WOULD ANY SANE PERSON think dumpster diving would have stopped Hitler, or that composting would have ended slavery or brought about the eight-hour workday, or that chopping wood and carrying water would have gotten people out of Tsarist prisons, or that dancing naked around a fire would have helped put in place the Voting Rights Act of 1957 or the Civil Rights Act of 1964? Then why now, with all the world at stake, do so many people retreat into these entirely personal “solutions”?
Part of the problem is that we’ve been victims of a campaign of systematic misdirection. Consumer culture and the capitalist mindset have taught us to substitute acts of personal consumption (or enlightenment) for organized political resistance. An Inconvenient Truth helped raise consciousness about global warming. But did you notice that all of the solutions presented had to do with personal consumption — changing light bulbs, inflating tires, driving half as much — and had nothing to do with shifting power away from corporations, or stopping the growth economy that is destroying the planet? Even if every person in the United States did everything the movie suggested, U.S. carbon emissions would fall by only 22 percent. Scientific consensus is that emissions must be reduced by at least 75 percent worldwide.
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Or let’s talk water. We so often hear that the world is running out of water. People are dying from lack of water. Rivers are dewatered from lack of water. Because of this we need to take shorter showers. See the disconnect? Because I take showers, I’m responsible for drawing down aquifers? Well, no. More than 90 percent of the water used by humans is used by agriculture and industry. The remaining 10 percent is split between municipalities and actual living breathing individual humans. Collectively, municipal golf courses use as much water as municipal human beings. People (both human people and fish people) aren’t dying because the world is running out of water. They’re dying because the water is being stolen.
Or let’s talk energy. Kirkpatrick Sale summarized it well: “For the past 15 years the story has been the same every year: individual consumption — residential, by private car, and so on — is never more than about a quarter of all consumption; the vast majority is commercial, industrial, corporate, by agribusiness and government [he forgot military]. So, even if we all took up cycling and wood stoves it would have a negligible impact on energy use, global warming and atmospheric pollution.”
Or let’s talk waste. In 2005, per-capita municipal waste production (basically everything that’s put out at the curb) in the U.S. was about 1,660 pounds. Let’s say you’re a die-hard simple-living activist, and you reduce this to zero. You recycle everything. You bring cloth bags shopping. You fix your toaster. Your toes poke out of old tennis shoes. You’re not done yet, though. Since municipal waste includes not just residential waste, but also waste from government offices and businesses, you march to those offices, waste reduction pamphlets in hand, and convince them to cut down on their waste enough to eliminate your share of it. Uh, I’ve got some bad news. Municipal waste accounts for only 3 percent of total waste production in the United States.
I want to be clear. I’m not saying we shouldn’t live simply. I live reasonably simply myself, but I don’t pretend that not buying much (or not driving much, or not having kids) is a powerful political act, or that it’s deeply revolutionary. It’s not. Personal change doesn’t equal social change.
So how, then, and especially with all the world at stake, have we come to accept these utterly insufficient responses? I think part of it is that we’re in a double bind. A double bind is where you’re given multiple options, but no matter what option you choose, you lose, and withdrawal is not an option. At this point, it should be pretty easy to recognize that every action involving the industrial economy is destructive (and we shouldn’t pretend that solar photovoltaics, for example, exempt us from this: they still require mining and transportation infrastructures at every point in the production processes; the same can be said for every other so-called green technology). So if we choose option one — if we avidly participate in the industrial economy — we may in the short term think we win because we may accumulate wealth, the marker of “success” in this culture. But we lose, because in doing so we give up our empathy, our animal humanity. And we really lose because industrial civilization is killing the planet, which means everyone loses. If we choose the “alternative” option of living more simply, thus causing less harm, but still not stopping the industrial economy from killing the planet, we may in the short term think we win because we get to feel pure, and we didn’t even have to give up all of our empathy (just enough to justify not stopping the horrors), but once again we really lose because industrial civilization is still killing the planet, which means everyone still loses. The third option, acting decisively to stop the industrial economy, is very scary for a number of reasons, including but not restricted to the fact that we’d lose some of the luxuries (like electricity) to which we’ve grown accustomed, and the fact that those in power might try to kill us if we seriously impede their ability to exploit the world — none of which alters the fact that it’s a better option than a dead planet. Any option is a better option than a dead planet.
Besides being ineffective at causing the sorts of changes necessary to stop this culture from killing the planet, there are at least four other problems with perceiving simple living as a political act (as opposed to living simply because that’s what you want to do). The first is that it’s predicated on the flawed notion that humans inevitably harm their landbase. Simple living as a political act consists solely of harm reduction, ignoring the fact that humans can help the Earth as well as harm it. We can rehabilitate streams, we can get rid of noxious invasives, we can remove dams, we can disrupt a political system tilted toward the rich as well as an extractive economic system, we can destroy the industrial economy that is destroying the real, physical world.
The second problem — and this is another big one — is that it incorrectly assigns blame to the individual (and most especially to individuals who are particularly powerless) instead of to those who actually wield power in this system and to the system itself. Kirkpatrick Sale again: “The whole individualist what-you-can-do-to-save-the-earth guilt trip is a myth. We, as individuals, are not creating the crises, and we can’t solve them.”
The third problem is that it accepts capitalism’s redefinition of us from citizens to consumers. By accepting this redefinition, we reduce our potential forms of resistance to consuming and not consuming. Citizens have a much wider range of available resistance tactics, including voting, not voting, running for office, pamphleting, boycotting, organizing, lobbying, protesting, and, when a government becomes destructive of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, we have the right to alter or abolish it.
The fourth problem is that the endpoint of the logic behind simple living as a political act is suicide. If every act within an industrial economy is destructive, and if we want to stop this destruction, and if we are unwilling (or unable) to question (much less destroy) the intellectual, moral, economic, and physical infrastructures that cause every act within an industrial economy to be destructive, then we can easily come to believe that we will cause the least destruction possible if we are dead.
The good news is that there are other options. We can follow the examples of brave activists who lived through the difficult times I mentioned — Nazi Germany, Tsarist Russia, antebellum United States — who did far more than manifest a form of moral purity; they actively opposed the injustices that surrounded them. We can follow the example of those who remembered that the role of an activist is not to navigate systems of oppressive power with as much integrity as possible, but rather to confront and take down those systems. O
This article, along with other landmark Orion essays about transformative action, are collected in a new anthology, Change Everything Now. Order your copy here.
Interesting angle, but I have to disagree with the overall message. Placing blame on industry in my opinion only removes the blame from the individual, and thus makes it less personal. Living simply may not change or save the world on it’s own, but it is a symbolic start to a larger movement. We as individuals are responsible for the industry which seems to be to blame. What is it that “industry” does? It creates the products and services that each individual consumes. So only by collectively saying no to these products and services are we able to truly change our destructive path. Let’s use golf courses as an example, perhaps they do use as much water as the rest of a municipality, but why? It isn’t the golf courses fault as implied, but those that play golf. The golf courses wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the demand. This analogy can be used just about everywhere and helps bring back the responisiblity to the consumer and not project it onto some foreign concept such as the government or corporations.
This answered a lot of questions I had following the first “upping the stakes”. : ) There was a fine statement near the end of the comments on the first article in the series which piqued my interest to a similar degree,
“The Ancients lived simple, but complex lives. We need to back step and implement a lot more of their “uncivilized customs”. Now is the time.”
Derrick Jensen’s position here is a fine example of why the so called progressives have made so little progress over the last 50 years. We hear the same message, over and over again about all the things that are wrong with the world. No matter that it is true, there is never any alternative other than stop doing what you do now. And then, what?
For that, Jensen provides no answer. Neither did Nader. He might have made a real difference had he been able to tell us what his future looked like and how to get there. Nader did not do it and is now relegated to providing a few comments when the media needs someone to disagree. I doubt that Jensen will get that much.
There is an alternative. The vision of that started the Green Party, one of ecological sustainability and an industry the practices sustainable permaculture on a massive scale, a vision of citizens who respond according to their needs, not their wants; a vision of a world at peace and not at war.
Too many Greens are themselves caught in that old paradigm of protest. Remember, we do not remember Martin Luther King for say stop it, but for sharing his dream with all of us. I wonder if Jensen dreams. You would never know.
I was going to make the same argument that Joel did, but since he said it so well, I have very little to add. Industry and agriculture are not solely to blame – they cater to the consumers. There are certainly better methods to produce products, for instance in sustainable agriculture vs. industrialized agriculture. However, we must realize that until we collectively decide to forego the $0.99 hamburger, things will not change. The other comment by Wes needs a response – Wes claims that Jensen offers no solution or alternative. That is simply not true. While I disagree with Jensen’s main thesis, I do agree that more political activism is needed to help change the system. This is the point that Wes somehow missed in his reading of the article.
I think I have to agree with the overall message, but also argue that the 22% we could account for with our own actions is not negligible. But I think Jensen’s point that our individual actions make us complacent on the political and social level is valid…and important.
I largely agree with Joel, but would place my emphasis on the human rather than the economic. For me, the most persuasive case for living simply is not to reduce the economic demand that fuels industry. Rather, it is the way that changing my own actions contributes to changing cultural values and norms. When I bring my own tupperware to a restaurant instead of taking a to-go box, I am not just reducing the demand for styrofoam by a minuscule amount. I am also helping shift our collective cultural norms towards a world where using resources to create a single use to-go box is no longer acceptable. In turn, this might eventually move us towards a world where creating any item for a single use – be it industrial, corporate, military, etc. – is not morally defensible. And it is only once we as a society come to regard single use production as unacceptable that large scale activism has any chance. Without simultaneous efforts to shift our underlying cultural attitudes, our activism has very little probability of succeeding and may even appear as hypocrisy.
No claim here to have thoroughly read everything Jensen has written, but I will side with him that we do need much more activism and much more truth in the face of power, lies and pablum.
Could it be his frustration with those who peacefully go about living their simple, low-impact lives, knowing that behavior can be contageous, is that there is no time to wait for that behavior to catch on in a large scale?
We do need revolutionary change and we need it yesterday. And I suspect what really bothers Jensen (because it bothers me) is that the compromise/hope/diplomacy effort (growing a green economy, for example) may convince a lot of people that everything is going to be okay if they just shorten their showers, change the light bulbs and put up a wind turbine.
Still, I think there is a place in this transition for all – a place for revolutionaries (and I count myself one) and a place for more diplomatic change agents.
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Derrick, I think you have made some very important points about the clever way capitalism obscures political action by promoting smaller acts. Another example is the way the finance world is embracing microfinance ’cause it doesn’t challenge the political system (well, until it gets to a very large scale).
Still, I think you have not included the importance of spiritual practice and individuals entering processes of political change through the doorway of individual action.
I have seen this in the fair trade system. It is largely focused on consumption and, yet, it also helps people understand some of the system dynamics at play in trade. This makes it an easy way to begin the journey which sometimes leads to political action.
I love the sharpness of your insight! Thanks for sharing.
Jensen’s piece contains so much truth it is certain to be rejected or derided by most. “Simple living” is fine, and may be somewhat beneficial, but, as Jensen says, it’s never going to be enough. Real, dramatic, systemic change is necessary if we are to have any chance of preserving the planet in anything close to the condition in which it now exists (to say nothing of the condition in which it existed 200 years ago).
The personal may indeed by political–but that is not to say that the political is exhausted by the personal. There is a whole realm of political action of all kinds which is going to be necessary IN ADDITION TO whatever purely personal actions we can take. Redirecting consumer dollars toward allegedly “green” industries is simply insufficient. We’re going to have to do more–much more–than purchase a hybrid automobile and recycle some of our garbage. Major political and economic change is not optional.
I agree completely with Derrick Jensen. As he must have expected, he has ruffled some feathers. Simplicity has been a way of life for me for many years, but I’ve never lost sight of the fact that our corporate/political (interchangeable words) system is the source of the problem. The scale of involvement necessary for real solutions is frightening to the timid.
Who to trust? Most media are just branches of the corporate world. And making sense of the multitude of ideas (most of them half-baked or worse) on the internet is a labyrinth that few have time or intelligence to sort out.
As for the comments about dreams, Mr. Jensen’s vision is stated clearly enough for me – the prize is the planet, and it can only be won by focusing clearly on what’s eating it. I thank him and the editors of Orion for sharing this dream.
Having recently finished reading one of Derrick’s books, I wondered how long I would have to read Forget Shorter Showers until we got to Hitler. Wow …didn’t have to wait long!
Well-written argument, but essentially a luddite one. Do people really think we’d be better off abandoning modern technology (“industrial society”)?
If you look at what goes on in non-industrialized nations, it’s pretty easy to see that environmental degradation is not a function of technology, but of fundamental human survival needs. If your cooking technology requires firewood, you’ll collect wood until there’s none left.
You don’t need a zinc mine to pollute a stream; untreated human waste will do just fine.
Sure, maybe it’d be better if we as a human race had stopped expanding our population when we reached about two billion, but the fact is that we have over six billion people now, and the only reason we can feed everyone (not that there’s no hunger, but we do have the capacity to produce enough food for everyone) is because of modern technology – the same tech that this article says is destroying the world. Maybe it is, but it’s keeping us alive, and we can’t just get rid of it.
Improving our technology and reducing our population are the only ways to achieve the goals this article is talking about; rejecting modern technology won’t do a thing except cause an immense amount of immediate and long-lasting human suffering.
Great piece. You are absolutely right about the double-bind we place ourselves in when we let the powers that be convince us to approach the environmental crisis solely as consumers and not as agents of social change. I had been thinking some of these very same thoughts lately but hadn’t been able to articulate nearly so well. Many thanks.
And to all those who read this and say “This guy’s a Luddite!”–do you actually think his main point is wrong? Putting aside all the fear that comes with lucid thinking on this crisis, can you really deny that industrial society is killing the earth, and that radically transforming society is the only hope for not killing the earth? This is a totally logical conclusion and the author only makes a few logical steps from there.
Not long ago I had never heard of Derrick Jensen, read any of his books, or attempted to understand those who call themselves “anti-civ”.
I have believed myself to be a practicing natural conservationist for decades.
Recently I have been stirred by what can only be described as warning voices by scientists telling us things have grown a whole lot worse a whole lot faster than anyone had believed. So I began to read the thinking of those who were ahead of me on that curve of devising solutions.
Derrick’s article here and many of the responses cause me to see not only the gulf that separates many “Earth-loving” people but also why we are so strongly divided.
I have discovered that humans have been causing significant depletion/destruction for a lot longer than I had imagined and that the effects of the presence of our culture are much more significant than I had dreamed. These changes of my thinking are not the result of a “radicalization” because I have been reading the “wrong” stuff. The evidence is clearly documented.
Those who are shocked and disturbed by what Derrick has written have not spent the time to consider all the facts, the options and the possible results of those options. Given the speed at which this destruction is happening (and I am not talking about merely a few degrees of temperature rise) and the certain consequences, people like Derrick are urging pragmatic, effective action.
When they speak of the cost to humans of such action they balance this against the cost of continuing on the current path.
Derrick Jensen’s critique of ‘personal change’ as a means to ecological transformation is provocative. And I like it. It reminds me of Satish Kumar’s criticism of today’s spiritualism: that instead of ‘my’ body, ‘my’ mind, and ‘my’ spirit, the focus should be on “soil, soul, and society” (from CBC’s ‘Tapestry’).
