A Politics of Gentleness: towards a critical vernacular ecology

The following talk was given at Peace House in Oxford on the 21st November, 2013, during a workshop on Gentleness, Trust, and Activism, as part of the Northumbria University project, “Effectiveness in Action: Exploring the role of the Durkheimian ‘sacred’ in motivating community action, using reflexive and gently disruptive co-research methodologies.” The talk includes discussions of:

– What I mean by gentleness
– What I mean by ‘power’
– What I mean by a politics of gentleness
– What I mean by enclosure
– What role the ‘elimination of uncertainty’ plays in enclosure
– What I mean by a ‘critical vernacular ecology’ and its relevance to the practice of everyday life

The following link will direct you to the soundcloud page where you can listen to the talk in its entirety:

A Politics of Gentleness: towards a critical vernacular ecology

The (slightly edited) transcription follows below:

Just to throw the cat among the pigeons, I am an advocate of gentleness.  I am not an advocate of non-violence.  I’ll explain that later, maybe, if you ask me.

Right, for many years I’ve been doing many things. I did a lot of ethnography among people who do Irish music and Irish singing for quite a while during the 1990s. During the mid-1990s I was very interested in social and ethical dynamics among Irish traditional musician, particularly the ways in which the social and ethical dynamics among Irish traditional musicians were under pressure from the encroachments of intellectual property thinking and copyright thinking. Around 1995 to the year 2000 was a real cauldron time for the commodification of Irish musical practice, in terms of commercialisation, in terms of education, in terms of performance, in terms of copyright. Lots of things between 1995 and the year 2000 coalesced, and that cauldron of change is, I suppose, the origin story for a lot of the work that I’ve since done.

My main interests at the moment are what I call cultural climate (which other people might call emotional climate), the quality of relationship, the quality of spaces that we have at various times, the ways in which these change from one way to another way, the way in which they might, in some people’s eyes, get worse and in other people’s eyes get better.

I’m also very much focused at the moment on the issue of culture change. When I talk about culture change I mean it very much from the perspective of what for me are the functions of theory.  And when I say theory I simply mean thoughtful practice. But I also mean theory in the sense that theory, thoughtful practice, hopefully helps me reduce the possibilities of coercion, violence, domination and oppression in my own relationships and, by invitation, in the relationships of others, and, secondly, hopefully allows me to come to a greater understanding of what the conditions for human flourishing might be and how we might work towards actually establishing those within our own lives, our own relationships, and, by invitation, in the lives or relationships of others.

At the heart of my work is this word “gentleness”.  I don’t have a definition for gentleness but I will say what I mean by gentleness.  What I mean by gentleness is the quality of relationship that happens when the elimination of uncertainty does not dominate in relationship in a particular environment.  It is the quality of relationship that simply happens.  It’s the quality of relationship that we can trust will likely happen when the elimination of uncertainty in its various forms does not dominate in a particular environment.

And when I say gentleness I also work on the principal of “multiple vocabularies”.  I understand the concerns about the etymology of the term gentleness and its relationship to class structure and class histories.  So, one of the ways in which I talk about gentleness is with the idea of multiple vocabularies.  I might say “gentleness” but other people might say “kindness” or “couthiness” or “decency” or “generosity” or “hospitality” or “trust”. What’s of interest to me isn’t so much the word or the words that I use but the quality of relationship that is being spoken about behind or underneath those words. [Lift the words up and look underneath them]. And for me it’s that quality of relationship that comes from the withness and the hereness of people in space when the elimination of uncertainty does not dominate as an ethic within that space.

Now I imagine when I say the elimination of uncertainty that I’m not just talking in terms of kind of heady, cerebral philosophers like Descartes who seek to eliminate uncertainty and eliminate all doubt in everything they do, I’m talking about the quest for perfection, the quest for control, the quest for saturating, the quest to fix.  You know, many things which are frequently associated with patriarchal qualities but which can be found in many forms and many places and in my own life and many other people’s lives. That quality of the elimination of uncertainty, for me, is the driving factor of the shitty stuff. It’s the heart of what makes things crap.  It’s also the heart of what makes things-crap have an expansionary quality to them, and that is a core part of what I’m going to be talking about for the next few minutes.  It isn’t just that things get bad.  Is it when things are bad they get worse when they work within their own gravities and their own logic, and that is crucial to all of this. It’s why it’s not enough to just stand there and say, “I don’t like that”.  Things get worse if we don’t do something about them when they are based around the elimination of uncertainty.

The elimination of uncertainty for me is the engine of enclosure. When I studied enclosure for quite a number of years I tried to study enclosure historically, looking at enclosure of the commons, and I stayed away from the notion of the commons eventually because I noticed that a lot of the ways in which people would talk about the commons for me were actually versions of enclosure, so I found the rhetoric of the commons was frequently misleading and I sort of moved away from it. I’ve now moved back to it in a different form but I’ll maybe talk about that later.

The notion of enclosure for me refers to an expansionary dynamic that happens when the elimination of uncertainty ethic dominates. It involves a very key thing and something that is to be found across many different situations where things simply get worse. The expansion comes from … [I pick this up later].

I’d found a lot of people who described enclosure historically and currently. But in terms of explaining it … how will I know when I’m participating in it? That’s the key problem. How can I understand something psychologically enough that I know that I myself am participating in it, whether it’s enclosure or commodification or what have you. Show me somebody out there who talks about commodification in a way that I can understand when I am participating in it. I haven’t been able to find anyone. And so that was a part of my core quest as a thinker was to try and understand commodification and enclosure in a way that I could understand my own participation in it.  How was I making things worse when they were getting worse?  How was I making things worse when they were getting worse, even when I thought I was making them better?  How could I understand the misguided (sometimes) best intentions that I might bring to something, and still make things worse?  So that was at the heart of what I was trying to make sense of.

And at the heart of it as well, bringing us back to [talking to Clare Cochrane] your exploration of activism … at the heart of it for me was the assumption that there is no time when activism does not happen. There is not activism and non-activism. There’s not action and non-action. And this gets to the heart of what people might understand as the notion of power.

