A Culture Driven By Fear: The Psychology of Collapse


Image of homelessness from the now-defunct Italian blog Moving & Learning

There are domesticated animals in every rescue shelter that are acknowledged as being too damaged to integrate into a new ‘forever’ family. Some have lived so much of their young lives undomesticated that their brain neurons and synapses aren’t capable of making the shift — like the so-called ‘feral children’ they can’t learn the ‘language’ of civilization, because their brain structure reflects a different way of being. Others have been so brutalized or neglected that they’re unable to trust enough to behave in a reliable, complacent manner.

It’s this latter form of damage that I see increasingly pervasive in our own species. It’s not that the trauma inflicted on so many of us was deliberate — we do our best, but our collapsing civilization is now so frantic, intimidating, undependable, constantly threatening and hostile to any healthy creature, and there is no place of respite, no harbour from its relentless onslaught, that violence (physical and psychological) and trauma have become endemic. You would think that compared to those who grew up in war zones or during great depressions, today’s citizens of affluent nations would have it easy, but we don’t — even in past times of crisis there was almost always an underlying social cohesiveness that served as a bedrock to “keep calm and carry on” until the horror ended, and there was a belief that it would end.

Not so today. I think there’s a growing, instinctive, subconscious realization that our civilization is nearing End Game, that “there is no future”, and I see a growing sense of anomie that disengages us from each other and makes us feel “hopeless”. Domesticated creatures like us, saddled with ‘selves’ and trapped between an often-troubled past and an apparently globally ghastly future, desperately need hope to function coherently. They need to believe, as past generations have, that with hard work and determination they can make the world better for their children than it was for them. Who now still harbours such delusions?

Our coping mechanisms are becoming more frenetic, more disengaged from reality: So-called “entertainment”, full of ever-more extreme violence, is designed it seems to desensitize and inure us from feeling anything at all. Tiny, attention-demanding screens engage us fully but only abstractly and only with people of our choosing, and let us detach from anything happening in the real world. Thrill-seeking, “extreme” everything, a propensity for violent and hate-fuelled sex, immersion in brutal, heartless, artificial worlds, epidemic substance addiction and sex addiction — we will seemingly seek any distraction from having to deal with each other and with the impossible realities of the real world. More than half the families I know now have at least one member (often an adult male child) who is too damaged, too dysfunctional to be able to manage in the full-time labour force, or indeed in our society as a whole.

Politicians and advocates across the political spectrum now deliberately use fear to try to coerce us into supporting them. No positive choices are presented to us, just less-awful ones. Corruption and lies that were once veiled in a veneer of justification and respectability are now flaunted openly. Lawyers have largely given up the pretence that anyone benefits from litigation other than those with money and power (they can get away with any crime), including the lawyers themselves. It is hard to blame our ‘leaders’ — many of the rich and powerful I have met (those who can pay the price to get ahead) are psychopaths (abused in their own childhoods) who can’t behave otherwise than dysfunctionally and anti-socially, and who are unambiguously rewarded for their destructive, divisive, exploitative behaviour.

So tax cheats now brag openly about how they pay no taxes on immense profits and wealth (and in so doing starve governments of revenue needed for essential social services), and the response of many is to say we should just do away with the ‘social safety net’ and leave everyone to their own devices. There is essentially no mobility of wealth or income or quality of life between generations any more — if your parents were poor, sick or incarcerated, you are almost sure to be as well, and vice versa.

What’s most staggering is that there has never been as much production, consumption, exhaustion of resources and waste produced, yet the benefits of all this “growth” accrue only to a tiny minority, most of whom are oblivious to their outrageous privilege and the monstrous damage it inflicts on human society and on the planet.

It’s no wonder, then, that we feel hopeless, angry, helpless, disenfranchised, and full of despair — and that as a result we look for escape, inurement, and scapegoats. My parents and grandparents told me what it was like living in terror of aerial bombing during the war, and their fear of starvation, malnutrition and social estrangement during depressions, but theirs were always hopeful stories — of eventual victory, recovery, rebuilding, making sure “this never happens again”. Our stories now foresee no recovery, no long-term improvement, no stability, no hope. No future.

When people are suffering and they have no hope, they tend, I think, to be driven instead by fear. And we are all suffering. We are living in the world TS Eliot foresaw when he wrote “the whole earth is our hospital”. And a global culture utterly driven by fear, by aversion rather than inspiration, is a global culture already in the throes of collapse.

So we have shifted, in a few generations, from a largely-local decentralized society driven by hope, to a largely globalized society with an enormous concentration of wealth and power, driven mainly by fear. And there is nothing we can do to change that. Even believers in free will who study complexity are coming to realize that our desolating civilization culture is not in anyone’s control, not susceptible of change, and its collapse will inevitably continue to accelerate.

