Editor’s note: this is an edited transcript of Derrick Jensen’s talk, which you can listen to here.
What does it mean to decolonize my heart and mind, and how do I go about doing that?
by Derrick Jensen / Deep Green Resistance
Many indigenous people have said to me that the first and most important thing we have to do is decolonize our hearts and minds. Part of what that means is to question every assumption that you ever had about the way life is. Many indigenous people have told me the most important difference between indigenous and western ways of being is that even the most open-minded westerners perceive listening to the natural world as a metaphor rather than a literal action. Indigenous people around the world generally perceive the world as consisting of other beings to enter into relationship with and to whom we have responsibility, as opposed to resources for us to exploit.
“When I look at trees I see dollar bills.”
If you look at trees and see dollar bills, you‘re going to treat them one way. If you look at trees and see trees, you‘ll treat them another way. And if you look at this particular tree and see this particular tree, you‘ll treat them differently still. The same is true of course for women, which is one reason I am so completely opposed to pornography; when I look at women and I see orifices, I‘ll treat them one way; if I look at women and I see women I‘ll treat them another way, and if I look at this particular woman and I see this particular woman I‘ll treat her differently still.
How you perceive the world affects how you behave in the world. So, a lot of the decolonizing is to change unquestioned assumptions that control how you perceive and act in the world.
A young writer approached Anton Tschechow and said he wanted to write a story and he didn’t know what to write. So Tschechow said: “I want you to write a story about a man, who squeezes every drop of slave’s blood out of his body.”
We have been trained since infancy to be slaves to the system. To be addicted to the system. The word “addict” comes from the same root as the word “edict,” and it means “to enslave.” In ancient Rome, a judge would issue an edict, that would addict someone to someone else, that would enslave them.
We are enslaved to the system, and we need to squeeze every drop of slave’s blood out of ourselves. Another way to look at this is to recognize that, as Robert J. Lifton has written about so well, before you can commit any mass atrocity you have to convince yourself that what you‘re doing is not in fact an atrocity, but instead a good thing.
So the Nazis were not committing genocide and mass murder, they were instead purifying the Aryan race. The North American settlers were not committing genocide and mass murder and land theft, they were manifesting their destiny. Today, nobody is killing the planet, they are instead developing natural resources.
I shared a stage with Ward Churchill one time and we were chatting backstage, and I said ”I can‘t believe how stupid the Nazis were to take such careful records of their atrocities, meticulous records of how much gold they pulled from teeth … why would they take such strict records of these terrible actions?” He just looked and me and said, “Derrick, what do you think the GNP is?“ GNP is a very highly detailed description of the conversion of the living to the dead, of the dismemberment of the living planet.
So part of decolonizing is to recognize that things we think are good, like civilization, like industrialism, like developing natural resources, may in fact be quite terrible and atrocious. This is absolutely crucial work. One of the things that happens through this process that is crucial to decolonizing is transfering your loyalty away from the dominant system and toward the landbase. This is pretty much what all of my work is about. Once you transfer your loyalty to the landbase, everything else is just technical, you know, what to do then. But until you do that your loyalty will still be, by definition, with the dominant culture.
When I do resistance radio interviews, I‘m always very clear before the interview that you can be as biocentric and ecocentric as you want. If we‘re talking about the Mississippi River, or talking about the Colorado River, or the Columbia River, I don‘t actually care about agriculture. My loyalty is completely with the river. If the water stays in the Colorado River, I don‘t care if that means that cotton growers will be driven out of business, or that golf courses in Arizona will go dry. Because my loyalty is not with industrial capitalism; my loyalty is with the living planet.
How do we do it? We start to question every assumption. There is a sense in which it‘s very easy and a sense in which it‘s really hard.
The sense in which it‘s very easy is that, like many environmental activists, we begin by wanting to protect a specific piece of ground. But we end up questioning the foundations of western civilization. That‘s because we start to ask questions, and once the questions start they‘ll never stop. So we can ask: why is this land being destroyed? And the answer is usually: because someone is going to make money off of it. Or economic production; it‘s good for the economy. Then you ask: why is most land harmed? Well, it‘s good for the economy.
So then you ask: have all cultures had economies based on destroying their land base? No. And then you ask: what does it mean that you have an economy based on destroying the land base? And then you ask: what is the endpoint of having an economy based on destroying the land base? And of course, the answer is obvious: you destroy the land base, and you destroy the capacity of the earth to support life. As we see.
In that sense decolonizing is really easy. All you have to do is to ask one question. It‘s the same with rape culture. You ask: why was this woman raped? Then you ask: why is any woman raped? Why are so many women raped? Has every culture been a rape culture? And once those questions start, you head back to the roots of the problem. In the case of rape, the patriarchal violation imperative, in the case of civilization, well, civilization’s economic arrangements, and also the patriarchal violation imperative.
In another sense it‘s very hard. You have to give up on everything that brought meaning before. You die, that‘s the point. That‘s a very scary process, and it can be a very painful process, it‘s a process that many of us went through in our twenties. There is that great line by Joseph Campbell: if the signs and symbols of the dominant culture work for you, then there will be a sense of meaning in your life and a sense of accord with the universe. If the signs and the symbols of Catholicism work for you, then you have a 2000 year old path of meaning laid out for you.
If the American Dream works for you, and making money brings you meaning, then you have a couple of hundred years system of meaning set out for you. I would say that meaning is really perverse, but we‘ll leave that. Campbell then says: if those signs and symbols don‘t work for you, then basically you‘ll find your life meaningless, and you‘re set adrift. Then you have to go on what he called a hero journey, and I‘m sorry for the sexism of the language. That‘s the journey, that we all have to find to go through, to find meaning in our own lives.
Life consists of a series of deaths and rebirths. It‘s pretty extraordinary that the central message of the Jesus story is completely missed. It‘s not that Jesus was a real human being who died and then was resurrected; instead it‘s that for a new part of us to be born, an old part of us has to die. This is true in any case. When we are in our late teens and early twenties, we have to die as children to be born as adults. That part is left behind, and a new part emerges. That can be incredibly painful and scary, which is why cultures around the world have had social means by which the young people would be shepherded through that process.
We don‘t have that. We certainly don‘t have any social approval for it. Instead, people are pulled back into the culture at every moment. This culture tries to bring us back through television, through books, through economically forcing you to stay in the system, making you economically dependent upon the system by telling you that you are a consumer, and not a citizen or a human animal who needs habitat. It‘s constantly reinforced. But if you can find another community, a community of people who value living trees over dollars, who value the real world, whose loyalty is with the real world, that can really help this passage.
The really difficult part of decolonizing is that it involves a great definite death and rebirth. A death of faith that the system will work out, a full internalization of the understanding that the dominant culture hates life, and that the dominant culture will kill everything on the planet unless it‘s stopped. That‘s what decolonization feels like; it‘s the death of one‘s loyalty to the system that raised you.
If space aliens had come down from out of space, and were vacuuming the oceans, changing the climate, putting dioxin in every mother‘s breast milk, obliterating the planet and giving us computers, and tomatoes in January, and whatever goodies we want; if space aliens were doing this, most of us would not have a hard time decolonizing because we would see it. But after five, and ten and fifteen generations, people won‘t see it any more.
One of the reasons we‘ve become so stupid about this is because from childhood we pledged allegiance to this culture. We were taught that this culture is more important than a living planet.
Once again, we need to think about this as though it were space aliens who were destroying the planet. Because it doesn’t really matter who is destroying the planet; they are destroying the planet and they need to be stopped.
So for me, the process of decolonizing has, as its very essence, making one‘s loyalty to the real world.