* Civilization and Madness: An Interview w/Derrick Jensen *


Richard Moore

Original source URL:

Friday, April 13 2007 @ 02:02 PM PDT

Civilization and Madness: An Interview with Zerzan and Jensen on Mental Health

Tuesday, April 10 2007 @ 01:38 PM PDT
Contributed by: crudo
Views: 407

Modesto Anarcho: How is civilization linked with mental illness within modern 

John Zerzan: Durkheim in the 19th century found that civilization and cities in 
particular greatly increase suicide and insanity. The correspondence is as easy 
to see as the correlation between Global Warming and industrialization: the 
former is a function of the latter. We are all damaged. More and more so, more 
transparently so. As you say, who doesn't have close friends who suffer from 
severe depression, anxiety, has thought seriously of suicide, etc.? Domesticated
life is increasingly barren and desolate and this is registered in so many sad 

Below is an interview with John Zerzan and Derrick Jensen, as it appeared in 
Modesto Anarcho #3. John did the interview over email, Jensen, through the 
phone. The conversation was how industrial culture, civilization, and the like 
have contributed to mental illness, sexual abuse, etc.


Modesto Anarcho: How is civilization linked with mental illness within modern 

John Zerzan: Durkheim in the 19th century found that civilization and cities in 
particular greatly increase suicide and insanity. The correspondence is as easy 
to see as the correlation between Global Warming and industrialization: the 
former is a function of the latter. We are all damaged. More and more so, more 
transparently so. As you say, who doesn't have close friends who suffer from 
severe depression, anxiety, has thought seriously of suicide, etc.? Domesticated
life is increasingly barren and desolate and this is registered in so many sad 
ways. One of my touchstone reference points is Freud's Civilization and its 
Discontents, which predicted - accurately, 75 years ago - that the more 
civilization there is, the more neurosis there will be. Because domestication, 
the sine qua non of civilization, is a crippling, enduring wound. We have been 
domesticated just as a horse is 'broken', our instinctual freedom crippled. 
Freud said that civilization is impossible without this move, in order to get 
humans to leave eros and freedom for work and symbolic culture.

Derrick Jensen: The short answer, is that the culture drives us crazy. We can 
talk about this on so many levels, from the level of the majority of people 
spending the majority of their hours doing things that they don¹t want to do, I 
mean that¹s crazy making. We evolved not in isolated little nuclear families, 
but we evolved in communities, and we also didn¹t evolve in cities. We have 
lived, forever, as members of tribes, and clans, and villages. The social 
arrangements [of the present order] make us crazy. Another way that the current 
social situation drives us crazy, [is] the level of trauma and abuse in this 
culture. 25% of all women are raped in their lifetime and 19% more fend off rape
attempts. [That¹s] almost half of the women [being] sexually assaulted and the 
majority of those sexual assaults come from those that purport to Œlove them¹. I
mean their fathers, their brothers, their uncles, their Œcaretakers¹ of one sort
or another. That sort of betrayal of trust is huge. So that¹s another thing that
simply drives us crazy. I¹m also not just talking about the women, the men are 
obviously crazy to be doing that in the first place and they¹ve been driven 

The other thing is that Johnny Livingston who wrote, The Fallacy of Wildlife 
Conservation and a bunch of other really good books, one of the things that he 
said was that, Œcities drive us crazy¹. One way cities drive us crazy, [again 
from] John Livingston, is that a lot of people say humans are really violent, 
but if you pack any other mammal that tight they¹ll be blood flowing in the 
streets every night. We¹re not supposed to be that packed in together, it¹s 
insane. Whenever I fly anywhere, I always think, ³Gosh, if they stuck us on a 
tarmac and we were just stuck here, packed in like that in an airplane, how long
would it take before we¹d be at each other¹s throats?²

Anyway, back to the other thing John Livingston says, is that a lot of people 
say that cities have an overload of senses. It¹s sensory overload when you go to
cities, but he said it¹s the exact opposite. What I¹d like readers in the 
interview to do right now is to look around and see how many of the sensations, 
how much of what you are perceiving right now, comes directly from a non-human 
[thing], and how much of it is mediated by humans, or originates in humans? Once
again, we evolved with this wide variety of sensory perception, and we don¹t 
have it [now]. Almost everything that we experience is mediated or created by 
humans and so what Livingston says, (and I really agree), is that we¹re 
suffering from sensory deprivation. What happens if you¹re in an echo chamber? 
We say something and it bounces back right to us, as opposed to the tree saying 
something, or opposed to the cloud saying something. What happens to someone 
that is in a sensory deprivation chamber? What happens is that they begin to 
hallucinate. So what Livingston says, (and once again I agree), is that most of 
our ideology, basically all of our ideology is hallucination. I mean it¹s 
absolutely insane that the world is being killed, and yet the thing that is not 
negotiable is this culture. It¹s like Cheney says, ³The American way of life is 
not negotiable.² That¹s absolutely insane, because without a land base you don¹t
have a way of life. A land base is everything.

