Getting our Bearings: Wayfinders, knowledge, and truth in a revealing time

I’ve been thinking about all the interrelated crises[1] that seem to be coming to a head now with the deadly coronavirus shutting down large swaths of social and economic activity. My mind tends to go there, especially with a little time to expand my imagination and questions amidst a real-life global calamity. There’s nothing theoretical about pandemic life, and there can be no credible doubt that we’ve ended up with a system that can no longer cope with disruptions like coronavirus. The dominoes are actually falling now. I think it’s long past time for reflexivity. Robert Jensen’s piece at counterpunch, Apocalypse, Now and Forever is a serious piece written by a serious thinker. I’ve followed Jensen’s work for more than a decade, and I find this piece, which is a book review, to be necessary, timely, and honest. I also suspect that not everyone will want to read it though everyone should. To me it’s like ripping a bandaid off; might as well go ahead and get it over with.

I’m quite aware that this sort of topic from AIRE’s perspective is the farthest departure yet from our core activity of researching, educating and helping organizations develop their own renewable energy projects. This pandemic has convinced me to push into this critique a bit more deeply. I’ve never shied away from acknowledging the conditions that are necessary for our clean energy vision to manifest, and Jensen hits directly at some of the tenets that I’ve held for our community-based energy work. I’ll get to those in a moment. Now is a moment some of us have foreseen and now that it’s here seems surreal, while for others, it’s unimaginable, and in either case, it’s a moment of danger and possibility. Navigating this tipping point requires extraordinary honesty and clarity in our assessment if we’re to avert the worst. So this is why I’m bringing up Apocalypse, Now and Forever. In it, Jensen gives us some good trail markers. He’s reviewing the book, Notes from an Apocalypse: A Personal Journey to the End of the World and Back by Mark O’Connell. No need to recreate Jensen’s excellent review, but I will highlight a few things around mindset and structures that stand out to me.

It’s useful to begin with Jensen’s criticism of the book: “Until the last chapter, he [O’Connell, the book’s author] seems headed toward an honest reckoning with what it means to live without illusions about the future, a willingness to not only accept, but embrace, a deep sense of grief and find the motivation that can spring from that.” It’s that honest reckoning I want to highlight.

One response to the “apocalypse”[2] is a radical continuation of the ontology of colonialism by the escapists, especially the ultra-rich, to either keep threats at bay or run from them– colonize mars (yep, the planet), acquire vast private landholdings, bunker communities, or “seasteading” outside of national borders. Destroy one place and move on to the next. This is not only the way some plan to survive the apocalypse, but an indication of a particular knowledge that recognizes science and mindset that says to others “you’re on your own.” O’Connell calls these the “cognitive elite” who believe in an “apocalyptic libertarianism” he defines as “an apocalyptic logic of progress: a movement away from the nation-state, away from democracy, and finally away from ravaged Earth itself.” To me, this is a very distressing resignation and zero-sum end game. Jensen notes with perhaps a hint of sarcasm that “Race, gender, and capitalist economics play out even in the preparation for collapse.”

The other route involves Politics, Collectivity, and Consumption. As Jensen wrestles with what he perceives as the author’s abrupt end of inquiry, he says “…there seems to be no point in wrestling with the question of how we are going to struggle collectively with the problem of excessive wants, of how we so easily turn wants into needs.” Jensen ventures into that gap, by asking really important questions, “How do we become a positive force rather than a threat to life? How can societies nurture that imperative of care in people who have lost a connection to the larger living world?”

Use of the apocalyptic frame is a way for most to avoid the chasm between what we think we know and what we do not know, and this is Jensen’s chief complaint about a book he otherwise praises. That “apocalyptic frame” he says, “vaults us over the epistemological chasm of the future, clear into a final destination, the end of all things.” We do, clearly, know enough to be doing something more than we are currently. Without knowing exactly what we’ll need and criticizing that lack of knowledge as an excuse to give up, Jensen offers a few ideas:

“…fashioning the skills, spaces, and stories that likely will be necessary. What skills will we need to live in a low-energy world? What spaces can we create to foster the human interaction needed to sustain a new human community? What stories can we tell about what it means to be human that will help us on the other side?”

Yes. This is our work. For me, borrowing a line from the Eagles, “there is no new frontier, we have got to make it here.”[3] Jensen quotes a key line from O’Connell’s book we should all repeat:

O’Connell observes, accurately I think, that “everything is falling apart, coming to an end, precisely because we are unable to believe in the possibility of change.” (emphasis is mine in this post)

That possibility will have to include a new and different politics–yes, radical– that recognizes limits, replacing individualism with cooperation, and developing confidence that we can design that change if we just get moving. And as Jensen notes, it’ll take more than “magic thinking” or a fundamentalist belief in technology as savior.


[1] To name a few: pandemics, climate emergency, loss of biodiversity, nuclear arms, mass incarceration, corporate socialism, undemocratic governments, massive inequality…… you get the point.
[2] Jensen’s use of the term is to “unveil or to reveal,” a “disclosure of something hidden from most people, a coming to clarity.”
[3] The song The Last Resort from The Eagles album “Hotel California.”

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