Struggling to Be ‘Fully Alive’

Robert Jensen writes about reader responses to his essay asking people to report on how they cope with the anguish of living in a world in collapse. He's reminded that, "The unjust social systems and unsustainable ecological practices of...

July 8, 2010 | Source: Campaign for America's Future | by Robert Jensen

“I don’t have anything to say that hasn’t been said many times over
the centuries.”

That may have been the most insightful response to my essay asking
people to report on how they cope with the anguish of living in a world
in collapse.

That simple statement is a reminder that (1) the social and
ecological crises we face have been building for a long time and (2) the
best of our traditions have, for a long time, offered wisdom useful in
facing those crises. The unjust social systems and unsustainable
ecological practices of contemporary society started with the
agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago, when humans began dominating
each other and the planet in evermore destructive fashion, and
intensified dramatically over the 250 years of the industrial
revolution. (For a historical perspective, see “The delusional

And for nearly that long, some people have resisted the power of elites
and tried to protect the land. (For a contemporary example, see “Where
agriculture meets empire

So, we struggle in the moment with complex problems that defy simple
solutions — problems that may be beyond our capacity to solve in any
meaningful way. But describing the basics needed for a better world is
not difficult if we draw on that wisdom. Here’s my condensed version:

We need to transcend systems rooted in human arrogance and greed that
lead us to believe that any individual is more valuable than another,
that any group of people should dominate another group, or that people
have a right to exploit the living world without regard for the
consequences for the ecosystem. Because each of us has within us the
capacity for constructive and destructive actions — for good and evil
— our collective task is to shape a society that helps us act with
caution and compassion.

This radical message of humility and solidarity comes from a deep
conception of respect: Respect for oneself, for other people, for other
living things, and for the earth as a living system. That message
animates the best of our philosophy, theology, poetry, and politics, and
it was at the heart of nearly all the 300 responses to my essay. This
notion of respect wasn’t defined as “being nice” or “not being
judgmental.” Respect takes work — to understand the other, make
judgments, and engage constructively when there are disagreements or
conflicting needs.

Along with those calls for love, there was a lot of anger in the
responses, much of it directed at elites — the politicians, business
executives, and media propagandists who so often not only promote
arrogant and greedy behavior over humility and solidarity, but also
rationalize and prop up the political/economic/social systems in which
the destructive behavior is fostered.

And many wrote that the while the anger we may feel toward elites is
justified, we have to start with self-critique and examine our own place
in these systems. For example, the anger toward BP officials over the
“hole in the world” at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico co-exists with
the recognition that we all live somewhere in the system that demands
that oil:

“I speak of the oil spill going on and I acknowledge how implicated I
am in it. My lifestyle — despite efforts to eat wild foods, look at
waste streams as resources, and live frugally — depends heavily on oil.
It’s like there are these [oil] stains on my hands, all over my hands,
my body and the ground around me.”

In such a world, it is easy for those of us who live in affluent
societies to be drained by an awareness of all this:

“My personal ambition seems to decrease in proportion to the increase
in world suffering. I think that’s part of my emotional reaction to
crisis. I don’t think I am fully alive. I’m not depressed, just weirdly

Why would someone feel diminished today? For almost all of the people
who responded, the heart of their struggle was in the realization that
the human species, locked into industrial societies dependent on
high-energy/high-technology systems to produce food and fuel, is on a
path leading to the edge of a cliff. No one offered predictions for an
end time, but:

“[W]hat I see as the reality of our situation — ecologically,
politically, economically, and culturally — is that we are in the last
days of our species, and I just don’t know what to do with that. The
emotions are much too powerful, the grief, the sense of doom — how does
one deal with the real possibility of the extinction of not just
millions of species, but of one’s own species?”

Feeling isolated but resolved to act

Where does that reality leave us emotionally? My essay inquired
specifically about the feelings that accompany the intellectual
understanding that we live in a world in collapse. That question led not
only to descriptions of those emotions, but strategies for dealing with
them. No single comment could sum up so many different people’s
responses, but this one comes close:

“So I feel hopeless. I feel sad. I feel amused at the absurdity of it
all. I feel depressed. I feel enraged. I feel guilty and I feel
trapped. Basically the only reason why I’m still alive is because there
are enough amazing people and things in my life to keep me going, to
keep me fighting for what matters. I’m not even sure how to fight yet,
but I know that I want to.”

One common response was gratitude for having a place to communicate
these thoughts without worrying about being ridiculed. Many wrote about
how isolated they felt, even from friends and family who don’t want to
talk about these matters and either deny there are reasons to be
concerned or ignore the evidence:

“I’m a drug addict with over 20 years clean, and I know all about
using up my future and farting out lame excuses. I promised myself an
honest life to stay clean, and the double-edged sword is that I started
seeing just how much our culture swims in denial.”

Pressing these importance questions about systemic failure and
collapse leads to resistance from others, who then assert that the real
problem is anyone who wants to talk about collapse:

“I have been writing for a year and a half on a lot of things as it
pertains to humanity’s lack of awareness and the potential to reconnect
before we destroy the earth and each other. People get angry at me for
it and call me ‘dark’ and ‘negative’ and ‘sinful’ telling me to instead
move to the ‘light,’ ‘positive’ and ‘love.’ Whatever.”

Some see a general “desensitization to the destruction of our planet
[that] is nothing short of heart breaking” and worry about what the loss
of the capacity for empathy means:

“It is considered feminine and naive to care about trees or animals. …
In addition, it is also considered weak and feminine to empathize or
display a proper emotion. We are becoming a nihilistic culture which is
creating citizens who are numb to their emotions. This is doing us all a
disservice. We are missing out on our bodily wisdom and becoming less
and less in tune with our earth.”

Though people have different views on the role of high-technology
responses to ecological collapse, everyone who wrote recognized that
more gadgets aren’t going to save us:

“I have thought for a long time that the human species,
notwithstanding its endless self-flattery, really is not very
intelligent. One of the signs of its stupidity is, in fact, the very way
that it equates intelligence with technological prowess.”

One of the most compelling comments on advanced technology came from a
doctoral student in engineering at a prestigious university:

“I have come to this firm conclusion that any more technological
development is purely unnecessary and technological progress is
hyper-glorified by the developed countries just as a tool to continue
their agenda of robbing the resources of our planet from the third world
(and perhaps soon from neighboring astronomical bodies, too). And what
is glorified as the rational, intellectual research that folks like me
are doing over here is just a means towards facilitating this robbing
activity; this implicit imperialism; this invisible killing of our
planet earth.”

People also recognize the inadequacy of technological solutions to
the end of cheap, plentiful energy. While endorsing more research on
alternatives to coal, oil, and natural gas, those who wrote to me were
wary of claims that alternatives can magically replace the concentrated
energy of fossil fuels and allow us to motor on in our affluence:

“[T]he only way that the terrible catastrophes on the way could have
been softened would have been for everyone on the planet to have dropped
business as usual 10 or 20 years ago, and to have started retooling all
of society while there was still a reasonable surplus of high EROEI
(energy return on energy investment) fossil fuel left to power the
*energetically* costly conversion process of re-engineering energy
production, housing, cities, suburbs, farming, fishing, and transport.
That didn’t happen. And having lived through the period,#it would have
been completely impossible to motivate in the first or third world. But
just as important, it is *even more* unlikely that this will begin to
happen now. This is because growing energy scarcity will cut into our
flexibility as people scramble to prop up floundering systems.”

In addition to these critiques of life in the affluent world, many
wrote of the grotesque disparities in wealth in the world today. As we
struggle with fears of the future, billions of people cope with severe
limitations in the present:

“[W]e in the U.S. are essentially living behind a military barricade.
I heard a quote recently that ‘collapse means having the same lifestyle
as the people who grow your coffee.’ I really, really liked that.”

