Imagine you are riding comfortably on a sleek train. You look out the window and see that the tracks end abruptly not too far ahead ... The train will derail if it continues. You suggest the train stop immediately and the passengers go forward on foot. This will require a major shift in everyone’s way of traveling, of course, but you see it as the only realistic option. To continue barreling forward is to court catastrophic consequences. But when you propose this course of action, others – who have grown comfortable riding on the train – say, “We like the train, and arguing that we should get off is not realistic.”
In the contemporary United States, we are trapped in a similar delusion. We are told that it is “realistic” to yield to the absurd idea that the systems we live in are the only systems possible or acceptable based on the fact that some people like them and wish them to continue. But what if our current level of first world consumption is exhausting the ecological basis for life? Too bad. The only “realistic” options are those that view this lifestyle as nonnegotiable. What if real democracy is not possible in a nation-state with 300 million people? Too bad. The only “realistic” options are those that view this way of organizing a polity as immutable. What if the hierarchies our lives are based on are producing extreme material deprivation for the oppressed and dull misery among the privileged? Too bad. The only “realistic” options are those that view hierarchy as inevitable.
Let me offer a different view of reality:
(1) We live in a system that, taken as a whole, is unsustainable – not only over the long haul but in the short term.
(2) Unsustainable systems cannot be sustained.
How’s that for a profound theoretical insight? Unsustainable systems can’t be sustained. It’s hard to argue with that. The important question is whether or not we live in a system that is truly unsustainable. There’s no way to definitively prove such a sweeping statement, but look around at what we’ve built and ask yourself whether you really believe this world can go forward indefinitely … or even for more than a few decades. Take a minute to ponder the end of cheap fossil energy, the lack of viable large-scale replacements for that energy and the ecological consequences of burning what remains of it. Consider the indicators of the health of the planet: groundwater contamination, topsoil loss, levels of toxicity. Factor in the widening inequality in the world, the intensity of the violence and the desperation that so many feel at every level of society.
Based on what you know about these trends, do you think this is a sustainable system? If you were to let go of your attachment to this world, is there any way to imagine this as a sustainable system? Considering all the ways you understand the world, is there anything in your field of perception that tells you we’re on the right track?
The important question is whether or not we live in a system that is truly unsustainable.
To be radically realistic in the face of all this is to recognize the failure of basic systems and to abandon the notion that all we need to do is recalibrate the institutions that structure our lives. The old future – the way we thought things would work out – truly is gone. The nation-state and capitalism are at the core of this unsustainable system, giving rise to the high-energy/mass-consumption configuration of privileged societies that has left us saddled with what James Howard Kunstler calls “a living arrangement with no future.” The future we have been dreaming of is not based on reality. Most of the world’s population – who don’t live with our privilege – has no choice but to face this reality. It’s time for us to come to terms with it.
Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity and All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice.