How activist Derrick Jensen makes it matter
Hailed as the philosopher poet of the environmental movement, activist, teacher, small farmer, and leading voice of uncompromising dissent, Derrick Jensen, author of twenty books, has packed university auditoriums, conferences, and bookstores across the nation, stirring them with revolutionary spirit.
How do you give it mouth?
I don’t want to discourage you, but this may not be my best interview ever.
The reason is, normally when I give answers I seem a lot smarter than I am because I’ve been asked the question 400 times before. For instance, when people ask me what’s wrong with industrial civilisation – Boom – I turn on a tape and I go to sleep because I’ve given the answer 100 times.
But nobody’s asked me this question before, so whatever answer I give is going to be, “ahhhhh…” instead of turning on the tape. I will endeavour to give the best answer I can.
Now, to answer your question … maybe 20 years or so ago, I was speaking with my friend and mentor Jeanette Armstrong who is an Okanagan. I asked her what she thought of an essay by one writer where they slam another writer. She said, if he didn’t like that guy’s book, he should have written his own damn book.
And that has always stuck with me. Instead of complaining to my friends about why nobody writes militant environmental stuff – I just started doing it myself.
I think this goes back to how I was raised actually. I was raised so that if you see a problem, instead of simply complaining, you should try to fix the problem.
I used to ask audiences if they thought this culture would ever undergo a voluntary transformation into sane and sustainable living. And nobody ever said yes.
Yet, we all go around acting as though this culture will undergo a voluntary transformation into sane and sustainable living, against all evidence. And the question becomes, if you don’t believe this culture is going to undergo a voluntary transformation into sane and sustainable living, the what does that mean for our strategy and our tactics?
And the answer is – we don’t know. The reason we don’t know is that we don’t talk about it. And so okay here’s a hole in discourse … I’m going to fill it. One of the advantages in doing that is I realised I don’t have to be fancy or do backflips or do crazy clever things in order to write good material. All I had to do was try the best I can and to tell the truth. I could simply be myself and that was sufficient. I didn’t have to be somebody I wasn’t. I didn’t have to try to be original. And that’s true for all of us.
This culture is so based on lies that telling the truth becomes an absolute gift.
So if anyone would do the work to try to see this culture for what it is and try to tell the truth, that is sufficient. And you don’t have to be fancy. Now, that doesn’t mean you don’t have to spend years or decades learning how to write well. But it does mean that once you learn how to write and you learn how to communicate, you don’t have to make up fancy things.
When I was in my twenties I was trying to write, but I was so scared. Writing would take me back to feeling of when I was a child watching my siblings get beaten. One of the reasons has to do with R.D. Laing’s three rules of dysfunctional families. Rule a is don’t speak about it, rule a1 is rule a doesn’t exist and rule a2 is never discuss the existence or non existence of rules a1 and a2. This is one of the reasons your project is so incredibly important, because if the first rule of a dysfunctional family is don’t talk about it, then the first rule of breaking that is to talk about it. And what you’re saying is you’re breaking the first rule of a dysfunctional family – or a dysfunctional culture.
Was there a moment you realised you wanted to become an activist or did it just creep upon you, as sometimes happens?
I always knew when I was a kid I wanted to be a writer. At that point I didn’t know I wanted to be an activist.
In the second grade they put a subdivision near where I lived. There were meadows there before and I recall thinking – where did all the meadowlarks go and where did all the garter snakes go? And I recognised that this way of life can’t continue. I felt very strongly about that, but I didn’t know what to do.
Then when I went to college to study engineering, I started to ask questions. I noticed most of my fellow students didn’t like going to school and they didn’t like the job they were going to have. They were already anticipating retiring at 65. And these people were 20! It seemed crazy that a majority of people were going to be spending most of their time doing something they didn’t want to do.
In my twenties, I was overwhelmed with how bad things were.
I was so overwhelmed and the problem so big, I didn’t feel like I could do anything. It was at that point I made one of the smartest decisions of my life. I realised I wasn’t paying enough for gas to cover the ecological and social costs. So I made a commitment that for every dollar I spent on gas, I’d give a dollar to an environmental organisation.
Jensen’s book A Language Older Than Words (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2000)
The distinction is not between those who want to bring down civilisation and those who don’t.
The big distinction is between those who do something and those who do nothing. And so a lot of my work is about trying to get people to just get off their butts and do something.
Can you tell me the story of how you founded Deep Green Resistance. I am particularly interested in the steps involved in setting up a resistance organisation.
Basically there were three of us who recognised that a lot of the organisations were doing really good work trying to protect this or that ground. But we didn’t see anyone who was simultaneously arguing for bringing down industrial civilisation, even though all the activists we knew were holding on by our fingertips hoping that this or that creature would survive long enough for civilisation to crash.
Because we know that, for as long as industrial civilisation exists, these creatures are in danger. Civilisation is inherently and functionally destroying the planet. So we wanted to form a group on the ground doing the activism, but at the same time advocating for this larger vision. Again, we saw a hole, so we decided to fill it.
As for setting up the organisation I have to defer to other people. Because if we had a video on right now, I would just scan the video across my room and you’d see that I can’t organise books and paper, let alone people. So basically other people did the work.
But I do want to mention one thing that is very important. When a friend of mine founded Buffalo Field Campaign, which is a great organisation that protects buffalo, one of the founders said to the others, “We’re only going to spend 5-10% of our effort trying to protect buffalo – the rest of it is going to be spent dealing with human drama.” And that is so true. I have seen so many organisations destroyed either by destructive people or by all sorts of in-fighting.
We had some difficulties with this early on, because one of the people we let in was very divisive … essentially attempted to cause a coup and drive people out. She was just one of the people who does that. So we’ve instituted a fairly rigorous process of joining. In fact it’s probably a little too rigorous, but we’ll leave that aside. Point is, we have worked very hard to establish a culture of mutual respect and, with that, also freedom and responsibility within the organisation. What we discovered was that most of the problems within the organisation actually came from a small number of people. Once those people were gone, we were able to get on with the task at hand.
And of course this doesn’t apply just to activist organisations, it also applies to church organisations, quilting groups. This is just part of the human condition. But I’m guessing song birds also have the same sort of problems. Jeanette Armstrong says to me that Indigenous communities have the same squabbles and problems as white people, it’s just they have had to develop over a long time the means of resolving those problems. And the way she put it was that I know my great grandchild might marry your great grandchild, so we have to figure out a way to get along. And so there’s that.
I mean I hate spending all this time on that particular question, which has nothing to do with activism itself – but it has everything to do with it. Because a lot of activist groups fall apart over things that have nothing to do with activism.
And another thing I want to say and this is the thing I love about DGR, is that the people in it are so self motivated and dedicated. I’m going to say something that’s quite cynical but it’s true. And it’s this, it is what I call the 90/10 rule – it’s that 90% of all people are incompetent, it doesn’t matter if we’re talking about doctors or bus drivers or attorneys or writers, most people don’t get the job done. And this happens in a lot of organisations, where you might have 50 people but only five people are doing all the work. In DGR, and mind it had nothing to do with me, I did nothing to create this, but so many of the people are so self motivated and working really hard. It doesn’t matter what someone is working hard to do, I have so much respect for people who are self motivated.
Coming soon: don’t miss part 2 of Derrick’s interview. Coming soon.
Meanwhile, see more of Derrick’s work here.