Every time I read the latest bad-and-getting-worse news about the health of the ecosphere, such as last month’s report that the melting of some giant glaciers had passed the point of no return, I think back to a conversation 25 years ago that helps me put such news in perspective. In a Minneapolis bakery where my new friend Jim Koplin and I had settled into a Friday morning coffee session to analyze the world, and gossip a bit, Koplin told me that he thought the most important task for human beings — as a species, not just as individuals — was “learning to leave the planet gracefully.”
At our regular table by the window, he said this matter-of-factly, not joking but also not overly dramatic about it. This was a judgment he felt obligated to share with me once our friendship had deepened, our conversations had gotten sufficiently serious, and he had determined that I could handle it.
Why would human beings need to learn to leave the planet gracefully? The answer — so painfully obvious today, as the evidence about ecological crises piles up, readily available to anyone who chooses to know — was clear to Koplin more than 25 years ago. Although he wasn’t prone to quoting scripture, I am, so let me offer a “why” in the words of Jeremiah from the Hebrew Bible:
“The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.” (Jeremiah 8:20)
The days of plenty are over, the high-energy phase of human life is coming to a close, and we have not yet learned all that we need to know — about ourselves or the world — to adapt to a new era.
Does this seem overly dramatic to you? Take a look at any measure of the health of the ecosphere that makes our lives possible — the data about the intensifying negative effects of human activity on the water, soil and climate of the planet — and an unpleasant fact is unavoidable: An ongoing large-scale human presence on the planet is impossible if we accept the assumptions, and give in to the demands, of existing social and economic systems. Put bluntly: Contemporary America’s conception of “the good life” is inconsistent with life. And today no serious political force is acknowledging that hard truth, let alone thinking about the implications, let alone offering meaningful policy proposals, let alone taking action.
As a people, we have yet to muster the intellectual resources, political will and moral courage needed to save ourselves and minimize the long-term damage to other living things.
If that seems too much to bear, that’s because it is. Yet, that is our challenge: to face what is beyond our capacity to bear and refuse to turn away from the demands that these crises place on us. My friend Jim Koplin was one of the few people I’ve known to meet this challenge head on. What’s more, he was able to bear that truth without giving into despair or giving up his work, always remaining part of a loving community.
A Depression-era Minnesota farm kid, Koplin’s childhood involved a lot of work on that farm and a lot of time in the surrounding woods and lakes, experiences that shaped his appreciation of the beauty of the world and hard-working commitment to careful stewardship of the land. He also learned hard lessons about patriarchy from an abusive, violent alcoholic father, and he understood what it was like to be an outsider as a gay boy.
Koplin left the farm for college, eventually earning a Ph.D. in psychology. In his first teaching job at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., the direction of his life changed through his involvement in the civil rights movement, where he learned that people in positions of privilege (whether because of race, gender, sexual orientation, class or nation) are not simply being noble when they commit to radical movements that work against that privilege, but are saving our own lives.
Koplin retired early, living frugally on savings without paid employment, devoting himself to independent study, political organizing, and community building in a variety of left, feminist and environmental movements. Just as important as his political activity, he was an extremely skilled farmer-gardener who worked whatever land was available to him, building his daily routine around the hard but pleasurable work of growing food without chemicals, sharing that work and its bounty with neighbors, alongside young people who could learn from him.
In the 24 years I shared with Jim Koplin, who died in 2012 at the age of 79, I learned much from him, and we learned much together. One of the most important lessons was that social justice and ecological sustainability are not competing values but components of the same project of challenging hierarchies and the domination/subordination logic on which they are built. Those hierarchies within the human family undermine the possibility of decent communities that respect individual autonomy; justice and hierarchy are incompatible. Human claims to dominate the larger living world undermine the possibility of an ongoing human presence on the planet; sustainability and hierarchy are incompatible. This framework went on to shape some of his most enduring ecological lessons.
