A few nights ago, as a part of Eastern Michigan University’s weeklong “Activism and Education” festivities, noted author and environmental activist Derrick Jensen addressed students and members of the Ypsilanti community at Pease Auditorium. What follow are my very rough notes. As I spent half my time mopping sweat from my red, wrinkled brow, I’m sure I missed a great deal, but, hopefully, this is enough to at least get a conversation started on whether or not violence has a place in the environmental movement, which I took to be one of the strongest themes of the evening. If you were there, and have thoughts to add, please leave a comment.
As Jensen’s visit was arranged by the College of Education, and as he spoke as part of the College’s Porter Lecture Series, his introductory remarks had less to do with the environmental activism for which he’s known, and more to do with the state of education in the United States. Jensen kicked off his tennis shoes, made himself comfortable on his stool, and set the tone for the evening by saying that schools, as they are today, with some exceptions, “make people hate learning.” He said that the content that is passed along to students over the course of their formal education, could be done relatively quickly. The reason it’s dragged out over 12 or more years, he said, was to break the will of the students, and teach them how to be subservient to authority. Those students who are exceptionally slow to grasp this concept, he said, go to college (where it continues). While saying several times, in many different ways, that this had been his experience in school, he also admitted that, if not for a handful of good teachers, who really supported and encouraged him, he wouldn’t be where he is today. So, clearly, while he thinks that education in general exists to kill the independent and inquisitive mind, he also concedes that some educators perform the jobs of midwives, drawing out the interests of their students and witnessing their births as empowered, freethinking, questioning individuals. The role of the teacher, according to Jensen, “is to be present at the birth of your students.” Most educators, however, in his opinion, “lead us astray from who we are.”
When he teaches, he says he tries, as best that he can, to get out of the way and let people teach themselves. He said, you can give people the ground rules, but, when it comes right down to it, they need to learn from their own mistakes. He said that the only thing he really teaches his writing students is to “double space” between lines, so that they have room to edit later. Other than that, he just keeps them writing, noting what they do well, and encouraging them to build on their successes. He says that he gives his students freedom, in hopes of fostering responsibility. In this way, he says, he hopes to produce something other than the “immature slaves” he sees graduating around him.
Teachers, he says, should be truth tellers. They should never lie. They should be incorruptible. They should never be afraid.
Generally speaking, Jensen said, the better a student parrots the values of their instructor, the better grade that they get. This, he says, prepares student for a life of “painful subservience.” For this reason, he encouraged those of us int he audience who are educators to keep our personal politics out of our grading. [note: I’d be curious to see how he’d grade a paper in which a student of his argues in favor of deforestation, claiming that God gave man dominion over the natural world.]
Teach, he said, as though it’s the last thing that you will ever do.
Jensen apparently has issues with science. On a few occasions over the course of the evening, he called scientists out by name, criticizing them. At one point, he singled out David Attenborough, saying that he “hated” the man. He called his wildlife films “pornographic,” asking how Attenborough would like it if birds, for instance, without his consent, taped him making love. As a fan of Attenborough’s work, I found myself getting immediately defensive. And, Jensen went on from there, attacking other scientists, like Richard Dawkins, who he said saw the natural world as something to be controlled. Everything, Jensen said, had to be “violated” in the name of science. The phrase he used to describe the work of scientists was, “violence masquerading as love.” Dawkins, he said, “conflates the ability to dominate with truth.” Domination is something that would come up again and again over the course of the evening.
At one point, he talked heatedly of deep ocean scientific expeditions, equating the practice with rape. As, in other parts of his presentation, he relied on facts concerning the die-off of ocean species made known through such research, I found this somewhat perplexing. I mean, I understand that he wants non-human species to be left alone, but, of all the villains one could go after, I’d think that the scientists proving your point concerning the existence of dead zones in the the ocean, for instance, would be pretty far down on the list.
At several points during the event, Jensen noted that only 2% of the IRA actually picked up arms against the British. While he didn’t come right out and suggest that we take to the streets and hunt COEs down, he certainly gave the impression that, if we’re to be successful in changing things, some blood must be spilled. He indicated that his most recent book, Deep Green Resistance, had to be rewritten in part because, according to his lawyers, he was too close to crossing the line and advocating violence. He did say, during another part of the lecture, that the individuals responsible for the BP oil spill, should be executed. He was quick to follow up by pointing out that he used the word “executed,” meaning that their deaths would come about in accordance with the law, instead of “murdered.” Jensen said that he had the home numbers of three civil rights attorneys with him, as he expects to be arrested at some point for what he says/thinks/writes.
