Derrick Jensen’s Endgame is a substantial, two volume, 891 page book focusing on the “problem of civilization” and resistance to civilization. While the idea that civilization is a problem and that we need to organize to “bring it down” as Jensen would say will be new to many readers, the book offers a strikingly poignant analysis of our current situation and the realities of civilization. Throughout the book Jensen weaves together convincing arguments urging a reevaluation of our current strategies for resistance on a variety of issues from the environment to domestic violence to convince readers that the problems we are facing are inherent characteristics of civilization. Central to his analysis is the idea that the environment and the realization that no species can survive if the earth is killed—and that the urgency of this realization warrants an immediate shift in tactics and organization.
Whereas we rarely question the idea of civilization because so many facets of it are subconsciously inserted into our thinking through debate over issues such as how we can “grow” the economy or how sustainable development will save the Earth—thereby not raising the question of should we expand the economy or whether development can ever be sustainable—Jensen begins Endgame by laying out his premises at the beginning of the book. This list of twenty premises begins with the premise that “civilization is not and can never be sustainable” and ends with the idea that “social decisions are determined primarily on the basis of how well those decisions serve the ends of controlling or destroying wild nature.” Jensen also has a number of other insightful premises including that “those in power rule by force,” that “the culture is driven by a death urge, an urge to destroy life,” that “the needs of the natural world are more important than the needs of the economic system,” and that civilization is “based on, requires, and would collapse very quickly without persistent and widespread violence.” These premises provide the basis of much of the book. Jensen explains and expands on them throughout the course of the text.
The context of Jensen’s book is what he terms the “thrashing endgame of civilization” or the realization that our system of life is inherently unsustainable and that nothing currently being done—whether that be the mainstream environmental movement, the radical environmental movement, the sustainable business movement, or any of the left movements in this country—is doing enough to confront this fundamental reality. Throughout the book Jensen provides a number of specific examples of how civilization is destroying the planet including such issues as the ecological impact of dams, the destruction of a variety of species, industrial farming and fishing practices, the reliance on oil, and carrying capacity. While none of these ecological issues will be particularly “new” to most activists, Jensen’s argument that the problem is civilization itself will likely be controversial both among “mainstream” and some radical activists. Jensen’s analysis is such that the our current problems did not originate with a particular economic system, leader, failure for key issues to be covered in the media, or any other such tangential issue, but that they are inherent to civilization itself. To this end, Jensen makes compelling arguments that the movement for social change must be a movement against both the ideology and reality of civilization itself and argues that because our culture is a “culture of occupation” (the land was stolen from American Indians) permeated by inherent violence in civilization and our culture, we must set our sights on dismantling it by any means necessary. Jensen describes how people are individually and collectively brought up to hate life, to hate the natural world, to hate the wild, to hate women, to hate their bodies, to hate their feelings, and even to hate themselves. In turn, Jensen argues persuasively that this hatred is an essential form of acculturation if we are to live within a system built upon systematic violence. Jensen describes this violence as being hierarchical, arguing that violence is always done to those perceived as “lower.” Humans destroy the earth, the rich exploit the poor, and the military occupies other countries while the entire system is organized by leaders who rule by force. Jensen’s analysis is also useful in that he makes several important distinctions about who is responsible for the destruction of the planet and who is benefiting from it, and in forgoing the usual line that “we are destroying the planet,” Jensen is able to avoid the rhetoric of individual responsibility through recycling, riding bikes, or composting that is common in the environmental movement. Instead, he articulates a much more useful analysis of responsibility whereby we have a collective and individual responsibility to the earth that provides for us and an analysis in which there are clear targets that can—and must—be the focuses of our opposition.