First, and most basic, specific places and the whole planet both have to matter to us. For Koplin the phrase “think globally, act locally” was too simplistic; we should think and act locally and globally, depending on the situation and the demands of the historical moment.
Koplin spent a lot of time studying both the human and non-human inhabitants of his place, where he lived, so that he could act responsibly there. As a farmer-gardener, he was especially attentive to the soil and creatures, both those that aided soil fertility and those that stole his produce (many of the urban squirrels that ventured into his garden paid a high price). But he understood “place” to be the whole place, including the trash-strewn sidewalk in front of the puppet theater where he volunteered so many hours. Usually the first person there in the morning (Koplin kept farm hours most of his life), he did what he could to nurture whatever beauty could be created in the concrete.
Attending to our local places, however, is only part of our obligation. Being a good steward of one’s own land doesn’t magically protect that land from the effects of global warming and rapid climate destabilization. And even if we could protect our individual places in the United States, we live in an economy that is based on the destruction of places all over world. We can’t, and shouldn’t try to, escape our global obligations to curb that exploitation.
Second, personal habits and social systems both matter. Koplin believed in personal responsibility but had no illusions that individual changes in behavior was adequate.
He took the slogan “reduce, reuse, recycle” more seriously than anyone I have ever known. Like many who grew up in a world of scarcity, he was relentlessly frugal to the end of his life, even when he had adequate savings and a pension to live more affluently. Koplin believed that we reveal ourselves through our habits, and he cultivated habits of care and thrift, which he saw as an expression of respect for the world.
But he rejected the claim that one’s obligations could be met just by being frugal and living simply and never suggested he was morally superior for not participating in the consumer feeding frenzy all around him. Koplin never stopped challenging the perverse values of that culture through political activity, recognizing that the problem is not how any particular individual behaves in capitalism but capitalism’s logic of endless growth and the mindless consumption that it generates.
Third, science and folk knowledge both matter. Koplin valued modern science’s ability to expand our understanding of the world, but he believed that this understanding is complementary to, not at odds with, what ordinary people know about the world through experience.
He was a voracious reader of scientific work, ranging from technical work in fields in which he had some expertise to popular accounts on virtually any subject. As a former academic psychologist interested in language acquisition who had once taught research methods and statistics, he had a deep respect for the scientific method and understood the need for the rigor that came with specialization, along with the need for sharp criticism of lazy thinking and sloppy research.
However, Koplin also understood the limits of science. Although he had no formal training in ecology, he had an ecologist’s awareness that science could never identify, let alone understand, all of the complex connections and interactions in our bodies or in the world — all of which argues for considerable humility in rushing to “scientific” answers to all questions. He knew that traditional cultures acquired and passed along knowledge in non-scientific ways; he spoke lovingly of what he had learned from his grandmother in her garden, complex knowledge that was passed down in complex ways that engaged the mind, body and emotions. He admired a former student’s advanced research on the human visual system in the lab but spoke just as respectfully of a childhood friend’s skill at butchering a deer shot in the nearby woods.
Finally, Koplin understood that like every other organism on the planet, human beings live within limits — the limits of the organism and of the systems in which an organism is embedded. Contemporary society is based on a collective denial of those limits, a delusion made possible temporarily by the reigning fundamentalist faith of our day, technological fundamentalism — the belief that the increasing use of evermore sophisticated high-energy, advanced technology can solve any problem, including the problems caused by the unintended consequences of such technology. Koplin, earlier than anyone I knew, had come to understand that this fundamentalism — seeing computer chips and machines as our savior — was far more dangerous than even the craziest claims about saviors in the sky.
His analysis of the prospects for that decent human future began with the ecological realities, followed by an evaluation of the ability of our social/political/economic systems to adapt to those realities. Koplin’s blunt assessment: The forces set in motion by human “civilization” — beginning with the agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago and dramatically intensified in the fossil-fuel epoch of the industrial revolution — have degraded the planet’s ecosystems in ways that cannot be reversed, that we are past the point of no return on many crucial markers. That means dramatic changes are required, not just in our “lifestyles” and not just in social/economic/political systems, but in how we understand ourselves at the most basic level, how we answer the question, “What does it mean to be human?”
I am convinced that how we define being human in a future of global instability depends very much on how honest we can be with each other, and with ourselves, in the present.
Mainstream environmental groups — in fact, mainstream groups of any kind — avoid these questions, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t struggling with those realities and assessments, typically alone or in small groups. Koplin saw no evidence that any society was ready to engage in the necessary discussions or consider the necessary changes, least of all the United States, which was not an easy conclusion for him to reach because he loved so deeply. All of his friends experienced that love with him, and watched him love the living world with a reverence that led one of those friends to describe him as a “nature mystic.”
That’s why Koplin thought our task was to leave the planet gracefully, because he loved us and loved the world that is our home. He loved people and planet in a way that made him yearn for a graceful, peaceful ending, much as one wishes for a graceful and peaceful ending for a person coming to the end of an individual life.
But Koplin also knew that such an elegant ending was unlikely, which is why he also told his closest friends: “I wake up every morning in a state of profound grief.” Again, he was not a scripture-quoting fellow, but again the words of Jeremiah echo: “My grief is beyond healing, my heart is sick within me.” (Jeremiah 8:18)
Just as his comment about leaving the planet wasn’t flippant, neither was his description of his grief. Koplin was not a demonstrative person emotionally, and many who knew him superficially might even say he could be standoffish and aloof. But that was because he felt deeply and was aware of how easily those feelings could overwhelm him. So, he was careful in public.
In another of our early morning coffee sessions, Koplin told me that he remembered the moment as a young person when he realized that every human being’s brain worked the same way, which meant that every human being alive on the planet had the capacity to experience exactly the same range of emotions as he did. It was at that moment that the abstract idea of equality became real to him — we really are all the same, at the deepest and most basic level — and that the suffering of people everywhere became real, and overwhelming, to him. Koplin said that daily life was manageable because he had found ways to wall himself off from that realization, for to try to live with that awareness always present would be to court suicide.
As difficult as these feelings were for him, Koplin knew that our only real basis for hope comes in the embrace of this grief. Not an abstract hope that somehow, magically, everything will turn out OK, but the hope that we can speak honestly with others and form the small groups and communities that can foster the radical analysis of hierarchies and illegitimate authority, along with the traditional values of frugality and mutual obligation. This is what I call being a “plain radical,” and Koplin was the most plainly radical person I have ever known.
I don’t want to romanticize my friend. While his political vision and ecological understanding were incisive, his ideas were not unique. But in my experience, it is rare to find one person who follows both lines of thought so deeply and lives the ideas with such forbearance and equanimity. He romanticized neither revolutionary politics nor rural life, but rather drew the best from each tradition and constructed a political and ecological life that made sense for him. Rather than seek converts to his particular style of living, he embraced life in a diverse community and offered his attention and affection to a wide variety of people. Koplin didn’t make many demands on others. Instead, the dignified way he led his life led those of us who loved him to make demands on ourselves. By never exempting himself from the obligation to critically self-reflect, he made it hard for us to wiggle out of it.
When I speak of these struggles, people invariably call me “a downer” and “too negative.” I used to believe that was true, that I was being depressing by pushing these issues, but I have come to see that claim inverts reality. In fact, I’m the positive one — by placing my faith in our collective ability to bear the truth that is beyond bearing, I am affirming the best aspects of our humanity, just like my friend Jim Koplin. Those who demand that we ignore the painful questions are, in fact, the downers — the people stuck in negativity, the ones who have no faith in themselves or others to face reality honestly.
Without that commitment to facing reality honestly, the harvest will have past, the summer will have ended forever, and we will not be able to save ourselves.
This is an edited version of a lecture delivered June 3, 2014, at the University of Texas at Austin in the Informal Classes program. Video is online here. For a text of the complete lecture, email firstname.lastname@example.org.