On Derrick Jensen

Note: I wrote this a while back. For a while, I was quite impressed with some of Jensen’s rhetoric — and in terms of education, I still apply some of his ideas, though in what I think is a more rigorous and sensible form. But on his endless vilification of “civilization” and “the culture,” I have lost my patience. To take the man seriously is to see the holes in his arguments. He’s no more a hypocrite than most of us — but he is more self-righteous in his hypocrisy.

My disenchantment with Derrick Jensen is now utterly complete. I googled his name and one of the first links was to a post where, back in 2004, Dirty Greek posted an interview Derrick Jensen from the Ecologist (March 2004). It was supposed to be a simply Q&A with five best book recommendations by Jensen, an author himself. The answers he gave are revealing.

Question one: Which book first made you realise that something was wrong (with the planet/political system/economic system, etc)?

My answer: It wasn’t a book. It was the destruction of place after place that I loved. And it was the complete insanity of a culture where so many people work at jobs they hate: What does it mean when the vast majority of people spend the vast majority of their waking hours doing things they’d rather not do? The culture itself convinced me something was wrong, by being so extraordinarily destructive, of human happiness, and far more importantly, the world itself.

That said, Neil Evernden’s The Natural Alien was the first book I read that let me know I was not insane: that the culture is insane. It was the first book I read that did not take the dominant culture’s utilitarian worldview as a given.

Uh huh. The culture is insane. Which culture, Derrick? Every culture has exploited the earth, at some point, and learned to live with the results. Yes, this is not cool. No, we are not the first and only.

Yes, I agree that it sucks that people have to do stuff they don’t like to do, or want to do, all day long. However, not all of us are bestselling authors who can charge $100/hour for webcam chats, or $60 a year for a subscription to our works in progress, or $18 for a t-shirt with a quote from our books. And no, I’m not saying he’s getting rich off his books and T-shirts and webcam-speaking gigs. I’m saying that most people don’t have many options. You want to wipe out evironmental trashing? Wipe out poverty first, and you’ll have masses both free and able to join the bigger fight.

Question two: Which one book would you give to every politician?

Answer: One that explodes.

Before you freak out, let’s change the question and see what you think: Which one book would you give to Hitler, Goering, Himmler, and Goebbels?

Let’s ask this another way: Would a book have changed Hitler? I don’t think so. Unless it exploded.

And before you freak out at the comparison of modern politicians to Hitler and his gang, try to look at it from the perspective of wild salmon, grizzly bears, bluefin tuna, or any of the (fiscally) poor or indigenous human beings. Those in power now are more destructive than anyone has ever been. And they are for the most part psychologically unreachable. And if someone does reach some politician, that politician will no longer be in power.

I recently shared a stage with Ward Chuchill. He said the primary difference between the U.S. and the Nazis is that the U.S. didn’t lose.

I responded with one word: “Yet.�?

Because that’s the primary difference.

Except that this kind of talk is what drives the people in the middle over to the right. I’m sorry, but it’s true. Jensen’s passionate roleplaying as an extremist surely does sell books, but it does not help spread his message. The extremism rocks the converted, turns them into passionate consumers of his writing, but it does nothing to change the culture. That’s the secret paradox of the role Jensen plays — most people will never, ever trust him or someone like him.

But the converted, they’re going to be great consumers.

He’s right, most books won’t change the politicians — but not because they’re like Hitler. Most books — maybe no books — will change politicians because politicians are humans, and books will never change most human beings.

Jensen’s books don’t change people either, not beyond the small niche of people who are looking to be changed and seek out books like his. And his lack of faith, while it is surprisingly realistic, doesn’t line up with the little niche of book-publishing, public speaking, and so on that he’s created for himself.

Question three: What book would you give to every CEO?

Answer: See above.

Exploding books. So there’s a real consistency here. And a real, palpable hopelessness.

Question four: What book would you give to every child?

Answer: I wouldn’t give them a book.

