Posted: May 16, 2011
interviewed by Chris Richards, April 2011
Derrick Jensen is an American author and environmental activist living in Crescent City, California. 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, including A Language Older Than Words, The Culture of Make Believe, and Endgame. We are very excited to have caught up to him for an interview!
Can you give us a brief description and explanation of whom you are and what it is you do?
I am Derrick Jensen and I am a writer and activist, and I am most well known, at this point, for writing A Language Older Than Words, The Culture of Make Believe and a whole bunch of other books. Ultimately, my work is about stopping the culture from killing the planet. Part of the way that I can best serve in that compactly, or best realize that, is to articulate as best that I can, what many of us know in our hearts to be true. Like the fact that civilization is inherently unsustainable. It can never be sustainable, it is killing the planet and we need to stop it. Lifestyle changes are not sufficient to stop it, they have never worked to stop any oppressive system and what is needed is organized resistance. That’s really what the body of my work is about.,
Given that the unifying theme in your writing is that we live in a culture that is destroying the planet, and therefore itself, and the hunter gatherer lifestyle led by indigenous communities is sustainable as opposed to modern industrial civilizations cycle of exploitation used in importing-exporting resources, how does one go about combating such a worldwide culture?
I think that the resistance has to take many forms, and some of those forms are purely defensive. I have a good friend who first started me in activism twenty some years ago, the reason he does his work is because, as he always says, as things become increasingly chaotic he wants to make sure that some doors remain open. What he means by that is if you want to help grizzly bears survive then make sure they’re alive in twenty years because they might then be alive in a thousand, but if they’re gone in 20 they’re gone forever. He wants to make sure that old growth is standing because if it’s still standing in 20 years, then it might be standing in a thousand but if it’s gone now it’s gone in a thousand. That’s one form, protecting the land base.
Another form would be changing discourse, and another form would be taking the offensive. Taking the offensive can be done in many ways. It can be through boycotts, it can be through things like helping communities to pass ordinances to make sure corporations have no rights. It can be direct attacks on infrastructures; the movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta was able to reduce oil output in Nigeria by 30 percent, as an indigenous organization, doing this because oil companies have destroyed their land. So it can take, and must take, many forms. This is true of any resistance movement. Only 2 percent of the IRA ever picked up weapons, 98 percent was doing the support work or setting up alternative institutions. They were setting up alternative school systems, setting up alternative court systems, or judicial systems I should say, alternative systems of justice. Feeding people. The important thing is they all recognized that they were all part of a larger resistance movement and recognized their importance to that resistance movement.
You recently released a novel. Has there been a different reaction or access point for your message with your fiction work rather than your nonfiction work?
I haven’t actually gotten a lot of feedback on the novels, they’ve not actually sold that well, but the people that have read them have liked them very much and have thought that it has been some of my best work. They have sold probably one twentieth as say as much as Endgame has, and I really haven’t got much of a response.
How important do you think that it is for artist or writers to communicate and discuss these topics and themes via their art and writing as appose to spending their time developing sustainable personal practices? Or can you do both?
I think you can do both. As far as sustainable personal practices, the environmental movement has been brought down a complete dead-end of lifestylism, and it’s really absurd and it’s really horrible. You have all these books like 50 Simple Things to Do to Save the Planet, which is why Stephanie McMillan and I call our book As the World Burns: 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Stay in Denial. Because there are no personal solutions to social problems, it is absurd to think otherwise. I’m against slavery, so I’m personally not going to own a slave, big deal. I’m opposed to pornography, so I am not going to look at it. That’s not particularly helpful, that’s not going to stop pornography. I’m against rape, and so I am not going to rape. A couple examples of how personal lifestyles really don’t help that much; you hear that we are suppose to take shorter showers all the time, but the thing is that 90% of the water that is used by human beings is used for agriculture and industry, only 10% is actually used for human beings. There is more water used for municipal golf courses than used for municipal human beings. So it is a really really really short lever. Another way to put all this is that per capita trash production in the United States is about 2000 pounds, and so let’s say you become Mr. or Ms. zero trash and you’re going to reduce your consumption. You don’t ever buy anything that comes in packaging; you wear your shoes till they fall off your feet, you repair your toaster, and you don’t throw anything away. Well, I got bad news for you, because actual per capita trash production in the United States is about 26 tons, only 3% of it is personal production, the rest is all by agriculture and industry again, those are the primary sources.
I was telling all these things to a group of people onetime, and this one guy couldn’t get it at all. So I offered him an example. You have ten guys and one woman in a room, and all of the men except you start to rape the women. So, you not participating in the rape is not particularly helpful, as it is not going to stop the rape. This one man actually said, “No, it will be good, because that will make it so she suffers one less rape”. But, what we need to do is to stop the rape. Nobody in his or her right mind would think that composting or riding a bicycle would have stopped Hitler, but suddenly when we start talking about capitalism we get really stupid. I’m not saying we shouldn’t live simply, I actually live very cheaply myself, but that’s because I’m a cheapskate, not because it’s a particularly political act. I recycle, I use scratch paper till there is nothing left, but I think that’s more some mild form of OCD than it is actually a political statement.
So, the personal lifestyle doesn’t really matter, it’s not what’s important. Can you imagine the Vietnamese saying we want to stop the US invasion of Vietnam, but we’re not actually resisting, we are not organizing resistance, instead we are going to be very pure, we’re not going to use any weapons, especially US made weapons. This is crazy, their needs to be some organized resistance.
As for the role of an artist, I love the line by Bertolt Brecht “art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.” In literature, there is a wretched movement in the past fifty or seventy years that basically tells us that art should be a-political. First off, there is no such thing as a-political art, because every piece of art created conveys a message. If the message is all you need is love, well that’s a message, and if the message is I want to give you every inch of my love, that’s Led Zeppelin, then that is a message, isn’t it? There are inherent messages in every piece of art. It goes along with the whole consumer thing, what we are told is the best environmental action we can do is to work on our precious little self. What is a lot of art about these days, it’s about your precious little self. Where is political art, where is it?
A great example of this absolute destruction of art is a wretched book and movie that I read and saw several years ago, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. It is said to be ‘a great triumph, it’s so wonderful’. It’s about a guy who had a stroke and can only move and communicate by blinking his left eye. With the assistance of the nurse, once they figure out his communication, he spends the rest of the story writing a book about his life by blinking. The problem for me was, before the stroke, the guy was a narcissistic asshole, and nature hating and misogynistic. Then afterwards, he’s a narcissistic, nature hating, misogynistic, asshole, and that’s the book. ‘But it was a great triumph because he did this under these terrible conditions’. Whatever. The whole time I’m reading this I’m thinking something about this is really bugging me, I finally realize what it was; it was essentially the same plot as the book Johnny Got his Gun. Johnny Got his Gun is a novel about a guy in WW1 who wakes up in the hospital and slowly realizes that a bomb blew him up. He has no eyes, ears, no face, no arms and legs, he eventually figures out how to communicate by banging his head on the pillow. He becomes an anti-war messiah; it is one of the most powerful anti-war novels ever written. For me, it’s a great example of how political art has been made less effective over the past 80 years. You always hear that if you want to send a message, use a telegram, send an email or something, don’t write a novel. But what, have these people never heard of Tolstoy, never heard of Charles Dickens, never heard of Balzac, Hugo, and Dreiser, never heard of Andrea Dworkin for that matter. To make it not just be about writing, have ever you heard of Rage Against the Machine. The point is that art is really essential to resistance. Humans are social creatures, as are many other types of creatures. How we learn is through stories and if the stories we are told are that GNP growth is good, we will come to believe that. Or if the stories we are told are that resistance is impossible, we are going to come to believe that. If the stories we’re told are resistance is important, we are going to come to believe that, and if we are told that there is a long and vital history of resistance to capitalism and resistance to civilization, then that helps makes our own resistance stronger. I think one of the roles of artists is to rally resistance and remind people of these tremendous and courageous struggles that have gone on before.
One of my heroes is Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya. She was part of the Russian resistance during WW2, and she was caught doing an action by the Nazis. She was 17 and was tortured, raped, and mutilated. The only thing that she told them was her name was Tanya, which was not even accurate. As they hanged her, her last words were “you can’t hang all two hundred million of us”. What does that do when you hear that story, or Ken Saro-Wiwa’s last words before he was [tried, murdered, and] executed by Shell, and the Nigerian government? “Lord take my soul, but the struggle continues”. He was part of the pure non-violent resistance movement. His son helped form the movement for The Emancipation of the Niger Delta, and the struggle did continue. What does it mean when you hear stories like that? Another one of my heroes is Erich Muhsam, every anarchist in the world should have heard of this guy, but most of the anarchists in the United States never have. He was considered by many to be one of the most dangerous persons in Europe and the late 20s and early 30s. He was someone who wrote tremendously against the Weimar Republic and the Nazis. He was an anarchist, and was held at a concentration camp, had a swastika branded or burned into his scalp, and tortured so much that when his wife came to visit she couldn’t recognize him. He was forced to dig his own grave and sing the German National Anthem, but instead sang the Internationale. What does it do to us to hear these stories and to have these people as our heroes as opposed to Bill Gates, or George Washington, who was known as town destroyer among the Indian’s. There is this great line by a Scottish person “if I could write all the ballads I wouldn’t care who makes the laws”. It is these stories that teach us how to be.
On the contrary, I like watching BBC mysteries, but I recognize that its pro police propaganda. The cops always get the criminal, which actually doesn’t happen in real life. The cops are always on the right side, and are invulnerable. There is a great book called Gunfighter Nation, by Richard Slotkin, which explores themes in popular fiction, from, let’s say, the 1770s up through 1970s. It’s very interesting, the pattern found in popular fiction, the theme that runs through it. The people that fight Indians in 1770, the white people, want to fight fair, want to be really good guys, but those Indians fight dirty so we have to fight dirty just this once. We have to break our rule even though we always fight fair, just this once. Onward through time you get to the Spanish American war, and in popular fiction writing about the United States, the theme is there again, we want to fight fair, but those Filipinos don’t fight fair, just this once we might have to torture a couple of them. Classic Dirty Harry, Dirty Harry really wants to be clean, The United States does not torture but those terrorists are so terrible, so just this once, just this once we will have to torture. It’s a wonderful book because it lays out that pattern. The point is that these stories allow people to believe that the United States is a great country, that really doesn’t torture, but just this once really has to. Which is the classic logic of abusers everywhere, yeah I wouldn’t beat you, but you pushed me too hard this time man.
Speaking of abusers, how can we use our personal experience with trauma and abuse in our everyday life to better understand our relationship with our culture and our cultures relationship with the natural world?
This is one of the things that I’m pretty pleased with in my own work. I’ve been able to make those connections explicit for a lot people, like the relationship between abusive family dynamics and the larger cultures abusive behavior. There are many parallels we talk about but one I find interesting is R.D. Laing’s three rules of a dysfunctional family. Which are also three rules of a dysfunctional culture. 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. On a personal, familial level, what this means, my own family was very violent when I was a child, is we could talk about anything we wanted except for the violence that was happening. On a larger scale, we can talk about Carmelo Anthony getting traded to the Knicks, and we can talk about Lindsay Lohan being in court and her blouse was too revealing. We can talk about what Bristol Palin is going to do to follow up on dancing with the stars, but meanwhile permafrost is melting and it is entirely possible that our culture could render life on earth impossible. It could render much of the earth uninhabitable.
Another great example of this is what all the so-called solutions to global warming have in common. They take industrial capitalism as a given, and they take the natural world as a secondary to industrial capitalism, which is literally insane in terms of being in touch with physical reality. The natural world must be primary because without the natural world we won’t have anything. But we don’t talk about that, we don’t talk about that at all, instead people go on and on about, what is it, Lester Browns plan b7.3 or whatever to save civilization. Not to save the planet but to save civilization. No one talks about how stark raving bonkers that is, that’s like having plan b7.0 to save Ted Bundy.
What first led you to the decision to utilize your gifts as a writer as a tool for expressing your personal views on environmental, social, and political issues?
Well when I was younger I wanted to be a writer because I liked writing stories, I’m talking 7, 8, 9, 10, 12. The ideas weren’t critical at that point but as I got older I was increasingly introduced to literature of resistance. Also, what happened when I tried to write a story that was not political is the politics would keep coming through, I couldn’t keep them out. So it was just a natural progression, wasn’t like a conscious decision, I’m going to try to write anti-civ literature, I just started writing stuff. It’s like what an environmentalist friend of mine always said, a lot of environmentalists begin by wanting to protect a specific piece of ground, and end up questioning the foundations of western civilization. Once you start the questions, they don’t stop; for example, this happened to me when I was young. There was a bunch of meadows near my home that were turned into a subdivision, and even in second grade, I could recognize that this can’t go on forever. You can’t have infinite growth on a finite planet. I didn’t use that language but I knew there used to be meadowlarks there and now there are not meadowlarks. They can’t build forever; they are going to run out of space. I could not articulate that when I was a child. And so then you start asking, how could they have done this, why is this happening? That’s where it goes, once you ask the question why, the questions just explode. Like my book The Culture of Make Believe, it started off as a five-page introduction to an encyclopedia of hate groups. I asked what is a hate group and the book exploded. You can try asking, why do men rape women? If you’re not a rapist you’re going to end up questioning the foundation of patriarchy.
I had this habit when I was in college of asking people if they liked their jobs, 90% said no. What does it mean when most people spend the majority of their waking hours doing things they don’t want to do, it’s a crazy system. There is a great line, excuse the sexism, ‘In the past the man was first, in the future the system shall be first’. That’s crazy. Once you start asking why would you want a system like that, why are salmon being killed, why are bison being killed, why are the oceans being murdered, it just keeps going. I made the mistake of asking some questions and that’s how I got started.
Do you have advice for other writers, musicians, and artists who are creating politically focused art?
Yes, don’t let people tell you that art has to be a-political, they are wrong. My work works, and i’m expressing my feelings with it. Figure out what it is you love. Anotehr thing, writing is really hard work, I mean it’s nothintg compared to being a coal miner or something, but its hard intrellectual work. So if you are going to do it, it may as well be about something important. Otherwise, why take the time. There is a great line by R.D. Laing, who starts his bookg Politics of Experience by saying few books today are forgivable. His point is that we are so alienated from our own experience that any book that doesn’t begin there and deal with that is not forgivable, you are better off with blank pieces of paper. Same thing is true, the world is being murdered, and anything that doesn’t address that is unforgivable. Another thing I’d say to young people is that if your work is coming across as too preachy, then either find a different audience or preach better. Here’s another thing, don’t give in. You have to believe in your message.
I had a chance to sell out before my career started. I was writing A Language Older Than Words, and I had a Madison Avenue agent. Their address is 1 Madison Avenue, they have a whole floor on this skyscraper, they are a a really prestigious literary agent. I sent them the first 70 pages of what becamse A Language Older Than Words and my agent hated it. One of the things she said to me was if you take out the family stuff and the social criticism, I think you’ll have a book. I fired her that day, and I thought I had destroyed my career. What young writer fires their Madison Avenue agent? I’m not saying that in terms of oh I was so brave, I was in therapy for 12 years and the only day I ever cried in therapy was that day. I thought I had killed my career before it started, I thought I had done the stupidest thing I could ever do. But I knew this book was what I had to write. Of course in retrospect the agent was absolutely wrong, so stick to your vision. That doesn’t mean be precious. I take advice from my editor all the time; I don’t take advice from random people. If I have an editor that gives me suggestions I take it or don’t take it depending on whether I agree with it, I’m very easy to work with is my point.
Here is another thing, if I can give a little tactical advice to young writers, I mean do whatever you want, but for me, I figure out when I am going to and not going to compromise. Any book has the message that I want it to be, but I’ve done some magazine articles just to put on my resume. I’ve certainly done some sell out stuff. The line I draw is I can do an article if I don’t say what I want to say, but I won’t do an article where I say something I don’t want to say. My point is, in an article, I’ll cut back some. The point really is to be aware. Years and years ago I did an article for Audubon magazine because I wanted to be in the magazine. It was utterly a-political, it didn’t have bad content, it just had no teeth whatsoever. That’s fine, great, now I get to put Audubon on my resume. I didn’t mind doing that.
I was talking to these activists in Tasmania earlier this week, one question I was asked was in order to gain credibility, you have to sometimes soften your message in terms of your activism, but at the same time how do you remain hard-line and say civilization needs to come down? We were talking about trying to stop specific timber sales. I’ve done this myself, when trying to stop a developer from destroying a part of the forest, and at one point someone associated with the process asked me if I was against all forms of development. I crossed all my fingers and all my toes, and said no I’m not against all development. The truth is that I am against all forms of development, but I made a tactical decision in that moment, you see what I’m saying? I think the same kind of thing can be true artistically. At the same time, one of the things my work does, I do this intentionally, is being as militant and uncompromising as I can because it helps give other people courage to be militant and uncompromising. That’s part of my role. I’ve got a book coming out right now where I attack the scientific worldview pretty hard. One of the reasons I’m doing this is so that people can laugh at me, so when the next person comes along and says the same thing, they won’t get laughed at so hard. The same thing is true for militant resistance.
Is there any hope for success?
If we get serious very very quickly about our resistance movement, we can bring down civilization. And in fact, we don’t really have a choice; either that or the planet ends up dead.
Check out more about Derrick Jensen and his work at his website: