DERRICK JENSENS'S DISCONTENT(2007)

Derrick Jensen has a problem with civilization - industrial civilization, that is. He doesn’t care for it, and he’s convinced it’s on the way out.

The 46 year old environmental activist and small farmer is author of several highly acclaimed books, including
A Language Older Than Words and The Culture of Make Believe. His recent two-volume Endgame argues that industrial civilization is a dysfunctional, unsustainable mess, destroying lives in distant lands and producing inauthentic, assembly-line lives at home. It’s hardly a new theme: back in the sixties, historian Lewis Mumford argued that urban civilization is built on violence, and is a mixed blessing at best. Yet Jensen is part of a newer generation of popular historians, with a poetic flair and a laser-like sense of outrage. He also has a nonlinear communication style: In the space of a few words, he can go from crazy as a fox to serious as a heart attack. But what else would you expect from a guy who holds degrees in both mineral engineering and creative writing?

The author, who hails from Northern California, spoke last week at a packed theatre at Langara College. In person, he has a corona of unkempt hair and an open, somewhat vulnerable expression. A rumpled sweater embroidered with a cougar’s portrait completed his "off the grid" look.

Jensen began by telling the audience he had in his possession the "rare first draft" of Star Wars, originally scripted by environmentalists. The working title was actually "Star Non-Violent Civil Disobedience." In this first draft, there’s no Luke Skywalker to drop a torpedo down the Death Star’s thermal exhaust port. Instead, people on planets about to be destroyed are coached to produce "luxury items like hemp hackey sacks and gourmet coffee." Ecotours of doomed planets are arranged "to show the empire they are economically valuable and should not be destroyed." Thousands of renegade rebels "stand on the planets about to be destroyed, link arms and sing "Give Peace a Chance."" They send DVDs of their performance to Darth Vader and his boss, accompanied by "wave after wave of loving-kindness."

Unfortunately, the empire can’t be defeated by a letter-writing campaign against Darth Vader for his EPA violations. "It would fail to bring to empire to its knees, and it wouldn’t make much of a movie." (But I did like the script finale, with the Rebel Alliance slamming Lord Vader with a "vegan cream pie.")

Jensen was performing a rhetorical jujitsu move on his audience, using satire to bring them to confront their fondest beliefs about working within the system. He recited a question he asks all over the continent, which always gets the same response. "Do you believe the culture will undergo a voluntary transformation into a sane and sustainable way of living? Nobody ever says yes. Most people laugh, and say it’s a stupid question."

"The point is some day we will be living sustainably, or we won’t be living at all. But whether that transition will be voluntary…I don’t think so."

In his moving
A Language Older Than Words, Jensen connected his childhood physical and sexual abuse, at the hands of his father, to the social forces that produce the authoritarian, alienated psyches responsible for state-sanctioned violence against people and the planet. In the hands of a less gifted writer, this kind of personal-is-the-political memoir might come off badly, but he manages to pull it off. Kafka once said that a book should be "an axe to break the frozen sea inside us." In that sense, Jensen’s written output make for an impressive toolkit.

Jensen is clear on what he wants. "I want a world that has more wild salmon than the year before. More migratory songbirds, wild apes, polar bears, and no dioxin in every mother’s breast milk. And I’ll do whatever it takes to get there."

Some may dismiss Jensen as an anarcho-primitivist with an impossibly romantic view of our place in nature. (Kurt Vonnegut once wrote, "if people think nature is their friend, than they sure don’t need an enemy.") But with ninety percent of the large fish in the ocean gone - to name just one downward ecological trend - the author is hardly alone in his public mourning.

In
A Language Older Than Words, Jensen writes, "Every morning when I awake I ask myself whether I should write or blow up a dam. I tell myself I should keep writing, though I'm not sure that's right."

After thinking long and hard about "why we’re losing so badly," Jensen questions pacifism as a moral absolute. The Rebel Alliance can petition the dark side all they want, he says, but it’s still the same old Death Star stuff. One thing is for sure: whether he’s right or wrong, Derrick Jensen is a master at making his environmentally-aware listeners laugh nervously and fidget in their seats.