A Language Older Than Words was my first encounter with Derrick Jensen. I remember his passion and concern for the Earth, and I vaguely remember him speaking of the abuse he suffered as a child. The abuse lead him to his eventual practice of radical environmentalism. Other than that, I cannot recall too many of the details of that first encounter with his writings and ideas. But The Myth of Human Supremacy is unforgettable. Rendering a scathing indictment against human intelligence, and what I have interpreted as another clarion call to end the “human” experience, Jensen chronicles how the belief in the “Great Chain of Being” has poised western cultured-human beings on a road, (I dare not call it a path), of destruction of the Earth and all forms of consciousness on it, including human beings.
The introduction to The Myth of Human Supremacy’s twenty-one chapters begins with Jensen’s warning that, “Unquestioned beliefs are the real authorities of any culture.1 A Central unquestioned belief of this culture is that humans are superior to and separate from everyone else.” (pg. 16) Humans’ assumption of superiority are then deconstructed and its disastrous effects revealed.
In Chapter 1, pointing to what he defines as the foundation of the myth of human supremacy, Jensen looks at the Great Chain of Being which, briefly, implies that humans are the center of the Universe. The evolution of the human species to perfect beings, at whatever costs and by any means necessary, is the ontology of the human experience according to this belief. Religion and science are implicated as contributors to this illusory-drive to perfection, and the Earth and the non-humans upon it, both whom Jensen refers to as “who” instead of “that,” suffer and are destroyed in the process.
Considerable evidence is presented as proof that human beings are not the sole proprietors of intelligence, and compared to other forms of consciousness and intelligence, humans don’t fare so well. Cited are scientific experiments that are carried out every day using animals as test subjects for cosmetics, new forms of drug treatments and insights into human behavior. One diabolical experiment held 3 monkeys in laboratory-captivity, denying food to one, to witness the behavior of the 2 who were fed. The scientist noted that after several days, the two monkeys refused to eat, in protest of the denial of food to one of their own.
The author concluded that human beings do not display the compassion and solidarity with the suffering as did these two monkeys! The display of compassion, Jensen notes, is a sign of intelligence, as opposed to our notion of intelligence which is related to thinking and thought. Overall, the book is replete with these types of examples.
The Myth of Human Supremacy points glaringly at the arrogance of human beings who are welded to the unquestioned assumption of supremacy and the institutions they have built as a result. Agencies, such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Fish and Wildlife Agency, departments like the National Park Service are incriminated in the destruction of the Earth. Most all forms of “management” that derive from these agencies and departments have as their foundation the unquestioned assumption that humans know what is best for the Earth because humans, unlike other species, possess intelligence and the science (that humans conjured up) to back it up.
Throughout the book, Jensen decries the popular notion that individual agency can reduce environmental devastation, citing examples in the futility of saving water by taking shorter showers, recycling, driving hybrid cars, installing solar panels, etc. He advances that popular media and documentaries such as Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth offer a false perception about how to solve the complexities of the environment and disappearance of hundreds of species, the quality of the air and the suffering of ocean-homes and other bodies of water. The human destruction of the Earth is a social disease and must be addressed by the whole society, especially western societies.
There are examples of how the myth of human supremacy impacts not only non-human communities, but also human communities: enslavement, sexism, homophobia, invasion, settlement and colonization of Indigenous populations, wars, most which occur to seize and steal resources under the guise of spreading democracy, another expression of human supremacy.
The text contains many references to the ideas of other environmental activists who are contributing to a radical shift and expansion of the context in which environmental issues are examined: Neil Evernden, author of The Natural Aliens: Humankind and the Environment, Paul Sheppard whose classic work, Nature and Madness, probes the origins of the “separation” through the examination of the human’s ambivalent relationship with the Earth, and Kat McGowen whose article, “How Plants Secretly Talk to Each Other,” is referenced throughout the book.
Finally, Derrick Jensen is not the type of vegetarian-environmentalist who gives a rat’s ass about Mel Baththolomew’s innovative square foot garden, the new craze of environmentally friendly tiny-homes, permaculture or any other popular, outside of the box endeavors. He is a radical-environmentalist who does not draw the line between eating animals or plants. Jensen wants to dismantle the cause of the destruction of the Earth, home to non-humans and humans: human supremacy.
The western civilized worldview is unsustainable. A belief in human superiority—and the beliefs that nonhumans aren’t fully sentient, that rivers aren’t beings, and so on—is not sustainable. The fact that it is terminally maladaptive means it is an evolutionary dead end. Derrick Jensen, pg. 327.
Akilah t’Zuberi, June 10, 2017
1 “I first encountered this as articulated by Robert Combs, Vision of the Voyage, (Memphis, Memphis State University Press, 1978), 2.” Jensen endnotes, page 337.