Derrick Jensen discusses his own healing path, the essence of his vision and motivation, and his suggested actions for the time ahead in this interview with artist, poet, activist, and producer Jari Chevalier.
About Derrick Jensen
Derrick Jensen is a maverick author, social critic, public speaker, and activist for social and environmental justice. His vision is both wide and deep, presenting holistic and radical understanding of cultural pathology and what getting to a healthy ecology will require of us. His topics range from domestic violence to interspecies communication to empire, his eloquence weaving together the underlying root causes of a world of misappropriation.
Jari Chevalier: Your books are full of truth-telling. The degree of honesty and your willingness to share your personal vision are astonishing. In my experience, the only people who speak in this manner have done a lot of inner work and have come to terms within themselves to a great extent. How did you prepare to speak the truth and stand your ground?
Derrick Jensen: I think part of the process, at least for me, was that I’ve gone through any number of circumstances where I didn’t speak up and where I still don’t speak up. I know how it feels, even if it’s scary, to speak up; and I know how it feels, even when it’s scary, to not speak up.
Years ago, I was asked why, when I teach, I never give negative feedback to my students (I teach solely through praise), while at the same time, I’m this unstinting critic of those who are killing the planet. So this person in the audience said, “What’s the difference? Why do you do that? Why don’t you, you know, praise them into becoming good people or something?”
And I knew immediately the answer, which is it’s all about power. If I have power over someone, it’s my responsibility to use that power only to help them. And if, on the other hand, I see someone else who has power over someone and I see them misusing that power, it’s my responsibility to stop them, using any means necessary.
Part of the difficulty with us, in this culture, is that we are often so heavily identified with the oppressor that we can’t see the situation for what it is.
One very obvious example is Roman Polanski’s arrest. When he was 45 years old, he plied a 13-year-old girl with alcohol and part of a Quaalude and then raped and sodomized her, over her objections. There were a bazillion people defending him and who were outraged when he was arrested. And second, when most of the news articles talk about it, they almost never use the word “rape”.
We see the same thing in a larger scale of what’s killing the planet, which is identification with those processes—those abusive processes—that are killing planet. What do all those so-called solutions to global warming have in common? What they all have in common is that they take industrial capitalism as a given and the natural world as that which must conform to industrial capitalism. They are all based on a continuation of the oil economy.
And they’re not based on ending civilization. I am fully confident that if we brought down civilization, the planet would recover; but that is unthinkable, because within any abusive dynamic—whether we’re talking about a family dynamic or a social dynamic—everything, every action, every moment, every thought is set up to protect the abuser. And it’s the same on the global scale.
You know, R.D. Laing had three rules of a dysfunctional family. Rule A is: Don’t. Rule A1 is: Rule A does not exist. And Rule A2 is: Never discuss the existence or nonexistence of rules Rule A, A1, or A2. So in an abusive family, like my own when I was a child, we could talk about everything we wanted except for the violence that we had to pretend wasn’t happening. We couldn’t talk about the fact that we couldn’t talk about the violence, and so on and so on.
There was a lot of time in my 20s that I spent getting grounded. And then also, I had extensive therapy in my 30s—ten years—and that was also very helpful. I know that some people become therapy addicts. I once asked my therapist, about five years into it, if I had ever done anything that had made him nervous in the therapeutic relationship. He said, “You know, at first when you came in, you were learning and changing so fast that I thought you were merely being a good child, you know, trying to please me by improving. But then I realized after about a year that you were, in fact, just desperate to change. You wouldn’t believe how many people come into therapy because it’s something to do, as opposed to desperately wanting to change.”
And I did desperately want to change. No matter what happens after I die, I only live in this form once, right now, and so I don’t want to die with books in me and I don’t want to die with honesty left in me. And this culture is killing the planet and failure is not an option. And I don’t want to look back and say, “If I would’ve just done that, maybe the salmon would’ve survived.”
JC: If we don’t act to bring more health to ourselves and society, we’re really caught in the vicious circles and double binds described so well by R.D. Laing in his book Knots.
DJ: It is incumbent upon all of us, with all the world at stake, to do whatever is necessary to stop this culture from killing the planet. We need to do anything we can.
JC: The way that you attempt to bring civilization down is through your writing. You’re not doing any direct interfering with business as usual.
DJ: Well, I do above-ground activism and I don’t do any below-ground activism. And the reason is very simple. It’s because we have to have a firewall between above-ground and below-ground activities. It’s like the IRA and the Sinn Féin; you know, they have to be separate.
