How to Bring Down Civilisation
Derrick Jensen is a provocative and unyielding anti-civilization writer and speaker. His works range widely, based on serious research and his own intense experience. They include Listening to the Land: Conversations about Nature, Culture, and Eros (1995, 2nd edition 2002); A Language Older Than Words (2002); and The Culture of Make Believe (2003). He has just released Strangely Like War: The Global Assault on Forests (with George Draffan) and Welcome to the Machine: Science, Surveillance, and the Culture of Control. He is currently working on a book on bringing down civilization, with the working title, What Goes Up... Derrick has been pushing the envelope for some time now. Each new book is as eagerly awaited as it is vitally needed.
Can you tell us about your current project (How to bring down civilization)?
Derrick: This book originally was going to be an examination of the circumstances in which violence is an appropriate response to the ubiquitous violence upon which our culture is based. More specifically, it was going to be an examination of when what Franz Fanon called counterviolence is an appropriate response to state–or corporate–violence. I wanted to write that book because whenever I give talks in which I mention violence–suggesting that there are some things, including a living planet (or more basically clean water and clean air, by which I mean our very lives), that are worth fighting for, dying for, and killing for when other means of stopping the abuses have been exhausted, and that there exist those people (often buttressed or seemingly constrained by organizations) who will not listen to reason, and who can be stopped no way other than through meeting their violence with your own–the response is always the same. Mainstream environmentalists and peace and justice activists put up what I’ve taken to calling a “Gandhi shield.” Their voices get thin, and I can see them psychically shut down. Their faces turn to stone. Their bodies do not move, but the ghosts of their bodies form fingers into the shapes of crosses trying to keep vampires and evil thoughts at bay, and they begin to chant “Gandhi, Dalai Lama, Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Dalai Lama, Martin Luther King” in an effort to keep themselves pure. Grassroots environmentalists generally do the same, except after the talk some will sidle up to me, make sure no one is watching, and whisper in my ear, “Thank you for raising this issue.” Often, young anarchists get excited, because someone is articulating something they know in their bones but have not yet put words to, and because they’ve not yet bought into–and been consumed by–the culture. The most interesting response comes from some of the other people with whom I’ve spoken: survivors of domestic violence, radical environmentalists, Indians, farmers, and prisoners (For three years I taught creative writing at Pelican Bay State Prison, a supermaximum security facility here in Crescent City). Their response is generally to nod slowly, look me hard in the eye, then say, “Tell me something I don’t already know.” Some will say, “What are you waiting for, bro? Let’s go.”
A major reason for the difference in response, I realized a long time ago, was that for none of these latter groups is violence a theoretical question to be answered abstractly, philosophically, or spiritually (I’m not saying, of course, that all spirituality is abstract, but merely that for some people, and indeed for some entire traditions, spirituality can certainly be a way to transcend, i.e., avoid, embodied responses), as it can often be for more mainstream or armchair activists, for those who may not have experienced violence in their own bodies, and whose concerns can then be more distant, even–and I’ve seen this a lot–becoming political or philosophical games instead of matters of life and death. The direct experience of violence, on the other hand, often brings these questions closer to the people involved, so the people are not facing the questions as “activists” or “feminists” or “farmers” or “prisoners,” but rather as human beings–animals–struggling to survive. Having felt your father’s weight upon you in your bed; having stood in clearcut-and-herbicided moonscape after moonscape, tears streaming down your face; having had your children taken from you, land stolen that belonged to your ancestors since the land was formed, and your way of life destroyed; having sat at a kitchen table, foreclosure notice in front of you for land your parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents worked, shotgun across your knees as you try to decide whether or not to put the barrel in your mouth; feeling the sting of a guard’s baton or the jolt of a stun gun (“I was tired,” one of my students wrote of being so hit, “I was 20,000 volts of tired”)–to suffer this sort of violence directly in your body–is often to undergo some sort of deeply physical transformation. It is often to perceive and be in the world differently.
