Conservation, Ethics

A Conversation with Derrick Jensen

by Carl Donohue | June 9, 2008

GorillaAuthor’s note: In November 2007, I had the good fortune to talk with controversial writer and environmental activist Derrick Jensen. During our conversation I asked Derrick a number of questions pertaining to subject matter explored in his books “A Language Older Than Words,” “Listening to the Land” and “Thought to Exist in the Wild: Awakening to the Nightmare of Zoos.” The latter is the 2008 Eric Hoffer Book Award winner. His replies proved to be, as I anticipated they might, insightful, interesting and thought provoking. This first part has to do with human use and abuse of wild animals.

CARL: Derrick, I thoroughly enjoyed your book “Thought to Exist in the Wild” – it’s a compelling look at the reality of zoos. One of the elements of the book that deeply resonated with me was your exploration of spectacles and entertainment, in particular the notion that novelty is intrinsically ever escalating. What’s the difference between spectacle, or entertainment, and art?

DERRICK: Well, I actually want to answer a slightly different question, and then maybe we’ll come around to that, which is “What’s the difference between spectacle and relationship?” The spectacle is something outside of you; it’s watching a football game, watching “Dancing With the Stars;” it’s watching. It’s something you don’t participate in, and you have no real relationship to. With the spectacle, it has to get more extreme over time.

Think about violence in movies, and how it’s gotten more extreme. I watched “Clockwork Orange” when I was in high school and it was incredibly violent; I happened to see some of it again maybe 10 years ago, and it’s not even particularly shocking any more. How is it that this always happens?

A real relationship, on the other hand, is essentially infinitely complex – you can continue to have interactions with the other person. As time goes on, if you’re both present, you’ll always be learning new things about each other, exploring, uncovering the layers. With the spectacle, you’re not involved in it; it’s not infinitely complex,; it’s one-dimensional.

That’s how the spectacle works in contrast to relationship.

Now how that relates to art: John Zerzan would say that all symbolic representation is inherently alienating, and I agree with that to a certain degree. An audience or reader is non-participatory, a witness. On the other hand, art can also point us toward enriching our experience. The purpose of art is to teach us how to live, teach us how to experience the divine, teach us how to be. Art can be a facilitator for our behavior. There’s a great line by a Scottish balladeer. “If I could write all the ballads, I wouldn’t care to write the laws, because stories are how we learn how to be.”

It doesn’t matter whether it’s art or anything else; you are what you eat and what you take into your body is going to teach you how to be.

To go back to zoos, what this is teaching us is that there’s this huge gap between human and non-human, an unbridgeable moat, a cage, or bars; that we’re here, we get to come and go, and they, at the very best, are our example of white man’s burden, where we have to take care of them, because they’re so ludicrous; a hippopotamus floating in a tank of turds. What does it teach you when you see a fur-matted orangutan sitting on a concrete floor doing nothing?

© Karen Tweedy-Holmes

They actually call the cages “habitat.” That teaches you that habitat is distinct, that habitat for a bear consists of one acre, with a little waterfall, with a little pond and dog food being brought in every day to feed the bear. It teaches you that an anteater can be separated from its real habitat and still be called an anteater, or a wolverine could. That’s an incredibly harmful lesson.

CARL: Following on from that then, you’ve written before of the similarities between pornography and science. Can you articulate the difference between admiring the physicalness of a creature, or place, and the objectification of that creature? Like, how do I as a photographer, go out and take photos of bears or flowers or mountains without becoming a pornographer? How do I be an artist with that, with a relationship there, as opposed to…

DERRICK: I think a lot of it is the word you just said, “relationship.” I see a difference between somebody, two lovers, taking pictures of each other, and somebody taking photos merely for mass consumption. It all has to do with relationship. The way this comes back to photos of wild animals is that it has to do with permission. I live right near a pond and a couple of years ago I was sitting by the pond, and this weird creature I’d never seen before crawled out of the water and then climbed up on this little bush. It was just sitting there on this little bush, and it was just hanging there and I watched it. It started to break out of its skin, and I’m “What is it?” I’m watching, watching, watching and eventually it’s a dragonfly. But it takes a couple of hours to unfold, and I kept wanting to take pictures to chronicle that; I just kept getting this impression, no, No, NO. And then finally, when it was all spread out, sunning itself – I guess it hardens the natural lacquer on its wings and as its doing that, I just got this understanding, “OK, get your camera.” It’s like it didn’t want me to take its picture until it was ready, and then it’s like “That’s OK.” So for me, it all has to do with permission.

I guess also it has to do with intent. “What are you trying to do?” And it’s the same thing with my writing. There are those that I write about exploitatively. I’ve just written about this developer whom I hate, and I just tear him apart. I have no problem writing about him without his permission. But if I write about a friend, or a non-human friend, then I ask permission to write about them. It’s because I WANT to maintain a relationship with them. I don’t care if I have a relationship with that other person. So that’s part of it too; what is the relationship, and what is your intent.? Are you taking this picture to help the creature?

