Talking trees, extended metaphors and "The World at Gunpoint"

giant talking trees taking out industrial civilization, Tolkein-style
giant talking trees taking out industrial civilization, Tolkein-style

I have a love/hate relationship with Derrick Jensen. The first volume of his Endgame books has been sitting, half-read, on my environment bookshelf for years while I try to get up the stomach to finish it. Is it terrible? Yes. But not in the way you might think. It’s ninety per cent brilliant and insightful, nine per cent weird and one per cent shudderingly awful. So when I saw that Jensen was taking on a column at Orion magazine–one of my favourites–I groaned.


I liked it, eh?

And it sure has stirred up a lot of controversy.

“The larger problem with the metaphor, and the reason for this new column in Orion, is the question at the end: “how shall I live my life right now?” Let’s take this step by step. We’ve figured out what the gun is: this entire extractive culture that has been deforesting, defishing, dewatering, desoiling, despoiling, destroying since its beginnings. We know this gun has been fired before and has killed many of those we love, from chestnut ermine moths to Carolina parakeets. It’s now aimed (and firing) at even more of those we love, from Siberian tigers to Indian gavials to entire oceans to, in fact, the entire world, which includes you and me. If we make this metaphor real, we might understand why the question—asked more often than almost any other—is so wrong. If someone were rampaging through your home, killing those you love one by one (and, for that matter, en masse), would the question burning a hole in your heart be: how should I live my life right now? I can’t speak for you, but the question I’d be asking is this: how do I disarm or dispatch these psychopaths? How do I stop them using any means necessary?”

After having read Endgame (or part of it), I’m sure that is exactly what he’d be asking himself. I’m equally sure that most people in that situation would be asking themselves, “How can I get to the phone to call 911 without being seen? If I wait for him to leave, will doctors be able to save my family?” His seeming assumption, that in such a situation most of us would kill the murderer ourselves, is untrue; but it is also true that we would not be cowering on our bedroom floors and wondering about, say, forgiveness, interpretive dance, or meditation practices.

(Another problem with the analogy, as comment #26 points out, is that we are not only the person cowering on the bedroom floor but also the raging psychopath and his gun; this complicates the notion of taking action. Do we shoot ourselves in the head? Wrestle ourselves to the ground?)

But at least this column gets us away from this eternal asking of  “how should I live my life right now?” Your compact fluorescent ligthbulbs are great, but they are not enough. I’m glad you’re recycling–you are recycling, right? keep doing that–but it also is not enough. Reusable shopping bags and packing your own lunch and turning the thermostat down are all fabulous and necessary, but not enough.

What question would I ask instead? What if, instead of asking “How shall I live my life?” people were to ask the land where they live, the land that supports them, “What can and must I do to become your ally, to help protect you from this culture? What can we do together to stop this culture from killing you?” If you ask that question, and you listen, the land will tell you what it needs. And then the only real question is: are you willing to do it?”

I suspect the land is telling Jensen that it needs explosives.

But that’s not what I hear. I hear that I need to participate in repairing the damage that’s been done, in restoring habitats and knitting those torn ecological webs back together. I hear that I need to understand as much as possible what is going on and find ways to communicate that effectively to people who are more preoccupied with taxes and the price of gas. And I hear that I need to find sources of meaning and value other than “whoever dies in the biggest house with the most stuff, wins,” and “you are as big as your bank account,” because those values are utterly unsustainable regardless of our levels of technology (not to mention, they make even the winners of those games miserable).

I hear a lot of things, none of which have anything to do with blowing things up. But that’s ok. The ELF  and Earth First! have been blowing things up for a while now and, while they’ve been used as an example of environmental extremism by some to discredit the movement overall, it hasn’t made much of a dent in our respectability. I’ll just worry about doing my part.

If you listened to the land, what would it tell you to do?

We’re not all police and paramedics; you may not have the character or temperament to be a front-line environmentalist. And that’s fine. But how could you call 911?

2 thoughts on “Talking trees, extended metaphors and "The World at Gunpoint"

  1. I love the way you think. Great, great post.

    I’ve always liked the question “How shall I live?” but the answer, for me, is not “compact flouresents” but something more like “Slow down; help & ask for help from neighbors; stay put; be outside.”

    As for the land telling us what it needs: I don’t really care what the land needs. What I care about is how to get the land to keep on giving me what I need, what my family needs, and what my children’s children will need, sustainably, forever and ever, amen.

    Oh of course I DO care about the land, but what I mean is that the hardest part is figuring out what we can take from it without ruining it.

    1. Thanks. 🙂

      I think this exemplifies the basic difference between universalist and social/altruistic values and motivations, but that’s a topic for another post! In the meantime,I’ll say that what we can take from it without ruining it is crucial; but I think we have to see what we can give back to it too. If our relationships w/ the rest of nature is fundamentally extractive now and in perpetuity, well, that seems kind of hopeless.

      The giving back is much trickier because we tend to see any modification of the environment by humans as pollution–but really, every living thing modifies its environment. The question is: what kinds of modifications, and who benefits, and who pays? (Who in the non-human as well as the human sense of the word.)

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