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A Pagan's Blog

Thoughts on Reading Derrick Jensen

When I first was made to know, in no uncertain terms, that the earth and everything in it was vastly more sentient than I had ever imagined, I looked long and hard for writings that could shed more light on my experiences.  Especially I looked for stuff by modern Westerners.

Mostly I found little.  Most of us Westerners have not so immersed ourselves into natural processes and rhythms as to encounter this aspect of reality very often, and those who have rarely write books. David AbramJeremy Narby  and Tom Harmer  helped me significantly, but did little to reconnect this reality with the modern world around me.


So I was delighted when I discovered Derrick Jensen and his book  A Language Older then Words.  He  really captured what I was experiencing. 

Jensen had achieved this feat while fully recognizing the modern world’s intense psychopathology in denying this reality.  He could give clear expression to the enormous pain those of us who have been privileged to see this dimension of reality feel in our day to day lives as well as the sociopathic institutions that perpetuate it.  As my favorite environmental writer, Aldo Leopold, put it, we walk and live in a world of wounds, wounds that have gotten deeper and more festering since Leopold wrote.


Jensen has since produced a number of big books, and I have not read them all because when I started another, it seemed simply to recapitulate his denunciation of the modern world and our need to resist it.  So what follows may be out of date or based on inadequate knowledge of his analysis.  If so I’d appreciate someone setting me straight. (I figure that will be inevitable on this site…)

Jensen argues that civilization as such is the problem, especially cities, that things were far better when we lived as hunter gatherers, and that civilization is on an ultimate death spiral where the survivors will again be forced to live in the manner we evolved to live.  And we and the world will be the better for it.


I want to take issue with what I take to be one central aspect of his analysis as I understand it so far. 

I read Jensen as arguing that hunting and gathering was sustainable, and somehow we went astray when we began agriculture, and moved into cities and such.  (I agree that much about this process was bad for most people at the time and for a long time thereafter.  I have another issue to explore.)

Hunting and gathering (H&G) societies that have survived into modern times have been pushed to the outer limits of where people can live.  Even so, they often live well most of the time.  But for thousands of years they have been forced off of the easiest parts of the earth to live on by more numerous agricultural peoples.  So H&G peoples’ ability to live in harmony with their environment is both admirable and absolutely essential if they are to survive where they now live.  The Inuit, for example, do not live with a very big margin of error.


We know that many thousands of years ago H&G societies were all that existed.  We also know from studies of Indians of the Pacific Northwest, that when the area is ecologically rich enough, H&G cultures can develop permanent communities, wide differences in status, slavery, and apparently frequent if small wars.  In the Northwest these conditions were made possible by the return of salmon, continually enriching their environment beyond what the immediate area could support.

Some months ago I posted a discussion about Gobekli Tepe  where agriculture may have begun.  It was certainly close to where it did begin in the Middle East in both place and time.  The wonderful rock structures created there required a large population, and the evidence exists that permanent villages surrounded the area near these structures.  At the time the region was rich in animal life, as the carvings depict animals that have not been found there for millennia.  That ecological richness has been gone for a long time.


Such a large settled population living off the land would have gradually exerted enormous pressure on the ecosystem.  If they did not control their numbers, in time they would have degraded it.  If other regions nearby were also settled, the population could not have simply migrated to better hunting grounds. 

Gradually moving from a degraded hunting and gathering evironment, to increasing reliance of horticulture, then to agriculture, would have been a most rasonable solution for those facing this problem.  But the farther down that road a society traveled, the more difficult it would have been to go back.  The only agricutural societies I know of that returned to a H&G way of life were on the American plains.  The arrival of the horse opened up a whole new way of life ti Indians in an area that had been largely inaccessible to them.  Many left the fields to hunt on the open plains.


Ironically, the evidence appears to be that the plains tribes were beginning to overshoot the ecological capacity of their land by the time whites moved in an annihilated them.  They were already running out of winter grazing for their massive herds of horses.

Another example:
The archaeological evidence suggests that when melting glaciers flooded land between what is now England and France, people living there were forced to move into already settled areas.  The refugees could have been accommodated, but only by increasing pressure on the ecosystem leading again to agriculture.  Or wars could have broken out, with some defending their homes against others seeking new homes as rising waters drowned their former ones.  At least the latter seems to have happened, based on evidence that those killed by violence as the waters were rising increasingly included women and children. 


Therefore the evidence strongly indicates that necessity rather than choice led to agriculture, triggering the changes that Jensen describes so well.

If ecological disaster forces a return to H&G ways of life, the cycle will begin anew, in a yet more degraded environment. And maybe that is how it will be.  But then there is no truly sustainable way of life for critters such as us.

Jensen has written that cities are not ecologically sustainable on the land they occupy.  But neither are ant hills or bee hives.  That by itself is no argument against them.

What cities do that holds hope for us is to make it possible for people to learn quickly from one another, for ideas to circulate and be developed.  Much of this is noise of course, but not all.  Adaptation through culture is vastly more rapid than biological adaptation, except for some bacteria, viruses, and perhaps some very adaptable animals and plants, like flies, rats, and dandelions.  And adaptation speeds up as cultural connections are made, at least to a point.  


Jensen is right that adaptation can be stymied or perverted by big institutions that benefit from the status quo, as we see today with financial institutions that have caused our crisis but “are too big to fail’ so we must bail the crooks out.  He is right that resistance to these and other corporate psychopaths is necessary if we are to survive.  But the cities he criticizes seem to me absolutely essential as places of learning, genuine adaptation, and resistance if we are to have any future worth looking forward to.

Have I missed something?

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Aron G.

posted May 27, 2009 at 1:48 pm

Have you read Daniel Quinn’s _Ishmael_? He makes very parallel arguments about Hunter and Gatherer societies in later books arguing that the tribal scale is the most effective way of life for humans in his next couple books, _Book of J_, _My Ishmael_, etc.
A lot of this seems to lead towards living along the lines of homesteading and self-sufficiency, either a way to change the culture in general or in preparation for a future ecological holocaust. I’m skeptical how such a neo-tribal (Quinn’s word) will develop without the capacity’s of our agriculturally based soceity.

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Your Name

posted May 27, 2009 at 5:09 pm

In reading the comments, it occurs to me that there’s another thing that Paganism has to offer to the world.
The validity of listening to one’s own inner voice/compass.
Not in listening to the quiet voice that is the external Divinity speaking……but one’s Own Inner Divinity connected to that which is Divine externally.

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posted May 27, 2009 at 8:04 pm

Having not read Jensen, I cannot directly answer your questions about his arguments, but I do have some comments about the general issues of homesteading/modern H&G lifestyles versus city dwelling.
In the current engineering and sustainability literature, it has become clear that, per person, city dwellers exert a far smaller environmental impact than rural or suburban folks. This is true for net greenhouse gas emissions, water use, energy use, and the total amount of land necessary to feed them and maintain their lifestyle (their “ecological footprint”). While city life may have for most of human history meant lower quality of life, health problems, etc., modern medicine and other technologies have largely eliminated the worst of those problems.
The sad truth is, there simply isn’t room on the planet for all of us to go back to an “optimal” H&G lifestyle. We would near-literally walk our ecosystems to death. Barring a complete collapse of human civilizations worldwide – which I pray and believe will not happen – cities are a necessary part of a sustainable human race. The key will be to redesign cities so that they can operate in a way that fosters community, connectedness, and spirituality, rather than cars, consumption, and separation from one another.

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Hecate Demetersdatter

posted May 28, 2009 at 8:37 pm

Well in the end, the key to everything, whether we go “back” go H&G or whether, as John Michael Greer and Thorn Coyle recently postulated, we all move into cities and leave the wilderness alone, in the end, the key is controlling population. Jensen himself discusses this in Endgame, but downplays it. Many of us “good liberals” downplay it because it brings up scary scenarios of gov’t control and the rich white people getting to outbreed everyone else. But Jensen does postulate that societies with myth cycles that are circular may hold the key

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posted May 29, 2009 at 11:31 am

I’ve read all of Jensen’s books, twice in some cases, excepting his new novel, just out last month. Many of his books begin by recapitulating his main ideas on civilization and then continue to extend and elaborate on them. “Language” is the book I usually recommend as an introduction– I also have to say that “Endgame” (two volumes) is his finest work and may help to clear up some of your confusion on his ideas regarding cities.
Here’s his main point in a nutshell– human cities are unsustainable because they rely on the importation of resources, and the exportation of waste. The above comment regarding modern city dwellers having a smaller foot print couldn’t be more false– unless you count a car-dependent, gasoline fueled, commercial farmer as being “rural.” I, and Jensen, do not. Mentally compare the footprint of a modern city-dweller to that of a true rural individual (an animal powered, organic, truly local, subsistence farmer) and you’ll see the difference between them.
Think it through carefully, and you will see– all of the city dweller’s needs– food, water, construction materials, etc, come from far away (Chilean strawberries in January, anyone?). Does the calculator for “footprint” include the concrete of the city dweller’s apartment building? The fuel used by the garbage trucks of the city? The power for the pumps and infrastructure needed to transport water (From, say the Colorado River to Los Angeles?) not to mention the environmental damage caused by damming rivers for reservoirs? Unless you live in an urban-gardening city like Havanna, Cuba, your food likely travels on Mack truck thousands of miles to get to you. So unless one’s “footprint” calculator takes these, and many many other factors into consideration, there is no use comparing the statistics it generates.
In any case, comparing a human city to a beehive or anthill is very misleading—ants and bees have evolved in place, have predators that they feed and that check their populations, and they contribute beneficially to their environments. They benefit and improve the landscape in which they live. Human cities don’t have or do any of that. Human cities (and by extension, industrial civilization, industrial “farms” included) take nutrients from the environment in the form of food, etc, and give back toxic pollution—degrading and destroying their (and everyone else’s) environment. Destroying the place where one lives is not sustainable. We’ve done it here in North America inside of 4-5 generations. Ants and bees have been doing what they do for eons.
Derrick Jensen is a frightening read if you truly think through the ideas he is offering you. It leads you to total despair and anger—but the productive kind. In response to Isaac’s comment above, no, there isn’t room on the planet for the number of people we have—not even for the Solartopian green urban dream that is so popular among environmentalists these days. One of the hardest things that Jensen says to us is that yes, a planet wide crash is inevitable. He bases this conclusion on science, not prophecy. Yes, a lot of people are going to die, and no, simply hoping or making believe it won’t happen isn’t the solution. From a pagan perspective—the Goddess is very, very angry at us, and our niche in her world as a high-energy-use, resource-rearranging, top predator species is near to an end.
I’ll sign off, saying, don’t get depressed, get angry.
And read Endgame. Really.

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Wendy Lynne Lee

posted September 3, 2010 at 1:45 pm

For an alternative–critical–account of Jensen’s 20 premises in Endgame from a socialist and ecofeminist point of view, please see: /

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Landscaping Gold Coast

posted December 17, 2010 at 6:08 pm

Anymore Derrick Jensen insights? I really admire him for being an environmental activist. An excellent writer he really is and he can persuade you at his most good intention.

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Gus diZerega

posted December 17, 2010 at 6:34 pm

In time. As you can tell, I like some of what he says a lot, and disagree with other aspects of what he writes.

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