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Endgame Volume 1: The Problem of Civilization by Derrick Jensen  RSS feed

 
Neil Layton
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Summary

The long-awaited companion piece to Derrick Jensen's immensely popular and highly acclaimed works A Language Older Than Words and The Culture of Make Believe. Accepting the increasingly widespread belief that industrialized culture inevitably erodes the natural world, Endgame sets out to explore how this relationship impels us towards a revolutionary and as-yet undiscovered shift in strategy. Building on a series of simple but increasingly provocative premises, Jensen leaves us hoping for what may be inevitable: a return to agrarian communal life via the disintegration of civilization itself.

Where to get it:
Author's Web Site
Amazon US
Amazon UK

Author's web site:
http://www.derrickjensen.org/


 
Neil Layton
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I give this book 8.5 out of 10 acorns.

Derrick Jensen first came to my attention through a fairly distantly related route. My own existence on the fringes of society has led me to know people who also disproportionately occupy similar spaces, such as the LGBTQ community, and the closer you get the the end of that string, the more I've found myself identifying with the experiences of those people who identify with it, not as a result of my own gender or sexuality, but because of my own experiences of being pushed to the metaphorical kerb and under a bus.

It took a while before I came back to his work, and this was probably, in retrospect, unfair. It actually took someone else to recommend I add him to my reading list. Further investigation led me realise that here was a person who had reached many of the same conclusion that I had about the other people on the pavement, and indeed those driving the bloody bus. On further reading I found it disappointing and disturbing that our respective views on essentialism* seemed to be leading him to join others in pushing the Trans community to the side, but also that some of his writing might be worth getting hold of. There was some dirty bathwater to get rid of, but there seemed to be a healthy baby at risk of getting drowned in there somewhere.

Permaculture needs to be about far more than the practicalities of sustainable food production. To me, it's also about how we create sustainable, inclusive societies and relationships with the rest of the planet for the long term. If, however, we are committed to caring for the planet this seems to imply that we need to address the question of the systems that are wrecking the biosphere in the first place. Just how radical do we want to be? Just how radical do we need to be?

Like many others I come to Permaculture from a realisation that modern “civilisation” is grossly unsustainable, and that something must be done about it. I've been through – and still go through – periods of nihilism where I believe that human extinction is not only inevitable but desirable, even in the short term, but rarely leave a position where I think that human “civilisation” as it stands has to go, with more sustainable views on the rest of Nature, and probably a much smaller population (although I'm yet to find a solution to that problem that I find both sufficiently prompt and morally acceptable).

To me, Permaculture is about building an alternative, at a human scale, where we can work on ecocentric, not anthropocentric, relationships with all other persons, not just human ones: where we work towards situations that tend to preserve or enhance the diversity, integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community in which we live. I wanted to find out whether Jensen actually has some answers.

Does Jensen's philosophy provide even part of a guide towards a more sustainable society, in which permaculture might be a integral part? We clearly need to scrap the old one, and I wanted to see whether Jensen was reaching the same conclusions for the same reasons, but there needs to be something away from the rubble that we can live in.

That last “we” – that is living creatures on this planet.

Do we as Permaculturalists also have a moral responsibility not only to limit our own consumption, but also to engage in direct action, as an aspect of a commitment to planet care?

Jensen starts with a series of premises, or basic assumptions about how modern human civilisation works, which is based around exploitation, marginalisation and violence, and states that most of its members are "insane" We, and nonhuman persons, are ruled by force, but also by our own compliance, indeed active complicity. He concludes, and I concur, that this system is irredeemable. http://www.derrickjensen.org/work/endgame/endgame-premises-english/ The rest of the book constitutes a detailed analysis of them.

Jensen's problem – and again I agree – is that humanity as a species will not change this voluntarily. Contrary to the way this book has sometimes been presented, it is not about gratuitous destruction, or even about being violent, but about stopping the violence inherent in the way our societies are structured.

