Although I’ve always been a radical (at least in the original sense of the term), nothing I’ve written on this blog has stirred up a lot of controversy. You’d think predicting the collapse of industrial civilization this century, or ‘coming out’ as poly (choosing not to commit to any exclusive romantic partnership) would have done so.
My articles on being vegan tend to have been the most provocative (people seem to think I’m judging them if they choose not to be vegan), but a close second has been my relatively recent admission to have given up on environmentalism and activism. I strongly support ‘deep green’ local resistance and direct action against environmental and social atrocities, but I no longer donate to large scale ‘environmental’ or social justice organizations or participate in protests or letter-writing campaigns because I don’t see them accomplishing anything.
For this I’m labeled a defeatist, doomer or hopeless pessimist, undermining important ‘progressive’ actions by my overt lack of support. But I’m not criticizing people who choose to do these things. And I don’t think opting out of such activities precludes my outrage over the brutal extinction of wilderness, natural habitats and non-human species, the grotesque suffering inflicted on farmed animals, the poor, the people of struggling nations, the old, the sick, and the victims of abuse.
What’s happened to me, I think, is a combination of:
- Learning to appreciate that the self-reinforcing complexity of most social, political, economic, biological and ecological systems largely precludes their ‘reform’, and requires waiting for their collapse before trying to rebuild healthier systems.
- A growing refusal to blame individuals, classes or groups for what is wrong with the world. We are all doing what we think is our best, and the terrible world we live in is the inevitable result of that. There are far too many of our species, and industrial civilization culture has given us collectively far too much (oil-fuelled) destructive power, which we are using to catastrophic but inadvertent effect.
- An awareness that we don’t have anywhere near the free will we think we have. We cannot, individually or collectively, be other than who we are.
So my outrage is about the outcomes of industrial civilization’s activities, not at their alleged perpetrators. And that outrage is not so much intellectual or emotional as it is intuitive, a sharing of the collective pain of all the creatures on this beautiful planet, past, present and (at least in the near term) future. It is a mix of anger and sadness, but not anger at, just anger that it isn’t otherwise. One of the songs our local Song Circle regularly sings cites the four qualities that are (apparently) left after the dissolution of the illusory self. The qualities are:
Loving kindness Compassion Unselfish joy Equanimity
What can one do (if one in fact has the free will to do, or not do, anything) if one believes that our most broken and destructive systems are unreformable, that we are all doing our best, and that we cannot be other than who we are, when the only ‘tools’ we have left are the four qualities above?
One can still take local action — cleaning up a local wetland, blockading the forced eviction of a neighbour or an environmentally damaging local project, helping a neighbour out of an abusive situation, celebrating small environmental and social justice victories, facilitating or mentoring or helping resolve conflicts. You can see the immediate effects of these small kindnesses, and they are mostly enduring results. I’ve tried to capture these modest activities in my now-well-worn ‘preparing for collapse’ graphic below.
One can love and be kind, doing as little harm as possible and helping out in small important ways as much as possible. One can convey compassion and support. One can spend and share and celebrate the joys of everyday living. And one can be equanimous, keeping one’s wits to do what is required in the moment when all around are losing their heads and overreacting unhelpfully.
That’s not the same as “doing nothing”. Equanimity isn’t indifference, lack of caring. It’s being keenly aware of the situation and which interventions are, and aren’t, effective, and staying as unattached as possible to outcomes one cannot control or predict.
I think that’s a good thing.
You might ask what action might be appropriate if a despot, a xenophobe, a psychopath, or an even worse racketeer than the current gang in power is elected in the US or somewhere in the EU and that country devolves into murderous systematic violence against its most vulnerable, and its avowed ‘enemies’. I have no idea. Even equanimity has its limits. But what is ‘in charge’ of this world now if not a psychopathic, desolating, heartless, indifferent and endlessly cruel global culture? If individual tyrants and brownshirts give cause to rise up and overthrow the bastards, why doesn’t the same apply to civilization culture — why aren’t we rushing to smash it and end it as quickly as possible? Is it that we don’t want to admit that we’re not ready to do that, since many of us with some degree of wealth and comfort benefit so much from it? Or is it that we don’t want to admit that we know, in our hearts, it can’t be stopped?
