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An Interview with Derrick Jensen on Science and Technology

Agaisnt Prometheus

by FRANK JOSEPH SMECKER

Derrick Jensen is the prize-winning author of A Language Older Than Words, The Culture of Make Believe, Listening to the Land, Strangely Like War, Welcome to the Machine, and Walking on Water. He was one of two finalists for the 2003 J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize, which cited The Culture of Make Believe as "a passionate and provocative meditation on the nexus of racism, genocide, environmental destruction and corporate malfeasance, where civilization meets its discontents." He is an environmental activist and lives on the coast of northern California.

FRANK JOSEPH SMECKER: You write that this culture is murdering the planet – species extinction, entire continents of clear-cuts, the removal of 90 percent of the large fish from the oceans, global warming – all are but a handful of the dire effects of industrial civilization; how has philosophy shaped and influenced the behavior that has led to these despairing conditions?

Derrick Jensen: The stories we are told shape the way we see the world, which shapes the way we experience the world. R.D. Laing once wrote that how we experience the world shapes how we behave in the world. If the world is presented as resources to be exploited, then more than likely, you’re going to exploit the world. For example, if one sees trees as dollar bills, then one will look at trees and treat trees one way; if one sees trees as trees, for what they are – as other beings to be in communion with – then one will see them and treat them another way. Philosophy is the telling of the world a certain way.

FJS: Would you say that the stories and ideas passed on by Western philosophers and other ideologues, which have influenced the modern behavior of the dominant culture, are perpetuated through other mediums today?

DJ: Absolutely. Even today our media and entertainment present stories that affect our behavior. Take for example Ugly Betty – that new show on television. This is just cruel, and ultimately influences the way this culture sees and treats women. Personally, I think she’s fairly cute, and if I’m going to do the objectifying rating of women thing, scores easily a six or more on a scale of one to ten– but they throw some glasses and braces on her and suddenly the culture is telling us that she is ugly. My point is that in Hollywood, even someone who is explicitly labeled as "Ugly Betty" is still reasonably good looking. What does that, along with all the other images of women that are put out there, do to both women’s and men’s perception of women? Newspapers, too, are just as responsible. For example, I recently read an article in some newspaper about the decline of certain frog populations, and the header of the article read something along the lines as: “Another Frog Croaks…” What that does is trivializes… it makes a joke out of species extinction! Or how about the salmon that are going extinct? In this culture, if salmon are of no economic utility then what good are they? This seems to come from a place of hatred and narcissism. I write in Endgame how the narratives we are told shape the way we live. If you are told your entire life that only the most successful at dominating survive; that nonhumans have no desires of their own and are here for us to use; that the U.S. has your best interests at heart; that those in power hold some inherent moral and ethical value; that trees and mountains are resources to be extracted, then you will come to believe all of that and behave in the world one way. If the stories that are told are different, then you will come to believe and act much differently. If your culture told you stories since childhood that eating dog shit tasted good, that’s going to affect your behavior. What I mean by this is that if someone told you story after story extolling the virtues of eating dog shit since you were a child, you’ll grow to believe them. Sooner or later, if you are exposed to other foods, you might discover that eating dog shit doesn’t taste too great. Or if you cling too tightly to these stories of eating dog shit – that is if your enculturation is so strong that it actually does taste good to you, the diet might make you sick or kill you. To make this example less silly, substitute pesticides for dog shit, or for that matter, substitute Big Mac™, Whopper™, or Coke™. Eventually physical reality trumps narrative. It can just take a long time.

FJS: You often write that the dominant culture has robbed the world of its subjectivity; how does this influence our behavior? And if the stories we are told inculcate an objective perception of the world and those around us, then how do we shatter those lenses in order to begin perceiving the world for what it is – a matrix of subjective relations to be in communion with?

DJ: If you do not perceive the fundamental beingness of others (i.e. nonhuman animals, trees, mountains, rivers, rocks, etc), or in some senses do not even perceive their existence, then nothing I say or write can convince you. Nor will evidence be likely to convince you, since, as already mentioned, you won’t perceive it, or more accurately, won’t allow yourself to perceive it. No matter how well I write, if you have never made love, I cannot adequately describe to you what it feels like to do so. Even moreso, if you insist that no such thing as making love even exists, then I will certainly never be able to adequately explain to you what it feels like. For that matter, I cannot describe the color green to someone who is blind, and who even moreso insists that green does not exist, could never exist; as well as to someone who knows that philosophers from Aristotle to Descartes to Dawkins have conclusively shown that green does not exist, could not exist, has never existed, and will never exist; or to someone who is under the thrall of economic and legal systems (insofar as there is a meaningful difference, since the primary function of this culture’s legal systems is to protect—through laws, police, courts, and prisons—the exploitative activities of the already-wealthy) based so profoundly on green not existing; who cannot acknowledge that this culture would collapse if its members individually and/or collectively perceived this green that cannot be allowed to exist. If I could describe the color green to you, I would do it. I would drive you, as R.D. Laing put it, out of your wretched mind. And you might be able to see the color green.  Or someone else could drive you out of your wretched mind. It certainly needn’t be me. I’m not the point. You’re not the point. Your perceived experience isn’t even the point. The point is your wretched mind, and getting out of it. And beyond that, the point then is your experience.

FJS: So to “see green,” figuratively speaking, is to experience the world personally, emotionally, convivially and reciprocally with other beings, rather than to experience it as a set of objective truths for personal material gain or information, or as protocol to maintain the status quo?

DJ: Exactly. This culture is based on the assumption that all of the world is without volition, is mechanistic, and is therefore predictable. The existence of the willfully unpredictable destroys a foundational assumption of this culture. The existence of the willfully unpredictable also invalidates this culture’s ontology, epistemology, and philosophies, and reveals them for what they are: lies upon which to base this omnicidal system of exploitation, theft, and murder; it’s much easier to exploit, steal from, or murder someone you pretend has no meaningful existence (especially if you have an entire culture’s ontology, epistemology, and philosophy to back you up), indeed, it becomes your right, even your duty (e.g. war, genocide, death squads, mercenaries, etc). The existence of the willfully unpredictable reveals this culture’s governmental and economic systems for what they are as well: means to not only rationalize but enforce systems of exploitation, theft, and murder (e.g., effectively stop Monsanto’s exploitation, theft, and murder, and see how you are treated by governments across the world).

FJS: So it’s really about personal experience over narrative, over inculcation?

DJ: In many ways it is. R.D. Laing began his extraordinary The Politics of Experience with: “Few books today, are forgivable.” He wrote this, I believe, because we have become very alienated from our own experience, from whom we are, and this alienation is so destructive to others and to ourselves, that if a book does not take this alienation as its starting point and work toward rectifying it, we’d all be better off looking at blank pieces of paper. I of course agree with Laing that few books today are forgivable (and the same is true for films, paintings, songs, relationships, lives, and so on), and I agree for the reasons I believe he was giving. This culture is murdering the planet. Any book (film, painting, song, relationship, life, and so on) that doesn’t begin with this basic understanding—that the culture is murdering the planet—is not forgivable, for an infinitude of reasons, one of which is that without a living planet there can be no books. There can be no paintings, songs, relationships, lives, and so on. There can be no dreams. There can be nothing.

FJS: It’s about experiencing a symbiotic world that is in dynamic equilibrium, not a world that is at our disposal. It’s about recognizing the pervading relationships between all of us: trees and fresh water, birds and wall-eyed pike, mountains and the sky, you and I; not about hours and wages, markets and policy, resources and industrial modes of production.

DJ: Correct.

FJS: The indigenous were and are in kinship with nonhumans, and in fact indigenous peoples never once held a utilitarian worldview over their landbase insofar as they perceived the natural landscape as a matrix of reciprocal relationships to enter into. Why do you think it is that the dominant culture cannot engage with the land in the same way?

DJ: In all of my books I’ve emphasized that the fundamental difference between civilized and indigenous ways of being is that for even the most open-minded of the civilized, listening to the natural world is a metaphor. For traditional indigenous peoples it is not a metaphor. It is how you relate with the real world. This culture’s way of life is based on exploitation, domination, theft, and murder. And why? Because it is based on the perceived right of the powerful to take whatever resources they want. If you see yourself as entitled to a resource, and if you’re not willing or incapable of seeing this other as a being with whom you can and should be in relation with, then you’re going to take the resource.

FJS: Do you believe that scientific philosophy galvanizes the exploitative utilitarian worldview?

DJ: Richard Dawkins, the popular scientific philosopher—he’s got almost as many Google hits as Mick fuckin’ Jagger—states that we exist in “a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication.” Implying that humans are the only meaningful intelligence on earth, and possibly in the universe, the world then consists of objects to be exploited, not other beings to enter into relationship with. Dawkins also writes: “You won’t find any rhyme or reason in it [the universe], nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.” Because the latter scientific assumption posits that nonhumans have no meaningful intelligence, they have nothing to say, to each other or to us. Thus interspecies communication is bunk, no matter who the nonhumans are: animals, plants, rivers, rocks, stars, muses, and so on. Anyone who thinks otherwise, and this is key, is superstitious, that is, delusional, maybe primitive, maybe crazy, maybe childish, maybe just plain stupid. Suddenly science has a stronger hold on one’s belief moreso than any religion. Scientific philosophy is much better at controlling people because if you don’t buy into it, you’re stupid. The fundamental religion of this culture is that of human dominion, and it does not matter so much whether one self-identifies as a Christian, a Capitalist, a Scientist, or just a regular member of this culture, one’s actions will be to promulgate this fundamentalist religion of unbridled entitlement and exploitation. This religion permeates every aspect of this culture.

FJS: In the book you wrote with George Draffan, Welcome to the Machine: Science, Surveillance, and the Culture of Control, you elaborated on the conflation of science and control; can you talk a bit about what you wrote? And would you agree that there’s also something to be said of this culture’s conflation of the power of command and truth?

DJ: Absolutely. First, if the scientific materialist instrumentalist perspective is right and every other culture is wrong, the universe is a gigantic clockwork – a machine: a very predictable and therefore controllable machine. Power in this case, then, is like meaning in that there is no inherent power in the world (or out of it)—just as no power inheres in a toaster or automobile until you put it to use—and the only power that exists is that which you project onto and over others (or that others project onto and over you). Power exists only in how you use raw materials – the more raw materials you use more effectively than anyone else, the more power to you. And science is a potent tool for that. That’s the point of science. This means, of course, that might then makes right, or rather, right, too, is like meaning and doesn’t inhere anyway—if nonhumans are not in any real sense beings and are here for us to use (and not here for their own sakes, with lives as meaningful to them as yours is to you or mine is to me) then using (or destroying) them raises no significant moral questions, any more than whether you or I do or don’t use or destroy any other tool—which means right is what you decide it is, or more accurately, it’s irrelevant, right is whatever you want it to be, which means it’s really nothing at all. But this malleable notion of right means that you can fairly easily talk yourself into feeling good about exploiting the shit out of everyone and everything else. If all of this sounds sociopathological, that’s because it is. Western philosophy and scientific philosophy is sociopathological, it finds logic through the power of command. It makes us all insane. Richard Dawkins wrote, “Science boosts its claim to truth by its spectacular ability to make matter and energy jump through hoops on command, and to predict what will happen and when.” Do you see the fundamental flaw in logic here? I’m guessing that if we lived in a culture that wasn’t sociopathological we would all see through this in a heartbeat. Let’s ask a simple question: How does science boost its claim to truth? Here is Dawkins’s (and the culture’s) answer: by making matter and energy jump through hoops on command, and by predicting what will happen and when. Do you see the problem yet? Okay, let’s try it a different way: Let’s say Dawkins has a gun. Let’s say he points this gun at your head. Let’s say he commands you to jump through hoops. Let’s say you do it. He does, after all, have a gun pointed at your head. Now, with this gun pointed at your head, he tells you to jump through those hoops again. And then he predicts that this is precisely what you will do. You do it. Whaddya know, he’s a fucking genius: He commanded you to jump through hoops, and he predicted right when you’d do it. Dawkins was with this sentence incredibly intellectually dishonest—and sneaky as hell—and the only reason he hasn’t been called out on it – and someone seriously needs to call this fucking guy out – is that he has a whole culture of sociopaths for company. He has conflated the power to command with truth. He has conflated domination with truth. But neither the power to command nor domination is the same as truth. The power to command is the power to command, domination is domination, and truth is truth.

Richard Dawkins could put a gun to my head. He could even kill me. But that wouldn’t mean that he is telling the truth. This culture is dominating the planet. This culture’s domination of the planet is killing it. That does not mean this culture is telling the truth, or is even capable of understanding it. At the same time, the power to dominate is a sort of truth. But there are other truths as well, that can be masked, obscured, or destroyed by this truth. An example should make this clear. Let’s say I force you to jump through hoops. Let’s say I enslave you. Are there not other truths that have been closed off because I forced you to jump through hoops, because I enslaved you? Any path forecloses others. Some paths foreclose more than do other paths. The same is true with truths: some paths to certain forms of knowledge, and some paths to certain forms of truth, irrevocably foreclose other paths to knowledge, and other paths to other truths.

I recently read an essay by Sam Harris, an ally of Dawkins and a full-blown nature-hater in his own right. The essay is entitled “Mother Nature is Not our Friend.” It begins, “Like many people, I once trusted in the wisdom of Nature. I imagined that there were real boundaries between the natural and the artificial, between one species and another, and thought that, with the advent of genetic engineering, we would be tinkering with life at our peril. I now believe that this romantic view of Nature is a stultifying and dangerous mythology. Every 100 million years or so, an asteroid or comet the size of a mountain smashes into the earth, killing nearly everything [sic] that [sic] lives. If ever we needed proof of Nature’s indifference to the welfare of complex organisms such as ourselves, there it is. The history of life on this planet has been one of merciless destruction and blind, lurching renewal.”
The whole essay is as shoddy as it is full of nature-hating. I’m not sure why he couldn’t be bothered to spend a whole thirty seconds doing a Google™ search to learn that only one of the major mass extinctions was probably caused by an asteroid. I’m also not sure why he didn’t just say that nature is red in tooth and claw, and be done with it. The exploration of mass extinctions is based on data gathered by scientists using the premises, methods, and tools of science, then turned into stories by these or other scientists using the framework of scientific stories to assign meaning to these data points.

Big deal, you might say. Well, it is a big deal. The premises and other preconditions of any story nearly always overdetermine the direction of that story. They especially overdetermine a story’s morality, and even moreso they overdetermine the moral of the story (which is not the same as the story’s morality). And of course the story about multiple mass extinctions has a moral that is obvious at least to Sam Harris. This moral is precisely that of the larger scientific materialist instrumentalist mechanistic perspective, that, “Nature” is, as Harris says, “indifferent.” Or actually “Nature” is—as Harris would say were he a clear enough thinker to have even the slightest bit of internal consistency—even less than indifferent: “Nature” is insensate: indifference implies a capacity to feel. I can reasonably be described as indifferent as to whether the Knicks or the Spurs win tomorrow night. That may also be true for you. But one does not normally describe one’s clothes hamper as “indifferent” as to the outcome of tomorrow night’s game. I want to focus just a bit more on Harris’s sloppy word usage here, because I think it’s indicative of something far deeper than unclear thinking. Part of my clue for this is that his use of the word indifferent wasn’t the only interesting choice of words. Another was his title: “Mother Nature is Not our Friend.” I am fascinated by the fact that although people like Harris and Dawkins claim to believe that the universe is mechanistic, they so often use emotion-packed words like mother and friend and trust and merciless, and their language is quite often hostile, as though they’re describing not a machine as they pretend, but rather an enemy, or someone who has betrayed them. Think about this in your own life: how often have you said that your clothes hamper is not your friend? How often have you said your toaster is merciless? If you truly believe that something—something—is utterly insensate, you would hardly be likely to describe this thing as either a friend or an enemy or as anything other than a thing. These supposedly clear thinkers are, I believe, very confused in their thinking and most especially in what they feel about all of this, by which I mean what they feel about life. I can’t prove this, of course, but it seems very clear to me that the emotions they express toward life and toward the natural world are not the sort of neutral feelings one would normally experience and express toward an inanimate object, but rather a hatred toward, and fear of, life and the natural. I believe, and once again I can’t prove this, but it feels right, and has felt right since I first read Dawkins twenty years ago, that they really fear life, and fear death, and feel betrayed by life in part because they, too, like everyone else, must suffer, and they, too, like everyone else must die. The fact that they, too, must pay this price of suffering and death as a cost of participating in the joyous web of experience and relationship that is the ongoing and eternally creative process of living, somehow seems to them an affront. To which I have a two-word response: grow up. Clearly in their descriptions of life, they focus more on inherent suffering than they do on inherent joy and delight. Were they not so influential their perspective would merely be pathological and pathetic. As it is, their popularity is of course what one would expect it to be in a culture that hates and fears wild nature, that attempts to control and destroy wild nature, and that is in fact killing life on earth. The perspective of people like Harris and Dawkins (and indeed most people in this culture)—that of believing that the universe is “merciless” or is otherwise insufficient and needs to be significantly manipulated and/or improved in order to make it bearable—is a central perspective and driving motivator of the murder of the planet, and is in utter contrast to the perspectives and motivations of most of the indigenous, who generally perceive the natural world as sufficient, as bountiful, as beautiful, as generous, as provider, as mother, as father, as family. The perspective of people like Harris and Dawkins—the perspective that underlies civilization—is not only murderous, but it is also extraordinarily ungrateful.

Whether or not you believe the universe is mechanical, it gave you your life, your extraordinary, unique, awe-filled life. Unless your life truly is miserable, to not show gratitude for this gift is to show yourself a spoiled, immature wretch.

FJS: Has science provided the world with anything good?

DJ: That’s a very common question that is asked: Hasn’t science done a lot of good for the world? For the world? No. Show me how the world—the real, physical world, once filled with passenger pigeons, great auks, cod, tuna, salmon, sea mink, lions, great apes, migratory songbirds, forests—is a better place because of science. Science has done far more than facilitate the destruction of the natural world: it has increased this culture’s ability to destroy by many orders of magnitude. We can talk all we want about conservation biology and about the use of science to measure biodiversity, but in the real, physical world the real, physical effects of science on real, living nonhumans has been nothing short of atrocious. Science has been given three hundred years or so to prove itself. And of course three hundred years ago great auks (and fish, and whales) filled the seas, and passenger pigeons and Eskimo curlews filled the skies, and soil was deeper, and native forests still stood. If three hundred years of chainsaws, CFCs, depleted uranium, automobiles, genetic engineering, airplanes, routine international trade, computers, plastics, endocrine disrupters, pesticides, vivisection, internal combustion engines, fellerbunchers, dragline excavators, televisions, cellphones, and nuclear (and conventional) bombs are not enough to convey the picture, then that picture will never be conveyed.

Without science, there would not be ten times more plastic than phytoplankton in the oceans. The Nazi Holocaust was, as I made clear in The Culture of Make Believe, and as Zygmunt Bauman made clear in Modernity and the Holocaust, a triumph of the modern industrial rationalistic scientific instrumentalist perspective. Global warming, which may end in planetary murder, would not be running rampant without the assistance of science and scientists. Without science there would be no hole in the ozone. Without science and scientists, we would not face the threat of nuclear annihilation. Without science, there would be no industrial civilization, which even without global warming would still be leading to planetary murder. Sure, science brought us television, modern medicine (and modern diseases), and cardboard-tasting strawberries in January, but anyone who would rather have those than a living planet is, well, a typical member of this culture. If it’s the case that evolution happened so that we would come to exist, then it’s pretty damn obvious we’re fucking up whatever we were brought into being to do. How much sense would it make to have all of this evolution take place simply so that the point, the apex, the pinnacle of this evolution can end life on the planet? Talk about the world’s longest and stupidest shaggy dog story.

FJS: Is there any personal philosophy you do uphold? And is there any hope for the future survival of life on the planet?

DJ: Everything is circumstantial. We can definitely rely on tenets to guide our behavior, but ultimately, care about what happens in the world supersedes philosophy. We need to recognize that physical reality trumps our philosophy. Life is far more complex than philosophy can state. I can’t even figure out romantic relationships, or the relationship between what I eat and my Crohn’s disease. As for philosophy, it is like a map. The map is not the territory – the territory is far more complex than the map, and the constituents of the territory are even far more complex. Ourselves, trees, mountains, nonhuman animals – everyone alive in this world is far more complex than the philosophy or science that seeks understanding (viz. control). In all honesty, we can’t talk a philosophy. Philosophy teaches us how to live, so a philosophy must be land-based. Therefore, the philosophy of Vermont has to be different in Vermont than the philosophy of northern California. As for hope, hope is a longing for a future condition over which you have no agency. That’s how we use it in everyday language: we don’t say, "I hope I eat something today." We just do it. But the next time I get on a plane I hope it doesn’t crash, because once I’m in the air I have no agency. So I don’t hope this culture doesn’t kill the planet: I’ll do whatever it takes to stop it. I have agency. So do you. We must actively protect as much of the natural as possible. When we realize the degree of agency we actually do have, we no longer have to hope at all. Think about it: what is the real source of our life? Of our food, our air, our water? Is it the economic system? No. It’s the landbase. And those in the future will only care about whether or not we left them with clean air, clean water, and healthy intact landbases. The world is being killed and we have to stop this.

Thousands of years of inculcation and ideology all aimed at driving us out of our minds and bodies, away from any realistic sense of self-defense, real land stewarding, have gotten us to identify not with our bodies and our landbases, but with our abusers, governments, and civilization. Break this identification, and one’s course of action becomes much clearer. Love yourself and love the land, and each other, and you will act in the best interest of, and defend, your beloved. The material world is primary. This doesn’t mean that the spirit does not exist, nor that the material world is all there is. It means that spirit mixes with flesh. It also means that real world actions have real world consequences. It means this mess really is a mess, and we have to face this mess ourselves; that for the time we are here on Earth – whether or not we end up somewhere else after we die, and whether we are condemned or privileged to live here – the Earth is the point. It is primary. It is our home and it is everything. It’s silly to think or act or be as though this world is not real and primary. It is very silly to not live our lives as though our lives are real.

FRANK JOSEPH SMECKER is a writer and social worker from Vermont. He can be reached at: frank.smecker@gmail.com