Bob Jensen has written a book with Wes Jackson titled An Inconvenient Apocalypse: Environmental Collapse, Climate Crisis, and the Fate of Humanity. With a title like that, Jason and Bob have lots of heavy ground to cover, including overshoot, the limits to growth, and the cascading environmental and social crises of our times. They conclude that there are no easy answers or silver-bullet solutions, but by focusing on sustainable size of the human population, appropriate scale of social organization, optimal scope of human competence for managing high-energy modernity, and required speed of taking action to avoid catastrophe, they home in on some strategic responses to the crises. For episode notes and more information, please visit our website.

Transcript

Melody Travers Allison

Hi, this is producer Melody Travers Allison. Welcome to our latest bonus episode of Crazy Town. This time, Jason goes in depth with Bob Jensen, former professor of journalism at the University of Texas, and a tireless advocate for environmental health and social justice. Bob recently wrote a book with Wes Jackson called. “An Inconvenient Apocalypse.” With a title like that, we saw our chance to bring you yet another lighthearted, whimsical topic. Before you get to the interview, please take a minute to subscribe, rate, you know, do those things that help others make their way to Crazy Town now for the interview.

Jason Bradford

Okay, Bob, well, I know you and I’ve met on one occasion, I think quite a while ago. So it’s good to talk to you again. I read your book with Wes Jackson, “An Inconvenient Apocalypse,” and I just want to say, I feel like you guys are brothers from another mother. It was really nice, but also a hard book to write. I’m sure it was hard to write in many ways. What was that process like working with Wes and how did you develop this book?

Bob Jensen

Well, the book is the last of four projects actually. I first ran into Wes Jackson’s writing in the late 1980s when a friend of mine suggested he was one of the most important environmental writers around and I quickly agreed. Up till then I had a kind of, you know, liberal environmental politics. Pollution was bad, we should, you know, use less energy, that kind of stuff. But Wes helped me put it in a framework, especially that long framework where he suggests that we have been drawing down the ecological capital of the planet for 10,000 years ever since the invention of agriculture. And so I was a fan of Wes Jackson’s work. I listened to his talks, I learned a lot from him. But it wasn’t until about 2010 that I actually met him. I went to Prairie Festival, the annual, what they call an intellectual Hootenanny in Salina, Kansas, at the Land Institute. And I had a chance to start working with him directly. And it’s been incredibly rewarding. So Wes and I are, in some ways, very different. He comes out of the sciences. He has degrees in biology, botany, genetics. I come out of politics, the social sciences, and journalism. And so we’re kind of a mismatch team in a lot of ways. But I think that’s partly why it works. But this most recent book came on the heels of three other projects. One was a book that I wrote called “The Restless and Relentless mind of Wes Jackson,” which the working title was, “Wes Jackson’s Greatest Hits.” I took all of what I thought were the key ideas of Wes . . . For example, for a long time, he’s been pointing out that we are a species out of context. That ever since agriculture, we have been trying to live in a world that we did not adapt to, in evolutionary terms. And so I put together a book that explained those in I think, plain language. At the same time, Wes was working on a book of stories, because he is the consummate storyteller. And that book was called, “Hogs Are Up,” which I contend is the greatest title in the history of books, “Hogs Are Up.” And then I always say people have to buy the book to find out what the phrase means. We also worked on a podcast. And we turned that into a book called, “From the Ground Up.” And so Wes, and I had, I think, charted the territory of his work up till now. But then Wes bugged me and he said, we need to write a book about what’s coming. And that’s where “An Inconvenient Apocalypse: Environmental Collapse, Climate Crisis and the Fate of Humanity” came from. And it’s really the product of really a decade now of intellectual engagement. Wes and I talk on the phone a lot, and we wanted to confront what a lot of people find hard to confront, which is that this drawdown of the ecological capital of the planet that’s been going on for 10,000 years, which of course accelerated over the last couple of 100 years, and the fossil fuel epoch, now leaves us on the edge. Now, one thing real quickly. Apocalypse, we use that term, not to mean the end of the world. The world isn’t ending. The planet will go on perfectly fine without us. But apocalypse, its original meaning is from the Greeks, which is the same as revelation in Latin, means a coming to clarity, a lifting of the veil, developing the ability to see honestly what is happening in the world. And that’s the way we use the term apocalypse. And of course, “An Inconvenient Apocalypse” is riding off of Al Gore’s, “An Inconvenient Truth,” right. It is inconvenient. It’s honestly inconvenient. It’s emotionally very difficult to cope with this. But we’re too old guys. And one of the advantages of being old guys, is you’re less worried about who likes you and who doesn’t like you. So if you say things bluntly, and you lose friends over where it’s like, “Well, okay, I’m getting old anyway.” So that’s how we approach the book. We quote a Wendell Berry poem near the end, where Wendell kind of asks the question, “What should you say to young people who are struggling?” And his answer is, “tell them at least what you tell yourself.” And so this book is really what Wes and I had been telling ourselves, both individually and collectively. The things we’ve been talking about that we know are difficult, but are important.

Jason Bradford

Yeah, and that’s honestly exactly why I found this so compelling. I gotta admit, you know, I had a flurry of time when I was reading a lot of really important environmental books. Of course, “The Limits to Growth.” I remember reading Herman Daly’s, “Beyond Growth.” I read Richard Heinberg, “The Party’s Over.” I read William Catton’s, “Overshoot.” I read “The Ecological Footprint” by Mathis Wackernagel. There was a whole period of my life when I would read this stuff. And then what started happening is they all started kind of not being very fulfilling. I either kind of knew the topic well enough, or they weren’t getting to underlying deep issues in ways that I really was seeking even though some of those are very, very deep books. I mean, you can’t say that Herman Daly isn’t a deep thinker or any of those people I mentioned?

Bob Jensen

Absolutely. You know, William Catton’s book “Overshoot” was published in 1980. It was an incredibly important book. He’s often considered, you know, the founder of Environmental Sociology, Rural Sociology. He was very prescient, he saw ahead of time. And I think of Wes, in the same way. You know, Wes, in 1969, when he was teaching at a small school in Kansas, created a survival studies program. Well, you know, that’s foresight. Wes is one of the founders of environmental education. So I know exactly what you mean. These books that have been in some sense telling us what we’re up against, how bad it is, have been published for a long time, but they were very important. William Rees’s work . . . and Dennis Meadows and the “Limits to Growth,” incredibly important. But I’m glad to hear that you think our book is different. Because we start with that as a given. That environmental degradation, that ecological collapse is in process. It’s not going to be easily reeled back. And so we have to think about not only what are we going to do now, but where did this come from? Why is the human species in the in the pickle it is. And sometimes people say, “Well, I don’t care about the past, I want to know how we’re going to fix it.” But if you don’t understand the reasons we got into this jam, it’s hard to know how to fashion policy to move forward. And so yeah, as you as you point out, we said, “Listen, it’s bad, It’s getting worse. It’s getting worse faster than we thought. Now let’s try and understand why and understand what to do about it.” And we tried to do that, although it’s kind of counterintuitive, I suppose, with a joyful spirit, and even a sense of humor.

