Held Hostage to Hope

Derrick Jensen on Civilization & Its Discontents

Interview by Jan Lundberg for LiP Magazine

LiP: Let’s start with the concept of civilization itself. What’s your definition?

Derrick Jensen: If you look in the dictionary, the definitions you see of civilization are things along the lines of “a highly devel- oped social order,” or “the most advanced social order,” or some- thing like that. Which [makes sense], because who is going to write a definition of their own social order as one of the dumbest ways ever devised?

Civilization is a way of life characterized by the growth of cities. That’s defensible both linguistically and historically. The word civilization comes from civitatis, which means city or state. What’s a city? A city is defined as a collection of people living in numbers large enough to require the importation of resources. And that would mean that the indigenous tribes, on whose land I now live, were not civilized. They were here for 12,000 years, if you believe in science ― if you believe their own myths, they were here since the beginning of time. They didn’t destroy the land base—they adopted what was here, and what the land willingly gave.

A couple of things happen as soon as you require the importation of resources. For one, the way of life can never be sustainable. Because if you require the importation of resources, it means you’ve denuded the landscape of that particular resource, and as your city grows, you’ll have to denude an ever-larger area, as we see. The other thing it means is your way of life must be based on violence, because if you require the importation of a certain resource, and people in the next watershed won’t trade you for it, you will have to take it from them. Trade will never be sufficiently reliable. What this means is that we could all become enlightened, and it wouldn’t really matter. The US military would still have to invade countries all over the world in order to get access to the oil that’s necessary to run the economy. It’s a very, very old story at this point.

It’s absolutely unsustainable. The only way of life that would be sustainable is a way of life that is not based on hyper-exploitation of renewable resources, and is not based on the use of nonrenewable resources. Because if your life is based on nonrenewable resources, eventually you’re going to run out!

Likewise, if every year there are fewer salmon returning than the year before, then eventually they won’t come back. It takes a real idiot not to recognize that. Unfortunately, we have an entire culture of idiots. We’re trained to be idiots. I’m not saying that people are inherently stupid. R.D Laing has this great line about how at every new birth, the stone age baby meets the space age mother. He’s saying that every child represents the opportunity to once again remember how to do it.

You’ve been polling your audiences to see how many people think our paradigm is actually going to undergo a voluntary smooth transition to sustainability. What have you learned from the results so far?

Well, it’s a big poll—I’ve done it all over the country, and the results are overwhelmingly negative. A lot of people laugh. Very rarely does anybody say yes, we’re going to have a voluntary transition to a sustainable way of living. And those who do are quite often either dogmatic pacifists or insane, or both, insofar as there’s a difference. And the next question is, if you don’t believe the culture is going to undergo a voluntary transition to a sustainable way of living, what does that mean for your strategy and your tactics?

We don’t know the answers, because we don’t talk about it. And the reason we don’t talk about it is because we’re so busy pretending that we have hope! We’re so busy pretending some miraculous change is going to take place and oh, if there’s just a Democrat in the White House, things’ll be okay. Oh, if we can just do enough shareholder resolutions, things will be okay. Oh, if we can just get enough people protesting or writing letters, things’ll be okay. Well, things are not going to be okay, and the first thing we should do is face that fact.

Hope is definitely a sacred cow. Do you want to talk about that?

Sure! We’re always told, you know, we gotta have hope. And there’s two things about that. One of the reasons that my mother stayed with my abusive father was because in the ’50s and ’60s there weren’t battered women’s shelters, so she didn’t have any place to go. Another reason she stayed with my father is because of a false hope that would change. I think that one of the things we need to do is to eradicate false hope ruthlessly, everywhere we find it. Once again, does anyone think that Monsansto is going to stop Monsanto-ing because we ask nicely? Does anyone think Pacific Lumber is going to stop deforesting because we ask nicely? Same with Weyerhaeuser or any other corporation. Take your favorite corporation and ask whether it’s going to stop committing atrocities because we ask nicely. Those are false hopes.

