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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 26, 2010
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We speak with Derrick Jensen, who 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. “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]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to Derrick Jensen. He’s been described as the poet-philosopher of the ecology movement. 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 and began by asking him to explain the title of his latest book, what he means by Deep Green Resistance.

DERRICK JENSEN: 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 twenty 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.

AMY GOODMAN: We’ll continue with Derrick Jensen in a minute, author, activist. He’s been called the poet-philosopher of the ecology movement. If you’d like a copy of our show, you can go to our website at Back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: We turn back to my interview with author and environmental activist Derrick Jensen.

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: You’re a critic of environmental groups, a range of them, in terms of how we get to solutions around issues like global warming, groups like, for example, who on 10/10/10, October 10th, had something like 7,000 actions around the world, trying to put into people’s consciousness the idea that, you know, we have to change the way we do things, we’re heating up the globe. What is the problem with this, for you?

DERRICK JENSEN: Well, first I want to say that I have tremendous respect for Bill McKibben and for his tireless efforts to raise awareness about global warming, and so I don’t want to come across as criticizing him, because I think he’s doing very important work.

That said, one of the problems that I see with the vast majority of so-called solutions to global warming is that they take industrial capitalism as a given and the planet which must conform to industrial capitalism, as opposed to the other way around. And that’s literally insane, in terms of being out of touch with physical reality, because without a real world, you don’t have any social system. You don’t have any social system at all. You don’t have life. You know, we’ve come to believe that our food comes from the grocery store and that our water comes from the tap, and that’s because it does. And that’s an extraordinary thing that the system has done, has been to interpose itself in between us and the real world, because if your experience is that your water comes from the tap and your food comes from the grocery store, you’re going to defend to the death the system that brings those to you, because your life depends on it. If, on the other hand, your water comes from a river and your food comes from a land base, you will defend to the death the river and the land base, because that’s what your life depends on. And so, that’s part of the difficulty, is this culture has inserted itself between, and it’s done that for us and then also happens all over the world. And that’s part of — it’s like, I have a friend whose ex-husband is Bangladeshi, and even 20 years ago, his mother would say to him, you know, “Go catch a fish for lunch from the river.” And now they can’t do that, because the river is so polluted by industries nearby that there’s no fish, and they now get their fish from Iceland. And that separation is part and parcel of how the system works.

AMY GOODMAN: You talk about activists throwing up a “Gandhi shield” when you talk about use of force and violence. What do you mean by that?

DERRICK JENSEN: Well, that’s pretty interesting, that a lot of times if I talk about fighting back, the response by the audience is oftentimes fairly predictable, which is a lot of sort of mainstream peace and social justice activists will put up what I’ve taken to calling a Gandhi shield. And what that means is they say the names Gandhi, Dalai Lama, Martin Luther King again and again real fast to keep all evil thoughts at bay. And when I would do the same talk for, like, grassroots environmental activists, a lot of times they would have the same response, but they’d come up to me afterwards and say, whispering “Thank you so much for bringing this up.” And then when there are other groups of people and I would talk to them, the response would be entirely different. And this would be prisoners.

AMY GOODMAN: You’ve worked in prisons.

DERRICK JENSEN: Yeah, I worked at Pelican Bay State Prison. I taught creative writing there for four or five years. And with gang kids, with victims in domestic violence, family farmers, these other groups, a lot of times if you talk about the possibility of fighting back, a lot times they say, “Come on, tell us something we don’t know. Let’s go, bro.” And the difference, I realized — it took me a while to realize that the difference is that for those latter groups, for the most part — oh, American Indians are definitely in that category, too — violence is not some abstract or theoretical question to be puzzled through. It’s simply part of life. And that doesn’t mean you participate; doesn’t mean you don’t participate. It just means that you deal with it. And that’s a lot different than setting up, you know, some sort of preset rules.

AMY GOODMAN: Derrick Jensen, we let people know that I was going to be interviewing you, and a lot of people wrote in questions. And a few of them asked you to talk about what they call you advocating the use of violence. You have written, quote, “What I want is for all activists to act like they are serious about their resistance and that might include assassinations.” What do you mean by that?

DERRICK JENSEN: The world is being killed. And if they were space aliens who had come down from outer space and they were systematically deforesting the planet and vacuuming the oceans and changing the climate, what would we do? There are two million dams in the United States. There’s about 70,000 dams over six-and-a-half-feet tall. And if we only took out one of those dams every day, it would take 200 years to take them all out.

