the difference between a relationship of how we can get the rest of nature to do what we want it to do as opposed to figuring out where we fit in as part of it and how we can make some contribution to it.
D.J.: Yes. One thing about zoos (and I’ve written a lot about zoos) is that they mis-define the cages. They call them habitats. And that’s destroying the word “habitat”.
If they show you a wolverine in a concrete cage, that suggests to the people who look at it that the wolverine is not the combination of the creature and the wind and the soil and all the life around it, but that you can separate a creature from the forest and you still have the same creature – that it’s basically just DNA in a fur sack.
M.M.: And that applies to us, too. Once we’ve separated ourselves from the natural world we were once part of, we’re not really the same people any more. And especially in our modern culture, we see ourselves more and more as individuals, quite separate from nature and even life itself.
D.J.: Yes, and that brings us back to the question of death. You know, you are mostly a community of bacteria anyway. And, you know, your white blood cells will kill themselves in order to help you survive. I think we could have a different attitude toward death if you imagine yourself as one of those white blood cells – that you’re just part of the larger whole. It doesn’t mean you don’t get scared just like the rat did. We’re all part of this larger life, and when we forget that, that’s one of the reasons we end up believing we’re separate and we do all these stupid things.
And I was thinking about the tadpoles outside in the pond. Ninety to 95 percent of their job is to get eaten within the first week. That’s what happens when you have such a shotgun approach to reproduction.
I fully believe that nonhumans are fully sentient and aware. And that includes plants and rocks and slime molds. They have their own thoughts and their own ways to pass the time and their leisure activities and whatever. And they also have their own existential issues. So how would it affect your entire perspective on life if 90 percent of you die within a week. You’d have to have a different attitude toward death.
M.M.: And speaking of the plants, when you go to the redwood forests, you see how the trees all live in communities.
D.J.: The thing about the redwoods is that that type of tree can’t stand alone. They can only survive in a group, and that’s because their roots are really shallow, so they reach out to one another and they intertwine their roots to make this huge mat, and that’s a wonderful metaphor as well as a wonderful reality.
M.M.: Another thing you talk about in “Endgame” is how it’s the women who create new life, and that insecure men can have “a really bad case of womb envy” and that:
If women are identified primarily or exclusively by their roles as creators of life, and if women are perceived as inferior (meaning whatever women do, men do better) then men, so as to not perceive themselves as less powerful than the women for whom they feel contempt, must figure out not only how to destroy the natural life they despise, but how to create some sort of life of their own.
D.J.: It’s not just women; it’s anything that’s natural. It’s crazy that they put Atlantic salmon fish farms off the coast of British Columbia. Why would you farm salmon when there are million and millions running up the river?
Again, if we do it, it’s this great thing we’ve accomplished.
M.M.: And right now there are people talking about cloning the wooly mammoth and how we’re going to bring back the passenger pigeons. Are you saying that all this cloning and de-extinction is basically the work of anxious males with inferiority complexes over their inability to create life, as women do?
D.J.: They’re always so excited about the idea of scientists being able to create life. And I say, well you know, I know a lot of people who have created life, and it was a lot of fun – probably more fun than hanging out in a lab.
We always assume that if we humans do it, it’s something amazing. Like if we humans build a sewage treatment plant, we’re the coolest things on the planet, but if a wetland does it on its own, well that’s just a swamp to be drained.
You know, a few months ago I started having some chest pain, so I went in to the doctor and they were pretty sure it’s a heart condition and that I have some clogged arteries. But before we’d started any work on it, my symptoms started getting better. So I asked the doctor what could be happening, and he said, “Well, basically your own body has done some bypass surgery. It’s created new capillaries to go around the place that’s clogged.” He explained that the capillaries are very small so it can be unstable, but it’s still the coolest thing I’ve ever heard.
We think it’s the coolest thing when we can do some kind of bypass surgery, but your body does it without you even thinking about it.Filed in Interviews of Derrick Jensen