I just read this today, that there was a woman on NPR, or something, up in 
Wisconsin, I think and she was talking about how bad global warming is, blah 
blah blah. Someone called in and said, ³You know, there are those who are 
saying, that since civilization is killing the planet, that we need to bring 
down civilization.² It was absolutely unthinkable to the woman, she was offended
by the question. That¹s really crazy, when this [civilization] is killing the 
planet. I¹ve got a new slogan, ³Protect your land base, you can¹t have sex 
without it², because you can¹t have anything [without protecting it] and it¹s 
crazy to think that you can.

Another way it makes craziness is, think about school. This is something that 
I¹ve written about, that the real purpose of school is not to convey 
information, the real purpose of school is to get [everyone] used to sitting in 
plays and wishing their life away. That¹s an insane way to live. I mean, there¹s
all this insanity thrown at us. Valuing money over life. That¹s really insane.

RD Lang talked about the dynamics that abusive families [have] so they can 
maintain themselves. He has the three rules of a dysfunctional family, which are
also the three rules of dysfunctional culture. Rule A 1. Is donŒt. Rule A.2 is 
rule A.1 does not exist, and rule A.3 is never discuss the existence of rules A,
A.1, or A.2. The point is that, that is crazy making. That¹s true in an abusive 
family and it¹s true on a larger scale. And another thing that¹s really 
important, is that everything within an abusive dynamic is set up to protect the
abuser. Once again, that makes craziness.

Here¹s another really small example, but it¹s just horrible. I¹m doing a book 
right now that basically has to do with shit. It really has to do with waste 
products and how [in] any sustainable culture, the waste products have to help 
the land base, (it¹s pretty obvious). But things like a candy bar wrapper, 
nobody even knows how the polymers in the candy bar wrapper break down. Nobody 
bothered to find out! Or there¹s two million dams in the US, which is pretty 
obsessive. 60 thousand dams over 13 feet tall, and 70 thousand dams over 6 ‹ 
feet tall. All of those big dams have to have FEMA reports, to say what happens 
to cities and bridges and everything else, if the dam collapse, because of 
course every dam will eventually collapse. Guess how many studies have been done
on the events of catastrophic dam failure on fish habitat? Zero. That¹s really 
fucking insane. I mean, this culture is changing the planet, all this stuff. 
Everything about this culture makes insanity.

Modesto Anarcho: In what ways has the increased amount of time that people spend
working added to the levels of mental illness?

John Zerzan: The more symbolic culture there is, the more work in society. 
Marshall Sahlins pointed this out. Extraordinary perhaps, but undeniably true. 
In the US now both parents work, the pace of work - largely due to 
computerization - is faster, so exhaustion and stress have increased a lot 
recently. This also goes back one may say, to the origins of the factory 
system/industrialization, when a big factor was centralizing of producers at 
long hours: to curb the constant rioting in the countryside, to put it 
succinctly. It is obvious that when people have little time or energy they are 
less likely to rebel. A fact that Marx missed.

Derrick Jensen: There¹s a line by Joseph Campbell, where he talks about that 
something that was understood by everyone up until the present day, is that to 
have anything approaching a spiritual life, the first thing that you have to 
have is leisure. Part of the reason that I am so prolific now, and part of the 
reason that I am so happy now, is because I spent a lot of my 20¹s, you could 
say on one hand getting grounded, and you could say on another hand doing 
nothing. But I was sitting around by a river, for a couple of years really, I 
was really really poor, and I was really sick so couldn¹t do anything, (really 
sick with Crohn¹s disease). I spent a lot of time not doing very much, and that 
really helped to allow me to sort of vomit up the affects of my schooling, and 
to teach myself how to think, to teach myself how to feel. And to just start 
feeling, and that sort of leisure, is absolutely crucial.

I don¹t know how people, who work regular jobs survive, much less physically 
survive. I mean, why are we here? I think one of the reasons that we are here is
to have fun. Here¹s another insane thing, I¹m sure we¹ve all heard the phrase, 
³Thank God It¹s Friday!², what a horrible horrible phrase, what that [is] saying
is that ³Thank god another week of my precious life has disappeared²!

