For decades, our world has understood that we are on the brink of an apocalypse—and yet the only implemented solutions have been small and convenient, feel-good initiatives that avoid unpleasant truths about the root causes of our impending disaster. In An Inconvenient Apocalypse, Wes Jackson and Robert Jensen argue that we must reconsider the origins of the consumption crisis and the challenges we face in creating a survivable future. Longstanding assumptions about economic growth and technological progress—the dream of a future of endless bounty—are no longer tenable. The climate crisis has already progressed beyond simple or nondisruptive solutions. The end result will be apocalyptic; the only question now is how bad it will be.
Time for a summary of our assessment: The human species faces multiple cascading social and ecological crises that will not be solved by virtuous individuals making moral judgments of others’ failures or by frugal people exhorting the profligate to lower their consumption. Things are bad, getting worse, and getting worse faster than we expected. This is happening not just because of a few bad people or bad systems, though there are plenty of people doing bad things in bad systems that reward people for doing those bad things. At the core of the problem is our human-carbon nature, the scramble for energy-rich carbon that defines life. Technological innovations can help us cope, but that will not indefinitely forestall the dramatic changes that will test our ability to hold onto our humanity in the face of dislocation and deprivation. Although the worst effects of the crises are being experienced today in developing societies, more affluent societies aren’t exempt indefinitely. Ironically, in those more developed societies with greater dependency on high-energy/high-technology, the eventual crash might be the most unpredictable and disruptive. Affluent people tend to know the least about how to get by on less.
When presenting an analysis like this, we get two common responses from friends and allies who share our progressive politics and ecological concerns. The first is the claim that “fear appeals don’t work.” The second is to agree with the assessment but advise against saying such things in public because “people can’t handle it.”
On fear appeals: The reference is to public education campaigns that seek, for example, to reduce drunk driving by scaring people about the potentially fatal consequences. Well, sometimes fear appeals work and sometimes they don’t, but that isn’t relevant to our point. We are not focused on a single behavior, such as using tobacco, nor are we trying to develop a campaign to scare people into a specific behavior, such as quitting smoking. We are not trying to scare people at all. We are not proposing a strategy using the tricks of advertising and marketing (the polite terms in our society for propaganda). We are simply reporting the conclusions we have reached through our reading of the research and personal experience. We do not expect that a majority of people will agree with us today, but we see no alternative to speaking honestly. It is because others have spoken honestly to us over the years that we have been able to continue on this path. Friends and allies have treated us as rational adults capable of evaluating evidence and reaching conclusions, however tentative, and we believe we all owe each other that kind of respect.
We are not creating fear but simply acknowledging a fear that a growing number of people already feel, a fear that is based on an honest assessment of material realities and people’s behavior within existing social systems. Why would it be a good strategy to help people bury legitimate fears that are based on rational evaluation of evidence? As Barbara Ehrenreich points out, an obsession with so-called positive thinking not only undermines critical thinking but also produces anxiety of its own. Fear is counterproductive if it leads to paralysis but productive if it leads to inquiry and appropriate action to deal with a threat. Productive action is much more likely if we can imagine the possibility of a collective effort, and collective effort is impossible if we are left alone in our fear. The problem isn’t fear but the failure to face our fear together.
On handling it: It’s easy for people—ourselves included—to project our own fears onto others, to cover up our own inability to face difficult realities by suggesting the deficiency is in others. Both of us have given lectures or presented this perspective to friends and been told, “I agree with your assessment, but you shouldn’t say it publicly because people can’t handle it.” It’s never entirely clear who is in the category of “people.” Who are these people who are either cognitively or emotionally incapable of engaging these issues? These allegedly deficient folks are sometimes called “the masses,” implying a category of people not as smart as the people who are labeling them as such. We assume that whenever someone asserts that “people can’t handle it,” the person speaking really is confessing “I can’t handle it.” Rather than confront their own limitations, many find it easier to displace their fears onto others.
We may not be able to handle the social and ecological problems that humans have created, if by “handle” we mean considering only those so-called solutions that allow us to imagine that we can continue the high-energy/high-technology living to which affluent people have become accustomed and to which others aspire. But we have no choice but to handle reality, since we can’t wish it away. We increase our chances of handling it sensibly if we face reality together.