In the West, the interests of capital seduce individuals into believing that they are thinking for themselves and can ‘be the change they want to see in the world’.
Geektronica – the problem with the technological argument is that technology requires resources. Resources that are getting increasingly scarce. Industrial agriculture will be literally non existent by the end of this century due to oil becoming such a scarce resource. And their is no feasible alternative that can produce energy anything close to what we are consuming today.
You say that by looking at non-industrialised nations we can see that technology is not a function of environmental degradation. Is an axe not a form of technology? Is a saw not a form of technology? Clearly it is much easier to clear cut a forest with a chainsaw as opposed to bare hands. Technology is everything, it infinitely increases our capacity to consume the resources around us. In an energy scarce future technology won’t save us. Learning to live with the land rather than trying to manipulate it to our wants and needs will however.
On the subject of technology I think it’s important to understand the difference between what Lewis Mumford called “polytechnic” and “monotechnic” approaches. Derrick and Aric McBay wrote about this in “What We Leave Behind”. I’ll post the excerpt below.
“The brilliant writer, thinker, and historian Lewis Mumford described differences between what he called ‘polytechnic’ and ‘monotechnic’ approaches. Polytechnic approaches involve using many different technologies to meet human needs. Monotechnic approaches, on the other hand, prioritize technology for the sake of technology, to the exclusion of other options, regardless of the impacts on human beings or the planet. Mumford’s favorite example of the monotechnic approach was the automobile, because automobile-based transportation systems thrive at great human and ecological cost, and grow at the expense of other modes of transport like walking or bicycling.
“It would be fair to say that agriculture is the first example of a truly monotechnic approach; an approach that set a pattern for all of civilization’s future technologies. If that’s confusing, think about what agriculture is: you take a piece of land and destroy all visible plant and animal life on it; use plows to destroy the structures of the soil underneath; replace them all with one monocultural species; repeat. As Lierre Keith writes, ‘Agriculture is carnivorous: what it eats is ecosystems, and it swallows them whole.’”
“Agriculture is monotechnic in the sense that it eliminates biological diversity, to be sure, but there’s much more to it. Indigenous societies are generally quite mobile, and can move to make use ot the many different foods available in different seasons in healthy ecosystems. The same goes for other material gathered or hunted, such as firewood, furs, or medicinal plants. Though early agricultural societies certainly gathered food initially, it doesn’t take long to deplete what is available around a village, which would have made those societies even more dependent on agriculture. Agriculture also eliminated many of the birth control methods that were intrinsic to hunter-gatherer life. That, along with other changes, like the ability to replace breast-feeding in young children with foods made from stored grains, led to a trend toward constant population growth that worsened local ecological destruction. Agriculture grew at the expense of technologies, skills and social structures used by indigenous peoples.” pg.341 WWLB
It seems to me that the title of Derrick Jensen’s commentary says it all. “Forget Shorter Showers” doesn’t say, “Personal life change is not enough.” It says “FORGET personal change.” It says personal change doesn’t REALLY matter.
Oh yes it does, Mr. Jensen, because taking a shorter shower means I am controlling one thing that I clearly can control not focusing on what I can’t control.
Your “answer” still views the world mechanistically. Where is its spiritual component?
Our present “industrial economy” can only exist because of who we, individually, and what we, as a society, are. As Anne Wilson Schaef so eloquently expressed it way back in 1987, society has become an addict. And, as all of us in recovery know, addiction is an ultimately deadly disease.
Yes, political action was neccessary to overthrow Tsarist Russia, just as it was to overthrow its more modern rendition, the USSR. And it will be needed to overthrow Putin. The question is, “WHICH political action?”
Is it the political action that is actually RE-action or is it the political action that supports and is a part of the ground swell flowing up from personal change?
One of the ways that many of my friends assuage their consciences is to be active at the macro level. Instead of making a difference at the local level where they could make a difference (as is done in the transition movement), they focus on Washington and even higher. Fifteen people willing to commit their time, energy and mindfulness could take over and utterly change my town of 7,500 people. And that could serve as the fulcrum to change our county of almost 200,000.
Instead, when not “participating” in national and international campaigns, many sit on their backsides OR provide the pop off valve for much energy that, if contained, would otherwise have resulted in change.
The huge energy of the industrial economy’s shadow is available to change that economy. Personal change is the first step. LOCAL change is the second.
How many of the self styled activists actually take an active part in the governance of their local communities?
I appreciated the article as it refocused me to the real need to continue to work to effect change beyond our individual selves. While it remains a daunting task, real sustainability cannot be achieved through our own minor advances in conservation but requires a cultural and business shift away from greed.
I don’t always agree with Derrick Jensen, but I have great respect for him because he takes on things others back away from (e.g. his other provocative essay “Beyond Hope). By making us think and engage with the uncomfortable, he carries the collective conversation further along.
As ever, the way out of our societal malaise is not either/or, but both/and. That is, we need to act on the personal AND the collective, political levels. We need to work on ourselves AND on changing our structures institutions to be more life-giving.
I hold that simple living is a deeply political act, downright subversive in our time, even if the household doing is not politically motivated. Simple living IS the vision of the kind of society we could move toward! Not to mention, those who have reduced needs and commitment likely have more time to engage at the civic level.
Jensen’s writing hints at fomenting The Revolution, but in what I’ve read he always stops short of actually calling for it. What would he have us do? My belief is that our top two activist priorities for reform must be broad and rather unsexy: 1) revoke corporate personhood, and 2) institute instant runoff voting, to give voters more true choice without the spoiler effect.
Thanks to Orion for all the excellent writers they publish.
It is obvious from some of the later comments that I was not clear about my criticism of Jenkins. It is really from the fact that he tells us that he wants more activism and protest. I agree with that. However, he does not tell us what he would have in place of the current technological materialistic capitalism.
Without a solution to that problem, he will never have more than a small number of people who agree. Mass movements need to be based on creating something new, not just on tearing down what exists.
My response to Derrick’s article was, right on! We do have to move out of the “individual solution” and back to the “collective/social solution.” The problem is, however, very complex. We are stuck in an industrial global society with inhabitants that take all of the industrial infrastructure for granted. But, to say that industry is not to blame, that individuals are essentially responsible for the products of industry (re: Joel’s comments) is very naive.
A history lesson is very much needed. The ordinary individual did not create the consumer. The industrial revolution did! Through a complex process that eroded people’s sense of themselves within community, their social animal nature was essentially destroyed. In order to survive, what was one of the most horrific changes in Western culture, the individual consumer was born. This weak legged individual found times very hard in England & the rest of Europe. But with all of the natural resources at their feet, the American individual soared to the greatest hedonistic heights. Even though many today would not admit to feeling hurt by the industrial revolution (IR), I have to say that the it was one of the bloodiest revolutions ever “fought.”
To understand more clearly I would strong suggest reading:
“The Condition of the Working Class in England” by Frederick Engels – this masterpiece describes in great detail what was really going on during the mid 19th century – the heyday of the IR.
“Industry & Empire” by E. J. Hobsbawn for some enlightening history about the IR.
“The Great Transformation: The Political & Economic Origins of Our Time” by Karl Polanyi for some very enlightening Western economic history (not at all boring economic literature).
Read: “Constructing the Self, Constructing America” by Philip Cushman, in which he talks of how psychology & the advertising industry collude to create consumer hunger. He has also some VERY interesting articles on the politics of consumption & what he calls “the empty self.”
What Joel is buying into is industry’s own dictum, that they only produce what consumers want. The notion of supply & demand is one of the biggest myths ever! But you do have to have a more than b&w vision to see this.
If we stop buying gas guzzling cars industry will start producing non gas guzzling cars. One would think that the individual is voting with their dollars. BUT, the individual is still buying cars! And they will certainly produce fuel efficient behemoths for you to aspire to owning. Industry will continue to dictate how you should construct your lives.
Individualism is consumerism! One cannot exist without the other.
What Derrick Jensen is saying/alluding to is: we need to regroup as a species, rediscover our innate social animalness, & work TOGETHER to create more systemic change. One example he didn’t use was women getting the vote. Can you imagine one woman at a time, going against the male establishment (& religion) to change how women are perceived?
The problem, as I see it, is that I don’t think people will come together and fight against industry & capitalism – a few maybe, but that will not be enough. Unfortunately, my prediction is that there will have to be a crisis huge enough to precipitate the change that is needed. One of the theories about why our ancestors switched from being gatherer/hunters to domesticating the land/animals was because of climatic changes (a mini ice age) – that food sources were not so readily available. So here we are, at another pivotal climatic moment, and we may have to make yet another monumental change – when food (or energy) sources are not so readliy available.
Revoke corporate personhood. Absolutely! And there are some places, including towns in Maine, that have done it. To me, this is a most elegant, if extremely difficult, solution (one solution among others, not THE solution as so much needs to be done). And it is not new. Richard Grossman has been working on this for many years now. Other solutions include rebuilding our local, community economies by creating structures, enterprises, and projects that provide input, investment (of time, energy, and $) to businesses and others community members want to see succeed. Almost every night on the local news there’s an item about how small communities and even cities are being forced to lay off firefighters, police, social service workers, teachers, and others whose services and skills are still desperately needed but there’s no more $ to pay them. This is the perfect opportunity to bring in community currency. If everyone (or most) workers in a community or county were paid a percentage of their salary in community currency, if businesses providing needed goods and services would accept it for the same percentage of goods/services (which they could do because it would get paid back out to workers and other local suppliers), we could begin to solve the problems we face due to a lack of federal dollars. Towns did this in the Great Depression. Communities around the country and world are doing it today, though most aren’t on such a large scale as I’m proposing. It would work and I don’t understand why, whenever I bring this up people don’t get it. Some do, of course, but a project on the scale I’m proposing needs more than one or two “zealots” to get it off the ground. It needs broad-based community support and active community participation. There are many other types of projects and models that could be used in this manner if only more of us would begin thinking and acting outside of the proverbial box.
I agree with the basic premise of Jensen’s article, that what we do as individuals isn’t going to change the world – until or unless it begins to impact large corporations and those who benefit from the current, unsustainable, destructive economy. This, to me, is the biggest disconnect in my life. And it contributes, I think, to inertia, and to denial. People want to believe that what we do not only matters but has the power to change. People also want to believe that we have plenty of time or that those who predict such a dire future, a future that is coming sooner than most believed possible even a short five years ago, are wrong. I’d love to think that climate change deniers are right, but I know they aren’t.
There are individuals and there is the “system”. And there is a huge barrier between the two. The question is how can individuals destroy the barrier enough to transform the system? I used to believe that we do have such power as individuals. I no longer do. However that does not absolve me from acting responsibly with regard to how I live my life. What I know is that once we wake up and begin to act and change things in the places where we live then the barriers will begin to come down. But I don’t see that happening either. And I read about small communities or neighborhoods in larger cities that are beginning this process, even having some success, and I wonder, how could something like that happen where I live? And I doubt, right now anyway given the politics, the economics, the blinders, the preconceived notions of local people here, whether such things like Transition (in another article in this issue of Orion) would find enough supporters willing to take the time and energy needed to actually bring it to reality. I’m not even sure the majority of people here actually believe climate change is real or that humans have anything to do with it. I say this because of the responses I get whenever I write about climate change or the economy or politics or the rampant development – at least four new housing developments within less than 17 miles of my home. Despite the so-called recession, despite all the unsold, already-built homes, despite the vacant box stores, and so on. Who is going to build on these recently cleared acres? If there’s a housing glut why can’t the community say “no more”? The fact is, we don’t have that right. We can say “no” and we’re taken to court and forced to allow it. Private land, private capital, private profits are all that matter. This must change and it must not be considered anti-american to make this change. These new developments (with no homes yet) used to be woods and habitat for bear, deer, moose, birds, turkeys, and other creatures now rendered homeless. Where are they supposed to go? This is the country I live in and it’s being destroyed as I type these words. I have no power to stop it. My opinion doesn’t matter. And the animals have no voice.
I’m not pessimistic (all of the time). I believe that great changes can happen in a short period of time if the will and the means are there. And if the will is strong enough we can force the means through. There are times when I believe only a violent revolution will do the trick, but in my heart I know that is not the solution. It is just frustration and anger speaking. In my heart I know the way to the revolution must be through love and compassion and an iron will. But for this to work we need masses of people to agree and to be willing to do more than take shorter showers and recycle. And disconnecting from the system isn’t easy when we are beholden to the system for the means to pay rent or mortgage, buy food and other necessities. Only those who don’t need to earn money or who have no debt can afford to separate themselves enough to take such a radical stand. I have little patience with those who don’t understand this and who don’t have compassion for people, myself included, in this situation. We need to find a way to care for each other, to support each other in more than thoughts, if we expect people with families to take such risks. On the other hand, if enough of us took the risks anyway (and I have no idea how many is “enough”) then I believe there would be safety in numbers.
To Lorraine typing as I was typing. I totally agree with your comments about “consumers”. For years I have hated being referred to as a consumer when I’m really a person or a citizen or an individual. We were not born consumers. Consumers were created by industry. We were born human beings, a part of Earth, one of many species here. We were born with an innate connection to and dependence on the natural world and the ability to participate and communicate with and within this world. As consumers we reject this connection and become separate, and sad. Then we consume to assuage the sadness. It doesn’t work.
I have been a fan of Derrick Jensen’s for a long time. In this article “Forget Shorter Showers” I took it as a rhetorical question and attention-getting device when he asked “…why now, with all the world at stake, do so many people retreat into…entirely personal “solutions”? What solution is ever “entirely” personal, and who among those who are taking shorter showers, growing organic gardens, limiting families and participating in Earth rituals limits their activities to the personal? In my experience these are the people who ARE voting, organizing, protesting – at least when they aren’t working full time and raising families and taking care of babies, children, the elderly, the disabled and all the other work done mostly by women.
I think Jensen does answer the question himself when he says “I’m not saying we shouldn’t act simply,” and that he frames his question for the sake of emphasis. He’s a good journalist and writer. But I agree it’s not either/or. Personal and symbolic acts are not simply feel good gestures but meaningful forms of community formation and communication among ourselves and between us and other species. They have ripple effects and serve as role models. Most of all they generate the feelings and connections with nature that help motivate the brainstorming, networking, institution changing and forming that are the activism Jensen advocates. They reinforce our vision that a dead planet is not an option by helping us to notice that it IS a living planet in the first place.
Interesting rhetorical device here aimed to catch our attention and focus our energy, but not, I think, a real dichotomy.
I’d also like to take issue with the argument that “the endpoint of the logic behind simple living as a political act is suicide” suggesting that any argument that ends this way can be reduced to the absurd. It is precisely suicide – or some version of accepting death in its time, that must stand against the technologization of our civilization – and perhaps lies at the heart of it. I think of the Hindus or Jains who in old age retire to the forest eating less and less until they die and compare that to the resources we pour into not only deflecting death but even old age. It’s all related.
I’m not totally sure I could explain what solipsism is, but I think this article is an excellent vacuous example of it. I can’t believe that Orion published it!
