THE POWER OF PLACE: A DISCUSSION WITH AUTHOR DERRICK JENSEN
JAN SMITOWICZ: The theme of this interview is a sort of tagline for my book: rewild the west, and all the rest.
DERRICK JENSEN: I think it’s a hugely important work. About twenty years ago I decided to go up to the Northwest Territories. There was a road there that was really just unbroken forest for 300 miles, and I’ve never seen anything like it before. It was really beautiful, but it also broke my heart, because of course that used to be the whole continent. We can say the same thing about North Africa, we can say the same thing about Europe, we can say that same thing about the near East, we can say the same thing about Iraq, and so on. There’s a phrase for this, something baseline, about how every generation remembers what it was like when we were kids, and how much worse it’s gotten, but we don’t remember how it was when our parents were kids. There was a study that came out a year or two ago that migratory songbird populations have collapsed by 80% in the last 40 years in a lot of populations; bobwhites, whippoorwills, and so on, and that’s horrifying and terrifying; until I realized that 40 years ago was 1968, which is 10 years after Silent Spring. Which means that they’ve already gone down 80% in 40 years, after they’d already gone down by 80%, and in the 1920s they were down 80%. You know, we hear about it over and over no matter where; the passenger pigeons darkening the skies for days at a time—but we’ve also heard that was how Florida was, and Louisiana. I tell this in my talks: does anybody know why there are no penguins in the northern hemisphere? There were—they were called great auks, but who remembers the great auks?
I think this project is incredibly important in terms of helping us to remember that we are fighting over scraps, and we shouldn’t be. We should be living in intact natural communities.
JS: Right. And the fight we have to fight shouldn’t be about fighting over scraps. We shouldn’t say, “Don’t clearcut this 50 acres,” but then say nothing about the clearcutting of 2000 acres tomorrow. We should say, “We want it all.” And it’s really not about us, we’re not selfish, saying “GIMME, GIMME, GIMME!” It’s that we humans—all humans—need it all, the natural world has its own rights, and the nonhumans need it all. It’s about preserving life.
Now I want to get into this idea I’m calling the power of place. You grew up in Colorado, right, and then moved to northern Idaho?
DJ: No, I moved from Colorado to Nevada for a couple years, then to northern Idaho, then eastern Washington, then here [Crescent City, California].
JS: Okay, so I kind of want to get a sense of why you moved to the different geographical areas in your life, and why. There’s a lot of variation there. Eastern Washington is high desert, which is very very different from the coastal redwood rainforest of Crescent City. So what did you like and dislike about each area, and why did you move away to the new places?
DJ: Colorado because I finished college, and also because my father lived in Colorado, and I didn’t want to face the possibility of meeting him every time I went to the grocery store. Also there’s way too many people. I went to northeast Nevada because my sister lived there and I was starting up a beekeeping business, and that was a place I could find some pastures on which to put the bees. But I got sick. I moved to north Idaho because it was one of the prettiest places I’d ever seen. Moved to eastern Washington because I went back to school. And then moved to northern California because there were too many people in Spokane. And I’d committed to living around my mom. She wanted to live where there weren’t winters, and I wanted to live where there weren’t a lot of people. This is what we came up with. After I moved to Idaho I found that I’m very much a forest person; I never liked the desert, and I didn’t really like Colorado. I have some fondness for it, but I’m very much a forest person. I feel most comfortable there.
JS: So that place holds the most power over you.
DJ: Yeah. And I’ve heard a lot about how we resonate with the landbases where we grew up, but in my case that wasn’t true. Where I lived in Colorado was plains; plains are okay, but as soon as I moved to Idaho and then here I immediately felt at home. I don’t know why. I know when I go elsewhere it’s the same. Like when I go to the deep south, to forests there, it’s very moving for me too. Really forests anywhere. I go to Los Angeles or San Diego and don’t feel at home. I know people who absolutely love the desert and feel tremendous respect and awe and feel very much at home in the desert. I can respect that, it’s just not me personally.
JS: So you’d feel out of place even when you went to natural areas in Spokane?
DJ: You know, Spokane is right near the edge of forests, and there were some forests right near where I lived. It wasn’t thick forests like here; you can’t walk through these [redwood] forests, you have to go on a game trail. In Spokane it was very open forests.
JS: After doing just a small bit of off-trail bushwacking in the forests of northern California last week, I posited that all this dark matter scientists say make up the majority of the mass in the universe might just be found somewhere in the redwood forests, they’re so dense.
DJ: Oh that’s funny.
JS: Do you think you’ll stay in northern California the rest of your life? Do you think you’re at home and you’ll be happy staying there?
DJ: Well I’ll certainly stay the rest of my mom’s life. I’m planning on staying here forever. But you know, with global warming, I live at 17 feet elevation, so it could be underwater. So I might be staying here for the rest of this forest’s life. But we need to stop it before then. I mean, who knows—I have no desire to leave. But politically things are very bad and just getting worse in this country. But I can’t see myself leaving, no, I’ll be here.
JS: You talked in one of your recent books about eco-tourism and jet-setting all over the place; you know, this week we can go to the Everglades, next week Glacier National Park, then the redwoods. But you talked about vacationing at home in your bioregion; sticking to it, learning the intricacies of that place. Why do you think it’s important to find a place you love and stick with it?
DJ: Well for a couple of reasons. Actually I think where I liked writing about it best was in the zoo book [Thought to Exist in the Wild: Awakening from the Nightmare of Zoos]. Because one of the things I say is that people go to these exotic places, or in this case, people go to zoos—one of the excuses for the existence of zoos is that we need to have a connection to wild animals.
JS: Such a joke.
DJ: And that’s true, but it’s not really a connection to wild animals if they’re in cages. There’s another lesson to be learned there; if you want to see bears, you should live such that bears want to see you. I think it’s a very very bad lesson to be teaching children especially: that you can destroy a landbase but still see the bears on whose land you’re living. So what I say there is that instead of going to a zoo, you should go outside and get to know the creatures who live in your home—even if you live in the city! In Thought to Exist.., I thought, okay, I’m gonna go to the worst place in this entire area, the most life-unforgiving place and see what I see. And I went to the McDonald’s parking lot. There were some little landscaped bushes right next to highway, between Highway 101 and McDonald’s. I sat there for about 30 seconds and I started seeing spiders, I saw sparrows hopping along the ground, I saw seagulls, I saw some bumblebees even though it’s a little cold. Those beings are just as important and we need to get to know them. As we’re doing this interview, it’s a little cold here and I’m starting a fire. I’m putting some old scrap paper into the woodstove. Just a moment ago, and I felt really bad about this because I didn’t see it before I put it in. But there was this little tiny tiny spider that was living on this used scratch paper pile, and I accidentally burned it when I put it in the woodstove. And my point is that even something as absolutely sterile as a box full of used scratch paper still has living beings in it. This is not to say that, well, since they can live there, then that makes it okay that forests are destroyed. I’m not saying that at all. What I’m saying is that there’s life right next to us and we should get to know that.
There are a lot of problems I have with the whole eco-tourism thing; one is that it’s just the same sort of pornographic mindset that’s killing the planet; that it’s there for us to consume, whether we consume it through the timber industry or whether we consume it through our eyes.
JS: Loving it to death.
DJ: Well, it’s more like…I remember Linda Hogan years ago wrote about nature writers who go to Yucatan Peninsula and they end up writing about themselves. You know, what do you know about the place? Years ago, when I was in my twenties, I was at one point driving all over the place and I think in half a year I slept in 130 different places. Most of the time just throwing my backpack down by the side of the road. And I realized pretty quickly that for all I was driving around, I may as well just be sitting inside a small theater with different scenes projected onto the windshield. Because I wasn’t getting to know any place at all. Absolutely no knowledge obtained. All you’d have to do is turn the car into a little theater and blow in some different scents—and it doesn’t really matter, you’re still you.
