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How Shall I Live My Life?: On Liberating the Earth from Civilization

How Shall I Live My Life?: On Liberating the Earth from Civilization

by Derrick Jensen

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In this collection of interviews, Derrick Jensen discusses the destructive dominant culture with ten people who have devoted their lives to undermining it. Whether it is Carolyn Raffensperger and her radical approach to public health, or Thomas Berry on perceiving the sacred; be it Kathleen Dean Moore reminding us that our bodies are made of mountains, rivers, and


In this collection of interviews, Derrick Jensen discusses the destructive dominant culture with ten people who have devoted their lives to undermining it. Whether it is Carolyn Raffensperger and her radical approach to public health, or Thomas Berry on perceiving the sacred; be it Kathleen Dean Moore reminding us that our bodies are made of mountains, rivers, and sunlight; or Vine Deloria asserting that our dreams tell us more about the world than science ever can, the activists and philosophers interviewed in How Shall I Live My Life? each bravely present a few of the endless forms that resistance can and must take.

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"Derrick Jensen is in search [of] solutions to these times of despair with interviews of amazing authors, philosophers, activists, and environmentalists. . . . It drives home deeply that there is a serious crisis modern civilization is facing but does allow for hope and a solution." —Razorcake (July 30, 2011)

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How Shall I Live my Life?

On Liberating the Earth From Civilization

By Derrick Jensen, Theresa Noll

PM Press

Copyright © 2008 Derrick Jensen
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60486-140-2


David Edwards

Interview Conducted
By Telephone

After climbing the business career ladder for most of his twenties, David Edwards left his management-level marketing job to become a writer. He had no idea how he was going to make a living, but the standard version of success had increasingly felt to him like a terrible, deadening failure. "Three things had become obvious to me," the English author says. "The misery of conventional 'success'; the vast and perhaps terminal havoc this 'success' was wreaking on the world; and the fact that no one was talking about either."

Leaving his apartment, his town, his girlfriend, and most of his friends, Edwards wrote until he ran out of money. Then he moved to a small seaside town and supported himself by teaching English as a second language. "Nine months earlier," he says, "I had been head of a marketing department, and now I was teaching the names of fruits to fourteen- and fifteen-year-old Thai kids: I was the happiest man alive!"

The problem in modern Western society, according to Edwards, remains the age-old one of struggling for freedom — but freedom from a very different set of chains. In his first book, Burning All Illusions(South End Press), Edwards writes, "we have been prisoners of tyrants and dictators, and consequently have needed to win our freedom in very concrete, physical terms. We now need to free ourselves not from a slave ship, a prison, or a concentration camp, but from many of the illusions fostered in our democratic society."

Edwards grew up in a little English village called Bearsted in the county of Kent, where he was known as "Eggy Edwards" and was infamous for playing practical jokes. His mother was from Sweden, and he spent summers in the country there, an experience he credits with having introduced him to a natural, uncomplicated alternative to modern living.

The boredom and sense of futility and emptiness we feel when working solely for our own benefit, Edwards says, is the first piece in the great puzzle of how best to live our lives. The second piece is the realization that, to es-cape this sense of futility and find happiness, we have to work to relieve the suffering and increase the happiness of others — not just the poor, or women, or animals, but all living beings. Most people are good, reasonable human beings, Edwards says, but they are prevented from doing good by the delusion that it involves a miserable sacrifice. In fact, he contends, the best way of looking after ourselves is to work for the benefit of everyone else.

Edwards lives in a one-room apartment on a quiet road with lots of trees, birds, and squirrels, just a twenty-minute walk from the English seaside. He works part time for the International Society for Ecology and Culture, writing and doing research on the impact of globalization and the need for localization. He also writes on environmental, political, and human-rights issues for the Big Issue (a British magazine sold by homeless people), The Ecologist, and Z Magazine.

* * *

DJ: You have written that there are five things everyone ought to know.

DE: The first thing I believe everyone should know is that the planet is dy-ing. To name one of endless examples, last year marine biologists found that between 70 and 90 percent of the coral reefs they surveyed in the Indian Ocean had just died as a result of global warming. This year, much of what remains is likely to follow. Even though reefs cover only 0.3 percent of the area of the oceans, they're home to one-fourth of all fish species. Not only is this loss tragic and inexcusable in itself, but millions of people depend on reefs and the fish which live there for their lives and livelihoods.

Coral reef ecosystems are probably the first major victims of global warming, with others lining up to follow. Scientists now predict that the polar bear will be extinct in the wild within twenty years. Once-great populations of other sea mammals and seabirds could die out as well.

My second point is that huge numbers of intelligent, motivated people are working all out to obstruct action to save the planet. Take the much-ballyhooed Rio Earth Summit in 1992, for example, and then the Kyoto Convention in 1997. How is it that no matter how clear the evidence nor how stern the scientific warnings, time and again effective action is stifled? What prevents it, and why? In the case of the Kyoto Convention, we have a clear answer. John Grasser, Vice-President of the National Mining Association, and a member of the Global Climate Coalition, an organization set up by over a hundred major corporations for the express purpose of combating efforts to limit greenhouse gas emissions, said, "We think we have raised enough questions among the American public to prevent any numbers, targets or timetables to achieve reductions in gas emissions being agreed here ... What we are doing, and we think successfully, is buying time for our industries by holding up these talks."

And of course Grasser isn't alone. What we're seeing in the so-called debate over global warming is that the biggest enterprise in human history, which is the worldwide coal and oil industry, is at war with the ability of the planet to sustain life. And part of the battlefield over which the industry is fighting includes our hearts and minds.

The corporate press and politicians keep talking about global warming as if there's significant doubt about it, yet the debate is between perhaps half-a-dozen high-profile skeptics bankrolled by this trillion dollar industry against the consensus of fully 2,500 of the world's most qualified climate scientists working as part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. How is it that these six — whose arguments are often shot full of illogic and absurdity — count the same as all other evidence?

That leads directly to my third point, which is that the death of the planet is symptomatic of a deeper, institutionalized subordination of all life — including human life — to profit. The world is chock-full of environmental and human rights catastrophes that are very real, but the world is just as full of people "buying time for our industries". The lack of discourse about the crucial question of valuing profits over life brings us to the fourth point, which is that the same economic and political forces that profit from these atrocities also profit from the suppression of truth. The defining political and economic truths about the world we live in are not very complicated or difficult to understand. We don't have to dig very deep before things become painfully obvious, but it's the role of the corporate mass media and politicians to prevent us from digging at all, to make sure that instead we spend all of our time thrashing around in the shallows.

DJ: Like by watching Judge Judy or Entertainment Tonight?

DE: If we can just stay distracted enough we'll leave the deep delusional supports of state and corporate power alone. And so we drown in superficiality.

Not only that, but we participate in our own mystification. Although the planet is being demolished before our eyes, the media remain content to artificially isolate each new disaster — the status quo is preserved by our playing with pieces of the jigsaw, but never being able to complete the picture — and we remain content to let them, believing all this nonsense about "developing nations," "progress," "sustainable growth" and Western leadership of the "free world". We steadfastly refuse to interpret events as symptomatic of the logic and overwhelming power of the corporate system. And while the notion that we have a free press seems superficially plausible, it only takes a moment of honest reflection to realize that when a world is being ravaged by corporations, a corporate media system is the last place to look for truth.

But it's important to be clear that our delusions are not the result of some conspiracy on the part of a few business moguls. It's much more structural, and psychological. Modern thought control is dependent not on crude conscious planning, but on the human capacity for self-deception. I think one of the central themes of my work is that one of the biggest obstacles to social change is the propaganda system working secretly and unsuspected inside of our own.

