Last night, environmental writer Derrick Jensen gave a talk at Western Michigan Unversity in Kalamazoo. In the talk, Jensen argued that industrial civilization is not sustainable and that it must be taken out.
Last night, author Derrick Jensen spoke at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. It was Jensen’s second appearance in Kalamazoo in the past two years. Jensen, who is a fairly prominent author in the environmental movement, has written several books on the environment. However, unlike many authors covering such topics, Jensen argues that the central problem is the existence of industrial civilization and argues that we (humanity and the natural world) must do “whatever it takes” to “take down” civilization.
Over the course of his several books, Jensen argues that civilization must be taken down, and indeed, it is a bold and controversial (to say the least) assertion that will likely leave many shaking their heads. Jensen’s talk was what he called the Endgame (his latest book) talk–focusing on the question of what do we do if we do not believe the culture will undergo a voluntary transformation and what that means for our tactics. The talk is based on the premises articulated in Endgame, beginning with the idea that civilization is inherently unsustainable and that our culture believes that there is nothing wrong with the destruction of the world.
In order to understand what Jensen means by civilization, it is important to understand how he defines it. Jensen defines civilization “as a way of life characterized by the growth of cities.” He then defines a “city” as “a grouping of people large enough to require the importation of resources.” Jensen argues that once this happens, your way of life can never be sustainable and that it must be based on violence. He asserted that once people are dependent on resources outside of their immediate area, they will do whatever it takes to secure them.
Jensen began his talk by telling the audience the story of the original plot for the first Star Wars movie. Jensen asserted that the familiar story was originally about the environmental movement and it was called “Star Nonviolent Civil Disobedience.” In the film, Darth Vader and the Empire awakened environmentalists who opposed the wanton destruction of the “unique” and “valuable” planets by the Death Star. In response, the environmentalists urged people to buy products made on the targeted planets, organized “eco-tours,” required Darth Vader to file an environmental impact statement, pressured corporations on whose boards Vader sits, and wrote letters to Vader. Jensen revealed that a note on the script emphasized that the letters must be “respectful and courteous” for added realism. At the same time, some rebels filed petitions and lawsuits, while others organized thousands to go to a targeted planet to sing “give peace a chance” and send “waves of love and kindness” in Vader’s direction. In what Jensen called a very realistic scene, the environmentalists could not come to consensus about how to resist, but some did do lockdowns to try to prevent the destruction. However, another group–calling themselves the Galaxy Liberation Front–got onto the Death Star and burned transport ships while another group snuck into Vader’s office and pied him. He shared that another realistic aspect of the movie was that there was “too much debate, not enough action.” The actions of the Galaxy Liberation Front were shouted down and the environmentalists decided that rather than destroying the Death Star–the source of the destruction–they would instead change Vader by changing their own hearts and remembering that he too was once a child. In the end, the Death Star destroys the planet–although the environmentalists leave just before they would have to give their lives for the planet–and the film concludes with a still shot of page 43 of the New Empire Times where the destruction got three sentences of press.
The story provides a humorous introduction to Jensen’s question of how we resist what is essentially a death culture. Jensen said that he now feels pretty apocalyptic, especially after a friend asked him “What is it going to take?” to realize that this civilization is killing the planet. Jensen asked the question–what is it going to take–the deaths of all the salmon? Dioxin in every mother’s breast milk? Global warming? 90% of the large fish in the ocean gone? When they toxify every inch of our bodies? He asked if anyone really believes that this culture will undergo a voluntary transformation to a sane and sustainable world, and as he said happens at all of his talks, nobody raised their hand.
Nevertheless, what does that mean for our tactics? Jensen said that the environmental movement loses all the time, in part because the dominant culture has tanks, cops, schools, and psychologists that ingrain its ideology and system by force. However, Jensen argues that part of the problem is that the environmental movement does not know what it wants. Environmentalists will do everything that they can to save a specific piece of land or species, but they repeatedly fail to question the “death camp mentality” that is killing the planet. Jensen said that you can see this in the debate over how to “solve” global warming as all “solutions” accept industrial capitalism as a given and do not investigate larger questions. He went on to argue that this is a symptom of a culture that does everything it can to mask what is “real”–forcing us to believe that its systems and ideologies are “real” when what is in fact real is the natural world. Similarly, he asked the audience why it is that much of the culture knows what is tattooed on Angelina Jolie’s genitals but that they have no idea what edible plants surround them or how to live without supermarkets. “We live with the celebrities, not with the land” asserted Jensen.
Jensen said that “every cell in his body” wants to believe that the culture will undergo a voluntary transformation, but that he knows that will not happen. At one point, he said simply “if we can’t breathe the air, it doesn’t fuckin’ matter”–summarizing his view that “the land is everything.” Rather than recognizing this, we have been made dependent on an “abusive system” that is slowly killing the planet. Like all abusive relationships, we have been convinced that the system is benefiting us. Jensen said that if our experience is that our water comes from the tap, we will defend that system. We have come to believe that it is natural for the needs of the economic system to come before the natural world. Moreover, Jensen argues that we have turned a blind eye to the violence that the system requires, we don’t see the inherent violence in civilization, in part because much of the violence is externalized, but also in part because the question of “what you do when you are involved in mass murder” is too difficult to address.
Jensen acknowledged that “taking down” civilization will be messy, but he argued that if we do not do it things are only going to get worse. He argued that the longer civilization exists; the resulting “crash” when it ends will be that much worse. He argued that the Earth has exceeded its “carrying capacity” for people and that there are more people than the Earth can support, especially at the current levels. Jensen acknowledged that this is a taboo subject to talk about and that it brings up the wrong ideas to many people–including himself. Jensen said that when one hears “overpopulation” they think of a baby in the third world, whereas when one hears “over consumption” they think of a person in the first world. He asked the audience to think about who causes the most damage to the Earth and explained that indigenous cultures always lived in a manner that did not destroy their land base. In order to prepare for the challenges that will follow the end of civilization, he urged the audience to start learning how to live in concert with the land base–learn about edible plants, learn to garden, and ask what it truly means to live sustainably.
He admitted that he does not know what exactly it will take to rid the earth of civilization; otherwise, he would have done it a long time ago. He told the audience that if there is anything “great” about the current state of affairs is that there is a wealth of work that can be done. He said that it will take “a billion different acts by people and non-humans” and that people should ask themselves what are their gifts, what they enjoy, and how you can use them for your land base. They should then act accordingly.
Jensen said that he has often been labeled the “violence guy” because he will not rule out violence as a tool. He said that in reality, he is the “everything including violence” guy and that he recognizes there is a need for differing tactics. He argued that people have a responsibility to respect the choices of those who use different tactics, stating that there must be respect and understanding between those using differing approaches. Jensen then moved into a critique of pacifism. He challenged the idea that “people need to love more,” arguing that if people really loved themselves and the land that they “wouldn’t put up with this shit.” He also rejected the idea that “you can’t dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools” arguing that a “tool is a tool” and that just because those in power use it, they do not own in. He similarly rejected the idea that “if you fight back you become like them,” asking the audience if anyone really believed that if a woman fights back against a rapist that she will become a rapist or if a tiger fights back against a zookeeper that the tiger will become a zookeeper. Finally, he said the idea that “violence never accomplishes anything” is laughable–to believe that one would have to believe that the natives handed over their land or that the African-Americans willingly boarded slave ships. He concluded his comments on the subject by reminding the audience that the Jews who participated in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising had a greater rate of survival than those who did not.
Contrary to what many people tell him, Jensen said that despair is an appropriate response to the desperate situation that we are in. However, he said that we can be angry at those things that should make us angry–for example, corporations ruining the earth–but that we should love the things that we love. A far greater problem is the idea of “hope.” Jensen said that false hope blinds us and helps us to believe the unbelievable. He defined hope as “a longing for a future condition over which you have no agency.” He told the audience that if one says “I hope” they are saying that they have not agency. He asserted that he will not hope–instead he will not allow the dominant culture to kill the earth.