How activist Derrick Jensen makes it matter

Interview by Give It Mouth for their “Make It Matter” series, originally published there in two parts

How do you give it mouth?

I don’t want to discourage you, but this may not be my best interview ever.

The reason is, normally when I give answers I seem a lot smarter than I am because I’ve been asked the question 400 times before. For instance, when people ask me what’s wrong with industrial civilisation – Boom – I turn on a tape and I go to sleep because I’ve given the answer 100 times.

But nobody’s asked me this question before, so whatever answer I give is going to be, “ahhhhh…” instead of turning on the tape. I will endeavour to give the best answer I can.

Now, to answer your question … maybe 20 years or so ago, I was speaking with my friend and mentor Jeanette Armstrong who is an Okanagan. I asked her what she thought of an essay by one writer where they slam another writer. She said, if he didn’t like that guy’s book, he should have written his own damn book.

And that has always stuck with me. Instead of complaining to my friends about why nobody writes militant environmental stuff – I just started doing it myself.

I think this goes back to how I was raised actually. I was raised so that if you see a problem, instead of simply complaining, you should try to fix the problem.

I used to ask audiences if they thought this culture would ever undergo a voluntary transformation into sane and sustainable living. And nobody ever said yes.

Yet, we all go around acting as though this culture will undergo a voluntary transformation into sane and sustainable living, against all evidence. And the question becomes, if you don’t believe this culture is going to undergo a voluntary transformation into sane and sustainable living, the what does that mean for our strategy and our tactics?

And the answer is – we don’t know. The reason we don’t know is that we don’t talk about it. And so okay here’s a hole in discourse … I’m going to fill it. One of the advantages in doing that is I realised I don’t have to be fancy or do backflips or do crazy clever things in order to write good material. All I had to do was try the best I can and to tell the truth. I could simply be myself and that was sufficient. I didn’t have to be somebody I wasn’t. I didn’t have to try to be original. And that’s true for all of us.

This culture is so based on lies that telling the truth becomes an absolute gift.

So if anyone would do the work to try to see this culture for what it is and try to tell the truth, that is sufficient. And you don’t have to be fancy. Now, that doesn’t mean you don’t have to spend years or decades learning how to write well. But it does mean that once you learn how to write and you learn how to communicate, you don’t have to make up fancy things.

When I was in my twenties I was trying to write, but I was so scared. Writing would take me back to feeling of when I was a child watching my siblings get beaten. One of the reasons has to do with R.D. Laing’s three rules of dysfunctional families. Rule a is don’t speak about it, rule a1 is rule a doesn’t exist and rule a2 is never discuss the existence or non existence of rules a1 and a2. This is one of the reasons your project is so incredibly important, because if the first rule of a dysfunctional family is don’t talk about it, then the first rule of breaking that is to talk about it. And what you’re saying is you’re breaking the first rule of a dysfunctional family – or a dysfunctional culture.

Was there a moment you realised you wanted to become an activist or did it just creep upon you, as sometimes happens?

I always knew when I was a kid I wanted to be a writer. At that point I didn’t know I wanted to be an activist.

In the second grade they put a subdivision near where I lived. There were meadows there before and I recall thinking – where did all the meadowlarks go and where did all the garter snakes go? And I recognised that this way of life can’t continue. I felt very strongly about that, but I didn’t know what to do.

Then when I went to college to study engineering, I started to ask questions. I noticed most of my fellow students didn’t like going to school and they didn’t like the job they were going to have. They were already anticipating retiring at 65. And these people were 20! It seemed crazy that a majority of people were going to be spending most of their time doing something they didn’t want to do.

In my twenties, I was overwhelmed with how bad things were.

I was so overwhelmed and the problem so big, I didn’t feel like I could do anything. It was at that point I made one of the smartest decisions of my life. I realised I wasn’t paying enough for gas to cover the ecological and social costs. So I made a commitment that for every dollar I spent on gas, I’d give a dollar to an environmental organisation.