Excellent, thought-provoking iconoclastic article which the environmental “movement” needs more of. As a college professor, I often ask my students who are up in arms about the state of the world, “how many of you aim to go into politics, corporate work, or finance?” I am lucky if 1-2 raise their hands in a room of 50. We obviously cannot ignore personal choices and lifestyles but the real action on the climate change front is in policy– something we have yet to galvanize public action toward. Remember, the Civil Rights Era was as much about policy and legal action as it was marches and protests.
I want to thank Derrick Jensen for writing another wise and honest column. Also, I’m pleased to see the serious engagement with Mr. Jensen’s ideas by the readership of Orion. I’d like to respond to a few of the earlier posters. Having read most of Jensen’s published work and being someone who largely shares his perspective on social, ecological, and political issues, I think I may be able to offer a useful counterpoint to a few of the criticisms.
Joel (#1) and Chris (#4), your critiques seem to take as a given that we have a truly free-market economy in this society. Noam Chomsky and many others on the left have, I think, effectively debunked this idea. The largest heavy industry in America (also the largest polluter) is the weapons industry, and the military uses more oil than any other industry. Clearly, neither my consumption choices nor my vote plays a factor in these. The government funnels endless billions (ultimately, probably trillions) of dollars into military R&D (also NASA and other agencies), and then, oftentimes, they bring these technologies to the market (as microwaves, cell phones, personal computers, the internet, etc.) as a means of privatizing and concentrating that massive public investment, while externalizing (laying on the public, humans and non-humans) as many costs as possible. Not exactly Smithian capitalism. More like sheer plunder. Actually, Adam Smith warned explicitly against such abuses, and supported strong unions to prevent them. Moreover, as Jensen showed in his book Strangely Like War (on the timber industry, co-authored with George Draffan), paper mills continually churn out far more paper than the economy calls for. Likewise, the federally subsidized, biotech, pesticide laden, fossil fuel fertilized corn, soy, cotton, etc. is being produced at levels beyond what the market can bear. Hence all the crazy, energy intensive, unhealthy innovations for dumping it (HFCS, lecithin, TVP, corn oil, soy oil, inappropriate animal feed, and now, of course, biofuels). Monsanto didn’t invent Posilac (rBGH) to meet a public demand for slightly cheaper milk, loaded with puss, hormones, anti-biotics, etc, at the expense of sick and dying cattle and people (themselves). They did it simply because they knew their boys in Washington would approve it and that their propaganda would sell it to farmers, and that Monsanto would make a fortune. Major corporations are not out there trying to meet public needs. Major industries do not produce less (or destroy less) when demand falls off (which it does almost exclusively for economic reasons, very rarely for political reasons… even less so ecological ones). They turn to the government for bailouts, and they use their massive propaganda industry (PR) to manufacture new demand. Look, I, like Jensen, compost, recycle, drive very little, buy almost only ethically produced local foods, buy only used clothes, occasionally dumpster dive, pee outside, bring tupperware to restaurants, and do many other little, tiny things to reduce my impact. Is it worth it? Absolutely. Does it pose any threat whatsoever to those who are destroying the planet? No, and that is Jensen’s point. We need lifestyle changes in order to sleep at night and be able to look at ourselves in the mirror, but we also need to stop kidding ourselves that these changes will suffice to save the profoundly imperiled community of life on this planet. Moreover, to refuse to fight back as effectively as possible is to value my luxuries, my relative freedom, my so-called life over future generations, over the planet, over my own dignity. I’ll choose to resist.
Wes (#3), you may be interested to know that Derrick is working on a book explicitly about dreams, and based on dreams. I know him, and he speaks of his dreams more than anyone I’ve met except indigenous people, Sufis, or Jungians. And, as Chris (#4) noted, he definitely offers a clear vision, whether or not you agree with it. He is saying to resist by all means necessary. People understood what that meant when Malcolm X said it.
Amanda (#6), it is really good that you (like me) bring tupperware for your leftovers at restaurants. Hey, I’ve gotten my parents to (on rare occasion when they remember) do the same. Yet I taught for four years at a very liberal private school on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, one of the most staunchly liberal neighborhoods in the country. Hell, the school building is named for Andrew Goodman, an alum who fought and died for civil rights. And yet I was appalled on my first day when I saw every single student, teacher, administrator, and staff member throwing away disposable utensils, plates, bowls, cups, napkins, and a lot of food, with every meal. I pretty much always eat what I buy (or forage), and I compost the rest. I never, ever use disposables. I brought in a set of dishes and utensils the next day. For the next four years, I established myself as, frankly, a widely liked and respected member of the community, one of a couple of leaders on ecological issues. After four years (and innumerable statements like, “Oh man, I’m going to start bringing my own stuff, too,” and “Gee, we really need to get the school to switch away from disposables”), the school has not budged an inch on waste (despite a little greenwashing) and all of two other faculty members have brought in and regularly use non-disposable stuff. A few others, including some students, brought in mugs and sometimes use them. And this is one of the most liberal communities you will find, where everyone talks about ecological issues daily. This is a rich community, where we could easily afford to change our behavior. This is a community where I was not strictly a peer to most, but in a clearly defined authority position, and I was widely liked, even loved by many, yet almost no one followed my lead on this one, tiny, easy issue. If you’re going to do the right thing in these tiny ways, do it because it’s the right thing to do. Not because you’re changing the people around you, because with very few and pretty much negligible exceptions, you’re not. And we have far, far, bigger levers to use in our fight against global ecocide. And we must use them, if we truly value life. By all means, compost too.
Stephen (#11), fair enough. I’m just like Jensen, in this sense. In my history classes, I am constantly making parallels to Hitler and the Nazis. Also to slavery. I do so, as I suspect Jensen does, because these are two of the only historical atrocities with which we, as a society, have any degree of both familiarity and moral clarity. I’d love to change it up more, and I do with my students who have been in my classes for a while and have developed both familiarity and moral clarity about the Vietnam war, about the genocide of the indigenous Americans, about the genocide in East Timor, about the Crusades, about the Opium Wars, about the US sponsored horrors in El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, etc. But I always start with the Nazis, because we all already know they’re bad. So it’s a useful reference point. And what happens if we apply the justice at Nuremberg to the Reagan administration? Or the Clinton administration? Or Obama? Or, of course, Monsanto, Rio Tinto, Weyerhauser, Shell, ExxonMobil, Raytheon, Halliburton, etc? Or, given the fate of Julius Streicher, to the willing propagandists of the corporate-imperial omnicide, propagandists widely read/seen/heard in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Fox, CNN, The Economist, and so on?
Geektronica (#12), I’ll address your post last.
Harry (#18), I hear you, and I think you make a valid editorial critique, but I think it’s ultimately superficial. Jensen says over and over, including in this column, that we should make those tiny, eensy-weensy changes, and that he does so himself. He also says that we must rid ourselves of the delusion that doing so will suffice to stop the omnicide. So taken in context, I think it’s pretty clear that Jensen means “forget that things like taking shorter showers will lead to a sane and sustainable culture.” Also, Derrick is ALL ABOUT local action. Read his work. He’s done a ton of local organizing to stop deforesters, to stop “developers,” etc. He does not rule out engagement in the political process. He also says, very clearly and forcefully in his new book (What We Leave Behind, co-authored with Aric McBay) that these must be done in the context of a culture of resistance. So environmental activists who run for public office, or focus on permaculture, or focus on urban gardening, or focus on education (like me), or focus on writing books (like him), etc, must see not only each other as allies to be supported but also people doing the crucial front-line work of confronting and dismantling the systems and infrastructures through which the dominant culture oppresses and destroys all living beings. Be in politics, as the Sinn Fein leaders were in politics. Not as the current Democrats or even Greens are, who are clearly opposed to militant action against the destroyers (Democrats because they are, themselves, corporatist destroyers, and Greens because they’re stuck in the futile and self-defeating pathology of pacifism… and/or they’re also corporatists destroyers, just “green” corporatist destroyers). You want to run for office? I’ll vote for you… if I know you have the back of the resistance movement, including those who will do the most dangerous and important work.
Flaneuse (#20), I don’t see him stopping short. I see him tailoring his message to his audience. If you have not read Endgame, I strongly suggest you (and everyone) do so. It will leave little question about Derrick’s commitment to revolution. BUT, it should also be clear that Derrick is not proposing some grand political program for us all to follow, like Lenin or even Bakunin. The revolution he supports is to dismantle empire and replace it with thousands of small, local cultures that are inextricable from their landbases. Which is to say, indigenous cultures. Which are, by virtue of their size, their technics, and their oneness with the broader community of life, highly democratic, egalitarian, and most importantly, sustainable.
Now, back to Geektronica (#12). You write, “…but a Luddite one.” Yeah? So? OK, Derrick Jensen is a Luddite. And then some. Because the Luddites only opposed industrial technology. Jensen goes further, to the dawn of agriculture (as in, the dawn of ecocidal monocropping of annuals, not the dawn of putting seeds in the ground, which has always been done, including by non-humans). He is opposed to all civilized technology. Including metallurgy. Including the plow. But he is most opposed to industrial technology because it is so much more extreme and rapid in its destructiveness than pre-industrial civilized technology. And yes, he, and I, and many others “really think we’d be better off abandoning modern technology (‘industrial society’).” That’s the whole point. Industrial society, despite the myths and propaganda we’ve ben fed since birth, is based, on the most physically real level, on the converting of the living to the dead. Living forests into junk mail and toilet paper. Living rivers into hydro-electricity, canned salmon, and bottles of wine from irrigated vineyards. Living prairies into stockpiles of grain. Living mountains into beer cans (using hydro-electricity from murdered rivers), jewelry, and whole ecosystems laid waste by toxic tailings. And so forth. And this is in contrast to wild animals, including wild human cultures, who obviously also consume the lives and bodies of others (while honoring them), but enhance and protect the communities from which those individuals come. That is the crucial difference. In industrial society, salmon are a commodity, a resource. That is, when they’re not merely a political impediment to dam-building, waste dumping, or irrigation. And how does one treat a resource, a commodity? How does this compare to how an indigenous Klamath human, or Tolowa, or Salish, or Pomo, or Aleut, or Ainu, or Nikvh, or, on the Atlantic, Lenape, Abenaki, Innu, Inuit, Celt, etc, behaves in relation to the salmon, which s/he also eats, but sees as a living, unique, spiritual being, who must be honored and whose community must be honored, for their own sake and for the sake of the human and non-human communities that depend on them, have always depended on them, and will always depend on them? It’s the difference between, as Jensen sometimes says/writes, seeing a woman as a resource for sexual release and/or conquest (as so many men in this culture clearly do) versus seeing each individual woman as a unique, spiritual being with intrinsic value and an independent will and identity. It’s the difference between abuse and relationship. No surprise that the culture that sees land as a resource, that sees trees, salmon, rivers, mountains, indeed the whole Earth as resources, also treats women, children, foreigners, minorities, the laboring classes, and so forth as resources. It, civilization (in its most fully realized and pathological form, industrial civilization), is a culture based on objectification and exploitation. It rewards objectification and exploitation, and those who objectify and exploit most thoroughly, effectively, and “profitably” wind up as the elite (they’re usually born into the elite, anyhow). Not all human cultures are like this. Indeed, ONLY civilized cultures are like this. It is a pathology that is literally consuming the planet, and if it is not stopped, there will be very little, if anything, left of the community of life by the time it has collapsed and its impact has been fully absorbed.
Further, the Abenaki lived where I now sit for thousands of years, and they did not deplete the forests, the cod (now locally extirpated), the passenger pigeons (fully extinct), the lobsters, the aquifers, the topsoil, and so on. They did not leave the land despoiled with waste and toxins. The only “waste” they produced was food for other beings. They took no more than the land could willingly and healthily give. For thousands of years. And they did not oppress women. And they did not invent money, or slavery. And they did not commit genocide against their human neighbors. And they did not expand beyond the land’s carrying capacity. Same goes for the Mohawks who lived for eons where I grew up. Same goes for the Lenape who lived for eons where I spent my 20’s. Same goes for the paleolithic predecessors of the Etruscans who lived for eons where I lived for a year in Italy. Same goes for the Tolowa who lived for eons where Jensen now lives. Same goes for the San in Namibia, living much like their ancestors from hundreds of thousands of years ago: sustainably, peacefully, profoundly, democratically. The qualities of civilization are not the qualities of the human. Indeed, they are starkly at odds with the qualities of the human, which is why life in civilized society produces so many discontents (as noted by Freud and Jung), so many schizophrenics (as noted by Joseph Campbell and Stanley Diamond), so many depressives, addicts, sociopaths, and so forth (as should be obvious to anyone). We are still wild beings, tamed into a highly imperfect submission, under which we rankle. But all that aside, civilization has already wiped out 90% of the large fish in the oceans, 95% of the original forests in this country, roughly a third of all the wildlife on Earth just since 1970 (not including the vastly more lost before 1970). There is now far more plastic than plankton in the oceans. Amphibians are dying off en masse, worldwide. The major agricultural regions are being thoroughly denuded of topsoil, which will leave them deserts, jut like the “Fertile Crescent,” the original cradle of agriculture. The whole planet is on a horrific, anthropogenic warming cycle that will surely take an extremely heavy toll and even threatens the continuation of life itself. This culture is omnicidal, and it will collapse by virtue of the fact that it destroys the basis for its own survival, along with everyone else’s. The question is whether or not much of the still surviving community of life will make it long enough to weather that collapse and begin restoring health to this planet, so we might all have a future.
As for the current human population level, it is grossly, absurdly beyond carrying capacity, and that is a major product of the dominant culture (indigenous cultures maintained stable population levels). The population is coming down, sooner or later, more or less horrifically. Should we continue assaulting and damaging and destroying the foundations upon which life is built in order to forestall (and intensify) the eventual collapse for another day, or week, or year? It won’t be more than, at most, a couple decades. If it takes that long, how much worse will the collapse be? Will there be nine billion people? Will we have lost 50% of all remaining species? Will the Great Plains be the new Sahara? Will there be any vertebrates left on the oceans? Will there be any indigenous human cultures left? Will not only Greenland but Antacrtica meltdown in whole or in large part, raising sea levels by around 150 ft? Will all the methane in the permafrost and the oceanic clathrates release and spiral the planet toward irreversible warming and a Venus effect? Do you want to wait and see? I don’t. I want to fight like hell on the side of life, and bring down the death culture before it plays out to its own apocalyptic endgame (and one need only look at the civilized myths to see that it’s always known it was driving toward apocalypse). I hope you’ll fight on the side of life, too. I hope we all will, but I recognize that most people won’t. And we can’t wait until they will, or it will be too late for much of, even all of, the community of life on Earth.
A very good article indeed, apart from this bit: “We, as individuals, are not creating the crises, and we can’t solve them.” (admittedly a requote) — which I disagree with because, in fact, it contradicts Derrick’s own dictum that you *can* used the master’s tools to bring down the master’s house. Just because we are not individually the cause of the problem doesn’t mean we cannot, as individuals or collective groups, bring down the system in a variety of ways – what about the one person who might bring down a large financial computer system; or the small collective that might block various broadcasting hubs for a commercial radio network?
There is not so much difference between these people, and those Derrick mentions in his last paragraph.
