Ed. note: Robert Jensen, “Who is we?” The Ecological Citizen, 4:1 (2020): 57-61. (The version below is slightly revised for a forthcoming book, The Perennial Turn, edited by Bill Vitek.)

 Who is “we”?

We humans have made a mess of things, which is readily evident if we face the avalanche of studies and statistics describing the contemporary ecological crises we face. But even with the mounting evidence of the consequences for people and planet, we have not committed to a serious project to slow the damage that we do.

One reasonable response to those statements is, “Who is ‘we’?” That is, exactly who has made a mess of things and who has failed to take action? Who’s to blame for the problems and who’s responsible for the costs? Put more bluntly, borrowing from the often-quoted exchange between the Lone Ranger and Tonto, “What do you mean, we, white man?”

The global North—which is to say, fossil-fuel powered capitalism as it developed in Europe—bears primary responsibility for the contemporary crises, and those societies have failed to meet their obligations, or in some cases to even acknowledge obligations, to change course. And within those societies, it is the wealthy and powerful who bear the greatest responsibility for destructive policies.

Today, “we” is not everyone, equally culpable. But if there is to be a decent human future—indeed, if there is to be any human future—we have to realize that human-carbon nature is at the core of the problem, a reality that exempts no one.

Because this sounds harsh in a world with so much human suffering, so unequally distributed, let me be clear: My argument does not minimize or trivialize that suffering, or ignore the profound moral and political failures that exacerbate it.

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