Grimly Letting Go of the Old Story

sipress cognitive dissonance

cartoon by David Sipress  from the New Yorker

I have noticed a subtle change over the last year or two in what (and how) both mainstream and alternative media are reporting (worse news, more indifferently, more dishonestly and more under-reporting). I’ve also noticed a gradual increase in the general level of non-specific anxiety, pessimism, guilt, shame, premonition and overwhelm of my friends and acquaintances (it’s even worse now, I think, than it was right after 9/11). And I’ve noticed a similar disturbing increase in the general level of malaise, meanness, insensitivity, and demonization of others in general public discourse.

I think these are all symptoms of the early stages of collapse.

Here are the shifts I am seeing more tangibly that would seem to epitomize early collapse:

  1. Corporations have given up the pretence of being ethical. At first, a decade or two ago, many corporations tried to convince the public they were really concerned about social and environmental issues. Then they discovered that whitewashing, greenwashing, and lies in their advertising and PR were more effective and cheaper. Now they don’t even bother to lie. They just say they are forced to do what they do because their mandate is to maximize profits. Now they settle their malfeasance out of court because it’s cheaper than obeying the law, and hush it up with gag orders, whistle-blower prosecutions and threats of costly and protracted litigation against anyone who dares challenge their illegal activities. Now they buy their politicians openly. Instead of them serving us, as they were designed to do, it is now us against them. Now it is illegal for citizens to film animal cruelty atrocities in factory farms and slaughterhouses, but not illegal for corporations to commit those atrocities.
  2. Politicians have given up the pretence of being representative. Speeches no longer talk about “the people” or a better society or collective interest, but solely about response to intangible, invented or inflated dangers like “terrorism” and “illegal” immigration (but not the real dangers, since that would offend their owners). Gerrymandering, bribes, voter disenfranchisement and vote-buying are now accepted as just how the system inevitably works. Political influence and political decision-making are now totally and overtly a function of the amount of paid lobbying and money spent. The term “democracy” is now conflated with “freedom” and Orwellian use of language is openly employed to suppress public opposition, dissent and outrage.
  3. Lying has becoming rampant, overt and even socially acceptable. The biggest and easiest lies are the lies of omission: burying corporatist and ideological legislation and pork in “omnibus” bills and “riders”, gross distortions of measures like unemployment and inflation, burying junk investments in opaque repackaged and overpriced offerings to the public, activities couched to offer perpetrators “plausible deniability“, and unlisted ingredients and unlisted dangers on product packaging. Another example is lawmakers passing “popular” laws but telling regulatory staff not to enforce them or “look the other way”, or starving the regulators of resources. But more egregious is the overt lying, led by the outrageous (and again Orwellian) untruths of almost all modern advertising and PR (including political campaign advertising), which we are now forced by every means possible to watch/listen to/read. And of course, just about everything done by the legal “profession” who are paid to obfuscate, threaten and lie, and the mainstream media, who are paid to report only distracting news that does not offend corporate sponsors, and to oversimplify and distort to pander to their dumbed-down audience.
  4. Widespread use and acceptance of “ends justify the means” rationalizations. This is the hallmark behaviour of the Dick Cheneys and other severely psychologically damaged people who prevail disproportionately in position of power. Consequentialists rationalize that, immoral as their actions might be (or might have been), the outcome will be (or was) a desirable one, so their conduct in achieving it is moot. This argument allows them to decide to wage wars and commit other acts of violence (and almost all major recent wars and major acts of violence have been rationalized on this basis). What’s worse, when the desired “ends” are not achieved (liberation of women in Afghanistan), the shifting of blame to others for the failure to achieve the ends is used to excuse both the failure to achieve the ends and for the abhorrence of the means. Probe just about any act of violence, any lie, or any illegal or immoral behaviour that someone is justifying or excusing these days, and you’ll find an “ends (would have) justified the means” rationalization. It’s endemic, and not only among right-wingers. And few of us have the critical thinking skills to see its dangers.
  5. Human activity (litigation, security, financial “products” etc.) is focused on defending the status quo rather than producing anything of value. The reason most of us could not survive today in the radically decentralized, low-complexity societies that will take hold after civilization’s collapse, is that most of us don’t produce anything that peers in our community value, or ever will value. We are “managers” of useless hierarchies, paper pushers, systems people, guards, number crunchers, packagers, transporters and vendors of goods we do not know how to make, with parts we don’t know the origin or makeup of. Because we intuitively “know” that this is so, we are desperate to keep civilization’s crumbling systems operating. What else could we do?
  6. The illusion of growth has become totally dependent on increases in oil and in debt. In a presentation here the other day, economist Nate Hagens revealed that since 2000 96% of all US GDP growth has come from more consumption of primary energy, not from increases in production or efficiency or “innovation”, and that it now takes creation of $14 of new debt (i.e. printing of currency) to produce $1 of GDP. So when economists and politicians say they want a return to growth (to avoid a collapse of the Ponzi scheme stock and housing markets, among other reasons), what they are really saying is that they want us to burn more fossil fuels and print more money.
  7. Acceptance of obscene inequality. People just shrug when they learn that the entire increase in global income and wealth since the 1970s has accrued to just 1% of the population — everyone else’s real income (purchasing power) and wealth has declined (i.e. they’re further into debt), in many cases precipitously. This is despite the fact that this increase in income and wealth has come at a ghastly and accelerating social, political and ecological cost. The Occupy movement tried to challenge this, but the movement is dormant.
  8. Denial of reality, across the political spectrum. Most of us (except in the US and a few other backward countries) now appreciate that climate change is caused by burning fossil fuels and is dangerously accelerating. But most of us still believe, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that it is somehow possible to change global behaviour so radically that we reverse emissions and prevent runaway climate change, or that we’re going to somehow replace most emissions with renewable energy or other “innovations”. Most deny the reality that our education and health care systems are dysfunctional and unsustainable, that the Internet is a huge consumer of energy dependent on the industrial growth economy for its existence, that species extinction has already accelerated to a point unprecedented in the planet’s history and threatens the stability of every ecosystem, that our political, economic and legal systems are so dysfunctional they cannot be salvaged, that industrial agriculture has already destroyed most of the soils crucial for our survival, that choosing short-term jobs over long-term economic and ecological health is disastrous, and that “sustainable growth” is an oxymoron. For those who aren’t in denial, the ever-growing cognitive dissonance in the media and in public discourse is staggering.
  9. Widespread cynicism and acceptance of conspiracy theories. Stephen Colbert wrote “Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don’t learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us.” Cynics are, as George Carlin said, disappointed idealists. The rampant growth of cynicism reveals a similar increase in fear and disappointment. Conspiracy theories are popular because they give us someone else to blame (someone huge, mysterious and unstoppable, hence relieving us of the obligation to do anything or even to understand what is really happening), and because they feed our cynicism, and because we all want something simple to believe instead of the impossible complexity of the truth. And that desire for something simple to believe also inspires…
  10. Search for and willingness to believe in charismatic people and magical solutions. Hardly a day goes by when I don’t see another promise of a technology that will provide infinite, cheap, climate-saving energy. Judging from the number of views these articles/videos receive, they are magnets for public attention. And when we’re constantly disappointed by “leaders” to promise us “hope” and change, it is not surprising that so many fall under the influence of zealous charismatic people with absurd (and discredited) but miraculous (and simple) political and economic and technological “solutions” to every problem. The world’s last powerful charismatic leader, the despotic Mao, killed 80 million of his country’s citizens while keeping ten times that number in thrall. Notice the charismatic tilt of many of the new leaders of the fearful Randian/Thatcherian/Reaganite right, and the leaders of many popular new age cults.
  11. Ubiquitous spying and corporatist surveillance. I don’t think I need elaborate on this, except to note that the corporate sector’s use of collected intelligence and surveillance in its many forms dwarfs that of the more obvious government and military sector. The military-industrial complex is back. So far it’s too incompetent to figure out how to use the data it’s collecting, but they’re spending an awful lot of our money working on that. Their level of anxiety is rising too — they’re tuned into the general dissatisfaction and are afraid of civil insurrection upsetting their lucrative and high-maintenance apple-cart. (If only.)
  12. Self-colonization and the emergence of “apologism” and mandatory optimism. We’ve seen the emergence of mandatory optimism in the corporate world, and more overtly in the prerequisite for being a TED talker and other “positive thinking” movements. But now the vilification of criticism and pessimism (as distinct from cynicism) is becoming more ubiquitous. Critical thinking and doubt are dismissed out-of-hand as negativity and a “bad attitude” even in peer conversation. When internalized to the point we feel bad about feeling bad, it’s an essential tool of self-colonization — the co-opting and self-censoring of our own anger, skepticism, fear, sadness, grief, and ‘unpopular’ beliefs in order to be socially accepted by others, and in some cases to brainwash ourselves into denial of our own feelings and beliefs that we are struggling to cope with — and reconcile with what others are saying they feel and believe (there’s that cognitive dissonance again: “If I’m the only one thinking this, I must be crazy, so I’d better not talk about it”). What all this produces is something now called “apologism” — a propensity to make excuses and minimize an event or belief or feeling because you don’t want to seem “always” critical or out of step with the mainstream or peers. In its worst form it emerges as a victim-blaming defence for atrocities like assault, harassment or abuse. But in its milder form it can lead to dangerous group-think, the suppression of new and important ideas, and destructive self-blaming.
  13. Widespread anomie and the trivialization and co-opting of dissent by professional activists. The term anomie means a disconnection between ones personal values and one’s community’s values. It refers to a state of ‘rudderlessness’ where it is difficult to find one’s authentic place or engage in meaningful social interaction with most others, especially those in different demographics. In a major international study, pollster Michael Adams found it increasingly prevalent in young people, and on the rise in all age groups. Adams remarked on how Americans in particular were becoming increasingly “suspicious of and indifferent to the plight of their fellow citizens”. The disengagement of the young explains why so many activist groups are dominated by older people (a new phenomenon in the last half-century). Unfortunately, the activist vacuum has allowed professional environmental groups (Greenpeace, 350 etc.) to co-opt much of the activist movement’s activities, creating a constant manageable “trivial theatre of dissent” that is comfortable for many older people opposed to violence and confrontation, and comfortable for the corporations and politicians because it’s controlled and unthreatening. Mainstream media like it because it’s simplified, dichotomous and often specifically orchestrated for their cameras. And it creates easy, stable, well-paying jobs for mainstream environmental group spokespeople, while changing absolutely nothing.

While I believe most of these trends and emergences are complex collective responses to changing realities, and either well-intentioned or unconscious (i.e. without malicious intent), taken together they would seem to evince a broad, intuitive shift in our collective gestalt, our way of coping with the world. They reveal more than anything, I think, a giving up of the belief in fairness, justice, controllability, understandability and consensus as means of “making sense” or taking action reliably to achieve desired objectives in the current reality of how things work. They reveal both the incapacity of our now massively-overgrown, fragile and unwieldy systems to function sustainably or effectively, and the incapacity of ourselves and our broken communities to function effectively within their purview.

In other words, just as we became, over the last few millennia, increasingly disconnected from nature and from our integral place in the web of all-life-on-Earth, we are now quickly becoming disconnected from human-made systems that we realize, at least subconsciously, no longer function or support us — indeed they imperil our existence. This second disconnection is a healthy one, a sensible coping mechanism, a first step in preparation for the perilous and rocky shift to a possible new way of living in both a human and more-than-human society, at least for the survivors of collapse. Intuitively, it’s the only sustainable way for us to live.

This letting-go of our belief in and reliance on and support for civilization’s systems is of course frightening — we want the new connections, the new ways of living and being, to be securely in place before we give up on the old ones. We want to know the new story before we can honestly accept that the old one, the one we still cling to and believe in so utterly, so passionately, and now so desperately, has always been a lie.

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12 Responses to Grimly Letting Go of the Old Story

  1. Sue says:

    14. The $26 all-you-can-eat Sunday afternoon at the Village Green Hotel

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  3. Meliors says:

    Yes you have summed this stage of the collapse, though I would argue we are mid- rather than early- collapse. I have been observing the dying throes of capitalism et al closely since I was a teenager in the mid 1980’s, when a friend commented that ‘dying lions sometimes attack’.

    I never thought the intensification and acceleration of the collapse would be comfortable, I just never understood it would be so lonely to be one of the few who looks at it straight on. Cognitive dissonance throbs in my head like a migraine. Mandatory optimism isolates and silences me.

    I am the only one of my circle of friends, all aware and committed environmental activists for many years, who is not taking anti-depressant drugs. (I internalise my fear and anger at the state of the world into self-loathing at least as much as everyone else, but I choose to wade through the slough of despair undrugged.)

  4. Matthew says:

    I read a 2007 by Kasser on the costs of American Corporate Capitalism, and in it it mentions that intrinsic to capitalism is indoctrination in the belief system of competition and self interest above all else. Our games as children are all competitive and we are not rewarded for doing things together. This is in direct opposition to beliefs in universalism and working together, which psychological papers have documented as necessary in some regard.

    Another aspect is stress levels. The human system only takes so much stress before it shuts down. I believe what you described is a growing shut down and desensitization. Mental illness and PTSD keep growing year after year. When one’s own life is too much to handle, of course you can’t think about the community or world. I believe there have been some conscious decisions to move the society towards that – never ending student debt definitely keeps many potential activists in check.

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  6. Eggy Preuss says:

    It is the opinion of a lot of thoughtful people that the adversarial system upon which our current system of government rests has failed us – in fact, was indeed bound to do so. Perhaps such an intrinsically contentious system can succeed in a social atmosphere where the predominant voters are knowledgeable, and expect, and reward, courtesy. It is also possible that this was the social climate at the time of the founding of this country, but this is obviously, and increasingly, no longer the case.

    Instead, today, after several centuries of adversarial strife, we are left with several classes of professionals who practice politics for profit, and who are bent upon revenge. They seem to measure their success exclusively by the failure of their opponents, and their only interest is in gaining some kind of advantage, regardless of its effect on the country as a whole. They do not fear the voter because history has taught them that the U.S. voter has a very short attention span and can easily be misled, bamboozled and confused.

    So stay tuned. It will be a hell of a bang when it all finally crashes down.

  7. Sean says:

    15. We are totally unaware of the damage we are doing to children by sending them to school – the modern compulsory schooling system has created generation after generation of individuals that have been indoctrinated to be compliant consumers and competitors in a human race that inherently destroys community. Education debate is restricted to funding and measurement of employability skills.

  8. Pawel Klewin says:

    What about collective effort to understand the dynamics? Though not an immediate cure for grim despair, but at least for loneliness and alienation. Eventually from the POV of dynamic autonomous systems theory and information theory cognitive dissonance is natural and inevitable stage of consciousness infancy!

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  10. Jan Steinman says:

    There is an antidote… DO SOMETHING!

    And I don’t mean give more money to your favourite eco-charity. (In fact, that’s probably contra-indicated, as it tends to “feed” the greater economy.)

    I mean make it your goal to de-consume from the greater economy, while supplying more of your own life-support directly.

    Grow food! Find a job closer to home — preferably, bike or walk distance! Better yet, work from home! Better yet, start three home businesses — none of them significantly supporting the greater economy! Grow food! Down-size your house or apartment! Shop in thrift stores! Better yet, buy nothing new! Get a diesel vehicle, and learn how to make biodiesel! Better yet, convert your diesel to run on waste vegetable oil! Better yet, completely get rid of your car! Heat with wood! Better yet, heat with wood that you cut and process yourself, from a woodlot that you know can sustain your harvest! Buy nothing in plastic packaging! Better yet, buy nothing plastic! Grow food! Raise goats and chickens! Study Permaculture! Grow food!

    DE-CONSUME! STARVE THE BEAST!

  11. Gail Zawacki says:

    Excellent essay, thank you. Added to the “Doomy Support & Philosophy page at the online Apocalypsi Library at the End of the World – http://doomfordummies.blogspot.com/

    ~ the Librarian

  12. Dave Young says:

    This is all so very descriptive of living in a third world country, as I do. Our state of collapse is entirely due to the ‘democratic’ system of ‘one man, one vote’, hence we are now governed by people who only care about themselves, their power and their wealth. We can go on about saving ourselves through thrift, self-help, and ‘doing’ something, but it will not help for the great majority will simply continue to exist in the hope that some miraculous intervention will save us. We have to change the system first. Can it be done by ordinary people? I have my doubts.

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