The Falling Years: an inhumanist vision


by John Michael Greer

I

Robinson Jeffers’ name is hardly one to conjure with these days. The odd anthology of American poetry occasionally quotes his less troubling nature poems, and a few tourist shops in Carmel and Monterey have made a minor industry out of him, the way other towns lionize dead rock musicians or football stars. Outside of these limited circles, it’s not often one hears of him.

Not until 2001 did a solid collection of his major poetic works appear – try to think of another major 20th century poet who was nearly forty years dead when this first happened – and The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers set only the quietest ripples in motion. Gone are the days when Jeffers was so controversial that his own publishers put a note in one book of his poems distancing themselves from his views.  Those who play at rebelliousness in contemporary letters might take note: make a show of iconoclasm in acceptable ways and you can count on a lasting reputation; stray into actual iconoclasm, rejecting the fashions of the avant-garde along with those of the mainstream, and the world of culture will forget you just as soon as it can.

A few details will put this extraordinary figure in his proper setting.[1] Born in 1887, he belonged to the same generation of American poets as T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. Like them, he saw the facile modernist faith in progress refute itself in the cultural sterility of the Gilded Age and the crowning catastrophe of the First World War, and went in search of stronger foundations for his poetry. Eliot found his Archimedean point in a willed acceptance of Christianity; Pound, less successfully, tried to cobble together a tradition of his own from a rag-heap of sources embracing everything from Provençal minstrelsy to fascist economics. Both turned to Europe for a sense of depth they could not find on American soil.

Jeffers took a more daring approach. In the years just before the First World War, when Eliot and Pound were rising stars in a poetic galaxy rotating around the twin hubs of London and Paris, Jeffers moved to a sparsely settled stretch of the California coastline near Carmel, where he built a house and, later, a stone tower with his own hands.[2] His quest for foundations could not be satisfied at any merely human depth, and finally came to rest in nature itself.

He called his theory of poetry ‘inhumanism,’ and sketched it in uncompromising terms:  ‘It is based on a recognition of the astonishing beauty of things and their living wholeness, and on a rational acceptance of the fact that mankind is neither central nor important in the universe; our vices and blazing crimes are as insignificant as our happiness. […]  Turn outward from each other, so far as need and kindness permit, to the vast life and inexhaustible beauty beyond humanity. This is not a slight matter, but an essential condition of freedom, and of moral and vital sanity.’[3]

Put another way, the core of inhumanism is the principled rejection of anthropocentrism, and the pursuit of what might as well be called an ecocentric standpoint: one in which nature takes centre stage, not as a receptacle for human activities, emotions, or narratives, but as itself, on its own inhuman terms. It’s an appallingly difficult project, difficult enough that Jeffers himself couldn’t always sustain it; critics have pointed out the places in Jeffers’ verse where poetry gives way to lecture, or descends into an inverted sentimentality that wallows in images of suffering and despair. When Jeffers achieved the task he set himself, though, the results are stunning: for a moment, at least, the claims humanity loves to make on behalf of its own importance fall silent before a universe that was busy with its own affairs for billions of years before us and won’t take the time to notice our absence when we are gone.

Jeffers is thus among the few figures in literature to grasp the core feature of the universe revealed by Darwin and his successors, the perspective that the late Stephen Jay Gould called ‘deep time’ – the sense of human existence as an eyeblink in the long history of the planet. His answer to the spread of suburban sprawl over his beloved Point Carmel is typical:

It has all time. It knows the people are a tide
That swells and in time will ebb, and all
Their works dissolve. Meanwhile the image of the pristine beauty
Lives in the very grain of the granite,
Safe as the endless ocean that climbs our cliff. – As for us:
We must uncenter our minds from ourselves;
We must unhumanize our views a little, and become confident
As the rock and ocean that we were made from.[4]

