I’ve heard Derrick Jensen called a gadfly or a thorn in the heel of the establishment. A Horsefly and a nail are more apt. Author of Endgame, A Language Older Than Words, and other well-loved philosophies of courage and spirit, Jensen turns his talents to dialogue in this new graphic book, As the World Burns: 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Stay in Denial, coauthored with Minimum Security‘s Stephanie McMillan. Jensen says he wrote eighty percent of the text, while artist McMillan came up with all the visual jokes. In the text, two girls debate how to combat global warming, during which we learn exactly how much energy could be saved if everyone switched to fluorescents and other technologies (hint: not nearly enough), a fox tries to reason with a very mellow fellow, a one-eyed rabbit breaks into a lab, our beloved prez sells the globe to tree-eating aliens, and revolution is fomented by forest dwellers. It’s funny and horrifying, because so much of it is barely a stretch from reality.
You can rest assured that you won’t win the Nobel Peace Prize with this book.
If there was any justice, I might. If the polar bears could vote, I would. I love the line from Gore Vidal after Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize: “One must never underestimate Scandinavian wit.”
How did the idea arise for doing a graphic book?
I’m friends with Stephanie McMillan, who did the graphics. We were talking one day about Al Gore’s movie and his ideas at the end, such as changing to compact fluorescents. The filmmaker who did What a Way to Go: Life at the End of Empire put together a map about what would happen if we did all the things Al Gore suggested at the end of An Inconvenient Truth. The trouble with the “fifty simple things” notion is that it leads to a decrease in agency and an increase in hopelessness because people see that they don’t do anything. I think they’re actually harmful.
We’d know what to do if space aliens came down to attack us, but we don’t know what to do with governments and corporations. In the book, if you just substitute corporations for aliens, you see how this works.
While the usual targets—Bush, corporations—come in for criticism, you pick on meditators, environmental nonprofits, Al Gore, and all the simplistic answers to combat global warming.
The meditator character’s dialogue was pretty much word for word from a guy who called in once when I was on KPFA. “We don’t have to worry about any of this stuff, about the death of the oceans, about global warming. We just have to meditate.” I got an email from a woman who told me I just seemed angry. I wanted to say how sad it is that I feel wounded at the death of the planet. There’s a tremendous fear of anger at the hands of the so-called resistance. She wanted me to meditate too. The salmon don’t give a shit about whether we meditate—they care about the dams.
As for nonprofits: Grassroots people hate mainstream environmental groups. They usually have more money, and they come in and co-opt the campaign by pumping in money. Once in the door, they say, “Well, this isn’t realistic. We need to do thus and so, ecotours of the Arctic. Yeah, let’s get behind ecotours!” And suddenly the whole campaign is down the drain.
I had a long talk at the airport with a man about Al Gore. An Inconvenient Truth is great as an introduction but it’s exclusionary. This is one step, but we need to do another 3,000 steps very soon. There’s this great book called The Nazi Doctors, questioning how people who took the Hippocratic oath could work at the death camps. Most actually cared about individuals in the death camps and did what they could to save them, but they didn’t question the existence of the camps themselves. We do what we can to save this or that creature, but we don’t question the superstructure that’s causing the problems in the first place. I used to work at Pelican Bay. I was fully aware that I was participating in the greatest gulag on the planet, but on the other hand, the only thing keeping the inmates sane was my class. So we need it all—reform and revolution. That’s the only thing that will save the planet.
The solutions I’ve heard are so interesting because they’re insane. They don’t take physical reality as a given, but instead the given is that we must save present-day society. We need to get back in the real world. The real world is being murdered before our eyes, like a video game that we can’t back up. I sometimes wake up and think, this can’t be happening. People can’t really just lose the ice caps. Let’s pretend you were talking to a seven-year-old: So, burning oil and coal and natural gas is causing global warming. What do you think we should do to stop global warming? Any reasonable seven-year-old can answer that question. Here’s carbon offsets: My house stinks because I keep shitting in the middle of the living room floor. I don’t like it. So maybe I can pay someone to shit in his living room instead.
I heard a radio show about the world-saving machine that can convert carbon dioxide to oxygen. The guy who runs Virgin airlines is going to give millions to develop this technology. We have it already. They’re called trees.
We need to think about what we want. I want to live in a world that has wild salmon. So the first question is what you want, and the second is what do you need for that to happen. The salmon need industrial logging to stop and the dams to be removed. And they need for industrial fishing to stop. They need industrial agriculture to stop creating giant dead zones, and they need global warming to stop, and they need the ocean not to be murdered. Polar bears need ice and seals. Then they’ll be happy. The problem is that there’s this awfully convenient worldview that presumes that you can consume a planet while you live on it. That’s why we took it out of the context of corporations and jobs and put it into the context of aliens eating the planet. These problems are not cognitively challenging. They’re not amenable to rational solutions.
