High Times Interview: Bringing Down Babylon

Interview by Elise McDonough for High Times

While the repression and senseless brutality that affects cannabis lovers is a cause for radical action, few activists in the marijuana movement believe that all civilization will need to collapse in order to achieve their goal of sensible drug policy. Derrick Jensen is a dedicated environmental activist who believes that in order to preserve a landbase that can support human life for future generations, nothing less than the total abolition of our current culture is necessary to accomplish that goal.

As the author of many books, including A Language Older Than Words, The Culture of Make Believe, Welcome to the Machine and his most recent, Endgame, Jensen is relentless in his criticism of industrial civilization and a culture which seems to destroy everything it touches.

Endgame is a sprawling, lyrical work of inspiration and anger, written in two parts: volume one examines how and why civilization is killing the planet and why it must be dismantled, and volume two goes further, providing a framework for a revolution that would place us on a sane and sustainable path. Pacifism is analyzed and dismissed as an effective solution, and the appropriateness of violent resistance is debated at length.

It’s an exciting and challenging read, and after I put it down, I can honestly say I’ll never look at a dam or cell phone tower the same way again. I met Derrick on a sunny spring day in New York City, a place he referred to as “hell on earth,” and we settled in Bryant Park to discuss the drug war, government surveillance and what the environmental and marijuana movements can learn from each other.

HIGH TIMES: For many years, you taught creative writing in a prison. What was the prison experience like?

Derrick Jensen: I taught in a SuperMax prison called Pelican Bay, and the inmates there were not in for simple possession. Before that, I never really thought much about drugs at all – I don’t do drugs, I don’t drink alcohol; then I went to Pelican Bay, and I ended up becoming really politicized about it. About 90 percent of my students were imprisoned due to drugs, but not simple possession – usually it was a drug deal gone bad, killing someone in a meth-induced psychosis, that sort of thing.

One guy was doing seven years to life because he was a marijuana dealer, and someone tried to rob him, and this guy shot the robber. If instead of selling marijuana, he was selling shoes and someone tried to rob him, he wouldn’t have done a day for shooting the robber, but he wasn’t selling shoes, and he’s been in prison since the early seventies.

So it struck me immediately that many people’s lives have been ruined not just because of the illicit nature of the drug trade, but also the government’s interference in their lives. My students were very aware that the effect of illegality on the drug marketplace is maintaining an artificially high price. The students said if they could change one public perception of drugs and drug dealers; it’d be to eliminate the stereotype of the drug dealer in the Armani suit. One student was from Oakland, and he said, “Try raising two kids in Oakland on $10 an hour,” so drug dealing kept food on the table. The whole thing – and let’s not even get started on tobacco and alcohol – is insane. My students also said the reason they were in prison is job security for the guards.

HT: A lot of people say that the drug war is primarily a war on marijuana, and the whole prison-industrial complex is based on imprisoning non-violent drug offenders. What’s your opinion on the legalization of marijuana?

DJ: The whole thing seems really absurd to me. I’ve never done drugs, except when I had a really bad prostrate infection a year ago, and I was at a friend’s house who happens to smoke a lot of marijuana, and I tried a cookie. In retrospect, eating a whole cookie was a bad idea. I was hallucinating and the experience was horrible for me. About 36 hours later the effects of the cookie wore off, and then I realized that I hadn’t been in pain that whole time, and I instantly became an advocate for marijuana’s medicinal uses. I had been using Vicodin, and a whole bunch of other pills, but my friend gave me some (cannabis-infused) salve, and it really helped to cut the pain. From the perspective of someone who’s been straight and narrow in regard to recreational drugs, but who has experienced these therapeutic effects first-hand, I can’t understand why the hell it is illegal. It makes no sense to me – I don’t understand how anybody can be against it. Of course we all know it’s about Big Pharma, and I was talking to a doctor who works with VA patients, many in system failure and near death, and he said it frustrates him that he can’t prescribe marijuana. There’s Marinol, and of course it’s way more expensive and all the money gets funneled through these corporations.

HT: The central premise of Endgame is that industrial civilization is unsustainable and cannot be reformed to be so; what do you say to people who advocate working within the system to effect change?