As poetics, this is hard enough. As a programme for any more pragmatic engagement with the world, it poses a staggering challenge. Jeffers didn’t shy away from the places where poetics and politics intersect; Shelley gave him a sense of the poets’ role as the world’s unacknowledged legislators,[5] and he addressed the political arena directly in such poems as ‘Shine, Perishing Republic’ and ‘The Day is a Poem.’ Still, his politics – like his poetics – found few listeners. Most of the few critics who discussed his work at all slid past the complex political vision that frames much of Jeffers’ work with a few comments about ‘isolationism,’ and maybe a nod to Spengler and Vico. Jeffers’ prophetic ear was exact, but no one else was listening:

There is no returning now.
Two bloody summers from now (I suppose) we shall have to take up the
corrupting burden and curse of victory.
We shall have to hold half the earth; we shall be sick with self-disgust,
And hated by friend and foe, and hold half the earth – or let it go, and
go down with it.[6]

Still, Jeffers knew as well as anyone that poets’ legislation needs time to have its effect. The rising spiral of environmental crises shaping today’s headlines marks, I have come to believe, the point where Jeffers’ vision becomes a historical fact, and his inhumanism a centre of gravity toward which any meaningful response to the predicament of industrial society must move. In saying that, I’m not claiming that responses to our crisis ought to move toward inhumanism; I’m saying that they will do so, even if those who think they are defending the environment have to be dragged kicking and screaming along that route.

I say that with some confidence because most of the journey has already happened. The anthropocentrism that runs through the environmental movement, even, or rather especially, among those who most bitterly condemn humanity and all its works, seems to me to mark a final, frantic attempt to cling to the illusion of a human-centred cosmos. As today’s environmental narratives join the ruins of earlier lines of defence in history’s compost heap, it’s not easy to imagine any place where anthropocentrism can stake a further claim against the massed inevitabilities of nature. At that point Jeffers’ inhumanism offers a glimpse at the foundations on which human thought will have to rebuild itself.

II

The environmental movement as a social phenomenon still awaits its historian, though there have been capable histories of the ecological ideas that have inspired it.[7]  A first approximation, though, shows three overlapping periods of environmental activism, each with its own distinct narratives and purposes.

The first was the period of recreational environmentalism, and ran from the late 19th century through the 1960s. Environmental rhetoric in this period focused so tautly on the value of nature as a recreational resource that its opponents, without too much inaccuracy, could accuse conservationists of simply wanting the government to subsidise their vacation spots. Though it’s easy to dismiss the period in retrospect, its great achievement – the invention of the national park concept and its deployment over much of the industrial world – marks a historical watershed of some importance.  For the first time since the felling of the old Pagan groves, the Western world recognised the point of setting aside space for nature on its own terms.

The second phase, from the early 1960s through the 1980s, was the period of sentimental environmentalism. The spark for the transition was Rachel Carson’s epochal Silent Spring, which brought extinction out of scientific journals and into the public sphere. The results shared far too much with the rest of the popular culture of the time to accomplish much – the baby seals whose Holly Hobby faces made them the mascot of the movement, for example, received far more attention than many more substantive issues – but the underlying shift in awareness is worth noting. For a significant number of people, feelings of loyalty and love once fixed firmly within the human sphere widened to embrace nonhuman nature.

The third phase followed promptly. The first stirrings of apocalyptic environmentalism appeared while the age of sentimental environmentalism was barely underway, and once it worked its way out of the fringes it quickly borrowed the same durable tropes about the end of the world that proved their appeal in other contexts.  The last two decades have accordingly seen all the usual changes rung on the theme of an imminent Judgement Day, with Gaia pressed into the role more usually filled by an avenging Jehovah.

Surf the web or visit a bookstore and the resulting sermons may be found without too much effort. Alongside claims that a future of ecological horror – sinners in the hands of an angry biosphere! – can be averted if we renounce our wicked ways and get right with Gaia, you can find claims that it’s already too late and the wrath of an offended planet will turn sinful humanity into so much compost, upon which the righteous remnant will presumably plant the organic gardens of the New Green Jerusalem.  Gospels backstopping these sermons with a giddy range of dubious historical mythologies have flooded the market at nearly the same pace.