If you look at the literature you generally find that power means either the ability to control resources, or the ability to engage in goal-directed action, or the ability to control behaviour of others, or variations on those.  So, power is generally a very directive way of thinking about how we engage relationships with other people.

If you follow that line of thinking then you come to the first of what I think of as 4 points of a “critical vernacular ecology”. “Vernacular” in the sense of “ordinary-life” ecology.

First point is … if you go to the orthodoxies of political and social thinking, and economic thinking … the quieter forms of life, the people who are gentle, the people who are hospitable, the people who are generous, the people I have admired most in my lifetime whether as relatives or as friends, those people are not visible within social and political theory.  Not only are they not visible, they are not possible within social and political theory. They’re neither visible nor possible and they’re not possible because they’re not plausible. They’re not visible, they’re not plausible, they’re not possible, therefore they tend to be rendered automatically irrelevant to social and political theory in terms of the orthodoxies that are present in the academic world, and by association irrelevant to influence in governmental state politics and in various other forms of life.  And to our school system, and God knows what else.

One of the key things for me has been to think, okay, hold on a second, and this is the second point, that not only are these quieter forms of politics for me invisible, impossible, implausible,  and irrelevant for a lot of people, but they are also a deeply deeply human and deeply, deeply powerful, and I think the most powerful way of being human. They have deep within them huge potential for us to learn about the realities of politics, the realities of making a difference.

And at the heart of trying to understand that I came to a new understanding of power. To step away from the idea of control and step away from the idea of goal-directed action. To step away from the idea of controlling other people’s behaviour. To move towards something that doesn’t fall into the logic that says: only those who seek to control are powerful; those who do not seek to control are powerless. Therefore those people who I look to for power and influence and example within that framework would be powerless.  How [in contrast] could I work from a position where I would never be powerless, and the people I admire would never be considered powerless but would in fact be considered the height of power and the height of how we could and maybe should – that’s questionable – but how we could be making a difference in this world to achieve the optimal conditions for human flourishing in any particular environment.

And I came to the understanding of power as “the ability to vary experience”, whether the experience of oneself or the experience of others. That’s all. Power as the ability to vary the experience of oneself or others, in an anthropocentric sense, but you could expand that, of course, to the environment and to nature and to everything else around us, but within a kind of a social sense, I understand power as the ability to vary the experience of oneself or another. Like John Cassavetes, the filmmaker, who talked about “the power of small emotions”, or like Michel Foucault who talked about that sense of micro-politics, while also being really specific about it.

So this … [I move a glass on the table] is an act of power.  Silence becomes an act of power.  The interest isn’t whether something [or someone] is powerful or not, the interest is what the effects of power are. But saying somebody is powerless within that makes no sense whatever. So, the idea of powerlessness and powerfulness, and the idea of the state as the centre of power, for me, is just uninteresting. The question for me becomes … where is power happening? when is it happening? with what effects is it happening? and who’s involved?

Because within that framework we always-already make a difference, so to consider ourselves helpless is to misread the situation. The only question is, how do we make the difference that we make? How can we listen more to the possibilities of the differences that we might make within that situation? How can we identify the opportunities for making a difference in a more helpful way that increases the possibility of human flourishing and decreases and reduces the possibilities of domination, oppression, coercion and violence?

When I talked about non-violence earlier what I was referring to was the idea that for me the elimination of uncertainty is the core act of violence. It is a claim made in language about a reality which for me is always imbued with uncertainty and ambiguity and fuzziness and relationship and movement and flux. To eliminate uncertainty is to eliminate all of those things from your consideration. That for me is the core act of violence and I believe we always participate in it to some extent within the structures in our lives. So, for me, non-violence is not possible. Less violence is always possible.

For me, it’s about dominance. It’s about the dominance of the elimination of uncertainty. We can’t make ourselves pure and uncontaminated from a lot of the structures of violence that we find ourselves surrounded by, but we can reduce the influence of them within our own lives by becoming more self-aware and more community-aware in the way that we actually think about what we do.

So, one of the ways in which I was thinking about power was – I tend to think very visually … Generally when we think about power we think about power as control, usually in terms of state power and state authority. In terms of a centre of power. That’s very much the idea behind “speaking back to power.” When we say that, for the most part that’s the type of power that we’re talking about. We speak back to the centre of authority, the centre of those people who say things which shall not be challenged.

And [within this centre-periphery model of power] we occupy a very marginal place when we talk about the likes of gentleness or kindness or hospitality. We regard it as a very, very marginal part of the power conversation if it’s at all relevant. It’s probably actually way out here somewhere in this part [at or beyond the margin of the circle].

What I’m interested in saying is if you look at the vast majority of people and do an inventory of the amount of hours that people spend doing what they do, the vast majorities of people’s lives are spent, and this is crucially important to the education conversation, the vast majority of people’s lives are spent in informal [qualities of] relationship, in the quieter forms of life. If you were to do an inventory of what you do all day every day, most of it is pretty quiet and of low intensity. The vast majority of human life is informal, casual, non-institutional. That’s where most of the power in the world happens. That’s where most of the difference in the world is actually happening all day every day, and what we [normally] consider the centre of power is, actually, if you were to use a margins framework (which I’m not too happy about, but I’ll use it anyway), is marginal to that conversation of power [understood] as the ability to vary the experience of oneself or another.

So it inverts the conversation about power, and it says that placing a piece of paper in a box once every 4 years or 5 years or 7 years depending on which election you’re talking about, in whichever country, that’s not the vast amount of the difference that you’re going to make, within a framework of making a difference.  I’m not saying democracy, I’m not saying citizenship. Within a framework of making a difference the vast majority of the power that you’re going to engage in will be in things like … when your husband is dying of cancer, placing your hand on his hand and wiping his brow … holding your one-year-old son’s hand as you walk across the road, saying “take daddy’s hand” to make sure he doesn’t get killed as he walks across the road, waking up every morning to find your son [staring at you lovingly] and then spontaneously giving you a big slobbery kiss because he doesn’t know how to close his mouth yet.