I mean it would be ridiculous for Malcolm X to talk about any means necessary and then to go do underground activities himself, because he’s got a bull’s eye on his chest. If I call for the sort of transformation that’s necessary and then also do illegal acts, I may as well just go down to the police station for recreational mug shots. So there needs to be an absolute firewall.
I just did a three-day workshop called Deep Green Resistance. We do this around the country where we talk about forming a cultural resistance that is willing and able and technically able. We don’t talk about technical stuff though, because that will be crossing the line. That’s not our job. Our job is to help organize, to help propagate the understanding of what’s necessary.
So many people were at the DGR workshop we just did, and so many people say this to me all the time, it’s like, “My God, I haven’t heard of you until about four months ago and then I heard a radio interview you did and I suddenly knew, for the first time in my adult life, that I’m not alone, because I’ve had these thoughts about this culture that it is not sustainable, it won’t make a voluntary transformation, and bicycling won’t stop it and composting won’t stop it, but nobody says these things. And all of a sudden, I realize I’m not crazy. It’s the culture that’s crazy.”
That’s my role, to help with that—and then to help them get to the next step and help form those communities. And then they take it from there, which is not to say I don’t support whatever is necessary. I absolutely support whatever is necessary to keep the salmon alive or to keep migratory songbirds alive. My alliance is absolutely with them, but we all have different roles to play. Even the IRA, at its strongest, only about 2 percent of the people ever picked up weapons. Ninety-eight percent provided material support or vocal support and those roles are just as important.
And this is true no matter whether we’re talking about a resistance movement or the U.S. military. A very small percentage of soldiers ever fire a weapon in battle. Most of them are mechanics, clerks, typists.
JC: Ultimately, are you advocating that violence and force will be the only way to get the job done? I pulled a quote from one of your books: “Those who destroy won’t stop because we live peacefully and they won’t stop because we ask nicely. There is one and only one language they understand and everyone here knows what it is, yet we don’t speak of it openly.” Would that language be violence?
DJ: The language is force. And that’s different than violence in that you can have a mass nonviolent movement that still has force; if you’ve got a million people marching, or five million people marching or ten million people marching.
JC: So what do you think it would take to put a stop to what’s going on? In your vision, what would it really take? What do you see?
DJ: One thing that needs to happen is the oil infrastructure needs to be destroyed. What we need to do is put our bodies between the burning of carbon fuels and the planet, because if we don’t do that, the planet burns out. And this culture will not stop. Abusers never stop. And those in power never stop.
It takes someone who is really, really dull at this point to not understand that capitalism will not stop on its own. It won’t stop exploiting. Let me put it this way. If space aliens were burning up the planet by pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and if they were murdering the oceans—90 percent of the large fish in the oceans are gone, and there are parts of the oceans where there is ten times as much as plastic as phytoplankton—and if they were pumping dioxin into every mother’s breast milk, we would know what to do.
But we all get confused because of two reasons: First, we identify with the system more than we identify with life. Second, we have access to ice cream 24/7. We’re being bought off pretty damn cheap, considering this is the planet who’s being killed and the salmon who are being killed. There’s 120 species that went extinct today and they’re my kin.
If we were human at all, if we hadn’t been turned into flesh-eating zombies by this culture, we would fight back for our homes.
If you walked into a bathroom and you saw that the water was overflowing the tub, what is the first thing you would do?
JC: Turn the faucet off.
DJ: Yes. But that’s not what we do. The first thing we need to do is break our identification with the system and then we need to identify more with the real physical world. And then we need to stop the oil economy, using any means necessary.
JC: You know, I’m personally really doing this and I’m surrounded by people who seem to be conscious of the dangers. I mean the information is available to all of us now.
DJ: Absolutely. The problem is not in the information.
JC: And yet many people are just sort of resigned—or are they on the rat wheel and simply not taking necessary steps?
DJ: The good news is that there are increasing numbers of people who are recognizing this. I will do talks where 600 people show up. It’s not, you know, four of us lunatics who are thinking this. There are increasing numbers of people who are speaking and acting against this culture and not just its excesses, but who are recognizing the depths of the problem.
JC: I’m really glad that you didn’t censor yourself in any way in your writing, because your writing is original in the way that you’re mixing a lot of scholarly research and personal narrative. And, you are both gifted and prolific; you’ve written a great deal in a short time. But here, if you needed to really distill and condense to essences your philosophy and your passion, what do you most want us to understand about ourselves, about what we’re up against, and the task at hand?
DJ: I think we know what’s going on. I mean the world is being killed and we’re seeing it. It’s almost impossible to ignore, at this point, and what I’d want them to know is that the real world is real and you can’t eat money. Money is artificial; but this artificial system has real effects right now. And you still need to make a living. But that doesn’t alter the fact that it is insane to have a system of perpetual growth on a finite planet. It is insane to have a system based on consuming the planet that is your only home.
The Tolowa Indians lived where I live now for at least 12,500 years, if you believe in science. And if you believe the Tolowa, they’ve lived here since the beginning of time. But it doesn’t matter, because at the very minimum, they lived here for 12,500 years and they did not destroy the place. It is possible to live in place for a long, long, long time. The Tolowa did it. Many other cultures did it.
So one of the first things we need to do is recognize that there is another way to be.
Why do you think that abusers cut off their abuse victims? One of the first things they do is break their social contacts and one of the reasons they do that is because they need to convince the victims that there is no other way to be, that this is normal. And if they can normalize their behavior, they win.
And this culture destroys all other cultures, in part in an attempt to normalize this behavior; and so many identify with civilization more than with life, because they identify civilization with life. But civilization is not life. This is one culture that has metastasized across the globe.
What would I want people to do? The first thing is what my doctor-friend John Osborne always says: “The first step towards cure is proper diagnosis.” So what I would like for people to do is to start from that understanding—or ask themselves, “Do we live in a democracy?”
I used to ask students at a conservative college, “Do we live in a democracy?” And nobody ever said yes. I would say, “Do you believe that the government takes better care of corporations or human beings?” And they would laugh, because it’s a stupid question. What happens if you internalize the understanding of that? What happens then?
I was on a panel with Vandana Shiva, Cathy Pedler, and Sister Anne McCarthy, who does great anti-war work. We were all on the stage. We all were in agreement that the United States is a not democracy and everybody in the audience was in agreement with that. It’s all just absurd.
I turned to Sister McCarthy and said, “If you fully internalize the implications of the fact that we don’t live in a democracy, how would that affect your anti-war activism?” She looked back at me and said, “I don’t know. It’s a good question.”
So here’s one of the things I would want for the message to be: like Harriet Tubman said: “I saved hundred of slaves but I could’ve saved hundreds more if they would’ve recognized they were slaves.”
What would happen if we internalize that understanding? And what would happen if we really internalized the understanding that this culture is killing the planet. And what would happen if we internalize the understanding that this culture will not last? Any culture based on using nonrenewable resources won’t last.
What I would want people to do is find what they love and then defend their beloved. We all have someone or something we love. If your issue is survivors of domestic violence, then work for that. If your issue is stopping rape, then work for that. If porn makes you really angry, then work to stop porn culture. If what you care about is salmon, then work to protect the salmon, work to remove dams, work to rehabilitate streams, work to stop logging. You know, find some issue.
And also I love this question that my friend Carolyn Raffensperger asks, which is: “What are the largest, most pressing problems that you can help to solve using the gifts that are unique to you in all the universe?” So for example, my gifts are for writing. Some people ask, “Why are you writing instead of blowing up dams?” My only D in college was quantitative analysis in chemistry lab. I’m terrible at chemistry.
One reason I can write so much is because I love what I do. That’s the thing, too—find what you really get off on and then you’re not going to burn out.
We need people who will provide food for people during the crash and we need people just like Harriet Tubman. She went down and helped rescue slaves. She carried a gun. But she didn’t do it by herself. There were also Quakers who were pacifists who ran safe houses and there were others who ran safe houses.
So we need it all—remember only 2 percent of the IRA picked up weapons. There was all this other support work. I’m not a reform-versus-revolution kind of guy. I believe we desperately need reform but if we don’t have revolution, this culture is going to grind away until the end. And if all we do is wait for the great revolution and nobody does reform work in the meantime, then there’s not going to be anything left anyway.
We desperately need people working at rape crisis hotlines but is that going to stop rape? No. That’s going to help the survivors. We need people rehabilitating streams. Is that going to stop the primary destruction of streams? No. But we need it anyway. We need it all.
Jari Chevalier is a literary and visual artist, educator, and producer. She is host/producer of the Living Hero audio project. Selections of her visual art may be viewed at JariArt.com and other sites around the web.