Lewis Mumford 1973 interview

by request.

Interview with Lewis Mumford by Modern Visionary, 1973

Lewis and Sophia Mumford have spent much of their life together in the small village of Amenia, New York. Here they can walk and garden together, and continue the intellectual conversation that began with their marriage 52 years ago, when both were editors for a literary magazine. If it seems an ascetic life, far removed from the conflicts of this modern era, the appearance is misleading. This is home. Their laboratory is the world. 

Lewis Mumford’s fame grew steadily over the years as his mind ranged from antiquity into the future, probing always for insights into the character and dilemma of modern man. His works reflect the belief that man can gain self-understanding and self-control, even in an age of disintegration and violence. 

Some of his most successful books have been published since his 60th birthday. The latest, Interpretations and Forecasts, represents the whole range of his interests, from cities to the threat of nuclear war, from technology’s effects on society to the politics of democracy. It is, in fact, a kind of summing up of the thought of this incorrigible humanist. 

In the thirties, you were in the forefront of the intellectual struggle against what you call the mass attack on democracy. You were fighting then to make democracy work. Are you disappointed in the outcome of democracy today? 

LM: I was fighting for what was left of democracy in our society, because I saw that democracy is essentially an invention of small societies. It only can work in small communities. It can’t possibly work in a community of 100 million people. 100 million people can’t be governed on democratic principles. I know a teacher who had her pupils, her students in high school devise a system whereby there could be an electric communication, with a central organization, and a proposition could be put before the whole electorate, and everybody could respond “yes” or “no” by pressing a button. And she and the students had the delusion that this was a democracy. It isn’t. It was the worst kind of totalitarian tyranny that would be imposed by this system. Democracy depends on face-to-face relations, therefore upon small communities, which then become part of larger communities, which then have to be governed by a different set of principles. I defended democracy because this is basic. This is part of our American tradition. In that sense, I was a Jeffersonian. Jefferson believed, and if only the country had listened to him, that the political system should be based upon the small community, and that there should be an elected steward for that community who would carry the knowledge he needed for the larger community and would be the bearer of that. This is his Virginia version of the New England town community. 

I think this is a profound insight on Jefferson’s part. And the weakness of our whole political system is that we have this fundamental unit. The small unit has never been part of our democracy. Instead, we invented the political party, which is an organization that can be manipulated. A real democracy can’t be manipulated, because it’s too various.

MV: What do we have today?

LM: Chaos. Chaos, on a large scale, colored by superorganization. A few newspapers, a few television stations. A few people in the White House and the Pentagon control our opinions and control the information we need to form opinions of our own. Therefore, we have no real opinions of our own, unless we are very sober and keep away from newspapers and television programs and radio programs long enough to think our own thoughts. We use them as instruments of thinking.

MV: You once warned against the arrival of great instruments of persuasion and intellectual bribery in this country. Has that prophecy been fulfilled? 

LM: All too well fulfilled. In fact, they’re now, psychiatrists are saying the way to get rid of war and get rid of violence in our society is to just drug the drinking water with sedatives. And eventually they’ll add aphrodisiacs. But sedatives and anesthetics, which will calm down the population. And then people won’t make war. It’s purely an infantile notion. 

MV: I get the feeling that a lot of people are willing to yield to the opinion-makers and to their leaders the decisions of this society in exchange for order, security, privacy, and affluence. 

LM: Quite right. I’ve taken this up in the section of The Pentagon of Power in which I deal with the threat of parasitism, of each of us becoming a parasite. A parasite lives a glorious life in terms of an affluent society. He finds a host with whom he can live, and without any effort on his own part, he becomes increasingly bloated with the food supply by his host. The state is now the host, and the entire population is rapidly becoming parasites, absolutely dependent for their existence upon the prosperity of the state. No matter how ruinous policy may be, nevertheless, as long as it lasts, the parasite will be looked after. 

MV: I get the impression as I travel the country that if people are not, at heart, happy; they are certainly not protesting the system. They’re living with the system. They’re content in their status as parasites. Is that a fair observation?

LM: From my point of view, it’s a very fair proposition. The danger of any totalitarian tyranny is that it requires much less effort than active self-government. Real organisms, real living organisms are autonomous. Even a rat wouldn’t accept the conditions you lay down for him if it doesn’t suit his rat-like character. Man, unfortunately, is a little too adaptable. He will accept any kind of tyranny or oppression as long as you feed him well and give him sufficient sexual stimulation to make him think he’s alive. 

MV: But the oppression today is certainly not the oppression of the masses in the days of Pharaoh or in the Soviet Union as recently as 1930 and perhaps even today.

LM: Oh, I wouldn’t make that discrimination at all. I should say a large part of it is exactly of the same order. But in addition, there’s the more subtle kind of oppression. Instead of the Egyptian pharaohs and the great monarchs of Mesopotamia, who governed with a whip, governed with a truncheon. There was no nonsense about disobeying them. We found a better method. We give people sedatives and aphrodisiacs and make them forget that the chains are getting heavier every day. They think they are a new form of ornament that’s really rather nice, and doesn’t require any effort on their part. We’ll soon get to a point where science will provide us with effortless orgasms and then our society will have reached its ultimate consummation. 

MV: Being bored is certainly not in the same class as being brutalized. 

LM: Oh, it’s another form of brutalization. We don’t realize how we can be brutalized the way Odysseus’s followers were when they were the victims of Circe. And she turned them into animals. She turned them into pigs, snoutish pigs. And they were very contented. And Odysseus couldn’t get them to leave the island, they liked it so much under Circe’s ministrations. It’s the same thing. Don’t forget that Homer saw all these dangers long before you and I could.

MV: One of your favorite writers and poets, Whitman, wrote of a great bursting energy that was at the primitive heart of the American culture. And he in fact helped to release so many of these forces, at least in my judgment, and I think I’m reflecting your opinion. How do you think Whitman would feel today, in our society?

LM: I think he’d feel just the way he did when he beheld the society after the Civil War. In Democratic Vistas he gave a picture of our present society, which has only become magnified and confirmed by what has actually happened. Democratic Vistas is the most serious indictment of democracy that has ever been made. And nothing that I could say could be any harsher than what Whitman said in Democratic Vistas. Oh, he saw already everything that was coming.

MV: Such as? 

LM: Our society. Sodom and Gomorrah. 

MV: That’s a very blanket indictment. 

LM: It was meant to be. 

MV: I get the impression as I travel that people know of the bleak diagnosis but are anxious for solutions. How do we get to solutions? 

LM: The solutions won’t come from outside us. First they have to come from inside. We have to  look at ourselves and examine the kind of life we’re leading. We have to inspect ourselves as rigorously as if we were a criminal, asking ourselves “How did you commit this crime, that you are living the way you are living now?” I myself, again and again, go back to the story that Dostoyevski tells in The Brothers Karamazov, the picture of the really spiritual monk, the Father Zosima, who is giving advice to the people around him on his deathbed, more or less. And he says to them at one point, and I read this every year because it’s something that’s addressed to me as well as his own audience – “Every day and every hour and every minute, walk around yourself and look at yourself, and see that you present a seemly appearance.” If we did this, if we really examined our lives, and if each one of us regarded this as a personal mission – we ourselves, personally, have to contribute to the salvation of the whole world. Not by converting them, but by converting ourselves to what we mean. 

MV: Self, conversion, salvation, those are the terms of religion. 

LM: Yes. And I’m not afraid of that. I’m not ashamed of it. As a matter of fact, when I began preparing for The Condition of Man, I spent a whole winter reading into the annals of Christianity. I knew, superficially, the history of Rome and of the Christian religion. Now I began reading the early fathers. Augustine and Jerome, who I knew, but also Cyprian and Origen and Tertullian. The great fathers of the Christian Church. And I realized at that moment, and remember society wasn’t as safe as it is today, that they were talking about my society. They were talking about the evils and the corruptions and the sins that were committed every day in our advanced western civilization. And some of their answers, the answers that they gave of withdrawing, of looking inside yourself, of examining your own sins before you attempt to improve anybody else. But these answers, I think, are fundamental answers. They’re recognized, there are certain human obligations that we must fulfill for ourselves before we can help anybody else. 

MV: You said that a great leader would know that the time has come to reinstate the essential human factor. Does the world have any great leaders at the moment?

LM: There are plenty of them, but we don’t know where they are. We don’t know our contemporaries, you see. We often don’t discover them until a couple hundred years after. Who, in Rome, in the year 100 A.D., knew that Christianity was going to wipe the Roman Empire off the map? What was Jesus Christ? He was a Jewish agitator who had been dealt with properly by authority as he deserved. Had no sense of what the real future was. The real leaders were hidden. I think the people who are now in the public eye aren’t by any means the real leaders. We may not recognize who they were for another 50 or 100 years. But I have faith that they’re there, because life is always surprising us with the unexpected. It’s unpredictable. Even good things can come. 

MV: So I may get an optimistic statement out of you yet. 

LM: Oh, I’m nothing but optimism. How would I keep alive without that? But also without the pessimism that tempers it, because both things are real. We have to deal with the reality, the realities of life. 

MV: The constant barrage of criticism of American society today is often producing a counter-result among the man in the street out there. He’s proud of his country. He wants to be proud of his country. I’ve often thought that one reason for that is that while only a few people know who John Doe is, John Doe achieves a kind of transcendental immortality when he says “I am an American.” And if you attack his country, you’re in effect attacking his identity. Isn’t that so?

LM: Well, it’s so, in a way. The fact is that his real life is dissatisfying. His real life doesn’t give him pride. He has to take pride in little things. His car, his latest television, these material things. This isn’t the real life. His country, as an idea and as an ideal, means something to him and we have every reason to expect that. There are things in American history we must all be proud of. And we must never lose that kind of self-confidence. At the same time, the man in the street, because he feels that the actual life he lives isn’t the best possible life, he won’t say so. He tries to convince himself that it’s all right. He’s full of illusions about his country. He thinks that it’s a good country no matter how much evil it does. That’s worse than an illusion. That’s a pathological state to be in, not to be able to recognize the difference between good and bad. To think that bad is something that can only be committed by your enemies when they oppose you. And whatever you do, no matter how inhuman, how bestial, is good. That’s the most disastrous of illusions. 

MV: How do you explain the deep tolerance that exists in this country of brutality and violence, including that committed in the name of our ideals? 

LM: We’ve gotten used to it. We have a long tradition of violence, and it’s seeped into our systems. We have a long tradition of corruption now. And we accept corruption as normal. A policeman caught in corruption doesn’t get embarrassed. He doesn’t even have to brazen it out. Everybody does this. Why should anybody pick on him for being corrupt, for taking bribes from a narcotics pusher? Gradually, if you take enough poison into your system, you don’t realize that it’s poison anymore. You don’t die from it, unfortunately. You go on living. 

MV: Along with a tolerance for brutality, having been in the factory towns of America and the villages that are dying and the city canyons and caverns of the major metropolitan areas, I would say that we have a high tolerance for ugliness as well, and that must offend you, with your sense of aesthetic taste and concerns.

LM: Not merely ugliness, but inhuman conditions, unsanitary conditions. Dirt. All the things that attack the body. All the 200 cancer-producing substances that every industrial city vomits into the air. All these things offend me, not just the absence of beauty. I’d be perfectly happy to do without a little beauty if we had some of the realities of life. In fact, I’d like to quote the advice that Ruskin gave the manufacturers of Bradford, who were producing a large amount of pollution. They wanted a lecture from Ruskin on art. He said “Don’t ask me to talk to you about art. You’re not ready for it yet. Clean your streams and clear your air. Make this environment, the physical environment, fit to live in. Then maybe you’ll be ready to talk about art.” 

MV: Mr. Mumford, as you’ve pointed out, we’re all outcast Europeans. And yet, even with that tradition behind us, we produce no Chartre, no Straussberg, no Cologne. Not even a Canterbury. Why is that?

LM: Well, in the first place, we haven’t had so much time. Medieval cathedrals weren’t built rapidly. It sometimes took centuries before they were finished, and even in the 19th century many of them were still unfinished. But the real reason is that they had a vision, a vision of the possibilities of life beyond eating and drinking and going to bed, daily necessary humdrum activities. And a vision of heaven, and they didn’t want to wait until they died to have that heaven. They brought it down to earth in the cathedral and gave all they had for it. Even the butchers of Chartre contributed to a whole section of the church. Instead of taking it out for their own private use, they felt a duty to support this great vision, and that’s why these buildings have got it done with a richness of material and labor that nobody would expend on it today. 

MV: In our time, we’ve turned essentially to private pursuits than to social.

LM: To private pursuits and also to complex mechanisms that represent our particular kind of heaven. We think of a heaven in which everything will be done electronically or mechanically. Where power on an unheard of scale will be used, and that no human being will be in sight anywhere. You will be extruded from the whole organization. This is the ultimate heaven of our age.

MV: This is such a departure from the hope that existed when machines were first invented. Bacon, who you quote, said that he believed invention would tend to the relief of man. And yet, machines haven’t been that redemptive.

LM: Quite right. John Mills saw that in the middle of the 19th century, and essentially it’s true. Some of the burdens, the horrible burdens of servile labor, which demanded too much of the human body, have been removed. But other burdens, equally gross, have been imposed by the very use of the machine. So the net gains are far less than people imagine. 

MV: I remember in one of your writings an account of a physics class in 1911, in which you said the teacher held up a pen and said “There is enough power in the atoms of this pen, that if we could unlock, would run the subways of New York.” Well, 62 years later the subways of New York are still running rather primitively, and the atom has been opened. Why hasn’t that power been turned to man’s relief? 

LM: First of all, because it’s a double-edged power. It’s potentially very great. But in the present form of nuclear fission it’s very dangerous, too. You’d never solve the ordinary problems of pollution through using ordinary chemicals, which are in small quantities easily absorbed by the earth. We have no notion of having solved the problems of nuclear fission. Once the reactors are used up, we have an enormous amount of radioactive material we don’t know how to dispose of. If we dump them in the oceans, the oceans are polluted. If we put them in caves, the caves are polluted. Out in Colorado there was a danger that the whole community might suffer from nerve gasses that have been poured down into a cave. We’ve taken on these immense powers without any way of handling them physically, and still less any way of handling them morally. They present moral problems of the greatest difficulty, which we are so unused to facing. So deficient are we in elementary morality that we don’t even know that they exist. 

MV: Is it reasonable to expect that we can control them? In days past, machines were created by basically a few people. Today’s machines are created by a multiplicity of people who only touch a part of the machine as it comes into existence. And society with its political processes takes over, and the man who made the machine is no longer responsible for its use. How can we correct that? 

LM: Well, the trouble is that nobody feels responsible. I have a long term answer to that, and that is, one by one, many of the processes that we’ve turned over to the machine must be recaptured by the human organism. I write, for example, on a typewriter. I’ve written on typewriters ever since I was 16 years old. I wouldn’t give them up. But at one point in my life I realized I was the victim of the typewriter. If I didn’t have it at hand, I wouldn’t be able to write a long book, because my handwriting was illegible and I never felt at ease using the hand. And at that point I decided to learn the art of handwriting all over again. I studied the books on the Chancery script, the fine Italian hand that the bureaucrats used in the 16th century, and acquired a pleasant kind of handwriting that is entirely legible. I feel that a great gain. I’m not the victim of the typewriter. I could do without it. If all the typewriters in the world were destroyed, I could still go on writing books. 

And this applies to other things. We’ve turned our memory and even our mind over to computers. I would have memory training brought back, as a fundamental study, beginning at the first age in school, so that by the time a student is out of college his memory would be as colossal, as capacious as that of a Greek poet who could recite every chapter in Homer without looking at a book. 

MV: But what about B-52 bombers? After the Civil War, as you also have pointed out, the instruments of that war became the tools of progress for agriculture, factories, expansion west. What do we do with this machinery we’ve created now for war, which doesn’t seem to lend itself to becoming a tool for peace? 

LM: We have to dismantle it, machine by machine. Some of it will be useful for scrap. Some of it might possibly be used for other purposes. The army jeep, for example, is very good for getting around rough country. This is a very happy contribution if you live in the rural regions. There are many things that needn’t be rejected altogether, but they must be put in their place. Now that we have ruled man out of the picture, and the machine has displaced man in our own imaginations, not merely in fact.

MV: And you don’t think it’s too late to turn it around?

LM: It’s never too late to mend, the old saying says.

MV: What about the fact that a lot of people enjoy these machines? Isn’t it possible to be too harsh on the automobile when many people want an automobile, want two, want three? Isn’t it possible to be too harsh on the release from drudgery, to overlook the release from drudgery that machines have made possible?

LM: I’ve never said a word against the automobile. What I’ve said about the automobile was to put it in its place, to have it part of a balanced system of transportation. To prevent it from being misused, and to keep it from destroying our cities, as it has already done. There’s no machine that isn’t welcome if it’s responsibly used by rational people, if it’s under their control. On the other hand, I am afraid of a wheelbarrow if it’s not under human control. 

MV: You’ve written that American culture is deliberately indifferent to man’s proper interests. What are those proper interests? 

LM: The proper interest is the perpetuation of human life in every possible depth, utilizing all its potentialities. Not merely one single side of the human personality, but everything that we arrive at, including subjective depths, which we now have contact with only in psychotic and deranged forms. There are possibilities inside the human personalities that haven’t yet been explored, only partly and tentatively explored by some of the religions and some of the mystic cults. We have thousands of years of labor to perform all over again, just as primitive man did when he invented symbols and learned how to use language. So we have an even greater exploration ahead, provided we realize that everything that goes on in the outer world must be under the control and under the direction and under the vision of an inner world, which is infinitely, which has no limits to its existence. 

MV: What about the future, the vision of Lewis Mumford at 77? 

LM: He’s quite content to die, as soon as – I would die very happily, as I used to say to my wife,  if you could write as an epitaph on my tombstone “This man was an absolute fool. Everything that he predicted would come to pass, has not come to pass.” If that could be said, I’d know that the world was safe, and I would die a happy man. 

MV: Well, on that note, and with a deep sense of gratitude for your letting us come here and for sharing your wisdom with us, thank you. 


Melinda Mann 05.27.18

(Sound of barnacle goose)

Podcast: http://resistanceradioprn.podbean.com/e/resistance-radio-guest-melinda-mann-052718/

Youtube: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=upJq-PDHNRw

Hi, I’m Derrick Jensen. This is Resistance Radio on the Progressive Radio Network. My guest today is Melinda Mann. She is a longtime environmental and social justice activist whose “peak trans” moment three years ago rekindled her deep radical feminism. In response to trans-identified males’ demands for unfettered access to women’s private spaces, she launched a research project to document the sexual and other violent crimes of males who pose as women, creating a Facebook page called “This Never Happens” to publicize the results.

So first, thank you for your work, and second, thank you for being on the program.

MM: Thank you. It’s great to be here. 

DJ: So right now there is an “art exhibit” at the San Francisco Public Library that certainly to my mind seems to glorify and call for male violence against women. Can you talk a little bit about that particular art exhibit?

MM: Yeah. Lots of people are responding to this. I kind of couldn’t believe it and I actually want to share that I have a fantasy that it’s all going to turn out to be a brilliant art project in which these guys show how easy it is to get the entire liberal population to back an outwardly misogynist project. But I don’t think that’s going to be the case, unfortunately. I don’t feel – I wish it was all going to be shown up to be as absurd as it is. 

What they did is they have this group called the Degenderettes, which I understand now call themselves “trans dykes” because they didn’t like the idea that “degenderette” might actually mean that they were against gender. They put up what they say are their self-defense weapons, you know, baseball bats with barbed wire wrapped around them, and a t-shirt. One of their main actors, a guy named Jeremiah Birnbaum put up a picture of a t-shirt that says “I punch terfs,” which he has worn out to a dyke march. 

This is supposed to be an art exhibit that calls attention to the violence against trans women and their need for self-defense. It even explains on one of the panels, I don’t have all the wording right here, but it says something like, you know, why they could justify punching “terfs” as opposed to the actual men who commit violence against trans women, is that it’s because of our relentless belief in biology, and our saying that women don’t have penises, and by accusing all of us of doxxing and harassing them, which I’ve never seen any evidence of. They actually justify this by saying that it’s possible that “terfs” have actually caused more trans deaths than the actual men who kill them. So it’s quite jarring, I think, to even imagine the twisted logic that gets them to being able to justify this kind of violence against women. 

DJ: Let’s back up a moment and define some terms. Can you define “terf”and then can you also define “trans-identified males” or “trans women.” Can you define all these terms for us please, because I don’t know that we will understand all of them. We’re jumping right into the middle of something. 

MM: Yup. I will gladly back up here. “Terf” is “Trans-exclusionary radical feminist” and I don’t even know how it started, and it’s not even clear what radical feminists are supposed to be excluding transgender women from, exactly, but it has come to be a slur that means basically any woman who does not submit wholeheartedly to what transgender ideology – it’s used to shut down conversations a lot if you ever question any aspect of gender ideology. It’s often used in conjunction with the word “Nazi.” “Terfs” and “Nazis,” you know, “we can no-platform ‘terfs’ and Nazis.” I’ve heard young women say that they’ve seen that go by, and they didn’t really think much about it. I don’t know about the origins, but it’s certainly come to be just a generalized slur against women. And a lot of times it’s leveled at lesbians particularly, because what, it turns out, of all the things that males who call themselves women are publicly the most upset about, it would seem that being denied access to lesbian women is right up there towards the top of why they’re so so very angry at “terfs.” It’s a generalized slur against radical feminists. I think – the only thing I can think of that we exclude males from is the category of “woman,” but they often will say that “terfs” deny the humanity of trans people, which is to say that we are suggesting that because they are biologically male that they aren’t human. I’ve literally never heard anybody suggest anything like that.

And then “trans woman.” I sometimes say “trans-identified male” and sometimes I say “trans woman” and mostly I try to just say “male.” When I say “trans woman” I am talking about a male who poses as or claims to be a woman. And a lot of people say “trans-identified male” for the same thing, somebody who is a biological male but, for whatever it means to them, chooses to live socially as or call themselves a woman. 

DJ: So you used the word “trans dyke” and you said the group that is putting on this, that created this art exhibit at the San Francisco Public Library, that they call themselves “trans dykes.” So is what you’re saying, that they are males who are calling themselves lesbians?

MM: Yes. Exactly that. The word for those people is “heterosexual males,” like most males, but they’ve got it turned around so that, because they call themselves women, women who say that they have orientation towards women as partners should also include them. They have actually a rather creepy slogan, it kind of makes my skin crawl. It’s “trans dykes are good and pure” and I don’t even really know what that’s supposed to mean. It’s pretty strange. It’s the idea that they are just as much of a lesbian as actual lesbians. And it’s on this basis that they assert that women whose sexual orientation is towards other females are bigots for not including them as potential sexual partners. 

DJ: There is actually a term that is often thrown around for this, called the “cotton ceiling.”

MM: Yeah. I first saw that a few years ago when a Planned Parenthood chapter was actually hosting a workshop for trans women, for males, to come up with strategies to help talk women out of their homosexuality and get them to consider having sex with males if the male calls himself a woman. That was the beginning of one of many problems for me, when I began looking into this, that my beloved Planned Parenthood would actually host such an event. But they did. It’s actually happening and it’s happening pretty quickly. 

DJ: So, to be clear, these are males who – they have penises and they are insisting that lesbians who don’t want to have sex with them are bigoted. 

MM: Bigoted and “terfs”and – 

DJ: Nazis. 

MM: Again, as this San Francisco Public Library exhibit wraps it all up so neatly, that their sexual preferences, their exclusion of trans women is somehow contributing to the deaths of these males who, they would assert, have high suicide rates. I suppose that if you haven’t been swimming around in this for a few years that it’s really hard to imagine how we could have got to this point, that they’re literally accusing lesbians of killing them, men accusing women of literally killing them by not being willing to have sex with them. 

DJ: And one of the exhibits – I’ve seen pictures of the art setup and one of the exhibits has an axe and there’s also a baseball bat, and they are in glass cases, and the caption or title is “In case of terf, break glass.” So the clear implication is that if you see a woman who is saying “no” to males, that you should break the glass, get the axe or baseball bat, and then do what one does with an axe or baseball bat. 

So that seems pretty clear to me that it is an open call for violence against women. And I just want to point out to all listeners that this is being hosted by the San Francisco Public Library. 

MM: Yup. Yes, it is. It’s being hosted and fairly well-defended after a big flurry of requests to the public library that they take down the one t-shirt that looked like a big blood smear on a white t-shirt, that said “I punch terfs.” They did concede that maybe that could be misinterpreted as advocating violence against women. Their argument back is that sometimes you’ll see that ‘terfs’ aren’t women, and that trans women are real women and any woman who doesn’t accept that is not a real woman. The threads of thinking here are very very strange. But the justification is again sort of the Nazi justification, you know, killing people is wrong but killing these horribly, horribly bigoted human beings is somewhat justified as, they call it self-defense. They literally say that they are defending themselves. 

DJ: Before we continue, I just want to point out that Robert J. Lifton made very clear that before you can commit any mass atrocity, you have to convince yourself that what you are doing is not an atrocity, but instead a positive good. And every perpetrator of atrocity, from individual abusers to the literal Nazis, perceive themselves as the real victims. The Nazis perceive themselves not as committing mass murder and genocide, but instead as purifying the Aryan race. And also they perceive themselves as having been victimized by the Jews, who, according to the Nazis, stabbed them in the back. And this is all, of course, complete nonsense. 

We see this in the Declaration of Independence, where the Founding Fathers were complaining that the Indians were attacking them, as they were of course stealing Indian land. So my point is that we need to be, all of us, including the Degenderettes, need to be very careful when we claim self-defense as a reason for violence. I’m just throwing that out.

MM: Yes. I want to say a little bit, if I could, about who these actual people are, that they are males who identify as women. The category has become this big catch-all. Maybe somebody thinks about some young person who has been dressing as a woman for their whole life. Whatever image comes to your mind, I think if you looked a little more closely at Jeremiah Birnbaum and Scout Tran-Caffee, “Scout Tran” is what he goes by. These are very privileged, maybe not upper echelon, but very privileged white males who grew up in Silicon Valley in one case, and went to elite schools and got MFA’s and BFA’s and they’ve been sort of mid-level artist types in the Bay area or on the coast for quite some time. And they just recently, in their careers, they had art careers as men until their late 30’s. So in just their last few years they’ve decided to call themselves women, publicly. So they have this – they’re not even anybody who can anchor somehow that this was something that they were from childhood, anything like this. These are very well-to-do, or coming from well-to-do families, white males who just recently decided to put on this cap of being transgender and come out. It’s hard for me not to look at that pretty cynically and just decide that this is the latest gimmick for them. And yet they very very casually are willing to advocate violence against women and paint themselves as these huge victims. 

I find it offensive on a number of fronts, not just on the front of feminism. That they are among the privileged class in this country, and that they assert so strongly this newfound, new-fangled victimhood that then allows them to punch women. Not only do they swing baseball bats. There is Youtube footage right now of one of them at a gun range with his Degenderettes t-shirt  on, which is an inverted picture of, you look at the woman’s bathroom symbol, with the skirt, and they’ve turned that upside down and made, instead of the two legs, they’ve bent one of them down at the knee so it looks like they’re flipping off whomever’s reading it. 

Again, there’s no big call for women to be demanding into men’s bathrooms. You might see that go by occasionally. But this is so clearly directed at females. And to be at a shooting range and say, as you were saying, that this is all self-defense, you know, they have to prepare themselves in self-defense. Scout Tran is also an expert with using a sling. He’s kind of an amazing slingshot user and can hit things from quite some distance with a sling and marbles. This is not a weak guy who’s being terribly victimized by any real objective standard that we could come up with. I don’t know his personal life and I’m not claiming to, but from a societal standpoint, this is an aggressive, violent, young, privileged male. And that they can turn this all around and say that lesbians are somehow oppressing them is scary. It’s a pretty frightening prospect. 

DJ: Which of these artists is the one who wrote a poem about stealing his sister’s underwear and masturbating into it? 

MM: Yeah. That’s Mya Byrne, whose name is Jeremiah Birnbaum. This wasn’t any great sleuthing on my part. Like you said, he’s been a musician for quite some time and has done some recordings and opened for some low-level or mid-level kind of acts. That’s him. This is the evidence of their “womanhood,” that masturbating in women’s underwear comes up a lot, as evidence of their true female nature.

DJ: I just want to point out, again, that there is an art exhibit being put on in a public space, at the San Francisco Public Library, that has an axe and a baseball bat with the intent to show that these should be used against women, which should disqualify it from being held at a public space in the first place. But second, one of the primary artists has publicly written a poem about stealing his sister’s underwear and masturbating into it. And that, by itself, I would think, would also disqualify a person from having an art exhibit at a public space. That’s pretty messed up. 

MM: Pretty bad.

DJ: So let’s sort of jump to the larger issue. We hear all the time that there are various bathroom bills across the country, that are either set up to make it so males who identify as transgender – so that women are forced to share their showers and bathrooms with them. There are other bills that are attempting to make it so women are not forced to share their bathrooms and locker rooms with males who identify as transgender. And one of the arguments in favor of forcing women to share their bathrooms with them is that males who identify as transgender do not pose, and have never, none of them have ever posed any threat to women under any circumstances. We hear this more or less constantly. So we hear “this never happens.” So can you talk about that a little bit?

MM: Yeah. The story of my learning about this, and probably yours and everybody else’s, to me, is imagining that it can’t really be this bad, and if I could just expose the littlest bit, people would at least reconsider and we could have a reasonable conversation about how to protect the rights of people who are nonconformist in any way, which of course I thoroughly support.

So I first started with looking at just a very few examples of men who had acted out in any way towards women. One of the early stories, I think it’s still up on This Never Happens, is from 2006, where a guy who’s, you know, a 220 lb. martial arts expert punches a woman in the face because she’s in the women’s bathroom and she says something to him like “Hey, I don’t think you’re supposed to be here.” And he does $50,000 worth of damage to her teeth, he knocks her teeth out, and we’re supposed to understand, to hear his version of it, that it was just inappropriate of her to even question his right to be there.

So I remember thinking “Wow, if people just know this, they will understand that this is not just a cut and dried issue and that we need more discussion around it.” And I discovered that there were a few people who had been tirelessly exposing this for a long time, like Gallus Mag of Gendertrender, and I just thought okay, I’m going to start a little Facebook page. And I really thought that once I had 20 or 30 examples of this kind of violence, I fantasized that it would be a little bit of a game-changer, and that any time I had a conversation about this issue I could say well look, here are these people. 

And that turned out not to be the case. We now have hundreds of examples of males who raped boys, who raped girls, who are serial killers, a number of serial killers. And unfortunately, what I’ve encountered when I bring this up and show people these examples is “Oh, this is just cherry-picking, there’s just a handful.” There seems to be no number of examples that one could come up with to convince people that these men are a problem. They bait and switch very quickly, from “this never happens” to “okay well maybe it happens occasionally, but the injustice done to trans women by denying them access to women’s spaces is so huge,” that, you know, basically women and children are just going to have to be sacrificed because in the big picture this is such a greater good (laughing).

So yeah. It happens much more than I ever thought, and it’s happening, as far as I can tell, more often, because as the laws change to enable men to go into women’s spaces, they’re figuring this out, and there have already been a number of examples; of men up in Canada going into a women’s shelter, a convicted sex offender, and demanding that he has the right to go in. He doesn’t look like a woman, he doesn’t look like he’s trying to, but it’s Canadian law. So he went in and of course engaged in a couple of assaults of women sexually, climbed into bed with one woman. He did not rape anybody but he was sexually abusive to several women before getting kicked out. And recently we’re seeing more guys going into women’s bathrooms.  In Washington State in the last month I think a guy went in and stood on a toilet and was looking over the stall wall and masturbating, and then as the security guard is taking him out he says “This is my gender identity.” 

People are learning. So there’s a combination of things. There are of course many, many trans-identified males, people who actually run around claiming to be women day-in and day-out who commit violent crimes against women. But there’s also the added ripple effect that when you decide that any man has the right to claim that he’s a woman and thus access women’s spaces, you’re giving a blank check to predators to do this. And we’re seeing this. Paul Dirks up in Canada, he and I have been doing some documentation. He’s much more thorough than I am. He’s got hundreds of cases of men abusing women in women’s locker rooms and bathrooms. And most don’t claim to be trans, in all fairness. They’re not necessarily woman-identified. But he finds that it’s about twice as likely to happen in areas where there are laws on the books giving males access to women’s locker rooms and other spaces. So how is it not only going to extend out from there? There’s never an answer, as far as I have heard, about what would be the proper way that we could tell who is truly transgender versus the people who just want to come in.

But back to the original point, even among the people who “truly identify” as women, there’s no evidence whatsoever that their sexual and violent criminal history has any other trajectory than that of other males. In fact, there’s plenty of evidence that they have more criminality than other males. 

DJ: Can you mention that study, I believe it was done in Norway or Sweden? The long-term followup of male criminality? 

MM: Mm-hmm. And I think this is an interesting point too. It’s not really the point I’m always making, but yeah, that even after transition, and I think this is very important. This was in Sweden, perhaps the country with the most acceptance of transgenderism, and I think it was 260 people or so. It’s a longitudinal study. No reduction in criminality was found, and this was after they’ve transitioned. This isn’t like before they transitioned they became criminals. Their criminality after they medically transitioned remained the same as that of other males. 

Every time I mention this I often get feedback like “Well, that probably happened because they were so frustrated,” and, you know, fill in the narrative here about how that must be different now, but the truth is that no, even afterwards they retain the same rate as other males. And interestingly, females who undergo medical transition, or whatever version of transition they had in this study, have increased rates of criminality. So women increase and males stay the same. It’s hard not to point to this as not being an effective deterrent for criminality whatsoever. 

One of the studies that comes up a lot, like if you’ve ever heard that 41% of trans women attempt suicide, which is a ubiquitous figure out there, I see it quoted constantly. It all comes from a large survey that was done and published in 2011, which is all self-reporting, people self-reporting their suicide attempts. It’s a notoriously unreliable report because all people tend to exaggerate their suicidality because it’s a means of expressing to others how poorly they were feeling at the time. So it’s a notoriously unreliable statistic, this 41% claim of suicide attempts. But something I never see anyone mention is that in that exact same study, where they’ve done this huge self-reporting study of trans people in the U.S., that they also report being incarcerated at much higher rates than anyone else. Extremely high rates, in fact. White men who are – there are a lot of different ways to measure it – have basically a 4.4% chance of lifetime incarceration. Well, among white males who identify as trans, it’s 12% have been in jail or prison. Three times more than the standard rate would be. 

So it’s not just the one study in Sweden. Their own self-reporting of their own criminality is three times higher than other males. It’s like ten times higher than actual females. And yet the cherry-picking on the side of people who promote transgender males as victims and whatnot, they always manage to find that particular number, the 41%, and yet I almost never hear the bigger number. It’s actually 21% of all male-to-females self-report that they have been in prison or jail. One-fifth. It’s a huge number, a huge portion and it’s almost never mentioned along with the things that are mentioned from the very same study. 

DJ: Another thing that’s never mentioned when they throw out the 41%, which is, again, a self-reported Internet poll and is thus useless – I remember talking to Judith Herman decades ago about the gold standard study for the rates at which males rape females. And one of the things she was talking about was about how carefully they constructed the questions to try to avoid leading respondents into claiming rape when they had not, and to frame questions such that the women who had been raped but didn’t call it rape, they would somehow neither dampen nor encourage. It’s really both an art and a science to develop those questions so that your results will be meaningful. 

And of course that does not include self-reporting on the Internet, because – okay, this is a little bit off-topic. But when the Internet was new, I went to many Crohn’s disease support groups since I have Crohn’s disease. And it was horrifying. I never wanted to go back because so many of the cases were so terrible. And then a friend of mine said “Derrick, of course they are. Only the people who are having a really hard time with Crohn’s are going to go there.” So it’s a skewed sample. And the people who would respond to an Internet survey is going to be a skewed sample in the first place. 

So it’s just crazy on all kinds of levels. But another thing that’s never mentioned is that they always act as though that’s a trump card that means that because so many of them attempt to commit suicide that this means that they should be allowed into women’s restrooms or some other complete non sequitur.

I want to mention three things about suicide. One of them is that the highest rate of suicide in this society is among middle-class, middle-aged white males. So you can’t really argue that suicidality by itself is a sign of oppression. The next one is that I recently saw a study of the rates of suicidality, of attempted suicide among prison guards in California. And then that got me curious so I looked up the rate of suicide attempts by prisoners in California. And the rate of suicide attempts by prison guards is twice what it is for prisoners. So they would have to argue then that this means that prison guards are more oppressed than prisoners.

And the third thing I want to mention is that there have been studies that have shown correlations between various factors and suicidality. And the strongest correlations are drug and alcohol abuse and diagnosable mental illness, as in Robin Williams having depression. As in Ernest Hemingway having depression. 

And in no way am I undercutting the horror of those mental illnesses or the desperation that will drive people to suicidality. But my point is that if you’re going to do a survey like that, you have to then also, in order for it to be meaningful, you have to account for the rate of drug and alcohol abuse and also what’s the rate of diagnosable mental illness? And only when you’ve separated out those can you then start to draw any other meaningful conclusions from any of that.

I’m sorry to go on so long, but this has just been something that has been a burr in my saddle for a long time. All that information is just grossly misused. 

MM: It is grossly misused. I have certainly seen a few studies done that are actual – there haven’t been all that many long-term followups of transgender people as far as I can see. Also a whole lot of people are not really medically transitioning or even necessarily doing it with their  documents, so as this whole concept gets more amorphous it’s going to make doing anything like an actual scientific study of people harder and harder. It used to at least be that it was a diagnosable mental illness, so you could at least then go and look at the outcomes for people who had had this diagnosis. And that has not been done very much at all, really, except for that Swedish study.

But I have seen it go by, and often what you’ll see is a relatively small study to start with, 35 young people I think in Boston, who had medically transitioned, and one committed suicide. So compared to a control group, of course there’s probably not, in an average of 30 or even 100 people there’s not necessarily going to be a suicide. Or even in some of the larger ones I’ve seen, the rate looks like it’s doubled because two trans people committed suicide and one person in the control group did. 

There might well be some level of suicidality that’s connected with it, but what it isn’t, what I see with this 41% figure that’s quoted a lot; first, as you say it’s self-reported in this huge study, and I’ve looked at the question, it’s just “Have you ever attempted suicide?” And again, without more nuance, people do tend to overestimate their suicide attempts because it’s a form of expression, it’s like saying “Yes, I was so depressed at one point that I considered suicide.” And what they’ll do is take some whole other study in which only, you know, 1.5 or 2% of the rest of the population said that they’d ever made a suicide attempt, which is a much lower number, compare two entirely different studies. 

If they were calling 1000 random people and asking each of them the same question, as you were saying, then we might have an answer here. And we might well still see that the suicidal ideation among transgender-identified people is higher, but that’s also because of the comorbidity of other mental illnesses is higher. Or at least that’s one explanation for it. So yeah, turning suicidality into the axis on which it can be demonstrated that this group of people is oppressed starts to look quite cynical, especially when talking about this other self-reported information, self-reported actual incarceration rates, when that’s never discussed. In the same exact study that is supposed to be kind of an in-depth look at what’s going on in their lives. It never gets highlighted that “Oh, and by the way this is a group of people who self-report going to prison three times more than other white males do.” Isn’t that an interesting part of the entire picture that you would want to have if you were examining who these people are as a group? And yet it’s not. Instead it’s the most inflammatory, the thing that we can say, that gives them the most sympathetic appeal. And of course everybody’s sympathetic towards people who want to kill themselves. It’s a horrible state of mind to be in. But it’s pretty much never the fault of strangers. And when I say the use of it is cynical, it seems incredibly cynical to me to use something as tragic as a purported suicide attempt to blackmail other people into telling you what you want to hear, all the time. It seems fairly childish. 

And what I always think of is that no actual oppressed people get to say this. Looking at black people and all of the ways that we can show their historical and present-day oppression, never is it a big part of the common parlance among left-leaning people that we should pretty much believe whatever a black person says because they are demonstrably oppressed. That’s not how it ever works for anybody. But somehow this interpretation of what oppression is, and therefore what they get to demand on the basis of it is almost entirely something that is fabricated or used cynically by people with an express agenda. It’s an agenda of power. I don’t see how it isn’t. I’m hard-pressed to figure out how that’s not a power-driven agenda. 

DJ: So we have about five minutes left. 

Women struggled 100 years ago in Great Britain to – do you want to talk about the bathroom struggles in England 100 years ago, very briefly?

MM: If you would like to talk about that, that would be great. 

DJ: All I would say is that women struggled 100 years ago to gain sex-segregated bathrooms in England because they wanted a more robust social life. And this was opposed by males who did not want them to have a more robust social life. The reason for this struggle was that women were less likely to be sexually assaulted if they had their own restrooms. And there are many good resources for finding out about this topic. So when women say “We want to have our own locker rooms,” there is a related historical struggle. And there is a male backlash against this struggle that must be considered part of this discussion. That’s all I wanted to say. 

MM: I think that’s exactly right. This was a remediation, women having their own private spaces is a remediation that addresses women’s oppression. It’s not a privilege, it’s nothing of the sort. 

DJ: So how would you sum up our conversation today? If you could convey two or three nuggets to people – 30 years later, 40 years later, my God I’m getting old – the one thing I remember about Star Wars is “use the Force.” So if anybody hears this interview and they could just take away one or two or three nuggets. “I heard this interview today and it was about  blah blah” what would they be? 

MM: The baseline would be that you can’t change your sex. That we are socialized on the basis of our sex from birth or even earlier on, and that if ever you are running into males who are claiming that their violence against women is justified for any reason whatsoever, examine that closely. Take a look at why that would possibly be. 40-year-old guys swinging bats at a dyke march. It would be hard to imagine that anybody who isn’t completely indoctrinated into this way of thinking would think that that was okay. That males intimidating lesbians at a dyke march was a good idea. So carefully examine any time you see men threatening violence against women. 

DJ: That’s great. And one last thing. Beyond examining, what do you want people to do? 

MM: Well, you know, it’s interesting right now because I have been off Facebook for a little while. So there is actually on May 26th, there are hashtags #IWasCalledTerf and #IWasCalledATerf , and women are encouraged to write out why they were called a terf, you know, “I was called a terf for saying that women don’t have penises,” for example, and take a selfie with it. And on that day, tweet it to the San Francisco Public Library. So this is kind of an art project going on. They had a panel this last weekend, but they’re also having another panel related to the Degenderettes’ art exhibit on May 26th. So that’s one concrete step to make soon, but of course the bigger step is to always keep this discussion going and encourage people to have it with friends and coworkers, which is really really hard to do in person. But there are way more people who are questioning this than feel like they can say it publicly. 

DJ: Small wonder when you’re threatened with baseball bats when you do. 

MM: Yes, exactly. 

DJ: Which is the whole point of the baseball bats, is it not? 

MM: I think so. It’s hard to imagine what else – if I see guys marching down the street wielding weapons, I’m assuming that they believe it’s okay to use them. And if you’re doing it at a dyke march, I have to assume that you believe it’s okay to use them on actual lesbians.

DJ: Well thank you so much for your work, and thank you for the conversation. I would like to thank listeners for listening. My guest today has been Melinda Mann. This is Derrick Jensen for Resistance Radio on the Progressive Radio Network. 

Martin Lee Mueller 08.05.18


Podcast: https://resistanceradioprn.podbean.com/e/resistance-radio-guest-martin-lee-mueller-080518/

Youtube: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=LDmfNt9JDjo

(Sound of Eurasian cranes)

Hi, I’m Derrick Jensen and this is Resistance Radio on the Progressive Radio Network. My guest today is Martin Lee Mueller. He received his doctorate in philosophy from the University of Oslo in 2016. He has previously helped build teaching centers in rural Mongolia, worked as a kindergarten teacher, been an elementary school librarian, and led a wilderness school in the Norwegian forest. His book Being Salmon, Being Human was recently awarded a Nautilus Book Award. The book has also inspired a stage performance, a joint project between Martin, two storytellers and a Sami joiker. Their group has previously played in the UK and Scandinavia. This summer, they are coming to the Pacific West Coast to perform in communities between British Columbia and California. Martin lives in Oslo together with his partner and daughter, near a small stream that has yet to see its salmon return from extinction.

So first, thank you for your work, and second, thank you for being on the program. 

MM: Thanks, Derrick, so much, for inviting me to the program. It’s an honor. 

DJ: Thank you. In your new book, Being Salmon, Being Human: Encountering the Wild in Us and Us in the Wild, you talk about the importance of stories. Let’s start by talking about what are some of the stories that we currently live by that are causing some problems for us and for the world? 

MM: Maybe I will take this opportunity to tell you just a little bit about how this project that ended up being the book and also the performance, how it began. There was a newspaper article many years ago now, in the Norwegian Financial Times, of a professor of fishery economics, who asked a rather rhetorical question. He said “What if we let the wild salmon of Norway go extinct?” Because, he argued, there’s now a conflict in Norway between the wild fish and the feedlot salmon that are considered such a huge success story in Norway that, according to him, we couldn’t really have both. We had to choose one of them. And then his reasoning went that the choice should be obvious, that we must choose to let the wild species go extinct, because the industry has come, and come to stay. 

The first thing I noticed was that there was no public outcry when this happened. And this made me wonder, why is there no outcry? Why is there no voice of resistance? Why does this seem to be rather acceptable, of a person of authority, a person of a certain intellectual influence? And so at that time I embarked upon this project asking that question that you just asked me. What are some of the underlying stories that are being told in this suggestion to let a wild species go extinct, one of the signature species of our country? What is motivating this notion that it is totally normal, totally acceptable to decide over the fate of so many other beings? 

One thing I then had to try to learn about was how are feedlot salmon looked at in Norway? And there is a word in Norwegian that sort of describes the story of the feedlot salmon, that captures sort of the essence of what the public authorities and influential institutions think this is. The word is “laks eventyr.” There are two translations for it into English. You can’t really translate it directly. But one translation is “The Salmon Adventure.” And the other translation is “The Salmon Fairy Tale.” So, in the word resonates a certain evocation of national romanticism, of a nation-building period, of a period where Norway tried to pull itself out of centuries of having been dominated by other nations such as Denmark and Sweden. So the salmon story is considered a remarkable and breathtaking success story here in Norway. The feedlot industry is considered that breathtaking success story, so much so that some influential politicians, but also members of the royal family, have repeatedly said and suggested that feedlot salmon should be considered a part of Norwegian identity. So in other words, we have a clearly exploitative industry that is entertaining close ties with politics, and also to the royal family here. 

And over and over again we see that this is an articulation of the story of separation that we have suffered from for centuries. It is in some ways rearticulating itself, and rearticulating itself now with the authority of science, with the authority of political power, with financial power, with technological ingenuity. And it is considered hugely successful, but of course there are downsides to it, and I’m sure we’ll have a chance to talk about those as well. 

DJ: So there are a few directions I am thinking about as you say all this. One of them is that this is why I hate a significant percentage of people who run fisheries. And I’m not saying all, because I’ve known some fisheries biologists who actually do care about wild fish. But this is why fisheries departments are so horrible, and we can say the same thing about forestry departments, because they have the same attitude about forests. 

Another thing I’m thinking – and you can take any of these any direction you want – is that this reminds me that every time I read an article in the mainstream press about any species going extinct, or any biome being destroyed, the article has to refer back to how this will affect the economy, which is atrocious. 

The third direction is: can you talk a little bit – we said in the introduction that you live near a stream that has yet to see its salmon return. 

MM: Yes.

DJ: So the third possible direction to go here is can you talk about … like, I know salmon in the Pacific Northwest. I don’t know salmon in Norway. Can you talk a little bit about – are the stories the same there, that the stories here are that the entire river would be black and roiling with fish, and do we have similar stories of abundance there? So do you want to talk about Atlantic salmon, or whomever salmon live in Norway, or do you want to talk about the other two things, or do you want to talk about something else? 

MM: Let’s talk about some of these things. The question of abundance is incredibly interesting. Just a few days ago I reread Leo Marx’s incredible book, The Machine in the Garden. He talks about how one of the recurring experiences of the 16th, 17th, 18th centuries for European settlers to the North American continent was that of incredible abundance. And of course you’ve written a lot about this in your work as well, and given beautiful and also terrible and painful examples of that. The passenger pigeon and of course the salmon as well, that are so thick, that are coming back in numbers so thick that you could literally wade across the river without getting your feet wet. And of course you’ve got stories of woodworkers having clauses in their contracts saying that they could not be fed salmon more than a few times a week. You’ve got stories like that coming from Canada and North America. But I have also come across similar stories here in Europe, actually on a French river, the Loire River, I’ve come across similar stories also, of workers on the river saying “We cannot be fed salmon more than a few times a week.” So you’ve got anecdotal evidence like that, but it is hard to piece all this together into a larger picture over here, and I’ve been wondering sometimes, why is that? Is that perhaps because Europe has been settled more densely for a longer time? So that this abundance, that we still find relatively recently in the Pacific northwest, has to some degree faded from living memory, unlike over there? Is that part of the reason? And what is the role of the salmon’s ecological work? Salmon here and there are keystone species. In the Pacific you’ve got several different unique species. In the Atlantic you’ve only got one species of salmon, the Atlantic salmon. And they are also the ones that are being farmed all over the world. So whether you have farmed salmon in Norway, or Chile, in South America, or in British Columbia; they will most likely be Atlantic salmon originally. But one peculiar difference between Atlantic salmon and Pacific salmon is that not all Atlantic salmon seem to die after they have spawned, whereas it seems that all Pacific salmon do. 

So there is that difference. However, it does seem that the overwhelming majority of the Atlantic salmon does also die after they have spawned. So, yes. Here and there, salmon are most certainly keystone species, able to bring incredible amounts of gifts of nutrients, of nourishment from the ocean back to the land. And yet, stories of abundance are more frequently coming from the Pacific northwest than from here. 

There is another side to this. Leo Marx, in his book, he also says that the notion of abundance has shifted from something that we can experience in the landscape to something we mostly associate with science and technology nowadays. And isn’t that really peculiar? That in a sense science and technology is now suggesting we need to produce more salmon because we need to feed more people, and because rivers are collapsing. But of course in creating that logic they also create a kind of positive feedback loop, where more confinement leads to fewer wild fish, to there being fewer opportunities for wild fish to return. Which in turn strengthens the argument that we should have more contained fish. 

And perhaps you can jump back in here, because there were several interesting leads you threw out, and perhaps we can figure out together how to continue from here. 

DJ: Well, I was actually going to throw out another lead here, and this is a question the answer to which I don’t know at all. But you hear the Tolowa and the Klamath, who lived where I currently live; they are often called the People of the Salmon. And that’s true all up and down the Pacific Northwest. Were there traditionally, or are there, traditional indigenous people in Norway who also were People of the Salmon? Or, again, is the conquest so ancient that their memories are for the most part forgotten? 

MM: There certainly are. They are the Sami people of northern Scandinavia and the northern parts of Russia and Finland. Or what western civilization now calls Russia, northern Finland and northern Scandinavia. And these people are likely to have been there, depending on whom you ask, either since time immemorial or perhaps since the last glaciers retreated to the north. So, yes, there is, like in North America, a long history of settlement of the north. And, like in North America, it is more than likely that the people who would have arrived there would have in some sense arrived side by side with the salmon, and perhaps with other fish, and learned to live in place not despite one another, but perhaps more through one another. Through being attentive to one another. Through observing and affecting each other’s lives. Through posing themselves as questions, as riddles that had to be pondered over time. And this community of Sami people, of course, has suffered some of the same traumas and losses that North American indigenous communities have suffered. They too were denied until very recently to speak their mother tongue. They too were taken from their families as children and put into Christian boarding schools. They too were shamed for being indigenous people.

In doing so, of course, much of the tradition has gone underground or to some degree disappeared. But of course it never disappeared fully, and there is now, here, like there, a renaissance movement becoming more and more visible in people trying to listen to the land again, trying to be attentive again to the voices in the land that are both human and more than human. And to find ways of moving forward that are of our time, but also resonate with tradition that would have enabled people to live in these lands for a long time. 

I’ll give you some examples. The metaphor of the gift is something we encounter over and over again when we visit indigenous communities in the Pacific Northwest, especially the notion that  to create any kind of functioning longterm economic agreement between salmon and the human communities, you would need to somehow remind yourselves collectively, over and over again, that this is essentially a gift relationship. It’s a relationship of agents offering themselves and gifting themselves forward, so that what emerges is not a relationship of exploitation, but a relationship of contractual peers, a more than human alliance that is held in precarious check by gifting itself forwards in different ways. Salmon gifting themselves as they bring this incredible richness from the ocean, this gift of the oceans that they bring to the land, to people but also to bears or vultures or Douglas firs. 

And the humans would have understood over time that the best way to relate to this gift given freely would be to reciprocate by offering other kinds of gifts back to the salmon. It could be the gift of attentiveness. It could be the gift of a beautiful story told, or a song sung, or a ritual that would return a weir, a dam built, into the river after it’s been used for a certain time. So this is something that is already quite visible in the Pacific Northwest. Here’s what’s really interesting. Recently a Norwegian Sami researcher, who is herself from the Sami community and lives up in the north, wrote a Ph.D. dissertation where she talks about the language that is being used by traditional fishermen to this day in the north. And among the many interesting observations she makes, is she has one word, “bivdit.” And “bivdit” has two meanings. It means to fish, in the sense that we speak of fishing, in the sense of I catch that fish, that kind of subject verb object relationship. But there’s also the inversion of that, because it also means asking permission to be receiving the gift of the fish. So the word itself keeps open an alertness to the reciprocal nature of encountering wild salmon in the rivers. It keeps open an alertness to their subjectivity, to their agency, to the possibility that they may gift themselves, but they may also withhold themselves. 

And so isn’t it interesting that we have these different cultures living on different continents that perhaps independently have discovered this incredible notion of the gift. And in that, something that may be universal in the ways that humans have encountered salmon, that may hint at possibilities of what it might take in the future, for future human-salmon relationships to thrive. 

DJ: It seems that we’re in many ways getting to the core of how to survive, ourselves, on this planet, and how everyone survives. And also, if I may, to the core of your work. That it’s the fundamental understanding that how we perceive the world affects how we behave in the world. And so the stories that we tell each other affect how we treat – and how we perceive the world affects how we behave in the world. So feel free to just take that anywhere you want.

MM: One interesting observation about the story of the separation, or the story of human dominance, is that it’s largely self-proclaimed. And it creates this aura of being inevitable. It has the benefit of technological power, leverage, political power, and habit, as well. And so it creates this almost impenetrable screen that makes it seem almost like the air we breathe. That invisible, that transparent. But it remains largely self-proclaimed. And what if we were to reverse the burden of proof? What if we were to simply say “We no longer take this story for granted.” We say we look for a different kind of story, a different kind of legitimacy that is not self-proclaimed, and what could that be, and how could we speak of it? 

This makes me think of some wonderful writers, such as Freeman House, from the Mattole River, or Douglas Christie, a theologian who has written about salmon, or David Abram, my mentor, or Janet Armstrong, who has written so beautifully about salmon as well, and many others. Looking into the work of such writers, what we find is that the legitimacy that they evoke is one that is bequeathed by others; by river, by the voice of thunder. By forests that are being nourished by the return of the salmon. And through their work, it seems to me they try to give voice to these other beings so that all these voices can convene and be heard in human speech; perhaps in poetic speech but also through the beautiful eloquence of scientific speech; so that they may once more inform the human community, and inform us of our responsibility to remain curious and open to the presence of these others, to the weird and different ways in which they are in the world that are so unlike our way of being in the world, and yet so real. And isn’t that a kind of legitimacy that actually has a far more fundamental embedment in the living world? And how, then, to turn this into political action? 

This is of course a very difficult question. But we do see, and I think there are signs both in the Pacific west coast, but also here in Norway, that there is a growing alertness, a growing sensitivity to the speech of other beings, the speech of other things, the speech of places as well. And a growing willingness to let that inform political action, to let that inform science, to let that inform new artistic expressions, ways of conceiving economic arrangements between us and the salmon. New ways of perhaps creating a gift economy between us and them. That may seem very weird, looked at from the point of view of the dominant culture, and perhaps even unthinkable, or unspeakable, ineffable. And yet they are emerging here and there. 

DJ: So when you say – I’m sorry, I don’t have the exact language. When you say that there is some increased attention to the voices of these others, are you talking about, for example, the increased recognition that plants communicate through pheromones? Or are you talking about what Jeannette Armstrong has said about animals giving us dreams? Or are you talking about attending to the circumstances that if salmon are going extinct, maybe that’s also the voices of the salmon saying “You’re doing something wrong”? Or is it all of these and many more? 

MM: I think it’s all of these and many more. Let me give you a concrete example. One from here and one from there. They’re strikingly similar. The stream that I live on is a very small stream, and until recently I didn’t even realize that there had been salmon, because they’ve sort of slipped from human memory, or at least from everyday conversation between us who live in this small watershed.

Recently I received a small booklet in the mail that tells the story of this river, written by some enthusiasts who have researched the archives to find out more about the river. And I came across an episode there where part of the river has been laid underground, because it has to give way to a highway connecting Norway and Sweden, a major highway. And inside the tunnel there was a small dam that prohibited any migrating fish from returning from the oceans and up  into the watershed. And at some point, only a few years ago, somebody walked or crawled into this river and found, just below the dam, uncounted numbers of trout waiting, and facing the dam, but unable to go up. And so that prompted this small community of enthusiasts to suggest we must build a fish ladder, because the fish are actually telling us they want to move upstream. And the fish ladder was built and the trout are once more living in the stream and have colonized the stream upriver. 

Some years ago I had the wonderful opportunity to visit the Elwha River on the Olympic Peninsula just before the time when the two dams were being dismantled over there. And I came across an old member of the Lower Elwha Klallam community who told me a story of the time early in the 20th century when the two Elwha dams were built into the river. She hadn’t been there personally, but it was a story that had been passed down to her and then she offered it to me. And she said the year that the dam went in, the salmon would come back to the river as they always have been, and they would try to fulfill their obligation, except they were unable to do so because the dam was there. And then they jumped against the dam, and they kept jumping and jumping, breaking their necks in the process and coloring the river below the dam red with their blood, not with their flesh. 

And of course the population collapsed. But some salmon never stopped coming back, and the dam stood in the river for just over a century. And she said to me that they never stopped coming back, and they never stopped jumping at the dams, and so they never stopped reminding us of our obligation to once more pay heed, and take out these dams.

DJ: So you used a phrase that she used, that I think is one of the most important phrases ever, that is also blasphemy in terms of modern human discourse. You said that they wanted to fulfill their obligation.

MM: Right.

DJ: And that applies to what you were saying earlier about the salmon giving a gift to humans and then humans giving gifts to salmon, and to the forest, and to everyone else. Can you talk for a moment about why/how fulfilling one’s obligations to the land is really sort of blasphemy in this culture? And why fulfilling one’s obligation is instead actually crucial? 

MM: You know, part of the architecture of the story of separation, the story of humans as the dominant, the apex of evolution, is that we are entitled to use everyone according to our own dreams and desires. Of course this is something that you also have worked a lot on and argued  about. This sense of entitlement suggests that we don’t have to think about whether or not we have to return anything. The question of whether we must return anything, whether it is bones or whether it is attention or whether it is gratitude, doesn’t arise in modern conversation, in modern discourse. It is blasphemy, as you say.

However, if you shift the standpoint for a moment and you adopt the language of ecology, you find that ecology in some things is telling a story that is rather familiar perhaps to those who still have an acquaintance with some of the traditional stories, to those who do not think that speaking of fulfilling our obligation to other beings is blasphemy, because that knowledge has been kept in traditional knowledge. Ecologists speak of salmon as a keystone species, of course, one of many keystone species that are so incredibly important, and weaving relationships between, in the case of salmon, between the ocean and the land. Between the abundant waters of the Arctic and the relatively poorer waters of continental watersheds. In bringing more diversity, in bringing more liveliness, more life to the watersheds, where those who receive their gift are trees, or California grapes, or badgers or foxes or humans. 

And the language that ecology adopts is of course scientific prose. But in doing so, it tells a story that is so remarkably similar that it can hardly be a coincidence. And ecologists would say that if the keystone species disappears, then the web as a whole unravels and becomes poorer, becomes less able to spawn new opportunities, to spawn new surprises or new chances for creativity. 

DJ: So I love what you just said, and I’m going to go in a slightly different direction, if that’s okay. There was something in your book that really – don’t worry, it’s not you – something that somebody said that really pissed me off. I’ve been aching to deal with this with you ever since. And it’s a quote by – it’s two anthropologists – “Lien and Law insist that feedlot salmon have some degree of agency, because they might choose either to eat or not to eat.” And the reason this pissed me off so much is because you are one of a handful of philosophers that I don’t hate.

MM: (laughs)

DJ: You know; Kathleen Dean Moore, David Abram, Neil Evernden of course. There are a few philosophers who – there are so many philosophers out there who have, in some way or another, justified atrocious behavior. And saying that the salmon have some agency when they’re in a feedlot, because they have a choice to eat or not to eat. It seemed really phony and I love what you did with that. Can you talk a little bit about that for a minute? I know this is a small part of what you’re talking about, but that just really stuck out with me.

MM: Let’s see. There is this – 

DJ: It has to do basically – this is just one way, also, of getting at the notion of domestication and control. And one reason this is pissing me off, by the way, is because we hear this in domestic violence situations too. This is all through the culture. Here’s the thing; people will get mad and they’ll say “You should – you are responsible for maintaining this culture because you went to the grocery store to buy food.” Look, I can’t go to the stream back here and get salmon, because the salmon are gone, and now you’re saying I’m choosing to go get food? But that choice has been constrained already. So it’s sort of opening up this whole big other question. That’s what I’m trying to get at. 

MM: Let’s try to tease out a few things here, even though the question of course is huge. There was a presentation once, a keynote speech on the future of salmon here in Norway, where one of the keynote speakers said the essence of happy salmon for the future is, or the way we know we’re dealing with happy salmon is that we see that they thrive best in confinement. So a happy salmon is a fish who thrives best contained, equals a fish who has been bred to be insatiable, a fish who may have been bred to no longer know the ecstasy of spawning new life, because she’s sterile. And it of course relates to this anthropologist suggestion that if fish are given nothing else but the possibility to eat or not to eat, then they possess a certain kind of agency. 

The suggestion is that we can deprive the fish of pretty much everything. We can deprive them of rivers, of the ocean, of the passage of the moon and the sun, because they’re going to spend half of their lives inside factory halls. And we can deprive them of community. We can upset their social behavior again and again by pumping them from their freshwater tanks inside these factory halls and sorting and grading them with machines, so that we end up with uniform masses that will grow uniformly, to even size at even rates, unlike wild fish. We can keep manipulating them any way we can possibly conceive of, that we can possibly craft, technologically speaking. And yet it’s all okay as long as we have some kind of extremely minimized or minimalistic sensation of salmon welfare as the absence of suffering or some kind of …

DJ: It’s even less than that, because they have the choice to eat or not to eat. Just like they could put you in solitary confinement, and you have the choice to breathe or not to breathe.

MM: Except you don’t actually have that choice, because as we addressed earlier, they’re bred to be insatiable, so even that choice is bred out of them, actually. But there is the sensation that if we follow strict technocratic rules, we can create conditions where salmon will actually thrive. So the fundamental premise is that we can artificially create situations where these wild beings can thrive. And I think part of the problem is that this fundamental assumption is in itself  deeply problematic, of course. The notion that a salmon can exist outside the context of relationship that she is born into in the river.  

And of course we could take this conversation into human relationships as well. I think that is part of the fundamental assumption that is very rarely acknowledged in conversations on feedlot salmon. Who are these creatures? And not who are these creatures as isolated sacks of bones and skin, but as created beings, as beings who are keenly sensitive to the passage of the sun, who are keenly sensitive to changes in temperature, in daylight, in the pattern of snowfall or thunderstorm. And if we were to take such questions seriously, how would that, again, impact the conversation of what we can or cannot do with them or to them? 

DJ: So we have about seven or eight minutes left. And I’m sorry to do this to you but I’m going to open up another huge question here. I read your book a long time ago, when I gave it a blurb, and I was reading it again last night and I got really sad. And it wasn’t because of your book, at all. The book’s magnificent. But I got sad because of how far we have to go. And I was thinking last night as I was getting ready for this interview and going through your book again, I was thinking last night about, I was feeling bad about my own work, too. It’s like “Why are we doing this?” Don’t worry, I’m not going to quit. I’m not suggesting you quit and I know you’re not going to quit. But it’s like we have – the vision of a sustainable story for this world is so different than the story that is propagated daily. And I just got really sad. I don’t know what I’m expecting you to do with that. 

I recently interviewed Paul Ehrlich and I also recently interviewed Bittu Sahgal. Both of them are elders. Paul Ehrlich is in his 80’s, 87 I believe, and Bittu is 70. And they both at one point in the interview said the same thing to me, which is between when they started doing their work, in the 60’s and 70’s respectively, and now, things have gotten so much worse. Your work is so desperately important, and I hope my work is important. Ehrlich’s and Bittu’s and other people’s work is really important. It’s like everything’s going so wrong. So do what you will with this. 

MM: (Long sigh) First of all, I share the sadness very much, and I don’t really know often what to do with it other than try to articulate it even when it seems to be socially awkward to do so. Why is that, by the way? Why is it socially awkward to be grieving the loss of so many fellow beings on the planet? Why is it not in the news every day? Of course it is sometimes, like recently when the Guardian wrote about a study that suggested that of all the mammals in the world, only 4% are wild beings and the other 96% are either, in terms of biomass, either human bodies or domesticated animals, most of them in feedlot situations. And all the other wild mammals in the world just constitute 4%. And how do you deal –

DJ: Yesterday the New York Times had an opinion piece about “Oh, the world’s going to be okay. Don’t worry, the world can handle anything we can dish out.” That makes me want to swear and say words I’m not supposed to say on this program. 

MM: Right, right. Keep them for when the recording is stopped. 

The story that we’ve been talking about is the story of separation, but it’s also the story of escape, in a sense. The story of, as I try to describe it in the book, a wounded psyche that; in the 16th and 17th centuries, where we find some of these roots, the origins of this story, there was a collective sense of insecurity and fearfulness in the educated citizenry of Europe that in some sense seems to have led to there being institutionalized this need for more control, more holding onto that which we can foresee and that which we can manipulate. And in some sense then this led to modernity, to the notion that the world is a machine, and the treatment of everyone else except for ourselves – but also those amongst us who are considered weaker or less, or have been in the past – to the abuse and exploitation of these. Now what it has led to is their being fundamentally more insecure, the world being less predictable, wilder than ever before. Science is trying to grapple with what’s going on. They’re trying to find words for it, speaking of this time as an upset in the geological story of Earth, as this being a new geological age, which some then suggest may be called the Age of the Humans, the Anthropocene. They’re trying to carry a word on the tongue such as the sixth mass extinction that we’re going through, perhaps faster than the fastest one we knew about from before, the geological epoch of the Great Dying of 260 million years ago. 

What we’re seeing is that the story of controlling the world probably has never worked, but it’s becoming, it’s showing itself and turning out to be more and more truly dysfunctional and leading to this escalation, this intensifying of suffering that we witness and struggle to endure, all of us. And this is a tricky sort of thing to take from this, to suggest that there is perhaps hope in this hope that now we are once more entering into a time of fundamental insecurity, of fearfulness, that perhaps this time we will not respond by slipping even further into isolation, slipping even further into notions about how we must dominate, we must control more. Though of course we do see signs of that, and the salmon industry of course is an articulation of that response, and of trying to manipulate more and more and escalate this situation. But we do also, as we’ve spoken about in the course of our conversation, see that there is a resistance. There is an uprising of those who simply refuse to be drawn into the gravitational field of the story, who say “I stand here, and to me trees and rivers are holy, and salmon are sacred beings who will not be fooled.” And what if more and more people are waking up? And how could we encourage one another to stand courageously in such recognition, in such acknowledgement, in such humility, but also vulnerability? How could we carry each other, or help each other not crumble, while we also try to endure and to remain receptive to the suffering? But also how can we remain receptive to the beauty? 

