By Robert Jensen
Editors’ Note: This is the Introduction to the book An Inconvenient Apocalypse, by Robert Jensen and Wes Jackson.
In the many phone conversations between the authors when this book was under construction, one of us would say that a particular point was so important that we need to get it right up front. After a few of these comments, we joked that there were so many things that needed to be right up front that the book was getting top heavy and would be impossible to hold open.
The first thing we want to put right up front is this: we are two old white guys from the United States living pretty comfortably with good retirement plans. We believe it’s important to start with recognition of who we are in social terms, a signal that we are not tone deaf to the political climate in which we write. We understand why some readers might be reluctant to consider the work of people from certain classes and identity categories, especially if people in those classes and categories so often have been reluctant to fess up to our own failures, individual and collective.
Our intention is to continue in this blunt fashion rather than avoid uncomfortable questions. Throughout this book, our goal is to confront difficult issues as honestly as we can, even when our analysis might create tension with friends and allies. We believe this approach is more necessary than ever at this all-hands-on-deck point in human history. We ask readers to bear with us while we explain our sense of urgency, our approach to analyzing the crises, and what we believe are our best options for the future. We offer this advice on intellectual engagement from John Steinbeck:
We had had many discussions at the galley table and there had been many honest attempts to understand each other’s thinking. There are several kinds of reception possible. There is the mind which lies in wait with traps for flaws, so set that it may miss, though not grasping it, a soundness. There is a second which is not reception at all, but blind flight because of laziness, or because some pattern is disturbed by the processes of the discussion. The best reception of all is that which is easy and relaxed, which says in effect, “Let me absorb this thing. Let me try to understand it without private barriers. When I have understood what you are saying, only then will I subject it to my own scrutiny and my own criticism.” This is the finest of all critical approaches and the rarest.
We do not claim our arguments are flawless, and we hope readers who identify a flaw will not dismiss immediately the soundness of the larger analysis. We will suggest that there are patterns at work in the world quite different from what many people believe. We encourage readers to scrutinize and criticize after engaging our arguments in the easy and relaxed fashion advised by Steinbeck. We agree that such a critical approach is rare, because we can reflect on how often we have taken the other two routes in our lives. As we get older, we hope we have gotten better at being relaxed.
There are many different ways to categorize and analyze the threats that humans have created and cannot evade much longer. Reasonable people can disagree about details, but for the moment let’s focus on the big picture. The following summary would get wide agreement not only in progressive political circles but also in much of mainstream society and even parts of more conservative political communities.
First, within the human family, we face a struggle for social justice in societies that currently do not operate in a manner consistent with widely held values concerning dignity, solidarity, and equality. Many people, whatever their political affiliation, express a commitment to (1) the inherent dignity of all people, (2) the importance of solidarity for healthy community life, and (3) the need for a level of equality that makes dignity and solidarity possible. But living according to those moral principles is hard, and the impediments are well known: the sexual and social subordination of women and girls under patriarchy; the brutal history and corrosive contemporary practices of white supremacy; wealth inequality and deprivation in unjust economic systems, most recently capitalism; and global inequality rooted in historical colonialism and today’s economic imperialism. If we can’t align our dysfunctional politics and destructive economics with those widely held values, we are in trouble.
Second, we face a struggle for an ecologically sustainable relationship between humans and the larger living world, the ecosphere. That means dramatic changes — in both the way we think and the way we live — are necessary in societies that draw down the ecological capital of the ecosphere beyond replacement levels. This will require a shift away from the widely accepted idea that Earth exists for humans to exploit without much regard either for other organisms or for the long-term health of the ecosystems that sustain us. The threats here also are well known: human-centric economic systems and cultural norms that have for millennia led to soil erosion and degradation, and in recent centuries have produced chemical contamination of land and water, a steep decline in biodiversity, and climate destabilization. If we can’t align our living arrangements with the laws of physics and chemistry, we are in trouble.
From those basics on which many agree, disagreements emerge pretty quickly about details, even among like-minded people. These conflicts often are the result of different core ideologies or different locations in the social structure. But we think this is a reasonable general summary of the challenges we face in achieving social justice and ecological sustainability.
How are we to proceed? We should consider possible actions in the context of multiple cascading crises — three words we would like to etch into everyone’s consciousness. The concurrent and unpredictable failures of social systems produce short-term threats that demand a response immediately, as well as long-term threats that will not be resolved anytime soon and perhaps cannot be resolved. We do not face discrete problems that can be solved in isolation. We have to struggle to understand all of these destructive forces and how they interact so that our actions will be as effective as possible. All of these threats demand everyone’s immediate attention, yet no one person can act on all fronts in any given moment or even in a lifetime. In view of all that, it is not surprising that many people find it easy to lose hope that the necessary change will happen in time.
Abandoning such hope is reasonable, an assertion to which we return at the end of the book. But for now, we want to point out that there’s no sense pretending these threats are not overwhelming simply because we wish they were more manageable. It’s fine in a love song to suggest that “the impossible will take a little while,” but in real life the impossible is just that, impossible. Where does that leave us? The task is to recognize what is impossible and what is — or at least might be — possible, not in the abstraction of theory, but in the concreteness of the world.
The coming decades are likely to be marked by dramatic dislocations as a result of our social and ecological crises. We say “likely,” because no one can predict with precision next week’s weather, let alone the exact trajectory of human societies in the coming decades. Still, we believe that feeling some despair in the face of these threats is a rational, reasonable, and responsible reaction. Such despair — not over our personal fates but our species’ collective inability to value the larger living world — should be pondered, not waved away with platitudes. We do not advocate nihilism, but we take seriously the biophysical limits of the ecosphere and human limits. It’s cowardly to say that nothing can be done. It’s silly to say that we can do whatever we set our minds to. If we stop fantasizing about doing the impossible, we can focus on doing the best job we can to achieve what is possible. The two of us continue to spend a considerable amount of our own time focused on analyzing and responding to these threats, well aware that positive outcomes are not guaranteed. Analysis (no matter how grim) and action (no matter how slim the chances of success) are antidotes to despair, though we are not pretending it is simple to determine what is possible and what is impossible, or what the most effective personal and policy choices might be.
So here’s another thing that needs to be right up front: it is highly unlikely that the destructive forces unleashed by humans over the past ten thousand years since the invention of agriculture will be stopped in time to avoid what might be called apocalyptic consequences. Don’t worry, that’s not a lead-in to rapture talk. We use the term “apocalyptic” in a secular sense, as we explain in chapter 3. Because we remain engaged in the struggle and hope others will too, we want to suggest another way to approach crises, a way to organize our thinking that sharpens rather than obscures our understanding of the impediments to the deep changes necessary.
We come back to those three crucial words — multiple cascading crises — that remind us that the task is not to solve separate problems but to see the failure of systems and recognize the limits of our ability to predict how those failures will play out over time. Given the scope of that task, we are going to need what the geologist T. C. Chamberlin called multiple working hypotheses. In an essay first published in 1897, Chamberlin warned that a single “ruling theory” can too easily lead us to ignore evidence that disproves the conventional wisdom or supports an alternate explanation. In our context, that means we should beware anyone selling an easy way out, a way for us to have it all without dramatic changes.
If we are to respond creatively and effectively, we also need to think at both the material and ideological levels — the tangible and the intangible, the way we live day to day and the way we think about the meaning of our lives. At the material level, we face a crisis of consumption. In aggregate terms, the human population has too much stuff. That stuff is not equally or equitably distributed among the population, of course. But no matter what the level of fairness and justice in societies, the ecological costs of the extraction, processing, and waste disposal required to produce all that stuff is at the core of our ecological crises. And by “stuff,” we mean not just what everyone would agree are luxury items but also much of what many people believe are necessities (more on this in chapter 4). Collectively, we have to learn to live with less in the aggregate, no matter how resources are distributed. In some sense, this is easy to understand and should motivate us to change course. But those who already have too much stuff typically have trouble reducing the rate of acquisition, and those without much stuff typically seek to get in on the acquisition game.
