The End of Civilization

A discussion with radical writer and environmentalist Derrick Jensen

Interview by Andrea Hiott, originally published in Pulse Berlin

In the recent documentary A Crude Awakening, it is said that the United States of America was once “the Saudi Arabia of the world” when it came to oil production: in other words, much of the world once purchased its oil from the States. Now those vast resources have been depleted. Many other places around the world have also peaked. In Baku, Azerbaijan, miles of machine carcasses clutter the landscape – oil from here once powered the Allies (especially the Russians) towards defeating Germany in World War Two, and now the well is dry. Less than sixty years ago, the British found oil in the North Sea. According to Colin Campbell, an oil geologist and consultant to the world’s top oil companies, Britain will become a net importer of oil within the year, and its oil will be used up by 2020.

It’s easy to roll your eyes and ignore this trend. With all the noise being generated around ‘the end of oil’, perhaps it is difficult to listen deeply to what’s being said. The views sound extreme to some. The end of oil feels like a conspiracy theory. Even so, everyone admits that our current way of life is based on oil. We require oil to create all our plastics, fertilizers, tires, and computers; oil is also the primary energy behind our transportation. And oil is not a renewable resource.

Does running out of oil mean disaster? Is the end of oil also the end of civilization? Can we change and find new ways of thinking about energy? Author and environmentalist Derrick Jensen doesn’t think we can, at least not quickly. He believes the current culture is irremediable, and that it will be (and must be) destroyed. According to Jensen, we have treated our earth the same way a rapist treats his victim. And we have to deal with those who have hurt our world the same way we would deal with a man who has committed a particular act of violence.

PULSE: How do you define violence?

Derrick Jensen: The definition of violence that I like the most is ‘any act that causes harm to another’ and the reason I like that definition is because it demystifies the word and shows it to be what it is, which is a part of everyday life. Every time I defecate I kill zillions of bacteria. When I eat, it doesn’t matter whether I’m eating a carrot or a piece of chicken, I’m still doing violence to another.

Are you saying violence is natural?

On that level, violence is natural. It’s inevitable. We all feed each other. Eventually I’m going to feed the worms and the soil. It’s a big, beautiful circle. So the question becomes: what sort of violence do you find acceptable or unacceptable? Most of us under most circumstances see doing violence to a carrot as morally acceptable. And I think most of us under most circumstances see doing violence to a human being as not morally acceptable. And yet, even then, there’s a lot that doesn’t get counted as violence. An example I often give is: What do the movies Doctor Zhivago, Straw Dogs, On the Waterfront – and I could name so many others – all have in common?

Scenes of rape? I’ve heard you say that before.

That’s exactly it. Except it’s even worse. Each of those films has a rape scene where by the end of the scene, the woman is putting her arms around the man.

Rape that supposedly becomes something intimate?

Right. A pornographic rape fantasy. So my point is, from the perspective of those screenwriters and actors, that kind of violence is clearly acceptable because they’re turning it into an intimate act. In that same sense, judging by their actions, clearly there are also members of this culture who perceive the violence of destroying the planet as acceptable.

Do you think members of culture consciously accept these things, or is it something else?

There’s a great line by Combs which says “Unquestioned assumptions are the real authorities of any culture.” A Canadian lumberman once said “When I look at trees, I see dollar bills.” Another explorer of the American northwest, upon seeing the great waterfalls there, said “I determined that I would possess them.” I say in The Culture of Make Believe that any hatred felt long enough no longer feels like hatred, it feels like economics or philosophy or something else. There are things we don’t question, and so we think they are true.

Nietzsche said that there is nothing more resistant to correction than self-deception. Still, isn’t there something to be said for a radical kind of honesty, for seeking internal clarity? Can such work lead to an awareness that affects the way one sees?

I think that’s really important; I just don’t think everyone is capable of it. I don’t think if you put BP former CEO Tony Hayward on the coast, he’d get all jazzed about the beauty of it. I think he’d see the money to be made. When the Europeans arrived in North America, they saw what the indigenous people called home and worshipped, and saw it as a savage wilderness that needed to be tamed. It’s a matter of how you perceive.

Are you saying there are simply different kinds of people? The people who want to destroy the environment, and those who see the beauty of it and care for it?

I don’t know. In my different books, I’ve explored different answers to that question. In A Language Older Than Words, I talk about how most members of this culture are suffering from what Judith Herman called ‘complex post-traumatic stress disorder’: They’ve been so traumatized that they’re no longer capable of being in a relationship or conceptualizing what a relationship means. In the The Culture of Make Believe, I wrote about how this culture systematically rewards competition rather than cooperation, and how such a system leads to sociological atrocities. Then in Endgame I wrote about how if your culture is based on the importation of resources then it’s going to lead inevitably to atrocities. I’ve got a book coming out this spring where I explore an idea that Jack Forbes (an American Indian) raises in his work: He believes this problem is a spiritual illness with a physical vector. He talks about members of the dominant culture having a spiritual illness that causes them to become cannibals; they have to consume the souls of others in order to survive. The members of dominant culture are zombies, and they don’t see that the dominant culture is killing the planet. Very sober people are writing very sober articles about this, and still the response is to continue promoting capitalism. I’ve written fifteen books about this and I still can’t wrap my mind around it.