Not always. We can all list political prisoners who have been tortured, nuns who have been raped, who have emerged from these horrors uttering forgiveness for their tormentors. But this is not, for the most part, the experience of the people I have met–(funny, isn’t it, how the ones who forgive are the ones whose stories we’re most likely to hear: could there possibly be political reasons for this? Remember, all writers are propagandists)–and I am not convinced that this forgiving response is necessarily and generically better, by which I mean more conducive to the survivor’s future health and happiness, and by which I mean especially more conducive to the halting of future atrocities.
Because the response by pacifists to any suggestion of counterviolence is so predictable, I got tired of having to answer the same tired and meaningless objections time and again, and decided to write a book I could hand them. But then I decided that I didn’t want to go for such small game, and I wanted to go after the big target. I wanted to write about how to bring down civilization.
At first the book was going to be some sort of “how to,” with instructions on everything from how to blow up a dam to how to take down a cell phone tower. But I realized early on that I couldn’t write that. You have probably never in your life seen someone as mechanically inept as I. I could neither erect nor take down a cell phone tower to save my life. There are other people who know how to hack, and who know their way around those issues. I am good at what I do, which is articulate those things we all know in our hearts are true, and in so doing give other people courage, and perhaps help them to not make stupid mistakes that cost them their lives. Further, the notion that there is one prescription that anyone can give is the same old authoritarian nonsense. I don’t want for people to listen to me. I want for them to ask their landbases what their landbases need.
So now the book is something else. A lot of my indigenous friends tell me that the first thing we have to do is decolonize our minds, and I hope the book accomplishes that. Activists with whom I have shared the book have told me it is one of the most thorough and unassailable articulations of why we need to actively bring down civilization now that they have ever seen. And I have shared the book with some who are not quite so radical, who have responded, “Oh, you make it quite clear that the only reasonable thing to do is bring it all down.”
Why do you write? What is your main objective?
Derrick: My main objective is to bring down civilization. Actually that’s not quite true. My main objective is to live in a world with more wild salmon every year than the year before, more migratory songbirds, more natural forest communities, more fish in the ocean, less dioxin in every mother’s breast milk. And I’ll do what it takes to get there. And what it will take is for us to dismantle everything we see around us. It will take, at the very least, the destruction of civilization, which has been killing the planet for 6000 years.
I write because I am a recruiter for this revolution, in favor of life, and against civilization.
Has there been a shift or movement in your thinking as you’ve been writing books?
Derrick: The more writing and thinking and feeling and observing that I do, the more clear it becomes to me that civilization needs to come down now.
It seems that the personal “I” is generally present/prioritized in your writing...what does this style of writing mean to you – or how does it connect with your perspective of the world you envision?
Derrick: I get really tired of writers pretending that they are “objective,” and presenting what they have to say as some sort of universal truth. I want to be upfront about my biases. I also don’t want to pretend that I know more than I do. There are times that I get confused, and I don’t want to pretend that doesn’t happen. There are times I contradict myself. Good, life is sometimes contradictory. And there are times when I fall prey to the same assumptions as the culture, and I want to acknowledge that in myself as well. I don’t want to lie.
Do you see developments in society or events, such as the failing of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, leading to openings in the direction of new ideas, subversive ideas out there?
Derrick: Honestly I don’t. Not there. That’s not to say they aren’t there. But I just don’t see any.
Here’s the place I do, however. Years ago I read Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West. It’s a long book, from which I really remember only one image. I think Spengler would be pleased at what it is. A culture is like a plant growing in a particular soil. When the soil is exhausted–presuming a closed system (ie, the soil isn’t being replenished)–the plant dies. Cultures–or at least historical (as opposed to cyclical) cultures–are the same. The Roman Empire exhausted its possibilities (both physical, in terms of resources, and psychic or spiritual), then hung on decadent–I mean this in its deeper sense of decaying, although the meaning having to do with debauchery works, too–for a thousand years. Other empires are the same. The British Empire. The American Empire. Civilization itself has continued to grow by expanding the zone from which it takes resources. The plant has gotten pretty big, but at the cost of a lot of dead soil. The point is that it’s becoming increasingly clear that civilization is reaching its endgame. At the very least because the oil age is about to come to an end.
What do you think things will look like in, say, 5 years?
