Interview with Derrick Jensen

12 Mar 2005

Derrick Jensen is a prolific writer, speaker and activist. He is the author of Listening to the Land, A Language Older Than Words, The Culture of Make Believe, Strangely Like War: The Global Assault on Forests, and Welcome to the Machine: Science, Surveillance, and the Culture of Control among others, and has recently completed a new book. A shortened version of this interview appears in issue 26 of No Compromise magazine.

No Compromise: What do you hope to achieve through your writing?

Derrick Jensen: I want to bring down civilization. It's really clear that civilization is killing the planet. I'm interested in living in a world that has more wild salmon every year than the year before. A world that has more migratory songbirds every year than the year before. A world that has less dioxins and flame retardants in mothers' breast milk. A world not being destroyed. A world where krill populations aren't collapsing. A world where there are not dead zones in the oceans. A world not being systematically dismantled. I want to live in a world that is not being killed. I will do whatever it takes to get there. It is really clear that for the past 6000 years civilization has been killing the planet. It's a way of life that systematically destroys its land base and right now it's destroying the planet. I'm on the planet's side.

NC: Do you see the destruction of the environment, the systematic violence and cruelty perpetrated against animals, and human oppression such as racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia as being incongruent issues with their own unique causes, or are they tied together with a common thread? What is your analysis for the reasons behind all of the death, destruction, violence, and hatred that is so prevalent in our world?

DJ: I think that they all have their own unique attributes such that it's not a one size fits all solution to everything, but I do think that they are deeply and intimately tied. We have an entire culture that is suffering from what Judith Herman would call complex post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), by which I mean that we are so traumatized that we don't know how to enter into relationships anymore. One of the things that happens if you've been raised in captivity, as Judith Herman talks about in Victims of Domestic Violence, is that you become really afraid of your surroundings because you could be hurt at any moment. So you need to control your surroundings. That's of course what we see around us on a large scale. One of the things that happens with complex PTSD is that you come to believe that fully mutual relationships are not possible. That they simply don't exist and that all relationships are based on hierarchy. On one hand this is describing symptoms of complex PTSD and on the other hand it's also describing the religion, science and philosophy of the dominant culture. So I think that all of these issues have this underlying basis and a really fundamental visceral fear.

It also has to do with the stories that we're told. The stories that teach us how to live. For example we could probably name off the top of our heads ten movies in which there is a scene that starts with a man beginning to rape a woman and ends with her hands around his back pulling him close. It is really common. This is a modern example, but we can go back to the bible and to Greek mythology as well.

One of the things that's fundamental to all of these issues is an inability to perceive another as a subject. That also has to do with why I don't have a problem with hate. I think hate is a fine and righteous feeling. I don't think we should try to get rid of hate. I can hate someone because of what he or she has done to me. That's fine and no big deal. But if I hate an African American lesbian because she's an African American lesbian, I'm not even doing her the honor of hating her personally. I'm hating this stereotype that I'm putting where she would be standing if I were to allow her to exist in my own psyche. That has huge ramifications.

There is a great line from a Canadian lumberman. "When I look at trees, I see dollar bills." That's the problem right there. When I look at women I see orifices. When I look at gay men I see threats to my own masculinity. When you put this stereotype over the top of the person, including nonhumans, then you are incapable of seeing the person. If you perceive trees as dollar bills, you are going to treat them as dollar bills. If you perceive women as orifices, you are going to treat them as orifices. If you perceive trees as trees you'll treat them differently, and if you perceive this particular tree as this particular tree, and that particular tree as that particular tree, you'll treat them differently still. That's one of the things that I think ties all of these issues together is this incapacity to perceive the other as other.

You could not have factory farming if you perceived the cows as individuals, the chickens as individuals. That is not to say that one could never kill an individual, human or nonhuman. I'm also not saying that you have to perceive everyone as individuals at every moment because if you do you go insane. You can't keep all that information in your psyche at the same time. The point is to attempt, in so far as possible, to be aware of when I am treating the other as an object and when I'm treating them as a subject. To not pretend that simply because I can't conceive of them as a subject at this moment, because I'm so busy with other things, that that actually makes them an object.