PREPARING FOR CIVILIZATION’S END
A Demon Haunted World: TD0S at Pray for Calamity has taken up the kind of regular, thoughtful, precise and passionate writing about how the world really works that I now do much less frequently. Excerpt from his latest essay:
To be against civilization is not to be in favor of some inhumanity towards others, but simply to believe that urban development, infinite growth, ecological destruction, social stratification, agriculture, etc. are ultimately unsustainable pursuits that are dooming our possibility of existing very far into the future. Further, the anthropocentrism inherent in such societies results in the widespread extirpation of the other beings with who we share this planet…
More is happening in the space around you than you can possibly imagine. Your body is equipped with various sensory abilities that allow you to gather information about the world around you, and this information is used to generate a picture of existence that you as a biological entity can use to go forth and attain your survival. This picture exists in your mind only, and it is further shaped and formed by your particular biological makeup, as well as the cultural programming that you have been inculcated with since birth. The world you see is not the world I see, let alone, is not the world an owl, or a butterfly, or a snap pea sees. Human societies have a habit of claiming that through their sciences that have been able to package and interpret reality as it is. The fun sets in when we notice that each of these societies that has claimed such a handle on reality have all, in fact, had different descriptions of reality. Again, more is happening around us than we could know. We are filtering. We are constructing from the pieces we capture. We are naming and simplifying and manufacturing volumes of symbols. In a sense, we must do so so as not to be crippled by the overwhelming weight of all that we experience. But ultimately, more is not included in our picture of the world than is included. The cutting room floor actually contains more reality than the final film playing out in our heads.
Filling the Void: Another fine piece of writing by TD0S, this time a bit of an existential rant on time and collapse. Thanks to Paul Heft for the link. Excerpt:
Collapse is a very odd fascination. I cannot help but think that such an interest is a by-product of the civilized mind. I also cannot help but think that the collapse so many people fear is related to their perception of time, which is in its modern form, shaped by the superstructure of our society. Capitalism has commodified our time. People in our culture sign thirty year mortgages, they make promises to pay for cars and phones and anything that can be bought with a credit card. The entirety of neoliberal capitalism is predicated on the notion that there will be more energy and stuff tomorrow than there was today. Imaginary wealth in the form of digital notations, be they named “stocks” or “bonds” or any other “investment vehicle” exists purely in an abstract future space. Civilization already has us living within the confines of abstractions built from so much collective imagining, and these abstractions form the foundation of an even more illusory notion of time in which we have convinced ourselves that we exist. When predominantly western, white, middle class people fear collapse, what exactly are they even talking about? I posit that they are actually anxious about the destruction of the future, by which I mean a constructed notion that does not actually exist… Past, present, and future are clunky attempts to place ourselves within this abstract notion we ourselves have imagined into being. This understanding is culturally informed and not a hard and fast representation of reality. Not surprisingly, modern industrial civilization has imagined time into the most expedient and efficient of forms for the benefit of production: the straight line.
Preparing For a Beautiful End: From Utne, a lovely interview of a couple in Victoria BC modelling how to prepare for collapse. Thanks to Phorus Castana for the link.
China’s Slow Unravelling Begins: TAE explains how, despite the tens of trillions spent trying to bolster China to pull the industrial nations out of the long recession, China’s artificially-created economy has started to crumble.
Pretend to the Bitter End: Jim Kunstler explains how perception is reality, but only for a while.
Richard Heinberg’s Civilization Reboot: Richard’s COP21 recap is full of interesting, and impossible, ideas. Count how many alternative ways there are of saying “we really need to…” without identifying any “hows”. Not his business, I know. Replacing them all with “if we could only…” puts a more realistic and discouraging, if still fascinating, spin on it. Thanks to Eric Lilius for the link.
The End of Cheap Oil, and Cheap Debt: Gail Tverberg explains the constraints that the limits to cheap oil and cheap debt put on our growth-addicted economy. Thanks to Sam Rose for the link.
How Much of Its Citizens’ Food Could Your City Optimally Produce?: Much, much less than you’d think, even with lawns and roofs and open spaces repurposed as gardens. Thanks to Tree for the link.
And Now, the News: XrayMike recaps the latest, all-bad, news about runaway climate change, and humans’ rather inadequate ‘efforts’ to address it.
Cartoon by Jonathan Roth from Is It Utopia Yet?
All About Co-ops: TESA releases a great study guide packed with resources about the cooperative movement and how to become part of it.
Anonymous Online Comments: With his usual wit, Rick Mercer proposes that online commenters be required to divulge their identities.
POLITICS AND ECONOMICS AS USUAL
Non-Sequitur comic by Wiley Miller
America’s Big Fat Hate-On: A new report reveals just how deep and broad the rage in the American heartland really is.
You Can’t Not Buy From Us: The Corporatist UK government moves to ban ethical boycotts of its cronies’ businesses.
America’s Poisoned Water: Between fracking, industrial waste, deregulation and decaying infrastructure, the water supply of more and more Americans grows increasingly toxic. Great news for the bottled water industry! They say the sign of a failed state is inability to deliver safe drinking water to its average citizens.
That They May Serve: A new study indicates that half of Canadian soldiers were child-abuse victims.
FUN AND INSPIRATION
NASA photo of Jupiter and Ganymede, from Hubble.
