VOTING IN A CULTURE OF OCCUPATION:
INTERVIEW WITH AUTHOR DERRICK JENSEN
(Full Interview Version - very little edits)
Derrick Jensen is a passionate and dedicated author who has written on topics as varied as education, atrocity and cultural denial, global deforestation, and our culture's silencing of the natural world. The theme underlying all of Jensen's writing is that of the insatiable drive of civilization to devour the natural world and our humanity, and the imperative for us to challenge this assault, both internally and externally. Serving us by vigilantly offering insights into how this imperative might be accomplished, he cuts through the thick cultural molasses filling our heads with nonsense, obfuscation and disorientation - civilization's lies. Jensen's thinking sweeps aside one barrier after another that prevents us from audaciously responding to the many profound social and ecological crises we are faced with.
During this period of electoral fervor, Jim Scheff and Christina McClarren decided there was no one who would challenge us to think more keenly on issues related to voting and electoral politics than Derrick Jensen.
JS: Do you see any substantial differences between the candidates Bush and Kerry?
DJ: I actually see huge differences. One of them very definitely represents the rich. The other one very definitely represents the rich. One of them is very much "pro" invading lots of other countries. The other one is pretty much "pro" invading lots of other countries. One of them is pretty wretched on the environment and the other is pretty wretched on the environment. I just think a great gulf separates them. One of them is taller than the other. I actually think there are differences - honestly. If you were sitting being interrogated by two cops, and one of them was a good cop and one of them was a bad cop, I think there would be a difference between the two. Is there a difference in their fundamental motivation and what they are fundamentally out for? No. But there is a difference in their style.
CM: Does that matter? Should it matter to anyone?
DJ: It depends on really what you want. If you want to live on a planet that is not being killed, no, there is not really an iota of difference. It probably doesn't matter a great deal to all the poor brown people who are going to get killed by United States bombs no matter which one is in office. A lot of times I talk about and write about how the government is a government of occupation, and how the culture is a culture of occupation. Of course my American Indian friends all ask me what took me so long to figure this one out. What's a government of occupation do? It moves in and attempts to extract resources and doesn't care about communities. And this is what this culture has done from the beginning. I saw this great bumper sticker a while back that said "U.S. Out of North America." If you accept that the government is a government of occupation, in some ways it doesn't make a difference who is actually in charge because they are both going to have as their primary function the extraction of resources and the maintenance of Empire. But on the other hand, if it's World War II, I would much rather be in Denmark than Poland where Denmark had a sort of nicer governor. It does make some difference - but on a larger scale it doesn't. If I had a choice between shooting myself in the head or voting for Bush or voting for Kerry - if those are the only three choices I am given in my entire life... (I would probably shoot myself in the head.) No... Here we go, if I had to choose between voting for Bush or voting for Kerry or watching twelve straight hours of Dennis Miller, I think I would probably vote for Kerry.
JS: How do you think Ralph Nader or the efforts of the Green Party fit into this?
DJ: I would separate those two. I'm registered Green. We all have these shameful secrets we don't want people to know. One of mine is voting. I actually do vote which is very embarrassing. I am registered Green but I am going to unregister this year. I think they have become just an adjunct to the Democratic Party... on the National level. Same thing if I start attacking environmentalists or something, I am never talking about local environmentalists. I am always talking about National Scale when I attack them.
CM: What's caused that to happen ... what's changed to make them an adjunct now to the Democratic Party in your mind? What's motivated you to unregister?
DJ: Well, what motivates that is their separation from Nader who I think did a lot to promote the Green Party in 2000. And then also their strategy of only working in the states where the votes actually aren't going to matter anyway - only working in the non-swing states. One of the things that does is it presumes that there is really a difference between the Democrats and the Republicans - like in the first question you asked. One of the things that I want to say about this that I haven't yet said is that a two party dictatorship is much smarter than a one party dictatorship. If you really want to control someone, what you do is you give them the illusion of choice. Then they perceive themselves as being free, and there's nobody more enslaved than the slave who doesn't even know that he or she is enslaved.
