“At the core of this analysis is a claim that, at first glance, may seem to be a stretch: The erosion of human dignity in our broken world starts with the erosion of the planet’s soils.”
Author’s Note: An abridged version of this essay was recorded for an upcoming presentation at the online Gender Equity Forum (Forum Jämställdhet) sponsored by the Swedish Women’s Lobby (Sveriges kvinnolobby), February 2, 2021.
e live in a world in which people and other living things are broken by routine exploitation and violence. Entire societies seem broken beyond repair. Life itself seems to be in danger of breaking forever.
Acknowledging this is difficult not only because of the depth of the pain in a broken world but because we know that much of the pain is avoidable. To be human—in any place at any time—is to deal with inevitable disappointment, despair, and death. But most of the suffering of this broken world is generated by the political and economic systems we have built. To face that—to know that we broke the world and that it could be different—is hard.
Essays like this often begin on a harsh note as part of a tough-love strategy, to be followed by an upbeat ending that explains the solutions. To face the suffering of a broken world, many people seem to need a promise that there are pragmatic strategies that will allow us eventually to prevail, or, at least, to cope reasonably well with the pain. If not exactly happy, endings must be hopeful.
This essay is analytical and not inspirational; my goal is to better understand our predicament. This essay is more blunt than hopeful; I aim to understand not only what can be done but what is not possible. This essay is not about optimism or pessimism but, rather, is my attempt to reckon with the long history of the social systems at the core of human suffering and ecological destruction, to challenge the deeply entrenched social practices that must change. My goal is connection with others who are reckoning with the same challenges.
At the core of this analysis is a claim that, at first glance, may seem to be a stretch: The erosion of human dignity in our broken world starts with the erosion of the planet’s soils. But there is no way to deal with the fractures within the human family without understanding the human family’s break with the ecosphere.
A deeper understanding of history can help us understand crises today and a realistic path ahead, one that does not depend on dreams about happy endings. Harsh analysis can help us understand why the world is so broken and keeps breaking so many of us and so much of the larger living world. That is the place to find hope, sort of.
At the risk of seeming self-absorbed, I will start with myself. I am a retired university professor, and, for more than three decades, I have written about a lot of subjects and been involved in a number of organizing projects, including: radical feminist critiques of men’s violence and abuse of women; anti-racist analysis and activism; opposition to the United States’ wars for domination; justice for immigrants and low-wage workers; worker cooperatives as a challenge to capitalism; and environmental protection. My work has shifted over time depending on circumstances, but, for many years, I have consistently spoken out against pornography and in support of perennial grain crops grown in mixtures. Most people find those two subjects—men’s sexual exploitation of women and the search for a sustainable agriculture—to be a curious combination and assume they are unrelated. But those two endeavors, along with all the other issues I have worked on, are really one struggle: challenging hierarchy.
More than half a lifetime ago, when I had just turned 30 years old, I left my job in newspaper journalism and went back to graduate school, which is when I started to develop a critical consciousness about pain and power. In those years, I was lucky to meet people who challenged me and to read books that showed me the limits of the conventional education I had received.
That is the way a sophisticated system of social control works most efficiently—rather than putting a gun to our heads every day, it limits our imaginations.
That education had equipped me to be a reasonably capable but relatively docile journalist, one who understood society in the way that people with wealth and power want us to understand it. I was not stupid or ill-intentioned, just limited in imagination. That is the way a sophisticated system of social control works most efficiently—rather than putting a gun to our heads every day, it limits our imaginations. I had liberal values and lived fairly frugally, and so I assumed that I was as critical a thinker as a person needed to be when it came to social justice and ecological sustainability.
My imagination expanded first when those people I met and those books I read pushed me to confront patriarchy, the system of institutionalized male dominance that not only shapes our roles in public but reaches so deeply into our personal lives. That confrontation began for me with the feminist critique of sexually explicit media, which for the first time led me to think critically about the sexual-exploitation industries: pornography, prostitution, strip bars, escort services, massage parlors—all the ways that men routinely buy and sell objectified female bodies for sexual pleasure. That led to inquiring about why women’s bodies were being bought and sold for reproduction in surrogacy.
Radical feminism—a term to describe one approach to patriarchy that emerged out of the ferment of the 1960s—gave me the tools to see male and female, masculinity and femininity, in a new light. That allowed me finally to understand the roots of men’s violence against women—rape, child sexual assault, domestic violence, sexual harassment—and come to terms with how routine this coercion, abuse, and violence is for women, children, and vulnerable men. Men’s efforts to control and exploit women’s sexuality and reproductive power happen with that violence always in the background. After that, I could no longer accept “that’s just the way things are” as an explanation for injustice.
Up to that point, I had been a “good guy,” one of the millions of liberal, progressive, and left-wing men who believe that because we are not old-school patriarchs like our fathers that we have transcended patriarchy. I no longer think of myself as one of the good guys. Instead, I try to be a guy who does his best to be good in a system that not only makes it easy to be bad but also makes it easy for good guys to stay quiet, to be smugly comfortable by pointing out how bad some of those other guys can be. There are a lot of really bad guys in the world, and being a good guy is better than being one of the bad guys. But it is not enough.
Patriarchy and Hierarchies
So, the first critical-thinking door I opened was about patriarchy, a system of institutionalized male power, a system in which men—Right and Left, conservative and liberal, religious and secular—routinely claim to own or be entitled to easy access to women’s sexuality and reproductive power. The way men exert control varies from society to society and through time; not all patriarchal societies oppress women in the same way or to the same degree. And, in some places, people have managed to live outside of patriarchy. But the threat of men’s violence and men’s underlying claim of a right to control women has shaped the human experience for the past 5,000 years. And, in patriarchy today, most men—even many men who support women’s rights—continue to reject this radical feminist analysis and advocate for less challenging liberal/postmodern versions of feminism that pose less of a threat to men’s status and sense of their own benevolence.
This opening up of my imagination helped me understand the patriarchal sex/gender system as an illegitimate hierarchy. Men believe they rightfully sit on top in that hierarchy, and they justify the power and privilege they hold as natural and inevitable. Patriarchy wants us to believe that this domination/subordination dynamic is just the way the world works, that there is no other way the world could work.
Once radical feminists helped me critique patriarchy, I could see more clearly the same illegitimate hierarchy at work in the other systems of power that structure modern societies: racism in a white-supremacist world, wealth inequality and class status in a capitalist world, First-World citizenship in a world structured by imperialism. Each system has its own history and contemporary practice, but each is a hierarchy in which the domination/subordination dynamic is justified as just the way the world works. Hierarchy is naturalized, made to seem inevitable. If that were true, the best option we would have is to try to get to the top, motivated either by crass self-interest or a desire to change the worst aspects of an institution from within. That is an efficient system of social control.
I believe that once we recognize the pathology of hierarchy in any one of those systems, we should be able to critique them all, to realize that they are not simply the state of nature but the result of human choices. Once the cruelty of the domination/subordination dynamic becomes clear in one domain, we should seek to eliminate it in all domains. A consistent analysis of hierarchy is not easy—some people see domination/subordination in one set of relationships but might ignore it in another out of fear or self-interest. But this should be our goal: The end of hierarchy and the creation of an egalitarian world, the end of domination/subordination and the embrace of mutuality.
So far, I have spoken of the hierarchies within the human family. We struggle to imagine an egalitarian society, which is hard, and we search for a strategy to get us there, which also is hard. These struggles put us in conflict not only with opponents but sometimes with friends and allies, which is especially hard. Feminists who fight to get otherwise progressive men to confront patriarchy know all about that.
And it gets much harder when we face up to today’s multiple, cascading ecological crises. We fight for social justice at a moment in history when a long-term, large-scale human presence on the planet is not assured and immediate threats to stable ecosphere functioning are intensifying in frightening ways. We fight to create societies that allow people to live decent lives at a time in which human societies continue to undermine the health of the ecosystems on which all our lives depend. We want a better world for people, but contemporary “lifestyles” require energy supplies and resource extraction that threaten the health of the ecosphere, of which we are just one part. “Humans” are not separate from “nature”; we are humans-in-nature, and our health depends on the health of the planet’s ecosystems. Surrounding ourselves with high-tech gadgets that insulate us from the larger living world does not change that.
People did not claim a right to own other people until they had developed the concept of owning the Earth and its creatures.
Social justice gets harder to achieve the further we move away from ecological sustainability. So, whatever our primary focus might be in the struggle to create a more just society, we have no choice but to face a planetary crisis born of the foundational hierarchy in our species’ history: Human domination, the human claim to have a right to subordinate the larger living world to our interests, to treat the planet and other living things as our property. The hierarchies within the human family emerged after humans started treating the larger living world as theirs to control. People did not claim a right to own other people until they had developed the concept of owning the Earth and its creatures.
But wait, progressives will say—it is not all humans who believe that. Not all humans act out of a desire to dominate, and not all cultures have pursued rapacious domination. That is correct. Not all people on the planet participate in this destruction or reap the same material bounty from that destruction, either because they choose not to or because they are constrained from doing so by social and economic status. Some affluent people try to do the right thing, and lots of poor people have no access to an affluent lifestyle. Also, in some cultures there are traditions and social norms that minimize destructive behavior.
Not all humans—fair enough. But that echoes the familiar response of men who, when faced with a feminist critique of patriarchy, plead: “Yes, but not all men act that way.” Fair enough—not all men. But feminists do not claim that all men participate in the oppression of women in the same way or benefit in the same way. Feminism recognizes that in patriarchy men live with unearned power and privilege, but that not all men choose to actively exploit those privileges and some men live with significant disadvantages because of other systems (white supremacy, capitalism, imperialism) that constrain opportunities.
Not all people. Not all men. Not all white folks. Not all wealthy individuals. Not all First-Worlders. Agreed—it is a complex world. People make choices to accept or challenge systems of unearned power and privilege; those systems interact in complex ways, and cultural norms vary. On occasion, we see people whom we might be tempted to label “evil”—people who, no matter what systems they lived in, seem to lack the capacity for empathy and would not hesitate to hurt others to achieve their goals. But most of the evil in the world is the result of ordinary people—people like all of us—acting as if the hierarchies of this world are inevitable. Most of the evil in the world starts with a failure to imagine something different.
How do we expand our ability to imagine what is possible? I have found it helpful to think about a deep history of the systems and structures of power and illegitimate authority.
Let us go back 10,000 years to what many, myself included, believe is the fundamental fault line in human history, the point at which the human presence on the planet became a serious threat to other organisms: the invention of agriculture.
Like all organisms, foraging humans had to take from their environment to survive, but that taking was rarely so destructive that it undermined the health of ecosystems or eliminated other species. Foraging humans were not angels; they were, after all, human like us, capable of being mean-spirited and violent. However, they were limited in destructive capacity by the amount of energy they could extract from ecosystems. Their existence did not depend on subordinating other humans or dominating the larger living world.
If one prefers theological terms, we can think of domestication as “the Fall,” the point at which humans began to play God and make bigger messes than we could clean up. Borrowing religious terms, our original sin is annual grain agriculture—plowing the soil to grow crops such as wheat, which erodes soil and eliminates other species—the new relationship with the ecosphere from which the domination/subordination dynamic would spread.
Not all agriculture is equally destructive; differences in geography, climate, and environmental conditions have dictated different trajectories of development in different parts of the world. But the driver of this process is the universal quest for energy, the imperative of all life to seek out energy-rich carbon. Humans play that energy-seeking game armed with an expansive cognitive capacity and a species propensity to cooperate—that is, we are smart, and we know how to coordinate our activities to leverage our smarts. Agriculture unleashed something new in the world: surpluses of energy in the form of storable grain, which became a source of power and launched a new concept of ownership. Humans began to believe that they did not just live in the world but could own the world.
From that new relationship to the Earth came agricultural villages, large-scale settlement, empires, and the idea of hierarchy—the structuring of societies on a domination/subordination dynamic. And from that emerged the idea of, and ideological justifications for, patriarchy—men’s claim of a right to own women, to control women’s sexuality and reproductive power.