Hey Jim Bier (#26), I can define solipsism for you. It is the extreme pathology of viewing everyone/everything outside of you as not truly real. The consequences are that no one else has a will, feelings, spirit and so forth, and that therefore there are no true moral implications to doing whatever one pleases with them or to them. Descartes’ parable of the “brain in a vat” is the classic example. And Descartes actually operated on these principles toward non-humans. Of course, the dominant culture operates in this fundamentally objectifying, abusive, destructive, insane way on every possible level. And Derrick Jensen says we should do all we can to stop the dominant culture from obliterating the community of life. He is against patriarchy, against the concept of “resources,” against denying others their own unique will (except in defense of others when an individual, notably a civilized human, is wreaking havoc). Jensen recognizes that all beings, not just humans, not just organic life forms, value their own existence, probably no less than we do. He literally listens to and speaks to non-humans, as have indigenous people and many poets throughout time. So no, you are dead wrong. Jensen is the absolute opposite (and worst nightmare) of solipsists.
I have gone back and forth on this issue of what can I do, etc etc. especially with regard to water. Sometimes I am convinced that I should be saving water, because it is the right thing to do. Other times I want to NOT save it because then they can’t use it for development and therefore I am banking it for the fish. Seriously, in our area, they tell us to conserve water but there is no mechanism to know that I am leaving the water in the river. It just gets alloted out to the next subdivision because it is available. I appreciate Jensen’s comments on how we are now consumers instead of citizens and that has limited our options for action. So well put. Also, I too am sick of being blamed for a lack of water because I like a bath once in a while. Why am I being asked to change my little habits when it is just a drop in the bucket when industry isn’t asked to change at all when it can make such a difference? It is to keep us complacent. We need to change our industrial culture. I know, people will want some sort of concrete answer from anyone saying this, well, it’s not that easy. Every community has a different answer that only that community can figure out and hopefully it all leads to the same result.
Good points about water. That’s why we need to focus more on securing water efficiency measures in our businesses, farms, and communities, as opposed to telling people to stop showering, plant cacti, etc.
American Rivers released a report called “Hidden Reservoir” that lists 8 steps communities should take to save water (and money) — like updating development codes, metering all water users, and pricing water appropriately. Read about it here:
Shout it, brother.
Identification of the leading cause of problems is the critical thing.
However, I wouldn’t say it’s all down to our evil corporate overlords.
We are also a pretty demanding bunch.
A car takes 1000+ gallons of water to build. That environmental cost is not listed among the features/drawbacks of owning that particular car. I would argue, however, that water was consumed by proxy by the owner who purchased the car. He demanded 1000+ gallons of water be used [wasted] in that way in exchange for the low price and efficiency of the end product.
I’d like to add something from a faith perspective in support of what Jensen is arguing. This comes from Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church. “The overarching connection in all of these crises has to do with the great Western heresy – that we can be saved as individuals, that any of us alone can be in right relationship with God…That individualist focus is a form of idolatry, for it puts me and my words in the place that only God can occupy, at the center of existence, as the ground of all being.”
I’ve posted a short response to this article on my blog.
Be The Change or Fight the System
Sorry, html didn’t work. Here’s the link:
A number of comments above had appropriately indicated that the link between industrial use and consumer demand is complex. Golf players create a demand for golf courses, for example.
In naming this complexity, they note that demand is the sum of individual choices which, if changed in some way, would affect the industry supplying the demand.
I get hung up with another part of this linkage. Which, IMHO, weakens the individual-as-the-solution answer. That is advertising. Industry spends billions to stimulate demand for the most profitable products – which often means the products which are created on the greatest environmental subsidy (the amount of “free” environmental damage the builder takes advantage of.)
And advertising is carefully designed to remove reason from the buying decision. Making the purchase an impulse or an image choice rather than a utility choice. This makes rational and value based buying difficult.
So we’re back to industry. One solution is to base profit and price on the true cost of manufacture. Pollution controls, for example, moves some of the cost from the environment to the manufacture of the product.
Let the consumer buy what he/she wants but also insist that the full price is paid. That would create a basis for simpler living to change the industrial system.
I’ve appreciated many of the comments in this discussion – in some ways, more than the original article itself. Jensen’s cut-to-the-chase style does a great job of smacking down ambivalence, but invites a response that may be less than thoughtful. I came away wondering if universal lobotomies, vasectomies, or monkey-wrench-gang-style economic policies were the logical next step.
Seems to me, as far as the environment is concerned, we’ve already jumped out of the plane. There’s no going back to a level of “sustainable” that will sustain seven billion and counting human beings and restore ecosystems to their pristine condition. No public action, no matter how radical, will make that happen.
The question instead is whether or not we’ll pull the parachute in time to land softly. If that’s what we’re seeking, then by all means, let’s begin taking down the “dark satanic mills” – but let’s not pretend that restoration of the biosphere is within our power, whether as individuals, as nations, or as a species. Only time, evolution, and a cultural shift from “me” to “we” can accomplish that.
“Your order was shipped!
1x$2K Laptop computer
– 500GB HD
– 4GB RAM
– 3hr battery (now with toxic chemicals!)
– 2Lb chassis (now from mined iron ore!)
– 200g waste water
– never-biodegradable components
Good God. Everyone in America should read Comment #28!
Thank you Mark, for stating the most important part of the change that is necessary – the shifting from “me” to “we.”
Also, evolution. Perhaps evolution is the real revolution! Since the industrial revolution Western culture has been in huge hurry to get somewhere fast. Here’s an excerpt from an unpublished article of mine:
It’s as if there is a need to rush evolution into making changes, just as the creation of genetically modified foods have, and just as the Industrial Revolution did in 18th century England.
In fact the shift that took place in the human psyche, as a result of the mechanization of production, was so dramatic that there is every reason to believe that the suffering we have been experiencing and trying to heal from, is nothing less that the human divorce from nature. Frederick Engels, in the middle of the 19th century, described the toll that the Industrial Revolution had on the lives of the English working person in his book, The Condition of the Working Class in England. It was nothing short of traumatic. Change during this time was swift, stressful, and wholly unnatural.
Industrialism created a degraded environment and, for 75% of the population of England, a degraded human being. The making of a working-class, that toiled 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, for close to a century, was the un-doing of centuries of rural peasant life. Moving from a predominantly outdoor, rural, community based, and sustainable lifestyle that provided adequate food and shelter, to living in the crowded, unhealthy tenements of the cities and working in poorly lit factories would, undoubtedly, bequeath a sickness of mind, body, and spirit. E.J. Hobsbawm, professor emeritus of economic and social history at the University of London, unequivocally, states that the lives of the English working men were transformed, “. . . beyond recognition.” Indeed:
. . . pre-industrial experience, tradition, wisdom and morality provided no adequate guide for the kind of behaviour which a capitalist economy required . . . His sheer material ignorance of the best way to live in a city, or eat industrial food (so very different from village food) might actually [have made] his poverty worse than it ‘need have been’.
The cultural rebellion of the nineteen sixties certainly helped create a growing awareness that mechanization, the commanding cultural force of Western culture since the 18th century, created a new sense of self that does not exactly go with the flow of nature. Rather, the growing preference to manipulate, divert or alter interrupted the very essence of natural living, natural livelihood and the natural relationship that existed with the land. Siegfried Giedion – an historian writing in the 1940’s – saw this clearly when he stated that mechanization created “. . . catastrophes that threaten to destroy civilization and existence . . .” and that they are, “. . . outward signs that our organism has lost its balance.” Indeed, he goes on to say that, “[o]ur contact with the organic forces within us and outside of us has been interrupted . . .” We have ceased living in accordance to the natural rhythmic relationship that exists between humans and nature.
England in the early 18th century was, according to Hobsbawm, still a clean and beautiful country. Artisans, journeymen, and peasants alike enjoyed a slow paced work life, which included family and community. Food was grown locally and the diet low in protein, and almost devoid of stimulants. Life was not easy but it was simple, healthy, and, for the most part, relaxed. The experience of community was not separate from work and joy was, undoubtedly, present in all aspects of work in pre-industrial peasant life.
Changing the means of production, therefore, radically changed the lives of rural dwellers (then at least three quarters of the population) and our relationship to food, family, community and the natural world. English culture, as well as the entire Western world (and those that were affected by Westernization), saw the most profound human transformation since the advent of agriculture some 10,000 years ago.
This cultural detour, which I describe as an unwholesome transformation, has taken us in the Western world, into a way of life that is no longer nourishing, no longer full of the wholeness of an alive and vibrant existence and unconnected to the natural rhythms and cycles of nature. It was obvious to Giedion that, “beginning with the 19th century, the power to see things in their totality [became] obscured.” Getting back on track, therefore, is no easy task when the exploits of this 400 year diversion has been so profitable to some, and the suffering of being enslaved so demoralizing for others.
Lorraine Fish, Ph.D.
I agree with you 100% that we need active citizens, not just aware consumers. However, I also agree with the other side 100%, that individual action and mindset is equally important.
I’m either being contradictory, or a paradox emerges. I agree with both sides completely. In reality, this is not an either-or thing. In fact, they can inform and temper and inspire each other. I will be a terrible activist if I am not motivated for right reasons and am not living the lifestyle I preach. Similarly, I will be changing nothing if I simply change myself and then pat myself on the back in front of the mirror while the outside world falls to ruin.
Let’s transcend this petty debate. Your logic sounds too similar to the “you’re either with us or against us” of past years. You see, for many, a new enlightened consumer choice can be the first step on a path to activism. I can produce a whole flock of “black swans” to refute your whole argument. I’ve met dozens of people who never thought about making an active stand for environment, but started doing so only when they saw people around them buying green, joining CSAs, changing lightbulbs, hanging laundry outside to dry, and other things that reflect values. They might have been alienated by a raw activist type, but a green consumer was a bridge to a new way of thinking… and acting.
Although you are a very intelligent person, don’t forget that most others go with the crowd. For you, thought precedes action. For them, it can be the other way around. What you see as a trendy and futile dead-end (such as bringing your own bags to grocery store) can actually be the first domino for someone. They ask themselves “why would this person inconvenience themselves?” and then … boom… they start extending that question to other areas.
Keep up the good work, but don’t position this as a “sophie’s choice”. Please don’t use the same heavy handed divisionary logic of those “owls or jobs” people. We can do better than that. Be more visionary and less divisionary. If we are defined by what we are against, we will never become greater than that.
We need not look further than American revolution. Many petty consumer acts regarding stamps, tea, and other boycotting and consumer-based activism was the tinder that lit the fire underneath citizen and soldier action.
Let’s all try not to alienate any potential supporters of this cause. Since we’re defending something that doesn’t have a voice, we need as many voices, ballets and wallets that we can get.
Jensen: “Would any sane person think dumpster diving would have stopped Hitler?”
Jensen’s tendency to reduce to the absurd the arguments he can’t understand only undermines whatever credibility he might have had. In historical fact, the only thing which effectively turned back the advance of fascism (WWII didn’t – it only shifted it to the Anglo-American Empire) was the nation-wide non-violent resistance of the Danes. But Jensen refuses to recognize the historical truth that violent revolutions/resistance/wars only serve to shift the locus of violence from one group to another and perpetuate, feed and encourage more violence.
“Any option is a better option than a dead planet.” That’s the logic of desperation that imprisons creative imagination. It also over-rates humanity’s capacity to destroy the web-of-life.
Jensen’s repeated refrain that “we can destroy the industrial economy that is destroying the real, physical world” is precisely the double-bind that he pretends to transcend. The choice is not between supporting the violence of the status quo or using violence to “destroy” it. First, no amount of violence that we can muster could begin to compete with the violent potential of the system. In that sense, it’s the tactic of the foolish and naïve. Second, the only way out of a double-bind – or the horns of a rampaging dilemma – is to stop presenting ourselves as a target and to stop feeding the beast.
The dichotomy between the individual and the societal, between individual action and social/political/collective action is a false one that the system creates. Every personal act that feeds the beast is a political act, and the most powerful political action is to refuse it sustenance. We refuse it sustenance when we choose to disengage from the system, and we make it possible for many to refuse when we create alternative life-enhancing systems.
To step outside of the materialist paradigm that has engendered our global crises, is to rediscover the spiritual principle that the wolf who wins the fight is the one we feed. If we use violence, we feed the predatory wolf. If we put our energy into creating small-scale, grass-roots, re-localized, democratically-organized, sustainable human/non-human community – then we feed the playful, nurturing, pack-oriented wolf.
David killed Goliath with his sling, and then grew up to become the predatory nation of Israel. If David had simply tended his own garden and let Goliath fall of his own weight, a different story would have emerged – and we wouldn’t be having this discussion.
I agree with Bjorn Beer. Not an either/or, but a both/and….. and everything we can do makes us stronger and is part of removing the legitimacy and power of the power over.
It’s true that shorter showers won’t save much water. Bathing in the river saves water. Bathing in the river, drinking from the river, cooking soup with river water. Cleaning pots with sand, eating every meal from the same bowl.
The issue is not that personal action can’t be revolutionary, but that it isn’t, not yet. It’s not shocking enough. So you take a 1-minute military shower in your private home, so what? Who sees it? If everyone who today claims to be “living simply” went to the river every morning to bathe — well, now there’s a statement. And sure to get you arrested, in the best activist tradition.
Robert Riversong (#43), if I’m understanding you correctly, you’re arguing a form of the “walk away” model. This beast is coming down, so just tend your garden and let it crash. You sound like an intelligent, well-informed, sensitive person, so I assume you have at least a fair grasp of the enormity of the devastation that has been and continues to be inflicted. I won’t assume you know any particular piece of info I’ve stumbled across, but I’ll assume you would, at least, not be surprised to hear that the total environment is now drenched in PCB, dioxin, and a host of other powerful toxins. Likewise that according to mainstream sources, 1% of all species are going extinct annually, and up to one third of all wildlife on Earth has been extirpated in the past few decades. Likewise that every year we lose a few more of the handful of remaining indigenous languages, and therefore, all or nearly all of their stories, myths, wisdom, spirituality, medicine, technology, knowledge of how to live sustainably, and so on. Likewise that the US and a few of its allies are irradiating the planet more or less permanently with millions and millions of pounds of depleted uranium munitions. And so on. Now, if you, and I, and the rest of the Orion readership, the rest of the people who care more about life on this planet than they do about the death culture, step aside and tend our gardens, perhaps some of us together in egalitarian permaculture communes (which, frankly, sounds like fun to me), writing poetry, playing drums and guitars, learning acupuncture and ayurvedic medicine, etc, what in the world are we going to do when we can’t breathe the air or drink the water? What are we going to do when we all develop tumors? What are we going to do when the dominant culture, in its final throes, sees our verdant lands (and/or the minerals, fuels, or water beneath them) and decides to take them and kill us, as it has done consistently throughout history? Or just kills us for having shown another way to live, as it has so often done from indigenous cultures to John Africa? Where, precisely, are we supposed to step away TO where we will not be subject to the realities of the dominant culture’s devastation of the planet? And when they come to plunder us, the last reserve of free, sane people, and destroy our land, what do we do? Beg them to take us on as slaves rather than kill us? Say, “I’m so very, very sorry” to our children and our non-human friends and neighbors as they, and we, are destroyed? Or would we fight back? I’ll let you decide for yourself. I’ll fight back, and sooner rather than later.
I’ll fight back right now to protect those being raped, murdered, and destroyed right now. To step aside as industrial civilization, or capitalism, or patriarchy, or Leviathan, or Goliath, or whatever you want to call it commits further atrocities is A) utterly callous and a complete abdication of our responsibility to those we purport to love and B) just postponing the inevitable confrontation when Goliath catches up with us. And he will. Because the whole planet is dying, or, more accurately, being murdered.
Your lifeboat community better be well armed. I hope it will also support those who will fight to defend others and precipitate the crash.
Also, the notion that the Danish resistance was purely non-violent is ahistorical, it’s untrue. A few moments of research make that abundantly clear. The idea that the US picked up the mantle of fascism is, of course, true, and a truth lost on nearly all Americans. Actually, though, let’s look for a moment at the Norwegian resistance, which was considerably more fierce than the Danish resistance, from what I gather. The Norwegians (just a few of them, in fact) took out (with, ahem, force) the Nazi’s heavy water plant, a crucial piece of their nuclear program. If they had not done this, Hitler would likely have gotten the bomb. I am very, very happy that those resistance fighters took that action and succeeded. Hypotheticals are tricky, but I am pretty confident that things would have been worse if Hitler had gotten the bomb.
Anyhow, the basic questions remain:
1. Where will you walk away to?
2. How do you explain this behavior to those being exploited, raped, abused, murdered right now?
3. How will you avoid being, along with your lifeboat community, consumed by the death culture in its final throes?
Oh, and here’s one more:
4. When a caged tiger mauls a zookeeper, does she risk becoming a zookeeper? The community of life is already fighting back, as it must. What will it take for you to stand up and do whatever it takes to join the community of life and help bring down the death culture while there’s still anyone left to save?
for those of you who are advocating “drastic action”, etc, what does that mean, exactly? chaining yourself to trees? Running for office? Is it actual action or just more “slacktivism”?
Honestly, I’m open to suggestions. What gets people to listen? What is truly a thorn in side of dominant paradigm? And what actually produces more adherents and support than it detracts and dissuades? Are you thinking more civil disobedience? Do you have specific ideas that would do more good, or does it just give the dominant paradigm more cannon fodder? Will the crackdown be worse than the crack think you are causing?
Here’s the biggie: what Industrial Civilization — it’s rulers and it’s beneficiaries — fears most of all, is a connected population; connected with the real world rather than the synthetic world created for civilians, so they can continue making money for the machine. A connected person *is* an enemy of the system: first and foremost, they think as a liberated human being, rather than a machine part.
The way to allow people to connect is to remove the Tools Of Disconnection that Industrial Civilization has created, specifically to keep us living the way “good consumers” should. I have documented these in A Matter Of Scale.
There are many ways of destroying these (BTW, I don’t consider it possible to be violent against a machine), some of which I document in later chapters. And yes, the system will fight back, but perhaps not before it has been sabotaged.
Jensen pretty much nails it.
As did Karl Marx. Marx was an _anti-corporatist_, not an anti-capitalist. Marx saw soul-less, yet, ironically, _immortal_ corporations as the _real_ problem. Corporations, man-made legal-paper creations, “exist” in order to acquire endless amounts of capital and resources. Corporations merely hire humans to do the actual work of extracting and working the resources. The earth has been progressively destroyed, the commons have been cordoned off, and ordinary workers “live” in an ever-diminished, ravaged environment.
Corporations need no air, water, food to “live.” They merely require human gullibility.
Hence, CEO’s (AKA high-priced corporate valets/bodyguards) hire private armies, corrupt governments that–in turn–tax the rest of us to hire national armies to prevent armed insurrection against corporate apologists.
Did the wonderful human beings who constitute our lovely Jeffersonian republic fall asleep in Econ 101 or History 101 when we hit the chapter on corporations?
Everything that you lament is a human creation, but you expect humans en masse to tear down the things they have spent so long creating. We preserve the system because we LOVE the system. It’s that simple.
Only when this way of living applies too much negative pressure on us as individuals will we do anything about it, and, at that time, political activism will be redundant.
All is decided by the forces of equilibrium.
“Transcendent generosity is a state of mind. If I wanted to walk around the world, I could not possibly find enough leather to cover the surface of the earth. But just covering the soles of my shoes with leather works even better. Likewise, I could not possibly transform all bad things outside in the world. But if I can transform this mind of mine, what need do I have to transform everything else?”–eighth-century Buddhist teacher Shantideva.
Dumpster diving wouldn’t have stopped Hitler. But having given him a childhood full of love, encouragement and affection most likely could have. Nothing is more radical than the small and daily acts of Love.
Right on. And I might add that the whole system of ‘volunteerism’ in this country is also a ‘feel good’ approach…thereby releasing the government of taking care of the people they’re supposed to be governing..
hey derrick…love love love your writing, have for ten years….just look at this…everyone….just look at this…within a mere 30-some hours derrick’s thoughts have provoked such response….such dialogue…soooooo cool…one of my most favorite places your work has taken me is to whaleman extraordinaire Jim Nollman and his sweet Interspecies site…what’s not to love there….the logo alone is enough….but his thoughts expressed in his essay titled Why Wash Birds are profound….please everyone go there and read that piece………….thank you derrick…can’t even remember how I found my way to your work…so grateful i did
davidscottlevi (#46) said: ”
Robert Riversong (#43), if I’m understanding you correctly, you’re arguing a form of the “walk away” model. This beast is coming down, so just tend your garden and let it crash.”
You’re completely misunderstanding me. But that could be because I was responding to elements of Jensen’s belief system which he carefully danced around in this latest essay. Specifically, his belief that the only effective response to systemic violence is violently tearing down the machine of violence. Stating it that clearly should be enough to demonstrate its inherent contradiction.
I would never advocate mere escapism. What I not only propose but have lived for the 40 years of my adult life is a combination of non-violent but fierce confrontation, and building a new society within the shell of the old. I have publicly refused to pay taxes to the Empire for 30 years, have been jailed for non-violent resistance, and have spent much of that 40 years actively educating and organizing others for constructive social change.
What you dismiss as “ahistorical” is, in fact, the hidden history of modern civilization. The downfall of most tyrants and of major empires has been either initiated or facilitated by predominantly non-violent movements, several of which have been undertaken after the failure of violent resistance.
I have no problem with authentic self-defense (including of those we love), and I’ll admit to celebrating the occasional act of creative sabotage. But an offensive violent resistance, even with the intent to avoid human casualty (which is more hope than certainty) will not only elicit severe repression and state violence, but result in inculcating violence into our very souls and poisoning any positive future we hope to enjoy.
We are witnessing the collapse of Western civilization and Empire. The most powerful weapon we have to facilitate that collapse is the withholding of our support. What “they” fear most is awake and aware people refusing to play by their rules – refusing to be a subject or a consumer or a parrot of propaganda.
Yes, there’ll be much collateral damage as the Goliath falls. That cannot be avoided. But what is most important now is to build alternative structures and relationships that can sustain us after the Fall. Otherwise, we’ll be wandering aimlessly in a wasteland created, in part, by our focus on the problem rather than on the solution.
Folks, he’s flat wrong, and I grow tired of hearing his unrelenting pessimism.
Either we have enough time to change minds, and thus effectively change the culture of the entire planet; or it’s already far far too late and we’re all doomed.
I believe that we do have enough time, and that individual, personal change is the ONLY possible method that will get us to the goal. All of recorded history backs me up. The books “Beyond Civilization”, (by Daniel Quinn) and “Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches” (By Marvin Harris) address this point succintly.
He can belittle it to his heart’s content, but if you follow his line of thinking you’ll end up with the same old, same old – one group holding out a ‘One Right Way’, and needing to conquer others to enact it.
For a while now he’s advocated violent change in his writings and video interviews, as sure a method of failure as could exist. I’d take this article apart point by point, but will instead simply posit this:
We change ourselves, in real and lasting ways. We serve as examples to others, and they are attracted to our more successful mode of being. In turn, they attract others with their actions. Eventually the tide turns, and the bad ways are abandoned. That’s it. The entire game plan, the only winning strategy that has ever worked or will ever.
So with all due respect, Derrick Jenson can go stuff it. The problems he calls out are real enough, but they are merely symptoms, not the disease.
PS: if you haven’t yet had a chance, reading Alam Weisman’s latest will convince you: “The World Without Us”. We have the time, though it sure does feel as if we don’t. It’s all relative.
A historical fact understood even by Michael Wood, British BBC/PBS film-maker: All empires have eventually over-used resources and have succumbed thereby. The Fertile Crescent was, 4,000 yrs. (or so) a green verdant place, that supported vast populations who lived behind garden walls (hence, the “Garden of Eden” story) to protect against floods every year, in the good years.
Now, its Iraq.
The old prehistoric Manas people of the Andes also died as a result of over-use and insufficient stores. There is not, in history or geology/anthroplology, _one_ large (+2500 pop.) urban entity that has lasted beyond 250-300 years, before “taking for granted” ecosystems led them over the abyss of time. The tradition is too deeply seated in those of us descended from the early Aryan (“the noble ones”) (light-skinned pastoral folk from Russian steppes) invaders into the Punjab. The contentious nature of our kind was thus born. Consumptives never have gone on long. Later, a lord called Ashoka realized the forest holy-men were right: “I wish for all beings contentment, happiness, freedom from war, etc. It worked while he was alive to model it. His most memorable stele says: “The hardest thing to do is to get people to be _good_.”
His sons killed him and his great grandson in a feud over who’d inherit the throne. Power doth corrupt, as the state of our un-sustainable ecosystem slowly unravells, shows all too well.
Not much can be done, short of a Monkey Wrench Gang weilding supreme power. Golf courses and Corporate domination would be gone.
Robert, I honor the wisdom you’ve garnered over your years. I am younger. We need not agree on all points. Clearly, we are, in the broad scheme of things, on the same side.
If I misunderstood you, I apologize for that. Honestly, looking at what you wrote, I thought that my interpretation of what you said was hardly an interpretation at all… it was nearly verbatim. Either way, if you do not suggest the “walk away” model, that’s good.
What I called “ahistorical” was the notion that the Danish resistance was non-violent. That is, I believe, clear from my post, and I have the facts on my side. There was considerable militancy in the Danish resistance, especially as the Nazi occupation dragged on. So it is not quite fair to say that I used the term “ahistorical” in reference to your notion that non-violence is what always brings down empires. Whether or not your assertion about non-violence is true, I had not argued that specific point.
I am glad to hear that you have no problem with authentic self-defense (presumably with violence if necessary), of yourself or of those you love. I had not gotten that from your first post, but I suspect only a deeply insane person would not fight back if she or her friend or her child was being raped or battered. So let me ask you this. Do you stand by MEND, the Ogoni resistance movement that is fighting for the very survival of the Ogoni people, their own families, their own land, themselves? Note that a large, organized non-violent movement in the Niger Delta resulted in nothing but a massacre of the movement’s leaders, conducted by the Nigerian state with not a word from the international community. Since then, MEND has taken out 20% of Shell’s oil extracting capacity in the delta and opened the possibility that Shell may withdraw from Nigeria completely. MEND has given the Ogoni a chance, and done the same for their landbase. Do you stand by the Zapatistas, who rose up with arms (and have rarely used them) when the very existence of their indigenous Mayan communities was under dire threat? Do you think it is appropriate to use all means necessary (including, if necessary, violence) when you and your community are being invisibly assaulted with PCB, plutonium, mercury, or any other industrial toxin that may or may not be prevalent in your neighborhood, your food supply, your water, your air? If not, why would you act any differently when the attackers use poison than when they use a machine gun? Now, what if “developers” are wiping out the trees, the wetlands, the frogs, the songbirds, and much of the rest of the community of life in your neighborhood. And all legal means fail. Perhaps now a little “creative sabotage”? I could extend this line of questions considerably further, but here’s where it’s heading. The whole community of life is under dire, existential attack. It’s not abstract. It’s not just a looming threat, but an assault in progress, innumerable murders every moment, 200 species a day lost forever. Do you love the community of life? Do you see whom is oppressing and destroying whom? The war we are in is not even a war, because there is only one side fighting. Well, I think it’s high time (beyond high time) we fight back. It would not be offensive violence, it would be defensive counter-violence, but it better be fierce, smart, and effective.
I’m all for building alternative structures. I help to do so, as a teacher, as a forager, as a poet, as a helper on organic farms, as an avid nutritionist and novice herbalist, and so forth. Yes, we need to be ready to support our communities and heal our landbases. If your calling is to devote yourself to building alternative structures, by all means, do it, and I’ve got your back. But I want to know if you will support those who will do the monkey-wrenching, those who will stop hard-core criminals from committing further atrocities, with violence if necessary. I want to know if you’ll support those who use physical actions to grind the economy to a halt.
I’m sorry but I do not buy that the most powerful weapon I have is withholding my support. I have largely withheld my support for a long time, as have innumerable other aware people. Those in power don’t care. They have the doctrinal systems in place to ensure that the large majority of people will not withdraw their support. Just by being a teacher and using that leverage, I effect far more change than by simply withdrawing my support. I’m sorry to return to this, but saying that our most powerful tool is to withdraw our support is, in fact, the “walk away” model in a nutshell.
BTW, here are a few examples of successful militant resistance movements:
1. The underground railroad
2. The IRA
3. The Bougainville Revolutionary Army
4. The Vandals and Visigoths against the Romans
5. The Ostrogoths against the Byzantines
6. The Viet Cong
7. The Cuban Revolution
8. FRETILIN (East Timor)
9. The Zapatistas
10. Quilombo dos Palmares
If you choose to reject some of the above because the militants were not pure enough, I would simply encourage you to compare them to those they were fighting. Harriet Tubman carried a gun and was not afraid to use it. Would you have supported her? Or would there have been too much risk of “inculcating violence into our very souls and poisoning any positive future we hope to enjoy”? It’s not a rhetorical question. Would you have provided a safe house for the armed militants ferrying refugee slaves (stolen property) to the north?
Finally, severe state repression and violence are a reality. Those in power will, of course, use at least as much violence as they feel they need to remain in power. So any movement that seriously threatens them will elicit severe repression and violence, whether it is a strictly a civil disobedience movement or whether it also has a militant component. It is not violence that begets violence from the powerful. It is threatening the basis for their power that begets violence. But forget that, because they’re plenty violent already, so violent they’re destroying the planet, so it’s absurd and counterproductive for me to speak of _us_ begetting _their_ violence. The real question is, are we willing to risk our very real necks by effectively countering the system? And if not, are we willing to support those who will?
We need not choose between focusing on the problem and focusing on the solution. We can do both. If you want to focus on the solution, great, just please don’t hinder those focusing on the huge, ecocidal, genocidal problem. In fact, please help them in any way you can. But the very least is not turning them in. There is a madman in the house. By all means, learn how to heal the physical and psychic wounds of those he’s already harmed, but do not neglect to stop the madman.
davidscottlevi (#58) says: “I am glad to hear that you have no problem with authentic self-defense (presumably with violence if necessary), of yourself or of those you love.”
You presume far too much. Self-defense is not violence. Violence is whatever violates the integrity of another person (or one’s self). Defending against violence is not violence. Retaliation or preemptive response is violence against the other and against one’s own soul.
“I suspect only a deeply insane person would not fight back if she or her friend or her child was being raped or battered.”
Then you have not met the most sane of people. I’ve known several who have interrupted violence with a hug or a disarming word or a vulnerable smile. Gandhi, MLK, Caesar Chavez, Dorothy Day were of that kind.