And of course salmon are, again, such a wonderful example of the resilience of the biosphere, the resilience of the wild beings out there. Having seen through their evolutionary story several advances of ice ages coming from the Arctic regions and moving closer to the equators, and having seen their birth rivers swallowed by these mountain ranges of ice, and yet for all these millions of years the salmon were able to recolonize these barren lands over and over again. And 100 years of isolation in the Elwha River didn’t make them go extinct either. On the contrary, just weeks after the first wild salmon started coming back. So there is this ongoing sprouting and spawning and birthing also, that is also just as real as the very real suffering. But there is no simple answer to this. It is complex and confusing and terrifying, but also beautiful, and also humbling, and still able to inspire wonder and still able to spawn surprises and fresh life and more life. 

DJ: Well thank you so much for all that, and thank you for your work. And I would like to thank listeners for listening. My guest today has been Martin Lee Mueller. This is Derrick Jensen for Resistance Radio on the Progressive Radio Network.

Suprabha Seshan 07.29.18


Podcast: https://resistanceradioprn.podbean.com/e/resistance-radio-guest-suprabha-seshan-072918/

Youtube: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=H1Dz6NQT0Bw

(Sound of thunder and rain)

Hi, I’m Derrick Jensen and this is Resistance Radio on the Progressive Radio Network. My guest today is Suprabha Seshan. She has lived and worked for twenty-five years at the Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary in the Western Ghat mountains of India. The Sanctuary is a centre for plant conservation, habitat restoration and environmental education and also a community. In 2006, on behalf of the Sanctuary she won the Whitley Award, UK’s top prize for nature conservation. She is an Ashoka Fellow. Her new book, available next year, is called Rainforest Etiquette in a World Gone Mad.

So first, thank you for all of your great work in the world, and second, thank you for being on the program.

SS: Derrick, thank you so much for having me. 

DJ: I would like to start by reading a paragraph from one of your essays, and then you just go from there. 

“It is a sad truth that most humans today fear the night, which is really a fear of the dark. We’re told this is primal, an instinct we inherited from our savage ancestors huddling against predators after sunset. From this we conclude that the night is dangerous, that it heralds death and contains demons. Yet it is the night which is in danger, as the rest of life is.”

So can you talk about that a little bit? 

SS: I wrote that some years ago because I spend a lot of time awake and in the dark, at dusk and before dawn, listening to animals and the wind and rain. And I believe, I’ve always believed, that this is a deeply restorative period. I’m a creature of the day, but as it goes into the night I just love it so much. And as you feel the night creatures waking up and hear them, something really important happens, which is that your eyes kind of shut down and your other senses wake up and you start to feel, and hear, and sense things that are just different from – we know that we’re visual creatures. But it’s the dominance of the eye that really bothers me. Maybe I’m not such a visual person.

So I start to think about that. I’ve lived nine years of my adult life without electricity, and that was perhaps the most beautiful time of my life. And when the community decided to have solar power and then take a connection to the main line electrical grid, I would go up to a high point on our sanctuary’s land, and I’d seen nights for years where there were no electric lights. There were lantern lights and moonlight and starlight, and we would have conversations under the stars. And this is gone now, or going. It’s still dark compared to other places in the world, other places in India, but the loss of this deep quiet is really hurting our bodies, and what about the rest of the natural world? Bats and birds, night birds, crickets, frogs. So I’ve been thinking about that a lot. And that’s what the essay was about, the loss of the night. The death, the killing of the night is also one of patriarchy’s great achievements. 

DJ: I agree with you and I’m with you 100%. Can you help me understand your last sentence? Can you bring patriarchy in explicitly? I’m not following that connection. 

SS: Well, I’m thinking of all the machines, the big toys that require these enormous power grids, and the hunting out of shy creatures, and just the flooding – I’m thinking of prisons and these lights that are on all night and nobody can rest and it just drives you crazy. So that’s the image in my mind when I say patriarchy’s hunting out the night, it’s destroying the night. It’s men with huge machines, or cultures with power grids and thermoelectric power stations, and the hunt.

DJ: Here’s something you wrote about it. “The night is a hindrance to this patriarchal enterprise called ‘civilization.’ The fact that we can willfully turn the night off and on at the flick of a switch adds to our delusion of having conquered the universe. The longest night of extinction, a metaphor for things today, includes within it the extinction of the night. There has never been so little night till now. The extinction of the night is a necessary objective of human supremacists. They hunt darkness out, for they know that it’s actually life-bearing. With the floodlights of civilization depriving the earth of its sleep, insanity spreads far and wide.”


That’s you.

SS: (laughing) Yes.

DJ: So do you want to say anything more about that? 

SS: Well, I’m also thinking of photographers who want to go out at night with their big high-beam torches, and they are waking up creatures or prying on creatures who want to be in the dark. And you can do anything with that switch. And so this precious part of the natural world, I’m seeing it as a discotheque right now with lights everywhere and turning it off and on. It’s an invasion of something of great beauty.

DJ: Everything you’re saying there really reminds me of both zoos and pornography. What I’m trying to get at is that there is this – zoos, because they force these creatures to be on display for us at our desire, our whim, creatures who – I was going to say almost undoubtedly don’t want to be there, but the truth is they undoubtedly don’t want to be there or there wouldn’t need to be cages, would there? And then pornography really is the same thing in that it is putting these others on display for your consumption. So the whole enterprise seems very pornographic and domineering to me. And I love your line about turning night on and off with a flick of a switch. 

SS: Yeah. And that’s complete control.

DJ: So is that going to be one of the essays in the new book? 

SS: I’m sure it will feature. The new book is going to be a series of new essays and I will probably bring the night, and other things I’ve written about already; I will probably bring them into the book.

DJ: So let’s talk about another essay, which is called “The Music of Everything.” What do you mean by that?

SS: Well, the world is full of song. It’s full of sounds, and with people living in cities, they’re mostly hearing mechanical sounds. But when you’re living in the forest, the whole world is singing. And from a very young age, I’ve had this habit. I just go in somewhere and I try to pick out the note that I can resonate with, with my voice. It’s different when you do it in the natural world, in the forest, and it’s very different when you do it in, say, a room. So I grew up doing that kind of singing, or humming, or vocalizing with motors, and fridges, and trains. And as I started to spend more and more time, and then my life became one in the forest, with natural sounds, I would find myself doing the same thing. I would just go out and I would be, like, cawing like the hornbill, or try to find a pitch that I could sing from. It’s so evident that everybody’s speaking, everybody’s singing, and that singing and speech are really just two different ways of saying something. It’s this full-hearted communication and participation in this beautiful world, which is a sounded world. So that’s what that essay was about. 

DJ: And in that essay you use the word “sing” deliberately and not the word “call.” And you know you hear about people calling birds all the time. What is the difference for you? 

SS: Well, I’m hesitant to say that I’m calling a bird and that’s a deliberate act of, an intentional invitation to the bird and, you know the responsibility then is on the bird to respond or not. I go and, when the elephants are there I do various songs of my own, or vocalizations. And it’s like an incantation and a contribution to that musical, to that space. And maybe they want to join in. Maybe they want to listen. Maybe they will just ignore me and walk away. 

So there’s a difference between calling to someone and then you expect a response, whereas singing is a solicitation of a different kind. It’s an offering, actually. 

DJ: It seems to me that both of these, those two essays, are … well, instead of me telling you, why don’t you tell me? What ties those two essays together? And your other work together, too? 

It seems to me … now that I’ve said that, I’ll go ahead and tell you that one of the things that ties those together has to do with accepting nature as it is, as opposed to inflicting one’s … like, the people I’ve known who have, for example, called owls; what they’re attempting to do is to do a survey. They will call an owl in hopes that an owl of that species will respond, so they can then mark it down on a chart that there is that sort of owl here. 

SS: Right. Yes. 

DJ: As opposed to, you know, just entering into the conversation, or the symphony, that is the forest, on its own terms. 

SS: Absolutely. And so much of what I’ve heard of other people when they talk to animals, they have to have proof. And I don’t want to have proof. I don’t want to go that way. I’m not proving to another human anything about my gentle solicitation of the others. I don’t want to prove it. I might describe it, and I might want to share it. And I have to be quite specific about what happens and accurate about what happens or doesn’t happen. But it’s not about proof. It’s not about evidence. The writing itself is an invocation of that kind of thing, of going out into the forest and listening to the drongos, or the hill mynas, and the scimitar babblers. Not even, at some point – it’s like to even let go of “this is this species, and that species, that’s the alarm call.” To kind of just stop that for a little while. So not to pick out and exercise discernment. I don’t want to pick names and say “Oh that’s that, and that’s that.” But when you go out, and you’re listening to all these sounds, is that how you listen to a symphony? “Oh, there comes the oboe, and there’s the drums, and there’s a clarinet.” I think to enjoy, or deeply enter the music, I think you have to stop with the mind that wants to identify everything. And that’s when the great music happens, is when you take in the whole. And you’re also listening to every little detail, but you’re not writing down lists or proving anything or showing off your virtuosity and “Look, I called the elephants and the elephants came when I called.” Well, that was not the point of that. The point was that I sang to the elephants and they didn’t go away, so what happened there? Were they listening? Of course they were listening. Their ears, their sensibilities were so much more powerful than mine. Of course. They didn’t go away.

There were these gentle sounds. So were the elephants singing with me? I don’t know. But I like to leave it open that perhaps they were. 

DJ: This takes me to another essay of yours, a recent one. It’s not published yet, I believe. You wrote in there “We are the people of this land. We are nature, human and nonhuman. These are our bodies. Together we are one body. We are creation and always will be.”

I’ll read a little bit more. “We matter. Humus, seed, fruit, tooth, organ, blood and bone. We are root, water, mud, algae and stone. We are the snap of bladderwort. We are buttress-rooted trees. Orchid, fern, dragonfly, elephant, monkey. We are larva, worm, cocoon, creeper, liana and honey bee. We are this forest.”

So can you tie that to the other essays? 

SS: There’s a young woman in my neighborhood. She’s of the banyan people, so the line “We are this forest” is something that she has said. We are the people of this land, we are the children of this forest, we are this forest. So I had that very much in my mind. Every day I have this question: here’s this body, this human body, this mammal walking by this stream, and there is this profound exchange between this mammal and stones and buttress-rooted trees, and the air and the water and so on. And what’s going on there – there is no separation there. I’m 100% sure that bodies connect. That’s ecology. 

I’ve had these dreams where every cell – there’s one specific dream where I can see the skin of my body and every cell is standing up and has got a head and two arms and each cell is waving and calling out to say “I’m here” and “I remember.” So there is this profound knowledge and awareness in every aspect of the natural world, and you cannot separate it. You cannot separate the awareness of the tree, the awareness of the elephant, and the awareness of me. There’s a level at which it is so interconnected and intertwined. And so we are not the same, but in that moment of feeling part of the forest, we are this forest. 

DJ: And in that same essay, you also write “What I know about the rainforest can be penned onto a sticky note. But what I’ve experienced and understand through what I’ve experienced, that’s another matter.” And that, again, seems to be tying into everything you’re saying. 

SS: Yes. I did do my bit in – towards understanding through science, some aspects of the rainforest. And the longer I’ve lived in this place, and the more I’ve been in conversation with people around me, the language of science and the means of perception, using transects and quadrants and machines and lists and so on; that sort of falls away. I am sure there are people who put all that to good use, but I do believe that’s not my way. I don’t want to make a list of species of the land anymore.  I have done it, and if somebody else wants to do it, that’s fine. But experience is something else. And also all that knowledge that I worked towards building up is not at the forefront of my consciousness now. If you would ask me about the type of forest that I live in, I would be able to tell you that these are the dominant species, these are the common species, these are the rare species and so on.

DJ: And you could give their Latin names. I just need to point that out. I know you well enough to know that you could. You could do nomenclature from now until eternity and you would still be doing nomenclature. So you can do it. It’s like the cliché that Picasso was also a really good draftsperson. You have to know the craft before you give it up. 

SS: That sounds good to me. I don’t know if that’s how I did it. It just fell away. And yes, I have used Latin names and I have enjoyed using them.

DJ: Oh! Somebody I just interviewed yesterday, one of the things he said to me was that people will talk about getting all enlightened and losing your sense of self, and he says it just makes him laugh because you actually have to have a sense of self before you can get rid of your sense of self, in terms of enlightenment. So it’s the same sort of thing here. 

Sorry to interrupt with this, but I think it’s really important to see that you are not just somebody who is not emphasizing the nomenclature simply because you’re too lazy to do it. 

SS: Not at all. And I think nomenclature – so I have this, in the same essay, where – I’ve actually used Latin names in most of my essays. I encourage people to find out what, find out more about the natural world using any means whatsoever. So this is a paragraph in the same essay, where I just say “it’s clear that this is a land where everyone is known, the vayanavu by the eerullam kuzhi on the kallampuzha upstream from the koodal, is a recognition-from-the-heart of a lovely being of immeasurable value. Translated: the Ironwood tree by the Dark Hollow pool on the Stone River, upstream from the Confluence. This is the obeisance I strive for. The diktat of the heart, with its own nomenclature, and ways of attuning, in this vast, glittering zillion-beinged forest, my home.”


I live with people who can put at least 2000 Latin names on the plants, so they know about 2000 different species of plants, and they know the Latin names and many of the indigenous names. So I am not at all against it. 

DJ: I agree with you on this, but I want you to tell me what’s your deal? What’s your problem with the word “ecosystem”? You say “I choose the words ‘biome’ and ‘community’ instead of ‘ecosystem.’” I completely agree with you, by the way. 

SS: Well, I dunno. Isn’t “ecosystem” somewhat to do with – systems really make me think of machines and parts, whereas “biome” and “community” just make me think of a whole bunch of people living together, different sorts of people living together. So one you can only tear apart, and the other one, you can sort of pull it apart and put it back together and you can do all these things to it and reassemble it. But you can’t really do that with biomes and communities.

DJ: You know, one of the ways I think about this is that I can take apart a chair. I can unscrew the various pieces of wood from each other, and I can leave them on the ground for a year, and then I can screw them back together and the chair will still be there. And in fact I can swap out parts and it doesn’t matter. But if I take off your arm and take off your leg, and take off your stomach, and I put them on the ground and leave them there for a year, and then I reassemble you – a chair is not really more than the sum of its parts.

SS: Yeah. These biomes and communities have interdependent individuals, beings, who need each other in every moment of their existence. 

DJ: So we’ve talked a little bit about your writing, and I guess there are two directions I would like to go with the rest of the interview. One of them is: can you talk – I know we did an interview about this before, but can you talk again about the importance of the sanctuary? Can you talk about the sanctuary’s work and about its importance? And then after that, let’s talk about the murder of the planet. 

SS: Okay. So, Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary is a place where we are focused  on the natural world through the plant members. 93% or some crazy figure like that of the Western Ghats has been destroyed, converted to industrial plantations and different aspects of organization, dams and so on. So it’s pretty dire, and how do you work with that if you know that? The people I live with, a number of them are absolutely incredible gardeners. And when I say “gardeners” I mean they use the tools of gardening, which is this love and sensibility for plants, and cuttings, and seed collections and transplantation and growing, in a number of ways, all these endangered species from across the mountains. And so the Western Ghats are 1200 kilometers long, and there are still beautiful forests and habitats and these remaining refuges of great biological diversity. And one way to work with that is to go to these places that are in the process of being destroyed, and just like if you were going to a place that had been bombed, and then you bring back whoever is alive back to a refuge. So that is the Sanctuary’s first role, to be a refuge for refugees under holocaust. The great fire that is just eating up the mountains where we live. And it’s known that the rainforest and all its beings pull the rain in and contributes to the water cycle, to the rain and to rivers and so on. From what I know, mosses contribute a huge percentage, like 30% or something, to the tropical rainforest hydrological cycle, the bryophytes alone. And so in our sanctuary we have 150 species of bryophytes and 300 species of ferns and 600 species of orchids. It just goes on and on. Impatiens. 100 different families of plants under conservation because the recognition is there that every single one of these is important for its own sake, but together they are doing something incredibly important. 

Many people elsewhere, they’re working on trees, and I think that’s fantastic, because I love trees, and what would the forest be without its trees? But somehow trees are easier to grow from seed. But these little plants are really incredibly difficult, because they like really special environments. So the work of the sanctuary is to explore what would be the best way to give them this extra chance to survive, that little bit of extra toehold really. And one very important reason for this is that as climate changes, many of the low-elevation species are moving up towards higher elevations, and many of the higher-elevation species are disappearing; dying or just being dried out. 

So this is incredibly important work of caring for the immense diversity of this biome, to its plant members. And with the plants come the animals, and we’ve seen such vibrant recovery of frogs and insects within the little place that we have. Most of it was destroyed. We’ve seen how barren land can recover into an incredible diversity of plants. So in a way you can call us plant supremacists because we believe that plants are the – without the plants, nothing else will happen. But that’s just a way of saying we love plants. And someone else might work with fungi, or someone else might work with the whole, and those are all fine and valid ways of doing something for the natural world. 

DJ: You mentioned monsoon earlier, I believe. And I want to read something that you’ve written.

“Most Indians believe that the monsoon is unassailable: a wind system 18 million years old, which has breathed life into the subcontinent since the rise of the Himalayas, whose formidable heights block it from traveling to Central Asia, condensing it instead into long hard rain. Its intensity varies from year to year, but we believe it will blow. But ever since I have been here, for about 24 years now (when you wrote that) , I have heard people talking about how the monsoon has gone awry, that it is no longer what it used to be. We also know this from scientific data, but crucially for us, we know this from the behaviour of the plants and animals in our sanctuary.” 

The monsoon is changing in fundamental ways, but what if the monsoon fails? So for people living in the United States, many of us may not even know what a monsoon is. So can you talk about the monsoon and the changes you’ve witnessed and the changes you’ve read about?

SS: Anecdotally, the monsoon – people who’ve lived in these monsoon-enriched or monsoon-fed lands would talk about the day that the monsoon would arrive. Typically schools in Kerala would start the day the monsoon arrived. It was known that it would be around the first of June that you could expect the monsoon. But in the last 25 years that I’ve been there, it’s no longer clear at all when it’s going to arrive. And if it does arrive, like this year they said 29th of May, and on the 29th of May the monsoon was there. I woke up in the morning and it was that very typical monsoon quiet intensity, but steady rain, and the winds, the clouds were moving in the southwest or the northeast directions. And I was like “Wow! The monsoon is here!” But a week later there was sunshine and it’s just like “Where is the monsoon?” And then a few days later it’s just pouring. 

What’s happened is that almost every year, the monsoon has actually shifted. It seems to be coming a little bit later. July, six weeks later, and then it sort of lasts a little bit longer. And there can be long dry spells in between. There can also be monsoon-level rainfall in other months. You cannot predict it anymore. You cannot say “Oh, in that month, in August, we’re going to have ten days of,” that’s when the festivals would be organized. There would be that period of a dry couple of weeks and then some festivals would be organized then. 

DJ: So why is this important to plants, and why is this important to frogs and everybody else? 

SS: I can speak more about plants. A lot of plants seem to – before the monsoon; March, April, May; you have these very powerful electrical thunderstorms and these short evening thundershowers. The lightning is really fierce and the thunderstorms are magnificent, so you know that in this period it’s sort of building up. But what happens is if there is a monsoon type of rainfall, which is day-long rain, and sustained over many days, the plants start to think “Oh, the monsoon is here.” And then what they do is to start to put all their energy into growth. And then what happens is: it’s not the monsoon, so it dries up. And the monsoon is still a couple of months away. All this energy into new growth cannot be sustained. So plants like tuberous plants for instance; they put out a little new tuber and they’re expecting the rain to come. And they withdraw the energy from the old tuber. But if the monsoon hasn’t arrived, then they become weakened. 

So that’s an example of what happens with this. You cannot predict what is going to happen. Similarly with trees. The period of flowering is before the monsoon, and then you put your energy into making the fruit and the seed and there is going to be three months of day-long rain and it’s dark, so that’s the period of slow growth. If that doesn’t happen, if you have drought happening in the middle of the monsoon, like it’s also really hot in June or July, instead of cloud cover, if you have ten days of what we locally call a drought, that’s really bad for plants. They’re not used to that degree of sunshine and heat. 

So if you’re really small, that’s going to really affect you. If you’re large, like a tree, and it happens over two or three years, then of course there’s a buildup and tree deaths happen when there’s a sustained messing up of these seasons. 

DJ: One of the things I love about your work is that your loyalty is unabashedly with the plants, and with the land. I was just talking with someone today about how few writers there are whose loyalty to the land is clear with every word they write. Even with most environmentalists, their primary loyalty is still to this culture. Can you talk about the destructiveness of the belief that humans are fundamentally superior and that we have the right to destroy everything from the night, to silence, to the monsoon, to, what? Already 93% of the Western Ghats? Can you talk about that for a minute? 

SS: Thank you, first, for seeing, or hearing, the loyalty to the plants and to the land, because that’s true. The second is that I don’t judge the average human being, the person I meet on the street. I don’t look at them and say “Look, there goes a human supremacist.” I don’t do that kind of thing, because I do believe that there’s been a brainwashing happening over millennia in this land, with the caste system, followed by capitalism and empire and modern civilization. This systematic removal, or the breaking of connection between human beings and everyone else has been a long campaign and a long process. And so I do see that if I come into the city; I’m seeing these large mammals walking around needing water and sunshine and love and trees and this convivial life with human beings as well, and other creatures. But there is something that is driving them to get into that bus or that car, and drive across that incredibly polluted city to this work that is inside this lifeless, soulless place. They’re victims, their bodies are surely victim to this enterprise of civilization, this technological supremacist total destruction of everything that truly matters. 

When I come into the city, I see skins filtering the pollution. I see eyes tearing up with the dust. I see people coughing, and I think “Well, the best air filter ever invented in Bangalore City is the human lung, and look at the service we all are doing for the automobile industry.” Because they haven’t invented such a good air filter yet. Our skins, our livers, taking up all these toxins out of the water and out of the air and out of the soil. So such a great organ has not been invented yet, and so what makes anyone think that we, the modern humans, are capable of inventing this incredible cleanup operation called “life”? It’s not been done yet. So if anybody’s doing it, my organs are doing it. The trees are doing it. Rats and cockroaches are doing it. Invasive species are doing it, in the sense of cleaning and combating desertification. And so we want to come up with the absolute solution of how this big problem can be fixed, and there’s no fix that we can think of yet, because it’s just not there. The only thing that’s there is life itself, that’s doing what it’s done for billions of years. 

So when I see all these journals and conferences for green solutions, I think they’re completely messed up. The only thing that’s working in that conference hall is the human body. It’s the only living thing in there. Do you see what I mean? It’s life itself that’s cleaning up. It’s not a technological solution that’s cleaning up. 