NC: The issue of violence is often debated within the animal and earth liberation communities. Is nonviolence the only effective and ethical strategy available to activists, or can political violence be justified as a productive means of bringing about social change?

DJ: 90% of the large fish in the oceans are gone. The krill populations have decreased by what I think is 30% in the last 30 years. When the krill populations go down it's all over. I'm sorry can anyone talk to me about effectiveness? What does that mean in a world that is being destroyed before our eyes?

Lets talk about Gandhi for a second. The only reason that the Buddhists listened to Gandhi at all was because they'd been bled white by the Germans and Japanese. Another reason they listened to him was because there were Sikhs with guns in the hills. It's just nonsense to talk about the Indian revolution being purely nonviolent. And if we want to talk about effectiveness, the Vietnamese certainly forced the Americans out. We could say that Gandhi had a nonviolent revolution. I would say, well that's nice but actually the Indians lost and Monsanto won. We could also say that Vietnam had a successful violent revolution. But in that case I would say that the Vietnamese lost and that Coca Cola and computer companies won. So I have a real hard time talking about effectiveness.

In so far as whether violence can be ethical, I have no interest whatsoever in spiritual purity. I have an interest in living in a world that has more wild salmon every year than the year before. I have an interest in living in a world with migratory songbirds and I will do whatever it takes to get there. I have an interest in living in a world that is not being destroyed. I have a friend who is an ex-con who says that dogmatic pacifists are the most selfish people he knows because they put their own spiritual purity over effectiveness.

NC: Do you think that progress can be made towards goals like earth and animal liberation within the current paradigm in which we live? What role do you see animal liberation activists playing in bringing about positive social change?

DJ: I need to say after my tantrum about effectiveness that you may never find someone who is more inclusive in tactics then I am. I think that everything is necessary. And so when we say effective, once again, what does that mean? I think it's incredibly effective to work on a rape crisis hotline, or to work at a battered women's shelter, or to liberate cats. I mean if someone liberates cats it may not stop vivisection, but it sure as hell helped those cats. And it's the same with working on a rape crisis hotline. The women I know who do that know that their not stopping that tidal wave of violence against women, but that sure as hell is helping that one woman. I think that it's all really important.

The whole reform versus revolution question, which is not the question you asked, is just crap. If we just wait for the great glorious revolution there is not going to be anything left when we get there, and if on the other hand all we do is reform there won't be anything left in the end anyways. We need it all. We need everything. We need people chaining themselves to trees, we need people taking out dams, we need people liberating animals, we need people working rape crisis hotlines, we need people working with medicinal herbs, we need people teaching people how to sing, we need people communicating, and we need people who are entirely underground and doing the things that underground people need to do. We need everything. That's the wonderful thing about everything being so fucked up. No matter where you looks there's great work to be done.

NC: You speak a lot about hope. Do you think there is power in hopelessness?

DJ: I think hope is really harmful for two reasons. First there are false hopes. My father is extremely violent. One of the thing that kept my mother in the relationship with him is that there weren't battered women's shelters in the 50's and 60's. Another thing that kept her in the relationship with him was the false hope that he would change. False hopes bind us to unlivable situations and they blind us to real possibilities.

Does anybody really think that Weyerhaeuser is going to stop deforesting because we ask nicely? Does anybody really think that if a democrat would have got into the Whitehouse that things would be ok? Does anybody really think that Monsanto will stop monsantoing? Does anybody think that vivisectors will stop torturing animals just because we stand outside with a sign? That doesn't mean that we shouldn't stand out there with that sign, but it means do we really believe that they will stop because we do that? And if you don't believe that what does that mean?

The book I have just recently completed is really centered around this question. Do you believe that the culture will undergo a voluntary transformation to obtain a sustainable way of living? I ask that question all over the country and nobody ever says yes. The next question is if you don't believe that the culture is going to undergo a voluntary transformation to obtain a sustainable way of living, what does that mean for our strategy and for our tactics? We don't know. The reason we don't know is because we don't ask that question. The reason we don't ask that question is because we're so busy pretending that we have hope.

