Endgame, Vol. 1: The Problem of Civilization - Derrick Jensen There’s a scene early in Asimov’s Foundation when Hari Seldon is on trial for sedition (he’s been prophesizing the collapse of the Empire) and the prosecutor asks him about the group of people he’s assembled, if they’re there to save the Empire. Seldon replies (and I paraphrase freely since I don’t have the book in front of me):

“Oh, no, the Empire’s toast. The most we can do is make sure the ensuing dark age doesn’t last as long as it might without our intervention.”

Another author who’s brought to mind is Olaf Stapledon, who, in Last And First Men and Mother Earth. That series ends with civilization destroyed, and the survivors reduced to the Stone Age.

And then there’s H.M. Hoover’s Children of Morrow>, one of my favorite books when I was a kid. It’s the story of a post-apocalypse world where ecological collapse has left the planet oxygen starved, and the survivors struggle to eke a marginal living out of the depleted soil.

And what would a review be without a reference (two actually) to the Malazan Book of the Fallen?

“There is something profoundly cynical, my friends, in the notion of paradise after death. The lure is evasion. The promise is excusative. One need not accept responsibility for the world as it is, and by extension, one need do nothing about it. To strive for change, for true goodness in this mortal world, one must acknowledge and accept, within one's own soul, that this mortal reality has purpose in itself, that its greatest value is not for us, but for our children and their children. To view life as but a quick passage alone a foul, tortured path...is to excuse all manner of misery and depravity, and to exact cruel punishment upon the innocent lives to come.” The Bonehunters



Separated at birth? Perhaps not but both have the same goal – to bring down civilization.

I’m reminded of all these books (and more) because all reflect Derrick Jensen’s view of human civilization. As he succinctly puts it on p. 231 of volume one:

“We are fucked. We are so fucked.
“Not in the good sense of the word.”

Or in a more nuanced – and less scatological – version:

1. Industrial civilization is unsustainable. It’s not a question of “if” but a question of “when” it’s going to fall.
2. The fall is going to be messy.
3. The longer it takes civilization to fall, the worse the tragedy. In that light there are two things we should be doing: Bringing about the fall sooner rather than later; and preparing to survive it.

He puts forth his case in 20 premises (which I list below in abbreviated form), and the pages following present his evidence and his arguments. (Note 2)

Civilization is not sustainable.

Traditional communities do not voluntarily give up their resources.

Industrial civilization requires persistent and widespread violence.

Civilization is based on a hierarchy. Violence done by those higher on the hierarchy to those lower down is invisible or rationalized as necessary; violence done by those lower on the hierarchy is taboo.

The property of those higher on the hierarchy is more important than the lives of those lower down.

Civilization is not redeemable; it cannot undergo a transformation to a sane and sustainable way of living.

The longer civilization takes to fall, the worse the crash and the longer it will take for humans and nonhumans to recover.

The needs of the natural world are more important than the needs of the economic system.

The current level of human population will be reduced drastically.

That reduction will be violent and involve privations – not necessarily because the means are violent but because violence and privation are the defaults in our culture.

Civilization is driven by a death urge, an urge to destroy life.

Civilization is a culture of occupation.

There are no rich; there are no poor; there are just people. The “rich” make claims against the “poor” and enforce them with police and other instruments of authority, aided by the deluded collusion of the poor.

Those in power rule by force.

From birth, humans are conditioned to hate life, the natural world, themselves and others. If they weren’t, they would be unable to destroy the world around them.

Love does not imply pacifism.

The material world is primary.

It is a mistake to base decisions on what to do about the situation on whether or not it will frighten fence-sitters.

Our sense of self is no more sustainable than our use of energy or technology.

Civilization’s problem above all is the belief that controlling and abusing the natural world is justifiable.

Economics drive social decisions that are justified by how well they are able to control or to destroy the natural world.

I wish I had the time and the endurance to look at each premise and discuss it here in this review. But he covers such a wide range of topics in such a discursive manner that it’s difficult to summarize them or to mount rebuttals (if you have a mind to). Like many reviewers on this site (at least the ones who’ve written anything), I agree with Jensen that civilization is moribund. Even if it is not doomed to utter collapse, its fate will be an unhappy one for the foreseeable future.

But there’s something troubling about his prescriptions.

For me, the first is an overly romanticized view (IMO) of indigenous cultures. For example, he mounts a hysterical (in the Victorian sense of the word) attack against Charles Mann’s analysis of pre-Columbian tribes and their exploitation of the natural environment (in 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus), excoriating Mann for suggesting that Native manipulations of forest and wildlife were in any way similar to industrial civilization’s manipulations of the same environments – examples of humanity’s desire to control nature. He even goes so far as to call Mann “evil,” which (I think) is going a bit far. I don’t know – and I doubt Jensen knows – what Mann’s position on the merits of the respective exploitations is. I’ve read the book in question and, if anything, would be inclined to think Mann prefers the Indian’s management over the cock-up we’ve made of things.

The second concern I have is that Jensen’s language is the fanatic’s or fundamentalist’s. I understand his fear and his anger; that the elites who control the wealth and thus politics and economic development seem to be unreachable by anything short of violence; and that most of us act like battered wives, refusing to see how destructive and deadly our relationship is, but I fear his certitude – that he’s right and there’s only one thing we can do – hinders convincing more people that we have a problem. I’m accepting of his premises because I was already a convert but if I were one of his “fence-sitters” or a mainstream environmentalist, I’d probably shut out his arguments when confronted with the anger and his advocacy of violence (Note 3). His attitude is too cavalier and dismissive of the consequences. Violence has a way of spiraling out of control, of hurting unintended targets, and of provoking responses that are even more violent. It prompted me to reread Emma Goldman’s essays on the subject because she ultimately rejected violence in most circumstances (Note 4).

At the end of reading these volumes, Jensen’s question – What are you going to do? – is still the correct one, however.

What am I going to do?

The problems are overwhelming but the solutions are awful to contemplate.

I don’t know…. I sincerely don’t know.

Note 1: While prescient, Stapledon did give our species 4,000 years of supremacy before he drew down the curtain. In think in Jensen’s view, we’ll be lucky to have 40 years of continued civilization before everything we know of the world and how we live in it ends.

Note 2: Mostly “arguments.” The hard facts and figures he usually relegates to a citation in the notes.

Note 3: Jensen is very coy about this advocacy. He argues that violence is about the only method left to effect real change at this point, but he doesn’t tell anyone to commit a violent act. He says that, after reading Endgame, it’s up to you to decide how you are going to respond – if that includes blowing up a dam, committing arson, toppling cellphone towers or hacking into computer networks, that’s your choice.

Note 4: Emma Goldman is one of the saints in my pantheon (it’s she and not Jane Austen’s Emma after whom my cat is named). Her essays on violence and the prison system read as if they were written only yesterday, and she anticipated Derrick with some of her conclusions, e.g., “(I)f the production of any commodity necessitates the sacrifice of human life, society should do without that commodity, but it can not do without that life” or “The ultimate end of all revolutionary social change is to establish the sanctity of human life, the dignity of man, the right of very human being to liberty and well-being.”

And, unlike Jensen, who claims never to have had the nerve to commit a violent act, Emma “walked the walk.” It’s that experience and her observations of the Russian Revolution that informed her subsequent conclusions. “Though Goldman grew skeptical about the value of individual acts of violence…she never doubted the necessity for collective revolutionary violence against capitalism and the State…. After her experience of Bolshevik terror in Russia…she began to reexamine her feelings about sustained collective revolutionary violence as well…. ‘I know that in the past every great political and social change necessitated violence…. Yet it is one thing to employ violence in combat as a means of defence. It is quite another thing to make a principle of terrorism, to institutionalize it, to assign it the most vital place in the social struggle. Such terrorism begets counter-revolution and in turn itself becomes counter-revolutionary.’”

And, “The one thing I am convinced of as I have never been in my life is that the gun decides nothing at all. Even if it accomplishes what it sets out to do…it brings so many evils in its wake as to defeat its original aim.”