A World in Collapse?

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 New Left Project’s Alex Doherty about the threat of environmental catastrophe.

Alex Doherty: 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?

Robert Jensen: 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.

AD: Why do you think many leftists shy away from such language when discussing the environment?

RJ: 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.

AD: 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?

RJ: First, I think every political project — whether it is focused on labor 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.

AD: 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?

RJ: 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.

AD: 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?

RJ: 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.

AD: 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?

RJ: 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.

AD: Are there any writers on this topic whose work you would like to recommend?

RJ: 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.

Alex Doherty has written for ZNet, Counterpunch, and the New Standard. He can be reached at: alexjamesdoherty@gmail.com. Read other articles by Alex, or visit Alex's website.

17 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. bozh said on September 4th, 2010 at 10:36am #

    Yes, one could label reality as grim. But RJ could have noted that we humans are part of that nature or god, if some prefer the latter.
    And some of us being much grimmer than some others and much grimmer people causing much more pollution, waste, cruelty, torture, jailings, warfare, etcetc.
    But when one is `educated` by the grimmest among us, one does not see this fact.
    And it takes only to omit but one salient fact to present to unwary readers a fictitious reality. tnx

  2. Don Hawkins said on September 4th, 2010 at 12:40pm #

    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.

    So can we overcome instinct with reason? As so far it does appear 100% clear it’s the other way around. We will know more at least here in the States after the elections in November then what? Something has to give as the illusion will not last much longer.

  3. Keith said on September 4th, 2010 at 1:38pm #

    I am a little surprised that in an article titled “A World in Collapse,” Robert Jensen did not really discuss corporate globalization, which, in my view, is the most anti-environmental and socially catastrophic scenario we have ever faced. A planet without fossil fuels absolutely requires intensive energy conservation, an essential feature of which is local autonomy. Not only to reduce transportation fuel usage, but to provide the local control for people to provide for themselves following system failure. Corporate globalization, on the other hand, seeks to establish planetary interdependencies, requiring massive fossil fuel dependent trade, tied together by an elite controlled financial system. Corporate globalization smashes local autonomy wherever it finds it, bringing formerly self-supporting areas into the matrix of fragile global dependency and oligarchic control. When the system fails, when the interdependencies come undone, local populations will not have the means to survive, much less recover. The oligarchs continue to force us in the wrong direction. Will humanity survive?

  4. lichen said on September 4th, 2010 at 3:21pm #

    Wars are not “patriarchal” nor are they born of male dominance, but of the dominance of old right wing scum of both sexes; of their dominance over and abuse of children, and their political dominance. These wars are not dominated by males, but are made for the sole purpose of enslaving and murdering young men–indeed, it is talked of as a bad thing whenever women or children die, but males over 18 are quite fine targets for the machine guns of the matriarchial state. Update your politics!

    Tidal, solar, wind, and geothermal energy are ready to be used 100% right now; we don’t need more research to go that way. We also don’t need to mix outdated identity politics with ecological issues.

  5. Deadbeat said on September 4th, 2010 at 11:50pm #

    Robert Jensen says …

    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.

    Typical chosmkyism — plausable scapegoating and axiomatic generalizations that shift focus away from Zionism.

  6. bozh said on September 5th, 2010 at 5:45am #

    I agree with Jensen’s [actually many people’s] observation that our patriarchs cause warfare.
    But s’mthing happened before our ancient fathers were able to command young men to kill, pillage, torture, abuse others.
    Rise of priesthood and its massive lying to and cowing of populace, that’s what happened before warfare was waged. Te first priesthood arose, seems, in egypt.
    These priests drove deep fright into heart of every tiller, laborer, fisher!

    Ancient priests of sumer, akkad, and egypt were considered godlike and pharoahs of egypt or kings of mesopotamia were deemed god-kings.
    Which meant their rule, exploitation, torture, killings were without limitations.

    However, some catastrophic event, i educe, took place before first priestly rule had been established. Was it rise of sorcerers, charlatans, mafia, wizzardry, magicians? And over centuries or even millennia, developing as the apsolute rulers.

    Today the apsolute rule in US by ‘our’ modern fathers, the clerico-plutocratic ‘elite’, appears obvious to me!

    US, in this regard, appears like no other land; especially not like, say, switzerland. Many european lands are now in mid socialistic state. But which way are they developing? Towards an apsolute rule like the one in US or towards an idyllicly structured society, timocratic, and not pantisocratic, but with greater participation in governance by all who want to participate in the governance!

    If european and other nations maintain present mode of governance or hopefully move further towards a more just society, the end of apsolute rule in US can be forspoken.

