Sunday, December 09, 2007

The pathos of Derrick Jensen

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?


Ares Olympus said...

This introduction to Derrick Jensen is much appreciated.

I looked up Endgame (books) on Amazon: vol. 1
vol. 2

plaiche said...

Ares you can also find a series of video interviews with Derrick on YouTube that cover some of the topics Kurt highlighted. I first had the pleasure of hearing speak at the 2005 NYC Local Solutions Energy Conference organized by the NYC Peak Oil group. I might almost have missed him, but grabbing a coffee across the street during a break, I met a young couple while we were both perusing a sidewalk book sale. I noticed (by coincidence) that several of Jensen's titles were for sale across from the conference venue which caught my eye for obvius reasons. Then as I read the jacket this young couple with a bohemian look that I found attractive chimed in as if I had just found a CD of their favorite rock star. I hurried back across the street to ensure I didn't miss his talk, and was deeply moved and purchased Endgame vols I & II. Even if you bring an understanding of the perils of resource depletion and die off, Jensen's perspective is foundationally powerful in a way that manages to connect you to the world again despite the absurdity of our civilizations suicidal circumstance. If you struggle from depression or guilt ( readers for example) Jensen may be able to add fresh perspective, and perhaps a measure of resolve, acceptance or ideas for action that the futility of waiting as the mainstream slowly recognizes where PO and related calamities are taking us.

By the way, thanks Kurt. First time commenter, but you've been in my feedreader for some months and I appreciate your thoughts and research regularly.


Todd the Toad said...

I greatly enjoyed your review. I don't agree with everything Derrick says but I deeply appreciate his work. He is definitely stirring the coals.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the review. Having read his "Endgame", "Listening to the Land" and "A Language Older than Words", and having encountered more than a few patriarchal monsters of my own, in the past and in the present, I'd say that I'd have a hard time finding any holes in his argument. The guts of it, if you have the guts to see it or acknowledge it, is also backed up by a number of others from the fields of psychology, psychiatry and others (Arno Gruen and John Bradshaw come to mind quickly). Just yesterday, at Carolyn Baker's web site "Speaking Truth to Power", I encountered an article by Carla Royal, Ed.D., on "cultural PTSD" that also featured a video interview with another clinician and expert on PTSD. Bottom line: If you are not already in shock, you soon will be. And you are being put there on purpose to fuel the greed and power-hungry few. Enjoy the symptoms; they will increase in the future.

NeoLotus said...

When I was a kid in the '60s watching cowboy shows, I wanted to be an Indian. I wanted to learn how to track, to learn the animals, to live in harmony and appreciation of nature. I didn't like the cowboys; they understood nothing. I suppose it helped I was a half Japanese Buddhist and treated like an outsider.

No, I got nothing for the white man's ways or for Western civilization. I'm waiting for their ego to snap. Pride goeth before the fall and the fall won't be pretty.

Anonymous said...

Hey Kurt. I just came across this. I think I saw you at that talk. I'm a big fan of Derrick's too. Endgame had a big effect on me and really further solidified my thoughts on civilization's unsustainability. I like the blog and feel free to get in touch. Always good to talk to other Jensen readers.

streamfortyseven said...

I saw him about 3 years ago in Lawrence, Kansas. I've read his books. I thought they were interesting although mildly irritating, as if he hadn't thought out fully the consequences of what he was advocating with regard to accelerating the collapse of civilization.

What happened in New Orleans with Hurricane Katrina is what happens when things go bad, except there's no place to evacuate to, and no aid ever comes in. The police turn feral, dogs form packs, life gets to be interesting in ways Mr Jensen never really gets at.

I think he must come from some sort of academic background to be so disconnected from what happens when the thin veneer of civilization collapses and it's "sauve qui peut"...

This seems to be the case with a lot of people around the peak oil scene; lots of apocalypse porn with no real or personal appreciation for the consequences. Mass starvation isn't titillating if you're in the middle of it, and the survivalist notion of blowing away the neighbors with a .50 calibre Barrett rifle isn't really practical either - what do you do when you run out of ammo and the survivors come after you with a rope?

It might serve us all better to figure out ways to organize to cope with all of this - any one Foxfire book is worth everything Jensen has ever written.

Anonymous said...

Re. pathos and the need for clarity:

I have to say I'm inherently skeptical of appeals based on pathos, at a time when the news media are positively drowning in it and no local newscast is complete without a headline story that features someone crying or better yet weeping over one personal tragedy or another. I have a word for that sort of thing: "patheticism," the deliberate use of the pathetic as a means of getting and holding peoples' attention.

It may be that Jensen isn't engaged in anything of the sort and I'm merely reacting to a characterization that may be erroneous.

One doesn't need to come from an abusive family or indulge in public weeping to know that a) we are presently in overshoot, b) heading for collapse, and c) unlikely to take the needed steps to avert a truly horrific dieoff. And just as the military teaches soldiers that hatred of the enemy is counterproductive in war (as it clouds one's judgement and increases the risk of civilian casualties), we should also understand that the emotionalisms associated with sustainability can cloud judgement and lead to terrible mistakes. This is not to deny that there are real and deep feelings involved; but only to suggest that the strength of a feeling is not equivalent to the truth of the matter about which one feels. These are times that demand inner clarity and balance; all the more so given what is at stake.


Re. hunter/gatherer culture:

There are some who are specifically advocating a new hunter/gatherer (HG) era. One of the most interesting sites in this regard is One of the key people on that site is Jason Godesky, who is obviously a very smart guy and a darn good writer. I don't agree with a good bit of what he and the rest of the crew over there have to say, but their perspective is highly interesting and deserves to be looked at in detail.

Jason and the Anthropik crew cite the author Daniel Quinn as one of their inspirations; they are also well aware of Jensen.

They call themselves "primitivists," but the quality of their discourse, and specifically their reasoning (as distinct from emotional appeals) demonstrates that "primitive" is far from "crude" or "barbaric."

Anonymous said...

As written previously Jensen has not thought this out. I don't care how "sensitive" his talks are it is just more drama much like the kind we get on sensationalized television soaps. And no he must not be an unconnected academic or he would better think of what he is saying. It doesn't take giant books one after the other to get the same point across constantly. Someone did some serious damage to this dude and he is still doing it to himself and all of us on the web as we use and overuse this resource known as the internet. He was exploited and now he is exploiting and people tell me he cries. I hope he is crying about the domino effect in his own exploitations. The whole country is awakening Jenesn aside. He sounds like other people I have read in the past only he makes threats he ain't gonna keep guaranteed.

Hadashi said...

Derrick is a little 'heavy' to read, but I think that this is called for - not that it will make any difference to the end result. He reminds me of Ran Prieur too in some ways. Currently in the middle of his The Culture of Make Believe

Anastasia said...

In terms of your conclusion: Yes, but what do you believe?

NeoLotus said...

BTW, inherent in the author's last question about "going back" is the notion that living in closer harmony with the natural processes that govern all life on this planet is somehow a regression into a dark age of fear and loathing of the forces that have never been and never will be in our control.

And if I recall correctly, even one of the Socratic philosophers lamented their own loss of contact with the natural world. So, it just might be that Jensen is referring to something other than the mere existence of technological advances.

Of course it can also be argued against Jensen that our own existence in the world with our capability to build or make things can constitute an inherently violent act, to which the response would be even the mere birthing process of human beings can be see as a violent affair for the female--so what's his point of arguing against being selective of keeping certain technologies and discarding others.

Just a random thought in the early morning hours.

corneilius said...

The fundamental result of all natural living processes is the improvement of the habitat for all life. If we are the descendants of anything, it is of bacteria. We eat, we metabolise about 20% of what we eat, we excrete the remaining 80% or so, which is then nutrient for yet more life, in that bacteria and insects eat that excreta and convert it into materials other living organisms, from bacteria to rainforests, can utilise, to make more abundant life.

That result is intentional. The web of living processes is far too complex and precise for it not to be.

Civilisation breaks that fundamental, uses 'resources' for it's own narcissistic 'needs' and leaves mostly toxic materials for which nature has, as yet, no corresponding metabolic processes, thus depriving the habitat from those materials converted into 'resources' and 'waste'. Uranium Tailings.

Trauma and abuse that go unresolved are akin to those toxic by-products of Civilisation, and unresolved trauma tends towards a trans-generational repetition of the cycles of abuse, due partly to the way the developing brain learns the neural pathways of abuse survival and partly because of the conscious actions of Power based abusers.

Jensen points out that empathy for/with the victims of abuse, for our natural selves as children born into this Civilisation (including natural living systems, the children of life) is the starting point for any real change, and that at present that empathy is lacking - mostly because those who are civilised have forgotten how to listen to natural living processes, because we have 'adjusted' or 'adapted' or 'conformed' or identified with the system of abuse by adopting abuse dynamic roles.

When we finally face the truth within ourselves, or as we do so, we become available to natural living processes as advocates and companions.

The does not mean 'going back'. We do not really know yet what that means. We might learn something of what that means if we stop the encroachment of civilisation onto those areas where ancient hunter gatherer societies live as and equal part of the habitat, not on it or even in it (both of which imply some sense of separateness).

Wendy Lynne Lee said...

For a rather different, critical, evaluation of Derrick Jensen's work from the point of view of a committed environmentally oriented feminist socialist, please see "Open Letter to Radical Environmental Writer, Derrick Jensen" at: /

Contrary to Jensen, I would be more than happy to entertain comments, objections, and criticism.

Wendy Lynne Lee, Professor
Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania

corneilius said...

It helps re-focus discourse away from the ambiguities of 'politics' and 'ideology' and 'jargon' when the
fundamentally abusive nature of historical current Governance
around the world is identified, articulated, understood.

The situation is akin to the classic abuse family dynamic - with most doing their best to avoid the violence (make sure the table is set the way he/she likes it), scapegoats (why did you make him angry!), apologists (they don't mean to hurt you) , a pecking order with the current victim at the bottom, (stress fed down to the poor, rather than trickle down wealth...) and anyone who dares to be honest upsets all the others who have made of their position their very identity.....

"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."

Jensen's insight is correct.

Maryann said...

I'd love to see a debate between Jensen and that pompous, obnoxious blowhard Stephen Pinker. Who thinks mankind is less violent than we used to be.