Robert Jensen : Emotional Reactions to Collapse

Anguish. Image from Fixing My Life.

The anguish of the age:
Emotional reactions to collapse

By Robert Jensen / The Rag Blog / June 26, 2010

We live amidst multiple crises — economic and political, cultural and ecological — that pose a significant threat to human life as we understand it.

There is no way to be awake to the depth of these crises without an emotional reaction. There is no way to be aware of the pain caused by these systemic failures without some experience of dread, depression, distress.

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.

Though I have felt this for some time I hesitated to talk about it in public, out of fear of being accused of being too negative or dismissed as apocalyptic. But more of us are breaking through that fear, and more than ever it’s essential that we face this aspect of our political lives. To talk openly about this anguish should strengthen, not undermine, our commitment to political engagement — any sensible political program to which we can commit for the long haul has to start with an honest assessment of reality.

Here is how I would summarize our reality: Because of the destructive consequences of human intervention, it is not clear how much longer the planetary ecosystem can sustain human life on this scale. There is no way to make specific predictions, but it’s clear that our current path leads to disaster.

Examine the data on any crucial issue — energy, water, soil erosion, climate disruption, chemical contamination, biodiversity — and the news is bad. Platitudes about “necessity is the mother of invention” express a hollow technological fundamentalism; simply asserting that we want to solve the problems that we have created does not guarantee we can.

The fact that we have not taken the first and most obvious step — moving to a collective life that requires far less energy — doesn’t bode well for the future.

Though anguish over this reality is not limited to the affluence of the industrial world — where many of us have the time to ponder all this because our material needs are met — it may be true that those of us living in relative comfort today speak more of this emotional struggle. That doesn’t mean that our emotions are illegitimate or that the struggle is self-indulgent; this discussion is not the abandonment of politics but an essential part of fashioning a political project.

I would like help in this process. I’ve started talking to people close to me about how this feels, but I want to expand my understanding. By using the internet and email, I am limiting the scope of the inquiry to those online, but it’s a place to start.

My request is simple: If you think it would help you clarify your understanding of your struggle, send me an account of your reaction to these crises and collapse, in whatever level of detail you like. I am most interested in our emotional states, but any exercise of this type includes an intellectual component; there is no clear line between the analytical and the emotional, between thinking and feeling. An understanding of our emotions is connected to our analysis of the health of the ecosystem, the systems responsible for that condition, and the openings for change.

Because I may draw on this material in public discussions and for writing projects, please let me know how you are willing to have your words used. Your writing could be: (1) “on background,” not to be quoted in any forum; (2) “not for attribution,” permission to be quoted but not identified; or (3) “on the record,” permission to be quoted and identified. If you don’t specify, I will assume (2).

My plan is to report back to anyone interested. If you would like to be included on that distribution list, let me know. Please send responses in the body of an email message, not as an attachment, to

Whether or not you write to me, I hope everyone will begin speaking more openly about this aspect of our struggle. If there is to be a decent future, we have to retain our capacity for empathy. Most of us can empathize with those closest to us, and we try to empathize with all people. The next step is to open up to the living world, which requires an ability to feel both the joy and the grief that surrounds us.

Editor’s note: For those of you who wish to share your responses with other readers of The Rag Blog, please also post your thoughts as comments to this article. (Use the “comments” function at the end of this post.)

[Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center in Austin. He is the author of All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice, (Soft Skull Press, 2009); Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity (South End Press, 2007); The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege (City Lights, 2005); Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity (City Lights, 2004); and Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream (Peter Lang, 2002). Jensen is also co-producer of the documentary film Abe Osheroff: One Foot in the Grave, the Other Still Dancing, which chronicles the life and philosophy of the longtime radical activist.]

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5 Responses to Robert Jensen : Emotional Reactions to Collapse

  1. Hi Robert,

    For the past four years, I have been gathering stories from people all over the world about their emotional reactions to Peak Oil, climate change, and economic collapse at As a clinical psychologist, I’ve been interested in how people have both reacted to learning about these realities, as well as the ways they’ve gone about adapting their lives in response. It has been a fascinating four years, and these stories are available to read, as well as my responses to them, on Peak Oil Blues. My book is in the works reflecting these findings. Perhaps we should talk, as we obviously have overlapping interests.

    Best to you,

    Kathy McMahon

  2. Anonymous says:

    This is all very interesting but I’m a little mystified. Dread and foreboding in personal matters are more familiar to some people than to others, for countless different reasons of varying political relevance, and I’d think the personal would translate pretty easily to the cosmic in this case. We are talking about emotions. Optimism, after all,is a function of class, race, gender and sexual orientation, not to mention family history. I remember a perfectly healthy young gay man during the worst part of the AIDS crisis, for instance, who told me calmy and seriuosly that he wouldn’t live to be thirty. He would be around fifty now and I’m pretty sure he’s still alive but I’d guess that he long ago gave up any illusion that the world would go on forever, getting better and better as the centuries pass by.

    I think sometimes there’s a kind of illusion of the “universal we,” to coin a phrase.

    David Morris

  3. What a striking juxtaposition. Most of fly over middle America, TEA partiers, and conservatives in general are not fearful about the future, despite the obvious setbacks and failures. Faith in our neighbors, our families, God, and an America that once was, and will be again, allow us to keep our shoulders up and hold a fierce determination in our hearts.

    We can no longer be scared into giving up our liberties to save ourselves from this moments calamity or those which will surely follow soon enough. Those who put their faith in “collective lifestyles” will always be disappointed. (or perhaps murdered or starved to death in the name of that moments greater good)

    We distrust our government, or corporations and reject progressive agendas. You have good reason to feel anguish and dread. The vision you hold for the future is dying faster than the global warming myths that you use to frighten our school children.

  4. Leslie C. says:

    For me, it’s anger, frustration, and somewhat manic motivation.
    I definitely want to “strengthen, not undermine, our commitment to political engagement . . .”
    The economic, political, and ecological crises cannot, in my opinion, be resolved within the framework of capitalism. I’m a socialist, and I have a sense of urgency because I probably have a max of 15 or 20 years left in which to engage in concerted political action. Not that I think we’re going to win in that amount of time–far from it!–just that I want to use every bit of my remaining time as best as I can to move the struggle forward.

  5. Anonymous says:

    “Faith in our neighbors, our families, God, and an America that once was, and will be again…”
    “Those who put their faith in “collective lifestyles” will always be disappointed.”

    Can one see a conflict there? A possible paradox? No. Probably not. Why? It’s called “dissociation.” Look it up:

    What is the difference between “Faith” and “Fantasy?”

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