Endgame: Volume I: The Problem of Civilization
Derrick Jensen – 2006
Can society undergo a voluntary transformation to a sane and sustainable way of life?  This is the question that
Derrick Jensen poses at the very beginning of his eye-opening book,
Endgame.  Almost anyone posed with such
a question would not need to think for more than a few second before answering “No.”  But almost nobody
would then continue to think about the consequences of this fact, and see how industrial civilization is not just
likely but
certain to collapse, and that the longer it takes for it go down, the messier the fall will be.  Derrick
Jensen
has thought about it, he has been thinking and writing about it for many years, and in this book he offers
the most clear and sober analysis of this problem that I have ever come across.  Rather than just write a quick
review, I’ve decided to compose an entire essay to both highlight and support the most important and striking
parts of the book.

The immediate reaction that most people would have to Jensen’s message would probably be to write him off as
an alarmist, or a crazy environmentalist wacko who is just trying to sell books by talking sensationally about the
end of western civilization.  But Jensen can not be dismissed so easily.  He very clearly lays out his premises both
at the very beginning and throughout the book, and none of these premises are easy to reject.  He even addresses
the fundamental problem of justifying an ethical claim without appealing to God or divine law, suggesting that the
foundation of morality is our identity as living animals that need things like clean water and air to live.  While I
would disagree that this is something fundamental in the universe—who says life is a good thing?—I would most
certainly accept that if we’re going to choose a value to make central to an ethical system of our own construction,
the healthy functioning of life is probably the best choice we can make.  Anything that contributes to the well-being
of life is good, and anything that contributes to its destruction is bad.

Before discussing what needs to be done about the collapse of civilization, Jensen proves that it must collapse in
the first place.  The problem began thousands of years ago with the birth of civilization itself—when some groups
of human beings ceased the simple existence of small tribes with reverence and respect for the land they lived off
of, and began to live in cities that needed to reach out and take resources from the surrounding land to sustain the
people living within it.  From that moment on, a collapse at some future point in time became inevitable, as that is
the moment when sustainable existence became a thing of the past.

The problem became a great deal more urgent just a few centuries ago with the Industrial Revolution.  When
James Watt invented the steam engine, what he had done was to find a way to harness energy that had been
trapped on this planet millions of years ago—energy that has as its source the only real source of energy on this
planet: the sun.  This energy would be trapped in plants, eaten by animals, and through the years eventually
became the coal and oil that we now use today.  When we burn oil, we draw out that energy that came from the
sun millions of years ago.  Jensen calls this a “ghost slave” because it does for us what slaves used to do before
the machine age.  The energy we used to get from human workers we now get from these “ghost slaves” which
we have in only a finite supply because they are drawn from limited resources.  We are now using them at an
alarming rate; Jensen estimates that throughout the course of our lives, Americans live as though they had about 80
ghost slaves working for them, and the rest of the world uses about 10 on average.  But one thing is for certain—
once these ghost slaves are used they cannot be replaced, and the faster we use them the faster they will run out.

But the energy from coal and oil are not the only slaves in the machinery of civilization.  Humans are now slaves to
the industrial economy as well, and just as we depend on it to function, it depends on us to fuel it.  We therefore
find ourselves caught in an addiction from which we cannot break free.  We have lived with civilization for so long
that we no longer know how to live without it, how to move out of the cities and function as self-sustaining
communities by cultivating only the land we have.  Today almost all of us live in a city—an environment where the
land cannot sustain us on its own—so we must import resources from elsewhere and purchase them in order to
live.  For millions of years, humans lived on this planet without knowing the absurd circumstance of actually having
to
pay for food, to pay for shelter, to pay for clean water.  Now we must work for the system in order to be
supported by the system, and unless we own land ourselves—which we also need to
pay for—we have no
choice.  Civilization has made slaves of us all, and we can never be free of it until it collapses.

Our first reaction to this grim reality is to hope that Jensen is wrong—that we can figure out a way to prevent
civilization from collapsing.  We may believe every word he says, but think that if only we had a strong leader, or
if enough people saw what was going on and decided to do something about it, we actually
could make that
transformation to a sustainable way of life.  This was my attitude before reading this book.  But Jensen shows how
the system would never allow this.  If a president were elected who actually decided to struggle against this culture
of violence—who valued life over the acquisition of resources at all costs—could he actually succeed in bringing
about this transformation?  If he decided that the United States was no longer going to take oil from countries that
did not want to relinquish it, and assuming the congress went along and the C.I.A. did not assassinate him, prices
would skyrocket, the economy would collapse, people would be rioting in the streets, and it would only be a
matter of time before his head would be displayed on a pike in front of the white house.  As long as civilization is
around, peace and sustainability are
impossible.