So how does one organize against civilization? Unfortunately, this is one of the book’s weaknesses in that many already possessing a radical analysis of the world (and the Earth) will likely agree with Jensen’s analysis but will have questions about how one goes about organizing against civilization. Jensen’s most common answer throughout the book is to “listen to the land,” and while there is certainly a degree of truth in that answer, it is simultaneously frustrating as it offers no specifics. Indeed, Jensen goes to great lengths to explain that he does not have all of the answers and that they can only be arrived at through a process of individual and collective considerations of the risks, possibilities for success, and the efficacy of any individual action. When it comes to protecting the Earth, Jensen argues that all options—including force—are on the table and argues that the immediacy of the situation coupled with the fact that the entire society is based on violence allows for an incredible diversity of tactics. Throughout the book Jensen raises the prospect of blowing up dams, Earth Liberation Front sabotage, destroying cell phone towers, and other such approaches to combating the destruction of the earth, although he provides ample critiques of such tactics in explaining that they do not go “high enough up the infrastructure.” Jensen talks about the need for actions that will hasten the fall of civilization and makes detours into discussions about computer hackers and the possibility that they might be able to bring large sections of civilization to a standstill, dismantling power grids, and the number of people that it will take to give civilization the final push that it needs to crash. While these discussions are somewhat interesting hypothetical situations, they tend to distract from his very convincing and necessary analysis of civilization. Discussions of what we will do once the ultimate “crash” of civilization takes place are also fairly weak and questions about the “population reduction” that will come with this crash are glossed over, with Jensen essentially saying that the longer civilization continues the “messier” the crash will be. To assist in making sure that the maximum number of people are able to survive this crash, Jensen suggests that people begin thinking realistically about it and planning for its inevitable occurrence.
Aside from the critique of civilization, a large portion of Jensen’s book is dedicated to going through and systematically reexamining the various tactics, strategies, and approaches that movements for social change in this country have accepted as “truth” in order to come to some important conclusions about the efficacy of organizing on the left. While Jensen’s roots are in the environmental movement and his analysis is no doubt shaped by the immediate reality that the Earth is being killed, his analysis is useful to a variety movements. The honesty at which he explores the efficacy of various campaigns—such as petitioning corporations destroying the Earth in order to “nicely” ask them to stop (and thereby go against their rationale for existing)—is helpful in that it will remind organizers of the bigger picture as well as the questions that we all must face even as we all work on a variety of defuse campaigns and projects. As part of this, Jensen includes a lengthy discussion of pacifism and explains his conclusion that “love does not imply pacifism” while analyzing the rhetoric of pacifists, a rhetoric that has unfortunately come to exert a considerable amount of influence on movements for social change. Jensen confronts many of the “truths” of pacifism, including the idea that violence begets violence, that “we must become the change that we want to see” if we are to change the world, and that by using violence we become like our exploiters, and a host of other pacifist myths that serve to muddle our analysis and limit our responses. Along with this critique of pacifism, Jensen also explores the ways in which responses such as using the courts, petitioning, and voting—while all are important tactics if evaluated on an individual level—cannot be long-term strategies as they are ultimately setup to protect the interests of those who created them. Of course, the realization that much of what we do are temporary “band-aid fixes” can be somewhat daunting and very uncomfortable. But similar to the self-discovery process through which white activists must learn about their white privilege or when males must learn of the privilege afforded them through the system of patriarchy, this realization process is needed in order to move forward. Jensen also reminds us that due to the awful state in which we are in, there is ample room for people to get involved where they can and contribute in the ways in which they are most effective as long as they have an understanding that people can and will respond to this situation using a variety of tactics and that one tactic or strategy only will not bring down civilization.
Endgame is an important book for those interested in social change, and specifically for those seeking a radical or revolutionary change in the way in which the world is structured. It offers an incredibly insightful analysis of our current situation and where we need to go from here. It is a simultaneously rewarding and challenging book, as its arguments will provoke thoughtful consideration and discussion that will ultimately result in an expanded analysis, and ideally, a more focused approach to changing the world.
Derrick Jensen, Endgame, (Seven Stories Press, 2006).