One of the smartest things the Nazis did was to co-opt rationality and to co-opt hope. The way they did that was by making it so that at every step of the way it was in the Jews rational best interest not to resist. Would you rather get an ID card or would you rather resist and possibly get killed? Do you want to go to a ghetto or do you want to resist and possibly get killed? Do you want to get on a cattle car or do you want to resist and possibly get killed? Do you want to take a shower or do you want to resist and possibly get killed? Every step of the way it was in their rational best interest to not resist. But I'll tell you something really interesting which is that the Jews who participated in the Warsaw ghetto uprising had a much higher rate of survival than those who went along. We need to keep that in mind over the next ten years. That's why false hopes are harmful.

But hope itself. I was bashing hope about a year and a half ago in Colorado at a talk and someone in the audience asked me to define hope. I didn't know how to define it so I asked them to define it. We came up with a great definition: hope is a longing for a future condition over which you have no agency. I don't hope that I eat something tomorrow, I'm just going to do it. On the other hand the next time I get on an airplane I hope it doesn't crash. So in common usage, and this is what I really feel like it means, hope means I have no agency. Which means if I hope salmon survive it means I have no agency. So the truth is that I do not hope coho, chinook, sokeye, and chomp salmon survive, I will do what it takes to make sure they survive. That's a much different statement. People say, "oh my gosh if you don't have hope then what?" I don't care about hope, what I care about is agency.

NC: How can civilization be brought down? Should we wait for it to crumble or is there something that individuals can do to help hasten its demise?

DJ: I have a friend, who a long time ago, when I asked him why he does the work he does trying to protect forests said "as things become increasingly chaotic I want to make sure some doors are open." And what he means by that is if grizzly bears are alive in 30 years they may be alive in 80 years. If they're not alive in 30 years they are gone forever. Everyday species are wiped out. Everyday the world is contaminated more. If we ignore the fact that salmon have a right to live. That they are beautiful creatures who live for her and himself and for their community. That they're a beautiful part of that community. Even just ignoring all that and looking at them in a utilitarian fashion. A human utilitarian fashion. A human short term utilitarian fashion. If someone would have brought down civilization whatever that means, 150 years ago, people living along the Columbia river would still have salmon to eat. If people would have brought down civilization 200 years ago, people who live in what is now the New England states would still have passenger pigeons. The longer we wait the worse shape the world is going to be in. So do I think we should just wait for it? It depends. I mean what do you love? That's the question. What do you love and is it going to survive? Ask the rivers, ask the salt flats, ask the marshes, ask the crabs. For the animal liberators, ask the lab rats, ask the hens, ask the hawks. Ask them do you want me to wait, or do you want me to do something now? I think a lot of them will give pretty clear answers if we just listen.

In so far as what we can do to get there, I've done benefits for earth liberation prisoners and fully support the actions of the ELF and the ALF. I have supported them publicly on a bunch of occasions, and in a bunch of different local and national venues. That said I do have a criticism, and my criticism is that I wish they would move up the infrastructure. I think what we need to do is start looking for bottlenecks and start looking for leverage points. A really good example of a leverage point (and before I even say this I need to say that I am not talking about assassinating George Bush)...

One man acting all by himself almost stopped World War 2. George Elser was a guy who decided to kill Hitler. Anybody who talks about the German resistance in World War 2 is very clear that killing Hitler was crucial to stopping the war. It was late 1939. The war had just started and it could have been brought to a stop. He was able to fabricate a bomb, put it in a place where Hitler was going to give a speech and set the timer. Hitler, instead of giving his speech at the normal time, moved it up by a 1/2 hour. Instead of finishing up at 9:30 as he always did, he finished at 9:00. He was out of the building at 9:10 and the bomb went off at 9:20. So it was 10 minutes that would have stopped World War 2.

The specific reasons I'm saying that I'm not applying this to George Bush is because Bush doesn't wield the sort of power that Hitler did. If Bush were to choke on a pretzel, Cheney would take over. In that particular case assassination would not do as much good as it would have done with Hitler. But my point is that that is an example of leveraging power. Leveraging power does not have to be violent. I'm leveraging my voice when I write a book as opposed to standing on a street corner.

When individuals liberate animals I think that what they are trying to do is to save those particular animals. It would be the same taking out a dam. The primary reason would be to liberate that stretch of river. But I think, for example, if somebody torches an SUV, that's not a lot of leverage. That's a huge risk for not very much return. In no way am I saying anything negative about any of the people who have had the outrageous courage to do those actions, but if you are going to get popped for 20 years for burning a couple SUV's, there's other things that I would rather do. That's actually my biggest criticism of the ELF and ALF, and its not even a criticism because I would like to see them continue to do what they do. In addition, however, I would like to see others move up the infrastructure. I've spoken with hackers who have said things that suggest to me that hacking holds great promise.

NC: In the face of such overwhelming violence and brutality and with what sometimes seem to be insurmountable obstacles how do you maintain a positive outlook and keep yourself motivated and focused on the fight at hand?

DJ: Well there are a few ways. People will say that if things are so bad why don't you just kill yourself and the answer is that life is really really good. Don't take it personally. Life is so fun. I'm happy. I'm really happy, and at the same time I'm sad. I'm devastated. There seems to be this idea that if you understand how bad things are you have to be miserable all the time. But the truth is I'm really happy and I'm really sad. I'm full of rage, I'm full of hate, and I'm full of love. People expend all this energy fighting the despair. Well despair is an appropriate response to a desperate situation. It takes a tremendous amount of energy to attempt to not feel those "negative feelings". Sorrow is just sorrow, and pain is just pain. It's not so much the sorrow and the pain that hurts as it is my resistance to it.

We also need to recognize the difference between symbolic and non symbolic actions. A symbolic act is an act that is mainly done to send a message, and a non symbolic act is one that is done for the act itself. So liberating animals would probably be both a symbolic act and a non symbolic act. Symbolic because you are attempting to tell vivisectors "this is not acceptable", and non symbolic because you are rescuing those particular animals. Within the environmental movement especially, we forget the difference between symbolic and non symbolic. There will be some hillside that just gets wasted and we'll be really happy because we get some press. And that's a symbolic victory and a real tangible defeat. I'm going to quote from my new book because I address this issue there:

Most of our actions are frighteningly ineffective. If that weren't the case we would not be witnessing the dismantling of the world. Yet we keep on doing the same old symbolic actions and keep on calling the making of this or that statement a great victory. Now don't get me wrong, symbolic victories can provide great morale boosts which can be crucial. But we make a fatal and frankly pathetic error when we presume that our symbolic victories, our recruiting, and our morale boosting, by themselves make tangible differences on the ground and we should never forget that what happens on the ground is the only thing that matters.

There comes a time in the lives of many long term activists when symbolic victories, rare even as these can be sometimes, are no longer enough. There comes a time when many of these activists get burned out, discouraged and demoralized. Many fight despair. I think fighting against this despair is a mistake. I think this despair is often an unacknowledged, embodied, understanding that the tactics they've been using aren't accomplishing what they want and the goals they've been seeking are insufficient to the crisis we face. These activists get burned out and frustrated because they're trying to achieve sustainability within a system that is inherently unsustainable. They can never win. No wonder they get discouraged. But instead of really listening to these feelings they so often take a couple of weeks off and then dive back into trying to put the same old square pegs into the same old round holes. The result: more burnout, more frustration, more discouragement, and the salmon keep dying. What would happen if we listened to these feelings of being burnt out, discouraged, demoralized, and frustrated.

What would those feelings tell us? Is it possible they could tell us that what were doing isn't working and so we should try something else? Perhaps they are telling us to switch metaphors. That we should stop trying to save scraps of soap in a concentration camp and just bust out of the whole camp.


Fair Use Notice and Disclaimer
Send questions or comments about this web site to Ann Berlin,