A major reason that societies across the globe find it difficult to imagine reducing aggregate consumption is because at the ideological level we face a crisis of meaning. Human philosophical and theological belief systems vary widely, of course, and there are countless insightful answers to the search for meaning in our lives. We are not arguing that everyone is leading a meaningless life; many people have grappled with the question and embraced answers that work for them and their communities. But whatever particular system one endorses and whatever answers individuals have come to, those choices have not equipped US society (or very many other societies) to deal with the multiple cascading crises as a society. Most of us have pondered the foundational human question, What does it mean to be a human being?, and come to some conclusions, however tentative. But we have no collective answer that has yet been able to help us deal effectively with the problems of social justice and ecological sustainability.
The two of us have no one-size-fits-all solution to the crisis of consumption and no platitudes to offer to resolve the crisis of meaning. We recognize that if the human species cannot deal with the crisis of consumption — that is, if we cannot collectively impose limits on what we take from Earth — the human future is bleak. And such limits will be impossible to impose if we cannot respond to the crisis of meaning, which requires either adapting traditional philosophical and theological systems to the new challenges or transcending those systems when they fail us.
We speak as citizens of the United States, which is appropriately our focus, but are aware that these challenges apply in many places today. The dominant culture needs to accept changes in the way we live and in the way we think about being alive, and to do that we need to get past comforting illusions about what kind of animal we are and what kind of world we live in. We need to come to terms not just with human nature, but with human-carbon nature (see chapter 1).
So, Who Are We?
That takes us back to what we put right up front: we are two old white guys from the United States living pretty comfortably with good retirement plans.
Again, that is simply a way of saying that we recognize the need for critical self-reflection about identity, especially in this political and cultural moment. We realize that much of our success is not the product of unusual effort or extraordinary intelligence. Both of us have tried to use our abilities to the fullest, but obvious advantages have come our way because we were born white, male, in the United States, during a period of rapid economic expansion. If we had been born good-looking, we would have had it all.
We know that people who look like us sometimes believe ourselves to be more important than we are; sometimes speak when we should listen; sometimes overestimate the value of our contribution and demand that others pay attention to us. Still, we believe that we have something to say that is of value to everyone. We hope that readers of this book — whether they agree or disagree with the various analyses and conclusions — will find that we offer reasonable ideas that are important to consider in the face of the difficult choices in front of us. We recognize the need for humility about our limits, but we are confident that we have something valuable to offer, based on decades of work in a variety of intellectual and political arenas.
On humility: Throughout our lives we have had access to resources that we have not earned and have been accorded status in the world that cannot be justified, all as a result of the accident of when, where, and to what parents we were born. There are good reasons that some readers might be skeptical about what we have to say or might even challenge whether at this moment in history we should be speaking at all. After all, it’s mostly white guys, young and old, who got us into the various messes we’re in.
On confidence: In our combined 150 years (when this book is published, Jackson will be 86 and Jensen, 64), we have studied in a variety of disciplines and intellectual traditions, and we have been active in a variety of political and social movements. We have spent considerable time and intellectual energy pondering pressing questions.
We each have a contrarian streak, but we aren’t writing in search of controversy for its own sake. We don’t critique conservatives to appeal to liberals, nor do we challenge progressive ideology just to shore up our credentials with the mainstream. We fit somewhere on the left side of the political fence, so we have learned to expect the conservative resistance that comes our way. But we also challenge progressive assumptions and know from experience that some of these conclusions will be rejected on the left. We also are supporters of modern science, so we expect pushback from the critics of that tradition. But we also make claims that challenge Enlightenment dogma.
We perhaps have gone on too long here, but we want to make it clear that this book is born out of a sense of responsibility, not entitlement, out of a sense of urgency to face the multiple cascading crises. For a good chunk of our adult lives, both of us have been subsidized to do intellectual work — defined here simply as collecting and assessing evidence to try to identify patterns in the world, the attempt to understand how both physical and social systems work. We’ve had access to good schools, first-class libraries, and conversation with lots of smart people all over the world, which have informed our teaching, writing, and activism. We’re grateful for everything those things have brought to our lives and believe we should make responsible use of those advantages.