But this idea that we can elect a president who will even try to achieve world peace is fantasy.  One of the most
striking sections of the book is Jensen’s quotation of an essay written by Michael Ledeen, one of the top national
security advisors in the Bush administration, entitled “Machiavelli on Our War: Some Advice for Our Leaders.”  
The ideology of this essay is the ideology of power—the impulse to win at all costs.  The essential premise is that
man is more inclined to do evil than good, and that societies with a majority of good people are rare, and
constantly threatened by the “evil-minded world” outside.  Aside from the totally unfounded claim that man is
essentially evil—which Jensen points out says more about Ledeen and those in his circle than about humanity at
large—and the absurdity of simplifying entire societies into categories such as “mostly good” or “evil-minded”, the
essay’s most important point is not to worry about how the world will judge you, but only about winning.  
Because if you win, history will judge that you were right no matter what you did, and it is better to be hated yet
feared than to be loved and admired.  Ledeen almost always urges politicians to go to war, and they are always
willing to listen.  In the case of George W. Bush, he seems to have accepted all of Ledeen’s premises without
question, and will continue his war in Iraq at all costs, un-fazed by the hatred he inspires because he believes that
history will eventually vindicate him.  The important point, however, is that it’s not just Bush.  It’s not just the
United States.  This is nearly everyone who has ever held a position of political power in the history of civilization,
and it is this type of thinking that keeps us killing each other and killing the planet.

We now come to the big question.  We know that civilization is killing the planet, that it is doomed to collapse and
the longer we wait the messier it will be, the more resources will have already been destroyed and the harder it
will be for future generations to survive in the decimated environment.  So what do we do about it?  Jensen’s
answer is the most controversial aspect of this book, because while most environmentalists or peace activists may
agree with everything he says, they would never resort to the use of violence to achieve their goals, which is what
he advocates.  I too was a dogmatic pacifist before reading this book, but Jensen’s arguments are beyond
convincing: they are practically irrefutable.  We can not just hand out pamphlets, sign petitions, hold
demonstrations, march in the designated protest areas, and just
hope that our leaders will see the light and that
things will get better.  We can not afford hope.  According to Jensen, hope is a bad thing.  We can not
hope that
civilization falls before it’s too late and the environment can no longer support us—we must simply do everything
in our power to
make this happen, even if it means using violence.

The problem as Jensen sees it is that too many activists treat the problems they face as a political game rather than
a matter of life and death.  Many of them have never directly experienced violence, so it is easy to treat it
philosophically and from a distance, and since the dominant ethical framework is to condone or condemn a certain
type of action and apply it to all circumstances, they believe that if we are to condemn the violence that our
leaders inflict on people of other countries and on the planet itself, any violence we might use to stop them should
also be condemned.

There is no better illustration of the absurdity of this than the real-life example of the November 1999 protests of
the World Trade Organisation, during which an altercation occurred between members of a more radical activists
group called Black Bloc, and the other “peaceful” protestors.  Black Bloc would break the windows of corporate
chain-stores, contending that private property is inherently violent, far more-so than that violence done to it
because the corporations own property at the expense of people’s lives.  During the protest, the peaceful
protestors saw what the Black Bloc members were doing, and based on their ideas that A) violence is wrong in
any circumstances, and B) the powerful would be less likely to hear their demands or
allow them to protest in the
future, they banded together to protect the chain-stores from the Black Bloc activists.  They would form human
chains in front of store windows, and as if that was not hypocrisy enough, some of them were caught physically
assaulting Black Bloc members shouting, “This is a non-violent protest!”  Some said to reporters, “Where are the
police?  These anarchists should be arrested!”  Meanwhile one can just imagine the directors of major
corporations laughing hysterically while reading the story aloud the next day from the comfort of their boardrooms,
even more certain that they can get away with anything they want than ever before.

The idea that violence is wrong in all circumstances must be overcome if we are to make any progress.  Jensen
believes it is a major problem that we have only one word—violence—for such a broad spectrum of actions.  We
use the same word to describe genocide as we do for smashing store windows.  The truth is there are many
different types of violence.  We can break it into categories such as deliberate or accidental, defensive or
aggressive, or even justified and unjustified.  If we can not accept the premise that there is such a thing as justified
violence, we are defeated before we begin.

The best example Jensen gives to highlight this major flaw of thinking among environmentalists is a comparison to
Nazi doctors during the holocaust.  These men worked in concentration camps and were a part of the system that
brutalised and exterminated Jews.  Yet they would treat the illnesses of the Jews, repair injuries, feed and comfort
them, and basically do what they believed was all that could be done to help these people in such a terrible
situation.  But even if a doctor cured a prisoner of an illness, that prisoner might be sent to a gas chamber or shot
in a line-up the next day.  Any small humanitarian victories that these doctors achieved were completely negligible
because they allowed the system to continue, perhaps believing that if they did stand up and fight back the Nazis
would kill them and they would therefore no longer be able to help in the small ways that they could only do while
alive.