One of the things the Nazis did that was really brilliant is they would give the Jews what some of the Jews would call "brain busters." They would give them the choice "Are you going to have a red identity card or a blue identity card?" A lot of the Jews then spent a lot of time going "Oh, my gosh, um, am I going to have a better chance at surviving if I get the red one or the blue one?" Of course it didn't make any difference at all. But they didn't know that so they would spend all this time figuring out if they should register as a tinker or a shoe-maker. Once again it didn't matter in the slightest but they are spending all their energy doing that instead of spending their energy trying to bring down the whole system. That's sort of what our choices are reduced to. It's a brilliant strategy on the part of any oppressor. It's a classic tool of abusers - false choices. If you can get the abuse victim to participate in her or his own degradation then you've got them, and then you barely need to do anything.
JS: That's the whole mechanism behind our civilization at this point - perpetuating denial - making everyone essentially think they are killing themselves and their homes and their family - or ignore that they are killing themselves, their homes and their families.
DJ: Their choice is to recognize somebody else is killing me and to not identify with them. I drive my mom crazy. She just said this today: "We are just bombing the hell out of cities over there." I said, "We are? You, me, what? Did I do it?" She said, "No, no, no... you know, the United States." It's the same thing with the question "How much longer do you think we are going to be in Iraq?" I say, "My god, I thought I was in Northern California! Are we actually in Iraq?" And then after somebody gets through giving me dirty looks, I say "No, it's the United States government over there. I don't identify with the U. S. government. I don't identify with the corporations. There actually is an us and them.
CM: Do you think voting is complicit then with murder?
DJ: No. Or it's one little bit responsible. I fly on the airlines. I recognize I have some responsibility for participating in that economy. But I did the math. What I contributed to their revenue was something like one ninety millionth of their total revenue. So I guess you could call me one ninety millionth complicit. If I vote I guess I am one hundredth millionth complicit. I need to step away from this too and say that on a local level I do think voting is useful here in this community.
CM: Like ballot initiatives?
DJ: Yeah and even more so like in the local supervisor race in this county. There are only about 50,000 people or so in this county. One of the guys running is right wing, insane, wise-use, and really stupid. He reminds me of the President. I am not in his district so I don't get to vote against him, but if I lived in it, I would vote against him three or four times.
One more thing I want to say about being complicit... No, I don't think you are complicit because I don't think voting matters. So I don't think that makes me complicit or anybody complicit. I think it's meaningless. It would be more complicit if it mattered. One of the jokes I like to tell, and this is so embarrassing, is when I was 19 in 1980 I voted for Ronald Reagan. I was young and stupid and didn't know any better. It was actually a good thing because he said he was going to balance the budget. The capitalist press said that was a good thing and so I listened to it. Of course when he got elected, he didn't balance the budget. Nobody ever called him into account. Up until then I'd somehow believed the words they said. But at that point I said, "I get it. They all just lie. There's no accountability whatsoever." But the point is, had Reagan been elected by one vote, I would have killed myself. Then I would have been complicit. All that would have been my fault.
JS: Some anarchists and other radicals feel that by voting they would be giving up some autonomy or giving legitimacy to this particular system and state. Is this any different from the other compromises we make such as driving a car, watching television, or purchasing industrial-produced food at the grocery store?
DJ: I think one of the important things to remember is that we didn't create the system. I can take responsibility for my own actions but once again I didn't create the system. I can't really worry too much about individual actions like that because the goal really is to bring down civilization. About ten years ago I was feeling really bad because I was driving a car and I was internalizing and doing the whole sort of liberal guilt thing. An Indian friend of mine, Jeanette Armstrong, said "Wait a second. You didn't create car culture. Do what you can, but you didn't create it. You are not responsible for that system. You are only responsible for your actions within it."
Several years ago I was doing an interview on a radio station in Spokane, WA and the radio interviewer said to me, "The Indians here exploited the salmon, too." And I said, "No they didn't. They ate them." He said, "What's the difference?" I said, "They gave them respect for the spirit in exchange for the flesh." I knew it was kind of crap but I am a man so I had to give him an answer. I knew the answer was insufficient. That afternoon I went outside and sat by this tree I had a long relationship with and I asked the tree, "What is the fundamental predator-prey relationship?" The tree gave me the answer right away - which is if you consume the flesh of another, you have to take responsibility for the continuation of that community.