Let us put all of this in context. Our genus, Homo, has been around for around two million years. Our species, Homo sapiens, for about 200,000 years. Our journey as Homo hierarchicus—the humans who create systems of domination and subordination starting with agriculture—is but a blink of an eye in evolutionary terms. (Louis Dumont used the term in his 1966 book, Homo Hierarchicus: The Caste System and Its Implications.) Even more recent is the emergence of Homo colossus, the humans living in the industrial world who use fossil fuels to consume at levels previously unimaginable. (William R. Catton, Jr. coined that term is his 1980 book, Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change.) Now, we live in the age of Homo technologicus, the humans who believe that our own cleverness and knack for invention can keep our ecosystem-destroying activity going indefinitely (Yves Gingras offered that term in his 2005 book, Éloge de l’homo techno-logicus, roughly translated as In praise of homo techno-logicus.)
Here is a concise way of summarizing contemporary failures: Homo technologicus is trying to solve the problems created by Homo colossus without acknowledging that the seeds of destruction were planted by Homo hierarchicus. We are living with illusions that are the product not only of today’s irrational technological exuberance (think of fantasies about colonizing Mars) or the past two centuries of fossil energy gluttony (think of the reality of people in affluent societies whizzing around on freeways in cars) but 10,000 years of drawing down the ecological capital of the planet beyond replacement levels.
Why is this excursion into a deep history worth consideration when we face such pressing problems right now?
First, it helps us challenge the idea that hierarchy is inevitable. It is within our nature to dominate, but human nature does not require us to dominate. If an organism is capable of acting in a certain way, that behavior is consistent with its nature; that is a tautology. But humans have a nature that is widely variable depending on conditions and experience; we adapt to geography, climate, and environmental conditions, and we are capable of cultural change over time. As a species, we can learn, and we have learned about the destructive consequences of hierarchy.
Second, it helps us recognize how patriarchy is woven into the fabric of everyday life. For thousands of years—longer than other systems of oppression have existed—men have claimed the right to own or control women. That does not mean patriarchy creates more suffering today than those other systems—indeed, there is so much suffering that trying to quantify it is impossible—but only that patriarchy has been part of human experience longer. Here is another way to say this: White supremacy has never existed without patriarchy. Capitalism has never existed without patriarchy. Imperialism has never existed without patriarchy.
That does not mean that institutionalized male dominance will always be more salient than those other hierarchies in any given moment, nor does it mean that the consequences of patriarchy will always be more devastating. But it does suggest that extracting ourselves from patriarchal assumptions will be particularly difficult. So, we should not be surprised when otherwise critically minded people rationalize men’s assertion of a right of access to women’s bodies, as we see in the liberal and left defenses of pornography and the other sexual-exploitation industries, or in similar defenses of surrogacy. Patriarchy’s defense of men’s use of women in these ways goes way back.
Third, in a counterintuitive way, I think this deep history makes it easier for us men to accept a feminist critique of men’s behavior. If we can face how deeply embedded we all are in patriarchy, collectively we can search for humane ways to move forward instead of pretending it is being perpetuated only by the bad guys. We are all individually responsible for the choices we make, but we can deal with those choices more rationally and humanely if we understand how we got here as a species, if we realize that there was a time in human history in which clawing for advantage in hierarchical systems did not occupy our every waking moment. When we can see patriarchy as part of the larger human failure, feminism can be more inviting. At least, that is how it worked for me.
This is not an exercise in nostalgia for the foraging life or a romanticizing of pre-agricultural people. It is simply an account of our history that challenges the conventional education most of us received. Modern humans tend to think of gathering/hunting bands as primitive and uncivilized, terms typically used to denigrate. A re-evaluation of that history is needed.
For example, stone tools are primitive in some sense when compared with the tools of the Bronze and Iron ages, not to mention the products of the Industrial and Digital revolutions. But human use of those more complex tools—starting with the first plows pulled behind draft animals, all the way to modern tractors and combines with GPS—has eroded so much soil that the agriculture on which our lives depend is more fragile than ever. Complexity increases opportunities and expands production, but at a cost.
