Derrick Jensen, 'How Shall I Live My Life? On Liberating the Earth from Civilisation'

IssueNovember 2010
Review by Ian Sinclair

With industrial civilisation destroying the planet, How Shall I Live my Life? is “the only question worth asking” according to the radical thinker Derrick Jensen. Thus the ten wide-ranging interviews with largely American activists, philosophers and writers conducted by Jensen centre on each person’s holistic methods of resistance to the environmental degradation caused by the dominant culture.

Reconnecting to the natural world, looking to indigenous cultures and increasing democracy are some of the common threads running through each, often spiritual, conversation. There is also a strong focus on how to deal with what Jensen calls “the endgame”. Or, as one of the interviewees puts it, “The challenge before us is to survive an ecological correction unprecedented for our species.”

Although all of the interviews are now over 10 years old most of the material is as relevant as ever – from Jan Lundberg’s lucid and frightening exploration of the developed world’s damaging car culture to Media Lens’s David Edwards talking about thought control in democratic society. “There is a no greater obstacle to freedom than the assumption that it has already been attained”, notes Edwards. Elsewhere the late Native American thinker Vine Deloria questions Western conceptions of “science”, “objectivity” and “progress”, and makes a fascinating case that people’s identity crises are connected to the contemporary capitalist society they live in.

Jensen is a skilled, sympathetic interviewer and guide, encouraging each person to explain further when needed. Some interviews work better than others, with the quality varying considerably. For example, I found the discussion of magic, dreams and the life of inanimate objects with the philosopher-magician David Abram impenetrable, New Age nonsense. The lack of footnotes is also frustrating. Assertions such as “half the water in the United States is carcinogenic” (George Draffan) and how both “Communism and Capitalism derive from… the last chapters of the book of Revelations” (Thomas Berry) are intriguing, but ultimately unverifiable without more information. As excellent companion piece to Jensen’s other recent collection of interviews, Resistance against Empire, How Shall I Live My Life? is a thought-provoking and very readable exploration of the often overlooked spiritual and philosophical dimensions of environmental activism. And I can safely say that those who come to the book with an open mind will be repeatedly blown away by the originality, honesty and sheer radicalism of argument contained within.

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