“The Left has never been against civilization”: An interview with Derrick Jensen
Carson Wright and Andony Melathopoulos
Platypus Review 125 | April 2020
The following is an edited transcript of an interview with Derrick Jensen conducted on January 19th, 2020 by Carson Wright and Andony Melathopoulos of the Platypus Affiliated Society. Jensen is an anarchist and environmental activist, as well as a speaker and author of several books, including A Language Older Than Words and The Culture of Make Believe.
Carson Wright: How did you come to understand civilization as irredeemable? Who were your early influences?
Derrick Jensen: I came to understand civilizations as irredeemable through observing the real world far more than by reading books. A formative incident in my life was in second grade when they put in a subdivision right next to where I lived. I saw the meadowlarks, grasshoppers, garter snakes and cottonwood trees all disappear and become a neighborhood of white-box houses. I understood even then that if this keeps going on forever, these other creatures will run out of places to live. I recognized that the expansion of this culture comes at the expense of the non-human world. I understood that you can’t have infinite growth on a finite planet. By my late twenties and early thirties, when I was becoming an environmental activist, I realized that most activists had the same feeling, of hanging on by their fingernails to protect this or that piece of ground until civilization would collapse. It doesn’t take a cognitive giant to figure out that if you have uncountable salmon, then you count them and they’re in the millions and later they are in the hundreds of thousands or in the tens of thousands, that there is a clear trend towards species extinction. I’m actually pretty stunned that more people don’t recognize the pattern and the directions that this culture is going.
They say that one sign of intelligence is the ability to recognize patterns. Look at the pattern of the last 6,000 years. In Iraq, the cedar forests were so thick that the sunlight never touched the ground. The first written minutes of Western Civilization were of Gilgamesh deforesting the hills and valleys of Iraq to make a great city. North Africa was heavily forested, and they were cut down to make the Egyptian and Phoenician navies. Plato wrote about how deforestation was harming water quality in ancient Greece. This is the story of civilization.
From the patterns of history, I realized civilization was harmful to the planet, but I learned it was irredeemable from a combination of things. The first is the realization that most humans don’t feel that non-humans matter in the slightest. Most people believe that the economic system is more important than life on the planet. This extends to a mainstream perspective that emerged in the 1980s and 1990s about “balancing the economic system and the environment.” What wasn’t recognized is how such a statement implies the environment and the economic system are antithetical: why else would you have to come up with rhetoric about balancing them? An economic system in opposition to the natural world ends up destroying the natural world.
The irredeemability of civilization stems from the way in which recognition of its destructiveness is never fully registered. I’ve written extensively about my childhood abuse. Recovering from abuse is a hard and difficult process that most people don’t go through. If it is that difficult for an individual — for one person — then I can’t imagine a circumstance in which the entire civilization could recognize its behavior, particularly when individuals are financially rewarded for environmentally destructive behavior.
There is also just plain stupidity. I think of the Gordon Gekko character in Oliver Stone’s 1987 movie Wall Street. Stone meant this to be an evil character, and he delivers a speech about how greed is good — but most people missed the point, and it became a motto for Wall Street. Or Sam Peckinpah’s Wild Bunch (1969); Peckinpah made the film because he was disgusted with how sanitized the violence was in Westerns. He intended to rub people’s faces in the violence and show that the people who are doing this violence are not good people. But the audience missed the point and said, “Wow, that’s really great, it’s so violent, it’s so groovy.”
It’s not just stupid people. People can be very smart as individuals, but collectively we are stupid. Postmodernism is a case in point. It starts with a great idea, that we are influenced by the stories we’re told and the stories we’re told are influenced by history. It begins with the recognition that history is told by the winners and that the history we were taught through the 1940s, 50s and 60s was that manifest destiny is good, civilization is good, expanding humanity is good. Exemplary is the 1962 film How the West Was Won. It’s extraordinary in how it regards the building of dams and expansion of agriculture as simply great. Postmodernism starts with the insight that such a story is influenced by who has won, which is great, but then it draws the conclusion that nothing is real and there are only stories.