I have had some people get really hyperactive because they consume toilet paper. "Oh my gosh, I am now as responsible for deforestation as the CEO of Weyerhaeuser." That's not true. The way you would be responsible for deforestation is if you consumed the flesh of that tree and you did not take responsibility for the continuation of that community by taking out Weyerhaeuser. There's a fundamental difference. One of them is the logic of the abused child. If I can just behave perfectly enough, if I can just not use toilet paper, if I can just not vote, if I can just not drive a car, if I can just not buy anything at the grocery store, then suddenly everything will be okay. That's assigning way too much power to one behavior. What that does is it acts as a toxic mimic for what is often our real responsibility which is the fact that we are allowing the system to continue. That's a real responsibility for which to be deeply ashamed.
JS: I used to joke around quite a bit about this whole perfection issue - about whining that you can't do anything until you've achieved perfection - and only then are you sincere.
DJ: But by then you're dead.
CM: You are dead of the stress of trying to be a purist.
DJ: Yeah... I was taking a walk in the forest again one day worrying about the whole toilet paper issue and a tree said to me, "Look - you are an animal. You consume things. Get over it."
CM: You are basically saying you evaluate what you decide to do and the choices that you make by determining if it truly helps bring down civilization.
DJ: Partly. I eat food because it tastes good.
CM: Yeah... but you were evaluating things in terms of a desire to bring down civilization.
DJ: The need... the need to bring down civilization. That is really the question by which we are going to be judged. The only thing that really matters in the long run, or the medium run, or the short run for that matter, is what happens to the land. The land base is everything. And the question by which those of us who come after humans and non-humans will judge us is how we leave the land behind.
CM: My follow up to evaluating your choices by whether is brings down civilization - it sounds like you are having a dialogue with the land about that and that leads to the question of where in the electoral process do the voices of the non-human world fit in? How do they? Or how can they?
DJ: Zippity-do-dah... .They don't.
CM: Well, I want them to. Or at least in collective decision-making. I know the electoral decision-making process is bogus.
DJ: Winona LaDuke said some great stuff about that of course, four years ago, with her "seventh generation" amendment to the constitution. That's great stuff. Of course it doesn't have a chance in a bazillion of getting in within this culture.
CM: I'm not familiar with that.
DJ: She wanted to make an amendment to the constitution that all decisions would have as there basis the effect on people seven generations from now.
CM: Just people?
DJ: When you go a couple or three generations into the future, and right now too, anthropocentricism and biocentricism coincide - everybody needs a land base. It doesn't matter whether you are a spotted owl or a human being. The truth is, if you are going to live in the Pacific Northwest, and you want to live here for 12,000 years as the Tolowa did, if you listen to science, or the beginning of time, if you listen to the Tolowa, then you are going to have to learn to live in the forest. Living in the forest means respecting the things that are there. One of the things that shows the stupidity of our culture is this belief that evolution is based on competition. I can disprove that in one sentence if you give me a couple semi-colons. The sentence would be: those creatures who have survived in the long run have survived in the long run; and you do not survive in the long run by hyper-exploiting your surroundings; you survive in the long run by fitting your habitat on its own terms. That's where anthropocentricism and biocentricism are the same thing - if you are looking at an expanded sense of self that doesn't believe that it's in your self-interest to make a lot of money and poison your family.
JS: You have written about the inevitable collapse of industrial civilization. If you accept that this whole industrial system is going to come crashing down, and that it's vital to retain whatever ecological integrity we can between now and then, do you think that voting for what's called the "lesser" evil may be a valid tactic toward a healthier post-industrial and post-civilized world.
DJ: I don't think it matters. George Bush has pretty much attempted to gut the endangered species act, for example, head on. All Clinton did was de-fund it. Which one do you want? One of them is sneakier and smiles while he does it. The other one smirks while he does it. Again, one of the central things I would like to get across is that this is a government of occupation. I would rather have a nicer governor than not, but ultimately they both have the same goal in mind which is the extraction of resources. A lot of the problems are really functional.
CM: What would be empowering for us to do living in a country of occupation and faced with the farce of voting as viable? What would be the first three baby steps that you would take in changing that and bringing down civilization?
DJ: I always say the first step is recognizing there is a problem and to see "civilization" not like the dictionary does as a highly developed state of being or a high state of social order. Here's a question. Where does your food come from? If you believe your food comes from the grocery store, you will fight to defend the system that brings the food to the grocery store. You will fight to the death because that's where your survival comes from. If you believe that your food comes from the land, you will fight to the death to protect the land.
One of the first things we have to do is attempt to break that identification with the oppressor, break that identification with civilization... to recognize that I am not a civilized being. I am instead a human animal who lives on this particular piece of ground. I want to say a couple things about that. I was talking about recognizing that civilization is not a higher state of social order. They say that one sign of intelligence is to the ability to recognize patterns. I am going to throw out something here and we'll see if we can recognize this pattern in less than 6,000 years. When I think of Iraq, when I think of its countryside, when you think of its countryside, do you normally think of cedar forests so thick that the sun never reaches the ground? How about when you think of the Saudi Arabian Peninsula? Do you usually think of oak forests? Maybe if we move to the Near East, when you think of Lebanon, do you think of thick cedar forests? They have a cedar on their flag. And when you think of Greece, do you think of heavily forested hills and lions? And North Africa, Libya, Tunisia - do you think of a densely, densely forested region? And France, England, Ireland... .The first written myth of civilization is Gilgamesh going in and deforesting. All of those places were forested. Civilization deforests. Civilization undercuts its land base. It must functionally. The definition I have come up with for "civilization" is "civilization" is the way of life characterized by the growth of cities. What's a city? I have defined a city as a collection of people living in numbers large enough to require the importation of resources. What that means is that the Talowa, who lived here, and still live here, were not civilized before. They did not live in cities and did not require the importation of resources. They lived in camps, villages and so on. They lived off what the land provided. As soon as you require the importation of resources, two things happen: your way of living can never be sustainable. You will have to denude larger areas of the land as you expand. And the other thing it means is that your way of life must be based on violence. If you require the importation of resources, trade will never be sufficiently reliable. If the people the next watershed over don't want to give you that resource, or trade it for whatever, you will take it if you require it. We could all become junior bodhisattvas and it wouldn't matter. The United States would still have to invade countries all over the world to get oil, to get chromium, to get whatever.
I want to jump tracks back to what I was saying a minute ago about identification. First, anything that a woman does if a man attempts to rape her - no one can question anything she does. No matter what she does, it's perfect. That said, I know particular tactics that have helped some women break the rapist-victim dynamic. One of the things that they can do is to redefine themselves as survivors. Sometimes women are too busy surviving to be able to do that in the moment and only do it many years later. It can go any number of ways. I have one story about this that is kind of silly but it shows this dynamic in action. One time in the early 70's, my sister was lying in bed reading. She was in her twenties at the time - it was early morning. Suddenly there was a guy at her back with a knife at her throat. He said he was going to rape her. My mother had always told her that if anyone ever does that, she should always keep a bottle of pills by the side of the bed. And she had. She said to the guy, "Okay, you can do that but I got to tell you, my husband and I are being treated for syphilis. And it's your call. You want to take that risk, go for it." He said, "Okay, no, I think I'll just rob you. Do you have some money?" What she had done is she had broken his identification with being a rapist and turned it into that of being a robber. Here's where it gets really silly. My sister is so stupid in some ways. She had twenty bucks in her wallet and she gave him five. And he left. The point is that one of the things that we need to do is break the identification as a victim of civilization, break the identification as civilized and begin to identify with our land base. Things will become much clearer. The next thing I want to say about the baby steps... People ask me, "What do you want me to do?" I always say "I'm doing a drive-by. I am here, you are there. I don't know how to live sustainably on the occupied land where you live." You are on the banks of the Mississippi?
JS & CM: The confluence of the Missouri and the Mississippi. We live in a prairie oak savannah.
DJ: What I would suggest people do is go ask the rivers what they want... ask the oak savannahs what they want. And they'll tell you. Who knows - they may tell you to vote!
JS: We are seeing the same actions, the same trajectory with the Democrats and Republicans but do you see any difference in pace of destruction?
DJ: Yeah - I think Bush is a little bit faster. I think Bush is a puppet and Cheney is really the "go to" guy there. I think they are Dr. Strangelove crazy. They are really stupid. I don't understand. I think they actually believed their own rhetoric about invading Iraq - that the Iraqis would welcome them. Of course Hitler believed the same rhetoric about Russia, too.
CM: Do you think we should vote for Bush to accelerate the demise of industrial civilization?
DJ: It might speed things up. But I don't think someone should vote for Bush because that will speed things up. There are plenty of other things that one can do to speed things up that don't cause damage. What about instead, attacking the roots of civilization? What about attacking the infrastructure? What about taking out dams? What about doing all sorts of things that would actually help your land base? That's a much better idea.
CM: I want to figure out a way to accelerate the demise of industrial civilization and at the same time ameliorate suffering from that collapse.
DJ: Absolutely. I've got a section in the book about that. I was doing two talks up in Eugene. This woman came to both talks so she could accuse me of being like Stalin. She said I was a combination of Stalin, Pol Pot and Mao. It was really weird because of course Mao and Stalin were both industrializing. Her point was that I was talking about taking down civilization which is going to kill a lot of people. I didn't really have an answer at the time but I couldn't proceed with my book until I had answered this question. This was a hugely important question. Suddenly it hit me. Bam. So, here's the answer. If you believe that industrial civilization is inherently unsustainable (that it's destroying the land base), if you believe that it will crash someday, and if you believe that, since it is destroying the land base, the longer we wait before it crashes then the worse things will be for the humans and non-humans that come after... .If you agree with those three things, and you don't want to actually want to bring it down, and your main concern is with the welfare of the humans who come after, then what somebody who believes all that needs to do then is prepare people for the crash. It's going to come whether people bring it down or not.
JS: My feeling about collapse is that with complex systems, predicting when it's going to break is near impossible but saving more things until then is a good thing. Could you not argue then that it would be beneficial to elect somebody that would have a slower pace? Could you argue that it's better to have Democrats in because we would have 15% more forests left than we would if we had Republicans?
DJ: Sure. I have no problem with that argument as long as at the same time we are still doing the primary work of bringing down the whole system.
JS: The other consideration dealing with the issue of suffering... .I am a parent and I have two children. One of my biggest fears and one of my biggest hopes is the collapse of this civilization. I see the pain civilization is building within my children as young as they are. Simultaneously, if its collapse happens in their generation, as much as I can prepare myself or them, there's going to be so much suffering that they are going to have to deal with. As a parent, you see that and you think that at least they have food right now, they have warmth right now. It's hard to move past that. Of course, when you look beyond that on a longer scale, collapse is inevitable and it needs to happen. But most people, when they have to start facing this critique and start facing the reality, have children and families and they think "What about my kids tomorrow?"
DJ: Well, we also all know that rates of cancer are going through the roof. We could argue that way, too. I don't know if you have seen the studies on the effects of pesticides on children. It's really horrifying. They did a study of children in the valleys and highlands in Mexico. The ones in the highlands had lower exposure to pesticides. The ones in the valley - 5 & 6 year olds - were physically and mentally retarded. I mean that in the clinical sense of retarded in their growth. The 5 & 6 year olds made some drawings. I have seen their drawings. They are heartbreaking. They are like those of a one or two year old. Three scratches on a piece of paper is a person. They are not what 5 & 6 year olds should be drawing like. These are facts that raise equally compelling questions. They don't alter what you are asking about what we are going to do for food tomorrow. There are a lot of things one can do in the mean time if one has children. One is to start finding local edible plants, local edible animals. This is going to sound disgusting, but I think it's really true, that people forget about insects. Insects are going to be a great source of food. You can survive on insects pretty easily.
CM: On an emotionally level there is a lot of fear which I think is justifiable about the possible or inevitable collapse of civilization - depending on how someone sees it. I am wondering what can be done, not just practically in terms of edibles in the wild, but on an emotional level. What can we do to make collapse, if I dare say this, actually enjoyable or fun when I feel so much despair about it?
DJ: It's so fun to fight back! Oh my god, that's so fun.
CM: I want to hear more about that fun - that fighting fun.
DJ: There's such tremendous joy in liberation. So many activists get burned out and they get discouraged and all this other stuff. Part of the reason is because they keep trying to work within the system that is inherently unsustainable. You know about Bush rescinding the "roadless" rule? (95% of the 2.5 million or so comments on the original "roadless" rule were in favor of the "roadless" moratorium.) You know what the recommendation is for action? Write letters to George Bush. Okay - there's a recipe for burn-out. It's really stupid and it's really ineffectual. It's important to no longer allow those in power to determine your actions. That doesn't mean you have to act outside the law. It means the law is no longer relevant to you.
JS: A little bit in defense of that tactic. There are people who think letter-writing is the answer and that people are going to listen. We do this a lot on issues related to the Mark Twain National Forest here in Missouri. We try to get a lot of comments in on certain proposals. I know that the Forest Service isn't going to listen. But we have numbers. We can use them in dealing with public opinion and by creating enough impression. You combine issues, tactics and grassroots organizations to focus on public perception and direct action.
DJ: I think we have to recognize we are never going to have a mass movement. We are never going to have a mass movement rise up to take down civilization. You are not going to have bazillions of people do that. One of the ways I recognize that there is no hope for the salmon in terms of this culture is this. When fathers are raping daughters, when brothers are raping sisters, when boyfriends are raping girlfriends, and when friends are raping friends, there is no hope for the salmon. If they are destroying people that close to them, who the fuck cares about some fucking fish? This culture is so destructive from the inside to the outside, from the top to the bottom, that for us to hope that there is going to be some sort of transformation, we may as well hope that the Great Mother is going to solve everything for us or the Easter Bunny or somebody else.
I think hope is a tremendously harmful thing. People say, "I hope that suddenly the people will rise up," or "I hope that this... " or "I hope that... ," but what is hope? At one of my talks I was bashing hope, and somebody in the audience shouted out "What is hope?" I said "I have got no idea. I have been using this term for years and I don't even know what hope is." I asked the audience and they gave me this great answer. Hope is longing for a future condition over which you have no agency. I don't hope. I don't hope that I am going to get some sleep tonight. I am going to do it. I don't hope that I am going to eat tomorrow; I am just going to do it. If I say that I hope the salmon survive, I am saying that I am powerless over the survival of the salmon. But I don't say I hope the salmon survive because I will do what it takes to make sure they survive. It's very simple. There are five straightforward tasks we need to do. We need to remove damns, stop industrial logging, stop industrial fishing, stop global warming, and stop industrial agriculture. Those are all very doable technical tasks as long as we don't try to fit them into this [civilization's] paradigm.
There's this great book called The Nazi Doctors by Robert J. Lifgan. In this book he asks how was it that these doctors could go in and participate in these death-camps. What he found is that many of the doctors did the best they could for the Jews (not Mengela, but many of the others) as long as they didn't question the larger Auschwitz reality - as long as they didn't question the starvation, as long as they didn't question the racism, as long as they didn't question working them to death or mass murder. If somebody got sick, they would give them an aspirin to lick. They would put them in bed a couple of days and try to hide them ... . They would do what they could but not question the larger reality. That's what I feel like a lot of environmentalists are doing. That's what I feel like all of us are doing. We are doing all this stuff. We are doing the best we can as long as we don't question the larger reality and break out of the concentration camp!
JS: But there are issues of dealing with certain realities. You can question the deeper roots of what's happening with the salmon but that still doesn't mean you aren't bounded by certain social and political realities if you want to work toward their survival.
DJ: There is no such thing as a political reality. There are physical realities in that if I walk up to a dam with a bunch of explosives, the cops will come and try and take me away. But that's not a political reality. I don't care about political reality. It's a shared delusion amongst a culture that is absolutely fucking insane. The killing of salmon - that's what I care about. We can talk political reality but that's talking about phantasms. Sure - that can be important - and messages are very important and all that stuff. I am not saying it's not. I have done my share and I still do my share of mainline work. I have done so many timber sales appeals. That's where I learned that kind of work was really useless, in a sense. I'm not saying people shouldn't do it. I don't get involved in the reform versus revolution question. The reason I don't get involved in it is because we need it all - we need everything. We need people doing timber sales appeals. It just ended up being useless for me. We worked like hell. A group of people I was working with saved probably tens of thousands of acres of old growth - a lot. We shut down several [sales in] national forests in northeastern Washington and north Idaho. The response from the local National Forest Service was to hire 50 new people, 49 of whom were technical writers, to make slicker documents [of obfuscation.] The response to people doing this all over the country was the Salvage Rider. Every single acre I had helped protect was cut over the next 18 months. That was really my lesson in how these things work. If we find ways to use the rules to bring democracy to the forests, they'll change the rules every fucking time. I am not saying we shouldn't do it. The reason I learned the whole revolution versus reform question was crap was when I went to work in a prison. I'm all for abolishing prisons and all that groovy stuff but the fact is that many of my students told me that my classes were the only thing really keeping them sane. So I was walking in there just like a Nazi doctor into Auschwitz and I was doing what I could to make this horrible situation a little bit better. I was doing pure reformist work. I got no problem with doing pure reformist work but at the same time I think we need to acknowledge what really needs to happen. Like with the salmon, it's very simple. What needs to happen are the damns need to come out. Guess how many dams there are in this country? First, guess how many dams there are over 6 feet tall and then how many total? 75,000 more than 6 feet, 2 million total. If we were only to take out one damn a day, it would take over 200 years to take out all the ones that are over 6 feet tall. That's just one a day. Of course that's not happening. The salmon don't have time. So, yeah - we need to work within the system but we have to recognize it's stacked against us, always has been, always will be - the system is aimed toward destruction.
CM: I have a problem with working within the system. I would much rather be reclaiming the kind of response you are talking about - a fierce sense of what needs to be done and a fierce commitment to do it - than the "let me kiss the system's ass" response. I have been attended and been humiliated at enough regulatory hearings to know the bogusness. I now know the corrupt history of the regulatory agencies as well. It's a complete farce. What I want to hear more about is reclaiming that fierce spirit. Why aren't we out there blowing up damns?
DJ: I talked to some fisheries biologists about whether it would be in the interest of rivers to take out dams, catastrophically if necessary. Their answers basically boiled down to: "The short-term damage to the fishery would be worth the long-term gains, absolutely." They said, "Catastrophic dam removal can destroy short-term habitat and create long-term habitat."
For the past several months, I've been haunted by that phrase: Catastrophic dam failure always involves short term habitat loss and long term habitat gain.
Short term habitat loss, long term habitat gain. Short term loss, long term gain. What was a primary reason my mother stayed so long with my father? The fear of short term loss outweighed the prospect of long term gain. Why does anyone stay in any abusive relationship? Chances are good it comes down to a fear of the short term loss being greater than the perceived possibility of long term gain. Why do people stay in any self-destructive relationships? Why do people stay at jobs they hate? Why do addicts stay addicted? Why don't people take out dams? Why don't people get rid of civilization? Short term loss, long term gain.
Why did so many Jews not resist as they were led into gas chambers? Why is it, as Zygmund Bauman wrote, that "rational people will go quietly, meekly, joyously into a gas chamber, if only they are allowed to believe it is a bathroom." Why is it that so many of us today do not resist?
I think the fisheries biologists gave us part of the answer.
We will accept short term loss -even murder, both personal and planetary rather than take the risks that would lead to long term gain.
Of course it's not quite so simple. Is not Christianity based on teaching us to suffer the ever-so-small short term loss of being in our bodies on a beautiful planet in exchange for the long term gain of heaven? Is not technological civilization based on teaching us to accept the short term loss of the natural world in exchange for the technotopia that awaits us around the corner? Isn't capitalism based on teaching us to accept the short term loss of our daily happiness to work jobs we hate so we can eventually retire rich (on a dying planet)?
What's the difference?
That last question stumped me for a couple of days, till I took a long walk in the forest and suddenly got the answer. Domination. The important question is not whether someone is more repelled by the short term losses than attracted by the long term gains, but rather who gains by this stasis. Who gains by a woman staying with her abuser? Who is exploiting whom? Who gains by someone staying in a job he hates? Who is exploiting whom? Who gains as we give our lives away here in hopes of a better life in heaven? Who is exploiting whom?
As is often (though not always) the case, it is facile and pointless to give a recipe: one should always be brave and suffer the short term loss to receive the long term gain; or on the other hand one should live for today and never suffer the short term loss for some long term gain that may never come (you could get hit by a truck tomorrow).
I would never say that every person in every lousy relationship should leave it. Nor would I say that every person in every shitty job should quit. Nor would I say that every person in every lousy relationship or shitty job should stay. All life is circumstantial. I will not say that we should blow up every dam today. I will not say that we should not. I will not say that we should always wait on legal means to bring down dams, and I will not say that we should never wait on legal means. All life is circumstantial.
But I will say this. We need to bring down civilization now. By any means necessary. For the sake of the salmon, for the sake of the sandeels, for the sake of the guillemots, skuas, and kittiwakes. For the sake of the marlins and sharks. For the sake of the poor and exploited humans. For the sake of the indigenous. For the sake of every mother who has dioxin in her breastmilk. For the sake of future generations of humans and nonhumans alike. For our own sake. Do it now. We need to use our skills, whatever they are. Use our gifts, whatever they are. Use what we love and what we hate. Use everything we've got.
If we will not do it now, when will we ever do it?
CM: I don't think people were so afraid of that in the past - of fighting, of doing it. Do you think we are more dumbed down now?
DJ: Oh, we're slaves. We are totally slaves. The book on taking down civilization [I am currently working on] really started off to be a book taking each of the arguments that pacifists put forward and shooting them down. A lot of times when I would do talks on violence, I would get the same arguments and none of them would make any sense. "You can't use the master's tools to dismantle the master's house... ." [This is a quote and philosophy of writer and activist Audre Lorde popular in many activist communities.] Those in power tell us they own the land, they tell us they own the air, more and more they tell us we own the water, and they tell us they own the conflict resolution methods - its called the law. Now they are going to tell us they own violence, too. I don't think a mother grizzly bear would agree that the master owned that tool. I can tell that Audre Lorde never took down a house. It doesn't matter whose tools you are using, you can dismantle a house using anybody's tools. So, I start doing this examination of pacifism and one of the things I find is I can't find any examples of moral pacifists amongst indigenous people at the frontier of civilization. When Tecumsah was trying to talk all the Indians into fighting back against the whites, there were those who said, "We can't fight because they'll kill us" or "We can't fight because this particular thing they did does not warrant that response," but none of them ever said "We can't fight because it's wrong to kill somebody who is killing you." So many of the Indians would say, "We have a choice. We can either become slaves to them or we can fight. If we fight, we are probably going to die. We are going to defend the place where we live. My dignity and my humanity requires that I fight back." What kind of transformation has taken place that dignity now requires that we don't fight back?
Why don't we fight back? I think one of the reasons we don't fight back is because we are paid really well not to. We in the first world have a lot of physical comforts. I don't want my legacy to be that I was bought off this cheap. I think all the time about the people who are going to be living a hundred years from now. I try to look them in the eye. I step outside my home and I try to look at the trees and I try to do right by them. They are the ones to whom I am responsible to and they are the ones to whom I am answerable to. That's been a wonderful transformation.
If I am not going to blow up a dam right now, the least I can do is tell the truth.
JS: In some ways it goes back to the issue of the type of work you do, whether it can be called reformist or not, pointless or not. To me it depends on what you are willing to say and do in the process. If you have made the choice that you are not going to risk going to prison for 30 years to stop some development, you work through other channels because that's another way you can do it but you have to be able to be completely honest and critical. You can't be afraid to go to jail because of your words.
Derrick Jensen is the author of A Language Older Than Words, The Culture of Make Believe, Walking on Water: Reading, Writing, and Revolution, and Listening to the Land. He is the coauthor of Welcome to the Machine: Science, Surveillance, and the Culture of Control, Strangely Like War: The Global Assault on Forests, and Railroads and Clearcuts.
For more information visit: http://www.derrickjensen.org/ http://www.chelseagreen.com/2004/items/welcome/Excerpt