I used to teach at a university, I always taught just one quarter at a time (the
same students) and I always thought that if I had two quarters what would I 
teach? The first quarter would have been all about freedom, the second quarter 
would have been all about responsibility. Because if you have freedom without 
responsibility, that¹s just immaturity, and if you have responsibility without 
freedom, that¹s just slavery. People have to have both. Basically, it¹s like 
when I was in my late 20¹s, I was sitting around, and the moment when I stopped 
sitting around doing nothing in one sense and started working toward something 
was I had this conversation with a friend of mine. I had just basically been 
hanging out for a couple years and this friend of mine says, ³You know, you have
so many gifts, you¹re not using those gifts to help the universe, to help 
communities, and if you¹ve been given gifts and you don¹t repay the universe for
giving you those gifts, you¹re not worth shit.² He said this at the exact right 
moment to me - and I was ready to move on. [Even] today I still have a lot of 
leisure. But I¹m focused with that and I¹m serving a community. That¹s one of 
the things to, is who do you serve? Where is your allegiance to? Who does your 
life serve? For me, I try to make it so that my life serves the land where I 
live and the community of people that I love. My work doesn¹t serve Exxon 
Mobile, that¹s not who I¹m serving. That¹s the question, who are you in service 
to and what are your gifts and how can you best use them in service to your 
community, and who is that community? Is that community Chevron? Is that 
community IBM? Is that community Monsanto? Who is your life actually serving, 
that¹s a really important question.

When you have no time, having no time drives you crazy. So it¹s really really 
important to have time to reflect, and to ruminate, I love that. You know like a
cow, you eat something, and then you sort of digest it, and then you bring it 
back up and sort of chew on it for a little while, and send it back down and 
digest it a little bit more. I think that¹s what we¹re supposed to do. It¹s like
I interviewed Vine Deloria several years ago, and one of the things I asked him,
was from an indigenous perspective, what is the point of life, and he said 
³maturity², the point is to become mature. To reflect on what you have 
experienced and to play your part in the symphony at the right time, that¹s one 
of our jobs is to find out what our role is supposed to be in this wonderful 
symphony of life and then to play it. That¹s totally different than what we¹re 
supposed to do in industrial culture, where everything is cookie cutter, where 
everything is supposed to be standardized.

It¹s like it really pisses me off when people write to me and they say, (I get 
this actually quite a bit), they say, ³You know you¹re books are great and you 
know you¹ve written all you¹ve need to write, so now I think that you should be 
an organizer like I am.²! It¹s like FUCK YOU, you know? It¹s insulting on many 
levels, but it¹s also the same old cookie cutter thing, that I¹m supposed to be 
like them, and that¹s crazy. You (I¹m talking to you), you have different gifts 
than I do, and it would be insane for me to try to form you into a mold that 
looks like me. Yet constantly that¹s what our culture does, in part because it¹s
so terrified of difference.

Modesto Anarcho: How does civilization/industrial culture tie into sexual 
violence and abuse?

John Zerzan: Civilization inaugurates, in my view, the systematic 
objectification of women and this introduces systematic violence against women. 
That is why I think that civilization and patriarchy are roughly identical.

Derrick Jensen: Well, part of the difficultly is, as I talked about in Culture 
of Make Believe , is this culture is based on utilitarianism. There¹s a great 
line by a Canadian lumber man, ³When I look at trees, I see dollar bills², and 
if you perceive you see dollars bills when you look at trees, [you¹re] going to 
treat them one way, if I look at trees and see trees I treat them differently. 
When I look at this particular tree, I see this particular tree, then I¹ll treat
it differently still, and the same applies to women. If when I look at women I 
see orifices, I¹m going to treat them one way, if when I look at women I see 
women, I¹ll treat them differently, and if I look at this particular woman I see
this particular woman, I¹ll treat her differently still.

When this culture is based on perceiving everyone as to how you can exploit 
them, or how you can use them, how you can turn them to your advantage, when you
perceive everyone else like that, then of course you¹re going to abuse them, and
you¹re not going to stop voluntarily either because for the most part, abusers 
almost never stop voluntarily, because they¹re gaining tangible benefits from 
what they are doing.