Derrick: Terrible. Things are bad and they will continue to get worse. Those in power won’t roll over because they suddenly understand they are killing the world. Nor will the mass of Americans suddenly rise up and say, “Yes, we understand.” It just won’t happen.
But I do think civilization will come down—whatever that means, however it’s accomplished, through oil-based collapse or if we help it along—within the next ten. Things will continue to get worse for some places after that, but there are other places that will then be able to breathe a sigh of relief, and begin to recover.
You recently released a book on de-forestation with George Draffan (Strangely Like War: The Global Assault on Forests).Can you talk a little about the connection between that subject and domestication, the subjugation of women, and the general trajectory of civilization?
Derrick: In many ways it doesn’t matter what thread you choose to examine, they all lead to the same place. We wrote in that book about the necessary relationship between civilization and deforestation. The first written myth of this culture was Gilgamesh cutting the forests of what is now Iraq. Someone once wrote that forests precede this culture, and deserts dog its heels. That’s true. But we could say the same thing about depletion of fisheries, pollution, what have you. And this culture of course subjugates women. It’s all about setting up a hierarchy, where those at the top are entitled to take whatever they want from those below, and where violence done by those above to those below is invisible, and violence done by those below to those above is blasphemous. The men at the top are entitled to the bodies of women, the bodies of trees, the bodies of whomever they want. And they are entitled to use whatever violence they wish to take them. If the women fight back, they are of course destroyed.
How do you see most people on the planet shifting back/forward to a way of life congruent with the values and methods you write about?
Derrick: Many of the fiscally poor already more or less live there. Or close enough for right now. And the rich won’t give up their addictions until they are no longer able to satiate their addictions. I don’t see most people shifting at all, actually. Most often change, at least on a social level, occurs the way Max Planck described it, “[A] new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”
Here are some sections from my new book [tentatively titled, “What Goes Up…”]. I think they help address this point:
“I don’t think most people care, and I don’t think most people will ever care. We can trot out whatever polls we want to try to prove most Americans actually do care about the Environment™, Justice™, Sustainability™–that they care about anything beyond being left alone to numb themselves with alcohol, cheap consumables, and television. We can cite (or make up) some poll saying that all other things being equal, 64 percent of Americans don’t want penguins to be driven extinct (unless saving them will even slightly increase the price of gasoline); or we can cite (or make up) some other poll saying that 22 percent of American males would prefer to live on a habitable planet than to have sex with a supermodel (this number climbs to 45 percent if the men are not allowed to brag about it to their friends).[i] But the truth is that it’s just not that important to most people, it in this case being the survival of tigers, salmon, traditional indigenous peoples, oceans, rivers, the earth; it also being justice, fairness, love, honesty, peace. If it were, “most people” would do something about it.
Sure, most people would rather that they themselves be treated with at least the pretense of justice, fairness, and so on, but so long as those in power aren’t aiming their Peacekeepers™ at me, why should I care if brown people living on a sea of oil a half a world away get blown to bits? Likewise, so long as the price of my prescription anti-depressants stays reasonably low and the number of TV channels on my satellite dish stays high, why should I care that some stupid fish can’t survive in a dammed river? It’s survival of the fittest, damn it all, and I’m one of the fit, so I get to survive.
Another way to talk about people not caring what happens to the world is to talk about rape, and child abuse. Most rapes are committed not by burly strangers breaking into women’s homes, nor by pasty-faced perverts lurking outside schools and in internet chat rooms, but instead by fathers, brothers, uncles, husbands, lovers, friends, counselors, pastors: those who purport to love the women (or men) they hurt. Similarly, most children are not abused by thugs who kidnap them and force them to act in porn films, but by their caretakers, those, once again, who purport to love them, who are supposed to help them learn how to be human beings. And of course these caretakers are taking care to teach these children how to be civilized human beings: teaching them that the physically powerful exploit and do violence against the less physically powerful; teaching them that exploiters routinely label themselves-and probably believe themselves-caretakers as they destroy those under their care; teaching them that under this awful system that’s the job of caretakers; teaching them that life has no value (for of course we are all born with the knowledge that life has value, a knowledge that must be beaten, raped, and schooled out of us).