Peggy Reeves Sanday wrote on why there are rape-prone versus rape-free cultures. She noted that there were characteristics that were common among high-rape cultures, such as the extent of militarization, the value of women, if there is a history of ecological dislocation over the last several hundred years. But ecological dislocation has been roundly a feature of this culture for at least the last several hundred years. It would take a few hundred years for a society to metabolize trauma and to become no longer a harmful culture. Social change can’t take place overnight; it can only occur over generations. Take, for example, the end of slavery in the U.S. with the American Civil War. The war didn’t change the underlying contempt for black people. So, you stop chattel slavery, and it leads to new forms of oppression, like Jim Crow. Then that becomes outmoded, and then you come up with new mechanisms of oppression.
But the biggest reason civilization is irredeemable is that it is based functionally — not just psychologically or socially — on dismantling the ecological infrastructure of the planet and converting it into a scheme of humans, their pets, their livestock and their machines. This is the theme that I explored in my book Endgame (2006), which was a different tact of my arguments against civilization compared to A Language Older than Words (2000) or The Culture of Make Believe (2003).
There were thinkers who influenced me along the way. Neil Evernden and John Livingtson were big influences on me. One person who should have been a big influence on me, but I didn’t read him until later, was Daniel Quinn. Had I read him 10 years earlier than I did, he would have had a big influence on me. Edward Abbey was the same way.
Andony Melathopoulos: As you point out, in the 1950s, to regular people, taking a forest and turning it into homes appeared as progress. It seems this generation didn’t have the same concerns as your generation did. How do you account for your perspective on history?
DJ: On one level, I disagree with you, in that perspectives like mine predate my generation. Like I said, Plato was complaining about deforestation harming water quality a couple thousand years ago. There were similar perspectives in ancient Rome. Turning to the U.S., there were a number of figures in the 19th Century, like George Perkins Marsh, who wrote about how his culture was inherently destructive. Or someone like Henry David Thoreau. Before WWII, there were figures like John Muir and Frederick W. Turner. There were people who wrote on the collapse of the Columbia River salmon populations even before the dams went in because of the canning factories.
But there is also something about the period after the 1950s. Ecological concern was noticeable before that time. My great grandmother grew up in Nebraska. She would get nervous every time there were thunderstorms because she was afraid it would spook the bison and they would stampede and run over the top of the sod house, causing it to collapse. But she would say to my mom growing up in the 1930s that things have changed more in the last five years than they’ve changed in the rest of her life put together.
So, what changed? Joseph Campbell once wrote that when a local mythology works, it brings you a sense of meaning in your life. So, if the signs and symbols of Catholicism work for you, then you have a couple-thousand-year path of meaning open to you. In the 1950s, the myth of capitalism and progress still worked for many people, laying out a path of meaning for them. On the other hand, if those signs no longer function, then you have to set out and find your own path, your own meaning, and that’s what Campbell called the Hero’s Journey. And the reason I bring him up, and the reason that he’s relevant to this conversation, is because yes, I agree that in the 30s and 40s the myth of progress was ascendant, and it worked for most people. And by the 50s and 60s, cracks emerged. People began abandoning the myth and searching for new meaning.
But the abandonment of myth can also lead to craziness. Joseph Tainter wrote that as a complex society starts to collapse, people hold on to whatever beliefs made the society grow in the first place. So, on Easter Island, as the society collapsed, people were still building stone heads. Something similar is at work when people turn their attention to solar and wind installations. What generated the problems we face in the first place is industrialization. The idea that we might overcome industrialization through more industrialization of the wind, oceans, deserts is absurd.
CW: Early theorists of social contract frequently took as their starting point humanity before civilization. Rousseau noted that “the philosophers who have inquired into the foundations of society have all felt the necessity of going back to a state of nature, but not one of them has got there.” Rousseau points out that all questions about the state of nature seem bound up with the question of what society is. Do you find an affinity with the critical tradition?
