Derrick Jensen: Civilization & Decolonization

Forward from Unsettling Ourselves

The Osage chief Big Soldier said of the dominant culture, “I see and admire your manner of living. . . . In short you can do almost what you choose. You whites possess the power of subduing almost every animal to your use. You are surrounded by slaves. Every thing about you is in chains and you are slaves yourselves. I fear that if I should exchange my pursuits for yours, I too should become a slave.”

The essence of the dominant culture, of civilization, is slavery. It is based on slavery, and it requires slavery. It attempts to enslave the land, to enslave nonhumans, and to enslave humans. It attempts to get us all to believe that all relationships are based on slavery, based on domination, such that humans dominate the land and everyone who lives on it, men dominate women, whites dominate non-whites, the civilized dominate everyone. And overarching everyone is civilization, is the system itself. We are taught to believe that the system— civilization—is more important than life on earth.

If you don’t believe me, ask yourself, what do all of the mainstream so-called solutions to global warming have in common? The answer is that they’re all trying to save industrial capitalism, not the real world. They all take industrial capitalism as a given, as that which must be saved, as that which must be maintained at all costs (including the murder of the planet, the murder of all that is real), as the independent variable, as primary; and they take the real, physical world—filled with real physical beings who live, die, make the world more diverse—as secondary, as a dependent variable, as something (never someone, of course) which (never who) must conform to industrial capitalism or die. Even someone as smart and dedicated as Peter Montague, who used to run the indispensable Rachel’s Newsletter, can say, about an insane plan to “solve” global warming by burying carbon underground (which of course is where it was before some genius pumped it up and burned it), “What’s at stake: After trillions of tons of carbon dioxide have been buried in the deep earth, if even a tiny proportion of it leaks back out into the atmosphere, the planet could heat rapidly and civilization as we know it could be disrupted.”

No, Peter, it’s not civilization we should worry about. Disrupting civilization is a good thing for the planet, which means it’s a good thing. Far more problematical than the possibility that “civilization as we know it could be disrupted” is the very real possibility that the planet (both as we know it and as we have never bothered to learn about it) could die. Another example: in a speech in which he called for “urgent action to fight global warming,” and in which he called global warming “an emergency,” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon gave the reason he wants urgent action to combat this emergency: “We must be actively engaged in confronting the global challenge of climate change, which is a serious threat to development everywhere.” Never mind it being a serious threat to the planet.

He’s worried about “development,” which is in this case code language for industrialization.

This is insane. It is out of touch with physical reality. In all physical truth to be civilized is to be insane, to be out of one’s mind, out of one’s body, and out of all realistic touch with the physical world.

Civilization is a disease, a highly contagious disease that kills the land, that kills those who live with or on the land, that attempts to kill all who do not accede to becoming its slaves.

Civilization is an addiction. My dictionary defines the verb addict as “to bind, devote, or attach oneself as a servant, disciple, or adherent.” In Roman Law, an addiction was “A formal giving over or delivery by sentence of court. Hence, A surrender, or dedication, of any one to a master.” It comes from the same root as diction: dicere, meaning to pronounce, as in a judge pronouncing a sentence upon someone. To be addicted is to be a slave. To be a slave is to be addicted. The heroin ceases to serve the addict, and the addict begins to serve the heroin. We can say the same for civilization: it does not serve us, but rather we serve it.

There’s something desperately wrong with that.

We must stop this addiction, this disease, from enslaving us, stop it from killing the planet. And while there are many actions we can and must take to protect the land and the human and non-human people we love from this culture, in many ways the first and most important step we must take is to decolonize our hearts and minds. That process of decolonization will look different for every person. It will look different for men than women. It will look different for those who are indigenous than for those who are not.

But there are some common features. Decolonization is the process of breaking your identity with and loyalty to this culture—industrial capitalism, and more broadly civilization—and remembering your identification with and loyalty to the real physical world, including the land where you live. It means re- examining premises and stories the dominant culture handed down to you. It means seeing the harm the dominant culture does to other cultures, and to the planet. If you are a member of settler society, it means recognizing that you are living on stolen land and it means working to return that land to the humans whose blood has forever mixed with the soil. If you are an indigenous person it means never forgetting that your land was stolen, and it means working to repossess that land, and it means working to be repossessed by that land. It means recognizing that the luxuries of the dominant culture do not come free, but rather are paid for by other humans, by nonhumans, by the whole world. It means recognizing that we do not live in a functioning democracy, but rather in a corporate plutocracy, a government by, for, and of corporations. Decolonization means internalizing the implications of that. It means recognizing that neither technological progress nor increased GNP is good for the planet. It means recognizing that the dominant culture is not good for the planet. Decolonization means internalizing the implications of the fact that the dominant culture is killing the planet. It means determining that we will stop this culture from doing that. It means determining that we will not fail. It means remembering that the real world is more important than this social system: without a real world you don’t have a social system, any social system. All of this is the barest beginnings of decolonizing. It is internal work that doesn’t accomplish anything in the real world, but makes all further steps more likely, more feasible, and in many ways more strictly technical.