Another thing I wanted to mention is that years ago I interviewed Vine Deloria, and one of the things he talked about is how all his students at the University of Colorado, they’d go hiking over a weekend, and they thought they were connecting with nature. But what he would say is they’re not, all they’re having is an aesthetic experience. In order to really get to know a place, you have to live there for a really long time to start recognizing the patterns. I’ve lived here for 10 years and I don’t know the patterns. Recently there was a very bad year for banana slugs—they’re everywhere here—and it was a really bad year for them. Was that a strange thing or was that a pattern? And in this case they came back the next year. I just noticed this last night—this year is a very good year for mushrooms. Which is kind of odd because it’s been very dry until a couple days ago. It also hasn’t been very cold; November is usually the coldest month here: what does that mean? I mean it takes a long time to start to see the patterns of who comes when. And that’s true with human relationships too. You can have this really amazing weekend affair that’s really passionate, and that’s one thing. That’s also not the same as getting to know someone over a long time, it takes a long time just to know humans’ patterns. Or to get to know a dog’s patterns, a dog’s preferences. I live with this dog 24 hours a day and it still takes a long time for us to get to know each other. How much more so when you have the additional complexity of all these different beings who are all just as sentient and alive as we are? I mean the trees have just as much preferences as we do, and just as much of a subjective existence. And to get to know them takes a long long time. And of course that’s a good thing, that’s a fine thing. It takes generations to really get to know a place. I read somewhere about how some indigenous peoples, I don’t remember who, knew that martens make a major migration every six human generations or something. How do you know that unless you’ve lived there long enough for that to have happened three or four times. Once you’ve lived there for 18 human generations, then you might know that.
I just got a note a couple days ago; people always ask me if I will edit their work or if they can edit mine. I always say no because I have to know someone really well before I feel comfortable with that. If I were to edit a book of yours, what I would have to do is figure out what you want to say, and how you want to say it, and then help you to say it better. And it takes a long time to get to know someone well enough to know what they want to say. And to enter into those relationships. It’s even more so if we don’t both speak English, or don’t both even speak human. It takes a really long time to get to know another well enough to know what is in the others’ best interest. I mean some things are pretty obvious—it’s not in a forest’s best interest to be clearcut, we can know that. But what does a forest really want?
JS: That transitions well into my next question. I was just in Crescent City last week, and it’s still a gorgeous place, once you get outside the town. Can you tell me a little bit about what your bioregion used to look like before the death march of civilization arrived?
DJ: You know, there’s a sense in which I can’t even imagine. I’ve seen pictures of rivers with salmon so thick that you can’t see the bottom of the river. Did you go to Mill Creek when you were up here?
JS: I’ve been in it before, yeah.
DJ: Okay, well I’ve seen at most maybe four salmon at a time in Mill Creek. But that’s nothing compared to an entire stream full of salmon. And I’ve seen a couple dead salmon on the side. It used to be that you couldn’t even walk along the bank of the river without stepping on dead salmon. And I’ve seen this out here, when I was younger, out here. I’ve seen entire migrations of salamanders—across the roads, actually, they were getting killed—and the salamanders were just massed across the road. And I’ve seen midges so thick that if you drive your windshield is darkened by them. In many ways I can’t even imagine the sort of fecundity that used to be here. I know the forest is very thick here, and I can see redwoods, and I know how they’re wanting to grow older, to become the elders. I’ve been to Stout Grove and I’ve been to a lot of the redwood parks around here. But I have no idea what it would look like as a whole, untouched natural community. I remember talking to one of the Tolowa here about how they housed themselves prior to this culture, and he laughed. He said back then, open spaces were at a premium. Nowadays the forests are the areas that are rarer. But back then, the place you put your home was where some trees had fallen down, because everywhere was covered with forest. You know I think about that a lot. The forest ran from here down to gosh…I don’t know…northern Sonoma. And then part of the coast they went all the way down to San Francisco. And even down to Santa Cruz.
JS: Yep. With only very small breaks, it was pretty much continuous redwood forests.
DJ: Yeah, you know, the cliché is that prior to the arrival of this culture, a squirrel could’ve run from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River without touching the ground. And now it’s gone, all gone. At one point a squirrel probably could’ve run around a lot of the Mediterranean without touching the ground. What was it like? I don’t know. We’ll never know how great it was. All we have is the sort of remnants, the museums.
JS: Yeah. Living museums. And they really are like museums because they’re not intact, adequate ecosystems anymore.