“I do not buy that the most powerful weapon I have is withholding my support. I have largely withheld my support for a long time, as have innumerable other aware people.”
Have you? There are only three things the Empire requires of us: wage slavery and material consumption, our bodies for war, and our tax money to feed their machine. If you have not withheld at least two of those three, then you are an enabler not a resister.
“saying that our most powerful tool is to withdraw our support is, in fact, the “walk away” model”
Then you are saying that Gandhi “walked away” from British colonial oppression.
Slobodan Milosevic was thrown out by a nonviolent movement.
Philippines dictator Marcos similarly in 1986
the East German, Hungarian, Czech, and Polish dictatorships in 1989
The Shah of Iran had one of the ten most powerful armies in the world and a secret police whose ruthlessness was second to none. He was overthrown 1977-79, nonviolently.
El Salvador in 1944, an armed uprising failed to overthrow dictator Hernandez Martinez, so the students initiated a nonviolent insurrection and threw Martinez out nonviolently
The students in neighboring Guatemala were so impressed that they initiated a nonviolent insurrection against the “iron dictator of the Caribbean” – Jorge Ubico – and Ubico was thrown out, too.
The Zapatistas of Chiapas have abandoned armed struggle as having failed.
In the early 1980s the African National Congress realized that its armed struggle strategy was failing; it was woefully insufficient to defeat apartheid. So they plunged into nonviolent struggle: boycotts, strikes, demonstrations of all kinds. The result was the end of apartheid despite a very well-armed state with a terroristic police force.
Kwame Nkrumah led a successful nonviolent campaign for Ghana’s independence in the ’50s.
Kenneth Kaunda led another in Zambia in the ’60s.
During the Nazi occupation of Denmark, the Danes engaged in a “diversity of tactics.” In the first phase their tactics ranged from collaboration to petitions to sabotage. The diversity didn’t work: some tactics worked against each other. The Danes moved on to another set of diverse tactics: sabotage, nonviolent demonstrations, and labor strikes. Again, the tactics undermined each other; each act of sabotage gave the Germans fresh excuse to come down hard on the workers and the demonstrators. What really worked in maintaining Danish integrity and undermining the Nazi war effort was the strategy which emerged: it included the underground press, major strikes (even at one point a general strike), nonviolent demonstrations, and smuggling the Jews out to a safe haven in Sweden. The strategy that emerged was internally consistent, and the tactics therefore supported each other instead of subtracting from each other.
In a strange twist, there are times when violent forces actually need to be protected by nonviolent action. When the Black Panther Party wanted to have a national convention in Philadelphia, they had difficulty getting a venue. Quakers gave them the use of their largest Meetinghouse. Police chief Frank Rizzo saw this as an opportunity to swagger and threaten, and no one could be sure what the provocation might lead to. So Quakers circled the Meetinghouse and stood shoulder to shoulder to create a protective shield between the police and the Panthers. But eventually the Panthers, who primarily advocated armed self-defense, were brutally eliminated by the state.
On a larger scale this was repeated in the Philippines during the 1986 overthrow of dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Toward the end of the struggle a part of the army, led by General Ramos, went over to the people’s side. Marcos still controlled the larger part of the army, which he ordered to attack Ramos’ camp and subdue the rebellion. Catholic radio stations working with the people power movement sounded the alarm. Many thousands of Filipinos rushed to the site, intervened between the Marcos loyalists and the rebels, and nonviolently immobilized the loyalist troops, thereby saving the outgunned rebel soldiers.
“The real question is, are we willing to risk our very real necks by effectively countering the system?”
The real question is: Do we have the courage to risk our lives, or merely the ruthlessness to take the lives of others?
“It would not be offensive violence, it would be defensive counter-violence…”
The rationalization of every violent revolution.
“There is a madman in the house.”
And, until we realize that the madman “out there” is nothing more than the projection of our own inner demons, we will continue to tilt at windmills. When we tame and disarm those demons, then our true power emerges and there is nothing we cannot do.
The article made only one point I disagree with, which is the idea that the powerful people who profit from the industrial economy might try to kill us if we take action. There’s no “might” about it. The only way to stop the destruction of the planet is to stop the industrial economy. If you do that, there’s no “try” about it either. They won’t try to kill you. They’ll just kill you. Moreover, the industrial economy is everywhere. You have to stop it in Brazil, in Tokyo, in Kansas, in Madagascar, EVERYWHERE. I admire you for talking sense into these shorter-shower dipshits but there’s a much, much harder problem, which is how do you affect worldwide political change when it’s guaranteed to get you killed if you have any success at all? Notice how police-state even the free-est “democracies” are becoming. Keep in mind that there are a lot of countries where it’s suicide just disagreeing with these powerful people in public. How many people have died for opposing the diamond trade in Africa? How many people have died over the oil trade in the Middle East? How are you going to change things in places like Honduras, Colombia, China, or Iran? The moral imperative is clear but the practical imperative is BAFFLING.
This is a response to David’s post #58, #28, and the rest of them.
Thank you for taking the time to post your thoughts. I usually don’t follow discussion threads like this, but I find myself coming back to read your responses. They’re clear, concise and make a lot of sense to me.
One thing I hear you saying is that the state does not have a monopoly on violence. And all your really asking is that we support those who realize this and choose to fight back. It seems simple to me. Yet some people will spend a tremendous amount of energy arguing with you and others who share a similar perspective. This has always baffled me. I’ve always wondered what there true motives are. And if push ever comes to shove what side will they choose to be on: Those in power or those fighting like hell for the diversity of life.
I believe personal action is where it is all at. Starting a garden and buying some chickens is a revolutionary act. I like the idea that people are riding bikes, shopping at farmer’s markets, buying locally, buying unpasteurized goat milk (illegally) directly from some gal who happens to raise them, showering with a friend, and otherwise adopting a way of life that embraces more sustainable practices. There is so much going on under the radar and away from the glare of the media that resists, subverts, and (I hope) eventually replaces the industrial food paradigm, the world of Monsanto, corn derivatives, ADM, irradiated food, and terminator genes, and, generally, the system of industrial-consumer capitalism. Taken individually perhaps personal action does not amount to much, but when these small acts are repeated a hundred thousand times, or more, every day soon they begin to have a big impact. The paradigm is shifting right beneath our feet and we barely notice it, but it is happening. There is a long way to go but a lot of things are happening, a great barely noticed underground movement. Personally, I love it. Voltaire once said, “Tend your garden.” I will take this to heart.
Another thought: why not limit your income. We make a mere $35,000 a year. That level of income fairly well eliminates you from participation in the consumer culture. You have no choice but to raise some of your own food, purchase second hand items when you really need them. By limiting your income you eliminate needless purchases and in Thoreau’s terms, travel at home, rather than taking expensive exotic vacations halfway around the world.
Finally, I have little time for doom-and-gloom environmentalism. That said, I actually believe things are really bad, worse than environmentalists say they are, worse than even Derrick Jensen says they are. But Mr.Jensen is so deadly humorless, lighten up a little, crack a joke or two. If you allow yourself to get all worked up like Mr. Jensen does, you just pollute your body with excess cortisol and all sorts of other toxins (added to all the mercury. PCBs, plutonium particles et al that are already out there). Take Ed Abbey’s advice (remember him?), be a half-assed crusader, a part-time fanatic and leave time for laughter, making love, dancing in the streets, skinny dipping in a remote alpine lake deep in the wilderness (preferably with member of both sexes present), or enjoying a good stiff drink. Above all, resistance should be fun. I don’t want to be a part of any revolution where nobody dances.
In response #62 Carl D. Esbjornson said: “But Mr.Jensen is so
deadly humorless, lighten up a little, crack a joke or two.”
How many Derrick Jensen talks or interviews have you listened to? Because everyone that I’ve listened to he is always cracking jokes and laughing.
When it comes to his writing, a google search reveals this funny passage out of his book ENDGAME. I’ll post the link and passage below.
http://www.endgamethebook.org/Excerpts/28 – Romantic Nihilist.html
“During the conversation in which my former agent told me that if I ever wanted to reach an audience, I’d have to tone down my work, she also told me that I was a nihilist.
“I felt vaguely insulted. I didn’t know what a nihilist was, but I knew from her tone that it must be a bad thing. I pictured an angry teenager leaning against a building, wearing black slacks, turtleneck, and beret, scowling and chain-smoking.
“But that’s not me, so I looked up nihilist in the dictionary.
“The first definition—that life is meaningless and that there are no grounds for any moral truths—clearly doesn’t fit me. Nor is it true that I do not believe in truth, beauty, or love. The second definition—that the current social order is so destructive and irredeemable that it needs to be taken down to its core, and to have its core removed—fits me like a glove, I suppose the kind you’d put on to not leave fingerprints.
“I’ve had a lot of conversations with Casey about nihilism, and about how the whole black turtleneck thing really doesn’t work for me. And how I rarely scowl. Emma Goldman is famously (and incorrectly) quoted as saying, ‘If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.’ Well, I don’t like to dance, but if I can’t laugh, then you can start the revolution without me.
“One day Casey said, ‘I’ve got you figured out.’
“I raised my eyebrows.
“‘You,’ he said, ‘are a romantic nihilist.’ And then he laughed.
“So did I. I laughed and laughed. Yes, I thought, a revolution of romantic nihilists. I would be down for that. Count me in.” pg.363
Curt, thanks, I really appreciate that!
Robert, I am frustrated.
1. I have asked you a number of simple questions, the most recent of which was the Harriet Tubman question, which could be answered with a simple yes or no. You have written long responses but have not even acknowledged any of my questions. That makes me think that either you’re not listening or you’re avoiding the questions.
2. The Danes, again, used considerable militancy. Those who didn’t had a huge advantage that the Jews, Gypsies, and Slavs did not have. They were regarded by the Nazis as being “racially pure.” Same went for the Dutch and the Norweigans. The Czechs were not so lucky. And as for the Jews, Jensen has pointed out, rightly, time and again, that the Jews who rose up and fought in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the Sobibor Uprising had a better chance of surviving than those who went quietly to the camps. Let me be clear. Are you really proposing that either a women being raped or a Jew in the Warsaw Ghetto should have used hugs and kind words against her assailant? I’m sorry, but abusers do not magically cease being abusers when their victims show them lovingkindness. The great tragedy of Christianity is that it was the great non-violent resistance movement against Rome, and it became the new basis for Roman power and the power of the kings of Rome’s successor states. Nothing is better for abusers, exploiters, and destroyers than for their victims to dogmatically refuse to fight back. That’s why Christianity was so thoroughly pushed by the Western elite from Constantine to Obama.
3. Before you lump Dr. King in with Gandhi, let’s look at a striking difference. King said that “those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable.” Meanwhile, Gandhi, in 1946, scolded the few Jews who actually had fought back against the Nazis saying, “the Jews should have offered themselves to the butcher’s knife…They should have thrown themselves into the sea from cliffs.” I’m sorry, but that is insane, and deeply offensive. I could go on about the hypocrisies, misogyny, and self-righteousness of the self-proclaimed Mahatma, but let’s just stick with his statement about the resisters of the Holocaust. I honor King to the utmost. I honor Gandhi’s great accomplishments with considerably more reservations (as do a great many Indians, to put it mildly). It is well recognized in India, at least, that India’s independence movement benefitted greatly from the enormous violence of WWII. Also crucial was the militancy of the Sikhs.
4. All that said about Gandhi, his boycott of British salt and his famed march to the sea with hordes of Indians who made their own sea salt is an inspiring and classic act of disobedience. That was possible because he had a mass movement. He had the backing of a culture of resistance. We do not have that, so our tiny, and largely unnoticed civil disobedience ploys remain isolated and ineffectual. It’s pretty simple: a boycott needs mass numbers. Rosa Parks needed the support of the black community of Montgomery. So another point I made which you conveniently ignored was the point about how civil disobedience requires, in order to be effective, a mass movement, and that having nothing close to a mass movement in the midst of such extreme horrors and such late-stage planetary death, we must use other strategies. History shows time and again, when civil disobedience works, it is based on mass numbers. Militancy often works without mass numbers.
5. The examples you gave of “successful” non-violent movements were mostly far less successful than the ten examples I gave of militant ones. The Philippines remains a poor and abused colony, full of the sweatshops and plantations that the US started setting up shortly after invading in 1902. Eastern Europe was hardly liberated. Sure, Prague and Budapest are now flooded with tourists (many of the locals priced out). But has life gotten better in Bratislava? Many Germans who lived in East Germany are not convinced that their new system is better than the old, which at least seemed better at keeping them employed. Eastern Europe has been swallowed up by NATO and American fascism. The CIA now houses “black sites,” actual concentration camps, in Poland. Romania is still a mess, but better than under Ceauşescu, dspite the fact that the Romanian people killed Ceauşescu. The Iranian Revolution had major militant elements. Regardless, it succeeded at overthrowing a brutal US puppet but utterly failed at creating a better state. If anything, the theocracy is even worse, especially for women. Non-violence in Central America did nothing to stop the death squads. The militant FMNL and the FSLN, however, achieved a great deal, and are, today, holding the presidencies of both countries (El Salvador and Nicaragua). The Zapatistas remain armed. Being militant does not mean being bloodthirsty. Not at all. But the Zapatistas say and show that they are ready and able to use force if necessary. Anyhow, I am not trying to argue that civil disobedience is never effective… clearly it can be. You are trying to argue that militancy is never effective, which is demonstrably untrue. By the way, you also never responded to my questions about MEND or the Zapatistas.
6. That the Quakers showed solidarity with not only the Black Panthers but, much earlier, with the Underground Railroad, only underscores my central point: that those who choose the path of non-violent resistance should support their fellow resisters who choose militancy. The Quakers get it. Do you?
7. “And, until we realize that the madman “out there” is nothing more than the projection of our own inner demons, we will continue to tilt at windmills.” BS. Industrial civilization is not a projection of my own inner demons. It is a real culture, with real institutions, real propaganda, real fuel, real leaders. It has very real sweatshops, very real nukes, very real mine tailings, very real dams, very real fertilizer and pesticide runoff, very real dead zones in the oceans, very real CEOs, very real henchmen, very real victims, and very real choke points. The death culture is real, and to see it as a projection is out of touch with reality. I am not an indigenous person, but I have also long since liberated my heart and mind from identification with the death culture. I live in opposition to it. Industrial civilization is no more a projection of my inner demons than Bergen-Belsen was a projection of Anne Frank’s. It is a physically real and phenomenally destructive infrastructure of death, undergirded by a pathological worldview inculcated into its human parts. I am not one of those parts. I feel pity for those who still are, and I try to help them liberate themselves, but my primary focus is on protecting, defending, and showing solidarity with the victims. How you can say that industrial civilization is a “projection,” let alone a projection of my inner demons is totally baffling to me. It is a denial of physical reality, a denial of the reality of the victims’ suffering, and a massive assumption about me, someone you do not know. Liberating hearts and minds is crucial, but it is not enough. It is a necessary prelude to action. If the apparatus of destruction were a mere projection, then education and group therapy would do the trick (might be tougher to organize those sessions in the slums of Jakarta or Lagos). But it is not a projection. It runs on very real oil. It relies on a very real infrastructure of telecommunications. It uses very real natural gas for fertilizer. It imprisons very real and very abused animals in very real feedlots. It is spraying very real DU all over Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Industrial civilization is not Quixote’s windmill. The windmill was not harming Quixote until he charged it. The windmill was not harming anyone (unlike a modern turbine, it was too slow to kill birds). Your metaphor implies that the death culture is not essentially harmful, that it will only harm us if we attack it. If, on reflection, you no longer like the metaphor, I suggest that you take greater care in your choice of words.
