Is It Time to Bring Down Civilization?

Endgame: The Problem of Civilization

by Derrick Jensen

Seven Stories Press (2006)

Book Review

Although the writing style is quite informal, the basic structure of environmental activist Derrick Jensen’s two volume opus is that of a philosophical treatise. In Endgame, Jensen makes two highly controversial arguments:

1. The planet and the human species can only be saved by bringing down civilization.

2. This can only be accomplished by violent means.

Like a philosopher, Jensen builds his case on 20 basic premises listed at the beginning of both volumes (see below). By definition, a premise is mutually agreed assumption (as opposed to a statement of fact) that is used to rationally derive a set of conclusions. In other words, if someone rejects your premises, they will also disagree with conclusions based on these premises.

I myself agree with all but premise 9 and 12. Ten years ago, it was believed that the loss of fossil fuel based industrial agriculture would result in a big drop in population. However more recent research shows that permaculture and biointensive agriculture produce higher crop yields than factory farming. I also believe there is a vast difference between rich and poor people, both in terms of lived experience and power.

In Volume 1, Jensen traces the rise of cities, which by necessity steal resources from distant regions and eventually denude the entire landscape of these resources. After making the case that the corporate elite are voraciously consuming an ever increasing amount of energy, land, water and other resources, Jensen reminds us that we live on a finite planet. He then argues that corporations will most likely continue this greedy consumption until everything is used up – or until we stop them.

Volume 2, which is less structured and more informal, encapsulates many of Jensen’s experiences with the environmental movement and dogmatic “nonviolent” resistance advocates. Given the CIA’s heavy infiltration of both domestic and foreign non-violent resistance campaigns (see How the CIA Promotes Nonviolence), these chapters resonated strongly with my own experiences.

Other than general talk about blowing up dams and cellphone towers, Jensen is deliberately (and in my view wisely) vague about the exact form of violence he’s proposing.

Jensen’s (somewhat abbreviated) premises:

1. Civilization can never be sustainable, especially industrial civilization.
2. Traditional (ie indigenous) communities do not give up or sell their resources unless these communities are destroyed.
3. Industrial civilization would quickly collapse without its reliance on widespread violence.
4. Civilization is based on a clearly defined – violence by those at the top of the hierarchy against those at the bottom is often invisible.
5. The property of those at the top of the hierarchy is more valuable than that of those at the bottom.
6. Civilization isn’t redeemable – it will never voluntarily undergo sane transformation.
7. The longer we wait to bring down civilization, the messier the ultimate crash will be.
8. The needs of the natural world are more important than the needs of the economic system.
9. Some day there will be far fewer human beings on the planet than there are today.
10. The culture as a whole and most of its members are insane. The culture is driven by a death urge, an urge to destroy life.
11. From the beginning this culture – civilization – has been a culture of occupation.
12. There are no rich people and no poor people. The rich delusionally believe they own all the land and the police enforce these delusions. The poor buy into these delusions almost as completely as the rich.
13. Those in power rise by force. The sooner we accept this, the sooner we can decide how best to resist them.
14. From birth on, we’re acculturated to hate life, the natural world, women and children, to fear our bodies and to hate ourselves.
15. Love doesn’t imply passivism.
16. The material world is primary (to the spiritual world). Real world actions have real world consequences.
17. It’s a mistake (or more likely denial) to base our decisions on whether the actions stemming from them will or won’t frighten fence sitters or the mass of Americans.
18. Our current sense of self is no more sustainable than our current use of energy or technology.
19. This culture’s main problem is the belief that controlling and abusing the natural world is justifiable.
20. Within this culture economics – not community well being, not morals, not ethic, not justices, not life itself – drives social decisions.

The 2011 documentary EndCiv: Resist or Die is loosely based on Endgame.

The Fuck It Point

The Fuck It Point

Savage Revival (2012)

Film Review

The Fuck It Point occurs when you fear the evil of the current system more than you fear actively organizing to tear it down. A growing number of activists around the world have reached this point (which Paul Hawken discusses in Blessed Unrest). We still have a little further to go to reach critical mass.

The specific fears that deter people from attempting to dismantle the current economic system are fear of losing privilege, fear of police brutality, fear of imprisonment, fear of death, fear of chaos and instability, fear of failing and, most importantly, fear that other people will think badly of us.

After summarizing a wealth of evidence that capitalism is doomed, The Fuck It Point asks whether it makes more sense to let it collapse on its own or to take active steps to dismantle it. The filmmakers maintain if we sit and waiting for the crash, the people who have prepared will “hold all the cards.”

The film focuses a lot of attention on corporate media manipulation that promotes apathy and passivity. Even when peoples know they’re being ruthlessly exploited, they can be too psychological paralyzed to do anything.

The public relation industry continually recycles do-nothing messages. One day they tell us that climate change and mass extinction is easily fixed with the right technology. The next day that the ecosystem is too far gone to do anything. The day after that they blame us for the global ecological crisis and urge us to buy more eco-friendly products.

The film also challenges the myth that humans can no longer survive without civilization. The obvious reality is that human beings can’t survive without clean, non-toxic air, water and food and robust social relationships – which are increasingly difficult to access under the current system. People find the idea of giving up civilization unthinkable because they are addicted to it.

The filmmakers estimate that only 1/7 of the current global population achieve real benefit from our current economic system. The other 6/7 would experience an immediate improvement in their life circumstances if it collapsed.

The Origin of Poverty

Poor Us: An Animated of Poverty

Ben Lewis (2012)

Film Review

This documentary divides the history of poverty into six broad areas: pre-civilization, “early civilization” (8000 – 800 BC), Greece and Rome (800 BC – 400 AD), the Middle Ages (400 – 1500), European colonial era (1500 -1850) and industrial civilization (1850 – present). The use of animation is surprisingly effective in painting an overview of the lifestyles typical of these different periods.

Prior to the agricultural revolution that marked the advent of civilization, no one was poor. In a hunter-gatherer society, very little work is required to procure adequate food and water. Leisure time is plentiful. The downside of being a hunter gatherer is that life is very precarious and there’s was no way of planning for sudden climate change and other natural events that periodically wipe out the food supply.

During early civilization, everyone was poor except for rich kings and priests who ran everything. There were repeated famines and the average life expectancy was 35 years.

Greek civilization produced historians and philosophers who, for the first time, tried to identify the causes of poverty. They concluded that poverty was essential to civilization because it induces people to work.

The concept of charity first arose in the early Middle Ages and is a key component of all the world religions, which emerged during this period.

The film maintains that all modern poverty results from plunder and force, mainly at the hands of European colonizers. In the early 1500s, Europe was much poorer than contemporaneous civilizations in China, Africa and the Americans. In medieval China, for example, the government was responsible for flood control and vast granaries that fed the entire population during famines.

Europeans systematically plundered and destroyed the advanced pre-European civilizations in China, Africa and North and South America. Then the European elite used this wealth and power to drive their own peasants off their communally farmed lands. Those who didn’t end up in jail or the workhouse, ended up in squalid city slums and worked in early factories.

Prior to the industrial revolution, 90% of the world lived in extreme poverty. By 1948, this percentage had dropped to 50%. By the 1970s, it was down to 15%. At present most extreme poverty is in third world countries that have been systematically exploited by the industrial North for their resources and cheap labor.

The film features a number of economic analysts with differing perspectives on why industrialization caused the rate of extreme poverty to drop. Most agree it was a combination of fossil fuel-based technology and successful revolutionary and union activity which allowed workers to keep a bigger share of the wealth they produce.

Over the last few decades, the relative weakness of grassroots movements has led to significant increase in poverty within the supposedly wealthy industrialized countries.