Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

No, We Can't Have It All

An Excerpt from 'Endgame, Vol. 1: The Problem of Civilization'

Derrick Jensen

all face choices. We can have ice caps and polar bears, or we can have
automobiles. We can have dams or we can have salmon. We can have
wine from Mendocino and Sonoma counties, or we can have the Russian
and Eel Rivers. We can have oil from beneath the oceans, or we can have
whales. We can have cardboard boxes or we
can have living forests. We can have computers and cancer clusters from
the manufacture of those computers, or we can have neither. We can have
electricity and a world devastated by mining, or we can have neither
(and don't give me any nonsense about solar: you'll need copper
for wiring, silicon for photovoltaics, metals and plastics for
which need to be manufactured and then
transported to your home, and so on. Even solar electrical energy can
never be sustainable because electricity and all its accoutrements
an industrial infrastructure).  We can have fruits, vegetables, and coffee

brought to the U.S. from Latin America, or we can have at least somewhat intact human and nonhuman
communities throughout that region. (I don't think I need to remind
readers that, to take one not atypical example among far too many, the
democratically elected Arbenz government in Guatemala was overthrown
by the United States to support the United Fruit Company, now Chiquita,
leading to thirty years of U.S.-backed dictatorships and death squads.
Also, a few years ago I asked a member of the revolutionary
tupacamaristas what they wanted for the
people of Peru, and he said something that cuts to the heart of the
current discussion [and to the heart of every struggle that has ever
taken place against civilization]: "We need to produce and distribute
our own food. We already know how to do that. We merely need to be
to do so.") We can have international trade, inevitably and by
as well as by function dominated by distant and huge
entities which do not (and cannot) act in the best interest of
or we can have local control of local economies, which cannot happen
so long as cities require the importation (read: theft) of resources
from ever-greater distances. We can have civilization -- too often called
the highest form of social organization -- that spreads (I would say
metastasizes) to all parts of the globe, or we can have a multiplicity
of autonomous cultures each uniquely adapted to the land from which
it springs. We can have cities and all they imply, or we can have a
livable planet. We can have "progress" and history, or we can have
sustainability. We can have civilization, or we can have at least the
possibility of a way of life not based on the violent theft of

is in no way abstract. It is physical. In a finite world, the forced
and routine importation of resources is unsustainable. Duh.

me how car culture can coexist with wild nature, and more specifically,
show me how anthropogenic global warming can coexist with ice caps and
polar bears. And any fixes such as solar electric cars would present
problems at least equally severe. For example, the electricity still
needs to be generated, batteries are extraordinarily toxic,
and in any case, driving is not the main way a car pollutes: far more
pollution is emitted through its manufacture than through its exhaust
pipe. We can perform the same exercise for any product of industrial

can't have it all. The belief that we can is one of the things that
has driven us to this awful place. If insanity could be defined as
lost functional connection with physical reality, to believe we can
have it all -- to believe we can simultaneously dismantle a world and
live on it; to believe we can perpetually use more energy than arrives
from the sun; to believe we can take more than the world gives
to believe a finite world can support infinite growth,much less infinite

economic growth, where economic growth consists of converting ever
numbers of living beings to dead objects (industrial production, at
core, is the conversion of the living -- trees or mountains -- into the
dead -- two-by-fours and beer cans) -- is grotesquely insane. This insanity
manifests partly as a potent disrespect for limits and for justice.
It manifests in the pretension that neither limits nor justice exist. To
pretend that civilization can exist without destroying its own landbase and the landbases
and cultures of others is to be entirely ignorant of history, biology,
thermodynamics, morality, and self-preservation. And it is to have paid
absolutely no attention to the past six thousand years. 

of the reasons we fail to perceive all of this is that we -- the
civilized -- have
been inculcated to believe that belongings are more important than
and that relationships are based on dominance -- violence and exploitation.

