The Anguish of the Age: Emotional Reactions to Collapse

We live amidst multiple crises — economic and political, cultural and ecological — that pose a significant threat to human life as we understand it.

There is no way to be awake to the depth of these crises without an emotional reaction. There is no way to be aware of the pain caused by these systemic failures without some experience of dread, depression, distress.

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.

Though I have felt this for some time I hesitated to talk about it in public, out of fear of being accused of being too negative or dismissed as apocalyptic. But more of us are breaking through that fear, and more than ever it’s essential that we face this aspect of our political lives. To talk openly about this anguish should strengthen, not undermine, our commitment to political engagement — any sensible political program to which we can commit for the long haul has to start with an honest assessment of reality.

Here is how I would summarize our reality: Because of the destructive consequences of human intervention, it is not clear how much longer the planetary ecosystem can sustain human life on this scale. There is no way to make specific predictions, but it’s clear that our current path leads to disaster. Examine the data on any crucial issue — energy, water, soil erosion, climate disruption, chemical contamination, biodiversity — and the news is bad. Platitudes about “necessity is the mother of invention” express a hollow technological fundamentalism; simply asserting that we want to solve the problems that we have created does not guarantee we can. The fact that we have not taken the first and most obvious step — moving to a collective life that requires far less energy — doesn’t bode well for the future.

Though anguish over this reality is not limited to the affluence of the industrial world — where many of us have the time to ponder all this because our material needs are met — it may be true that those of us living in relative comfort today speak more of this emotional struggle. That doesn’t mean that our emotions are illegitimate or that the struggle is self-indulgent; this discussion is not the abandonment of politics but an essential part of fashioning a political project.

I would like help in this process. I’ve started talking to people close to me about how this feels, but I want to expand my understanding. By using the internet and email, I am limiting the scope of the inquiry to those online, but it’s a place to start.

My request is simple: If you think it would help you clarify your understanding of your struggle, send me an account of your reaction to these crises and collapse, in whatever level of detail you like. I am most interested in our emotional states, but any exercise of this type includes an intellectual component; there is no clear line between the analytical and the emotional, between thinking and feeling. An understanding of our emotions is connected to our analysis of the health of the ecosystem, the systems responsible for that condition, and the openings for change.

Because I may draw on this material in public discussions and for writing projects, please let me know how you are willing to have your words used. Your writing could be: (1) “on background,” not to be quoted in any forum; (2) “not for attribution,” permission to be quoted but not identified; or (3) “on the record,” permission to be quoted and identified. If you don’t specify, I will assume (2).

My plan is to report back to anyone interested. If you would like to be included on that distribution list, let me know. Please send responses in the body of an email message, not as an attachment, to moc.liamgnull@nesnejmailliwtrebor.

Whether or not you write to me, I hope everyone will begin speaking more openly about this aspect of our struggle. If there is to be a decent future, we have to retain our capacity for empathy. Most of us can empathize with those closest to us, and we try to empathize with all people. The next step is to open up to the living world, which requires an ability to feel both the joy and the grief that surrounds us.

Robert Jensen is an Emeritus Professor in the School of Journalism and Media at the University of Texas at Austin and collaborates with the New Perennials Project at Middlebury College. He is the author of It’s Debatable: Talking Authentically about Tricky Topics, coming this spring from Olive Branch Press. This essay is adapted from his book An Inconvenient Apocalypse: Environmental Collapse, Climate Crisis, and the Fate of Humanity, co-authored with Wes Jackson. Follow him on Twitter: @jensenrobertw. Read other articles by Robert.

12 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Don Hawkins said on June 23rd, 2010 at 9:33am #

    Robert saved your e-mail and instead of feeling powerless two million to start Capital one voice calm at peace as best we can in old twenty ten the people inside the Capital are anything but calm and at peace. So how to get it started do you need a permit? 2020 is 116 months away.

  2. Don Hawkins said on June 23rd, 2010 at 9:39am #

    or is that 114 months away

  3. bozh said on June 23rd, 2010 at 9:46am #

    I offer u two, what i consider, corrections of what Jensen had said: we do not live amidst multiple crises, but amidst multiple criminal minds who [?solely] create and maintain crises.

    That’s all folks: stop the criminal minds, and disasters stop soon after that. Ok, maybe not soon but in yrs or decades since we cannot jump from hellish to heavenly living in one day.
    I short, get to the root cause of all neagative symptoms.

