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Facing a Future of Fewer and Less: “Tell Them at Least What You Say to Yourself”

June 26, 2024

[This essay is adapted from It’s Debatable: Talking Authentically about Tricky Topics, published by Olive Branch Press.]

In one of his Sabbath poems, Wendell Berry offers this advice for responding to the young when they ask the old about hope: “What will you tell them? Tell them at least what you say to yourself.”

I remember the first time I told a class at the University of Texas at Austin, where I taught for 26 years, what I say to myself about the future.

This was probably sometime around 2005, and I don’t remember what the topic of discussion was that day, nor can I recall what prompted my remarks. But in a seminar that asked students to ponder the responsibility of intellectuals (a framework that many have borrowed from Noam Chomsky), we wandered into a discussion of the ecological crises.

Without planning it, I said something like this:

I grew up in a world of endless bounty and expanding material prosperity, with a belief in perpetual economic growth. My generation was told there would always be more, and the task was figuring out how to share it with everyone in the world. The moral challenge for us was how to solve the inequality problem and figure out how to feed the world. Your generation is growing up in a world that is going to be defined not by expansion but by contraction, and it’s not going to be easy to share more equitably when there is less of everything. I think the moral challenge for you, assuming that you continue to live in an affluent country like the United States, is how to cope with living in the midst of a massive, slow-moving human die-off in other parts of the world. You will have to figure out how to live through a period of human suffering that we cannot imagine.

The room was quiet. I doubt all 30 students in the class agreed with my assessment, but no one scoffed or tried to make a joke. I didn’t see a reason to press the matter, and no one looked eager to continue. After a moment of quiet reflection, we moved on. But one student came to my office later that day to thank me. “I think about that kind of thing all the time,” she said. “It is nice to know I’m not crazy.”

Those thoughts were not crazy then, and they are certainly not crazy today. But a few caveats are necessary.

First, I wasn’t predicting when or how such a state of affairs might come to be. I was simply noting that the trajectory of the human species is moving toward such an outcome, not in some science-fiction future but quite possibly in this century, within the lifetime of my students.

Second, I wasn’t suggesting that people haven’t faced overwhelming moral challenges in the past. Human suffering that most people cannot imagine is part of various epochs in human history, and it is part of life today. But the global nature of catastrophic ecological collapse will be unprecedented.

Third, I wasn’t arguing that the extreme inequality in the distribution of wealth today was trivial or unworthy of our attention. But focusing on that inequality today, which we have an obligation to do, won’t automatically lead to an ecologically sustainable human presence on Earth.

That experience in the classroom led me to be a bit bolder in raising these points in front of progressive groups I was part of. Instead of thinking about discrete environmental problems and discrete solutions, I began to think more about warnings from ecologists, captured in books that explained our ecological footprint and the overarching problem of overshoot—when a population exceeds the capacity of its territory to generate the resources necessary for life, to process its wastes, and to provide adequate space for activities. Instead of looking only at the failures of specific political and economic systems, I started pondering the “temptations of dense energy” that are at the heart of out-of-control growth.

In 2008, I gave a talk titled “The Old Future’s Gone: Progressive Strategy amid Cascading Crises” to an interfaith social justice group. In 2011, I spoke on “Nature Bats Last: Notes on Revolution and Resistance, Revelation and Redemption” at a peace group’s convention. In a 2013 lecture at a Unitarian church, I started using the phrase “We are all apocalyptic now.”

At the time, I worried that I was pushing too hard or being too dramatic, which now seems ridiculous. But it was ridiculous back then as well; those books I was citing had been published decades before. The famous, and extremely prescient, study of The Limits to Growth came out in 1972, when I was starting high school. Warnings had been sounded—and backed up by research—long before I started taking them seriously.

But at the point I finally started paying attention, around the time that the Cold War was ending and the “victory” of U.S.-led capitalism over Soviet-style communism was being celebrated, talking about the limits to growth was passé. Technological fundamentalism—the belief that high-energy advanced technology would solve all problems, including problems created by previous technology—was the delusion of choice on both the political right and left.

That fundamentalism still constrains clear thinking, although with stories about climate change and environmental challenges in the news every day, there is more serious discussion of the threats. Some of those news reports even allow discussion of degrowth. But almost everyone involved in these debates continues to argue that there are solutions that will allow the human enterprise to plod ahead in the 21st century at roughly the same scale as we did in the 20th.

But there are no solutions to the multiple cascading crises of our moment in history—if by solutions we mean ways to sustain 8 billion people on Earth, let alone 8 billion people with a significant number of them continuing to live in high-energy advanced-technology societies. I believe we need to prepare for a future of “fewer and less”—fewer people consuming less stuff.

Expanding the production of renewable energy is important. Research on more efficient technologies is important. But technology won’t save us, and those advances won’t matter all that much unless we can move toward fewer and less.

That’s a vision that isn’t widely popular. Politicians don’t run on platforms that promise to reduce the size of the human enterprise. Universities don’t create departments to plan for such a future. Most people find it hard to imagine, let alone embrace, a future of fewer and less.

Here’s what I want to tell the young, and the old, and anyone else who doesn’t think this is crazy: Whatever hope there may be, we will find it in our deep individual yearning for meaning and our deep evolutionary experience of collective life. We all need to find work in the world that is meaningful to us, and we all should try to find other people who want to help build a fewer-and-less world. Changing our political and economic systems to make a decent human existence possible in a big-picture future is crucial, but so is learning to live within the existing systems in ways that are decent in small ways today. I have no special insight into how to do that, no off-the-shelf plan to offer anyone.

But that’s what I say to myself.

Robert Jensen

Robert Jensen

Robert Jensen, an Emeritus Professor in the School of Journalism and Media at the University of Texas at Austin, is the author of It’s Debatable: Talking Authentically about Tricky Topics from Olive Branch Press. His previous book, co-written with Wes Jackson, was An Inconvenient Apocalypse: Environmental Collapse, Climate Crisis, and the Fate of Humanity. To subscribe to his mailing list, go to