Why bother to say this, other than to further entrench the feeling of hopelessness? The reason I still think and write about this is because it actually does help, I think, to know what’s going on. It does help to appreciate that we’re all doing our best, and that we’re not going to escape collapse, and to anticipate what large-scale human behaviour shaped by fear might (though utterly unpredictable) lead to in the years ahead.

I remain a joyful pessimist. Neo-survivalists, zombie apocalypse scenarios and ludicrous Hollywood movies aside, I think large-scale fear might lead to some interesting and not-entirely-negative shifts in our culture as it collapses. The first is that we will probably stop obeying authority, on a massive scale. We do what we’re told and work around the problems we face only when doing so seemingly works to our likely long-term advantage. When the majority realizes it has nothing to lose by disobeying, and starts doing its own thing, our culture is finished. The ‘prison’ of any culture depends on the inmates accepting an implicit contract that the cost of disobedience outweighs the cost of obedience.

The effect of what Daniel Quinn calls “walking away” from our culture, when this happens, is to hasten its collapse and start a scramble for alternative ways of living that might work better. The fact that our global civilization culture keeps us so domesticated — utterly dependent on it — makes walking away harder, but eventually the tipping point will be reached. As most of us walk away (when we choose to, or when economic collapse or ecological disaster gives us no choice), we will appreciate that we can’t survive alone, so I’d guess we will try to relearn, quickly and awkwardly, what it means to live in community. This is what appeared to happen to the Anasazi, who over a few generations abandoned the complex urban culture they depended upon and integrated into simpler, farming communities and cultures nearby. I’d guess that most of them didn’t start families of their own during the difficult process of relearning and integration, so their population dropped naturally. No wars, no barricaded walls, no Mad Max scenarios, just a gradual walking away when there was seemingly no other choice.

This is the key, I think — civilization’s collapse is likely to take several decades, so we won’t be facing the sudden crises created by natural disasters and brutal military actions, but something more like the nearly 30-year Long Depression of the 1870s-1890s, which saw the majority of the population in many nations migrate to the cities. It wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t (other than the actions of some rich Robber Barons) overly violent. Our ancestors had time to adjust to an awful and heartbreaking change. I think we will too.

What else might a culture driven by fear instead of hope (or joy) lead to? Perhaps a resistance to manipulative, idealistic ‘hopeful’ rhetoric like that of that of the current useless US president. A capacity to move ‘beyond hope’ to realism. It’s possible that fear might lead to chronic anxiety and paranoia instead, or as well, of course. But my sense is that chronic anxiety only endures so long before something has to shift. Maybe it could eventually lead to the kind of ‘letting go’ that Eckhart Tolle and others think will happen — a cracking open of the exhausted, anxious self to reveal the oneness of all, and with it a kind of equanimous fearlessness and loving acceptance of everything that is, as terrible as that may (to the disintegrating self) be. Or, perhaps the opposite — mass suicide. In some ways they’re not so different.

Another possible path of a fear-driven culture is a rejection and rebellion against those that traffic in and profit from fear, and a seeking for its opposite — joy. I’m already predicting that Candidate Drumpf will lose, not because he’s a fear-monger but because he’s an arrogant and ignorant idiot, and hence more fearful and dangerous than the straw men (and women) he constantly warns his citizens to be fearful of. And although there are not many quality alternative choices in any affluent nation at the moment, I can imagine that a candidate that comes across as authentic, transparent and candid (there are a few out there) will eventually appeal to those tired of fear, more than a blusterer who panders to fear.

So: a rebellion against obedience to authority of all types (perhaps especially the corporate and legal types), leading to a mostly-peaceful walking away from our disastrous authority-bound culture; an eventual shift beyond complacent idealistic hope to realism and perhaps even equanimity, acceptance and informed fearlessness (and even joy); and an appetite for authenticity, transparency and candour in dealing with the issues of the moment. Sounds like a better way of being than the current state to me.

None of this is in anyone’s control in any case — there is no volition here, only apparent trajectories. But though it’s probably just self-comforting (another coping mechanism), it’s intriguing to think that our disastrous and unintended current culture just might open the door to its antithesis: a culture whose members — some of them anyway — are more self-sufficient, humbler, truer to themselves, and just maybe closer to being who they really are.

Or maybe not. And in any case, after us, the dragons.

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17 Responses to A Culture Driven By Fear: The Psychology of Collapse

  1. Mark Watson says:

    Good article Dave. I think that a partial cure is to disengage (mostly) from corporate news media and put our energies into simply living free and inspired lives, doing what is best for ourselves, our families, and our local communities – and start by doing everything we can to make ourselves strong physically, mentally, and spiritually.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I think Mark gives a valid point. I want to stay up to date with politics and world affairs, but am becoming more and more disillusioned by the agenda of the Corporate news channels. We are eventually going to realise it’s not real. Like American Wrestling.

