As a slow learner, until I was in my early 20s, I was always behind the times. Then in the 1970s, being just a bit late to embrace hippie values, I caught up. Since then I have been cursed with being further and further ahead of ‘progressive’ thought. I graduated with a computer science degree before there were any jobs in the field. I jumped into the ‘knowledge economy’ before it became (briefly) fashionable. I foresaw the dot-com bust coming five years before it happened. When the dire warnings of ‘the population bomb’ were sounded back around 1980 I already knew the warnings were far too early, and would be ridiculed when the ‘bomb’ failed to materialize — and that by 2000, when the real population crunch loomed, those who warned of it then would be ridiculed as neo-Malthusians. Back in the late 1960s I thought the summers of love would last forever, and realized too late how brief and fragile that wonderful era would be, but by the 1980s I knew a right-wing backlash was coming — and worried about it a decade too soon. And everything I have recommended to the companies I have worked with and for has proved to be, in the long run, wise — but way ahead of its time.
Today I can see the future playing out like a futile game of chess, with the answer a foregone conclusion. But now I am so far ahead of the mainstream of progressive thinking that I alienate progressives as much as conservatives. The ideas are out there — the Slow Crash, the Long Emergency — but the world seems polarized by two groups equally lacking in foresight: Those (progressives, moderates and conservatives) who think some sort of global humanist renaissance and/or technology and/or Rapture (respectively) will rescue us from civilizational collapse, and those (neo-survivalists) who, almost eagerly, see such collapse in the next decade, or at least in our lifetimes.
There is no comfort, no smug satisfaction, as I get older, in finding my predictions increasingly right. I end up arguing with almost everyone — progressives who still believe in social revolutions, moderates (including many environmentalists) who are utterly incapable of seeing that every technology in our history has, inadvertently, created more problems than it has solved, and conservatives who get apoplectic when I objectively analyze short-term business trends and give them insights and analysis they find very valuable, but then shrug and say in the long term it doesn’t matter anyway because we’re all fucked.
What makes it worse is that I no longer really have the energy (I seem to be constantly tired these days, and I’ve always been a sprinter, never having much stamina) nor the patience to argue with people who really, really want to convince me, for my own good, that I have my head up my ass. The words of Daniel Quinn (from Beyond Civilization) ring in my ears each time I get a challenging blog comment or e-mail, or indulge in discussions on the future (I should know better) with people in my various circles/networks:
People will listen when they’re ready to listen and not before. Probably, once upon a time, you weren’t ready to listen to an idea than now seems to you obvious, even urgent. Let people come to it in their own time. Nagging or bullying will only alienate them. Don’t preach. Don’t waste time with people who want to argue. They’ll keep you immobilized forever. Look for people who are already open to something new.
When presenting a new idea, you don’t have to have all the answers. It’s better to say ‘I don’t know’ than to fake it. Make people formulate their own questions. Don’t take on the responsibility of figuring out what their difficulty is. We each internalize information differently. If you don’t understand a question, keep insisting they explain it until it’s clear. Nine times out of ten they’ll supply the answer themselves.
Since I wrote my glowing review of John Gray’s Straw Dogs, I have met about two dozen people who, either because they have excellent intuition and the intelligence to trust it, or because they read as voraciously and indiscriminately as I do, just seem to get this. When I meet or hear someone who understands Quinn’s point above, or cites some passage from Gray’s book, like one of these:
We humans have not changed and cannot change what we are, what we do, how we behave or what we value. We are doomed by the coding in our DNA to continue along our inexorable path of self-destruction, and to inflict large-scale but ultimately transitory damage on our planet in the process.
Homo rapiens is only one of very many species, and not obviously worth preserving. Later or sooner, it will become extinct. When it is gone Earth will recover. Long after the last traces of the human animal have disappeared, many of the species it is bent on destroying will still be around, along with others that have yet to spring up. The Earth will forget mankind. The play of life will go on.
or perhaps this quote from Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress:
If we blow up or degrade the biosphere so it can no longer sustain us — nature will merely shrug and conclude that letting apes run the laboratory was fun for a while but in the end a bad idea.
or this quote from Reg Morrison’s The Spirit in the Gene:
If the human plague is really as normal as it looks, then the collapse curve should mirror the growth curve. This means the bulk of the collapse will not take much longer than 100 years, and by 2150 or so the biosphere should be safely back to its preplague population of Homo Sapiens — somewhere between a half and one billion.
… I just sort of look at them quizzically, as if I’m not sure I should believe my own ears, and just nod. She/he gets it. There is nothing more to be said. There is nothing to debate. Acknowledge with a wry smile that our numbers, those of us who see Too Far Ahead, are growing. We are heading for a wall, and it is far too late to brake, but the worst part of the hideous messy crash is still a half-century or more away. So accepting that, here, now, why is it so difficult for us to simultaneously be these four things:
This is, admittedly, not easy. We are brought up to believe that we, the human master race, are in control, of the world and of ourselves. It’s hard to accept that we are what we are, and that we cannot be otherwise no matter how our religions and philosophies will us to be. It’s even harder to accept responsibility for our own actions (and inactions) knowing that the brief experiment of human life on Earth is nearing an end, and that that is not our responsibility. And then, with that burden of responsibility and the news of our species’ looming end, it becomes harder still to be happy, here, now, in the moment. And then to put an onus on us to strive for a fuller life, to become what our species has, in the last 30,000 years, forgotten to be, seems an almost unbearable demand of us.
Yet every other species on this planet simultaneously is these four things. For them, it is easy, intuitive, natural. For us, who have unlearned so much, who have turned away from all that we were, it is a much greater challenge. But if we really understand our purpose, our place, our destiny, it is an imperative, a duty. It is what we must do.
In a word, we must learn grace.
So I am announcing the start of a new Movement. It is the Movement of People Too Far Ahead For Their Own Good. Or, for short, the Too Far Ahead Movement. And since most movements have an icon, or a secret handshake, or some other quiet acknowledgment of mutual membership, like the ’V’ sign of the 1960s Peace Movement, the Too Far Ahead Movement should have a gesture, too.
What might be a good gesture to acknowledge the presence of another Too Far Ahead person? We could use something exotic like the ‘be seeing you’ gesture from The Prisoner. But I’m leaning towards something subtle — say, a simple nod with eyes closed and closed right hand to right chest. And for the Movement’s logo, we could use an animal that exemplifies grace. Like the one pictured above.
Photo by Kevin at the Bastish blog.
October 11, 2005
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