Derrick Jensen - October 20, Victoria BC

Derrick Jensen was in town last night, rocking the David Lam Auditorium at the University of Victoria. It's fitting, I think, that this room's normal use is for 300-student classes of Psychology 100.

More than 200 people came out to see Jensen, probably more than 250. Most of them looked a little less like an off-duty cop than I did, but that's OK. For the first time I saw someone with a mohawk consisting not of spikes, but of dreads; visually, I was considerably more out of place than he was. I can answer in the affirmative my friend's question as to whether there was an aroma of patchouli and armpit, but I repeat what I said in that earlier conversation: I'll put up with a lot in order to hear someone trying to speak the truth.

The Esquimalt singers and dancers, though, who took the first thirty or so minutes to present four songs, do not qualify as something to be put up with. The commitment and engagement of August Wilson, his three children, and his grand-nephew were inspiring. I am grateful for the opportunity to teach on Coast Salish lands, which is where this university is located.

I'll post more than once about this lecture, in part because I'm home and my notes are at the office, but let's start with this: after the songs were done, I was disappointed for the next half-hour. In the end I'm confident that this should be blamed on me rather than on Derrick Jensen, but it affected my response.

I was disappointed not by Jensen's message, but because I thought I'd already downloaded this talk from Google Video. Nowick Gray* suggests in his review of yesterday's lecture that Jensen speaks off the cuff, but having watched Jensen on film before, I disagree. It comes off that way, sure, and the effect might be authentic, but Jensen repeats seemingly off-the-cuff remarks word for word, in lectures months apart. His prose has a ruthless intensity to it, though joy and humour are present as well; his lecture schtick pushes the ruthlessness of focus off to the side, but that's strategic. He has a terrific sense of audience -- really a terrific sense of audience, and you don't get that from his prose because his books are going out to the converted, and those readers can handle barely mediated intensity.

But eventually I realized he was hitting some different points, even if he was mostly reading sections from different books and essays he's written. Besides, who am I to require a speaker to come up with something new every single time? And even more importantly, why should he change something that he's spent so much effort to research? (I think he gets a few details wrong in his research, mind you, but it'd be nit-picking to emphasize them, and flat-out wrong to write off his project on that basis.)

It all starts from this: (1) An economy based on non-renewable resources is by definition unsustainable. (2) An economy based on the hyperexploitation of renewable resources is by definition unsustainable. (3) An economy based on the word and concept "resources," rather than particular names, is unsustainable, and this culture's depending on the distancing word "resources" dooms us.

Once you accept these premises, and really the third is the only one that seems debatable, the rest follows logically. There are skirmishes along the way, significant enough that I certainly don't think every consequence needs to be accepted, and I'm no closer to facing the overwhelmingness of it all than I was on first reading Endgame vol 2 this summer, but still. If our unsustainable economy gets close enough to exhausting those things on which it depends, there's going to be a crash. What the crash will look like is open to debate, but Jensen thinks it'll be ugly enough that we'd be better served forcing a crash sooner rather than later, so the powerful won't exhaust absolutely everything and enslave the rest of us in an attempt to prolong their lifestyle of dominance. There are lots of similarly dark visions out there (though some are funny as well).

The multi-part question Jensen asks really is a simple one.

If you think the culture is doomed, which means a crash will come, how are you participating in preparations for the crash? If you are preparing for a crash, how are your actions aimed at community rather than individual survival? If you think the culture is doomed, and you think a slow crash will be worse than a sudden one, what are you doing to speed up the crash?

Two hours to elaborate on these questions, establish premises, swap stories, but really once you accept the concept of crash, what's left is to think about to do next. As he's framed it himself, "What do you love? What are your gifts? And what is the largest, most pressing problem you can help to solve, using the gifts that are unique to you in all the universe? What does your landbase need to survive? Are you going to do it?"

I cannot yet answer these questions. I keep asking them of myself, though, so I'm happy to report that the self-loathing remains under at least some control.

Jensen said this was a top-five audience for him, because we laughed knowingly at the right places. He interrupted himself to tell us this after we applauded (not just laughed at) a joke that he said rarely works: 15 years ago, when despair in his environmental activist work had him crying constantly and facing a breakdown, a friend said, "Take some time, recover, the problems will still be there when you come back." While some members of other audiences laugh, apparently West Coasters (American or Canadian) are the only people who think this is hilarious.

More on another day, when I'm in the same place as my lecture notes.
* Nowick Gray has posted a thoughtful and more detailed review of Jensen's Victoria lecture here, but I'll try to outdo him tomorrow. I recognized his picture on the site as that of a fellow attendee, a couple of rows back, and I'm sure I've seen him at other lectures and events over the last few years.


Popular Posts