There is something seemingly unfathomable to the human mind about exponential curves. As I wrote last fall:
There is an old story about the invention of the chessboard, in which the inventor as his reward asks for one grain of wheat on the first square, two on the second, four on the third, and doubling until all 64 squares are full. The seemingly modest request adds up to many times more than all the wheat the world has ever produced. The purpose of the story is to teach about our inability to grasp the impact and unsustainability of accelerating increases in anything, particularly in the final stages. Even when more than half of the squares have been filled the inventor’s request still seems manageable. It is only when it is too late that its impossibility is realized.
Even when almost all the squares have been filled, the request still seems manageable. We are now living in a world where almost all the squares have been filled. We have used up the easy-to-get half of the Earth’s resources, which accumulated over billions of years. We have used most of that in the last two centuries, and most of that in the last two decades. In the process we have destabilized the planet’s climate systems. We are nearing what is now being called “peak everything”.
And there is certainly nothing “normal” to human eyes in what mathematicians call a “normal curve”, at least when time is the independent variable. We always seem to perceive the future as much like the present, only more so, and our favourite works of utopian and dystopian fiction turn out to be mostly somewhat hyperbolized reflections on the best or worst of the world as it was when the authors wrote them.
Even when we try to conceive of the downside of the normal curve — sharp at first and then tailing off slowly — we can only see everything going backwards, back to the way it was when the curve was at that height before. A simple, rapid decline, like those that befell previous civilizations and unsustainable cultures, is unimaginable. We can’t picture it because it’s never been that way for us. Even the current set of collapsnik writers, like James Kunstler, portray a post-collapse future that is almost nostalgically like the old American West.
In recent months, we have seen the news from climate scientists become exponentially worse. A decade ago we were hand-wringing about a 1C rise in average global temperature by 2100. A year ago it was a 2C rise by 2050 and a 4C rise by 2100. Now it appears all but certain that our failure to consider the “positive feedback loops” inherent in our astonishingly delicately-balanced climate systems made us absurdly optimistic, and a 6C rise by 2050 is quite possible. I can’t blame you if you haven’t been keeping up — neither had I. Two recent videos, one by Grist’s David Roberts and a second, even more recent one by fellow collapsnik Guy McPherson, will bring you up to speed.
The message of these videos, and the data underlying them, is simple, but it’s a lot like hearing news of a terrible and sudden loss in the family, the death of someone you knew was at risk but somehow believed would get through it, or at least last a while longer. It’s too soon. It can’t be that fast. We cannot accept it, as the trickster piles a mountain of grain onto the third-to-last square of the chessboard.
The message is two-fold:
- Not only are we fucked, but it’s coming much sooner than we expected. It’s coming in the first half of this century, not the second. By 2050 life for all but the simplest and most well-protected species on this planet will almost certainly be impossible, except for small numbers in a few marginal areas.
- The whole issue of mitigation and the need for activism is now more-or-less moot. Even if we were to collectively and massively change our behaviour starting tomorrow, it would only delay collapse by a few years, and quite possible make the collapse even more catastrophic. Until recently there was at least a chance that perhaps a combination of behaviour change and the reduced availability of cheap fossil fuels might combine to pull us back from the brink, or at least make a much-changed and simpler life possible for a much smaller population of humans and other creatures. That chance is gone.
The climate scientists, abetted by the ecological economists, have pronounced the certain and imminent (i.e. within most of our lifetimes) death of the vast majority of life on our planet, including the human species. Now, we can mourn. Most of our human family will continue to fall into one of the three categories of non-acceptance of this pronouncement that I wrote about in my If We Had a Better Story post:
- The incredulous: Those who either know so little or haven’t had the opportunity to think about what they know, that they find the idea of collapse preposterous, unimaginable, and/or unthinkable.
- The hopeful: Those who believe that collapse is not inevitable or can be significantly mitigated, or believe that even if it is inevitable and can’t be significantly mitigated, we should try anyway.
- The deniers: Those who are intimidated or offended by, or overwhelmed with anger and/or guilt at, the very idea of collapse.
None of these are unusual reactions to horrific news, but they’re likely to be crazy-making to those of us who are past this stage, and trying to get on with preparing ourselves and those we love for what is to come.
The most intriguing reaction is from collapsniks like Derrick Jensen and John Duffy who, against hope, want us to work (as they do, indefatigably and to their great credit) to kill the economy. John starts out his essay by saying “We are going to go extinct.” and near the end says:
If we want to not die, then we need to stop doing the things that are going to kill us… We need deindustrialization, and we need to wring the bloody neck of capitalism, before hanging it, drawing it, quartering it, and setting the remaining bits of its corpse on fire to make sure it can’t rise from the dead like the unholy zombie that it is… This is all to say, I can’t fight my enemies and my allies at the same time. Liberals, lefties, environmentalists and everyone else who purports to give a damn has to give up on being capitalism apologists who somehow think we can keep this gravy train of mass consumption going.
It’s a great rant, but he’s like the lover of the recently-declared-dead patient who insists on trying CPR interminably and punching the people trying to take the defibrillators away from him. Or, perhaps, he’s like the angry griever trying to assemble a posse to kill the ones he believes caused the death of the one he loves. It’s understandable, but it’s futile. It’s too late.
In the comments to John’s post, Paul Chefurka writes:
I’m not particularly angry or outraged any more. Once I was, but now I’m just fascinated, amazed, amused, bemused, curious. I attach no moral dimension to this unfolding any more, though once I did. Now there is no blame, no more agonized wishes to rewrite the past, no more fearful visions of a shattered future.
We are what we are, we did what we did, we ended up here.
I’m very curious to see what comes next. Aren’t you?
Paul didn’t get a terribly sympathetic response, so I wrote to Paul and asked him how he had managed to reach this stage of acceptance. I also asked him about a gorgeously-written and deeply-moving recent article in Orion, Gaze Even Here, about “evoking a consciousness of brokenness”, in which the author, Trebbe Johnson, says that she and her companions found solace in spending time “gazing” at clearcuts and videos of animals dying in oil-slicks until their grief and anger and revulsion turned to curiosity, acceptance, compassion and even love. I mentioned that some people in my circles had seen my attempts at non-attachment, at letting go of what I know I cannot change, as detachment, as an emotional shutting down or turning away. Paul replied:
I’ve faced the same accusations about detachment. They generally come from activists for whom action is the inner imperative, and who have no exposure to Buddhist principles. Also, they haven’t hit bottom yet, which is why the still think that action is an answer. Only once someone hits the bottom and bounces off the rocks do they usually start looking for truly radical responses like non-attachment.
As a first thought – perhaps what Ms. Johnson is suggesting isn’t really that radical at all. What she’s suggesting is a starting point for someone who wants to wake up in this new world. It’s where Joanna Macy begins as well. The bigger question may be, where do you go once you’ve taken the grief on board – how do you find the will to move, and how do you pick your direction? This is where doing deep inner work around grief, shame and the Shadow come in.
Out of that work comes the beginning of non-attachment. To people who conflate it with detachment, I explain that non-attachment is what allows me to confront the big issues directly, to engage fully but not be paralyzed by emotion. It’s not an abdication of feeling, but a way of seeing the world around me with complete clarity and doing what the world needs, rather than being selfish and getting mired in my own suffering.
Sometimes that helps people understand, but for a lot of activists it’s still a step too far. They are still focused on their own suffering, and in order to validate their response they have defined that suffering as a virtue. It’s not, it’s a trap. Non-attachment is the most functional way out that I’ve discovered so far.
