It’s Far Too Late and Things are Far Too Bad for Pessimism

When Jon Husband quoted these* words: “It’s far too late and things are far too bad for pessimism” at the recent conference we both attended, I immediately recognized it as the essence of my internal conflict over whether there is or is not hope for humanity.

In many ways we are like individuals who have just been told they have a year to live, and told that their quality of life will deteriorate slowly but steadily over that year. Upon receiving such news you can react in one of five ways:

  • The denial response: Refuse to believe the news. If the second opinion is the same, keep going until you find someone with a magic cure, or a diagnosis, no matter how justified, that you’re going to live another fifty years. Then go on living as if nothing had changed.
  • The selfish response: Do everything you always wanted to do. Apply for a raft of credit cards and max them all out. Quit your job, and tell him/her and your co-workers what you really think of them. Drive dangerously, eat dangerously, smoke and drink dangerously. Try out all the drugs you can get your hands on. In short, do everything to excess, and go out with a bang.
  • The pragmatic response: Realize that you’ve made many life choices, mostly for very good reasons, and plan out the things you want to do in the time you have left. Allow yourself a few indulgences and do a few things you always wanted to do, but for the most part, spend your time much as you did before receiving the news. Spend a lot of it giving advice to the people you love. Spend a little helping them cope with the inevitability of your loss, and making a living will so no extraordinary measures will be taken if you become too mentally or physically incapacitated to express your right to die wishes.
  • The suicidal response: Like the selfish response, but faster, and without all the fun first.
  • The generous response: Give away everything you own to people who really need it. Devote your remaining months to making the world better for the poor, the incapacitated, the weak and the ignorant, or at least for those you love. 

How do these five ways of reacting to warnings about our own death map to the ways we can react to warnings about the looming and inevitable death of our entire culture? Supposing we are presented with many expert opinions that our civilization will end by the end of this century, that life will get increasingly difficult as the century progresses, and that only a few thousand humans will survive. We, as a culture, could respond  in these same five ways.

  • The denial response: Refuse to believe the news. Refuse even to listen to the news. Expect new technologies, or the Rapture, to come up with answers before the situation gets worse. Go on doing what you’re doing as if nothing had changed.
  • The selfish response: Party hardy. Buy the Hummer you always wanted. Borrow like crazy. Take insane risks. Build an underground shelter. Buy land in rural Montana. When the century is nearly up, volunteer to be a suicide bomber against the group you think is most to blame for our demise.
  • The pragmatic response: Appreciate that for the most part it’s the generation after next, those who won’t be born for another 25-50 years, who are going to have to deal with the end of civilization in their prime years. Pledge to do some small, personal important things — eat better, waste less, give more, teach your children well — but acknowledge that there’s not really much you can do, so allow yourself some indulgences and don’t radically change how you live or how you plan to spend the rest of your own life.
  • The suicidal response: Get really depressed by the news, to the point you kill yourself or become emotionally ill.
  • The accepting response: Live a life of radical simplicity. Create models that the survivors can use in the next century. Be a model yourself — don’t waste, don’t buy what you don’t need, eliminate your debts, and help others cope as the situation deteriorates. Or at the very least, do no harm.

What makes the analogy imperfect is that in the first case, the death is personal and imminent, while in the second case, it’s our offspring who will mainly suffer, and there is more time to procrastinate and to deny the inevitable. It might be interesting to consider the five stages that Elisabeth Kubler-Ross says most people who are told catastrophic news pass through:

  • Denial — refusing to believe the news, numbness, shock, looking for a second opinion
  • Anger — looking for someone to blame, believing it’s not fair
  • Bargaining — making promises, pleading for a way out, feeling guilty
  • Depression — giving up, doing nothing
  • Resignation — making the best of the situation**

Kubler-Ross does not assert that all people pass through all five stages, or that they pass through them only once, or that they pass through them in any particular order. And although psychologists might have you believe that Resignation is the desired ‘mature’ final state, I think that’s monstrously judgemental. I believe that for the majority of us we can’t pick and choose how we’re going to react emotionally to catastrophic news. We’re not in control of our emotions at the best of times, and these are not the best of times. There is no ‘better’ stage and no ‘end’ state.

