Robert Jensen is a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas. He is the author of Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity; The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege; and Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity, among other works. He spoke to NLP’s Alex Doherty about the threat of environmental catastrophe.
You have written that: "To be fully alive today is to live with anguish, not for one’s own condition in the world but for the condition of the world, for a world that is in collapse." Even amongst environmentalists it is rare to describe our situation in such apocalyptic terms. Why do you think it is justified to describe the world as collapsing?
Take a look at any measure of the fundamental health of the planetary ecosystem on which we are dependent: topsoil loss, chemical contamination of soil and water, species extinction and reduction in biodiversity, the state of the world’s oceans, unmanageable toxic waste problems, and climate change. Take a look at the data, and the news is bad on every front. And all of this is in the context of the dramatic decline coming in the highly concentrated energy available from oil and natural gas, and the increased climate disruption that will come if we keep burning the still-abundant coal reserves. There are no replacement fuels on the horizon that will allow a smooth transition. These ecological realities will play out in a world structured by a system of nation-states rooted in the grotesque inequality resulting from imperialism and capitalism, all of which is eroding what is left of our collective humanity. “Collapsing” seems like a reasonable description of the world.
That doesn’t mean there’s a cataclysmic end point coming soon, but this is an apocalyptic moment. The word “apocalypse” does not mean “end.” It comes from a Greek word that means “uncovering” or “lifting the veil.” This is an apocalyptic moment because we need to lift the veil and have the courage to look at the world honestly.
Why do you think many leftists shy away from such language when discussing the environment?
I think not only leftists, but people in general, avoid these realities because reality is so grim. It seems overwhelming to most people, for good reason. So, rather than confront it, people find modes of evasion. One is to deny there’s a reason to worry, which is common throughout the culture. The most common evasive strategy I hear from people on the left is “technological fundamentalism”—the idea that because we want high-energy/high-tech solutions that will allow us to live in the style to which so many of us have become accustomed, those solutions will be found. That kind of magical thinking is appealing but unrealistic, for two reasons. First, while the human discoveries of the past few centuries are impressive, they have not been on the scale required to correct the course we’re on; we’ve created problems that have grown beyond our capacity to understand and manage. Second, those discoveries were subsidized by fossil-fuel energy that won’t be around much longer, which dramatically limits what we will be able to accomplish through energy-intensive advanced technology. As many people have pointed out, technology is not energy; you don’t replace energy with technology. Technology can make some processes more energy-efficient, but it can’t create energy out of thin air.
I’ve had many left colleagues tell me that they agree with some or all of my analysis, but that “people aren’t ready to hear that yet.” I translate that to mean, “I’m not ready to hear that yet.” I think a lot of leftists displace their own fear of confronting these difficult realities onto “the masses,” when in fact they can’t face it.
The other factor is that truly crazy end-times talk, which comes primarily from reactionary religious sources, leads many people to reflexively dismiss any talk of collapse. So, it’s important to be clear: I’m not predicting the end of world on a specific date. I’m not predicting anything. I’m simply describing what some of us believe to be the most likely trajectory of the high-energy/high-tech society in which we live. And I’m suggesting that we keep this trajectory in mind as we pursue left/feminist critiques of hierarchy and domination, in the hope that more egalitarian and humane models for human organization can help us deal with collapse.
Given the severity of the situation you are describing what are the implications for left activism? Should other forms of activism be abandoned in order to focus on the threat of climate change? How realistic are proposals for alternative economic systems such as green bio-regionalism or participatory economics in the context of climate catastrophe?
First, I think every political project—whether it is focused on labour organizing, resistance to white supremacy, women’s rights, anti-war activity—has to include an ecological component. That doesn’t mean everyone has to shift focus, but I think there is no meaningful politics that doesn’t recognize the fragility of our situation and the likelihood that the most vulnerable people (both in the United States and around the world) are going to bear the brunt of the ecological decline. A responsible left/feminist politics should connect the dots whenever and wherever possible. Here’s one obvious example: U.S. imperial wars, born of a patriarchal system, are waged to support corporate interests in the most crucial energy-producing regions of the world, which are predominantly non-white. Resistance to those wars requires a critique of male dominance, white supremacy, capitalism, and the affluent First-World lifestyles that numb people to the reality that they are morally implicated in these wars. Those wars are dramatically escalating the intensity and potential destructiveness of the coming collapse. Concern for justice and ecological sustainability demands an anti-war and anti-empire politics. There is no way to focus on one aspect of an injustice without understanding these intersections.
Second, more than ever, “let a hundred flowers blossom.” When we know so little about what’s coming, it’s best if people pursue a variety of strategies that they feel drawn to. In Austin, I’m working primarily with one group that advocates for immigrant workers (Workers Defense Project) and another that helps people start worker-owned cooperative businesses (Third Coast Workers for Cooperation). Neither group is focused specifically on the ecological crises, but there’s incredible energy and ideas in these groups, and they create spaces for advancing a coordinated critique of capitalism, white supremacy, and patriarchy, all with an understanding of the ecological stakes. Maybe it’s natural for people to want to believe that they have hit on the solution to a problem, but I believe that the problems are complex beyond our understanding, and it’s not only unlikely that there’s a single solution but there may be no solutions at all—if by “solution” we mean a way to continue human existence on the planet at its current level. We need experiments on every front that help us imagine new ways of being.
Lately you have been writing about the way people react emotionally to the reality of climate change. Why do you believe that is an important topic? What is your emotional response to humanities current predicament? What reactions have you seen in others?
