by Derrick Jensen
I DON’T KNOW about you, but whenever I attend some “green” conference, I know I’m supposed to leave feeling inspired and energized, but instead I feel heartbroken, discouraged, defeated, and lied to. It’s not the inevitable talk about farmers (re)discovering organic farming; about plastic forks made from cornstarch; about solar photovoltaics; about relocalizing; about the joys of simple living; about grieving the murder of the planet; about “changing our stories”; and most especially about maintaining a positive attitude that gets me down. It’s that no one, and I mean no one, ever mentions psychopathology.
Why is this important? Because those in power destroy sustainable communities — and not just sustainable indigenous communities. If people develop new ways to live on their land more sustainably, and those in power decide that land is needed for roads and shopping malls and parking lots, those in power will seize that land. This is how the dominant culture works. Everything and everyone must be sacrificed to economic production, to economic growth, to the continuation of this culture.
A few months ago I was watching a documentary on David Parker Ray, a serial killer from Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, who is suspected of killing up to sixty women. He kidnapped women and held them as rape slaves. He turned an entire tractor-trailer into a well-stocked torture chamber, where he videotaped what he did to them. In the documentary, an FBI profiler compared Ray’s attitudes toward his victims to those most people have toward tissues: Once you use them, are you concerned about what happens to them? Of course not, she said. And that was how Ray perceived — or rather didn’t perceive — his victims: simply as something to use and throw away.
When the profiler said this, my first thought was passenger pigeons. Then chinook salmon. Then oceans. How deeply do most members of this culture mourn passenger pigeons? Salmon? Oceans? This culture as a whole, and most of its members, gives no more consideration to the victims of this way of life than David Parker Ray gave to his victims. Blindness to suffering is one of this culture’s central defining characteristics. And it is a central defining characteristic of sociopathology.
The New Columbia Encyclopedia states that a sociopath can be defined as one who willfully does harm without remorse: “Such individuals are impulsive, insensitive to others’ needs, and unable to anticipate the consequences of their behavior, to follow long-term goals, or to tolerate frustration. The psychopathic individual is characterized by absence of the guilt feelings and anxiety that normally accompany an antisocial act.”
Um, how sensitive are members of this culture, on the whole, to the needs of native forests (98 percent gone), native grasslands (99 percent gone), ocean life (90 percent of the large fish gone)? How sensitive is this culture to indigenous land claims? How clearly are members of this culture able to anticipate the consequences of destroying forests, grasslands, oceans, or denying indigenous land claims? With sea level already rising and glaciers already disappearing, how capable are this culture’s decision makers of anticipating the consequences of global warming?
Dr. Robert Hare, an expert on sociopaths, states that “among the most devastating features of psychopathy are a callous disregard for the rights of others and a propensity for predatory and violent behaviors. Without remorse, psychopaths charm and exploit others for their own gain. They lack empathy and a sense of responsibility, and they manipulate, lie and con others with no regard for anyone’s feelings.” I’m reminded of something Red Cloud said: “They made us many promises, more than I can remember. They only kept but one. They promised they would take our land, and they took it.”
Hare also says, “Too many people hold the idea that psychopaths are essentially killers or convicts. The general public hasn’t been educated to see beyond the social stereotypes to understand that psychopaths can be entrepreneurs, politicians, CEOs and other successful individuals who may never see the inside of a prison.” They can be the president, a boss, a neighbor.
Let’s now consider the dominant culture in relation to the characteristics of sociopaths as listed in section F60.2 of The ICD-10 Classification of Mental and Behavioural Disorders, published by the World Health Organization, Geneva, 1992:
a) callous unconcern for the feelings of others. Where to start? Have members of this culture shown any concern for the feelings of the indigenous as they’ve stolen their land? How about the feelings of nonhumans being driven from their homes, or those being driven out of existence? Further, doesn’t the mainstream scientific community demand that emotion be removed from all scientific study? Aren’t we also told that emotions must not interfere with business decisions and economic policy? Do chickens in battery cages have feelings? What about dogs in vivisection labs? What about trees? Rain? Stones? The culture goes beyond “callous unconcern” for the feelings of these others to deny that their feelings even exist.
b) gross and persistent attitude of irresponsibility and disregard for social norms, rules and obligations. Is there an action more irresponsible than killing the planet? Now consider the norms, rules, and obligations of this culture. Norms: rape, abuse, destruction. Rules: a legal system created by the powerful to maintain their power. Obligations: to get as much money and power as possible.
c) incapacity to maintain enduring relationships, though having no difficulty in establishing them. I live on Tolowa land. The Tolowa had enduring relationships with their human and nonhuman neighbors for at least 12,500 years. When the dominant culture arrived here about 180 years ago, the place was a paradise; now the place is trashed. Exploitation is not an enduring relationship— whether with another animal or a landbase.
d) very low tolerance to frustration and a low threshold for discharge of aggression, including violence. The civilized have been eradicating the indigenous for ten thousand years. The United States is constantly “discharging aggression” against (i.e., invading) other countries. Individuals and corporations and governments discharge aggression daily toward coyotes, prairie dogs, sea lions, wetlands, coal-bearing mountaintops, and oil-bearing coastal plains.
e) incapacity to experience guilt and to profit from experience, particularly punishment. How much guilt do you believe timber company CEOs experience over the destruction of ancient forests? And the word profit here does not mean the financial profit they derive from killing forests, oceans, and so on, but profit in terms of hindsight. After deforesting the Middle East, all of Europe, much of the Americas, Africa, and Asia, does it seem at all plausible that those in charge are learning from their past mistakes? Are they learning anything from their decisions and policies that are altering the climate through unrestrained burning of coal, oil, and natural gas?
f) marked proneness to blame others, or to offer plausible rationalizations, for the behaviour. Do CEOs take responsibility for their violence? The average rapist for his? George Bush blamed forest fires for his urge to deforest. Clinton said it was all the beetles’ fault. And many still rationalize their denial of our rapidly warming planet every time a winter storm slams the East Coast.
Of course we don’t all act this way. But those of us who are not sociopaths, who are trying to live differently, need to step up and call out the larger culture for the way it behaves.
Sharing our finite planet with this culture is like being stuck in a room with a psychopath. There is no exit. Although the psychopath may choose other targets first, eventually it will turn to us. Eventually we’ll have to fight for our lives. And so if we want access to a landbase we can inhabit, and want our descendants to be able to live there long into the future, we need to organize politically to stop this lethal culture in its tracks.