Jensen said that it’s nice to not always be the most militant person in the room. He said that academics and authors should take turns being out in front, the same way that geese do, when they fly.
He says that universities will be targeted by those in power because that’s where revolutionary theory is most likely to connect with those (students) who have direct, personal experience with oppression. When theory, and “those who have less to fear than educators,” come together, he said, it can be powerful… and dangerous to those in control. For this reason, he said, we’re likely to see some universities shut down and defunded in the not too distant future.
Jensen encouraged those in the audience, if they didn’t want to attack the power structure head-on, meeting violence with violence, to help in other ways. He suggested, for instance, that the permaculture movement in America could evolve into the pantry for those on the front lines. Without a deep and robust support network, he said, the revolution will surely fail.
Whatever role you choose play, he suggested that you get actively involved. “If you’ve been given a gift by the universe and you’re not using it to help your communities,” he said, “you aren’t worth shit.”
We have to start, he said, by decolonizing our hearts and minds.
We have to separate ourselves from the system around us. We have to stop talking, for instance, about “our” troops in Afghanistan. They, aren’t “our” troops, he argued. They belong, according to Jensen, to those in control, who systematically exploit the poor for their own gain, and draw down the resources of the natural world.
Some people, he says, are in the fight to “save civilization.” He is not. He wants to destroy civilization.
Quoting Joseph Campbell, he made the point that decolonization of the mind and heart is difficult. If you have religion, or if the “American way” works for you, he said, it’s relatively easy for you. You have a social nexus to orient yourself within. If Capitalism doesn’t produce meaning for you, though, then you have to search for meaning yourself, and that can be a difficult process. This, he said, is why so many activists, revolutionaries and artist are troubled. They become disassociated, and “spun-out” from culture, and it takes time to work though things, and find some kind of sanity.
In the process of talking about how we work within the system, he referenced a book by Robert Jay Lifton, on the Nazi doctors that worked in concentration camps. He said that many of these doctors really cared about the prisoners they served, smuggling them food, protecting them when they could, etc. He said, however, that, according to Lifton’s research, none of them questioned the existence of the death camps in which they worked. Jensen suggests that we’re like those Nazi doctors, in that we’re looking for solutions within the Capitalist system we inhabit, unable to imagine an alternative. He mentions that many environmentalists fall into this same trap. This was another repeated theme. He would ask, “Why don’t environmentalist question Capitalism?”
At the same time, though, he says that he taught within a super-max prison (which he referred to as a “racist gulag”), and felt as though he did good work there, helping the men with whom he worked. He admitted that we can’t be purists. But, to use the previous analogy, we need to acknowledge that we’re all Nazi doctors, and begin to question the existence of the super structure that surrounds and supports us.
SPEAKING UP FOR ANIMALS
He notes that participatory democracy can work, if you have the numbers. In Northern California, for instance, where he lives, he says that county officials recently tried to change the law which said that every person could own 99 marijuana plants for their own personal use, decreasing that number to 6. He said that the local courthouse was packed, and, had they gone forward with the proposed change, “people would have been killed.” This, he said, is how how things are supposed to work. But, he said, when it comes time to stand up for the salmon, it’s always the same three people that come out. “People need to care about salmon as much as they do pot,” he said.
“This is a government of occupation… it moves in, maxizes resource extraction…”
Jensen says that we need to “recognize the enemies and find out who they are.” And, he says, we have to differentiate ourselves from the rest of the oppressive class. “It’s not a woman’s job,” says Jensen, “to differentiate me from other men who would do them harm. It’s my job to differentiate myself.” We need to, in Jensen’s opinion, align ourselves with the victims in our culture, and make our allegiances known.
“Am I the only person her with an AK47?”
“Let’s pretend that we’re at the University of Munich in 1942, where the White Rose Society spoke out about the Nazis.” Clearly, he thinks we find ourselves at a similar point in human history today.
We need to start thinking like a serious revolutionary movement, he said. We need a strategy. We need to think about what we want to how to get there.
We need to ask ourselves, “What will it take for oceans to survive?” The answer is that we need to destroy the oil and gas infrastructure. Now, we need to figure out the tactics that will get us there.
Look at the Congo, Jensen said. That’s what happens when civil cosicety collapses. Men take it out on women. There is rape. The same thing happens here. When mills close, men take it out on women. Instances of domestic violence rise.
The next several years will be chaotic in the United States. Men will assault women. Women need to learn self defense now. And those of us who are men, need to make our allegiance to women absolute. The same goes for racism.
The rise of the Tea Party was totally foreseeable. White people are beginning to look for scapegoats. It was inevitable. This is what happens with things collapse.
More lynchings took place after the Civil War than before. As long as the system of entitlement is in place, there’s no reason to act out in such ways. The real hate comes out when you feel threatened. And, then, you use the spectacle of terror. You lynch people as an example. You carry out systematic campaigns of rape, as we’re seeing in Africa, for the same reason.
How do you stop sociopaths?
The Inuit would take them hunting, and push them off an ice flow.
Our leaders won’t prosecute their own. We need to take their tools away, so they can no longer act out. “If we have the numbers, we can do this nonviolently.” The French did it 15 months ago. They blockaded their oil infrastructure. They were strategic, and they had the numbers.
We need to figure out what we want to do and how you’re going to do it.
He doesn’t think that conservation on an individual level is meaningful. He says, for instance, that human personal (non-agricultural) water use in the United States is equivalent to what’s used to water municipal golf courses. Taking shorter showers, he says, just means that you smell worse. I can see where he’s coming from. He’s pissed at Prius-driving yuppies thinking that they’re saving the world. I get that, but I don’t think that it makes sense to criticize people for trying. And, while the savings could just be a drop in the bucket, on an individual level, they can certainly add up across across the nation. And, I suspect, people who conserve at home might be more inclined to protest the local golf course. So, if we’re trying to change the culture, in other words, I don’t think we do that by saying, “Take longer showers, because nothing you do matters.”
“There are no legislative solutions.”
“There is no technological solution to all of our problems.”
We need accountability. We need to ensure that people don’t just walk away rich from things like the Union Carbide travesty in Bhopal. We don’t want, ever again, to see someone like Tony Hayward walk away from a disaster like the oil spill in the Gulf, with millions in cash and stock.
“What do CEOs value more than life itself?”
Jensen suggests that we put radio-contoled cigar cutters to their penises, and those of every male family member that they have. Then, if there were a spill of, say, 100 gallons or more, a signal would be sent, which would activate the units, severing the penises.
He said that, if a policy like this were in place, there would be 8 levels of redundancy on every protective system on an oil rig.
The same thing, he said, should be done with politicians who break their promises. Obama, he suggested, should lose his penis in such a fashion for not closing down the military facility at Guantánamo Bay.
And, the same should happen to global warming deniers.
“Let them put their genitals where their mouths are.”
He suggests that we create a website:
SO, WHAT’S NEXT
“I don’t what to look back at the end of my life and think, ‘I could have tried harder, been more militant, etc.'”
Jensen references the Cheyenne Dog Soldiers, who apparently, in battle, would tether themselves to a picket pin and drive it into the ground, as a sign of their resolve to stand upon that piece of land and fight to the death, if necessary. Jensen asks, “Where will you make your stand, drive in your picket pin, and fight?” He says that, if we do drive in our picket pins, others will join us.
As for what needs to be done, he suggests that we go to the Huron River, and ask what it needs. He says that the river will tell us. “The only question,” he says, “is will we do it?”
All in all, I’d say it was a great lecture. I didn’t agree with everything, as I’ve expressed above, but it was certainly thought provoking, and I think we need people like Jensen out front, pushing the boundaries, and showing people that, if they don’t start to take global warming and other critical issues seriously, that there are people out there with cigar cutters, waiting.
I didn’t get footage of Jensen’s lecture, as I was stuck at the back of the room, using one of the two available plugs in the 98 year old auditorium to charge my laptop, but I made may way down to the front row during the Q & A and shot the following. I think it will give you a pretty good sense of Jensen, and the themes that drive his work.