Deep Green Resistance: An interview with Derrick Jensen and Rachel Ivey

Interview by, and originally published at, Systemic Capital (SC): What is Deep Green Resistance (DGR)?

DGR is a radical social justice organization. Our members share the conviction that all oppressive power – power over the Earth, over classes of humans, over nonhumans – springs from the same root, and it is only by attacking this root that we have any chance of success. To regard these as separate issues is to cripple movements for resistance. We are a movement to dismantle civilization, capitalism, and patriarchy by any means possible, and though we’re often characterized by others as an environmental organization, this is an oversimplification. We see struggles to defend the Earth as inextricably connected to the defense of human and nonhuman communities from exploitation. Our organization is composed of local chapters, a committee structure for organization-wide projects, a staff of full-time organizers, and an advisory board which includes the authors of the book Deep Green Resistance. Potential members are vetted by staff in order to join, and all members agree to abide by a code of conduct and statement of principles.


SC: Why are people accusing DGR of transphobia?

DGR has been accused of transphobia because we have a difference of opinion about the definition of gender.

DGR does not condone dehumanization or violence against anyone, including people who describe themselves as trans. Universal human rights are universal. DGR has a strong code of conduct against violence and abuse. Anyone who violates that code is no longer a member of DGR.

Disagreeing with someone, however, is not a form of violence. And we have a big disagreement.

Radical feminists are critical of gender itself. We are not gender reformists–we are gender abolitionists. Without the socially constructed gender roles that form the basis of patriarchy, all people would be free to dress, behave, and love others in whatever way they wished, no matter what kind of body they had.

Patriarchy is a caste system which takes humans who are born biologically male or female and turns them into the social classes called men and women. Men are made by socialization to masculinity. Being a man requires a psychology based on emotional numbness and a dichotomy of self and other. This is also the psychology required by soldiers, which is why we don’t think you can be a peace activist without being a feminist.

Female socialization is a process of psychologically constraining and breaking girls­ otherwise known as “grooming”­ to create a class of compliant victims. Femininity is a set of behaviors that are, in essence, ritualized submission.

We see nothing in the creation of gender to celebrate or embrace. Patriarchy is a corrupt and brutal arrangement of power, and we want to see it dismantled so that the category of gender no longer exists. This is also our position on race and class. The categories are not natural: they only exist because hierarchical systems of power create them (see, for instance, Audrey Smedley’s book Race in North America). We want a world of justice and equality, where the material conditions that currently create race, class, and gender have been forever overcome.

Patriarchy facilitates the mining of female bodies for the benefit of men – for male sexual gratification, for cheap labor, and for reproduction. To take but one example, there are entire villages in India where all the women only have one kidney. Why? Because their husbands have sold the other one. Gender is not a feeling; ­it’s a human rights abuse against an entire class of people, “people called women.”[i]

We are not “transphobic.” We do, however, have a disagreement about what gender is. Genderists think that gender is natural, a product of biology. Radical feminists think gender is social, a product of male supremacy. Genderists think gender is an identity, an internal set of feelings people might have. Radical feminists think gender is a caste system, a set of material conditions into which one is born. Genderists think gender is a binary. Radical feminists think gender is a hierarchy, with men on top. Some genderists claim that gender is “fluid.” Radical feminists point out that there is nothing fluid about having your husband sell your kidney. So, yes, we have some big disagreements.

Radical feminists also believe that women have the right to define their boundaries and decide who is allowed in their space. We believe all oppressed groups have that right. We have been called transphobic because the women of DGR do not want men–­people born male and socialized into masculinity­–in women-only spaces. DGR stands with women in that decision.

[i] Dworkin. “Against the Male Flood: Censorship, Pornography, and Equality,” p. 270.

SC: What do you mean by “dismantle civilization”? Do you mean the destruction of humanity itself?

It’s like a doctor friend of mine always says, “The first step toward cure is proper diagnosis.” And the first step toward stopping this culture’s murder of the planet is to recognize its source.