I would argue that the five stages correspond to the five responses to news of our own personal imminent death, or the news of the death of civilization, our 30,000-year old culture. The Lomborgians, the Bush neocons, the evangelicals and the apologists for corporatism are locked into the Denial stage. You can’t argue with them — they can’t hear you. And since if you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the problem, we are all, much of the time, in the Denial stage.

I think those in many parts of the world who engage in self-destructive behaviour are locked into the Anger stage. Those who are obsessed with and addicted to violence, from western militias to eastern suicide bombers, are unable to get past their anger, their belief that the misfortune that life has dealt them is not fair, and they are desperately looking for someone to blame. The fact that some wars between neighbouring countries and some civil religious wars go on for centuries, attests to the intensity and staying-power of this stage.

Here’s where I’m going to annoy some of my pragmatist readers. I think those self-proclaimed optimists, technophiles and believers that anything is possible are locked into the Bargaining stage. My argument here is easier to appreciate if you think of a marital break-up as the analogy rather than a personal death. The ‘bargaining’ after a break-up is often a “let’s try again, I’ll compromise, we can make this work” type behaviour that is often self-demeaning and horrific to observe. It’s similar to denial, except instead of denying the reality of what has happened, you’re denying that you can’t undo that reality, that you can’t go back. Environmentalists in this camp get understandably upset at ‘pessimists’ who say it is too late to go back or who insist that technology does not hold the answer.

Less controversially, I think the hopeless doom-and-gloom sayers are locked into the Depression stage. There is a strange solace in this state. It gives you an excuse to do nothing (because you believe nothing you can do will make any difference), and to some extent that is liberating, it frees you from responsibility (at least until you move to another stage).

And finally, I think that those who have accepted the inevitability of this civilization’s collapse and our inability to prevent it, and are thinking ahead to what might come after it, are at the Resignation stage. Some may be activists, giving up their personal security in the search for ways to mitigate the more serious consequences of the end of civilization and to prepare the survivors for building a new, and hopefully less destructive and more resilient society in its place. Others may be simply resigned to it, and at least resolve to do nothing to make the situation worse.

When I have lost loved ones I jumped back and forth among all five stages. I have not become better’ at handling such news, or the grief that follows it, and I don’t think I ever will. I suspect most people move through all these stages, back and forth, until the grief passes with time.

My internal conflict over the state of our world reflects, I think, a continued vacillation among these five stages of coping with the overwhelming evidence of the massive and unsustainable damage we have done to our planet, and the inevitability that our civilization, like every one before it, has peaked and is now in a long, slow decline.

When I do good work for some great companies, or work on projects with my neighbours, I am immersed in the realization of what a group of people collaborating together can do, and my awareness of what this century holds for us is shut out of my mind, temporarily denied.

When I read about what Bush and his cronies are doing to accelerate the demise of our civilization, I am angry. In more hopeful times, when I discover just how many people have moved, at least for awhile, out of the denial stage and are energized about making this world a better place, I shift into the bargaining state, an idealist who believes, at least for awhile, that anything is possible. And then comes more bad news, another disease or natural disaster or act of violence, always ineptly mishandled by those who have a frightening amount of power in our society and an equally frightening indifference to the responsibility that should come with power, and I am depressed. And sometimes, when a remarkable idea or an astonishing project or a group of people who are actually doing something comes to my attention, I am resigned, either passively or actively — willing to give up everything to work to save our world.

But then comes a stark realization of what is going to happen to this world, no matter what I do, and I’m back to anger or depression. And so on. You can read in this weblog how much my emotions are whipsawed by what I am learning every day. If you were looking for the Right Answer, the Higher State of Consciousness, you won’t find it, here or anywhere else.

So back to “It’s far too late and things are far too bad for pessimism”. It’s obviously meant ironically, but what is it saying? It means, I think, that it is not in our nature to give up. All five stages can be viewed either with optimism or with pessimism, but I think, by nature, we’re inclined to take the “Glass half full” view no matter which of the five stages we are in.