And I want to be really clear that I don’t advocate violence any more than I advocate nonviolence. What I advocate is looking at the circumstances and deciding what would be the appropriate action, both personally and socially. And we can look at this in World War II. A great example is that the — you know, the Danish resistance in World War II, we’re all aware of how when the Jews had to put the stars on, the king put the first star on. That’s great, but that’s because Hitler declared Denmark a model protectorate. And if somebody in Poland would have tried that, it’s like, “Great, you can join them on the cattle car.” It wouldn’t have — the tactic wouldn’t have worked. And so, I think it’s really important, once again, to ask ourselves what we want and then to ask ourselves how we’re going to get there.

AMY GOODMAN: You talk about the Apocalypse. What does that mean to you? And what gives you hope? How do you think we need to organize today?

DERRICK JENSEN: Well, we’re living in the midst of the Apocalypse. A hundred and fifty, 200 species went extinct today. You know, years ago I was talking to a friend, and he said, “So what will it take for you to finally use that word, 'Apocalypse'? And will it take the death of flocks of passenger pigeons? They were so large they darkened the sky for days at a time. The death of flocks of Eskimo Curlews, that they were just as large? You know, the death of the bison, the death of” — it’s like I was talking to this guy in Portland a couple years ago after a talk, and he said, “You know, I don’t think it’s time to fight back yet.” I said, “OK, so 90 percent of the large fish in the oceans are gone. You tell me when it might be time to fight back.” Whatever “fighting back” means — I’ll asterisk there. You know, 91 percent? Ninety-two percent? Ninety-three percent? Ninety-four percent? At what point? And by “fighting back,” I want to be really, really clear that I don’t mean — that doesn’t have to necessarily mean picking up guns, because once again, like I said early on, there is so much work that people aren’t doing that’s purely above ground that — I mean, one of the things I’m doing right now at home, which is about as non-militant as you can get, is that the frogs where I live are dying from this one mold, Saprolegnia, and if I bring the egg sacs inside, they survive. So I go out in the pond, and I collect the egg sacs, and I put them in the house. And two months later — you know, I feed them, and then, two months later, I release them. And it’s — you can’t get less militant than that.

AMY GOODMAN: One of our listeners wrote in, “Derrick Jensen says that personal actions, such as living simply, composting, biking and not consuming, are ineffective and possibly detrimental to environmental solutions. In his article 'Forget Shorter Showers,' he says, 'The endpoint of the logic behind simple living as a political act is suicide.' Won’t this argument marginalize, disempower and divide those concerned about the environment while excusing personal bad habits?” That’s what the person wrote in.

DERRICK JENSEN: Well, we need to look at the numbers, that about 90 percent of water is used by agriculture and industry. And the same amount of water is used by municipal human beings as is used by municipal golf courses. So it’s a very, very short lever to take a shorter shower. I mean, I live pretty simply myself, but that’s basically because I’m a cheapskate. You know, it’s not a political act.

AMY GOODMAN: But once you make it your way of life, you start demanding that of others.

DERRICK JENSEN: But that’s still really trivial compared to the larger — OK, a great example is that, let’s say I reduce my waste to zero. You know, I repair my old toaster, and I wear the tennis shoes until they fall off my feet. My waste is zero. OK? The average person in the United States puts out about 2,600 pounds of trash a year, I think. I could be off by a little, but it’s close enough. Well, I got bad news, which is, actually, the average person in the United States puts out about twenty-six tons of garbage, but 97 percent of that is by industry. And so, once again, we’re looking at the wrong targets, and that’s one of the things that has been, I think, horribly detrimental to the environmental movement, has been to move toward personal purity as opposed to actually organize political resistance.

AMY GOODMAN: And that political resistance, the form it would take?

DERRICK JENSEN: I think it takes whatever forms are appropriate. And we look at Ken Saro-Wiwa with MODOP sicMOSOP, sorry. And they attempted to act nonviolently. And out of his murder, the movement turned into MEND, which does use violence. And I’m not suggesting that as the only model, I want to be really clear, that MEND is one model. They’ve reduced oil output in Nigeria by up to 20 to 30 percent at times, and they’ve done that through sabotage, through kidnappings. That’s one model. We have, you know, the bus boycotts. That’s a different model. But what they have in common is organized political resistance. You don’t have Rosa Parks just sitting down on a bus all by herself. That doesn’t do any good at all.

I love a story about how —

AMY GOODMAN: And we’ll end with this.

DERRICK JENSEN: — how the Black Panthers were looking for a place to have a congress, and they were under assault, you know, by the feds. And the Quakers offered a meeting house and did so — they didn’t agree with the tactics, but they did so because they saw it was important, and surrounded the house with their bodies, because they knew that the cops wouldn’t shoot them. And, you know, Harriet Tubman carried a gun, but she couldn’t have done the Underground Railroad, her part of the Underground Railroad, without pacifists, you know? That’s why I feel so strongly we need everything.

AMY GOODMAN: Author and activist Derrick Jensen. He’s been described as the poet-philosopher of the ecology movement.

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