Oh, wow! I expected another exploding book! Maybe Jensen doesn’t hate humanity… or, no, wait, a more sensible explanation is that advocating violent death for children will put his consumer base off, and he cannot afford to do so.

Of course, if he had his way, most of those children would die. After all, he’s the guy who advocates the termination of civilization. He seriously wants to get rid of it, or says he does. Only someone who lives in America — hell, in California — could miss the larger implications of such a desire.

If you do away with civilization, and thereby do away with all the technologies that facilitate modern agriculture and aquaculture and the infrastructure that moves things like food and clothing and fuel around, how will people eat? How will they stay warm in winter? It’s one thing for Derrick to do okay out, Thoreau-like, in the woods in a cabin for a while, as he describes in A Language Older Than Words. It’s quite another for everyone in the world to suddenly have to do so. The termination of civilization as we know it would result in a massive die-out of humanity, because of the simple fact that we’re dependent on our technologies to support the population we’re at right now.

All those dams Jensen hates so much — that he keeps advocating blowing up — are there to provide the electricity so you can read his webpage, and cook your food. They’re there to keep water in reserve so you have something to drink or wash your body and clothing in next week.

Are they perfect? Are they optimal? No, of course not. They can be massively improved. But should we just trash technology and civilization? Jensen that’s the message I take from Jensen’s writing: yes, we should. Perhaps he should get on a plane (or a boat, or a hot-air-balloon) and go visit someplace like Liberia, or Somalia. Places where the civilization he hates so much has already broken apart. Because what you get when you get rid of civilization is not some mythic, Rousseauian return to nature. What you get is roving bands of youths with guns, raping and killing and eating whatever they find, including some of those they rape and kill. What you get when civilization falls apart is chaos. Mass starvation. And an even more desperate, rapacious attitude toward nature.
Wouldn’t it be more merciful to give those kids exploding books than to advocate abandoning them to that hellscape?

Books are part of the problem: this strange belief that a tree has nothing to say until it is murdered, its flesh pulped, and then (human) people stain this flesh with words.

Says the bestselling author, I wish to note. I am glad I didn’t pay much for my used copies of those samples of his work that I own — with the exception of one book — because, hey, I was saving trees. Glad to have spared you the sin of making money off something you fundamentally oppose, Mr. Jensen.

I would take children outside, and put them face to face with chipmunks, dragonflies, tadpoles, hummingbirds, stones, rivers, trees, crawdads.

How very California. What about if you’re in the desert? Nature for Jensen is California forests, or maybe the West Coast. Someone like him would not last 3 days on the outback without a guide. Why? Oh, yes — ecocide. All those dangerous, poisonous critters — all the dangerous, stomping megafauna? The evil, terrible humans used their civilization — er, wait, they were peace-loving, egalitarian naturalist Indians, right? They can’t have had a civilization, since, in Jensenist thought, civilization is based on violence. So why is there evidence that they caused the biggest of megafauna to go extinct in the Americas, just like humans seem to have done everywhere they’ve gone? Hey, maybe they were tainted by civilization after all.

My goodness. Maybe ecocide is bigger than we thought, Derrick. Maybe we have to abolish not just civilization, but humanity in general!

The scary thing is that in his radical-chic mode, I am not sure he wouldn’t agree with the abolition of humanity. Hell, he may have written of it somewhere already!

That said, if you’re going to force me to give them a book, it would be The Wind in the Willows, which would I hope remind them to go outside.

Oh, wow, another surprise. I would have thought he’d have produced a series of children’s books by now. Well, he must not have, because if he had, rest assured, he’d be flogging it here.

Question five: It’s 2050. The ice caps are melting, sea levels are rising. You’re only allowed one book on the Ark. What is it?

Answer: I wouldn’t take a book, and I wouldn’t get on the ark. I would kill myself (and take a dam out with me).

Quick Question #1: Does it seem apparent that blowing up a dam would achieve a bloody thing when the world is being flooded by endless rains?

