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Derrick Jensen: Calling All Fanatics

Derrick Jensen / Deep Green Resistance

I’ve always kind of hated that quote by Edward Abbey about being a half-hearted fanatic (“Be as I am — a reluctant enthusiast . . . a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic”). Not so much because of the racism and misogyny that characterized some of his work. And not even because of the quote itself. But rather because of how that quote has been too often misused by people who put too much emphasis on the half-hearted, and not nearly enough emphasis on the fanatic.

The fundamental truth of our time is that this culture is killing the planet. We can quibble all we want — and quibble too many do — about whether it is killing the planet or merely causing one of the six or seven greatest mass extinctions in the past several billion years, but no reasonable person can argue that industrial civilization is not grievously injuring life on Earth.

Given that fact, you’d think most people would be doing everything they can to protect life on this planet — the only life, to our knowledge, in the universe. Sadly, you’d be wrong.

I think often of a line by the psychiatrist R. D. Laing, “Few books today are forgivable.” He wrote this, I believe, because we have become so very alienated from our own experience, from who we are, and this alienation is so destructive to others and to ourselves that if a book does not take this alienation as its starting point and work toward rectifying it, we’d all be better off looking at blank pieces of paper. Or better, actually experiencing something (or someone). Or even better, entering, as Martin Buber might have written, into a relationship with something or someone.

I agree with Laing that few books today are forgivable (and the same is true for films, paintings, songs, relationships, lives, and so on), and I agree for the reasons I believe he was giving. But there’s another reason I think few books (films, paintings, songs, relationships, lives, and so on) are forgivable. There’s that little nagging fact that this culture is murdering the planet. Any book (film, painting, song, relationship, life, and so on) that doesn’t begin with this basic understanding — that the culture is murdering the planet (in part because of this alienation; and of course this murder then in turn fuels further alienation) — and doesn’t work toward rectifying it is not forgivable, for an infinitude of reasons, one of which is that without a living planet there can be no books. There can be no paintings, songs, relationships, lives, and so on. There can be nothing.

The conservation biologist Reed Noss has called his field a “combat discipline”: we are in a crisis, and our attitudes and actions need to reflect this. And so I sometimes try to apply the Ed Abbey quote to the work of a firefighter. If you were trapped in a burning building, would you want the firefighters to be reluctant enthusiasts, part-time crusaders, half-hearted fanatics? Should the mother of a very sick child be reluctant or half-hearted in defense of that child?

If you were trapped in a burning building, would you want the firefighters to be reluctant enthusiasts, part-time crusaders, half-hearted fanatics?

I’m not saying we don’t need recreation. I’m not saying we don’t need amusement. Hell, I have three mystery novels in my backpack right now. I’m not saying a firefighter doesn’t need to rest — having hauled seven unconscious people out of the burning building, we could hardly blame the firefighter for grabbing a quick drink of water or sometimes taking a day off; and I’m not saying the mother doesn’t need to sleep or take some time away from the stress of caring and advocating for her child. We all need the occasional escape, or even indulgence. But we must be able to pursue those escapes and indulgences with the knowledge that others are rushing into the burning building, that others have taken over the job of advocating for whatever is necessary to heal that child.

And that, frankly, is part of the problem: there aren’t nearly enough of us working anywhere near hard enough to stop this culture from killing the planet. Obviously, or the world would be getting healthier, instead of being desecrated with ever increasing speed. If there were more of us trying to stop this culture from killing the planet, then those who are working themselves to death could afford to take a little time off and not feel as if things would fall apart while they climbed the mountains or ran the rivers.

“It is not enough to fight for the land,” Abbey continued; “it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it is still there.” But this part of the quote might actually bother me more, in part because of its fatalism and in part because we — humans — are not the point. Yes, absolutely we should enjoy and commune with and make love with and touch and be with and absorb and be absorbed by the land. Yes, absolutely we should sit in the sun and feel it warm our bones, and we should listen to the whispering voices of trees, and we should open our ears and our hearts to the voices of frogs. But when the forests are being flattened and the frogs are being extirpated, enjoying them isn’t enough. So long as there’s still something we can do to protect them, shouldn’t protecting them be far more important than enjoying them? Because, once again, we are not the point. The trees, the frogs, do not exist for us. It is our culture that is killing them, and it is up to us to stop it.

Have you ever had anyone you love die or come to grievous harm needlessly, from some unnecessary act of stupidity or violence? I have. And in the aftermath I have never wished I had spent more time enjoying this other, but rather wishing I had acted differently such that I was able to prevent the unnecessary losses.

As my artist and writer friend Stephanie McMillan wrote in her essay “Artists: Raise Your Weapons”: “If we lived in a time of peace and harmony, then creating escapist, serotonin-boosting hits of mild amusement wouldn’t be a crime. If all was well, such art might enhance our happy existence. There’s nothing wrong with pleasure or decorative art. But in times like these, for an artist not to devote her/his talents and energies to creating cultural weapons of resistance is a betrayal of the worst magnitude, a gesture of contempt against life itself. It is unforgivable.”

