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Author and Activist Derrick Jensen: "The Dominant Culture is Killing the Planet...It's Very Important for Us to Start to Build a Culture of Resistance"

StoryNovember 15, 2010
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Derrick Jensen

author and activist. His books include A Language Older than Words, Endgame, What We Left Behind, Resistance against Empire, and Deep Green Resistance.

Derrick Jensen has been called the poet-philosopher of the ecological movement. He has written some 15 books critiquing contemporary society and the destruction of the environment. His many books include A Language Older than Words, Endgame, What We Left Behind, Resistance against Empire, and Deep Green Resistance. We play Part I of our conversation with him. "I think a lot of us are increasingly recognizing that the dominant culture is killing the planet," Jensen says. "I think it’s very important for us to start to build a culture of resistance, because what we’re doing isn’t working, clearly." [includes rush transcript]

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: We end today’s show with a figure who’s been called the poet-philosopher of the ecology movement. Author and activist Derrick Jensen has written some 15 books critiquing contemporary society and the destruction of the environment. In 2008, he was named one of Utne Reader magazine’s 50 visionaries who are changing the world. Among his books, A Language Older than Words, Endgame, What We Left Behind, and Resistance against Empire.

Derrick Jensen lives in Northern California. I had an extended conversation with him in San Francisco just a few weeks ago. Today we play part one of that discussion. I began by asking Derrick Jensen about the title of his book, what he means by Deep Green Resistance.

DERRICK JENSEN: Well, I think that we need to — I think a lot of us are increasingly recognizing that the dominant culture is killing the planet. And we can argue about whether, you know, there will be a few bacteria left or whatever, but when 90 percent of the large fish in the oceans are gone, when there’s six to ten times as much plastic as phytoplankton in parts of the ocean, when there’s dioxin in every mother’s breast milk, when background rates — or rates of extinction are a thousand to ten thousand times background rates, you know, it’s sort of just playing with numbers to talk about whether it’s killing the planet or simply mortally wounding it. And I think it’s very important for us to start to build a culture of resistance, because what we’re doing isn’t working, clearly.

I ask a lot of times why it is that environmentalists, as environmentalists — I include myself as a front line activist — I ask why it is that we lose so often. And there’s a couple of answers that really speak to me. One of them is that I think a lot of us don’t really know what it is we want, and we don’t think strategically very much. It’s like, so what do you want?

So, I don’t think that a lot of us think very clearly about what it is exactly we want. And, I mean, I do know what I want, which is I want to live in a world that has more wild salmon every year than the year before, and I want to live in a world that has less dioxin in every mother’s breast milk every year than the year before, and a world that has more migratory songbirds every year than the year before. And that’s part of — part of — one of the reasons I think that a lot of times we don’t win is, once again, I’m not sure that a lot of us know what we want.

And then another problem is that — there’s this absolutely extraordinary book called The Nazi Doctors by Robert Jay Lifton, and in this book he describes how it was that men — people, but men in this case — who had taken the Hippocratic Oath could work in Nazi death camps. And what he found was that many of the doctors who worked in the death camps actually cared very deeply for the health of the inmates. And, you know, Mengele was, you know, horrible. But a lot of the sort of straight-line doctors were just — they would do whatever they could. They would give them an extra scrap of potato to eat or —- the inmates. Or they would hide them from the selection officers who were going to kill them. Or they would -—

AMY GOODMAN: To keep their experiments going?

DERRICK JENSEN: No, no, no. They would hide them from the selection officers who were going to kill them. They would do this to protect the inmate for that day. They would put them to bed, you know. They would actually do everything — if they were in pain, they would give them aspirin to lick. They would do what they could to help, except for the most important thing of all, which is they wouldn’t question the existence of the entire death camp itself. So they would find themselves working within the rules, however they could, to try to improve conditions marginally. And in retrospect, of course, that’s just not sufficient. And as a longtime activist, I see myself and other activists doing the same thing, that what we do is we do everything that is allowed by those in power to attempt to stop their destruction. But the problem is, whenever we figure out a way to use their rules to actually stop them, they change the rules.

AMY GOODMAN: Derrick Jensen, deep green resistance, what form should it take?