Another fundamental way that this culture contributes to that - it fucks people 
up by abusing them in the first place. So if you were abused as a kid, it¹s a 
lot easier for you to end up perceiving others as terrifying, so you need to 
control them. So, not only on a personal level does this happen where people get
traumatized as a child, both by their parents and by the schooling system and 
everything else, and so they come to perceive relations with others as scary, 
and then not only that, but in addition everything is reinforced with this 
culture. It¹s like even something as small as if I was to type a sentence into 
my word program that says, ³There is a tree outside who is dropping needles². 
The ³Word², would say, that the word ³who² was wrong, and I¹ve had to fight copy
editors over that, because they say a tree is not a who. I mean, it¹s at every 

There was somebody who really liked my work when we talked before she read A 
Language Older Than Words, and then she read [it], and she said that she didn¹t 
like it at all because she thought that it was insane to talk about hearing the 
natural world. And that of course is the fundamental difference between western 
and indigenous ways of being. Even the most open minded Westerner, [view the 
listening] of the natural world as a metaphor. It¹s insane to close off all of 
that communication.

Modesto Anarcho: Do hunter gatherer societies have histories of mental problems 
or sexual abuse? How do these groups solve social problems?

John Zerzan: In a less mediated, artificial life-world there seem to be far 
fewer emotional diseases. A face-to-face society (band society) is based on 
direct responsibility to solve problems, the opposite of the case in mass 
society. I saw something of this in my 15 years in a housing co-op; if someone 
was pulling something it was easier to deal with, in fact almost unavoidable. So
much healthier that resorting to any outside authority.

Derrick Jensen: Well I think that the answer to that would be different by 
different cultures. Morris Berman wrote a book where he talked about how one of 
the conflict resolution methods among hunter gatherings, is simply to leave. You
and I have some big conflict, well I just go form another band. It depends on 
which problems we are talking about. Obviously [the indigenous people where I 
live] didn¹t destroy the planet, they didn¹t destroy the region. And the 
indigenous people who lived where you live, you know the central valley wasn¹t a
toxic cess pool at that point, it was I¹ve heard, extraordinarily beautiful, 
filled with wildlife, filled with birds, so they obviously didn¹t have those 
problems. So far as problems of sexual abuse, I know that that¹s pretty widely 
varied. We need to say that there are some indigenous cultures, that in which 
women were treated extremely poorly and there are some where women are treated 
very well. I don¹t think that you can make an across the board statement, that 
sexual abuse was non-existent among all hunter gatherers, I don¹t think that 
that is true. At the same time, I think that we can say that there are many 
indigenous cultures, (and I recognize that indigenous and hunter gather are not 
necessarily the same thing), [where] sexual abuse was not an issue.

Basically if there is one culture that existed that didn¹t have sexual abuse, 
that means it¹s a human possibility and so we can aim for that and we can ask 
what are the characteristics of that culture. Cause sometimes, people, who 
accuse me of the whole ³noble savage² thing, and I have two response to that. 
One is that, I rely on contemporary accounts, I rely on accounts written by 
people at the time. So it¹s not noble savage bullshit, it¹s simply what people 
were saying. The other is that I recognize that there were some indigenous 
cultures who were really really nasty, or course their nastiness is nothing 
compared to this culture.

Modesto Anarcho: Can Œre-wilding¹ be a practical way to heal from mental trauma?

John Zerzan: "Re-wilding" or re-connecting with the earth is very difficult in 
the context of today and there is no cure-all panacea. But I do think it is 
vital to our healing. A healing, respectful attitude to the earth leads to one 
toward each other. We can see that the opposite has been the record of 
domestication and civilization. All of the qualities

needed for the one are needed for the other, it seems to me.

Derrick Jensen: That¹s a great question, to which I don¹t really know the 
answer. I¹ll tell you my concern. I¹m sure it could really help, but I have a 
concern that [because] the work of sort of healing yourself from this trauma is 
really difficult work and painful, and I don¹t think it can be short circuited. 
I¹ve known a lot of people who have very serious problems, and they go to a 
month of therapy, and they say, ³Boy I¹m cured², and then they go back to the 
same old patterns. Or they dive into this New Age stuff, and do a few rituals, 
and think ³Oh I¹m cured², or they do this or that, and think ³Oh I¹m all better 
now². I can see people using rewilding as an excuse to avoid doing the ¹real 
work¹. Do you see what I¹m trying to say?

Modesto Anarcho: Basically escape instead of confrontation.

Derrick Jensen: Thank you, yes.

Modesto Anarcho: Can militant resistance to the forces that control our lives 
possibly help heal mental trauma?

John Zerzan: The film Breaking the Spell expresses that idea by its title: 
breaking the spell of conditioning and debilitating helplessness begins with 
resistance. That breakthrough is immensely therapeutic, I believe! It is 
anything but healthy to be subjugated, a basic degradation that obviously must 
be overcome.

