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February 2007
Game Over
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 entrees.

AR Speciesism
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.”

Dismantling Nonviolence
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 Now” about 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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