Monday, February 4, 2008
Radical solutons from Derrick Jensen
The problem ...
If we hold with the premise that civilization is built upon a massive degree of violence against the natural world and its weaker members (animals, the poor, etc), and the further premise that civilization is not likely to reform and will likely use up and destroy a good portion of the Earth before collapsing, where does this lead us (other than to despair)?
Derrick Jensen was recently in town and answer these kinds of questions. He is advocated a return to agrarian economies (called bioregionalism) and (controversially) destruction of insfrastructure which contribute to the destruction of life on Earth but which upon which our physical survival is not dependent (e.g. cell phone towers, dams - many more could be named).
Pretending that we are not facing the possibility of civilizational collapse due to climate change, natural resource depletion, war over scarce resources and peak oil seems to me to be wishful thinking, token reforms (such as the discussion over imposing carbon taxes) notwithstanding. How can one reform a civilization predicated on violence? I speak with a lot of people who believe it will all somehow resolve itself - that "they" (who is "they") will solve things. I would prefer not to rely on the benevolent "they" to the same degree. It is easier to pretend that some technological fix is in the works than to admit the possibility that it is not. Faith in technology to deliver us from evil flies in the face of historical evidence (nuclear weapons, coal factories, for example).
Furthermore, a great many so-called environmentalists believe that minor reforms are sufficient; I am often told that it "takes time" to effect reforms. In fact it doesn't, if we recall that within nine months the U.S. industrial economy had gone from a peace to a war economy after the bombing of Pearl Harbour (a point made by George Monbiot in _Heat_. See http://www.monbiot.com/). The climate scientists tell us that we do not have time to spare: the next five years are critical in determining the fate of innumerable species and billions of lives, yet climate talks are stalled and governments and corporations (and institutions such as U of T) either resort to denial or "greenwash" (disingenuous claims to be sustainable).
For the serious environmentalist the war against the natural world has reached such epic proportions that any reform which is implemented could be likened to a temporary reprieve from genocide: the violence is so immense that even the best reforms cannot be thought of as real solutions, but only a lessening of the violence. The world "sustainability" is so widely misused it has become laughable. When coal and nuclear energy can claim to be "clean" without widespread denigration from the public, Orwell's vision of a docile population ruled by "thought police" does not seem far off.
The efforts of those who valiantly attempt to reform society are routinely met with indifference and resistance. Whether nor not wind turbines are built or garbage bags are banned, factory farming, deforestation, mass extinction, and anthropogenic climate change continues unabated. Already we know that the coral reefs around the world are effectively dead, for they cannot withstand even a slight rise in temperatures. We also know that tens of thousands continue to perish in Africa due to drought caused by industrialization. In Canada, the tar sands and Arctic exploration and development are effectively unchallenged except by small numbers of protestors who the mass media ignore.
Given this state of affairs, how then are we to respond? It is not satisfactory to me to be one of the indifferent and culpable members of this society, and nor is it satisfactory to lapse into debilitating despair over this. One must do something, but what?
The solution ...
Jensen's lecture is available on video (below). It provides insight into one possible response that none of us, for various reasons, have chosen to engage in: going to agrarian lifestyles (in cities, through the use of green rooves); there is a growing movement in this direction as food prices increase and people find themselves psychologically and physically sick from pesticides, toxic air and water and the anxiety caused by car culture.
Jensen also advocates destroying the infrastructure that makes this unsustainable civilization possible (in order to save those parts of the natural world that are left), or beginning to prepare for the collapse by beginning to grow food and cultivate skills necessary to weather the collapse sustainably for the greatest number of people and animals. I am not given to false optimism regarding the fate of this civilization and so find this outlook refreshing and necessary, but the more radical tactics raise questions for me. Is he right to advocate blowing up dams and cell phone towers (or other forms of infrastructure which perpetuate violence against the natural world)?
Returning to agrarian communities is not a far reach (it is a logical necessity), but the idea of blowing up dams gives one pause for thought, and invokes debate over violent tactics. I have not found one person who agrees that this is the right thing to do, except one anarchist friend who is frequently in jail for such acts already. Certainly none of my Christian friends feel it is right. But is it right to allow this society to continue along the path to collective suicide?
Jensen provides an honest and plausible argument against non-violence. Clearly he invokes violence in defense of the sacred. Ought it to be considered "just war" to do so? Is violence against property rightly considered violence? What of the morality of endangering those who are dependant on unsustainable civilization? A common argument is that innocent people would be injured, but what of the fact they that are already being hurt?
Jensen refers to what is often called "institutional violence" such as the carcinogens in our systems (and in the systems of loved ones) as form of violence that we ought to resist. Is it immoral not to resist in some way (violently or non-violently)? Is Gandhian non-violent resistance a preferable option? If so, what more ought we to do to promote non-violent resistance? If someone is against violent tactics, does not help effect reforms, and is also against or does not contribute to non-violent forms of resistance, what are they really standing for, if anything?
These are the questions I have after watching Jensen speak. I am fortunate to be in a position, as a privelage human being and student, to explore them at length. These ideas are not even questioned by the untermenschen of this world: they would destroy what oppresses them in an instant if they could.
Jensen -- if you watch through the second part of the video -- has a response to these questions, but while I agree with his basic premises (that the status quo is unacceptable and things must change) I think we have to test his conclusions as philosophers. Complicating the task of doing so is the reality of our own complicity in human culture and the possibility of anthropocentric bias, not to mention a naturally healthy fear of the legal repercussions of challenging an inherently violent system!
This line of questioning also invokes the classic debates between proponents of social ecology and deep ecology. Yet even if we reject a deep ecology perspective, the field of eco-psychology points to the psychic damage caused by dependence on industrial civilization, and climate change predictions point to the necessity of substantially changing the way we live.
"The Mission" (with Robert DeNiro) raises the queston of violence vs. non-violence.
An honest critique of technological solutions available, points in the direction of the necessity of behavioral reform. Given that this reform is not forthcoming on the scale that is necessary to avoid catastrophe, this leads us back to the question of whether Jensen's solutions are worthy of serious consideration. This kind of discussion is normally avoided for obvious reasons, but given the state of the world, I believe it is worth raising.
Already, I know of a few people moving out of the city to the country to grow organic vegetables. This will be increasingly the path of thousands and then later millions as high gas and electricity and food prices, and the "growing gap," create urban ghettoes.
In asking these questions I am suggesting that this issue is worthy of serious thought for all conscientious people, and that the answer (if one can be determined) is critical for determining how we ought to respond to the onslaught of environmental devastation that show no sign of abatement.
See this essay as well. Though not excellent, it nonetheless addresses Jensen's thought from a Christian perspective and raises some good points.