Wilderness Against Civilization: Derrick Jensen’s “Endgame”

Published 8 May 2007.

Derrick Jensen’s Endgame, a two-volume work about the conflict between “civilization” and nature that was one of last year’s best releases, is an extension of the motif of wilderness which is rooted in American literature, and thus its anti-civilization argument is less alien to American literary culture than its less sympathetic readers might imagine.  Jensen’s argument, though unduly pessimistic about human versatility, effectively disturbs the easy environmentalism of the “civilized,” in which environmental concerns are ineffectually added to the status quo.

I guess I got into this stuff while despairing of the workings of the machine that our culture has become.  Neoliberalism grinds down our planet, provoking disaster left and right; and its opposition seems far too ineffectual to really halt the slide.  Even this year it seems like such an uphill battle, to get those troops out of Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, to provide single-payer health insurance instead of forcing individuals to fund the current privatized monster, or really to get anything to change short of the onrushing catastrophe.  We certainly won’t do much here at DailyKos if we can’t do better than electing sell-outs to avoid electing other, ostensibly worse, sell-outs.

And as for “entertainment”?  I’m 45, I’m bored.  Cultural innovation is stagnant now; the supermarkets play oldies on their sound systems because that’s the best we’ve achieved.  Grant me the sort of love that can contribute to sophisticated, meaningful conversation, and a community of people with the wisdom to actively resist our culture’s obsession with the excitement of the present moment.

Perhaps I just need a break from the freeway monster that takes me to work; but I doubt that a break would really change anything.  Getting out of debt might change something: pay off those $30,000 of student loan debts, then find a way of disappearing from the money economy.  Anyway, Derrick Jensen, one of my favorite bathroom writers, put out some great stuff last year, which belongs in the mainstream for both literary and social-scientific purposes.  So here goes:

There is a typical motif in American literature organized around the motif of wilderness.  The wilderness motif runs pretty much as follows: There is something wrong with the civilization we live in, for the performers of the wilderness motif; and so we must go to a material or symbolic wilderness, and redeem ourselves in it.  The most famous performer of this motif is Henry David Thoreau: his Walden is an important document of escape from the hustle and bustle of urban life and the mainstream desire to conquer and “tame” the American continent’s wildernesses.  Roderick Nash’s Wilderness and the American Mind connects Thoreau and his literary predecessors to the preservationist movement of the Progressive Era as well as to more recent literary patrons of wilderness such as John McPhee and Aldo Leopold in homage to the motif of wilderness, but one can find the wilderness motif in such overanalyzed classics as Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn.

Now, if you remember reading “Huckleberry Finn” in high school, or even if you don’t, you should know this much: at the end of Twain’s book, Tom Sawyer (the conniving, proto-capitalist protagonist of another famous Mark Twain volume) speculates about how Huck and Jim and him would “slide out of here one of these nights and get an outfit, and go for howling adventures among the Injuns.” As for our main character, Huckleberry Finn, his last words are that “I reckon I got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it.  I been there before.”  At the end, then, of what is possibly American literature’s most analyzed novel, Mark Twain suggested that our affinity for Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer is connected to an antipathy to being “sivilized” and an attraction to wilderness, and not just our love of boyhood adventure stories.

The wilderness motif has made an appearance in some overdue corrections to the standard Eurocentric narrative of American history.  Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States, for instance, points to the existence of laws against joining the Indians, pointing to the notion that many of the European settlers of the New World found it preferable to live with the natives than with their own people.

Radical “deep ecology” fashions this motif into a political philosophy.  Devall and Sessions’ Deep Ecology argues that “the well-being and flourishing of human and nonhuman life on earth have value in themselves.  These values are independent of the usefulness of the non-human world for human purposes.”  (70)  Thus, the domesticated world that has been harnessed for human purposes becomes irrelevant to the deep ecologists, who value wilderness as the basic state of existence.

Derrick Jensen’s Endgame takes the next step beyond deep ecology in the literary progression of the wilderness motif.  In Endgame, civilization itself is regarded as malevolent, and we must somehow act to destroy it before it destroys wilderness, itself, and everything.  Endgame is a manifesto of primitivism, and against “civilization.”

Jensen’s definition, and usage of, “civilization” needs to be elaborated if readers are to fully understand his perspective.  It goes as follows:

I would define a civilization much more precisely, and I believe more usefully, as a culture – that is, a complex of stories, institutions, and artifacts – that both leads to and emerges from the growth of cities… with cities being defined – so as to distinguish them from camps, villages, and so on – as people living more or less permanently in one place in densities high enough to require the routine importation of food and other necessities of life. (17)

Jensen then proceeds to describe “Western civilization” as the single biggest violent molester of the world.  Jensen is a genius at writing up this stuff, by the way: he can pour out hundreds and hundreds of pages on these themes, and the writing never gets boring.  Keep a volume in your bathroom.

Now, this argument has appeared in previous incarnations of Jensen’s work, notably in A Language Older Than Words and The Culture of Make-Believe.  And Jensen is not the inventor of primitivism: Stanley Diamond’s In Search of the Primitive is Endgame’s ancestor.

