Making Peace With the End of Civilization

The Idea: The author waxes philosophical about how he can be so pessimistic and so happy at the same time, and why he works so hard when he sees no perpetuity to what he does.

Here’s the gist of a recent conversation, of a type that I’m having a lot lately:

RS: Dave, you say you don’t have the patience to do knowledge consulting work anymore. Why is that?
Me: Well, I’ve recently been doing a lot of research and reading on the state of the world and on human nature, and I’ve come to the conclusion that we are living in the last century of human civilization. So I’ve become a little impatient with projects I don’t think are that important in the larger scheme of things.
RS: (strange look) Wow, that’s a depressing thought. It must be tough to do anything with that negative a perspective on life and the future.
Me: Actually, it’s very liberating, and I’m more at peace than I have been at any time in my life. Because I’ve come to believe that the end of civilization is something we can’t do anything about, nor is it anybody’s ‘fault’, or even necessarily a bad thing. As Canadian archaeologist Ronald Wright says, if we destroy the ecosystem that sustains us “nature will merely shrug and conclude that letting apes run the laboratory was fun for a while but in the end a bad idea”.
RS: Why don’t you think anything can be done about it, and that it’s nobody’s fault? That seems peculiarly fatalistic for someone as driven as you are.
Me: Nothing can be done about it because we are wrong in the uniquely human conceit that we are in charge of our own destiny and that there is some kind of collective politic and collective intelligence and ‘free will’ that can be harnessed to move us all in a chosen direction. We are nothing more or less than six billion creatures individually doing what we are driven to do moment by moment. We have been driven to overpopulate and despoil the planet and exhaust its resources by our DNA, and in so doing we are merely following Darwin’s law: Fierce, adaptable creatures flourish. And man is the fiercest and (next to bacteria, viruses, insects and birds, which palaeontologists believe are the four species likely to inherit the Earth when we are gone), the most adaptable the planet has ever seen. And how can we blame man for just being what he is?
RS: But surely you accept that man has evolved, and adapted himself, and introduced technologies that have made his life immeasurably better? Why don’t you think human ingenuity will allow us to evolve to solve the problems we are facing today as it has in the past?
Me: Technology and ingenuity have never solved problems, other than those created by previous technology and ingenuity. The greatest example of human ingenuity is the eradication of smallpox, a disease that had killed a billion humans. But smallpox was merely nature’s response to human overcrowding and poverty, which were in turn consequences of a previous ingenious human technology called agriculture. Technology and ingenuity have merely allowed our species to be more ‘successful’ in the evolutionary sense: To reproduce more of ourselves. There is growing evidence that we were much happier and much healthier before civilization began, when we lived as gatherer-hunters in harmony with, and integrated with, the rest of life on Earth. In those days the probability of being eaten by a large carnivore at any random point in one’s life was accepted with the equanimity with which we now accept a more protracted death at the unhealthiest and most unpleasant end of a longer, more predictable ‘civilized’ life.

We are simply running out of space and time for evermore expensive and evermore convoluted technologies to be applied to fix the problems that the last generation of technologies created. The Earth is finite, species die-off is already occurring at a rate comparable to that of the six previous major extinction events of our planet, and although we have some heavy hitters on ‘our’ side, nature always bats last.

RS: Well if you really believe that I can’t see how you can get engaged in projects like AHA! and business innovation and your writing projects. If we’re going to be gone in a century, what’s the point?
Me: That’s exactly the point. If we’re going to be gone in a century, why not live in the moment, use every minute to do what gives your life purpose and meaning and pleasure right now? For me that means learning something new every day, it means helping others, it means getting back in touch with my animal nature: reconnecting to the Earth and all its life and spending time just being, opening up all my senses, feeling, being happy to be alive and healthy and right here right now, and trusting my instincts.
RS: So you believe man is on the verge of exterminating himself and much of the life of the planet, but you’re not going to do anything about it?
Me: On the contrary, I’m going to do everything I can, short of murder or suicide, to try to help avert it, and to reduce the horrific suffering that civilization is inflicting on all life on our planet. I’m just philosophical about the fact that nothing I do or anyone else does has significant likelihood of changing the endgame, so I’m not going to beat myself up about failure, and I’m not going to feel guilty about just living in the moment and being happy.

One thing I will invest considerable time in is talking with my two granddaughters so they have an idea what they are facing, since they are more likely than we are to face the brunt of civilization’s collapse in their lifetime. I will try to be a role model for them, so that they too will try to do their best to alleviate suffering and avert the end of man, and in the meantime they will live full, passionate, informed, guilt-free and open lives. I hope they will love themselves and many other people without limit or condition or restraint, and that they will come to love learning as much as I do. And hopefully they will not blame anyone for the fact that, as EO Wilson put it, with man, “Darwin’s dice have rolled badly for Earth”.

RS: (exasperated look) I think if I believed that I’d become a nihilist or a survivalist or a hedonist and lose myself in sex, drugs and rock & roll.
Me: Well if you have to choose one of those I’d strongly recommend hedonism, in its original sense of pleasure-seeking rather than the more modern sense of extravagance. There’s lots of evidence that really good drugs can help you escape the straitjacket of cultural thinking and liberate you and reconnect you to Earth. Most such drugs are probably illegal for precisely that reason. And a six-hour marathon of sex has much to recommend it for reconnecting with your senses and your animal nature. And music is wonderful for stirring the memory and the soul, and is man’s greatest invention, the only one he hasn’t subsequently had to invent a cure for.
RS: I know you’ve written that you think traditional problems like nuclear or biological war or disease are greater threats to man than natural disasters that result from global warming. But don’t you think if there is a runaway war or disease the people left will just rebuild civilization all over again?
Me: From what I’ve read, populations going through extinction events follow a ‘normal’ curve — after an accelerating rise they go through a similar rapid decline, and then just tail off slowly to complete extinction. We have become so dependent on civilization — almost like perpetual children — that we don’t know how to live without it. The survivors will be so helpless without all the constructs we are now hardwired to base our lives on, that I doubt they will be able to adapt quickly enough to survive. The predator that ultimately causes the collapse — whether it be a new disease, bioterror agent or a nuclear winter — will continue to inflict casualties on the survivors, and prevent them from getting a new foothold. So, no, I don’t think there will be a rising of man from the ashes, and for that reason I don’t think there’s any point in writing messages for the ‘next civilization’ and burying them underground to be found After the Fall.

And the birds, insects, viruses and bacteria won’t have much use for them.

RS: How about space travel? Or communicating with some advanced alien species which could save us from ourselves?
Me: We got lucky with the development of nuclear weapons just at the time when they served as a deterrent rather than a destroyer of the planet. We’re extremely unlikely to be so lucky in stumbling on a technology that will allow us to escape our mess on Earth in sufficient numbers with sufficient time to find another inhabitable planet. And probability experts say the likelihood of verterbrate life (let alone a life form we could recognize as ‘intelligent’ and communicate with, or vice versa) emerging anywhere in the universe from the primordial soup is about one in sixty billion, so SETI is even more delusional than betting your life on winning the lottery. We should focus our attention instead on learning from the very intelligent and sensitive non-human life all around us.
RS: So why write then? Why try to set up your AHA! Learning & Discovery Centre? Why work so hard to help people become more innovative and more entrepreneurial?
Me: Because that’s who I am. That’s what I was meant to do. Just like the other six billion on the planet and the fifty billion who preceded them, I’m just playing out the role that was written for me in my DNA. I only wish I hadn’t been distracted for so many years from realizing what my role is. We don’t really do what we can. We do what we must.
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15 Responses to Making Peace With the End of Civilization

  1. Lou says:

    It seems that Straw Dogs has really stirred things up for you… I’ve yet to read it; but I agree with you that while I found his thesis depressing at first, it is ultimately liberating. Finally, we can stop taking ourselves so seriously!

  2. T. V. says:

    The most interesting point is that you want to alert your grandchildren to the likely catastrophe coming. How do you do that, specifically? At what age? (This is a personal issue for me.)

  3. Dave Pollard says:

    Lou: Yes, it’s paradoxical, isn’t it? It’s like finding out the best way to succeed is not to try so hard.TV: Great question. I think it depends on the individual. My older grand-daughter is 15, and she’s not yet ready. I suspect she’ll tell me, by asking me an appropriate question, when she is. My guess is two more years. The younger grand-daughter is just 6, and I’ve just given her Anne Mazer’s book The Salamander Room, a subversive first step ;-)

  4. JoJo says:

    And maybe teaching them some pioneering/native skills; canoeing and portaging the creases and wrinkles of our landscape may be the ‘new’ old highways. Living locally. Saving garden seeds. All fun things to do without scaring the be-sheezus outta them!

  5. lugon says:

    My immediate reaction to “teaching them some pioneering/native skills” was if enough people learn such things then we may ….Which just means I’m trapped in my imagination. I mean, there’s the World, and there’s a Map in my mind, and I keep thinking that, because I can DREAM of changes, then that means I CAN implement those changes and therefor I MUST implement those changes.Hooked on dreaming, I think.I’m already telling my 8 year-old that she’ll see something different, and that I trust she has an animal inside. A good animal. FWIW.

  6. Raging Bee says:

    Oh wow, like, everything’s all gonna fall apart, so we’re “liberated” from all that tedious work and obligaion stuff, we don’t have to brush our teeth or scrub our toilets or come up with any better solutions anymore, so that gives us more time to sit around and sneer at all the grownups as they work so hard to keep up the shallow capitalist system that we’re just gonna mooch off of till it all falls apart and we can laugh at the resulting carnage and say “We toldja so!”What sad, pathetic escapism! I remember reading that many people signed up to go to war in 1914 with the same idea: “Civilization is stilted and boring, so let’s take a break from it (and from all adult responsibilities) and have us a good old war like we pretended to do in school!”I also remember Hal “The Late Great Planet Earth” Lindsey making lots of money on a similar wave of escapism. (When the world failed to end on schedule, he settled down and now writes for WorldNet Daily; so I guess you’re not taking too big a risk here either.)

  7. hunter gatherer says:

    Read Concious Evolution/BM Hubbard

  8. kerry says:

    Hi there Dave,You may be interested in my latest post “the end is the beginning”…on the human brand:)k

  9. KevinG says:

    Exactly Dave. You have expressed my own thoughts and my own little journey precisely. When I arrived at the conclusion that we’re stuffed and there is nothing I could do about it I was got depressed, a little angry and gave up for a while. Then I decided that one could be reconciled with the conclusion and still do things to help. It’s a very budhist way of looking at it: live in the moment, do the right things without getting lost in trying to affect a specific outcome.

  10. KevinG says:

    And, you wrote it on my birthday. Thanks :)

  11. Zach says:

    You think that passing on your fear to your grandkids will result in love? You are sadly mistaken. I assure you it will result in anger and fear. You really really need to do some serious thinking on fear and get in touch with yours. Not because some dude on the internet says so but for the sake of your grandkids. Do you have any idea of the problems this kind of fear mongering causes? But perhaps you will claim to have no fear but you must know “only fools have no fear…” Well least you are admitting this attitude openly for all to see instead of attempting to disguise it in clever arty words.

  12. AF says:

    Oh my god you captured almost exactly what I’ve gone through in the last few years. All my life the phrase “life is too short” sent me into hours, YEARS, of anxiety-induced paralysis. Now, that everybody’s life is too short, it is liberating, and I am able to get more involved in politics. Able to take more risks.Right after Bush got reelected, people asked if I would move to Canada, and my response was “nah, I’m going to stick around and fight out the apocolypse.” Because really, move to Canada? That’s like duck-and-cover in a nuclear war.

  13. David Jones says:

    I am continually surprised by the persistence and continuance of superstition, religion, fairy tales, the belief in “white knights arriving at the last minute,” and pots of gold at the ends of rainbows. As icebergs larger than countries drift around the South Polar Sea – we remain confident, and content, that it will all come together just right, and just in the nick of time.

  14. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks, everyone, it’s heartening to know most of my readers see my resignation as reasonable, not a cop-out, and appreciate the twin paradoxes: don’t think it will help but plan to give it everything I’ve got anyways; and pessimistic but still happy.Zach: Sorry, dude, we just bring completely different worldviews to this issue. You don’t understand mine, and I don’t understand yours. You’re trying to psychoanalyze me based on my writings, and that’s pretty brazen, especially when if you were a regular reader you’d know I have no use for psychoanalysis, a fraudulent, dangerous excuse for a profession. I don’t claim to be fearless, but I think it’s pretty presumptuous to think I’m in denial. I’m not passing on fear, or any emotion, to my grandchildren; I will, when the time is right, explain to them my personal philosophy and the reasons for it, and provide them with the readings that have influenced it. They will be free to agree or disagree with it. All I know is that the more I learn, the more this philosophy makes (perfectly rational) sense to me. Maybe you’re the one in denial?

  15. Interesting subject and ideas; wish, you could somehow make your text printer-friendly!

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