Jason Bradford

But I mean, I think Wes can’t help but have a sense of humor with a clever turn of phrase, you know. He is really a fascinating character. And so that comes through even in this and I remember reading, gosh, one of the books he wrote . . . I remember his wonderful phrase, where we have this separation between the sacred and profane that is a false dichotomy. And that always stuck with me where humans have created this industrial system, and then the machines do the work extracting from the environment out of the five pools of carbon, you know. And then humans live in their, essentially, it’s like CAFOs in the cities in some ways, right? Artificial constructs. And so you know, he’s full of these incredible, memorable insights. And that is quite, you know, a joy to pick up on still in this book. So he is also one of those founding characters of the modern environmental movement. And what’s great too, for me to see, is how you guys had this relationship where you worked on these other projects, and you really got at what hasn’t been said yet. Because that’s what’s been so frustrating is I think about this myself, or I’m a generation or two removed from Wes and I think about like, what can I say that hasn’t already been said? And it’s sometimes it’s disheartening, right? It’s like, if Herman Daly didn’t figure it out and already expressed it, what am I going to do. Or if Wes Jackson hasn’t already critiqued agriculture, you know, what am I going to say? And so I actually think you did say some – congratulations, right? And that’s part of what you have come up with the book is like, Hey, we’re, we’re a couple of old white guys. But actually, you know, we still do have something important to say, and we hope you agree with us. And so there’s both a sense of humility in it, but then also sort of acknowledging after reflection, like, no, no, we’re hearing what’s going on in our culture, from people who are sort of on our side, quote, unquote, progressives, but also conservative voices, and they’re missing something. Missing some key things, and they’re avoiding hard questions. So that was a wonderful framing, and it was done so gently. And you did basically say at the front, like, “look, we don’t have to say much about the crisis, the multiple cascading crises we’re in. We’re going to say a little bit, but you should already know this. But what you don’t know is the stuff you’ve been avoiding.

Bob Jensen

Well, thank you. Let me say just a quick footnote about that phrase, the multiple cascading crises, social and ecological. I always want to give credit for that phrase to a friend of mine Jim Koplin, now dead, but a really wonderful teacher and friend. Such, I think an important person in my life. I wrote a book about him a few years ago called “Plain Radical.” But that was my friend Jim’s phrase: multiple cascading crises. It’s not just climate change. There are a host of these crises. And with the emphasis on climate change, we sometimes forget soil erosion, soil degradation. . . That has been a focus of a lot of Wes’s work. Of course, the biodiversity crisis, chemical contamination of land, water, and our own bodies. All of that, you know, adds up to more than any one of us can really deal with. And that’s why we wanted to write the book. And you know, Wes, as you pointed out, is a founder, not only the environmental education movement, he created one of the first programs at Cal State Sacramento back in the early 70s. But he’s often credited with being the first person, at least in print, to use the term sustainable agriculture. And he always says he can’t remember if that’s accurate or not.

We’ve been saying that Wes, he’s a great storyteller, he’s a big personality, he fills up a room. But he’s also one of the most genuinely humble people I know. And that made it easy to write this book. I think my favorite sentence from the whole book might be when we say, “the moral high ground is a dangerous place to stand, even when it’s right.” So even if you’re right about everything, the moral high ground gets you into trouble. And that reflects, I think, an honest humility. And the reason that matters to me is I come from the political left, I’ve been involved in, you know, almost every left organizing kind of project you can imagine in the last 30 years. And I find that some of my comrades on the left are too easy to take that moral high ground. And to assume that if everybody just did it the way they said, well, we’d be fine. And part of what Wes and I are saying in this book, of course, is that nobody has answers. If we pursued even the best policies, we’re still digging ourselves out of a hole or further into a hole. And it’s not going to be easy. And so nobody should be too cocky. And, of course, it’s easy to be critical of the drill, baby drill crowd, you know, the right wing that either denies climate change, or doesn’t much care about it. The people who don’t care about the incredible inequality gaps around the world. The people who don’t care about all that environmental degradation. It’s very easy to criticize them. But it’s harder to criticize the center, the left, that recognizes there are problems, but doesn’t want to deal with the crucial question. And I think –  Wes and I think together that the crucial question is limits. How do we do something that no species has ever had to do in the history of Earth, which is to voluntarily impose limits on ourselves, in our own carbon seeking, our own quest for energy and the material comfort that comes from that energy? Now, my comrades on the left sometimes say, Well, if we just get rid of capitalism and we have a fairer system, it’ll all work out. Well, I think the biophysical realities are different. And so you know, Wes and I are not just, not to be too crass, but we’re not just beating up on the easy targets. We’re trying to be self reflective, even of the political, you know, configurations we come out of. Because nobody has answers. And so that that moral high ground is I think a very dangerous place to believe you’re standing.

Jason Bradford

Yeah, I agree. And I’d love to follow up on this for a little bit because I’m kind of like . . . Like I said, you guys are brothers from another mother. I’m kind of like you a lot of ways in that I come from the sort of urban suburban progressive, liberal background in many ways/ But I also was an ecologist and into conservation biology and ended up becoming a farmer for the past almost 20 years. And so I live out in the country. I work on the land. I try to protect the land and improve it. And boy that really humbles you quickly realizing what your limitations are, and how much you are. What your success or failure is is really out of your control in many ways. And of course, you can improve and you can plan and you can adapt wisely, and you can, you know, eat right and get good sleep and face the day in good condition. But a lot of stuff is just hard to control and everything breaks. Entropy is a real thing. So I think that there’s something about the quality of being in these situations where you’re trying to make some kind of livelihood directly interacting with the material world that maybe changes you in a sense and soften some of your certainty. I don’t know, I’m just sort of like thinking about . . . you describe yourselves as sort of conservative in some ways by disposition. Because it’s this, you know, skeptical – And I think maybe that comes from like, realizing that there’s a lot of just BS out there that people are throwing out that probably when it hits the light of day, it’s just not going to be as shiny.

Bob Jensen

Absolutely. I think the example of that today is electric vehicles. You said shiny new things. And electric vehicles are all the rage now. And people in the, you know, center left want to tell us that if we just adopt electric vehicles, everything’s gonna be fine. Well, you know, as many people have pointed out, electric vehicles take an incredible amount of energy to produce, they are not carbon neutral. And of course, the extraction of all those resources exacerbates existing conflicts and social inequalities. So whenever people say, “Well, don’t worry, we’ve got electric vehicles,” I kind of want to step back and say, “Really?”

Jason Bradford

And this is another point you keep bringing up. There is no one thing. You know, people like to latch on to their favorite thing, the regenerative agriculture, the electric vehicles, or whatever, or ecosocialism – Some thing that is the answer. And I think we know when you get to these multiple cascading crisis, and you really understand when you guys get into human nature, you realize that, be careful believing you have any kind of simple solutions. So to me, it seems like the book is mostly geared towards the side of the progressive left. Because, like you’re saying it’s easier to critique the complete deniers. But there’s also something going on where there’s this tendency then to avoid some of these sticky problems. And I’ve recently heard Tucker Carlson, of all people, start to talk about these kinds of issues. You almost then worry about if the progressive folks who are more communitarian, have more of a sense of openness to others. If they don’t deal with this, you have an ecofascist movement ready to step in. And I wonder how much you worry about that?

Bob Jensen

Well, I do worry about it. And in fact, I’ve been talking to a new friend who’s writing a book on ecofascists, and you know, hanging out in their chat rooms. And they’re pretty scary people. And he asked me, “If you sound some of the same alarms as they do, don’t you worry?” And I said, I worry about not sounding the alarm. So let me explain what I mean. If ordinary people can sense that, you know, this bright, shiny future of wind turbines, and solar energy, and electric vehicles that were being sold isn’t really honest. That is, there are problems beyond those high-tech solutions. If ordinary people sense that, and I think are starting to sense it, and will increasingly sense it in the future, and the progressive left people with concerns about inequality, injustice, which I have deeply and have always tried to act on. If people like us don’t talk about that reality, then essentially, we cede that turf to the right and to the ego fascists.

That’s why it’s so important to talk about these things precisely. Because if we don’t, that will be filled by people with very ugly values. And there are answers, not answers to how we’re going to keep 8 billion people, you know, consuming at the level of aggregate consumption the world does now, but there are answers about how to start thinking. And something you said, Jason, really struck me about what it means to really work the land and what it teaches you. I recently, after retiring from a career of teaching, moved to Northern New Mexico, and I am not a farmer. I’m not good at growing things, but my wife and I live on a property that has a small orchard that was planted, you know, before we got here, and we have a flood irrigation system, using ditches in this part of the world. It’s called the acequia system. It’s a collectively run and operated system. And it’s really quite ingenious. And it’s quite heartwarming to see a community come together to do irrigation. And that, you know, that’s kind of upbeat. Here we are, we’re growing apples and pears and plums. And by the way, we had a huge crop this year, it was a great year, and we’re contributing to this communal irrigation system. But you also realize when you’re on the ground like this, and it’s new for me, because I was a city boy my whole life, you realize how fragile it is. The Earth itself is not fragile. The Earth itself is incredibly resilient, it adapts. But human interventions are amazingly fragile. You know, you learn what it takes to destroy a crop. Not very much. You learn how petty differences between members in a community can completely undermine a communal irrigation system. It’s happened before, right? And it’s takes incredible effort and affection, affection for each other and affection for the ground. And it’s not a given. It’s not like it’s automatic. And because so many of us, you know, had been raised in this competitive, aggressive capitalist system, we sometimes have to remember we’re overcoming a lot of traits we learned, literally from the cradle. So it isn’t easy. And you’re doing it on a much different scale than I am. And you, therefore, know the lessons much more deeply, but that the reality of human fragility, and natural resilience, is just part of the ground we’re working on.

Jason Bradford

Yeah, really well said. In the book, that comes across. And I think that, you know, we could go on talking about this stuff forever, but maybe to focus a little bit, there’s a chapter, I think there’s kind of a core chapter where you talk about four hard questions. Size, scale, scope, and speed. And maybe let’s go over those four hard questions? It kind of really brings home what we’re talking about, what’s missing in the conversation, especially maybe on the progressive left. And of course, a lot of conservatives ignore many of these things too. Our ultra-modern industrial society just doesn’t have a way of dealing with these questions.

Bob Jensen

Right. So those four hard questions, well, let’s sum them up really quickly. By size, we mean, what is the sustainable size of a human population at what level of consumption? Because of course, talking about raw numbers of people doesn’t matter if you’re not taking into account how much they’re consuming. The second question, what is the appropriate scale of a human social organization? You know, we live in a nation with 330 million people. Is that a workable scale of social and political organization? The third question, what is the scope of human competence to manage all of this high energy, high technology, that we have created? And finally, what is the speed at which we must make pretty substantial changes if we are going to avoid a catastrophic collapse? So size, scale, scope and speed. I’ll say right up front, Wes, and I don’t have answers. We don’t believe anybody has answers. If by answers, we mean, you know, ways to keep this whole game going in its current fashion. These are what I often call problems without solutions. They are problems that if we want to maintain the existing way the world works, we’re not going to find solutions. So asking the hard questions, you know, really demands of us a capacity to think about big change. Change, you know, beyond what may be possible even.

Jason Bradford

Yeah, no, I think that’s true. And this is why they’re avoided, then, of course. But then there’s this tension of like, if you can’t offer a solution, then how do we talk about this politically? Maybe that will be revealed as we go through it. Like ways of talking about these that at least start to acknowledge them, and then try to provide some kind of collective understanding and education, maybe, that will allow appropriate responses that are not about trying to keep the world more or less as it is. But then, as we go from the world that is that we know it’s impossible to maintain to something else. And we may have an idealized version that is, I guess, you know, that transition is what no one seems to grok. But why don’t we start framing at least the scale of what we’re talking about with size, scale, scope and speed?

Bob Jensen

Yeah. So I always start with this realization. It’s just so happens my father was born in 1927. And my father is, in his last days now. The world population when my father was born was 2 billion. And my father will probably live to see a world of 8 billion. That means in one human lifetime, the human population doubled, and doubled again. That is unprecedented, tight? That’s three generations. I use that to remind people of the, in some ways, really bizarre world in which we live. Now, all of that population growth is pretty much a direct result of fossil fuels, especially through the Haber-Bosch process, which some people will recognize as the way we manufacture synthetic fertilizer, anhydrous, ammonia fertilizer. Well, you take away the fossil fuels needed for that process and a whole lot of us wouldn’t be here. So we’re dealing with a human population that is completely anomalous in human history. And that’s important to recognize. How are we going to get from 8 billion, which I think is quite clearly an unsustainable human population pretty much at any level of consumption. How are we going to get to a sustainable level with considerably less consumption per capita? And again, I say, per capita because we all know that the distribution of the material resources in this world is not equitable. It’s morally unacceptable. But if we look at kind of aggregates, what is possible? Well, I’m not an ecologist, I’m not a scientist, I don’t pretend to have an answer. And of course, nobody has a definitive answer. But people I find reliable, like, take Bill Rees, a really first-rate ecologist who has been doing good work on these subjects for you know, 50 years now. Bill suggests that a sustainable population is probably going to be something like 2 billion, right. Dennis Meadows of the “Limits to Growth” subject group says roughly the same thing. Some people say three or 4 billion. The final number doesn’t matter. What is clear is we’re talking about reducing the human population by at least half and maybe half again. And at the same time, getting people to accept that much of what we take to be “normal.” And I put normal in quotes there. Like, for instance, being able to jump in a car and drive a couple 100 miles to see members of your family. Well, a lot of people take that for granted now. You know, we’re coming up on a holiday and people are gonna say, “Well, yeah, sure, of course, I should have a right, it’s a human right to jump in a car.” Well, that’s not going to be part of a human future that’s sustainable. So the magnitude of that necessity to reduce the human population is really quite striking. Now, you know, some people will say, well, we just have to have better birth control. And there are ways to reduce the birth rate. We know about them. The main one is educating women and girls and raising the status of women and girls in society. That tends to bring down the birth rate. But that also often comes with increasing lifestyle consumption, you know, middle class status. So we have, you know, some real tensions on the birth end of it. And if you want to go to things people really don’t like to talk about, it’s not just a question of getting better birth control, it’s probably changing the way we think about death control. So we now, through the use of high tech, high energy technology, can keep people alive much longer than in any other era. And are we willing to start talking about, you know, withdrawing that kind of end of life medical treatment that keeps people alive? Well, we know that’s hard, you know. When a family talks about when to withdraw care from, you know, a grandparent, it’s emotionally wrenching. But we’re talking about having to do that collectively. Now, personally, I’m 64 years old, and I’ve made a commitment to myself and talk to others around me that I will not use any life extending medical technology. That if my time comes, I’m going to do that. Now, of course, the rubber hits the road when you actually get the diagnosis, and you have to make good on it. So I’m not being glib about how hard that is. But that conversation I’ve had with friends and family has been very wrenching. There are people who are really angry at me for saying this. Now imagine trying to do that at a collective level where we all agree. Well, you know, these are why these are hard questions because nobody can imagine an easy answer to the birth control, the death control, the limits on consumption. But that’s where we start those four large questions.

Jason Bradford

Yeah. Did you ever see the movie or read the book, “Out of Africa?”

Bob Jensen

You know, long ago, but not well enough to remember it.

Jason Bradford

Okay. There’s this amazing scene where Meryl Streep is interacting with this village. I think it might have been in Kenya. And this woman is lying under a tree. This old woman is lying under a tree. And she’s kind of moaning and stuff. And these people are like, a couple 100 yards away, and they’re just working. And they’re like, “Why aren’t you helping her?” And they’re like, “Leave her alone. She’s old. She’s dying”. And they’re going on about her business. And she basically just walked away to die. And it was fascinating. Like Meryl Streep couldn’t handle that. She’s like, “Get her to a hospital! Somebody do something.” And they basically berated her, like, “Leave her alone. This is what she wants to do. This is what she needs to do.” So part of me is almost thinking it’s like the material conditions we have, have really structured then our expectations and what we consider cultural norms about how we deal with end of life. And this was a culture that was like, kind of comfortable letting this old woman decide, I’m over, I’m done. I’m tired, I hurt. I want to go.

Bob Jensen

Yeah. And of course, keeping people alive requires resources. It requires incredible amounts of energy and technology. And what happens when that energy and technology is no longer available, or available only to the most wealthy? You know, these are not only difficult personal questions, or incredibly difficult social questions. Yet, I think they’re questions we’re going to have to face. You know, one way you can think about this is that the future of all of us is going to be a kind of triage. So most people know that when doctors are working on a battlefield or come into a natural disaster, or if the emergency room is full of patients after a crisis, doctors have to make some pretty hard decisions about how to prioritize care. And it means often letting the most ill, the most injured die because the resources are better spent trying to keep a lot of people who are not quite as ill, or quite as injured. Well, that’s, you know, doctors are trained to do this. We allow doctors to do that, because we trust that training. But there’s going to be a time when we’re going to be engaged in a kind of cultural triage. How do we take limited resources and try to use them for the collective good? And how do we accept these limits, including limits on the length of our lives? Well, you might remember when the Republican Party accused the Democrats of wanting to create death panels. You know, to kill grandma and grandpa early, you know, to save money. And the culture went bananas over that. Now, of course, the Democrats hadn’t proposed death panels, but that’s where we’re heading. And at this point, nobody in the mainstream political arena is willing to even talk about it. And of course, you can’t solve problems if you can’t talk about them.

Jason Bradford

Yeah, and that’s the thing. Your book keeps bringing up things that actually people do talk about, but they don’t talk about it in the open. So I’m a farmer, my wife’s a physician. And so we sometimes joke that we’re in the process of extending human overshoot because I’m feeding people and she’s saving lives. And, you know, everyone is like, what noble professions you’re doing, like, these are both wonderful things. We all do this. And at the same time, we both recognize like, yeah, but how many more people do we really need to have for how long. And physicians do struggle with the fact that they throw enormous resources at people with miserable lives, they’re suffering. And they know how much it costs and how much it’s sucking from an overburdened medical system. But they don’t have a process that in which they can sort of discuss this professionally. So they just kind of like, you know, moan about it a bit, you know, in private. But they know. People know.

Bob Jensen

Sometimes people say this is a product of Western culture, or a specific religious perspective. I would suggest it’s a product of high energy. That you don’t worry about these end-of-life questions when you can’t do anything to extend life. It’s only when this massive energy, a surplus, and the technology to instrumentalize it into life saving devices. That’s when these questions come up. I think, again, we’re back to dealing with the question of how do you impose limits in a world with surplus when their scarcity limits are natural? I mean, you don’t even have to think about limits when there isn’t very much. And this is why Wes’s observation about agriculture is so important because the first surpluses didn’t come to human beings until we started domesticating plants and animals. And all of a sudden, all that energy, especially in annual grains like wheat and barley and rice, you could store all that energy and you had a surplus. And once you have a surplus unless you have something worth fighting over and egalitarian social norms — which don’t, you know, come easy sometimes. But societies have figured out ways to make those norms a part of everyday life. In the face of surplus, those norms get harder to maintain. And so, you know, we don’t often think of surplus as a problem. We think of it as a bounty. You know, our lives are so great because of all that surplus. That’s why, if I need to go to the grocery store tomorrow, I can be pretty much guaranteed I’ll find everything I need. But that surplus is also at the heart of the problem. These are deep, practical, and philosophical questions. They require us to rethink how we live, but they also require us to rethink how we understand what it means to be human. And that age old, philosophical question what it means to live a good life.

Jason Bradford

There’s one exception to this rule that Wes, you know, and others have talked about agriculture was — Or there may be more than one. . . But the one I’m aware of in the Pacific Northwest, salmon was so abundant that they weren’t farmers, but they had so much salmon they could dry that they created these hierarchical societies that mimicked agrarian societies. And this gets to the point that you talk in your book, these thought experiments, where there’s a lot of people who are really down on the history of white colonialism, patriarchy, and understandably so. But the question you ask is it because those people are inherently evil? Or is it because they happen to just have some sort of geographic lottery they won. And Jared Diamond goes over this actually in “Guns, Germs and Steel.” There’s something about being on the Eurasian continent. . .  I think the Chinese also had tremendous advantages, but for some reason they turned insular at a certain point in history, where incredible amount of technology was possible domestication of animals and crops was possible. And it kind of set that region up for then advantages when they end up going to other parts of the world. And so it sort of takes blame away from our ancestors a little bit. But then you come to the point that’s like, the guy that invented the first plow, didn’t know he was gonna destroy the soil. But boy, we know. So where do you take responsibility? Where do you accept freewill? Where do you sort of think there’s determinism? This is why I’m saying that book is delightful, because it kind of cracks open a bunch of these philosophical issues that people kind of gloss over. But if you understand them a lot, you see all these sort of logical fallacies that are at play in our culture all the time.

Bob Jensen

Yeah, I’ve been threatening to write a book called, “Both Things are True.” Because there are so many moments in my life where I think well, both things are true. So you’re talking about the concept of geographic or environmental determinism, the idea that the trajectory, not of individual people but of cultures, is largely determined by where they are on the planet. Jared Diamond wrote a very good book about this, which received a lot of criticism because he was willing to entertain the idea. Ian Morris wrote a really great book called, “Why the West Rules for Now,” that also took up this subject. Well, we know that there’s a lot of that determinism at play. We also know that there’s no way to imagine a decent human society if you and I don’t agree to be morally accountable for our our actions, even if those actions are largely determined. Well, both things are true. So the further back in history we can look, the more we can see how that determinism was at play. Today, we don’t have a choice. We have to hold ourselves accountable. And of course, we have much more information, as you point out, than people did 10,000 years ago, 5000 years ago. I always point out, whoever invented the first steam engine, you know, we attributed to James Watt. But like most things, there were other people. Did they know that inventing a way to turn coal into work into labor was going to end up frying the planet? No, I mean, James Watt isn’t morally accountable for the consequences of the steam engine. Yet, today, we do know that, and we do have to act on it.

Well, I think I want to emphasize something you said: Wes, and I do not argue that imperialism, white supremacy, patriarchy, any of these systems, systems that I’ve been involved in movements to challenge you know, for my entire adult life – We’re not saying none of these matter. We’re saying that, again, that moral high ground, where you claim everything can be laid at the feet of these villains, is simply not a very good way to think about how to go forward. There are villains and there are victims in human history. There are systems that are morally unconscionable. And nobody’s gonna say, “Well, you know, slavery was inevitable and therefore, we shouldn’t worry about the moral implications of slavery.” That would be basically to surrender your own humanity. But we do have to also be able to step back and look at the trajectory of human societies. And do more than just moralize. You know, moralizing has never really solved very many problems in human history. And it’s not going to solve the problems we face today. So I’m glad you picked up on that part of the book. It’s a part of the book that I think is controversial and maybe interesting that very few people have engaged it. You know, in some ways, I think people just want to avoid those kinds of questions. And it’s not only determinism at the level of whole cultures. We’re also talking about human nature. And again, coming from the left, I was trained not to talk about human nature. And part of that is because capitalists distort human nature. Capitalists say listen, “We have to have capitalism. We have to have people who are motivated by their own self-interest. Because people are nothing but these greedy, you know, self-interested creatures.”  Well, of course, people are greedy and self-interested. I don’t mean to, you know, be crass, but you have the capacity to be greedy and self-interested. I know you do. Well, so do I. And so does Wes, and so does every other human being.

We also have these incredible capacities for collaboration, cooperation, empathy, compassion, right? So human nature is real. but it’s variable. But there is what Wes and I, borrowing from our friend, Bill Veatch, call human carbon nature. That we’re also just organisms. We are biological entities. And Wes has long said, you know, probably the easiest definition of life on Earth is, life is the scramble for energy rich carbon. And human beings have just gotten incredibly good at getting at that carbon. Now, we can make choices to control the way we do it today. But we also have to realize that part of human nature is that biological desire to maximize our use of energy. Howard Odum called it the maximum power principle. And it’s not just a human creation, it’s part of life on this planet. Well, again, it doesn’t absolve everybody who’s doing bad things. It doesn’t mean that if you’re the CEO of an oil company, you get to say, “Well, that’s just the way it rolls.” We have to be accountable for our actions. And we have to understand the deeper forces that shape our actions. Both things are true.

Jason Bradford

Yeah, it’s like, I work a lot with university students. And a lot of the social justice stuff will come up in conversation, which is great. And then I’ll remind folks, I’ll say, “You know, we’re living in the most anomalous, absurd part of in history, in my opinion, and one of the most precarious and destructive. So we’re facing all these existential crisis. So just imagine if there’s somebody looking back on this time period, in this generation. What are they going to judge us for?” So that’s where some of that humility comes in. It’s not like we’ve got everything figured out at all. So yes, be critical of how we got here, but really ask these hard questions that I’ve been trying to get people to ask. And that’s why this book is so important, I think. Okay, well, this is where it makes me think about transitioning and actually think about the scale part of the four hard questions. Because, there is a difference maybe between having conversations among people who know and trust each other. Like, I can talk to these students. And just because I disagree, or poured out a hard question, we can have these hard question conversations to some extent. But now you scale it out to then people running for office. And so let’s get at this scale problem.

Bob Jensen

Yeah. So this is where again, Wes’s work was so important to me, and we wanted to explore this. So remember that for about 95% of human history, and if you go back to not just Homo sapiens, but the whole genus Homo is basically 99% of our history, we lived in foraging economies, that is, gathering and hunting. And it was a band level economy. You know, groups of 20-30, probably no more than 50 people. So we evolved as social creatures in groups, let’s say, you know, around 50. Well, when you’re living in a group of 50 people, the ways that you create a fairer distribution of resources and norms, of decent engagement, are very different than when you’re talking about, you know, a city of 20 million or a nation of 300 million. So we’re living at a scale that we are not evolutionarily adapted to. That doesn’t mean we can’t try to be better. But when you think about all the ways human politics fails, in some ways, they’re not surprising. We aren’t wired up to do this. You know, there’s a lot of concern about the erosion of democratic norms in the United States, and that’s something of great concern to me, too. And people are always talking about our democracy. But the idea that you can have a nation of 330 million people and have any meaningful democracy is kind of a joke. There hasn’t been meaningful democracy, not because we’re bad people, but because it’s just not possible. Once you get past the scale at which we are adapted for, you have essentially a broken system. And the question is, just how broken is it? So if we’re going to have a sustainable human future, what is the appropriate scale of social political organization? Well, it’s not a nation of 300 million. It’s not, you know, a city of 20 million, it’s going to be something closer to the way we evolved. Now, just like population, how do you get from the United States of America, New York City, you know, the state of Texas, whatever . . . How do you get to a more workable scale of organization? Well, nobody has an answer to that either. You can have all sorts of crazy talk about secession, and you know, this and that, popular on the more reactionary right. But those aren’t answers to the question. So we make this point partly so people don’t feel so bad as if we’re always failing. We’re failing at something we aren’t designed to do very well.

Jason Bradford

Yeah, I think about the thought experiment. Let’s say you’re a driver who honks and yells and flips off people who cut you off in traffic, and that’s your modus operandi. And you get away with that because you live in LA, and there’s 10 million people. And what are the odds you’re actually going to see that person again? I’ll bet you take that same person, and you put them in a small town of 500, and they’re not going to have that reaction when they get cut off in traffic.

Bob Jensen

Of course not. Yeah,

Jason Bradford

Yeah, because like, I’m probably going to see that person like, three times this week. And it’s almost like then the individual behaviors really change. In other words, that’s the same person. But just because they’re in a situation where they have the sense of anonymity, they have one reaction. Whereas, when they have a sense of belonging and community, those behavioral traits in them get dampened down. And they’re more likely to sort of be a little nicer, be a little more tolerant, for various reasons. And so yeah, how you get here from there is another one of those questions.

Bob Jensen

Yeah. It’s not simple to figure out how to do this. So, you know, take one way that small communities have held together – Well, one is through religious ideology. You know, I’ve spent time with people in Christian intentional communities. And what makes that community in the one case of about 250 people, what makes it work is a shared theology. Well, the problem is, I don’t find that theology very attractive. I think it’s patriarchal, I think there’s some real problems with it. But that’s one way. People have been experimenting with this for a long time. And it’s never easy. You’re pointing out something that’s very important – That anonymity in large scale societies tends to be pretty corrosive. We know this now from discussions on the internet when people are on these online forums. They’re not only walking past people they’ll never have to be accountable, they’re not even walking past them in real life. It’s only online. And guess what, there’s a lot of bad behavior when people are anonymous. So we know that to be true, and your example of drivers is a good one. Okay, so where do we go from there? Well, it’s not easy to know how to do it, and retaining, you know, ideals about freedom of action, and freedom of thought, and that kind of thing. Just again, problems that don’t have easy solutions.

But at least if we recognize we’re working at a scale beyond our evolutionary design, well, at least then we know what part of the problem is. In the book, I tell the story of, I used to teach at the University of Texas, and I often taught large lecture classes that had as many as 300 people in them. And a lot of students are very uncomfortable when you walk into a lecture hall, and they’re sitting next to somebody they’ve never met. And I used to remind them that if they feel uncomfortable in this setting, it’s not a fault of theirs. You know, if you’re in a room with 300 people, that’s more than you might have met in your entire lifetime in a hunter gathering society, right? So of course you’re uncomfortable. I would say it’s normal to be uncomfortable. What’s abnormal is the design of this institution. And I think that helps students who might have thought it was their problem to realize, “Oh, this is a design flaw. This isn’t the fact that I’m inadequate.” Well, I think those kinds of things help people take a breath, feel a little less panicky about why these systems don’t work, and at least give us a fighting chance at figuring out some new ways of organizing ourselves.

Jason Bradford

Yeah, exactly. There’s a little bit of forgiveness and grace when things are going wrong. And then I think there are political scientists working on these questions. So it’s not like there’s nowhere we can turn. Okay, so that’s kind of does get to the next thing, which is scope. Because I think this is a really important point. I think people really understand this. We see how, right now our decision making… So when you think about scope, you’re talking about our ability to manage complex societies. And that ability is obviously breaking down. And we know this. Everyone is frustrated by why can’t we get ahead of the opioid crisis? Why can’t we take care of our medical system needs? Why can’t we shift to more regenerative agriculture? Why can’t we deal with climate change? Why can’t we regulate corporations appropriately? Why can’t we give people who are graduating from school reasonable opportunities for livelihood? Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And I think a lot of it comes down to complex societies. And this is sort of a Joseph Tainter-like version of the world. Complex societies end up requiring much more management, but at some point, that management becomes overwhelming. And so yeah, why don’t you talk more about how you frame that in the book?

Bob Jensen

Right. So there’s this question of how competent are we? What is the scope of our competence? And it applies as you’re pointing out both the social and technological questions. On the social, you mentioned, Joseph Tainter, whose book, “The Collapse of Complex Societies,” I think, is really essential reading. And he points out that historically, as societies, you know, accumulate surpluses, and they grow, they invest in complexity to manage all of that. And that works, at least it works in the interests of people who run the society, it works until it stops working. And there is a point he indicates where additional investments in complexity don’t help. And he points out, there are very few examples in human history were societies scaled back. Famously, the Roman Empire invested in that complexity, which made it the most powerful political organization on the planet until it didn’t work anymore. And so we always think we just have to, you know, get better at managing all this complexity. And I think there are reasons to be skeptical about that.

The other part of it is technological. So we’ve created these amazing gadgets, including the one you and I are talking over, even though we’re maybe 1000’s of miles apart. Well, how much can we manage all of this high energy, high technology? And here we use a term that Wes has been fond of for many, many years – It originated with David Orr, the ecological education writer – And that’s technological fundamentalism. So just like we invest in complexity of societies, we tend to invest in high energy, high technology, and we believe it will solve our problems. And then when that high energy, high technology creates new problems, like the ozone hole, or climate change, what’s our reaction? Well, it tends to be to invest in even more high energy, high technology. And that’s what makes it fundamentalist in nature. And Wes has been, you know, talking for decades now about the need to step back from that fundamentalism. And instead of talking about, how do we keep this whole game going? How do we scale back? How do we talk about limits? How do we stop trying to create new high energy technology to fix the problems that the previous technology created? Well, I think that’s a reasonable way to recognize the scope of our competence is not adequate to either manage the social institutions we’ve created, nor is it adequate to manage the technological creations. And the only way to deal with that is to step back, to scale back, to talk about limits. And as you’ve already pointed out, no politician in America today is going to get elected talking about limits. I always say if I ran for Congress, the first thing I would say is, I guarantee you I can reduce your material standard of living, cut it in half within the next decade.

Jason Bradford

Well, yeah, it reminds me of the Kurt Vonnegut book, what was it called? Anyway, this guy invents Ice nine. And Ice nine is a form of ice that that solidifies at ambient temperature. And so when it gets out of the lab, it basically freezes all the water in the world. And everything just dies. The book ends kind of like yeah, the oceans freeze to the bottom. And what’s fascinating me. . .  He probably wrote this in the late early 80s, right? And what’s fascinating to me is right now you can hear the Silicon Valley crowd, apocalyptic about AI, and apocalyptic about CRISPR. And, you know, basically like some junior high kid in the lab could create the next virus that wipes out 90% of humanity, or AI is gonna run amok and destroy us all, like a Terminator movie. And, you know, the only thing that gives me some solace is that when societies invest in more complexity to solve the problems of complexity, they are investing more energy, and the energetic overhead of that management class is getting heavier and heavier. And as we know, those dense pools of carbon don’t last forever. And I think, you know, as you pointed out, with the Roman Empire, there’s a simplification forced upon it. And it’s one of those places that actually adapted to the simplification in a way that was more benign than other places had. So I think that’s kind of what we’re asking ourselves of right now is. Realize that there’s going to be a withdrawal, you’re gonna have go through a weaning process from all this dense carbon, and there are ways you can manage it. And some of those ways actually may save us from ourselves. Because think about if we just had the ability to keep using more and more energy. It’s almost like a relief to me, perhaps. But I’m also pretty nervous.

Bob Jensen

Yeah, this is where I think the progressive left environmental community needs to really think more deeply. So we all know that continuing to burn fossil fuels is a civilization ending strategy. But if we could magically, and I don’t think we can, but if we could magically replace all of that energy with wind, solar, geothermal, hydro, we would still have the same set of problems about soil erosion, soil degradation, resource extraction, chemical contamination. Part of what might save us is if we finally get kicked off the energy habit. Again, you know, Wes, and I don’t have a way to make this all work in the next political cycle, and nobody else does, either. But we can stop looking to what are inevitably going to be failed strategies, such as increasing energy. You know, you made a nice point about the eastern part of the Roman Empire, what we called the Byzantine Empire. That actually survived far, far longer than the western part of the Empire, which collapsed. And as you point out, it’s because that set of political elites decided to simplify to try and you know scale back their control of the provinces, for instance. And it wasn’t without trauma. But it did mean that that particular political configuration lasted for several centuries longer than the western part of the Roman Empire. Well, so that’s a historical example. It’s noteworthy for its unusual character. The kind of exception proves the rule of that law that Tainter talks about. You also talk about a current concern about things like AI that they may have unintended consequences. We don’t need to talk about AI. Just think about the internal combustion engine that was invented in the middle of the 19th century. And boy, that seemed like a pretty cool thing at first, but look what it has created. The internal combustion engine is really kind of an amazing invention that made all sorts of things possible, including, you know, fast travel. And it’s also not only destroyed ecosystems and warmed the planet, it’s destroyed communities, it’s done . . . So we can see all sorts of these, you know, glitzy inventions that over time have proved to be on balance, I would say, losers. And Wes and I are big fans of what we call full cost accounting. You know, if you’re going to say, well look at the great things the internal combustion engine brought us. Okay, it didn’t bring things that we like, but it also brought a lot of things we don’t like. And so we have to look at both the pluses and the minuses. And the high-tech crowd loves to look at the positives of their inventions. And they love to ignore the negatives or suggest somehow those negatives are attributable to somebody else. Well, if you start doing full cost accounting, again, I come back to, electric vehicles don’t look like such a great invention.

Jason Bradford

Yeah, there’s a privatizing of the benefits and socializing of the costs with almost all these things, is the problem. A lot of these inventions get out there and then essentially, the government has to figure out how to keep them from running amok and destroying lives as much as they otherwise would.

Bob Jensen

Right. And of course, the government is us.

Jason Bradford

Yes, exactly. It’s the socializing the costs. But things are happening so rapidly and with such – I mean, who can really understand anything anymore? And so how do you expect elected officials let’s say, and career bureaucrats, to really know how to understand and manage any of these risks when they’re barely comprehensible unless you’re a complete expert in any of them. So it is a conundrum we’re in. And part of me is, you know, can we look forward to simpler lifestyles in ways? Maybe. But boy, there’s going to be a lot of hurt. And so a lot of what you do acknowledge is that there’s a reason there’s a lot of denial and avoidance. Because, to face these is . . . I mean, I probably cry a couple times a month thinking about this stuff. So there’s like a deep, ongoing grief that you have to kind of deal with if you’re gonna keep asking these hard questions and pushing.

Bob Jensen

Yeah, well, that’s evidence that you’re human, Jason. So I’m gonna go on the record saying, you’re a person, which is a way of saying that you know about the suffering of not only other people, but the suffering of other living creatures, and the ecological destruction going on. If one didn’t respond to that with a sense of deep grief I would question one’s humanity. And of course, we keep ourselves from it. And every day, we can’t wake up and have that front and center. But this question of suffering is not trivial. If you look around the planet today, and look at those suffering from inadequate nutrition, those suffering from war and other kinds of conflict, those suffering because of inadequate medical care, human suffering today is on a scale that would destroy any one individual who tried to take it all in. We know that. When you add the likely intensification of that suffering in a future that’s going to be marked by probably limits imposed on us by reality, rather than limits we plan for, well, that just ratchets up the emotional burden we’re talking about. So I like to borrow from James Baldwin, the great American writer of the last half of the 20th century, who said, “The role of an artist,” he was telling you about novelists, and he was talking specifically about racism and white supremacy. But he said, “The role of the artist is to tell as much of the truth as one can bear. And then a little more.” Well, Wes, and I modified that to say, “The role of all of us, not just artists, but everybody who’s alive and conscious today, is to tell as much of the truth as one can bear. And then a little more, and then all of the rest of the truth, which no one can bear.”

We’re in this odd place where we have to do something that is essentially impossible. The only hope we have . . . And this goes back to your observation that a lot of people think about these things, but don’t have a place to say it. The only hope is if we can start talking about this burden that is beyond our capacity to bear. If we can’t talk about it, if we can’t share it, yeah, then we’re doomed. If we can start to talk about it, you know, there’s an old cliche, and it’s absolutely accurate, that if you share joy, it doubles. You know, if I share my joy with you, we double the amount of joy in the world. If I share my burden with you, it’s cut in half. And I think that’s true on a larger scale. Right? If we can remember the joys and share the burdens, we give ourselves a fighting chance. There’s no guarantee we’re gonna find our way out of this mess we’ve created, but it has to be that collective. And that’s where it gets tricky cause you know, I’m a white male in the United States with a PhD and adequate retirement funds. I have a tremendous amount of privilege. And I have to realize that not everybody shares that privilege. And I also have to realize that in some other way, I am fundamentally like every other human being on the planet, and we really are in this together. So we’re negotiating a lot of difficult, emotional, and intellectual terrain here. But that’s the world we live in. We don’t get to choose. That’s what’s in front of us.

Jason Bradford

Yeah. Now, you talked about how, when your father was born, it was 2 billion and now it’s 8 billion humans. On the flip side though, when I was born, there were 70% more wild animals than there are today. And so while the humans have gone up, everything else practically has had a population crash. There have been some things turned around, like the bald eagles are back, right? There’s some success stories. But on average, sure, I’ve been on a birding kick the last couple of years. And I’ve been following all the birds that show up on my property here on the farm. I pay attention. I keep lists. And in the springtime, the Evening Grosbeaks come through, and I actually saw them on the Oregon State University campus. And I was really excited there was about a dozen at a tree, and then I read this article by a birder ecologist, ornithologist professor who found that in the 1970s, about 100,000 to 200,000, Evening Grosbeaks would fly in the migration across the campus. And so he had students go out and do these great surveys, right? Well, this guy replicated them. And now there’s about 1,000 to 2,000. And that’s kind of what I’m talking about in my lifetime, you know, the catastrophic collapse. It’s interesting. It’s almost like, I’m facing a world of massive human suffering now and greater in the future, while at the same time wondering, as the human sphere retracts, is the boot off the throat of everything else or not? I don’t know, because when we go from switching out from the dense pools of underground carbon, do we then re-intensify our assault on the pools of above ground carbon, which in some places have recovered, right? There’s forests again in New England. And so it may be the worst of both situations for a while. And so yeah it is really heavy. But like you say, if we don’t talk about it, there’s no chance of it getting better.

Bob Jensen

Well, you’re absolutely right that the fate of other species is enhanced with the reduction of the human species. So we want other species to have territory and resources to recover. But we don’t want human beings to die off by the millions. And that’s just where we’re stuck. And I don’t know any way around that except to face it squarely. Right now I’m on the verge of tears, because you know, I think about this stuff all the time, but this is where it becomes real, when you’re having a conversation with another person. And you both come to this point. Okay, so here’s the flip side. On my property here in New Mexico, we have a tree, an apple variety I’d never heard of till I moved here. It’s called Arkansas Black. And I’ve got to tell you, Jason, it’s the best apple I’ve ever eaten in my life. It’s a deep, deep red, that’s hence the name Arkansas Black. And our tree was incredibly productive this year. We have four other apple trees, two pear trees, three plum trees, and apricot tree. All of them were productive this year. And there is a joy in that. That joy lives alongside the incredible grief. And it’s not just the joy of eating a good apple, it’s that we had so much fruit that I went on a quest to find as many people as I could who would share the fruit so that no apple went to waste. And what was left over from friends, I took to the food pantry. And there was an incredible joy in that. And what wasn’t edible for humans went to the horses next door. And what wasn’t edible for the horses went into the compost pile. And I feel really great that every apple was used in some sense, either to go back into the earth, for fertility or for animals, or for people. And I can’t tell you the joy that that gave me over the last three months. At the same time, I woke up every morning, to quote my friend Jim Koplin, I woke up every morning in a state of profound grief. He told me that 30 years ago, and it really, it stuck with me. That if we’re honest, we’re all waking up every morning in a state of profound grief.

Jason Bradford

Yeah, no, I feel you. And it is true. Like most of the time, when I’m going through the day, and I’m out in the world, and I’m on the farm, or I’m walking through the forest, or exhibits, or at the river, yeah, I’m, like, thrilled. And it’s a lot of joy. So it can be an emotional roller coaster to know what we’re up against. But also, then I feel really connected to the world and aware of nature, much more than most people that I believe are not living in rural areas, not trying to make some livelihood off the land. And so part of me thinks about, is there a path where people are actually healing in a sense from reconnecting to the world beyond this human technosphere and then really wanting to do something to preserve it? I have so much agency by the fact that I live in the country, and like the work itself is the best sort of mental health medicine in a sense.

Bob Jensen

One more thing I remember Wes saying years ago that really stuck with me, when he was critiquing the conservation movement, the wing of environmentalists who basically just want to make sure they hold on to pristine mountains and you know, recreation areas where they can go camp. And he said, in an incredible sort of outburst of passion, talking about the South Bronx just to give an example of an urban area that’s known for its blight. He said comparing this South Bronx and the Rocky Mountains, “Either every inch of it is sacred or none of it is sacred.” He said, “If we start parsing out the wilderness areas that we attribute these great characteristics to, including sacredness, and we turn our back on the South Bronx, we are lost.” And I think that’s important because you and I both live in a rural area. And that beauty is, you know, every time I walk out and look at the mountains, I’m struck. But this is also available to people in urban areas. I’m thinking of Detroit, Michigan, kind of the poster child of post-industrial America. The urban farming movement in Detroit is amazing.

Jason Bradford

Yeah, it’s like 1,200 acres.

Bob Jensen

It’s amazing. It’s people looking at land and not saying, it’s a waste product, not saying it’s derelict, but seeing that land for what it is, and then acting on it. So it’s not a totally rural versus urban divide, right. And I think Wes was right, either every inch of this is sacred, or none of it is. And until we can get to that point, I think we’re lost. And people are increasingly embracing that idea. I think it’s incredibly important.

Jason Bradford

Yeah, I agree. And that’s sort of interesting is that you bring up a lot of religious memes and themes, and you know, quote, The Bible, while at the same time saying, but we’re not religious, we don’t believe in this big sky God stuff. But, you have to have a sense of sacredness, and a sense of awe. And that’s part of being human, irrespective of if you believe in these — afterlife, etc, etc. And I found that so nice to read about because that’s kind of where I’m from, too.

Bob Jensen

Well, I think that’s an important part of the book. Because Wes and I both come out of a Christian culture. We were both raised in Protestant churches, and neither one of us believe the supernatural claims about God in the sky, or the divinity of Jesus, or any of that. But we do think there is wisdom in that tradition. And whether we like it or not, the language of the Christian and Hebrew Bibles is partly the language of this culture. And so we try to draw on that, recognizing that you can remain connected to a tradition, even if you reject some of what you believe to be the detrimental parts of that tradition. Well, that’s not only true about religion, it’s true about politics, it’s true about philosophy, it’s true about everything. If we want to wholesale, you know, reconstruct some mythical past, well, then we’re in trouble. We borrow from the past to try and understand how to move forward toward a decent, and we hope, sustainable human future.

Jason Bradford

I agree completely. I think about like, what religions will be in the future. And I kind of take this from like, evolution builds upon what exists. It doesn’t create something out of whole cloth, you know. It’s more like, well, what contemporary religions are going to evolve to match more than the material conditions of the future? We’re not going to have, like the prosperity gospel property is not going to last. But that was a bizarre movement of Christianity that basically was like consumer culture. So what will happen is interesting, and we’ll probably borrow from our traditions. And maybe it’s more like St. Francis of Assisi gets brought forward again. And it’s ironic that – Or maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s purposeful that the current pope is Pope Francis. Is that sort of a signal of like, well, here’s where we need to move? More of a Franciscan perspective on the world.

Bob Jensen

And that goes back to the title of the book, “An Inconvenient Apocalypse.” And because of certain reactionary right wing religious trends, people associate that book of the Bible, the final book, the Apocalypse of John, or the book of Revelation, as basically a manual for a death cult that believes it’s going to be spared while others burn. Well, that’s one interpretation of that particular piece of literature, but it’s not the only one. There is a whole other way to look at the book of Revelation as a critique of the Roman Empire, of the moment and the faith in a better world that can be created, you know, the so called New Jerusalem. Well, we opt for the latter interpretation, and reject the reactionary death cult. And as you point out, we’re working with a story that exists in the world today. And it’s a compelling story. The imagery is vivid. And so, you know, I always say that a lot of people who are traditional Christians tell me I’m not really a Christian because I don’t hold on to the supernatural claims. And I don’t believe in a virgin birth. But in some ways, whether I like it or not, I am a Christian. I come from a Christian culture and those stories are my stories. And what Wes and I argue is, we have a right to fight for the meaning of those stories as much as anybody else. And since there’s no you know, referee up in the sky to determine who’s right and who’s wrong, it’s a good faith attempt to engage with people who we believe. share similar values. To make an argument about how to understand a tradition and turn toward that decent, sustainable human future that I hope we all want.

Jason Bradford

Yeah, I think religion can play a very important role. So I am really glad you address that even in the context of our kind of modern progressive secular society. Well, let’s turn to the last of the four hard questions, speed.

Bob Jensen

Well, here, I think it’s pretty simple. The kinds of changes that are necessary, if there is to be that decent, sustainable human future, those changes are deep, and revolutionary, and they have to come immediately. If not, today, tomorrow, we’re talking about a fairly short timeframe. The window is closing for our opportunity to create such a future. And it’s not only that those changes have to come faster than they are happening now. They probably have to come faster than we are capable of given the realities of human psychology. This speed question just reminds us that we’re going to fail. If our benchmark is, you know, everybody coming together to reduce human suffering, regenerate the nonhuman world and live within limits, we’re gonna fail at that. It has to happen faster than is imaginable. It doesn’t mean there is nothing that can be done. You’re doing something in that part today. I was looking at some literature from Ted Trainer and the simpler way, a whole way of thinking about a simpler lifestyle. There’s the transition towns that have been now operating for for some time, right? There are intentional communities, religious and otherwise, there are the urban farming movements in places like Detroit, we talked about. All of those are efforts that are admirable. They won’t solve the problem, but it doesn’t mean you give up on it. We all know we face one problem that has no solution. That you and I, Jason, are gonna die someday. And there ain’t no way out of that. But it doesn’t mean we throw up our hands and say, well, what’s the point of living? You know, we’re gonna die someday. And you know, anybody who says that, we write off as a nut. Okay, so every day, everybody has the experience of getting up and doing something that will not solve that problem. But we’re talking about how you create a meaningful life. And you can buy a lot of things in this world. You can buy good food. You can buy a fast car. You can buy a nice house. The one thing you cannot buy in this world is meaning. And human beings are a meaning seeking creature. We create meaning. And the only way I know how to create meaning, in a way that at least resonates for me, is to do work that tries to create a better human future rather than a more dire human future. That can be writing a book, it can be participating in a political movement, it can mean tending this orchard in the field behind me. They’re all part of it. Different people will find different ways to do it. As I always say, there’s a lot of, you know, individual variation in the human species. We all have different talents and temperaments. There’s no one size fits all playbook for this. But if you go toward that, which provides a deeper sense of meaning, I think generally, you’ll do good things.

Jason Bradford

Yeah, and I, again, I interact with a lot of young people and they’re struggling, they’re searching for what they’re going to do. And it almost doesn’t matter, as long as they’re pulling in the right direction. And they’re finding meaning. It’s like everyone is going to have their own thing they like to do. The recent conversations I’ve had around folk schooling, literally, people are talking about basket weaving again. You know, because we’re sick of all the plastics, and that sort of stuff. So it can be something very mundane like that. But if you see that it’s part of something bigger than you, it doesn’t matter that it’s mundane, right? I’m growing potatoes. Okay? But I’m doing it in a context which is broader and greater. And so that that’s what’s important. And why don’t we end in sort of the way you end the book, which is sort of reflections on this question of hope. Because I completely followed you guys with that too. So tell us about hope, or lack thereof.

Bob Jensen

Well, Wes and I are different this way. Wes, I think is constitutionally hopeful. One of my favorite jokes of Wes’s is he says, “I’m a pretty optimistic person till I start thinking.” In other words, he gets up in the morning with that orientation. And then, you know, he has to think about the reality of the world. And so Wes talks about kind of giving up hope if it means you will only work toward things where there’s some sort of expectation of success. Hope has to come from somewhere else. It has to come from, again, this creation of a sense of meaning. And so Wes points out that we’re kind of involved in a, what he calls a long Ponzi scheme. You know, nobody who started agriculture, nobody who started the Industrial Revolution, knew that they were robbing from the future, but like a Ponzi scheme, you know, robs from future investors. We now live in a world that robs from future people. And there’s no good ending to that. And so we muddle around best we can.

I’m a little different. I always say, I’ve never had hope, you know, not to go into great detail. But the way I grew up, I grew up in a pretty stark household where there was never any sense of hope. I knew from a very early age, it was a tough world, and it was going to be tough. And so I had to find a way to live from a very early age where I could motivate myself to continue in the world, really, with no sense of hope. And in a kind of, quirky way, my somewhat traumatic upbringing prepared me very well for dealing with contemporary realities. And I’m laughing about it, but there’s a real truth there. Sometimes, in my experience, the people who grew up with the least, the people who grew up with the greatest stress and challenge, are best equipped to deal with situations where there’s not a great expectation of success. But you know that you persevere because that’s what it means to be a human being.

So I think what I would say is, people are all different. They all have different experience. We all come from different places, and we will all find different meaning in the word hope. For me, I don’t like the word much. Wes hangs on to it a little bit. Some other people embrace it. People often say to me, “Well, how do you get up in the morning, given the way you think and your lack of hope?” And I say, “Well, the question isn’t, really, how do I do it, but do I do it.” And I do do it. I get up every morning, and I look forward to the work I do in the world, even if I know the limits of that work. That’s all I can say. You know at this point, it’s less about pontificating. It’s more about just testifying to the way you move through the world. I’m lucky, I’ve had some great opportunities for education, for professional work, for writing for speaking, you know, work that put me in contact with a lot of people from whom I drew a lot of strength. And now in the later part of my life, I have this other great opportunity to tend a piece of land, and care for a piece of land. And so I feel a great bounty in my life. I don’t need any more than that, and everybody will find their own way. It’s more of a struggle for people who are more vulnerable, who have fewer resources. I’m not naive about this. But the stories of human perseverance and human beings finding that meaning no matter where they are, are the story of our species. And I think that’s where we find if you want to call it hope, that kind of hope.

Jason Bradford

Yeah, I really want to thank you for saying that. And what I am hopeful about is that more and more people can actually face these hard questions like you and Wes have been able to. That, I think, would give me more, quote, unquote, hope. I may be a little bit like you, I don’t need the hope. But it’s knowing that what really depressed me when I started thinking about this was having no one I could talk to about it that understood. And so the fact that you wrote a book like this, and that I have, you know, colleagues, like my friends at the Post Carbon Institute, etc. There’s now people you can talk to about it who get it on such a deep level. But really, we need a lot more people struggling with this. And so that’s why I think this is a fantastic contribution to all the volumes of environmental literature that really is unique. So I want to say, you know, both congratulations, and thank you. And that I just had a really good time talking to you. That was a great talk. And I’m really glad I got to meet you several years ago. It made it even easier to have this conversation, of course, just knowing someone a little bit.

Bob Jensen

Well, I certainly remember where we met. It was in Montana, at a gathering. Sort of a strange place. But it was a place to connect to people who shared this and I sensed you and Rob, and of course all the folks at the Post Carbon Institute share this desire to press these conversations because they’re so necessary. And we find them in all sorts of places, including places we often don’t expect. So sometimes people say, “Well, nobody wants to hear this. I’m just going to keep it to myself.” I would argue strongly that’s not only self-destructive, but that it will erode your own sense of emotional health, right? But it’s also unfair to other people, because you don’t know who’s out there struggling with the same thing. So the more we can talk about it, the more that we share that burden, we cut that burden in half. And again, not to sound like a Hallmark card, but when you share your joy, it adds that joy to the world. Maybe there’s nothing more complicated than that behind what Wes and I are talking about. We didn’t expect it to be a best seller. It was a book written for people who struggle and yet still are determined to keep on keeping on.

Jason Bradford

Well, let’s hope it is a bestseller though.

Bob Jensen

One has to have reasonable expectations, of course. Thanks so much.

Jason Bradford

Thanks a lot. It was good talking to you.

Bob Jensen

Great conversation. Thank you.

Melody Travers Allison

That’s our show. Thanks for joining us in Crazy Town. I hope you’re enjoying our bonus episodes. And if you are, please let a friend or family member know about Crazy Town, someone who you think would really get a lot out of this program. We thank you guys so much for your support and for listening. This is a program of Post Carbon Institute. You can get more info at postcarbon.org.