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Peak Moment 200: How the West has won (with transcript)

“Is the world a better place because you were born?” asks author Derrick Jensen. He contrasts sustainable indigenous cultures who enrich their habitat with the current “dominant culture destroying everything.” He explores how industrial civilization is inherently violent, turning people into objects and the earth into stuff. His books include A Language Older Than Words, The Culture of Make Believe, What We Leave Behind and Endgame.

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How the West Has Won
Peak Moment episode 200
Recorded December 21, 2010
Guest: Derrick Jensen

Derrick Jensen: I got an article yesterday that there's one coal factory, one coal electric generation station on the Great Lakes that kills 60 billion fish a year. And there's no population of anything but bacteria that can survive 60 billion casualties a year.

The fish in the oceans were so thick they'd slow down ships. Whales were an impediment to shipping. Sea turtles were so thick that people thought you could walk across the ocean on them. It's extraordinary, the fecundity.

[Introduction and title]

Janaia Donaldson: Hi, welcome to Peak Moment. I'm Janaia Donaldson. I'm in the northwest of California, in the redwoods with Derrick Jensen, the author and activist, of fifteen or sixteen books [including] A Language Older than Words, Endgame, What We Leave Behind, and more recently, Deep Green Resistance. Thank you for joining me.

Derrick Jensen: Thank you for having me.

Janaia: I really wanted to tape here in your Tolowa country that you speak of. There's a huge stump, a redwood stump here, throughout these woods, and also second growth. It seems to me a fitting image for what has been and what is, and taking a look at your critique of how humans are relating to the environment. Tell us about that.

Derrick: Well first, I would say that it's not "my" Tolowa land...

Janaia: You're right, I apologize.

Derrick: ...it's Tolowa land. The Tolowa Indians lived for 12,500 years if you believe the myths of science. And if you believe the myths of the Tolowa, they've lived here since the beginning of time. And in either case, it was for a really long time. And the dominant culture has been here for 180 years, and the place is pretty trashed. I mean, this looks beautiful here, but if you turned the camera around, you'd see traffic passing on [highway] 101.

The salmon runs used to be so thick that horses were afraid to get in the water. They used to be so thick that people were afraid to put their boats in the water for fear they'd capsize. You could hear them for miles before you could see them. And now, this is a better year for Chinook in the Smith [River] than there has been in a few years, but that doesn't alter the fact that the runs are tiny compared to what they used to be. "Decimate" means to kill nine out of ten, and they've been decimated many times over.

And so a question that I think would be good to ask is, How is it that the Tolowa could live here for 12,500 years at least, and the dominant culture destroys wherever it goes? And it wasn't because the Tolowa were too stupid to invent backhoes. There are huge and fundamental differences in the ways indigenous peoples have related to the land. And one of the fundamental differences — sometimes people say, the Indians affected the landscape too, and the fact that they affected the landscape makes it okay for Boise-Cascade to clearcut. But there's a big difference, many big differences. And one of the differences is that they were planning on living in place for the next 500 years. And if you're planning on living someplace for the next 500 years, your land use decisions are going to be really different than if you're not.

Janaia: It seems like our land use decisions, civilization itself, is just moving out, taking what it can take. Talk to us about the civilization we're in.

Derrick: They say that one of the signs of intelligence is the ability to recognize patterns. I'm going to lay out a pattern and let's see if we can recognize it in less than 6000 years. When you think of Iraq, is the first thing you think of is cedar forests so thick that the sunlight never touches the ground? One of the first written myths of this culture is the Myth of Gilgamesh deforestating the plains and hillsides of Iraq to make cities. The Saudi Arabian peninsula was an oak savannah. The Near East was heavily forested. We've all heard of the cedars of Lebanon. Greece was heavily forested. North Africa was heavily forested. If you want to know about the harmful effects of agriculture and of civilization, all we have to say was that the Sahara was once the breadbasket of Rome. Italy was heavily forested. A line I think I wrote many years ago is that "Forests precede us and deserts dog our heels." There used to be whales in the Mediterranean.

We can look at this in a bunch of different directions. One of these is that so many indigenous people have said to me that the fundamental difference between Western and indigenous ways of being is that even the most open-minded Westerners perceive listening to the natural world as a metaphor, as opposed to the way the world really works.

I will say often at talks or in books that I was walking down a path and a tree told me what I should write. If I get stuck, I take a walk, and a tree will speak to me. This is really crucial, this notion that perceiving the world as consisting of other beings to enter into relationship with, as opposed to perceiving the world as resources to be exploited. This is really crucial, because how you perceive the world affects how you behave in the world. There's a great line by a Canadian lumberman: "When I see trees, I see dollar bills." And if when you look at trees you see dollar bills, you'll treat them one way. If you look at trees as trees you treat them another way. If when I look at this particular tree and I see this particular tree, I will treat it in another way still. The same is true for women, all the way down the line.

Janaia: But you're saying something very different here. And that other level even — if you're taking a walk and talking to or listening to a tree, there's a relationship there. It's not just even an object, even if it's not for sale, even if it's the capitalistic view. That says to me you've got some kind of ... you experience a connection in the natural world that most of us in civilization probably don't have, or very few people do.

Derrick: I agree. And part of the reason is because it's systematically inculcated out of us. My book A Language Older Than Words was in part supposed to be a happy face. When I was first trying to find out how to write it, back in 1995-1996, it was supposed to be this happy face book about inter-species communication, and a compilation of all these experiences that people would have, of having a conversation with dogs or cats or coyotes or whomever. Because a lot of people I found were having these conversations in their lives but they weren't discussing these publicly for fear they'd be shamed.

I tried to write that book for a couple years and I couldn't do it. I finally figured out why. The reason is because, that to try to write yet another book that purports to show that non-humans can really think and can communicate, would be demeaning. And the reason it would be demeaning would be like trying to write a book showing that blonds can really think, or that Jews aren't really sub-human, in that it would still hold up human beings as the standard by which everyone else is judged.

But basically... there's a great line by this Portuguese explorer. He was talking about Africans and why it was okay to enslave them is because "when they speak, they fart with tongues in their mouths." So because they didn't speak Portuguese, they didn't speak - which made it okay to enslave them. So I didn't want to write a book that... I realized the \ I was more interested in writing was not, Can Non-humans Speak or Can They Not? but instead, Why is that Some of Us Listen and Some of Us Don't? Why is it that some of us are not able to hear? The problem runs all through the society on every level, whether it is the belief that only humans can have discourse.

The reason I'm hesitating is I'm thinking of something I read a couple of days ago, that rats laugh when they play or when they're tickled — little rats do. And (a) this shouldn't really surprise us, and (b), the person who did the experiment that found that out is a scientist who also vivisects rats. So even with that understanding, it doesn't alter his professional behavior. So I was thinking about that.

And I was also thinking about, there's a line by the scientific philosopher Richard Dawkins where he says that "science bases its claims to truth on its spectacular ability to make matter and energy jump through hoops on command." So that when you turn on a light, something happens.

It's an extraordinary statement, because it means that our very epistemology — epistemology is how we know what we know, and how we know what is — our very epistemology is based on domination. It's based on forcing others to jump through hoops on command. And it's absurd. Because I could pull out a gun and say, "Now you're going to do what I wish." What do you know? I've got a gun so you do what I wish. What does that say about truth? And what does that say about relationship? There's a way of knowing if something is true that I like better. Which is, if you can live in place with something for 12,500 years, I think that is a better definition of what is true.

So there's one level. In A Language Older Than Words I explored that question of "why is the dominant culture destroying everything?" from the perspective of ... I think this culture is so traumatizing that one of the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder especially long-term PTSD, is that you can lose the ability to... Judith Herman wrote a book called Trauma and Recovery. And in there, she discussed not just regular PTSD but where, for example, if a woman is raped in a certain make and model of a car, if she sees that make and model of a car, it could give her flashbacks, could scare her. But Judith Herman asked another question, which is, what happens if someone is raised in captivity or if someone is held in captivity? What happens to political prisoners or regular prisoners who are held for decades? What happens in domestic violence situations, where you can be held essentially as a prisoner for decades? What she found is that there are some predictable effects. And one of the predictable effects is one can come to believe that all relationships are hierarchical. And one can come to believe that fully mutual relationships aren't possible. Because if you're a prisoner, and the only relationships you have are with a guard who can, with impunity, reward or punish you, you can come to believe — "believe" is too weak — you can come to know, you can come to experience, you can come to forget that there are other relationships possible.

Janaia: It may be that it becomes so dominant that it is your experience.

Derrick: It IS your experience.

