There are Limits: Ecological and Social Implications of Trans and Climate Change

By Robert Jensen

Published in Dissident Voice, September 12, 2014 · September, 2014

We are biological creatures, part of an ecosphere, living in communities. Like any other organism, our genetic code sets parameters within which we live. The ecosphere is governed by laws of physics and chemistry that set the parameters within which all organisms exist. And we encounter the world not as isolated, independent individuals but through social systems that affect how we understand ourselves and the possibilities for our lives.

Stated this generally, few people would disagree. Yet in practice, contemporary high-energy/high-technology society ignores these ecological realities, and people routinely endorse practices—or ignore the need to change practices—that leave us dramatically out of sync with the larger living world.

In short: There are limits, to our bodies and to the ecosystems of which we are a part. A denial of these limits is one of the greatest threats to the possibility of a continuing large-scale human presence on the planet. The threat is magnified by our fears of challenging—and our uncertainty about how to challenge effectively—unjust and unsustainable social systems that dominate contemporary life.

In this essay I argue that the success of the trans movement and our collective failure to respond adequately to climate change are both manifestations of this inability to accept limits and the fear of challenging systems that distribute power and wealth. When we ignore crucial questions about complex problems, from the most personal to the global, we find ourselves adrift—not only confused about policy but unable to advance important conversations about our most basic conceptions about the world.

My interest is in deepening our understanding of who we are as human beings (which requires identifying the impediments to building stable, decent human communities) and where we are in the universe (which requires understanding our place in living systems that are beyond our capacity to control). While it may seem strange to pursue this through controversies that are, on the surface, as disparate as trans and climate change, the questions of limits and systems link the two.

The Trans Debate and the Attack on Feminism

The cover story of Time magazine’s June 4, 2014, issue, “The Transgender Tipping Point: America’s Next Civil Rights Frontier,” illustrated the success of the trans movement in equating any questioning of transgender/transsexual identity as a form of bigotry; to challenge the trans ideology is seen by some as opposition to civil rights. A longstanding radical feminist critique of trans ideology—which does not attack individuals who identify as trans but offers an alternative way to challenge patriarchy’s rigid, repressive, and reactionary gender norms—has been largely sidelined in this discussion.

The lack of critical inquiry about this spurred me to write an article, “Some Basic Propositions about Sex, Gender, and Patriarchy.”

The goal was to outline my understanding of the radical feminist analysis in a way that could lead to productive conversation. I expected supporters of the trans movement to disagree with the analysis, which some did, but I was surprised by the lack of response to the specific points I raised. Most of the negative reaction came from fellow progressive activists and organizers in Austin, many of whom prefaced their critical comments with some version of “I won’t debate the issue with you” and proceeded directly to a denunciation of me as transphobic. No argument was necessary; apparently, the issue has been settled and anyone raising questions can be declared a bigot and dismissed.

More troubling to me than the ad hominem attacks were other people’s fears of participating in an open discussion of the issue. I had private conversations with friends and activists who said they agreed with all or part of my analysis but did not dare say that in public, out of fear of alienating trans friends and supporters, or of being publicly condemned themselves. When one progressive group in town publicly denounced me, I began to hear through the grapevine that some of the members of the group disagreed with the harshness of the denunciation, though no one from that group has publicly challenged the group’s statement. The threat of being labeled transphobic appears to have derailed a robust public conversation.

I expected to be critiqued but assumed challenges would be based on the substance of what I had written, which is why I constructed the article as a clear set of propositions that could be addressed point by point. When I asked critics what they found objectionable, I heard three basic criticisms: the tone of my article was too harsh; because I didn’t identify as trans I had no standing to challenge trans people’s account of their own experience; and my analysis ignored and/or reinforced violence and discrimination against trans people.1 After re-reading the article, I still do not see what is offensive about the tone. A healthy democratic society doesn’t limit the right to analyze an issue only to those people who can claim a particular identity or experience, and while it is appropriate for everyone to be aware of the limits of our experience, public-policy debates should not be closed off in such fashion. And I offered an alternative analysis based in radical feminism, a political movement that has always worked against men’s violence and sexual exploitation.

Readers can evaluate whether that article is respectful, but I believe those objections are a diversion from questions I raised that have no easy answers. Whatever one’s position on this issue, we can acknowledge that the claims “I was born male but I am female” or “I was born a woman but I am a man” raise complex questions.

On the question of sex: “Male” and “female” are sex categories, tied to reproduction, which is a compelling biological basis for the categories. (The existence of people born “intersex,” with reproductive or sexual anatomy that does not clearly fit the definitions of female or male, does not change that.) It is not clear what it means when people say they were born male but believe themselves to be female, or vice versa. I don’t intend that to be disrespectful—it just isn’t obvious to me (and to many others) what such a statement can possibly mean. If we were to assume there are distinctly male and female minds/souls/essences (a claim that is speculative, far beyond the reach of any current science, more in the realm of theology), what would it mean to say that one was born into a body in the wrong sex category, that one’s essence is out of sync with one’s body? That appears to suggest that a person is like a machine that may get assembled with some of the wrong parts, which does not square with our understanding of what an organism is. No obviously coherent account of such a claim exists, and it’s difficult to know what such an account would look like. My problem with this kind of assertion is not that it doesn’t match my experience, but that I cannot understand what is being asserted.