Environmentalists are also focussing on small victories while ignoring the big picture.  They may save a patch of
forest here or an endangered species there, but the engine of civilization just keeps rolling on, destroying
thousands of times as much wilderness areas and species than are being saved.  They do not rise up and attack
the system because they believe they too need the system in order to achieve their small victories, unable to see
that these victories are purely symbolic and hollow, and that eventually even the trees and animals they save will
be destroyed.  They believe that in order to effectively protest, they must be allowed to protest, but this is an
absurdity.  If the powerful are allowing them to protest, it is only because they know that these protests do not
threaten them.  They only way to really get anything done is to break free of the designated protest zone, to smash
a few windows, blow up a few dams, take down a few cell-phone towers, and show the powerful that they are
serious, that they are willing to use non-legal means to achieve their goals, and that they
must be taken very
seriously
.

But unfortunately, the idea that the majority of environmentalists and peace activists will accept the idea that they
must
use violence to stop violence is probably also a fantasy.  It is the paradox that has kept humanity in slavery
for thousands of years and will continue to do so until we’re no longer around.  It is the simple reality that those
who value life above power are always going to be less willing to fight for life than those who value power are
going to be willing to fight for power.  Those who value power will therefore always have more power than those
who value life.  And if all of the power is in the hands of the power-hungry, the neoconservatives of today, the
Nazis of the past, and every empire or brutal regime that has ever existed on this planet, it is no wonder that
slavery is the human condition and will be so until the infrastructures fall and we—if we survive—go back to living
like the Indians, the only societies that managed to exist for thousands of years in peace, stability, and freedom
(until the white man came along and enslaved them).

It is very hard to imagine that we, who are the descendants of slaves who themselves are the descendants of
slaves and so on stretching back to the beginning of history, can possibly break free of the system that keeps us
enslaved.  It was far easier for the Indians to fight against the white man because they knew freedom, they knew
they could live without civilization, and they were willing to fight to preserve this way of life that they and their
forefathers had always known.  But we carry thousands of years of inculcation into slavery in the very framework
of our minds, right down to our religions and our philosophy.  We do not know what it means to be free because
we have never known freedom, and most people are so entrenched in this culture of slavery that they are not even
aware that they are slaves.  And if you can not convince a slave that he is a slave, what chance do you have of
convincing him that he needs to fight for his freedom?

Of course it is not just slavery itself that we must struggle against.  It all goes back to clean air and water.  The
system that has made slaves of us all is the same system that is destroying the world’s resources and doing
irreparable damage to the entire planetary ecosystem.  If we are content to remain slaves, to reject violence no
matter what the circumstances, to only take as much freedom as the powerful are willing to give us, we are
behaving just like the Nazi doctors who celebrate their hollow victories while millions die around them.  We are
allowing a system that is destroying the planet to continue destroying it, and the longer we allow it to happen the
worse it’s going to get.  The powerful do not care how many people they are killing or how many potential future
lives they are preventing from ever existing—they care only about winning, about the immediate victory—and they
will not change their ways without being forced.  The imminent collapse of civilization is of no concern to them,
just as long as they have a place to run and hide when it all goes down, and we can be sure that all of the
intelligent ones do.  They will live in as much luxury as they possibly can now, unconcerned with how many people
are dying to allow them that luxury (because they’re going to die anyway, right?), and if civilization collapses in
their lifetime they can just quietly slip away to their retreat and live in slightly less luxury, though still insulated from
suffering.

Those of us who
know suffering, who will suffer once civilization collapses and chaos ensues, have a
responsibility to do whatever we can in the mean-time to soften the blow once it comes.  It starts by accepting
that the blow
will come, that we cannot expect technology to us, that we will never voluntarily give up our current
way of life in favour of a sustainable existence, and that nobody in a position of power is going to help us.  We
must then figure out how to take down civilization before it’s too late for the planet, and we must use any means
necessary to prevent the powerful from stopping us.  Nothing has ever been more important.  Now is the most
critical time period in human history.  The collapse is coming soon, most likely within the century, and unless we
accept that it’s coming and do whatever we can to control the collapse, there will be a lot more suffering than
there needs to be.  But whatever specific things we need to do to bring about the collapse (which Jensen promises
to examine more closely in
Endgame: Volume II) one thing is certain: the longer we let the beast of civilization
rape our planet, the worse it is going to be for those who are left once it’s gone.  For the sake of everyone who
will be alive when it happens—which could very well be ourselves—we have a duty to bring down civilization,
and to bring it down as soon as possible.