I was 22 the first time I read A Language Older Than Words by Derrick Jensen. For me, this particular book could not have come at a better time in my life. Nothing about our culture seemed to make any sense to me. I mean how much sense does it make to base a way of life off of nonrenewable resources or the hyper-exploitation of renewable resources? How much sense do factory farms make? What about slavery, genocide, or sitcoms? Really, at a fundamental level, how much sense does sexual violence make? How much sense does it make to poison our own water? Our own food? In a world with more than enough resources to go around, how much sense does poverty make?
For me, A Language Older Than Words verbalized what I knew all along. I’m not insane; the culture is. If a reasonable definition of insanity is the loss of a connection to physical reality, when I say the culture is insane, I mean it in the truest sense of the word. Another book, The Culture of Make Believe, helped me understand the ways in which the dominant culture is insane and that it needs to be stopped before it devours everything in its path. Since then, I’ve read every word Derrick has published, including the shorter, but equally illuminating books he wrote with activist George Draffan, and one on teaching called, Walking on Water: Reading, Writing, and Revolution, a book I’m currently floating around the English Department at NAU. I dedicated this last summer to reading Derrick’s latest monumental work, Endgame, a 2-volume blast of civilization.
Now that I’m officially caught up, I realized I have a lot of questions for him. Also, in an effort to smooth over the awkward “your books changed my life” conversations I’ve had with him in the past, I arranged to speak with him over the phone. It was a Sunday afternoon; Derrick was at his mother’s house when we spoke.
Derrick is one of the most prolific writers I know. When I asked him what he was currently working on, I knew he’d have an answer for me immediately. “I’m actually writing a book about shit,” he said. I laughed and then realized he was serious. “It’s about how we’ve taken this really beautiful gift to the land and turned it into something toxic, and the book expands from there to the whole concept of waste. Of course, in a real sense, wild animals don’t have any waste because when you defecate or if you die, then that’s used by the landscape. There is no such thing as waste. Even up to a hundred and fifty years ago, there wasn’t the sort of waste that there is now.” I immediately thought of a recent U.N. report that concluded that waste from the meat industry contributes more greenhouse gases than all of transportation emissions combined. That much shit dumped in one centralized location single-handedly toxifies the land, the water, and the air. But, of course, there is nothing natural about factory farms.
I asked, “in Walking on Water, you talk about ‘praising and loving people into becoming who they are.’ Obviously this sentiment goes beyond teaching and could easily be applied to any relationship between both humans and the natural world.” He agreed as I continued. “It seems to me that if everyone is loved for the absolute singularity of who they are, we might not have the type of power struggles and the need to control that we have today.”
He said that was a crucial point, but that it was deeper than that. “If I have power over somebody, it is my responsibility to use that power only to help them. And if I see someone misusing that power over some one, it is just as much my responsibility to stop them from doing that.” As a teacher, I’m beginning to understand how some kinds of traditional teaching strategies have really negative affects on students. The best kind of learning is self-discovered and self-appropriated. When students are told, in a sense, how to think, the teacher is devaluing the experience of the student, which actually stifles any meaningful learning.
In the same book, Derrick discusses his experience as a creative writing teacher in both the university and at a maximum-security prison. While the book gives teachers a lot of insight, I was curious as to what advice he might have for students, in particular, college freshmen.
He said, “If there is one thing I could say to college freshmen it’s that life gets better; it could take a long time, but life does get better.” I thought back to my early undergraduate days and what a different outlook on life I had before I identified my passions. In the same way I remember thinking something was wrong with me, Derrick mentioned that when he was in school, he was beating himself up because he wasn’t happy. “The truth is, I wasn’t very happy because I hadn’t yet discovered the affects of coercive schooling. It took me a long time to learn how to think, something that had been systematically stomped out of me in school.”
Another thing Derrick would say to college students is, “it’s okay to want to do what you want and it’s okay to do what you want with your life, and find what matches you perfectly, to find where you fit.” Derrick wasn’t quite sure if this matches freshmen because when he was a freshmen he thought he wanted to get a degree in science (Derrick got a degree in physics from the Colorado School of Mines), but later realized that he was doing that because he had been taught this and didn’t have the courage to discover what it was he really wanted.
“When I was in college, I came to the point where I would say, ‘when I die, I want to be able to say, ‘this was my life. It was a really good one and I’m tired and I’m ready to go. I didn’t want to wake up when I was 65 and say ‘who’s life was this? This wasn’t very fun.” Of course this doesn’t mean that everyone should get what he or she wants whenever they want it. That’s simply not life. Derrick, for example, loves giving talks, but hates traveling. But there is a difference between succumbing to false choices and living the life that you were meant to live.
I wanted to move the conversation to his latest work, and the subject for a talk he is doing at Northern Arizona University on April 10th: the two-volume, 1,400-page, Endgame. In the first volume, Derrick explores the many problems of civilization. I asked,”What do you consider to be the biggest, most fundamental problem of civilization?”
He replied immediately, “well, it’s killing the planet. That’s the biggest problem that there is. There can’t be a bigger problem because if you kill the planet, nothing lives. As you know, from my work, I’m very strongly feminist. I think feminism is a very important issue and I work with race issues, but nothing is more important than having a landbase.” It is that fundamental.
One of the secondary problems Derrick describes comes from the idea that our culture is incredibly narcissistic. Derrick referred to a recent interview he did on the radio where a bible-thumper told him, “It says in Genesis that God gave man dominion over the Earth, and you clearly don’t have an appreciation for that.”
“I responded that if you express dominion over something, you can’t enter into a relationship with it, and you’ll end up destroying it.” I asked Derrick if “responsibility” were a better way to think about “dominion.” He said if that were the case, our culture could not use the Bible to justify this insane lifestyle, which treats the natural world like a giant smorgasbord. “That’s really what it’s about:” Derrick continued, “coming up with religious, philosophical, and other rationale for a psychopathological narcissism.”