Problem was, I didn’t have any money. So what I would do was pay myself $5 an hour to do activism, which I had never done before. I started by writing letters to the editor. I was so scared when I did that that I used fake names. I was so timid, and what I want people to know is that they should not use their timidity and their fear as an excuse for inaction. I was pretty ruthless about not allowing myself excuses. So if I spent $10 on fuel, I would allow two hours to work. I wrote, I went to anti-fur demonstrations and anti-circus demonstrations. I just knew circuses were bad. I didn’t know why. I mean, I didn’t even make the signs. I’d turn up and they’d give me a sign and I’d hold it. Then I started doing timber sale appeals, stopping timber sales on public lands. And within six months to a year as an activist it felt so right – it felt so good – that I stopped keeping track.

The distinction is not between those who want to bring down civilisation and those who don’t.

The big distinction is between those who do something and those who do nothing. And so a lot of my work is about trying to get people to just get off their butts and do something.

Can you tell me the story of how you founded Deep Green Resistance. I am particularly interested in the steps involved in setting up a resistance organisation.

Basically there were three of us who recognised that a lot of the organisations were doing really good work trying to protect this or that ground. But we didn’t see anyone who was simultaneously arguing for bringing down industrial civilisation, even though all the activists we knew were holding on by our fingertips hoping that this or that creature would survive long enough for civilisation to crash.

Because we know that, for as long as industrial civilisation exists, these creatures are in danger. Civilisation is inherently and functionally destroying the planet. So we wanted to form a group on the ground doing the activism, but at the same time advocating for this larger vision. Again, we saw a hole, so we decided to fill it.

As for setting up the organisation I have to defer to other people. Because if we had a video on right now, I would just scan the video across my room and you’d see that I can’t organise books and paper, let alone people. So basically other people did the work.

But I do want to mention one thing that is very important. When a friend of mine founded Buffalo Field Campaign, which is a great organisation that protects buffalo, one of the founders said to the others, “We’re only going to spend 5-10% of our effort trying to protect buffalo – the rest of it is going to be spent dealing with human drama.” And that is so true. I have seen so many organisations destroyed either by destructive people or by all sorts of in-fighting.

We had some difficulties with this early on, because one of the people we let in was very divisive … essentially attempted to cause a coup and drive people out. She was just one of the people who does that. So we’ve instituted a fairly rigorous process of joining. In fact it’s probably a little too rigorous, but we’ll leave that aside. Point is, we have worked very hard to establish a culture of mutual respect and, with that, also freedom and responsibility within the organisation. What we discovered was that most of the problems within the organisation actually came from a small number of people. Once those people were gone, we were able to get on with the task at hand.

And of course this doesn’t apply just to activist organisations, it also applies to church organisations, quilting groups. This is just part of the human condition. But I’m guessing song birds also have the same sort of problems. Jeanette Armstrong says to me that Indigenous communities have the same squabbles and problems as white people, it’s just they have had to develop over a long time the means of resolving those problems. And the way she put it was that I know my great grandchild might marry your great grandchild, so we have to figure out a way to get along. And so there’s that.

I mean I hate spending all this time on that particular question, which has nothing to do with activism itself – but it has everything to do with it. Because a lot of activist groups fall apart over things that have nothing to do with activism.

And another thing I want to say and this is the thing I love about DGR, is that the people in it are so self motivated and dedicated. I’m going to say something that’s quite cynical but it’s true. And it’s this, it is what I call the 90/10 rule – it’s that 90% of all people are incompetent, it doesn’t matter if we’re talking about doctors or bus drivers or attorneys or writers, most people don’t get the job done. And this happens in a lot of organisations, where you might have 50 people but only five people are doing all the work. In DGR, and mind it had nothing to do with me, I did nothing to create this, but so many of the people are so self motivated and working really hard. It doesn’t matter what someone is working hard to do, I have so much respect for people who are self motivated.

I read that you said love does not imply passivity. What exactly do you mean by that?

When I talked early on in my career about fighting back in this culture, I just got the response, well Derrick just needs to love more, we need to love our enemies. And that just makes no sense to me.

It implies that if you love you will never fight back. But mother grizzly bears fight back, and mother hens fight back, for crying out aloud. I grew up in the country and in my life I have been attacked by mother horses, cows, dogs, cats, geese – oh my god geese! – hogs and eagles and mice who all thought I was attacking their babies. And you know if you open a mother mouse’s nest she’ll get on her hind legs at you. And that’s despite the fact that you’re 6000 times her size. That’s love.

