This story is about a conversation Iíve been having with revolutionary environmental activist / thinker / talker / writer Derrick Jensen. The conversation started about two years ago. Itís not a real one ó the closest Iíve come to actually meeting the man was this past week when he spoke from his home in northern California to a half-full university auditorium in Regina, Saskatchewan through a choppy live video feed. Derrick sat in his study, an overflowing bookshelf in the background, his cat meowing from atop his lap and frogs singing from the cedar, pine and redwood forest outside. For two hours, he talked to us about everything from denial and despair to joy and love. Completely captivated, I let his garbled audio, pixilated image and crystal-clear ideas about our culture flood over me.
At home afterwards, I was ravenously hungry and barely able to string together a sentence ó as though being so totally engaged had sapped me of every bit of energy I had. But I noticed something strange about it: despite my exhaustion, a surplus of emotional energy bubbled up. My body and mind were drained, but my heart was (and remains) alive and awake.
My emotional alertness surprised me. Thereís just no getting around the fact that Derrickís work is profoundly threatening, and Iíd prepared myself going in for the very real possibility that his talk might devastate me. His purpose is not to cajole or sugarcoat, but to do whatever he must to save the salmon and trees and planet he loves. He speaks openly about the need to bring down civilization in order to stop the inherently unsustainable dominant culture, and he uses such words as ďapocalypseĒ and ďkilling the planetĒ and ďdespairĒ ó the kind of language that remains essentially taboo despite the physical realities we currently face. Anyone who attempts to engage with his work must be ready to question their entire worldview and all the assumptions they hold about the culture we live in.
For a long time I wasnít ready to do this. Iíve visited Derrickís website, had numerous conversations about his ideas, skimmed interviews with him ó but somehow A Language Older Than Words has sat on my bedside table for the better part of a year and a half, and Iím still less than 100 pages in. Itís not that I disagree with him or am in denial; itís actually just the opposite. I agree with Derrick that our culture is going in a fundamentally unsustainable direction. One day my eyes opened to the realization that no matter how much I will it or what action I take, it is distinctly possible that the world will be in worse shape when I leave it than when I arrived. This realization came unbidden, and when it happened despair flooded in. Hope drowned. I panicked and flailed.
That was nearly three years ago, and Iíve been managing despair ever since. Part of that has meant being careful about the amount and kinds of information I expose myself to. It doesnít mean I donít still think about the situation we face, because I do ó pretty well constantly. But I donít read a lot of books or watch a lot of TV or go to a lot of talks, because taking in more information hasnít seemed to help me cope. If anything, it makes me more anxious about not knowing how to appropriately respond in my own life. Instead, Iíve struggled away on my own in survival mode, doing whatever I can to protect myself enough to just keep going and figure out what comes after despair.
All that said, coming away from Derrickís talk feeling so emotionally robust left me very curious about what might have shifted. Nothing he said was anything I hadnít heard before or didnít understand, at least intellectually. But it was as if his words settled overtop all the questions Iíve been battling for the last three years, and the knowledge finally synched up in a way that I could hold and not break. In my heart we had this conversation:
me Derrick, this work is so heartbreaking. At a certain point my hope just went away, and I hit a wall of despair. I felt desperate, and all I could think to do was to try anything and everything to manage it ó to medicate it. Meditation, yoga, living at an ashram, traveling, taking a sabbatical, overworking, being with family, being with friends, gardening, writing and reflection, community involvement, crushes. It was as though I was compulsively trying everything I could think of to escape the despair.
Iíve actually found it quite liberating to simply feel despair. Despair is an appropriate response to a desperate situation.
One day I was just sobbing, and I called up a friend of mine, Jeanette Armstrong, who is an Okanagan Indian, writer and activist. I said to her, ďThis work is just killing me. Itís breaking my heart.Ē And she said, ďYeah, itíll do that.Ē And I said, ďThe dominant culture hates everything, doesnít it?Ē And she said, ďYeah, it does. Even itself.Ē And I said, ďIt has a death urge, doesnít it?Ē And she said, ďYeah, it does.Ē And I said, ďUnless itís stopped itís going to kill everything on the planet, isnít it?Ē And she said, ďYeah, it is. Unless itís stopped.Ē And then I said, ďWeíre not going to make it to some great new glorious tomorrow, are we?Ē And she thought for a moment and then she said the best thing she could possibly say, which was, ďIíve been waiting for you to say that.Ē
The reason it was the best thing she could say was that it normalized my despair. It let me know that despair is an appropriate response to a desperate situation; the sorrow is just sorrow and the pain is just pain. Itís not so much the sorrow or even the pain that hurts, as it is my resistance to it. It let me know that I can feel all those things and it wouldnít kill me. Thereís this idea that if you really recognize how bad things are you have to go around being miserable all the time. But the truth is Iím really happy, and I am full of rage and sorrow and joy and happiness and contentment and discontent. Iím full of all those things. Itís okay to feel more than one thing at the same time.
me I can get there on an intellectual level, but despair wants to eat the joy and happiness up. My mind does acrobatics trying to talk myself through it. My favourite is this one: I feel despair. Despair is not a sustainable state. If despair is not sustainable, then it must end. The possible ends I can perceive are 1) hope returning; 2) voluntarily or involuntarily ending my participation (i.e., death) or 3) waiting out despair until I figure out what comes after. Therefore, if I sit with the despair for long enough it will morph into something beyond despair (I just donít know what!). Lesson: Stay with it and donít panic!
Some people say, if things are so bad, why donít you just kill yourself? Part of the answer is that Iím having a lot of fun. Itís tremendous fun to fight back. What a gas.
The other thing that happened when I was talking to my friend Jeanette was I realized that not only could I feel all those things and it wouldnít kill me; even better, I could feel all those things and it would kill me. Thereís a wonderful thing about being dead, which is that once youíre dead they canít touch you anymore. Not through threats or violence or promises or buying you off. You can still sing and dance and make love and fight like hell, but they canít touch you.
My father was extremely violent. One of the reasons my mother stayed with him was that there werenít battered womenís shelters in the 1950s and í60s. But another reason was because of the false hope that he would change. False hopes bind us to unlivable situations and they blind us to real possibilities. We need to eradicate them ruthlessly. Thatís one of the things that happens when you die like that ó you have all your illusions stripped away.
The problem is not only false hope, but hope itself. I was doing a talk in Colorado several years ago and I was bashing hope. Someone in the audience shouted out, ďWhatís your definition of hope?Ē And I thought, Oh my god, Iíve been bashing hope for years, I have no idea. So I asked what their definition of hope was, and they came up with, ďHope is a longing for a future condition over which you have no agency.Ē Thatís how we use it in everyday language. Iím going to commit to you right now, in public, that Iím going to eat something later tonight. On the other hand, the next time I get on a plane, I hope it doesnít crash, because thatís out of my control. I have no agency. But what Iím really interested in is the agency. I donít hope that coho salmon survive. Iíll do whatever it takes to make sure they survive. I donít have to hope.
me The hardest thing about despair has been not knowing how to talk about it. It feels taboo to admit to not having hope. Itís held up as this grand, unassailable human quality. At times Iíve felt very isolated, because when I try to broach despair, itís like people donít want to hear it ó or maybe that they canít even hear it. Half the time I feel insane.
In my own family structure, we could talk about anything we wanted, except for the violence we had to pretend wasnít happening. You can see this in dysfunctional families all the time. In the larger scale, it means that we can talk about anything we want except for that the culture is killing the planet. So we can talk about sustainable development, March Madness, baseball, Brad and Angelina. We can talk about all these things, but we can never talk about the fact that this culture has never been and will never be sustainable.
Itís like a lot of my American Indian friends tell me, that the first thing you have to do is decolonize your hearts and minds. Part of that is to break through the denial that this culture is based on.
Whatís really important is to have a loving community around you that will support you in that process, so that every time you talk to them about something you donít have to revisit Civilization is Bad 101. Thatís so important. If youíre surrounded by a community that also cares about those things, then yes, itís a huge process to go through ó incredibly painful, but absolutely worth it.
me I see people like you doing your work, and it seems so clear to me that the answer in my own life is to find my most authentic voice and then just use it to sing, holler, laugh and cry as long and hard as I need to. If I find my voice, I feel like Iíll be able to be most effective, joyful, sane. But then I feel guilty, like itís never going to be the right thing, or itís never going to be enough. What does the change we need look like?
Itís a billion different acts by a billion different people ó a bazillion different people, including non-human people.
First off, itís about aligning ourselves with the real world, and redefining ourselves as human animals that need habitat. That includes putting the planet first. Itís embarrassing to have to say that the real world comes first.
So thatís the first part. After that, my definition of bringing down civilization, which is still abstract, is to deprive the rich of their ability to steal from the poor, and to deprive the powerful of their ability to destroy the planet. What does that look like on a practical level? It looks like everything, from writing books to filing timber sale appeals, to fighting like hell against the transnational oil corporations, to using any means necessary to stop them, whether that is courts or public opinion or any other means. It involves people acting individually and in organizations. It involves fighting for your lives, because thatís what weíre talking about at this point.
I get sort of annoyed when people call me the ďviolence guy.Ē Iím not the ďviolence guyĒ ó Iím the ďwe need it all guy.Ē We desperately need it all. So what bringing civilization down looks like is people fighting to defend the places they love. It looks like doing everything.
The point is that the split is not between violence and non-violence, or fighting back or not fighting back, or whatever. The split is between action and non-action.
me So what action do I take?
What I always say is that I donít want you to listen to me, because I donít live there, and I donít know how to live sustainably, here or there. What I want you to do is to go to the nearest forest and ask it what it needs. Go to the nearest river and ask it what it needs. Go to the nearest soil and ask it what it needs. Go to the nearest indigenous nation and ask them what they need. Just be of service. If you ask the land there what it needs, it will tell you. Then really the only question is: Are you willing to do it?
I am right in the middle of trying to answer that question. I want to make a difference, but to do that I have to stay sane, and find ways to hold joy and despair simultaneously. I must keep learning how to ask and listen for answers, and to know what actions I can take that will be most effective and keep me most alive.
And I think I am learning. The fact that I could come away from Derrickís talk with eyes wide open but with a light heart seems to point to possibilities I couldnít imagine even three months ago. So Iím going to keep doing what Iím doing ó tending my garden and doing yoga and volunteering in my community and making art and building relationships and sitting in meditation. Iím going to keep doing these things ó and Iím going to keep asking and keep listening, and keep feeling the whole beautiful mess of emotions that I am complicated enough to bear. And through it all, Iím going to keep asking myself what more I am willing to do.
Derrickís portion of the conversation is drawn from the talk he gave via video conference at the University of Regina on March 27, 2008.