Does that mean you are resigned to this destruction? Do you believe it is impossible to change people’s minds?

Realizing we can’t change the minds of those who are destroying the planet doesn’t mean we are resigned to what they do. What that means is that we are going to use different tactics.

And what would be the goal of those tactics?

To stop those who are destroying the planet, using any means necessary. How do you stop Ted Bundy? How do you stop a rabid dog? How do you stop a sociopath? You don’t stop them by appealing to them. Lundy Bancroft wrote about the only way to stop an abuser is to give them no other choice. You can’t appeal to their best interests because the abusers are gaining tangible benefits from their abuse. You can’t change a capitalist because they’re benefiting from the system; they’re getting hot showers and gold-plated toilets. You stop them by stopping them, and that means going to any means necessary, because the world is at stake.

To do this, do you think civilization has to end, that it has to be brought down, that it will end through catastrophe?

Well it’s not that I think this. I mean, that’s like saying that I think if you jump off a cliff, you’re going to fall to the ground. Our modern way of life is by definition unsustainable. It’s based on oil, and oil will run out. Anybody who thinks we can go on as we are is engaging in magical thinking. (go read Richard Heinberg’s book The Party’s Over if you want an in-depth explanation of this). So to directly answer your question, yes, it will crash.

What comes afterwards then? Humans are curious. Curiosity leads to things like innovation and infrastructure and what we now call ‘civilization’, the civilization you say must fall.

Are you saying that the Tolowa, the indigenous people who lived on the land here in California where I live now, weren’t curious?


Then how were they able to live here for 12,500 years without doing what the dominant culture today has done?

I don’t know. That’s what I’m trying to understand. I can only learn another option if I can understand that option.

My point is that it is extremely dangerous and racist to believe that curiosity leads to technological innovation of the sort that this culture now has because that implies that people like the Tolowa or the Dakota were too stupid to invent backhoes.

I don’t think that follows. I am trying to get at the fact that if civilization falls, that doesn’t necessarily mean that all the people who created that civilization, or that all the ideas that have come out of that civilization, are suddenly gone. They’re still here. We’ll still here. I’m just wondering how we learn another way. How do we not repeat what we’ve done?

We can’t repeat it. There will never be another oil age because the reserves of oil will be gone. This is a one time blow out. Same thing happened with bronze: There will never be another bronze age. There will never be another iron age. There will never be another age of tall ships because they’ve cut down all the old growth forests that were necessary to build them. There were once runs of salmon twelve miles long that lasted for 28 days. Those are gone. The point is: the only way you can build up these modern cultures is by being extremely wasteful and destroying your landbase. The Fertile Crescent is no longer fertile. The Sahara Desert was once the bread basket of Rome. We’ve been destroying the landbase as we’ve created this modern culture. We’re using it up.

If you want to know what happens when a patriarchal culture collapses, look at the Democratic Republic of Congo (where women are being brutally raped in large numbers). As civilizations collapse, women are going to bear the brunt of this and it’s no use pretending that won’t be the case. What we need to do is to prepare for that crash. I love the line by Andrea Dworkin: “My prayer for women of the twenty-first century is harden your hearts and learn to kill.” What that means to me is that women need to learn self-defense and they need to learn it now. The time to learn self-defense is not when someone is breaking down your door.

Peggy Reeves Sanday did a cross-cultural study of rape asking why some cultures are high rape and why some are low rape. A lot of the markers she found are things you’d expect: a higher militarized culture is probably going to be higher rape, for example; a culture that treats children better is probably going to be lower rape, and so on. But there was one marker that was very interesting and a little bit unexpected, which is that if the culture has a history of ecological dislocation in its previous four or five hundred years, that could be a marker for high rape. What that says to me is that when a culture is stressed, men often take it out on women through rape and other forms of violence. Another thing that says to me – and this has to do with civilization coming down – is that it takes four or five hundred years for a culture to recover from trauma, so ten to fifteen generations. When people ask will there ever be sustainable cultures again? I would say it would take a good four or five hundred years for such cultures to develop locally once the dominant culture is gone.

So to get back to your original question, yes, when civilization crashes, the people who were assholes before are still going to be assholes afterwards, but those people will no longer have the power to control and kill the entire planet.

Won’t people still try to create order? To create civilization? Can freedom and order exist together, in this sense?

I don’t think that having freedom implies a lack of order. Part of the problem with living in this incredibly oppressive culture, is that because this hierarchy is oppressive we assume that all hierarchy is oppressive, and that’s not the case. It’s ok to have hierarchies that are based on experience, and they don’t imply a lack of freedom. If you go to a new place, you go to Costa Rica, and you want to go walking, and you know someone who has lived there their whole life and knows all the walking trails and can tell you what is or is not a good hike, what is or is not dangerous, then you still have the freedom to take the route they say is uninteresting or dangerous, but that doesn’t alter the fact that their experience makes them a leader in that specific and fluid sense. Order or hierarchy does not necessarily imply domination.