DERRICK JENSEN: Sometimes I get accused of being the violence guy, because I talk about capital of fighting back. But I don’t ever think that’s really fair, because I really consider myself the everything guy, that I want to put everything on the table and talk about, you know, all forms of resistance, and decide whether they’re appropriate or inappropriate for use. I don’t want to go in prejudging.

I think, for example, one man, all by himself, almost stopped World War II: Georg Elser. He was a trade unionist who didn’t like what Hitler was doing to the trade unions. So he got a job in a mine, stole some explosives, and he knew every year, on the anniversary of the Beer Hall Putsch, that Hitler would give a speech, and from 7:30 to 8:30, so he set a bomb to go off at 8:20, 1939. And unfortunately, because of the weather, Hitler gave his speech from 7:00 to 8:00 and left 20 minutes early. And so, my point is, I think that, in that case — you know, and we can certainly parse out cases where we think it’s appropriate to have militant response or non-militant response, but something I want to say about all that is that that’s not the real question for me. The real question is the distinction between those people who do something and those people who do nothing.

And I want to emphasize, too, that, for example, even the IRA at its strongest, or the U.S. military, for that matter, only about two percent of the people ever pick up weapons. Most of the people are doing support work. I mean, Maud Gonne was — excuse me, Maud Gonne was central to the Gaelic literature revival. She wrote plays, and she sang. And her son became the chief of staff of the IRA and later formed Amnesty International. And there’s this — I guess all I’m trying to say is that we need to ask ourselves, what do we want, and then to ask ourselves, how are we going to get there? And those are not rhetorical questions.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, there is an easy resorting to violence. I think it’s the — comes from the model of the establishment. They like to say war is the last resort, but so often it is the first approach that the establishment takes, led by the military — and sometimes not led by. They’re the ones that know the suffering the most, so it’ll just be the civilian government. But do you want to take that model of violence as a way — even a way to deal? I mean, imagine if you took violence off the table, you didn’t justify the violence the establishment was doing by saying — or you didn’t answer by saying they’re doing violence, so it has to be met with violence. I mean, from your life, you talk a great deal about your own growing up and the role that violence played and how incredibly destructive it was. Why don’t we go there? Why don’t you talk about how you came to be Derrick Jensen? What has shaped you, influenced you, both negatively and positively? But this issue of violence that is so real, unfortunately not a metaphor in your life.

DERRICK JENSEN: Well, yeah. My father’s extremely violent — was, presumably still is. I haven’t talked to him for years. And he broke my sister’s arm. My brother has epilepsy from blows to the head. He raped my mother, my sister and me. And that — one of the things that that — and we can talk about the negative effects of that. You know, many years of therapy. And we can talk about, you know, the years of insomnia and the night terrors and all that. But I think the central way — there are a few people — I know you’re not saying this — there are a few people who say, "Gosh, he just wants to fight back because he’s projecting his own, you know, helplessness as a child onto larger culture. You know, he hates the big daddy now, you know, the Uncle Sam daddy." And once again, I’m not suggesting you were suggesting that —- and that’s always been sort of a kind of a ridiculous critique, I’ve thought, because if my father would have been perfect, 90 percent of the large fish in the oceans would still be gone, and Coca-Cola would still be destroying aquifers in India, and 25 percent of all women in this culture would still be getting raped. And, you know, we could go all down the list, that -—

But one of the things that he — that that did do is it helped me understand — it helped me get a framework on which I could start to understand the larger movements of power in the culture and also the larger ways that discourse supports power. And one of my favorite examples of this is the psychiatrist R.D. Laing came up with the three rules of a dysfunctional family, which are also three rules of a dysfunctional culture. And Rule A is don’t. Rule A-1 is Rule A does not exist. And Rule A-2 is never discuss the existence or nonexistence of Rules A, A-1 or A-2. So what this means, you know, within the sort of corporate news media, is you can talk forever about Dancing with the Stars or, you know, whatever spectacle we want to talk about, but talking about the things that really matter, as in the real physical world, or as in stopping atrocities, you know, against women, and so, that’s one of the ways, I think, that that — that’s one of the — one of the things I got from my childhood or that I was able to sift out from my childhood or refine from my childhood is that understanding of how abusive dynamics work.

AMY GOODMAN: Derrick, what is the influence of Native Americans in your writing, in your work, in your activism?

DERRICK JENSEN: It’s another great question. And I have tried not to romanticize them, which is another form of objectification. And what I do know is I know that the Tolowa Indians, on whose land I now live up in way northern California, they lived there for at least 12,500 years, if you believe the myths of science. And if you believe the myths of the Tolowa, they lived there since the beginning of time, using a myth as stories that we tell ourselves that make the world fit together. So, in any case, the Tolowa lived there for at least 12,500 years. And when the dominant culture got there 180 years ago, the place was a paradise. I mean, salmon runs so thick that you could hear them for miles before you’d see them. Just — I learned this recently, that one of the — up in Canada, one of the things that people would do for fun when the salmon runs came in is they would throw a little pebble into the water, and they would see how long it would float on the backs of fish before it would hit the ground, because there were so many fish that the rock couldn’t make its way down. And, you know, I’m lucky if I see a half-dozen salmon in a year at this point.

So my point is that they do offer a model for — one of the things that abusers constantly want us to do is to believe that there is only one way to be, which is theirs. And this is true — you know, there’s the great line — I think it was Václav Havel — the struggle against oppression is a struggle of memory against forgetting. And one of the things we need to remember is that there have been other ways of living that have been sustainable. You know, the Tolowa lived there for 12,500 years, which is sustainable by any realistic measurement. And they didn’t do it because they were too stupid to invent backhoes. You know, why? Why? How did they look at the world differently that allowed them to live? It wasn’t because they were primitives. It wasn’t because they were savages. What did they have? They had social strictures in place.

AMY GOODMAN: Derrick, you’ve written, "Civilization is not and can never be sustainable."

DERRICK JENSEN: Yeah. Several years ago, I was riding around in a car with a friend of mine, George Draffan, with whom I’ve written a couple books. And I was just making conversation. I said, "So, George, if you could live at any level of technology that you want to, what would it be?" And he was not in a very good mood that day, and he said, "That’s a really stupid question, Derrick, because we can fantasize whatever we want, but the truth is there’s only one level of technology that’s sustainable. And that’s the Stone Age. And we’ll be there again some day. And the only question really is, what’s left of the world when we get there?"

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that any way of living that’s based on the use of non-renewable resources won’t last. In fact, I would say it takes anybody but a rocket scientist to figure that out. And likewise, it doesn’t take someone who’s very smart to figure out that if every year there are fewer salmon return than the year before, that eventually there won’t be any left. I mean, there were so many passenger pigeons that they would darken the sky for days at a time. There were six times as many passenger pigeons than all the birds in the northern — in North America. Do we know why there aren’t any penguins in the northern hemisphere? The Great Auks? They were destroyed. And my point is that any way of life that’s based on the hyper-exploitation of renewable resources won’t last. You have to basically — in the book, What We Leave Behind, what we came to for a definition of "sustainability" is leaving the physical world in a better place than when you were born, that the world is actually a better place because you were born.

A lot of definitions of "civilization" that we see are not really very specific, and the definition I like the most, which is defensible both linguistically and historically, is civilization is a way of life characterized by the growth of cities — once again, defensible both linguistically and historically. And a couple things happen as soon as you — well, wait. Back up. So that’s great, Derrick, but what’s a city? A city, I’ve defined as people living in numbers large enough to require the importation of resources. And what this means, that the Tolowa didn’t live in cities, because they didn’t require the importation of resources. They didn’t live in cities; they lived in villages, camps, and they ate salmon. They ate what the land gave willingly.

And two things happen as soon as you require the importation of resources. One is that your way of living can never be sustainable, because if you require the importation of resources, it means you denuded the land base of that particular resource, and as your city grows, you’ll need an ever larger area. And the other thing it means is that your way of life must be based on violence, because if you require the importation of resources, trade will never be sufficiently reliable, because if you require the importation of resources and the people in the next watershed over aren’t going to trade you for it, you’re going to take it. And one of the problems with this whole system is that destroying your land base gives you a competitive advantage over the other cultures who don’t. The forests of North Africa went down to make the Phoenician and Egyptian navies. And if you destroy your land base, if you don’t care about the future, you can turn this into immediate power and then use it to conquer, and which is something you have to do, because you’ve destroyed your own land base. And as time goes on, you have to keep expanding. And that’s not a very good idea on a finite planet.

AMY GOODMAN: Derrick Jensen — part two of our conversation coming up later this week — author of Resistance against Empire, A Language Older than Words, Deep Green Resistance, coming soon.

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