Derrick Jensen: Yeah I think it really could. It¹s like one of the things that 
I¹ve heard people say, and god, I said this in Language Older than Words and I¹m
so embarrassed, is that if you fight back you run the risk of becoming like they
are, but I think that that¹s bullshit. I think that if you don¹t fight back, you
run the risk of becoming a further slave, you know? I¹m not saying you know, 
reflection by itself once again doesn¹t do shit, that¹s just a part of the 
process. It really pisses me off, I read this thing by some pacifist a while 
ago, couple years ago, where he said that ³The way I work for peace and social 
justice in this world is by chopping wood and carrying my own water². It¹s like 
fuck you, you narcissistic little, whatever. Because ³Yes, I¹m going to work on 
my own precious little self, and not do anything larger², it¹s just crap. But on
the other hand once again, I have known people who like a friend of mine [who] 
was in Earth First! back in the early 80¹s, and he left in the early 90¹s, 
because he said that when he joined there were a lot of people who were really 
angry about forests, and when he left there were a lot of people who were really
angry, and they put that anger onto forest issues. Do you see the distinction 
that I¹m trying to make?

There was a guy who wrote to me a while back, he was all upset at me because his
son read my books and then wanted to blow up a dam. I wrote back to him and 
said, ³Look, I don¹t want your son to blow up a damn because Derrick Jensen says
so. What I want your son to do is do the analysis himself, and if his analysis 
leads him to that, great, and if his analysis leads him to something else, then 
that¹s great to.² Here¹s what I¹m trying to get at: Yes, I think that fighting 
back can be a tremendously healing, and helpful, and wonderful, and important 
thing, but I don¹t think that people should fight back, for the purpose of 
gaining healing. I think it can be a really nice and wonderful and powerful side
affect, and it can be incredible liberating, to stand up on your hind legs and 
fight back. Through whatever means are appropriate. But once I again, I don¹t 
think that someone should pretend that militant resistance by itself is enough 
to bring about significant healing. I think that militant resistance in addition
to that leisure time, in addition to having a supportive community where you can
talk about the issues, having a safe space where you can talk about your trauma 
as well.

I think that another thing that¹s really important, is that when one fights 
back, to think very clearly about one¹s targets. Something that¹s happened to 
me, it actually hasn¹t happened in a long time, but it used to happen in my 
30¹s, that was really distressing. There were a few women whom I dated who I 
would be like the nicest guy they¹d ever met, and the least patriarchal, and 
everything else, and that¹s all wonderful, and we start some sort of 
relationship and then because I¹m so safe, that way, all of the anger that 
they¹d ever had toward men comes rushing out and get¹s projected onto me, 
because I¹m safe. I mean, it¹s a classic thing, that a lot of times, the adult 
survivors of child abuse end up hating the bystander more than the perpetrator, 
because the bystander is always safe. If you¹re going to lash out, then I think 
it¹s really important to do a lot of [figuring] out, and make sure that you¹re 
lashing out at the right person.

Modesto Anarcho: Do you think that there is a similarity between the ADD/ADHD 
hype of the 1990¹s and the mainstream Bipolar Disorder hype of the 2000¹s?

John Zerzan: I don't know but I do see things like the huge rise in the 
incidence of autism as real and troubling. Perhaps there has been an 
over-eagerness to 'medicalize' so many behavioral phenomena but there is also an
undoubted increase in suffering, I would say, and at earlier and earlier ages. 
The climate of dis-ease is palpable, which at least demonstrates that they 
haven't turned us into zombies - if they had, we wouldn't be registering so much
pain, eh? A very bad bargain I'd say, given the consequences.

Derrick Jensen: I was talking to my mom, two days ago, and she had just finished
reading a book about the use of toxic waste as fertilizers. What she said to me,
was that she always thought that the ADD, and the ADHD thing was exactly what 
you said, hype and a lot of it was simply children misbehaving, a lot of it was 
not children misbehaving, but children being forced into classrooms, etc, etc. 
But she said, ³I don¹t know, we are swimming in such a toxic stew, that it¹s 
also possible that people [are getting affected].² Who knows what all the doses 
of toxic waste in our blood stream, who knows what those are doing to our 
psyches? I know that pesticides for example can make children really really 
stupid. And I¹m using stupid in a value neutral sense. Just developmentally, 
destroy their brains. Before I might have given you some long answer about hype,
but now I¹m not sure, because the chemicals are fucking us up.

I¹m not opposed to short term chemical assistance to problems, or even long term
chemical assistance to problems, but it strikes me as really an atrocity that 
children are being drugged in massive, massive experiments, that make shit loads
of money for pharmaceutical companies and make it so that Mommy and Daddy and 
teacher don¹t have to actually deal with the child, and instead they drug them 
out of their skulls. That¹s reprehensible and inexcusable, that I can say very 


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