Snuff Civilization by Derrick Jensen
Had somebody snuffed civilization in its multiple cradles, the Middle East would probably still be forested, as would Greece, Italy, and North Africa. Lions would probably still patrol southern Europe. The peoples of the region would quite possibly still live in traditional communal ways, and thus would be capable of feeding themselves in a still-fecund landscape.
Fast forward a few hundred years and we can say the same in Europe. Somehow stop the Greeks and Romans, and the indigenous people of Gaul, Spain, Germany probably still survive. Wolves might howl in England. Great auks might nest in France, providing year-round food for the humans who live there.
Salmon might run in more than token numbers up the Seine. The Rhine is almost undoubtedly clean. The continent is forested. Many of the cultures are matrifocal. Many are peaceful.
Had someone brought down civilization before 1492, the Arawaks would probably still live peacefully in the Caribbean. Indians would live in ancient forests all along the Eastern seaboard, along with bison, marten, fisher. North, Central, and South America would be ecologically and culturally intact. The people would probably have, as always, plenty to eat.
Had someone brought down civilization before the slave trade took hold, 100 million Africans would not have been sacrificed on that particular altar of economic production. Native cultures might still live untraumatized on their own land all across that continent. There probably would be, as there always was, plenty to eat.
If someone had brought down civilization one hundred and fifty years ago, those who came after probably could still eat passenger pigeons and Eskimo curlews. They could surely eat bison and pronghorn antelope. They could undoubtedly eat salmon, cod, lobster. The people who came after would not have had to worry about dioxin, radiation poisoning, organochloride carcinogens, or the extreme weather and ecological flux that characterize global warming. They would not have had to worry about escaped genetically-engineered plants and animals. There probably would have been, as almost always, plenty to eat.
If civilization lasts another one or two hundred years, will the people then say of us, “Why did they not take it down?” Will they be as furious with us as I am with those who came before and stood by? I could very well hear those people who come after saying, “If they had taken it down, we would still have earthworms to feed the soil. We would have redwoods, and we would have oaks in California. We would still have frogs. We would still have other amphibians. I am starving because there are no salmon in the river, and you allowed the salmon to be killed so rich people could have cheap electricity for aluminum smelters. God damn you. God damn you all.”
I know someone whose brother demolishes buildings. The trick, he says, is to position the charges precisely so the building collapses in place, and doesn’t take out the surroundings. It seems to me that this is what we must do: position the charges so that civilization collapses in on itself, and takes out as little life as possible on its way down.
Part of the task of the rest of this exploration is to discover what form those charges will take, and where to put them.
The past few weeks I’ve been in crisis. I’m scared. Scared of the implications of this work. Scared to articulate what I know in my heart is necessary, and even more scared to help bring it about. I mean, we’re talking about taking down civilization here.
Last night I was at my mom’s eating dinner and watching a little March Madness—the NCAA basketball tournament—and I kept thinking, as I watched UNC-Wilmington hold off USC in overtime after blowing a nineteen-point lead, a variant of the question my friend asked about what right I have to not let people live in cities. There are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people having fun watching these games. They’re not trying to exploit anyone. They’re not trying to kill the planet. What right do I have to so alter their lives?
I’m not saying there would never be games again, because the lives of traditional indigenous peoples the world over are far more full of leisure and play than ours. I’m just saying that bringing down civilization would cause substantive changes in the way these people spend their time. And they may not—evidently they do not—want to change.
The answer came to me today. It’s the same answer I gave my friend, which is that I think it’s the wrong question. The question is: what right do all of these people have to destroy the lives of others by their very lifestyle?
It’s hard. I would have no moral or existential problem destroying the lifestyles of those in power. The politicians, CEOs, generals, capitalist journalists. Those who, if faced with a Nuremberg-style tribunal, should and would find themselves at the end of a rope for their crimes against both the natural world and humanity. But what about Americans just trying to love their children and take them to the amusement park once a month, to buy them toys, to get them an education so they can get a job? If I were directing a movie instead of writing a book, it might be appropriate for me to add a montage of images of everyday life in civilization. Young children dancing to YMCA at a minor-league baseball game. An audience watching Hamlet trying to decide whether he should kill the murderous king (You do regularly go to Shakespeare festivals, don’t you?). People walking the aisles of independent bookstores, stopping to pick titles from the shelves. An ice cream truck. A picnic. But then to round out the montage I’d have to include children starving because the resources they need to live have been stolen, denuded hillsides, blasted streams, dammed and polluted rivers (I just heard that most of the rivers of southern England are so hormone-polluted that more than half of the male fish—in some cases all—are changing gender), prisons full of bored adults who’ve been convicted of crimes, factories full of bored adults who’ve not been convicted of crimes but are nonetheless sentenced to years of tedium, classrooms full of bored children being prepared for their boring lives in office or factory, factory farms full of bored (and tortured) chickens, pigs, cows, or turkeys, laboratories full of bored (and tortured) chimpanzees, rats, rhesus monkeys, mice.
The question quickly becomes: what rights do people have? More specifically, does anyone have the right to enslave another? More specifically yet, does any group of people have the right to enslave others—human or nonhuman—simply because they have the power to do so, and because they perceive it as their right (and because they have created a propaganda system consisting of intertwined religious, philosophical, scientific, educational, informational, economic, governmental, and legal systems all working to convince themselves and at least some of their human victims it is their right)? If not, what are you going to do about it? How much will it take? How far will you go in order to stop those in power from enslaving—and killing—the mass of humans, and in fact the planet?
I often give talks, at universities and elsewhere. I gave one such talk last week. Just before I walked on stage, the person who brought me there whispered, “I forgot to tell you, but I publicized this as a speech about human rights. Can you make sure to talk about that?”
I nodded agreement, although I had no idea what to say. Everything that came to me was tepid, along the lines of “Human rights are good.” I may as well say I’m for apple pie and the girl next door. Even though I didn’t tell her this, I think she read my face. She smiled nervously. I smiled twice as nervously back. It’s a good thing we weren’t playing poker.
She went out to introduce me. I thought and thought, and wished there were a lot more upcoming events for her to talk about. I wished she would start announcing the day’s major league baseball scores. I wished she would forecast the weather, and tell the fortunes of the people in the front row. But she didn’t do any of that, and soon enough it was my turn. As I walked on stage, however, I suddenly knew what I had to say, and was reminded, as I often am, how quickly the mind can work under pressure, or at least how quickly it can work those times it doesn’t seize up altogether. “Most people,” I said, “who care about human rights and who talk about them in a meaningful fashion, as opposed to those who use them as a smokescreen to facilitate production and implement policies harmful to humans and nonhumans, usually spend a lot of energy demanding the realization of rights those in power give lip service to. Sometimes they expand their demands to include things—like a livable planet—people don’t often associate with human rights. People have a right to clean air, we say, and clean water. We have a right to food. We have a right to bodily integrity.
Women (and men) have the right to not be raped. Some even go so far as to say that nonhumans, too, have the right to clean air and water. They have the right to habitat. They have the right to continued existence.”
People nodded. Who but a sociopath or a capitalist—insofar as there is a difference—could disagree with any of these?
“But,” I continued, “I’m not sure that’s the right approach. I think that instead of adding rights we need to subtract them.”
Silence. Frowns. The narrowing of eyes.
“No one,” I said, “has the right to toxify a river. No one has the right to pollute the air. No one has the right to drive a creature to extinction, nor destroy a species’ habitat. No one has the right to profit from the labor or misery of another. No one has the right to steal resources from another.”
They seemed to get it.
I continued, “The first thing to do is recognize in our own hearts and minds that no one has any of these rights, because clearly on some level we do perceive others as having them, or we wouldn’t allow rivers to be toxified, oceans to be vacuumed, and so on. Having become clear ourselves, we then need to let those in power know we’re taking back our permission, that they have no right to wield this power the way they do, because clearly on some level they, too, perceive themselves as having the right to kill the planet, or they wouldn’t do it.
Of course they have entire philosophical, theological, and judicial systems in place to buttress their perceptions. As well as, of course, bombs, guns, and prisons. And then, if our clear statement that they have no right fails to convince them—and I wouldn’t hold my breath here—we’ll be faced with a decision: how do we stop them?”
A lot of people seemed to agree. Then after the talk someone asked me, “Aren’t these just different ways of saying the same thing?”
I wasn’t sure what she meant.
“What’s the difference between saying I have the right to not be raped, and saying to some man, ‘You have no right to rape me’?”
I was stumped. Maybe, I thought, my mind actually had seized up, only so completely that I hadn’t known it. The reason the words had come so quickly is because they were just a recapitulation of the obvious. I have a few male friends who routinely take something someone else says, change a word or two or invert the sentence structure, and then claim it as their own great idea. I’ve been known to do that myself. But then I realized there’s an experiential difference between these two ways of putting it. A big one. Pretend you’re in an abusive relationship. Picture yourself saying to this other person, “I have the right to be treated with respect. ”Now, that may developmentally be important for you to say, but there comes a point when it’s no longer appropriate to keep the focus on you—you’re not the problem. Contrast how that former statement feels with how it feels to say: “You have no right to treat me this way.” The former is almost a supplication, the latter almost a command. And its focus is on the perpetrator.
For too long we’ve been supplicants. For too long the focus has been on us.
It’s time we simply set out to stop those who are doing wrong.
Before I go any further, I need to be clear that it’s not up to all of us to dismantle the system. Not all of us need to take down dams, factories, electrical infrastructures. Some of us need to file timber sale appeals, some need to file lawsuits.
Some need to work on rape crisis hotlines, and some need to work at battered women’s shelters. Some need to help family farmers or work on other sustainable agriculture issues. Some need to work on fair trade, and some need to work on stopping international trade altogether. Some need to work on decreasing birth rates among the industrialized, and some need to give all the love and support they can to children (I’ve heard it said that the most revolutionary thing any of us can do is raise a loving child).
One of the good things about everything being so fucked up—about the culture being so ubiquitously destructive—is that no matter where you look—no matter what your gifts, no matter where your heart lies—there’s good and desperately important work to be done. Know explosives? Take out a dam. Know how to love and accept children, how to teach them to love themselves, to think and feel for themselves? That’s what you need to do.
If you agree with my premises and arguments, yet find yourself for whatever reason unable or unwilling to take the offensive, your talents are still needed. I think often of the military tactic called Hammer and Anvil, used most famously by Robert E. Lee at the battle of Chancellorsville. Lee kept Anderson’s and McLaws’s divisions in place while sending Stonewall Jackson’s corps around the enemy’s flank to crush that part of the opposing army between Jackson’s hammer and Anderson’s and McLaws’s anvil. Both parts—offense and defense—were, and are, necessary.
At another talk, this one last fall, a man asked a question I’d never heard before: “If 10,000 people lined up ready to do your bidding, what would you say to them?”
My answer was immediate: “I’d tell them sure as hell not to listen to me.”
His was just as fast: “That’s a copout. How many dams could 10,000 people take down? People know how bad things are, but they don’t know what to do. They want to be told. That’s your responsibility. What’s the purpose of writing if you don’t tell us what to do?”
I shot back: “Instead of telling me what hypothetical readers want, tell me what you want.”
“Do you want me to tell you—”
“—what to do?”
He nodded, then said, “You’ve had more time....”
“Okay,” I said. “Tomorrow, go to Barton Springs”—Barton Springs are a set of defining, and critically imperiled, springs in Austin, huge and beautiful, dying before the eyes of those who live there and love them—“and sit.”
“Wait until the springs tell you what to do.”
“Why won’t you—”
“I just did. Barton Springs know this region much better than I. They know what this region needs, know what sustainability looks and feels like here. The springs are much smarter than I am. They’ll tell you exactly what to do.”
Somebody else asked, “Is it Barton Springs?”
“Yes,” I said,“ And no. It’s everywhere. Just listen. Not to me. To yourself. And to the land.”
Derrick Jensen is the author of numerous books, including A Language Older Than Words and The Culture of Make Believe, the first two parts of a rough trilogy of which Endgame is the third. The first concerns the question of how we make ourselves sane in an insane culture. The second asks: now that you are sane, what do you see when you really look at this culture? And the third asks what you are going to do about it. He has also written extensively about deforestation, domestic violence, education, technology, surveillance, science, and racism.
Derrick Jensen is also a long term grassroots environmental activist who has worked on issues surrounding deforestation, dam removal, restoration of habitat for salmon and other fish, habitat improvement for amphibians, and the promotion of organic farms and the preservation of family farms. He has taught at Eastern Washington University and Pelican Bay State Prison, and has given lectures at scores of universities and colleges across the country.