It’s not just false hope that’s the problem, it’s hope itself. We all know the story about Pandora opening this box and all these terrible things flew out, and hope was the only thing that remained in the box. We’re supposed to believe that hope was the only good thing in the box. But what the hell is hope doing in there with pestilence and everything else? Hope is actually just as awful as all those others, because it makes us put up with with the others. I was doing a talk a couple of years ago, I’m bashing hope, and people in the audience shout out, “Well, what’s hope?” And I didn’t know. I had never defined it. So I asked the people in the audience to define it, and they came up up with this great definition, which is “Hope is a longing for a future condition over which you have no agency.” Picture this: My mom says to me when I’m 7 years old, “Go clean your room,” and I respond, “Well, I really hope that gets done.” It’s a non-starter, as opposed to saying, “I’m going to go do it.” Likewise, I’m not going to say that I hope I eat tomorrow, I’m just going to do it. I don’t have to hope. On the other hand, the next time I get on a plane, I hope it doesn’t crash. Because it’s out of my control. So I’m just trying to be really precise about the definition here.

I want to say one more thing about hope. One of the smartest things the Nazis did was to coopt rationality and to coopt hope. They did this by making sure that at every step of the way, it was in the Jews’ rational best interest to not resist. So: Would you rather get an ID card, or would you rather resist and possibly be killed? Would you rather go to a ghetto, or resist and possibly be killed? Do you want to get on a cattle car, or resist and possibly be killed? Want to take a shower? It was in their rational best interest, because they had the hope that things would not get any worse. The Jews who participated in the Warsaw ghetto uprising had a much higher rate of survival than those who went along.

And a wonderful thing happens when you give up on hope. The civilized you, the molded, formed you, dies. And the on who’s left is the animal you, the survivor you, who feels what you feel, and thinks what you think, not what the culture taught you to think. That’s who is left when hope dies. Fear is the belief that we have something left to lose. And when the world is already being killed, what do we have left to lose? And once you realize that you have nothing left to lose, because the planet itself is being killed, you become very, very dangerous. And that’s a good thing.

One reason for optimism is that we’re going to win. We feel like we’re outnumbered, but the truth is, that’s if you count only humans. If you count in the rest of life all pulling in the other direction, it seems pretty clear that the natural world will destroy whatever tries to kill it.

This is one of the things that I talk about. Our culture is based on a rigidly defined hierarchy, and violence done by those higher on the hierarchy is invisible. And violence done by those lower to those higher in the hierarchy is blasphemy. So, of course, it’s not violence when they do it to you.

You did a radio interview a few weeks ago, and you were talking about violence against activists and the larger issue of violence vs. nonviolence. You had some interesting ideas about violence and neutrality.

Yeah, I was trying to define violence. A definition that I really like is that violence is some action or inaction that causes harm to another. That’s pretty generic. My basic point is that we should have a bunch of different words for violence, because it’s ridiculous to use the same word for a man raping a woman as for the woman shooting that same man in the head as he tried to rape her. Because those are not the same thing at all. Or to use the same word for US bombing the hell out of people somewhere, vs. those people fighting back. If we say violence is a generic category, then we can talk about which types of violence under which circumstances are appropriate.

One of the big sacred cows in this culture is pacifism. Endgame began as a 100-page response to a lot of the arguments put out by dogmatic pacifists, none of which really make any sense at all. I’ve looked really hard and I can’t find any examples of traditional (by which I mean non-coopted) indigenous peoples facing the dominant culture who argue or argued for a moral pacifism. They might have argued whether they should fight back against the dominant culture in this particular instance, against the whites, the conquerors, whatever. The arguments might be on the practical level, like, Look: We shouldn’t fight them, because we can’t win, because we are outnumbered a thousand to one. Or: this particular incident is not worth fighting about. But I cannot find a single example of a traditional, non-assimilated indigenous person who argues for moral pacifism. We find those arguments emerging from Christianity, from Buddhism, and from some of the civilized religions of India. It’s become really clear to me that dogmatic pacifism is a product of civilization.

Does kindness even have meaning in times of endless war?

Kindness is incredibly important to me: kindness and courtesy and respect. I will not allow pacifists to coopt either the word love or kindness. Neither of those imply pacifism. Kindness can involve violence.

Not that long ago, someone was talking to me about the importance of loving your enemy. I have no desire to love those who are killing the planet. I don’t. But my compassion and my loyalty to those who are being harmed by this culture is absolute.

But aren’t we all, in some way, killing the planet? What do we do with the fact that no matter what we do, we’re involved in mass murder?

There are three premises crucial to the next thing I’m going to say. We probably agree that civilization is going to crash, whether or not we help bring this about. If you don’t agree with this, we probably have nothing to say to each other. We probably also agree that this crash will be messy. We agree further that since industrial civilization is systematically dismantling the ecological infrastructure of the planet, the sooner civilization comes down (whether or not we help it crash) the more life will remain afterwards to support both humans and nonhumans.

If you agree with all this, and if you don’t want to dirty your spirituality and conscience with the physical work of helping to bring down civilization, and if your primary concern really is for the well-being of those humans who will be alive during and immediately after the crash, then—given, and I repeat this point to emphasize it, that civilization is going to come down anyway—you need to start preparing people for the crash. Instead of coming to my shows and attacking me for stating the obvious, go rip up asphalt in vacant parking lots to convert them to neighborhood gardens, go teach people how to identify local edible plants, even in the city, especially in the city, so these people won’t starve when the proverbial shit hits the fan and they can no longer head off to Albertson’s for groceries. Set up committees to eliminate or, if appropriate, channel the additional violence that might break out.

We need it all. We need people to take out dams, and we need people to knock out electrical infrastructures. We need people to protest and to chain themselves to trees. We also need people working to ensure that as many people as possible are equipped to deal with the fallout when the collapse comes. We need people working to teach others what wild plants to eat, what plants are natural antibiotics. We need people teaching others how to purify water, how to build shelters. All of this can look like supporting traditional, local knowledge. It can look like starting rooftop gardens, or it can look like planting local varieties of medicinal herbs.

The truth is that although I do not believe that designing groovy ecovillages will help bring down civilization, when the crash comes, I’m sure to be the first in line knocking on their doors asking for food.

People taking out dams do not have a responsibility to ensure that people in homes previously powered by hydro know how to cook over a fire. They do, however, have a responsibility to support the people doing that work.

Similarly, those people growing medicinal plants in preparation for the end of civilization do not have a responsibility to take out dams. They do, however, have a responsibility at the very least to not condemn those people who have chosen that work. In fact, they have a responsibility to support them. They especially have a responsibility to not report them to the cops.

It’s the same old story: The good thing about everything being so fucked up is that no matter where you look, there is great work to be done. Do what you love. Do what you can. Do what best serves your land base. We need it all.

This doesn’t mean that everyone taking out dams and everyone working to cultivate medicinal plants are working toward the same goals. It does mean that if they are, each should see the importance of the other’s work.

Further, resistance needs to be global. Acts of resistance are more effective when they’re large-scale and coordinated. The infrastructure is monolithic and centralized, so common tools and techniques can be used to dismantle it in many different places, simultaneously if possible.

By contrast, the work of renewal must be local. To be truly effective, and to avoid reproducing the industrial infrastructure, acts of survival and livelihood need to grow from particular land bases where they will thrive. People need to enter into conversation with each piece of earth and all its human and nonhuman inhabitants. This doesn’t mean, of course, that we can’t share ideas, or that one water purification technique won’t be useful in many different locations. It does mean that people in those places need to decide for themselves what will work.

What are your thoughts about veganism and the eating of animals?

I think factory farming is one of the cruelest and most atrocious inventions of this cruel and atrocious culture. I mean this as much for its effects on plants as on animals. And while I think that veganism and vegetarianism are perfectly appropriate lifestyle choices, I think there is a larger point to be made. A while ago I did a radio interview in Spokane, Washington. The interviewer said preconquest Indians exploited salmon as surely as do the civilized. I had two responses. The first: If that were the case, why were there so many salmon before before, and so few now? Something clearly has changed. The second: Indians ate salmon; they didn’t exploit them. He asked what the difference was. I said that Indians entered into a relationship with the salmon whereby they gave respect to the salmon in exchange for the flesh. I wasn’t happy with that answer. It was true so far as it went, but also left out so much as to be effectively false. There was another necessary condition to the agreement between predator and prey: When you take the life of someone to eat or otherwise use so you can survive, you become responsible for the survival—and dignity—of that other’s community. When I eat salmon from the Klamath River, I pledge myself to making sure that this particular run of salmon continues, and that particular river of which the salmon are a part thrives. If I cut a tree, I make the same pledge to the larger community of which it’s a part. When I eat beef—or, for that matter, carrots—I pledge to eradicate factory farming.