Times when people are making a huge difference in each other’s lives but are not counted, these are not put in the reckoning of Politics with a capital ‘P’.  What I would suggest is, that this [formal, institutional qualities of power] could be called politics with a small ‘p’, and this [quieter, informal qualities of power] could be thought of as Politics with a capital ‘P’. I think it is really important to continually reassert that in the ways that we think about things.

So that’s the second point, that this is a very fertile way for making sense of how politics can be reconsidered. The third point is that these forms of life, of relationship, these qualities of relationship are deeply powerful and deeply important ways of identifying, critiquing and challenging elimination of uncertainty in politics.

The elimination of uncertainty, enclosure, has an expansionary heart. The way in which expansion happens within elimination-of-uncertainty enclosing politics is the extension of authority-as-certitude.  Basically somebody comes along and says “this is the way it is”. you take something off the supermarket shelf of thinking and you go, “Oh yeah I’ll get that, it’s great. I won’t look at the ingredients list on the side of the can, that’s grand. I’ll just take that, consume it, eat it, go home, be grand.”  Or you say, “Hold on a second … Certitude is the absence of doubt, absence of uncertainty. That’s just misrepresenting, grossly misrepresenting the way the world works, the way that experience happens, the way that relationships happen.”

The identification of the elimination of uncertainty is about saying, “Hold on a second, I disagree, I think differently.” This first of all automatically identifies the expansionary quality of it.  If nobody turns up and says hold on a second then you will never know that expansion is taking place, you’ll get the gentrification without dissent, for example. With the expansion of enclosure you will get the complete change of a community, the displacement of people’s values and ways of life and of people themselves around the world in wars all over the place. As a result of that vast power of people saying, “This is the way it is,” and people acquiescing and they themselves again in turn saying, “This is the way it is,” and living “This is the way it is,” and that expansion happening person by person by person by person.

But that quieter quality of politics is a way to actually make that visible. It is only really through the quieter politics that you can make that visible in any way that changes the equation.

Generally people start with the idea of human nature. Human nature is self interest; human nature is altruism; human nature is whatever it is, social, whatever. This is a huge frustration to me. It is one of the big traps of thinking in the English language, the idea that something is such and such; that it’s an equation, human nature equals such and such.  It avoids the challenge of diversity, it avoids the challenge of variety and one of the things that’s crucial in any understanding of social life and politics is to understand that human nature can be many, many things.  Human character can be many, many things.

What I ended coming up with in terms of looking at different contexts, looking at how people work, looking at human behaviour, looking at environmental design, and various other things …  You can look at everything and drive yourself crazy or you can look at a few particular things and try and find key variables in what happens to make sense of stuff.  So I came up with 3 key variables.

The 3 key variables were intensity of affect or emotion, the way in which that changes from moment to moment.  The intensity of affect or emotion will change in different circumstances.

A second key variable is directivity, things being more or less directive, more or less pushy and pully in terms of the gravities they have, either within us or around us, or from us or to us.

And then the third one is the way in which we relate to uncertainty, our relationship to uncertainty in language and thought, remembering that the elimination of uncertainty is merely a language claim that we make about the world.

What I discovered, though, is that these are direct correlates. [see The Cultural Climate Framework]

The more we try to eliminate uncertainty the more intensity we generate. The more we try to be intense the more elimination of uncertainty thinking becomes appropriate. The more highly directive ways of doing things become appropriate the more we try to be directive in terms of obligation, law, should, must, need to, have to. The more intense it becomes, the more elimination of uncertainty thinking becomes appropriate.

It’s about appropriateness-to-context. The idea is that if you were in an environment, and this is where it becomes core to understanding, if you’re in an environment which is dominated by the elimination of uncertainty, be it a highly controlled, highly ordered, probably a very top down organised environment, what will feel most appropriate within that environment, whether you’re for or against it, will be elimination-of-uncertainty thinking.

Opposition is one of the key responses to whatever happens in such an environment.  Opposition tends to be an elimination-of-uncertainty response, the idea that somebody is not you, and that you will oppose them.

The gravities increase the more you move towards the elimination of uncertainty and intensify and double back into themselves. Crucially, because working with the elimination of uncertainty brings us to misrepresent what’s going on, the more we think in terms of elimination of uncertainty, the more we think in terms of enemies and targets and things to fix and so on an so forth, things to be erased, the more blind we become to what’s actually going on, and, more importantly, blind to our participation in what’s going on.

So, one of the things that I’ve been very interested in as a fourth point of the critical vernacular ecology is the idea that we need new theory.  We need new theory from old wisdoms.  We need new ways of talking about what’s going on based on understandings that we have already had. This is my attempt, my contribution.

Core to this is an idea that is very familiar within Aikido, the notion that to improve a situation you “sidestep, enter and turn.”  Sidestep – when there’s a truck coming down the road you get out of the bloody way because it will run you over.  So you sidestep.  Then you go back into the situation at a point of lower intensity and you move with the situation in a way which will bring it to a lower intensity.

I’ve taken advice from a friend in Australia many times, don’t plant trees where they’re going to get cut down.  Two strikes and I’m out, now three strikes and I’m out now.  I’ll try twice and if I find that the trees are going to get cut down I’m going to move to somewhere where it’s more fertile because the importance is to keep the energy at a high level in terms of being out there rather than going in to places where damage-limitation will suck you dry.

Damage-limitation is crucially important, but if you spend most of your time up doing that in elimination-of-uncertainty zones you’re going to burn yourself out. What’s really, really important is to make forays into the difficult places and find a way to keep yourself balanced and not burn yourself out. To keep that balance, work-life balance I suppose, in a sense, so that, when you make your forays, now you have your armour, you are prepared, you are able to, in a sense, engage in some sort of martial art when you do damage limitation work. But when you come out of it, you yourself are not being defined by the logic of that which you are seeking to make better.

There’s a guy called Simon Sinek who does leadership work and he talks about how most people in leadership start with what they want to do, and then they identify how they’re going to do it, and then they think, “Oh I’m kind of doing something some particular way, I’m going to think about why I’m doing it now.” Sinek went around looking at all the different leaders … Martin Luther King, Steve Jobs, you know, , and he was looking at the way in which people who had a very clear purpose (“the why”) for what they were doing were often more successful in drawing other people to what they were doing.