A really good example of that is probably fifteen years ago, I interviewed Jonathan Livingston about the fallacy of wildlife conservation. He believed that evolution was based on cooperation and not competition. I remember looking at him and thinking, “He’s saying great things, but he’d kind of lost it—he’s old and senile.” Then later I found myself unable to conceive of how anyone could think that evolution was based on competition. Those creatures have survived in the long run. You don’t survive in the long run by destroying your habitat; you improve your habitat. It’s a whole big dance of cooperation. Normally I don’t share a lot of things about my life. I was a fundamentalist Christian as a kid. As a teen, I left that behind. I dated one woman through my twenties. I still remember the first thing that came into my head when I dated someone else: “Ohmigod, I didn’t die when I slept with the second woman.” Later on, I laughed at the power of that kind of thinking. Unquestioned assumptions are the real authority of any culture.
Do you think that people, like Nero, will lose hope and fiddle as the world burns? Or is that already happening?
A publisher sent me a book that they were considering. The book was about how to turn the death of the planet into a positive spiritual learning experience. There’s this disconnect.
I was fighting this developer. We’re doing all the reform stuff, changing county zoning and so on. At some point I talked at a meeting about how hope is really harmful. Hope is longing for a condition about which I have no agency. If your mom says to you, clean your room, and you say, I hope it gets done, your mom won’t be pleased. A man at the council meeting says, “You do ultimately have to hope that the developer doesn’t develop here. You can give your best shot but you have to leave it up to the county.” And I say, “If I wanted to, I could kill the developer.” Not that I would, of course, but we can do all sorts of things. I could develop a virus that kills all the people on the planet. The point is that people confuse what is acceptable to those in power with what is possible. We keep saying we have no agency. I’m going to do what it takes to save salmon.
What was your first activist moment?
As an adult, it would be well, this is one of the smartest things I ever did: In the mid-’80s I realized I wasn’t paying enough for gas. Every time I bought gas, I would give $10 to a local environmental organization, or I would pay myself $5 for activism. If I filled my tank with gas, that meant I owed two hours. I would write letters, participate in anti-fur demos. Finally I was having so much fun with activism that I could have bought myself a tanker. You don’t have to jump in and stop industrial civilization in one fell swoop. There’s something a little phony about As the World Burns. It implies there’s only one red button you could push to end civilization. There’s a thousand buttons. Where do we start?
Wild animals get the nod for finally taking action. Doesn’t that let people off the hook?
Bullshit. The phoebes, redwood trees, salmon are doing everything they can. We’re the ones who aren’t doing anything. Can you think of a better way to stop world trade than by raising the ocean and drowning ports? The world is already doing its work, and we need to join in. They’re fighting desperately, and they’re dying. We need to step up.
I’m not expecting that I’m going to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with a bear. It’s a call to do whatever it takes. It’s a Malcolm X “do anything necessary.” The people who come after won’t care whether we were nonviolent or had real estate in Ohio. They’re going to care about whether they can breathe the air and drink the water. If you can’t breathe the air in this utopia, it won’t matter. The real world is what’s real. Any social construct, including industrial capitalism, is simply that—a social construct. What’s real are these huckleberries and redwood trees. Everything else is just a social structure: We all think that PG&E owns this power plant or that Weyerhauser owns this land. The cops will come in and protect this fantasy.
I’m not saying that we should throw away all cultural conventions. But we need to be able to question the cultural conventions. Once I discussed this with someone, and we ended up agreeing that no one should be allowed to clear-cut more than a quarter-mile from his physical home. If somebody wants to destroy his own home, that’s how it is. He and I were able to agree that absentee land ownership is really bad. When you see trees you see dollar bills. When I look at a fish, I give it respect. This doesn’t mean I don’t eat fish. But it’s a fundamental pact: If you consume the flesh of another, you take on responsibility for the continuation of that individual’s community.
One could read the book as a call for criminal actions. Dams are exploded, and a prison holding political activists broken into.
In the Eric McDavid case, in Sacramento, an FBI agent named Anna recruited McDavid and two other people into attempting to blow up something. She provided the material, the car, the house. They have her on tape exhorting them to follow through. She’s saying, “Aren’t you men?” He was found guilty, although no action was ever taken. The defense was entrapment, but it didn’t fly. In this trial, the person mentioned most often was me. I had exchanged a couple emails. I called an attorney and asked if I should be worried. And I got the sort of answer you don’t want—be very worried, call me immediately. Now, this man doesn’t know that I won’t do anything illegal. I would be a liability. I have three civil liberty attorneys who have volunteered to be on-call 24/7.
I’m always really explicit. I do not want kids to attempt to blow up a dam because Derrick Jensen says so. If it’s kids, I don’t know that I would be very happy about that. If it was somebody who’d thought about it on her own, and I was somebody who helped give her courage, that’s a different situation.
People ask me what to do. I say, I want you not to listen to me, I want you to go to the nearest river and ask what it wants. I want people to think. If you come to different conclusions, fine, as long as you’ve thought it through.I used to say I’m a recruiter for the revolution, and if I wanted I could manipulate people into doing what I wanted. I’m uncomfortable with that. I never wanted to do it. If some kid read this and tried to say that they blew up a dam because of me, that person is not taking responsibility. You need to do what you want to do. I desperately want dams to go, but I want people to think things through. I’ve discovered in relationships that if you try to get people to do something, it’s not sustainable. It just doesn’t work.