    The same goes for human intervention in nature. It is mostly the criminal minds who much or solely devalue nature and people.

    In short, one cause for fire and one cause for planet’s orbit and one cause for human miseries and the destruction of nature and biota.
    If one cause for all this may not be accurate-adequate we can always settle on a set of root causes for these events.
    But, however, everything is caused. So let’s posit cause[s] as factual; still others we can postulate or discover. tnx

  4. Don Hawkins said on June 23rd, 2010 at 1:44pm #

    In the beginning the words were heard Planet Earth climate change war what is it good for ringing down the hall’s of congress at CNN, CNBC, MSNBC, Fox New’s in front of Fox New’s, CBS, NBC, the New York Times, The LA Times, The American Enterprise Institute and it was good.

    “What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.”
    T.S. Eliot

    “Truth is the beginning of every good thing, both in heaven and on earth; and he who would be blessed and happy should be from the first a partaker of truth, for then he can be trusted”

    “The beginning is the most important part of the work.”

    Our society is run by insane people for insane objectives. … I think we’re being run by maniacs for maniacal ends … and I think I’m liable to be put away as insane for expressing that. That’s what’s insane about it. –John Lennon

  5. Don Hawkins said on June 23rd, 2010 at 3:01pm #

    “Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth.”
    Albert Einstein

    Yes the question what is the truth. Do the people on Wall Street tell the truth excuse me for a second while I stop laughing…………….there Fox New’s the truth again let me control myself…………..ok our so called leaders do they tell the truth, BP how about them CNN the Weather Channel well they kind of leave stuff out on purpose. I wonder is it because we the people the little people can’t handle the truth or is there something else at play Hummm what could it be?

    Oh the games people play now
    Ev’ry night and ev’ry day now
    Never meaning what they say, yeah
    Never saying what they mean.

    Truth is the beginning of every good thing and one and one is not thirty it’s two. Climate change is a hoax yes but I see it with my own eye’s oh that well it’s a hologram I get it it’s all clear now but it’s clear that our current path leads to disaster ok where did you hear that probably from a left far left tree hugging freak did they have long hair smell any pot killer weed here’s what you do first watch Glenn Beck then try out the Hannity Show on Fox New’s and get back to me oh the tea party could put you on the road to enlightenment. Well thank you very much for the advice how about a cup of coffee nice game of checkers and any thought’s on Socialism oh did you ever hear, “Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth?” How’s the coffee

  6. Don Hawkins said on June 23rd, 2010 at 6:09pm #

    Don’t read this but if you do think of it as a hologram it’s not real as Steve Forbes and Hannity and Beck along with Rupert Murdoch and some fossil fuel CEO’s went up and took a look it’s all fine no problem. Go shopping

  7. Don Hawkins said on June 23rd, 2010 at 6:48pm #


  8. Gary S. Corseri said on June 23rd, 2010 at 9:04pm #

    Professor Jensen: I share your sense of a world in crisis, a wounded world, where many in the so-called developed world are reacting emotionally, mentally, even psychically, to the collapse of familiar structures, recognizable patterns and long-held convictions about the meaning of life and our understanding of the good life. I applaud your efforts to build a community of kindred spirits, thinking/feeling along the same lines with similar grave concerns–though with various approaches, even divergent ones, for solving the problems, addressing the multiple crises. A quote I came upon today, by Einstein, may be illustrative here:

    “A human being is part of the whole, called by us ‘universe,’ a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separate from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

    I believe you’re on the same empathic track Einstein understood so well; and, I gather, you’ve a sense of the collective unconscious malaise that Jung explored in his work.

    We may consider ourselves lucky today that we live in this phenomenal age of global communication–in the infancy of the Internet–and that we can garner ideas and feelings from so many sources and see how they converge.

    I think your ultimate goal, perhaps still a bit blurry now, is to have material for another book–possibly from Soft Skull Press, which does so much well. Perhaps you’ll want to expand your search for patterns and deeper meanings; an anthology of that nature, one you edit, using the work of authors at Dissident Voice and other notable sites, as well as the e-mail accounts you have solicited, would be instructive and embracing of the participatory, communitarian values you so well express.