Equally unclear is how chemical and/or surgical interventions, such as sex-reassignment surgery, actually would move a person from one sex category to another. How do manipulations of hormones or genitalia accomplish that shift? Given the complexity of the human organism, can we say that such treatments/surgeries transform a person in such a fundamental way? Again, our current understanding of ourselves—biologically and philosophically—does not lead to an obvious answer.

On the question of gender: “Man” and “woman” are gender categories, related to biological sex but defined and imposed culturally. Whatever biological basis there may be for the categories (and the reproductive differences mean there always will be some gender-role differentiation in human societies), contemporary gender norms go well beyond what might possibly be biologically based. The desire to resist conforming to restrictive gender norms (such as, “men are tough, women are nurturing”) is easy to understand, and many people—both those who do and do not identify as transgender—resist those norms in many ways. Like many, I have spent my whole life, starting in childhood before I had any clear feminist analysis of these issues, struggling with those norms and looking for ways around them.

This is especially true of radical feminists, who understand gender as a category that establishes and reinforces inequality in male-dominated, or patriarchal, societies. To resist patriarchy, one does not need to switch gender categories but can, through individual and collective action, refuse to accept the constraints of patriarchal gender norms whenever possible. Ironically, men who claim the identity of a woman, or vice versa, actually reinforce the rigidity of gender norms by suggesting that to cope with discomfort created by those norms one must switch categories; such an act does nothing to challenge patriarchy but instead bolsters one aspect of patriarchal ideology. Attempting to transcend the problem—the “genderqueer” position of defying the system by refusing to be categorized as man or woman—offers no coherent strategy for ending the violence and discrimination that patriarchy produces.

So, one trans response to what is called “gender dysphoria,” “gender variance,” or “gender nonconformity” (various terms are used depending on one’s approach to the issue) employs medical technology in an attempt to resolve a condition about which we have not gained extensive understanding. This is an example of “technological fundamentalism,” the belief that high-energy/high-technology solutions are always appropriate, even when we know little about the underlying problem and cannot predict long-term consequences. This approach to alleviating people’s sense of discomfort, distress, and social dislocation assumes that the ability to chemically and surgically change a body means we should use that ability, ignoring the ecological reality of limits.

The non-medicalized trans response avoids this technological fundamentalism but offers an individualistic strategy to combat a problem created by a system of power (patriarchy) and the practices and institutions that impose that power. This is a conventional liberal approach—“help the individual adapt to the system” rather than “challenge the oppressive social system”—contrasted with more radical strategies that seek to identify the role of underlying structures of power at the root of social problems. Liberal approaches rarely solve long-term problems but appear to offer relief without the difficult political work that is required to change deeply entrenched systems of power, such as patriarchy.

This analysis is not an attack on individuals who identify as trans, nor am I mocking people who feel out of sync with patriarchal gender norms. But these radical feminist and ecological analyses raise honest questions that challenge the increasingly common embrace of the trans movement’s ideology. Rather than wrestle with those questions, the trans movement tends to demonize critics, especially radical feminists, and the dominant culture has largely been mute. Ignoring the questions and derailing the conversation serves no one’s long-term interests.

The Climate Debate and the Attack on Ecology

With every new report on climate change, the alarm bells ring louder and longer. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report released in 2014, for example, states that the warming of the climate system is unequivocal and unprecedented in human experience; that human activity is the clear cause; that substantial and sustained reductions of greenhouse gases are necessary to avoid catastrophe; and that even with such reductions, some effects of climate change can’t be reversed and will be felt for centuries. Yet the response of the public and policymakers falls far short of meaningful action commensurate with the threats, not only from climate change but multiple, cascading ecological crises on every front—soil erosion and degradation, water shortages and contamination, the increasing hazards in fossil energy extraction, loss of biodiversity, and on.

The intensity of my concerns are summed up in the title of a short book/long pamphlet that I published in 2013, We Are All Apocalyptic Now, which led to an essay in YES! Magazine, “Get Apocalyptic: Why Radical is the New Normal.” I use the term “apocalyptic” not in the context of end-times religion, but to signal the critical need for a kind of secular “revelation” about the consequences of high-energy/high-technology societies’ assault on the planet. If we hope to sustain large-scale human societies, we cannot indefinitely treat the larger living world as if it were nothing more than a mine from which we extract resources and a dump for our wastes. The obvious starting point is a plan to impose limits on consumption—especially that of the affluent societies—through what has been described as “mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon,” which means collective action through some form of government.

Feedback on that article, other similar articles, and public talks I have given on the subject, suggests there are three ways people avoid these difficult realities.

First, some people acknowledge that the news on every measure of the health on the ecosphere is bad and getting worse. They recognize that we are approaching, or perhaps have already passed, points where we could have stopped the processes of ecological degradation on some fronts, and have concluded that human beings will not respond in time to make a graceful transition to new low-energy ways of living. Facing this dire assessment, they fall into a kind of political paralysis, retreating from public engagement on the subject. People who are materially comfortable enough to be insulated from the worst consequences of ecological collapse often choose this route.