It’s crucial to recognise the hits as well as the misses of apocalyptic environmentalism. Many of the issues that underlie claims of imminent Ecogeddon are quite real, though some have been exaggerated to the point of absurdity.  Where these narratives fail is in forcing the ecological crisis into anthropocentric narratives that falsify far more than they explain.

The function of apocalyptic myth, after all, is to console the unimportant by feeding them fantasies of their own cosmic significance. It’s thus no accident that, for example, the seedtimes of apocalyptic ideas in Judaism have been epochs when Jews were a powerless minority whose beliefs and hopes were of no concern to anyone but themselves, just as the apocalyptic strain in today’s Christianity clusters in the regions and classes most heavily marginalised during the era of economic contraction the media papered over with the euphemisms of ‘globalisation.’ The environmental apocalyptic narrative is partly a reaction to the impact of deep time on our collective sense of self-importance: faced with a planetary history in which geological forces and mass extinctions hold the important roles, we’ve tried to claim the role of a geological force and a cause of mass extinctions.

That probably couldn’t have been avoided. Like the phases before it, apocalyptic environmentalism inevitably got tripped up by the anthropocentricity it tried to escape. Recreational environmentalism reached for the insight that we owe nature space of its own, and fell back to thinking of nature as a resource for outdoor holidays. Sentimental environmentalism reached for the more challenging insight that we owe nature the same bonds of love and loyalty more usually applied to family, community, and nation, and fell back to thinking of nature as a resource for emotional indulgence.

Apocalyptic environmentalism, in turn, reached for the most challenging insight of all: the recognition that we owe nature our existence, and could follow the dodo and the passenger pigeon into extinction if we mess up our relations with the rest of the world badly enough. Like its predecessors, its reach exceeded its grasp, and it fell back to thinking of nature as a resource for narratives that celebrate the supposed uniqueness of humanity just as obsessively as ever. Portraying humanity as the uniquely destructive ravager of nature, after all, is just as anthropocentric as portraying it as the uniquely creative conqueror of nature. The resemblance between the concepts is not accidental; like a spoiled child who misbehaves to get the attention good behaviour won’t bring, we’re willing to see ourselves in any role, even the villain’s, as long as we get to occupy centre stage.

III

Still, talking about the anthropocentric obsessions of today’s ecological thought in general terms is less helpful than catching sight of those obsessions in their native habitat, in the collective conversation that shapes our world. Nothing is as easy as denouncing an abstract representation of a habit of thought on which one’s thinking continues to be based. Think of the way that ‘dualism’ was all but burnt in effigy a few years back by a flurry of liberal religious writers who insisted that all religions without exception are either dualist or nondualist, and dualism is absolutely evil while nondualism is absolutely good![8]

No doubt we’ll shortly see a critique of anthropocentrism along the same lines:  arguing, perhaps, that the habit of anthropocentric delusion is what sets our species apart from the rest of nature and marks us out for some uniquely tragic destiny or other. Thus it’s crucial to get past the label, and examine specific ways that anthropocentrism distorts the response of today’s environmental movement to the incoming tide of ecological crisis.

Compare the recent and continuing furore over anthropogenic climate change to the more muted response to the rapid depletion of the world’s remaining petroleum reserves, and one such distortion stands out clearly. Both these problems are unquestionably real;[9] both were predicted decades ago, both could quite readily force modern industrial civilisation to its knees, and both are already having measurable impacts around the world.

Yet the response to the two differs in instructive ways.  Anthropogenic climate change has become a cause célèbre, splashed across the mainstream media, researched by thousands of scientists funded by lavish government grants, and earnestly discussed by heads of state at summit meetings. Nothing is actually being done to stop it, to be sure, and most likely nothing will be done; not even the climate campaigners who urge drastic action in the loudest voices and most extreme terms have shown much willingness to accept the drastic changes in their own lives that would cut carbon dioxide emissions soon enough to matter. Still, the narrative of climate change has found plenty of eager listeners around the world.