Janaia: And anything is diminished otherwise.

Derrick: Exactly. I got an email from somebody the other day who said something about how, if humans go extinct, wouldn't some other creature just come to dominate all the planet? Who else would be at the apex of evolution? And it's very interesting, because evolution doesn't really have an apex. But there's this notion... I have a Dakota friend Waz [Waziyatawin] who sometimes get hassled a little bit by vegetarians. And her response is always "We don't project that Christian hierarchy on the world, of animals over plants. There is no hierarchy."

Janaia: They are "all these relations."

Derrick: All the relations, right. I don't like "top of the food chain." There is no top of the food chain. If you think about it for a second, there is none. Because yes, I eat a chicken or I eat a broccoli. But then I die, and worms and bacteria eat me. Actually the soil eats me. And then after the soil eats me, then the huckleberries eat me, and a bird eats the huckleberry, and some human eats the bird. It's a circle. And everybody that thinks about it knows this. But one of the problems is, how do we behave in our day-to-day behavior?

One of the things I say in a book I'm working on right now is that if you ask 10,000 scientists "Was the world created for human beings?" most of them would probably laugh at you and say "Of course not." All of the non-Christian ones would say of course it was not created for human beings. But if you judged their answer not by what they say but by what they do, as soon as they get done with the interview and they go back to work, well, they're working, for the most part, as if the world was made for humans. Because they're making matter and energy jump through hoops on command.

So that was one book. A Language Older Than Words was about how we've been so traumatized by this culture that many of us are no longer even able to conceptualize the possibility of non-hierarchical relationships, fully mutual relationships with non-human beings especially. Or between human beings — between men and women, for crying out loud.

The next book — we're not going to go through all the books here — Culture of Make Believe, was really about how the culture is unsustainable on a sociological level. By which I mean ... the book started off as an exploration of hate groups. It was going to be a five page introduction to an encyclopedia of hate groups. The book exploded when I asked the question, What's a hate group? The first thing I did is I went to a KKK [Ku Klux Klan] website. And the site said, we're not a hate group, we're a love group because we love whites. So either (a) you can't trust rhetoric, or (b) the KKK is not a hate group. Well, I'll go with you can't trust rhetoric. But if you can't trust rhetoric, what do you trust? Well, if you go just by the numbers, then the biggest racist, segregationist organization in the country is the U.S. judicial penal system. Because it has achieved segregation of African American males on a scale the KKK could only dream of. About 30% of African American males between the ages of 18-35 is under criminal justice supervision. In some cities like Baltimore it's over 50%. And that's the KKK wet dream.

So I started then asking, What does hate feel like? And what I evenutally came to is any hatred felt long enough no longer feels like hatred. It feels like religion. Or economics. Or the way things are.

Janaia: I can get that it feels like the way things are. It's what you experience. And if you're permeated by that, it's what you're swimming in, there isn't another reality then.

Derrick: Yeah. So the individual Nazis working at death camps weren't sort of red-faced and shouting — what we think of when we think of hate, we think of anger. In fact the whole thing was very bureaucratic. It's very interesting, because pornography is very destructive. I was talking to Gail Dines about this, who's an anti-porn activist. And she was saying when pornographers get together at their conventions they talk about money. I don't think that most loggers hate forests. I think they're doing it for a paycheck. But the manifestation — I talk about how this culture teaches us to hate the natural world. And one of the ways it does that is the hatred is felt so deeply that ...

In that book one of the things I come to, a couple things, is that I don't have a problem with hate. I think hate is a fine and righteous emotion. I can hate someone because of what he or she has done to me or to someone else. But what I have a bigger problem with is persistent objectification. So I can hate a particular African American lesbian because of what she has done to me, theoretically, a hypothetical example. On the other hand, if I hate her because she's an African American lesbian, I'm not even doing her the honor of hating her personally. Instead, I'm hating a cardboard cutout that I'm projecting onto the space where she would be if I actually perceived her.

Of course we all objectivify all the time. You can go around recognizing that everybody has hobbies and somebody's foot hurts...There have been people that walk by outside, we would existentially explode if we recognized. But the problem is, if you do nothing but objectify, which is what the economic system systematically causes us to do.