And in many of the critiques of the affluent First World, there was
an understanding that the heart of the problem is the United States:

“Americans today are living with a profound and apparently
irreconcilable disparity between what we say we are, and what we
actually are. Between the promise of democracy and the reality of a
crumbling empire. The result of this schism, I believe, is the national
equivalent of a disassociated personality. And it’s not just our shared
history of betrayal and abuse that has caused it. It’s the myth of
freedom as well. In the mythology of freedom, democracy was supposed to
empower us all to make a change for the better.”

Although some wrote with certainty about their conclusions, more
people expressed confusion and weariness over the effort needed to
understand such a complex world:

“I spend a lot of time in my own head going back and forth over
theories, philosophies, etc. Pretty much going through a process once a
month of discarding everything I thought I knew and re-learning it.
While this may be a good thing in the future, it does not feel good now.
Sometimes it makes me feel like I am alone and lost and that I can’t
find any truth in anything because I have so many different voices
telling me what is right and wrong. Yet, I can never stop going back and
looking at what’s happening to this real, physical, lovely and loving
planet and feel outrage, sorrow, and confusion and why this culture is
so insane.”

Even with all this talk of their own struggles, the people who wrote
were not asking others to feel sorry for them. Instead, the focus was
outward, on how this affects others. That was clear in the comments not
only of parents and grandparents, but also of people who chose not to
have children — what is the fate of future generations?

“Being the parent of a young child right now is a mixed blessing:
He’s my reason for waking up every morning and doing whatever it takes
to keep up some semblance of normalcy, but it also frightens and worries
me deeply when I think about his future.”

In the face of challenges that feel overwhelming — in the face of
problems that may have no solutions — what should we do? Very few of
the people who wrote suggested we should give up; most are committed to

“I guess the best thing we can do … point out problems, suggest
solutions, work for radical system changes and not just reforms that too
often are more cosmetic than substantial, and above all: keep the faith
… and we need to project to others that we have the faith, or get the
hell out of the work and retire or just wait for Armageddon.”

Many responses focused on the need not only to act collectively but
also to reduce our consumption individually:

“I read a statement in the book Hard Times by Studs Terkel that I
really liked: ‘Security is knowing what I can do without.’ Every day, I
find something new that I can do without. My fiancé and I now grow much
of the food we eat, we purchase necessities only, we shop at the

and learn skills that have atrophied all too quickly in an affluent,
high-energy culture:

“I’m not an old hippie that wants to return to sex, drugs and rock
and roll on the commune. … I believe in hierarchy, rules and skills, but
we must start something new, difficult and dangerous. We must also
learn to not trust power and create small, subsistence communities.
Instead of trying to mend the empire we should be teaching ourselves
skills of our rural grandparents.”

Tipping points and panic

But still the question haunts us: What if the unsustainable systems
in which we live are beyond the point of no return? There certainly are
rational reasons to assume that we are past a tipping point.

For example, the March 2005 report of the United Nations’ Millennium
Ecosystem Assessment, based on the work of 1,300 researchers from 95
countries who spent four years examining 24 ecosystems worldwide,
offered this “stark warning”:

“Human activity is putting such strain on the natural functions of
Earth that the ability of the planet’s ecosystems to sustain future
generations can no longer be taken for granted. … Nearly two thirds of
the services provided by nature to humankind are found to be in decline
worldwide. In effect, the benefits reaped from our engineering of the
planet have been achieved by running down natural capital assets.” 

This kind of knowledge can be so overwhelming that people feel it’s
not safe to open up emotionally:

“I would like to mourn but have not been able to let my guard down. I
could understand 9/11, but now I am witnessing the destruction of the
planet and I don’t understand the magnitude of what that means. I feel
on edge. I feel like I am waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

How to live in that world and remain fully engaged, intellectually
and emotionally? This comment sums up the task and a path:

“Recently several of our visionary thinkers have moved from the
illusion that ‘we have 10 years to turn this around.’ They now say
clearly that ‘we cannot stop this momentum.’ It takes courage and faith
to speak so plainly. What can we do in the face of this truth? We can
sit face to face and find the ways, often beyond words, to explore the
reality that we are all refugees, swimming into a future that looks so
different from the present. We can find pockets of community where we
can whisper our deepest fears about the world. We can remain committed
to describing the present with exceptional truth. We can cultivate a
practice that enables us to witness suffering with hearts and minds open
and with our faces turned toward one another.”

It would be easy to close on that note, blunt but positive. But for
many, that kind of approach is difficult. I sent my essay to a political
activist who is one of the most well-informed people I know in matters
concerning politics and ecology. His response:

“I guess my emotional reaction is actually to suppress the emotional
reaction. … [P]anic, which would probably be the emotional reaction, is
something to be deferred until the situation is relatively safe. So I
try to think about what is to be done and can be done, and promise
myself that if we do get past these crises, I will enjoy the moment to
panic about how dangerous a situation we were in.”

My response:

“I understand what you say, but it seems to me that an appreciation
of the nature of the crises is necessary for sensible strategy, and I
don’t know how to engage that intellectually without having emotional
reactions. … My fear is that if we don’t discuss it, those of us
struggling with these emotions will fade away from collective action.
So, instead of this kind of discussion necessarily leading to political
paralysis, I think it can prevent paralysis in some people.”

My friend didn’t contest my analysis: “I don’t advocate for my
emotional response, but it is what it is.”

Though he didn’t argue with me, I didn’t feel as if I had won an
argument. Emotions are what they are, and we don’t “win” by telling
people what they should feel. It’s enough of a struggle to understand
what I feel and why I feel it; I don’t think I’m qualified to dictate to
others what they should feel. In dealing with multiple crises on all
fronts — economic, political, cultural, and ecological failures that
pose a significant threat to human life as we understand it — it’s
folly for any one of us to imagine we figured out the right approach, or
that there is a single right approach, or that there is any right
approach at all.

The only thing I’m sure of is that, to quote singer/songwriter John
Gorka, “the old future’s gone.” The future of endless bounty for all,
which some once imagined would be the product of the application of
human reason to problems of the world, is not the future we face. How
can we open a conversation about what’s coming when so much is unknown
and so many resist? Rather than pontificate, I will end with the
reflections of an elder:

“I’m about to celebrate my 70th birthday. I live in a rural
intentional community, close to land that feeds us and supports us. I’ve
lived long enough now to be very aware of how different the world has
become, how the cycles of nature are off kilter, how the seasons and the
climate have shifted. My garden tells me that food doesn’t grow in
quite the same patterns, and we either get weeks of rain or weeks of
heat and drought. This is the second year in a row that our apple trees
do not have apples on them. But most people get their food in grocery
stores where the apples still appear, and food still arrives, in season
and out, from all over the world. This will soon end, and people won’t
understand why. They don’t see the trouble in the land as I and my
friends do. I grieve daily as I look on this altered world. My
grandchildren are young adults who think their lives will continue as
they have been. Who will tell them? They can’t hear me. They, and many
others, will have to see the changes for themselves, as I have. I can’t
imagine that anything else will convince them. My grief for the world,
and for them, is compounded by this feeling of helplessness because
there is no way we can have the collective action you speak of when the
‘collective’ is still in denial. Thank you for listening.”


Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at
Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center in
Austin. He is the author of All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive
Path to the Prophetic Voice, (Soft Skull Press, 2009); Getting Off:
Pornography and the End of Masculinity (South End Press, 2007); The
Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege (City
Lights, 2005); Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our
Humanity (City Lights, 2004); and Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas
from the Margins to the Mainstream (Peter Lang, 2002). Jensen is also
co-producer of the documentary film “Abe Osheroff: One Foot in the
Grave, the Other Still Dancing,” which chronicles the life and
philosophy of the longtime radical activist. Information about the film,
distributed by the Media Education Foundation, and an extended
interview Jensen conducted with Osheroff are online here. Jensen can be reached at rjensen[a]
and his articles can be found online here.
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