I would extend her comments beyond art: in times like these, for anyone not to devote her/his talents and energies to defending the planet is a betrayal of the worst magnitude, a gesture of contempt against life itself. It is unforgivable.

The questions I keep coming back to are these: in this time, as countless multitudes of humans and nonhumans suffer for the profits and luxuries of a few, and as species go extinct at rates greater than any in the last scores of millions of years — as large-vertebrate evolution itself is being halted — what does the world need? What does the world need from me?

I want to be very clear: I don’t mean to imply that we shouldn’t love the world or each other (human or nonhuman). Or that we shouldn’t play games or have fun. I’m not saying we shouldn’t rest or go hiking or read good books (and Desert Solitaire is a great book). I’m not even saying I have a problem with Abbey’s quote as such; my main problem with the quote is the many would-be activists who use it as an excuse for inaction.

We are in a crisis, and we need to act as such. We need to rescue people from the burning building. We need everybody’s help.


Original published in the July/August 2010 issue of Orion

Photo Credit: US Forest Service, Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest

10 thoughts on “Derrick Jensen: Calling All Fanatics”

  1. I don’t think Abbey’s quote identifies the crux of the ‘half-hearted fanatics’ problem when it comes to climate activism today. Those of us who believe we’re on the downslope of runaway heating leading to near term human extinction are making a much noise as we can. But that path leads to ostracism, loneliness and depression. I’ve been organizing to some degree with the ‘mainstream’ climate protests (events like the PCM from last year), but those people are not willing to talk about the likelihood of planetary extinction in a matter of a decade or so. There is no sense of desperation. The ‘climate actions’ coming out of mainstream green groups are weak tea indeed relative to what’s needed. Even the group name ‘350 dot org’ is a deluded cry for help. Anybody who understands the science knows we’re not going back to 350 ppm of carbon in the next few centuries, but the actions undertaken by McKibben and friends are ‘feel-good’ efforts by earnest people whose motto should be ‘it’s the thought that counts’. One other thought–the general rule of activist groups is that the younger members do all the marching and the older veterans write the checks. There are very few young activists these days, whether you’re talking about climate or imperialism or anti-war matters. I wish things were different, but I don’t know what will bring out serious protest and direct action about saving the planet.

  2. I think there are a lot of artists who are committed heart and soul to communicating the urgency of this crisis. But most of them are being ignored. The sad truth is that there is no happy ending to this story. Stories like that don’t sell.

  3. Great article again by one of the greatest and most important writers of our age. Thank you, Derrick, for being that fanatic you are (fanatic in this context simply means one of the few sane persons within an insane culture). I’m fanatic about saving the world with permaculture, and i think it’s possible. It is, in my opinion, our only hope. That’s why i was grateful when one of the most influential brains of permaculture responded to one of Derrick’s articles posted here:
    Derrick is doing important work. Paul is doing important work. Can’t we work out strategies and tactics to bring those two approaches together, to reach a broader audience, to call more people to action? As far as i can see, it is the same thing we want. I’d love to see Derrick reply to the thread in the permies forum…

  4. Having met Ed many years ago, I think, and this is my impression only, his “half-hearted” thing may be as a result of being profoundly disillusioned by humans… maybe even prescient knowledge of the predicament we are now in.

  5. Yes yes I am fully with you. I am fighting full time with you in Africa, where animals, plants and humans are dying from the drought. Temperatures here up to 49.5C in the shade, yet …the connections are not being made. I cannot understand how people can justify doing anything other than fighting full time. Nothing else makes sense!

  6. I agree that we all need to be part of the Monkey Wrench Gang and be more active in preventing the collapse of our ecosystems. And I also feel that Desert Solitaire is a great book. Have you read it? It has its flaws but as a meditation on the quiet and stark beauty of the Western canyon lands it is superb.

  7. Stephanie McMillan, in her piece called “Why NGOs and Leftish Nonprofits Suck (4 Reasons)”, makes a significant contribution to our understanding of the need for militancy. She follows in the footsteps of Ruth Gilmore Wilson, MacDonald Stainsby, and Cory Morningstar in pursuit of a better understanding of ‘offsetting resistance’, but the critique of the Non Profit Industrial Complex (NPIC) continues to be obscured. I would make a particular mention of Vandana Shiva’s record of support for open letters like last years Open Letter to Reclaim Environmentalism and the recent ‘Claim the Sky’ petition. There seems to be a massive contradiction here, Claim the Sky leader Robert Costanza and his good buddy Gus Speth are the very epitome of the ‘Corporate Conservation Complex’ to which Vandana Shiva committed herself when she became a signatory to the DGR open letter. Does Vandana Shiva gift her kudos and credibility with little research or understanding or has she made certain compromises? What effect does the lending of her legitimacy have on our thinking and the thinking of the wider, global community?

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