“If we don’t stop them from killing the planet, nothing else matters”
Derrick Jensen (1960-) is a contemporary radical deep green writer who argues that the industrial capitalist system must be brought to an end.
His clear and direct language leaves no room for doubt about the urgency of the environmental crisis and the scale of the response that is needed.
Jensen writes in his 2011 book Dreams: “We must do everything necessary to decisively and finally bring down civilization before it kills any more of the planet.
“Because if the scientific, materialist, instrumentalist perspective is true, this culture will continue its routine and necessary destructiveness until it collapses or is stopped”. (1)
He explains that to stop a train, you dismantle the infrastructure that allows the train to run and, likewise, “to curtail global warming, you dismantle the infrastructure that causes global warming”. (2)
Jensen’s philosophy is not obviously sourced from the European organic radical tradition, but rather inspired directly both by contact with nature and by the cultures of the indigenous peoples of his native North America.
He explains the indigenous belief that we are guided by “original instructions” and have a responsibility to live according to them.
“Original instructions presume we come into this world carrying with us advice on how to live properly, how to fit in, how to do what is right; and even more crucially, we come into this world having been given a personal and social framework for looking for that advice, for finding it in our daily lives, in dreams, in our relationships with others, and in these others’ actions”. (3)
But the people of the modern industrial West have lost touch with all that and are totally unaware that “a world of meaning surrounds them, a world of meaning that gave birth to them (back when they were alive, back when they were human), a world of meaning waiting to welcome them home”. (4)
The central character in Jensen’s 2009 novel Songs of the Dead is psychologically wounded by the life-hating violence of the ‘wetiko’ invaders and makes an interesting comment about the difficulties for people of European descent in America to link into a collective unconscious.
“I asked for dreams. Nothing. I looked at the stars and asked. Nothing. I sat beneath trees and asked. Nothing. I held soil in my hands and asked. Nothing. My only hint of anything, and I’m sure this was simply a projection on my part, was a faint voice saying, ‘I can’t hear you very well. You’re too far away.’
“Projection or not, what the voice said to me was true. My ancestors, the ones whose blood mingled for generations with the same soil, are half a world away in Europe, too far away to be able – at least with my inexperience – to help me”. (5)
In another passage from the book, Jensen conjures up a dream vision from the vibrant, interconnected, human-natural world that has been buried, apparently forever, under the grey concrete of Western civilization.
He writes: “I see Indians dancing. I see fires. I see days and nights and years of celebrations and mournings. I see people making love. I see the same for all kinds of animals, all kinds of plants.
“I see them living, dying, loving, hating. I see generation after generation of human, generation after generation of cedar, generation after generation of porcupine, generation after generation of ant, generation after generation of grasses, mosses, generation after generation of fire.
“And suddenly I see even more. I see generation after generation of muse, dreamgiver, demon, walking back and forth between worlds. I see geese and martens and wrentits moving between worlds. I see humans moving between worlds. I see all these worlds being renewed by this intercourse, this movement across borders porous and impenetrable and permeable and impermeable and breathing and alive as skin.
“I see these worlds winding and unwinding, tangling and untangling like the lovers they are, and I see moments in time, too, winding and unwinding, tangling and untangling like the lovers that they are, too. These worlds, these moments, they are not one, they are not two. They are lovers, like any others”. (6)
It is this “direct and supra-mental intellection” – as Frithjof Schuon put it – which has been so stifled by a system of living and thinking based on quantity rather than quality, the material rather than the spiritual.
Jensen writes: “This culture devalues introspection, and many of us are trained to do whatever we can to fill (and kill) time so we never have to be alone with who and what we have become, and so we never can become who we really are and were meant to be”. (7)
This, for Jensen, amounts to a mental illness afflicting our civilization and he declares in his two-volume 2006 work Endgame that “the culture as a whole and most of its members are insane”. (8)
This insanity includes the belief that somehow the society we are living in is the apex of evolution and that science and its technocratic world have been a force for good.
He comments: “Sure, science brought us television, modern medicine (and modern diseases), and cardboard-tasting strawberries in January, but anyone who would rather have those than a living planet is, well, a typical member of this culture”. (9)
In view of the destruction we have already witnessed, and that which seems to lie ahead, Jensen argues that it is absurd for people to retain faith in the industrial capitalist myth of “progress”.
He declares: “Progress is pure selfishness. Progress is theft. Progress is slave-mongering. Progress is murder. Progress is genocide. Progress is ecocide. Progress is sociopathy”. (10)
Living in this mad world, plummeting towards destruction, inevitably produces feelings of despair in many of us: “How do we go on living, when every day our hearts break anew?” (11) asks Jensen.
This insanity is not something we can run away from, he insists: “There is nowhere, no one, safe from the murderous cult that is this culture”. (12)
Instead, we are obliged to resist, to try to bring about a fundamental change in the direction that human society has taken.
Jensen was one of the founders of the Deep Green Resistance movement and frustration with the insipid pseudo-radicalism of mainstream environmentalism runs through his work.
For instance, he is scathing about the reformist target of “sustainable development”, pointing out: “It is an oxymoron, since ‘development’ is a euphemism in this case for industrialization, which is by definition unsustainable; in fact, industrialization is utterly, irrevocably, and functionally antithetical to sustainability”. (13)
When people ask how they can make current society more sustainable, they are really asking how they can make it more sustainable without stopping or even significantly curtailing industrialism, adds Jensen.
The way in which we fight industrial capitalism also needs to go way beyond the ineffective symbolic level on which so much political action takes place, he argues.
He writes in Endgame: “If a foreign power (or space aliens) were to do to us and our landbases what the dominant culture does – do their damnedest to turn the planet into a lifeless pile of carcinogenic wastes, and kill, incarcerate, or immiserate those who do not collaborate – we would each and every one of us – at least those of us with the slightest courage, dignity, or sense of self-preservation – fight them to the death, ours or far preferably theirs. But we don’t fight. For the most part we don’t even resist. How’s it feel to be civilized? How’s it feel to be a slave?” (14)
For Jensen the environmental cause is not some kind of add-on struggle that can be allocated a little slot as one of a variety of political issues, but an obvious and urgent existential priority.
As he comments in Dreams: “If we don’t stop them from killing the planet, nothing else matters”. (15)
1. Derrick Jensen, Dreams (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2011), pp. 25-26.
2. Jensen, Dreams, p. 249.
3. Jensen, Dreams, p. 445.
4. Jensen, Dreams, p. 274.
5. Derrick Jensen, Songs of the Dead (PM Press: Oakland, 2009), p. 167.
6. Jensen, Songs of the Dead, pp. 260-61.
7. Jensen, Dreams, p. 215.
8. Derrick Jensen, Endgame, Vol 1: The Problem of Civilization (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2006), p. 151.
9. Jensen, Dreams, p. 110.
10. Jensen, Dreams, p. 173.
11. Jensen, Dreams, p. 319.
12. Jensen, Dreams, p. 320.
13. Jensen, Dreams, p. 26.
14. Jensen, Endgame, Vol 1, pp. 200-01.
15. Jensen, Dreams, p. 221.