While I'm going to disagree with a lot of what Derrick Jensen and his co-author Aric McBay have to say, I am in substantial agreement with their central thesis which is that industrial civilization is not sustainable as it currently exists. Whether industrial civilization can be altered to make it sustainable is what is arguable. Personally I believe it can be. Jensen does not.
I'm giving five stars to this book because it is passionately written and full of insights and knowledge that I wish were more widely known and appreciated. Jensen is an extremely knowledgeable and brilliant man. He is also a bitter and angry man. This book is a long polemic against what he sees as the on-going destruction of this planet by an unsustainable industrial society, a society willfully ignorant of what it is doing.
Where I part company with Jensen is in the identification of the underlying problem, which to me is too many people on the planet. For some reason, although he obliquely acknowledges that we have too many people, Jensen deemphasizes the crucial importance of this fact and even ignores it to concentrate on mostly industrial pollution and the destruction of the planet's ecosystems by the industrial machine. Implicit and central to Jensen's understanding is the idea that if you are spending 10 calories of energy for every one calorie of food produced (see pages 339 and 361 for this claim, which I suspect is close to correct) you have a situation that is headed for collapse in a world with 6.5-billion people. If however the same ratio were applied to a world with say half a billion people, it might be sustainable since there would be a surplus of energy available. Of course it would be much better if we were to both reduce our numbers and to employ more economic and sustainable means of subsistence.
"What We Leave Behind" are the waste products of industrialized society. Jensen makes a distinction between the natural wastes from our bodies--including our bodies!--which help to sustain the planet's ecosystems, and the wastes from our industrial machines which mostly do not. These wastes include everything from toxic metals to rank poisons to plastics to spent nuclear materials. He seems to believe that we cannot keep these wastes from harming the planet whereas I believe we can. It is a question of the proper use of technology and a political willingness to do things in a non-polluting and sustainable manner. In part Jensen's cynicism stems from his observation that corporations which account for most of the pollution are psychopathic entities that exist to maximize profits while externalizing costs. That is their nature: they cannot behave otherwise. Externalizing costs means dumping wastes onto somebody else's backyard or onto the laps of future generations. Make no mistake about it: that is what our giant corporations are doing today and have been doing since their inception.
Let me jump ahead to Jensen's solution. He has a five point plan for resistance in the pen-ultimate chapter, "Fighting Back." I won't outline it here except to mention that for Jensen the goal does indeed justify the means. He wants the culture to be "dismantled completely" (p. 381) and he wants to employ and disrupt the "centralized industrial and economic systems" themselves. (p. 382). He believes that fighting back "means not using violence when it's appropriate to not use violence..." and "using violence when it is appropriate to use violence." (p. 383) Jensen justifies his extreme position with this rationale: "Do you think that Martin Luther King, Jr. would have been so successful if the government hadn't been afraid of Malcolm X?" (p. 397)
Jensen's argument rests on two presumptions, one, that things really are so bad and the planet's situation really so desperate that an overthrow of the system is imperative--now. And two, it is impossible for the system to change by its own accord. Like a junkie, industrial civilization must crash and burn before it has even a glimmer that change is necessary. After rejecting the possibility of a sustainable "technotopia"--a society in which technology is used in a sustainable way--Jensen comes to what he considers is most likely to happen: collapse. He recalls that Rome collapsed because it ran out of people and resources to exploit. He sees the same thing happening to industrial civilization. In this I think he may very well be correct because of the short-sightedness of our leaders and our institutions that are unable to look much past the next quarter's economic numbers.
Jensen argues that it is not enough to conserve energy and recycle wastes as individuals. Most of the waste and pollution comes from industry itself, as Jensen points out, not from individuals. His clarion call is nothing less than a call to revolution. I think this is correct (and probably inevitable) when the situation is truly desperate. But to take arms against the system when one's belly is full one must have the true believer's mentality, which in this case is the system will not change without the use of force. If there is a revolution against industrial civilization I suspect it will come from without, from those people in the exploited world who may very well be going to bed hungry and who have little to lose. In fact we may be seeing the scattered, disconnected and sporadic beginnings of a planetary revolution in the acts of terrorism that are today instigated by religious extremists. When the Vandals crash through the gates, we'll know. Until then it's unlikely that people in the industrialized world are going to heed Jensen's call to arms.
What I hope happens is that we have enough far-sighted, aware and educated people to bring about a change without having to go through the horrors of collapse or revolution. History suggests however that I am wrong and that Jensen is right.
Read or not read this extraordinary book at your peril.