    OK! The question arises, what can the wealthiest ‘jews’ in US do to forestall positive change? Or would they thwart necessary change? Can we work on them so as to change their minds?

    Petras, monbiot, pilger, or even finkelstein, klein, chomsky, blankfort should work in this arena.
    Forever lamenting or proffering sensations sans causations won’t do. Yes, it is necessary also to tell people what goes on! But forming a new party to oppose the old one: the healthcare-education deform and war party [usually 99% of congresspeople vote for all of them] tnx

  7. lichen said on September 5th, 2010 at 5:52pm #

    Bozh, you might want to excuse warmongering right wing rich women (including mythical goddesses and other dominating religious figures) in power throughout history and thereby ratify the pathetic feminist claim that only the other sex are causing war (when, indeed, they do it as well, and violence only comes from violence, so the abusive mothers cause it to) but I do not.

  8. Deadbeat said on September 5th, 2010 at 7:40pm #

    I agree with lichen. Feminism affirms the Capitalist system and is a tool used to support the mobility of upper class women. Hillary Clinton is just as ready as Obama or McCain to go to war for the interest of Zionism.

  9. Mulga Mumblebrain said on September 6th, 2010 at 5:09am #

    I have been aware of the coming destruction of the biosphere for years. The litany of precious natural wonders, destroyed one by one, fills my head and tortures my conscience. I can recall one travesty after another, starting from the destruction of the irreplaceable Lake Pedder in Tasmania, that sparked the Green movement in this country. I saw, in documentary after documentary, the progress of human destruction, claiming the planet, inexorably, bit by bit,like a metastasising cancer.
    For years I naively believed that it would just be a matter of time before humanity woke up to the horror of destroying our beautiful world, and renewed itself with a new manner of living, that abjured destruction and cherished life. But I’ve waited in vain, and have long been convinced that we enjoy the peculiar privilege of living in an era when our species self-destructs. Indeed I am convinced that it is already too late to avoid this fate, and has been for some time. And I do believe that it will be a civilization, if not species, ending cataclysm.
    I am sure that I know why this unimaginable horror is occurring. As I grew up, I became more and more aware that a significant proportion of humanity was innately and inescapably evil. I encountered sadistic, stupid teachers, ‘religious’ followers riven by hatred and moralising certainty and fellow students who despised most of humanity. I saw the politics of my country march ruthlessly to the Right, driven there by the propagandising efforts of the business media, in particular the empire of evil that is Murdochism, run by a man who is, in my opinion, the epitome of human wickedness. I saw politicians of talent and decency destroyed by Murdochism, and opportunists and collaborators with evil raised in their place. I saw society come to be dominated by business,ie the worst, most greedy and unscrupulous amongst us, and their ethos, their psychopathology of relentless avarice, gigantic egotism and unscrupulous lying and dissembling inflicted on society as operating conditions of that society, and, consequently,begin an inexorable process of turning the populace into atomised particles of sheer selfish malevolence.
    This process has now reached its end-stage. Its apotheosis is the anthropogenic climate change denial industry, where lies and distortion, financed by billionaire psychotics, has been mobilised to destroy humanity.Along the way the deranged and spiritually deceased minions of the Rightwing propaganda sewer, Murdoch’s appartatchiki,naturally, to the fore, have abandoned, not just truth and decency, but rationality, science and the interests, indeed survival, of their own descendants. And the debased societies of the West have produced a rabble of moronic,ignorant and infinitely vicious products of decades of indoctrination into selfishness and hatred of others, who are fanatically determined that nothing be done.
    In the end I think it is the unfortunate truth that the global dominance of the Right,ie that fraction of humanity that hates other people,particularly those who will exist when they are dead, was always going to lead us here. If not through thermo-nuclear war, then ecological collapse was certain to do it. Basically the average Rightist, the business pathocracy in particular, do not care what happens so long as they remain top dogs while they live. They may inseminate their trophy wives and send their spawn to elite places of indoctrination and inculcation in the privileges and prerogatives of wealth, but their children’s lives are of no interest to them. All that counts is the plutocrat’s immense egomania, that trumps everything, even life on this planet.Our one slim chance of survival lies in removing them from power and ensuring that their type never again dominates humanity, but to do so will involve a global war for survival,in which they will start favourites,if only because they have no scruples, whatsoever, in killing as many as necessary to maintain their dominance. As the climate change denial debacle shows, hoping to see rational, sane, behaviour from morally and spiritually insane individuals is pointless. They cannot and will not ever change their ways.

  10. Don Hawkins said on September 6th, 2010 at 5:47am #

    You know Mulga for a long time I thought as did many more that what you just wrote was not the truth but as we see it is very clear now and very sure these few still think maybe Oprah or Bill or Warren will save them wrong the con artists have coned themselves and of course the trickle down con all the way down. The amazing part is to watch this as if a fund for off shore drilling will be the answer as to make a real try would of course shake us to our very core that we might notice. Many that I talk with regular people know now yes they do. So what’s next just more bullshit on a bigger scale.

  11. Don Hawkins said on September 7th, 2010 at 4:34am #

    Road, railroad tracks and runways is it? Railroad tracks could be helpful as for the others we just might want to remember this part.

    Here’s what I think the truth is: We are all addicts of fossil fuels in a state of denial, about to face cold turkey. And like so many addicts about to face cold turkey, our leaders are now committing violent crimes to get what little is left of what we’re hooked on. Vonnegut

    Putting the cart before the horse seems like such a simple thing to understand don’t you think. That’s part of it a big part.

  12. Don Hawkins said on September 7th, 2010 at 5:49am #

    Hooked so as to keep the American way of life going and going and that way of life is what?

    Our amazing intelligence seems to have outstripped our instinct for survival. We plunder the earth hoping that accumulating material surplus will make up for the profound, unfathomable thing that we have lost. Arundhati Roy

    Amazing intelligence well with known knowledge as of today just might need to rethink that amazing intelligence. I get it with amazing intelligence we rethink amazing intelligence. Is Congress back yet from holiday and now the elections where the people will be treated like dog’s can hardly wait to see this amazing intelligence. Do these so called leaders in all there shapes and sizes do the same thing as the average person oh yes they sure do but on a relentless basis try not too run run the light the light.

  13. bozh said on September 7th, 2010 at 6:16am #

    Yes, politicians know what they want and the ways how to get what they want.
    They want money. They get it from rich people and the rich people get s’mthing in return.
    For sure, they could get money by going from houseperson to houseperson and collect in one day at least $50, but we know that cannot do.
    Worst of all, that would mean seeing americans for the first time and just the taught of it scares them to death.
    And we all know pols need 100 ties, 20 suits, 300 pair of socks, $100 haircuts every other day, a mistress, speech writers, voice teachers, and the money is gone in a hurry. tnx

  14. bozh said on September 7th, 2010 at 6:32am #

    Lichen, sorry for not replying immediately. I did not see your post in which you conclude that i am excusing rich women from their misbehavior.
    I often say that clerico-plutocratic lowlife cause all ills that befall us. I never ever said that women are not part of that class of life.

    I suggest you do not make conclusion that a poster has not explicitly posited. Or if u do, own it and stop reading minds so that i won’t waste mine and everybody’s time while heads are rolling, arms and legs flying of innocent children in afpak, palestina, and iraq?

    I can also aver, that the first rule ever had been a priestly one and composed of men only. Neither christians, until very recently, nor islam or talmudism allows women a leadership role.
    So,we are still ruled largely by ‘fathers’. tnx

  15. Don Hawkins said on September 7th, 2010 at 6:35am #

    What to be different demonstrate, march, eat a small breakfast and for dinner with friends try the orange chicken costs less than a big mac. The next day same thing demonstrate, march as the few with the brain made of stone it just might take a few times like don’t stop. There is still time not much if we wish to survive the time is now. This will take an enormous effort and part of that effort is to slow down focus with friends and just maybe a cup of coffee from time to time.

  16. bozh said on September 7th, 2010 at 6:49am #

    In saying that it may have been sorcerers, shaman, mafiosos who destroyed our idylllic life we must have had to have survived, i did not explicitly state that women were also shamans, etc.

    And in power. Tsarinas in russia, queens elsewhere, cleopatra, et al. And they were anti-egaliatarian as much as some men or men in power!

    And now that women were rendered ‘dumb’ by other women and men they voted for obama just because of his looks and the glib tongue. And 99% of women voted for obama or mccain and killing innocent children and women!

  17. Don Hawkins said on September 7th, 2010 at 6:57am #

    It does appear we either get these stone brains to change there evil way’s and get on board or we all go down the drain. We are out of time and working together with known knowledge or this story doesn’t have a good ending. Orange chicken costs less than a big mac well yes say 200 close friends or more you all chip in and some cook some clean almost like Socialism and think of all the money you will save that you don’t give to this political party or that political party at first kind of like a war as some of these stone brains from say Exxon, BP, Massey and on and on will kick and cry and maybe even try and pass new law’s or pay people to pass new laws no no no.