DJ: I’m not a fan of Rousseau. I don’t think there is a “state of nature,” by which I mean something very specific. Humans, like elephants, gorillas, hyenas and wolves, are social creatures. And we are taught how to be human. Being human is not, as Richard Dawkins asserts, that we are fundamentally selfish. Nor is it a matter of us being fundamentally social. Ruth Benedict explains the dichotomy of selfishness in her analysis of why some cultures are good and some cultures are bad; why some cultures are peaceful, take care of their women and children and others are warlike. Benedict discovered that good cultures recognize that people are both social and selfish, and they do away with the selfishness/altruism dichotomy by making those two the same, that is, by socially rewarding behavior that benefits the group as a whole and disallowing behavior that benefits the individual at the expense of the group. So, if I go fishing and I share the salmon with everybody, and they praise me, it makes me want to do it again. But it would be socially disallowed for me to catch and hoard the salmon and try to sell it back to the group. There were some tribes in the Pacific Northwest, in fact, which would employ shaming polls which would be put outside someone’s home if they were being a jerk. A bad culture, by contrast, would socially reward behavior that benefits the individual at the expense of the group, which turns everybody into competitors at all times for whatever resources.
That is to say, that I think humans are really plastic. John Livingston once said something that I originally disagreed with. He said that the problem of humanity is that we substituted ideology for instinct. I disagreed with it at first, because it felt to me like he was saying that elephants are only instinctual and don’t have societies, which is not true. But then I later understood what he was getting at. He meant that ideology is unreliable because if you have a bad ideology, it can cause you to act destructively on society and on the natural world. The ideology of the last 6,000 years asserts that non-humans don’t exist as subjective beings and that it’s acceptable for humans to conquer everybody. If nature made a mistake, it was making us dependent on ideology instead of insulin.
That is why I don’t like Rousseau. I don’t think there is a state of nature, where humans are perfect. I believe the Tolowa, on whose land I now live, were sustainable, not because they were a primitive people who didn’t question anything, but because they had lived on this land for thousands of years and learned what they can and can’t do.
AM: You seem to use culture and civilization interchangeably. I am not sure what you actually mean when you say civilization is irredeemable because presumably some of these cultures were good and bad. When in this history does humanity’s path become irredeemable?
DJ: I use civilization in a very specific way; it’s a way of life characterized by the growth of cities. The root of the word “civilization” comes from the Latin civitas, which literally means “state” or “city.” A city is defined as a people living in numbers large enough to require the importation of resources. And in that situation, a few things happen. As soon as your way of life requires importation of resources, your way of life can never be sustainable because it means you’ve denuded the landscape of that particular resource, and you now require its importation as your city grows. All cities require a larger land base from which they steal. I mean think about New York City: where do they get their wood? Where do they get their food? Where do they get their bricks?
AM: Are you saying there is nothing qualitatively different between New York versus a city in Crete during the time of the Minoans? Are they just the same thing, just on different scales?
DJ: In my book The Culture of Make Believe, I made the point that every holocaust is different. We can talk about the capital ‘H’ Holocaust of the Jews in Germany, and that is different from what David Stannard describes as the American holocaust of American Indians. They have some things in common, but they’re different, and those two are both different than the Armenian genocide, and those are all different than the Rwandan genocide, but they still share things in common. So, I would not say that the Minoan cities are the same as New York, but they share some things, one being that both are unsustainable. No city has ever been sustainable. Secondly, in addition to not being sustainable, cities must be based on violence. If you need resources from some other city, and they won’t trade for it, you are going to take it.
I don’t know why the first cities arose. But what I am clear on is when you have a form of humanity based on agriculture and cities, you have a competitive advantage over your neighbors, because you have converted your land base into humans, into machinery, into weapons of war. Once you’ve overshot your own carrying capacity, you can either collapse — voluntarily or not — or you can expand. Usually, civilizations have chosen to expand. One that didn’t — and we’re not sure why — were the Mayans.
CW: How do you regard the history of the Left? Was it ever concerned with overcoming 6,000 years of civilization, or was the Left always about deepening civilization?
DJ: It depends on how we define the Left. I really like Dalton Trumbo’s 1938 novel Johnny Got His Gun. It’s about a soldier in WWI who wakes up in the hospital and finds out that he is blind, and he can’t speak; basically, his mouth is gone. There’s a beautiful passage near the end of the book where he’s talking about workers getting together. It’s all very moving, but he also talks about how “we are the people who are stringing the high-power lines, etc.” The point being that he is buying into the whole myth of progress. I think, in so far as he is representative of the Left, then yes, I don’t think it’s about overcoming civilization. Part of the problem is that the Left reflects the culture. It is generally human supremacist and sees humans as the only ones that matter. And it’s a problem going as far back as the origins of the Left, and it continues to this day.
