Robert Jensen: “Most people focus on how to end poverty. I think it’s more important to end wealth.”

Or maybe we should say, let us end the perception of money as wealth and instead remember to recognize what is real wealth: Mother Nature, and her endlessly regenerative capacity. See this:

Ever since I moved to Indiana in 2003 and, after one year of consciously grieving my husband’s sudden death, began this experiment in resilient living — first in my home, and now in our two-home pod, with the Green Acres Neighborhood Garden, all three inside the greater Green Acres Neighborhood Association transforming into Ecovillage, I’ve made many personal changes to at least reduce the social and ecological impact of my own unearned white middle-class elder privilege. And I use the word “elder” here, advisedly — not in the sense of “wise,” but simply meaning OLD, which tends to be both a generational and class distinction. Because, in this country, most of what in capitalist culture is considered “wealth” is held by some of us who are old.

One of my first decisions was to cut down on my own energy use, not so much by conserving (I already did that), but by altering my lifestyle from what most single women my age who can afford it tend to do: rattle around by myself in this 1300-square foot home with full basement. Since I came from many years living in community in a tiny home 20-foot yurt in Wyoming, my new home always felt so spacious as to be wasteful. So, a few years ago I began to experiment with short-term housemates; then, last summer I took the plunge, decided to live full-time with two other people, both young women — with the result that my energy footprint has gone way down, by — I’d like to think — two-thirds! Perhaps not quite that, but close. Lots of other changes, too, including solar for both houses and utilization of rain water — much of which is detailed on this blog.

So I appreciate Robert Jensen’s point of view, especially when he talks about his own white American privilege. We white privileged Americans do need to demonstrate our commitment to a new way of living. And you might also want to see this little video about the resilient homestead created by Richard Heinberg, author of The Party’s Over. He and his wife are practicing his theories about the opportunity and necessity for energy descent in this transitional era when cheaply produced oil has peaked, geo-political chess games (and war games) over remaining non-renewable energy sources are ramping up, and our wasteful, consumerist “high standard of living” is, whether we like it or not, whether we know it or not — and most people still don’t — winding down.

Resilience Reflections with Robert Jensen

May 20, 2015

by staff


In Resilience Reflections we ask some of our contributors what it is that inspires their work, and what keeps them going.

Read more Resilience Reflections here including Sandra Postel and Brian Kaller.

Robert Jensen is a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center in Austin. He is the author of many books including Plain Radical: Living, Loving, and Learning to Leave the Planet Gracefully (Counterpoint/Soft Skull, forthcoming fall 2015), Arguing for Our Lives: A User’s Guide to Constructive Dialogue (City Lights, 2013); All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice, (Soft Skull Press, 2009); Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity (South End Press, 2007); The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege (City Lights, 2005).
Who/what has been your greatest inspiration? And why?

I lived the first half of my life with little awareness of, or concern about, the crucial questions of social justice and ecological sustainability. In the second half of my life, there have been hundreds of people I’ve worked with in political and community organizing projects who have enriched my life. There have been a handful of writers who taught me how to think, including Wes Jackson, Andrea Dworkin, James Baldwin, Noam Chomsky. And there was one person, Jim Koplin, without whom I might have never found these people and books. His influence on my thinking and political practice was so important that I wrote a book about him, Plain Radical: Living, Loving, and Learning to Leave the Planet Gracefully. Although Jim was not well-known beyond his friends and colleagues, he had a profound impact on those of us who knew and loved him.

“I wasted too much time when I was young trying to be normal, trying to fit into the dominant culture”

Knowing what you know now about sustainability and resilience building, what piece of advice would you give your younger self if you were starting out?

I wasted too much time when I was young trying to be normal, trying to fit into the dominant culture even though I always had a sense I didn’t share those values, especially around the definition of “success” and what it means to “be a man.” In retrospect, I wish that I had started looking for alternatives earlier. I wasted a lot of time being cynical, because I wasn’t aware that there were people with different ways of thinking about politics, economics, ecology, and that those people were building different ways of living.

What keeps you awake at night?

Nothing. I sleep soundly. I spend a large part of most days thinking about how to deal with the multiple, cascading crises that we humans have created or exacerbated, but at the end of the day I rest fairly peacefully.

What gets you up in the morning or keeps you going?

The easy answer is that I have a good life. I’m a tenured professor, which means I have more autonomy in arranging my life than most people. The work I get paid for is engaging, as are the various activities I am involved with beyond the job. But the question suggests it can be hard to keep working on projects for social justice and ecological sustainability that are failing. That’s an accurate assessment—whatever small victories our movements achieve, I don’t see a pleasant future for large-scale human societies on this planet, and I don’t think there’s much that can be done at this point to change that. We are failing. But it’s impossible to predict the trajectory for all this, and even if we could predict the intensifying collapse with precision, there are lots of things worth doing to make life better for people and the planet. In contributing to those projects, one builds a decent life.

“My biggest setback was being born white, male, middle class, and a citizen of the United States.”

What has been your biggest setback and how did you recover?

My biggest setback was being born white, male, middle class, and a citizen of the United States. Those identities come with lots of unearned privilege, which tends to make people stupid. When one is born with unearned privilege there’s an incentive to stay stupid about the nature of the system that gives us those advantages. So, I had to overcome the instinct to embrace stupidity. As an adult, it took me a decade to figure that out; I’m a slow learner.

For you resilience is…?

If resilience is the ability to adapt to changing conditions, we should not overlook the importance of intellectual resilience, the ability to avoid getting locked into perspectives that keep us from reassessing our own ideas. Even if by some miracle it turns out that a person has been right about everything, it’s good to doubt oneself.

“When thinking about economic inequality, most people focus on how to end poverty. I think it’s more important to end wealth.”

What one social/political/cultural/policy change would most assist your work/hopes/dreams?

When thinking about economic inequality, most people focus on how to end poverty. I think it’s more important to end wealth. Make wealth a crime, or at least make it morally unacceptable. Laugh at rich people. Hurt their feelings. Shame them. I don’t wish for a world in which everyone is rich, which would finish off the planet overnight. I wish for a world in which we figured out how poor everyone has to be in order for there to be an ongoing meaningful human presence on the planet.

What gives you hope?

Nothing. I think hope is an illusion best abandoned. Our task is to see the world clearly, not wax poetic about hope.

What book/film/other resource has most supported your work?

The Winnie-the-Pooh books by A. A. Milne, which gave me my role model, Eeyore.

More articles by Robert Jensen

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3 Responses to Robert Jensen: “Most people focus on how to end poverty. I think it’s more important to end wealth.”

  1. CindyW says:

    That little video at beginning – “Real Wealth” with an Asian-American speaker – is that Bloomington native John Liu (someone I knew years ago)? Wow! I had read he was now an ecologist living in China, but had no idea he held such views.

      • CindyW says:

        Yes, Ann – I looked up the source and it IS John Dennis Liu! His father had a Chinese restaurant on the north side of B’ton and his mom was a schoolteacher (Helen). He told me his dad was from Hunan Province – but this was all back in 1971. He lived in an early Sufi commune north of campus called “Sunflower House” (as did I, briefly – it was my freshman year). He occasionally cooked in the kitchen & taught us how to make egg drop soup (yum). But he has done so very much since! even an IU student has gone to work for his organization (as well as many other int’l students)

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