Why We Can’t Stop Child Abuse: If you really want to understand how and why complex (social, political and environmental) systems are so able to resist all attempts at change and reform, this is the article to read. The brilliant Jill Lepore explains that policies that try to deal with this problem swing back and forth between two equally terrible evils, and that dealing with the non-obvious and horrifically complex underlying problem is utterly unaffordable, even if we could somehow acknowledge and agree to address it.
Michael Bolton’s Jack Sparrow: Just funny, irreverent silliness. A bunch of satires rolled into one.
John Oliver on Donald Drumph: Just in case you are the only person in the world who hasn’t already seen this.
People Who Can See Colours You Can’t Even Imagine: Some people, most of them women, have extra visual receptors. Thanks to Tree for the link and the one that follows.
Picking a Mate by the Numbers: How soon scientifically to give up looking for the perfect partner, and go with your best bet to date.
THOUGHTS OF THE QUARTER
Mutts cartoon by Patrick McDonnell
From Brian Doyle‘s The Way We Do Not Say What We Mean When We Say What We Say in the March 2016 Sun Magazine (available to subscribers only):
We say yes when we mean I would rather not. We say no when we mean I would say yes except for all the times yes has proven to be a terrible idea. We say no thank you when every fiber in our bodies is moaning oh yes please. We say you cannot when what we mean is actually you can but you sure by God ought not to. We say no by not saying anything whatsoever…
Perhaps all languages began from the music of insects and animals and wind through vegetation. Perhaps languages began with the sound of creeks and rivers and the crash of surf and the whis- per of tides, and even now, all these years later, when we open our mouths to speak, out comes not so much meaning and sense and reason and clarity but something of the wild world beyond our understanding. Perhaps much of the reason we so often do not say what we mean to say is because we cannot; there is wild in us yet, and in every word and sentence and speech there is still the seethe of the sea from whence we came, and unto which we will return, which cannot ever be fully trammeled or corralled or parsed, no matter how hard we try to mean what we say when we say what we think we mean.
From PS Pirro, a new poem Death Toll:
When the snow comes we stay in the house
with mugs of strong tea and honey,
fleece and flannel, buffalo plaid and log-cabin quilts,
The fire burns steady, kettle set to simmer,
it mists the air like hot breath against a pane of glass
We press our fingers to the frozen edge, co-mingle
our heat with the last light of the day.
In the quiet golden corner El Tio sits before his ledgers,
turning a pale green page to scan the names
of all who asked for one last solstice,
one last feast of Epiphany, scheduling payment,
sending invoices, tallying his bottom line by candlelight,
he calculates the weight of souls and payroll
for the psychopomp, holding out his cup to us
that we might fill it from the kettle one more time.
From Edgar Mitchell, Apollo 14 astronaut (thanks to Sheri Herndon for the link):
You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch’
From Brené Brown (thanks to Emily van Lidth de Jeude for the link):
People call what happens at midlife a ‘crisis’, but it’s not. It’s an unraveling — a time when you feel a desperate pull to live the life you want to live, not the one you’re ‘supposed’ to live. The unraveling is a time when you are challenged by the universe to let go of who you think you are supposed to be and to embrace who you are.
From Sy Safranski‘s latest book:
As I walked along a crowded street yesterday, something I’d read that morning by the Dalai Lama came to mind: ‘All living beings want happiness and not suffering.’ And, for a moment, I stopped noticing how different everyone looked. Behind our astonishing differences was something even more astonishing: our shared yearning to be happy and not to suffer. It didn’t matter whether we were consciously aware of this. It didn’t matter that we usually delude ourselves about the source of true happiness and look for it in all the wrong places. What mattered was that every single one of us wanted the same thing.
From Annie Dillard:
Write as if you were dying. At the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case. What would you begin writing if you knew you would die soon? What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?
I do not know how [collapse] will play out or how long it will take to complete, but I feel that I could safely suggest that several generations from now the people who are making new ways of living will curse the stupidity and greed of those who poisoned the water. They will wonder what demons possessed our hearts with such a dark poison that we could so callously wipe out the other living beings who we rely on for survival. In the dry wastes a young girl will dig for tubers amongst a backdrop of drought ravaged trees and the charcoal remains of those that burned in the previous season. Seeking a nourishing root she finds the bric a brac of our brain dead culture; a plastic fork, a beer can, rubber testicles that once swung from a pick-up truck’s trailer hitch. Yee haw. Her family boils caught rainwater unaware that it contains heavy metals which will be responsible for some of their eventual deaths. They will laugh, as people do, and they will tell cautionary tales about a long ago world in which people set the sky on fire. Whatever gods there may be forgive us. We were drunk on oil and pictures of ourselves. We really wanted good jobs.