Q: If we dismantle civilization, won’t that kill millions of people in cities? What about them?
Derrick Jensen: No matter what you do, your hands will be blood red. If you participate in the global economy, your hands are blood red because the global economy is murdering humans and nonhumans the planet over. A half million children die every year as a direct result of so-called debt repayment from nonindustrialized nations to industrialized nations. Sixty thousand people die every day from pollution. And what about all the people who are being forced off their land? There are a lot of people dying already. Failing to act in the face of atrocity is no answer.
The grim reality is that both energy descent and biotic collapse will be more and more severe the more the dominant culture continues to destroy the basis for life on this planet. And yet some people will say that those who propose dismantling civilization are, in fact, suggesting genocide on a mass scale.
Polar bears and coho salmon would disagree. Traditional indigenous peoples would disagree. The humans who inherit what is left of this world when the dominant culture finally comes down would disagree.
My definition of dismantling civilization is depriving the rich of their ability to steal from the poor and depriving the powerful of their ability to destroy the planet. Nobody but a capitalist or a sociopath (insofar as there is a difference) could disagree with that.
Years ago I asked Anuradha Mittal, former director of Food First, “Would the people of India be better off if the global economy disappeared tomorrow?” And she said, “Of course.” She said the poor the world over would be better off if the global economy collapsed. There are former granaries of India that now export dog food and tulips to Europe. The rural poor the world over are being exploited by this system. Would they be better off? What about the farmers in India who are being forced off their land so that Coca-Cola can have their water? What about those who are committing suicide because of Monsanto? A significant portion of people in the world do not have access to electricity. Would they be worse off after the grid crashes? No, they’d be better off immediately. What about the indigenous peoples of Peru who are fighting to stop oil exploration by Hunt Oil on their land, allowed because of United States–Peruvian trade agreements?
When someone says, “A lot of people are going to die,” we’ve got to talk about which people. People all over the world are already enduring famines, but for the most part they are not dying of starvation; they’re dying of colonialism, because their land and their economies have been stolen. We hear all the time that the world is running out of water. There is still as much water as there ever was, but 90 percent of the water used by humans is being used for agriculture and industry. People are dying of thirst because the water is being stolen.
When I asked a member of the Peruvian rebel group MRTA, the Tupacameristas, “What do you want for the people of Peru?” his response was, “What we want is to be able to grow and distribute our own food. We already know how to do that. We merely need to be allowed to do so.” That’s the entire struggle right there.
I used to think it's true that the urban poor would be worse off at first, because the dominant culture, like any good abusive system, has made its victims dependent upon it for their lives. That's what abusers do, whether they are domestic violence abusers, or whether they are larger scale perpetrators. That's how slavers work: they make enslaved people dependent upon them for their lives. One of the brilliant things this culture has done has been to insert itself between us and our self-sufficiency, us and the source of all life. So we come to believe that the system provides our sustenance, not that the real world does.
But I recently asked Vandana Shiva if the people of Mumbai, for example, would be better off quickly if the global economy collapsed. She said yes, for the same reasons Mittal did: most of the poor in major cities in India are there because they've been driven off their land, with their land stolen by transnational corporations. With the global economy gone, they would return to the country and reclaim the land. Given the option between getting their land back and staying in the city, nearly all would want to move back to the country.
This is a huge number of people we are talking about. Most of the urban poor are people who live in third-world slums. That's more than a billion people, and, if trends continue, that will double in two decades. Many of these are people who have been forced off their traditional land. The poor will be able to take back this land if the governments of the world are no longer capable of propping up colonial arrangements of exploitation.
I have another answer, too. As this culture collapses, much of the misery will be caused by the wealthy attempting to maintain their lifestyles. As this culture continues to collapse, those who are doing the exploiting will continue to do the exploiting. Don't blame those who want to stop that exploitation. Instead, help to stop the exploitation that is killing people in the first place.
The authors of this book are not blithely asking who will die. In at least one of our cases, the answer is "I will." I have Crohn's disease, and I am reliant for my life on high tech medicines. Without these medicines, I will die. But my individual life is not what matters. The survival of the planet is more important than the life of any single human being, including my own.
Since industrial civilization is systematically dismantling the ecological infrastructure of the planet, the sooner civilization comes down, the more life will remain afterwards to support both humans and nonhumans. We can provide for the well-being of those humans who will be alive during and immediately after energy and ecological descent by preparing people for a localized future. We can rip up asphalt in vacant parking lots to convert them to neighborhood gardens, go teach people how to identify local edible plants, so that people won't starve when they can no longer head off to the store for groceries. We can start setting up neighborhood councils to make decisions, settle conflicts, and provide mutual aid.
Q: What has happened to those who have tried to use violence? Fred Hampton, Laura Whitehorn, and Susan Rosenberg are just a few of the many who have tried to use force and have ended up dead, framed, or in jail. You say we all have a role; how do you feel about proposing that others do what you will not do?
Derrick Jensen: It’s not a question of taking more or less risks by going aboveground or underground. As repression becomes more open, it is the people who are aboveground who are often first targeted by those in power. Erich Mühsam was aboveground. So was Ken Saro-Wiwa. Many writers have been. That is our role. Our role is to put big bull’s-eye targets on our chests so that we can help to form a culture of resistance. Our role is to be public. And, of course, if you are public, you cannot also be underground; there must be an absolute firewall between aboveground and underground activities and organizations. This is basic security culture.
We are not asking anyone else to do things we aren’t willing to do. In fact, we aren’t asking anyone to do anything in specific. We all need to find our own roles, based on our personal assessment of what risks we can take and what our gifts are.
Those in power will come down on us if we resist. It doesn’t matter if that resistance is violent or nonviolent. It’s resistance that brings the risk and retaliation, and it’s resistance that our planet needs.