Conservation, Ethics

A Conversation with Derrick Jensen (Part 2)

by Carl Donohue | November 19, 2009

Thought to Exist in the Wild - Awakening from the Nightmare of Zoos by Derrick Jensen and Karen Tweedy-HolmesEditor’s note: This is the second and final installment of a two part interview with controversial writer and environmental activist Derrick Jensen (see part one). Author Carl Donohue spoke with Derrick ( in November 2007, exploring various concepts related to the subject matter of Jensen’s three books, A Language Older Than Words, Listening to the Land, and Thought to Exist in the Wild: Awakening to the Nightmare of Zoos. As he had hoped, Carl found Derrick’s responses to be insightful and thought provoking. Part two begins midway through Carl and Derrick’s conversation, as they discussed the exploitation of animals in zoos.

DERRICK: I live in northern California, and I see bears every day. I saw them yesterday. I guarantee I’ll see them today. They sleep right outside my mom’s house. One of the reasons is because we live in such a way that… that…

CARL: …that they trust you.

DERRICK: …that they trust us. That’s a huge thing. If I take pictures, or you take pictures, by going to a zoo, I don’t have to do any of that. It’s like going to a strip club. I can go see a woman’s naked body when I haven’t done what’s appropriate to have her want to share it with me.

CARL: One of the lines you wrote in Strangely Like War, and I think it’s a beautiful statement, is “The solution isn’t technical, but political. The solution isn’t even political but social. The solution isn’t even social but psychological. The solution isn’t even psychological but perceptual. The solution isn’t even perceptual but spiritual. The problem is our entire way of living and relating to the world.” But then in Thought to Exist in the Wild, and, I’ve heard you say this a number of times, you mention that you “have no interest in spiritual purity.” How can we move forward if we don’t remedy the problem?

DERRICK: Well, I think there’s a bunch of remedies. We clearly face a perceptual problem, and that’s the notion (and it’s an utterly an insane notion that is so common in this culture) that the culture is what is real and the real world is what is secondary. You see that in all the so-called solutions to global warming, that the solutions all are trying to save industrial capitalism, and if we save the world along the way, well, that’s nice. As opposed to “The world is primary. We do need to do anything. Anything. This is not a game. We need to do anything to save the planet.” Without a planet you don’t have an economic system, you don’t have a moral system, you don’t have anything. So the problem we face right now is that yes, we do have a spiritual problem, but right now, we have a culture that’s trying kill everything.

There’s a great line by a Canadian Lumberman that “When I look at trees I see dollar bills.” If when I look at trees I see dollar bills, I’m going to treat them one way, if when I look at trees I see trees, I’m going to treat them another way, and if when I see a particular tree I see this particular tree, I’ll treat it differently still. And that’s how it’s a perceptual problem.

There’s this narcissistic, psychopathological belief that the world was created simply for you. I mean, what a weird, horrible and absurd and destructive notion (which, by the way, zoos add to entirely). I was at the Detroit zoo, and there are these little information kiosks, all over the place. When you push a button, this little sing-song voice sings “all the animals, at the zoo, are sitting here, waiting for you.” That’s it right there; this whole world is just waiting for us. We have gold just waiting for us in the ground, wasted until it’s turned into bars and sold. All the cod in the ocean are just wasted if they’re not turned into dog food.

CARL: Well, they’re not a part of our GDP. They only can become part of that once we ‘develop’ them.

DERRICK: Exactly, exactly! So those two come together, in that “Yes, it’s deeply a spiritual problem, and it’s a perceptual problem,” but we need to not get lost in that, and ignore the deeper immediacy of “How do I stop this destruction?”

And another way it’s a spiritual problem, a lot of people often say “Oh gosh Derrick, we just need to love, if we love enough” And I actually think that’s true, but it’s loving ourselves enough to not put up with this crap.

CARL: Derrick, it’s absolutely loving ourselves, which on the surface, with the way we’re conditioned in our culture, sounds extremely narcissistic, but underneath that, that’s exactly what the problem is.

You, amongst countless other writers, have written about “place.” What does that mean, and what’s wrong with seeing the whole world as a place, a place in which we live?

DERRICK: Because I don’t live in Bangladesh, I live here. That’s actually one of the problems I have with Christianity, Buddhism, etc, any religions that are transposed over space. The two functions of a religion as I understand them are (1) to teach you how to live, which means to teach you how to live in place, because if you don’t know how to live in place then, by definition, it’s going to be not sustainable, and (2) also to teach you how to experience the divine. If a religion is transposed over space, then by definition, it’s ignoring the divine in that place and it’s ignoring teaching you how to live in that place. So a religion that would work in what’s now Phoenix, Arizona, would not be the same as a religion or a cosmology or anything else that would teach you how to live in the rainforest of northern California. You’re going to need an entirely different mythology because your concerns are different.

Years ago I asked my friend Jeanette Armstrong where dreams come from. She’s an Okanagan Indian, and she said “Oh, everybody knows the animals give them to us.” Later on, I talked to Vine deLoria, his people come from the Plains. I told him what Jeanette said, and he started laughing, and said “Of course she’s going to say that; because she’s from the Pacific Northwest.” The cosmologies of those areas are really about how you maintain bodily integrity when you have all these creatures around you, all this foliage, all these plants, these beings of their own experience. He said it’s the same with the Cherokee cosmology; a lot of it is about maintaining integrity in the face of having all these other beings around. If you’re on the Great Plains, your cosmology’s going to be different, on every level, from the practical of how to live, to what dreams we have and where they come from.

© Karen Tweedy-Holmes

Everything has to be different, because everything comes from the land. The land is everything. I have a new line, which is “Protect your landbase, you can’t have sex without it” because without a landbase you have nothing; you don’t have life.

You have to live differently in different places. I don’t want for one thing to replace this culture; I want for 10 thousand different cultures to replace this culture, each one emerging from its own landbase. That’s the only way you can have a sustainable or sensible culture, is emerging from its landbase.

CARL: That kind of idea is so stark, it stares us in the face all the time, yet we sort of ignore it. This brings me to the last subject; you’ve written that the problem is not a lack of information but one of having ignored the deeper knowledge of how to live a different way. I read writers like yourself, or Wendell Berry, Gary Snyder, Barry Lopez or Jack Turner or Ed Abbey, these amazing people, and it’s so clear. It amazes me that we’re still pointed in the wrong direction when all this stuff is out there, in black and white – it’s like, if Terry Tempest Williams can’t save us, we’re doomed. What’s missing? Why are we ignoring that.

DERRICK: Well, one of the reasons why we’re ignoring that is because we couldn’t be living this way if we didn’t ignore it. We all want our computers and ice cream 24/7. One of the reasons that many of us in the first world are not rebelling against this system is because we’d lose our cable TV. We have been bought off, and we’ve been bought off very, very cheaply for what we’re getting.

That’s part of it. Another part is that the problem is psychopathological, and this is something I haven’t seen many people write about, and it kind of distresses me. The problems we face are not fundamentally rational, which means that they’re not amenable to rational solutions. You’re not going to talk a serial killer out of his behavior; well, you may, but you’d be pretty lucky. It’s the same thing here, there have been so many chances for redemption with this culture, and it hasn’t taken them. The problems are not fundamentally rational.

One of the most important parts of, and this takes us back to zoos, A Language Older Than Words is the part where I talk about the vivisectionists who drove monkeys permanently insane. The point here is “permanently.” They were able to construct child rearing conditions, and to do things to the monkeys that made it so they were never reachable, so they could never be socialized. I’m sure both you and I have seen a lot of animals in zoos who have been driven permanently insane. In fact its something I talk about in Thought To Exist in the Wild; if I took that bear that I mention at the beginning of the book and put her back in Montana, I’m not convinced that she would continue to do anything but walk in a square, because I think she’s been driven permanently insane.

And it’s the same with this culture; it is fundamentally insane to have a way of life that changes the climate, and then to get excited because that means you can explore for more gas and oil in the northwest passage, and that makes more money for people. It’s insane for people to value money over life. The reason that information is not sufficient here is the same reason information would not have cured Ted Bundy.

None of this stuff makes any sense to me. I’ve written how many books now, fifteen? All of them exploring this stuff, and it still makes no sense to me. I wake up and I go “This can’t be really happening.”

What I find most times is that people will just dismiss it, and they say “I don’t wanna talk about it.” I did this talk recently to about 300 people, and I went straight to Q&A. At one point somebody said something about being optimistic, so I asked “I’m just curious, how many people in this room are optimistic?” And I couldn’t believe it, about one fifth of the audience (sixty people) raised their hands. I said “OK this is really fascinating – how many of you are optimistic about the salmon?” and about three people raised their hands. I said “How many people are optimistic about the oceans?” and about three people raised their hands. I said “How many people are optimistic about global warming?” and about three people raised their hands. I said “OK, I’m confused.”

One person told me afterward “I have kids and so I have to be optimistic. I am optimistic and the reason I’m optimistic is because optimism is not based on physical reality, optimism is my attitude toward physical reality.”

My reply was “No, actually the word you’re looking for is ‘denial.’ The way we use the word”optimism” is that it’s based on an assessment of physical reality. I am optimistic that I’m not going to die of cancer today, because I’ve never been diagnosed for cancer. I am not optimistic that I will never have diarrhea again, because I have Crohn’s disease, which causes diarrhea. For me to say I’m optimistic I’m never going to have diarrhea again would be for me to simply ignore physical reality.”

CARL: It is denial, which falls very much in line with symptoms of addiction. The more I look around, the more what I see points toward it being a systemic addiction. It fits every symptom of addiction: denial, dishonesty, control, thinking disorders, delusions of grandeur and so on.

DERRICK: I totally agree, and the problem with that is a heroin addict is mainly killing themselves, and with our culture, the addiction is killing others first.

CARL: Exactly. Well, it has to. If it didn’t, it’d be long gone wouldn’t it?

DERRICK: We can say the same thing for heroin addicts though—a lot of times they wreck the lives of those around them before they hit rock bottom and quit.

CARL: Yeah… that’s probably true.

About the Author

"I'm a wilderness advocate, and consider my photography a critical part of that journey. I'm also a fan of the creative process, of creating, of the experience of making art, which reflects the wildness within our selves; is creating art in the external wilderness perhaps a perfect union? When possible, I write, photograph, hike, camp and dally in the places I love; when I can't, I imagine I'm writing, photographing, hiking, camping and dallying in the places I love," says Carl Donohue. "The lessons I learn in the wilderness are some of the most valuable experiences in my life, and for each of them, I'm grateful. I'm currently working on a book on Wrangell-Saint Elias National Park, Alaska, which grants me time in some absolutely amazing places. What a world!" For treks and phototours, visit For stock photography, visit And, says Carl, "For better living, visit the wild."

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