Sure, we all have to make a living too, and I think it’s OK to take a picture to sell to a magazine to make some money. That’s part of one of the compromises we all have to make living within this weird economy. And my experience, I don’t know if this is your experience, but my experience is that the non-humans with whom I deal understand and don’t mind. Like, “I know you have to write a book and make some money, so sure, we’ll help you out with this, too.” My point is I think it’s OK to take a picture of a wolf or a grizzly bear or a salamander and think, “I’m going to sell this and make some money.” Once again, as long as you ask permission. Is that your experience?

CARL: Oh definitely. Permission and intent are a part of it. It’s hard to articulate sometimes, but there’s a very real difference between being a photographer, following an animal, or a landscape for that matter, and being sort of the equivalent of the paparazzi. There’s a real difference there, and it’s hard to articulate, but I definitely know the difference when I experience it.

On page 87 (“Zoos”) you state, “I have seen no compelling evidence that humans are particularly more intelligent than any other creature.” Derrick, a LOT of people would argue with you here.

DERRICK: Well, I would take the notion that most people in this culture are intelligent under advisement, because it’s incredibly stupid to destroy the planet you live on. I can’t think of anything more stupid than that. But give me a measure by which we can judge intelligence.

CARL: Well, that’s really what it’s about, isn’t it? Most of the measurements we tend to use are very anthropocentric.

DERRICK: Well, even under those – Washo died yesterday, and the newspaper headline was, “Washo, chimp who talked died.” Tell me, that’s not talking? Between the scientists and the chimp, who’re the ones who are bilingual here? How much of chimp or ape do the scientists know? It’s incredibly narcissistic. They (animals, plants, etc.) make their needs very clear.

One of the things I realized whilst writing “A Language Older Than Words,” is that before you exploit someone you have to silence them, and this culture has set out to systematically silence members of the natural world. We’ve now naturalized this notion that non-humans can’t speak, which is, of course, incredibly convenient for those who wish to exploit them. Before you can exploit them you have to convince yourself that they’re “subhuman” – and isn’t THAT a wonderful phrase?

I guarantee you that dogs speak dog, and trees speak tree, and mushrooms speak mushroom languages.

We can take any measure we want. I’ve seen non-humans have a sense of humor, I’ve seen them sulk, seen them angry, make jokes, laugh. There’s a great line by Douglas Adams: “humans consider themselves the smartest of creatures because they’ve invented digital wristwatches and nuclear submarines, and dolphins consider themselves the smartest of creatures because they NEVER invented any of those things.”

We can always invent some tautological measure that says I’m the smartest because I can hold scissors, or whatever.

CARL: It’s somewhat amazing isn’t it, that we even have a discussion like this about intelligence – there are SO many examples of this – even something as simple as a virus can retro mutate, and we can’t even begin to fathom that kind of intelligence.

DERRICK: Yep, it’s stunning. And birds probably think we’re pretty stupid because we can’t fly.

CARL: You make a brief reference in “Thought to Exist” to successful breeding programs of captive animals. Certainly the breeding programs for species such as the Red Wolf, California Condor, Black-footed Ferrets, etc., have been critical to the species survival. Some might even posit that photographers shooting postcard and calendar images of captive wolves and mountain lions and wolverines have done much to promote an awareness of the beauty and the plight of these species, and that’s led to a number of positive steps, such as the wolf re-introduction program in Yellowstone, WY and concerted efforts to protect the Florida panther. Aren’t captive programs like zoos really a critical part of not just raising public awareness and concern, but also actually fostering tangible programs and efforts like these?

DERRICK: I wouldn’t say I’m opposed to reintroduction programs, and I’m also not opposed to captive breeding programs. But you’ll notice that the Black-footed Ferrets program wasn’t undertaken in a zoo; that was done in a place dedicated specifically to that purpose. Even the San Diego Zoo, which is considered a “big deal” for endangered species reproduction [allots] a trivial amount of their budget towards captive breeding; it’s actually nothing more than a big PR move.

So let’s say captive breeding is a good thing. OK, fine, so drop the zoo. Why have a zoo, why not just have a captive breeding program? There’s a great example in BC right now; I think there are 12 or 13 pairs of spotted owls left and the secretary for the environment says that they’re not in imminent danger (I don’t know how low it needs to go before they’re in imminent danger). So what he decides to do is capture all of these remaining owls so that they can clear cut their habitat. So they’re putting them into a tourist attraction, where you can go watch a logging show and then ride their air-gondola thing, and then go look at the spotted owls.

This takes attention from where it really needs to go, which is habitat preservation. It’s just extraordinary that all of this money can go toward imprisoning animals as opposed to actually saving their habitat.

In addition, there’s a whole question that maybe if we’re going to act in such a way that we extirpate wild animals and we cause them to flee from us, maybe we don’t deserve to see them anyway. I think it’s actually giving a really bad lesson to see pictures of wolves or to see real wolves in zoos: “You can destroy their habitat, and you can still see them.” But that’s all wrong, it’s pornographic. It’s no different than capturing a woman, making her your slave, taking pictures of her that then you can keep as opposed to acting in a such a way that she wants to reveal herself to you.

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.

Read part two of A Conversation with Derrick Jensen.

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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