Q: How do I know that civilization is not redeemable?
Derrick Jensen: Look around. Ninety percent of the large fish in the oceans are gone. Salmon are collapsing. Passenger pigeons are gone. Eskimo curlews are gone. Ninety-eight percent of native forests are gone, 99 percent of wetlands, 99 percent of native grasslands. What standards do you need? What is the threshold at which you will finally acknowledge that it’s not redeemable?
In A Language Older Than Words I explained how we all are suffering from what Judith Herman would call “Complex Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.” Judith Herman asks, “What happens if you are raised in captivity? What happens if you’re long-term held in captivity, as in a political prisoner, as in a survivor of domestic violence?” You come to believe that all relationships are based on power, that might makes right, that there is no such thing as fully mutual relationships. That, of course, describes this culture’s entire epistemology and this culture’s entire way of relating. Indigenous peoples have said that the fundamental difference between Western and indigenous ways of being is that even the most open-minded Westerners view listening to the natural world as a metaphor as opposed to the way the world really works. So the world consists of resources to be exploited, as opposed to other beings to enter into relationship with. We have been so traumatized that we are incapable of perceiving that real relationships are possible. That is one reason that this culture is not redeemable.
Here is another answer. In The Culture of Make Believe, I wrote about how this culture is irredeemable because the social reward systems of this culture lead inevitably to atrocity. This culture is based on competition as opposed to cooperation and, as such, will inevitably lead to wars over resources.
Ruth Benedict, the anthropologist, tried to figure out why some cultures are good (to use her word) and some cultures are not good. In a good culture, men treat women well, adults treat children well, people are generally happy, and there’s not a lot of competition. She found that the good cultures all have one thing in common. They figured out something very simple: they recognize that humans are both social creatures and selfish, and they merge selfishness and altruism by praising behaviors that benefit the group as a whole and disallowing behaviors that benefit the individual at the expense of the group. The bad cultures socially reward behavior that benefits the individual at the expense of the group. If you reward behavior that benefits the group, that’s the sort of behavior you will get. If you reward behavior that is selfish, acquisitive, that’s the behavior you will get. This is Behavior Modification 101.
This culture rewards highly acquisitive, psychopathological behavior, and that is the behavior we see. It’s inevitable.
Need another answer? In Endgame I explained that a culture that requires the importation of resources cannot be sustainable. In order to be sustainable a culture must help the landbase, but if your culture requires the importation of resources, it means you’ve denuded the landbase of that particular resource. In other words, you have harmed your landbase. This is by definition unsustainable. As cities—which require the importation of resources—grow, they will denude and destroy ever larger areas. Because it is based on the importation of resources, this culture is functionally and inherently unsustainable.
Further, any way of life based on the importation of resources is also functionally based on violence, because if your way of life requires the importation of resources, trade will never be sufficiently reliable: if people in the next watershed over won’t trade you for some necessary resource, you will take it, because you need it. So, to bring this to the present, we could all become enlightened, and the US military would still have to be huge: how else will they get access to the oil they need to run the economy, oil that just happens to lie under someone else’s land? The point is that no matter what we think of the irredeemability of this culture’s mass psychology or system of rewards, this culture—civilization—is also irredeemable on a purely functional level.
Another reason this culture is irredeemably unsustainable is that we can talk all we want about new technologies, but so long as they require copper wiring, they are going to require an industrial infrastructure, and they are going to require a mining infrastructure, and that is inherently unsustainable.
More signs of irredeemability: right now the United States is spending $100 billion a year to invade and occupy Afghanistan. That is $3,500 for every Afghan man, woman, and child, per year. At the same time, everybody from right-wing pundits to the zombies on NPR ask the question, “Is it too expensive to stop global warming?” There is always money to kill people. There is never enough money for life-affirming ends.
I look around in every direction and I see no sign of redeemability in this culture. The real physical world is being murdered. The pattern is there. We need to recognize that pattern, and then we need to stop those who are killing the planet.