Speaker Calls for End of Civilization

Interview by Jessica Hirst originally published in Eugene Weekly

Rivers used to be so full of salmon that people thought their boats would capsize, says author and environmental activist Derrick Jensen. Flocks of passenger pigeons flying across the eastern United States would block out the sun for days at a time and sound like rolling thunder. You could drop a bucket into coastal waters off New England and bring it up full of fish, according to Jensen.

“I can’t comprehend that people pay more attention to a weird woman with 14 kids than to this,” he says. “So often, I feel like I’m walking around in a fog or a daze.”

Jensen, who will deliver a keynote speech at the UO Public Interest Environmental Law Conference (PIELC) at noon Saturday in the EMU, has been called the philosopher poet of the ecological movement. He is sometimes described as an anarcho-primitivist, given his premise that industrial civilization is inherently unsustainable and exploitative. He has published 13 books, including A Language Older than Words, Strangely Like War and, most recently, Endgame.

Listening to Jensen speak is a little like turning on a faucet, which pours a steady stream of clear, urgent thoughts about the problem with industrial civilization. What he says isn’t always comfortable for an audience to take in, but his vision is crystal clear: We are exploiting the natural world, and we need to stop. At stake is all life on our planet.

Jensen notes that plant and animal species are often described in the news as economic assets, rather than as valuable in their own right. “How you perceive the world influences how you behave in the world,” says Jensen. “And we have a perceived entitlement to exploit.”

According to Jensen, we see the natural world as needing to conform to industrial capitalism, when the opposite should be true. “You don’t survive in the long run by exploiting your surroundings,” he says. “You survive in the long run by improving your habitat.”

We’re so insulated from nature, according to Jensen, that we’re living in an echo chamber in which everything we see and hear is created or mediated by humans. And this is making us crazy. “Most of our ideology is a hallucination,” he says.

When asked what the solution should be, Jensen answers without hesitating. “We need to act directly and explicitly in defense of the land and the creatures that we love,” he says. “What would salmon do if they could take on human manifestations? What we need to do is bring down civilization because it’s killing the planet and it’s killing us. The longer we wait, the worse things are going to be.”

Jensen says that he advocates defending the natural world in any way possible, even if that means violence.

Not surprisingly, this part of Jensen’s philosophy is the most controversial. Judging by online comments from readers of his work, a few people out there don’t think that suddenly pulling the rug out from beneath an entire society would be a good idea.

To his detractors, Jensen recommends planting a garden. “You can’t have an entire society that’s based on industrialism — it can’t last,” he says. “If your concern really is for the survival of human beings, then what you need to do is start putting in neighborhood gardens and start preparing people for that crash.”

Instead of a single model for a future society, Jensen says that he would like to see “10,000 different cultures based on 10,000 different watersheds.” Religion, culture and economy need to emerge from a particular land base, he says, “and that will happen eventually.”

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