There was a great article in the paper last year I think when the crab season was just finishing. They were saying one of the reasons the crabbers work so hard is that every crab is worth $1.50. And the harbormaster said, can you imagine if there were all these envelopes on the ground, and each envelope was worth $1.50? Of course you're going to run around picking them up as fast as you can. But the thing is, a crab is not an envelope full of $1.50. A crab is a living being with a life just as precious to that crab as yours is to you and mine is to me. That is not to say we can never kill a crab or a crab-apple or a broccoli.

Janaia: Because eating and being eaten is the natural way things are.

Derrick: The price you pay for living is you are going to be eaten someday. It's all about reciprocity. There's a great line I just heard recently by Charlotte Perkins Gilmore, a great writer. One of the things she said was that The Buddha went out and saw that everyone is killing and eating each other, and that's evil. I went out and I changed one word. I went out and I saw them, and I saw that everyone is feeding each other, and it's all good. This gets right to it again.

So Culture of Make Believe was basically about how if you have a culture that is based on competition and based on perceiving others as lesser, then you are going to lead inevitably to atrocity. And then one last thing, Endgame was based on the notion that if you have a way of life that's based on the importation of resources, that also can never be sustainable. Because it means you've denuded the landscape of that particular resource, and as your city grows, you'll denude ever larger areas. One of the reasons the Tolowa could live here for 12,500 years is because they didn't take more than the land would give willingly. And if you take more than what the land gives willingly, you're going to harm your land base.

This is how deep the problems go — we're all taught that evolution is based on competition, is based on survival of the fittest. And that's just capitalism projected onto the natural world. And it's so stupid! I can show how that that's not true in just one sentence with a couple of semi-colons: The creatures who have survived in the long run have survived in the long run; you don't survive in the long run by hyper-exploiting your surroundings; you survive in the long run by actually improving your habitat.

That's what salmon do. They make the world a better place. They make the forest a better place because they were born and because they die. Because they lived and died.

Janaia: It seems than that's the maxim that we ought to be living by, and this civilization is doing just the opposite of that.

Derrick: Is the world a better place because you were born? That's the question. How do we think the world got to be so beautiful and fecund and resilient in the first place? It's by individuals living and dying. And by communities efflorescing. It's by salmon hatching, and going downstream, and bringing nutrients back up. Eating out in the ocean and bringing nutrients back up, and dying and then being eaten by the trees. That's how the forest became so spectacular in the first place. It's pretty straight-forward. And everybody has to know this. And if they don't, they don't survive.

In The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins talks about how you could have natural selection based on cooperation, or you could have it based on competition. But the problem with cooperation, he says, is if you have a cheater, everything falls apart. Like Richard, look around. There's a cheater, and everything's falling apart. So the central point is that you cannot take more than what the land gives willingly.

Janaia: And that's back to where we are: the desertification from the beginning of agriculture.

Derrick: See one of the problems is that taking more than the land gives you willingly gives you a short-term competitive advantage over your neighbors. So for example, the forests of North Africa went down to make the Phoenician and Egyptian navies. If they were going to cut down forests and turn them into warships, they had a competitive advantage over their neighbors who didn't do that.

There's this great line by this guy Samuel Huntington who basically says, People in the West basically think the world has been won by the power of Western ideas. Instead, it's been won by the ability of the West to apply organized violence. Westerners always forget this; the colonized never do.

And that's really true. The reason the dominant culture has been able to succeed is because it's been tremendously successful at applying organized violence. Including to the natural world, of course. I mean, what do you call pesticides?

Janaia: And to all their neighbors. We're seeing wholesale results of that.

Derrick: There's no stream in the United States that is not contaminated with carcinogens. A study just came out a couple days ago, 35 out of 37 cities they studied or something like that, have pretty huge levels of carcinogens in the drinking water. I mean, who was it that came up with the idea...Pittsburgh, just recently, has passed a resolution outlawing fracking within the city limits. Fracking is using a bunch of nasty chemicals that pollute the groundwater. I mean, who could be so absurd and murderous as to poison the groundwater?

Janaia: Well, if it's not your drinking water — there's that objectification again. It's somebody else's, so what? Let's exploit it and take what we want, right? We have one minute left, so I want to make sure we wrap up here, and we may get to start again. Actually Derrick, what I want to do is take a pause, thank you, and then let's continue.

I'm with Derrick Jensen. This is part one of conversations about civilization, the natural world. Join us next time.

Editorial Notes: Corrected the title. Thanks to Jan Lundberg for the correction. -BA

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