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Derrick Jensen on the Decolonizing of our Minds and the New Subjectivities of Change

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
28th December 2009


3 contributions on the individual aspects of social change efforts.

Do also check out the excerpts from the Re:Invention documentary below, about personal transformation in times of crisis.

1.“Do Something”

Derrick Jensen on the subjective necessities for social change:

In other words: What do you need to do?

Derrick Jensen:

“A lot of the indigenous people with whom I’ve worked have said to me that the first and most important thing any of us needs to do is decolonize our hearts and minds. Decolonization is the process of breaking your identity with and loyalty to this culture—industrial capitalism specifically, and more broadly civilization—and remembering your identification with and loyalty to the real physical world, including the land where you live. It means re-examining premises and stories this culture handed down to you. It means seeing the harm this culture does to other cultures, and to the planet. It means recognizing that we are living on stolen land. It means recognizing that the luxuries of this way of life do not come free, but rather are paid for by other humans, by nonhumans, by the whole world. It means recognizing that we do not live in a functioning democracy, but rather in a corporate plutocracy, a government by, for, and of corporations. Decolonization means recognizing that neither technological progress nor increased GNP is good for the planet. It means recognizing that this culture is not good for the planet. Decolonization means internalizing the implications of the fact that this culture is killing the planet. It means determining that we will stop this culture from doing that. It means determining that we will not fail.

And this is just the absolute beginning of decolonizing. It is internal work that doesn’t accomplish anything in the real world, but it makes all further steps more likely, more feasible, and in many ways more strictly technical.

Next, ask yourself what are the largest, most pressing problems you can help to solve using the gifts that are unique to you in all the universe. People sometimes ask why I write instead of blowing up dams, to which I reply that my only D in college was in quantitative analysis chemistry lab, meaning you don’t want me anywhere near explosives. Some people have said I should be an organizer instead of a writer. These people have never seen my work space; if I can’t keep track of my pens, how would I possibly keep track of anything more complex? Likewise, I’ve filed dozens of timber sale appeals, but it was a very laborious process for me; it took me twelve hours to do what others could do in two. And I write terrible press releases. I can, however, write books. Harness your gifts, and put them in the service of your landbase.

My third suggestion is to ask yourself: what do I get off on? One reason I don’t burn out as an activist is that I love what I’m doing. I was out one day with a wetlands specialist. We were trying to stop a developer from ruining a forest. The specialist dug into the soil, rubbed some between his fingers, and compared the color to a chart, which would help him determine if these were wetlands. I asked, “Do you get off on this?” He laughed and said digging in dirt was his second favorite thing to do after playing with his dogs. I laughed too and said I wouldn’t like to do that work. I, on the other hand, have condemned myself to a life of homework: I get off on trying to figure out, for example, the relationship between perceived entitlement, exploitation, and atrocity.

My next suggestion is to make protecting the land where you live—and by extension the rest of the natural world, since protecting the land where you live will be insufficient to protect anadromous fish, migratory songbirds, or anyone in a world being burned alive by global climate change—the most important thing in your life. That may sound drastic, but we’re talking about life on the planet here. There can be nothing more important than this.

So, Derrick, what exactly do you want us to do?

I want you to make the time to find what or whom you love—whether it’s salmon, sturgeon, a patch of forest, survivors of domestic violence, your own indigenous tradition, migratory songbirds, coral reefs, or Appalachian mountaintops—and I want you to dig in and defend your beloved with your life, and, if necessary, with your death. I want for your actions to positively contribute to the health and defense of the planet. I want for you to figure out how to make it so the world—the real, physical world—is a better place because you were born, and because you lived here.

All of this leads to the point, which is, put simply, to do something. Several years ago I was giving a talk to several hundred people about bringing down civilization. The audience was excited. The atmosphere was like a rock concert. I suddenly stopped and asked, “How many of you have ever filed a timber-sale appeal?” Four or five. “How many have worked on a rape crisis hotline?” Ten women. “How many have done indigenous support work?” Three or four. And so on. It’s all well and good to talk about the Great Glorious Revolution, but what are you doing right now?

The big dividing line is not and has never been between those who advocate more or less militant forms of resistance, or between mainstream and grassroots activists. The dividing line is between those who do something and those who do nothing.

Do something.

That’s what I want you to do. That’s what the anadromous fish and the Appalachian mountaintops want you to do too.”

2. Do what you should do ‘anyway’!

But what exactly should that “do something” entail??

Sharon Astyk has an interesting take, the Theory of Anyway, inspired by Pat Meadows:

“My friend Pat Meadows, a very, very smart woman, has a wonderful idea she calls “The Theory of Anyway.” What it entails is this – she argues that 95% of what is needed to resolve the coming crisis in energy depletion, or climate change, or whatever is what we should do anyway, and when in doubt about how to change, we should change our lives to reflect what we should be doing “Anyway.” Living more simply, more frugally, using less, leaving reserves for others, reconnecting with our food and our community, these are things we should be doing because they are the right thing to do on many levels. That they also have the potential to save our lives is merely a side benefit (a big one, though).

This is, I think, a deeply powerful way of thinking because it is a deeply moral way of thinking – we would like to think of ourselves as moral people, but we tend to think of moral questions as the obvious ones “should I steal or pay?” “Should I hit or talk?” But the real and most essential moral questions of our lives are the questions we rarely ask of the things we do every day, “Should I eat this?” “Where should I live and how?” “What should I wear?” “How should I keep warm/cool?” We think of these questions as foregone conclusions – I should keep warm X way because that’s the kind of furnace I have, or I should eat this because that’s what’s in the grocery store. Pat’s Theory of Anyway turns this around, and points out that what we do, the way we live, must pass ethical muster first – we must always ask the question “Is this contributing to the repair of the world, or its destruction.”

So if you told me that tomorrow, peak oil had been resolved, I’d still keep gardening, hanging my laundry, cutting back and trying to find a way to make do with less. Because even if we found enough oil to power our society for a thousand years, there would still be climate change, and it would be *wrong* of me to choose my own convenience over the security and safety of my children and other people’s children. And if you told me tomorrow that we’d fixed climate change, that we could power our lives forever with renewables, I would still keep gardening and living frugally. Because our agriculture is premised on depleted soil and aquifers, and we’re facing a future in which many people don’t have enough food and water if we keep eating this way. To allow that to happen would be a betrayal of what I believe is right. And if you told me that we’d fixed that problem too, that we were no longer depleting our aquifers and expanding the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, I’d still keep gardening and telling others to do the same, because our reliance on food from other nations, and our economy impoverishes and starves millions, even billions of poor people and creates massive economic inequities that do tremendous harm. And if you told me that globalization was over, and that we were going to create a just economic system, and we’d fixed all the other problems, and that I didn’t have to worry anymore, would I then stop gardening?

No. Because the nurture of my piece of land would still be the right thing to do. Doing things with no more waste than is absolutely necessary would still be the right thing to do. The creation of a fertile, sustainable, lasting place of beauty would still be my right work in the world. I would still be a Jew, obligated by G-d to Tikkun Olam, to “the repair of the world.” I would still be obligated to live in way that prevented wildlife from being run to extinction and poisons contaminating the earth. I would still be obligated to make the most of what I have and reduce my needs so they represent a fair share of what the earth has to offer. I would still be obligated to treat poor people as my siblings, and you do not live comfortably when your siblings suffer or have less. I am obligated to live rightly, in part because of what living rightly gives me – integrity, honor, joy, a better relationship with my diety of choice, peace.

There are people out there who are prepared to step forward and give up their cars, start growing their own food, stop consuming so much and stop burning fossil fuels…just as soon as peak oil, or climate change, or government rationing, or some external force makes them. But that, I believe is the wrong way to think about this. We can’t wait for others to tell us, or the disaster to befall us. We have to do now, do today, do with all our hearts, the things we should have been doing “Anyway” all along.”

3. Develop a sense of deep time!

Joanna Macy:

“People of today relate to time in a way that is surely unique in our history. The technologies and economic forces unleased by the Industrial Growth Society radically alter our experience of time. It is like being trapped in an ever-shrinking box, in which we race on a treadmill. The economy and its technologies depend on decisions made at lightning speed for short-term goals, cutting us off from nature’s rhythms and from the past and the future, as well. Marooned in the present, we are progressively blinded to the sheer ongoingness of time. Both the company of our ancestors and the claims of our descendants become less and less real to us.

This peculiar relation to time is inherently destructive of the quality and value of our lives, and of the living body of Earth. And it will intensify because the Industrial Growth Society is, in systems’ terms, on exponential “runaway”–accelerating toward its own collapse.

Even as we see its consequences, we must remember that this relation to time is not innate in us. As humans we have the capacity and the birthright to experience time in a saner fashion. Throughout history, men and women have labored at great personal cost to bequeath to future generations monuments of art and learning, to endure far beyond their individual lives. And they have honored through ritual and story those who came before

To make the transition to a life-sustaining society, we must retrieve that ancestral capacity–in other words, act like ancestors. We need to attune to longer, ecological rhythms and nourish a strong, felt connection with past and future generations. For us as agents of change, this isn’t easy, because to intervene in the political and legislative decisions of the Industrial Growth Society, we fall by necessity into its tempo. We race to find and pull the levers before it is too late to save this forest, or stop that weapons program. Nonetheless, we can learn again to drink at deeper wells.

Both the progressive destruction of our world and our capacity to slow down and stop that destruction can be understood as a function of our experience of time.

We members of post-industrial societies in the closing years of the twentieth century have an idiosyncratic and probably unprecedented experience of time. It can be likened to an ever-shrinking box, in which we race on a treadmill at increasingly frenetic speeds. Cutting us off from other rhythms of life, this box cuts us off from the past and future as well. It blocks our perceptual field of time while allowing only the briefest experience of time.

Until we break out of this temporal trap, we will not be able to fully perceive or adequately address the crisis we have created for ourselves and the generations to come. Yet reflections on our relationship to time and some promising new approaches for changing it suggest that we may be able to inhabit time in a healthier, saner fashion. By opening up our experience of time in organic, ecological, and even geological terms and in revitalizing relationship with other species, other eras–we can allow life to continue on Earth.”

Video:

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