Monday, September 13, 2010

Living in apocalyptic times: interview with Robert Jensen

Not Robert Jenson the theologian, but Robert Jensen the professor of Journalism, who is also a Christian. This whole interview is worth reading, but here are some highlights:
"Take a look at any measure of the fundamental health of the planetary ecosystem on which we are dependent: topsoil loss, chemical contamination of soil and water, species extinction and reduction in biodiversity, the state of the world’s oceans, unmanageable toxic waste problems, and climate change. Take a look at the data, and the news is bad on every front.

"And all of this is in the context of the dramatic decline coming in the highly concentrated energy available from oil and natural gas, and the increased climate disruption that will come if we keep burning the still-abundant coal reserves. There are no replacement fuels on the horizon that will allow a smooth transition. These ecological realities will play out in a world structured by a system of nation-states rooted in the grotesque inequality resulting from imperialism and capitalism, all of which is eroding what is left of our collective humanity. “Collapsing” seems like a reasonable description of the world.

"That doesn’t mean there’s a cataclysmic end point coming soon, but this is an apocalyptic moment. The word “apocalypse” does not mean “end.” It comes from a Greek word that means “uncovering” or “lifting the veil.” This is an apocalyptic moment because we need to lift the veil and have the courage to look at the world honestly. [...]

"Maybe it’s natural for people to want to believe that they have hit on the solution to a problem, but I believe that the problems are complex beyond our understanding, and it’s not only unlikely that there’s a single solution but there may be no solutions at all—if by “solution” we mean a way to continue human existence on the planet at its current level. We need experiments on every front that help us imagine new ways of being. [...]

"To borrow a phrase from a friend, I wake up every morning in a state of profound grief. We humans have been given a privileged place in a world that is beautiful beyond description, and we are destroying it and destroying each other. I cope with that by building temporary psychological damns and dikes to hold back that grief. But the emotion comes so powerfully from so many different directions that life feels like a process of constantly patching and moving and rebuilding those damns and dikes. Some of this is intensely personal, but for me the political work is a crucial part of that coping process. If I weren’t politically active, I would lose my mind. The only way I know how to cope is to use some of my energy in collective efforts to try to build something positive.

"At this point, there is no rational approach to the ecological crises that doesn’t start with this recognition: We are going to live in a low-energy world that is powered primarily by contemporary sunlight, not the ancient energy of fossil fuels. As a society we are not prepared, in terms of either physical infrastructure or cultural awareness, to deal with that. Anything that further delays coming to terms with this reality is a threat to life on the planet, not a solution. [...]

"Capitalism is the most wildly productive economic system in history, but the one thing it cannot produce is meaning. Even more troubling is the way, through its promotion of narcissism and mindless consumption, that capitalism undermines the larger culture’s ability to create real meaning. Virtually all of what is good in society—solidarity, compassion, creativity, ethics, joy—comes from outside capitalism, giving the illusion that capitalism is a civilized system. It’s a cliché, but important enough that we sing it over and over: Money can’t buy you love. Capitalism cannot create a healthy human community, and it undermines the aspect of human nature rooted in solidarity and love.

"The other obvious failure of capitalism is its contribution to the erosion of the health of the ecosystem. Humans have been drawing down the ecological capital of the planet since the invention of agriculture about 10,000 years ago, but that process has intensified dramatically in the capitalist/imperialist/industrial era. Our culture is filled with talk about the success of capitalism even though that system degrades our relationships and threatens our existence. That’s an odd definition of success."

- Robert Jensen, interview with Alex Doherty at the Oil Drum.

I know I've been posting some seriously dark material recently. I make no apologies for that. Unless we remove our heads from the sand and allow ourselves to be overwhelmed now, we will be overwhelmed soon enough when faced with critical decisions on short timeframes. An initial feeling of shock can be healthy, as are certain kinds of fear and anger, and the godly sorrow that leads to repentance.

Followers of Jesus Christ are to keep our eyes fixed on two things: our neighbour in peril and the crucified and risen Lord. Looking at one without the other means we simply are not paying attention. And looking at one will lead us to the other.


Anonymous said...

OK, we're in for a Greater Depression than I want to admit.

I shouldn't have got into our super-sized mortgage. Oh well. I'll have to learn to be content if we have food and a safe place to sleep.
The US military has warned that surplus oil production capacity could disappear within two years and there could be serious shortages by 2015 with a significant economic and political impact.

The energy crisis outlined in a Joint Operating Environment report from the US Joint Forces Command, comes as the price of petrol in Britain reaches record levels and the cost of crude is predicted to soon top $100 a barrel.

"By 2012, surplus oil production capacity could entirely disappear, and as early as 2015, the shortfall in output could reach nearly 10 million barrels per day," says the report, which has a foreword by a senior commander, General James N Mattis.

via US military warns oil output may dip causing massive shortages by 2015 | Business | The Guardian.

Anonymous said...

There are no replacement fuels on the horizon that will allow a smooth transition.

I agree more than I disagree. While I have previously been at pains to point out we could rather quickly roll out nukes, electric cars, public transport, new urbanism and a host of other green goodies, the fact that even the US Joint Forces command admit world oil production could be DOWN 10mbd by 2015....

...the mind boggles.

Prepare for nasty rationing! They'll have to roll out trolley-buses and trains on a massive scale, unlike anything the world has seen since the USA ran the National Parks program during the Great Depression! I understand from a documentary on the parks that they ran it with cheap wages, hard work (to keep the men out of trouble) but enough money to send back home so loved ones could buy food. We're NOT talking about Plasma TV wages!

So... although still not a 'doomer' and at odds with the Dark Mountain project, the road ahead looks even more bumpy!

byron smith said...

Yes, I am not a doomer as I don't believe the worst outcomes are inevitable and I harbour no secret desire to see them come about (with the immense and unprecedented suffering they would involve). That said, I try to soberly evaluate what is possible, plausible and probable, and in my estimation some seriously bad outcomes cannot be assigned insignificant probabilities, and a host of very bad ones I think are about as likely as not.

And so a "greater depression" may indeed be a good way of thinking about a mid-range likelihood. That is, things might not be worse than the Great Depression of the 30s, but could also be considerably worse, particularly if a global war ensues and/or desperate societies embrace political extremism.

we could rather quickly roll out nukes, electric cars, public transport, new urbanism and a host of other green goodies
Yes, and I am not against these (though with some serious reservations about nukes, not least due to the relative likelihood of scenarios in which we can't afford to spend the necessary money to keep them running at acceptable levels of security - but that's another conversation). The more we can make smart investments now, the less bumpy the ride ahead. That's why I'm a big fan of renewables. They are not perfect and are unlikely to be deployed on a scale that will power the current global economy, but in a serious downturn, they are cheaper to maintain and give better distributed power to improve the resilience of a society in (economic and possibly political) decline. The help to cushion against shocks and are much harder to hold to ransom through supply bottlenecks (once they are built - whether China increasingly restricts the flow of rare earth materials required for much renewable power generation and so gain global dominance in the market is another matter).

As for new urbanism, it seems to be largely a no-brainer. Same for more energy and resource efficient building design. Not sure about vertical farms (did you see the link I included a while back on some other thread? If not, I can find it again).

byron smith said...

This piece on electric cars was interesting. I wasn't aware of the bits about Israel at the end.

Anonymous said...

Yes, it's Better Place. A guy at my church works for Better Place, and has actually driven the Better Place taxi's in Tokyo. (Only a small pilot project to see if it works).

But Israel are going hard at this! It was the Israeli PM that put Shai Agassi up to it! "If you can build a Co2 free car, I'll give you a country that will use it!"

And so Better Place are slowly rolling out across Israel.

As they say on their site:


Anonymous said...

Ooops... "on their site" Part 2.

In early February 2010, Better Place held the grand opening of the company’s first electric vehicle (EV) demonstration center in Israel.

The company marked the occasion by announcing the signing of 92 corporate fleet owners to date as well as a partnership with Dor Alon, one of Israel’s leading gas station operators, for the deployment of battery switch stations at Dor Alon’s facilities. Leading companies including Computer Associates and Motorola joined the ranks of 92 Better Place Vision Partners that have agreed to convert a portion of over 45,000 internal combustion engine cars to electric vehicles from Renault when commercially available in 2011.

The opening of the Better Place Center represents an important step for the company as it prepares for commercial launch in Israel and Denmark next year. The Center is open to the public to come and familiarize themselves with all aspects of the Better Place solution: a fully electric, battery-powered car; a comprehensive infrastructure that includes charge spots and a battery switch station; and a comprehensive suite of in-car services designed to provide drivers with the best possible EV driving experience.

“Today’s announcement marks another step toward our commercial launch next year in Israel,” said Moshe Kaplinsky, CEO, Better Place Israel. “Israel welcomes the world to come and experience the thrill of clean, electric vehicles.”

byron smith said...

Robert Jensen: Nature Bats Last: Notes on Revolution and Resistance, Revelation and Redemption.

"Ask an audience to name the three most important revolutions in human history, and the most common answers are the American, French, and Russian. But to understand our current situation, the better answer is the agricultural, industrial, and delusional revolutions. [...] The agricultural revolution set us on a road to destruction. The industrial revolution ramped up our speed. The delusional revolution has prevented us from coming to terms with the reality of where we are and where we are heading."