A second group of people embrace technological fundamentalism and imagine that we will invent our way out of any problems, including those problems that are the result of prior technological interventions. This is hubris to the Nth degree, an irrational belief that we can continue on the high-energy path indefinitely, simply because we want to. Rather than struggle with the reductions in the consumption of energy and other natural resources necessary for decent human communities to survive globally, technological fundamentalists assert that ecological and social problems can be best managed through advanced technology, which will demand the continued use of dense energy sources.

The most extreme examples of this fundamentalism are proposals for geo-engineering, the project of managing climate change by intervening in the atmosphere, what is sometimes called “Solar Radiation Management.” These fantastical projects, such as pumping sulfate aerosols into the atmosphere to reflect sunlight back into space and slow global warming, seem attractive because they are relatively low cost and don’t require changes in how the affluent live—as long as we don’t mind using untested methods on a global scale that risk catastrophic consequences far beyond any problems we now face.

A third group rests their hopes on contemporary capitalism’s version of markets (not “free markets,” since all markets are constructed through law and power, and are never unregulated). It’s not clear how limits on consumption can be achieved within capitalism, a system that demands constant growth. Nor is it clear how markets could move us toward a sustainable economy in a meaningful time frame, if ever. Nor is it clear why the political power that flows from concentrated wealth amassed under the existing system would allow any of this to happen even if it were possible. But none of that deters capitalism’s cheerleaders.

While some level of technology is a part of every human society, there are no technological solutions to these ecological problems, nor will market systems magically produce solutions. We need to accept limits and understand that radical critiques of contemporary corporate capitalism—which have long focused on capitalism’s perversion of human values such as solidarity, and the indefensible wealth inequality it produces—are more compelling than ever in the context of the economic system’s inability to deal with multiple, cascading ecological crises.

This analysis is not an attack on individuals who own a business, nor am I mocking people who work on projects to make the existing system more sustainable. But these anti-capitalist and ecological analyses raise honest questions that challenge the dominant culture’s naïve faith in markets and technology. Rather than wrestle with those questions, ideologues for the existing system ridicule activists from radical left and environmental movements, and most people continue with business-as-usual. Ignoring the questions and derailing the conversation serves no one’s long-term interests.

Imagining How to Live with Limits

I’m often told that my inability to understand trans claims or embrace a bountiful future is a failure of my imagination. Yet I can imagine a world without patriarchy in which people develop their capacities unconstrained by rigid, repressive, and reactionary gender norms. I can imagine a low-energy economy based on collaboration not exploitation, in which people have more fulfilling options for work and community than in a high-energy society obsessed with consuming endless variations of high-tech gadgets.

My imagination functions just fine, but I try not to imagine away complex intellectual questions and difficult political problems. When a claim does not make sense to me, I seek clarification, and when others tell me they have similar problems making sense of a claim, I assume there’s something important to work out.

In literature and pop culture, it’s fine to imagine human beings transcending limits—in stories and on screens, we can fly and travel through time and do many other fantastical things. But in the world in which we struggle to form decent, stable human communities that are sustainable over time, imagining fantastical “solutions” to problems is diversionary.

I do not believe the problem is critics’ lack of imagination, but rather the dominant culture’s fear of assessing honestly the unjust and unsustainable nature of systems such as patriarchy and capitalism, along with the complementary systems of white supremacy and First World domination. There are reasons to conclude that these systems are too deeply entrenched to be significantly changed in the time available to us, but there also are reasons to commit to struggles to change them all the same, as a way of claiming our humanity.

If there is hope of any success on social and ecological fronts, our analyses have to be built on realistic understandings of the world that emerge from asking honest questions and coming to the best answers we can. Those answers will force us to confront the limits that come with being the species we are, in the place we are, struggling against powerful social and economic systems as we try to live in the world as it is.

We are organisms living in ecosystems, part of an ecosphere, not separate from but part of a larger living world. We should reject the idea that human beings have the right and/or the ability to dominate nature, but also reject the naïve idea that human beings can live in some mythical state of nature. We do not interact with an object called “nature” that we can subordinate to our allegedly superior ingenuity. But we also should not fantasize about living in some perfect balance with a magical force called “nature.” We are, simply, part of nature and must learn to live within its limits.

We have difficult choices to make about how we use technology in the attempt to build societies that are consistent with widely shared beliefs in the inherent dignity of all people and compatible with ecological realities. End-of-life care is an obvious example. We spend far too much to keep a relatively small number of people in affluent societies alive with what is, by any measure, a limited quality of life. Where do we draw lines? To recognize there are limits is not to pretend that decisions about the boundaries are simple or easy.

Industrial agriculture is another obvious example. Modern food production is based on petrochemical-based farming methods that are unsustainable. How do we reshape agricultural policies and practices that can meet human needs without undermining the health of ecosystems? Again, no simple or easy answers emerge.

However difficult these questions, we can begin the search for answers—however tentative and incomplete they may be—by recognizing that there are limits and that the stable, decent human communities that we seek are impossible if we cannot ask crucial questions about those limits.