The subtitle of the first volume of Endgame by Derrick Jensen is The Problem of Civilization. The book begins with twenty premises that individually stand as logical statements that anyone with a general knowledge of history and basic understanding of how our society functions can understand. If one accepts each premise, then the twenty premises pieced together like a puzzle form the foundation to support the argument that civilization is the problem.
In Endgame, Jensen uses a fantastical example that exemplifies the problem: if aliens from outer space cut down our trees, poisoned our water, and destroyed all wildlife, would humans stand around and tolerate it? Like the plot of many action movies, Jensen believes humans would take up arms against the aliens. So why do we tolerate lumber companies clearcutting forests, mountaintop removal for coal mining or offshore drilling disasters? If someone can make a short term profit on it, we can accept the destruction of wilderness. Jensen argues our culture has bought into the system and further makes his point by saying we’ve been trained to think drinking water comes from the sink and food comes from the store. More than just a disconnect from the natural world and disconnect from where things come from, the reliance on our existing system for survival makes us complacent in our complicit role in allowing our ecosystem to collapse. And also apathetic.
What does it say that the easiest way for us to recognize this problem is to use an example of imaginary aliens from outer space? For me, I think it proves his point. Our culture is so dependent on civilization that we’ve not only become disconnected from nature but have surpassed our effort to dominate nature and have moved on to discussing inhabiting Mars (will we share it with the aliens?) after we’ve destroyed this planet. Another example that Jensen uses is that his students often discuss what they will do in ‘the real world’ after they finish school. Of course the students are referring to their careers but this is more than just semantics – the real world has come to mean our status in civilization instead of the actual real world. Civilization could use a reminder that the gravitational pull from the sun makes the world go round and not money. Or that reality TV is not real and that products with the Kraft Real Cheese trademark are not cheese at all, ETC.
The majority of my favorite books that cover climate change focus on the consequences of releasing so much carbon emissions that raise the global temperature beyond a liveable habitat. Some, like Losing Earth show how we got here. The Sixth Extinction exposes the damage humans are causing to other species. The Uninhabitable Earth provides the blueprint for a wide range of colossal disasters that we currently face. Floating Coast uses a single location to share the history, the toll and what could happen elsewhere. Authors that tackle this depressing subject sometimes propose solutions to the problems and all address the obvious: civilization’s dependency on fossil fuels. What I appreciate about what Jensen offers to the discussion is looking past the short-term solutions to the immediate problem of carbon emissions and pointing out that civilization itself is, and never can be, sustainable. Spoiler: electric cars won’t save the planet.
If the idea that civilization can never be sustainable sounds a bit much, just read Endgame. I’ve been using the words civilization and culture not interchangeably but based on Jensen’s definitions from the book. In our interview, I asked Jensen if it was safe to say that he believes climate change is the symptom and not the problem but I’ll urge you to listen to the recording to hear his answer. The conversations surrounding climate change often miss the point, or the bigger picture. Right now Australia is on fire and today’s headline was that a celebrity donated $500,000 directly to local fire services. My friends are calling for donations on social media. Money may help but it doesn’t make the world go round and money alone won’t put out the current fire or prevent the next one. The real world is on fire and the seas aren’t rising fast enough to put it out.