  3. Rebecca says:

    Two points to pick at, tho the overall view of the piece is great.

    You said, ” It’s not that the trauma inflicted on so many of us was deliberate ” — um, yeah, it was. It’s called Patriarchy, and it was designed to be a brutal hierarchy, for the benefit of males, white ones.

    You talk about decades of Collapse, which does not account for the science of an unliveable planet coming to us very likely much sooner. Much sooner.

  4. Michael says:

    So instead of dealing with the cruel and actual reality of collapse, Rebecxa wants to drag us into identity politics. It’s not Patrirchy in any case but rather capitalism, from which only a tiny Minority that only tiny group of “white males” belong to.

  5. Julian says:

    Rebecca’s two points are well taken. Patriarchy is deliberate, albeit arising from unconscious shadow archetypes. And abrupt climate change changes everything, much sooner than we may able to imagine. Perhaps that’s in the Order of Things? How will we respond, adjust and acclimate? And can we, as a culture?

  6. Gavin says:

    Join your local permaculture club

  7. Dave Pollard says:

    I think Julian has it right. The message of radical non-duality (we have no free will or ‘self’ control) and the message of Patriarchy’s damage (that those in power, mostly old white males in affluent nations, are mostly responsible for the repression of others and the ruination of our planet) are both valid, but they stand in direct opposition to each other. I haven’t yet figured out how to reconcile them, if it’s even possible. I’ve think I’m becoming much more aware of my privilege, and am slowly learning not to invoke or abuse that privilege (consciously or unconsciously). The unconscious part is the hardest. Yet at the same time I am totally convinced that I have no free will or choice in what I do. Maybe this character just has it in him to at least try. I don’t know. If I figure that out, I’ll let you all know.

    As for the abruptness of climate change, I’m still of the view that, while large parts of the world will face climate shocks in the next few years, what I call the Great Migration that will be required as large parts of the planet become uninhabitable, will likely not start for a couple of decades, and will last several more decades before it’s complete. I may be wrong, but for now that’s what I envision.

  8. Dennis Mitchell says:

    An argument could be made that the migration has already started. Along with the resentment that accompanies the migrations. It will be complicated by an economic contraction. All of our defects, sexism, racism, nationalism, will be amplified and blamed.

  9. Dave says:

    Thanks for a great article, but it is not altogether an inevitable that we find ourselves in the situation we are in. It took two millennia of deliberate work, destruction, and warfare and terror for western civilization to alienate entire cultures from their ancient knowledge and coerce them into believing the earth is not alive. But like the man said – the body had to be declared dead before the autopsy could begin in earnest. And regarding the question of free will, if we truly live in a world in which there is no free will, then all organisms are doing and thinking what they are doing and thinking because they can’t do and think anything else. In other words, it is absolutely inevitable that we find ourselves in the situation we are in. In times gone by it suited the power holders to call that idea the “Will of God”, and that idea, dressed up in modern socio-economic theory, continues to work to the advantage of the current power holders.

  10. Erik Kowal says:

    Mass die-offs appear likely to start kicking in quite soon. Temperatures in the Middle East and India have already reached in excess of 50 deg. C this year for extended periods; humans can only survive wet-bulb temps of 35 deg. for a few hours. Crops in what are today some of the main breadbaskets of the world, such as the Central Plains region of the USA and the Russian steppes, will cease to be viable there because of the increasing heat (remember, it only takes a brief heatwave to kill a harvest if it gets hot enough); and people in large areas of the world that are already populous and short of water, such as much of the Indian subcontinent, will start to perish from a combination of thirst and hunger.

    There will be mass exoduses from no-longer-livable countries to those that are still habitable, with all the resulting potential for competition and conflict that can be predicted to arise from that. Angry populations will turn against their governments, though these will be unable to offer adequate solutions. My guess is that in their desperation, people will increasingly turn on, and prey on, each other in order to grab what limited resources are still available in their locality. In some countries — like the United States, which has a population that is both highly individualistic, armed to the teeth (circa 330 million guns for 310 million people), and riven by pre-existing demographic / political fissures and resentments — that competition for resources is likely to result in a bloodbath of epic proportions.

    After that, our extinction will just be a matter of time as the zones habitable by humans continue to shrink while the globe continues to heat up, and as they come under greater and greater resource and population pressure from incomers entering (or attempting to enter) them from elsewhere. The only significant uncertainty at this point is the timescale over which these developments will occur. Longer timescales will produce significant additional impacts from sea-level rises that will inexorably swamp the world’s inhabited coastal zones and cities, including those in the otherwise still-habitable regions of the world.

    My guess (for what it’s worth) is that about 90% of us will be dead within a decade from now — though that’s only my speculation, not provable fact.

  11. James Lewis Hamilton says:

    How refreshing to read ‘real’ commentary regarding the consequences of ten thousand years (a mere blink) of aberrant human behavior. After a long life of awareness of the ever growing crisis of destruction of the necessary habitat for human survival, and the inability of humanity to grasp and make cogent and meaningful collective behavioral changes, life has taken on a venue of ‘watching the show’. As Dave shares, it’s an intriguing unfolding and an ongoing drama.

    I’m now fifteen years into the ever growing revelations of laymen’s explanations of discoveries and current quantum physics and related subjects. Add to this explorations into all the increased purveyors and followers of the non-duality and the evolution of the ‘Science And Non Duality’ (SAND) community and conferences. They quite clearly point to the errors of our scientific and philosophical logic. Yet, these can’t truly assuage the fears of the egoic separate self, particularly when clinging to the edge of the proverbial cliff of extinction.

    There is one more subject that has a startling component of ‘hope”, yet is more avoided, ignored and demeaned than ‘climate change’ is by Big Oil Profiteers or Mien Drumpf. This is the UNACKNOWLEDGED evidence and ever present awareness of interstellar civilizations visitations to our besieged planet. OMG, not this wacko subject! Yes dear friends, we are not alone. The subject can be explored with verifiable documentation and evidence by visiting siriusdisclosure.com . There is enough data and relevant paths forward to offer the ‘hope’, yet open minded personal exploration is required.

    “Consciousness is the operating system of the universe”

  12. Michael says:

    I am sorry, I wrote my previous reply on a phone while appropriately enough waiting in an hospital emergency room for massive anxiety and withdrawal from Xanax.

    My counter point to Rebecca is that she seems to assume that all “white males” are somehow determinative with reference to the environment and the social order, whereas only a very, very tiny minority control the world’s resources and thus the means of production. To blame all “white men” for the crisis of our civilization is analogous to blaming all white people who visit Africa for the slaughter of exotic and other animals.

    While many ruling class members are white men, not nearly all white men are ruling class figures.

  13. izzunyc says:

    very insightful article … what to do? and how …
    Would a path be from the ontology of the dualistic mind to the pursuit of nonduality?

  14. Andrew says:

    I believe that fear is not the answer, but love and the power of the heart. We used to live in a heart-centered society before this civilization culture turned us into what we are today: a gut-centered society that is ruled entirely by emotion, mostly low-vibrational such as fear. The key is for the people to no longer comply with the fear-based governments and authorities and to as you say “walk away” from this form of civilization and move to create a heart-centered community-based way of living. We have the power in sheer numbers alone compared to those who are “in charge.” But the people have convinced themselves for the most part that they have no power. That is what the system tries to convince people. We do have the power to write another story, paint another canvas. It may take time, but in a few centuries it will be possible to have a wonderful way of life with little traces of the old world we live in now.

  15. Kari says:

    Michael – gotta get a grip on what patriarchy means. We women need to be able to invoke patriarchy without the majority of white males jumping up to defend white males in general with the “not all white males….” tropes we’re all-too familiar with. In short, if you’re not representative of patriarchy, then you have no reason to assume you’ve been slammed as such when someone mentions the P-word ;-)

    NB: I don’t actually think patriarchy is/was a grand conspiracy planned in advance. I don’t think any of what’s got us to where we are is such a thing. I can simply see that there are benefits to be gained from either perpetuating or allowing others to perpetuate certain behaviours, and we’ll do what works for our own self-interest. This is the reason we’re not going to stop. If a man won’t give up a portion of his privilege to clear a space by his side for a woman as his equal, then what reason do we have to think the rich would do that for the poor, or that the powerful would do that for the powerless? Very few people voluntarily give up their privilege, and this is entirely understandable – giving something up means losing something that one has, and why do that if you can hold on to it? At some point in the not terribly distant future, those of us who are alive to see it will likely witness ourselves hoarding whatever we have left rather than sharing it, simple because it will become a literal matter of survival, not just a figurative one.

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  17. Andrew says:

    There are people in control, although most of them are hidden from public view. The key is correct, though. We need to stop obeying authority and walk away from this destructive culture. Those who have apparent power only have it in our acquiescence. If we no longer support the destructive ways of governments, corporations, etc. we will morph away from the bad and start figuring out how to live in harmony with the world around us, rather than constantly exploiting the world and other species for our own personal gain. Waking people up is the key. Show the world as it really is and people will start gravitating away from that model and attempting to create better ones. It could take a few decades or more, but eventually humanity will reach balance with the world around it. I don’t think it is possible in an industrial society, however. This is because there will always be the temptation to build weapons to conquer neighboring tribes/communities. Then the whole story will start over again. Thanks for sharing your perspective, Dave. Always great to read your blog.

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