Humanity's Best Future Plan? Leaving the Planet Gracefully
The following is an excerpt from the new book, Plain Radical: Living, Loving and Learning to Leave the Planet Gracefully, by Robert Jensen (Soft Skull Press, 2015).
Tell people that you are writing a book about a person they have never heard of, and a reasonable question is, “Who the hell is he?” My shorthand summary: Jim Koplin was a “plain radical.” Not radical in the sense of dangerously extreme or a fanatical ideologue, but instead radical in its most basic meaning—going deep, to the root of a problem. Jim was radical in his analysis of the world, unflinching in his evaluation of the failures of ours systems, unwilling to fudge the facts or hedge his bets. Jim believed that the only way to make sense of, and resist, the corrosive effects of an unequal distribution of wealth and power in our society was to get radical.
Jim was not plain in the sense of drab or uninteresting, but rather in the way he offered this unvarnished analysis—in plain language without jargon or posturing. He also preferred plain living; Jim didn’t try to make statements through his style or appearance, and in day-to-day life he avoided anything fancy or faddish.
The people who run the world typically try to dismiss anyone with a radical analysis as either threatening or flaky—radicals are painted as crazies who either are going to blow us up or annoy us with their self-indulgence. Jim quietly refuted those caricatures, in how he thought and how he lived. Jim was the most plainly radical person I have ever known, shaped by the unassuming farm life in which he was raised and the uncompromising left/feminist politics in which he immersed himself.
Because we need both radical analysis and plain living more than ever, I’m going to do what Jim never wanted me to do when he was alive—make a fuss about him.
Jim was not well known outside the circle of people who had met him—though in his 79 years he met a good many people—but for those of us who knew him well he was a transformative figure. Jim was the kind of teacher who, clichÃ© as it may sound, changed lives; the kind of political comrade one could count on to act ethically; the kind of person who brought a deeper meaning to the word “friend.” He also was really smart and paid attention, to politics and ecology, and to the details of life. He knew a lot about people and the larger living world.
Though Jim would not want me to overstate the case, the scope of his political vision and ecological understanding was distinctive; I have never met another person who followed both lines of inquiry so deeply and lived the ideas, however troubling, with such forbearance and equanimity. He romanticized neither rural life nor revolutionary politics, but rather drew the best from each tradition and constructed a sustainable political and ecological life that made sense for him, and to which many others were drawn. He participated in every important U.S. political movement of the last half of the twentieth century—civil rights, radical feminism, gay rights, antiwar, New Left, environmental—and from that activism learned “that the lesson is always that people have power, that hierarchy only provides the illusion of power and control,” as he once wrote. His legacy is captured not just in the political actions he was part of, but even more in how he lived. In that same 1980 letter to one of his former students and closest friends, Sox Sperry, Jim said:
I believe the most important thing we can do is push to explore the boundary of human possibilities, and then to live those discoveries out visibly in our own lives for other people to see, and continue to hope that there is enough time for the good examples to catch on (and for some of our failures to just fade away). Any other approach to change, I’m afraid, will merely replicate the structures that need to be destroyed.
Rather than seek converts to his particular way of living, Jim embraced life in a diverse community and offered his attention and affection to a wide variety of people. He didn’t make many specific demands on others but instead led his life in a dignified way that encouraged those of us who loved him to make demands on ourselves. By never exempting himself from the obligation to critically self-reflect, Jim made it hard for us to wiggle out of it.
That’s echoed in this passage from one of Jim’s favorite writers, Wendell Berry (another rather plain farm boy with radical ideas), who reflected on the compromises we face, and sometimes make, in an unsustainable world. After listing the things he happily deprives him- self of (including television, colas, TV dinners, and recreational vehicles, things that Jim also avoided), Berry avoids self-congratulation:
It is plain to me that the line ought to be drawn without fail wherever it can be drawn easily. And it ought to be easy (though many do not find it so) to refuse to buy what one does not need. . . . And yet, if we are ever again to have a world fit and pleasant for little children, we are surely going to have to draw the line where it is not easily drawn. We are going to have to learn to give up things that we have learned (in only a few years, after all) to “need.” I am not an optimist; I am afraid that I won’t live long enough to es- cape my bondage to the machines. Nevertheless, on every day left to me I will search my mind and circumstances for the means of escape. And I am not without hope. I knew a man who, in the age of chainsaws, went right on cutting his wood with a handsaw and an axe. He was a healthier and saner man than I am. I shall let his memory trouble my thoughts.
Jim Koplin was a healthier and saner person than I am. Probably healthier and saner than you, too. His memory troubles my thoughts and gives me comfort, and I want his story to trouble and comfort you.
