illustration of the complex relationship between economy, energy/resources, and ecology, by the author (‘up’ arrow means ‘increase’; ‘down’ arrow means ‘decrease’); economic collapse, resource exhaustion and runaway climate change: we are on track to face all three in the next few decades, and with them, the end of our civilization
In Beyond Civilization, Daniel Quinn says:
The following list of books and readings is for people who are ready to listen to some very unorthodox and unsettling ideas and understandings. It’s a list of the essential works that have, along with my own thinking, synthesis and conversations over the past decade, led to a radical shift in my worldview. I have deleted many of the works listed in my previous (2008) “Save the World Reading List” and added some explanation of the key learnings from each reading in this shorter list. I hope it will give you some appreciation of the thinking in this blog, and the opportunity to experience some brilliant, insightful and astonishing writing about who we are, how the world works and what we might do now.
The links to each item in the list below are to my own or others’ reviews of these works, or to excerpts or summaries of them.
When I started blogging ten years ago, in February 2003, I was told (and believed) I was a success — as a writer, innovative thinker and business “executive”. But after 30 years on the sidelines of the environmental movement, I felt lost, as if I had somehow lost my way and didn’t recall when that had happened. I began to research what was really going on in the world, and why, after the heady idealism of the 1960s, my generation seemed to have made things unimaginably worse, not better.
My inquiries led me to explore particularly two things:
- How the world really works (socially, politically, ecologically) as contrasted to the simplistic way the media seemed to be portraying it, and
- How we, the human species, really ‘work’ — why has our civilization culture come to be what it is, what motivates us to do what we do, and who are we, really?
The first line of inquiry led me to study complexity theory and gaia theory, and to explore some of the ideas at the intersections of the various sciences. My first revelation was reading the works of evolutionary theorists, most notably 01 Stephen J Gould’s Full House, in which he argues that evolution is more a random than a ‘progressive’ process, and explains that many ‘advances’ that appear natural or evolutionary were in fact improbable, unintended consequences, accidents. Statistically, he argued, the appearance of vertebrates on Earth was a millions-to-one long shot. Gould and his colleague Richard Lewontin also vigorously opposed the ideas of EO Wilson and others who believe that social/cultural ‘evolution’ occurs in a way analogous to physical evolution.
I found the idea that the emergence of humans on the planet was accidental and highly improbable disturbing, but compelling. I went on to read 02 Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress (and similar works by others e.g. 03 Jared Diamond’s “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race” and 04 Richard Manning’s Against the Grain — both referring to the development of “catastrophic” agriculture), and then05 Daniel Quinn’s Story of B and 06 Beyond Civilization. These books argue compellingly that human history, from our emergence a millions years ago, has not been one of progress but rather one of violence, unsustainable short-term thinking, creation of technologies that create more problems (in the long run) than they solve (in the short run), brutal hierarchy, relentless and destructive violence, and a total inability to learn the lessons of our history (so we keep repeating our errors on an ever-increasing scale).
At this point I was reading an average of two books a week including everything I could find on “cultural studies” and evolutionary biology. I discovered by reading 07 Michael Boulter’s Extinction that the Sixth Great Extinction of life on Earth has been going on inexorably since humans invented arrowheads and spears, and from reading 08 Peter Jay’s The Wealth of Man and Marshall Sahlins’ essays I learned that prehistoric humans, far from living ‘nasty, short and brutish’ lives, lived lives of leisure, health and joy. And 09 James Kunstler’s The Long Emergency provided a compelling portrait of how the end of the industrial growth economy, cheap resources, and stable climate would play out — a series of cascading crises over several decades leading to final civilizational collapse.
I next discovered 10 Derrick Jensen’s dark work A Language Older Than Words and my ideas about the inherent nature of humans began to shift. While I remain convinced that humans are not by nature ‘evil’ or destructive, I have come to believe that we are inherently violent, and that our modern overpopulated, resource-depleted and stress-exhausted society has made us all mentally ill, and disconnected us from our inherent (and evolutionarily sensible) biophilia (love of all life on earth). We have lost the bearings that helped us live a life of abundance in balance with the rest of life, and now we don’t know what we’re doing.
