Book Review by Kevin Kjonaas
Endgame: Volume I: The Problem of Civilization by Derrick
Jensen (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2006). $18.95 paperback. 528 pages.
While it didn’t take a former U.S. vice president for me to see
the inconvenient truths of the apocalyptic handwriting on the wall,
I am relatively new to the study of climate change and the seemingly
unstoppable environmental collapse upon the horizon. For the last two
years I have gorged myself on a steady diet of books, articles and
documentaries on the greatest of modern global predicaments facing
all life on Earth. It has been a rather jarring academic journey.
Perhaps it’s because I read Endgame during the summer malaise of my house
arrest (before the start of my six year prison sentence for my simply vocal role
in the U.S. antivivisection campaign against the notorious Huntingdon Life Sciences),
but I found it to be one of those times in life when you read just the right
book at the right time and the implications are profoundly life-changing. For
some it was The Jungle, others Silent Spring, and for many in the animal rights
movement Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation. Perversely enough I found Derrick
Jensen’s message of an impending environmental doom and industrial collapse
almost oddly vindicating, if not slightly discomforting and provocative.
The world is being destroyed, despite our “best” activist efforts.
It is that simple. Jensen reiterates this point by peppering in a collage of
troubling studies, facts, figures, and anecdotes to support his conclusion that
industrial civilization has not been, is not now, nor will ever be sustainable
or compatible with life on Earth.
In 20 succinctly stated premises, exhaustively argued and researched throughout
the book, Jensen draws an arc from the civilized pretense that humans do not
have to live naturally, and how this socially indoctrinated and narcissistic
acculturated myth defines our priorities and principles. It’s a message
frustratingly lost on most ‘liberals’ and one desperately needing
to gain traction within the animal rights movement.
The movement seems to think it can have its vegan cake and eat it too. We want
all the luxuries and indulgences of our Western civilized lives without recognizing
the global and environmental price tag of our choices. It’s hypocritical
for vegan advocates because we know our lifestyles and most particularly dietary
choices carry consequences. Yet we are all too happy to ignore the foreign policy
atrocities, land-base degradation, and human exploitation so we can sit down
to an extravagant dinner at the newest vegetarian restaurant and feel smugly
self-confident in our moral superiority simply because we are choosing meatless
To me, Jensen exposes a crime of speciesism committed by most so-called adherents
of animal rights philosophy with Endgame. We claim to recognize equality amongst
sentient species and reject hierarchies of importance, yet somehow believe we
are different than other animals and exempt from the rules of nature. Jensen
goes to great pains to articulate that the only way humans and most life on this
planet can survive is if we get this message out and live and breed sustainably.
To further exacerbate this form of speciesism many animal activists, myself included,
rationalize this disconnect with a rather misanthropic worldview. People just
suck, right? We are the cancer that keeps multiplying and consuming and killing
and that is just the way we are. Jensen offers an interesting response and tackles
this as a self-aggrandizing cop-out. It buys into the abusive logic created by
civilization that this is “just the way the world works” and must
be accepted. It’s that same speciesist logic that pretends human animals
are somehow so unique as to be beyond the ability to live naturally. Jensen posits
that human animals have lived on this planet for tens of thousands of years and
it is only relatively recently with the advent of industrial civilization we
have taken to destroying the natural world around us. Why do we think we cannot
return to a way of living naturally as we once did?
This question makes many animal rights activists recoil and reject the idea of
neo-primitivism outright because it would envision a world wherein a hunter-gatherer
type of life would be necessary for survival. Hunting does not fit into our vegan
utopian schema, therefore somehow eating strawberries in January, driving SUVs,
and typing vegetarian literature on our Apple notebooks is more “compassionate” (or
hopefully as “compassionate” as the meat our movement is marketing
for Whole Foods).
I am about as far from being neo-primitivist as one can be. Every stitch of my
clothing comes from J. Crew, and I’ve got to have my morning cup of coffee
and evening bottle of wine (neither of which are grown in Minnesota). However,
Jensen’s book isn’t a guilt-trip and he is not preaching a particular
path of redemption in Volume 1. He is simply asking the reader to be honest and
start recognizing that this civilized world humans have created for themselves
is absolutely insane.
While Endgame’s message can be personally tough to ingest, Jensen’s
prose is extremely accessible. The writing is intimate and almost conversational,
drawing the reader in closely only to get walloped again and again with examples
of just how serious this predicament is. To be crystal clear Jensen uses very
descriptive examples of the not-so-hidden costs of our culture—from grisly
mutations in children exposed to the 96,000 depleted uranium shells dropped on
Iraq, to how the “daisy-cutter” U.S. bomb incinerates any form of
life within a couple hundred yards of where it is detonated and kills anyone
within a range of three miles, to actual descriptions from CIA torture manuals.
If you were not concerned about the environment and our losing the battle to
save it before, Jensen makes sure you know that every stream in the U.S. is polluted
with toxic chemicals, that every day 200,000 acres of rainforest disappear, that
over 100 species of life go extinct every day, and that the air is so polluted
in cities like Los Angeles that a child born there can breathe in more carcinogens
in the first two weeks of life than the EPA says is safe for a whole lifetime.
Endgame does not paint a pretty picture and will likely leave the reader initially
depressed and hopeless.
Animals are included in the equation and you can see that Jensen embraces an
ethic that puts the lives of nonhumans on equal footing with humans. Throughout
the book, many examples decry abuses of factory farming, expiration due to overdevelopment,
the horror dams are to salmon runs, and he got me with his special condemnation
of Huntingdon Life Sciences. Although he mentions in passing that he will eat
animal flesh, with the caveat that there is a difference between eating another
and exploiting them, to him, “when you take the life of someone to eat
or otherwise use so you can survive, you become responsible for the survival—and
dignity—of that other’s community.”
Jensen is intellectually honest, and fairly states that all morality is particular,
and what may be more moral in one circumstance may not be in another. He applies
this most poignantly to what we, as humans and activists, are doing about the
disease that is civilization; next to nothing. This book was apparently started
as a frustrated rebuke of those “nonviolent” and “pacifist” activists
who would rather hold on to their so-called personal moral purity than make an
actual difference for the principles they profess to hold. Throughout EndgameJensen takes to task all those who look down their pious noses at illegal and
violent forms of activism, Gandhian and Buddhist proponents alike. Jensen states, “Our
perception of morality of every particular act must be informed by the certainty
that to fail to effectively act to stop the grotesque and ultimately absolute
violence of civilization is by far the most immoral path any of us can choose.
We are, after all, talking about killing the planet.”
While critical of the theater activists seem to play roles in—we abide
by the rules of the system to voice our mollified dissent—Jensen does advocate
an inclusive approach to social change. He includes otherwise silly and useless
opinions like voting, writing congress-people and holding signs. What Jensen
has no tolerance for is dogmatism condemning forms of agitation that fall outside
the law or boundaries of nonviolence.
Throughout Endgame Jensen makes short work of dismissing the illogical and dangerous
ramblings of those holding up what he calls the “Gandhian shield.” The
kind of scrutiny Jensen holds up to his own tactical detractors and hypothetical
arrangements are warranted as well to the politically palatable rhetorical spin
by the animal rights movement’s own “leaders” and organizations.
You don’t need to read Endgame to know that everything environmental and
animal rights activists are fighting for each year gets worse and worse. We know
this because the organizations “fighting” to change this tell you
about it in their fundraising solicitations. The Wayne Pacelles and Peter Singers
are all too happy to proclaim their moral purity in denouncing “radical” activism
of others, but are not ready to confront the moral quagmire that is their continuing
failed activist policies and philosophies. I agree with Jensen when he states, “that
form of nonviolence without advocating the immediate dismantling of the entire
system is not, in fact, to advocate nonviolence at all, but to tacitly countenance
the violence on which the system is based.”
Bringing Down the House
Jensen does not offer a blueprint in Endgame: Volume I for how activists
should go about bringing down civilization, but only his own musings.
In one rather
comical chapter he tells a rather Quixotic tale of when he went out ‘tilting’ cell-phone
towers whilst investigating the best way to bring down these bird-killing, cancer
causing, phallic structures of death. The chapter seems to illustrate that the
problems our ‘times’ face are complex and so must our solutions be.
Jensen predicts that regardless of what “we” activists do, the Earth
is on course for a dramatic “environmental correction” that will
strip civilization back down to only a sustainable size and structure. In any
event, Endgame: Volume 2 promises a more practical hands-on direction for what
can be done in the meantime.
Two years ago in Satya I penned an essay entitled “Apocalypse
the ‘elephant’ in our animal rights movement’s living room
that is impending ecological collapse. It seems the only elephant our movement
is willing to acknowledge though is that of the GOP politicians, endorsed by
groups like the Humane Society’s political action committee. Since then
I have been convicted of several deferral offenses related to verbal activism,
seen this once liberation-based movement hijacked towards a corporate-welfare
agenda (see Satya’s September 2006 issue), and have given up “hope.”
Derrick Jensen’s Endgame hasn’t given me a reason to believe that
success against governmental, corporate, human or ‘civilized’ oppression
is on the horizon, but it has given me a new lens to view my life, my principles
and my priorities.
Kevin Kjonaas was sentenced on September 12, 2006 to six years in prison for
his association as campaign coordinator for Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC)
USA. Since 1999 he has been a full-time volunteer in the international effort
to close down the notorious animal testing lab. For details visit www.SupportKevin.com.
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