Derrick Jensen and being who we were meant to be

I have just finished reading Dreams by Derrick Jensen (Seven Stories Press), and have again been struck by the way the evolution of his thinking intertwines with areas of interest to me, although our starting points and cultural references are quite different.

Needless to say, this 550-page book is full of the sharp comments on the state of our civilisation that readers have come to expect from the increasingly influential deep green American thinker.

Take, for instance, his observation that ‘sustainable development’ is in fact an oxymoron “since ‘development’ is a euphemism in this case for industrialization, which is by definition unsustainable; in fact, industrialization is utterly, irrevocably, and functionally antithetical or sustainability.”

Or this acerbic remark: “I’ve never had much patience for those – and there are a lot of them – who consider humans to be the ‘apex’ of evolution, who evidently believe that all of evolution took place so that we can watch television.”

And you can’t spell it out much clearer than this: “Progress is pure selfishness. Progress is theft. Progress is slave-mongering. Progress is murder. Progress is genocide. Progress is ecocide. Progress is sociopathy.”

It is hardly surprising, given his environmentalism and interest in indigenous cultures, that Jensen shares the view of life as a complex unity, or a network of interconnected entities, to which I referred in Antibodies.

He describes a visit by Jeannette Armstrong to northern Russia, where she witnessed a villager correctly declare the whereabouts of some elusive caribou on which they depended for food and skins. “Jeannette asked the man how he knew where the caribou were, and he responded, ‘How do you know where your hand is?’.”

Even more fascinating, from my point of view, are Jensen’s musings on fate and how indigenous people believe we are guided by “original instructions” – our responsibility being to live our lives according to them.

This is very much what I see as our role as ‘antibodies’ or ‘anarchangels’, born with a particular role to play for the benefit of the Whole, if we can only clear ourselves of the egotistic materialism that blocks the channels of our destiny (so that, in Jensen’s words. “we never can become who we really are and were meant to be”).

I have written before of Jensen’s inspiration from indigenous American spirituality and, discussing Mayan beliefs, Jensen explains the idea of a non-physical presence needing the physical manifestation of an earthly being through whom it can act on our material plane. In his case he is of use because “I have fingers and thumbs, and can write things down.”

This universal concept of the spirit that wants to be flesh (even as the flesh longs to be spirit) is also expressed in Sufi mysticism, into which I have recently been dipping. The Sufi commentator ‘Abdul-Karim Jili, for instance, says of the Divine: “His attributes are not completed except in us. So we give Him the attributes and He gives us being.”

This need for abstract to become real is of course, mirrored by Jensen’s insistence on the urgent need for drastic action to halt industrial capitalism, for a resistance movement to emerge and bring down civilisation.

Spiritual awareness is of no use at all if it does not feed back to the worldly level – as we saw, the very reason why we are alive, with a presence in the real world, is that we have the ability to act, to physically intervene.

As Jensen says: “If we don’t stop them from killing the planet, nothing else matters.”