Another way to put this is what my friend the environmentalist and medical doctor John Osborn says: the first step toward cure is proper diagnosis. Decolonization means making that proper diagnosis.

There is an even more basic process common to all decolonization, no matter who you are. It is this. The Russian author Anton Chekhov once assigned a young writer to create a story in which someone squeezed every drop of slave’s blood out of his body.

This is what we must do.

Civilization cannot survive free men and women who think and feel and act from their own hearts and minds, free men and women who are willing to act in defense of those they love.

This sourcebook is about squeezing every last drop of slave’s blood out of your body. This sourcebook is about breaking your addiction to the dominant culture, and about remembering what it is to be a free woman or man, what it is to live with a land that lives with you, and how to protect and defend that land, and your freedom, as if your life depends on it.

Because in all physical truth it does.

Activist and philosopher Derrick Jensen is the author of Endgame, The Culture of Make Believe, and A Language Older than Words, among many other books; he lives in northern California. Jensen’s philosophy and rousing calls to action are debated amongst radicals, environmentalists and solidarity activists worldwide. His writings and other works can be found at

Download the sourcebook: Unsettling Ourselves: Reflections and Resources for Deconstructing Colonial Mentality [PDF]

8 responses to “Derrick Jensen: Civilization & Decolonization

  1. A thoughtful post. Thank you. I am concerned that your definition of civilization as an illness may do all of us an injustice, however. There have been many civilizations in the Americas, some just and ecological, others less so. Our current dominant culture is clearly unsustainable and unjust. Many have questioned whether it is, indeed, civilization. It is a world system born from greed and dedicated to slavery. There might be more humane, humble forms of civilization we could explore. With seven billion people, we need some agreements as to how to live together with Pachamama. Those agreement would be a different form of civilization.

    • For his purposes, Jensen uses “civilization” and “civilized” in the pejorative sense, not to be confused with an advanced state of human culture (even if it sees itself as “advanced”). That said, even according to his definition of civilization, there were civilizations in the Americas that would not have been sustainable in the long-term, and were thus abandoned (such as the Maya). While he certainly uses a very specific and well-defined semantic definition when referring to civilization, he elaborates more on his ideas here. Aric McBay also adds to the discussion of civilization here.

  2. This is like what I was talking about a few weeks ago, that trying to use technology to save (the world through) capitalism is no more effective than trying to use magical thinking to save (the world through) religion.

  3. I love this article. I disagree with the term civilization, however. There have been all kinds of civilizations that are not based on the dominance paradigm. It is this mindset that is the enemy/ POV of slavery.

    • i tend to be of the opinion that it’s a rhetorical matter of semantics. words are fluid, dynamic, and malleable auditory/textual symbols intended to convey meaning, but that meaning and understanding is equally fluid, dynamic, malleable, and indeed highly individual, specific, and contextual. what i mean is, these disagreements tend to come down to a matter of definition, and in this case, the definition and conceptual understanding/articulation of the word/concept/idea “civilization”.

      Derrick Jenses deploys a very specific but also very valid and well-articulated semantic usage of “civilization”, which he explains in detail here. you might also want to check out the articulations of Derrick’s frequent co-author, Aric McBay.

  4. We are up against an Evil Empire. There are no legitimate nations under this Empire. We can not longer simply ‘decolonize’. We need to confront the Empire and strive towards Global Libertion as we work on our own pesonal Spiritaul Liberation.

    Venceremos Unidos! We Will Win United!
    Peter S. López AKA @Peta_de_Aztlan ~ Email=
    Sacramento, California, Aztlan
    HELP Portal ~ ~

  5. Pingback: Civilizace a dekolonizace | GreenAction

  6. Pingback: Civilizace a dekolonizace | Puntíčkovaní chrobáci

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