Derrick Jensen in Victoria, cont.

A few choice lines from Derrick Jensen's talk at the University of Victoria on October 20, 2007, most of them verbatim and the rest close to it:
  • "On the ferry over this afternoon, I was looking all around, thinking how beautiful these islands must have been before this culture arrived, and how beautiful they'll be again once it's gone."
  • "We're all so busy pretending we have hope."
  • "I don't see myself as depressed or depressing. We're fucked. But life is really, really good. We're fucked, but life is really, really good."
  • "Is the world more diverse, more resilient, because you were born? If not, the world would be a better place if you had never been born. That's not a comment about you personally. It's a fact."
  • "The job of an activist is not to be morally pure. The job of an activist is to confront and take down an oppressive culture."
  • "One reason we don't defend the places we live is that we don't really live there: we live with Brad and Angelina and the Boston Red Sox and all the rest."
  • "In a way I am privileged to live in Germany in 1938, and to have a gift as a writer, because I don't have to pull any punches. I intend to go down swinging."
All very inspiring, lots of laughter and lots of applause throughout. I've heard that Jensen's Q&A sessions can get heated; he said last night, for example, that whenever he speaks in New York City, only 25 people come, and except for his agent, they all hate his guts. This, though, was warm and convivial, perhaps because the sponsors here were the Victoria Anarchist Reading Circle, the Camas Collective Bookshop, and Wild Earth, rather than the university itself.

Actually it's not true to call it entirely convivial. The first question in the Q&A described the talk as "mental masturbation," on the grounds that it didn't turn us into a united movement with a distinct mission. Jensen said something like, "First of all, fuck you. I try to be civil in my Q&A sessions, but if you call me a chronic masturbator, all bets are off."

It came around that the guy felt he was speaking for others in the audience, but no one was willing to admit it, and Jensen wound up answering thoroughly and compassionately anyway. Basically the response was, "I don't know your gifts. I'm here to help people wake up to the need to act, and I'm trying to model the process for figuring out what you can do. But I don't know what you'd be best suited for. The good thing about living in a time of crisis is that there are lots of options available for you." Lots of applause.

Probably the most important part of the evening for me was around Jensen's assertion that personal choice is more or less irrelevant. The cumulative impact of individuals is far less than the total industrial impact, so if you have to drive, drive; if you can't have a garden, don't. The caveat is all, though: IF you're otherwise making the world, and the local landbase, more flexible, resilient, and stable.

It wasn't the right room in which to ask about guilt, but it hangs over me constantly. I mean very well. I do little but talk, however, and occasionally write. I'm learning more about local botany and foraging, and that's one of the things Jensen is keen on (since urban dwellers will represent the majority of deaths after a crash, since they don't understand their local food sources), but that's not good enough. I know it isn't, but I don't see other options for me without changing my life more drastically than I'm capable of.

Hmm. Turns out I need to process a little more before I can write sensibly about this lecture....


Keith Talent said…
I've been away for a couple of weeks so had missed your previous postings about this. At the risk of raking over old ground soundbites one and four just look to underline the unwarranted assumptions about the world having intrinsic value absent any valuers to observe it. Even if that case can be made he still needs to show that a world of intrinsic value absent any people to enjoy that value is better than a world with less value but lots of people enjoying what value there is. Would an unpopulated world with billions more works of art by Picasso be better than a populated world with the amount that we actually have? Is there any amount of extra works of art that would persuade that the world would be better off with them and no people rather than the amount of art and population we have? If the answer is 'no' then why think that the world without people would be better off?

This is not to deny that there is a lot wrong with the way we approach the environment, but Jensen's extreme views seem unthought-out at best.
Nowick Gray said…
re. the above comment - it's not a matter of whether it's better to have too many people or no people, or even really a matter of "intrinsic value." It's more a practical question: how many people can the land support sustainably; how can people live on that land sustainably.
The value comes in that ongoing equilibrium.
richard said…
"...the unwarranted assumptions about the world having intrinsic value absent any valuers to observe it."

Keith, tell me you're not suggesting that if humans had a way to live comfortably on another planet (and thus didn't rely on this planet for our own survival), we'd be philosophically justified in killing each and every plant and animal on Earth.

Stranger things than are dreamt of in your philosophy, etc.

And are you still relying purely on the slippery construct of "consciousness" as the sole marker of intrinsic value? That's the only reason I can see for your equation of paintings with non-human species, such as (for example) chimps, with whom we share more than 90% of our DNA.
Keith Talent said…
I'm not suggesting that if humans had a way to live comfortably on another planet (and thus didn't rely on this planet for our own survival), we'd be philosophically justified in killing each and every plant and animal on Earth.

There are a couple of issues here which need to be separated. Whether the pleasure of animals should feature in the moral calculus, and whether if humans were elsewhere in the universe they would have the moral right to destroy the earth.

Re the animals I think they should feature in the moral calculus since they are capable of experiencing pleasure. However it is not clear that this is the focus of Jensen, he seems to be implying that an eco-system qua eco-system has rights, and I don't see any justification for that. If his claim is that there would be more animals living more happily and consequently there would be a greater level of happiness overall then lets see that argument. Of course it is not clear how one should weight the various different species happiness in the moral calculus, but there does seem to be something to Mill's contention that we can split pleasures into higher and lower, and that humans are capable of experiencing vastly more pleasure than animals. In any case he hasn't shown that the moral calculus shows that the pre-human world was better.

On the second point it seems that human's clearly wouldn't have the moral right to destroy the earth were they not there, since it would destroy the lives of animals, whose pleasure ought to be factored in when making such decisions. If there were no creatures capable of experiencing pleasure, and there was no chance of such creatures evolving, and more pleasure could be gained from destroying earth than from keeping it, then yes destroy away.

I'm not really sure what your point about consciousness being a slippery construct is. The claim is that ability to experience pleasure is what is relevant, certainly not anything to do with DNA and how much of it we share with some animals.

The central claim I want to make is that Jensen seems to be supposing that there is an inherent value in the eco-system, and this seems to be echoed by Nowick, that derives from it being a harmonious eco-system. Now maybe there is a certain aesthetic beauty to a harmonious eco-system, and this can be a source of value, but without some valuers then this is not what we should aim for. Now we might think, as you point out, that non-human animals can in part be the valuers, and I think there is something to this, but it is far from clear that a humanless world is one that is overall more happy than the current one.
richard said…
Re consciousness: I was reacting to your move away from a world with a reduced human impact (which I was promoting) to an uninhabited world full of works of art by Picasso. Your equation of an animal with a human artifact is exactly the kind of thing that gets me cranky. (And we've been talking about this for long enough that I think you knew that!)

Let me be clear about something: Jensen isn't saying that humans all need to die. Far from it. He's saying that the culture we've developed is based on faulty economic assumptions about how humans can co-exist on this planet with the rest of its inhabitants; his position is that the culture is going to collapse unless it's artificially made to go through a kind of collapse.

He argues that if contemporary economic culture collapses on its own, it's likely to occur so late in the process that there's a chance the planet won't recover -- and that humanity will die out. In other words, he wants this version of human culture to die out, so we can have one that's fundamentally more sustainable.

In a utilitarian framework, one might say that he's arguing for longer-term human happiness by proposing a radical change to contemporary culture. He'd also say that non-human animals and non-animals are capable of happiness, so they'd be happier in a sustainable world.

But Jensen's approach isn't a philosophically pure one, and the more time I spend on this issue, and the more I read ecophilosophic pieces, the less I think there's any pressing need to develop such an approach.

The rights-based approach can't work, clearly, because it presupposes a kind of dialogue of competing assertions. The utilitarian approach can't work either, because it privileges something that's relatively easy to assess for humans (happiness) that we can't easily assess for animals and can't assess at all for plants.

Utilitarianism is seductive, Keith. I mean, who's unpleasant enough not to want to promote greater happiness?

But I can't wrap my head around how to overcome what seems to me an inescapably inequitable privileging of human happiness. And I know that by using the term "inequitable" I'm implying an allegiance to rights-based discourse that I've tried to foreswear, but it's a convenient shorthand.
Keith Talent said…
Some of what you say goes back to our previous discussions. Why assume that because it is difficult to do the utilitarian calculations that this is not *the* moral theory? General relativity is a little bit tricky, but this doesn't mean we should assume it is wrong.

Some of Jensen's claims appear straightforwardly philosophical in nature, if he is not backing these up with philosophical argument then we ought to disregard them or treat them as unsubstantiated aphorisms. He is making claims about the value of certain things, and he is making normative claims about the progress of the planet, these are clearly within the purview of philosophy. If he wants to describe his vision of the world and how he would achieve it then fine, this is not a philosophical issue, but he wants to do more than that.

Come on though, non-animals are not capable of happiness, that is a ludicrous claim.
Keith Talent said…
I should add this worldly non-animals. So presumably he means what- plants, eco-systems- these are just not capable of happiness.
richard said…
I'm with you on the nonhappiness of rocks, rivers, etc. It's trickier with plants, but even so, this is exactly why I'm uncomfortable with the utilitarian argument.

It seems absurd to me that I can only argue against changing the non-human by referring to the human.

To argue against the construction of a small hydroelectric dam, my best option is to say that rapids are prettier? Or that these particular fish are tastier than those from another river?

Remind me again why "intrinsic value" is an unwarranted assumption.
Keith Talent said…
Plants don't experience, nor are they capable of experiencing happiness, why would you think that they do?

Fine, you might argue that the reason for not building a dam is because the rapids are pretty, and this is the basis for a perfectly acceptable argument. But the reason it forms this basis is because the prettiness is a source of happiness to many.

You can argue against changing the non-human by referring to anything, human or animal, that is likely to have their pleasure affected by that change. The assumption that things like rocks and rivers have intrinsic value that means that we ought to preserve them absent anything to experience that value is unwarranted, the reason why it is unwarranted is that there is no warrant for it - 'show me the warrant' as I believe Tom Cruise might have said. The onus is on the person who claims that they can make sense of the normative claim that we ought to preserve aesthetic pleasing natural features regardless of whether this increases pleasure, or if one is a deontologist, whether or not doing so impinges on ones rights, to defend that claim. I have seen nothing to defend such a claim and I would be surprised to find a persuasive argument for it, though I remain open.
richard said…
Just in time for this conversation is a piece at Wired on the possible intelligence of plants. More of a tangent than anything else, but an interesting read nonetheless.

You'd be open, Keith, to a persuasive argument on deontological or utilitarian grounds in favour of intrinsic value, though you'd be surprised to hear one. Well, I'd be shocked to hear one. Both these approaches developed (in part) in response to the inadequacy of theories based on intrinsic value, no? So I don't see much chance for a successful approach along those lines.

Actually I don't see any chance for it. These are rigorous, demanding, at-this-point-insurmountable philosophic approaches.

I enjoy reading Environmental Ethics, but frankly they seem a little ... amateurish. Actually more than a little amateurish: the hometown side that gets stomped by the perennial champs. I cheer for 'em, but I don't get my hopes up.

Actually I rarely get any of my hopes up, in this or other areas. But this particular source of anxiety is easy to point to.
Keith Talent said…
For the record I was not claiming that a defence of the moral requirement to maintain aesthetically pleasing ojbects/parts of nature/eco-systems had to come from utilitarianism/deontological ethics, I was saying that I would be open to a defence that was not formulated in terms of these theories, precisely because I cannot see how such a defence would work were it couched in utilitarian or deontological terms. (Setting aside of course the possible utilitarian/deontological defences to do with the objects' impact on humans/animals- we are focusing on the claim that the aesthetic value implies some moral obligations over and above that which arises from its human/animal impact).
richard said…
Actually I'm not trying to focus on "on the claim that the aesthetic value implies some moral obligations over and above that which arises from its human/animal impact."

I'd like to find a way toward defending leaving something alone, that doesn't rely on a human-driven assessment of its aesthetics ("this mountain is so pretty that it should always be pretty") or of its usefulness ("this river has fish that are so delicious that we shouldn't put in a dam").

Environmental ethics does pretty well for this purpose, sometimes, but I'm not sure how other philosophers view it.

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