What does it mean to be civilized? I will leave that question hanging, for all of us to consider the myriad ways in which our own societies are distinctly uncivilized, even barbaric in the levels of suffering we accept amid unprecedented affluence and material abundance. When I lived in Austin, Texas, a warm-weather college town, I often walked past homeless people on the streets of a city that was experiencing an economic boom as a result of the expansion of the high-tech industries. How civilized was the smug liberal culture of Austin? How civilized was I?
What does this analytic framework suggest for action today? If we agree that challenging hierarchies is at the core of our work, what does that mean in practice?
For me, it means the ultimate goal of feminist politics is not to strive for a more benevolent patriarchy, and the ultimate goal of environmental activism is not to persuade people to be better stewards of the Earth. Both of those goals imply that the hierarchy is inevitable and the best we can do is sand off the rough edges.
I recognize that in my lifetime—and perhaps even for the rest of whatever time our species has left—these hierarchies will be difficult, perhaps impossible, to dislodge and transcend. But settling for patriarchal benevolence can turn men’s routine use and abuse of prostituted women into “sex work,” with a call for better working conditions for the women who are used by men rather than a demand that men stop exploiting women, children, and vulnerable men. Advocates of environmental stewardship typically assume that continued economic growth is necessary, made palatable by the illusion that renewable energy and green technology will magically solve the problems of human expansion. We need to assert a more radical goal: an end to the idea that men should rule and an end to the idea that humans can own the Earth. In other words, a renunciation of hierarchy.
Great, but what does this mean in day-to-day practice?
For me, it means that any movement for social justice must be multi-dimensional. That is a truism on the Left these days, captured in the term “intersectional”: Hierarchical systems intersect and interact in complex ways, and our analysis and actions must reflect that. But too much of the talk of intersectionality has abandoned a radical feminist critique in favor of liberal and postmodern versions of feminism that water down the much-needed critique of these core patriarchal practices. We should refuse to accept men’s sexual exploitation of women, and we should reject the use of women’s bodies as reproductive machines in surrogacy. We should target any practices that keep girls and women subordinated.
For me, it means that the environmental movement should stop spinning fairy tales about how eight billion people on the planet can live sustainably so long as we build enough solar collectors and wind machines. Human domination of the planet—not just in the past 250 years since the start of the Industrial Revolution but since the advent of agriculture—has been spending down the ecological capital of the planet beyond replacement levels, and that relationship must change. A fundamentalist faith in techno-fixes allows that relationship to continue unchallenged.
Radical action has to start somewhere, of course. Here are two concrete ways to advance these projects, both of which challenge hierarchy without getting bogged down in self-marginalizing revolutionary rhetoric. Culture Reframed works to advance a critique of pornography, which it describes as “the public health crisis of the digital age,” in the context of a larger radical feminist agenda of challenging patriarchy. The Land Institute has—for four decades—advanced Natural Systems Agriculture, developing perennial grains that can be grown in polycultures, one approach to creating ecological societies that need not destroy ecosystems to feed people. I have worked with both organizations, which seem to be very different projects, but are both based on the idea that hierarchy is not natural, not inevitable. Both offer people a place to start to dismantle hierarchies.
For me, the actions necessary to make possible a decent human future begin with imagining the end of patriarchy, white supremacy, capitalism, and imperialism, along with the end of human domination; imagining a world in which success is not defined as achieving a superior position in hierarchies; imagining a world without hierarchy.
Hope, Sort of
At the start of this essay, I promised to make a case for holding onto some kind of hope. Here it is, finally: We cannot expect guarantees of success in imagining the end of hierarchy and take steps toward it. In fact, we have to take those steps knowing there is at best a slim chance of success. We should move forward, joyfully, knowing that we will almost certainly fail.
Like I said, “sort-of hope,” but it is crucial that we not be naïve about the likelihood of success as we embrace the challenge. It may not be enough for everyone, but it is the best we are going to get in this broken world.