This began to make more sense when I read 11 Stewart and Cohen’s Figments of Reality, which plausibly explains that our minds, which we have come to think of as ‘us’, are just a feature-detection system that evolved to help our constituent self-organizing cells and organs defend themselves, collect information and manage their collective movement in the big watery bag in which they’d come to live. But this feature-detection system, in yet another unintended consequence of evolution, developed an ego, a ‘mind of its own’ and developed a complicated social theory that our minds are us and that they are individually in control of who ‘we’ are and collectively in control of the planet. It is this ego, plus the self-reinforcing propaganda that humans, through our languages, are able to perpetuate to make us believe what others believe, plus the terrors our big-minded imaginations were able to invent, and then believe, and then manifest through our traumatizing behaviours and inventions, that has led to this terrible disconnection, this terrible illness that afflicts us all. Many of the “self-help” books that try to help us overcome this disconnection aim to defeat the delusion that our minds and egos are “us” so we can live more presently. I think it’s futile — we cannot be other than who we are — but the best of this genre I have read are 12 Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth and 13 Richard Moss’ The Mandala of Being.
So I have come to believe that it is this illness, this disconnectedness that has caused us to overpopulate and ravage the planet, with the best of intentions, in the sincere belief that we are making the world better for those we love and those to come. But now those of us paying attention have realized that we have instead destroyed our world, desolated it to the point we have pushed our civilization to the brink of economic, resource and ecological collapse, and unknowingly precipitated the Sixth Great Extinction.
Having read these works, I still wanted to be a humanist, a believer that together we could change the world, that the unintentioned disaster we have wreaked on our planet is not irreversible and that we could turn things around. But I kept encountering evidence that we have not really evolved, socially or culturally, since prehistoric times. It’s been a random walk, with periods of enlightenment and periods of barbarism, but no particular trajectory.
And my studies of complexity theory, particularly the explanation of how complex (as opposed to complicated) systems work, including an appreciation of the real import of the Jevons Paradox, made me despair that, even if we were able to get our collective act together to agree on how to mitigate the damage we have done and start to develop a culture reconnected and reintegrated with the natural world, we could not do it. We cannot change who we are, and we cannot do anything consistently and differently at any significant scale. There is too much inertia, and too much momentum, for us to change now, and as our systems get ever-larger and ever more interconnected, they become even more change resistant and, paradoxically, even more fragile. The essence of complex systems is that they evolve slowly and they cannot be controlled, predicted or significantly or reliably reformed even when these is a considerable consensus on the need to do so. All civilizations collapse of their own weight, and ours will do so spectacularly, as we face a cascading series of economic, energy and ecological crises, all of them now inevitable because of the accumulated and accelerating affect of several millennia of unintentionally and disastrously destructive human activity.
It was at this point that I read 14 John Gray’s Straw Dogs, in which he systematically deconstructs the arguments that humanism (some great upsurge of global human consciousness and conscience), or technology and innovation (our most modern religion), or anything else can ‘save us’, writing that 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.
“We labour under an error”, he writes. “We act in the belief that we are all of one piece, but we are able to cope with things only because we are a succession of fragments. We cannot shake off the sense that we are enduring selves, and yet we know we are not… The mass of mankind is ruled not by its own intermittent moral sensations, still less by self-interest, but by the needs of the moment… We can dream of a world in which a greatly reduced human population lives in a partially restored paradise; in which farming has been abandoned and green deserts given back to the earth; where the remaining humans are settled in cities, emulating the noble idleness of hunter-gatherers, their needs met by new technologies that leave little mark on the Earth; where life is given over to curiosity, pleasure and play. There is nothing technically impossible about such a world…A High-tech Green utopia, in which a few humans live happily in balance with the rest of life, is scientifically feasible; but it is humanly unimaginable. If anything like this ever comes about, it will not be through the will of homo rapiens.”
He concludes: “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.”
I read this book at exactly the right time in my research and thought process. Many of those dear to me loathe the book. But I found it liberating. I suddenly knew it was not my job (despite the name of my blog) to save the world. Having passed the first denial, that climate change and the sixth extinction were real, I had now passed the second, that they can be reversed or even significantly mitigated.
Shortly thereafter, I read a prophetic book written back in 1993 by 15 David Ehrenfeld called Beginning Again in which he writes: “The most terrifying thing about this disintegration for a society that believes in prediction and control will be the randomness of its violent consequences. The chaotic violence will include not only desperate ruthless struggles over the wealth that remains, but the last great violation of nature. What will make it worse is that, at least at the beginning, it will take place under a cloud of denial and cynical reassurances.”
And that is what I see happening now, a quarter century later. All of this has taken me from where I was to where I am now, a self-described “joyful pessimist”, freed from the burden to save the world, and free to just live, to just be.
That doesn’t mean I don’t still support humanist movements like Occupy, and the radical activism of the Deep Green Resistance movement, even though I don’t think they will accomplish anything enduring. Their heart is in the right place. And I’m still involved in the Transition/Resilience and Intentional Communities movements because their adherents are thinking in the right direction and doing some very useful things in the process, things that might be helpful to the survivors of civilization’s collapse.
What I no longer have patience for are those who would ‘design’ a better society, who believe that this is anything more than an idealistic waste of time. That is not how change has ever occurred or ever will, and a belief that we could somehow concoct a plan for a reformed, renewed civilization with all its trillions of evolved, complex, unpredictable and self-sustaining moving parts, and then implement it globally on a massive scale in just a few decades is just foolish. At any rate, although no one is listening, the climate scientists are screaming that we have already passed the tipping point, that 6C atmospheric change is coming within a few decades based on what we did in the last century and that 12C won’t be far behind. So radical redemptive change, even if it were possible, is too late. In attempting to juggle and balance economy, resources and ecology at an ever-increasing velocity, we have already dropped the ball on all three, and are now just waiting for the fall (the diagram above, which is discussed further in upcoming posts, attempts to show this precarious balance).
[paragraph added January 16, 2014] A new book by 16 Clive Hamilton called Requiem for a Species explains where we are now, as this realization of having passed the tipping point is starting to dawn on more and more of us. It presents some possible scenarios of runaway climate change, and discusses why so many are still in denial and how we can deal with the grief that we are left with when we move past that denial.
In short, our civilization cannot be saved, nor can we save the world from its ravages (which the Earth will recover from, in time). But we can start now to be prepared, so we will be resilient in the face of what we are likely to face, mostly by relearning the skills of self-knowledge, self-sufficiency, and living (and making a living) in community.
That is an extremely oversimplified summary of what has taken me from a believer in working hard towards an imagined ‘sustainable society’, to an existentialist, trying to live in the moment, joyfully, attentively. Just trying to see what really is in this staggeringly beautiful, complex, unfathomable world. I’m still writing, because it helps me think, rather than in the belief I can (or should try to) influence others’ thinking or actions.
As I say, now, it’s hopeless, but we’ll be fine. One day, everything will be free.
When I last put together this reading list, it had over 80 suggested readings. Many of them, I realize now, were idealistic and unrealistic proposals for how to mitigate civilization’s collapse. But some of them, while not essential enough to make the list above, are nevertheless very engaging and worth your time. Here is a list of them, by theme:
How the World Really Works, Where We Are Now, and What’s Ahead
- The Unconscious Civilization, by John Ralston Saul. The globalization of corporatism and how it has poisoned our democracy, our media, and the planet, and left us as mere consumers, dumbed-down, obedient slaves of our political and economic systems.
- 1992 World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity, by the Union of Concerned Scientists (signed by 1700 scientists including the majority of then-living science Nobel laureates). “Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course. No more than one or a few decades remain before the chance to avert the threats we now confront will be lost and the prospects for humanity immeasurably diminished. A great change in our stewardship of the Earth and life on it is required if vast human misery is to be avoided and our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated.” A few decades have passed, and none of the proposed actions has been taken.
- Population Projections, by the US Census Bureau. They’re no longer assuring us that US and Global Population will level out at 300 million and 9 billion. Would you believe 1 billion and 12 billion by the end of the century, and still rising?
- The Two-Income Trap by (now Senator) Elizabeth Warren. The peril of fuelling a half-century of economic ‘growth’ entirely through increasing the debt load.
- The Weather Makers, by Tim Flannery. A scientific explanation of global warming, how we are causing it, and the possible consequences.
- Elizabeth Costello, by JM Coetzee (novel). Why we tolerate “a crime of stupefying proportions” against our fellow creatures on Earth.
- A Scientific Romance, by Ronald Wright (novel). A speculation on what a time-traveller five hundred years into the future would find — a world with many fewer humans and a different, more modest society.*
- Waiting for the Macaws, by Terry Glavin. A series of portraits of ecosystem destruction around the world that illustrates “the dark and gathering sameness of the world”.
- Heat, by George Monbiot. A rigorous explanation of why, even if we exploit every renewable energy option to the max, we will still inevitably have to draw on and burn enough hydrocarbons to fry the planet.
- The Slow Crash, by Ran Prieur. An (online) essay that explains how civilization will end, not with a bang, but with a series of whimpers. My own two cents added in this review (from 2005, and my predictions still seem very plausible).
- Endgame, by Derrick Jensen. Volume 1 explains where we are; volume 2 provides the argument for direct action, expanded in Deep Green Resistance (below).*
- The Great Depression, by Pierre Berton. A stark portrait of the horrific economic collapse of the 1930s that economists swore “would never be allowed to happen again” shows us what we’re facing again, now.
- The Five Stages of Collapse, by Dmitri Orlov. How financial/economic collapse quickly leads to political collapse and then to social and cultural collapse.
- Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist, by Paul Kingsnorth. The Dark Mountain co-founder muses on the inevitability of civilization’s collapse and the futility of trying to prevent it or mitigate its damage.
- Deep Green Resistance, by Derrick Jensen et al. The argument for direct action: “Civilization is going to crash, whether or not we help bring this about. This crash will be messy. Since industrial civilization is systematically dismantling the ecological infrastructure of the planet, the sooner civilization comes down, whether or not we help it crash, the more life will remain afterwards to support both human and non-humans.”
- Why We Cannot Save the World: My summary of Pollard’s Laws, the Jevons Paradox and why complex systems resist change.
Reconnecting with All-Life-on-Earth:
- When Elephants Weep, by Jeff Masson. Compelling scientific evidence that animals feel deep emotions.
- Mind of the Raven, by Bernd Heinrich. Compelling scientific evidence that animals are intelligent, complex, rational and communicative.
- The Hidden Dimension, by Edward Hall. We need space and a natural environment to be healthy and human. When we’re deprived of them, we get mentally ill.
- The Spell of the Sensuous, by David Abram. How to reconnect with nature, and rediscover wonder.
- Rogue Primate, by John Livingston. How anthropocentric cultural prosthesis has led our species astray, and how we might find our way back by rediscovering “the sweet bondage of wildness”.
- The Machine in Our Heads, by Glenn Parton. How the ecological crisis is rooted in a human psychological crisis of self-colonization and disconnection.
- Humans in the Wilderness, by Glenn Parton. An intriguing proposal for rewilding the Earth. Impractical but worth thinking about.
- The World is Dying, by Richard Bruce Anderson. Online essay about our instinctive grief over knowing what we are doing to our beleaguered planet, and our feelings of helplessness about how to remedy it.
Preparing for Collapse:
- Tools for Conviviality, by Ivan Illich. De-institutionalize, de-school, decentralize, reduce dependence on external authority and “expertise”. Full book is online.
- Beyond Hope, by Derrick Jensen. How “giving up hope” is the first step to moving forward.*
- Radical Simplicity, by Jim Merkel. Ideas to free yourself from possessions and wage slavery without sacrifice.
- The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell. What makes things change, and why most things don’t.
- The Wisdom of Crowds, by James Surowiecki. Why collective wisdom is better than accepted wisdom and expertise at solving problems, and how to tap it without succumbing to groupthink.
- Biomimicry, by Janine Benyus. Lessons and approaches from nature that could inspire and make more resilient our processes for food production, harnessing energy, manufacturing, health care, education, collaboration and entrepreneurship.
- The Logic of Sufficiency, by Thomas Princen. A set of principles, assumptions and connecting theory for rationally and collectively self-managing complex adaptive systems.*
- The Cellular Church, by Malcolm Gladwell. An online essay that suggest cellular organization principles might allow us to accomplish, bottom-up, what political entities cannot.
- The Democracy Project, by David Graeber. Rediscovering the true meaning and practice of democracy, bottom-up.
- Sacred Economics, by Charles Eisenstein. A comprehensive prescription for a true sharing economy; probably not achievable as more than an uneasy supplement to the industrial growth economy until the latter collapses, but fascinating to think about.
- In Defiance of Gravity, by Tom Robbins. An (online) essay that argues we must “insist on joy in spite of everything.”
* additions in afterthought October 2013
Postscript: I’ve made a GoodReads list of all the books in this list: You can find it here.