  9. Don Hawkins said on June 24th, 2010 at 2:51am #

    Young Are More Pessimistic about Environment
    People younger than 30 are considerably more pessimistic than older Americans about
    the environment over the next four decades. About three-quarters (74%) of those under 30 say
    the oceans will be less healthy in
    2050 than they are today, a view
    shared by 60% of 30 to 49 year
    olds, but smaller majorities of
    older Americans.
    Similarly, a 62% majority
    of those under 30 expect that the
    quality of the earth’s environment
    will not improve by 2050, the
    highest percentage in any age
    group. There is also an age gap in predictions of a rise in earth’s temperature: 77% of younger
    Americans say the earth will definitely or probably get warmer, compared with 64% of those
    older than 30. Pew

    The young know as well it should be. Oh and the 64% well heck let’s do the math 36% and of the 36% you know who took the blue pill and decided to stay in dreamland there’s what 1 or 2 percent who keep passing out those blue pill’s and it will not work.

  10. Deadbeat said on June 24th, 2010 at 3:49am #

    bozh writes …

    I offer u two, what i consider, corrections of what Jensen had said: we do not live amidst multiple crises, but amidst multiple criminal minds who [?solely] create and maintain crises.

    I found Jensen article a ridiculous waste of time reading and plainly useless rhetoric. It’s the kind of crap that has been coming from “Left” intellectuals for decades that has created the political vacuum that makes the Right more appealing to the working class and the Left impotent to provide solution and strategies for confronting this crisis.

    Here’s the run down…

    [1] Jensen avoids ANY CLASS ANALYSIS.

    [2] Why did I quote bozh? Because he STATE THE OBVIOUS which Jensen avoids — inequality and thus the imbalance of POWER.

    [3] No mention of Capitalism and how as a system of EXPLOITATION and drive for profit accumulation and growth causes ALL of the problem cited.

    [4] Jensen is STUCK in the elitist Liberal world view of focus on the SYMPTOMS which is why he sees the problem as a series of crises rather than provide a SYSTEMIC analysis of the SINGLE crisis of the Capitalist system.

    [5] Jensen totally avoids Zionism and its relationship with Capitalism.

    [6] Jensen avoids racism and other identity politics use by Capitalist to maintain a weak and divided working class.

    [7] Worst of ALL Jensen piece shifts the blame away from the powerful and onto everyone. That’s pathetic as well as insulting and why the working class will never find solidarity with the “Left”.

    The fault lies in Jensen’s adherence to Liberalism. Liberals are elitists that seek to preserve Capitalism. Liberals are reactionaries who are neither radical nor revolutionary. They just try to sound like one in order to win the trust of the working class only to later betray it.

    Hey Jensen here an idea…

    Debt REPUDIATION. Let’s become a nation of DEADBEATS that are standing up for human rights rather than the preservation of usury. You’ve got criminal banks and other institutions writing laws and using the courts to deprive human beings of housing because they don’t have access to money. Isn’t that immoral? Wouldn’t such an initiative be more useful than psychobabble?

  11. bozh said on June 24th, 2010 at 5:14am #

    DB, thanks for ur observations,
    As we have said, the wider the look, the wiser one is. It often takes to omit only one salient fact to present to unwary readers a fictive relity.

    And one cannot adapt to a fictive reality and feel wanted-important-calm-happy.
    Mns of americans cannot adapt to fictions like the greatness of america, god bless america, nation governed by laws, wars on drugs-terror, etc., while jobless, losing homes, etc. tnx

  12. Don Hawkins said on June 25th, 2010 at 4:33am #

    Sent this again to CNBC

    That is called normalized the charts and yes a computer helped these forecasts and human’s. In Australia do you all have Fox New’s I wonder does Fox New’s help program humans maybe that’s the wrong word program doesn’t sound good PR and all that. Did you see and hear Oliver Stone on CNN last night well I watch Fox New’s and the word is out don’t go see the movie South Of The Border wrong kind of programing. Yes old twenty Ten and in the year 2025 if human’s are still here just maybe a few human’s will be sitting in front of fire looking at the Stars and someone will say how did it happen and someone will say we don’t know for sure but we think it started about a hundred years ago when human’s forgot how to use there ears there eye’s and the Capitalists thought it was just better this way some said make it as simple as possible but not simpler and work together well nobody listened then and now all of us do work together we must to survive. What happened to the Capitalists? It is said they went to an Island far away and they began to fight to see who got to be boss the big cheese and who won well we don’t know for sure far away they were anyway who would like some more coffee we found some the other day still in the can unopened I think it’s called Folgers.

    A fig for partridges and quails,
    ye dainties I know nothing of ye;
    But on the highest mount in Wales
    Would choose in peace to drink my coffee.
    ~Jonathon Swift