‘Epic Fail’: Feminism and Ecological Crises
By Robert Jensen
Published in Resilience · March, 2015
[A version of this essay was delivered to the International Conference on Masculinities in New York City on March 6, 2015.]
We humans are an epic fail.
In internet-speak, that term can be used derisively or sympathetically. A failure of grand proportions can be labeled “epic” either to mock or to offer condolences to someone who fails so completely. However, given the speed at which pop-culture fads come and go, I’m told by younger informants that the term is already long out of date and that to invoke it is a sign of irrelevance.
Both the unkind and the compassionate aspects are appropriate here; we should be able both to laugh at, and feel sorry for, the human species. But unlike cultural fads, the ecological reality behind my use of the term remains relevant. Our species is an epic fail, and the scope and depth of our failure expands and deepens daily.
First, let’s acknowledge the irony in all this: Life on Earth is the scramble for energy-rich carbon; lately humans have dominated that competition; and now that domination is undermining life on Earth. We’re #1 for now, and it turns out that being #1 in this fashion means that over the long haul we lose big. And, increasingly, the long haul looks like it’s going to be a short trip. Our grandest failure is the product of our greatest success.
So, our task is to face a simple question that has serious consequences: Is the human with the big brain an evolutionary dead end? If so, what are we going to do with our species’ time remaining?
Homo sapiens’ domination of Earth is coming to an end, not in some imagined science-fiction future but as the result of today’s processes of resource extraction and waste generation. The trajectory of the multiple, cascading ecological crises that define our world cannot be predicted with precision, but the trend lines are clear enough. Our task is not to figure out how to maintain the illusion of human control of the ecosphere—and it always was an illusion, even when we seemed to be more successful—but instead, borrowing from my friend Jim Koplin, “to learn to leave the planet gracefully.”
There are steps we can take to make our departure from the planet’s center stage more graceful, and we owe such a graceful departure to ourselves and the larger living world. But before we focus on those steps, we need to spend time analyzing how we got to this point in history. When facing the scope and depth of these ecological crises, many people want to move immediately to discussion of actions that can be taken to “solve” problems, which I believe is a crucial error. Avoiding the reasons for our epic fail tends to lead to “solutions” that are ineffective or counterproductive. There are problems without solutions, at least solutions that are based on the same assumptions and that work within the same systems out of which the problems arose.
It’s time to think about life beyond solutions, which requires us not only to confront the reasons for our epic fail but also to deal with the despair that inevitably flows from such honesty. That process is as much emotional as intellectual, and is possible only if we have compassion for ourselves and each other, grounded in a love for our specific home places that are part of the larger planetary home.
If it seems odd to inject the idea of love into this harsh analysis, consider Dostoyevsky’s insight that “love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams.” We have many dreadful realities to face, none of which will be resolved by dreaming.
I will argue that such love requires us to embrace feminist as well as ecological worldviews, in their radical forms. This is a tall order in a culture that either rejects feminism or, at best, accepts a watered-down liberal/postmodern version; and either rejects ecological thinking or, at best, accepts a watered-down environmentalist version. A graceful future for humans is possible only if we have the courage to act on those radical ideas, not with dreams of dramatically altering our species’ trajectory, but because in our efforts we will be graceful and find some sense of grace, not bestowed by a divine being but created by the human spirit.
That is an ambitious agenda for a short talk. But let me delay the argument with a bit of autobiography.
From the intimate to the planetary
My intellectual and political career started with the feminist critique of the domination/subordination dynamic at the heart of the sexual-exploitation industries (pornography, prostitution, stripping). This first political project of my life forced me to deal with patriarchy at the most intimate level of human existence, in the context of human sexual connection. I had to confront not only the way in which men routinely are socialized to be sexually aroused by the control and degradation of women, but also the particular way that such training had taken root in my own body. Once this cruelty was visible to me, it became impossible to treat this as a purely academic enterprise. My own life depended on making sense of the pathology of patriarchy.
My intellectual and political career is ending with a focus on the multiple, cascading ecological crises that define humans’ place in the ecosphere today and for the foreseeable future. That means I spend most of my time these days grappling with the domination/subordination dynamic that defines our species’ relationship to the larger living world. All of our lives depend on making sense of the pathology at the heart of our high-energy/high-technology dystopian nightmare.
That’s my career, thinking about the consequences of the worst aspect of human nature—the quest for domination, no matter what the cost to other people or other living things—from the most intimate spaces in our lives to our collective place on the globe.
As you might imagine, I don’t spend a lot of time skipping down the sunny side of the street whistling a happy tune, which is why I’m one of the most mentally healthy people I know. If that seems counterintuitive—that someone focused on the unjust and unsustainable nature of our society, from the personal to the planetary, would make such a claim of psychological stability—just think of all the intellectual and emotional energy I don’t have to spend on denial. All around us is the evidence of the systematic corrosion of our humanity and the irreversible collapse of our ecosystems, piling up in ways that are impossible to ignore, and yet most people expend enormous energy to keep themselves from these realities. Freed of that (or, at least, mostly freed most days), I need not waste time on the delusional systems that humans create for avoidance.
What do I mean by delusional systems?
On the question of the sexual-exploitation industries, just think about all the arguments—typically influenced by either conventional liberalism or some version of postmodernism (which is little more than liberalism to the nth degree)—asserting that pornography, prostitution, and stripping are vehicles for empowerment and liberation. That’s delusional, which can be demonstrated by asking simple questions: If we lived in a world with gender justice, within a wider system of meaningful social justice, would people ever imagine the buying and selling of sexual intimacy? Is gender justice imaginable when one group of people (mostly women and girls, and some vulnerable boys and men) can be rented or purchased by another group of people (almost exclusively men) for sexual pleasure?
On the question of the ecological crises, just think about all the arguments—typically influenced by a superficial understanding of science that privileges physics and molecular biology over the far more important work of ecologists—that rely on technological fundamentalism, the idea that we can always invent our way out of our troubles simply because we want to. That’s delusional, which can be demonstrated by asking simple questions: Given that many of our most intractable ecological crises are the result of the unintended consequences of high-energy/high-technology, why would we invest our hopes in more of the same? Why would we look for solutions to our problems by embracing the naïve assumptions that have deepened the problems?
Since I don’t have to construct and maintain these kinds of delusions, I’m freed up to deal with reality. That is difficult, but that freedom makes it easier to set aside the culture’s obsession with pleasure-indulgence and pain-avoidance in favor of accepting the inevitable grief and the struggling for deeper joy. That is where we live, “the human estate of grief and joy,” to borrow from Wendell Berry, and it is there that we can accept reality and begin to build a different world.
Evolution and emancipation
At the heart of that different world has to be a rejection of the domination/subordination dynamic that has defined human societies for the past 10,000 years or so. If that seems impossible to imagine, remember that over the 200,000 year history of the species, and the several million years of our hominin ancestors, this dynamic has defined only our very recent past. The band-level gathering and hunting societies that were the norm for most of human history were far more egalitarian than the hierarchies we now take to be normal in human social organizations.
Ecologically, our species’ fundamental break with nature came when we started farming. While gathering-hunting humans were capable of damaging a local ecosystem in limited ways, the shift to agriculture and the domestication of animals meant humans for the first time could dramatically alter ecosystems, typically with negative consequences. While there have been better and worse farming practices in history, soil erosion has been a consistent feature of agriculture, making agriculture the first step in the entrenchment of an unsustainable human economy based on extraction, which today is taken to its most dangerous levels with extreme energy extraction in fracking, tar sands, and deep-water drilling.
Socially, the development of patriarchy is tied to that domestication of animals and agriculture, when the communal and cooperative ethic of gatherer-hunter societies was replaced with ideas of private ownership and patrimony that led to men controlling women’s reproduction and claiming ownership of women. Although modern feminism has successfully challenged that institutionalized male dominance on some fronts in some places, such as access to higher education in the United States, the domination/subordination dynamic has proved difficult to roll back in everyday life, especially in sexuality, leading to pandemic levels of sexual violence and increasingly corrosive media.
Political, economic, and cultural systems at the core of contemporary injustices—nation-states in an imperial system, capitalism, white supremacy—are rooted in the same domination/subordination dynamic. Capitalism is perhaps the most perverse, given its attempt at a moral justification; because human nature is immutably and overwhelmingly greedy and self-interested, we are told, the world’s economy must be organized around that greed, even if it leaves half the world’s population in misery and the ecosphere on the edge of collapse. Given that for 95 percent of Homo sapiens history, and 99.9 percent of hominin history, we evolved in cooperative settings in which a very different set of norms defined us, we should be skeptical about claims that white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy and extractivist economies are natural.
But if we are to take seriously evolution by natural selection, then there is another question about human nature that we can’t skirt. Once humans’ big brain evolved to the point that our cognitive capacities allowed us to exploit the planet’s carbon in new ways through agriculture and, eventually, the industrial model based on fossil fuels, then it’s hard to imagine why humans would not have used that capacity. When we first used this intelligence to exploit that carbon for short-term gain, we could not anticipate the long-term consequences. Given our success at that exploitation of energy, was all this in the cards no matter which particular population was holding the deck when it started? Without diving into the age-old determinism/free will debate, it seems that we are at this crisis point as a result of forces that were bound to play out this way.