Those doing the raping, beating, schooling, are not only some group of strange “others”: “trailer trash,” “foreigners,” “the poor.” They include respected members of this society. Within this culture, they’re normal people. Their behavior has been normalized.
If normal people within this culture are raping and beating even those they purport to love, what chance is there that they will not destroy the salmon, the forests, the oceans, the earth?”
“Why civilization is killing the planet, take seventeen. Two words: Detroit Tigers. No, not because the Tigers are so terrible that they threaten life as we know it–although they are bad, historically bad, bad enough that if there were a hypothetical contest between the 2003 Tigers and the legendary 1899 Cleveland Spiders (20 wins, 134 losses: .130 winning percentage), the only reason the 2003 Tigers would win is because everyone who played for the Spiders is long-since dead[x]-but because more people care about Detroit Tigers than real ones.
I’ve commented elsewhere how deeply it saddens me that hundreds of thousands of Americans attend sporting events each night, and millions more watch on TV, yet if we try to get a rally together to do something-anything-to save salmon, we’re lucky to get fifteen people, and they’re the same ones who showed up last week to protest the circus, and the week before to hold signs decrying increases in the military budget.[xi] You could argue that the difference is advertising-if smooth-voiced announcers constantly exhorted us to blow up dams, and if newspapers daily devoted a dozen pages to the travails of endangered species, then more people would care.
Maybe. I doubt it.
There’s a deeper point to be made here, which is that what people want can to some degree be told–more or less tautologically–by what they do. If more people go to see the Detroit Tigers every summer night than do anything to save real tigers from extinction, it’s probably because that’s what they want to do.[xii]”
“It should be obvious that what is true on the personal level is even more true on the social level. One reason I have recovered from my childhood to the degree that I have is that I have worked very hard at it, and have had the loving support of my friends, my mother, and my sister. If I’ve had to work this hard to make a life after only a formative decade of violence when I was young (as well as coercive schooling, ubuiquitous advertising, and the other ways our psyches are routinely–almost mechanically–hammered into, or rather, out of, shape); and when there are so many people who have for whatever reasons not had the opportunity or ability to do this work, and so who are passing on their pain to those others who have the misfortune of coming into contact with them (and we should acknowledge that those suffering this misfortune include at this point more or less every human and nonhuman on the planet); and when this culture rewards anti-social behavior (meaning behavior that destroys human and non-human communities); how much more difficult it is and must be for an entire culture to change.
More clarity: When I say that most people don’t care, I mean this in the most popular sense of the word care, as in, “If people just cared enough about the salmon, they would act to protect them from those who are killing them.” Obviously they don’t care, or they would do what it takes to save them: We’re not that stupid, and these tasks are not cognitively challenging, once you drop the impossible framing conditions of civilization’s perpetual growth and perceived divorce from the natural world (and its perceived divorce from consequence).
There is a deeper sense, however, in which having been inculcated into this death cult(ure), we do care about salmon and rivers and the earth (and our own bodies): we hate them all and want to destroy them. Otherwise why else would we do it, or at the least allow it to happen?
Fortunately, there is an even deeper sense in which we do care. Our bodies know what is right, if only we listen to them. Beneath the enculturation, beneath the addiction, beneath the psychopathology, our bodies remember that we are meant for something better than this, that we are not apart from our human and nonhuman communities, but a part of them, that what we allow to be done to our landbase (or our body) we allow to be done to ourselves. Our bodies remember a way of being not based on slavery–our own and others’–but on mutual responsibility. Our bodies remember freedom. Our bodies remember that our intelligence is meant for something better than building monuments to death, that our intelligence is meant to help us connect to the rest of the world, to understand, communicate, relate. Our intelligence is meant, as are the particular intelligences of rivers and manatees and panthers and spiders and salmon and bumblebees, to help us realize and participate–play our part–in the beautiful and awesome symphony that is life.
There are many who will never be able to reach these memories, to accept them in a way that leads them away from their addiction to slavery, their addiction to civilization. That is a tragedy: personal, communal, biological, geological.