It’s not just climate change, of course, but the multiple ecological crises. Anyone who is paying attention is bound to have some kind of emotional response. I think emotions are important because we are emotional animals. It really is that simple. How can we confront the end of the systems that have structured our lives and not have powerful emotional reactions? Yes, we have well-developed rational capacities, but in the end we are animals who feel as much, or more, than we think. And if thinking and feeling are not wholly separate processes but are part of the way people understand the world, it is folly not to pay attention to our emotional reactions. None of this should be confused with the apolitical therapy culture that dominates in the United States. I’m not talking about emotions separate from politics, but the emotions that flow from political engagement.
To borrow a phrase from a friend, I wake up every morning in a state of profound grief. We humans have been given a privileged place in a world that is beautiful beyond description, and we are destroying it and destroying each other. I cope with that by building temporary psychological damns and dikes to hold back that grief. But the emotion comes so powerfully from so many different directions that life feels like a process of constantly patching and moving and rebuilding those damns and dikes. Some of this is intensely personal, but for me the political work is a crucial part of that coping process. If I weren’t politically active, I would lose my mind. The only way I know how to cope is to use some of my energy in collective efforts to try to build something positive.
There is a lot of individual variation in the human species, which means there will be lots of different reactions as the reality of our predicament sets in. I worry that in a society like the United States, where so many have lived for so long with abundance and a sense of entitlement, people won’t be able to face up to the dramatic changes that are inevitable. That could lead people to accept greater levels of hierarchy and authority if political leaders promise to protect that affluence. In that case, people’s inability to deal with the emotions that arise out of awareness of collapse could usher in an era of even more unjust distribution of wealth and resources in an even more violent world.
The only way to combat that is to talk openly about what we see coming and work to create conditions that allow us to rely on the best of our nature, not the worst.
You dismiss the possibility of technological solutions to climate change but given the severity of the crises we are facing do we not have a duty to try everything we can to avert disaster? Shouldn’t we be ramping up research into alternate fuels and renewable energy resources? What about geo-engineering as way to avert the worst effects of climate change?
I don’t dismiss the relevance of advanced technology to sensible policy proposals. I do dismiss the claim that because we want to solve problems with technology we will invent that technology, and that it will be safe and not cause new problems. I reject that because it strikes me as a fantasy that ignores history and diverts us from the reality of the present.
So, yes, we have that duty, and I support serious investment in alternative energy. My concern is that the culture’s technological fundamentalism leaves people vulnerable to scams. The first step is to recognize we are all going to live in a lower-energy world fairly soon, and that means a massive shift in how we live in the First World. There is no replacement for that fossil energy, and we had better come to terms with that. When we don’t recognize that, we are more easily suckered into absurd schemes like the tar sands in Canada, which is an ecological disaster. The same for biofuels and the absurd claim that we can sustainably replace fossil fuels with ethanol, which is also an ecological loser.
Geo-engineering goes a step beyond that, into real insanity. Proposals to manipulate the planetary ecosystem through schemes like putting reflective particles into the atmosphere, or mirrors in space to deflect sunlight, or altering the clouds—all of them prove that we haven’t learned the most important lesson of the industrial era. We have not learned, as Wes Jackson puts it, that we are far more ignorant than we are knowledgeable. We have a history of imagining that our knowledge is adequate to manage major interventions into the ecosystem, leaving us to face the unintended consequences of those interventions. At this point, there is no rational approach to the ecological crises that doesn’t start with this recognition: We are going to live in a low-energy world that is powered primarily by contemporary sunlight, not the ancient energy of fossil fuels. As a society we are not prepared, in terms of either physical infrastructure or cultural awareness, to deal with that. Anything that further delays coming to terms with this reality is a threat to life on the planet, not a solution.
In a recent talk you said that "I am glad to see the end of most of what we have come to call “the good life,” for it never struck me as all that good, at least not for most people and other living things." In what respects do you think contemporary capitalism has failed to meet the needs of even the most privileged sectors of western societies?
Capitalism is the most wildly productive economic system in history, but the one thing it cannot produce is meaning. Even more troubling is the way, through its promotion of narcissism and mindless consumption, that capitalism undermines the larger culture’s ability to create real meaning. Virtually all of what is good in society—solidarity, compassion, creativity, ethics, joy—comes from outside capitalism, giving the illusion that capitalism is a civilized system. It’s a cliché, but important enough that we sing it over and over: Money can’t buy you love. Capitalism cannot create a healthy human community, and it undermines the aspect of human nature rooted in solidarity and love.
The other obvious failure of capitalism is its contribution to the erosion of the health of the ecosystem. Humans have been drawing down the ecological capital of the planet since the invention of agriculture about 10,000 years ago, but that process has intensified dramatically in the capitalist/imperialist/industrial era. Our culture is filled with talk about the success of capitalism even though that system degrades our relationships and threatens our existence. That’s an odd definition of success.
Are there any writers on this topic whose work you would like to recommend?
Wes Jackson is one of my most trusted sources on these issues. Wes is a scientist working in research on sustainable agriculture, but his critique encompasses politics, economics, and culture. His new book, Consulting the Genius of the Place: An Ecological Approach to a New Agriculture, is due out this fall, and I’m looking forward to reading. I think Bill McKibben’s latest book, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, is important, though I think his faith in the power of the internet to help us through the transition is dangerously naïve. William Catton’s books Overshoot and Bottleneck have also helped me come to terms with reality.
In addition to the ecological questions, I think we also have to keep focused on the political and cultural questions, about how the existing distribution of wealth and power are serious impediments to meaningful change. That means continuing to think about the predatory nature of empire and capitalism, and the degree to which patriarchy and white supremacy structure our world and undermine our capacity to be fully human.