This isn’t an argument for nihilistic indifference to human suffering and ecological degradation, but rather an attempt to understand how we got here, to guide our decisions about the future. Our ability to exploit each other and the larger living world is one part of human nature, the one that has predominated in our recent past. But we must now accept that these methods of control and levels of consumption, which are indeed the product of that aspect of our nature, are not only inconsistent with human dignity (which has been readily evident for some time) but now also an impediment to maintaining a large-scale human presence on the planet in a morally acceptable form.
If our goal is true emancipation, not only of specific groups of people who are exploited by others but of all of creation, this conversation is unavoidable.
A state of profound grief
My friend Jim Koplin, the one who wanted us to learn to leave the planet gracefully, did just that on December 15, 2012, at the age of 79, dying as he had lived, gracefully. Jim was the first man I met who was committed to the feminist critique of pornography and sexual exploitation, and it was through my 24 years of conversation with him that I came to understand these multiple, cascading ecological crises (that’s his phrase, which I have been using ever since I first heard it). More than anyone in my circle of friends and comrades, he was willing to face these realities. As a result, he woke up every day in a state of profound grief.
I remember him using that phrase in a conversation a few days after the attacks of September 11, 2001. I had thrown myself immediately into the antiwar movement’s organizing efforts to block the U.S. invasions that would come after that attack. Jim participated on the edge of that movement, but his own work remained focused on long-term community building, efforts aimed not at specific political ends but at creating networks of people with shared values who could be part of the “saving remnant” that he believed was necessary for a dramatically different future. Jim was not callous about the loss of life on that day, but he also was not afraid to point out that the casualties from the attack were not all that unusual in a world structured by the domination/subordination dynamic. Jim told me that when he woke up on September 12, he didn’t feel appreciably different than he had the previous day. “I wake up every morning in a state of profound grief,” he said.
I first assumed that Jim was poking at me to make a point, but as we talked I realized he meant it quite literally. I had always known that Jim felt deeply the pain in the world and the pain of the world, in a way that was hard to articulate. This is what it means to face the world honestly, he was telling me, to not turn away from the horror of it all. He also believed we had an obligation to maintain our sanity and stability so that we can act responsibly on behalf of justice and sustainability.
Jim had fashioned a way of frugal living in progressive communities that worked for him, but he always said there was no template for how to live these values in this world. He believed in embracing the grief, not just because it was the right thing to do but because it made possible a fuller embrace of the joy. When I think of him, I most remember the hours we spent talking about these ideas, which typically would take us, in a single conversation, from quiet despair to giddy laughter. Others often told us that our ideas about these subjects were depressing, but neither Jim nor I ever were depressed by the subject. It was, for us, a way we loved each other and held onto a love for the world.
Pornography is what the end of the world looks like
In lectures I used to give on the subject, I would sometimes suggest that “pornography is what the end of the world looks like,” not to suggest that pornography was going to lead to the destruction of the world, of course. Rather, I was suggesting that contemporary pornography deadens consumers’ capacity for empathy for and solidarity with others—the things that make decent human society possible. When these aspects of our humanity are overwhelmed by a self-centered, emotionally detached pleasure-seeking, social justice is impossible to imagine. Equally impossible to imagine is ecological sustainability; if that same self-centered, emotionally detached pleasure-seeking leads to support for an unsustainable extractivist economy, our collective ability to emphasize with other living things or act in solidarity with life atrophies.
If these capacities are lost, human societies will become increasingly inhuman, and the planet will not indefinitely sustain those societies.
What can we do to change this trajectory? Rather than search for a pithy ending of my own, something I find more and more difficult to pull off as I get older, I’ll go back to Dostoyevsky, and the section out of which the “love in action” line comes:
“If you do not attain happiness, always remember that you are on the right road, and try not to leave it. Above all, avoid falsehood, every kind of falsehood, especially falseness to yourself. Watch over your own deceitfulness and look into it every hour, every minute. Avoid being scornful, both to others and to yourself. What seems to you bad within you will grow purer from the very fact of your observing it in yourself. Avoid fear, too, though fear is only the consequence of every sort of falsehood. Never be frightened at your own faintheartedness in attaining love. Don’t be frightened overmuch even at your evil actions. I am sorry I can say nothing more consoling to you, for love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams. Love in dreams is greedy for immediate action, rapidly performed and in the sight of all. Men will even give their lives if only the ordeal does not last long but is soon over, with all looking on and applauding as though on the stage. But active love is labor and fortitude, and for some people too, perhaps a complete science.”
 Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, 3rd ed. (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1996), p. 106.
 Gerda Lerner, The Creation of Patriarchy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986).
 Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, edited and with a revised translation by Susan McReynolds Oddo (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2011)p. 55.