Jensen’s definition of “civilization” gives his argument rational meaning.  Reading his definition, I am reminded of something Paul Prew wrote in his essay The 21st Century World Ecosystem:

Although capitalism must expand both extensively and intensively, our earthly biosphere is finite. There must be centers of accumulation and regions of extraction. The flow of energy and materials tends to occur geographically from the peripheries to the core, while the waste tends to be concentrated in the peripheral regions. This flow tends to create a division between town and country, but the expansion of capitalism, necessary to its logic, poses limits to the development of these polar relationships. The peripheries develop complexity at the same time that values are depleted, but peripheral regions must develop complexity in a certain fashion to serve the needs of the core. So called “development” is not possible for all regions of the world because of the nature of global world-system and the very logic of capitalism.

The question to be asked, really, is whether we proceed with capitalism until we reach an ecological bifurcation point that leaves the habitability of the earth in question for the vast majority of the population, or we reach a social bifurcation point that leads us to a social system of production that is dissipative, nonetheless, but does not threaten the flowing balance of nature. (emphases mine — c)

So this is where we are at, and in the world Prew describes, albeit abstractly, we have Jensen’s primitivist moral parables.  Fitting stuff for the realities of our times.

At the beginning of both of Jensen’s volumes are a set of twenty “premises” which are implied in the rest of the anecdotes, tales, and moral invocations which comprise the rest of the volumes.  I will not recite these premises here: their sum effect, however, is to recharacterize morality and moral law as something completely foreign to the status quo.  In the pages of Jensen’s books, the parables he tells reveals the morality of a different sort of society, a society we aren’t.  An example:

The conflict resolution methods of a culture of occupation will be different from those of a culture of inhabitation.  The Okanagans of what is now British Columbia, to provide a coutnerexample, have a concept they call En’owkin, which means “I challenge you to give me your most opposite perspective to mine.  In that way I will know how to change my thinking so I can accomodate your concerns and problems.”  The Okanagan writer and activist Jeannette Armstrong told me why her people developed this and similar technologies. “We don’t have any fewer problems than you guys getting along.  But we know that whomever we’re having trouble with, their  grandchild might marry our grandchild.  So we have to accomodate one another.  I have to ask myself how I can change to accomodate you.  At the same time, because you, too, are Okanagan, you will be asking how you can change to accomodate me.  We’re going to be leaning toward one another.”  She talks of how all the people in her community share one skin.  They share that skin with all of the people who came before, and all who will come after.  This applies in a sense to their nonhuman neighbors as well.

In Jensen’s view of things, however, the participants in civilization will not change their minds and change their ways, at least not at a rate fast enough to stop civilization from destroying everything.  The alternative, then, is to act forcefully to destroy civilization.  This is discussed in greater detail in the second of Jensen’s two volumes, titled Resistance.

The basic concept of Volume 1: The Problem of Civilization is as follows:

Cities, the defining feature of civilization, have always relied on taking resources from the surrounding countryside, meaning, first, that no city has ever been or ever will be sustainable on its own, and second, that in order to continue their ceaseless expansion cities must ceaselessly expand the areas they must ceaselessly hyperexploit.  I’m sure you can see the problems this presents and the end point it must reach on a finite planet. (37)

But this isn’t a tale of cities; rather, Jensen tries to show in a hundred different ways the destructive capacity of our culture.  “What, precisely, is this culture’s calculus of casualties?” (64)  The culture is equated with a perpetrator of domestic violence, which “must simply be stopped” before it acts upon its urge to destroy all life.

Jensen does not imagine that the normal ways of dealing with violence (passing laws against it, calling the cops, writing one’s Congressmember, protesting it, and so on) will do any good.  Or, rather, they didn’t work back when the patrons of our culture were busy slaughtering the native peoples of this land, violently abusing their women, and exploiting their imported African slaves, they didn’t work during the last dozen US invasions of far-off countries, and they aren’t going to work now.  “Those in power time and again show no hesitation at killing to gain and maintain access to resources or to otherwise increase their power.” (199)

There’s plenty of material on this stuff, from the antics of “Climber Eric” as he tortures tree-sitters while in the pay of Pacific Lumber (203), to CIA torture manuals (214) to the US atrocities against the Philippines after the Spanish-American War (223) to US bioweapons activities (240) and so on.  Jensen’s book The Culture of Make-Believe is all about this, as well as his discussion of the slaughter in the forests, Strangely Like War.  The problem is one of what to do about it.

Jensen is not a believer in pacifism.  Rather, he thinks that the abusers who dominate our society do so out of a sense of entitlement (561), and pacifism is flawed because it does not disturb that sense of entitlement.  Neither, for that matter, will terrorist attacks of the sort that happened on September 11, 2001 work, for the same reasons.  And Jensen doesn’t think people’s minds can be changed about “civilization”: they’re locked into it, he imagines, out of neurotic compulsion.