(Yeah, I didn’t think so. Oh, right, it’s a masturbatory fantasy. It also shows Jensen’s lack of imagination. That dams will be a major problem in 2050 assumes we won’t have made strides in any number of technologies. Jensen’s assumption is right out of Orwell: the current status quo will perpetuate itself exactly, forever — a boot stamping on a human face, yadda yadda yadda.)

Quick Question #2: Okay, then I’ll save your spot on the ark for my girlfriend, alright? Thanks Derrick.

I do not want to live without a living landbase. Without a living landbase I would already be dead.

Yet, paradoxically, you wouldn’t be, because dead men cannot kill themselves. So you’d miss the chance to tell your children how the world used to be. You’d miss the chance to seal up old issues of Nature in an airtight container for generations to come. (Which puts me in mind of Bruce Sterling’s short-short “Message Found in a Bottle” — in Visionary in Residence — a story that seemed bleak when I first read it. Wow, Derrick Jensen has succeeded in making it positively optimistic!) You’d miss out on seeing if maybe the waters subsided a decade later. You also missed how unscientific that question was: there would be a landbase, it’d just be smaller. There isn’t enough water on earth to submerge everything, after all.

No book would even remotely compensate. Not a million books. Not a million computers. Not a million people would compensate.

Not even six billion, or eight billion. Freedom, no matter what the cost. Gotcha, Derrick.

As for me, I’m on the side of life. I agree, we’re idiots when it comes to nature. We’re assholes.

But unlike Jensen, I haven’t given up on us. I have the guts to admit that while I love the natural world, we are part of that natural world, and, yes, humanity is the part I’m most concerned about keeping alive.

I also have the guts to trust in science and technology, and not just in the newagey ramblings and subjective impressions of a bestselling nature author, ramblings the logic behind which is so shaky that I only pray Jensen himself doesn’t take them anywhere near as seriously as he appears to do. But, of course he doesn’t. If he did, he’d be advocating we all trashed our computers, and he wouldnt’t have a web page, right? I mean, the amount of energy the Internet uses, alone, should be enough for him to be calling on idiots worldwide to crash the net.

Yes, I daresay he’s not quite as science-savvy as he makes himself out to be. In A Language Older Than Words, he explained that he’d trained as a scientist (a B.S. in Mineral Engineering Physics from the Colorado School of Mines, says Wikipedia) and left the field in disgust. Yeah, well, I don’t know whether a BA in something counts that much for cred anymore: I graduated with a BA in Music and English Lit and when I arrived at grad school to study lit more, I was completely out to sea. I pulled myself to the banks, surely, but it was not because I had a BA in anything. Jensen’s cred as a scientist, it means very little, I think, in the big picture.

Still, who can blame him? The evironmentalist-extremist author niche was wide open, and everyone’s gotta make a living. He’s probably having fun. He might even have convinced himself to believe some of the silliness he spouts, in which case, there’s the effervescent endorphin high of self-righteous rage. But as for me, I will trust to other, more measured, and perhaps more mature, and definitely more hopeful minds to keep our world going.

236 thoughts on “On Derrick Jensen

  1. Mr. Jensen’s version of what I call pop-cultural ecocentrism plays a substantial role in a new book I’ll be publishing later this year (Lexington Press–Rowman and Littlefield). I have long been deeply critical of Jensen–and not merely because he doesn’t walk the walk, but because some of his reasoning is, I think I can show, incoherent, self-contradictory, and subtly–but unmistakably–racist and sexist. I also find much of his more recent work quite self-indulgent–sort of psychologically mastabatory–not really defensible as an environmental philosophy. In any case, for whomever might be interested, the book title is “Eco-Nihilism: The Philosophical Geopolitics of the Climate Change Apocalypse.”

    Wendy Lynne Lee
    Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania

    1. Glad to hear the book is coming out soon!

      I haven’t the stomach (or, over on this side of the planet, the resources) to read Jensen’s more recent stuff, but I agree there’s alot of problems—and sexism and racism and US-centrism besides—to the older stuff I’ve read.

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