I would not say that the Left has been entirely unconcerned with the natural world. But I might characterize the Left’s concern falling along the spectrum of shallow ecology versus deep ecology. Shallow ecology is the idea that we can protect places without actually going after the system itself or without actually going after the underlying philosophies of the entire culture. There are a lot of people who do really good work who are shallow ecologists. I don’t want to devalue their work.
Deep ecology, which I belong to, would assert that while good work is necessary, it won’t stop the destruction of the planet. This split does harken back to a debate that has been going on for 130 years now, exemplified by the debates between Gifford Pinchot and John Muir. Where John Muir was protecting wildness for wildness’s sake, Gifford Pinchot was focused on protecting the resources for human use into the future. I don’t know Pinchot’s political positions, but I'm guessing he would fall within the sort of traditional Left.
I am not sure I can defend this position, but it seems like the traditional Left would overlap with Pinchot’s position, while the only ones who still follow John Muir’s side of the debate are the “looney” Left, in which I would include myself. I don’t actually mean we’re lunatics but that we are not taken seriously.
AM: Putting concern for the natural world to one side, what about
civilization? Has the Left ever been about getting beyond civilization?
DJ: Let’s presume that the Left is defined by its being anti-capitalist. So, if we presume that Marxism is leftist, it was not traditionally against industrialism. On that level, I would say, no, the Left has never been against civilization.
CW: You have recently characterized the contemporary Left as “regressive.” When and why did the Left become regressive?
DJ: I think we’re in the midst of a collapse of civilization, and we’re definitely in the midst of the end of the American empire. And when empires start to fail, a lot of people get really crazy. In The Culture of Make Believe, I predicted the rise of the Tea Party. I recognized that in a system based on competition and where people identify with the system, when times get tough, they wouldn’t blame the system, but instead, they would indicate it’s the damn Mexicans’ fault or the damn black people’s fault or the damn women’s fault or some other group. The thing that I didn’t predict was that the Left would go insane in its own way. I anticipated the rise of an authoritarian Right, but not authoritarianism more generally, to which the Left is not immune. The collapse of empire results in increased insecurity and the demand for stability. The cliché about Mussolini is that he made the trains run on time, that he brought about stability.
CW: It’s been 20 years since the anti-WTO protests in Seattle. It seems like there was a new wave of Green anarchism that came in the wake of the protests. How would you assess the legacy of this green anarchism of the late 1990s?
DJ: I mean did the anti-WTO protests accomplish anything in the real world? Did they even slow globalization? Not really. In my book Endgame, I wrote positively about the accomplishments of the anti-WTO moment, but I have since come to reassess some of the whole black bloc — now antifa — stuff.
I agreed on one point with the black bloc tactics at the anti-WTO that so often those protests had been all about “speaking truth to power,” but they were effectively symbolic. I remember reading a veteran leftist who pointed out that the anti-war protest in the United States ended the war. And I was like, “Sure, they helped, but what really ended the war was Vietnamese people dying and fighting.”
The one thing I liked about the black bloc actions is that they recognized that the protests were merely symbolic, but two problems I have with the black bloc, and now antifa, is that they were very clear that their primary enemy was not the state. The primary enemy was the liberals who were protesting. The other problem was that their actions were equally symbolic. When they would argue that by breaking windows they would shatter the hold that capitalism has over everybody, it was basically magic. If we break it, they will come.
If the liberals want to speak “truth to power,” the black bloc wants to raise their middle finger to those in power. Both are symbolic. What I’m interested in is decisive attacks on infrastructure. When the black bloc started in the 1980s, there were some groups that were able to take over entire parts of communities. There were 10,000 of them in Germany, and they would drive the police out of a part of the city. And what would they do then? They would loot and burn. I look at that and think, you have 10,000 people who can actually take over a city, and that’s the damage that you do the capitalism: you burn a few stores and loots some TVs?
AM: I am not sure I understand what you mean about “decisive attacks on infrastructure?” Was the problem with the black bloc more than just the means they employed? Do you believe they focused on the wrong ends?