When it’s on an intimate basis, someone you trust, that’s one thing. But when it comes to large groups of people, to society and politics for example, how do we deal with it? How did indigenous people deal with it?

That’s a great point, because it’s not something that just happens magically. The Indians of the Columbia River had very specific hard-headed treaties that they would carry out with each other having to do with who could take how many salmon, to make sure that the salmon would survive, and that they could all eat. And if one group took too many salmon, the other group would either complain or if that didn’t work they would raid them. I was talking to a Dakota friend of mine about what the Dakota would do if someone took too many buffalo. That would burn their teepee, destroy their weapons. There would be consequences.

And did everyone agree on that somehow? Was it democratic? Or were there a few powerful people who enforced it?

Different cultures would come up with different methods. Anyone in any culture can sometimes end up hating others in that same species or culture, and there are different ways of dealing with that. There are rituals where people would enter trance states through dancing and that would bring people in the community back together. The Inuit, who would be stuck together inside all winter, had some sex games they would play to break up the monotony and to help people get along. Different peoples would have different means, to use a phrase that has been co-opted by the US government, of finding ‘checks and balances’. They would also often have means of being sure wealth was transferred from rich to poor because that would make everybody in the community secure. They would have gift exchanges, or other means for making sure power remained fluid.

In small groups, this works. It becomes more difficult with larger groups.

You’re right, they are small. I’ve seen sociological studies that suggest that it’s not really possible to have a functioning democracy with groups larger than 120 or 140 people.

It’s almost like the larger the group, the less personal it is and the less accountability there can be.

Absolutely. There’s no face-to-face interaction. There’s no community. You don’t need a police force when there’s a small group because if somebody does something horrible, then everybody goes ‘what the hell did you do that for, you jerk’ It becomes much more obvious that any one person’s act of theft or violence or stealing fish or whatever hurts the whole; it becomes much more obvious that it is not in anyone’s self-interest to allow such things to occur.

I see. So, in large social groups – nations or businesses, for example – it becomes very difficult for individuals to make the connections between cause and effect. Accountability becomes more ambiguous. Still, it seems self-deceptive to imagine that we can go backwards and live wholly as indigenous people have. But we can learn that there is something valuable in cultivating a “small group” way of thinking, can’t we? Perhaps there is a way to have smaller groups within the larger whole, if that makes sense.

People have to learn that. And it will take a lot of time. But people have to learn that, or they won’t survive. It’s not going to happen in two years, it’s not going to happen in two generations. It’s going to take a lot of time to excrete all this terrible trauma. It’s going to take time for us to deal with all this violence we’ve generated.

In the beginning of this discussion, you defined violence as ‘any act that does harm to another’. In supporting that definition, it could seem you are generalizing. But in fact, aren’t you calling for people to look deeper? To be able to cope with more nuance?

Yes, exactly. I was being interviewed by a pacifist a few years ago and I said something like I told you at first, that we can mostly all agree that it is acceptable to do violence against a carrot but that it is not acceptable to do violence against a human being. And his response was ‘so are you saying that there’s no difference between committing an act of violence against a carrot and committing an act of violence against a human being?’ and I was like ‘did you even fucking listen to what I just said?’

But I can understand why he said that. Many cultures teach one to think like that, to NOT make space for nuance. There are supposed to be all-inclusive objective rules that apply to everything. We think it’s a contradiction if we say that violence is okay in one case and not okay in another.

I think that’s absolutely right. And it’s part of the problem with literacy, because as soon as something is written down, then it’s considered wholly true in all cases. Rarely is any statement wholly applicable in all cases.

Maybe our next real evolutionary leap is one of being able to see more clearly, which means being able to handle paradox and nuance in our daily life. In that sense, William Blake talks about paradise being Now, already here but something we haven’t yet learned to see. Would you agree with that idea?

This answer’s not going to surprise you, but I think it depends. I think the whole ‘live in the present’ thing is really important sometimes, but sometimes it really pisses me off. I mean, how do you live in the Now if in your now you are being sexually assaulted? I don’t think that’s paradise. And I don’t think that pigs living on factory farms are living in heaven. I think that’s hell. I think the people in Guantanamo are in hell. I think right now I’m living in heaven. I’m having a nice phone conversation, looking at beautiful trees, I have a great dog here with me… So I think it’s circumstantial. When I’m standing in line at the airport to go through security, I don’t think that’s heaven. People have asked me over the years, do you meditate? And I always think: I live in a forest, I don’t have to meditate.

Every moment can be a meditation, in that sense.

Yes, exactly. But if I were in a traffic jam, we’d have a different discussion. I was actually stuck in a traffic jam a couple of weeks ago in Los Angeles, late to get to the airport, and I was really tense. I could have used meditation or someone to whisper in my ear –

This too shall pass…. But I guess when Blake wrote about paradise, he was using the word in a wider sense: we on the planet have paradise if we choose to see it and if we DO all see it, the stressful traffic jam experience would probably not exist as such–

People wouldn’t allow paradise to be paved over. The system would change completely.


Well, if that’s what Blake was saying, I totally agree.

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