None of this has happened with peak oil. The evidence backing the claim that the world has already passed the peak of petroleum production, and faces a future of declining energy and economic contraction, is every bit as solid as the evidence for anthropogenic climate change;[10] the arguments opposing it are just as meretricious, its potential for economic and human costs is as great, solutions are as difficult to reach, and it can feed apocalyptic fantasies almost as extreme as those that have gathered around climate change.  Still, no summit meetings are being called by heads of state to discuss the end of the age of oil; there has been no barrage of mainstream media attention concerning it, and precious few government grants. Climate change is mediagenic; peak oil is not.

A core difference between the two crises explains why. Climate change, as a cultural narrative, is a story about human power. We have become so almighty through technological progress, the climate change narrative argues, that we threaten the Earth itself. The only limits that can prevent catastrophe are those we place on ourselves, since nothing else can stop us; and even our own efforts might not be enough to stand in our way. It’s nearly a parody of the old atheist gibe: to prove our own omnipotence, we’ve made a crisis so big that not even we can lift it out of our way.

Peak oil as a cultural narrative, on the other hand, is not a celebration of human power but a warning about human limits. At the core of the peak oil story is the recognition that the power we claimed was never really ours. We never conquered nature; we merely stole some of the Earth’s carbon and burnt our way through it in three short centuries. All the feverish dreams and accomplishments of that era were simply the results of wasting a vast amount of cheap fuel. Now that the easy pickings are running out, and we have to think about getting by without half a billion years of stored and concentrated solar energy to burn, our fantasies of power are proving unexpectedly fragile, and the future ahead of us involves more humility and less grandiosity than we want to think about.

One rich irony here is that the limits imposed by peak oil are, among other things, limits on our power to destroy the world via climate change. The IPCC projections of climate change assume that the world’s nations can increase their coal, oil, and natural gas consumption straight through to 2100. Doubtless they would do so if they could, but the fact remains that they can’t. Conventional petroleum production peaked in 2005 and has been declining since then; unconventional petroleum production, even if it recovers from the slump following the crash of 2008, will tip into decline well before 2015; natural gas is on schedule to reach its peak by 2030, and coal by 2040.[11]  As those peaks pass, fossil fuel consumption will decline, not because we want it to decline but because our ability to extract fuels from the ground runs into geological limits. This awkward reality has not found its way into the climate change debate; nor will it, until the anthropocentric foundations of that debate are seen for what they are.

The same point can be made even more forcefully of the greater irony that surrounds the climate change debate: the fact that the shifts in global temperature painted in doomsday terms in today’s media are modest, in scale and speed, compared to those Earth has experienced many times before. A mere 11,000 years ago, at the end of the last ice age, global temperatures jolted up 15°F. in under a decade[12] – a heatwave more severe than the wildest scenarios in circulation these days. Nor was this anything novel; the Earth’s long history is full of such events.

Since the beginning of the Pliocene epoch some ten million years ago, Earth’s climate has been in a phase of severe cooling, and for four-fifths or so of the time that life has existed on this planet global temperatures have been far warmer than the IPCC’s worst case scenarios imagine. When the Earth’s climate is normal, on this inhumanly broad scale, most of its land surface is covered by jungle, and ice caps and glaciers do not exist. A reversion to that normal temperature would obliterate our industrial civilisation with the inevitability of a boot descending on an eggshell, and could well push our species over the edge into extinction, but the usual adjustments would soon bring the biosphere into balance, as they have after the other climate changes of the planetary past. The fact that we will not be around to see this, if it comes to that, concerns no one but ourselves.

These ironies, furthermore, have direct practical implications. While anthropogenic global warming is a real and serious problem, its consequences are subject to natural limits that current thinking, fixated on images of human triumphalism, is poorly equipped to grasp. Meanwhile, another real and serious problem – the depletion of the nonrenewable energy resources that prop up today’s industrial economy and keep seven billion people alive – gets next to no attention, because it conflicts with those same triumphalist obsessions. It’s no exaggeration to say that the modern world might solve the global warming crisis and then collapse anyway, because it only dealt with those of its problems that proved congenial to its self-image.

