By Mark Seis
One needs something to believe in, something for which one can have whole-hearted enthusiasm. One needs to feel that one’s life has meaning, that one is needed in this world (Hannah Senesh rpt in Derrick Jensen 361).
One of the most daunting challenges of our time is to construct a collective vision for how humans should live in nature. The dominant culture continues to persist in the destruction of our planet. Global warming, population growth, peak oil, unrelenting fossil fuel consumption, species extinction, desertification, deforestation, oceanic contamination all continue relatively unabated despite some minimal mitigation efforts. Notwithstanding the ecological decline in just about every living system on the planet there remains substantial dominant cultural resistance to establishing a sustainable, collective vision for how humans should live in nature-witness Palin chanting, “drill baby drill!” at the 2008 republican convention and more recently the resistance to basic cap and trade legislation deemed too costly in times of economic recession/depression. Despite a growing number of voices to the contrary, the dominant culture is still guided by a belief that nature is, above all, a resource for human exploitation.
The struggles of activists to preserve the integrity of place against a dominant ideology of “nature as resource” can be interpreted as an attempt to generate and affirm human meaning in connection with non-human nature. Another way of interpreting activists’ efforts to resist the destruction of place is as a struggle against nihilism: against the obliteration of the individual’s ability to experience meaning and to engage physically, emotionally, and cognitively with the natural world.
I divide this paper into three sections examining the threat of cultural nihilism as it presents itself to environmental activists engaged in defense of place (specific political, legal and other actions taken to protect a place that is threatened.) In the first section, I sketch out a conception of cultural nihilism and the nihilist bind as it will pertain to my analysis of two different types of environmental texts. The second section explores cultural nihilism and individual place based resistance through communiqués from Earth Liberation Front (ELF) extracted from Jay Hasbrouck’s dissertation “Primitive Dissidents: Earth Liberation Front and the Making of a Radical Anthropology.” In the last section, I examine cultural nihilism and place based resistance from the perspective of Derrick Jensen’s End Game.
Yet our anger is impotent; if all is relative, we really have no means by which to criticize and correct others, or to entrench our own “values”…Perhaps even more challenging, though less commonly addressed, is the concomitant lack of purpose that we all experience. That is, the absence of external authority that makes possible this relativistic freedom also removes any given end for the project of human existence (Neil Everden 7).
In this section, I am concerned with establishing a theoretical explanation for types of consciousness that propel radical environmentalists towards desperation in their defense of place. The dominant cultural perspective alluded to above has led many activists to experience a state of nihilism as I demonstrate in the following sections. For many environmental activists, meaningful experiences of place are frequently nullified by economic and political imperatives of resource exploitation. The unceasing transformation of the land bases which many individuals uniquely identify as dignified natural places is the source of desperation and a sense of nihilism that permeates the radical environmental movement.
The term nihilism first appeared in 1787, and then again in 1796 and 1797 (Carr), and became widelyused in the 19th century. In the first half of the century nihilism was linked to the intellectual study of idealism, and in the latter half of the 19th century nihilism began to be associated with the nothingness that was created in ‘God’s death’ as Nietzsche eloquently illustrated in his essay, “The Madman.”(Carr 15). Nihilism has been expressed in many ways; it has been described as ” a historical process, a psychological state, a philosophical position, a cultural condition, a sign of weakness, a sign of strength, as the danger of dangers, and as a divine way of thinking ” (Carr 27). Nihilism stems from the Latin nihil which means literally nothingness. According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy the Greek Skeptics were the first to argue against any foundations of certainty, truth claims were simply matters of opinion. The Skeptic position is linked to what is referred to in contemporary discourses as epistemological nihilism or what postmodernism refers to as anti-foundationalism. These positions simply hold that there is no way to claim something is knowledge or truth because there simply is no way to know for sure.
Other Philosophical categories of nihilism include alethiological nihilism which “is the denial of the reality of truth” (Carr 17). Ontological or metaphysical nihilism “is the denial of an (independently existing) world, expressed in the claim, ‘nothing is real’” (Carr 18). Yet another philosophical category is ethical or moral nihilism. ” An ethical or moral nihilist does not deny that people use moral or ethical terms; the claim is rather that these terms refer to nothing more than the bias or taste of the assertor ” (Carr 18). Existential nihilism denotes a belief that life has no intrinsic meaning and therefore is pointless and absurd. Political nihilism holds that the political, economic and social institutions of society are so corrupt that they need to be destroyed. This is the type of nihilism we see expressed in many modern environmentalists such as Derrick Jensen.
From this brief survey of usages, one can say that innuendos of nihilism as a problem confronting the truth of subjective experience have been around since the Greeks. Every ‘thinking’ human being has probably experienced some skepticism about truth claims. Is there really a God? Does our life really have universal meaning? A healthy individual skepticism is, without doubt, a good thing. But when does nihilism become debilitating and destructive to human dignity? Friedrich Nietzsche warned that the threat of nihilism “uncanniest of all guests” represented in the death of God would create a crisis in which “everything lacks meaning” and hence “awakens the suspicion that all interpretations of the world are false” (7). Nietzsche foreshadowed what has become the greatest challenge of post modernity, creating meaning in the absence of meaning but not in the absence of power.
Power is central to the study of culturally generated nihilism. Capitalist cultures represent a normalized set of objectives and behaviors which are solidified in state sanctioned legal codes and normalized in institutional behaviors. This type of cultural power creates a type of moral and ethical nihilism for the individual-witness the “just taking orders” defense. When power manifested through economic, political and social institutions negates individual moral and ethical action, individual nihilism becomes a permanent cultural condition. Postmodern culture places the individual into precarious and moral existence, where every individual is allowed to believe what they want to, but forced to live the way power dictates. Capitalist cultural imperatives render individual moral agency impotent, reducing ethical behavior to a series of personal decisions about consumption. Cultural power is manifested in the unquestioned acceptance of corporate and government exploitation of people and nature in the pursuit of profit. Individual nihilism exists when individual moral and ethical agency are relegated to the realm of individual consumer preferences.
Karen Carr suggests that the cheerful acquiescence of nihilism leads to the perpetuation of the status quo, a condition in which power alone determines what is ethical, moral and intellectually worthy of pursuing (140). In our postmodern corporate capitalist’s culture, power exercised through economic, political, and social systems and institutions does appear to be the sole determinant of how moral, ethical and intellectual pursuits for us, as individuals, are determined. I may publicly oppose nuclear weapons, genetically modified organisms, clearcuts, mining, and oil and gas development on public lands, yet I will ultimately be silenced by the machinery of hegemonic power which will declare such positions impractical and even extreme. Despite my declared opposition, I still subsidize such activities through my tax dollars. I may choose not to pay taxes, but I will go to jail, becoming even more socially impotent. The psychological cost of this moral precariousness is what I refer to as the nihilist bind.
The nihilist bind occurs when existing social forces deny us human agency–the ability to act on values and interpret our own subjective experiences with others in an attempt to frame an alternative collective vision. This has been the experience of all indigenous and colonized people throughout history and now it is becoming the experience of all activists attempting to alter the course of political and economic power. Jack Forbes, in his book ” Columbus and other Cannibals,” refers to this consuming of another’s life by powerful people and cultures as a type of cannibalism. Forbes writes:
Cannibalism, as I define it, is the consuming of another’s life for one’s own private purpose or profit…Thus, the wealthy exploiter “eats” the flesh of oppressed workers, the wealthy matron “eats” the lives of her servants, the imperialist “eats” the flesh of the conquered, and so on (24- 25).
Using this logic, the economic and political imperatives of this culture are inherently cannibalistic of nature and people, and especially of people who resist these imperatives. This nihilistic situation, as Carr denotes in the title of her book, is anything but banal. What postmodern civilization is placing beyond our reach is agency–the ability to actualize our subjective values in discourse with others in creating authentic modes of existence. I can no more live in a world where the air I breathe is healthy, and the water I drink free of carcinogens than I can live in a culturally conscious world that works toward that end. In fact, working for such a world places me at odds with the political, economic, and social systems and institutions that prioritize commerce over people and nature.
The ultimate expression of this nihilistic impotence lies in the fact that in a postmodern world where all truth claims may be, like it or not, construed as on equal footing with all other truth claims, only a few individuals holding the reigns of economic and political power decide how we all will live. As atomized individuals we remain powerless, unable to act as moral agents with other moral agents in the production of our lives. Corporate capitalism and the hegemonic nature of nationalism have successfully robbed individuals of their moral and ethical agency, reducing individuals to masses generating the types of adaptations discussed by scholars like Fromm as “automatons,” or Mills as “cheerful robots,” and Marcuse as ” one dimensional men“. Attempts by individuals to formulate alternative discourses in our postmodern world are immediately marginalized as special interest politics confined to lobbying, voting, commentary, and state approved protest. Hold your sign in the appropriate cage or offer your one minute, timed comment expressing your utter disgust with the Forest Service’s endorsement to open another road-less area to oil and gas exploitation, mining, or logging. These prescribed modes of dissent are exercises in futility at best, humiliating and infuriating at worst.
We now turn to those who find such futile and ineffective prescriptions for ending environmental destruction as unacceptable, and hence, a source of desperation and individual nihilism. I will conduct my analysis guided by the following questions: 1) How do the activists convey the experience of a culturally generated condition of moral and ethical nihilism? 2) How do the activists convey the nihilist bind? and 3) How does engaging in defense of place mitigate the crisis of the nihilist bind? Let us now turn to the texts of the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) who are classified as domestic terrorists by the US Congress and FBI due to their repeated use of arson and sabotage as methods of resistance.
Time is running out-change must come, or eventually all will be lost. A belief in state sanctioned legal means of social change is a sign of faith in the legal system of that same state. We have absolutely no faith in the legal system of the state when it comes to protecting life, as it has repeatedly shown itself to care far more for the protection of commerce and profits than for its people and the natural environment (Elf Communiqué, January 1, 2003 claiming responsibility for destruction and damage of SUV’s at Bob Ferrando Ford Lincoln Mercury in Erie, PA rpt in Jay Hasbrouck 2).
In this section I will be using select communiqués of ELF as they appear in Jay Hasbrouck’s Dissertation ” Primitive Dissidents: Earth liberation Front And The Making Of A Radical Anthropology.” Hasbrouck’s focus is on examining ” key discourses surrounding the actions, ideology, and motivations of a self-described green anarchist network known as the Earth Liberation Front (ELF)” (viii). I have chosen his dissertation because it is the most comprehensive body of radical environmentalist activists’ communiqués that I have encountered. My project differs from his with respect to concepts and mode of analysis and scope. His is a dissertation, mine is an academic paper. In short, the communiqués he has acquired are an excellent, in-depth look into the radical environmental movement’s philosophy and actions.
As the above epigraph indicates, desperation clearly underlies ELF’s motives for damaging SUVs. The words “time is running out-change must come, or eventually all will be lost” (ELF rpt in Hasbrouck 2) express an end of the world crisis. The no ” faith in the legal system” denotes the disingenuous nature of legal recourse as means to halting further destruction to people and the environment. In this case, SUVs were targeted because they represented the culture of over-consumption. This can be seen in how the ELF chooses their targets: the number one target of radical environmentalists’ actions are housing developments and urban sprawl, followed by facilities conducting genetic engineering, followed by logging operations, and finally sport utility vehicles (Hasbrouck 22).
ELF’s targets are specific and they are directed at the ideological heart of corporate capitalism. They are driven by a deep repulsion with the moral and ethical nature of postmodern corporate consumer capitalism, as this ELF communique illustrates.
…it is the same state structure, big business and consumer society that is directly responsible for the destruction of the planet for the sake of profit. When these entities have repeatedly demonstrated their prioritizing of monetary gain ahead of life, it is absolute foolishness to continue to ask them nicely for reform or revolution. Matters must be taken into the hands of the people who need to more and more step outside of this societal law to enforce natural law (rpt in Hasbrouck 2).
The appeal to natural law suggests that the ELF believes in higher laws, in this case they refer to “natural law.” ELF members are obviously not nihilists in their beliefs; they believe in natural law on our planet and in the universe, and they believe in the inherent sacredness that all plants, animals, and facets of the natural world have. Hasbrouck demonstrates that most ELF members identify with the living philosophies outlined by green anarchists. Green anarchists reject civilization and its power relations in exchange for deinstitutionalized, “primitive” modes of subsistence or what is referred to as anarcho-primitivism (Hasbrouck 3-23). It is obvious that ELF believes in the wisdom of nature (natural law) and that humans should respect the integrity that is inherent to particular land bases. But ELF’s beliefs are not shared by the status quo, and, in fact, are antithetical to the status quo. Take this ELF communiqué for instance:
Western civilization, with its throw away conveniences, its status symbols, and its unfathomable hoards of financial wealth, is unsustainable, and comes at a price. Its pathological decadence, fueled by brutality and oceans of bloodshed, is quickly devouring all life and undermining the very life support system we all need to survive. The quality of our air, water, and soil continues to decrease as more and more life forms on the planet suffer and die as a result. We are in the midst of a global environmental crisis that adversely effects and directly threatens every human, every animal, every plant, and every other life form on the face of the Earth (rpt in Hasbrouck 185).
It is clear that ELF rejects state organized corporate consumer capitalism, and it is not hard to see why. ELF rejects the disconnection that capitalism has from the natural world, as capitalism shows absolute preference for capital and profit, with no regard for the consequences that extracting such a profit costs. ELF questions the sanity of state-organized corporate capitalism’s persistence in destroying its ecological base, and they daily witness the relentless violence committed against human and nonhuman life to perpetuate an unsustainable existence. ELF sees the legal system as disingenuous, and they perceive mainstream environmental groups as largely ineffective. In return, ELF is rejected by mainstream environmental groups for their emphasis on property destruction, among other ideological differences. An ELF communiqué response to a mainstream environmentalist group illustrates this friction:
Grassroots and mainstream organizations who have come out publicly against the actions of the ELF do so either due to economic reasons (they rely on donations from the public, members, or grants from charities or governmental or non-governmental organizations) and/or they have a firm belief and an exceptional amount of faith in the system of government in operation in their particular area. Either way this attitude demonstrates a clear misunderstanding and/or a great reluctance to accept the seriousness of the threats to life on this planet and to make a firm commitment to work to actually stop that destruction of life. All of us must remember that the movement to protect all life must not be a means of monetary gain for individuals and organizations but rather one that produces concrete results. (Anonymous rpt in Hasbrouck 201).
The ELF, along with many supporters, believe that many mainstream environmentalists are careerist and do not seek the abolition of industrial civilization but rather its regulation through technical solutions. In fact, leading environmental thinkers Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus in their article ” The Death of Environmentalism-Global Warming Politics in a Post-Environmental World“ noted that every environmental leader they had ever interviewed understood the immense urgency of global warming, but not one had a clear articulate vision for how to confront the problem. They contend that “green groups are defining the problem so narrowly-so unecologically-that they have alienated potential allies and become just another special interest ” (Shellenberger and Nordhaus 21). ELF criticism of the mainstream environmental movement is shared by many mainstream environmentalists experiencing the nihilist bind from behind the walls of their non-profit 501c3s.
So what is a faceless, alienated, eco-conscious ELF to do? As Worldwatch scientist Erik Assadourian writes, the 2005 ” Millennium Ecosystem Assessment made it clear that nearly two thirds of ecosystem services have been degraded or are being used unsustainably, and indicators like the Ecological Footprint have demonstrated that human society has been living beyond its means since 1987 ” (67). He goes on to note that we “are now using the equivalent of 1.25 planets’ worth of resources” (Assadourian 66). Yet U.S. politicians and economists aggressively refute any large scale changes that would jeopardize business as usual. The March/April 2009 issue of Multinational Monitor indicates that the greenhouse gas industry lobby outnumbers health and environment by 8-to-1, with respect to trade and cap global warming legislation (Wedekind 4). The Center for Public Integrity is warning that it is going to be extremely difficult to get any meaningful greenhouse gas reduction legislation passed with this lobby effort. The law remains biased towards private interests and the mainstream environmentalists do not want to give-up their iPhones nor risk alienating their wealthy granters by speaking the truth and actually attempting to enact change on the system which is set up to protect the interests of corporations; not humans, animals, or the planet. Faced with this bleak reality it is understandable why one would feel rather nihilistic about change coming from within. In fact, we might conclude that the type of deep-rooted change needed to begin to address the current environmental catastrophe is beyond the imagination of either the state-organized corporate/consumer capitalism or the futile efforts of the environmental lobbying groups.
Does the full-scale conceptual awareness of the scope of our environmental problem produce a state of individual nihilism? For the ELF, the answer appears to be yes. The following communiqué followed an ELF action of ” vandalizing construction equipment and an attempted arson of four houses under construction…in Placer County, PA” (rpt in Hasbrouck 186).
Psychologically speaking we are all on the verge of death, with no way out in sight. Suicide, alcoholism, and drug addiction are epidemic. Nearly everyone is on drugs be it Prozac, lithium, lattes, mochas, cigarettes, beer, pot, cocaine, or chocolate. The world we have is empty and boring us to death. WE are forced to sell our souls 8, 10, 12, 14 + hours a day 5, 6, even 7 days a week for more than half our lives, not to mention school before that, they have us work jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need…We are through with the lies (rpt in Hasbrouck 186)
It is also clear from this communiqué that many engaging in ELF activities do so out of a sense of reconciling the impotence created by the nihilist bind. As one anonymous ELF writes ” you can decide to be apathetic and complacent, and hope for it all to collapse, or, you can decide to take responsibility and fight to destroy this death machine…Either way you will have blood on your hands, it’s just a matter of whose ” (Anonymous 2003a rpt in Hasbrouck 6). It would also seem from this statement that ELF has accepted the premise that one loses either way. Complacency will end life as we know it, leaving blood on our hands, and engaging in illegal property destruction could lead to blood on ELF hands and potential incarceration. Taking responsibility for what is happening is the ELF mantra. Take, for example, this communiqué:
There is absolutely no excuse for any one of us, out of greed, to knowingly allow this to continue. There is a direct relationship between our irresponsible over-consumption and the lust for luxury products, and the poverty and destruction of other people and the Natural world. By refusing to acknowledge this simple fact, supporting this paradigm with our excessive lifestyles, and failing to offer direct resistance, we make ourselves accomplices in the greatest crime ever committed (rpt in Hasbrouck 185).
The resolution of the nihilist bind for ELF participants is to engage in illegal property destruction, which is risking being classified as domestic terrorists and subjected to lengthy prison sentences. Their risks are rationalized by the alternative, which is being complicit in the destruction of the planet-a relegation of their agency they refuse to accept. Do ELF members really think they are going to bring down state-organized corporate/consumer capitalism with random acts of property destruction? This ELF communiqué offers some insight:
We are not so naïve as to believe that we would have stopped development in Twelve Bridges. Though we could have caused over 2 million in damages, it was still a fairly symbolic protest and the message should have still registered; that we are exceptionally serious, the necessity of new discussions and that all of the true eco-terrorists such as JTS should consider themselves forewarned (rpt in Hasbrouck 206).
There is little doubt ELF wants to encourage other like-minded individuals to engage an eco-sabotage, but they do not appear naïve about the overall impact of their work on the culture they wish to destroy. Their intentions are more than symbolic, however; they wish to instill fear in those that perpetuate the destruction of the planet out of greed; they also seek to reclaim the term eco-terrorist by turning the concept against those who terrorize the natural environment for self-serving ends. It is as the old saying goes “one person’s freedom fighter is another’s terrorist” except in this case it is one person’s environmental liberator is another’s eco-terrorist.
ELF creates, if nothing else, a discourse about the state of our environment. Legislatures are more apt to not see mainstream environmentalists as radical, making environmental groups’ demands more palatable. Unfortunately, the deeper message that ELF seeks to convey, which is that life is sacred and not negotiable, will fall on deaf ears in backrooms where the natural environment is bartered as a commodity for consumption. The ELF identity alleviates for many individuals the sense of nihilism that plagues many people in our culture through acting on their fears and concerns about the health of our planet. One can speculate that ELF actions create a sense of power in what is otherwise a hopeless and powerless situation. There probably is a spark of excitement and empowerment in acting in defiance of the totalitarian culture that seeks to make us blind and dumb nihilists, numb enough to watch our future dissolve in front of our eyes.
On the other hand, law enforcement also finds a new sense of purpose. The US Legislature recently created new laws with increased public funding to expand police powers to seek out “eco-terrorists” with a vengeance. Law enforcement must feel righteous in knowing that private interests to exploit the natural environment have been preserved. The message is be clear: to resist is futile. After all, there is a normalized process in our country to create change.
Premise One: Civilization is not and can never be sustainable. This is especially true for industrial civilization (Derrick Jensen ix).
I advocate not allowing those in power to take resources by force, by law, by convention, or any other real or imagined means. Beyond not allowing, I advocate actively stopping them from doing so (Derrick Jensen 85).
Anyone who has read Derrick Jensen knows of his passion for the natural world and his lack of patience for western civilization and its apologists. Jensen’s writing is fierce and leaves no aspect of western civilization unturned, be it state organized corporate/consumer capitalist society, science, technology, or any other form that violence against human and non-human life takes. Jensen’s first book agent accused him of being a nihilist and that he should tone down his work. He writes, “I felt vaguely insulted. I didn’t know what a nihilist was, but I knew from her tone it must be a bad thing ” (Jensen 363). After researching the topic, Jensen decided he did not meet the first definition of nihilism; that is, he believed in truth, beauty and love. The second definition, however, that dealt with describing the current social order as being ” so destructive and irredeemable that it needs to be taken down to its core, and to have its core removed-fits me like a glove” (Jensen 363).
In his book, “End Game,” Jensen defends 20 constructed premises in over 890 pages of text. He exposes the violence of civilization as it has been committed against all life, human and nonhuman: from the genocide of Native Americans and Jews, to the genocide of the Buffalo and the passenger pigeon, to vivisection of animals, to factory farms, to domestic violence, to normalized rape in war, to factory fish trawlers, to genocidal statements made throughout US history by political and economic elites, Jensen unmasks the sickness that fuels a civilization bent on destroying the landbase. “Civilization is incompatible with human and nonhuman freedoms, and in fact, with human and nonhuman life” (Jensen 13). Jensen writes ” the story of civilization is the story of the reduction of the world’s tapestry of stories to only one story, the best story. The real story, the most advanced story, the most developed story, the story of power and the glory that is western civilization ” (23). Civilization, for Jensen, is based on hegemonic control aimed at making one particular way of living the only way of living regardless of how destructive it may be. Jensen defers to Stanley Diamond’s definition that “civilization originates in conquest abroad and repression at home” (rpt in Jensen 15). In order for civilization to thrive and continue to do relentless damage to all life and land, Jensen argues that the individual must pay a heavy psychological, sociological and spiritual toll with respect to truncated experiences and individual agency. Take, for example, this long passage offering a painful description of the process of normalizing cultural nihilism.
A high school student bags the groceries. She’s been through the mill. Twelve years of it, not counting her home life, twelve years of sitting in rows wishing she were somewhere else, wishing she was free, wishing it was later in the day, later in the year, later in her life when at long last her time-her life-would be her own. Moment after moment she wishes this. She wishes it day after day, year after year, until-and this was the point all along-she ceases anymore to wish at all (except to wish her body looked like those in magazines, and to wish she had more money to buy things she hopes will for at least one sparkling moment of purchase take away the ache she never lets herself feel), until she has become subservient, docile, domestic. Until her will…has been broken…Until the last vestiges of the wildness and freedom that are her birthright-as they are the birthright of every animal, plant, river, piece of ground, breath of wind-have been worn or torn away. Free will at this point becomes almost meaningless, because by now victims participate of their own free will-having long since lost touch with what free will might be…There is no longer any need for force, because the people-or more precisely those who were once people-have been fully metabolized into the system, have become self-regulating, self-policing. (Jensen 285).
Most people can identify with some aspects of the drudgeries outlined above in our long and tedious endeavor to learn docility and acceptance of the fact that our life belongs to those in power. The clock teaches us that large tracts of our life belong to others, starting with school and ending with work. The leftover time you have is to live your life according to prescribed consumer behaviors. Women should love to shop after their enculturation and men should love to sit on their asses drinking corporate brewed beer watching others perform shows and games.
Jensen wrote “End Game” to appeal to those who feel a sense of rage at what passes for their lives. He writes ” we are people who are tired of living hollow lives guided by abstract moralities expressly created to serve those in power, moralities divorced from physical realities, including the land we love, including the land we rely on ” (Jensen 828). He continually encourages the reader that our fate is not inevitable, “We are people who refuse to continue as slaves…We are people who are ready to take back our own lives, and to defend our lives and the lives of those we love, including the land ” (Jensen 828). He wrote this tome to encourage those experiencing the nihilist bind to stop being victims and to stop relying on an abstract hope for things to get better.
Jensen exalts individual agency in defying and resisting the civilization that is killing humans, nonhumans, and the environment. Jensen exclaims that he is in love ” with salmon, with trees outside my window, with baby lampreys living in sandy stream bottoms, with slender salamander crawling through the duff” (332). He entreats “if you love you act to defend your beloved…You do what it takes. If my love doesn’t cause me to protect those I love, it’s not love. And if I don’t act to protect my landbase, I’m not fully human ” (Jensen 332). It is rage against the insanity that is our lives and a passion to do something, anything about it, which makes Jensen a motivational destroyer of nihilism. Jensen encourages people to bring down civilization by “liberating ourselves” and ” by driving the colonizers out of our own hearts and minds: seeing civilization for what it is, seeing those in power for who and what they are, and seeing power for what it is ” (252). But what exactly does Jensen mean by bringing down civilization?
Bringing down civilization is millions of different actions performed by millions of different people in millions of different places in millions of different circumstances. It is everything from bearing witness to beauty to bearing witness to suffering to bearing witness to joy. It is everything from comforting battered women to confronting politicians and CEOs. It is everything from filing lawsuits to blowing up dams. It is everything from growing one’s own food to liberating animals in factory farms to destroying genetically engineered crops and physically stopping those who perpetuate genetic engineering…It is destroying the capacity of those in power to exploit those around them. In some circumstances this involves education. In some circumstances this involves undercutting their physical power, for example by destroying physical infrastructure through which they maintain their power. In some circumstances it involves assassination…(Jensen 252).
Most people are willing to go along with most of what Jensen says until he discusses the need to counter the forces of civilization with violence. Throughout the book Jensen engages and counters common pacifist arguments, using analogies such as self-defense which ends in killing a potential rapist, the many assassination attempts of Hitler, the Jews whose survival rate was greatly increased from resisting in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, and a mother grizzly bear’s defense of her young. Jensen is relentless in rebutting the essentialist pacifist position. He loses many potential sympathizers on these points even though he relentlessly reminds the reader of the endless violence that is committed against life daily by states and corporations. Jensen forces us to confront this fact frequently by asking us to consider why violence against life is normalized while violence against those who destroy life is unacceptable? Reading Jensen’s books are like having an ice pick tapping against your forehead echoing tic-tock on the planetary clock. It is blow-by-blow reading where every indictment against our civilization is supported with a factual account of atrocity after atrocity. It is a real dilemma. The violence is real, and the costs are real, and our inaction is real. He goads us:
We have the best excuse in the world to not act. The momentum of civilization is fierce. The acculturation deep. Those in power will imprison us if we effectively resist. Or they will torture us. Or they will kill us. There are so many of them, and they have weapons. They have the law…Because of all of this, there really is nothing we can do. We may as well admit that (Jensen 178).
Then there is the guilt problem of our culpability in participating in civilization, a tactic Jensen is quick to point out is designed to put the onus on us and not those in power. Jensen’s rebuttal is that we can be forgiven for having to live in the world, ” because we did not create the system, and because our choices have been systematically eliminated…” (178). We become culpable when we do not exercise our agency, when we do not ” stop them with any means necessary. For not doing that we are infinitely more culpable than most of us-myself definitely included-will ever be able to comprehend ” (Jensen 178). This is the sheer power of Jensen’s relentless rant; we are responsible for what happens to life on this planet. Yes, we use the technologies of this civilization, but we did not create the system that has eliminated our choice. But our knowledge of the destructive nature of these technologies demands that we once again assert our choice, our volition to end our servitude and complicity to the destruction of our land base. It will not happen without exercising our agency, our birthright to feel and think as our hearts and brains tell us.
How does Jensen respond to those who tell him that he is great at tearing down civilization but ask him what is the alternative? To this Jensen replies ” I do not provide alternatives because there is no need. The alternatives already exist, and they have existed-and worked-for thousands and tens of thousands of years ” (889). To many this is simply a cop out. Ten thousand years ago there were not 7.1 billion people, and you cannot just let them die by shutting down the machine. In defense of Jensen (not that he needs it), the crisis of peak oil is predicted to cause more than a billion deaths alone, not to mention all the other crises that peak oil will create. One way or the other, we are headed for planetary ecological collapse. The three words most often uttered from the lips of most environmentalists are “we are fucked.” It is not easy to go back into denial after reading almost 900 pages of Jensen. He is absolutely right in saying that our culture is sick and destructive and needs to be destroyed. I am less sanguine than Jensen about the likelihood of 10,000 years of civilization sickness being wiped out by the actions of even a million dedicated eco-warriors. The cultural inertia of 10,000 years will need more than a human push. We are destined to undergo collapse and it is going to be an unfathomable experience for those who will have to bear witness. Human and nonhuman life is going to be decimated as catastrophic collapse implies.
Does Jensen’s prescriptions help aid the sense of nihilism that many acutely feel? As the old Emiliano Zapata quote says, ” it is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees.” To this end, Jensen’s anti-nihilism campaign is invaluable at least to those who still feel a sense of dignity and compassion for the living world. We must fight, but as Jensen himself admits he is not a killer. Nor am I, nor are most people. That is not to say that people do not care, but most people-myself included-do not think my going to jail for dismantling some apparatus of the machine is going to make much of a dent. I may feel like a martyr for the first day in jail, but after that I will just be in an even more restrictive cage, denied relationship with all that I love. There are many out there who would willingly give their lives-myself included–if we thought it would stop the rape, pillage, and genocide of our current culture. I attend many public meetings on environmental issues and listen to the depth of the sickness as it drones on out of the spokespeople that represent industry and our government. You could take one out, but there are going to be another 100 standing in line to take their place, and that can be said about every position of power in this society, all the way down to midlevel management. For this reason I know Jensen will continue to write, and I will continue to read and act. Embracing meaninglessness is not an option in a universe filled with life. To let those in power deny you access to life, is not now nor is it ever acceptable. It is our duty and responsibility to resist the culture of nihilism and for this I harbor a sense of gratitude toward Jensen and all who engage in the struggle against the nihilist bind.
When one accepts nihilism as ‘just the way things are,’ it ceases to be a potential weapon against corrupt and decaying modes of thought…The possibility of any kind of ethical, religious, or political transformation is de facto ruled out and the perpetuation of the status quo is covertly promoted. Any disagreements that do exist deteriorate, ultimately into contests of power (Carr 140).
The crisis of nihilism that pervades the environmental movement would be entertaining if the consequences from inaction were not so dire. At the core of this problem is a flawed way of living that simply is not sustainable. We are exceeding the carrying capacity of the earth, and its various ecological systems are beginning to collapse. This is a fact that no literate person can deny. The question remains: what are we going to do about it?
Given the unequal distribution of world resources, which has the richest 20 percent of the world’s population consuming about 86 percent of all resources and the poorest 20 percent consuming less than 2 percent, the scope of the problem is beyond just political and economic solutions but requires a deeper look into moral and ethical agency. To believe that the political and economic systems of the richest 20 percent of the world’s population are going to undergo a voluntary transformation to a sustainable life is to be uselessly idealistic. Change is not likely to come voluntarily from the top. We can all rest assured that change is coming, it is just a matter of whether change is going to be guided by moral and ethical agency or thrust upon us from natural forces. At this point, change will probably consist of natural catastrophes, social collapse, and the unleashing of human rage at being forced to live a meaningless existence for thousands of years.
The rage that is mounting in people all over the world at having their lives stolen from them is beginning to escalate-witness how governments all over the world are more frequently criminalizing dissent. We see this in the US where we now classify property damage with a political emphasis as an act of terrorism. Those in power are scared–as they should be. As the younger generations come of age realizing they have little in the way of any future, it is doubtful that they will be contented with false promises and choices. Humans can understand emptiness, but in almost all circumstance they reject it in favor of a meaningful existence, and when the culture cannot provide meaning they will create it. Nihilism is an unbearable condition and extremely dangerous when fueled by desperation. It is for this reason that we must fight nihilism in our personal and public lives, replacing resignation with passion, alienation with connection, and inaction with action.
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