|Derrick Jensen’s book A Language Older Than Words left me physically shaken. I read it, about five years ago, in one sitting, in 36 hours without sleep, and more than once I threw it down as if I’d been stung. It is horrifying reading, but worldview changing. Its message is that civilization is inherently violent and relentlessly destructive and repressive, and keeps us all in line through hierarchy, threatened scarcity and learned helplessness: “the fear of not having enough“.
Since then, I’ve read everything Jensen has written, joined his discussion forum and occasionally exchanged e-mails with him. At first I found his pessimism discouraging, but he’s been on the front lines of environmental activism for years, so he knows what’s really going on. Over the past five years, I have grown increasingly radical in my views on the changes we need to make, and what it will take to make them, but I’ve always been a few steps behind Jensen, who has no qualms about responding to violence with violence when other methods fail, and who has occasionally chastised those who merely talk and write about the need for change for “sitting back and theorizing and spiritualizing and hanging out and not actually doing anything”.
I recognize that I’m one of those people, yet I haven’t changed. Fifty four years old and still not ready to put my money where my mouth is. I criticize the technophiles and humanists who preach that technology will save us, or that a growing global human consciousness will save us, but I’m no better than them. They may be apologists for inaction, but I’m the personification of inaction. (This is not a plea for your appreciation — I accept that my blog helps a little by getting its small readership more aware of what is happening and what is needed, but this is surely not enough).
Last year I made peace with myself, acknowledged that I am who I am, vowed to do more within the communities of which I am apart — the lovely protected piece of wetland where we live, my neighbourhood and my family and my professional and blog networks, to do what I can to make life and Earth a little better, to follow my Genius of Imagining Possibilities and my Purpose of Fomenting Change. I acknowledged that all of this will not prevent but only make the crash of civilization a little less horrific for those I somehow touch, but still I cut myself a little slack.
Jensen’s long-awaited next (and perhaps last?) book, endgame, has just been published. This month’s Orion magazine has an excerpt, and I’m taking the liberty of reproducing it here, both because it is impossible to condense his powerful message in a review, and because I wanted to respond to each of the points he makes, so I have framed the excerpt as a ‘conversation’ — his words in black, my reply indented in red (I think that will that work in RSS feedreaders). I hope it will encourage you to read Jensen’s work, buy the 2-volume endgame, and think, or even better act, on his ideas. So here goes:
Beyond Hope, by Derrick Jensen
Here’s how John Osborn, an extraordinary activist and friend, sums up his reasons for doing the work: “As things become increasingly chaotic, I want to make sure some doors remain open. If grizzly bears are still alive in twenty, thirty, and forty years, they may still be alive in fifty. If they’re gone in twenty, they’ll be gone forever.”
[This reminds me of the protests of denial from those who we hold up as paragons of courage. Courage, they say, is just doing what has to be done; there is no other choice. Committing oneself to a life of activism isn’t a matter of self-sacrifice, it’s just getting your head out of your ass long enough to see what has to be done. The problem is, we don’t really want to know. If I really wanted to know, I’d be out now protesting the Canadian cormorant slaughter. I am afraid that if I went I would end up getting arrested, and getting others arrested, because I wouldn’t be able to sit by passively and just witness it. I then imagine other protesters complaining that I have undermined their movement. But perhaps my violence would be not only warranted, but necessary?
The real reason I don’t want to know, though, is that I have seen activists, doing what they must, disappear from public view. There is so much to be done that every tiny focus of work that must be done — the saving of one small species, the fight against one single development, the effort to stop a single atrocity — becomes a full-time job. I don’t want to disappear. I think I would drown. I think the realization of how little one person can really do would kill me.]
But no matter what environmentalists do, our best efforts are insufficient. We’re losing badly, on every front. Those in power are hell-bent on destroying the planet, and most people don’t care.
Frankly, I don’t have much hope. But I think that’s a good thing. Hope is what keeps us chained to the system, the conglomerate of people and ideas and ideals that is causing the destruction of the Earth.
To start, there is the false hope that suddenly somehow the system may inexplicably change. Or technology will save us. Or the Great Mother. Or beings from Alpha Centauri. Or Jesus Christ. Or Santa Claus. All of these false hopes lead to inaction, or at least to ineffectiveness. One reason my mother stayed with my abusive father was that there were no battered women’s shelters in the ’50s and ’60s, but another was her false hope that he would change. False hopes bind us to unlivable situations, and blind us to real possibilities.
Does anyone really believe that Weyerhaeuser is going to stop deforesting because we ask nicely? Does anyone really believe that Monsanto will stop Monsantoing because we ask nicely? If only we get a Democrat in the White House, things will be okay. If only we pass this or that piece of legislation, things will be okay. If only we defeat this or that piece of legislation, things will be okay. Nonsense. Things will not be okay. They are already not okay, and they’re getting worse. Rapidly.
But it isn’t only false hopes that keep those who go along enchained. It is hope itself. Hope, we are told, is our beacon in the dark. It is our light at the end of a long, dark tunnel. It is the beam of light that makes its way into our prison cells. It is our reason for persevering, our protection against despair (which must be avoided at all costs). How can we continue if we do not have hope?
We’ve all been taught that hope in some future conditionólike hope in some future heavenóis and must be our refuge in current sorrow. I’m sure you remember the story of Pandora. She was given a tightly sealed box and was told never to open it. But, being curious, she did, and out flew plagues, sorrow, and mischief, probably not in that order. Too late she clamped down the lid. Only one thing remained in the box: hope. Hope, the story goes, was the only good the casket held among many evils, and it remains to this day mankind’s sole comfort in misfortune. No mention here of action being a comfort in misfortune, or of actually doing something to alleviate or eliminate one’s misfortune.
The more I understand hope, the more I realize that all along it deserved to be in the box with the plagues, sorrow, and mischief; that it serves the needs of those in power as surely as belief in a distant heaven; that hope is really nothing more than a secular way of keeping us in line.
Hope is, in fact, a curse, a bane. I say this not only because of the lovely Buddhist saying “Hope and fear chase each other’s tails,” not only because hope leads us away from the present, away from who and where we are right now and toward some imaginary future state. I say this because of what hope is.
More or less all of us yammer on more or less endlessly about hope. You wouldn’t believeóor maybe you wouldóhow many magazine editors have asked me to write about the apocalypse, then enjoined me to leave readers with a sense of hope. But what, precisely, is hope? At a talk I gave last spring, someone asked me to define it. I turned the question back on the audience, and here’s the definition we all came up with: hope is a longing for a future condition over which you have no agency; it means you are essentially powerless.
I’m not, for example, going to say I hope I eat something tomorrow. I just will. I don’t hope I take another breath right now, nor that I finish writing this sentence. I just do them. On the other hand, I do hope that the next time I get on a plane, it doesn’t crash. To hope for some result means you have given up any agency concerning it. Many people say they hope the dominant culture stops destroying the world. By saying that, they’ve assumed that the destruction will continue, at least in the short term, and they’ve stepped away from their own ability to participate in stopping it.
[I have received a lot of e-mail recently from readers who think my writing has become too ‘hopeless’, too resigned to the enormity and impossibility of the task of ‘saving the world’. The title of my blog was originally intended ironically. Over time, as my study of the state of the world and the possibilities for changing it evolved, it ceased to be so. I became hopeful. And then as I learned more, I became pessimistic, despairing. Not enough to stop blogging, but enough to try to instill readers with a more realistic sense of what we can hope to accomplish. To some extent this blog’s title has again become ironic.
I’ve lost some readers in the process. The world is complex, but people want it simplified. They want simple answers. As I’ve become less hopeful, I’ve realized there are no simple answers. There are not even complicated answers. The only answers are horrifically complex ones, hopeless ones. Answers that say We’re fucked, no matter what we do, but we still have a responsibility to do what we can anyway. Ugh. Who wants to hear that?]
I do not hope coho salmon survive. I will do whatever it takes to make sure the dominant culture doesn’t drive them extinct. If coho want to leave us because they don’t like how they’re being treatedóand who could blame them?óI will say goodbye, and I will miss them, but if they do not want to leave, I will not allow civilization to kill them off.
When we realize the degree of agency we actually do have, we no longer have to “hope” at all. We simply do the work. We make sure salmon survive. We make sure prairie dogs survive. We make sure grizzlies survive. We do whatever it takes.
When we stop hoping for external assistance, when we stop hoping that the awful situation we’re in will somehow resolve itself, when we stop hoping the situation will somehow not get worse, then we are finally freeótruly freeóto honestly start working to resolve it. I would say that when hope dies, action begins.
People sometimes ask me, “If things are so bad, why don’t you just kill yourself?” The answer is that life is really, really good. I am a complex enough being that I can hold in my heart the understanding that we are really, really fucked, and at the same time that life is really, really good. I am full of rage, sorrow, joy, love, hate, despair, happiness, satisfaction, dissatisfaction, and a thousand other feelings. We are really fucked. Life is still really good.
[Well, maybe. For many of us, it is life’s promise that is good. It’s what we could become. It’s the potential. Many of us daydream our lives away, buying lottery tickets, imagining ourselves on American Idol or the New York Yankees or surrounded by adoring admirers in thrall to our sexual magnetism, or living vicariously through our children, or through ‘successful’ or beautiful people we know, or even through complete strangers (celebrities). As I keep saying, the scarce resources we most crave are appreciation and attention, and most of us have no hope of ever getting much of either. So we cling to our dreams, the possibilities we know are really impossible. For many of us, life is not really good. It is only the promise that it could be that keeps us going.]
Many people are afraid to feel despair. They fear that if they allow themselves to perceive how desperate our situation really is, they must then be perpetually miserable. They forget that it is possible to feel many things at once. They also forget that despair is an entirely appropriate response to a desperate situation. Many people probably also fear that if they allow themselves to perceive how desperate things are, they may be forced to do something about it.
Another question people sometimes ask me is, “If things are so bad, why don’t you just party?” Well, the first answer is that I don’t really like to party. The second is that I’m already having a great deal of fun. I love my life. I love life. This is true for most activists I know. We are doing what we love, fighting for what (and whom) we love.
I have no patience for those who use our desperate situation as an excuse for inaction. I’ve learned that if you deprive most of these people of that particular excuse they just find another, then another, then another. The use of this excuse to justify inactionóthe use of any excuse to justify inactionóreveals nothing more nor less than an incapacity to love.
[True. But things are the way they are for a reason. We all judge others by ourselves, and that’s not fair. The excuse for inaction isn’t the desperate situation, it’s the refusal to accept that it’s desperate. And of course that reveals an incapacity for love. Our culture beats the capacity for love out of us, makes us numb, fearful, hard-hearted, insensate. The loss of capacity to love isn’t something to be ashamed of, or something we have control over. It’s a coping mechanism. Derrick Jensen doesn’t need it, despite the fact he’s been beaten more than most of us. Bravo to him for that. He’s strong. Most of us are not. And it’s unfair of him to be angry or impatient with people who are weaker than he is. We are what we are, and we do what we must, not what we can. Most of us, if we were honest enough to admit it, are mostly dead. Much of the sensitivity, the capacity we had when we were children, is gone. I know that’s an outrageous and offensive notion, but I think it’s true.]
At one of my recent talks someone stood up during the Q and A and announced that the only reason people ever become activists is to feel better about themselves. Effectiveness really doesn’t matter, he said, and it’s egotistical to think it does.
I told him I disagreed. Doesn’t activism make you feel good? he asked. Of course, I said, but that’s not why I do it. If I only want to feel good, I can just masturbate. But I want to accomplish something in the real world. Why?
Because I’m in love. With salmon, with trees outside my window, with baby lampreys living in sandy streambottoms, with slender salamanders crawling through the duff. And if you love, you act to defend your beloved. Of course results matter to you, but they don’t determine whether or not you make the effort. You don’t simply hope your beloved survives and thrives. You do what it takes. If my love doesn’t cause me to protect those I love, it’s not love.
[Ah, love. Tom Robbins says the greatest challenge in life is learning “how to make love last”. Nothing lasts forever. Love is our body’s way of getting us to do things it ‘thinks’ we must. It consumes a lot of energy. What John Gray calls biophilia, the love of all life on Earth, is still a part of us, and we renew it from time to time when we reconnect with the Earth, with Gaia, but it is now well-sublimated, and we cannot afford to feel that much for something that is dying, quickly, inexorably. Love exhausts and consumes us. We cannot afford to love the Earth that much. It is too much suffering. Most of us, finally, to be able to go on, to live, have to turn away.]
A wonderful thing happens when you give up on hope, which is that you realize you never needed it in the first place. You realize that giving up on hope didn’t kill you. It didn’t even make you less effective. In fact it made you more effective, because you ceased relying on someone or something else to solve your problemsóyou ceased hoping your problems would somehow get solved through the magical assistance of God, the Great Mother, the Sierra Club, valiant tree-sitters, brave salmon, or even the Earth itselfóand you just began doing whatever it takes to solve those problems yourself.
When you give up on hope, something even better happens than it not killing you, which is that in some sense it does kill you. You die. And there’s a wonderful thing about being dead, which is that theyóthose in powerócannot really touch you anymore. Not through promises, not through threats, not through violence itself. Once you’re dead in this way, you can still sing, you can still dance, you can still make love, you can still fight like hellóyou can still live because you are still alive, more alive in fact than ever before. You come to realize that when hope died, the you who died with the hope was not you, but was the you who depended on those who exploit you, the you who believed that those who exploit you will somehow stop on their own, the you who believed in the mythologies propagated by those who exploit you in order to facilitate that exploitation. The socially constructed you died. The civilized you died. The manufactured, fabricated, stamped, molded you died. The victim died.
And who is left when that you dies? You are left. Animal you. Naked you. Vulnerable (and invulnerable) you. Mortal you. Survivor you. The you who thinks not what the culture taught you to think but what you think. The you who feels not what the culture taught you to feel but what you feel. The you who is not who the culture taught you to be but who you are. The you who can say yes, the you who can say no. The you who is a part of the land where you live. The you who will fight (or not) to defend your family. The you who will fight (or not) to defend those you love. The you who will fight (or not) to defend the land upon which your life and the lives of those you love depends. The you whose morality is not based on what you have been taught by the culture that is killing the planet, killing you, but on your own animal feelings of love and connection to your family, your friends, your landbaseónot to your family as self-identified civilized beings but as animals who require a landbase, animals who are being killed by chemicals, animals who have been formed and deformed to fit the needs of the culture.
When you give up on hopeówhen you are dead in this way, and by so being are really aliveóyou make yourself no longer vulnerable to the cooption of rationality and fear that Nazis inflicted on Jews and others, that abusers like my father inflict on their victims, that the dominant culture inflicts on all of us. Or is it rather the case that these exploiters frame physical, social, and emotional circumstances such that victims perceive themselves as having no choice but to inflict this cooption on themselves?
But when you give up on hope, this exploiter/victim relationship is broken. You become like the Jews who participated in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. When you give up on hope, you turn away from fear. And when you quit relying on hope, and instead begin to protect the people, things, and places you love, you become very dangerous indeed to those in power. In case you’re wondering, that’s a very good thing.
[I have written lately about Living On the Edge. I am not sure you need to ‘die’ metaphorically to escape the clutches, promises, addictions, reliance and false comforts of civilization. I think there is a bit of romanticism in this use of the term death, too close for comfort to the religious idea of resurrection. The Edge is a place of lowered expectations, less confidence, but most importantly less reliance on the complex systems that constitute our civilization. Hope is really about reliance, isn’t it? Reliance on those who are destroying the Earth, or on a religious belief (and our current faith in non-existent ‘free markets’ and benevolent future technologies is nothing if not religious) is really hope that ‘they’ will somehow save us. The end of reliance — especially moral and emotional reliance — on civilization is, I think, a form of liberation. Less dramatic than death, but more metaphorically honest perhaps. When we give up relying on a set of systems and ideologies (which is what civilization ultimately is) we give up hoping that it will somehow solve the problems that must be solved, or at least coped with. We give up hope in it. But we do not give up hope. We, and hope, are still alive, to the extent any of us is still alive after all the damage civilization has (as a means of trying to sustain itself rather than maliciously) inflicted on us.
I’m not strong on the idea of ‘good versus evil’. I don’t see it in nature, so I have to believe it’s a human construct, and I strongly suspect it was invented to keep us in our place, to frighten us into submission to those who make such moral judgements. I can’t blame the powers that be for inventing this construct — it’s very effective and reduces the number of people who need to be killed to keep civilization functioning. I use the term atrocity a lot, in the sense of insensitively inflicting damage and suffering on others, but I don’t believe atrocity is inherent in human nature, or in nature. You need to be either ignorant or emotionally dead to commit atrocities, and in civilization culture both are tolerated, even (in Darwinian terms) selected for. In nature they are not: If you’re ignorant you will die, from exposing yourself foolishly to a predator or eating a poison food you didn’t learn to avoid. If you’re emotionally dead you will be shunned by others in your community and you will die of exposure and solitude. Atrocity is just an unintended consequence of civilization. I’m not surprised that people respond to atrocity with anger and violence — when I am exposed to it I respond the same way. At some point I will likely choose to expose myself to it more — I am tired of not doing enough. But I sympathize as well with those who choose to hide from the terrible truth of atrocity. We are not all meant to be warriors.
I don’t want to die, even metaphorically. I don’t want to give up hope. I am not yet comfortable living on the Edge, but I’m getting there. I no longer have hope for civilization, and my expectations of myself and others are much lower than they were. We’re in for some hard times, and our children and grandchildren unimaginably harder ones. I no longer love, or live, as fully as I once did, or might have if I had been born outside ofcivilization’s terrible and wonderful hold. No one is to blame for that. Yet as I become more knowledgeable and more radical and more determined to do what I know I must, and therefore will (as little and as late as that may be), I am becoming, strangely, more at peace.]