1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

'We need to be ready to risk our lives'

Neil King | Gabriel Borrud
June 9, 2020

Prolific activist Derrick Jensen talks to DW about ending civilization, returning to hunter-gatherer times and why extreme action shouldn't mean ecoterrorism.

Derrick Jensen
Image: Privat

How far would you go to save the planet? For the US author and environmentalist Derrick Jensen, the answer is very far: far enough to go back to the Stone Age. Jensen is the co-founder of the radical environmental movement Deep Green Resistance and believes civilization is destroying the planet. He talked to DW for the new series of the environmental podcast On the Green Fence.

DW: Derrick, you want to abolish the current system — so you are anti-civilization?

Derrick Jensen: I want to be really clear that when I say I am anti-civilization, it doesn't mean I'm anti-culture. Because there's this idea that all cultures are civilizations, but that's not true.

What I'm saying is that our way of life, that's based on harming the natural world in order to convert the living planet into machines, is not sustainable and hasn't been sustainable from the beginning.

Where I live now in far northern California, the Tolowa Indians lived here for at least 12,500 years, at least. When the Europeans arrived 190 years ago, the place was a paradise. There's a river just south of here, the Klamath River, that was 'black and roiling' with salmon. [But] the last few years, the Klamath Indians have had to cancel their salmon festivals because there are not enough fish.

Read more: Coronavirus and climate change: A tale of two crises

Isn't that a romanticized view? Going back to the Stone Age would mean a brutal life, struggling for survival. Is that really what you want?

Economist: 'fossil fuel civilization' on cusp of collapse

It really doesn't matter what I want. [It's about] what's sustainable. This way of living cannot last, and when it's over, I would prefer that there is more of the world left, rather than less.

So… is the ultimate solution that humans shouldn't exist?

I'm not against humans! Humans have existed on this planet for 80,000 to 200,000 years, depending on how you define human. For much of that time, we were living sustainably. But that's the problem: when I say that civilization is inherently destructive, what people hear is that humans are inherently flawed, or humans are inherently destructive.

So when did civilization start, by your definition?

It's the standard definition, which is that civilization is a way of life characterized by the growth of cities.

If we did go back to pre-civilization times, there would be a lot of collateral damage; the loss of trade and health systems for example. It would be a bit more dog-eat-dog, wouldn't it?

Not really. There are only around 35,000 people in my county now, and there were about 18,000 prior to the arrival of civilization, and they actually lived a really good life here. They didn't have refrigerators, but they didn't need them, because you don't need a refrigerator if you've got rivers full of salmon. But we don't have rivers full of salmon, so we have painted ourselves into a terrible corner.

Scientists say our oceans could be devoid of fish within 30 years. So I'm suggesting we talk about that collateral damage.

Read more: Rights of nature: Can Indigenous traditions shape environmental law?

Australia's Great Barrier Reef
Australia's Great Barrier Reef has experienced widespread coral bleaching due to rising water temperaturesImage: Coral Reef Studies/Arc Centre of Exellence

But wouldn't your system only work if people signed up to it?

Here's a story that I hope will make things clearer. When I was a kid, my mum told me to clean my room, and I didn't do it. She told me again, and I didn't do it. She kept telling me to clean it, and I didn't do it. And finally, she said to me, look, either you clean your room, or I'm going to do it for you, and you are not going to like it, because I'm going to throw everything away.

So what I wish we would do is start cleaning up the room on our own. Because if we don't do it, nature is going to do it for us, and we are not going to like that at all.

The first thing we do is recognize that the room's actually dirty. Part of the problem is that we are addicted to the system. This is why we are not going to have that voluntary transformation that I really want, because we are not going to give it up.

[That's what] Deep Green Resistance [DGR] is about: if there's not a voluntary transformation and you care about life on the planet… ok, let's lay out some possibilities [for enacting change]:

We talk in DGR about critical attacks on infrastructure. So let's define violence too: is it violence to destroy a piece of infrastructure [as long as] no humans die? There is a lot of anger and a lot of rage and a lot of sorrow [among] grassroots environmentalists that I work with. But how far are we willing to go? I think we need to be willing to risk our freedom and our lives. We're talking about life on the planet.

Read more: Climate strikers get inventive during the COVID-19 crisis

Teilnehmer einer Klima-Demonstration marschieren durch Hamburg
Across the world, people have been protesting for more climate protection measuresImage: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Heimken

Why is the FBI keeping an eye on you? Are your ideas that dangerous?

I'm not sure, I don't think so! I don't know why they were interested in DGR. I think since 9/11, the FBI has gone kind of crazy, and I think everybody has an FBI file now.

So how far would you go to get your message across?

I don't actually believe in propaganda by the deed, where one does something dramatic in order to get one's message across. I believe that if one wants to get a message across, one tries to write a better book.

I think the dams need to come down, but [not] so that somebody can send a message; I think they need to come down because they're killing salmon and sturgeon and the rivers themselves. I don't believe in using terrorism, because I think terrorism is, by definition, an attempt to terrorize somebody into changing their behavior. If I want somebody to change their behavior, I ask them to and I explain why I believe that their current behavior is harmful.

Do you think the world is ever going to hear your message?

Not directly, but I think that what those of us who are involved in social change are doing is that we all throw our contributions into the stew, and then we hope to hell it tastes good! We need to diagnose the problem and then we can find a way forward. And as long as people aren't acknowledging that there is a problem, if they're not acknowledging that you can't have industrial systems without having the costs of an industrial system, then I don't think there is any chance for social change.

Derrick Jensen is an author, environmental activist, and co-founder of the Deep Green Resistance. The interview was conducted by Neil King and Gabriel Borrud for the On the Green Fence podcast. It has been edited for clarity and length.