OK, some questions remain:
1. Would you have supported the Underground Railroad, given that it was run by militants?
2. Will you show solidarity with indigenous and non-indigenous militant resistance movements against the death culture?
3. If not, will you betray them to the agents of the death culture?
4. Do you agree with Gandhi that the few Jews who saved their lives by fighting back at the Warsaw Ghetto and Sobibor were wrong to have done so?
5. Do you concede that different tactics are appropriate to different circumstances, such that the “Aryan” Danes could use civil disobedience at least somewhat effectively while the Czechs, Poles, Jews, Gypsies, etc. could not?
6. Do you agree that it is actively harmful to hold off on acting until we have sufficient numbers for a meaningful non-violent resistance?
I entirely agree with Derrick’s outlook here. Besides negating the efficacy of token day-to-day gestures, this column also points to a pet peeve of mine: the belief that one needs to change oneself, improve oneself, before taking on the world. We’ve not enough leisure for such New Age claptrap.
davidscottlevi (#64) said: “I am frustrated…either you’re not listening or you’re avoiding the questions.”
Clearly you’re frustrated, and caught in the net of all kinds of negative emotions which deeply color your perspective and your responses. Carl D. Esbjornson was right on about taking Ed Abbey’s advice: don’t take either the world or yourself so seriously. Corollary: if you do, you’ll just recreate the world you’re trying to eliminate.
No, I won’t answer leading questions which are intended to pin me down into one of your two Manichean categories. As Curt mused: “I’ve always wondered what there (sic) true motives are. And if push ever comes to shove what side will they choose to be on: Those in power or those fighting like hell for the diversity of life.” Or as you ask: “will you betray them to the agents of the death culture?” Each of you seems to believe that there can be only allies or enemies, that if one will not condone violence one must betray those who do.
You misunderstand the Quaker pacifist tradition (with which I’ve been closely allied for decades). They did not defend the Panthers’ right to violently resist, but only the right of the Panthers to be safe from violence. It takes far more courage to resist without arms, and non-violence differentiates between the actor and the action. Not only would I have similarly supported the Underground Railroad, but I built a way-station for the second Underground Railroad of the 1980’s for Central American refugees fleeing to Canada from Reagan’s terrorism.
But, more fundamentally, you miss the entire lesson of movement history: that neither violence nor non-violence can make foundational changes in a culture unless they challenge and alter the paradigm which supports it rather than its mere material manifestations or power relationships. Your exclusive focus on the physical manifestations of our global dysfunction is a good place to start but a dangerous place to get stuck.
Reagan and Bush were projections of the American psyche, just as Hitler was a projection of the German psyche. Our current projection is a “leader” who insists on pretending that the system which has given us so many apparent material rewards is reformable and redeemable. For you to insist that ” I am not one of those parts” only indicates that you have not taken an honest look within. Every one of us Americans, no matter how radical we think we are, is part of the problem. [Speaking of skirting the real questions, I notice you have not acknowledged which of the three enabling roles you continue to play.]
I admire your sharp (though self-limited) perception, your conviction, your spunk. But you need to look more deeply into the well of grief to see the true source of our dysfunction. It is not “out there”. The only interesting question you’ve asked is: “Do you agree that it is actively harmful to hold off on acting until we have sufficient numbers for a meaningful non-violent resistance?”, though even that begs the question. It assumes that quantity is more important than quality – which is the calculus of our social dysfunction. And it begs the question about what constitutes effective action, with the ungrounded assumption that only hard physical action is “real”.
For all Jensen’s self-proclaimed spirituality, his prescription for action denies and denigrates spiritual truth, as does yours. All material manifestation is nothing more than dense energy. Adding to the density does not make the world a lighter place. Whatever we fight, we feed. That’s a law of nature. It is only when we’re able to step outside of the narrowly-defined ring that our efforts have any chance of success.
Those who are mired in the ugly material “reality” cannot see the dance of life that contains it. Transcending the quicksand does not mean leaving the battle – it means confronting it with more powerful weapons – weapons that those who know only swords cannot begin to understand.
Jensen is so right when he says that personal actions must be coupled with other action— citizen action. We can’t just consume differently. We need to act on our birthright as citizens—global citizens—and not “buy into” the new idea that we are “consumers” which implies consumption, which is the problem. He is saying “forget shorter showers” as the end-all answer to the problems we are having, he’s not saying to forget them entirely. Go ahead and be inspired through personal action, sure, and let it lead to action that creates movements like the civil rights movement.
The debate so far is best summarized as such: those who cut down the unwanted species, and those who try to plant seeds.
Maybe, just maybe, you need both (if you’ve ever tried to “remove” an invasive species, you’ll understand this point). Some will try to take down “the system” with direct action maybe because they can or that’s their disposition, or perhaps their only tool is a knife. While others focus on planting the seeds of an alternative paradigm, because that’s their predisposition or they just have tons of seeds to share… or… maybe that’s all they have.
While we might not see those seeds sprout right away, their presence is just as important as the absence of the unwanted plant.
So, I’d encourage everyone to remember that both approaches are equally important, and are two separate tactics of a larger strategy.
I’m very hesitant to criticize anyone for chopping the unwanted plant down (or trying to), just as I am very hesitant to criticize that idealistic person who plants their one seed. I’d only criticize the cutter or the seed planter if they think their approach in isolation would ever work.
To those who focus only on cutting down the kudzu, keep up the good work. To those who focus on planting an alternative to kudzu, keep up the good work. Both of your contributions will not go unnoticed or unsung by those who survive this mess we’re in. Take heart that the paradigm that emerges over the next couple hundred years will likely thank you for its existence.
Its taken us about 10,000 years to get to this point. The transition to something more “sustainable” will not be pretty no matter how much you or I do today. But then again, such has been our existence on this planet for hundreds of thousands of years. Poor, nasty, brutish and short. Why do you expect that not to be the case? Do you expect a painless and protected existence for yourself? Maybe you’re clinging to something that’s sinking anyway. Before we rush to “self” defense, we ought to really explore the “self” we are defending.
So keep cutting down the kudzu, and keep planting seeds, because we don’t know what we’ll end up with. Some days we cut, some days we dance, some days we plant.
If the kudzu cutters are only concerned with their own “self defense” etc then their effect will be no larger than that narrow concern. If, alternatively, they are genuinely doing so out of a wellspring of concern for fellow man and its future on this planet, they might just have an effect that outlasts them.
If the seed planters think that their plant will grow without light and being starved of nutrients, well, I think Jensen hits the nail on the head on this point.
You’re both right, and, to the few parties debating, get back to kudzu cutting and seed planting, (or dancing) because every minute is a beautiful, divine thing. However you spend it, spend it fully and with the passion of a person who knows their days are numbered.
You can tell when a debate is going to end in stalemate when the average word length gets longer and longer, the references get more obscure and subjects start flying off at a tangent.
I’m never impressed by attempts to blind people with vocubulary and obscurity: real mastery of a subject is only truly shown when you can explain something to a child, and they can then explain it back to you.
I posted this response to someone who shared Jensen’s article with a local list:
Isn’t it interesting that throughout all his polemics, Jensen NEVER even touched on the one OVERRIDING factor — the planet-killing weight of the human herd that continues to grow at a clearly unsustainable rate. Sure, we would do less damage — or viewed through the alternative lens that Jensen suggests, do more improvement — if we tempered some of the economic activity that has created contemporary civilization (he left it undefined exactly which activities to reduce or eliminate, exactly what “standard of living” we must all settle for, you might note, which rendered his whole line of argument pretty much just a “bitch” without a real point), but how much less imperiled would the planet be if there were only, say, 2 billion instead of 6.5 billion and counting “consumers” subject to the foibles of the human condition. And make no mistake that it is indeed the human condition that drives all of the ills which Jensen decries. We are products of our evolution, with an innate drive to enhance our position — or viewed at a “higher” level, the position of our genes — to satisfy our needs and ensure our survival. Sure, a part of this is the question of how much is “enough” to ensure survival (say, with “reasonable comfort”?) — Schumacher put his finger right on heart of the issue when he said that the tragedy of Western Man is that he has not been able to figure out the concept of “enough”.
But still, at its root the problem is that there are just too many people demanding too many resources, that the weight of the human herd is crushing the ecosystem upon which it depends to support it, and at some point that ecosystem will “collapse” from this weight. We see signs of it everywhere we look today, and all the “projections” are that the herd will increase to over 9 billion by mid-century. I cannot believe that will happen, there will be the sort of breakdowns before we approach that level which will catastrophically REDUCE the population — what a friend of mine calls “the Adjustment”, as in the human population will be “adjusted” to the carrying capacity of the planet.
But the whole subject of if and how we might blunt or avoid that seems to be just too much for anyone to address. Indeed, even if we posit that we can take a full generation to turn the population curve downward — and I doubt we have that much time — who is going to “play God” and say who can reproduce and how many times? And take whatever actions, no matter how draconian, to enforce it? It is indeed a conundrum. Part of the human condition.
But if it makes you feel righteous to assert that “industrial economy” is the culprit, as if that is something that is divorced from the human condition, that it is a crime being perpetrated on the earth by “others”, a condition that “right thinking” would “cure”, go ahead, carry on with the delusion. But as long as there are people, there will be people trying to “get ahead”, and that individual drive will manifest itself as activities that do not well serve the long-term best interests of the ecology as a whole, of which we humans are only a part. The only way to hold the cumulative impact of all that in check to the point where it does not crush the world ecosystem is to hold in check the number of potential perpetrators of those actions — the human population. And — as always — that is the ONE action that is steadfastly ignored by all “prescriptions” such as that offered by Jensen.
David Venhuizen (#71) claims that it is the “human condition” of self-interest which is the root of all our ills, such that any attempt at “right thinking” is delusional.
The delusion is that modern humanity represents the highest evolution of our innate nature. Homo Sapiens, like all natural creatures, evolved as a social, cooperative being. In fact, biological evolution on earth is far more characterized by self-less cooperation than by the modern selfish competitive impulse.
Thus a return to “right thinking” and right living – that is, the way we evolved to be in the world – would render all this talk about resisting the evil empire meaningless and unnecessary.
But authentic human nature and the spiral of evolution are as misunderstood as is Gandhian non-violence.
Gandhi was very clear that “I do believe that, where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence.”
He understood, as some here do not, that non-violence is only for the courageous and selfless. For the rest, fighting back is preferable to cowardice.
Keith, debates almost always end in stalemates, with both sides thoroughly calcified in their positions, which is why I almost always avoid them in my relationships and only chose to engage with one here for the sake of whomever is reading and may be swayed by the better case.
Bjorn, I think it should be clear from each of my posts that I fully endorse metaphorical (and literal) seed planting as well as cutting down the noxious invasive. In fact, it should be clear from my postings that I devote my life to the former, while consciously supporting those who chose the latter (who are, as far as I’m concerned, sadly quite hypothetical). It should also be clear that Robert is denying a major, very possibly crucial, mode of resistance.
And Robert, that brings us to the irony of your accusation that I am the one falling into Manichean duality (if that is, a priori, a bad thing… if believing in the difference between right and wrong makes me a Manichean, then I’m guilty as charged). I am not discounting your preferred tactics. You are refusing to express solidarity with those who use force against the oppressive system (or, if you prefer, against the extremely destructive physical manifestations of the oppressive system which is, in origin, a projection of cultural consciousness).
You assume far too much to think that because I am arguing that abusive and destructive individuals and institutions must be confronted and stopped that I therefore fail to acknowledge the spiritual or psychic underpinnings of the abusive culture. That is an illogical conclusion, and an inaccurate one. When a woman is being raped (and something like 25% of American women are raped at some point in their lives), I think her first goal, and the first goal of anyone who might help her, must be to stop the rapist, and to do so by all means necessary. Should she go out of her way to kill him? I don’t know… I think many women I know would say yes, but I’ll just say I don’t know. I do know that she should not value his life more than her right to not be raped, and I know that anyone else who might save her should not value the rapist’s rights over hers. Once the rape is over, the process of healing can begin. If the rapist was stopped and not killed, perhaps he can be reformed. I hope he can. I see no need for vengeance. Personally, I deplore violence. That is the point. The wetikos, the abusers, those who hate life and value nothing but control over others are committing horrific violence, such that they are actually, unfathomable though this is, killing the world. I do not see how anything you are suggesting poses any threat to the wetikos, at least not unless there were a hundred million or more Robert Riversongs out there (and the world would be a far better place if there were, no doubt, even if I might find the conversations frustrating). But there aren’t a hundred million of you. Nowhere close. Those who have decolonized their hearts and minds are few indeed, and you continue to dodge the question about how we can strategize and support each other given A) the extreme direness of the situation (which is undeniable and physically real, no?) and B) our small and scattered numbers (also undeniable and physically real).
One of the core pathologies of civilization is that the physical world is not primary. You are manifesting this pathology. I wish you wouldn’t, because the real world really needs you.
About my supposed negativity, aside from my frustration with your avoidance of clear and fair questions, your apparent lack of solidarity with those fighting for the community life, I am experiencing a fantastic day. I was loathe to return to this draining discourse, but am doing so because I feel I have committed myself. Right now, it is 68 degrees in coastal Maine, sunny and beautiful for the first time this week, I just took a long barefoot walk through the sopping wet woods with my two dogs, and we romped on the granite boulders by the sea for a while, splashing in the water. I read a little philosophy, thought about a few germs for future poems, stared at the patterns in the water, felt the sun and wind on my chest and face. I watched little crabs doing little crab things, and gave deep thanks to this island, this sea, and this world. On the way home, I befriended a hitchhiker, who, it turns out, knows my girlfriend’s family (not surprising since she’s from this small community). This afternoon I’m going to my girlfriend’s art show. Maybe I’ll eat a lobster for dinner. Life is really, really good (vacation all the more so!). And my experience of my life is profoundly positive. Frustration and some measure of anger are healthy and normal responses to the experience of encountering a smart, sensitive activist who has somehow explained away physical reality. You deem only one question I have asked to be worth answering, which I find patronizing and unbefitting your continued engagement in this discussion, but then you did not even answer it! You seem to be unwilling to commit to anything, least of all the defense of those victimized by the dominant culture. I’m sorry, but in an indigenous or any healthy culture, that would not be considered adult behavior. How can I trust anyone who won’t commit to something as basic as defending the innocent? Who will not even commit to not defending the innocent, but just makes abstract claims about how if we use force in self-defense or mutual-defense we internalize a violent paradigm. No. When a mother grizzly charges a hunter to protect her cubs she does not risk becoming a hunter. When Tecumseh rallied the tribes to take a stand against the conquest of their continent, he did not risk becoming William Henry Harrison. He did not risk becoming a white, slave-owning, objectifying, exploitative “wetiko” (cannibal, in the Powhattan language, used by Jack D. Forbes to categorize the Western pathology).