DJ: Yes, I see it. And I agree with everything you’re saying, and I think you’ll agree with this too, that when we talk about things not being solutions, I think one step in the right direction would be to stop making more toxins. 

SS: Yes. Absolutely. This fish back in our river, the fish populations in our little stream, that feeds into a major river across South India; the fish population has gone up in the last year just from preventing toxins from getting into the water. From patrolling and preventing. From making sure banana stems are not clogging up the flow, from, you know, these pesticide and chemically intensive agriculture operations, they cut these annual banana stems and chuck them into the water and that completely messes it up. And they put in dynamite and all kinds of poisons. They destroy the entire ecosystem to get a few fish. So all we did was to stop that, and we educated people. And the group that’s doing that, they went to 100 different families and said “Look, this is everybody’s river. You have no right to do this. Don’t you want to eat fish next year?” 

And that’s what they’re able to do. Fish populations are much higher this year than last year. A lot of the solutions would come from not doing those things. 

DJ: We only have a few minutes left, and I’m going to ask you a really unfair question. I know that your book is not completed yet, but at least so far, if you could have readers of that book, when it comes out, take away one thing that they know in their heart, what do you think it would be? Again, you haven’t finished the book, so I know this is completely unfair. But what comes to you? 

SS: Well, the whole world is alive and talking to us and showing us the way, and how to live and behave and educate us about behavior. So the wild world is showing us every possible thing that we can do for a beautiful life together. And what not to do. So that’s the behavior part. So can behavior shift? Yes, if you listen to the natural world deeply enough. 

DJ: Well, that sounds really wonderful. So thank you for your work, and thank you for being on the program. And I would like to thank listeners for listening. My guest today has been Suprabha Seshan. This is Derrick Jensen for Resistance Radio on the Progressive Radio Network.


Max Wilbert 09.09.18


Podcast: https://resistanceradioprn.podbean.com/e/resistance-radio-guest-max-wilbert-090918/

Youtube: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=CMg2SZRTRC8

(Sound of gray whales)

Hi, I’m Derrick Jensen and this is Resistance Radio on the Progressive Radio Network. My guest today is Max Wilbert. He is a third-generation organizer who grew up in Seattle’s post-WTO anti-globalization and undoing racism movement. He is a co-founder of the group Deep Green Resistance and longtime board member of a small, grassroots environmental non-profit with no employees and no corporate funding. His first book, a collection of pro-feminist and environmentalist essays, was recently released. He is also the co-author of the forthcoming book “Bright Green Lies” (with Derrick Jensen and Lierre Keith) which looks at the problems with mainstream so-called “solutions” such as solar panels, electric cars, recycling, and green cities. The book makes the case that these approaches fail to protect the planet and aim at protecting empire from the effects of peak oil and ecological collapse.

So first, thank you for your decades of good work, and also, thank you for being on the program. 

MW: Thank you so much, Derrick. It’s really great to be here.

DJ: So tell me about your new book, which is called “Voices of Resistance.” Tell me about it.

MW: Sure. About five or six months ago my friend Boris Forkel, whom you know as well, who lives in Germany and does some organizing work there with Deep Green Resistance, contacted me and said “I’m interested in putting together a collection of your essays into a book form.” I was very flattered, and he wanted to take the idea and run with it. So he’s now done so, and it’s published. I have some copies here at home and have been giving a few to friends and family and selling a few to people who are interested in buying them. So, it’s now published, and this essay collection is about 200 pages long and includes essays written over a five or six year period between 2013 and this year. I’m only 30 years old so 2013 was quite awhile ago for me. So this spans a period and one thing that’s kind of interesting, I think, about the collection is you can start to see my political evolution over time as my ideas become more solid. 

One thing that you said years ago, Derrick, that I still remember is “I don’t agree with everything I’ve ever written.” I thought that was so great, because in the era of social media and books, and where everything is recorded, oftentimes people are really taken to task for things that they wrote or believed in the past. And I don’t necessarily agree with everything I have ever written that’s in this collection, but I think it’s really interesting to look at these over that span of time and see how they’ve changed. 

DJ: You know the person who really is my hero for changing his mind is Lewis Mumford. He was very pro-technology in the 1930’s, and then along came World War II and he realized, huh, maybe there are some problems with the modern machine-based society. So I have gained great courage from watching him do it. 

MW: Wow. He had quite a flip there. Yeah. I think that’s interesting. I was actually talking to somebody the other day who was at a booth promoting solar power, and one of the things I said was I used to be a big believer in solar energy. When I was a teenager, global warming was becoming a much bigger issue in the news and I was reading a lot about it, and I could see that none of the older people, none of the political leaders were doing anything about it, and so that was one of the few solutions that was presented to me that was out there in the press, and so I grabbed onto that as a lifeline. And now I’ve flipped 180°. 

DJ: So let’s talk about what’s wrong with solar in a little while. But I would like to talk more about your book first. What would you say is the overarching – if you had to condense the book into two sentences, what would they be? What is your book about? 

MW: Well, I would say, if I had to condense it down … the real points that I am trying to hammer home are first that industrial global society is destroying the planet. That’s unimpeachable fact. Nobody can avoid that reality anymore. And the second part of that sentence is that nothing that has been done thus far to address that problem is working. So whether you’re looking at political solutions, or petitions, or technological solutions, efficiency and so on, activism in general – none of it’s working because in the big picture, everything’s still getting worse. And so, given that, how do we address these problems? How do we stop the destruction of the planet, which I think is intimately tied in with racism, with patriarchy, with white supremacy, with capitalism, with all these other systems of power. So that’s what the book is about, is exploring how we address these issues.

My background – you said in my bio in the intro that I grew up in Seattle in the post-WTO era and began to gain political consciousness during that period. And it was a good time to get that education, because there was sort of a ferment of radical and revolutionary political ideas circulating in the community there. So I would say that I have been a revolutionary person for a long time. And so this book is trying to explore some of those ideas in more depth, and look at a variety of ways that they can be addressed. 

If you’d like, maybe we could dive in now and speak about some of the individual essays. 

DJ: Sure. Would you like to start with the essay “We Choose To Speak” or would you rather start with “Everyday Violence of Modern Culture”?

MW: Let’s start with “Everyday Violence of Modern Culture.” That’s a “fun” one for me. This essay, I wrote in I think 2014, 2015. And it picked up a lot of steam. Basically my goal was to tell a story of an everyday life in this culture and how we’re always surrounded by violence. So maybe I can read a little section here from it. 

DJ: Great.

MW: “First you wake up on top of a foam mattress, offgassing toxic VOC’s (volatile organic compounds) that will not biodegrade in 10,000 years. You sit up and put on your clothes, all with tags reading “Bangladesh” and “Puerto Rico” and “Dominican Republic.” These clothes were made by virtual slaves. 

You walk downstairs and fill a glass with water from a tap. The water comes from a local river that was dammed 127 years ago. Ever since, native species in the watershed have been in decline. 

You drink the water. You pour yourself a bowl of cereal. The cereal is made of wheat and corn, grown in what was once the tall grass prairie of the eastern Great Plains. 99% of that habitat, millions of acres, was plowed and utterly destroyed to grow these crops. The soil is often gone now. Your meal is only possible through fossil fuel fertilizers. 

You add milk. It comes from a factory farm nearby, where cattle are packed next to each other in squalor, and pumped full of antibiotics and rGBH, genetically modified growth hormone, to increase production. 

The cows are in pain. Their imprisonment is fouling the land around them. The cereal tastes good. 

It’s almost time for work, so you walk down to your car. You’re somewhat environmentally conscious, so you’ve bought an electric car. It makes you feel a lot better. The car has 1000 pounds of lithium-ion batteries under the hood. The lithium for those batteries was strip-mined in the Peruvian desert; the pollution and land destroyed by the mine has devastated local people’s traditional livelihoods. You get inside the car and start the engine. It’s a push-button startup system; there is a fancy LCD screen inside. It’s modern and sleek; you pull away from the curb.

You drive on paved streets to your destination. Under those streets are indigenous burial grounds. There used to be thick old-growth forest here; now it’s a trendy, up-and-coming neighborhood. There are a few run-down houses here and there; the poor people who used to live in this neighborhood and are being forced to move, many after generations here; they’re just the latest set of refugees that have walked through this place.”

And so, to skip on to towards the end of this article, I write:

“This was a very partial description of the violence in modern society. Make no mistake: this is a war. 

When we are honest about the level of violence in this culture, not resisting becomes a sickening thought.”

And so, in the essay, after the section that I just read, I continue. The person drives to their work, which is at a hospital, and the hospital was built on a meadow, which was destroyed to build this massive building. And I talk about the oil that’s used to make the paints, the pesticides that are used all around the building, the native habitat that was destroyed to make the parking garage. I talk about the old growth forests that were cut down to make the chipboard and particle board furniture in the waiting room, the materials in the computers and where those came from. And so the idea is just to help people understand the amount of violence that we’re surrounded by all the time in this culture. If you look at the origin of basically any artifact of this civilization, you’ll find a trail of devastation in its wake.

DJ: It seems that what you’re talking about is recognizing context. Recognizing chains of supply.  In some ways, you have just described much of our book Bright Green Lies, because that book – you know, it’s great! I’ve got groovy solar panels here! This is wonderful! I’ve got a groovy electric car! But then when you follow back the chain of supply, you find that it’s intimately associated with, and necessarily associated with, destruction in Mongolia, destruction in South America like you were saying, and that’s inherent in all of these processes. 

MW: Right. And I think the important thing for me, too, is to think about it systematically, because people like to isolate these individual things. You know, I was talking to that solar panel person I mentioned a minute ago, and he was saying the biggest benefit that he feels from having solar panels on his house in the woods in southern Oregon is that he feels really independent and separated from the grid. And I said “Well okay, that’s fine but what about the solar panel production facility? What about the global supply chain that exists to mine the silicon and smelt it and fabricate that into solar panels and assemble it and deliver it to your location?” You can’t just say “I feel independent” and completely ignore that part of the equation. Nonetheless, that’s what the mainstream environmental movement, and really most people in this culture, are doing on a day-to-day basis. So I think once you start to trace those supply chains, then you start to get a sense that no, these aren’t sort of unnecessary byproducts of the modern way of life. This is really fundamental to the structure of this civilization. And it’s not even really dependent on technology. You can go back to Ancient Rome, for example, and look at their food supply, and they were largely getting their grain from North Africa, with agricultural practices that completely destroyed the northern coastline and the northern plains of Africa. This very extractive model of agriculture. And that was what fed the empire. That was what kept the armies marching. 

So obviously there are plenty of examples of cultures that haven’t lived in that extractive, destructive way. But I need to think about it systematically in order to see that the problems aren’t isolated. They’re not technical problems. They’re broad, structural problems. 

DJ: You know, have you noticed that oftentimes if you say solar panels are destructive, or choose whatever example you want. Have you noticed that oftentimes people respond by saying “Well, why don’t you just kill yourself?” 

MW: Yeah.

DJ: This huge jump from pointing out that something required slavery, to suggesting you kill yourself. I’m sure that’s happened to you, right? 

MW: Yeah, and a similar one, again, to continue the story of this guy I was talking to about solar just this past weekend. We were chatting for awhile and I was trying to pick out the root of his beliefs, and he said something like “Growth is going to continue and accelerate, and get faster. We’re going to have population growth. We’re going to have expansion of the society. So given that, let’s use solar to reduce the amount of harm.” And my response was “Whoah whoah whoah. Given that, if you give up that point, then you’ve lost everything.” I mean, there is no use fighting at that point. So that’s what these people are thinking, is because they’re not willing to grapple with these fundamental issues of growth and the sort of death culture imperative that this empire, this global civilization is running on, or has at its core. Because they’re not willing to grapple with that core idea in a serious way, then their only options are either kill yourself or work on these “harm reduction” approaches that are really tepid and end up often, almost always supporting the system rather than reducing impacts. 

DJ: So, given all this, what do you propose? Or would you rather – maybe this is what you propose. Do you want to talk about your next essay? 

MW: Sure. So I’ll jump through two here real quick. There’s an essay in here called “Utah: The Next Energy Colony.” I wrote this in 2013. At the time, I was living in Utah and I was involved in resistance to a tar sands extraction project in northeastern Utah in what’s called the Uinta Basin, which is a region of a massive amount of oil extraction and fracking. The air quality in the Uinta Basin, which is this very rural county – I’d be surprised if the population is over 15-20 thousand in a large one or two county area – the air quality is worse than in Los Angeles and the infant mortality is off the charts. And it’s because of these types of operations, especially the fracking. They’ve got a tar sands project in there that companies have been trying to figure out how to extract in a profitable way for a long time, and just recently news broke about a new project by the company Enefit, which is an Estonian company, to do 13,000 acres of strip mining in this region, northeastern Utah. And this one project would produce 200 million tons of greenhouse gases, which is the equivalent of 50 coal-fired power plants per year. It’s one of the most carbon-intensive fuels on earth.

So given that the oil companies are moving towards these sort of last dregs of the oil that they can find on the planet, it’s no surprise to me that solar and wind are increasingly popular, because they’re just looking for any sort of power to fuel their empire. 

DJ: Can you stop for a second? Can you do like two paragraphs on that right there? Because that’s a hugely important point. 

MW: Sure. One of the things that I always like to say about this is that Barack Obama had an energy policy that was called “The All of the Above Energy Policy.” And by that he meant that his government was going to facilitate and work to promote oil extraction, fracking, coal, natural gas of all sorts, as well as hydro, wind energy, solar energy. They wanted it all. And I actually think this is the most rational policy for empire to have. When you contrast that with the Republicans, for example Trump; one of the first things he did was slash some of the subsidies for solar manufacturing in this country. And that’s not a very rational policy. It’s an ideological position that the Republicans are taking because that’s sort of the culture that they’ve created, this intentionally “anti-environmental” culture.

But in reality, I think the Obama policy is actually worse in a lot of ways, because empires are powered by energy. There’s a professor out at the University of Utah, a climate scientist named Tim Garrett who created a climate model that basically looks at industrial civilization as a heat engine. And the more energy you put into it, the more pollution and destruction it creates. And that model has actually been more accurate than a lot of the other climate models that are being used in the climate science realm. So, again, I think the All of the Above energy policy is the most rational policy if you’re trying to grow the economy, expand population, expand consumption and increase the power of your empire. So to me it’s no surprise that as oil supplies become increasingly stretched, and as oil companies are forced to move further and further to the fringes in search of deepwater drilling in the oceans and tar sands and oil shale and fracking; all these things are very expensive, they have low margins; it’s no surprise that wind and solar and other so-called renewable energy sources are booming, because it’s highly profitable and this society needs energy to run everything. Data centers – the U.S. military is actually a big promoter of so-called “green energy” because it allows military bases to be more self-sufficient and not as dependent on fuel convoys, which have been a major target in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. So any time the U.S. military is on board with technological “solutions,” then I think we need to be really wary of that. 

DJ: So what you’re suggesting is that the rise in subsidies for wind and solar is not, propaganda aside, so much a response to global warming as it is a response to ever-increasing energy demands, along with the peak production of easily accessible oil. 

MW: Yeah, absolutely. And if you look at – there’s a professor here at the University of Oregon – I live near Eugene in western Oregon – there’s a professor here, Richard York, who’s done a lot of research on this. And most people assume that if you bring online a solar generation facility, that  allows you to turn off a fossil fuel power plant, for example. Because that’s the goal after all, right? That’s what people assume is the goal.

DJ: That’s the stated goal. 

MW: Right. But the reality is that there is essentially very little to no displacement. That’s what this effect is called. So in practice, in order to turn off, say, a fossil fuel power plant, you have to bring on 11 times that amount of power in so-called “green energy,” wind and solar and so on. And what that means in practice is that the fossil fuels aren’t getting turned off at all. The new so-called “green” energies are just being added on top of what was already there. So, once again, it’s all about escalation and growing the system. It’s not about trying to protect the planet in any way. 

DJ: Thank you for that. And I interrupted you a long time ago when you were talking about the Uinta Basin. 

MW: Yeah. So I can just read a quick excerpt from that article.

“Looking out across a landscape that might soon be a wasteland, my gaze wanders across the juniper, scrub oak, and sagebrush that wrap gently over the hillsides and drop into the valleys. The setting sun casts waning light on the treetops, and a small herd of elk climbs a ridge in the distance and disappears into the brush. Overhead, the few clouds in the broad sky fade from red to deep purple, then to darkness.

The last birds of the day sing their goodnight songs, and the stars begin to appear, thousands of them, lighting up the night sky and casting a dull glow across the countryside. I take a deep breath, tasting the cool night air spiced with the scents of the land.

 The bats are out, flitting about snatching tasty morsels out of midair. I can hear their voices. They are calling to me. Tiny voices carrying across miles to whisper in your ear like the tickle of a warm breeze. ‘Fight back,’ they say. ‘Please, fight back. This is our home. We need you to do what it takes to stop this. Whatever it takes to stop this.’”

So when I wrote that article, the place that I wrote about was actually right next to the mine, which at the time was only about three acres. It was a test mine. Since then, it has expanded to I believe over a hundred acres, and has destroyed all the locations I was writing about in that article. So like I said, things are getting worse. 

DJ: You know, a question I ask all the time is: if delta smelt could take on human manifestation, how long would the pumps on the Sacramento River last? Or if sea turtles could take on human manifestation, how long would the factories producing plastic last? It seems that so much of our response to the murder of the planet is so disconnected. 

You know, I see, a lot – for the longest time, people were sort of denying the analysis that you make here, the analysis that seems so obvious, that this culture is inherently destructive. I mean, there are people who have seen it, all the way back to Tertullian and before. And it seems that so often, when people get to the stage of actually doing what’s necessary to protect that, or the Colorado River, or delta smelt or sea turtles; there is at the last moment a failure of connection. 

MW: Yeah. And that’s actually in some ways what the next article is about. This is an article I wrote this past winter called “Lost in Pocatello,” and the article is basically about unpleasant work. This past winter I went up to the Buffalo Field Campaign base camp in Montana on the border of Yellowstone National Park, where they work to protect the last remaining migratory buffalo from destruction, which is largely being perpetrated by the National Park Service. And as part of getting up there – I didn’t have access to a car, flights were incredibly expensive, there was no bus option or any public transit option. So I rented a car to Pocatello, a one-way car, and I drove it up there and arrived early in the morning, and then my friends who were also going up to the camp were going to pick me up. So I dropped the car at the rental place, and this article sort of tells the story of what happened next, which is that I had eight hours or so to kill in Pocatello, which, if you’ve been in Pocatello in February, it’s not the most happening place. And I had a big backpack and a second backpack and a big box of food that I was bringing up there. So I got lost walking around the city and I ended up walking for miles and miles, and getting exhausted and hungry, and the wind was just whipping through there. I kept dropping my box. 

Long story short: it was just really uncomfortable. It wasn’t really that big a deal in the end. I was totally fine, but the theme of the article, or the reason I wrote it, was to impress on people that a lot of the work in organizing and resistance is not that exciting. It’s not that glamorous. A lot of it is just really hard and tedious. Sometimes it’s traveling and not sleeping, sometimes it’s writing. Sometimes it’s meetings, or moderating conflicts. Sometimes it’s training. And the point of this essay is to prepare people to put in that real hard work, without glamorizing things. And you know we live in such a culture of self-gratification and short-term thinking that most people aren’t willing to make sacrifices. I think most people are just so traumatized, too. It’s hard to even think about resisting. I think a lot of people just want to be at home in their beds, in their safe places, and not get out there and do anything. 

DJ: You know, decades ago now, I saw, I think it was Michael Parenti – gosh, this was like 1991 or something. He was talking about the stuff Mike Parenti talks about, and he did this aside where he just started, he goes off on comic books. His complaint was that he thought that superheroes are basically a neoliberal model of problem solving. 

MW: Oh, yeah.

DJ: In that it’s one individual – most of us don’t do anything. Most of the people in Gotham – is Gotham the one with Batman? 

MW: Yup.

DJ: So most of the people in Gotham don’t do anything, and they leave Batman to create all these sort of technical fixes and to solve all the problems. 

MW: Yeah, absolutely. I think you could look at Iron Man as another great example of that. It’s this sort of neoliberal libertarian fantasy of the ultra-rich misogynist asshole CEO saves the whole world with his money, basically.

DJ: Wait! Did you just say “Atlas Shrugged”?

MW: (laughing) No. I’m not sure what you misheard there. But I was talking about Iron Man.

DJ: No, I think what I heard correctly was a rich libertarian saving the world.

MW: Oh yeah. I’m glad to say I haven’t read Atlas Shrugged, so that’s why it went over my head. 

DJ: So this reminds me of – there’s a great line by Kathleen Dean Moore where she – if you ask her what can one person do, in terms of stopping the murder of the planet, she always responds “Don’t be one person.” And what she means by that is organizing. So can you talk about organizing a little bit? 

MW: Sure. So one quick point on that, that I’ll make, and then I’ll jump ahead to a whole essay that’s about it. One of the essays in this collection is sort of a book reflection on a book called “I Write What I Like,” which is about Steve Biko and the anti-apartheid struggle. Biko was the anti-apartheid organizer in South Africa who was killed at age 30 after being beaten severely by the police while he was in custody. 

So this is the quote. “A number of organizations now currently ‘fighting against apartheid’ are working on an oversimplified premise. They have taken a brief look at what is, and have diagnosed the problem incorrectly. They have almost completely forgotten about the side effects and have not even considered the root cause. Hence whatever is improved as a remedy will hardly cure the condition.”

And I think that that’s a great quote to throw out whenever we talk about organizing, because from the beginning, if we’re organizing around those false premises, if we have not considered the root cause, then our organizing is not even going to lead us in the right direction. 

So I have a whole essay in here about organizing. This essay is called fifteen points on organizing. And I can just share a few of the points. Like I say in this article, I’m by no means an expert but I have gained some experience. So this list is not to be considered definitive or faultless by any means, but these are a few things I feel like I’ve learned. 

So: point one. Reliable, self-motivated people are irreplaceable. One solid person is worth a dozen who don’t follow through on commitments or who never act with initiative. Two: beware of abusive and toxic people, as well as those who have nothing to bring but drama and distraction. Set boundaries.

DJ: Okay, hold on a second. Years ago I had two surgeries done at Scripps Green Clinic just north of San Diego. And one of the things that blew me away is every single person, from janitor to surgeon, to everybody else, was remarkably kind. And when I go into the local hospital, sometimes the technicians are pretty nice, but a lot of times a lot of the people there just aren’t very nice. 

MW: Right. 

DJ: So I’ve thought a lot about institutional personality. And you know we’ve all experienced this, where you go to one store and everybody’s always really nice, and you go to another store and quite often people are not so nice. And I happened to be at a board meeting (this is going to have a point) I was asked to be at a board meeting for Patagonia. And everybody there seemed really nice, and I had a chance to talk to their human resource manager about this exact question. And he was saying that basically it’s really crucial that you choose the right people in the first place. That for them, creating a culture – sure, it starts with people being nice to each other in general, but also, when you recruit new members, one of your criteria, one of your goals has to be to make sure that the people who come in are going to fulfill numbers one and two. This is a long way of saying that I think that what you’re saying is absolutely crucial. I think that’s more important than technical skills. 

MW: Yeah.

DJ: Sorry. That was a long distraction. 

MW: No, thanks for that. So, just to – I can throw out a few more of these and then maybe we can move on. But number three is social skills are profoundly important for organizing. Cultivate these skills, avoid stereotyping or dismissing people based on their lifestyle, job, or any first impression you may have. Number seven is humility, respect, and appreciation for others are the foundation of relationships. Shared hardships, struggle and joy are the mortar that cements these bonds. Build friendships and caring relationships with the people you organize with. Number eight is do what you say you will do, follow up on commitments and responsibilities, and don’t give your word lightly. Number twelve is sometimes you have to take risks. Number thirteen is never stop learning. Deepen your wisdom and plan to become an elder and mentor as you age. And then number fifteen, the last one, is be so stubborn they’ll never stop you. Never give up. 

So those are a few of the points, but with that article I was just aiming to give people some really concrete recommendations for how to approach organizing, a mental attitude to bring to it, and a few practical pieces of advice as well. 

DJ: You know, I was thinking about number seven, the one about build friendships and caring relationships with the people you organize with? That reminded me of something that Vince Emanuele says. He says somebody will call up and say “Hey, do you want to go to a protest?” And he’ll respond “We haven’t been to lunch.” The point is he wants to know who you are before  he goes to a protest with you. I think there’s something to that.

MW: Yeah. Absolutely. It’s about trust. When you’re talking about engaging in serious political work you really need to have a high level of trust for people. That’s a huge barrier in today’s atomized society. Everyone spends more time with their machines than they actually do with each other, and that’s not our individual fault really, of course. That’s what the society is set up to do. Alienate us all and get us all addicted to the screens and so on, and break down the social relationships. People buy more when they’re unhappy, so it strengthens the system. 

DJ: So we have about ten minutes left. Do you want to talk about one or two more essays and then we’ll start to give conclusions? 

MW: Sure. Let’s see. So the next essay that I’ll talk about here is a quick one, which is the importance of skills and equipment for resistance movements. One of the things that’s interesting to me about this essay collection is; there’s a saying in military strategy that something like “Those without experience talk about strategy, those with a little bit of experience talk about tactics, and those with a lot of experience talk about logistics.” And the basic idea is that it’s easy to talk about how something might happen, but once you’re getting down to the actual boots on the ground logistics of how exactly we’re going to carry it out, steps a b c d, how’s everyone going to eat? How are they going to get to where they’re going to be? Where’s everyone going to sleep? What sorts of supplies and skills do we need? Then you’re really getting to the meat of what you’re trying to do. And so one thing that’s interesting to me about this essay collection is over time I can see my work shifting from the more theoretical, sort of big picture stuff to more focused logistical work. And that’s what this essay is about.

This essay starts with looking at, for example, Standing Rock. So many people were watching the news at Standing Rock, and what you saw was giant crowds of protesters and resistance figures, and the police and the National Guard, or the BIA, and all the other federal agencies on the other side. And the difference in the amount of training and skills and equipment is stunning in those situations. The cops have their communications systems, their radios. They have their weapons, their armor. They have vehicles, they have command and control networks. They have crowd control. They have StingRay devices. They have helicopters. They have SWAT teams. And meanwhile, most of the protesters have pants and a t-shirt, basically. Maybe a cellphone. So this essay is all about how we need to work to even the playing field by gaining real skills and acquiring and practicing with equipment that’s necessary to be more effective in conflict situations, especially when you’re talking about an asymmetric conflict where one side has much more power than the others, which is pretty much every situation that we’re going to find ourselves in. We really need to be prepared, and that’s something that we haven’t really seen from resistance movements thus far. And I think if we’re starting to talk about moving from protest and making our voice heard to actual resistance and revolution, then we need to start talking about supplies and equipment and skills. 

DJ: I’m thinking about a couple of quotes, having to do with the quartermaster question. Three quotes. Maybe four. One of them is the classic “An army fights on its stomach.” Two by Rommel. I believe he said something like “Most battles are won by the quartermaster.” And then another by Rommel is “When two soldiers are fighting, the one who put the extra cartridge in his rifle is the one who wins.” I can’t remember the last one now, but they’re all saying the same thing. Everything we’re talking about is leading to the question of moving towards a serious resistance movement. To use a cliché: moving out of our comfort zones and into a serious resistance. It seems to me that that’s much of what your essays are about. 

MW: Yeah. And, just to highlight that, probably the most discomfiting article in this collection is the one called “Ecological Special Forces.” This article is about the need for people to operate in a professional, even military-like fashion, for effective resistance, and especially similar to how Special Forces commandos operate, given that these groups are usually operating in a situation where at least locally it’s an asymmetric situation. They’re outnumbered and they don’t control the area. 

So the first official commando units were created in the 1940’s by the British military, but they were just emulating people who had been doing it for a long time. They drew a lot of direct inspiration from Palestinian fighters who were able to tie down these large, much more powerful Imperial British Army units in the 1930’s. And so this article looks at; what are the characteristics of Special Forces units? And it’s things like physical fitness, training with infantry weapons, focus on stealth, being comfortable operating in darkness and all kinds of weather, capability to operate on the water, flexibility and self-direction, operating in small units. I think that’s a really interesting case study when you look at something like Standing Rock, where you have thousands and thousands of people coming from all over the country to participate in this resistance, and many of the most effective direct actions that were taken against the pipeline were run by groups of five to ten people, or even fewer in many cases. So oftentimes smaller is better. 

And, again, the commandos or Special Forces units; they really focused on things like target selection and intelligence; having the right information at the right time to make the critical decisions. 

So I think we need to start thinking more like revolutionaries, and one of my favorite quotes in regards to this is from Michael McFaul, who was a Rhodes Scholar and a professor at Stanford, and he was on the National Security Council. And the quote is: “Beforehand, all revolutions seem impossible. In retrospect, all revolutions seem inevitable.” And I love that quote because when it seems impossible, which it often does to me, I go back to that quote and I hope that in a year or in five years or ten years or fifty years, people will be looking back and saying “It was inevitable that some people were going to take things into their own hands and dismantle this global industrial empire, because it was murdering the planet and that was the only option people had for survival. So some people were brave enough and smart enough to organize and make it happen.”

DJ: So thank you so much for that. Two things before we close. One of them is how can people get this book? And the second is how can people join you in this struggle? 

MW: If people want to learn more about the book and order a copy, my website is https://www.maxwilbert.org. So people can connect with me there. And the other way people can support or get involved is look up the group Deep Green Resistance. I would really recommend people do that. I want people to give moral support, but I want people to go beyond that. I want people to take responsibility for learning the skills themselves that are necessary for carrying out effective resistance, to normalize those skills in our communities, and to really build a true revolutionary sentiment and to take action. 

DJ: Well thank you so much for all that. And I would like to thank listeners for listening. My guest today has been Max Wilbert. This is Derrick Jensen for Resistance Radio on the Progressive Radio Network.

Chris Hedges 08.25.18


Podcast: https://resistanceradioprn.podbean.com/e/resistance-radio-guest-chris-hedges-082418/

Youtube: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=8gUP3VDSQQw

(Sound of a storm)

Hi, I’m Derrick Jensen and this is Resistance Radio on the Progressive Radio Network. My guest today is Chris Hedges. He is a New York Times Pulitzer-prize winning war correspondent who for two decades covered conflicts in Central America, the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. He returned to the United States to become a powerful social critic and critic of capitalism, and is the author of a dozen books, including War is a Force that Gives us Meaning; Death of the Liberal Class; and Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt. He is a columnist for Truthdig and the host of the Emmy-nominated show On Contact on RT America.

So first, thank you, as always, for all of your great work, and second, thank you for being on the program. 

CH: Sure.

DJ: So what does life look like at the end of empire?

CH: Well, that is a very interesting question, because it is exactly the question I asked two years ago when I set out to write my new book, America: The Farewell Tour, which will be out in August. What life looks like in a decayed society is expressed through various pathologies that we see all around us. Suicide, opioid addictions and of course overdoses. The false idea that we can build an economy and rescue ourselves from debt peonage through gambling. And the industry has become quite adept at feeding the addiction of gambling. In fact, I found, in the book, that gamblers, as an addicted group, have the highest rates of suicide. Hate crimes, sexual sadism, which you have spoken out against, and which very few people on the left have had the courage to emulate, or critique. Morbid obesity. These are all examples of a society in deep distress. And those problems are not solved by more rehabilitation clinics, or more Gamblers Anonymous meetings. They are solved by restoring the moral health of the society. Which of course are the things, those pathologies and the decay, that are getting worse under the Trump administration and the kleptocrats that he has put into power.

So the end of empire looks – and the end of all empire is really defined by both moral decadence  and physical decay and despair, and is expressed through aberrant behavior. I mean, we see almost every other day in this country a mass shooting, this nihilistic violence. I was looking at Émile Durkheim’s brilliant work at the end of the 19th century on suicide, where he made that argument, that suicide is the product, he called it “anomie,” of people who became disconnected from their communities, lost control of their lives, and fell into deep despondency or despair. Just look around us. The physical decay, the moral decay, and the way it’s expressed is embraced by this very sick and frightening culture, which is manifested in a figure like Trump. I always say Trump is not the disease. Trump is the symptom. 

DJ: Okay, I’m going to read a quote, which you knew I was going to get to at some point. I’m going to read a quote by Edward Gibbon, and then, after that, the question I’m going to ask you is why does this happen at the end of empire? Why are there these commonalities of, sort of, macrosociology becoming micropsychology? Or something? Here’s the quote. This is Gibbon writing in the 1780’s about the end of the Roman empire. 

“The five marks of the decaying Roman culture: Concern with displaying affluence instead of building wealth. Obsessions with sex and perversions of sex. Art becomes freakish and sensationalistic instead of creative and original. Widening disparity between very rich and very poor. Increased demand to live off the state.”

And I just find that so remarkably, I want to say “prescient” but it wasn’t prescient because he was writing history. And so how does this happen, that there are these commonalities through the end of empire? Why is this? 

CH: Because you build, and this was true in the decline of the Roman Empire – you build an elite and a bureaucracy that will serve that elite, that is diverted from the common good towards the empowerment and enrichment of a tiny cabal. In the case of ancient Rome it was the ruling families who, like the Bushes and the Clintons, would just trade positions. You had, after the rise of Augustus, traditional – I don’t know that Rome ever achieved the democracy of ancient Athens, but you had a senate that became a kind of parody of what it had been. The form of the senate remained, but it was stripped of any real democratic power.

Essentially what happens is that any time a cabal, whether it’s oligarchic or corporate or fascist or communist, seizes power, you create a system of paralysis, which is of course what we’ve created. Because all institutions that once made incremental or piecemeal reform possible, i.e. gave a voice to the grievances and protected, to a certain extent – I don’t want to be too utopian about America, but to a certain extent protected the civil liberties of the populace. Everything is now directed toward this tiny cabal and their particular desires and lusts. And everybody else is ignored. They don’t count anymore. 

And so once you reach that point, then these totalitarian systems, while they are different in terms of some of the details, function essentially in the same manner. And because there is a kind of disemboweling of the state, all of these systems look for scapegoats to blame for the kind of precipitous decline. Totalitarian systems, autocratic systems also do spectacle and entertainment very well. Cicero writes about how in ancient Rome, as the democracy decayed and the oligarchic class seized complete control, it staged more and more elaborate spectacles in the arena, so that people’s emotional and intellectual life were invested in the absurd, in the trivial and the banal, in the salacious. We forget that there was a huge sexual component to the kind of entertainment industry at the end of ancient Rome. There are marked characteristics, and I would call them pathologies, that express themselves in a dying culture. And of course one of them is what anthropologists call the “crisis cult.” Crisis cults are where you retreat into magical thinking when you can’t cope with the onslaught of reality. So we saw, for instance, at the end of the genocidal campaigns in the late 19th century, in 1890, 1889, the rise of the Ghost Dance, where if you put on a particular shirt you could stop the bullets. You threw the Ghost Dance and the white Americans, Euro-Americans would disappear, all the dead warriors would rise up from the ground, the herds of buffalo would come back. But that takes place in all decayed societies. I think that that’s how we have to look at the Christian right, as a crisis cult. The Rapture. The end times. 

So we’re very far advanced. And what we’re really waiting for, which isn’t going to be that long in coming, is another economic collapse. And this time around, the oligarchs don’t have a plan B. They already have reduced rates to zero. There were actually moments in Europe when they were below zero. They were paying people to borrow money. Banks were paying businesses to borrow money. And what have they done? We’ve subsidized the financial industry, Wall Street, Citibank, etc., to the tune of trillions of dollars. That money has to be paid back, even though it’s lent at virtually 0% interest, and instead of investing in the country, as China by the way did after the 2008 crisis, and building New Deal-type infrastructure projects, all they’ve done is what Marx called “fictitious capital,” use money to make money, primarily through debt peonage. So they borrow money at 0% interest and then shove these student loans down the throats of college students, if you’re late on your credit card it’s 28% interest, all sorts of hidden fees in medical bills, even if you have insurance. But that’s not a sustainable system. The housing bubble is now back, the stock market is highly inflated. What did the oligarchs do with these huge tax cuts? Well, they didn’t invest in workers, they didn’t raise wages, they didn’t hire more workers. They bought back their stock. So the value of the stock increases artificially and then the managers or the CEO’s of these companies, because their compensation is tied to the value of stock, get huge bonuses. But it’s completely cannibalistic, and one of the things given mention in that quote, which is true, is that you – and also, by the way, Karl Marx wrote about this, although Marx was steeped in the classics, so he knew Gibbon – was that then these entities begin to consume the government, consume the bureaucracy, consume the system that actually makes, in this case, capitalist democracy possible. So, for instance, we’re watching the destruction of public, the privatization of public education into these charter schools, these vocational schools. We’re watching private companies; Booz Allen Hamilton, 99% of its budget comes from the government. The rise of mercenary forces. They are extracting – and of course they want to privatize Social Security. They are extracting the very marrow from the structures of power that sustains the system itself. 

So all of this is kind of swirling around us and is really waiting for a crisis to trigger what I think will be a very frightening period in American history.

DJ: There’s another question I want to ask, but before I get there, can you talk for a moment about the relationship between end of empire and death squads? It seems as economic systems collapse – I believe you used the word “scapegoat” earlier. I think about the relationship between the economic collapse of the twenties and the rise of fascism, the rise of the KKK in the United States in the teens and twenties. And then you’ve written about this in an entirely different context with Chaco Canyon and death squads there at the end of empire. Can you talk about either state or non-state violence – let’s call it reactionary violence at the end of empire?

CH: Right. What sustains empire is a fictitious ideology. In the case of the United States it’s a respect for democracy – and I’m saying this is fictitious, but it’s a respect for democracy, for human rights, for the ability of everybody to get a fair chance. And when that ideology collapses and is exposed as a lie, and of course the ruling economic ideology is neoliberalism, which no longer has any credibility across the political spectrum. That’s how Trump got elected, that’s why Bernie Sanders was able to run such a powerful insurgency within the Democratic Party, although the Democratic Party made sure he didn’t get the nomination. I mean, they rigged the primary, sewing up the nomination. 

So when that ruling ideology no longer has any credibility, then the elites only have violence left in order to maintain control. So they’re punishing the population more and more, to maintain the opulence of their lifestyles. I mean, you have CEO salaries that are 5000 times what their workers are making. The Walmart family I think makes $11,000 an hour for doing nothing but being part of the Walmart family. So you need coercion and force because the ideology, the ruling ideology is no longer effective. All we have to do is look at marginal communities in this country, primarily populated by people of color, to see exactly the forms of social control that are going to become even more widespread. So you deindustrialize cities and you redline them to leave behind primarily people of color, African-Americans in particular, and then you need a form of social control because there’s no work unless they go into the illegal economy. And so you create this massive prison system. We imprison 25% of the world’s prison population though we are only 5% of the world’s population. Half of the people in our prison complexes didn’t even commit a violent crime. All of this, by the way, was put into place largely by the Clinton administration and by Joe Biden, who is going to run for president in 2020.

And then you create, I would call them death squads. Militarized police forces that kill in these communities indiscriminately, with utter impunity. You take away people’s due process, and virtually nobody in these marginal communities has the right to a jury trial. They’re forced to plea out. 94% or something within our system never had a jury trial. They essentially have their rights as citizens removed. And Hannah Arendt wrote about this in The Origins of Totalitarianism when she’s talking about the stateless within Europe. Under the rise of fascism, she herself was stateless after being held for three weeks by the Gestapo and was expelled to France. So you’re stripped of your citizenship, the French don’t give you citizenship, and she said once you live in a society where rights become privileges, you create both legal and in effect physical mechanisms to strip a segment of that, demonize a segment of that society (in our case, people of color, primarily African-Americans) of their rights. But in a time of distress, or unrest, or social or financial collapse, everyone can be stripped of their rights with the flick of a switch, because you already have both the legal and the physical mechanisms in place. And I would include ICE, of course, as part of that.

So that is why societies, at the end, become so brutal. And it was fascinating when I was visiting Chaco Canyon and reading the work of the anthropologists who studied the late culture of the Chaco Empire, perhaps the biggest indigenous empire in North America, that it again replicated the way societies in terminal decline always seem to play out.

DJ: So part of what I’m hearing you say is that there is a sense in which rights, for those who at least  are somewhat on the inside of the gated community, but not at the very center, are in a sense luxuries, from the perspective of the system. Luxuries that the system can afford so long as it is still able to steal enough from the colonies, really. And then when that becomes endangered, we, those at the center, get down to business and sort of drop off all these rights that we can no longer afford. Is that kind of what this is talking about?

CH: Well, yes, in the sense that as long as, let’s call it the middle class, is not restive. As long as most of the society is passive in the face of this kleptocracy, which always characterizes late empire, then you don’t need brutal forms of coercion to keep them under control. But if you have, say, economic collapse, which we’re headed towards, and of course the most dire aspect of financial collapse will be the decision on the part of the rest of the world to no longer make the dollar the reserve currency – and we know what that looks like. All you have to do is look at Britain in the 1950’s when the pound sterling was dropped as the world’s reserve currency – then the value of the dollar plunges. Exports become exponentially more expensive and you can’t maintain empire. U.S. treasury bonds become worthless, people won’t want to buy them.

So at that point, then, the ruling oligarchs, corporate oligarchs in this case, will need these harsher forms of control in order to continue to prey upon the population to extract obscene profit and to keep people in line. You never want to build a society where a segment of your society, as we have done, in essence is stripped of their rights. That’s not a particularly sophisticated concept. Because ruling elites as rapacious as ours will never stop there, and history has borne that out over and over and over.

DJ: And one of the reasons that collapse of empire leads to increased racism, xenophobia, etc., it seems to me, is that, you know, I can get along fine with people of all colors and religions and everything else, but if I just lost my job, and I have been trained not to see capitalism as the problem, or the ruling elites as the problem, instead, I can come to perceive this as “I lost my job because of those damned people from Mexico.” Or because of African-Americans, or because of – I can come up with all sorts of, there can be – when I’m trained, again, to identify with the system itself, pledged my allegiance to the system, then I can look for scapegoats anywhere else to – when I have very real – you know, the farm crisis has been very real. The independent farmers have been driven out of business and driven off their land. And we can talk about the takeover of small farms by Big Ag, and that’s true, but – here’s the point. I interviewed a long time ago Joel Dyer, who wrote a book called “Harvest of Rage,” about how a lot of these farmers were ending up far right. And he said part of the problem was that, in this case, they’re very desperate, because the land that’s been in their family for four generations is being foreclosed on, and he said at that point that the left was doing a really terrible job of reaching out to them, and the right, the far right, the racist right, was doing a wonderful job of reaching out to them. And he said basically if you’re sitting there ready to kill yourself, your family’s gone, your land’s gone, and somebody knocks on your door; if they’re Mormons reaching out to you, you’re going to become a Mormon. And if they’re far right, you’re going to become far right. And if they were far left, if the lefties would have done a job of reaching out, they might have gone left. And I think there’s some truth to that.

I’m throwing a whole mishmash at you. Take anything you want and run with it. 

CH: So what happened with the rise of Reagan and Thatcher, as Stuart Hall has written, is that there was a conscious effort on the part of corporate power to dismantle the New Deal. And so they had to shift the whole perception of government. And that’s where you get Reagan’s thing, you know, government’s not part of the solution, government’s part of the problem. And to replace that idea of government as one that fosters community and makes sure everyone has a chance, and protects the vulnerable, etc., the ruling elites built this ideology of “Your national identity is under attack from these forces.” From these foreign forces. Muslims, undocumented workers, African-Americans. And if you look at the commercial media, they never talk about capitalism. That’s a word you’re never going to hear, even on MSNBC. And so any imperialist, any capitalist critics – you know this as well as anyone – have already been pushed to the margins of society. And what we’re seeing, because these people no longer have a counterargument to the ruling ideology, is that they are creating mechanisms to shut even our voices down, because they can’t answer these criticisms. Not in a rational way.

So you see the rise of this anonymous group prop or not, propaganda or not, where they take left wing websites, including the ones that I write for, that republish my stuff, and accuse them of being in the service of Russia – of a foreign power. And then they get Google and Facebook and Twitter to impose algorithms, which they have done, to essentially divert traffic away from left wing sites like TruthDig, where I have a column every Monday. And we have seen impressions. Impressions are: if you were to type “imperialism” into Google and I had written a recent article on imperialism, it would appear. Now you will be diverted to the Washington Post or the Wall Street Journal, but you won’t be directed to TruthDig, or any other left wing site. 

And so, impressions on TruthDig have gone down in the last year, and that is traffic referred to TruthDig has gone down from over 700,000 to below 200,000. The World Socialist Website has seen its traffic drop by 80-something percent. Alternet by 63%. And then coupled with this is the revoking of Net Neutrality that allows them to create tiers within the system to slow down access to these sites. This is why I have a show on RT America, because I don’t have anywhere else to go. I can’t even go on public broadcasting, unsurprisingly given the fact that the Koch brothers fund the news hour and are huge contributors to public broadcasting, along with all sorts of other corporate entities.

So you are creating a society, by intent, and this is again going back to the destruction of public education, where people don’t even have to ask the questions because they’re not even given enough information to ask the questions. And then they’re easily manipulated – we saw Trump do this – to blame the outsider for the social and political and financial and cultural decay. And the worse it gets, the more the state, the despotic state, sanctions violence against the outsider as a kind of safety valve to direct that anger away from the cabal that has seized power. That’s just classic despotic rule and that’s something that we are rapidly approaching.

