Derrick Jensen is the author of twenty-one books, including A Language Older Than Words, The Culture of Make Believe, and Endgame. Often called the philosopher-poet of the environmental movement, he was named one of Utne Reader’s “50 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World.” In 2008 he led Press Action’s “Dynamic Dozen” and in 2006 he was the Press Action “Person of the Year.”
But Jensen wasn’t always an environmental activist. He has a degree in mineral engineering physics from the prestigious Colorado School of Mines, as well as an MFA in creative writing from Eastern Washington University. I wanted to know how he had gone from mining physicist to environmentalist.
“I understood what was at stake in the environmental movement from about second grade,” he says. “We lived at the edge of a meadow that got turned into a subdivision that year, and all the creatures who lived in that meadow lost their home. I remember thinking, ‘They can’t keep doing this forever. Eventually they’ll run out of space.’”
Nevertheless, Jensen was “one of those kids who took calculus in high school” and was channeled into a degree in engineering, “because that’s how you can make the most money from your abilities.” He received a full scholarship to the Colorado School of Mines, but didn’t enjoy his studies much. “Few of us did,” he admits, “but my friends all said things like ‘When I get out of here I’m going to make a ton of money, drive a brand-new Mustang, and retire when I’m 60.’ I’d think, ‘Really?’ What if you retire at 60 and get hit by a bus?’”
During the summer, however, Jensen interned at NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) with scientists who couldn’t bear to miss a day of work—even when they were sick—because they were so excited about what they were doing. “That’s how I wanted to live,” he says. “I wanted work I would do for love, even if no one paid me.”
Writing about the planet has been that work. In addition to his twenty-one published books, he writes for Orion and has written for Audubon, and The Sun Magazine, among many others. I wanted to talk with him about the role of diversity in ecosystems.
Jensen spoke with me by phone from a pond near his home in northern California. While we talked a black bear and her two cubs came down to the pond to drink. Hearing his voice, they didn’t stay to play, though they normally would have, he said.
The MOON: What does diversity do for ecosystems? Why is diversity important?
Jensen: That’s like asking why can’t everyone be an oncologist. What kind of functioning society would that be? Nature creates diversity because there are so many roles to be performed in an ecosystem that one species can’t perform them all. In the natural world, you need plants to convert sunlight into substance; pollinators to pollinate the plants; animals to eat the plants and fertilize the soil; predators to keep small animal populations in check; and still other species to dispose of poop and dead carcasses. In fact, you need so many more species and complex interrelationships than we even have the capability to recognize. It’s like the David Ehrenfeld line: “Not only is the world more complex than we think it is, the world is more complex than we are able to think it is.”
For example, I’m sitting here in a second-growth redwood forest, which also includes willows and cedar and fir trees. When they deforested parts of the Pacific Northwest of Douglas firs, they tried replanting them, but the firs didn’t do well. Eventually they discovered that there is a fungus associated with firs in the forest, and voles associated with the fungus, and this three-way relationship is important to the health of the firs. The fungus lives off the firs, the voles eat the fungus and defecate fungus spores, the spores are rich in nutrients that have been broken down sufficiently that the root tips of the firs can absorb them, and the firs flourish. It’s easy for humans to think, “Oh, who cares if we lose a certain kind of fungus or rodent?” We don’t realize that the loss of the fungus and the vole could also mean the loss of fir trees—which in our utilitarian-motivated culture means losing everything from construction materials to toilet paper—in addition to such non-commercial goods as beauty, oxygen, and shade.
Of course, there’s a moral dimension to this too. I believe that other species have a right to exist regardless of their potential usefulness to us. It’s extremely arrogant to think that what we find useful is the arbiter of a species’ right to exist—to say nothing of the fact that our definition of utility changes over time. For example, a couple hundred years ago there were thousands of varieties of apples. But now we’ve bred apple varieties down to a few that have optimal taste and nutritional value and we’ve lost all the rest. Some of the genetic diversity we’ve bred out of apples perhaps protected them from certain kinds of pests. By breeding that characteristic out, that capacity is gone—forever.
That’s the weakness in all monocrop agriculture. When you plow a field, you destroy all of the bacteria, fungi, and other life in the soil and you destroy the habitat for all of the creatures who lived in the rich variety of plants that once occupied the land. So where can the insect and disease predators live? Then, by planting a single crop, you create the perfect habitat for the pests of that crop—and no one else. The pest mows through the crop like wildfire. That’s what happened with cotton and the boll weevil in the South; it’s what makes agriculture so dependent upon artificial pesticides today.
The MOON: Yes, I was reading Rowan Jacobsen’s American Terroir, which is about how geography affects food—or “the taste of place.” There’s a chapter in his book about coffee—which nearly became reduced to a few high-yielding varieties—until someone created an international auction of gourmet coffees, which saved countless varieties from, as Jacobsen says, “the compost heap of history.” Yet these varieties, in addition to having subtleties of flavor and aroma that now command premium prices, have other qualities, like resistance to the coffee leaf rust fungus, which we nearly lost because of our myopic focus on cost and yield.
Jensen: Exactly. That’s why I consider myself to be pretty conservative in a lot of ways. I’m conservative in that I don’t want to foreclose possibilities. I don’t want to lose options I might need in the future. I’d rather not risk when it comes to the possibility of doing harm. Once we poison an aquifer, it’s over for that aquifer. Once you release radioactive wastewater from Fukushima, you can’t de-radiate the ocean. I’m fundamentally opposed to killing the planet I live on.
Nature tends to increase the diversity of an ecosystem over time. We’re taught that evolution advances through survival of the fittest, which implies competition. But if you look more closely you see that the creatures who have survived in the long run, survived in the long run by improving their environment over time. One of the ways you improve your environment over time is by increasing its diversity. The more diverse an environment, the more “niches,” or opportunities, there are for other organisms to live. The more organisms there are in an ecosystem, the more stable it is—like legs on a table.
If you only eat one type of food, for example, and that food has a bad year, you starve. There are only a few examples of that in nature, but one is the lynx and the snowshoe hare. The lynx doesn’t eat much besides snowshoe hares, so when there’s a good year for hares—with many babies surviving—there’s a good year for lynx, with many lynx babies surviving. Then the lynx population depletes the hare population—and the following year the lynx population crashes. That’s what you get: boom and bust cycles repeating themselves.
But if you eat all kinds of things—hares and voles and field mice and even grasses—if one of your foods becomes scarce you’re able to modify your diet.