IV

Sometimes, when sleep keeps its distance in the small hours of the night, I wonder if the grand purpose for which humanity came into being was simply that Earth needed a species good at digging to pull a few billion tons of stored carbon out of the ground and nudge up its thermostat a bit. During daylight hours, I don’t actually believe this; if the Earth has conscious purposes we will almost certainly never know, and if by some chance we do find out, our chances of understanding those purposes are right up there with the chance that a dust mite in Mozart’s wig could have understood his music or his marital problems.

It’s easy to dismiss reflections such as these as a display of misanthropy. Still, it shows no contempt for an individual to recognise that he or she isn’t more important than anyone else in the world. Personal maturity begins, after all, with letting go the infantile self-regard that puts the ego and its cravings at the centre of the cosmos. It’s arguably time to apply that same insight to humanity as a whole. As Jeffers wrote:
It seems to me wasteful that almost the whole of human energy is expended inward, on itself, on loving, hating, governing, cajoling, amusing, its own members. It is like a newborn babe, conscious almost exclusively of its own processes and where its food comes from. As the child grows up, its attention must be drawn from itself to the more important world around it.[13]

The environmental crises of the present bid fair to make that shift in attention inevitable, no matter how hard we fight to keep ourselves at the centre of our own imagined universe; and in the process most of the presuppositions of human thought will have to change. Crucially, we will be forced to come to terms with the fact that no special providence guarantees our species the fulfillment of its hopes, or even its survival. Sooner or later humanity, like every other species, will become extinct, and it’s a safe bet that the history that unfolds between the present moment and that hopefully distant time will be just as sparing of Utopian dreams fulfilled as has human history so far.

This doesn’t deny us the possibility of improving our lives, our societies, and our relationships with the cosmos that surrounds us; it does mean that those improvements, like everything else in the real world, will take place against a background of hard natural limits that will inevitably restrict what can be attained.

One consequence is that the faith in perpetual progress that forms the unacknowledged state religion of the modern world faces a shattering disillusionment. Progress as we have known it amounts to little more than the race to find ever more extravagant ways to burn cheap, abundant fossil fuels. Those fuels are no longer as cheap or abundant as they once were; in the not too distant future, they will be scarce and expensive, and not all that much further down the curve of history they will be so scarce, and so expensive, that burning them to power what remains of an industrial society will no longer be a viable option.[14]

Nor can we simply count, as too many people are counting, on the hope that some other energy source equally cheap, convenient, and concentrated will come along just as we need it. The fossil fuels we burn so blithely today are the product of hundreds of millions of years of complex ecological and geological processes. At the dawn of our now-receding Age of Excess, they represented the single largest concentration of readily accessible chemical energy in the known solar system. Insisting that an industrial civilisation dependent on this vast surplus can thrive on the sparser and less concentrated energy flows the Earth receives from the Sun day by day – which is what most current advocates of ‘sustainability’ propose – flies in the face of ecological and thermodynamic reality; it’s as though someone who won a huge lottery payoff, and spent it all in a few short years, insisted he could keep up the same extravagant lifestyle with the income from a job flipping burgers for minimum wage.

Instead of fantasising about the kind of future we want humanity to have, in other words, or confusing our daydreams with our destiny, we need to start thinking hard about what kind of future humanity can afford, and taking a hard look at social habits that require levels of energy and resource inputs we won’t be able to maintain for much longer. A rethinking of this kind is not optional; if we refuse it, nature will do the job for us. Ecology teaches us that every species either evolves ways to limit the burden it places on nature or suffers from limits imposed on it by outside factors, and we are no more exempt from that law than we are from the law of gravity.

At this moment in history, only a massive worldwide effort of more than wartime intensity might have even a modest chance of managing a controlled descent from industrial civilisation’s extravagance to some more durable form of society. The window of opportunity for so staggering a project is narrow, if it has not already closed, and the political will that would be needed to carry it out is nowhere in sight.  Thus the same sort of uncontrolled descent that ended the history of so many earlier civilisations has become the most likely future for ours. Certainly this was Jeffers’ view:

These are the falling years,
They will go deep,
Never weep, never weep.
With clear eyes explore the pit.
Watch the great fall
With religious awe.[15]

Still, it’s precisely in the troubled years ahead of us, as our civilisation stumbles down the long broken slope toward a future that will make a mockery of our fantasies of progress and cosmic importance, that Jeffers’ perspective offers its most important gifts. It’s the man or woman who comes to terms with the inevitability of his or her own death that best knows how to grapple with life. In the same way, Jeffers’ inhumanist perspective can be a crucial source of strength now, and even more so in time to come. When we realise that human history is nothing unique – from nature’s perspective, we’re simply one more species that overshot the carrying capacity of its environment and is about to pay the routine price – we can get past the habit of wallowing in a self-blame that’s first cousin to self-praise, face up to the hard choices ahead, and make them with some sense of perspective and, at least potentially, some possibility of grace. Humanity cannot and need not bear the burden of being the measure of all things, Jeffers is telling us, for a saner and stronger measure is all around us:

Integrity is wholeness, the greatest beauty is
Organic wholeness, the wholeness of life and things, the divine
beauty of the universe.  Love that, not man
Apart from that.[16]

 

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Notes

[1] I have used Melba Berry Bennett’s The Stone Mason of Tor House (Ward Ritchie, 1966) and Arthur B. Coffin’s Robinson Jeffers: Poet of Inhumanism (University of Wisconsin Press, 1971) for this brief sketch.
[2] It’s a curiosity of poetic history that Jeffers and Yeats, one of the few modern poets Jeffers praised, both built themselves stone towers in the years following the First World War.
[3] From ‘Preface to The Double Ax and Other Poems,’ in Hunt, ed., op.cit., p. 719 and 721.
[4] From ‘Carmel Point,’ in Hunt, ed., op. cit., p. 676
[5] Percy Bysshe Shelley, ‘A Defence of Poetry;’ see also Coffin, op. cit., p. 18.
[6] From ‘Historical Choice,’ in Hunt, ed., op. cit., pp. 580; this poem was written in 1943.
[7] See particularly Donald Worster’s Nature’s Economy (Cambridge University Press, 1994).
[8] Matthew Fox’s The Coming of the Cosmic Christ (Harper & Row, 1988) is a particularly embarrassing example; pp. 134-5 includes a handy table of polar oppositions, in which one side is ‘dualist’ and thus evil, and the other ‘nondualist’ and thus good.
[9] There seems little point here in revisiting the overwhelming evidence backing both humanity’s role in climate change and the progressive and severe depletion of accessible oil reserves. Those who already recognise the severity of both problems will need no convincing, while those who disagree with either aren’t likely to listen to another review of the facts.
[10] For a good general survey, see Richard Heinberg’s The Party’s Over: Oil, War, and the Fate of Industrial Societies (New Society, 2003).
[11] See Richard Heinberg, Peak Everything (New Society, 2008) for a detailed discussion of these resource peaks and their consequences.
[12] This figure, along with supporting research, is cited in Richard B. Alley, The Two Mile Time Machine (Princeton University Press, 2000).
[13] letter from Jeffers to Rudolph Gilbert, in Gilbert’s Shine, Perishing Republic: Robinson Jeffers and the Tragic Sense in Modern Poetry (Haskell House, 1965), frontispiece.
[14] I have discussed these points in much more detail in my book The Long Descent (New Society, 2008).
[15] From ‘For Una,’ in Hunt, ed., op.cit., pp. 565-567.
[16] From ‘The Answer,’ in Hunt, ed., op. cit., p. 522.