At some point something happened to me. I stopped arguing with people. I don't even ask people to turn off idling cars on smog days.
Officially, I've never stopped believing things can change I just have no idea how. No one suggesting they do know how has ever been able to follow up. But when author and Earth Firstish ecologist Derrick Jensen takes the stage at U of T's Koffler Auditorium April 5, he doesn't try.
"Does anyone here believe,' he asks, "our culture will voluntarily transform to a sustainable way of life?' Sure, yeah, why not, part of me answers reflexively. There's a murmur of hearty chuckles in the crowd of a hundred; someone spits out a guffaw as if the thought were a sip of spoiled milk. In spite of myself, a part of me recoils.
"I ask that at all my talks,' he confides. "At one, someone raised his hand. People looked at him, and after a second he said, "Oh voluntarily. No, of course not,' and put his hand down.'
Brought here by the Anarchist University, the California-based Jensen is touring in support of his book Endgame. He promises, with a bit of a grin, to end the evening by "bashing hope.' It's obviously his favourite part; not sure if it'll be mine. But first on the roster is his chosen Goliath: Western civilization.
"If you don't agree that civilization is going to crash, we have nothing to say to each other,' he declares. "Oh, by the way, does anyone know how the Jays are doing? A lot of people don't like this, but I think it was a really good idea to pick up Molina.'
Stunned silence. It's a defining moment: here's a guy who can tell fresh-faced radicals to abandon all hope and prepare for the worst and talk to their parents about baseball - all in the same thoughtful, soft-spoken tone of voice.
There's also a bit of trickster in him. "Did you hear about Pedro Martinez's toe? He broke his toe, so he can't be the Mets' opening pitcher. That's bad,' he says, and nods gravely for a moment. "That's almost as bad as the [disappearing] phytoplankton.'
Soon he's reflecting on our culture of distraction. "People can identify Angelina Jolie's genitals at a distance, but they could never identify 10 edible plants in the area where they live.'
In his first book, A Language Older Than Words, which links memoirs of abused childhood with reflection on habitat destruction, he argues that we distract ourselves from the trauma caused by civilization.
The solution? Learn to live as animals again. To Jensen, empowerment is the same for activists and abuse survivors: realize that you aren't in a world of pain for which you carry equal blame, but a victim of a system doing what it needs to do to maintain power.
The theme came up during an earlier phone conversation. "When was the last time a corporation dumped toxins in the CEO's house?' he asks. "When you think of the hillsides of Iraq, do you think of cedar forests? This culture has been deforesting for 6,000 years, and somehow we're surprised when it continues.'
To hear Jensen talk about it, hope makes things too big to deal with. "The people running the timber companies know exactly what they want: every last tree,' he says. "I want to live in a world that has more wild salmon every year than the year before.'
Or as he says in one of his writings, "Every morning when I awake I ask myself whether I should write or blow up a dam.' His answer seems to be writing, "though anyone who knows anything about salmon knows the dams must go. Anyone who knows anything about politics knows the dams will stay.'
If anything is unnerving about Jensen, it's not the apocalyptic rhetoric. It's the fact that in tone, manner and most notably the subtlety of his arguments, he's the exact opposite of any The End Is Nigh sandwich-board guy.
"Hope is a desire for a future over which you have no agency,' he says. "I don't hope the coho salmon survive. I will not allow the dominant culture to drive them to extinction.'
In this light, hope is resignation to continued lack of ability or responsibility to make things happen. "Freedom means responsibility,' wrote George Bernard Shaw. "That is why men fear it.' Do we also hope out of fear?
"I needed to die and be reborn,' I clearly remember Jensen saying over the phone. "Then I could stop relying on false hopes: "If we just get a Democrat in the White House.' When I see anything positive now, I know it's emerging from the land, and from me.'
He writes: "Our goal, like a demolition crew on a downtown building, must be to help our culture collapse in place, so that in its fall it takes out as little life as possible.'
There's a rhetorical parallel growing: Die and be reborn.... The world is illusory.... Good works are not enough.... We're all just waiting for the end times... leading eventually to our return to utopia. It's all very Biblical, but without the promise of skeletons riding flying horses. Is the Return To Wildness replacing The Revolution as radicals' Rapture?
Maybe. But what is hope's batting average these days anyway? Someone can spend his or her entire life fighting for (not necessarily seeing) equitable conditions at a single factory. Voters expressed cautious disapproval of Liberal money-laundering, and the next thing we know it's immigrants on the first plane out, and give us your weed. It's still cause for raucous celebration if a small patch of earth is temporarily spared the developer's steam shovel.
Maybe hopelessness is a actually a new kind of hope. Will we end our insanity someday because we won't have a choice? I recall a passage from Orson Scott Card's science fiction standard, Ender's Game. "Our genes won't let us decide any other way,' says Colonel Graff to the eponymous Ender. "Nature can't evolve a species that hasn't a will to survive."
I'm reminded of one more thing Jensen told me: "All dams eventually collapse,' he said. "And every time a river changes its course, whether through catastrophic dam failure or any other flood, it's short-term habitat loss but long-term habitat gain.'