From the beginning, civilizations, a way of life characterized by the growth of cities, have required the destruction of landbases. One of the first written myths of western civilization is Gilgamesh deforesting the plains and hillsides of Iraq to make great cities: the materials for cities have to come from _somewhere_, and “somewhere” is someone else’s home. And once you’ve destroyed your own landbase, you must either expand, that is, conquer, or collapse. I know which most civilizations choose. Which means your civilization requires empire.

Civilization has been the dominant form for human society for less than one percent of the two hundred thousand years humans have walked the Earth. With the growth of cities came the centralization of power, the normalization of exploitation, and the large-scale destruction of natural communities. Since civilized societies must denude the land in order to sustain themselves, they must acquire and consume ever more resources in order to avoid collapse. Infinite growth can never be supportable on a finite planet. We’re currently witnessing the inevitable results of such a system – mass extinction on a scale never before seen on Earth, accelerating climate change, and an entire culture dependent on exploitation.

The civilized system needs us to perpetuate it, but we do not need the civilized system to survive. In fact, our survival and our humanity depend on our willingness and ability to resist the ravages of industrial civilization. For hundreds of thousands of years, humans lived as participants in the biotic communities around them. Examples of non-civilized human cultures are every day being destroyed by civilized culture in its endless quest for power, but they do exist. Humans can be more than civilized. There is no way to reform a system which is wholly dependent on genocide and slavery – it can only be dismantled. If we fail to stop it, we are dooming not only human society, but all life on the planet.

SC: Don’t you just want to replace the current civilization with a different type of civilization?

The organization Onkwehón:we Rising has recently published a number of articles by you and other authors in an attempt to begin a discussion around a critique of industrialization on the left. Deindustrialization is a fairly new concept for the left, which has historically focused on building productive forces through large scale industrial projects (in the Soviet Union and China in particular).

Our problems as a species predate industrialization, but have been magnified exponentially through industrialization. Mad Max comes to mind when speaking of the end of civilization.

Why does DGR use the language of “end civilization”, rather than simply deindustrialization?

It’s often said that the ability to recognize patterns is one of the signs of intelligence. So, I’m going to list a pattern here, and let’s see if we can recognize it in less than five or six thousand years. When you think of the plains and hillsides of Iraq, is the first thing that you think of normally cedar forests so thick that sunlight never touches the ground? That’s how they were.

The first written myth of this culture is Gilgamesh going in and deforesting those hills to make cities. When you think of the Arabian peninsula, is the first thing that you think of oak savannah? That’s what it used to be. Let’s move a little bit west, and you get the cedars of Lebanon. They still have one on their flag. Greece was heavily forested. Plato commented on how deforestation was destroying the water quality in Greece. And I’m sure that those in power said, Well, we need to study it a little bit longer first, to make sure there’s a connection. Italy was heavily forested, North Africa was heavily forested. The forests of North Africa went down to make the Egyptian and Phoenician navies.

We are using a very specific definition of civilization. Here is what I wrote in Endgame:

If I’m going to contemplate the collapse of civilization, I need to define what it is. I looked in some dictionaries. Webster’s calls civilization “a high stage of social and cultural development.”17 The Oxford English Dictionary describes it as “a developed or advanced state of human society.” All the other dictionaries I checked were similarly laudatory. These definitions, no matter how broadly shared, helped me not in the slightest. They seemed to me hopelessly sloppy. After reading them, I still had no idea what the hell a civilization is: define high, developed, or advanced, please. The definitions, it struck me, are also extremely self-serving: can you imagine writers of dictionaries willingly classifying themselves as members of “a low, undeveloped, or backward state of human society”?

I suddenly remembered that all writers, including writers of dictionaries, are propagandists, and I realized that these definitions are, in fact, bite-sized chunks of propaganda, concise articulations of the arrogance that has led those who believe they are living in the most advanced—and best—culture to attempt to impose by force this way of being on all others.

I would define a civilization much more precisely, and I believe more usefully, as a culture—that is, a complex of stories, institutions, and artifacts—that both leads to and emerges from the growth of cities (civilization, see civil : from civis, meaning citizen, from Latin civitatis, meaning city-state),with cities being defined—so as to distinguish them from camps, villages, and so on—as people living more or less permanently in one place in densities high enough to require the routine importation of food and other necessities of life. Thus a Tolowa village five hundred years ago where I live in Tu’nes (meadow long in the Tolowa tongue), now called Crescent City, California, would not have been a city, since the Tolowa ate native salmon, clams, deer, huckleberries, and so on, and had no need to bring in food from outside. Thus, under my definition, the Tolowa, because their way of living was not characterized by the growth of city-states, would not have been civilized. On the other hand, the Aztecs were. Their social structure led inevitably to great city-states like Iztapalapa and Tenochtitlán, the latter of which was, when Europeans first encountered it, far larger than any city in Europe, with a population five times that of London or Seville. Shortly before razing Tenochtitlán and slaughtering or enslaving its inhabitants, the explorer and conquistador Hernando Cortés remarked that it was easily the most beautiful city on earth.20 Beautiful or not, Tenochtitlán required, as do all cities, the (often forced) importation of food and other resources. The story of any civilization is the story of the rise of city-states, which means it is the story of the funneling of resources toward these centers (in order to sustain them and cause them to grow), which means it is the story of an increasing region of unsustainability surrounded by an increasingly exploited countryside.

German Reichskanzler Paul von Hindenburg described the relationship perfectly: “Without colonies no security regarding the acquisition of raw materials, without raw materials no industry, without industry no adequate standard of living and wealth. Therefore, Germans, do we need colonies.”

Of course someone already lives in the colonies, although that is evidently not of any importance.

But there’s more. Cities don’t arise in political, social, and ecological vacuums. Lewis Mumford, in the second book of his extraordinary two-volume Myth of the Machine, uses the term civilization “to denote the group of institutions that first took form under kingship. Its chief features, constant in varying proportions throughout history, are the centralization of political power, the separation of classes, the lifetime division of labor, the mechanization of production, the magnification of military power, the economic exploitation of the weak, and the universal introduction of slavery and forced labor for both industrial and military purposes.”

And so far as Mad Max and what the end of civilization looks like, that’s why it is so important for us to put in place egalitarian community structures now, to replace those that are collapsing. Smart revolutionaries of all time have done this: at the same time they were trying to drive out the British, the American Patriots (for all their numerous faults) were creating their own justice systems to replace the Crown court system. It’s the same with the Irish and many other resisters to empire.

Civilization will collapse, and so we need to build these values and structures now. I wrote in Endgame:

If you’re simply anything other than entirely insensate, 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 (How ’bout them Cubbies!).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 (as opposed to simply raising this issue because you’re too scared to talk about the crash or to allow anyone else to do so either), 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 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 gardens, it can look like planting local varieties of medicinal herbs, and it can look like teaching people how to sing.

The truth is that although I do not believe that designing groovy eco-villages will help bring down civilization, when the crash comes, I’m sure to be 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 landbase. 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 landbases 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. Most important of all, the water in each place needs to be asked and allowed to decide for itself.

I’ve been thinking a lot again about the cell phone tower behind Safeway, and I see now how these different approaches manifest themselves in this one small place. The cell phone tower needs to come down. It is contiguous on two sides with abandoned parking lots. Those lots need to come up. Gardens can bloom in their place.We can even do our work side by side.


SC: Many people believe that technology can solve many of our problems, particularly in energy production with so called “renewable resources”, mainly solar and wind. How would you answer them?

As environmental crises worsen, and as it becomes ever-more obvious that capitalism, and more deeply industrial civilization, are killing the planet, more and more people will search for false solutions to these crises, solutions that will let those who believe in them feel good about themselves while allowing this culture’s world-scale exploitation and destructiveness to continue. And it really won’t matter how absurd or counterfactual these false solutions are: the point is feeling good about maintaining this way of living, not stopping the destruction.