For many years – since adolescence – I've been a nonviolentist. I use this term explicitly to make a distinction between this and pacifism. To me, pacifism implies (but does not always take) a state of inaction. Nonviolentism suggests that it's often right to stand up and take deliberate, conscious actions against that which we see as wrong – that which causes harm.

Jensen questions this view, asking whether it is right to take violent action in such circumstances. If a thing is right when it tends to preserve or enhance the diversity, integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community and wrong when it tends otherwise (or, in Jensen's terms, what is in the best interest of the landbase, on its terms – a further interesting discussion would involve investigating what the practical differences are between these two conceptual frameworks), what are the limits of action when we see someone doing something “wrong”? To rephrase, what are the limits of action in terms of both people care and planet care? What is necessary in those terms?

What Jensen asks is what those living things we have been killing and exploiting (and indeed allowing ourselves and our friends to be killed and exploited) would want? Is it “right” to actively and deliberately, using whatever means are necessary and proportionate, end that system?

Jensen is careful to define his terms, as is any good philosopher. To him, “civilisation” is not some “advanced” social state, but one in which there is centralisation and, pretty much by definition, exploitation of the poor and of the surrounding area. It's this to which he objects, as do I. In its ideal, Permaculture doesn't do this, pretty much by definition, but many practices which have been claimed under the Permaculture banner (especially those involving livestock, but also any relying on inputs from outside the immediate vicinity, such as mulching straw grown using artificial fertilisers and pesticides) certainly do. This is why I don't consider these practices to be Permaculture: they are not sustainable.

One point we do agree on is that in order to obtain a cross-cultural measure of intelligence, the obvious primary criterion would be the maintenance of one's habitat. This is what I came to Permaculture to do (and I'm constantly frustrated, as you may have gathered, with those who just don't get that).

In fact, Jensen is very good at stating his assumptions. There are, as he points out, some that are missing or overlooked, and others that are implicit in the use of the English language, but this is first and foremost a work of philosophy. It's an accessible work of philosophy, and more readable than much of the work on epistemology found in the academic journals criticised recently by an acquaintance, but its Enlightenment roots are clear, even were Jensen unhappy to admit it. I think that's a good thing: it may be polemic, but it's closely reasoned polemic, not the rant it could have been.

The author provides a solid response to those who assert their rights to do as they please, often under the guise of personal choice. He asks, what right do they have to destroy the living world? Jensen may be fairly styled as an anarchist, but he's not the sort to accept that others have the right to act solely in their best interests. He asks a valid question. When we ask whether, in a heterosexual relationship, the “rights” of a man to sexual access trump the woman's right to bodily autonomy, we accept the latter: anything else is rape. The former “right” doesn't exist. The same principle applies to human “rights” to natural “resources”. In terms of Permaculture, this means we don't have any more rights to land or that which grows on it than does anyone else.

Jensen has been criticised for his support for violence, and it's true that his work could be read like that. That said, as he himself says,
“I no more advocate violence than I advocate nonviolence. Further, I think that when our lifestyle is predicated on the violent theft of resources, to advocate nonviolence without advocating the immediate dismantling of the entire system is not, in fact, to advocate nonviolence at all, but to tacitly countenance the violence (unseen by us, of course: see Premise Four) on which the system is based. I advocate speaking honestly about violence (and other things), and I advocate paying attention to circumstances.”


Even I'm willing to accept this distinction as an important, relevant one. At what point does a commitment to “planet care” require us to engage in actions to dismantle the system, as well as presenting an alternative to it? I don't pretend to have a simple answer to that question, but I do think it's one worth asking. Towards the end of the book there is an interesting, nuanced discussion about what violence is, and what forms of violence we are willing to countenance. Needless to say, I'm willing to countenance far fewer forms than most people. Equally, one does not just stand by and permit rape or murder. Why should any of us stand by and countenance genocide and ecocide?

I think he's weak on questions of medicine, and this is where I think many of us, one way or another, run up against a disconnect between our needs, the needs of other humans, the needs of the planet and a shoddy evidence base for both herbal and mainstream medicine. I don't pretend to have a simple answer to the question, but Jensen's feels like evasion: he takes the position that modern medicine has to go along with the rest of industrial society. It's a consistent position, but one that shows precious little sympathy for those in need of medicines.

Another point where we part ways is the question of population. He argues that first and foremost is a question of consumption, with the refusal to accept limits a secondary consideration. It's logically difficult to reverse these two, but to insist that population is not even a tertiary consideration seems perverse given that our overpopulation problem stems from the second and feeds back into the first. Impact is population times consumption, and to pretend that population has no consequences for impact seems akin to asserting that the area of a rectangle is not affected by its length. Even the most ascetic off-grid permie consumes food. Their offspring consume more food. Where we agree is that, one way or another, human populations will one day be much smaller. He's also clear, and I also find this hard to refute, that the bigger the overshoot the harder the crash. There is no doubt this is one reason to limit our reproduction, however little we ourselves consume. He rightly observes that reductions in consumption are unlikely to come without violence, not because it can't be done without violence, but because violence is the cultural default.

It's clear that Jensen is suspicious of both science and technology, and I think he is right to be so, given the many misuses to which it has been put. Of the many good ideas in this book is a “technology of inhabitation”. He barely touches on it, and he frames it as songs and stories, but I see it as a question of how we most effectively sequester carbon, or maximise the biodiversity of a plot or an ecoregion, for example.

This notion of “inhabitation” has other implications which I don't think we consider enough in Permaculture. It's about a relationship with the land, not some sort of ownership of it that allows us to do as we please. This is why you will not hear me talking about land as “property”. When we say “my property” this implies a relationship in which we can do as we please: it's a power relationship. When we say “my habitat” or, better yet, “this habitat” this has a completely different set of implications, having to do with inhabitation along with all the other organisms that also inhabit it. It's clear that Jensen has, or at least seeks, a relationship with the land that is entirely compatible with the kind of relationship that I seek: as an equal inhabitant, not a dominating force. That doesn't necessarily preclude changing it, but that the changes need to be made with reference to the others with which you share that habitat. This is about responsibility, not power.

That said, it may be argued that we are “allowed” our “alternative lifestyles” because we are not a threat to the system. In other cases the system will try to co-opt us, and we even see that here on Permies.com, with people with agendas that merely prop up the system while calling it “Permaculture”, when even the most cursory examination will show that the activities are only barely less unsustainable than the conventional alternatives.

How, then, do we as Permaculturalists define “success”. It can't be through some sort of domination of Nature and of each other, or through “going forth and (grossly over)populating the Earth”. We could measure it through the diversity, integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic communities in which we live (although stability is one that we have to be careful to examine from the perspective of the science of ecology). We could measure it through healthy relationships between ourselves and the other organisms in that community, which would presumably be related, but we'd need to find ways to measure it.

I seek the route of least harm, but it's always been clear to me that this is not a passive exercise: it's also about preventing harm being done to others. In this I have to concur with Jensen. Something, something radical, needs to be done about what we've come, erroneously, to call “civilisation”. It's not that we as Permaculturalists necessarily need to be taking direct action (that has to be a personal decision), but that all humans who care about what other humans are doing to other life on this planet need to be taking some sort of action. Certainly for some of us that means building the alternative, and that what Permaculture is all about. For others it might be actively stopping the damage that means we need the alternative in the first place. I invite you to read Jensen and reach your own conclusions. However much Jensen's writing makes me uncomfortable, at least in the sense of the radicalism of his solutions, his analysis is very difficult to fault.

There is perhaps a big risk about Jensen's acceptance of situational violence as resistance, which is that it might be seen as legitimising armed insurrection, or even the normalisation of the carrying of firearms. I don't see this. There are crucial differences between the use of violence in order to protect the biosphere or to protect other vulnerable persons, and the meeting of force with force because you hate the guv'mint because it wants to protect an important wetland from grazing. This needs to be emphasised: if one is going to accept violence as a means of resistance, it needs to be situational.

I need to equivocate on Jensen's conclusions. To disagree with him I need to fault his logic. To agree with him skims the edge of criminal incitement. I find it hard to do either. I invite you to read the book and seek your own conclusions.

It might be argued, reasonably, that modern technology has brought many benefits. I think Jensen's response to this would be to question to whom do those benefits accrue (us) and at what expense to others. There is the more serious issue that bringing about a rapid collapse is the kind of thing likely to lead to many desperate people doing desperate things to each other and to the environment, worryingly to a situation where communities are ruled by the biggest thug: needless to say, this bothers me. Jensen would counter that the greater the overshoot the bigger the crash (see Premise Seven). This merely emphasises the urgency we face in developing alternatives, and this is what I think I'm going to focus on. There is a need for resistance, not necessarily against government, but about the systems under which present governments operate, and the exploitative, extractive underpinnings of it.

There is a second volume, which covers an analysis of resistance. This is a book I'll try to get round to reviewing. I presently have other priorities. Jensen's involve dismantling things. Mine involve building things. Both are needed, and the two are compatible.

There is something else that I got from this book, and it's something I picked up from it from a few paragraphs made almost in passing. It's right to follow your dreams, especially when not following those dreams is an excuse derived from your treatment by an abusive system. My dreams involve challenging an abusive system – showing that there is an alternative while we bring down that abusive system, and I damn well will follow those dreams.

I've met very few people who seem to have a proper grasp of what Jensen is getting at, and fewer still who seek the kind of relationship with the landbase and the living beings that share it that Jensen advocates. To the best of my knowledge, every one of us has fought depression, or anxiety, or both, or something worse. I read Jensen and I wonder if these are among the few people I know who are not insane.

If you're another of those people, maybe insane by society's insane rules but not by mine, there is a button at the top of this post that says “PM”. I'd like you to click on it. There's a good chance we'll get along.



* For those aware of this ruckus, I have a position on this subject. It's Cider Press material, and I have nothing to add to the discussion that hasn't been said already. This review is about the merits and otherwise of this book, not DGR's position on essentialism and its implications.
 
edwin hugel
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Good review of a good book!

Have you Stanley Diamond's In Search of the Primitive: A Critique of Civilization? He was an anthropologist with a heavy critique of civilization (not to be confused with author Jared Diamond). S. Diamond's writing was really influential on Jensen's work as well as the philosopher/poet Gary Snyder (The Practice of the Wild is great!) John Zerzan is another interesting thinker you might consider if you like Jensen.

I have read a lot of Jensen and listened to a lot of his lectures and interviews online and appreciate his insight. I keep hoping that he will get into and start integrating permaculture into his ideas!

google books excerpts from In Search of the Primitive
 
Neil Layton
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Thanks. I'll stick those on the pile!
 
John Weiland
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Thanks for a thoughtful review, Neil.

@Neil L: " ....but rarely leave a position where I think that human “civilisation” as it stands has to go, with more sustainable views on the rest of Nature, and probably a much smaller population (although I'm yet to find a solution to that problem that I find both sufficiently prompt and morally acceptable). "

I'm a fan of Jensen's work, but from a different angle. Yet that angle clearly overlaps with the permie message, with some of that of Daniel Quinn, and with some ultimate level of ecological re-righting. Can't recall if Jensen recounted much of his own abuse by his father in his later works, but he was clear about it in his earlier works and about how abuse in general creates a mindset that can be hard to shake. "Give me the boy to age 7 and I will show you the man" (-Aristotle, supposedly) has been shown the world over, for both good and bad consequences. In his writing, Jensen credits other more compassionate players in his life, not least of which was 'nature' and the stars above, for keeping much of his mental health in check through his development past his youth.

More to your point, questions that might be raised are, is civ-building a "healthy" endeavor?....In other words, do non-stressed populations build civilizations? Civs need leaders and followers with complementing mindsets. Personally, I agree that civilization as we have witnessed it's workings over the past 10,000 years, irrespective of which continent they were on, either needs to go or needs more than just a nip and tuck. My "go to" argumentative position here is that smaller, tribal-type existences **can** go awry and become nasty, but *only* in smaller, tribal-type existence does one tend to find examples of populations at balance with nature. Show me a civ example where the same can be said to occur. (And just to be clear: I'm not saying it *can't* occur, I just don't see that it *has* occurred.) As a counterpoint, the following longish essay, with which I found flawed, was posted in a different thread here on permies.com a bit ago: https://humaniterations.net/2015/10/10/a-quick-and-dirty-critique-of-primitivist-anticiv-thought/

NL: "I've been a nonviolentist. I use this term explicitly to make a distinction between this and pacifism. To me, pacifism implies (but does not always take) a state of inaction. Nonviolentism suggests that it's often right to stand up and take deliberate, conscious actions against that which we see as wrong – that which causes harm."

Can't recall....what would Ghandi have been considered? Is a blockade or human chain considered a violent "conscious action"....might not be, but what if it impedes someone from getting medical help? But agreed, sticky issue.

"At what point does a commitment to “planet care” require us to engage in actions to dismantle the system, as well as presenting an alternative to it? I don't pretend to have a simple answer to that question, but I do think it's one worth asking."

You're right....tough call. But the spotted owl controversy in the PNW of the US offered a good example, when some would claim that the owl was being put above humans. Except it was a ridiculous argument since it was about the extinction of the spotted owl versus the loss of timber jobs.....for relatively few humans. In that case, some blockading and other means to protect habitat seems reasonable. [The owl being the lightening rod for the protection of so much more.... (All loaded verbiage, naturally....)...]

"....one does not just stand by and permit rape or murder. Why should any of us stand by and countenance genocide and ecocide? "

But as Arno Gruen recounts in "The Betrayal of the Self" ( http://www.arnogruen.net/ ), there have been documented cases where some people *will* stand by and permit rape and murder....and not even in a wartime context. So it's completely understandable why they would do the same for something as distanced from them as 'the environment'. The source of this type of blindness, according to Gruen and others and with which I tend to agree: "What happens to an infant when it learns that the love it craves from its parents is available only at the price of submission to their will? In paying this price, as Dr. Gruen found in many years of experience with his patients, the infant renounces its true, autonomous self and instead embarks on a search for power with which to manipulate the world around it -- a quest that will henceforth rule its life." (.....recall the Aristotle quote above.)

NL: RE Modern Medicine: "Jensen's feels like evasion: he takes the position that modern medicine has to go along with the rest of industrial society. It's a consistent position, but one that shows precious little sympathy for those in need of medicines."

-and-

NL: "When we say “my property” this implies a relationship in which we can do as we please: it's a power relationship. When we say “my habitat” or, better yet, “this habitat” this has a completely different set of implications, having to do with inhabitation along with all the other organisms that also inhabit it. "

My sense is that Jensen's views are highly influenced by being in North America and exposed to Native American ideas and ethics. Recognizing that such "ideas and ethics" is far to broad to expand on here and is painting with an extremely large brush, the framework is very difficult get one's head around after having been raised in the West. Suffice it to say that getting one's head around it might be a major game-changer with regard to the concepts of medicine/mortality and property. But he takes it beyond the borders of North America as well.

"Something, something radical, needs to be done about what we've come, erroneously, to call “civilisation”. It's not that we as Permaculturalists necessarily need to be taking direct action (that has to be a personal decision), but that all humans who care about what other humans are doing to other life on this planet need to be taking some sort of action. "

Agreed, but the impetus, motivations, and blueprint for that action will need some critical thinking, hence sites like permies.com. A good start is always with the question "How did we get here?".....by that I mean, how did our minds bring us down this road of civilization. One might start by engaging in some high tech film viewing (courtesy of 'civilization'): Watch Ridley Scott's "Prometheus" and "Exodus: Gods and Kings" back-to-back as ask yourself if they aren't the same story just separated in fictional time by several thousand years. [Hint: Peter Weyland (Prometheus): "We were the gods now!".....Ramses (Exodus): "I am the god! I am the god!"]

One must take care that the flailing outward in anger is not just a projected (psychologically-speaking) lashing out against one's personal demons. From strip-mining in North Dakota (once the third largest nuclear power......in the WORLD!) to eco- and genocide the world over, those demons, collectively, will propel a population to create a world where even Max Rockatansky would fear to tread.

 
Neil Layton
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Hi John.

Thanks for that response.There is a lot here, so let me see if I can assemble a sensible, coherent reply.

I tend to agree with your observations about "civilisation". My response to that would be that we need to be working towards building healthy communities with checks and balances to prevent the kinds of violence and other forms of abuse that characterise ours. I'm actually deeply concerned that we are not doing this in the kind of detail I think is necessary. I don't think I'm the kind of person best placed to do that, in part because I'm an Aspie, and in part because as a heterosexual, Caucasian male I think I need to be doing a lot more listening than speaking.

I take your point about rape and murder: indeed one of my biggest problems is what I acknowledge is a bystander effect. There have been many occasions when I've been asked to "respect" someone's "choice" to eat meat. To me this is similar to an expectation to remain silent in the face of other forms of violence, some socially sanctioned, some not. I don't want to countenance that any more than I want to countenance any other form of violence except, perhaps, in certain circumstances, to prevent it.

In the case of rape and murder I like to hope I'd intervene, but I'm going to come back to that.

Gandhi is generally considered a pacifist: I'd see him more as a nonviolentist, because I think it's important to make a distinction. If you read Gandhi, the emphasis (although it's possible to find exceptions) is not that violence is ipso facto morally wrong, but that nonviolence is a better strategy. The question I think Jensen is asking is when is violence a better strategy, especially in the face of socially sanctioned violence.

One must take care that the flailing outward in anger is not just a projected (psychologically-speaking) lashing out against one's personal demons. From strip-mining in North Dakota (once the third largest nuclear power......in the WORLD!) to eco- and genocide the world over, those demons, collectively, will propel a population to create a world where even Max Rockatansky would fear to tread.


I agree completely. There are any number of hurt, exploited humans out there with legitimate (and sometimes less legitimate) grievances. I'm aware of a tendency within myself to react rather than respond on the basis not only of a rational response to a system I can analyse in the same way Jensen does, but of a visceral one to the ecosystem collapse I'm watching, and simply lash out against a society I don't understand but certainly find abhorrent. With enough such people, and I'm pretty sure there are enough such people, just dismantling the system without having alternatives in place, of which I think Permaculture could be one, we'll just replace one dystopic nightmare for another, and I think that's Jensen's biggest risk.

That's what I mean about concentrating on building alternatives. In doing so I think we do need to understand how we got here, if only to avoid making the same mistakes.

I do think we need to be careful about some strands of Permaculture too: I'm sitting on a review because, to be honest about the way I see the material, I have to express the point that I think it perpetuates the kind of abusive relationships (reminding me of this whole love-contingent-on-submission notion you mention) I came to Permaculture to escape - to the point where I have to wonder whether I even want to use the term to describe what I want to do. I think that's something we need to be addressing within our own communities. The thing is, I'm very nervous about the consequences of speaking out - which does nothing but reinforce the problem. The trouble is I need to be critical of one prominent figure in Permaculture (who I can't afford to alienate) and by implication several others.

All of which comes back to the problem of countenancing through silence.
 
Tyler Ludens
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Thank you for this discussion.
 
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