Now I have misgivings about this because often people who are successful in drawing people to follow them are people who are all about the elimination of uncertainty.  I watched a documentary the other day about Hitler. He was a superb, a superb speaker. He was superb at drawing followers behind him. The faster your movement grows the more you should be suspicious of what quality it has. Very simple. Invitational movements grow really really slowly. Trauma happens really, really quickly but it takes year to actually heal from that trauma. The quicker what you are doing is spreading the more you need to question what you are doing. But what I would suggest, is what I call “How 2.0”, very pretentious of me. How 2.0 is not “how am I doing it?” but, “how do I want it to feel when it happens?”. “How do I want it to feel when it happens?” And that for me is the core. That is the core of this work.

In thinking about the elimination of uncertainty, and thinking about enclosure, and thinking about gentleness, or kindness, or whatever, when you lift the words up and look underneath, and look below those multiple vocabularies, the important thing is to think about “how do I want it to feel?”, and then when it’s happening “how does it actually feel?”. If it feels really, really intense than you’re into the “enclosure triad” – High intensity.  High directivity and elimination of uncertainty thinking. If what you are doing feels like that, it’s time to rethink.

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A Gentle Ferocity: An Interview with Derrick Jensen

As published in Dark Mountain, Vol. 1

Once, while living in Washington DC a few years ago, I went along to a talk by an ecological activist that I had heard a little bit about, Derrick Jensen. I arrived at the talk and found a few people starting to gather for the event.  Being a little shy, I moved on through and headed for the carrot sticks and cucumber at the back. I dawdled there for a while, rocking on my heels, waiting for the talk. I noticed that there was another guy standing quietly in the corner, keeping to himself, dressed in dark colours, not taking up very much space in the room. I generally feel more comfortable meeting people one-on-one, and I sidled over to say hello. It was Derrick Jensen.

Derrick Jensen is an amazingly prolific writer. From early works like A Language Older Than Words (2004) to more recent publications like Endgame (2006), Derrick’s writing offers us a sustained series of meditations on the possibilities of the personal as the political. I would find it hard to think of a writer who inscribes his thoughts with such a delicate combination of vulnerability and purpose. Whether you agree with him or not, one thing that cannot be fairly questioned is his integrity. His words sear with the honesty of his explorations of what it might mean to be human, and what it can mean to make a difference in the face of social, political, and environmental violence and catastrophe.

Although sometimes caricatured as an eco-warrior dam-buster, Derrick’s views are most often subtle, nuanced, and worked with the blood, sweat, and tears of someone who takes their responsibility as a writer very seriously indeed. For me, to read Derrick’s work is often to feel the presence of beauty in the crafting of thoughtful anger. The focus of Derrick’s ire is what he calls “the culture of civilization”, and this critique of “civilization” has been influential in the development of the Dark Mountain manifesto and the “uncivilisation” project at its heart.

As Derrick writes in Endgame, “I would define a civilization … as a culture—that is, a complex of stories, institutions, and artifacts— that both leads to and emerges from the growth of cities (civilization, see civil: from civis, meaning citizen, from Latin civitatis, meaning city-state), with cities being defined … 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.” In this analysis, the Tolowa, on whose land he now lives, were not civilized, as they lived in villages and camps, as they did for the last 12,500 years without destroying the place. This culture, on the other hand, Derrick explains, has destroyed the place in 150 years. Civilization, for Derrick, is a way of life that is inherently unsustainable: “If your way of life is based on the importation of resources then your way of living can never be sustainable. If you require the importation of resources it means you denuded the landscape of that particular resource. The way to live sustainably is by not harming your habitat, to improve your habitat by your presence. It’s what salmon do. It’s what Redwoods do. It’s what indigenous humans do. You don’t survive in the long run by exploiting your surroundings. You survive in the long run by actually improving your surroundings. Dolores LaChapelle taught me that it’s not survival of the fittest, it’s survival of the fit – how well you fit into your surroundings. What I’m saying to people who live in the cities or the country is this way of living is not sustainable, and we’re pretending it is. Denial doesn’t help anybody on this, except maybe to let you pretend that by changing light-bulbs that’s going to make a difference. And the real world is at stake here, so the very least we can do is attempt to be a little bit honest.”

Two things stood out for me as Derrick was speaking. The first was this notion of “survival of the fit”, and its emphasis on the principle of appropriateness-to-context. Another related point was something which I have always found very powerful in Derrick’s work, particularly in his work on teaching, which is an appeal to specificity. In Walking on Water (2004), Derrick writes that “specificity is everything, it’s the only thing we’ve got.” Is that sense of actually being present, being in place, and being connected to what’s around you, is that one of the core challenges, then?

“Yeah, I think one of the core challenges is to first acknowledge that place actually exists. The fundamental difference between western and indigenous ways of being is that westerners generally view the world as consumable resources to be exploited, as opposed to other beings to enter into a relationship with. The notion that the non-human world has anything to say is central to every indigenous culture, and it’s absolutely anathema to this culture which believes that we’re the only ones who have subjective existence. There’s a great line by Canadian lumbermen, “When I look at a tree I see dollar bills”. If all you see when you look at trees is dollar bills, then you’re going to look at them one way. If you look at the trees and see trees, you’ll look at them another way. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about trees or fish or women. If I look at women and see orifices, I’m going to treat them one way. If I look at this particular woman and see a particular woman, I’ll treat her differently. How we perceive the world affects how we behave in it and this culture has systematically driven us insane. John Livingstone wrote about how people perceive cities as being a place where you get overloaded with sounds and sights, but he believes it’s the opposite and I agree, that actually they’re places of sensory deprivation. In this moment, right now, look around and ask yourself, how many things do you see? How many beings do you see? How much of what you see around you, how much of what you perceive is either created or mediated by human beings as opposed to how much of what you see right now is not created or mediated by human beings? Right now I see a closet door, I see a bed, I see crutches, I see a dresser drawer, I see a computer, I see a sewing machine, I see a window. Out the window I see some Redwoods, and that’s through a glass. I hear a fan, I don’t hear any non-humans right now. And how many machines do you have a daily relationship with versus how many wild beings, plants or animals you have a daily relationship with? The point is that we’re living in an echo chamber, and you can start to believe your own hallucinations. And I agree with John Livingstone when he says that most of our ideologies are hallucinations. What’s real? What’s real is the real physical world.

“In order to survive the real world must be primary. I feel like an idiot having to say this, because it is still fundamental, and it is still stupid to live with anything else. The real world is what’s real, and the humans that come after are not going to give a shit about whether we were pacifists or not pacifists. They’re not going to give a shit whether we voted democrat or republican, green, whig, tory, whatever. They’re not going to care if we recycled. They’re not going to care about any of that stuff. What they’re going to care about is whether they can breathe the air and drink the water. What they are going to care about is whether the world can support them. The world is primary, because without the real world you don’t have any social system. 90% of the large fish in the oceans are gone and we are long past an emergency situation. We’re fighting for life on the planet here, and people are worried about the economy? It’s stunningly dishonest and it is insane.”

Derrick’s views have brought him quite a bit of attention, some adulatory, some dismissive, some spiteful. Some follow him as a visionary, some peg him as an extremist. I wondered about some of the reactions that he gets to his work. “I routinely get 400-600 people at talks, and I routinely get notes from people saying ‘Thank god, I thought I was the only person thinking these things, and I’m so glad’. I get these every day. Most of the hate mail I’ve gotten frankly has been from, has been horizontal hostility. I’ve gotten more than a thousand pieces of hate mail over the past ten years, and only two of those were from right-wingers. The others were from vegetarians because I eat meat, anti-car activists because I drive a car, pacifists because I don’t believe in pacifism. Basically, one way or another, lifestylists. Anarchists because I’m not anarchist enough for them, whatever. In one sense or another, they’re all lifestylists – people who believe that lifestyle change equals social change, and that’s where most of the vituperation towards me has come. The response has been almost entirely favourable.”

“But there’s no way that anyone can argue realistically that this culture is not killing the planet. This guy came up to me after a talk I did and he said, “You know, my friend (wink, wink), my friend says that it’s not time to fight back yet.” I said, “Well great, 90% of the large fish in the oceans are gone – you tell me when your friend thinks it would be okay to fight back – 91%? 92%? 93%? 94%? 95%? 96%? 97%? 98%? 99%?” And he said, “I don’t think it would ever be time to fight back”. And I said, “In that case we have nothing to talk about, do we?” At what point is it okay to fight back? Give me a threshold. And I think we really do need to put those thresholds in, because fundamentally we are all being driven insane by this culture. We should have stopped this culture long ago. I can’t imagine anyone of good heart who can’t see that this culture is effectively killing the planet. What’s the threshold?

One possible response to Derrick’s work is fear – fear of the future, fear about what we might do next. One of the key questions he asks in Endgame is, “Do we believe that our culture will undergo a voluntary transformation to a sane and sustainable way of living?” It seems quite obvious that his answer to this question is “definitely not!” Is it any wonder, then, as he has written elsewhere, that the most common response he has got from environmentalists is “We’re fucked!”?

“Which is good. That’s great, because we can’t begin to … hold on a second … I handwrote this the other day. “Before we can begin to use power on our own terms we must realise we are powerless on theirs. Much of the brilliance of the democratic experiment is “to con the powerless into believing they have power”. What has finally become clear to even the most obtuse is that we the people are powerless in this great democracy. The next turn of the screw was to con us into believing that our power lies in our power to consume, or in our inner power to be enlightened. But only when we realise that we are powerless in all these ways, will we be moved to use power in ways that do affect change.” One of the things I’m trying to do is to help form a culture of resistance that will move us towards effectively stopping this culture. Because, once again, we’re talking about life on the planet here. This is not some fricking computer game.”

There seemed to be an acknowledgement in Derrick’s handwritten statement that the dominant understandings of power tend to render us invisible and politically irrelevant in terms of their own logics. But was there also a glimpse of his trying to revalue the notion of power, trying to find other ways of thinking about power that will be helpful to us?

“I think one of the things we need to do, is we need to ask ourselves, what do we want? What is our goal? And that will help determine the ways we can manifest power and the ways we want to manifest power. I think for a lot of mainstream activists, their goal is to attempt to maintain civilization – they say so explicitly. I’m very clear in what I want. I want to live in a world with wild salmon. I want to live in a world with wild sturgeon. I want to live in a world with migratory songbirds. I want to live in a world with more large fish in the oceans every year than the year before. I want to live in a world with less plastic. I want to live in a world that has less dioxin in a mother’s breast milk. So that’s the first issue – I want people to think about what they want. And the next question is, how do you get there? What are the steps to getting there? We have to make some conscious choices. Right now I am choosing to talk to you on the telephone instead of choosing to blow up a dam, or instead of choosing to do anything else in the world. Whether I make it a conscious choice or not, it is a choice. This is one of the areas where I have got into it with pacifists because every moment we are making a choice and I am choosing to write over other forms of resistance but that doesn’t alter the fact that I am making choices. My point is there is culpability in inaction as well. Standing in the face of a complex situation and doing nothing or acting in your own personal way does not absolve you.”

For me, these discussions about specificity and the culpability lead us right to the heart of Derrick’s critique of hope. He has written that “hope is a longing for a future condition over which you have no agency. It means you are essentially powerless.”

“That definition is one I really like, and it’s how we talk about hope in everyday language. I don’t hope that I eat something today, I’m just going to do it. On the other hand, the next time I go on a plane, I hope it doesn’t crash, because I’ve no agency once I’m on a plane. If it’s going to crash it’s going to crash, there’s nothing I can do about it. You can do all the writing you want, I can do all the writing I want, we can all theorise however we want, but that doesn’t alter the fact that there are still dams standing. At some point the dams have to go. It’s doesn’t matter how they go, whether they go because you file a lawsuit, or whether they go because you take a sledge hammer or you blow them up, it doesn’t matter. The problem is the physical infrastructure of the dam. Yeah, there’s the personal stuff, too, the psychological stuff, but the fact is it’s not attitudes that are killing salmon, it’s dams, and yes there are attitudes that lead to dams (for god’s sake I’m a writer, I fully understand that, that’s why I was saying that we need to change perspective), but that doesn’t alter the fact that we don’t need to merely change perspective. We need to change physical conditions as well.