Derrick continues. “Another big problem is that our civilization is a pyramid scheme, a system of growth that cannot last on a finite planet. Yet another problem of civilization is that it’s based on a series of hallucinations, in that people don’t generally believe that the land is primary.” Derrick talked about some common responses he gets from those who refuse to look at solutions to environmental problems that aren’t economically feasible.
“One of the many problems with the solutions posed to environmental problems like global warming, is they all take the economic system as a given and the land is secondary. That is exactly backwards and it can’t last.” I thought of the talk that Jim Kunstler gave at NAU a few weeks ago. I told Derrick how refreshing it was to hear him speak of the discourse surrounding sustainability as only interested in figuring out a way to continue using the things we currently have. It seems the only question revolving around sustainability is, “how will we run our cars?” Kunstler said, “a sustainable future will not have cars.” I told Derrick that something huge would have to happen before people realize this.
“Your absolutely right,” Derrick said. “You know, people ask, ‘how can we save the salmon?’ Well the answer is actually really easy: All we need to do is remove dams, stop industrial logging, stop industrial fishing, stop the murder of the oceans, stop global warming, stop the industrial economy, and stop industrial agriculture.” I think I giggled out of reflex, but then realized he was dead serious. “After all,” he continued, “all wild animals need is a habitat.” I went him one further and said “us too,” though I knew he would include humans under his definition of animals.
“Its embarrassing to have to say this because it is so obvious,” Derrick said, “the land is primary and you have to conform your social and economic systems to the land.” The challenge comes in deciding what needs to go in order to preserve what is here and true sustainability will require a reshuffling of priorities. “The answer to ‘how do you have both dams and salmon?’ is, you don’t. The answer to ‘how do you have both cars and polar bears?’ is, evidently, you don’t.”
No matter how many different ways us groovy environmentalists can verbalize that the needs of the natural world are more important than the needs of the economic system, there will be people that just won’t get it. Derrick agreed and quoted something he read years ago, “it takes 10 years to change somebody’s mind.” So that’s why Derrick doesn’t spend any significant amount of time arguing with people. The best thing he can do is for those people who “get it” is to try and push them a little further, and for those that don’t agree, he will just “plant seeds and walk away.” I asked him to explain the process in which his mind changed. He explained it by way of his voting record. “When I was nineteen I voted for Reagan.”
“What?” I said
“I was 19. He said he would balance the budget and the news told me that was a good thing. Then, of course, he didn’t do that and nobody was talking about it anymore. The next time around, I voted for a democrat. By the time I was in my late twenties, I realized the whole thing was a fuckin’ sham and I voted for Emma Goldman.”
The idea of “pushing people a little further” brings us to one of the central, and seemingly controversial, ideas in Endgame. “A lot of times in argumentation, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, or in any conversation about this, most of it doesn’t have anything to do with rational discourse, or reasonable discourse, I should say…. I’ve got a lot of crap from lifestyle activists and dogmatic pacifists about Endgame and a lot of the stuff they throw out is entirely projection and has nothing to do with the arguments themselves, because they have a really strong visceral response to it and they need to push that away because it scares them too much. And so, one of the things I’ve thought about doing—and this is a joke, I’m not actually going to do this—is put out a version called ‘Endgame For Pacifists’.”
I laughed as he continued. “it would be a thousand blank pages with one page in the middle that says, ‘sometimes it’s okay to fight back,’ because that’s the only line their reading anyway.” And we all do this to a certain extent. As Derrick details in A Language Older Than Words, he grew up with an abusive father who drank a lot. He explained that if he were to go out with a woman and she started to drink, that’s the only thing he would be able to concentrate on because, through his experience of the world, he has developed a strong emotional response to alcohol. So, “I’m not specifically blaming pacifists for their response. The difference is I’m self aware enough at this point that I wouldn’t then lash out at that person. I would recognize that this is my issue and I need to either extricate myself from that situation or deal with it in terms of claiming that issue.”
“My point about bringing all that up is that one of the problems with everything we face today is that the problems aren’t specifically rationale and therefore, not always amenable to rationale solutions.” This gets back to the insanity of our culture. How much rational sense does it make that every single stream in America is contaminated with carcinogens? At the most fundamental level, how much sense does rape make? “A lot of what we’re dealing with just doesn’t make any sense.”
To further explain the insanity of our culture, Derrick went on to explain that many years ago, he developed a habit of asking people whether or not they like their jobs. He said about 90% of the people he asked said no. “That was just insane to me. I mean, why would you have this system that’s set up that is killing everything and it’s not even making people happy? It’s just crazy. I mean, the phrase, ‘thank God it’s Friday,” how insane is that? That you’re thankful another week has gone by.
Whether one is listening to a talk on these issues or reading a book about these topics, the question that invariably bubbles to the surface is: what can we do about all this? One of my favorite parts of Derrick’s talk comes at the end when he responds, “Do what you love.” There is something so simple and so beautiful about that idea that I had to ask him about it.
“That’s one of the good things about everything being so messed up;” Derrick went on, “no matter where we look, there is great work to be done….though it’s pretty crude language, I think it’s a pretty good way to look at life, that is to ask, what is it that I get off on? It would be really arrogant for me to tell people what they should do, not only because I don’t know them, but I also don’t know their landbase. So when people ask me what to do, I always say ‘don’t ask me, you should go to the nearest river and ask that river because I don’t know how to live sustainable, but the river does, and the river will tell you if just listen to it. Then put that together with what you already love to do.’”
A free lecture by Derrick Jensen
April 10th, 7:30 p.m.
Dubois Ballroom, NAU Campus