DJ: So one thing that terrifies me is that we have what seems to me a very bad confluence here. You have, at the end of empire – Chaco Canyon is really interesting, that you had the death squads there and you had the other problems there, you had these same – and the same with the Roman Empire, because we can talk about the end of empire, and we can also talk about the iron cages that Max Weber talked about, and we can talk about technology just hemming us in. We can talk about television as the world’s best propagandistic tool of the time, and now the Internet, the same way. And with the control of flow of information, combine that with – I’ve done interviews about, and have read about, and have thought about lot; the decline of long-form thinking that has been taking place over the last, especially the last 40 years. If you get these dreadful symptoms at the end of empire anyway, and then, when I interviewed Robert Jay Lifton decades ago, I asked him if technology exacerbates psychic numbing, that he talks about in his work, and he laughed and said “Technology exacerbates everything.” 

And it seems to me that this is a confluence that makes the end of this empire much more fraught than – and we haven’t even talked about ecological collapse yet. But leaving that aside, this still makes this end of empire, it seems to me, far more dangerous than many previous empires.

CH: Well, because the systems of indoctrination are so much more sophisticated, along with the systems of surveillance and control. So you’re right. We’ve never seen anything like this. I mean, the Stasi state in East Germany was child’s play compared to what the United States has set up.

You’ve called them; it’s a term you use that I steal from you all the time; you call these things “electronic hallucinations.” They are designed to destroy thought. That’s why you gotta stay off them. I’m not on any social media. I don’t own a television. And yet you can’t escape it. Even I know who Stormy Daniels is, and Roseanne’s meltdown. But you don’t want them both seizing control of your time and also conditioning you for these constant adrenaline hits that destroy your capacity to sit down and actually think.

As you know, I wrote a book called “Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle” that talked about the danger of severing ourselves from a print-based culture and embracing spectacle and illusion. What’s happening now to the commercial news media is that it is a full partner in the reality show presidency. They largely created Trump. I mean, NBC created the fictional personality of Trump on The Apprentice, which he then used to sell to the American public. It’s all burlesque all the time. I find it just terrifying. I was at the gym the other day and saw CNN, and it was a long segment on something new from Stormy Daniels, and then a round table discussion about Roseanne Barr’s show. This isn’t news. I come out of news. I’m an old newspaper guy. 

So I think when you look at the decay of society, everything becomes salacious, everything becomes gossip, and that was certainly true at the end of the Roman Empire, at the end of the Habsburg Empire, any empire. Look at the end of the Ottoman Empire. In a way it becomes an effective mechanism, again, to divert attention away from the collapse, and you mentioned environmental collapse. The polar ice caps are melting at a rate that even the most pessimistic climate scientists a few years ago would never have predicted, large trees are dying, communities in the north are sinking because the permafrost is melting. And what are we doing?  We are doing what all societies do at the end, which is engaging in emotional and psychological retreat into the embrace of depravity. And we haven’t even mentioned pornography. We’re a completely pornified society. 

Because of you, actually, the fourth chapter in my book, which is called “Sadism,” is set at kink dot com, which I’d never heard of until you told me about it. And I went out there and sat through “classes” of torture, literally how to torture people. And as Wilhelm Reich writes in The Mass Psychology of Fascism, and I’ll just read you that sentence: he says “Fascism countenances that religiosity which stems from sexual perversion, and it transforms the masochistic character of the old patriarchal religion of suffering into a sadistic religion; in short, it transposes religion from the otherworldliness of the philosophy of suffering to the this-worldliness of sadistic murder.” And we have to, and you have been very outspoken about this, one of the few; we have to also recognize that accompanying all of these pathologies is the loss of the capacity for intimacy, the objectification of women as essentially tools to be abused physically. I mean, I interviewed women on these kink sets, and boy, this pain is not simulated. These women are beaten. They are black and blue. When they finish they take painkillers. Everyone I’ve interviewed who’s left it is dealing with severe post-traumatic stress disorder. And these films are, there’s just no other word for it. They’re just sick. They’re just sickening. And that is a huge element within the culture. We are a completely pornified culture, which is why the stills that were released from Abu Ghraib look like stills from porn. That’s not accidental.

DJ: Yeah. It’s completely mainstreamed and horrifying. And, again, predictable. We have Edward Gibbon saying this in the 1780’s. 

We have – this is not quite time to wind down yet. We still have about 13-14 minutes. But I’m going to ask you what would normally be a wind-down question.

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve interviewed some people who’ve been working on these issues for a long time, working on environmental issues especially, back all the way from the 60’s and the 70’s. And three of the people I talked to recently have all said that the momentum is just so fierce, so strong, that they feel like their work has been like throwing a tiny pebble against the incoming tide or something. 

I’m not countenancing quitting. I’m in this until my last breath. But that doesn’t alter the fact that when I read sort of macrosociological accounts, when I read your wonderful book that’s coming out in August, the fact that these are macrosociological larger social trends… Decades ago, when I read Overshoot by William Catton, one of the things he talked about in there is he said that if you have a certain number of people acting in a certain way, you can almost call that a fate because it is so hard to change an entire culture.

So what do we do, given that we care, you and I, and others; care about decency, care about justice, care about sanity? What do we do in the face of this momentum that is not only technological and modern, but also is a common pattern from the collapse of empire? A predictable result of the collapse of empire. 

CH: Well, we have to create in essence walled communities where we nurture and protect those values that the wider society is attempting to destroy. As much as possible, we have to create parallel institutions to sustain ourselves and empower ourselves. And all of that will be done locally. Because when collapse comes, the elites will retreat into their gated compounds, where they will have access to services and health care and goods and security that the rest of us won’t. They’re not going to be out there taking care of us. We’ll have to take care of ourselves. That’s why food, local food markets, sustainable agriculture, sustainable energy; all of this becomes, in moments of distress, becomes political acts. Local currencies. The more that we can dis-unplug ourselves, disconnect ourselves from the corporate monolith, the safer and the better we’ll be. 

So that really means attempting to take power locally. We can’t be naive. If you go back a couple years ago in Denton, Texas, the community rose up against the fracking industry and what did the state legislature do? It essentially overrode. The fracking sites around the city were making people sick and poisoning the drinking water, and the state legislature essentially outlawed the efforts by the local community to control their own environment. We also have seen this with fracking in Pennsylvania. These will be the forces we have to contend with. But we are going to have to begin to rebuild community and rebuild local power structures to pit power against power.

Will we succeed? I just don’t think it’s helpful to be Pollyanna-ish or naive. For me, what resistance is about, and ultimately what hope is about, is facing the bleakness of what’s out there rather than lying to ourselves about it. And it’s difficult, especially given what’s happening to the climate, but we have to remain rooted in reality. I would say that if you don’t resist, you can’t use the word “hope.” We have a kind of moral imperative to fight, without being overly dramatic, for systems of life, especially those of us who are older. And I have kids, and what kind of a world are they going to inherit? I at least want them to look back and say that their father tried. That he wasn’t complicit and he wasn’t passive. 

DJ: One of the many things I love about your work is that you unabashedly – that you’re not afraid of using the word “moral” or talking about moral imperatives. And I think this is a huge problem on the left specifically, that it seems like for the most part the left has ceded morality to the right. Ceded any claim of morality, I should say, to the right, and so there are – I mean, there are lefty screeds about, against all forms of morality. I find that both tactically absurd and also, to use the same word, morally repugnant. So I appreciate that very much about your work. 

CH: Well thank you. I mean, I think that this is – you know, Freud called these forces of death – well, actually they were called that later by post-Freudians, but it’s thanatos. That there are two forces in life. Eros: that force to nurture, preserve, protect. Forces of love, forces of reverence. But it’s always pitted against forces of death. As Freud wrote, these forces are in eternal conflict, both within the individual and within society. And the forces of thanatos are ascendant around us. And it’s imperative upon us to embrace those forces of life and fight for them. 

You know Kant has a great quote where he says that if justice perishes on earth, life has lost its meaning. As you know, I come out of divinity school. But I think that resistance, fighting on behalf of the oppressed, standing up against the lies of the corporate state, these give meaning to life. And I would even go beyond that. As Tolstoy said at one point; the only true happiness is living for others. And you see that with parents with children, and I have four of them. You know, it can be a headache, and sometimes that happiness is very bittersweet. But it is real happiness as opposed to the emotional and hedonistic highs that are defined as happiness by the consumer culture, with of course money being the primary route, they will tell you, to happiness. 

I went, at the age of ten, to an elite boarding school, as a scholarship student, one of 16, and lived around the über rich, and I can tell you they are immensely unhappy human beings, who, no matter how rich they are, never have enough. And you can see it in the lust by these billionaires, from Bezos to the Koch brothers to everyone else who has insane amounts of money and just want more and more and more. And of course it distorts their own relationships. Most of the relationships they have are built around a kind of mendacity and obsequiousness. So I think that on every level it’s incumbent on us to stand up against these forces and I think that standing up and resisting against these forces, even if we lose. It allows us at least to be complete and whole human beings. 

DJ: Yeah. I think a lot about a line by R.D. Laing: how do you plug a void plugging a void? And I think when you talk about the misery of the rich, they’re attempting to plug an existential hole with money. And that’s one reason for the insatiability. It’s one reason for the insatiability of pornography, because it’s not meeting the need that it’s purporting to meet. 

CH: It meets the need temporarily and then it becomes blasé. It’s why porn gets more and more and more violent, because you need to keep pushing it further and further in order to get that momentary high. Yeah, it’s the same with money. The same with the acquisition of goods and services. But it’s ultimately not only futile but self-destructive. 

DJ: A person I think about fairly often is Henning von Tresckow. He was one of the German resisters in World War II on the eastern front, and on D-Day, or after D-Day, a lot of the resisters said “Why are we even trying? We’re risking our lives for nothing because the war is essentially over.” And he responded that first off, there were people dying every day, civilians dying every day the war lasted, so the sooner they got the war over, and if this included stopping Hitler, doing their coup, then they should do it. And the other thing he talked about was he said “I want to show to history that there were at least some decent people in Germany. I don’t want history to say that every German went along with that.” And I always find that incredibly inspiring, that as this culture is wreaking havoc on so much – you know, it’s the story, in some ways, and it’s a dreadful story in other ways, but it’s the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. How many good people are there here? And I want the frogs to know, and I want the humans who come after to know, that there were some of us who were still decent people at the end. 

CH: Well, and go to Germany today. Who do they hold up? They hold up the White Rose. They hold up Niemöller. They hold up von Stauffenberg. They hold up these figures who actually did resist, to give themselves another narrative, to create moral signposts for the society that comes after them. So I don’t think resistance is ever futile. Justice or injustice is going to outlive us all. It’s a perpetual fight. You know, what Max Weber is saying in his essay Politics as a Vocation, it never ends. We must always be vigilant. But it is that kind of ironic point of light that guides future generations and inspires future generations to do the right thing. And if everyone is silent, those lights aren’t there.

DJ: Well I think that’s a good note to end on. And I always appreciate not only your analysis itself, but the eloquence that you – that you manifest this process that we’re talking about, of the importance of long-form thinking, by making clear the importance of people doing the work of reading other writers, metabolizing their thoughts, and then making them your own. That’s something people need to do with your work, is we read your work, we metabolize it, and then we – you know, one writer once said to me that all of those writers who are working in the right direction were all standing through time holding hands. You are reaching back to the people before, and reaching forward to the ones who came after. And I just want you to know that your work’s appreciated. 

CH: Well thank you, Derrick. Thank you very much. 

DJ: And I would like to thank listeners for listening. My guest today has been Chris Hedges. This is Derrick Jensen for Resistance Radio on the Progressive Radio Network.

Thomas Linzey 05.20.18


(Sound of mountain lion)

Podcast: http://resistanceradioprn.podbean.com/e/resistance-radio-guest-thomas-linzey-052018/

Youtube: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=4hjBHEobjYk

Hi, I’m Derrick Jensen and this is Resistance Radio on the Progressive Radio Network. My guest today is Thomas Linzey. He is the executive director and an attorney for the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, which has assisted close to 200 communities across the country in eight states to adopt binding local laws that elevate community rights to sustainability over corporate rights and powers. 

So first, thank you for all of your great work, and second, thank you for being on the program again. 

TL: Thanks for having us back, Derrick.

DJ: So let’s start by talking about a recent press release put out by – let’s actually back up and talk about the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund for a moment, and then talk about the press release. Can you give us, like, the three minute skinny on that? 

TL: Sure. So, Legal Defense Fund launched in 1995. We’ve been around for over 20 years, and we started work by doing conventional environmental law. So we began by enforcing things like the Clean Water Act, or the Clean Air Act, or the National Environmental Policy Act. It took us about ten years to understand that the environmental laws weren’t really about stopping anything. They were more about carving the rough edges off of some corporate projects coming into communities. And so we switched gears back in 2002, to do a different kind of work, which was working with municipalities and citizen groups so elected officials, and also community organizations, could actually begin to birth the new area of the law in which people in their own communities would have the power, the legal authority to say “no” to things like factory hog, corporate factory farms coming into their community, or toxic waste incinerators, or land-applied sewage sludge, or fracking. All these different projects that today a lot of people think that their community has the authority to ban, or to prohibit, but unfortunately when they run up into the existing structure of law, they begin to understand that they have almost no power to stop those projects from coming into the communities. 

So that was the first piece of the work that we began doing, was this concept of people having a constitutional right to govern their own communities. And that that constitutional right would override state preemption, the state’s ability to overturn or declare local ordinances illegal under the state’s exclusive control of certain things like oil and gas extraction and agricultural issues. And understanding that that constitutional right would elevate above the ability of the state to adopt those laws, as well as corporations claiming certain rights to overturn those communities. 

And then along the way, we began doing this area of work back in 2005 dealing with the rights of nature and ecosystems. So today nature doesn’t have any rights under the US Constitution or under our system of law, and we think that’s a big reason why things have gotten worse over the past 50 years, even after the nation’s preeminent environmental laws were adopted. So we work towards creating law that recognizes ecosystems as having legally enforceable rights that can be enforced by the people in the communities that care about the rivers and the forests and the ecosystems within their community, and then essentially making that binding constitutional law in the United States. That is the direction that we’re headed. 

DJ: So before we talk more about that, there’s a quote that I’ve recently come across, that I wanted to read to you and then just get your response to. This is by Jane Anne Morris. 

“Corporate persons have constitutional rights to due process and equal protection that human persons, affected citizens, don’t have. For non-corporate human citizens, there’s a Democracy Theme Park where we can pull levers on voting machines and talk into microphones at hearings. But don’t worry. They’re not connected to anything and nobody’s listening except for us. What regulatory law regulates is citizen input, not corporate behavior.” 

TL: Yeah, it’s one of my favorite pieces. We have used it in our two-day trainings that we do for lawyers and community activists and municipal officials. And she hits the nail on the head, which is that, you know, when you show up at a public hearing and they give you three minutes to comment on something, generally the agency couldn’t care less what you have to say, because their only mission is to issue the permit to the applicant that has asked to put in a factory farm or toxic waste incinerator or whatever in that community. So unless you were a neighboring property owner or someone that has legal standing, in other words someone that’s been injured or will be injured by the issuance of the permit, the agency couldn’t care less what you have to say. And when she draws the parallel to this Democracy Theme Park, that the microphones aren’t even connected when you go to testify, I think she really nails it right on the head. 

There’s also another section that she wrote where she talks about whack-a-mole, that work of environmental groups has been about whack-a-mole; you know, you try to stop a project over here, but nine others get through over there. It should be no surprise that we’re in worse shape now than we’ve ever been, in many ways. 

DJ: There are two stories I want to tell you, but before you go on, we should let listeners know that we’ve known each other for, 28 years now? 29, somewhere in there? 

TL: Yup. Even before the Legal Defense Fund was formed.

DJ: Yeah. So there are a couple of stories that I don’t know, in all that time, if I’ve ever told you. So I’m going to tell you first one story and then the other. And one story is: in my very early activist career, one of my proudest moments was when I was giving some testimony about salmon and James McClure was in the room, a horrible anti-environmental senator from Idaho, and I was able to say to him in public that I expect to someday see him in the dock for crimes against the environment. This made me feel really good, it made James McClure call security on me, and, to get to the point, it made me feel good and it made absolutely no difference in the real world. That’s what so much of this public input seems to be about. A chance for me to go vent my spleen and then let’s get back to business. 

TL: Yeah, I had my own similar experience back in law school, when one of the big, he was very well known, I think he was a majority leader at that time in the Pennsylvania Senate, came to speak at the law school. They had a little reception, and I was a member of the environmental law group, the student group at the time, and I went to hear him at the reception and got some time with him and started asking him some really difficult questions, because he had authored and was pushing a bill to eliminate the categories of people that could challenge permits for environmental pollution purposes. And it turned out one of his major donors lived in an area where he had a number of these categories of people challenging a permit. So it felt really good to go after him, and he threw his hors d’oeuvres at me during the thing, and I felt really good about it afterwards because I had gotten to him, but it didn’t do anything else, it didn’t stop the bill, the bill kept running, I think it got passed. It was all the same, business as usual. 

DJ: And then the other story is; remember the Rio Summit decades ago? That was going to save the Earth? They had meetings in communities all over the country and they had a meeting in Spokane, Washington, where I lived at the time, and there was a person there representing the United States government, who was going to take our input to then deliver to, to help form United States positions at the Rio Earth Summit. And it was quite an interesting experience, because there were probably 40 of us who gave testimony, and basically, everybody who gave testimony said the same thing, which is “sustainable development” is a lie. “Sustainable development” is nothing but the same old neocolonialism. It is not sustainable, and “development” actually means destruction. Basically every single person said the same thing.

So he gets up afterwards, and he thanks us for supporting the United States position that sustainable development is the way to go, as though he’d not heard a word we said. And the point of this whole story is that I was later talking to the person who had organized his visit and who had driven him around, and it ends up that even before the event started, he was so drunk that he had to be helped to his seat. And that’s just a perfect metaphor for just about everything. 

TL: Yeah, the anecdotes all add up. But also, the most effective thing I’ve ever seen at agency meetings is when folks just turned their back to the front. They turned their back to the agency officials that are sitting there and actually speak to the audience and say “Look, these guys aren’t going to do what you want them to do. We need to organize ourselves to do something different.” I think that’s the take. But a lot of people aren’t in that boat. A lot of people that we run into are convinced that if they get enough people to turn out, and they use the right dry erase markers and have the right flip charts and the right diagrams and do enough phone calls that it’s going to change something. And that’s still got a real hold on people. They can’t face the reality that it doesn’t matter. And they cling really really hard to that, you know, “this is what we’re told we can do and now it’s just a question of participation.” That’s got a real hold on people’s brains, unfortunately. 

DJ: So before we go to the Amazon, which I do want to get to, a question that that raises is that; something I get all the time and I’m guessing you get all the time too, is that when you say something like you just said, that public input like that doesn’t matter; so often, and this pisses me off no end; so often people will then say “Oh. Are you then suggesting we do nothing?” They’ll say “Oh, you’re just a defeatist who wants us to sit on our hands.” And I know that’s not true. I know it’s not true for me and it’s not true for you. So: A. Do you get that as well? And B. If so, how do you respond? 

TL: Yes, we get it all the time. In fact, there’s an anger that comes with it because you’re seen as taking away energy and resources that could be used for other things. So in other words, by saying we should be doing something else, you’re taking away the energy and resources that, like, not to pick on them, but the Sierra Club would use to generate comments to the agency in hopes that it might discourage the agency from doing something. We’ve been talking about anecdotes today, but my favorite is when I went to a meeting in Spokane, which is where we live now, and the meeting was about the fossil fuel trains coming through the city. And at that time, one of the commissioners of the state has the power to say “no” to one of the permits. And he eventually did, as a matter of fact. But not for the reasons the people in the room wanted him to. But the people in the room – the Sierra Club was organizing it then, so they passed out these comment cards at the end, you know, the pre-filled in comment things where you write a short thing and then sign your name, and you accumulate them all and then deliver them to the state government. 

And they actually gave out prizes at the end of the night for those who filled out the most (laughing). You know, because they were sending them to a variety of people, not just the commissioner. But they actually were giving out prizes, and I was like “Oh my God, where have we arrived at?” Citizen activism is defined as sitting in a chair and penciling out a sentence and signing your name and then getting prizes for the folks that do it the best. 

DJ: Getting a kewpie doll. 

TL: It’s become like a game at this point. So anyway, when people come to us and say “what will we do otherwise?” the first thing to do is really show them how, using real data, how pointless and fruitless it is to engage with these folks. Like FERC. FERC has never turned down a pipeline permit. They’ve delayed some, they’ve suspended some temporarily. But they’ve never denied one in the United States. So are you going to turn to an agency and beg them, plead for them to do something they’ve never ever ever done before, on any other occasion? I mean, that’s just nuts. And the histories of these other agencies bear that out as well. In fact, we did a study one year – I’m digressing here – we did a study one year about The Environmental Hearing Board in Pennsylvania. So in Pennsylvania, like other states, you have a special court that’s set up to hear permit appeals. So if a permit’s issued and you appeal it, you end up in front of this thing called the Environmental Hearing Board, which is populated by administrative law judges. You would think that Environmental Hearing Board, that 90% of what they hear is citizen appeals of permits. From an environmental activist standpoint, you would think that would be the case, because it’s about the environment and it’s about appeals. But when you look at the data about what cases they hear, something like 85% of the cases were all brought by corporations to force the agency to issue the permit. So these were cases in which the agency said “Well wait a minute, we’re not sure if we want to issue this, or we’re going to deny it.” And then the corporations, not the environmental activists, the corporations came in to use the Environmental Hearing Board to force the issuance of the permit. 

And so I think all of this, specific data aside, is really about a mindset about whether you believe that we live in a democratic system or not. Because if you believe that we live in a democratic system then it makes sense to do those things that the democratic system allows you to do, or in some ways programs you to do and then sets up the apparatus for you to do. But if you don’t believe that we live in a democratic system where these agencies are actually going to become involved or advocate on the side of the communities or nature, then I think it leads you to a much different form of activism. And for us, when we get asked the question, people say “Well what else will we do?” We say “Well, we’re glad you asked, because 200-250 other communities in the United States are doing things differently.” And what they’re doing is saying “Look, we live in this community. It’s not in the authority of the state agency to decide what happens here. They don’t have the authority to do that, we do. And because of that, we’re going to seize,” or hijack, choose your verb, “our municipal governing authority here, to turn it upwards against the state, against the federal government, against the corporations trying to put this thing in. We know that that fracking project that’s coming in is going to not only diminish our quality of life within the community but also degrade the climate in an era in which climate change is now a global emergency and crisis. That we are going to take steps to stop this. And we’re not going to take ‘no’ for an answer, and we’re going to literally seize our municipal apparatus.” That could be the City Council, the township commissioners, the Board itself. Whatever the entity is, they’re going to seize it and they’re going to hotkey it, find the ways to make it active, and make a stand. 