“And about the hope thing, I’m not a hope fascist. I attempt to be very clear. What I’m trying to get at with the whole hope thing is what we do and don’t have control over, what we do and don’t have agency over. A friend of mine whose brother was dying of cancer said to me, “So you’re telling me that I can’t hope that my brother survives”, and I said, “No, of course you can hope that your brother survives, but what I’m saying you can’t do is stand there with car keys in your hand and say ‘dear brother, I hope you make it to the hospital’. You drive your brother to the hospital”. So what I’m trying to get at is figure out what we do and don’t have agency over, and to expand the areas over which we do have agency but don’t perceive. Because one of the central points of any oppressive system is to attempt to get you to believe that you are powerless.”

It is well known that Derrick is committed to physical sabotage in principle. Could it not be said, though, that the blowing up of dams to save wild salmon, demonstrates the same kind of false hope that he critiques amongst mainstream environmentalists? Very few people are ever going to do this kind of thing, and if they do they will be caught and jailed very quickly. Eco-sabotage has been tried before many times. How could it ever reach the stage where it starts to bring civilization apart or even succeed on its own terms?

“Well, first off I can guarantee that if you have a defeatist attitude like that, it’s never going to happen. The best way to ensure it doesn’t happen is to pretend it can’t happen. Second, it actually is working right now. I have eight words for you. Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta. MEND. People in Nigeria have been able to reduce oil output by up to 40%, and they’ve done this by sabotage and kidnapping oil workers, and they’ve done this against the full might of the Nigerian government, oil companies, and of course the support of other governments around the world. It’s absolute nonsense to say that sabotage doesn’t work. What about the Pankhursts? Look at history? What about the IRA, for god’s sake? What about resistance against the Germans in World War II? The single strongest turning point in the French Resistance in World War II was a recognition that the German military was not invincible. As long as people propose that myth of the absolute omnipotence of the oppressors, we will remain oppressed to precisely that degree. I’ve a friend, and he’s great, he’s just this normal guy who didn’t like the coverage of the invasion of Iraq and so instead of just complaining about it, he went and filled a hole in his corner. What I mean by that is he just went to Iraq, and started reporting what was happening. I love this. Instead of sitting on his ass and thinking ‘they can’t do it’, he just did it himself. That goes to the heart of the whole hope thing. There’s this line by Thomas Jefferson, “in war, they shall kill some of us, and we shall destroy all of them”. And that’s one of the reasons that the dominant culture always wins, because that’s the attitude that they have taken, always, and the attitude the resistance has taken has been the one you mentioned – oh, if they do something they’ll catch us. Well, you know what? Fuck that, because there will be casualities in war, but we need to take on the attitude – “you know what, they may stop me, they may stop you, but we’re going to take out every last dam, we’re going to take out every last corporation.” What happens if we match their relentlessness with our own? Because the truth is, they want to win more than we do. That’s the bottom line. They have this insatiability. Most environmentalists don’t know what the fuck we want. What do we want? Maybe we want to live in a world that uses a bit less electricity and the electricity is made by wind farms, never mind what that does for bats? Let’s get clear on what we want, and let’s do it. And there will be generations. These struggles last a long time, and that’s how any social change comes about – you lose, you lose, you lose, you lose, and then you win. I mean that was the Suffragettes, the suffragettes were generation after generation. The Pankhursts went three generations. There’s generation after generation in the Irish struggle. There’s generation after generation in the civil rights struggle. The leaders of the civil rights movement in the fifties and sixties were the grandchildren of the Pullman Porters, and they themselves were the children and grandchildren of slaves. We have to dedicate ourselves to the struggle and we have to say, hey, yes, we’ll have setbacks, but it time it will be you that grows tired.

Given my own background, I felt drawn to reply to his use of the Irish example. “One of the things about the Irish example, which you’ve brought up yourself, is that for many of us living here, talking about “the Irish struggle” is so incredibly simplistic and it fits too neatly into the binary oppositions of war metaphors, it fits too neatly into-“

“I don’t give a shit about war metaphors. There is an enemy, and those enemies have names. James Inhofe, the capitalists in general, the capitalist system, and that’s one of the things we need to do. The first thing we need to do is we need to decolonise our hearts and minds. Salmon don’t get conflicted. Indigenous people I know don’t get conflicted, “oh we can’t get into a binary system of us and them’. It’s like, fuck that! Tecumseh knew who the enemy was, and yes, there is a binary system. The enemy is the capitalists, and the first thing we need to do, and every indigenous person says this to me, the first thing we need to do is to decolonise our hearts and minds, and as soon as we do that, as soon as we switch our allegiance to where we live, it becomes very, very clear. You can’t trump this by saying that’s a war binary metaphor or a war binary image. So what? It’s true, there are enemies, and they are my enemies, and the capitalist system, and the capitalists themselves are my enemies, and I’ve got no problem saying that.”

This raised a question for me about possible consequences of Derrick’s position. One of the many explicit assumptions in Endgame is the notion that “violence always flows in one direction”. I do sometimes wonder whether taking that stance can sometimes immunize us against critique of our own enactments of violence, maybe even guaranteeing that we are always on the side of the angels. Isn’t it important to leave more of a space for the critique of what we’re at?