The 19th century Austrian writer Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach put it well: “To be satisfied with little is hard. To be satisfied with a lot is impossible.”
I want to be part of a movement that strives to understand the world and our place within it, even when that understanding makes it difficult to hold onto conventional notions of hope. Even when there is no reasonable hope that a transition from hierarchy to mutuality will be humane—even when any kind of orderly transition may not be possible—there is the question of who we will be today, how we will choose to live today. I do not know much for certain, but I know that if I stay connected to other people who choose to face these painful realities and try to make a better world, I can live today. I do not hope that this is true. I know it to be true in my own life.
Again, it may seem counterintuitive, but, for me, there is comfort in facing those realities because it helps me make sense of a broken world, it helps me understand not only the suffering of others but my own, especially the abuse I endured as a child. It helps me look at the state of the larger living world honestly, coping with the grief such honesty is bound to evoke.
This also makes it clear that if we want hope to mean anything, to be more than just a reflexive response that we use to avoid our fears, then we have to talk about limits. Instead of promising people more, we need to accept the reality of less. We need to learn to be satisfied with less—not only less stuff but also less certainty about our future. The 19th century Austrian writer Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach put it well: “To be satisfied with little is hard. To be satisfied with a lot is impossible.”
For too long, humans have been striving for a lot, which usually leads to striving for more. A lot is no longer possible, and more is ecocidal. Continuing to accumulate a lot and clamoring for more not only exacerbates inequality today but also shrinks the future options of people who will face even greater challenges to create stable, decent human communities after we are gone. It is not easy to be satisfied with a little, but it is more sensible to aim for that than holding onto hopes for a lot. Continuing to scramble for a lot more will break forever an already broken world.
Living within Limits
How little will we have to be satisfied with? There is no way to predict. But we can start with giving up the things that seem not only unnecessary but unfulfilling. Here are two suggestions.
We need intimacy in our lives, and sexuality is part of that, and pleasure is part of sexuality. But the limitless and low-cost pleasure that the pornography industry promises is illusory. Sexuality and intimacy are about more than pleasure, and it turns out that the pornographic pleasure factory only makes us more aware of our yearning for intimacy that pornography cannot provide. And though pornographers do their best to hide the human costs of their business, physical and psychological injuries are routine for women and girls used in the production of pornography and used by the primarily male consumers.
We all seek to meet our needs for food, water, clothing, shelter, and culture. But the limitless and low-cost goods that contemporary capitalism promises are illusory. It turns out that once people have a comfortable level of material goods, piling on more does not bring greater happiness. And though capitalist firms do their best to hide the costs of all that production, the ecological destruction can no longer be ignored.
Climate change is the ultimate wake-up call but only one of those multiple, cascading crises—do not forget to add soil erosion and degradation, chemical contamination of land and water, species extinction, and loss of biodiversity. Either we change or the human future quickly will become an even more dystopian affair than the human present.
Our goal should be—is going to have to be—“fewer and less”: fewer people consuming far less. That is not a winning message in growth-obsessed economies and cultures, but it is the human future. Either we rationally plan for it or we wait for the laws of physics and chemistry to impose that result on us. That means speaking not only about the need for more birth control but also recognizing that we have become too good at death control, and conversations about end-of-life care will not be easy. That means talking not only about how to end the luxury spending of the 1% but also lowering aggregate use of energy and natural resources that will affect everyone’s expectations. That will not be easy either.
We are biological creatures on a planet with boundaries. In art, the human imagination can create worlds of endless possibility not bound by biophysical limits, and that can be fun. But, on Earth, we need to expand our imaginations to find the joy of living within limits. I am not sure it will be done on the scale necessary in the time we have left, but I know it can be done because I have had glimpses of such joy in my own life.
Whatever the future of this broken world, today we can attend to the work of repair and restoration. That does not require hope in what is to come but, rather, a belief in our ability to manage our lives without hierarchy and a faith in each other’s capacity for mutuality.
Robert Jensen is Emeritus Professor in the School of Journalism and Media at the University of Texas at Austin and a founding board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center. He collaborates with the Ecosphere Studies program at The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas.