Less Than Enthusiastic (a guest post by Paul Heft)

My Palo Alto friend and Transition colleague Paul Heft and I have often shared ideas and thoughts on how the world really works, our culture, and what it means to be human. Recently he wrote the following, which he’s allowing me to repost on my blog. It pretty much summarizes my view of things, other than the fact he’s a bit more pessimistic than I am about the violence that will accompany civilization’s collapse, and the likelihood of healthier human cultures emerging afterwards:


Less Than Enthusiastic (A Guest Post by Paul Heft)

My pessimism leaves me in a very awkward position in discussions with my friends. It’s hard for them when I can’t get excited about their strategies for change, or the “victories” or “advances” in the movements they identify with, or their meetings, marches, letter writing, electoral campaigns, and many other ways they participate in politics. I applaud their passion, but it’s not infectious; I wish them the best, but I don’t join in. I continue to share ideas (usually articles that I have read) but I don’t expect much conversation to result.

If you’re allergic to dark viewpoints, or just liable to slip into a bad mood, you should probably ignore the rest of this message. It just provides some explanation for my point of view, in case that’s of interest.

My pessimism is a result of my attempts to understand how the world works. To understand, one must be willing to inquire deeply. This inquiry has led me to explore economics and human consciousness, since those topics seem pretty basic to what’s going on. Any conclusions I reach necessarily remain open to question; they are in danger of solidifying as beliefs, but I choose to take that risk rather than conclude that I just don’t know.

According to my current understanding:

  1. The machine of capitalism is destructive, exploitative, unjust, and ecocidal. I think of it as a machine because as a political economic system it operates without depending on particular human thoughts and actions: individuals come and go, and the system continues in much the same way as before, according to its own logic of accumulation (amassing wealth, generally through profits, largely from mass consumption). It demonstrates very limited morality. It generates inequality in status and in economic power. It forces participation and conformity through the threat of insecurity (controlling access to food, shelter, and medical care), through the imposition of desires (marketing things that promise to increase status, eliminate discomfort, and satisfy supposed lacks), and occasional violence (imprisonment, bombing, etc.). It assigns greater rights and power to owners of property, especially productive property, and to their representatives (government officials, police, managers, etc.). It prefers to ignore what can be avoided as costs, such as degradation of workers and of nature, pollution, habitat destruction, resource depletion, and (the most recent, glaring example) climate change. Nothing is sacred (unless it supports profits, such as the idea of unfettered markets)–we are increasingly losing our sense of morality and of connection to place and to nature. Environmental damage is increasing to the extent of threatening the continuation of civilization, and conceivably even our survival as a species.
  2. Capitalism requires economic “growth”–increasing opportunities for profit–both as an incentive for shareholder and corporate investment, and as a source of funds to pay interest on loans. Growth is proposed as the solution to a multitude of ills (poverty, recession, low tax revenues, etc.) and has become practically an end in itself. Growth has meant greater destruction, exploitation, and ecocide, and arguably greater injustice. Some “green capitalists” argue that capitalism can, through efficiency improvements, other innovations, and a modicum of regulation and taxation (but while retaining human dominion over nature), reduce such ill effects, but its history shows no such promise–rather, it seems quite obviously unsustainable. One side effect–the financialization of the economy in recent decades as private and public debt have been tremendously pumped up–threatens to burst a debt bubble that central banks are desperately trying to stabilize, thereby tossing global economies into depression.
  3. Alternative economies are actively discouraged, so much so that they seem difficult to imagine. Capitalism relies on control of opinion, especially through the mass media, by filtering out views that might question the ultimate goal of generating increasing profits through mass consumption. Capitalism idealizes competition among individuals to determine merit, wealth as a measure of virtue, and elevation of the individual over the community and nature–all elements of the American Dream which are widely accepted, perhaps even by “progressives“. The system is portrayed as fair, as the best possible way to improve our welfare, as the best mode of organization for “progress” in today’s world–any exceptions must be the fault of bad actors that can be reigned in or purged through our system of law and politics. Propaganda aside, if we were to move away from the consumerism that capitalism fosters and depends upon, the effect would be an economic depression–unless we gave up on capitalism with its need for increasing profits.
  4. We often wonder why other people don’t think the way we do: what seems obvious to us may appear very differently to others with a different worldview. Why can’t we all just get along, and deal with problems rationally and in good faith? Human consciousness rarely operates in the ideal manner we imagine or prefer, and offers many obstacles to dealing with global problems in the modern age. Our conception of a separate and vulnerable “self” encourages us to fracture into groups (nations, races (cf. white privilege), religious sects, tribes, etc.) that might increase our security; capitalism derives much of its energy from our pursuit of “self-interest”, and the corresponding belief that we are each responsible for our lot in life and get what we deserve. Our “herd consciousness” supports conformity, so that we resist new views. The belief in human agency, the will to power, easily leads to fantasies of control, and we can fall victim to magical thinking, unrealistically believing that intentions will shape reality (c.f. Richard Heinberg’s criticisms of plans for renewable energy, Kevin Anderson’s criticisms of climate modeling). We often filter out bad news: people aggressively filter information that doesn’t conform to their worldview. Rational thought is often undermined by our unconscious, leading to mere rationalizations–which are very difficult to recognize, as those pursuing self-knowledge quickly discover. Groups often preserve arbitrary belief systems, regardless of reality, to maintain the legitimacy and coherence of the group itself. The “previous-investment trap” makes it difficult to give up the common wealth we have created, even though it might not be maintainable with future diminishing resources.
  5. Our modern culture offers its own obstacles. The feeling of vulnerability inhibits emotional honesty, so that we have trouble sharing and dealing with feelings such as grief and anxiety. Ethics are undermined by the modern fragmentation of experience, such that most people are dissociated from things that are crucial to their lives. Resistance too often relies on shaming or violence, which generate strong reactions leading to disunity.
  6. Society develops over time as a complex system with a strong tendency towards maintaining stable institutions, general beliefs (such as worldviews), and ways of doing things. Short of experiencing an immense trigger such as a global disaster, can capitalism’s push for growth at the expense of everything be turned around? Is it possible for people around the globe to adopt a worldview that allows us to relate more harmoniously among each other and with the natural world? Could we accomplish it through rational discussion, through moral suasion? My impression is that worldviews are barely susceptible to change, as suggested by a lot of recent research by psychologists and sociologists. In my view, this is a key reason that the problems of our civilization are posing an insoluble predicament.
  7. Some people argue that complexity has peaked and collapse has already begun. As it continues, as systems more obviously break down, my prognosis is that stresses will increase and people with different worldviews will find it even more difficult to tolerate each other or work in concert. Frustration and desperation will lead to more blame and division.
  8. Similar to other articulate social critics, Pope Francis (in his recent encyclical) has called for “a bold cultural revolution”, a society “in which the walls of the ego are torn down and the barriers of selfishness overcome.” This reminds me of my own desire, and belief (while in college) in the likelihood, of a communist revolution. Now I believe that any radical change–of the sort that would allow us to move away from capitalism, shutting off its engine of destruction, preserving the possibility of our civilization maturing around principles of global cooperation, mutual respect, dignity of the individual, strong communities, reversal of climate change, and regeneration of natural systems–is very unlikely. It’s much more likely that the world’s political systems will fracture, capitalism will survive in some uglier, reconfigured form, climate change will exceed “limits” we are setting today, and “ecological overshoot” will drastically reduce population.

Why am I such a pessimist? my friends ask. Most of them retain hope for the future, a faith that humans are basically “good”, or have their mutual interests at heart, and therefore will join together to change what increasing numbers of people see as civilization’s wrong course, avoiding self-destruction. Some grasp onto hope in order to retain a self image as powerful, effective, dependable, or good; to generate the optimism that our society appears to insist upon; or to avoid experiencing a despair that they are afraid they could not survive.

Some friends, even without much hope for a great transformation, continue campaigning for political reforms or to prevent reversals of the “progressive” project. There seems to be an implicit credo that, since we have compassion, “free will”, and the intelligence to act for the benefit of the common good, we therefore have a moral obligation to be agents of change and to believe in our potential effectiveness. While I am sympathetic with most of their political goals, I do not subscribe to that credo and I see their efforts in the context of a system which, out of our control, is exceeding its limits and is inevitably breaking down. From that perspective, their incremental efforts in national and international campaigns appear too little by far.

That leaves me sad, but not despairing, not blaming, and not resenting others’ different opinions; I just want to accept what appears to be reality, my current understanding of truth.


(drawing above by Michael Leunig)

This entry was posted in How the World Really Works. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Less Than Enthusiastic (a guest post by Paul Heft)

  1. That is the closest thing to a brain-dump of my own thoughts that I have ever read. Thank you.

  2. Neoagrarian says:

    Nicely articulated. I for one have no issues with the need for this to be said…for the record. You might consider reading Wendell Berry’s essay “In Distrust of Movements”. It kept flickering in my subconscious as I read some of the above. Carry on and shore up your equanimity. It is difficult, I know.

  3. Michael Arnoldus says:

    Well, this seems to be a well grounded, well thought through attitude towards life.

    And yet, it’s still thoughts, thoughts about the future. Not the truth.

    And isn’t life grand? :)

  4. Orlando says:

    Aright – I take the points here but … I think they’re fundamentally flawed based on this:

    “a political economic system it operates without depending on particular human thoughts and actions” …

    That’s just false. The entire system is based on human thoughts, actions, and emotions. You take the people out there’s nothing there. Look at markets – those are based on emotion! Walk through a city and you’re essentially exploring a human brain – restaurants, bridal stores, sex shops, you name it. All our needs, desires, etc. expressed through a capitalist lens.

    The real issue is that we don’t appreciate the fact that we are animals … animals have a set of behavioral dynamics and physical characteristics formulated over time to best adapt to their environment. And this environment is a mess … but look at the arc of human history – we’ve got 10’s of thousands of years of history showing human animals in tune with nature. We just constructed this nonsense system.

    We gotta base our decisions, projections, arguments, and actions within on these facts. Otherwise we’re just spinning wheels.

  5. Paul Heft says:

    Thanks for the post and the responses, I’m honored that my thoughts might be part of some fascinating conversations about what’s happening in the world and within our heads.

    Neoagrarian, thanks for the tip: Wendell Berry’s essay “In Distrust of Movements” is a very articulate warning against a reductionist, “reformist” approach that fails to deal with the political and economic and natural system holistically, fails to look for the root causes, or loses its language in confusion.

    Michael, you’re right, my thoughts touch on a limited truth. While I try to accept what appears to be true about the world (even though I might not like it), I suspect that even enlightened sages would find their thoughts offer only a limited truth. I will never get it right, but I try to live in reality rather than in fantasies; I believe the thinking offers me some value in that regard. It’s hard to tell!

    Orlando, you point out our nature as animals and our long history as indigenous peoples living successfully (in the sense of some sort of “balance” with other life). Unfortunately I don’t get your point; I don’t know if it argues against any of my thoughts. I’d be curious to learn that.

  6. Derek says:

    ‘Most of them retain hope for the future, a faith that humans are basically “good”’

    Yes, I think this is a fundamental flaw underlying the entire premise of “change for the better”. My personal world-view is that human nature is basically selfish. Some of us, through combination of circumstances, manage to overcome that to some degree; but as whole, our species behaviour is driven by that. Thus capitalism as a dominant economic system is the natural (inevitable?) outcome of that nature. It won’t change until, as you say, it collapses and so demonstrates its inability to best satisfy our selfishness; or it gets supplanted by another. All of this is complicated by the fact that our lifespans are so short in comparison with global environmental changes that it is difficult for us to make sustainably “selfish” choices related to preservation of the natural ecosystem.

    An interesting book to read is “The Mote in God’s eye” by Jerry Pournelle which deals with the long-term effect of genetic characteristics on civilisation.

  7. Kari says:

    Cheers for sharing, Paul – I agree with what you’ve expressed here, and the activist in me dies slowly, grieving for its lost place in my life (that’s been happening for a long time, so don’t worry that you’ve single-handedly trashed my illusion!).

    A major question remains, and I’m mindful of the fact that you haven’t attempted to answer it with this post, so please don’t take this to be some kind of correction, or even amendment, to what you have written. The question is this: how, then, in light of all this, are we to live?

    An obvious question, of course. But one to which I find the answer is usually facetious or nihilistic. The answers offered up by most seem to be along the lines of “just party like it’s 1999,” or “we should just accept our own demise and speed it all up.” I find these responses more than just a little bit lacking.

    So, being that I’ve asked myself this question in sincerity throughout my life, I’m keen for a real exploration of what’s possible, desirable, and, most importantly to me, as karmically neutral as possible (i.e. that which does not speed up our march off the entropic cliff). Jeez, I shudder to use such nebulous terms… :-P

    If we accept that we do not have control, and that we naturally crave security, we are left with a conundrum: Are we to relinquish our craving for security? (If so, how? Is this just another attempt at control – in the form of us policing our own thoughts?) Or are we to accept that we crave security, but also that we cannot have it? This seems to me to be at the root of our human psychodrama: that we crave security when we cannot have it, and try to seize it by means of control (manifesting in terms of politics, power-play, dominion over nature, techno-fixes, propaganda, etc.); we live in perpetual conflict with “what is.”

    My understanding is that we are at odds with reality because we try to assert control where said control is only illusory. We cannot control others, or our environments; and I sincerely doubt whether we can control ourselves (the fact that the part of us that’s supposed to give the rest of us a kick up the bum is really bad at doing that is evidence enough for me… Folks with little comprehension of psychology often make the mistake of buying into the appealingly paradigmatic drivel peddled by behaviourists and their more modern CBT and MindfulnessTM counterparts, as well as the self-help industry). We strive for a security we cannot win, earn or steal. Mother Nature permits us security rather capriciously, or not at all. All that we do to try to shift the odds in our favour leads to the illusion that we have escaped the lottery of life and have secured ourselves a tighter grip on the ever-elusive guarantee of security. The upshot is gross inequality and a growth-at-all-costs economy.

    So, where does this leave us? Does this mean that it’s not worth trying to change anything? Well, the trickster in me says ‘no’, and not because it’s attached to the control drama. My inner trickster just wants to play with the idea that the butterfly effect is unstoppable once put in motion – that we can all flap our wings, expect something to happen, but almost invariably be disappointed by exactly what the results are, as there are so many factors at play in any one outcome. That doesn’t render the doing worthless – it just suggests we’d benefit from not being attached to outcomes. So, I know I can’t change the world, but I also know that I can have an impact simply by virtue of existing. Impact is vastly different from control, which one can surrender without becoming a complete nihilist.

    I’m left with the sense that it’s still worth doing all of the things that could lead to a little less suffering and a little more enjoyment, wherever that’s within our sphere of influence, which is generally local and small-scale. So, while it may not be worth our while trying to overhaul the global economic system, it is certainly worth our while trying to engage our communities in resilient forms of local trade and gifting, as an example. While it’s pointless to try to secure global climate treaties, it’s not pointless to downsize our own footprints. And so on….

    This, I believe, is what irks me about most Dark Mountaineers: that the moral high ground is won by simply understanding that we can’t do anything but write poetry, which isn’t attached to any desire to save the world. Yawn. I’m an animal living in a real, physical world, and much as I love to write, I also know that it’s worth putting a little bit of my time into giving others a leg up in climbing the mountain, so to speak. In the end it’s all for nothing, but I won’t be here in the end, so it’s what I do here and now that’s most relevant.

    Am I making sense?

    Anyhoo, I’d love to discuss further with anyone who’s up for playing :-D

  8. Dave Pollard says:

    My take on this, until Paul weighs in: I agree that we have no control or ‘free will’. My attempt to realize the illusion of separate self, time etc. is driven mainly by the same sense of quandary you describe; my sense is that if I can ‘awaken’ from this illusion it will put me in a better position to answer the question ‘what now do we do?’, and I’m guessing the outcome of that will probably be just to exercise metta, karuna, mudita, upekkha (loving kindness, compassion, joy in others’ joy, and equanimity) every moment in a way that grounds us and enables us to help others close to us more intelligently and holistically, and enables us to at least stop doing all the things that make things worse.

    I have to defend Dark Mountaineers however — their/our objective is to chronicle civilization’s collapse, to create a record of what has been and is being lost and how and why, so that after TSHTF the survivors will have that record as a means to assess what might be worth building from the ashes. Poetry/art/music has always been a force for change, because it is what wakes many up from their folly in ways journalism and analytical argument often cannot. I think that’s a noble calling, not nihilism from the moral high ground. Dark Mountain is more a passage through than a climbing above, leaving a trail for others to follow, and to see where we have come from.

  9. Kari says:

    Dave: if I treat Dark Mountain as more of a passage (and here I’m visualising the Great Dividing Range, at whose feet I live), then it makes far more sense as a journey for documenting what has been and why it has been this way. So thank you for that! I’m not convinced all Dark Mountaineers see it that way, as there’s plenty among them/us (I don’t know if it’s a them or an us… as with so many in-groups! I’m allergic to in-groups, I think, as echo chambers fuck with my sense of clarity…) who do seem to sneer down from the moral high ground, and offer not so much as a hint of directions, much less a hand up… but I will concede that these folks have missed the point, rather than being exemplars of the Darkest shade of Green ;-)

  10. Brutus says:

    I share your deep pessimism, Paul, and sometimes wonder whether my own pessimism is an inborn character trait (as pop psych says it is, along with optimism) or a result of an attempt at honest appraisal of the world and the human condition.

    As long as you’re summarizing power laws (e.g., how the world works, and that from a distinctly human perspective), it seems to me significant that your initial points go to economics and the destructiveness of capitalism in particular (do other economic systems fare much better?). Maybe it’s true that in our era, money really does make the world go around, but when viewed through the lens of phenomenology, economics is revealed to be a surface abstraction, albeit one central to our lives and thus reified as pseudo-religion. The same can be said of politics, I think. Orlando’s point in the comments that we have lost sight of the fact that we, too, are animals is instructive. My understanding is that as supremely adaptive animals, we have by now figured out ways of extending our power to the point of self-annihilation, which might be the final, Pyrrhic power law. Steep power gradients also enable a few maniacal control freaks to consolidate and perpetuate their power at the abundantly obvious expense of nearly everyone else.

    Lastly, you already provided some answers to your Rodney King question: “Why can’t we all just get along, and deal with problems rationally and in good faith?” Yet you seem unsatisfied with answers that are already pretty clear. Various social formations and deformations allow us to accomplish a variety of objectives, many of which are irrationally motivated and possess a high quotient of illusion and unintended consequence. The self-reinforcing nature of cultural momentum discourages alternatives that might appear rational or wizened, which are often merely more illusions. In that respect, we’re great storytellers, believing too easily our own concoctions and drawing meaning out of social constructs. If a few sensitive folks penetrate the major illusions (e.g., the illusion of self), well, that doesn’t translate to the masses, who are swept along by history’s powerful currents. I’m extremely pessimistic that any of our elaborate cultural systems can be unwound by design, returning us to our animal past (never mind that the HG biosphere no longer exists), but yet that’s exactly what is likely to occur — if human don’t first go extinct along with most others in the Sixth Extinction — precisely because the power to perpetuate our current culture is based on rapidly diminishing energy and ecological resources. I can’t predict which linchpin will be pulled first — fuel, finance, or food — but any one of them will put us in an world of hurt where past investment will mean little in the face of immediate survival pressure.

  11. Paul Heft says:

    Sorry that I’m slow to respond. Kari, you ask, “How are we to live?” That question is beyond my pay grade. I can only offer hints that feel right to me for the moment. Try to avoid harming or deluding others. (Though, in this society, I seem to be complicit in harming other people and non-humans just by participating in the economy.) Don’t rely on hope, or asks others to, if it appears unrealistic (since that would reinforce delusion). Explore how I crave security. (What is there really to lose?) Be willing to feel the joys and pains of the world. (This makes sense to me but is awfully hard for me to actually do.) Let passions be my guide (if I have any—again, awfully hard for me) but beware of attaching to outcomes. Appreciate anything that people do from compassion, even if it seems trivial. Accept ambiguity and uncertainty as unavoidable. Avoid building an identity around beliefs (and, in particular, don’t be so certain as to become self-righteous). Avoid blaming myself or others.

    Brutus, the question “Why can’t we all just get along, and deal with problems rationally and in good faith?” was meant rhetorically, as if asked by others. I agree with your explanation. As for past (pre-capitalist) economic systems, you’re right, they weren’t better—but maybe capitalism has been more effective at encouraging dominion over nature (and thus ecological destruction) and at reducing everything to numbers (so that inconvenient feelings and beliefs hold little power). Economics and politics are indeed abstractions which tend toward reification, yet their study seems to offer me some explanatory power—and at the same time, I take your point that they cannot be understood in isolation (from psychology, energy flows, physical laws, and on and on).

    Modern humans seem to want to believe in an ideal society populated by ideal selves. I suspect that this meme has served the expansion of European civilization over the last 500 years or so, and thus it has offered a cultural survival value. I have to question its truth, but thereby lose the beautiful myths of perfectibility, progress, universalism, and increasing good. Seeking truth, it looks like I have to give up some comfort. And since people generally seek comfort, I can’t really expect them to inquire very far towards truth. Just seems to be the way we’re built.

    Thanks again for the conversation!

Comments are closed.