One of the things that will happen to you if you allow yourself to read straight through Derrick Jensen's book "Endgame: The Problem of Civilization," is that you'll have a lot of sand kicked in your face. You'll also feel that your own shelf-life may be about to expire. But rarely have I ever read anything that reaches such high levels of aliveness, absolute honesty, and refreshing courage. Jensen is a touchy writer of almost withering intensity, who believes that civilization has entered its endgame; its destructiveness is consuming the world--starving, imprisoning, and torturing it to death. When he writes about this, it is in a unique, peremptory, take-no-prisoners style.
"In the last 24 hours, over 200,00 acres of rainforest were destroyed. Thirteen million tons of toxic chemicals were released. Forty-five thousand people died of starvation, thirty-eight thousand of them children. More than one hundred plant or animal species went extinct because of civilized humans.
All of this in one day."
He's a firebrand, rhetorically bellicose, unafraid to offend. Which is what I most like about him. Here is a summary of some of his gut-wrenching observations and thoughts, put together loosely by me, in no particular order:
We all face choices. We can have ice caps and polar bears, or we can have automobiles. (Jensen claims that just manufacturing cars is even more polluting than driving them.) We can have dams or we can have salmon. We can have cardboard boxes or we can have forests.
From its opening to its end game, civilization has been nothing if not consistently narcissistic, domineering, and exploitative, with it's central supporting myth of the desirability of growth. What I'm proposing is that we look at our situation. And our situation is that we have overshot carrying capacity. The question becomes: what are we going to do about it?
No amount of comforts or elegancies are worth killing the planet and we have no right to do so. If only we weren't insane. If only there were even the slightest chance our culture would undergo a voluntary transformation to a sane and sustainable way of living. It's an impossible fantasy. There's no accountability in this culture, I must be honest with you, even at the risk of offending or alienating you. Believing that we can convert ever larger numbers of living beings to dead objects, trees or mountains into two-by-fours and beer cans, and that this is the primary goal of life, and making ourselves the beneficiaries of all this insanity and injustice, is insane.
The past few weeks I've been in crisis. I'm scared. 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 (before it takes us down). I want to stop the destruction. I want to stop it now. I'm not satisfied to wait for civilization to exhaust its physical and metaphorical soil, then collapse. In the meantime it's killing too many humans, too many non-humans; it's making too much of a shambles of the world. The longer we wait for civilization to crash--or before we ourselves bring it down--the messier will be the crash, and the worse things will be for those humans and non-humans who live during it, and for those who come after.
Jensen can be funny. One of the things killing the world, he feels, is the Detroit Tigers--because people care more about Detroit Tigers than about real tigers. And he hates pious pacifists who shun any use of violence to halt the atrocities. I can't help thinking, as I read him, of those lines by Dylan Thomas: "Do not go softly into that dark night/Rage, rage, against the dying of the light." Reading him is tonic to our incapacity to really face our predicament. For most people, it's too difficult a truth to share: that we're really fucked. It comes off, jensen says, as hope-bashing. (More on that to come in a subsequent post.)
"Two days ago," he writes, "I was at a meeting of local grassroots environmentalists. One longtime activist approached me to say, 'I read your books, and even if your facts are true and your analysis is correct--and it really seems they are--I cannot allow myself to go there, because I would not survive in this system. I need denial, even if I know that's what it is, and I need to hope that the system will change on its own, even if I know it won't."
As for me, I find Jensen's book trenchant and refreshing, like ocean air. The synchronistic, associative events of the past few weeks have bombarded my psyche like a missile, knocking me sideways. Maybe it's just that I'm coming out of denial. At the very least, I find myself in an alligator wrestle with everything I think. Virgil is twinkling benignly nearby. By now, he's gotten used to my mega-effects and extravagant conceits. For the moment, he's just sticking his neck out, but not saying anything, and waiting calmly for my distorted nervous system to be restored to its normal functioning.