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What I’m Reading: What We Leave Behind

I recently watched a swarm of wasp consume a slice of watermelon. For three days they covered the fruit and when they were done they left nothing behind. Like Derrick Jensen, I find decay fascinating. His and Aric McBay’s book, What We Leave Behind, is a scathing criticism of a culture that does not honor the process of decay, that dumps more plastic in the ocean than there are plankton, that makes enough waste to fill 31.5 million Boeing 747s every year in the United States alone. If you have read Jensen before you know that he is uncompromising and goes for the throat.

What We Leave Behind begins with Jensen shitting in the woods surrounding his house. He does this to feed the slugs that in turn feed the frogs. From there Jensen jumps through the history of trash, greenwashing, denial, technology and the collapse of civilization. Dizzying numbers on the amount of trash we produce are thrown out, current ‘green solutions’ are debunked, and a bleak picture of the future is painted. 

Doesn’t feel like the most uplifting book? Its not. In fact, reading this book can feel like plowing through a landfill at times. Jensen’s list of targets is long and not only includes corporations and politicians but new agers, random individuals who send him emails, a land developer he is personally dealing with and a small group who promote mass orgasms in order to release positive energy into the world. Often, it feels like Jensen is attacking these people because they personally upset him. It also often feels like he is criticizing individuals who environmentalist should be working with, not picking apart.  

One of his targets is the celebrated designer and thought leader, William McDonough. Jensen argues that because McDonough designs within an unsustainable culture, any advances he makes are little more than greenwashing. his prime example is a lauded Ford factory in Dearborn, Michigan. Among Mcdonough’s design is a 10-acre living roof that captures stormwater and provides habitat. The problem Jensen sees with any improvements to the factory is that it is still making trucks. Trucks that must have their raw material mined from the earth. Trucks that will consume enormous amounts of fossil fuels over their lifetime.

McDonough has achieved environmental advances as well as better working conditions for many laborers. This is progress. But, Jensen has a strong point that all the grassy roofs in the world cannot negate the effects of factories. This is the most difficult part of reading Jensen. I want to celebrate a better-designed factory where birds nest in native grasses growing on the roof. I want to believe we can redesign factories, houses and communities while not giving up the comforts we enjoy. But really, I know that is not true. I know Jensen is right, this culture is destroying the planet and will continue to do so unless we take much more radical action.


Pick up What We Leave Behind at the library or click the image below to purchase from Amazon.

Have you read What We Leave Behind? Let us know what you think below.

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