What are the elements of non-attachment that might be applied to coping with the knowledge of the inevitable collapse of organized society amidst the chaos of economic collapse and runaway climate change? What makes sense to gaze at, and what should we, for our own sanity, leave unseen? How can we be, and act, in a fully engaged, joyful, curious, productive, useful-to-others way, without becoming either “detached” (emotionally disconnected or inured) or exhausted? Here are some of my early thoughts on this:
1. We cannot, must not, prescribe one “right” behaviour or approach for everyone. We are all different, and the best way for each of us to cope will be different. What’s important is to patiently wait for those we care about to realize what is ahead, and then support them to find their own way to cope with it productively.
2. I think it could help to develop, working with climate scientists and enlightened (non-classical) economists and energy analysts and artists and musicians and film-makers, a set of nuanced, candid, non-idealized, non-sensationalized visions or stories of what our world in collapse will look like, by 2020, 2030, 2040 and 2050, and then, as Trebbe might put it, to “gaze” at them. These stories would be based on data, and on an appreciation of history of how people behave in an accelerating (but not relentless) series of cascading crises where there is no scapegoat, no one to blame, where everyone is largely in the same boat. These stories would be focused on what collapse will mean for the day-to-day lives of people living in cities, towns, the country, in nations at different levels of “development”. My guess is that for most of the world, in the already-struggling nations and places, life will not be much different, except that the death rate (mostly from disease and malnutrition) will be somewhat higher and the birth rate much lower. We have a lot to learn, I think, from people in the third world, in impoverished cities, and in the streets, who are already living with collapse. The image below shows in red/purple/white areas that, due to climate change-induced chronic drought, will be largely ununhabitable within a few decades, so our stories for them, billions of people, would likely be stories of migration. The stories would be varied, and stark, and, perhaps to our surprise, inspiring and astonishing.
Map of serious chronic drought areas, per research simulations by UCAR/NCAR, an agency of the National Science Foundation. This map is forecasts for the 2060s, but is based on outdated climate change data, so it is likely to come true considerably earlier. Thanks to resilience.org for the link.
3. Perhaps most importantly, we will all be better off, I think, if we were to learn non-attachment, empathy, presence, resilience, relocalization, community building, and a host of other skills and capacities, technical and ‘soft’, so that we can tolerate the changes we will face to our way of living and the very foolish actions many (with the most to lose, in wealth or power) will inevitably try to do, unsuccessfully, to “control” the situation. We must expect the emergence of charismatic dictators, genocides, civil wars, geo-engineering, the burning of almost everything flammable for fuel and electricity, and cults, and deal with them the best we can without letting them unhinge us. We may be fortunate enough that as our centralized systems collapse, the resources for possible authoritarian atrocities will rapidly diminish, so the decline could be relatively peaceful, if not free of suffering or misery. We may well discover that crisis brings out the best in us, but should be prepared in case it brings out, in some, the worst. We may find that, with a sufficient voluntary decrease in birth rates (not an unlikely scenario), over the coming decades we might reach a human population level well below one billion without a dramatic increase in death rates, though we should be prepared for a rising death toll and what it may do to our collective psyches. In all of this, non-attachment and presence can enable us to live, even through these crises, lives of love and joy and appreciation for the miracle of life.
A final thought, and one that perhaps is the most unimaginable of all for those of us brought up to believe the way we live now is the only way to live. What’s on the right side of the normal curve, after collapse, isn’t another growth cycle. It’s the proverbial long tail. We may become an endangered species by century’s end, but we’re unlikely to become extinct for several millennia after that — just increasingly few in numbers and increasingly irrelevant to the ecosystems and recovery of the planet from yet another great extinction. Without vast amounts of cheap energy to power technology, we’re just not going to be very well adapted to post 21st-century Earth. Just as we don’t notice the 200 species going extinct every day, I doubt that the species that thrive after the great extinction will notice the death of the last of the species that once believed it could rule the Earth forever.
Thanks to Tree for the link to the Orion article, to the authors of the articles/videos cited above, to Sue Bullock for the link to Kill the Economy, to John Duffy for the link to the Grist video, and to Paul Chefurka for the ideas prompting this article.