Having come to believe that, and having come to believe the acquisition
of material possessions is good (or even more abstractly, that the
of money is good) and in fact the primary goal of life, we then have
come to perceive ourselves as the primary beneficiaries of all of this
insanity and injustice.

now I'm sitting in front of a space heater, and all other things being
equal, I'd rather my toes were toasty than otherwise. But all other
things aren't equal, and destroying runs of salmon by constructing
dams for hydropower is a really stupid (and immoral) way to warm
my feet. It's an extraordinarily bad trade.

it's not just space heaters. No amount of comforts or elegancies,
what that nineteenth-century slave owner called the characteristics
of civilization, are worth killing the planet. What's more, even if
we do perceive it in our best interest to take these comforts or
at the expense of the enslavement, impoverishment, or murder of others
and their landbases, we have no right to do so. And no amount
of rationalization nor overwhelming force -- not even "full-spectrum
domination" -- will suffice to give us that right.

we have been systematically taught to ignore these trade-offs, to
if we don't see them (even when they're right in front of our faces)
they do not exist. Yesterday, I received this email: "We all face
the future unsure if our own grandchildren will know what a tree is
or ever taste salmon or even know what a clean glass of water tastes
like. It is crucial, especially for those of us who see the world as
a living being, to remember. I've realized that outside of radical
activist circles and certain indigenous peoples, the majority has
forgotten about the passenger pigeon, completely forgotten about salmon
so abundant you could fish with baskets. I've met many people who
think if we could just stop destroying the planet right now, that
we'll be left with a beautiful world. It makes me wonder if the same
type of people would say the same thing in the future even if they had
to put on a protective suit in order to go outside and see the one tree
left standing in their town. Would they also have forgotten? Would it
still be a part of mainstream consciousness that there used to be whole
forests teeming with life? I think you and I agree that as long as this
culture continues with its preferred methods of perception, then it
would not be widely known to the majority. I used to think environmental

activists would at least get to say, ‘I told you so' to everyone
else once civilization finally succeeded in creating a wasteland, but
now I'm not convinced that anyone will even remember. Perhaps the
worst nightmare visions of activists a few hundred years ago match
the world we have outside our windows today, yet nobody

is saying, ‘I told you so.'"

think he's right. I've long had a nightmare/fantasy of standing
on a desolate plain with a CEO or politician or capitalist journalist,
shaking him by the shoulders and shouting, "Don't you see? Don't
you see it was all a waste?" But after ruminating on this
fellow's email, the nightmare has gotten even worse. Now I no longer
have even the extraordinarily hollow satisfaction of seeing recognition
of a massive mistake on this other's face. Now he merely looks at
me, his eyes flashing a combination of arrogance, hatred, and willful
incomprehension, and says, "I have no idea
what you're talking about."

he isn't even entirely lying.

of course to himself.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Derrick Jensen

Derrick Jensen

Derrick Jensen is an American author, ecophilosopher, radical environmentalist, and anti-civilization advocate. According to Democracy Now!, Jensen "has been called the poet-philosopher of the ecological movement." He is the author of "Bright Green Lies: How the Environmental Movement Lost Its Way and What We Can Do about It" ( 2021).

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

Because of people like you, another world is possible. There are many battles to be won, but we will battle them together—all of us. Common Dreams is not your normal news site. We don't survive on clicks. We don't want advertising dollars. We want the world to be a better place. But we can't do it alone. It doesn't work that way. We need you. If you can help today—because every gift of every size matters—please do. Without Your Support We Simply Don't Exist.

Bush and Warren Lead New Bill to Protect Renters Nationwide From Eviction

"This pandemic isn't over, and we have to do everything we can to protect renters from the harm and trauma of needless eviction, which upends the lives of those struggling to get back on their feet."

Jessica Corbett ·

Campaign Slams Vaccine Makers for Fueling 'Unprecedented' Human Rights Crisis

"Covid-19 vaccines must be readily available and accessible for all. It is up to governments and pharma companies to make this a reality."

Brett Wilkins ·

Sunrise Movement Targets Kyrsten Sinema for Obstructing Build Back Better Act

"Who do you work for? Do you work for the young, BIPOC, and working people who put their lives on hold to elect you? Or do you work for ExxonMobil and fossil fuel corporations?"

Brett Wilkins ·

UN Chief Tells World Leaders To Their Faces That Vaccine Apartheid Is 'An Obscenity'

Persistent inequality represents "a moral indictment of the state of our world," U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said.

Julia Conley ·

Global People's Summit on Food Systems Kicks Off to Challenge 'Corporate Agenda' of UN Meeting

"The people are hungry for real change, and are willing to do whatever it takes to fight for and reclaim their land, their rights, and the future of food systems."

Kenny Stancil ·

Support our work.

We are independent, non-profit, advertising-free and 100% reader supported.

Subscribe to our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values.
Direct to your inbox.

Subscribe to our Newsletter.

Common Dreams, Inc. Founded 1997. Registered 501(c3) Non-Profit | Privacy Policy
Common Dreams Logo