And here’s the irony. We have a lot of running room to be as blunt as necessary because we are financially stable and don’t have to worry about losing our jobs, and we are old enough that we don’t much care about risking whatever status we’ve acquired over the years. As T. S. Eliot put it in “East Coker,” “Old men ought to be explorers.” We take seriously Eliot’s charge that we “must be still and still moving / Into another intensity.” We can say what we think needs to be said, especially when it challenges the positions taken by friends and colleagues who may bristle at our intensity. If we thought the analyses of the political and intellectual movements of which we are a part were 100 percent correct, we would have no reason to write. We wish that were the case, but it’s not.
What We Believe
We aren’t going to march readers through the volumes of research demonstrating the depth of the social disparities and the severity of the ecological dangers. A parade of statistics and studies rarely persuades those who have decided to ignore the threats to human communities and ecosystems. This book takes those disparities and dangers as a starting point.
To anchor us in the depth of those threats, consider this warning from 1,700 of the world’s leading scientists:
Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course. Human activities inflict harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment and on critical resources. If not checked, many of our current practices put at serious risk the future that we wish for human society and the plant and animal kingdoms, and may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know. Fundamental changes are urgent if we are to avoid the collision our present course will bring about.
That statement was issued in 1992. Because such concerns were ignored by the people in power, in 2017 a follow-up report, “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice,” was issued. This time, more than 15,000 scientists from 184 countries made the case: “We are jeopardizing our future by not reining in our intense but geographically and demographically uneven material consumption and by not perceiving continued rapid population growth as a primary driver behind many ecological and even societal threats.”
For a quick summary of the threats, a 2020 report from the Commission for the Human Future, a nongovernmental and nonpartisan group of researchers and citizens, identified ten catastrophic risks that require immediate attention.
The decline of key natural resources and an emerging global resource crisis, especially in water;
The collapse of ecosystems that support life, and the mass extinction of species;
Human population growth and demand, beyond the Earth’s carrying capacity;
Global warming, sea-level rise, and changes in the Earth’s climate affecting all human activity;
Universal pollution of the Earth system and all life by chemicals;
Rising food insecurity and failing nutritional quality;
Nuclear arms and other weapons of mass destruction;
Pandemics of new and untreatable disease;
The advent of powerful, uncontrolled new technologies;
National and global failure to understand and act preventively on these risks.
The implications of these warnings, which so far have gone largely unheeded not only by those in power but also by the dominant culture more generally, are clear. If we don’t transcend a growth economy, there are hard times ahead. And if we do manage to construct a new economic order, there are hard times ahead. Hard times are coming for everyone, even though some people are more responsible for social and ecological problems than others and some of those people will be able to evade the consequences of those problems, at least in the short term.
The task of creating new systems is daunting, in large part because of challenges posed by the nature of the human animal, combined with most people’s denial of what it means to be an animal. We have faith in the better angels of our nature but realize that those better angels alone won’t save us from what we call “the temptations of dense energy,” which has come most recently in the form of fossil fuels. We conclude that there are no workable solutions to the most pressing problems of our historical moment. The best we can do is minimize the suffering and destruction. We conclude that the human future — even if today’s progressive social movements were to be as successful as possible — will be gritty and grim. And yet we continue to search for ways to make whatever changes are possible, not just out of moral obligation, but in the pursuit of a more joyful participation in the Creation.
We like the term “Creation” for the sense of reverence that it brings, even though we don’t believe in a creator god. But we see creativity and ongoing creation all around us, every day, in the ecosphere. We have affection and respect for religious traditions but are critical of the dogma that those traditions so often produce. And we get just as nervous when secular traditions drift into dogma, as they regularly do. We work hard to monitor our own thinking to avoid overdriving our headlights, well aware that the human weakness of claiming certainty in the face of complexity lies in wait for us just as much as for others.
No matter what their identity, all authors should ask before writing, “Is another book really necessary?” We ask ourselves, “Is another book by us necessary?” Our answer for this project is obviously “Yes,” because many people are looking for an honest account of the human condition at this tenuous moment in history, one that does not give up on the obligation to act but also does not turn away from the inevitable grief when we confront our limitations. We believe that the claims we make in this book — especially the ones that might make some people bristle — are not only defensible, but crucial to consider if there is to be a decent human future, perhaps if there is to be a human future at all.