I'm not immune from this, even though I work on these issues all the time. I'll feel this strange internal conflict between what I know is true — what every cell in my body tells me is true — and what I am told is true from the outside. It's almost as though people become hypnotized, or hypnotize themselves, to believe these obvious absurdities. The key, I suspect, is that "the world" be made to appear to basically accept what might otherwise be considered absurd or outrageous, and then that small, lonely, insecure part of us that longs to belong, that is terrified of being alone, thinks "Oh yes, well that must be right," not as a matter of reason but out of fear of exclusion, isolation.

Erich Fromm said that if our greatest physical fear is death, our greatest psychological fear is total social exclusion, isolation, rejection, aloneness. So world leaders talk about freedom and democracy while supporting dictators with arms and money the world over. The right of the superpowers to kill people worldwide is rooted in nothing, certainly not in legality or justice — because if justice isn't rooted in compassion it's not rooted in anything — yet because "the world" is made to seem as if it agrees, even the victims may well have a sense that it is somehow just and right.

DJ: I think there's something else going on here, too. You've written about the work of Daniel Goleman.

DE: He cited a very interesting study done in the 1960s by a guy by the name of Lester Luborsky, who used a special camera to track the eye movements of people who'd been asked to look at a set of pictures. The people were supposed to tell which pictures they liked or disliked. Three pictures were sexual in content. One, for example, showed the outline of a woman's breast, beyond which a man could be seen reading a newspaper. The results were amazing. Many of the viewers were able to avoid letting their gaze stray even once to the sexually suggestive parts of the pictures, and later, when asked to describe the content of the pictures, they remembered little or nothing suggestive about them. Some people couldn't even recall seeing those pictures at all! The interesting thing is that in order to avoid looking at the parts of the pictures the person feared would be objectionable, some part of the mind had to know what the picture contained so that it could know what to avoid. Somehow the mind anticipates when something will be offensive or threatening to our worldview, and hurries to throw a protective filter in place to steer away our awareness. The avoidance is not at all random but incredibly efficient. We know exactly where not to look.

DJ: How does this play out in day-to-day living?

DE: I think it was Upton Sinclair who said, "It's difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it."

We build our lives on foundations of ideational schemas, which we then spend much of our lives protecting from conflicting facts, experiences, and ideas. The self-deception is made easier for us by our society's cult of specialization. People have allowed themselves to be convinced that they're basically just journalists or arms salespeople or oil executives. Their jobs define their lives. And it is their job in each of these cases to make money for business. Anything going beyond that profession is rejected as 'nothing to do with me'. That's drilled into us all the way through school and into business. We see being professional and expert and talented and intelligent as a matter of being specialized. And of course the first thing that's lost when you specialize is your humanity. It's like Rousseau said: we've got lots of chemists, physicists, and so on, but there isn't a citizen among us.

DJ: Let's take this slowly.

DE: Say you've got an executive passionately committed to the idea of his own fundamental goodness. That person would have a terribly difficult time seriously entertaining the notion that the corporation for which he's worked over the course of a lifetime, and indeed the entire corporate system of which he's a part, is responsible for terrible destruction of humanity and in nature. To acknowledge that would be to acknowledge that he has in fact lent his talents to genocide and ecocide. But he can't do that — it's a very difficult thing to do. He's spent years building up a career. His prestige and sense of self-worth are closely tied to his success, to how much oil he has discovered or how many cars he has produced.

Given all this, serious consideration of the moral status of the work would create profound conflict between his morality and his financial as well as his emotional/social needs. The money, by the way, is no small matter. It may seem in a very real sense that he has everything to lose and nothing to gain from that sort of serious examination, and so his unconscious will protect his sense of self from a very painful conflict by dismissing or ignoring any evidence that he's participating in these atrocities. And it will do this in such a way that it never even occurs to him — even with the evidence staring him in the face, like the breast in the photo — that there's the slightest thing wrong with what he's doing. The same is true of journalists who know that their livelihoods and sense of social esteem are based on serving corporate power, and so who under no circumstances allow themselves to comprehend the true nature of the role they're playing.

R.D. Laing described this perfectly. He proposed that dysfunctional families — those with severe alcoholism and child abuse — are able to keep themselves unaware of their own problems, and agree to the delusion that they are a "happy family," if they follow a set of three rules, which are: Rule A: Don't.

Rule A.1: Rule A does not exist.

Rule A.2: Do not discuss the existence or nonexistence of Rules A, A.1, or A.2.

That these rules apply not only to dysfunctional families should be obvious. One example from the media might concern Pinochet. Now, in the media, "Don't" as far as Pinochet was concerned, is "Don't discuss the fact that the CIA and U.S. business interests were behind the coup that put him in power and that it had nothing to do with the Cold War." And of course don't discuss the pattern of which Pinochet is only one little part, which is that the atrocities are repeated all over the Third World to protect profits, and have been for hundreds of years now. You can discuss the facts that he was a dictator and that he committed atrocities, but don't discuss the real issues.

Now, to Rule A.1: Rule A does not exist. People reject out of hand any conception that there's a ban on discussing stuff like that, and yet strangely that stuff never gets in. You see this time and again, no matter the topic. The mainstream is happy to discuss just about any weird and wonderful idea: UFOs, aliens, babyism, anything, but somehow these equally unusual and interesting ideas don't make it. And that leads to the third part of the rule, which is that in polite society you simply can't have the sort of conversation we're having right now, where you discuss the unspoken rules that govern essentially all of our discourse, and in fact much of our perception.

DJ: These rules seem to apply across the board, whether we're talking about (or rather, not talking about) a father raping his daughter or a culture destroying life on earth. We can't talk about the fact that we're going crazy because we're so unhappy with our jobs. It's a generic set of rules.

DE: It's like Harold Pinter said, about how the crimes of the U.S. throughout the world have been "systematic, constant, clinical, remorseless, and fully documented," yet nobody talks about them. Or, to use another example, children aren't forced to choose from a wide range of careers within the corporate system, by which I mean they aren't deliberately brainwashed into believing they have freedom. Instead they're convinced they're making a free choice because society functions in such a way that they're entirely unaware of alternatives.

DJ: As we talk I keep thinking about a series I saw in the regional paper on what life will be like in a hundred years, and it was all grossly positive. Nobody talked about the fact that we probably will not have a planet. How does that fit in?

DE: There's a strange split in the press. On the one hand, it's the press job to be extremely upbeat about the future, compared to what people actually feel about the future: "We've never had it so good, everybody's out shopping, isn't it wonderful?" At the same time they have to be extremely negative about human nature, about people's concern about the world and people's willingness to do anything. As John Pilger has said, it's a big part of the media's role to ridicule the notion that people are capable of organizing a better, more compassionate way of life. For example, the demonstrations against the WTO in Seattle were so large that the press really had no choice but to cover them (keeping in mind Laing's three rules, for example, making certain to not address the real issues), but since then the press has totally dropped it, and it's been amazing to see the newspapers once again back in the required groove: "Nobody cares about anything any more. Everybody's totally indifferent. We're all focused on ourselves. There are no big ideas. There's no belief in any sort of religious or moral principles." The point I'm really getting at is that I think these two — being positive about the future and negative about human nature — go together.


Excerpted from How Shall I Live my Life? by Derrick Jensen, Theresa Noll. Copyright © 2008 Derrick Jensen. Excerpted by permission of PM Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Hailed as the philosopher poet of the ecological movement, Derrick Jensen is the widely acclaimed author of Endgame, A Language Older Than Words, The Culture of Make Believe (a finalist for the 2003 J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize), and Walking on Water, among many others. Jensen's writing has been described as "breaking and mending the reader's heart" (Publishers Weekly). His latest book: How Shall I Live My Life?: On Liberating the Earth from Civilization (PM Press) is a collection of interviews with ten activists who have devoted their lives to undermining the destructive dominant culture. Author, teacher, activist, and leading voice of uncompromising dissent, he regularly stirs auditoriums across the country with revolutionary spirit. He lives in Crescent City, California.

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