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Struggling to be "fully alive': Reports on coping with anguish for a world in collapse

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"I don't have anything to say that hasn't been said many times over the centuries."

That may have been the most insightful response to my essay asking people to report on how they cope with the anguish of living in a world in collapse. http://www.commondreams.org/view/2010/06/22-4

That simple statement is a reminder that (1) the social and ecological crises we face have been building for a long time and (2) the best of our traditions have, for a long time, offered wisdom useful in facing those crises. The unjust social systems and unsustainable ecological practices of contemporary society started with the agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago, when humans began dominating each other and the planet in evermore destructive fashion, and intensified dramatically over the 250 years of the industrial revolution. (For a historical perspective, see "The delusional revolution,"

http://www.alternet.org/story/95126/the_delusion_revolution:_we%27re_on_the_road_to_extinction_and_in_denial_/?page=entire.)

And for nearly that long, some people have resisted the power of elites and tried to protect the land. (For a contemporary example, see "Where agriculture meets empire," http://www.alternet.org/story/16306/where_agriculture_meets_empire/?page=entire.)

So, we struggle in the moment with complex problems that defy simple solutions -- problems that may be beyond our capacity to solve in any meaningful way. But describing the basics needed for a better world is not difficult if we draw on that wisdom. Here's my condensed version:

We need to transcend systems rooted in human arrogance and greed that lead us to believe that any individual is more valuable than another, that any group of people should dominate another group, or that people have a right to exploit the living world without regard for the consequences for the ecosystem. Because each of us has within us the capacity for constructive and destructive actions -- for good and evil -- our collective task is to shape a society that helps us act with caution and compassion.

This radical message of humility and solidarity comes from a deep conception of respect: Respect for oneself, for other people, for other living things, and for the earth as a living system. That message animates the best of our philosophy, theology, poetry, and politics, and it was at the heart of nearly all the 300 responses to my essay. This notion of respect wasn't defined as "being nice" or "not being judgmental." Respect takes work -- to understand the other, make judgments, and engage constructively when there are disagreements or conflicting needs.

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Along with those calls for love, there was a lot of anger in the responses, much of it directed at elites -- the politicians, business executives, and media propagandists who so often not only promote arrogant and greedy behavior over humility and solidarity, but also rationalize and prop up the political/economic/social systems in which the destructive behavior is fostered.

And many wrote that the while the anger we may feel toward elites is justified, we have to start with self-critique and examine our own place in these systems. For example, the anger toward BP officials over the "hole in the world" at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico co-exists with the recognition that we all live somewhere in the system that demands that oil:

"I speak of the oil spill going on and I acknowledge how implicated I am in it. My lifestyle -- despite efforts to eat wild foods, look at waste streams as resources, and live frugally -- depends heavily on oil. It's like there are these [oil] stains on my hands, all over my hands, my body and the ground around me."

In such a world, it is easy for those of us who live in affluent societies to be drained by an awareness of all this:

"My personal ambition seems to decrease in proportion to the increase in world suffering. I think that's part of my emotional reaction to crisis. I don't think I am fully alive. I'm not depressed, just weirdly diminished."

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Why would someone feel diminished today? For almost all of the people who responded, the heart of their struggle was in the realization that the human species, locked into industrial societies dependent on high-energy/high-technology systems to produce food and fuel, is on a path leading to the edge of a cliff. No one offered predictions for an end time, but:

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Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center. His latest book, All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice, was published in 2009 (more...)
 

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