by Robert Jensen
We live in a world in which people and other living things are broken by routine exploitation and violence. Entire societies seem broken beyond repair. Life itself seems to be in danger of breaking forever.
Acknowledging this is difficult not only because of the depth of the pain in a broken world but because we know that much of the pain is avoidable. To be human—in any place at any time—is to deal with inevitable disappointment, despair, and death. But most of the suffering of this broken world is generated by the political and economic systems we have built. To face that—to know that we broke the world and that it could be different—is hard.
Essays like this often begin on a harsh note as part of a tough-love strategy, to be followed by an upbeat ending that explains the solutions. To face the suffering of a broken world, many people seem to need a promise that there are pragmatic strategies that will allow us eventually to prevail, or, at least, to cope reasonably well with the pain. If not exactly happy, endings must be hopeful.
This essay is analytical and not inspirational; my goal is to better understand our predicament. This essay is more blunt than hopeful; I aim to understand not only what can be done but what is not possible. This essay is not about optimism or pessimism but, rather, is my attempt to reckon with the long history of the social systems at the core of human suffering and ecological destruction, to challenge the deeply entrenched social practices that must change. My goal is connection with others who are reckoning with the same challenges.
At the core of this analysis is a claim that, at first glance, may seem to be a stretch: The erosion of human dignity in our broken world starts with the erosion of the planet’s soils. But there is no way to deal with the fractures within the human family without understanding the human family’s break with the ecosphere.
A deeper understanding of history can help us understand crises today and a realistic path ahead, one that does not depend on dreams about happy endings. Harsh analysis can help us understand why the world is so broken and keeps breaking so many of us and so much of the larger living world. That is the place to find hope, sort of.
At the risk of seeming self-absorbed, I will start with myself. I am a retired university professor, and, for more than three decades, I have written about a lot of subjects and been involved in a number of organizing projects, including: radical feminist critiques of men’s violence and abuse of women; anti-racist analysis and activism; opposition to the United States’ wars for domination; justice for immigrants and low-wage workers; worker cooperatives as a challenge to capitalism; and environmental protection. My work has shifted over time depending on circumstances, but, for many years, I have consistently spoken out against pornography and in support of perennial grain crops grown in mixtures. Most people find those two subjects—men’s sexual exploitation of women and the search for a sustainable agriculture—to be a curious combination and assume they are unrelated. But those two endeavors, along with all the other issues I have worked on, are really one struggle: challenging hierarchy.
More than half a lifetime ago, when I had just turned 30 years old, I left my job in newspaper journalism and went back to graduate school, which is when I started to develop a critical consciousness about pain and power. In those years, I was lucky to meet people who challenged me and to read books that showed me the limits of the conventional education I had received.