DJ: No, how can the forest live without salmon, without lamprey? I mean even dropping off spirituality, anything but straight carbon cycle, salmon are huge, huge carbon pumps into the forest. A tremendous movement of food. I don’t know if you know, but grizzly bear populations are collapsing in British Columbia because salmon populations are crashing. I mean, it’s of course what you’d expect…
JS: There’s this song on the Eagles’ latest record that they made a couple years ago, it was a double LP, and the title track on it is called The Long Road Out of Eden. It’s actually a pretty damn anti-civ song and even album; especially for a fuckin’ CD that was only sold in Wal-Mart when it first came out! The line is, “All the knowledge in the world is of no use to fools.” To me that gets at the heart of one of our primary problems; we keep getting more and more information, a deeper understanding of the intricacies of the natural world and the importance of biodiversity, and yet our mainstream so-called solutions get ever more pathetic and worthless. So really what we need is not more information but more care; more honesty and openness and an understanding of what the real solutions are. So could you talk about the inevitable failure of techo-fixes and how this should relate to our strategy as a very small community that “gets it?”
DJ: Well a couple things. One, the techno-fixes are never about saving the natural world. They’re about saving industrial civilization. That’s part of the problem. I think Lester Brown has 4.0, or Plan 4B or something to save civilization; how many plans does he have to go through before he recognizes he’s trying to save the wrong thing?
DJ: And what do all his so-called solutions to global warming have in common? They’re trying to save industrial capitalism; they take industrial capitalism as a given, the natural world as that which must conform to industrial capitalism. And that’s insane, literally, in terms of being out of touch with physical reality. We can see that with all the others. What are they trying to say with their techno-fixes?
So it’s pretty straightforward. How do you stop global warming, caused in great measure by the burning of oil and gas? Stop burning oil and gas. One of the central pieces of my work, and one of the reasons I started writing in the first place is that I saw a problem with the discourse. Nobody else was fixing it, so I needed to do it myself—which is that, the problems we face are not fundamentally rational. And so they’re not amenable to rational solutions. It’s not rational to destroy the planet. You know, cancer rates are through the roof, there’s precocious puberty, it’s not simply entitlement and enslaving the rest of the world, it’s also suicidal. I was just writing about this not very long ago; I mean, Ted Bundy’s problem was not that he needed to read more books on women.
JS: That’s what I’m getting at; it’s information, but not understanding or caring.
DJ: Well I think it’s even worse than that. The problem is this culture as a whole and a good portion of its members are sociopathological. For crying out loud, they bombed the moon! Last month the United States government bombed the moon.
JS: For what?
DJ: (pauses)…Good question. Their stated rationale was that they wanted to see if there was water on it so they could steal…I mean, sorry, so they could mine it.
DJ: It makes no sense whatsoever. Anyone can tell you mining the moon is never going to work. Just in terms of energy. It’s too energy-intensive.
JS: It’s just so insane. And not even going that far, just taking Colorado River water and piping it to Southern California; or Owens River and Mono Lake water and piping it 5-600 miles to LA and San Diego, it’s so insane when you realize that this water is going to citrus orchards and pools and to keep golf courses and lawns green in the desert; think of how much water evaporates out of pools in the desert in summer, and how people keep them full.
DJ: So you’re right, it’s not a question of information. I mean there are two directions we can go. One of them is, it’s a question of entitlement, that members of this culture perceive themselves as being entitled to everything; that the world is resources. There’s a great quote from a Canadian lumbermen: “When I look at trees, I see dollar bills.” That the world is there for you to take. Another way to look at it is that the culture is sociopathological; I was watching this program on TV with my mom months and months ago about some serial killer in New Mexico. And one of the things the FBI profiler said about him is that the women he tortured and killed meant no more to him than a piece of tissue paper. You blow your nose and you throw it away. They were simply utilitarian, they meant nothing. And as soon as I heard that the first thing I thought of was passenger pigeons, and salmon, and trees. That’s how this whole culture perceives the world, as simply tissue paper to use and throw away.
JS: And ironically that’s where tissue paper comes from: trees.
JS: And when you said tissues thrown away, that’s precisely the line—I ran an animal rights club at UC Irvine my senior year, and our club advisor, who taught the animal rights Political Science course, used to work at the NIH [National Institutues of “Health”], and her job during residency or whatever was to basically execute rats they were done with. And she said they were looked at just like tissue paper; throw them in the trash, they were worthless.
So when you realize that the mass majority of civilized humans are insane, and are never going to change, and are always always always going to take industrial capitalism as a given, and never question it, what does that mean for our strategy, this small community—I mean we can really honestly only get so big before it’s too late—so what does that mean for our strategy?
DJ: Well what that means is that we’ll never have a mass movement. Those in power only understand force. And you can have force in many ways. You can have 20 million people march the streets, and that’s a type of force. If you don’t have that, you have to use other sorts of force. Because they’re not going to stop voluntarily. George Elser, all by himself, almost stopped World War II by attemping to assassinate Hitler. I want to be really clear—I’m not suggesting that people attempt to assassinate the President of the United States, because the President of the U.S. does not hold the same power as the German Fuhrer did. My point is that we figure out what sort of leverage we can use, and for me writing is the most leverage I can come up with right now to try to stop this culture.
Years ago I got interviewed by this pacifist, and it was terrible. He felt like I want everyone to think like assassins. And that’s not true at all. What I do want is for all activists to think like members of a resistance. And let me be clear—that doesn’t mean I want every activist to pick up guns. Even at their strongest only 2% of the IRA [Irish Republican Army] ever picked up weapons. A lot of what is necessary for a resistance movement is support work. And one of the ways I talk about this is the Underground Railroad. Harriet Tubman carried a gun, but she was also helped out by the Quakers, who were pacifists, the members of the safe houses. And they’re all putting their lives on the line too. The risk is not less for them. We can talk about the same thing for animal liberationists. If somebody liberates a bunch of rats from that lab you mentioned, they actually have to break in, but somebody else has to find homes for them. You can’t just throw them out in the street.
JS: They’re not tissue paper, as it turns out.
DJ: Yeah. And if somebody is going to liberate rats form a lab, they’re gonna have to get there somehow, so they’re probably going to need some money for…gas maybe? My point is that all of this stuff requires support. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about the U.S. Military or the ALF or the ELF. It doesn’t matter. It’s utterly irrelevant to what we’re discussing. Any militant force at all needs support.
I just read yesterday that the average soldier in Afghanistan requires 21-22 gallons of gasoline a day, which by the way is at 450 bucks a gallon.
DJ: Yeah. It requires almost as much fuel as they take.
JS: They’ve finally discovered a perpetual-motion machine!
DJ: Yep. It’s like, if you have a death camp, you have to have someone answering the phones. This is true for the Nazi death camps, it’s true for the vivisection death camps, the factory farm death camps. Doesn’t matter. You have this entire support crew. You can have a restaurant. Once again, it doesn’t matter what we’re talking about. Not everybody is just a cook at a restaurant. You’ve also gotta have accountants; you see what I’m trying to say? When you have a resistance movement of any sort, you have to have support. So one of the things I want people to do is start thinking like members of a serious resistance. And to start recognizing that we don’t live in a democracy. At the talks I give, I’ve been asking lately: How many people in the audience believes that the government takes better care of humans than corporations? Not a single person. And I’ve asked a thousand people that in the last week. And forget redwoods. We’re not even talking about nonhumans here. This is just human beings. And of course if I were to ask, “Does it take better care of corporations or oak trees?” the answer would be even more stark. So the next question is: What does that mean that we don’t live in a democracy, how do we do our activism based on this understanding?
And I made jokes about it at the talk in San Diego, about getting kicked out of the anarchy club, and part of the reason for that is because I believe in using the system when it’s appropriate, when it works. I have no problem with attorneys filing lawsuits; that’s great work when its works. All I care about is that the trees stay standing. I don’t care if it’s done legally, illegally, using the system, not using the system. I don’t care if people buy the trees; it doesn’t matter to me, I just want the trees standing—I’m very pragmatic about that. I’m not really sure if something like lab rats would be such a good example though, because if you buy all the lab rats they’re just gonna get more.
JS: Yeah. Sometimes you can run into a conflict; Julia Butterfly Hill saved Luna [an old-growth redwood in a grove slated for clearcutting] and, I don’t know, a 50 yard buffer zone around her, but they ended up paying Pacific Lumber $50,000, and, you know, PL was able to just…
DJ: Use that money to cut other trees. Yeah, I don’t disagree, and that’s a huge problem that I don’t mean to step aside from. We could say the same thing about human slavery in the 1830s; you know, you go in and buy a slave and free that slave, and then the slaveowner says fine and just goes down to the market and buys another.
JS: Right. Which is why there’s a difference between paying money to liberate someone, whether it’s a sex trafficker or an animal or whomever, or liberating them essentially through theft, because then it causes economic damage.
: I don’t disagree at all. Which doesn’t alter the fact that if I had the money to buy the 110 acres next to this, I would do it. To protect it through that means. I’m not disagreeing with you at all…
JS: Yeah, there’s a difference though; are you talking about buying it from the lumber company, or from someone else that owns it?
DJ: There’s a fair amount of land here, like the 20 acres that we in the neighborhood helped to protect by filing lawsuits and doing all sorts of other stuff; and you know, if I had the money I would buy that land too. But that would just help the developer to try to develop somewhere else. But that doesn’t alter the fact that it would protect this land. I’m not saying it’s perfect. I’m just saying faced with a trafficked woman in front of me, I would probably want to pay to save her too. Recognizing fully of course that that’s not the larger scale solution; the larger scale solution is to destroy the whole system.
JS: Right. And so, since support work is so crucial, and it has to be there…but also there has to be militant resistance; and there is to a slight degree, you know, the ELF and things, but you’ve talked about the ELF and ALF needing to step it up a notch on the infrastructure. And I 100 percent agree on that, and that’s why I wrote my novel Redwood Falls; I was trying to convey the point that the sabotage needs to be targeted and leveraged and as high up on the infrastructure as one can reach. So how important do you think it is to target with sabotage, say…oh I don’t know…railroad tracks leading to factories or oil/chemical refineries or things like that?
DJ: I can’t tell people, for any number of reasons, what they should do…
JS: That’s why I write fiction; I can get away with things you can’t in nonfiction.
DJ: I think we can say that what people need to do is begin thinking like members of a resistance. And to ask themselves, if they were members of, say, the French resistance in World War II, how would they look at the landscape under Nazi occupation? What would they do? And how would they act if they were members of Russian resistance in WWII? Or we could make it so that they’re members of United States resistance if it was invaded by the Soviet Union in the 70s or something. How would you act in those circumstances? And I think making that conceptual shift will help people to identify the actions that are most feasible for them, and that they are most capable of doing, and that would be most effective.
I mean that’s what they train people to do in the U.S. military, is to start thinking strategically. And that’s one of the things we need to do: start thinking both strategically and tactically.
JS: That’s great. We shouldn’t be identifying as Americans or human beings or whatever, we should identify as individuals in the community of life on Earth, and members of a resistance movement that needs to save that community.
DJ: Absolutely. That’s a great way to put it.
JS: Why thank you! Do you think a shift away from the essentially total current reliance on oil is even possible; for example, replacing all or some of the current oil with so-called green technologies like wind, solar, geothermal, etc.—do you think that’s even possible given the current world population and consumption and oil usage? And if it is possible to replace oil with something less monolithic, something less centralized, how crucial is it to act NOW while the megamachine is so vulnerable and reliant on one resource?
DJ: Well yes, there will be a transition away, and it’s called societal collapse. There will be that transition; it’s just, will it be a transition that maintains this way of living? No, that’s not possible—just on an energy level! Richard Heinberg has been writing book after book about that; Party’s Over, Powerdown, he’s got a new one about peak coal, I think called Blackout. So no, it’s not possible if you’re talking about maintaining industrial civilization; industrial civilization requires oil, and it’s gonna collapse without it.
JS: The so-called Green Revolution of the 50s after World War II, you took all these petroleum derivatives through chemistry and basically forced the land into greater production, thus causing a huge explosion in population. And the only way that was possible was through oil.
DJ: Yeah, we’re eating oil. In no way is any of this sustainable. It’s not gonna last much longer. I just saw an article in the Guardian UK about a couple whistleblowers from the International Energy Agency, IEA, saying that the reserves of oil have been consistently overstated for many many years at the specific demand of the United States because the government knows that Wall Street would collapse if they knew how little oil was left. So that’s great—it’s the best news I’ve heard in a long time.
JS: I’m worried that people might get the wrong idea when you say that collapse is inevitable, which I of course think it is too, but I worry that people will be placated by that and not take necessary risks and not even do anything if they think it’s gonna collapse anyway.
DJ: No, there’s a lot of people who are sort of very stridently saying that because it’s going to come down we need to not do anything. There are way too many, especially sort of academics and ecological intelligentsia who are saying, “No, it’s gonna collapse, take care of your own, make a lifeboat…” I find that morally repugnant quite frankly. Because 120 species went extinct today. 120 species are gonna go extinct tomorrow. And the day after. And the day after. What about them, you know? It’s like, I was doing a talk up in New York and this one woman asked, “How much time do we have before it’s too late?” And I started to sort of ramble on, and then I realized it’s not quite the right question. I said to the person sitting next to her: she is off in this shed being tortured, and we can hear her scream as she’s being tortured, and I say to you, how much time do you think she has? How much time before we actually have to do something? Right now civilization is killing, once again, 120 species a day. How long do salmon have? I think salmon have about 10-15 years. If we bring down civilization in the next 10-15 years, honestly, I think salmon will be fine, they’ll come back. If we wait longer than 10-15 years, salmon will be gone forever. And you can choose whoever you want to talk about. And I think it’s repugnant. The image they sometime use is, you know, “We’re on this airplane and Derrick Jensen wants to kill the pilot. We need to have a soft landing.” We’re not gonna have a soft fucking landing. A much better metaphor is we’re on a train, say, that has a lot of momentum, and it’s running over train tracks that are made of the living bodies of those we love. So what we need to do is stop the train one day sooner. Or one day sooner than that. And the train will run out of energy, but what we need to do…if we stop it one day sooner, that’s 120 species.
JS: And who knows, that could be the last tipping point for biodiversity to just totally collapse.
DJ: Absolutely, because it doesn’t go on a one-to-one correspondence. The forest or the ocean tries to maintain integrity, and it does it and does it until it can’t do it and it collapses. And we can’t know who it’s gonna be that finally pushes it over. But even so, there are still those specific 120 species. Grizzly bear populations are collapsing. If civilization would’ve been taken down 20 years ago, grizzly bear populations in B.C. wouldn’t be collapsing, because salmon wouldn’t be collapsing.
JS: And if it were brought down 100 years ago there might still be grizzly bears in California.
JS: So I wanted to get into this idea of “the fallacy of rewilding.” Even though my books is called The Rewild West I’m kind of redefining or unspecifying “rewild” to just mean “make wild again.”
DJ: Uh-huh. Good.
JS: I think, like with peak oil survivalist-type people who think we should just prepare ourselves, soften the landing, take care of our families, learn how to produce our own food or whatnot…I think that’s just as fallacious as only doing rewilding, promoting rewilding. So what would happen if everyone who understood the dominant culture’s destructiveness simply rewilded, meaning learned how to live off the land again, without ever really challenging and dismantling the oppressive systems of power that surround us?
DJ: It wouldn’t do a fucking bit of good! If I’m understanding you correctly, if all they did was rewilded themselves personally, that’s no different from the simple lifestyle people who think that if you just personally don’t drive a car, that that’s gonna stop global warming. That’s just crazy! You can’t stop Hitler by composting, and you can’t stop Hitler…
JS: By not buying candles made out of the fat of Jewish people.
DJ: Or only eating roadkill. That’s a fine personal statement to make, but…[sighs]… I’m not frustrated with you, because I know why you asked the question. I’m frustrated with that whole movement; it’s so stupid, the whole simple living movement, where they think that if you make personal choices, that somehow substitutes for political organizing…I mean I’ve got nothing wrong with rewilders, I really like Urban Scout; he does have rewilding as his emphasis, but he’s part of the larger culture of resistance; if you’re rewilding as part of a larger culture of resistance, and giving vocal support to the active necessity of bringing it down, then that’s one thing. And an example of that, Maud Gonne, she was working a lot on the Gaelic literature revival, but she was also doing that in the context of doing prisoner support, and also just seeing the Gaelic literature revival as one part of that larger resistance. And as long as the rewilders see themselves as one part of a larger resistance, that’s great. But if they’re just doing it for themselves, it’s like good, go to church or something. It’s just another personal belief that doesn’t really matter on a political scale. I mean think of it this way: you’re getting the hell beat out of you, what do you want me to do if I’m there? What you want me to do is help stop the beating! You don’t want me to go practice martial arts, you don’t want me to go rewild, you don’t want me to improve my spirituality, you don’t want me to not use toilet paper. What you want me to do is kick the ass of the people who are kicking your ass!
JS: So people really need to recognize the absolute crucial nature of the crisis we’re in. It’s ongoing, every single minute.
DJ: Yes, and they also need to realize, once again, it’s not gonna solve itself, we don’t live in a democracy, those in power are insatiable, they won’t stop because we ask nicely, they won’t stop for any reason, unless they’re stopped. They’re addicted to this. And the classic line about addicts is, they won’t quit until they hit bottom. Well the thing is, if you’re addicted to heroin, you might do harm to your body such that you might stop, might not. If you’re addicted to exploiting others, it’s not you that’s in trouble, it’s not you that’s gonna hit bottom, everybody else is gonna hit bottom, which means you’re not gonna stop. Not until you’re forced to stop.
JS: Good answer (odd churlish giggle).
DJ: And you know another thing about this that just pisses me off, when you were talking earlier about the people who just wanna wait for it to collapse—the biggest recruitment tool for the French resistance in World War II was when they realized the Germans weren’t invincible. At that point they didn’t say, oh, let’s just wait for them to collapse. They said, wow, this can’t last forever, let’s hurry up and bring it down. I have much more respect for that than I do for someone who is saying, let’s just sit back.
JS: Well yeah, the former is a sane response: Look, it’s gonna collapse, that means it’s vulnerable, let’s make it happen even faster!
You talked about the French becoming aware of this vulnerability of the Germans. So what should the role of education be in this resistance movement, which is of course the most important resistance movement in all of history, the movement to stop civilized humans from making the planet unlivable?
DJ: Are you talking about education in a formal sense, like school…
JS: I’m talking about the kind of stuff we do.
DJ: Well, I’ve been doing this work for 20 years, and in just the last couple days I was finally able to articulate what it is I’m doing. And what I’m doing is, I am putting little itty bitty pieces of wood in a little pile, and then putting a little bit bigger pieces of wood up, then putting sawdust or paper or whatever around it. My job is to help build that up, and somebody else’s job is to actually start the fire. The role of education is to help prepare the way for the movement that comes later. It’s crucial to be doing talks, or writing books like yours, or doing interviews like this. There’s a great line by Harriet Tubman: “I helped 100s of people escape slavery and I could’ve helped 100s more if only they would’ve known they were slaves.” And part of our job is to help people know they’re slaves.
I mean my god, we’re talking here explicitly about it not being a democracy and what we’re going to do about it. And I guarantee that 99 out of 100 people on the streets are gonna know we don’t live in a democracy. Even non-political people, at least they generally understand. Okay, so what are the implications? And nobody’s thought about that. And we’re so inculcated into believing that nonhumans are not living beings. It’s so crucial to help people break that inculcation. I was just writing about this today, that one of my roles is to commit blasphemy. I was talking to a friend of mine who gets attacked a lot, as I do, and this helped her contextualize it. One of the reasons she gets attacked so much is so the people that come after don’t have to. The first person says something, the second person says something, the third person says something, and they all do that so the fourth, fifth, and sixth people can actually get something accomplished.
I don’t think much of Gandhi, but there’s a great Gandhi line, something like “At first they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win.” I think there’s a lot of truth to that. So that’s one of the roles of education. To help build the fire.
Thanks so much to Derrick Jensen for allowing me the (extended) time to conduct this interview!