Stage Optimistic View (Glass half full) Pessimistic View (Glass half empty)
Denial Denial can help us cope Denial can delude us
Anger Anger can energize us Anger can cloud our thinking and lead to fruitless violence
Bargaining Bargaining can open us to new possibilities Bargaining can make us prey to capitulation, manipulation, and reckless compromise
Depression Depression can reflect a high level of useful knowledge of the problems facing us Depression can immobilize us
Resignation Resignation can push us to act unselfishly and to take a long view Resignation can lead to passivity and procrastination

I probably spend an equal amount of time in each of the five states. So if I seem to vacillate in my opinions and moods on this blog, now you know why.

* the quote is variously ascribed to Barbara Marx Hubbard or Dee Hock
** Kubler-Ross uses the term Acceptance rather than Resignation. I think the latter term is more precise.

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9 Responses to It’s Far Too Late and Things are Far Too Bad for Pessimism

  1. Indigo says:

    I prefer the phrase “acceptance” over resignation, since I think that though the transitions we are likely to face will be quite difficult, the aftermath could very well leave us with lives that are more satisfying that what many of us here in the West experience today. You have written about this, and I have commented on this, extensively in the past so I don’t want to belabor the point. I think it is worth noting that while such basics as clean water to drink, sanitary waste management systems, and protection from the extremes of weather certainly are parts of a life of contentment, connection to one’s neighbors, connection to the land, and inner awareness and peace are also crucial elements of a satisfying life. Looking at people I have met when I lived in or traveled the technologically under-developed parts of the world, I would say people are far happier on the whole when the sacrifices they must face are technological than when they are emotional. Maybe there are some sacrifices I am overlooking as I write this, but it seems to me that the major issue is less technological dependence and more dependence on one another. That to me is something to look forward to, something I am working hard to create in my life even now, not with resignation, but with joy and gratitude. Something has snagged my attention away from life as usual in the corporate high-rises and the riverside luxury condominiums, eating food from the factory farms, as I shuttle to and fro each day with eyes cast down, trying as best I can to shore up the boundaries around my own private version of “life.” I give thanks for being awakened from that, even if it took the threat of no longer having access someday to do it. I can’t stand to be dependent on undependable things, and that is my pragmatism. Helping others adds to our own quality of life — that is my pragmatism. Living off food grown by your friends and family feels and tastes better than living off factory foods – that is mypragmatism. Hope for the basic resilience of humanity – to me, that’s pragmatism. Accepting that what is coming will ultimately be just another version of human life that will be embraced as normal by the people living then just as much as we call this insanity normal now, and that those people will fully endeavor and hope to shape some happiness out of that reality just as much as people today endeavor to do so out of this society of violence, family decay, and workplace exploitation… gee, why not believe they can do it at least as well as we have?Again, its the transition between the two that will be painful.

  2. Chris Hardie says:

    Some queries that might be useful:1) What if *everyone* (who was conscious of the state of the world) reached a stage of acceptance / resignation? What would happen at the local level? Regional? National? Global?2) If it is not in our nature to give up, are some forms of acceptance/resignation also, then, a form of denial – denial of that true nature? Or is it just practical?3) We hear stories of those told they have a year to live, and then go on living for many years, for no obvious reason other than that they *wanted to*. Is it safe to assume that even if the evidence we look at suggests an impending cultural/civilizational death, that we can really set our watches by it? Many things we now know about the history of our existince on this planet seem magical, even when you look at the science. Who is to say the magic doesn’t apply to the future (even when you look at the science)?Not necessarily points to respond to, just questions to consider.Dave, here’s a folk tale that you may or may not find useful:The Burning Fields.Chris

  3. Andrew says:

    One word: choice. Upon receiving such news you can choose to react in one of the five ways. Realizing that the choice exists and is yours to be made is half the battle…

  4. medaille says:

    I really liked this post, it requires you to be thoughtful as you read it, although I’m sure you’ll get your share of comments that state things to the effect, “There is no problem!!!” My first thought is “How do you transition people from the destructive reactions that most people will probably choose to constructive ones that will ease the transition or at least set us up for a slightly better future?” I like to think of myself primarily as one that would fill my time working to make things better while accepting what I’m given, and I hope that I could convince others to work towards that.I think the after collapse culture would have to be something like the one I described in the comments to your open source business post on Sept 13. It would require either no civilization or a civilization that could manage the worlds resources properly. It would have to be one that acted for the good of the whole (world not just people) rather then for the short term good of the self, although I think that a civilization that thought in those terms would be better capable of providing it populace with a high quality life.Assuming that we somehow made the transition to the above culture (which for the rest of this post I’m going to label “Responsible”), we would see people acting in certain ways. This is how I believe we would act on some of the different levels of culture. The entire planet would adopt a one child per couple policy in order alleviate some of the suffering do to our current overpopulation and lack of resources for the whole group. Couples who wanted more than one child could adopt other couples unwanted children although once a couple has had one child they couldn’t give it away and have another. A responsible culture wouldn’t hoard resources and would live in the present with forethought for the future. This would require governments at all levels to act in a manner that distributed the resources in a manner that benefitted allentities enough. We would have to decide what a sustainable population of humans was that allowed all other populations of species to be sustainable. (*Note: I was going to add more here, but got sidetracked, so it may seem incomplete, but I think you can get my drift by reading the rest of what I wrote.)Please note that I’m still talking about an ideal sustainable after collapse world and that we would have to find a transition to this, but that the ideas of the after collapse culture should lead to our present choices of action. I make this mention because obviously we are way over what we are allocated for sustainable resources and that our present selfish nature will cause us to act inappropriately. I think that this selfish nature (which for all practical reasons that I can think of could be defined as “evil” just because of the correlations in which we think of evil interacting in people and the way selfishness is interacted by people) lies rooted in fear. Fear of not having enough, fear of death, fear of other creatures, etc. Removal of this fear, would be a strong step in the right direction.So how do I propose that we remove these fears? The two big fears would be fear of death and fear of not having enough. These are important as we probably won’t have enough if we continue at our present rate, and that becomes important if we have a fear of death. I would say that religion should play an important part in this, but we can clearly see that in Christianity that even though the Bible says that the Lord will provide us with what we need, many, many people continue to hoard resources. This would lead me to believe that some other factor would have to take the initiative, and then many people would find that their religions make more sense. I don’t know why people fear death, but I have this nagging suspicion that if people could lead better lives, they would fear death less. Maybe people are unconciously worried that they “aren’t pure enough to go to heaven” or somethingof the equivalent. I would say that in Christian terms it would mean that they don’t actually feel like God has forgiven their sins and that they aren’t sinless on their own. Chances are they are probably right to fear death if their religion bodes something bad for being impure. I realize I’m stepping out of proper bounds by making those religious speculations, but for some reason it seems proper to state them anyway. Anyway, with the congruency in many of the major religions in attitudes towards how people should live their lives, you could really impact a lot of people if you could get them to actually live how their own religion wants them to live. I think that people who think of others before themselves will find themselves in a better mindset and will have their fear of death dissolve because they are living more in line with what they “know” to be the way to live. I suppose you could make the stretch to state that we all have an innate knowledge of how to live and that we are getting in tune with it and living more harmoniously, but I’m not sure if that’s valid or not.That still leaves the question, how do you make tangible changes that would lead to this?I think it is important, due to the brains wonderful ability to reject unfamiliar patterns, that you allow people to watch others living in a selfless manner so that they have a pattern to model themselves after. This would mean that you would have to set up a culture that was primarily selfless (responsible). It would start with how our government would work. Our current government enforces the idea that we each “own” stuff. Ownership being equivalent to hoarding resources. We are not shepherds of stuff, we are owners of stuff. We don’t merely possess for the time being until a new person possesses the object, we own. We own land (preventing others from having access to it if they need it), we own homes (preventing others from living there if the need shelter), we own resources or access to resources (preventing others from using them if they need them). A (responsible) government would act like a parent with an incredible amount of children. It would allow access to the resources in a responsible manner meaning that you don’t give all the food available to one child and let the others starve. Land would be divided up based on who needs it and housing would be based on who needs it and why they need it. How land is divided up would be based on the total number of acres set aside for human beings and how many people there are to divide amongst with an effort on maximizing the happiness of all people. Most likely this would mean high density housing so that more land would be available for actual use and less for mere shelter. I don’t think that humans need to have their own lawn or their own indiviual building to be happy as long as they have access to the resources that an individual lawn or an individual building provides. This government would be responsible for dividing up all resources in a (responsible) manner and it would be responsible for developing that land. There would be no developers as we now know it. Instead, people who have an idea for how to develop the land would go to the government and the government would decide if it was an appropriate use of the land.By now the correlations to communism are surely raised in many minds. The difference lies in that this government has equal power from all people and does not have an individual mindset that drives it. This type of government requires the people to be active in understanding what their government is doing and the government manages only what it needs to (meaning that the government in charge of a country only messes in managing access to resources of the country and not in local resources like access to education). … to further continue down this thought path (nitty gritty details of some specific government in my mind) would be a waste, so back to where I was going before.So, we have to create a model culture. I think that a large city is an adequate sized culture as it would have access to a enough land to provide resources to the people in a way that they would be able to associate that they don’t own the resources, but that their government is responsibly managing the resources. The main resources that they would manage would be access to food and water for all citizens, shelter, renewable electricity to provide to the citizens for both personal use as well as business use (products and services, ideally not for profit but just to have an acceptable standard of living given the resources allocated to the city, but that would probably be too large of a step initially), as well as access to acceptable transportation methods for whatever would be a (responsible) use of transportation. I think a city that provided access to all its citizens of those primary resources would be well on its way. A better city would also work to manage its resources in such a way that maximizes the happiness of its citizens.A city set up in this manner would have no homeless and no hunger assuming that it managed its labor in such a manner that it was able to provide food and shelter to all. It would not be important to the city to have people being bankers if there wasn’t enough food or shelter. Problems of basic necessities are a problem for the whole community, not just those who are less capable of hoarding them. I think a change to this (responsible) culture would be better accepted once people could have a feel for how it work, because in all reality life wouldn’t change much except for those who hoard a lot and those who don’t have the ability required to get enough.The big problem that I see with what I’ve layed out so far is what to do in the interim, meaning what do you when you have too many people and not enough resources and there is the conflict between communities that have enough and communities that don’t have enough, but there aren’t enough resources to take from the haves to give to the have-nots without making everyone a have-not. But that brings up the question, do we have enough resources to make everyone a have (at least in terms of survival and basic happiness) while we are in the process of reducing our population. The only reason we have the border problem at the the southern edge of the US is that there is an inequity in what the haves have access to and the havenots have access to…. I’m abandoning this thought and will deal with it later.I would like to hear some comments though because surely I can’t think something of this broad a nature without overlooking something obvious.