The point is: If you really want to help nonhumans, bring down the entire system that is killing the planet.

Why are the deep ecology and anticivilization / primitivist movements in the US predominantly white and middle class, and what do you believe distinguishes them from classic vanguard movements?

I have an old friend who hates his job, and whose wife hates her job, and they have three children, and neither he nor his wife can quit their jobs because they have children to raise. My friend was once an extraordinarily talented classical musician, but he has never had the time as an adult to pursue that passion because he has been so busy working two shit jobs at a time to support his children. Perhaps these movements are predominantly white and middle class because white people and members of the middle class have the luxury more than many others to care about the natural world. It’s hard to care about the natural world when you are worried that your brother is facing 20 years in prison, or when you have to support a family of six, and so on. I need to note, by the way, that outside the US what we could call the deep ecology or anti-civ movements are not primarily made up of the middle class and/or whites. It is subsistence farmers around the world. It is people in the villages who do not want their land inundated by dams or stolen by transnationals. It is the indigenous. It is the poor, the world over, who are being killed by civilization. This, of course, is only to speak of humans.

What distinguishes this movement from other vanguardist movements is that the land is everything. Without the land base you have nothing. The only measure by which we will be judged by those who come after—the only measure—will be the state in which we leave the land base. They are not going to care whether we were pacifists or nonpacifists, Greens or Democrats, spiritual or nonspiritual, primitivists or nonprimitivists. They are going to care about whether the water is poison, whether the land provides food. The anticivilization movement is about saving the land base, saving the oceans, saving the rivers, saving the samon, saving the sturgeon, saving the soils, saving the humans, from civilization.

I’ve recently been introduced to the word esemplasticity, meaning shaping or having the power to shape disparate things into a unified whole. You seem to have this ability, and your writing often weaves seemingly separate issues together, going well beyond single issue activism.

A friend of mine says that a lot of activists begin by wanting to protect a specific piece of ground and they end up questioning the foundation of Western civilization. And the same is true for a lot of people who work on gender issues, on homophobia, on a lot of different issues. Once the questions start, you keep going back to the core of the culture, because that’s the problem. What joins a lot of these separate issues is the social structure that’s creating all of them. So I think single-issue activists are fine and important for being really focused, but I also think a single-issue activist pretty much by definition is only working on the symptoms. If you’re not going after the core of a problem, you’re only going after one specific behavior.

Years ago, I went to this conference with a bunch of children’s health activists. They kept on saying things like, “How are we going to regulate toxins?” And I said, “Look, I have no interest in regulating them, I want to eliminate them!”

The question I always ask is: What do you want? Do forest activists want smaller clearcuts, fewer clearcuts, do they want kinder, gentler clearcuts? And the same with the health activists: Do you want a few fewer children to have leukemia? Do you want a little bit less flame-retardant in breast milk?

I’m really clear on what I want: I want a world in which there’s more wild salmon every year than the year before. In which there’s more migratory songbirds than the year before. A world in which there are grizzly bears and polar bears.

What do you want? We can ask that of forest activists, who are so busy fighting individual battles, opposing such-and-such timber sale, and so on. I got into activism fighting timber sales. That work’s really important, but that’s also why we’re going to lose, because we’re fighting defensive battles. All the environmentalists I know are just hanging on by their fingernails and just hoping and praying that civilization comes down before the grizzly bears are knocked out, or prairie dogs, or the salmon. It’s not good enough for me to simply make it so two or three more generations of grizzly bears survive before they’re ultimately exterminated—that’s not good enough for me!

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