I was reminded of this not long ago, when I had the misfortune to attempt a conversation with a “bright green environmentalist.” Bright green environmentalism holds that neither industrial civilization nor capitalism are inherently unsustainable, and indeed believes that even huge cities can themselves be sustainable. In this perspective the unsustainability of both civilization and cities is not functional, but rather soluble by readily available technologies.

Industrial civilization can be sustainable? Huge cities can be sustainable? I know, this ignores the entire history of colonial expansion and empire, in which cities have always supplied themselves by conquering or otherwise stealing from colonies (by definition, since no city can supply its own food, building materials, and so on). It ignores ecology, since every city destroys the land on which it’s built, and the land from which it derives resources (seen many wood bison or passenger pigeons in New York City lately?). It ignores energy usage (by definition, since no way of life based on nonrenewable energy sources­ read: oil, coal, natural gas­ can ever be sustainable). In fact it de-emphasizes physical limits of all sorts: as one proponent states, “[B]right green environmentalism is less about the problems and limitations we need to overcome than the tools, models, and ideas that already exist for overcoming them. It forgoes the bleakness [sic] of protest and dissent for the energizing confidence of constructive solutions.”

Ignoring history, ecology, and energy; and de-emphasizing physical limitations, yet pretending to have something to do with sustainability? This conversation did not take place under the watchful eyes of armed guards at a secure psych ward, nor in a Silence-of-the-Lambs type lockdown. In this case the lunatics are running the asylum.

“Bright green environmentalism” has gained as much attention as it has in great measure because it tells a lot of people what they want to hear: that you can have industrialism and a planet, too, or put another way, that you can have a planet and eat it, too.

But we can’t. And so bright green environmentalism and other forms of denial about our situation do great harm by wasting time we don’t have on “solutions” to sustainability that cannot work.

An example should make this clear. In the conversation I mentioned earlier with the “bright green environmentalist,” he claimed that cities can be sustainable. I responded, “Where do you get the food, the energy, the water? Where does the shit go? Cities have always depended upon a countryside and upon denuding that countryside of resources. And as your city grows, you’ll denude an ever larger area. For the last 6,000 years cities have been denuding country sides. We’re in overshoot.”
I continued, “We need to stop being guided by the general story that we can have it all, and that we can have an industrial culture and also wild nature, that we can have an oil economy and still have polar bears.”
The “bright green environmentalist” responded, “Every system we are currently using that is unsustainable was designed and is capable of being redesigned. It’s entirely possible to create a zero impact, closed loop, carbon-neutral method of generating prosperity that most people would accept as reasonable.”

I responded that this is a statement of faith, and asked for an example.

He said, “You mentioned mining. It is in fact possible to recapture minerals, to design things for disassembly so that minerals are easily pulled from objects as they cease to be of use and to turn those metals into parts for new things. We know that it is at least theoretically possible to have an absolutely zero waste economy, and we know that it is practically possible right now to have a very close to zero waste economy.”

Sounds great, right? The problem is that even rudimentary examination shows that the notion is completely crackers. Here’s a little of what I learned about metal recycling in only an hour of research.

Let’s take aluminum. First, it must be heated to 750 degrees Celsius. And how is that to be done sustainably? This is not a rhetorical question.

Next, aluminum use is estimated to go up by 25 to 35 percent between 2005 and 2012, which means new aluminum must be coming into use every year, which means that even if this culture already had 100 percent recycling, it would still need to have bauxite mines.

Next, some aluminum use is in electronics, which means you have to have slaves, oh, uh, associates, to sort it out. These are the horrors of electronics “recycling”: ten-year-olds working in toxic conditions, because their parents have been forced off their land by soldiers so the land can be used for export crops to make money for the global elites.
Next, according to Wikipedia, “Recycling involves melting the scrap, a process that requires only five percent of the energy used to produce aluminum from ore. However, a significant part (up to 15% of the input material) is lost as dross (ash-like oxide). The dross can undergo a further process to extract aluminum. . . . White dross from primary aluminum production and from secondary recycling operations still contains useful quantities of aluminum that can be extracted industrially. The process produces aluminum billets, together with a highly complex waste material. This waste is difficult to manage. It reacts with water, releasing a mixture of gases (including, among others, hydrogen, acetylene, and ammonia) which spontaneously ignites on contact with air; contact with damp air results in the release of copious quantities of ammonia gas.”
And this is the example he uses for how cities can be sustainable?