For these reasons, and more, he imagines a group of people large enough could “take down” civilization as it stands.  The plan he has drawn out does not appear to have covered all of the things that could go wrong.  And he doesn’t appear to have examined, thoroughly enough, the possibility that the course of events could work in tandem with campaigns for social change to change the collective minds of the human race in any important way.  Jensen seems more intent upon taking out the pacifists than he is with the more difficult envisioning of social change.  Nevertheless Jensen is right on a number of important points:

  1. People are destroying planetary ecologies in the name of corporate profit.
  2. To deal with this reality, we must get “back to the land,” into basic subsistence.
  3. Civilization will collapse anyway, whether we want it or not, and the sooner it collapses, the less it will take down with it (305).

Like the rest of us, Jensen contends with the 500-year history of capitalist discipline, a history most succinctly related in Kees van der Pijl’s The History of Class Struggle.  As van der Pijl suggests:

In its constant quest for unpaid labor and its constant efforts to raise the rate of exploitation in the actual labor process, capital repeatedly exhausts the available human and natural resources on which it feeds and penetrates ever deeper into its social and natural substratum.

You and I have been conditioned by this beast called “capital,” and don’t try to imagine otherwise.

In trying to envision alternatives to the current civilization, with its economic basis in capitalism (Jensen gets this right, too), then, we are dealing with 500 years of conditioning that has made us into wage laborers, owners, traders, consumers, and debtors.  Sure, Jensen can discuss the spectacular ways in which our civilization is destructive, out there in northern California near Crescent City next to the salmon whose run he defends.  It’s the everyday, mundane ways, the ones we practice every day, which will persuade us that we ourselves are killers.

And Jensen’s primary tactic at this point appears to be the writing of big books and the engagement of speaking tours to persuade small publics that primitivism is worth their efforts.  A mass audience, however, might need a different message, one that addresses different life-experiences.  It must be added, somehow, that Derrick Jensen is a very good writer, and that rhetorical elements of his message will find their ways into the mass “stop now” message of the future.  It may look something like this:

Want to avoid billions of future deaths due to abrupt climate change?  You’ve got to stop the rampant spread of carbon dioxide “emissions” from the burning of fossil fuels.  Want to stop abrupt climate change?  What do the experts say?  From the Monthly Review:

The truth is that addressing the global warming threat to any appreciable degree would require at the very least a chipping away at the base of the system. The scientific consensus on global warming suggests that what is needed is a 60–80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions below 1990 levels in the next few decades in order to avoid catastrophic environmental effects by the end of this century—if not sooner. The threatening nature of such reductions for capitalist economies is apparent in the rather hopeless state at present of the Kyoto Protocol, which required the rich industrial countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by an average of 5.2 percent below 1990 levels by 2008–2012. The United States, which had steadily increased its carbon dioxide emissions since 1990 despite its repeated promises to limit its emissions, pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol in 2001 on the grounds that it was too costly. Yet, the Kyoto Protocol was never meant to be anything but the first, small, in itself totally inadequate step to curtail emissions. The really big cuts were to follow.

Now you have the other experts telling you that this big decrease is necessary.  But is it going to happen in a growth-bound, capitalist economy?  No, it’s not.

Can’t give up capitalism?  Think you’ll adapt?  How will you adapt when the oil runs out?  Care to explain how you’ll fill it up with gasoline at $20/gallon?  How about when the US Dollar loses its value and your savings and wages become worthless?  Or maybe you like to experiment.  Would you like to know what it’s like to live in an ecology where most of the large mammals outside of cats and dogs, and many of the other important species necessary for a healthy agricultural ecology (as the agriculture itself feeds you) are being driven into extinction?  Well guess what – you’re living that experiment right now: ask Leakey and Lewin why they wrote The Sixth Extinction.

Jensen likes to ask his readers to “do something” now and then in his long, sprawling writing, without putting any strings on what it is they will do, which of course is up to them.  At the end of the two volumes, he suggests:

Do not listen to me.  I do not live where you do.  I do not know how to live there sustainably.  I do not even know how to live here sustainably.  If you want to know what to do, go to the nearest river, the nearest mountain, the nearest native tree, the nearest soil, and ask it what it needs.  Ask it to teach you.  It knows how to live there.  It has lived there a very long time.  It will teach you.  All you need to do is ask, and ask again, and ask again.  (887)

This is musical writing, as if Jensen were composing an anthem to the spirit of the lost world of pre-civilization.  It may not change anything at all.  It makes me want to compose my own via negativa lyrics: “Listen to the freeway, millions of cars running their engines down while spewing carbon dioxide.  Listen further.  If you’ve gotten used to it, you’re not listening hard enough: listen until you go insane.”

But if we’re all going to sing our own tunes, not knowing if these tunes are authentically our own (and Horkheimer and Adorno’s “Culture Industry” essay should have made us doubt THAT), some of us might as well write up some musical prose that sings a discordant halt to the march to mass destruction.  American literature could do much, much worse.

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