And that’s a much different kind of activism than signing your name to a card and getting a prize because you submitted the most things to the state agencies. But it takes a certain kind of people to do that. It takes self-assured courageous folks like the folks you had in the beginning days of the civil rights movement, and the beginning years of the abolitionist movement, and the last quarter-century of the suffragist movement. It takes those kinds of people. So, for 20 years, we’ve looked for those kinds of people, and tried to nurture them and bring them along, and educate others about how the system actually operates. But outside of the regulatory system, that’s pretty established; there’s a vast amount of activism out there that we don’t even think of engaging in, because we think it’s off limits to us. 

And the other night I gave a talk to a group, and they said “Well, we have a pipeline coming through. How do we stop it?” And I said “Shoot, it’s a matter of what’s in our heads. It’s not the companies, it’s not the agencies, it’s not the regulators, it’s not the state. None of those things matter. If we had 50,000 people who actually understood that the agencies weren’t gonna do shinola for them, and we put those 50,000 people out in the field, to stop the pipeline physically, by doing civil disobedience, we could stop the pipeline. We would have the power to stop the pipeline. If there were numbers, we could stop the pipeline. We could stop any project. But the problem is that our brains have been colonized. That ‘someone else is going to do that.’ That we have the tools to make someone else do that, but it’s not going to be us. That it’s not our responsibility or our authority, that we don’t have the power.”

So it’s the self-doubt, it’s the colonization of our brain, it’s the punishment of the law when you operate outside of those pre-existing apparatus. So all those things converge to basically make us, you know, bags of plasma, just going through a daily routine, instructed by a higher authority as to what we can and can’t do. We can continue to follow that path, which means we’re going to get the pipelines and the frack jobs, and the climate’s going to crash and everything else is going to happen. Or we can take a step back and understand that we’re about much more than being just bags of plasma. We are the legitimate inheritors of a legacy in which the government’s supposed to be us and the government’s supposed to be protecting our rights, and if it’s not, then we need to readjust the system so that it does. 

DJ: This reminds me of something that so many indigenous people have said to me, which is that the first and most important thing we have to do is decolonize our hearts and minds. And there’s a lot in there to unpack, but one part has to do with destroying your loyalty to the system and recognizing that … you know, when I used to give the Endgame talk, I would ask people “Do you believe that governments take better care of individuals, or communities, or corporations?” And everybody would laugh. There wasn’t a single person out of literally tens of thousands who ever said it takes better care of individuals or communities. Everybody knows it takes better care of corporations. And yet we still continue to act as if – and so it seems that some of your work, and some of my work is about attempting to sort of jar people out of that perspective. 

And there’s another thing I want to say about this, which is, is it the Interstate Commerce Commission? Is that right, the ICC?

TL: Yup.

DJ: So that was formed, I believe, under Theodore Roosevelt? Is that correct? Or about that time? 

TL: Right around the same time.

DJ: So whatever president was in at the time, there was one of his buddies in the railroad industry who wrote to him and said, you know; “How dare you create this commission? You’re basically being disloyal to all your friends.” And either the president or vice president or one of those high-up people wrote back and said basically “Chill out. Don’t you know that the purpose of this thing is to make it so, is to put a buffer in between you and the outrage of the people, because right now people hate the railroads and they want to kill you. And we’re making this thing that they think is going to actually accomplish something, but the real point is to just make this little buffer.”

It was a beautifully honest little note.

TL: Yeah. It was penned by the United States Attorney General at the time, and we use that quote in Democracy School as well. The first part of these two-day trainings that we do is to talk about what regulatory law is. And so we draw a triangle. At the top of the triangle, the top line is all the things that communities are concerned about. So when a factory farm wants to come in, there are economic concerns, there are environmental concerns, there are noise, odor, animal welfare, you name it, there is a huge number of concerns at the local level. And what the system does is, just like that upside down triangle, is take them from that very broad problem statement and then drive them down like cattle into a chute, down to this, we call it the regulatory point, at the bottom. So the point of the triangle is at the bottom. And it drives them down to a place where all they can do is complain over the height of the fences around the factory farms, or whatever the state has determined to be the only acceptable items to complain about or to appeal. So it’s kind of an automaton thing. You’re driven from being real living breathing thinking human beings, concerned about a number of different problems, a multi-faceted problem, down to this point of the triangle in which the state has predefined what your allowable concerns are going to be. 

So, moving from the abstract to the practical, in Pennsylvania for example, the only thing you can complain about is the amount of liquid manure produced by a factory farm, and where it’s going. That’s it. That’s the only place where the state gets involved to issue a permit, so it predefines that as the only issue that you can raise. So if you go into the agency proceedings and you try to, say, raise arguments about animal welfare, or about the economics of the fact that we’ve lost 400,000 farmers over the last ten years because they’ve been driven out of business by this agribusiness, you know, vertically integrated agricultural model. That your comments are not relevant, because they’re not keyed into that one issue that the state has determined should be your allowable issue. 

And so talk about a great way to just, not only colonize people, but get rid of any activist impulses whatsoever. Is to say “Yeah, it’s okay that you’re worried about this, but that’s not relevant. It’s not going to fit into this permit appeal process at the bottom.” And people are encouraged to travel down that chute, like cattle, by not only the state agency, because people pick up the phone and say “Well, we have this factory farm coming in and I’d like to get involved because I don’t think it’s a good idea.” And the state agency says “We’re so glad you called. We have this permit application now, and if you want to submit comments about nutrient spreading and nutrient production, we’d be happy to hear those comments.” And the corporation, some people go to the hearing and go up to the corporate representatives and they say “Hey, we’d like to become involved because we don’t think this is a good idea” and the corporation says “Well, we’re so glad you asked. We have a permit application here and you’re more than welcome to submit comments on the manure management plan that we’ve submitted to the state.”

 And it’s bad enough that the corporation does it, it’s bad enough that the state does it. These are entities that people turn to for authority. But the environmental groups do it. So if you pick up the phone and call the Sierra Club, the Sierra Club lawyer says to you “Well, we’re so happy you called. We’d love to help you out. You can appeal this permit on manure management grounds.” And then they steer you into this expert, you know, manure person, who can give testimony. And they slide people right down into that regulatory chute as well.

And at the bottom of course is where we all lose, because you can’t win it on those issues. That’s why the state’s chosen them to be the issues. And so we take all this energy, this massive amount of caring and energy and investment and resources, all that kind of stuff, and we smash it all down into that regulatory chute, just like cows headed to slaughter with the bolt shot through their heads. And at the bottom is where everybody loses. And even if you win, you don’t win much of anything at all, because the state then comes back and closes the loophole that you found when you did the challenge to the regulations. So it’s no wonder that things are worse now than they were 50 years ago, because that’s a perfect machine for activist burnout. 

DJ: I don’t think you’re being fair, because I think that there are huge victories, like you can get the wall to be 6’2” tall instead of 6’ tall. I don’t know what you’re complaining about.

TL: Right. (laughing) Some guy just scaled it in two minutes a couple days ago. The wall between the US and Mexico. 

DJ: I was talking about the wall around a pig factory. 

TL: Right, right. Or my favorite was a case that challenged paint. You know, what color paint you  could apply to the wall around the frack well. It was a frack well challenge. It’s just crazy.

DJ: That’s a huge victory! 

TL: Yes! A huge victory, yes. 

DJ: We’ll probably get to Amazon with like three seconds left. But anyway, one of the ways I always think about this is that if space aliens had come down to earth and they were doing to this planet what capitalism is doing to the planet, we would not merely be going down to the alien permitting office to complain about their permits. We would actually be resisting in a serious way. I mean, for God’s sake, there are stolid scientists talking about the oceans being devoid of fish in another 30 years. This is not trivial and it’s also not local. We’re talking about life on this water planet. And our responses are just so …

TL: Yeah, it’s like saying the American colonists should have gone to the British Board of Trade to make their arguments about independence. But it’s also important to recognize that there is real punishment in the system. The State of Florida passed these gun preemption laws to preempt municipalities from adopting firearms law, gun control laws at the local level. And not only do they just prohibit passage of those laws, but now they’re threatening local officials with civil fines of $5000 apiece, and removal from office by the governor of the state. And so it’s not just environmental issues. It’s social issues. Paid family leave and all these other things as well. 

And when you step in to actually say “Well maybe people within their own community should have the right to make laws and have a right of local self-government, and actually have a constitutional right of self-government that outweighs the corporation’s right to put the project in the community,” you get slapped and you get slapped hard. In January we got hit with a $52,000 fine, from a federal judge, in a case where we were arguing that a community should have the right to say yes or no to a frack wastewater injection well being sited within the community. And in response to making that argument, we got hit with a sanction by the federal court, which granted a motion by the oil and gas company to fine us $52,000. And then she referred the matter to the disciplinary board of the state, in which I could be disbarred, or have something happen with my license. 

And so the minute you stand up and say “I’m not going to play in that sandbox,” of the regulatory stuff, and you move outside to do something different, this system smashes your nose in. That’s what it’s intended to do. And so, like Pavlov’s dog, people are hesitant to step off the sidewalk because as soon as you do you get that punishment, that voltage that gets driven into you. 

DJ: Well first off, I want to thank you for your courage, and for your steadfastness over these decades. I just want to acknowledge that. And I also want to point out to people how horrible it is, what you just said. That for making the unacceptable argument, for making the argument, forget “unacceptable,” that the community should be allowed to make decisions, the courts came after your organization and possibly you. And that’s just extraordinary.

It’s not extraordinary. It’s ordinary. It’s horrible.

TL: Yes. And it’s ordinary. I mean, this is how it works. And with the lawyers dealing with the early civil rights movement, they got sanctioned as well, and jailed sometimes. I mean, it’s just how the system responds. And here the basis of the sanction against us – I mean, purely, this case was about a community saying “no” to a frack wastewater injection well that was scheduled to inject 151 million gallons of toxic wastewater from fracking operations into the community. And the community passed a law that said “no, we don’t want that.” The entire community is on well water. They said “We know what these things do, and we don’t want it and we’re going to say ‘no.’” 

And then coming up with a legal doctrine, a legal theory, which we have been perfecting now for 15 years, that people in a community have a right to say no. People in the community coming together collectively have a right to say no to those things that are going to harm them, in the community. And because we had made that argument in two other federal courts prior to this, and lost, because the courts have not been embracing this concept. And that’s how law changes, you know. You have to keep knocking at the door. You do so somewhat politely, and sometimes not so politely. And in this case the judge said “Well, you made the argument a couple of times before and you’ve lost, so the only intent, the only reason you have to raise it now is to harass the oil and gas company.” And because of that, she issued a sanctions order of $52,000, against the two lawyers, one of which is myself, in this case. 

But like you said, it’s not unusual. This is the way the system works. So if in your camp, if you think we live in a democracy and we do have power at the local level to say no under the current system, that leads your activism in one direction. But if you’ve come to the conclusion that the system is so broken in many ways, or precisely operating the way it’s supposed to operate, and not broken at all but perfectly, working very well for some, that you follow a different kind of activism. It’s the same thing as with the suffragists and the abolitionists, everybody that’s come before, is that some activists chose to write letters to the President, asking him to grant women the right to vote. Other women went to labor camps. Got arrested, went to labor camps, did picketing, ran into ballot boxes and stuffed them before the police could arrest them. Went to trial, did civil disobedience and all that kind of stuff. So either you’re in the system and you think the system’s going to work for you and you try to press the pressure points, or you’re outside of the system and you understand those pressure points are just not going to accomplish anything, and you set your sights on something else. 

DJ: So I’ve yet another subject before the Amazon, which is an anecdote first. My sister is fairly right-wing, and she was for a time on the city council of a small community in Virginia. And she and I would have some interesting conversations about it, because there were many things that we disagreed about and then some things we agreed on. One example was that somebody wanted to put in a shopping mall in this community. And were I on the City Council, I would have voted no because shopping malls are evil and because it would destroy the environment. It would be for environmental reasons. But she, on the other hand, voted no because the owner was not local, but instead some outsider trying to impose – the person was from Washington, DC. So it was an outsider trying to impose stuff on their community.

And this all brings me to the question of – and I don’t think this is a question you and I have ever talked about, or if we have, I’ve forgotten. So do you work – in terms of this community self-determination, do you find yourself working mostly with lefties? Do you find yourself working some with some right-wing people? Is it across the board? Because there are strong community self-determination groups in the right as well. And I’m just wondering how you navigate that.

TL: So first off, that conversation with your sister probably makes for interesting Thanksgiving conversations, I would imagine. 

DJ: Oh, we usually end up talking about football. 

TL: So your question about where does this land in the political spectrum? The answer is: “all over the place.” Which is that; in the communities where we work, sometimes the only thing people have in common is that they don’t want the factory farm coming in, or they don’t want the toxic waste incinerator. You get people from both wings coming together in the same room. They may not be able to talk about anything else. Can’t talk about gay marriage, can’t talk about abortion, can’t talk about anything else, but on the local control issue they have common ground. And I think that’s the kind of political constituency that’s emerging.

And there are always concerns about local control being used for bad things. You know, like banning African-Americans from coming into a community. Or banning gay marriage on a local level, or whatever those concerns might be, but the local – the community rights movement, which has emerged in the United States, which is, you know, what we support, and have deepened with the legal arguments, is essentially about an understanding that communities; local communities, municipalities, cities or towns, villages, counties; should be able to expand and broaden out civil and political rights at the local level, above the floor established by the state and federal government. So much in the way that state constitutions and state governments can broaden out federal constitutional rights by recognizing additional rights, or broadening out existing rights, that local governments should have the same relationship with the state and federal government as the state government has currently with the federal government, in terms of broadening out rights.

So we’re not talking about local governments or communities adopting laws that drop below those federal or state civil right floors, but building on top of those. So, you know, rights of nature, right to clean air, right to clean water, right to a sustainable energy future, basically things that have not been spoken to by state or federal constitutions, that can be seen as broadening out or expanding above the floor of those state and federal constitutional rights.

DJ: So we have about ten minutes left, and at long last; you recently put out a press release. “Colombia Supreme Court rules that Amazon region is ‘subject of rights.’” Can you talk about that, please?

TL: Yeah. So the rights of nature stuff has been gaining some traction over the last six months. First there was Colombian and Indian courts ruling that glaciers and rivers would be treated as persons under the law; i.e. as separate entities. So, up until now, basically the legal systems of everywhere except for indigenous communities basically have been about nature being property. So if you own a piece of property, that carries with it the right to destroy that property. If  I own a ten acre piece of ground, there’s nothing that stops me in the law as long as it’s not a protected wildland or there are endangered species or some other protection like that; from simply asphalting the whole thing into one giant airfield and destroying the ecosystems on that piece of property. So this rights of nature concept that ecosystems and nature have independently enforceable rights of their own, that they are separate entities that have interests of their own, should be able to enforce rights of their own; that concept is what began in a little town, or borough, of Tamaqua, just north of Philadelphia, way back in 2006, which was the first Rights of Nature law to be passed in the United States. That then became part of the Ecuadorian Constitution, so we traveled to Ecuador and served as an advisor to the Ecuadorian national government who then took the Rights of Nature concept and drove it into the national constitution for the country of Ecuador. We now have a couple of enforcement cases in Ecuador  in which a river is a plaintiff. So it kind of bends our brains I think sometimes, but thinking about non-homocentric or anthropomorphic uses of the court system, so a river appearing as a plaintiff  represented by the people of the community who have an interest in protecting the river. 

And so just six months ago courts in India and Colombia ruled that glaciers and rivers were persons under the law, in other words that they were separate entities that had standing in the courts and could get into the courts and could be represented by other interests and other entities. And just recently last week the Colombian court spoke again, and this time not just on a single river or a single glacier but on the Amazon region, in a case brought by 25 youth plaintiffs who had filed suit against the national government of Colombia to secure their rights to a healthy environment and food and water. It was a very broad complaint. The Colombian court ruled in response that the Amazon itself has certain rights, so the Amazon region has certain rights and was recognized as a person and independent entity that had rights of its own that the national government was forced to respect. And so as part of that ruling, down to the practical aspects of it, the Colombian court ruled that municipalities, as well as the national government, needed to come up with a plan for zero deforestation, to actually halt deforestation in the Amazon region, because the court found the rights of the plaintiffs to a healthy environment and right of future generations required that the rights of the Amazon be respected, and that the rights of the Amazon could only be respected if the government followed a zero deforestation rule. 

And so what’s very interesting is that in some places this concept of the rights of nature, concept of some personhood attributes being recognized on behalf of natural systems and ecosystems. That some of it has stemmed from written law, so like when the people of Ecuador voted in their new constitution, actually wrote rights of nature into their new constitution, saying that nature has the right to exist and persist and maintain and regenerate and all those things; versus courts, which are now operating outside of that written law and are using Ecuador, New Zealand, and a couple of other places as examples, to actually write their own law. So you have courts writing their own law. There is no law in Colombia. There’s no Rights of Nature law, legislative law, on the books, and so the courts are beginning to invent. And they’re beginning to extend and expand. And they’re beginning to hook the rights of nature into this right to a healthy environment concept, saying that the right to a healthy environment is not possible unless nature has rights, which I find to be fascinating. I mean, we all know it to be true, but it’s the first time, really, that courts have based rulings on it. 

So I think it’s an indicator of things to come, that the courts are becoming more and more activist on these issues in using this Rights of Nature concept to expand out to these other areas. I think it’s a very interesting development. 

DJ: Okay, so the rulings have been made, and that’s wonderful. And have these rulings, in some cases, led to tangible protection on the ground, such as a mine not going in, or a river not being dammed? Have they actually protected land yet? 

TL: They have in Ecuador. The first enforcement case was brought by the Vilcabamba River, and it was against a local government that was pouring road debris from a road-widening project into the river. It was altering the river’s course, and the courts ruled in favor of the river and ordered the local government to restore the river’s original course. So that was the first Rights of Nature case in the world, that was brought in Ecuador. Since then, it’s been used to stop illegal gold mining in some areas of Ecuador. Other cases of that sort in the Colombian courts and Indian courts have basically been used to force new plans to be drafted by the state government, to eliminate point source discharges into rivers, and to do some climate stuff around the glaciers. And then here, in the Colombian court decision, that just recently came out last week, they were very clear that the government had an obligation to come to zero deforestation. 

So it wasn’t just “Hey, you have a responsibility to maintain the forests in the country.” It was “You must come up with a plan that is zero deforestation for these areas.” And so I think we’re getting to a point where people are getting fed up. I mean the Colombian judges are fed up that after all these years, there’s still environmental degradation happening in the Amazon. And I think this was the last straw. And the other thing that’s interesting is that the first Colombian court to make a decision was the Colombian Constitutional Court, which is the final arbiter in the country of what constitutional law means. So it can’t be appealed. There’s no changing that decision. It’s done. It’s in the law. And I think especially in South America you’re going to see more and more courts extending the law in similar ways to what the Colombian courts have done. 

DJ: Because a lot of listeners don’t know me, I need to make explicit that this is sarcastic before I say it. 

How come in those sort of phony little democracies around the world, they do this, but in the greatest and most wonderful democracy in the world, in fact the only real democracy in the world, the United States, we’re number one! How come in other countries, it may be enshrined into the Constitution, and in the United States, people who make the argument get sanctioned? 

TL: (laughing) I’m not sure that requires an answer. We’re kind of in the belly of the beast in the United States. This is the place where property and commerce protections have been elevated above everything else, and it’s constitutionally structured. The Constitution was written in the 1780’s, and back then the question was “How do we write a form of governance that allows us to exploit as quickly as possible the natural resources across the land?” Because that was, in the eyes of the founders, how you became a rich and prosperous nation. So they wrote that constitution. That’s the constitution we have today. It’s a 1780’s constitution. 

Meanwhile, in Ecuador they have a 1990’s or 2000’s constitution, because they’ve rewritten theirs. In the U.S. the Constitution is a sacred cow. But the sacred cow is killing us. It’s a 1780’s plan of governance that is rooted in 1780’s values. And until it gets redone, the DNA of this country is opposed to either local control, because local control acts to stop economic development of some kind or the other; and the rights of nature, which recognizes that ecosystems and nature have some kind of rights to stop that which is going to harm them. So we’re in a place, I think, that is the belly of the beast. And it is an uphill climb here to change this stuff. 

DJ: So here’s a concern I have, and I’m sure you do too. Let’s say that tomorrow a Constitutional Convention was called, whatever this means. What would stop that new Constitution emerging in the United States from being even worse, given the political climate, and given, also, especially, the power of corporations to control things in the United States? 

TL: Yeah. It would be a mess. And that’s why, generally, when people ask that question, I say “We have no business rewriting the Constitution until we create a movement that becomes powerful enough to control that process.” And until that happens; you open it up and it turns over to the forces that are currently transcendent, which are the ones opposite to the values you’re trying to drive. So, for the past 15 years we’ve tried to support the growth of a movement that is based on local self-government as well as the rights of nature work. And until that becomes powerful enough to control changes. 

I have to tell you I’m a cynic about most of this stuff, especially on the national level. But a bill was introduced to amend the New Hampshire Constitution this past year, that we helped with. And it would recognize the authority of municipalities to adopt Rights of Nature laws within the State of New Hampshire. And one third of the New Hampshire House voted for that bill, one third of the legislators in the New Hampshire House, which is huge. That’s 400 some people actually voted to adopt that bill, which would have put the constitutional amendment in front of the people of New Hampshire, to decide whether to grant the authority to communities to protect the rights of nature. 

So I think amending state constitutions probably comes first. And that only happens when people are powerful enough in different communities to drive that change. And I think that’s starting to happen in Oregon, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire. And then eventually, down the road, folks become powerful enough to tinker with the Federal Constitution. 

DJ: One of the things I have always loved about you and loved about your work is that you kind of remind me of the fight scene in Cool Hand Luke, and all good activists do. All good revolutionaries do. Where, you know, you get up and you get knocked down, and you just get up and go at it again and get knocked down, and you recognize that’s part of the struggle. I really have so much respect for your ability to persevere and to continue to resist, and to not give in. And I just want to thank you for that. 

TL: Thank you.

DJ: So I guess the last question is: if people want to learn more about the work you’re doing, or to help out or to attend one of your Democracy Schools, or to do anything else good, what should they do?

TL: Best thing is to go to our web page at CELDF.org, and that’s the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, and all kinds of stuff is up on our web page. Information about the Democracy Schools. And then folks who want to read more about the Colombian Supreme Court decision, that’s on the front page right now. 


DJ: Well thank you so much. And I would like to thank listeners for listening. My guest today has been Thomas Linzey. This is Derrick Jensen for Resistance Radio on the Progressive Radio Network.