Love is when you will fight for what you love. So often people will say oh the earth’s just getting reorganised and it will be alright in twenty or so years. And that attitude is not real connection and love. Because if your family was in a room in a house and this axe murderer just came in pulling one person out after another to kill them, I would hope you’d try to stop that axe murder. And… and …so much of my work is in trying to wake up that love that’s in all of us and still hides there. And help to let us know that it’s okay to love the land and the trees and the frogs where you live. There’s nothing to be ashamed of in loving them and fighting for them.

Sometimes when I listen to you speak you go into almost a biblical litany of all the ways we’re destroying the earth. And I sort of expected you to be so angry. But you’re not. You’re so serene. How is it that you’re not angry?

Well there’s this idea that if you recognise how bad things are you have to go around being mad and sad all the time.

But I’m a complex being who can simultaneously hold in my heart the sophisticated understanding that we are completely fucked and that life is really good. I’m actually very happy and I love my life. At the same time when people ask how I’m doing I say, “As well as I can be expected in a world being killed.” You know, it’s always there. But I don’t take it personally.

I read Samuel Beckett and I think oh my god that guy is really miserable. But I heard he was actually a very happy guy and he loved playing around with his grandkids or something. I get that now.

Another thing I find very interesting – and it has to do with writing, but it applies to personal relationships as well – is that if you provide support for your arguments, often that comes across as being angry. And think about this in a personal relationship. Say somebody says to you, “You know, you’re quite often late.” And so you reply, “Yeah I’m quite often late.” And if they say to you, “You’re quite often late; yesterday you were late by 45 minutes, the day before by 2 hours, the day before that by 4 hours”, then you think oh my god they’re really mad. All they’re doing is providing tangible support for their thesis, do you know what I’m saying?

We do live in a culture, don’t we, where critique and analysis and argument are seen as ‘negative’. It’s very difficult to escape that so people who offer critiques are often seen as ‘negative people’ and that’s a pejorative thing in our culture. I wonder if it’s some kind of conspiracy to stop people from thinking critically?

A little bit of it is that we are often so traumatised. Often by our families and then by our culture. And I’m speaking from personal experience here because my father was very abusive.

There are times when if someone says I did something wrong, I go back to being a seven- year-old child. So there can be this tremendous fear associated with the criticism. Instead of the critique being simply, you folded the clothes wrong, it can suddenly be life and death. This goes another way too, and this is important.

I remember reading in my twenties some author saying it takes ten years for people to change their minds. From this, I think a lot of times arguments and disagreements can simply be two people who are entrenched. The guy who said that ten year thing was a guy who was very anti-choice, and then without a dscernible transition about ten years later, he was pro choice. One of the times this happened to me was when I first read John Livingston’s Fallacy of Wildlife Conservation, where he discusses evolution as based on cooperation, not competition. I thought man, this guy is crazy. It was two or three years between then and when I could no longer conceptualise evolution being based on competition but instead almost entirely on cooperation.

So if our beliefs about an issue are in conflict, if we continue to hash at it right in that moment, a lot of times, there can be no place for us to go. Why? I don’t think people change their minds like that.

A great example of this that does not say anything good about me from when I was 19 – but I was young and socialised – is I used the word “fag’ a lot. It was common in the 70s. I didn’t mean it as a slur against homosexuals. So if I was playing basketball and a friend missed a shot or something I would go to him, “Oh you fag.” And then one day, a friend of mine who actually was gay I was teaching him to drive and he ran my car into a pole. And I said, “Ah, you fag.” And he just looked at me really hurt. And he said, “Yeah I am, but what has that got to do with me running your car into a pole. What you just said is hate speech – and a really terrible thing to say.”

Did I stop using the word then?

Nooo … I kept using it for about a year as his feedback percolated into my being. After that I have never used it again. But the point is … even with something so obvious as that slur, it still took me a while to incorporate that change. By the way, I love that word “incorporate” – to take into the body.

So if I say to you evolution is based primarily on cooperation, and you say evolution is based primarily on competition, we can give our diverging opinions on that, but chances are really rare that someone will say oh my god you are so right. And that’s part of the critique problem too; what are we trying to accomplish? Are we actually trying to persuade in that moment?