In Jim’s last years, as the evidence mounted that dramatic ecological changes were inevitable, Jim saw in Oskar the hope of a new generation, the dawning of a new day, the promise of a new era.
Scratch that. That line is for the Hollywood version of Jim Koplin’s life, the one with the feel-good ending. Try this, the Vergas version, with the honest ending:
In Jim’s last years, as the evidence mounted that dramatic ecological changes were inevitable, Jim became increasingly annoyed with people who kept insisting that we had to have hope for a new generation, a new day, a new era.
Jim recognized that love as a great gift in the last years of his life. Jim loved me and lots of other people, and he knew how much we loved him. Jim loved his place in the world, among the tomato plants and raspberry bushes, at the cafÃ©, with his childhood friends in rural Minnesota. But those loves did not change his assessment of the trajectory of the human species or lead him to spin feel-good fantasies. Jim believed the constant demand that “we have to have hope” was too often a form of denial, a way people kept themselves from looking at the dire state of the world. Over time he decided he was against hope, as it was indulged in the dominant culture.
Here’s Wendell Berry, one of Jim’s favorite writers, on the subject in one of his Sabbath poems:
It is hard to have hope. It is harder as you grow old,
for hope must not depend on feeling good
and there is the dream of loneliness at absolute midnight.
You also have withdrawn belief in the present reality
of the future, which surely will surprise us,
and hope is harder when it cannot come by prediction
any more than by wishing. But stop dithering.
The young ask the old to hope. What will you tell them?
Tell them at least what you say to yourself.
Here’s what Jim, never the dithering type, said to himself (and to me, and I assume to others who were ready to hear it): The last task of the human species is to learn to leave the planet gracefully.
Jim didn’t believe in grace bestowed by a loving God (or by a vengeful God, for that matter), but he did believe people could be graceful in how they chose to live. Learning to leave the planet gracefully wasn’t an argument for some kind of elegantly choreographed mass suicide, but rather a call to live today in ways that minimize the human assault on the larger living world and help us become our most graceful and gracious selves. Like Berry, Jim thought the present predictions of the future were of little value, and that hope couldn’t be based on predictions. But whatever future awaits us, Jim believed that we were better off living gracefully.
None of this has anything to do with giving in to despair or giving up. Jim’s philosophy asked much more of people than the platitudes of the hope-peddlers, whether secular or religious; he understood that continuing to struggle for justice and sustainability when there was no evidence to support hope was the mark of real courage and character. Jim scoffed at survivalists who might share his view that a future likely would be grim—cultivating frugality and community self-reliance was always valuable, but stockpiling shotgun shells and dried food was no answer. Jim didn’t give up on his obligations to others and to the world, because he understood that struggle as his obligation to himself, to being the best person he could.
Jim looked around contemporary society and saw few fellow travelers on this path. The technological fundamentalists offered fantasies of magical gadgets on Earth. The religious fundamentalists indulged fantasies of deliverance to another place. Jim rejected both but saw the seductive promises of high-energy/high-technology “solutions” as the most dangerous. Even people who claim to reject that glorification of technology often were secretly betting on it. A year after his death, in one of those many moments I wished I could pick up the phone and call Jim, I had an exchange with a fellow leftist that showed how difficult it was to put forward a critical analysis that was honest in this way.
“The Future Must Be Green, Red, Black and Female,” the manifesto mentioned in “Pushing Further,” emerged out of my concern that those with a sustainability vision could too easily short-change the justice vision. After I published that essay online, a short summary of the piece appeared in the weekly email from PopularResistance.org, which described itself as seeking to aid in bringing movements for peace, justice, economic fairness and environmental protection together into an independent, nonviolent and diverse movement that can end the power of concentrated wealth, shift power to the people and put human needs before corporate greed.
No argument from me about that goal, but the way my essay was summarized distorted the message. Here’s what I wrote to the website:
Thanks for linking to my essay in the latest Popular Resistance email.
I have one bit of feedback. The link to my work comes under the subhead “A time of crisis and opportunity,” and begins:
“We live in a time of crisis, but also in a time of opportunity. Robert Jensen tells us that we must face reality: ‘If today, everywhere on the planet, everyone made a commitment to the research and organizing necessary to ramp down the demands that the human project places on ecosystems, we could possibly create a plan for a sustainable human presence on the planet, with a dramatic reduction in consumption and a gradual reduction of population.’”
That key word in that sentence is “could,” because I go on to say:
“But when we reflect on our history as a species and the nature of the systems that govern our lives today, the sensible conclusion is that the steps we need to take won’t be taken, at least not in the time frame available for meaningful change. This is not defeatist. This is not cowardly. This is not self-indulgent. This is reality, and sensible planning should be reality-based.”