Here are two of the steps in aluminum recycling: “Blocks are loaded into the furnace and heated to 750 °C ± 100 °C to produce molten aluminum. Dross is removed and the dissolved hydrogen is degassed. … This is typically done with chlorine and nitrogen gas. Hexachloroethane tablets are normally used as the source for chlorine. Ammonium perchlorate can also be used, as it decomposes mainly into chlorine, nitrogen, and oxygen when heated.”


Okay, now let’s talk about steel. Here’s a headline from the bright green environmentalist’s own local news: “Steel recycling leftovers turn Kent site toxic.” The article begins: “It seemed like a good idea at the time­ dumping leftovers from a steel-recycling process on an empty site in Kent. But now the groundwater has turned as toxic as drain cleaner.”

The first sentence of another article: “At least 80 Claymont residents have joined a damage and personal-injury lawsuit targeting a long-troubled steel recycling plant there, in a case that claims owners failed for years to control ‘poisonous clouds’ of toxic dust.” The dusts include heavy metals, mercury, and so on.

But it gets worse: 83 percent of all steel is already recycled in the US. That means only 17 percent more can be recycled before you reach 100 percent recycling, which means that 100 percent recycling would still require mines and smelters. And also it would require slaves in Brazil, slaves who live unutterably miserable lives making charcoal (in a process that contributes directly to Amazon deforestation) for the Brazilian pig iron industry, with a principal buyer being the US Steel industry.
Further, scrap metal is recycled into steel using arc furnaces heated to 1800 degrees Celsius. Where do we get the energy for that? How does that happen sustainably? And where do you get the energy to transport these metals to these furnaces? How does that happen sustainably?

Let’s move on to copper. From a copper industry website: “Although copper’s virtually infinite recyclability makes it environmentally advantageous for use in a variety of products, worldwide demand cannot be met exclusively by secondary copper.

Continued production of new copper is also required to meet human needs. Fortunately, ample reserves have been identified to last for generations.”

So, once again, even, 100 percent recycling will not eliminate the “need” for mines or dispossession or unsustainability.
Of course much copper is used in electronics, and I still don’t think we want to talk about the toxicity of electronic wastes, and I would sure guess this “bright green environmentalist” doesn’t.

At the beginning, when I said these ideas were crazy and that the lunatics were running the asylum, I was neither being snarky nor hyperbolic. One reasonable definition of insanity is to perform the same action again and again expecting different results. The technologization of the planet has been a disaster for the real, physical world, and for the poor, and for the indigenous. And there is absolutely no evidence to indicate that further technologization will do anything different than what it has been doing for several thousand years (they say one sign of intelligence is the ability to recognize patterns: if these people can’t discern these patterns after 6000 years I think it’s safe to say they never will). Another reasonable definition of insanity is to be out of touch with physical reality. To say that mining and mineral recycling can be sustainable is to ignore physical reality. To say that cities and indeed civilization can be sustainable is to ignore physical reality. The calculations we just performed for mining can be performed for food supplies, building materials, energy, or waste production. It is insane to cling to a belief that we can have civilization and a planet.

Too many people tell too many lies to allow themselves to feel altogether too comfortable as this culture continues fundamentally unimpeded on its destructive path.

It’s past time to face the truth.


SC: What is DGR’s vision of the future? How society be structured? In other words, what are you fighting for?

Who I’m fighting for are salmon and rivers and forests and grizzly bears. Who I’m fighting for are traditional indigenous peoples living traditionally on their lands, and other humans and nonhumans who are being driven off their lands.

What I want is a world that has more wild salmon every year than the year before, and more migratory songbirds, and more jaguars, and more elephants and more bison. I want to live in a world where there is less dioxin in every mother’s breast milk every year than the year before. I want to live in a world where there is less plastic in the oceans every year than the year before. Where there is more native forest and more native prairie.

What I’m fighting for is life on the planet.

Life on the planet is more important than any social system, in part because without a living planet there are no social systems.

The living planet is primary.

In some ways, to ask how we want to structure society after this culture is gone is like asking, as a sociopath is torturing and killing everyone in our family, how we will make familial decisions once the sociopath has been stopped. The task before us now, the emergency, is to stop the sociopath.

That said, the only ways of living that have ever been sustainable have been those that have been local and that have emerged from the land where they live. In other words, a social structure that might serve a people well in the deserts of what is now Arizona might not serve people well in the temperate rain forests of the Pacific Northwest. Here, life revolved around salmon. There are no salmon in the deserts of the Southwest. So what we want is for 10,000 cultures to emerge from their own landbases. It will be important that these cultures carry with them a recognition that the real world is primary, and the recognition that a people who are planning on living in place for the next 500 years will make different land use decisions than those who are not planning on living in place for the next 500 years. If you’re planning on living in place for the next 500 years, would you dewater rivers, deforest, ruin the soil, poison aquifers? So we’re not looking for one society, but 10,000.

We are also obviously fighting for egalitarian ways of living, where women are not abused by men, where children are not abused by adults, where the patriarchal imperative to violate doesn’t control all aspects of the culture.

I have a friend, an environmental activist, who does the work because, as he says, “As things become increasingly chaotic, I want to make sure that some doors remain open.” What he means by that is that we can’t predict the future, and things will become increasingly chaotic as the dominant economic system collapses, but if grizzly bears are around in twenty years they might be around in a hundred. If they’re gone in 20, they’re gone forever. Same with others.

Likewise, we know that when patriarchal civic societies collapse, men’s violence against women increases, and so we need to work hard now to prevent that happening later. Because the dominant society will collapse, whether through economic collapse, ecological collapse, or what have you. So that’s one reason that we need to prepare for that eventuality, and we need to _now_ assume zero tolerance policies for the abuse of women. The same is true for racism, which is already becoming more overt because of the economic collapse. We need to make our allegiance to victims of both male pattern violence and white pattern violence absolute.


SC: The predominant Marxist view is that most of our resources are being consumed in the first world, by the upper classes, and that after the revolution the resources will be better allocated for use. The crux of this argument is that there is no over-population problem. In your view, what is the human population “carrying capacity” of the planet?

The carrying capacity of the planet (no need for scare quotes) is declining every day, because of the murder of the planet. Where I live, 180 years ago the rivers were literally full of salmon. Now the runs are much smaller. The entire world is diminished. The total weight of the fish in the ocean has decreased by 90 percent in the last 150 years or so. Obviously the planet can permanently support fewer humans now than it could before.

Because of course carrying capacity is defined as how many of a given species can be supported permanently in a given area. So the fact that humans have overshot carrying capacity doesn’t mean carrying capacity doesn’t exist. It means humans are permanently eroding the capacity of the planet to support life. The book to read on this is WIlliam Catton’s Overshoot.

Our discourse surrounding carrying capacity is generally as absurd as the rest of our discourse. Most often we simply ignore it. Failing that, talk of carrying capacity quite often falls into one of three camps, none of which are particularly helpful, all of which support the status quo.

The first begins and ends with population. There are simply too many people. You’ve seen the pictures. Crowded streets in Calcutta, impoverished babies with huge hungry eyes and bloated bellies in Mexico, refugee camps in Africa, masses of Chinese crammed into filthy cities. The earth can’t support these numbers. Something’s got to give.

And you’ve heard the arguments. The United States needs to close its borders to immigration from poor countries. Having finally gotten our own birthrate down sufficiently to more or less stabilize our population, the last thing we need is a bunch of poor (brown) people moving in to crowd us out (we know, also, that once they’re here they’ll breed faster than we do, and soon enough will outnumber us).

I often respond to this argument by saying I’m all for closing the border to Mexico (and everywhere else, for that matter, all the way down to closing bioregional borders), so long as we close it not only to people but to resources as
well. No bananas from Mexico. No coffee. No oil. No tomatoes in January. Many of the people who leave their families in Mexico (or any other impoverished nation) to come to the United States to work do so not because they hate their husbands or wives yet have not gotten to the point in their therapy where they feel comfortable expressing (much less acting on) this. Nor is it generally because they’re bored with Cancun, Acapulco, and their other normal vacation spots and have decided this tourist season to take a Reality Tour™ of the bean fields of the San Joachin Valley. They come, one way or another, because the integrity of their resource base and their community (insofar as there can meaningfully be said to be a difference) have already been compromised: the resources have been stolen, and the community is unraveling. Of course this migration, too, is part of the unraveling. From the beginning of history, this is why people have moved from country to city.

Another way to talk about this is to notice the language: overpopulation, zero population growth. How different would our discourse be if we spoke instead of overconsumption and zero consumption growth? This shift in discourse won’t happen, of course, because zero consumption growth would destroy the capitalist economy.

The United States constitutes less than 5 percent of the world’s population yet uses more than one-fourth of the world’s resources and produces one-fourth of the world’s pollution and waste. If you compare the average U.S. citizen to the average citizen of India, you find that the American uses fifty times more steel, fifty-six times more energy, one hundred and seventy times more synthetic rubber, two hundred and fifty times more motor fuel, and three hundred times more plastic. Yet our images of overpopulation generally consist not of those who do the most damage, the primary perpetrators (there can’t be too many [middle-class] Americans, can there?), but instead their primary (human) victims.

At least partially in response to the obvious arrogance and absurdity of those who want the poor to stop having babies but don’t mind the rich having SUVs (and nuclear weapons), there are those who claim—equally absurdly, and equally arrogantly—that all talk of carrying capacity is racist and classist. To even use the phrase carrying capacity in this crowd is to invite hisses and catcalls, as well as spat epithets of Neo-Malthusian. I suppose the argument is that because some of those who want to protect this exploitative way of living use carrying capacity as a means of social control against the poor—as an American Indian activist friend said to me, “The only problem I have with population control is that you and I both know who is going to do the controlling”—then the notion of carrying capacity itself must be racist and classist. This seems similar to me to suggesting that because Hitler claimed (falsely) that Germany was being attacked by Poland, and that therefore the Germans needed to attack, and that because this same argument has routinely been used (just as falsely) by the United States as well as other imperial powers, that anyone who claims self-defense is lying. These people seem to forget that the misuse of an argument does not invalidate the argument itself.

Worse, this argument, that the very concept of carrying capacity is a fabrication designed for social control, as opposed to a simple statement of limits, serves those in power as effectively as does ignoring or de-emphasizing resource consumption when speaking of overshooting carrying capacity, because it goes along with the refusal to acknowledge physical limits (and limits to exploitation) that characterize this culture. What would it take, I’ve heard peace and social justice activists ask, to bring the poor of the world to the fiscal standard of living of the rich? Well, another thirty planets, for one thing. It’s a dangerous—and stupid—question. Within this culture wealth is measured by one’s ability to consume and destroy. This means that attempts to industrialize the poor will further harm the planet. Because industrial production requires the exploitation of resources, the wealth of one group is always based on the impoverishment of another’s landbase, meaning that on a finite planet, the creation of one person’s (fiscal) wealth always comes at the cost of many others’ poverty. Those reasons are why the question is stupid. It’s dangerous because it serves as propaganda to keep both activists and the poor playing a game that doesn’t serve them well, and which they can never win, instead of quitting this game and working to take down the system.

For at least the past ten years, there has been a lot of talk, primarily among those whose alleged concern for sustainability is a cover for exploitation but also among those who should know better, of something called sustainable development. In this phrase, development is essentially a synonym for industrialization, for destruction, as in the development of natural resources. Under this rubric, sustainable development is an obvious oxymoron. Industrialized people consume more resources and cause more damage, than nonindustrialized people. The “development” of the industrialized nations has been and continues to be unsustainable for the industrialized nations and for the world at large, and the further “development” of the world will only make things worse.

Well, that’s going to stop someday. At some point, probably in the not-too distant future, there will be far fewer people on this planet. There will be far fewer than the planet could have supported—and did support—prior to us overshooting carrying capacity, because the great stocks of wild foods are gone (or poisoned), the top soil lost in the wind. My saying this doesn’t mean I hate people. Far from it. A few weeks ago I received an email in response to my statement that the only sustainable level of technology is the Stone Age. The person said, “I don’t think the stone-age will support anything near the current world population. [Of course I agree.] So to return to this level implies either killing a lot of people or not having many children and waiting for the population to diminish. Or do we allow war or other pestilence to do the job? Is this what you are proposing?”

I responded that what I’m proposing, startlingly enough, is that we look honestly at our situation. And our situation is that we have overshot carrying capacity. The question becomes: What are we going to do about it?

Oh, and one more thing. Right now more than half of the human babies born on this planet are not only unplanned but unwanted. Which suggests a very straightforward solution to overpopulation: give women absolute reproductive freedom.


SC: Thank you for sharing about DGR. You’ve certainly given us a lot of information to digest. What would you like to have as your comment, particularly to a mostly Marxist audience?

Maybe 20 years ago now I was up in a National Forest in northeastern Washington. I was collecting firewood from slash piles. I got a flat tire. I hadn’t checked my spare in years, and it was flat. I wasn’t going to walk all the way out, so I drove on a flat, thumping along at 3 miles per hour. I got to someone’s house, and asked if they had a pump. They didn’t, but they offered me a spare tire. I thanked them, and drove the hour and a half home. The next day I got my tire fixed, then drove up to return his spare, and to take him a cake. He asked me into his house to have a piece with him. We had a piece of cake, and chatted. It was clear he was a logger. He asked if I wanted a load of firewood to take home. I said sure. He got a chainsaw to cut them to length to fit in my truck, and we walked out back to his stack of logs. He was standing outside, holding his chainsaw, when he asked, “So, what do you do for a living?”
I said, “Uh, I’m a writer.”

He said, “What do you write?”

I thought, Shit. Science fiction, fantasy, romance. Anything other than what I actually write, which is environmental stuff. But I’m a terrible liar, and so I told the truth: “I’m working on a book about how the big four timber companies in the Pacific Northwest got their land illegally from the public domain.”

He started swearing, and turned red in the face. I started looking for a break in the fence. I thought he was going to kill me.
But then about 10 very long seconds after that I realized that he was an independent logger who had been put out of business by Plum Creek, and he hated the company even more than I did, which I didn’t think was possible. After about another ten seconds we had our arms around each other’s shoulders, swapping atrocity stories about the big timber companies. We talked, and said we wanted to work together to take down the big timber companies. After we’d agreed on that, I said to him, “You know, I’m against all industrial logging, so after we take out the big timber companies I’m coming after you.”
He stared at me for a moment, and then we both laughed and laughed and laughed, because we knew that taking out the big corporations would be the work of our lifetime, and so our difference was at this point philosophical.

My point is that I think we all agree that capitalism has to go. We may disagree about whether industrialism or civilization have to go, but we should start from our place of agreement, and so if we can or can’t work from there.

I’d like to end with what my dear friend and co-author (and Marxist!) Stephanie McMillan says about solidarity: “True solidarity goes beyond building support for someone else’s struggle (though it includes that). It is to identify that struggle as your own, to grasp your common interests, and to take responsibility for fighting your common enemy on your own battlefield. And to do this in a way that is collective, mutually supportive, and mutually strengthening.”

Filed in Interviews of Derrick Jensen
No Responses — Written on June 7th — Filed in Interviews of Derrick Jensen

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