DJ: When I worked at the prison, I’d go in one or two times a week to hold class, and I was fully aware that every time I walked into the prison I was participating in the most racist gulag on the planet, but also that these classes were the only thing keeping the inmates sane. That’s when the reform vs. revolution question fell apart for me It’s very clear that if we don’t have a revolution, this culture will kill the planet and there will be nothing left. But if all of us wait around for the big glorious revolution and we don’t do anything in the meantime, then there will be nothing left to save. So I have no patience for the people who make that dichotomy, but I support all sorts of work that can mitigate the damage we’re doing.

HT: So basically nothing could or should be done to keep up business as usual?

DJ: Why would we want to keep up business as usual?

HT: Well, because everyone is so happy.

DJ: Does everyone include the salmon? The sturgeon? Ninety percent of the large fish in the oceans are gone. One of the reasons I say that civilization is not and will never be sustainable is because I define civilization as a way of life characterized by the growth of cities, and that a city is a collection of people living in numbers large enough to require the importation of resources. Two things happen when you require the importation of resources: life will never be sustainable, since you’ve denuded the landscape, and it means your way of life is based on violence.

I don’t think people are really happy. We can talk about rates of suicide, rape, the widespread use of antidepressants – whatever measure… I don’t think the people in Iraq would agree this system is making people happy. Their land and way of life is being destroyed.

Who’s happy? Globalization is the same old thing as colonialism and the theft of resources from the poor. Let’s at least be honest, as the world is burning, let’s acknowledge that these comforts are based on the destruction of places we don’t usually see. Someone in Massachusetts said to me, “There are more forests in Massachusetts than ever before, so we’re living sustainably,” and I said that’s because you’re importing wood from South America.

People say, “If we all just take shorter showers to reduce water use,” and that’s great, but personal change does not equal social change. If you’re gonna fantasize about something small, like getting everyone to take two-minute showers, why not fantasize big, why not imagine everyone rising up and dismantling civilization?

HT: People will call you an ecoterrorist. What do you say to that?

DJ: When people talk about terrorism, it’s never mentioned that the biggest terrorist organization in the world is the US military. Within this culture, there is a well-defined, but not articulated, hierarchy of violence. Violence inflicted by those higher on the hierarchy to those lower is generally unnoticed, but violence visited upon those higher by those lower is unthinkable, and when it does occur, it is regarded with shock, horror, and a fetishization of the victims.

Between four and six Americans die every day because they encounter police, and yet when a cop dies, it’s a big state funeral, and when cops beat someone, they get off. Violence is only supposed to flow down. When the cops pulled over a minority guy in California and shot him for no reason at all, they were shocked to find he was just back from Iraq, and he’s a hero, and that makes him higher than them on the hierarchy. The media didn’t know what to do with the story.

There is but one measure that we will be judged by the people who come after us, and that is the health of the landbase, so they’re not gonna give a shit about whether we recycled or not, whether we drove hybrid cars or not; what they’re gonna care about is whether they can drink the water, whether they can breathe the air, whether the land will support them. It’s embarrassing that I even have to say that the land is the source of your life, and what our descendants are gonna care about is whether they can live on this land or not.

So if I’m called a terrorist because I believe that the health of the land and the generations that come after is more important than corporate profits, then you can call me whatever you want.

HT: What do you say to activists who say using violence makes you no better than those you oppose?

DJ: Well, I have actually used that argument in the past, so when I say it’s one of the stupidest arguments I’ve ever heard, I’m speaking from experience. Does the woman who kills the man attempting to rape her – does she run the risk of becoming as bad as he is? Does the tiger who kills a zookeeper run the risk of becoming a zookeeper? Did Sitting Bull run the risk of becoming as bad as those who stole his land? It doesn’t work that way at all. I would say, in fact, that if you don’t fight back against those who are systematically abusing you, and destroying the source of your life, you run the risk of losing yourself.

The question really is: What is worth fighting for? This ties back to the drug war – when I was asked, “Are you willing to give your life for the salmon?” I said “In a fucking heartbeat.” While I’m a novice in the drug world, I know someone who loves marijuana as much as I love the salmon. He loves it as a being, loves it as a plant, even his partner complains that he spends more time with the plants than her.

What is worth dying for, living for, killing for? One of the wonderful things I’ve seen is that there are anti-drug war activists who are willing to do hard time for it or give their lives for it. It’s a terrible thing that they have to, but it’s inspiring that they have that level of love and dedication.

Another problem is that so many of us don’t know what we want: do we want smaller clearcuts, fewer clearcuts, do we want some socialist eco-groovy utopia with free love all around? I’m very clear about what I want: I want to live in a world that has more salmon than every year before, more migratory songbirds, and less dioxin in every mother’s breast milk than the year before. If people aren’t going to fight back when their very bodies are being toxified by this culture, when are they gonna fight back?

People in the environmental movement can learn from some of the people in the anti-drug war movement because I think a lot of the people in the legalization movement are pretty clear on what they want. The whole drug issue is more separable – the dominator culture could trundle along fine if marijuana were legal, but to have more salmon than the year before, the culture has to go. What salmon need to survive are six things: they need the dams to be removed, industrial logging, agriculture and fishing to stop, for the oceans not to be murdered and for global warming to stop. The problem with saving the salmon is insolvable only when you take the culture as a given. The people in the anti-drug war movement, I’m not sure if they’re faced with this insolvable problem. The culture could continue if we legalized marijuana.

HT: In Welcome to the Machine, you examine surveillance culture. What are the methods used today by the government to spy on us?

DJ: In England, they now have a network of surveillance cameras so they can track evey car and driver in the country. Surveillance cameras are now normal, and they are everywhere. Corporations are using RFID chips, which are tiny little chips that are universal, they were supposed to be used for inventory. Michelin and Gillette products have RFID tags, in a couple of years it will get to the point where any consumer item can cause you to be tracked. Kids in schools are forced to carry nametags with RFID chips in them, and it’s presented as school safety, but the real reason is to get kids used to the idea of constant surveillance, always being tracked.

The big argument that those who promote surveillance always have is that so long as you aren’t doing anything wrong, well, who cares? And the problem with that is let’s not conflate what those in power want with rightness. The real truth is that as long as you’re doing what those in power want, you don’t have to worry about it. Think how hard it would have been for Harriet Tubman if the slaves had all been RFID-chipped. There’d be no Underground Railroad, cause they could track them. What if Hitler could have put GPS tags in all the Jews? Suddenly the Anne Frank story is a lot shorter, isn’t it? Only a fool would trust those in power.

The main thing that those in power use to keep us under control is our own minds, and that’s more important than all the surveillance cameras in the world. The former head of security in South Africa during the apartheid regime was not afraid of the South African Congress, the rebels, or their sabotage, but the possibility that they would convince the mass of South Africans not to respect law and order. No security force in the world could stand up to a populace that does not believe in the legitimacy of power. And that’s an incredibly important lesson.

The truth is that there are no rich people and there are no poor people in the world. There are people with these pieces of paper that we’re all trained are worth something. Weyerhaeuser has a bunch of pieces of paper that we say mean they own land, but the truth is all ownership is a social convention. While not all social conventions are bad, the world is at stake now, and it would be wise of us to consider which social conventions we wish to respect and which we don’t.

HT: Do you think recreational drug use stunts a lot of activists?

DJ: Actually, yes. I think it’s a problem. I remember years ago there was an essay in Earth First, articulating one of the problems I have with recreational drug use. Many people understand that a forest is a sacred thing and to destroy it for commercial uses is sacrilegious. The same thing happens with many mind-altering substances which have these inherent wonderful, sacred relationships. To commercialize them, and to recreationalize them is to trivialize them. So there was this essay published by Earth First about this, and I have never seen so many angry letters in response, slamming the writer, so I guess a lot of activists have issues with it.

I think another thing that’s really important is to recognize the damage to indigenous cultures the world over by the dominant culture which uses mind-altering substances to keep people in place. I get so frustrated when I see a beer ad that is seemingly about revolution, put out by the Anheuser-Bush company, and that sort of co-optation needs to be acknowledged. I don’t mean to be hard line about it, but I think it is something people should give a lot more thought to.

HT: After reading Endgame, what would you hope someone would do?

DJ: The way I always end my talks, is when people ask what they should do with all this information, I say, don’t listen to me because I don’t know how to live sustainably. Listen to the land, listen to what you love. I can say if you want to know how to live sustainably here, go ask the Hudson river. It’s lived here for a long time and it knows how to live sustainably. Ask the soil itself, and it will tell you. The question is, are you willing to do it?

If people need cannabis assistance to open up, to be able to hear, that’s an important thing. If plants help you to listen to your nonhuman neighbors, that’s fine, and that makes a lot of sense to me.

Filed in Interviews of Derrick Jensen
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