Same and Different
Right up front, we made it clear that self-reflection about identity is important. Most people today accept that things like sex, race, class, and national status are relevant in shaping people’s ideas. But within those categories, there is considerable individual variation. In the interest of full disclosure, a bit more about Jackson and Jensen, not simply in terms of identity categories, but individual biographies. While we share a similar social position, like any two people we are not the same. We come from different backgrounds, with quite different experiences. We ended up with very similar views of the world but got there on quite different paths.
First, the similarities. Jackson is from Kansas and Jensen is from North Dakota, midwestern states whose economies are dependent on agriculture, though Kansas is three times more populous and more racially diverse, with a more diversified economy and larger cities. The political histories of both states include periods of progressive populism, though in recent decades both have shifted to the political right. Neither state has ever been thought of as cosmopolitan. There’s an old joke in Fargo, North Dakota, that when the end of the world finally comes it will be good to be in Fargo, because everything arrives there ten years late. And what’s the go-to movie line when you find yourself in a new and exciting place? “Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore,” Dorothy says to her dog in The Wizard of Oz. Neither of us grew up in what could be called intellectual families, and neither of us was raised with expectations of living a life much different from the people in our communities. Both of us got into professional intellectual life not through careful career planning but by stumbling into graduate school when we weren’t sure what else to do, and both of us have taught college students (Jackson, at Kansas Wesleyan University and California State University, Sacramento; Jensen, at the University of Minnesota and the University of Texas at Austin).
Second, the differences. Jackson was a farm kid (from North Topeka) born during the Great Depression (1936), and Jensen was a town kid (from Fargo) born during the post–World War II boom (1958). Jackson was a jock focused on football and track, while Jensen was equally inept in all sports. Jackson’s education and career grounded him in the sciences — biology, botany, genetics. Jensen’s education and career grounded him in social sciences and humanities — communication, philosophy, law. Jackson’s focus has been on agriculture and environmental policy, involving many years of traveling and public speaking in the United States and internationally. Jensen has focused his organizing activity on issues of sex, race, and foreign policy, both at the local and national levels.
What all this adds up to is that we are perhaps best described as progressive hicks. In intellectual and political terms, we would be described as progressive left. In cultural terms, we are hicks, not only because of our rural or small-town background but also because we still feel comfortable in those places. Jackson left university life early and returned to Kansas to cofound The Land Institute, just outside Salina, which remains his home. Jensen made university teaching his career before retiring early to the edge of a small town in northern New Mexico, glad to have escaped city life. Another way to say this is that both of us are radical in our approach to analyzing systems of wealth and power and conservative in lifestyle.
We see today’s multiple cascading crises as the product of systems — not just the social, political, and economic systems of the past few centuries, but the hierarchical ways of organizing human relationships with each other and the world that have been widespread for the past few millennia. We don’t much like hierarchy unless there’s a compelling justification for it, and we have rarely run into such justifications. That’s the radical part.
In our day-to-day lives, we shy away from too much change too quickly and are uncomfortable with much of what is considered “cutting edge” in today’s world. We are both hesitant about new technologies, uncomfortable with having too much leisure time, and skeptical about anything trendy. That’s the conservative part.
The similarities tend to outweigh the differences, so in most of the book, we speak in a single voice when presenting our analyses. We conclude by writing separately to explore how our personal experiences have influenced our sense of hope.
That’s who we the authors are. Our next task is to talk about we the human species.
Jensen is host of “Podcast from the Prairie” with Wes Jackson and associate producer of the forthcoming documentary film Prairie Prophecy: The Restless and Relentless Mind of Wes Jackson.
Jensen can be reached at email@example.com. To join an email list to receive articles by Jensen, go to https://www.thirdcoastactivist.org/jensenupdates-info.html. Follow him at @jensenrobertw (Twitter), @RobertJensen@newsie.social (Mastodon), and (Post).
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