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Struggling to be ‘Fully Alive’

Reports on Coping with Anguish for a World in Collapse

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
revolution
”.)

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 diminished.”

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 action:

“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 Goodwill.”

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.” http://www.millenniumassessment.org/documents/document.429.aspx.pdf

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.”


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Robert Jensen

Robert Jensen

Robert Jensen, an emeritus professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, collaborates with Ecosphere Studies at The Land Institute. He is the author of several books, including The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men and  Plain Radical: Living, Loving, and Learning to Leave the Planet Gracefully. He can be reached at rjensen@austin.utexas.edu or through his website.

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