DJ: Not just the ends, but primarily their tactics. Anarchists first started turning on me when I began advocating for different tactics, specifically organized resistance. Organized resistance, according to some anarchists, is Stalinist and cult-like. Chaz Bufe ran into this in the late 1980s. He had an essay titled “Listen, Anarchist!” where he points out that insurrectionist and individualist currents in anarchism were undermining it.
The problem in anarchism goes back to a rift that emerged 2,000 years ago. The rift is between those who understand that laws are made primarily by and for the wealthy and that humans can govern ourselves without the need for county commissioners. That is one set of anarchists, in which I would count myself, Ed Abby and, frankly, most of traditional anarchism. This current is characterized by a phrase Chaz Bufe uses: it’s a form of anarchism concerned not whether there should be organization but rather how things should be organized.
The other half of anarchism is characterized by those who believe that because those in power make laws that primarily benefit them, all social restrictions are inherently oppressive, and we should break every social restriction. This position is exemplified by an experience I had. I was giving a talk, and John Zerzan was in the audience. I was going on about how laws are made by and for the wealthy, and then I said that that doesn’t mean I have a problem with laws against rape, and he took strong issue with that position. Frankly, I think this current is destroying anarchism. Because, how are you ever going to confront the state, with all of its power, if you can’t organize in groups larger than six?
I was reading this thing a couple years ago about moving troops. It’s a real skill, and this is what master sergeants do, get troops moving without having a traffic jam. I mean, it just stuns me that anarchists think they can take on the state with its tremendous levels of organization and its firepower without organizing.
AM: What would be the ends of such an organization?
DJ: What I want to achieve is, I want to live in a world that has more wild salmon every year than the year before and has more migratory songbirds etc. So, what that means is, the dams need to be removed, industrial logging has to stop, industrial fishing has to stop, global warming has to be stopped. And how do we do that?
If I was made dictator, for example, I would not take out every dam tomorrow. I recognize that this whole system is based on subsidies, and I would change the subsidies right now. The world’s commercial fishing fleets, for example, are subsidized at a greater value than its entire catch. In the Pacific Northwest, activists have told me that counties want increased logging because that’s where they make the money for their schools and for their infrastructure. We should hire these same people who right now are cutting trees down for us to instead reforest and to instead go in and destroy old mining roads and to take out dams.
Chris Hedges says that those in power determine the terms of resistance, because if they will allow non-violent resistance, then that’s what happens. And if they don’t allow it, then it moves up the scale. It’s the same thing as the JFK quote, “those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”
What I want is for there to be more wild salmon every year. And I don’t really care how we get there. I don’t care if it’s because companies and governmental entities are behind it, or if the county or state government does it, or if a dam comes down because of an earthquake or somebody blows it up. It doesn’t matter to me. I just want for the dam to be gone so the salmon can come back.
CW: Do you see the currents and trends in environmentalism changing from the 1980s and 1990s?
Environmentalism in the 1980s and early 1990s was about saving wild spaces and wild beings, and that has changed, in great measure because of climate change activism. People like Bill McKibben and Naomi Klein are pushing relentlessly for wind and solar, but they are explicit that what they’re trying to save is this culture and this way of life and not the natural world. Naomi Klein has said explicitly that the polar bears don’t do it for her.
Environmentalism has really been captured over the last decade by the “sustainability” movement, which has really been about sustaining this destructive culture a little bit longer, just powering it in different ways. A great example of that is you can have 100,000 people march on the streets of New York or Paris, and if you ask them why they're marching, they’ll say to save the planet, and if you ask them what their demands are, they will say they want subsidies for wind and solar. Which is extraordinary; the environmental movement has been turned into the lobbying arm for a sector of industrial capitalism.
With Extinction Rebellion, I see a
movement back to a biocentric perspective that does care about the extinction that is going on all around us. I hope
this signals a pendulum swing back towards a focus on the natural world, but as
I said earlier about cultural make-believe, as this culture
continues to collapse, there will be more and more
people who simply want to maintain the culture
at literally any
cost. Over the next little bit, splits will become more apparent between those
whose loyalty is to the natural world and
those whose loyalty is to the dominant system.| P
 Chaz Bufe, “Listen, Anarchist!” The Anarchist Library, available online at: <https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/chaz-bufe-listen-anarchist>.