By Robert Jensen
Published in Resilience · May, 2015
In Resilience Reflections we ask some of our contributors what it is that inspires their work, and what keeps them going.
Who/what has been your greatest inspiration? And why?
I lived the first half of my life with little awareness of, or concern about, the crucial questions of social justice and ecological sustainability. In the second half of my life, there have been hundreds of people I’ve worked with in political and community organizing projects who have enriched my life. There have been a handful of writers who taught me how to think, including Wes Jackson, Andrea Dworkin, James Baldwin, Noam Chomsky. And there was one person, Jim Koplin, without whom I might have never found these people and books. His influence on my thinking and political practice was so important that I wrote a book about him, Plain Radical: Living, Loving, and Learning to Leave the Planet Gracefully. Although Jim was not well-known beyond his friends and colleagues, he had a profound impact on those of us who knew and loved him.
Knowing what you know now about sustainability and resilience building, what piece of advice would you give your younger self if you were starting out?
I wasted too much time when I was young trying to be normal, trying to fit into the dominant culture even though I always had a sense I didn’t share those values, especially around the definition of “success” and what it means to “be a man.” In retrospect, I wish that I had started looking for alternatives earlier. I wasted a lot of time being cynical, because I wasn’t aware that there were people with different ways of thinking about politics, economics, ecology, and that those people were building different ways of living.
What keeps you awake at night?
Nothing. I sleep soundly. I spend a large part of most days thinking about how to deal with the multiple, cascading crises that we humans have created or exacerbated, but at the end of the day I rest fairly peacefully.
What gets you up in the morning or keeps you going?
The easy answer is that I have a good life. I’m a tenured professor, which means I have more autonomy in arranging my life than most people. The work I get paid for is engaging, as are the various activities I am involved with beyond the job. But the question suggests it can be hard to keep working on projects for social justice and ecological sustainability that are failing. That’s an accurate assessment—whatever small victories our movements achieve, I don’t see a pleasant future for large-scale human societies on this planet, and I don’t think there’s much that can be done at this point to change that. We are failing. But it’s impossible to predict the trajectory for all this, and even if we could predict the intensifying collapse with precision, there are lots of things worth doing to make life better for people and the planet. In contributing to those projects, one builds a decent life.
What has been your biggest setback and how did you recover?
My biggest setback was being born white, male, middle class, and a citizen of the United States. Those identities come with lots of unearned privilege, which tends to make people stupid. When one is born with unearned privilege there’s an incentive to stay stupid about the nature of the system that gives us those advantages. So, I had to overcome the instinct to embrace stupidity. As an adult, it took me a decade to figure that out; I’m a slow learner.
For you resilience is…?
If resilience is the ability to adapt to changing conditions, we should not overlook the importance of intellectual resilience, the ability to avoid getting locked into perspectives that keep us from reassessing our own ideas. Even if by some miracle it turns out that a person has been right about everything, it’s good to doubt oneself.
What one social/political/cultural/policy change would most assist your work/hopes/dreams?
When thinking about economic inequality, most people focus on how to end poverty. I think it’s more important to end wealth. Make wealth a crime, or at least make it morally unacceptable. Laugh at rich people. Hurt their feelings. Shame them. I don’t wish for a world in which everyone is rich, which would finish off the planet overnight. I wish for a world in which we figured out how poor everyone has to be in order for there to be an ongoing meaningful human presence on the planet.
What gives you hope?
Nothing. I think hope is an illusion best abandoned. Our task is to see the world clearly, not wax poetic about hope.
What book/film/other resource has most supported your work?
The Winnie-the-Pooh books by A. A. Milne, which gave me my role model, Eeyore.