Author Derrick Jensen is as rare a person as you will ever meet. He is so keenly attuned to the natural world that he feels every knife cut civilization inflicts on it. With every word he speaks he seems to be saying, "If you could feel the Earth's pain as I do, you would spend every moment of your existence trying to stop it."
Before he came to town last week, I had read only some scattered essays by Jensen and had never before seen him speak. At first I tried to take notes. But then I gave up and simply let the wave of pathos emanating from this man wash over me. He was at turns erudite, crude, poetic, caustic, and misty-eyed--as gifted a performer as I have ever seen. But what was his performance about?
He spoke at length about patriarchy, conquest, empire, slavery, wage slavery, cruelty to women, cruelty to minorities, cruelty to indigenous people. He plumbed the depths of the modern psyche, our attachment to machines and their effect on our brains. He talked about the effect of language on perception. Is that a forest full of trees--an oak here, a walnut there, with a black squirrel scurrying around the trunk and a sparrow alighting on a limb--or is it simply lumber waiting to be cut? Sometimes the forest is euphemistically referred to as a "natural resource" by environmentalist and forestry company executive alike.
Do you understand how exploited and damaged you really are? As long as you think about how you might get a bigger piece of the pie, you are trapped. As long as you think social justice is about getting a bigger piece of the pie for others who are deprived, you are trapped. All of your normal, civilization-derived concepts are likely traps. Can you see your way through them? Let Derrick Jensen help you.
And, he does. But not directly. As an audience member you are simply following him around as he destroys one notion after another about what constitutes justice, what constitutes truth and what constitutes peace. Jensen is an environmentalist so he must be for peace, right? No, not really, not if you take into account the tremendous violence that modern societies inflict on nature, even while they are at nominal peace with one another. You'll never overcome that violence by working for peace. You must resist the foundations of civilization, sometimes with violence.
How about justice? Surely, we must share the fruits of civilization more widely with the poor. No, those fruits aren't worth sharing because they are poisonous. OK, but surely we would be better off by choosing to keep some of the machines brought to us by modern civilization while discarding others that are known to be bad? Those machines are the product of a civilization built on violence and oppression. The violence and oppression are built right into the machines. How will you filter that out?
Jensen's own childhood seems to have been the point of departure for his analysis. An abusive home life seems to have led him not to the provinces of psychology, but to those of sociology. He does not ask what type of monster his father was. He asks what kind of society produces fathers who are monsters. His answer has led him to the conclusion that fathers can't be fixed until civilization is fixed.
He ostensibly came to talk about his latest book, Endgame. Can industrial civilization survive? Answer: No. Is there anything we can do to make a gradual transition from industrial civilization to a peaceful, sustainable world? Answer: There is, but we won't do it.
Are you saying that industrial civilization is so harmful to humans and nonhumans alike that we ought to hasten its inevitable demise? Answer: It is and we should. Won't a lot of people die if we bring down industrial civilization today? Yes, but a lot more will die if it continues to expand before meeting its inevitable demise; and, the damage won't be inflicted just on human beings, but on all the creatures of the biosphere, injuring and wiping out vast numbers of them even while changing the climate and basic habitability of the planet.
Aren't you, Derrick Jensen, inflicting damage yourself on the biosphere by doing what you do, traveling, publishing books, using electronic communications? Answer: It is inevitable. No one can escape this contradiction. But that doesn't mean we have to accept it and do nothing. Aren't you really just using the tools of the master to try to dismantle the master's house? Answer: Yes, and I'll borrow my neighbor's tools and your tools and steal some tools from Wal-Mart if I have to.
I wondered whether Derrick Jensen believes that there was a pre-agricultural golden age of hunter-gatherers who were neither exploitive of one another nor damaging to the environment. I'm not quite sure based on this one encounter. But I think he would like to find out if such an arrangement would at least be healthier for the humans and other beings on planet Earth.
There is one thing I am sure Jensen believes: Nature is not the remorseless, amoral force that modern civilization assumes it to be. And, despite all our colossal abuse of it, the actors of nature continue to try to do their appointed work of keeping it running. "Nature is waiting to welcome us back," he assures us. But, do we really want to go back?