There’s another part too. I actually think a lot of criticisms are to get another person to shut up. And I think we need to be able to unpack how much of the criticism is a veiled personal attack and how much of it is to persuade.

I want to touch only briefly on your ideas, because readers can access your ideas easily and extensively through your books. So I just wanted to give a primer for readers. So my first question is if not industrial civilisation, then what?

Well, what I know is I live on Tolowa land. And they lived here for at least 12500 years. And when the Europeans arrived in the mid to early 19th century, the place was a paradise. The Klamath River just south of here is a big river. It was described as “black and roiling” with fish. You would see a grizzly bear here every fifteen minutes. And I’ve seen early explorers’ quotes that the San Francisco Bay was clothed in sea lions. And there’d be so many whales you could smell their bad breath. That was only 180 years ago. And the place has been trashed since then. This is not noble savage stuff. The Tolowa were humans too, but they were humans living in place. And there have been 1000s of indigenous cultures living in place. And that’s the only way to live sustainably – is to live gladly with what the land will give you. This is how it’s supposed to be.We have completely forgotten that.

An image I use in my book is what if the pancreas decides it’s the only important organ in the body so the pancreas supremacists start cutting off the other organs. The body would die. And that’s what we’re seeing.

So what do I want to replace culture with? I want to see 10,000 cultures, each one emerging from its own land base.

If it’s the case that a person recognises their own gender enculturation, is there a step by step process through which a person can start afresh? And how?

We all of us will carry things from our upbringing that will stick with us for the rest of our lives. Here’s a good example: I was raised a Christian fundamentalist. And I can insult people – in my book I call tobacco executives “nasty-ass mother fuckers”. But a word a I rarely use is “fool’. And the reason is there was a bible verse about calling people a fool. So even that little verse still affects my language today. That sort of enculturation sticks with us profoundly.

On the other hand, so many indigenous people have said we need to decolonise our hearts and minds. So the first thing is we have to recognise we don’t like it then we need to step away from it. If we don’t like the roles we’re assigned we need to step away from it. We need to ask if the attribute is worth changing, and then change it.

We can start to look at the roles we don’t like and we can accept the ones that are too much trouble. A great example is that it was worth my going to therapy so that I could liberate myself from my trauma and write. I also at the same time have a fear of water skiing. And I could work through that, but actually I don’t like cold water so much so who gives a shit?

You’ve been so prolific in your career, what’s your secret?

I have been ruthless about removing from my life anything that would interfere with the writing. When I was writing A Language Larger Than Words. I had a big literary agent. Her response to the book was that if I take out the family stuff and the social criticism, it would work. So I fired her. I’d spent 12 years in therapy and I couldn’t write this happy face book she wanted me to write. I believe the muse is real. And I showed my loyalty that day to the muse. I was given the opportunity before my career started to sell out. And I chose not to. And I have been greatly rewarded for that.

And one more thing about that for the artists who read this, I remember Amy Tan was asked does the writing get easier. Her answer was, “No it gets better.”

What is difficult is finding the place where writing is easy. That process was difficult for me before, but it has become easier and easier. And here’s how:I read this guy called Charles Johnson who said in an interview that the writing I want to read is the type where it’s like the writer has a gun to their head that gets shot when they say the last word. The writers who write like that are the best ones. I had to find the place where I felt so strongly about an issue.

When I wrote my first book ever, I had a friend whose daughter was married to an abuser. I became friends with the daughter when she spent a summer visiting. The next time I saw her, her husband was in jail and she came back home to visit. Anyway, I was trying to copy a story by James Herriot at the time about a guy who is friendless and has a dog who he loves, but then the dog dies and the guy kills himself. I wanted to write a similar story about a guy who had a dog and the dog dies, then the guy leaves, instead of dies. I was talking to the mother about how we keep the daughter from going back to the abusive husband. So my story ended up being an intense letter to my friend begging her not to return to her husband. I was desperate to communicate something to a dear friend.

And that’s where the writing becomes easy.

So now I’m desperately trying to communicate with people that we are killing this planet.

Filed in Interviews of Derrick Jensen
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