  5. zach says:

    Thanks for your post. It makes me feel better to see somebody who is far worse off than I. I suppose thats why I keeping coming back and commenting, blah, blah…

  6. Kaunda says:

    Dave, I enjoy your blog very much. But I must admit my reaction to your conviction that civilization will end and it’s nobody’s fault has been valsilating between the five stages of grief. Like you, my experience of loosing love ones has made me think Kubler-Ross got it right, except that it’s not a stepwise process. I do imagine that human emotions are hightly evolved and that “the heart has reasons, reason knows nothing of.” I’m not sure how much “choice” we’ve got about these common and predictable reactions to loss, at least “choice” as a function of reason. But you point to something that I hadn’t explicited thought before: that each stage has a functional quality. Our lives are our compositions, drawn consciously and quite unconsciously. Chris Hardie’s link to “The Burning Fields” was a worthwile excursion. I was encouraged by it, by how salvation in this case lay in a community’s mutual obligation to one another.I’m sorry I don’t spell well;)

  7. I believe Resignation/Acceptance is precisely when you give up. It’s when the loss does not hold you anymore.Once you accept that you lost something, that it doesn’t come back, and that you can’t really blame anyone (and make them pay), and that it is no reason to kill yourself, you move on, and don’t look behind. It becomes part of your story, part of your life.Dave, I think you’re bargaining. I’m sure I am.Wish you well.

  8. Joe Deely says:

    I guess I am in a state of denial…because as far as I can see things are better now that they ever have been and I am fully convinced that in fifty years they will be even better.

  9. Wayne says:

    Learn from Scandinavia and the Viking Way.Those are the tribes akin to Quinn’s mention of tribalism.

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