“Gosh, do you think that after fifteen books I haven’t thought of this? Oh my god. Frankly the last few minutes have been really bugging me. I deal with this at length. In how many books have I mentioned Robert Jay Lifton’s “claims to virtue”? I talk about this in most of my books because it’s absolutely necessary. But Robert Jay Lifton talks about how before we can commit any mass atrocity you have to convince yourself that what you’re doing is actually in fact beneficial, and so the Nazis had themselves convinced that they were not committing atrocities, that they were not committing genocide against Jewish people, that they weren’t committing mass murder against Eastern Europeans, they weren’t killing homosexuals, Jehovah’s witnesses, etc. Instead what they were doing was purifying the Aryan race. Likewise, capitalists can convince themselves that what they are doing is not destroying the world, instead they’re developing natural resources. And this is true on a personal level. I myself have never once in my life been an asshole. Every time I’ve been an asshole I’ve had it fully rationalised. I am fully aware of the fact, and I write about this in every book. I am fully aware that one can rationalise atrocities and can convince oneself that one is actually doing good when one is actually doing harm, and that’s one reason why I’ve tried so hard in my books to attempt to develop a morality to figure out what can one base a morality on? And one of the things that I came to in Endgame is that clean water is the basis of a morality, because without clean water you die. And so, if something makes drinkable quantities of clean water, that’s a good thing, you can build up a morality from there. On the other hand, I realised that was actually not sufficient, because you can have a water purification system that temporarily creates, at a cost of great energy, temporarily creates drinkable clean water. That’s when I realised that the real question is, do you leave the real physical world a better place because you were born? Just because I recognise there are enemies of the planet that doesn’t mean I don’t remain open and fluid in my analysis.”

One of the reasons that I was enthralled by A Language Older Than Words was precisely because of it’s core of self-critique, its open exploration and critique of the logics of committing violence against violence, on a deeply personal level. It was easily the most honest self-interrogation I had come across. It was someone very clearly trying to make sense of their own experience of thinking and feeling and doing, within a context that was very clearly their own context. I think one of the reasons I was prodding him further on these things was very much because I value the courage in his work. Clearly Derrick self-identifies as a writer, not least because he is so incredibly prolific. Why is writing so powerful for him?

“One part of it is, as a friend of mine says, what are the most pressing problems you can help to solve given the gifts that are unique to you in all the universe? And I have a gift for writing and I need to use that. Like I was saying about my friend in Iraq, I saw a hole in discourse and I tried to fill it. I remember years ago talking to my friend Jeanette Armstrong about an essay that Ward Churchill had written attacking Jerry Mander, and I asked Jeanette what she thought about it and Jeanette said, “If Ward didn’t like it he should have written his own damn book”. That was probably fifteen years ago, and it has really stuck with me. If I don’t agree with somebody or another’s approach, what I should do for the most part is I should write my own damn book. I’ve been blessed to have a really active muse, and my muse is as frightened as I am of circumstances and is willing to push me as hard as I’ll go.

“I like to tell a story … I was watching The Battle of Algiers with a friend of mine. it’s a great movie about the Algerian resistance against the French, and I said to my friend, “So, who would I be in this movie?” And my friend said, “Oh, you’d be dead.” I said, “Oh, thank you very much.” “No,” he said, “you’ve been dead for thirty years and you’re books are on the bookshelves of the insurgents”. I have grown very clear over time about what my role is. My role is to put little pieces of wood and kindling and paper, to pile them up, and to put them just so, and to put some lighter fluid on that, and it’s somebody else’s job to light the match. My job is to get bringing down civilization to pass the lab test, you know? So that’s why I write, that’s what I’m good at. I was doing a video presentation for a class maybe a month ago, two months ago, and one of the people in the class said, “You know, I don’t buy it. Why are you really writing, because you should be out blowing up dams. I don’t buy that you do this because you’re better at writing than you are at chemistry.” (I stink at chemistry). I said, “Well, how many writers have you encountered who are actively calling for us to bring down civilization?” And she said, “one”. I said, “That’s why I write.” You know? There’s nobody else doing this work. One of the things people should do is find the place where you see a hole and fill it.

In 2007 Derrick wrote an extended preface to Ward Churchill’s Pacifism as Pathology, a book which directly addresses the question of whether violence is ever an acceptable tool to help bring about social change. The preface provides a short introduction to themes and issues explored at greater length in Endgame, with a particular focus on “dogmatic pacifism”. Point by point he addresses what he sees as the crucial weaknesses of pacifist positions, “deconstructing pacifist arguments that don’t make any sense anyway”. I wondered about his well-documented position on pacifism.

“I have a good time bashing pacifists in Endgame, but the truth is that pacifists were very, very important to the abolition struggle, for example. Harriet Tubman carried a gun, but many of the people in safe-houses along the underground railroad did not. They were run by pacifists. And my problem is not with someone being pacifist at all. I don’t give a shit what someone’s personal proclivities are. The important thing is, I think, to recognise that we need a range of resistance which includes everything from military resistance to absolutely non-military resistance. I was sharing the stage with this friend of mine, Carol Rathensberger, who’s a pacifist, she’s great, and at one point when we’re on the stage, she’s talking about, “Oh, you know a sustainable community would look like, and smell like, and here’s how we make decisions in a sustainable community”, and she went on and on, and she’s great, but I’m fidgeting in my chair the whole time, and she looks at me and says, “obviously you want to say something, Derrick, so what do you want to say”, and I said, “I love what you’re saying, but those in power are sociopaths and the culture itself is sociopathological, and how do we get there from here?” And she smiled at me really sweetly, and said “That’s your job to figure that out, Derrick.” I did a talk years ago at Bioneers, and it was really frustrating for me because as far as I know I was the only person there who was talking about either power or sociopathology. Lots of people were talking about all these groovy things you can do to relocalise and that’s great, but what are you going to do when it ends up there’s a resource on your land that those in power want? At some point we need to talk about self-defence. I’ve known some transition town people who combine relocalisation with firearms skillshare, and with making self-defence on both a personal and a community level a priority. I think that’s great. That’s the thing, you know, really, I’m suggesting with all this that we need it all.”

When Derrick talks about varieties of resistance, it seems important to me that we also talk about varieties of internal resistance. One of the things that I think is crucially important about Derrick Jensen’s work for pacifists is that if they don’t take his work or Peter Vanderloos’ work or Ward Churchill’s work seriously, then how are they going to realistically clarify their own positions?

“I agree totally. The same thing has happened the other way. I’ve been able to hone a lot of these arguments by having those disagreements with pacifists, or whatever. That’s one of the reasons I wrote Endgame, because I got in so many arguments with pacifists that I just wanted to write out the arguments once and for all so I could be done with it. I really like the definition of violence that violence is any act that causes harm to another. And I really like that because it shows the ubiquity of violence, and it demystifies it, and it leads to other questions. So, every time I defecate I’m killing gazillions of bacteria and every time I eat a carrot I’m killing a living being there, too. I think that most of us under most circumstances would agree that it’s morally acceptable to commit an act of violence against a carrot, to eat it. I think most of us under most circumstances would agree that it’s not morally acceptable to commit an act of violence against a human being. I think that’s pretty clear. What I want to find out is where do we individually, where do we collectively draw those lines, and that’s the discussion that I think is really interesting about violence. Is it morally acceptable to kill a carrot? Is it morally acceptable to raise a carrot in a factory farm situation? Is it morally acceptable to kill a chicken? Is it morally acceptable to raise a chicken in a factory farm situation? Is it morally acceptable to kill Ted Bundy? Is it morally acceptable to kill Sarah Palin? Is it morally acceptable to kill me? Where do you and where do I and where do we as a collective in our communities, and whatever social groups we want to talk about, I would like to make those as conscious as possible. That’s one of the things I want to do with my discussions. And if somebody says it’s never acceptable to kill a human being under any circumstances, it’s like, okay, let’s start throwing out … what about Hitler? In 1939, Georg Elser’s assassination attempt. And then to round the stuff out, because out discourse surrounding violence is just so squishy and ridiculous, and harmful, frankly.”

One of the things that Derrick has written is that he doesn’t “provide alternatives because there is no need”. But what I suggested to him was that one of the strongest parts of his work is that he is constantly providing alternatives, not necessarily in terms of what we should do, but in terms of other ways of looking at things. Is he inviting people to a more honed ethical awareness?

“Well, thank you. I really like that. That’s one of the nicest things you could say, and I don’t disagree with that at all. Yeah, I probably am not being clear that when I’m not telling people what to do. There are a few reasons for that. One of them is that I don’t know people and frankly I’ve been approached by some people who want to blow up dams who are either crazy, literally crazy as in think they’re Marie Antoinette or something, or who are very young, and there are many reasons why I would never suggest what that person do, one of which is that I don’t know them. Another is, that it’s one thing to talk to an adult, to talk to someone who is capable of making decisions for themselves, to have a discussion with them, and it’s quite another thing to have a discussion with someone who is either very young or otherwise has problems. I used to say that I’m a recruiter for the revolution, but then that’s not true. And one of the reasons it’s not true is because of what military recruiters do, where they basically try to con people into joining the military. And what I want people to do is to make informed decisions about what they need to do with their life.”

I suppose that’s one of the challenges of being a writer, I suggested. A lot of his work could very easily be taken as a banner for people to wave or a clarion call. I’m a great fan of lifting up words and looking underneath them to see what the attitude of the person is behind the words, beyond the words, but one of the challenges of writing is that many times readers don’t do that, they often just take the words and run. They might not be particularly interested in the bigger picture that the words suggest, taking  a particular page, or a particular sentence, or even a particular word and making of it what they will.

“There are a couple of things about that. One of them is, absolutely, I get misinterpreted all the time, and I used to take that more personally until I realised that I actually do that, too. I’ll read somebody else’s work and I get confused, and so I can see how that will happen. But people misinterpret me. I can say something that I think is pretty clear, and somebody will just take it wherever they’re going to go, and it’s like “gosh, I never actually said that”. I get pegged a lot of times as a violence guy, but I’m not at all, cause I recommend so many times that what we need is a full range of resistance.”

Derrick speaks a lot about the horrors of civilization, but what about the deconstruction of civilization? As his book Walking on Water (2004) showed, he also identifies very deeply as an educator. What role do we have as educators of each other in the unweaving of civilization?

“It’s like I said, that one of the first things we need to do is decolonise, and I think that we can help each other through that process, and it can help to have validation, to have a friend with whom you can have a conversation, and say, “Hey, the stock market went down three hundred points today”, and say “Yes, that’s great”, as opposed to having to explain why that’s not bad. I don’t have any friends any more with whom I have to revisit ‘Civilization Is Bad 101’. There was a time I kept questioning that, and I remember asking Jeanette Armstrong, who was one of my mentors many years ago, “do you ever question that everything you are thinking is wrong?” She said, “I used to question, but I don’t any more.” And I’m at that stage, too, where, you know, I used to question whether maybe I was just wrong about all of this stuff, but probably around writing Culture of Make Believe (2004), I thought, no, my analysis of the culture is right-on. There are other things that I still question, but I don’t question that any more, and part of that is being surrounded by friends with whom you don’t have to say why it’s bad for a creature to be driven extinct.”

Something that comes across in Derrick’s writing is that he is a person who loves life, a person who is also really very gentle in many ways, in spite of the intensity of his themes. I’ve stood in his presence, I know him to have the presence of what I would consider a very gentle person. It’s also interesting that I have heard him characterised by people who don’t know him as anything but gentle.

“It’s pretty funny, when Endgame came out I did this radio interview and about ten minutes into the radio interview, there were two hosts, they just burst out laughing and said, “You’re a nice guy! We were kind of expecting you to be pounding and spitting.” It’s pretty funny. On a personal level, I’m pretty non-violent. I’m not naturally a bellicose person. It used to kind of disturb me that I was writing about these issues, but then I thought, no, actually, I think I’m the person who should be writing about these issues, or one of the people who should. I’m not actually inherently an angry person at all. I’m pretty even tempered. I can get annoyed or whatever, but I think I’ve only shouted at two people, and one of those was my sister. Somebody said in a review of one of my books, and I really liked it. They said that I was almost pathologically unsentimental, and I like that. Not unemotional, obviously. I don’t really know what it means, but I like it.”

Special thanks to Derrick Jensen for agreeing to do this interview while recovering from surgery.