But there are others–many of them–who can and do remember the knowledge of bodies, and who are willing to do what is necessary to protect their bodies, their landbases, to stand in solidarity with salmon, grizzlies, redwoods, voles, owls, to work with these others–as humans have done forever outside the iron shackles of civilization–for the benefit of the larger community. And that is a beautiful and powerful and moral thing. It’s also really fun.
You should try it sometime.”
[i] These poll results are of course jokes.[x] It’s hard to snare a fly when you’re six feet under. [xi] I’ve never understood why more people don’t do protests. They don’t really accomplish anything, but they’re pretty darn fun. [xii] Of course we can say the same thing about the Cleveland Indians, and many other sports teams.
The constant resistance that we (anarchists) maintain across political lines is one of destroying the state (and for some of us, civilization). While we all “project” ourselves into exhaustion, it seems we risk losing our focus on relationships. How do we keep that focus while we continue to fight the system? How do we maintain or achieve balance?
Derrick: I don’t know what this question means. I don’t feel exhausted. I get tired from touring or from working hard, but I’m having a great time. I watch my sleep, and make sure to not tire myself too much. And my relationships are fine. I’m happy, and I’ve achieved a balance, I guess. How do I do it? I don’t know. I got an email a while back from someone who asked: “How is your sexuality/sensuality being affected by your increasing mental aggression against forces over which you have little control [sic]. How does the anger effect [sic] personal relationships. Are you still hugging trees or do you now have a human in bed with you?”
My first thought was to respond that whether my anger at the dominant culture’s destruction of the planet affects my sex life is a question to which she will never know the answer. One of the main problems with her questions (apart from the fact that my relationship life is none of her goddamn business–we do, however, live in a culture of voyeurs, of spectators, so I probably shouldn’t be surprised) is the premise that because I’m angry at the culture I’m angry at my friends. That’s just plain silly. My anger isn’t a shotgun, going off at random. My anger is aimed. I’m angry at the culture. I’m angry at those who are killing the planet. I’m not angry at random people, especially not at those close to me. That would be really abusive.
One more thing to add about how I keep balance, and how I don’t get exhausted: I don’t allow assholes in my life. I kick them out. I’ve taken on a one-strike-you’re-out policy for abusers. That’s a big reason I’m happy, and a big reason I can work so hard. I’ve surrounded myself with really genuinely nice people. My friends are wonderful. Part of that is them being wonderful people, and part of that is that I no longer tolerate abusive behavior toward me or those I love. That includes the natural world.
Do you have much hope that we can heal from the deep and pervasive wounds (both physical and psychological) caused by thousands of years of patriarchal/domesticated control and brutality? How about the rest of the planet?
Derrick : If humans survive, they will eventually heal, or they won’t survive. It’s that simple. I don’t know about the rest of the planet. How long will it be before people can drink from the Rio Grande? How long before pervasive carcinogens are gone? It’s too late for the passenger pigeons. If civilization disappeared tomorrow, salmon would survive. If it takes another 20 years, I don’t think so. It’s a case-by-case basis. Much is gone. Much is going fast. Much will never come back. Some will, if civilization comes down soon enough.
What keeps you going?
Derrick : I’m really really happy. I love my life, and I love life. I am a complex enough being that I can hold in my heart tremendous sorrow at what is being destroyed, awe and love at the beauty that is here, rage and hatred against those who are killing the planet, love for my human and nonhuman friends, and joy at how wonderful life is. All of these feelings, love, sorrow, rage, hatred, joy, and so many others, are what keep me going.
And there’s an Irish proverb that I love: Is this a private fight, or can anybody enter?
It is tremendous fun to fight for what is right. I keep thinking about one of those lines thrown out all the time by pacifists: If we fight them, we run the risk of becoming like they are. Heck, when I was younger (and stupider) I threw that line out myself. But it’s nonsense. If we DON’T fight them, we run the risk of becoming slaves, like they are. Fighting for our lives, and for our freedom, however, is what wild and free beings do. And it’s a hell of a lot of fun.
For more info on Derrick, check out: www.derrickjensen.org
This article originally appeared in Green Anarchy #17 (Summer 2004).
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