Oh, and if you really want to pin me down, I’ve already written on this comments page about my spending habits. In synopsis, I buy almost no new goods (this computer being a glaring exception). My clothes are all second-hand. My guitar is old. I often get things off the street (like my bike… don’t worry, it was being thrown away) and I sometimes dumpster dive. The food I eat is all organic and overwhelmingly local, from small, good farmers (and, in Maine, small fishermen). Any food I don’t buy directly from the farmers or fishermen, along with my few toiletries, come from a worker-owned, non-profit coop. I have not shopped at a corporate store in years (again, except for buying this computer from Mac). So that’s me as a consumer. As far as serving in the military, big shock here, I have not served in the military. As for paying taxes, I refused to earn enough to have to do so until I decided to become a high school teacher (at 26, four years ago). It wrenched my guts to have to pay taxes, but I decided it was worth it to be able to have such a powerful forum for reaching young people. And I do not regret that decision. I am now in the process of moving and happily taking a 40% pay cut. Less money for Uncle Sam. I think, though, that you overestimate the importance of tax receipts. The government obviously takes little heed of how much it takes in in relation to how much it spends. What is this year’s budget deficit? Nearly a trillion dollars, no? For what it’s worth, I’m glad you didn’t contribute $15,000 or whatever, but that’s a pretty small lever. I think we can safely estimate the impact as zero. Again, it would be a different story if millions of people did it. Like the rest of the strategies you endorse, they are ineffectual without mass numbers, and we do not have mass numbers. So, either we wait until we do (and countenance the further evisceration of the planet in the meantime… “sorry critically endangered species and indigenous cultures, but I can neither fight back nor support anyone, including you, who will”) or we develop strategies that can have an immediate impact (or at least support those who do).
Whew. I want to get back to my nice day, now.
Mostly for David #28…
The article in Orion on the “Transition Inititive” this issue is a nice contrast to Jensen’s current “Forget Shorter Showers” piece. The most striking contrast is the way Jensen’s piece is once again filled with the energy of anger while Jay Griffiths’ is filled with the energy of compassion, as is the Transition Movement itself filled with the energy of compassion. I think Derrick would pooh-pooh most of the Transition Movement’s focus on tending to the psychological needs of those transitioning. I am not sure he would even care, since most of my reading of his work has led me to believe he only cares about those folk who are “already there, thinking just like him, anti-civ gaga all the way.”
And why are there so many participating in this discussion, rather than the Transition piece by Griffiths? Simple. Jensen writes with a debate style, Griffiths does not…and we are all addicts of debate/war/conflict. We are all drama queens. It’s not his ideas. I don’t give him any credit for that. He hasn’t said anything new. It’s an old idea, to bring down the big boys by any means necessary. Specifically attacking the Simplicity Movement is not new, either. Usually it’s done with more analysis of class issues, is all. The Simplicity Movement is seen most often by radicals as a movement of the white wealthy middle classes.
Jay Griffiths piece on Transition reminds me of Margaret Wheatley’s words in Shambhala Sun on “The Place Beyond Fear and Hope,” which I have shared before but seem so appropriate here. She wrote:
“Many years ago, I took Merton seriously and abandoned all hope of ever saving the world. This was extremely heart-wrenching for me, more difficult than letting go of a love relationship. I felt I was betraying my causes, condemning the world to a terrible end. Some of my colleagues were critical, even frightened by my decision. How could I be so irresponsible? If we give up saving the world, what will happen? Still today, I have many beloved colleagues who refuse to resign as savior. They continue to force their failing spirits and tired bodies back into action one more time, wanting angry vehemence to give them vigor.
I didn’t give up saving the world to protect my health. I gave it up to discover right action, what I’m supposed to be doing. Beyond hope and fear, freed from success or failure, I’m learning what right action feels like, its clarity and energy. I still get angry, enraged, and frustrated. But I no longer want my activities to be driven by these powerful, destructive emotions. I’ve learned to pause, come back to the present moment, and calm down. I take no actions until I can trust my interior state — until I become present in the moment and clarity emerges undimmed by hope and fear. Then I act, rightly, I hope.”
She ended the piece with the same beauty embodied by the Transition Movement:
“My heart holds the image of us journeying in this way through this time of disintegration and rebirth. Insecure, groundless, patient, beyond hope and fear. And together.”
Together. I don’t see Derrick saying that – not really. It’s more like he’s saying, “the like-minded, together – and the rest of you, get screwed.”
David’s Post #28 embodied the kind of compassion that has always opened me to radical ideas. David’s words were very moving – and very helpful in bringing me back to being willing to hear Jensen – but through David’s caring words. Jensen seems to want to agitate, but is he really interested in anyone who isn’t already sold on him listening to him?
It seemed that David cared about the readers, cared that we “got” it. There are many authors, like Derrick, who have so much right on stuff to say, but it’s only through others that I care to hear about it. Noam Chomsky is one, for instance. Not because he is angry so much as intellectually overwhelming. I’d rather read David Edwards’ book BURNING ALL ILLUSIONS about Noam’s “Manufacturing Consent,” than read “Manufacturing Consent” itself.
If Derrick wrote more like David #28, I think he could reach far more people with his wisdom about the human situation. But he won’t. I’d like to feel like he’s writing to me to engage me with a sense of mutuality, rather than what often feels like an attempt to patronize, intimidate, dominate and rage at me for everything wrong about me. Is there anything right about anyone other than indigenous peoples? I’ve been an activist a long time. I’m burned out. I don’t need any more of that crap – and disrespect.
I’d love to be able to pass along some of Jensen’s work to some of my family and friends but they wouldn’t read it, not when it’s so obviously not written for anyone but his “like-minded” folk, disrespecting those not like-minded as practically idiots. I’d pass along David #28’s words.
I have been writing and thinking and acting on these things for years, just like Jensen. Even if I wasn’t, I think respecting a diversity of readers would go a long way towards people really listening for the truths in what Derrick is saying.
And Derrick, hear this:
If you would ever really attempt to listen to what others are trying to say, rather than cut them down when it’s not in agreement with you, that would be a breath of fresh air. But I am afraid you’ll never respond like David #28 did to those folks on here. You’d have chastised them and cut them down with biting remarks and intolerance and righteousness.
So, thank you David. Thank you indeed.
One avenue of political change that is very infrequently explored is the developing and implementing of new languages. Consider a language which has only one “word”, a signed gesture of the hands to show a circle — that sign would represent the planet. This would be somewhat like a language and a religion/statement of belief mixed together.
The purpose of this language would not be to communicate ideas, rather to be easily adopted and understood.
Robert Riversong (#72) missed the point. People are what people are, and always have been. We are not where we are because we devolved into “consumers”, rather that has been our innate nature all along. The “cooperation” of which he speaks has been limited and intermittent. And don’t forget that the people on Easter Island apparently cut down the last tree in their world even though they could clearly see it was the last tree. And yeah, they were “cooperating”.
No amount of “right thinking” by a few of us is going to change the essense of the human condition. And that is exactly why drastic population reduction will be the only way we will really address the root cause of all the problems we are experiencing, that there are too many humans chasing too few resources, given that many (most?) people will always want all they can get. While the sort of “right thinking” that Robert seems to think will “save” the world is indeed exactly what needs to proliferate throughout the human race in order to put us on a path to population reduction — and reducing the impacts on the ecology of each person there is — recognize that this “right thinking” is not in accord with the human condition, and so is not likely to dominate the human population.
Sorry if that seems way too negative to bear, but think back over the entire history of civilization, tell me what you see, and then tell me why it is that you think masses of people will suddenly rise to a “higher level of evolution”.
Because they understand the dire consequences of not doing so? Yeah, maybe after a hellish journey through the tribulations that are likely to result in “the Adjustment”, it will be seared into the human consciousness that the sort of lack of discipline that has led us to this point is the path to hell. But every religious/philosophical tradition already tells us that, and look where we are. We’ve got climate change deny-ers who do so because it will impact negatively on their short-term bottom line. THAT is the human condition.
Perhaps you’re not as irredeemable as you came across. You’re doing most of what I’ve always advocated, short of active non-cooperation which you dismiss as a numbers racket. Quantity rather than quality. Remember the 100th monkey phenomenon? Individual intention has as powerful an effect on the world as that proverbial butterfly whose delicately flapping wings initiates a typhoon half-way across the globe.
You chastise “You are refusing to express solidarity with those who use force against the oppressive system.” But you’re not asking for solidarity with a cause (which I’ve always voiced) but acceptance of tactical violence in service to the cause.
You state “When a woman is being raped, I think her first goal, and the first goal of anyone who might help her, must be to stop the rapist, and to do so by all means necessary.” That’s perfectly consistent with my previous advocacy of legitimate self-defense. Gandhi, who you continue to misunderstand and quote out of context, specifically used rape as the prime example of the legitimacy of a coercive response (did you read my post #72?).
Both Gandhi and I have always acknowledged the need for violent resistance amongst those who don’t have either the vision or the courage to resist otherwise. The famous American Quaker, John Wolman, said in response to Royal Governor William Penn’s discomfort with wearing the ceremonial sword: “Wear it until thou canst.”
You claim: “One of the core pathologies of civilization is that the physical world is not primary.” Quite the contrary: perhaps the core pathology of this modern world is Scientific Materialism combined with Ayn Rand’s self-centered Objectivism. Nothing that can’t be quantified matters, and altruism is a dead end. World-denying fundamental religion is the shadow of that paradigm.
You bemoan: “How can I trust anyone who won’t commit to something as basic as defending the innocent?” But what you mean is defending in the only way you can imagine – with violence. I have stood between a domestic abuser and his female victim – both strangers to me in the street – with nothing but my open arms. It disarmed the violence without harming the violator.
I have been arrested for blocking the celebration of the first Trident nuclear submarine, and have voluntarily gone without food or water for up to 10 days as an act of non-cooperation with the prison/injustice system. I have stood between women’s clinic patrons and the “pro-life” demonstrators who tried to assault them.
The problem is you apparently trust no one who does not defend with violence. I trust no one who does, for there is no reason to believe they won’t turn it on me someday.
You believe that the internalization of our own violence is merely an abstraction and you use the violent resistance of Native Americans as a counter-example. I have interacted with the militant American Indian Movement (AIM) and found them to be anger-filled and violent, having incorporated the very violence which they fight. It’s not an abstraction – it’s a law of nature.
You speak of the “violence” of the mother bear, but they will almost invariably stop their charge before attacking (I know, I’ve been between mother and cub more than once). The goal of all natural creatures is self-defense without violence.
But perhaps the root of your inability to understand the power of non-violence is in your belief that “the abusers [are] those who hate life and value nothing but control over others.” If you believe this, then nothing short of execution would be legitimate. But the sad truth is that almost all violent criminals are victims of an unloving family constellation. They do not hate life, they hate themselves because they believe themselves to be unlovable. When I was last in jail, a wise Correctional Officer broke up a fight (by simply bear-hugging the bigger of the two) and then said to me, “you know, what most of these kids really need is a hug.” He was right. And that’s the foundation of non-violence. You can either destroy the “other” with violence, or transform the other with compassion. The latter is far more difficult and challenging. It is not for the meek.
The former eliminates the perpetrator but not the problem, since you have now embodied their violence. The latter transforms the problem. Consistency of ends and means is so obvious that most people miss it.
David Venhuizen says: “think back over the entire history of civilization, tell me what you see, and then tell me why it is that you think masses of people will suddenly rise to a “higher level of evolution”.
That’s the reason that you cannot see the truth about the human condition: because you consider the history of “civilization” to be the history of humanity. Read Ishmael. What we think of as civilization is an aberrant offshoot of human evolution.
I’m not talking about a “higher level of evolution”, but rather a “lower” one – the one that served humanity for hundreds of thousands of years pre-history.
Broaden your vision and you will understand. Read EarthDance by Elisabet Sahtouris http://www.ratical.org/LifeWeb/Erthdnce/.
Robert Riversong, there is no point in “arguing” this, as you have your position, but I would ask how you see the evolutionary history of mankind, prior to the development of the technological prowess that allows us to threaten the planetary ecology, as a “proof” that humankind has become somehow “aberrated” by those developments, that what you style as the degrading effects of civilization are not simply more “evolved” expressions of the innate nature that was there all the time. That idea that we have “fallen” from a state of grace seems to be a religious tenet — perhaps saying “Read Ishmael” is a tipoff to this whole thing being viewed by you through a religious lens. I trust you understand that religion is also a human invention and that more people have been killed and tortured in the name of religion than anything else. Yeah, it’s a “charming” thing to hope that man is innately “good”, that we have simply “fallen” and we just need “redemption” from the dehumanizing effects of “civilization”, and then our nature will radically change. But my advice is, don’t hold your breath waiting for it to happen.
David Venhuizen, that’s Ishmael by Daniel Quinn – nothing religious about it. It was chosen in 1992 from among 2500 entries by the Turner Tomorrow Fellowship as the most important work of visionary fiction.
“Ishmael is a half ton silverback gorilla. He is a student of ecology, life, freedom, and the human condition. He is also a teacher. He teaches that which all humans need to learn — must learn — if our species, and the rest of life on Earth as we know it, is to survive.”
He will teach you all you need to know about the evolution of human culture.
May I suggest, instead of Ishmael, that one read anything by Thomas Berry (who recently died), or Brian Swimme. Together they wrote “The Universe Story”. Their work, together or separately, is a wonderful blend of spirit and science, and both look at evolution, not as simply the evolution of the human species, rather the evolution of the Whole – the Earth, the Universe, Consciousness. Humans being a part (a magnificent part according to Berry, and admitedly there are days when I disagree with this) but a part, connected, active participants. As I read the back and forth I don’t see disagreement as much as different aspects, different ways of being and doing things, both of which are relevant and important. And again, perhaps this is because we have had a wonderful, sunny day here in where I live in Maine, a rare event this summer and much needed. The garden is growing, though slowly, there are baby tomatoes forming, and tiny head of broccoli beginning to appear. The bees are back, and the dragonflies and it’s good to be alive.
This Derrick Jensen guy is at least realistic about the aims of the environmental movement. None of the little stuff is really going to make any significant difference. The writings of Nordhaus and Schellenberg are also very realistic on all this, but at least they advocate technological solutions rather than “great leap backwards” stuff and hints at genocide.
Note THIS sentence:
“……we can easily come to believe that we will cause the least destruction possible if we are dead…..”
You wait and see what the next hell-on-earth totalitarianism involves, in a generation or two. Don’t think the Gemans in the 1930’s were somehow less civilised and intelligent than we are. Unchecked lies have consequences.
It is a tragedy in the making, that the underlying assumptions behind all this, that the earth is running out of resources and that humankind is in some way “destroying” the environment, is all LIES, and hardly anybody realises that. Authors of honest commentary on the environment and resources, like Bjorn Lomborg and Patrick Moore and Julian Simon and Indur Goklany and George Reisman, get ignored by our media, partly because sensation sells, and partly because most journos are up to the eyeballs in the anti-capitalist mentality and do not bother to honestly investigate environmental issues.
Again a stellar discussion, and despite a couple of people getting testy once in a while, extremely useful. For if we don’t wrestle with these questions, try them out on one another, communicate, we will just get lost in the new tower of Babel, this wired world.
I have this to say: