from the pages of Decenber 1996


Tom Athanasiou Interview

by Derrick Jensen


In your book, Divided Planet: The Ecology of Rich and Poor, you write, "The fundamental political truth of our time is that the change that is necessary is not "realistic." What do you mean by this?

Let's take some examples . . . Al Gore, whom I discuss in this context, has often said that he can imagine a future in which people become increasingly willing to face the need for major political and cultural change. But Gore's time as Vice President, like the whole Clinton Presidency, has in fact consisted of a relentless pandering to "realism as usual" rather than an attempt to construct another realism.

Take the Clinton/Gore BTU tax, which was advertised as the U.S. response to global warming. It was, in fact, a fraud from the very beginning. Even if it had passed, it would have been almost infinitesimal absolutely incommensurate with the carbon dioxide problem. It was not, in comparison to the magnitude of the global warming threat, "realistic." Now Clinton and Gore might argue that it was the child of a different realism, a Washington/realpolitics realism, but as a matter of record his phony little BTU tax was easily beaten out of existence by a routine public relations campaign by the manufacturing associations.

Another example: The climate negotiations in Geneva--which supposedly have to do with curtailing the human activities that are destabilizing the climate, for crying out loud--have been gridlocked by the oil companies and their allies for six years now!

The question is: How can we imagine a crystallization of forces such that the kinds of changes necessary to face the facts of global warming (to name just one of the many self-imposed ecological catastrophes we face) become "realistic," become changes that might, just might, actually happen? How can we bring about a realignment significant enough so that ecologically sane policies are not just the dreams of marginalized thinkers and writers like you and me, but live and move within the centers of power?

It's a big question, but given the weight of power and inertia in this society, it seems fair to assume that things will have to get worse before they get better. This is no great insight, by the way. Plenty of people have concluded as much. Some of them have, unfortunately, gone on to conclude as well that their proper project is to make things worse, to "heighten the contradictions." This is incredibly stupid. Indeed, it is unforgivably stupid. If anything is clear, it is that, the way things are going, they will get worse all by themselves.

There are a lot of reasons for the gridlock, but one, in particular, is too rarely noted. It is simply that, because of the class structure of this society, because of the vast separation between the haves and the have nots, we have a situation in which, by and large, those with their hands on or even close to the levers of power are insulated by that power from the conditions of life, as many, many people experience them. Indigenous peoples, the poor in both northern and southern countries, most people of color, women, children, nonhumans these are not, by and large, the groups with the power.

The question is, how could this change? And if it were to change, would it change in a truly positive way? Would the revolt of the repressed be one we would look back on with joy? We must learn from history; it is our responsibility. And the last time a vast revolutionary move swept the planet, it was opposed, contained and deformed until it wound up becoming what we knew as "communism," and its reality was so unappetizing that it delegitimated the whole notion of revolutionary social change. Why would it be different this time? So we have a problem. Not only do we have to imagine massive social change in which things that are today unrealistic become realistic, but we have to imagine this happening in such a way that perverse consequences don't overwhelm us, that change in fact crystallizes into positive transformation. We have to imagine, for example, edging the oil companies out of the center of the world economy, and we have to imagine that without the cataclysm of war, which our "civilization" has so often relied upon to enable such large-scale transitions. We have to imagine the redistribution of wealth, on a large scale and in a way that the elites somehow go along with. This last bit, in particular, will be a stretch, but the alternative is very dark.

I can't imagine the elites "going along" with any substantial redistribution of wealth. Think of Guatemala, 1954, Iran, 1953, Nicaragua, or any of the other places and times the U.S. has invaded to support transnationals or the local elite.

It's obvious that the environmentalist fantasy of a polite, rationally-negotiated transition is just that: fantasy. It's not going to happen. The only time this society has demonstrated the ability to make major changes quickly is by way of the restructuring concomitant to large scale warfare. World War I spelled the final end of the nineteenth-century pastoralist epoch, at least in Europe, and World War II, for its part, accelerated the transition into today's bright shining world of globally interconnected capitalist enterprises. In the late 1980s a lot of people tried to draw hope from the collapse of "communism," saying it proved that relatively peaceful change is possible on a large scale. But this, as it turns out, was a completely naive and inaccurate interpretation of the collapse of the Soviet Empire. In no way was that the emergence of anything new; it was just the consolidation of a former enemy region into the dominant global system of capitalism. Even at the most basic level of infrastructure not to mention politics there's been an utter failure on the part of either the former Soviet Empire or the western powers to do anything new there. The East is simply being incorporated into the dominant structure as a new frontier and service area.

What will it take for large scale social change to become realistic?

A lot of people will have to agree this change is necessary, a lot of people will have to believe it's possible, and a lot of people will have to believe it's beneficial. And that's just for starters.

The bottom line for many people particularly those many who want change but are afraid to work for it is that we have no choice, that like it or not we just have to let the "market" take us where it will, that we and our lives are just small boats tossed by the ruling economic tides, that any time we try anything new, any time we constrain "the economy," we end up making things worse. This is the baseline of capitalist ideology in this new period. This new grim period.

I'm not saying that most people consciously believe that there is "no alternative." But this notion that you can't make things better has a powerful subliminal hold on people. That's why I think environmentalism is so important to the whole restructuring of the political left. When the left comes back it will have to come back as a green left, because environmentalists are fighting a war of necessity, as are indigenous peoples, as are the truly poor. This is not theoretical, as it is for many "mainstream liberals." Environmentalists aren't saying things should change because we want them to change, because we would prefer them to be different. We're saying things must change for biophysical reasons. That's why those who do not want change spend so much time and money on anti-environmental screeds, because if you can counter the notion that there is an environmental crisis, you have quite profoundly undercut the notion that things must change. If you can get people to believe there is no ecological crisis, then suddenly all the people who see the need for change a group that, by the way, now includes a good fraction of climatologists and biologists and diplomats around the world are just dreamers, or worse. They are, at best, naive, and in any case they don't represent society as a whole. When those in power say these things, what they're really trying to do is convince us, against all evidence, that things don't have to change.

Everything we're talking about, by the way, seems perfectly obvious to me. I find that obviousness troubling in that although many people seem to have a visceral understanding of our situation, and although a great many people seem to have at least an unspoken sense of the changes that must take place, these changes remain officially "unrealistic."

I used to teach at Eastern Washington University, a fairly conservative school. Whenever I asked my students if we live in a democracy, they never bothered to answer they laughed. When I asked if the government attends more to the rights of people or the rights of corporations, they laughed out loud. And when I asked if the world will be a better place in ten, twenty, or fifty years, the only one who said yes is one who carried a picture of Ronald Reagan in his wallet.

It's true that, as the L. Cohen song goes, "Everybody knows the ship is sinking. Everybody knows the captain lied." But where does this pervasive delegitimation go, politically? Unless people really believe not as a sort of a limp-green utopian alternativism, but really believe in their bones that an alternative is both possible and necessary, the shift of realisms will not happen. I take solace in the fact that not the United States will not decide the future alone, that this is a global process. If it was just the States, the culture of affluence would be virtually preordained to continue its uninterrupted domination of people's visions. But the very rich sector or the world in which we find ourselves is not representative of how most people live. When I look into the future I see gated communities. New York City is a good example of the future, where you have very affluent areas adjacent to a very poor areas, and where somehow that division is not only enforced but accepted. In the last couple of years it has become common knowledge that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. Between 1960 and 1989, globally, the gap between rich and poor doubled, and this trend continues apace.

The gap is probably as old as civilization (which of course is not the same thing as being as old as humanity); the anthropologist Stanley Diamond noted that "Civilization originates in conquest abroad and repression at home."

The important thing about the recent doubling is that it has occurred within the life span of people living today. Even those who refuse to acknowledge our culture's history of exploitation do not easily miss the dramatically widening gulf between the haves and have-nots, especially when they're afraid of falling into the second camp.

It's easy to see that polarization between rich and poor leads to all kinds of social friction, to instability, and to chaos. But in a time of economic globalization and the globalization of television images, this kind of polarization becomes even more dangerous. When we throw in the global ecological crisis as not just a pollution problem where the poor get sick, not just a local collapse here and local ecological decay there, but a global crisis consisting of the scientifically verified disruption of basic environmental processes, and the destruction of key ecosystems, one is faced with a very compelling argument for change.

The central argument of my book is that if we are to have any chance of avoiding an extremely dark, chaotic, brutal scenario in which "weed" species rats, crows, cockroaches dominate many of the world's ecosystems, we must achieve justice; we must have a radical de-escalation of the polarization. We must find our way to a system in which everyone has the same access to goods, or at the least we must have substantive egalitarianism and democracy, and some reasonable level of equality of opportunity. If we don't, we simply will not be able to get along well enough to deal with the myriad of ecological crises we are creating.

Let me be explicit. In the absence of real change, these various crises will simply continue to unfold, and all devices, all environmental treaties, all local environmental-protection regimes within nations, will most likely fail. They will be overwhelmed by "the global marketplace" the worldwide culture of capitalism, and fail to break the cycle of deterioration. And I have to tell you that, though this is what I believe, I most emphatically do not want to be correct. I do not want to have to conclude, as my studies have forced me to do, that, without justice and ecological democracy in the next century, on a planetary level, high levels of ecological deterioration are inevitable, along with all their predictable, and very unpleasant, consequences. I do not want to believe this, but I do.

What will it take for us to finally admit that this holocaust is not inevitable, but that we are already in the midst of it? In my writing I used to shy away from the word "apocalypse," 'til a fellow activist said to me, "What will it take for you to finally use that word, Derrick? Will it take the death of the greatest runs of salmon on the planet? Global warming? The hole in the ozone? The turning of the sea off of San Diego into, to use the words of NOAA scientists, a "dead zone"? Will it take the collapse of the krill populations off the coast of Antarctica, the base of the fucking food chain in the breadbasket of the southern oceans? How about the decline of earthworm populations in some Midwestern forests by 97 percent? Do you know what happens when the earthworms die, Derrick? Do you have any idea? When will you finally use the word apocalypse'?" I laugh now when people say that we have ten years to mend our ways or face a holocaust. The truth is that we are in the midst of it. And we are blind to it: any culture that would cause the greatest mass extinction in the history of the planet wouldn't be able to see it. If we could see it we wouldn't do it.

At this moment in history, the question then becomes, for the small number of people who are environmental activists and radicals of every level, how do we cohere into an effective oppositional grouping. In pragmatic terms, how do we analyze the world? How do we conduct our pedagogy? How to we factor the "apocalypse" into our politics and these, by the way, are very tough questions. Don't forget that the big year 2000 is coming up, and there's going to be a flood of doomsayers out there. It's obvious that we need to articulate our nightmare scenarios, and to be hardheaded about the science when we do it. But we also need a vision of a better world. And we also need specific policy recommendations in a variety of areas. And it's obvious that we don't have them.

One part of the vision that seems really clear to me is that a community cannot and will not be sustainable if it damages other communities, including nonhuman communities. Capitalism or colonialism, a more accurate name for it is at root based on the enrichment of the capitalists (or colonizers) at the expense of all other communities, including the labor community, the Penan in Irian Jaya, the Lubicon Cree in Alberta, the salmon, whatever.

Another reason capitalism isn't sustainable is that, at least so far, it must grow or die. Like a cancer. There are, by the way, pro-market theorists who think that "grow or die" is not inherent in capitalist economics, that capitalism can evolve and grow in ways that are not ultimately suicidal. But instead of getting into theoretical head-butting on this point, I find it more instructive to differentiate between abstract theoretical capitalism and real historical capitalism. It might be theoretically possible on some other planet to have a form of capitalism deeply and soundly non-public-relations-wise committed to green technology. Who the hell knows? The truth is that it doesn't matter, because none of us are living theoretically. We live historically. Global warming and the biodiversity crash aren't theoretical. The sixteen children worldwide who die every minute from starvation or easily preventable diseases aren't theoretical. None of this is. None of this is necessary, which only makes it worse. It doesn't have to be this way. Humans are not a plague species. None of this is biologically predetermined.

Indians lived on this continent for at least 20,000 years without killing the passenger pigeons, the great auk, the sea mink, and so on. So clearly the problem is cultural, not biological.

Well, that's complicated too. Indigenous humans did, in fact, drive a number of species into extinction. The mammoth was one of them, I believe. The real difficulty here, as far as I'm concerned, is that while this tragedy is not necessary, nor ordained, it may be historically overdetermined. Here's what I mean my wife and I were just in South Australia, and while there we talked to an older couple, in their sixties. They are very gentle and intelligent people who own a huge sheep station, and he has been attempting to promote better forms of grazing and water use among the husbandry associations. And he said to me, "What I've learned in my life is that the obstacles to change are overwhelming. Even though, in terms of the water table dropping and the unsustainability of sheep grazing practices, the handwriting is on the wall, change happens very slowly." People resist change. Stasis is overdetermined. One of the difficulties, and perhaps one of the opportunities, is that everything reinforces everything else. There have to be cultural changes, and institutional changes, and economic changes, all at the same time.

Where does this leave you?

With a difficult balancing problem. What I end up saying to most people is that I am not an optimist. Optimism is part of the problem. Optimism, as defined by those in power, means technology and the market, means muddling through, it means servility in the face ruling economic institutions, and it means thinking that everything is going to work out more or less of its own accord. Of course I'm not sure that the victims of capitalism those starving to death, wage slaves worldwide, communities facing annihilation are likely to agree with this definition of optimism. In any case, this form of optimism is simply denial.

Which is not to say that there's nothing we can do about it. Obviously we are both writing, and you are an activist as well. I would like to believe that by my work I am adding to the evolution of a culture of honest hope. Honest, as I am insisting that we look at the real conditions of existence. The actual predicament. Hope because I believe any well-founded belief in a better society and the possibility of a better future has to be based on honesty about the present. Like many people everywhere, I think the situation is very grim. I am committed, however, to being a voice of realism, even though this marginalizes me politically. The price of admission to the dominant discourse, you know, is optimism. You have to be optimistic. You have to feed the denial. You have to make people feel good. Writers like you and me are in a difficult situation. We don't want people to feel good.

We want people to feel.

That's a much more difficult problem.

Talking about the destruction is the same as seeing it. If we could talk honestly about killing the runs of salmon, we wouldn't do it. Which means the inverse is also true: if you can begin to talk honestly and deeply about the destruction, different behaviors will begin to emerge.

Part of building a culture of genuine realism, of genuine hope, is learning to talk about the problem. Learning to face it.

In Divided Planet, you quote George Bush's chief trade negotiator as saying, "We want to abolish the right of nations to impose health and safety standards more stringent than a uniform world health standard." Given the horrors we face every day, and given the clear murderous policies of those in power, why do we not rise up? What keeps us from toppling the corporate masters? Why is there not rioting in the streets?

Why isn't there rioting in the streets? Because people believe, against overwhelming evidence, that the division of the world into rich and poor is the natural condition of humanity. Because many of those who aren't rich identify with the rich and want to be rich and believe that they may someday become rich. Because many people are exhausted from trying to survive on a daily basis, and haven't got the energy left to riot in the streets. Because of television and the entertainment state. Because of the power of ideology. Because of the police. There are a lot of reasons why people aren't rioting in the streets. The culture is structured and has been structured for hundreds if not thousands of years to contain and turn aside the disaffections that come with economic division.

The interesting thing is that because of globalization and rapidly increasing economic polarization beyond a point that even capitalist pundits find it healthy the economy is becoming visible to the average person in a way that it has not been for a long, long time. Because the economy is changing so profoundly and because its brutality is so manifest, people are starting to ask the big question what is the economy for? This is a tremendous opening. The key point is that people must begin to understand that wealth, as we know it, absolutely requires poverty, that the wealth of one has as its precondition the poverty of another, that, as Adam Smith wrote, "wherever there is great poverty, there is great inequality. . . . The affluence of the rich supposes the indigence of the many."

There are rending points in history, events in which consensus breaks down, in which the depth of a long-festering delegitimization suddenly bursts into view. We're at one of those points. That's why the laughter of your students is important, because it indicates the existence of a subterranean process that could lead to something snapping. Something snapped in the sixties. Something is going to snap again. We don't know what it's going to be. Unless capitalism can find within itself a kinder and gentler shape, then it will, in the short term, only be held together by the sense that there is no alternative. It then becomes our job to demonstrate that there is such an alternative, that the inequality and the destruction aren't necessary. And we can even do better. We can demonstrate that, in acting upon these insights, there is a deep satisfaction, and even a joy. It feels right. It's not a contradiction to recognize that while the culture is exterminist and the future looks grim, there is no reason to take it personally. I am happy with my life . . .

As am I.

And it is important to remember that we are finite, evanescent creatures. We really don't live very long. And much as we struggle for a global perspective, whether or not we feel peace depends on the questions, Do you love? Are you loved? Do you have good work? It's important to remember that no matter what happens, life is good. In the end, life is good. And all theory aside, probably the most compelling reason for anyone to become an activist, to struggle for change, is that working to support life, to support justice, to support love which after all are the same thing makes a good life even better.