We live in the midst of multiple crises—economic and political, cultural and ecological—posing a significant threat to human existence at the level we have become accustomed to. There’s no way to be awake to the depth of these crises without emotional reactions, no way to be aware of the pain caused by these systemic failures without some dread and distress.
Those emotions come from recognizing that we humans with our big brains have disrupted the balance of the living world in disastrous ways that may be causing irreversible ecological destruction, and that drastically different ways of living are not only necessary but inevitable, with no guarantee of a smooth transition.
This talk, in polite company, leads to being labeled hysterical, Chicken Little, apocalyptic. No matter that you are calm, aren’t predicting the sky falling, and have made no reference to rapture. Pointing out that we live in unsustainable systems, that unsustainable systems can’t be sustained, and that no person or institution with power in the dominant culture is talking about this—well, that’s obviously crazy.
But to many of us, these insights simply seem honest. 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. What to do when such honesty is unwelcome?
In June 2010, I published a short essay online asking people who felt this anguish to report on their emotions and others’ reactions. In less than a month I received more than 300 messages, and while no single comment could sum up the responses, this comes close:
“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.”
I didn’t ask for biographical information, so there’s little data on the age, race, or occupation of the respondents. Nor did I ask specifically about political or community activism, but the letters reinforced a gut feeling that dealing openly with these emotions need not lead to paralysis and inaction. People can confront honestly a frightening question—“What if the unsustainable systems in which we live are beyond the point of no return?”—and stay politically and socially engaged.
One respondent, a longtime community organizer, put it succinctly:
“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.”
What happens when we tell “exceptional truth”?
First, we often feel drained by it. Another respondent observed:
“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.”
Second, we encounter those who don’t want to face tough truths. Many wrote about isolation from family and friends who deny that there are reasons to be concerned:
“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.”
Sometimes people accuse those who press questions about systemic failure and collapse of being the problem:
“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.”
Regardless of others’ reactions to talking honestly about collapse, it’s essential that we continue; no political project based on denying reality can be viable for the long term. We need not have a crystal ball to recognize, as singer-songwriter John Gorka put it, that “the old future’s gone.” The future of endless bounty for all isn’t the future we face.
How can we open an honest conversation about that future? It isn’t easy, but it starts with telling the truth, from our own experience, like this 70-year-old woman who lives in a rural intentional community:
“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.”
The work of breaking out of denial is less about specific actions and more about the habits and virtues we must cultivate. Far from that rural community, a 35-year-old woman working in an office in Chicago summed up the task:
“We really need to take it back to the basics and keep it simple. This reminds me of one of my own quotes I thought of a few months ago—‘be humble or be humiliated.’ I think I’m a simple person. I try to avoid making things more complex than they have to be. I try to focus more on what I need versus what I want. ‘Be humble or be humiliated’ is my own personal reminder.”
Her personal reminder is relevant for us all, individually and collectively. Humanity’s last hope may be in embracing a deep humility, recognizing that our cleverness is outstripped by our ignorance. If we become truly humble, we can abandon attempts to dominate the living world and instead find our place in it.
Robert Jensen is an author and journalism professor at the University of Texas in Austin. Reprinted from“Ready for Anything,” the Fall 2010 issue of Yes! Magazine, a nonprofit, ad-free national publication that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. www.yesmagazine.org
This article first appeared in the May-June 2011 issue of Utne Reader.