I believe in organizing for social justice and ecological sustain- ability, and I spend more of my own time, energy, and money on these projects than I ever have. But the point of my essay was to come to terms with the fact that we have to face not only what we can achieve, but what we almost certainly can’t achieve at this point in history, given the damage already done and the forces unleashed.
As I argue in the essay, that need not paralyze us. Instead, it can help us make better choices about what kind of organizing is likely most productive, given the realities that we have long been ignoring.
So, I think your incomplete quotation from the essay likely leads readers to an interpretation that strays from what I argue in the piece.
The response from Popular Resistance was polite but avoided the challenge I was offering to traditional “we can fix it if we work harder” organizing. The question isn’t whether we should continue to organize for justice and sustainability—I agree that we should— but whether we can tell the truth about the state of the world. I responded one last time, not so much to try to change anyone’s mind but because I don’t like people avoiding the issue:
My own view is that in addition to participating in and highlighting the successes of existing organizing projects, we need to talk more about what’s coming. Out of an understandable desire to keep people in movements focused on what can be achieved in the moment, I believe we are avoiding our obligation to prepare for the serious changes that are coming, likely sooner than we imagine. I included myself in this critique; I fall prey to this as well. That’s partly why I keep writing about this, to force myself to face it.
I agree that no one can predict how close we are to transformation, just as no one can predict how close we may be to a major ecological collapse/massive social dislocation. But we have to make our best estimates based on what evidence there is, and right now I think the evidence suggests the collapse/dislocation will arrive before any serious transformation. That’s the future we are not prepared for, and for the most part are not preparing for. I fear that if we don’t talk about this on the left, we cede the territory to “doomers” and right-wing populists, whose “solutions” we would find unacceptable.
The more graceful path that Jim advocated and tried to live, albeit imperfectly, means dramatically lower consumption of energy and materials, and the recognition that in the future there would have to be fewer people on the planet. Jim believed in the importance of modeling that way of living but understood that the level of change required could be achieved only through collective action, through politics. At the same time, he didn’t believe that the kind of change required could be achieved within any existing frameworks and thought that should be acknowledged out loud instead of whispered behind closed doors.
Again, to be clear: Jim didn’t think his own decisions about how to live were the answer, either. Although he was the most frugal person I knew living in a city, Jim didn’t fool himself into thinking he was living a sustainable lifestyle. He drove a car, ate in restaurants, burned fossil fuel to heat his home. The point wasn’t to construct some allegedly sustainable bubble in an otherwise unsustainable world in order to feel better about himself. Instead, he cultivated habits that he thought were important on that more graceful path.
Jim had no illusions, about the personal or political. Two decades earlier, thinking about these questions, Jim had written to me with a sense of urgency about the need to do more than simply confront the fossil-fuel industry, to get to the core problem of modern society’s dependence on excessive energy. He worried that if a significant challenge were not mounted soon, “we will pass into the sleep from which there is no awakening.” (June 6, 1991) A few years after that he confided:
I do see things now to be more desperate than at any time in my memory. The disasters lurking are universal and global. The pre- vious problems were relatively local and self-contained. And, as I said on the phone, I have a sense of the possibilities closing down as opposed to opening up, as I felt even in the worst of times in the ’60s. (January 31, 1995)
In our most unguarded moments together in the last few years of his life, this was the subject of many of our conversations, as well as the source of all of our silences, those moments when we both were left without words because it felt too overwhelming to say out loud what we both thought: The culture had already passed into that sleep from which there would be no awakening.
For Jim, this awareness demanded no particular change in his daily life. He continued to garden, lend a hand at the Land Stewardship Project, read extensively and share what he learned with others, and support his younger friends involved in political and artistic endeavors. My decisions about local organizing were set for the coming years after groups I was part of bought property and began establishing a progressive community center in Austin. But after publishing the book on religion, I had to decide where to focus on my writing and speaking. With Jim’s blessing, I decided it was time to get apocalyptic—not in the context of fundamentalist Christianity (more on the meaning of the term shortly) but in the sense of not backing down from what the evidence from the world reveals.
In Arguing for Our Lives, the last book of mine that Jim read in draft (but did not live to see published), I introduced the material on critical thinking with an acknowledgement of the anxiety that so many feel living in an unsustainable society, and ended the book with a recommendation that people not turn away from the anguish that such knowledge can bring. After that, I wrote a long pamphlet/short book titled We Are All Apocalyptic Now, which made a more explicit argument for not backing down from blunt talk about the state of the world. If I had tried to publish such a thing when Jim and I first started discussing these matters in the 1990s, few on the left would have paid any attention. When I did publish it a year after Jim died, it didn’t seem quite as crazy to many.