by Derrick Jensen
Controversial environmental activist / philosopher presents some insights into the endtimes or the endgame. What does nature teach us? With what will we replace industrial civilization?
The extraordinary writer and activist Aric McBay interviewed the equally extraordinary writer and activist Lierre Keith about why so many of us do not resist, and what it will take for us to achieve a critical mass of resistance.
He said, “One of my favourite quotes is something Dietrich Boenhoeffer wrote while in prison in Germany during World War II, as he awaited execution for resisting the Nazis: ‘We have spent too much time in thinking, supposing that if we weigh in advance the possibilities of any action, it will happen automatically. We have learnt, rather too late, that action comes, not from thought, but from a readiness for responsibility. For you thought and action will enter on a new relationship; your thinking will be confined to your responsibilities in action.’ Radicals often like to construct imaginary models of their hypothetical utopias and sketch out the improvements they want to see in the future. But as we know, if industrial civilization doesn’t come down soon—very soon—there is no future for us. (And I’m still surprised at how determinedly oblivious even radicals can be to this simple fact. They really just don’t want to hear it.) What does it take to move people beyond mere strategizing and philosophy? How do people acquire a real ‘readiness for responsibility’?”
Lierre responded, “I think the biggest reason otherwise radical people don’t want to face the necessity of ending industrial civilization is privilege. We’re the ones reaping the benefits. We’ve sold out the rest of life on earth for convenience, creature comforts, and cheap consumer goods, and it’s appalling.
“But there’s another group of people, who don’t think their access to ice cream 24/7 is more important than life on earth. That’s good. But they’re sunk in a rational, realistic despair. What can I do about any of it? It’s all going to hell, and nothing I personally do is going to make any real difference. Why bother to take down a cell phone tower when there’s thousands more across the country? But it’s not useless to take down that cell phone tower if I know that tonight five hundred other people are doing the same thing. Now my action has meaning, impact. But radical environmentalists haven’t moved to that level of organization yet.
“I think the readiness to act is born from two sources: rage and love. And we have to have the stamina to keep loving even when what we love is being destroyed, and we have to have the courage to make that love be an action, a verb.
“I wouldn’t bother to recruit anyone who has to be coaxed into action. Focus on the people who want to act but don’t know what to do. Give them a serious plan and maybe we have a chance.”
A couple of days ago I witnessed a miracle. I am blessed to witness similar miracles each year at this time.
I look at a stump. I see nothing out of the ordinary. The stump is hollow, the inside rotted. The tree was cut a long time ago. Huckleberries grow inside and around it. The berries not eaten by me, birds, bears, or insects hang on the branches long into the fall. The berries slowly shrivel, and eventually drop to the ground.
It is a bright day. Warm. At first there is nothing. And then it starts, just as it starts every year. I see one ant, and then another, and then another. They are coming from the stump, they are coming from underground. They climb to the top of the stump, where they gather. More and more. It is now a stream of ants flowing out of the stump, out from underground, out from the only home they have known. Now it is a river. They all have wings. They fly. The sky shimmers with light reflecting off their wings. Birds swoop down to eat as many as they can. A spider hangs motionless in its web, resting one long leg along a strand to feel for any change in tension. The ants fly away. They do not come back. Their wings are meant for one flight only. They fall off when the ants find their new homes. Yet still they fly. I always envy their courage.
That is the miracle I witness each fall.
The world gives us so very much. It gives us our life. All of our neighbors—the ants, spiders, salmon, geese, sharks, seals, cottonwoods, chestnuts—are doing the real work of keeping this planet going. Isn’t it time we did our share?
People often ask me what sort of a culture I would like to see replace civilization, and I always say that I do not want any culture to replace this one. I want 100,000 cultures to replace it, each one emerging from its own landbase, adapted to and adaptive for its own landbase, each one doing what sustainable cultures of all times and all places have done for their landbases: helping the landbase to become stronger, more itself, through their presence.
There’s a place I go when the sorrow gets to be too much for me, when I feel I just cannot go on. It’s only a few miles from my home, and coincidentally only a couple of miles from a couple of different sites where in the nineteenth century the civilized massacred hundreds of Tolowa Indians. In the 1960s a corporation started to put in a housing division there. The corporation laid out paved roads in neat squares. But then because of environmental concerns it was never able to get permission to build any houses. So for the last forty years the housing division has sat.
And the forest has begun to reclaim its own. Trees push through pavement, roots making ridges that run from side to side of the street. Grass comes up in every crack. Wind, water, sand, and bacteria make potholes that grow year by year. Or maybe we should switch perspective and speak of the ground beneath finding its way back to the surface. Trees and bushes reach from each side of the road to intertwine limbs, at first high above the ground, then lower and lower, until sometimes you cannot even see where there used to be a road.
Forty years, and the land is coming back. That makes me happy.
Someday I know that each year more salmon will swim up the stream behind my home than swam here the year before. Each year more migratory songbirds will return than the year before. Each year more trees will creep out that much further from the edges of forests into clearings. Each year more roads will have that many more holes in them, that many more plants growing first along their shoulders, then all across. Each year that many more bridges will fall, each year that many more dams will fail or be removed. Each year that many more electrical wires will come down.
And someday, someday soon, wolves will return, and grizzly bears, and all those others whose home this is and has been.
And someday, someday soon, the rivers will again be full of salmon.
Over the years I have been criticized because I do not suggest models by which people should live. “You’re only interested in tearing things down,” some people say, “not in providing alternatives.”
I do not provide alternatives because there is no need. The alternatives already exist, and they have existed—and worked—for thousands and tens of thousands of years.
Over the years I have heard many of the civilized ask how we could possibly live without civilization. It is a question I have never heard any Indians answer publicly. It is a question I have never asked, because I already know the answer. In private many Indians have answered this question I have never asked. They have said, “After civilization is gone from the earth and from your hearts, we will teach you how to live. We will not do it before then because your culture has been trying to kill us, and also because you would try to make money from what we say, or you would try to paste what we tell you onto your unworkable system. So until civilization is gone we will just hold on to our traditions and hold on to our existence. Later, if you come to us, we will help.”
What they say is true. And it is true also of the land. Once civilization is gone, once it is only a terrible, terrible memory, the land, too, will teach us how to live.
Derrick Jensen, excerpts from Endgame, Volume 2: Resistance. Copyright © 2006 by Derrick Jensen. Reprinted with permission of Seven Stories Press, www.sevenstories.com . (See the book review of his two volume work, in this issue.)